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Student-Professor Collaboration Results in McMenemy Award Nomination

Graduate student learns first-hand the demands of knowledge creation at the scholarly level

Mr. Blair Cullen, M.A. Student in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies
Mr. Blair Cullen, M.A. Student in Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies

When Trent Alumnus Blair Cullen decided to write a critique of his professor’s essay for a class assignment, he knew he was taking a risk. “Conventional wisdom suggests to never write in your professor’s area of expertise, but I was so intrigued by the topic, national unity and the Quebec question, I decided it would be worth the risk and thus chose Professor Changfoot’s article,” relates Mr. Cullen, who is currently a Masters of Arts student in the Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies program. “In hindsight, I made the right decision, as after returning the papers, Professor Changfoot approached me about the opportunity of publishing the paper.”

Not only did Prof. Changfoot, an associate professor with Trent’s Political Science department, suggest that Mr. Cullen publish the paper, she offered to collaborate on it. “Blair was in my second-year Canadian Politics course and he was an upper-year student at the time,” explains Prof. Changfoot. “The course essay assignment was to confirm, update, or challenge the arguments of selected scholarly articles, of which one of mine on the national unity crisis with Quebec of 1995 was on the list. Blair's work was exceptional and I saw the potential to make a scholarly contribution on why the national unity crisis is currently in abatement, at least for now.” The resulting article has now been nominated for the 2012 John McMenemy Prize from the Canadian Political Science Association for the best article, in English or French, published in volume 44 of the Canadian Journal of Political Science.

For Prof. Changfoot, the experience, although novel, fit well with her teaching philosophy. “This was my first co-authored project with a former student and I am always open to these kinds of collaborations. Part of the process of higher learning involves guiding and coaching students to develop the skills for solid research that creates knowledge from an interesting angle not yet covered. I informed Blair of the serious work to create a scholarly article; he was game and I thought, ‘Great! Let’s do it.’”

From the first thrill of the challenge followed a long learning curve about the academic publishing process, and a lot of hard work. “The publishing process was eye-opening,” admits Mr. Cullen. “To examine the depths of literature on one topic and actually think about challenging the arguments of those who have been writing on the subject for decades especially on a politically contentious topic like Quebec’s relationship with Canada is academically stimulating. After our first submission, reviewers disagreed with several of our arguments but at the same time were encouraging, therefore making the publishing process longer, but the product better. It is easy to become impatient during this process, particularly for newcomers, but Professor Changfoot was incredibly helpful as a guide. In fact, her persistence is one of the main reasons the article was published.”

Prof. Changfoot, no stranger to academic publishing, knew what Mr. Cullen was getting into. “Working on the article gave Blair a chance to experience the rhythm and pace of scholarly publishing, which is much slower and exponentially more rigorous than writing a paper for a course. It took three years, if not more, for the article to be published and I remember at one point hearing Blair's frustration over why the process was taking so long, especially when responding to the reviewers' comments involving a substantial re-write. I remember smiling to myself, sharing his frustration, and being appreciative of the demands of knowledge creation at the scholarly level,” she relates.

For Mr. Cullen, the practical knowledge he gained from the experience was a reward in itself. “Without a doubt, I learned a great deal during this process. Exposure to numerous voices through the literature, reviewers, and at conferences not only contributed to my comprehension of the issues but also taught me that a multiplicity of views is essential to building understanding of an issue. Being nominated for the John McMenemy Prize is truly a prestigious honour. Professional recognition of this nature is difficult to attain and I am extremely fortunate and grateful,” acknowledges Mr. Cullen. “To be honest, I was content with simply being published.”

Posted on Monday, April 30, 2012.

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