By Karen Kelly
What led you to pursue a PhD?
At its core, my education in political science has always revolved around trying to understand why only some stories matter. I’ve long known that stories had a profound power to them: they can draw out feelings in us that we did not know were there; and they have the capacity to transport us into new, imagined worlds.
It wasn’t until my bachelor’s degree that I started to understand stories not just as powerful in themselves, but also in who gets to tell them (and what they choose to tell when they get there). The appreciation of that is not something I came to by myself, but through thoughtful instructors who challenged me and offered constant reminders that the world was forever vaster than the narrow lenses I used to explore it. I found myself fixated on asking who gets to decide which stories matter—and imagining if it could be some other way.
We’re seeing some of those conversations catching fire around the world today, in the realms of education and art and news, but it took me a long time to properly appreciate just how political the telling of stories can be. You only ever get to scratch the surface of those kinds of ideas in your undergrad, so it seemed inevitable that I would find myself doing a master’s degree and, eventually, a PhD.
What is your research about?
Broadly speaking, I’m concerned with political education. Not the mechanics of parliament or elections or the bureaucracy (although those things are important), but how we become informed about what counts as political and whose actions are legitimate.
To that end, I study two kinds of stories. There are those that get told to us as ‘important’ (things like constitutions, founding moments, and national myths, and the philosophical arguments that those are rooted in). Then there are also those stories that we choose to pay attention to (the things that entertain us but also the political ideas we choose to believe like “government can’t do X” or “government should do Y”). My PhD research could be said to understand what the difference is between those two kinds of stories.
What were the highlights of your experience?
Teaching, hands down. Students have consistently proven to be the best part of my academic career. If you have a problem (whether it is political, philosophic, or administrative), frame it as an assignment and get ready for students to knock you over with their creativity, thoughtfulness, and ambition.
What was the most important thing you learned?
I keep coming back to the idea that it isn’t about the ‘What’ happened so much as it’s about the ‘Who it was with’. There are all kinds of great things that happened, but it’s the relationships that were built throughout the process that I’ll hold onto. Whether it was people I started the PhD with who I learned alongside, the instructors and mentors who challenged me, or the administrative staff and friends that supported my work (and mental health). What I learned seems less important than who I learned it with and I am incredibly lucky to have built relationships that will outlast my time at Carleton University.
How would you describe your PhD defence?
It would be dishonest if I brushed aside the weirdness of defending five years of work via videoconference, but I remember the weird parts less the further I get away from it. Sure, it was strange to wonder “Do I have the right kind of art on the walls?” the night before, but my committee made sure that all my attention was off home decor choices and on answering their questions. Nothing quite prepares you for the moment where scholars you respect start treating you as an equal (or your work anyway). I had grand ambitions about taking detailed notes and holding tight onto all the interesting things that were said, but was quickly disabused of that notion. I suppose I am fortunate that nobody was judging my defence on the quality of those notes.
I understand you had a support animal…
Calling Rory a ’support’ animal is a bit of a misnomer: if anything, he undermined my productivity at every turn. He can’t seem to wrap his head around the idea of word counts or deadlines and instead wants to throw himself down onto my lap whenever I get into a writing groove. I honestly have to think the whole process would have gone smoother without his distractions, but sometimes that fur-ball was exactly what I needed.
What’s next for you?
Much like when my mother asks this question, I think my answer is going to be found somewhat unsatisfying, because I don’t know. I’m applying for post-doctoral research positions and to teach wherever opportunities come up, but the world is very different than the one I was making plans in—even as recently as six months ago. So, I don’t really know where I’ll land, but right now I have embraced the strangeness as an opportunity to throw myself into research and questions that I didn’t get to during the PhD.
For instance, I’ve spent the last couple weeks thinking about politics and video games (which sounds a lot like an excuse to play video games, but I never said that all my ideas were good). I also have a couple of different papers on the go that I hope to turn into bigger projects. It also looks like I’ll be teaching a course in the winter term at Carleton, so I’m trying to figure out how best to do that.
Beyond that, I am working on a podcast with an old friend. It’s called Dave’s Republic and we’re pitching it as a celebration of philosophical ignorance and academic nonsense in which Dave, a self-proclaimed doctor of the world, and I, an actual doctor of political philosophy, investigate the Ancient Greek writings of Plato to see why these works still matter today.
It is a way of taking what I learned through the PhD, adding an element of humour, and bringing it to a wider audience. We’ve also imagined future seasons of the podcast in which we explore other kinds of political and philosophical stories, but always motivated by trying to be useful for people today.
So, even if I don’t quite know where I’m going after the PhD, there is a lot that I’m doing these days and I’m excited about it all.
This profile was part of the Faculty of Public Affairs’ 75 for the 75th series, which highlighted 75 notable alumni in FPA in honour of Carleton University’s 75th anniversary. These stories were published in 2016... More
This profile was part of the Faculty of Public Affairs’ Generation FPA series, which highlighted up and coming alumni who graduated between 2008-2018. The series was published in 2018. Hardave Birk is a Government Relations... More
Trading on New Terms: Civil Society and North American Free Trade
Trading on New Terms: Civil Society and North American Free Trade
In the late 1980’s, the debate over the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement dominated the headlines and spurred protests across university campuses. Opponents warned of job losses, environmental destruction and a threat to Canada’s sovereignty... More