As a young professional, attending conferences is beneficial for several reasons:
- Receiving feedback. The questions and feedback received on a project that I have worked on for months – in my case, a political culture comparison of Canada and the United States – is absolutely essential for establishing one’s interests, developing professionally and gaining new perspectives and ideas to which one otherwise wouldn’t be exposed.
- Learning from your peers. Hearing about what your colleagues are currently studying or researching.
- Networking. It’s a terrific way to network and meet professors as well as fellow students, who can give you insight into the academic culture, structure and student life at a different University.
I had the privilege to present at the annual Boston University graduate student conference on political history. Over the course of 4 days, two conferences took place in succession – the first one I opted to observe on religion and American politics, the second being the one at which I presented my research paper on healthcare, political culture and USA-Canada comparisons.
Concepts that stood out the most to me from the other presentations included the discussion on interdisciplinarity in the social sciences, the concept of socialism in political history and current debates on the media’s role. For example, several presentations focused on primary sources of newspapers and speeches delivered in regards to racial politics and immigration politics. It was certainly a terrific experience to be exposed to the research that many scholars at mostly American Universities were conducting on various aspects of history and politics.
Many of the PhD students presenting focused on American history: specific presidential speeches, cold war propaganda, or more broadly, the link between individualism and different religious beliefs within the USA.
God Bless Healthcare?
My presentation was focused on a long-standing interest of mine: the politics of universalized healthcare, viewed through the lens of political culture, or the values that are held by groups of people. In my presentation, I compared Canada and the United States in terms of different healthcare systems and their link to general values associated with the populations. The goal of my research was to highlight that however problematic and general the concept of “political culture” can be, it has indeed been integral to the formation of different political institutions.
In the case of healthcare, I gave a historical background on the universalization of healthcare in Canada starting from the Saskatchewan plan in 1965 and the tendency to view government as an institution that provides essential services. In contrast, I analyzed the American creed and the values such as “liberty, freedom, equality” – specifically, equality of opportunity versus equality of services. I also analyzed the counter-movements of lobbying groups such as the American Medical Association, and their opposition to universalized healthcare in the United States.
Questions ranged from anecdotal evidence to opinions on personal responsibility. One of the interesting questions was whether or not Cold War mentality and rejection of the notion of “socialism” was the most important factor in the ongoing healthcare debate in the USA. Another interesting point lay in the perspective of the listener; the idea that U.S. government providing social services such as Medicare and Medicaid may constitute a “socialistic” tendency in some people’s eyes. Society deems certain groups of people to be important members worthy of benefits from the state; the fact that 50 million Americans do not have any healthcare coverage indicates that a comparison between the two countries and debate on the future of healthcare reform is imperative.
Such complex issues are not going to be solved at an academic conference. The aim is rather to engage the participant’s critical thinking abilities.
Keynote speaker Julian Zelizer from Princeton gave a very engaging talk on the first day where he tied concepts of political culture, ethnic studies, gender and history together to illustrate how disciplines have become more and more interconnected. I especially appreciated this, coming from a political studies background and presenting to history professors and PhD students who sparked lively debate on healthcare.
Outside of the academic setting, one the most interesting things I enjoyed from Boston was interaction with total randoms. After trying and completely failing to find the Museum of Fine Arts (I found Northeastern University in the pouring rain instead, though) I ended up going to one of the few places that was open on a Sunday night in Boston’s financial district where I would feel comfortable with my luggage, and able to finish an essay that was due the next day: Starbucks.
I overheard a few young people discussing their food stamps and how they could use them to buy energy drinks. My friendly Starbucks barista and I then had a long conversation about healthcare and more broadly, social services, and the food stamp program. He told me about the increase in recent years of people signed up for this program, and we discussed the controversy over different group’s beliefs in services that a government should provide.
A fascinating, contemporary issue that was not covered at the conference. I’m now really interested in a new but related research project to study another aspect of the welfare state in the USA: the politics of food. My sojourn in Boston provided an excellent basis for learning and interacting with professors and citizens alike on the contentious subjects of the role of the government in providing and ensuring social services.