Dr. Harold Jansen has never been shy to profess his love for the political world, nor his desire to see the general populace more informed about and engaged by the democratic process.
It shaped his academic career, both as a student and then as a professor in the University of Lethbridge’s Department of Political Science. It is also why he carried great expectations for what the digital revolution of the late 1990s might do for the political process.
“Democratic politics is so much about communication and here we were at the beginning of a communications revolution,” says Jansen, who on Thursday presented the latest PUBlic Professor Series lecture at Lethbridge City Hall. “We convey our demands through communications, governments communicate to us and we mobilize coalitions of support or opposition based on communication and persuasion. It all requires communication, so any changes to those technologies are profound.”
Jansen and his fellow political scientists were hopeful that with greater access to information and direct contact with politicians possible, digital technology would enrich the practice of democratic citizenship. As he discussed in his presentation, it is now 20 years later, digital technology is everywhere, and yet there are few signs of a democratic renaissance.
“I had this initial burst of optimism and I think fairly early on in the research I realized this wasn’t suddenly going to rejuvenate democracy,” he says.
Jansen has been a political junkie since he can remember, fondly recalling that, as a seven-year-old, he asked his dad what were the differences between Liberals and Conservatives.
“It’s actually an analytical question and one which I have devoted an entire class to answering,” he laughs. “My dad had me write a letter to the NDP leader to find out and he never wrote me back – in fact Stephen Lewis still owes me an answer to that.”
Always fascinated with the machinations of the political process, that question was the first of many for Jansen. Rather than looking to influence or change the political world, he sought to understand how and why some parties won elections and others did not.
“I was never interested in running for office, rather I’d always been interested in understanding how it worked and why things happened the way they did,” he says. “It was natural for me to go on to graduate school with those questions, and by the end of my undergraduate degree, I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to do a PhD.”
A predilection to teach was something he discovered at King’s University College as an undergraduate student.
“It was such a small school, just 130 students, that I was able to work as a lab assistant as a second-year student and was able to teach tutorials very early on,” says Jansen. “That was really formative for me and really helped me to clarify what I was good at, what I liked and gave me experiences only graduate students got elsewhere.”
He’d go on to earn a master’s at Carleton University and return to Edmonton and the University of Alberta for his PhD studies. But it was that early experience at King’s College that would set him up well for his role at the U of L, which he has enjoyed for 17 years.
“I’m really passionate about involving my students in research. Our department is small and that makes it difficult for us to do a lot on the graduate level but it does open up opportunities at the undergrad level,” he says. “Because of our class sizes, I’m able to bring research methods into the classroom and work with students one-on-one. That would not be the case at other research focused institutions in the country.”
As the new Chair of the political science department, a position he assumed following the retirement of Dr. Peter McCormick last year, Jansen sees great potential in continuing to carve out that niche for the U of L.
“Let’s make our undergraduate program innovative and give students something they can’t get anywhere else,” he says.
Jansen deeply respects the legacy McCormick leaves behind and is enthused about working with his colleagues to further the reputation of his department and the U of L.
“Peter was a tremendous mentor for me. I’ve always said I learned to be a political scientist in graduate school but Peter taught me to be a professor,” he says. “I’ve got a tremendous department here. You take the six faculty members I have and if you were to randomly grab six faculty members from any other department in Canada we would be as good as, if not better. I have nothing but amazing things to say about the quality of research and the care for students my colleagues provide.”
And what about that optimism that digital technology and social media could be the great catalyst to a new wave of democratic participation?
“It’s funny, the more I research social media, the less I find I want to use it.”