McGill Political Science Students' Association

Professor of the Month

Professor Krzysztof Pelc

What was your first ever job? 

I got fired from a bakery after two weeks because I had some issues with authority, and that was a clear sign that academia was going to be the only path for me. The only real job I had apart from academia was being a tour guide on a steam train that went from Gatineau to Wakefield. It was this century-old Swedish steam train. That job actually had a real impact on what I do now: I used to be a shy kid, I definitely had a fear of public speaking. And then I spent months reciting the same hour-long historical speech four times a day in French and in English. I grew so bored of it, and within that boredom, I started to relax in front of an audience. To switch things up I actually used to give the French speech with an Anglo accent and the English speech with a French accent. So that remains the only real job I've ever had. 

Recent research you're engaging in?
I like having lots of projects going at once, because it allows me to jump from one to another, and I feel like my mind keeps thinking about them even when I'm not. So right now I'm working on a survey in India of individuals with no formal education, and I'm asking how they react to price shocks, meaning sudden price, if the price of potatoes or rice goes up, how do they explain this to themselves? Do they blame the government? Do they blame merchants? Do they blame other countries? And does that correspond to theoretical expectations? The thought behind it is in part to show just how much ordinary people know about complex economic phenomena. And how that's especially true in developing countries, how in many ways, poor people in poor countries know far more than educated consumers in the West, because so much hinges on their knowing these things. So they know all about the crop cycle of onions and where they grow, and when the harvest is, and what the weather is like there. We don't know where our onions come from, because we have little on the line. By comparison, these poor people are awfully sophisticated, and I'm trying to measure that sophistication by seeing how good they are at attributing blame for different price shocks. So do people react differently to price shocks in rice (which is highly government controlled) versus oats (which come from foreign countries, and where government has little role to play)?
What's the best thing about being a Professor at McGill?
Intellectual freedom. You get up every day and you decide what you want to think about. There's really no other profession like it, where you get to pose your own problems and then try to solve them... that means if you want to change topics overnight, you can. If you've thought sufficiently about something, you just move on. That freedom is unique to this profession. 
What's your favourite book and movie?
That's broad, so let's go with a theme. I'll give you two Polish things, in deference to the motherland. The book is called Street Of Crocodiles and it's by Bruno Schultz, who was a writer and essayist killed during WWII. He writes beautiful, otherworldly prose, mostly short stories. Keeping with the theme, the film would be The Double Life of Véronique, by Kieslowski. 

McGill library has both!

Tell me about your love for rugs.
So they're these specific rugs, they're called "tulu", which means "hairy"--and they are. They're abstract, long-pile wool rugs. They were made by these nomadic groups in Turkey, who've have since become sedentary, so the most recent are about 30-40 years old, and the oldest are well over a century old. I discovered them on one trip to Turkey and have been going back to look for them ever since. Every wall of my apartment is covered in these, and there are piles on the floor. And this is the source, as most of my students know, of endless lessons about the politics of bargaining. In international politics, it eventually comes back to back to bargaining over rugs. To these games of signaling that you're interested, but not that interested, that you have exit options, to these rituals of having tea for hours before mentioning anything about a price. 

If you were to have one piece of advice for our political science undergraduates, what would it be?

Don't sweat the big decisions. Don't worry about the consequences of going to law school versus graduate school versus the internship versus travelling, because you're operating under uncertainty rather than risk. Meaning that you don't know what awaits you once you're there. In a sense, your success depends far more on what you do once on that path, than on the choice of the path itself. So rather than sweating those big decisions, concentrate on making the most of whatever setting you're in, which for instance means (and this leads to my second piece of advice) meeting as many people who do what you're interested in doing as you possibly can...doing well is so often correlated with the number of people you know who are doing what you want to be doing. So go on a hundred lunch dates and a thousand coffee meetings.