Reading week

All holidays have limited importance for graduate students. Or, rather, holidays are the best opportunity to work on the independent research which is meant to be the reason for being in grad school, as teaching and other duties tend to somewhat abate.

An ambitious aim would be to complete all the parts of the survey for my PhD thesis which can be done using open source information, since I am still working on Research Ethics Board approval to begin talking to people.

PhD update — January 2018

I have created a draft update to my research ethics proposal, based on the comments from the U of T research ethics board. I’ve circulated it to my supervisory committee and am waiting for any comments from them before checking it over again and sending it back to the board.

I have two sets of tutorials this week: Canadian politics tutorials today about NAFTA and U.S. politics tutorials Wednesday and Thursday on the presidency.

The week is peppered with student meetings, with some people asking about/seeking better grades on last term’s exams and papers, and some seeking advice on ongoing essays.

The most time-consuming thing is commenting on and grading a large batch of essay rough drafts. For those submitted on time (about half of what I have received so far), they are meant to be handed back in the U.S. tutorials. Pushing through the set will be my main alternative to thesis work / recreation / relaxation for the next 4-5 days at least.

Holding two TA positions at once has certainly been helpful from a financial perspective. It has been allowing me to slowly rebuild my PhD fund after the expenses of another unfunded summer. It has been a major impediment, however, to making progress on my thesis. Thesis research is a demanding cognitive task not easily undertaken in the gaps between other obligations or when exhausted from hours of commenting on disorganized papers that have never been proofread.

This summer, instead of trying to keep my finances on a level, the plan is to make a concerted effort to undertake the data collection, analysis, and reading which will feed into the completion of my doctoral thesis.

Ethics protocol going for full review

On October 10th I submitted the proposed research ethics protocol for my PhD research to the University of Toronto’s Office of Research Ethics.

My committee thought that the subject protection risks were minimal enough to make a delegated review adequate, but I learned today that the protocol has been escalated to the full-REB meeting on November 15th. I should expect comments a couple of weeks after that, and will almost certainly then need to modify the proposal and ethics protocol in response.

In the meantime I am continuing with reviewing key texts and developing the cross-Canada census on the basis of public documents. I also have both my sets of tutorials to lead next week, and will be receiving this year’s first batch of essays to grade on Monday.

Some of what I’m reading

My two TA jobs are keeping me fairly busy, but I am also reading a diverse set of interesting books:

Naoki Higashida’s Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man’s Voice from the Silence of Autism: the second book written by a young autistic man who can only communicate verbally to a very limited degree but who writes using an alphabet grid on a computer. He mostly writes about his life experiences and his views on how people with autism should be understood and treated.

Chris Turner’s The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands: discussing the history of Canada’s bitumen sands, life through the booms and bust in Fort McMurray, and the major climate and energy policy questions facing Canada and Alberta.

Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage: the first part of a three-part series set before the His Dark Materials trilogy. Starts with doings in an around Oxford at the time when Lyra is an infant.

Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta’s Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements: part of the key reading list for my PhD thesis. Along with working on the pre-interview phases of my research (while awaiting ethical approval), I need to make a more determined effort to progress through the background reading identified in my proposal.

There are also a heap of books which have been in progress for ages, from What is History? to Yiddish for Pirates.

I also have some reviews to write, including for Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed History and Environmentalism of the Rich.

What role do social movements play in blocking fossil fuel projects?

It’s rare to see an article on a news website speaking so directly to a current question of current scholarly interest. In 2012, Doug McAdam and Hilary Boudet published Putting Social Movements in their Place: Explaining Opposition to Energy Projects in the United States, 2000-2005, which generally encourages scholars of contentious politics and social movements to consider other explanations for political outcomes. I have personally wondered about how to evaluate and feel about climate change activist effectiveness.

A CBC News opinion piece from two days ago: “Social movements played a huge part in derailing Energy East

It expresses the common and convincing activist argument that just delaying projects and adding perceived risk is helping to slow the pace of fossil fuel exploitation:

The pipeline was originally scheduled to be approved by the end of 2014 and in operation by the end of 2018. Instead, delays won by Indigenous communities, grassroots groups, labour unions and NGOs prevented Energy East from being built when it was still economically and politically feasible, back when the price of oil was well north of $80 per barrel.

These delays also created space for Energy East opponents to carve out new expectations of the environmental and social burdens of proof needed for an energy project’s approval, making it even harder to build.

Two events in particular each drove about two years of delay. First, there was the September 2014 grassroots-funded legal challenge on risks to beluga whales at the project’s proposed Cacouna Marine terminal, which triggered a long process of TransCanada trying and failing to find a new Quebec location acceptable to the public.

And second, there was the Charest Affair, where an apparent conflict of interest called into question the overall validity – and legality – of the National Energy Board’s hearing on Energy East, causing delays.

It is this groundswell of opposition that created the political space for policy-oriented opponents to Energy East to successfully advocate for a review of the National Energy Board’s approval process, and for new interim measures to be applied to Energy East. Among them was the consideration of the climate change impacts of the project — something that, ideally, would be a given for an environmental review of a fossil fuel project.

The pipeline’s new review, if it had been restarted, would have been the first to include consideration of greenhouse gas emissions both up- and down-stream from the project. These added requirements, in combination with the dour economic outlook for bitumen export and the risks of direct action during construction, mean Energy East has become impossible to build. So yes, the cancellation of Energy East was a business decision, but it was one made in a landscape that’s been successfully engineered by social movements.

You see a similar argument from fossil fuel divestment activists; even if their target institutions choose not to divest, they are spreading the idea that big new fossil fuel projects may be financially risky within the community of institutional investors, including other schools, municipalities, etc.

The author is also of interest: “Bronwen Tucker is a community organizer and climate policy researcher. She is currently investigating the impacts of anti-pipeline campaigns as a graduate student at the University of Oxford.”

Now, the dissertation

The University of Toronto Department of Political Science website lists the requirements for completing a PhD:

  • Field 1 (Canadian Politics: 2012-13)
  • Field 2 (Public Policy: 2013-14)
  • Qualitative Methods Requirement (2014)
  • Quantitative Methods Requirement (waived from undergrad and Oxford MPhil coursework)
  • Field Examination in Field 1 and Field 2 (February 2014 and January 2016)
  • Thesis Committee (August 22nd, 2017)
  • Thesis Proposal (August 29th, 2017)
  • Language Requirement (waived from undergrad coursework and Summer Language Bursary Program)
  • Ethics Review
  • Candidacy Completion
  • Dissertation

It hasn’t exactly followed the ideal schedule, but I have done quite a few other things at the same time.

The aim now is to get ethical approval by October and finish writing and defending the dissertation by September 2019.

Ode to the U of T Library System

All talk of Robarts begins with architecture,
The way it hangs over the campus, making no excuses about its material of construction.
The catalog is less often mentioned, but deserves more consideration.

It’s akin to a good chunk of Amazon and the Library of Congress, available instantly and for free.
You don’t even need to store the books when you’re done reading them.
Graham, Kelly, Pratt, and Gerstein are all close at hand, and have valuable supplementary collections in areas like International Relations, Cryptography, History, and Social Movements.

The physical collections are well-complemented by a research consultation service,
And the digital access is a great research aid too.
Google Scholar on the U of T network is a rapid-fire PDF delivery system.