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Meet the graduate student behind U of T’s first humour & politics course

Close up photo of Erica Petkov in a suit in front of a window

PhD student Erica Petkov is the creator of U of T’s first humour and politics course.

According to Edward Schatz, associate professor of political science, it is quite unusual for a graduate student to develop her own course. But, “Erica is a self-starter,” says Schatz, who is her PhD supervisor.

“She came to me with an innovative — if slightly risky, for crossing normal disciplinary boundaries — research proposal, and I was hooked from the get-go.

“Erica also has the good sense to conduct research she cares about. Some grad students unfortunately try to select topics “strategically,” based on what they think will land them a job. She knows that it is best to do research on a topic that stokes your intellectual passions.”

A&S News spoke to PhD student Erica Petkov, creator of U of T’s first humour and politics course.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Thornhill, north of Toronto, and attended U of T for undergraduate studies where I did a double major in international relations and European studies. I met my husband in my fourth year of undergrad during a foreign affairs seminar at Victoria College taught by Canadian ambassador David Wright. After graduating, I went to the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver for my master’s degree.

Before embarking on a PhD, I worked as a policy analyst in different offices of the Ontario government — International Relations and Protocol, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and in the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration for several years.

I’m now working on my PhD in political science at U of T. When not teaching or researching and writing my thesis, I enjoy watching baseball — I’m a big Blue Jays fan — and attempting to play the game myself, which includes frequent trips to the local batting cage. I’m an avid cyclist and recently explored the Charlevoix region in Quebec by bike. And I love reading and watching political satire.

Why did you pursue political science?

It’s been a longstanding interest of mine since my youth. After completing my undergraduate and graduate studies in international relations and working for the provincial government where I witnessed the interaction of politics and policy firsthand, a doctoral degree in political science was a logical next step for me.

Why U of T?

U of T has a globally renowned graduate program in political science as well as supportive and engaging faculty with a wide range of expertise.

I am the fourth generation in my family to attend U of T. My great-grandfather fled persecution in Eastern Europe and immigrated to Canada in 1913 and graduated from U of T in 1918 as a pharmacist. Since then, my grandfather studied engineering at U of T, my parents met in medical school at U of T, and my brothers and I have attended U of T as well. It is incredible to think that my family has been a part of the U of T community for a century! We all feel incredibly fortunate to be so connected to the university, and grateful for the opportunities that U of T has given to our family over the years.

What are your research interests?

Political satire, civic engagement, especially the participation of youth in politics, media and politics and political communication.

What do you enjoy and find challenging about your life as a grad student?

What I enjoy is working alongside brilliant and talented peers and faculty from around the world, and mentoring undergraduate students as a tutorial assistant and course instructor.

What can be challenging is to sustain a sense of community as a commuter who doesn’t live close to campus. Time management is a challenge as well when I am balancing competing demands of my own dissertation research, conferences and publications with TA-ships and other teaching activities, not to mention a personal life!

 Are there any particular supports and services at U of T that you use and like?

The Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) has been helpful. I completed the two-year Advanced University Teaching Preparation certificate course there. I also took advantage of a Teaching in Higher Education course (THE500) offered at Woodsworth College that was offered to senior PhD candidates and postdoctoral fellows who are interested in improving their teaching practice.

Both of these provided excellent training in teaching at the postsecondary level, and it was in the THE500 course that I first developed the syllabus for my course on Humour and Politics (POL300). The feedback I received from Professor Anne Urbancic, the THE500 instructor, was extremely valuable in putting together my syllabus, as was the input of my peers in the course. I wouldn’t have been able to develop and deliver Humour and Politics without all of the helpful training that I received from CTSI and THE500.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the positive impact that I’ve had on undergraduate students as a teaching assistant and course instructor. My goal is not just to impart knowledge, but also to teach my students how to think critically and to challenge the thoughts and ideas they currently take for granted. I want my students to not only develop a sophisticated understanding of political science, but more importantly, to become engaged citizens, to be critical thinkers, to be open-minded, and to be passionate about the preservation and enhancement of democracy.

Thus, I’m most proud of the feedback I’ve received from students, indicating that I’ve made a positive difference in their lives. Students have made some great comments on my evaluations: “She is a natural teacher”; “she truly cares and genuinely wants students to succeed;” “she treats everyone fairly and instead of disregarding alternative viewpoints, she encourages students to voice them;” and “she helps students reach their potential.”

What advice would you give a student considering graduate studies in your field?

I would echo the advice that I was given — that a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint, and that you have to be prepared to stick it out for a long time. You have to be really passionate about your research topic. Don’t pick something that you think others want to hear about — pick something that you truly care about — and everything else will fall into place. When I selected my topic of political satire and youth political participation because of my passion for, and interest in, political satire, it was very “outside of the box,” but I stuck to it and I’m extremely glad that I did. Now I’m teaching a course that I designed about this very topic!