Hot topics of 2015

January 6, 2016

Faculty weigh in on some of last year’s biggest conversation starters

From the colour of a dress to the political landscape in our province, our country and even in a galaxy far, far away, there was lots that got people talking in 2015. We thought we’d check in with a few of our faculty members to get their thoughts on some of the topics and issues that fuelled our conversations throughout the year.

Are all those Canadian Grammy Award nominees a good thing?

Seeing Drake, the Weeknd and Justin Bieber on the Grammy nominee list isn’t necessarily good news for the Canadian music industry, according to Michael B. MacDonald, assistant professor in the Bachelor of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music.

“The idea that we talk about pop musicians as if they have a citizenship is problematic,” he says. “Do people listen to Justin Bieber because he’s Canadian? I don’t think so. I’m not sure that people even see nationality in popular music, as long as it’s North American.”

Michael adds that award shows in general may not have the impact that we think they do. “For all the global esteem of winning a Grammy, I have known Canadian artists who have been nominated and not booked a single extra gig because of it. While I would congratulate all of the musicians on the Grammy nominee list, the work being done in Canadian music is really happening in local festivals and clubs.”

But that work is in jeopardy with Edmonton’s local venues closing at an alarming rate—in 2015 alone, four arts and live music venues closed their doors for good, and a fifth came dangerously close to joining their ranks.

“Watching the Grammy Awards and cheering for a Canadian to win makes much less of an impact than going to your local club and seeing live music,” says Michael. “The only way to have a healthy local music scene is to support it.”

So he is applauding the efforts of people, like MacEwan music alum Thom Bennett, who are working hard to pick up the pieces and improve the prospects of what Michael describes as the fragments of what used to Canada’s music industry.

“Thom started the Edmonton Live Music Initiative and it’s been getting a lot of traction. We need to focus on events and places that actually employ Canadian musicians—and make sure they don’t continue to disappear.”

IMAGE_STORY_2015_MarsWhat did our Mars researchers think of The Martian?

Not much. Neither Nancy McKeown nor Erin Walton, both assistant professors in Earth and Planetary Sciences who also happen to study Mars, read the book or saw the movie that everyone was talking last September—but they got the gist.

“Astronauts travel to Mars. Something goes wrong. One person is stranded. He finds resourceful ways to survive. He is miraculously saved. The end,” laughs Erin. Although she wasn’t in a rush to see The Martian, she can understand—and shares—our collective fascination with the red planet.

“Mars really is one of the few places in our solar system that has been capable of supporting life at one point in its history,” she says. “To confirm that and to know that we aren’t alone—for me, and I think for many other people, that would be comforting.”

Erin studies some of the 85 unpaired Martian meteorites that have made their way to Earth from Mars during the past few million years. Those rocks not only hold information about the planet they came from, but they can also teach us about how materials are exchanged between planets.

“Most of our knowledge of Mars comes from remote observations, such as rovers, landers and satellites. These meteorites are the only samples of the Martian surface that we can analyze here on Earth,” says Erin. “Linking the samples back to their source terrain, through identifying the craters from which they were ejected, is a major scientific priority.”

Why? Erin says that once we know where the meteorites came from, that information can be used to determine the age of the terrain on Mars and when the impact that created a particular meteorite occurred—not unlike how rocks from the moon’s surface brought back by the Apollo mission were used to calibrate the moon’s age.

It’s work that could inform future—and hopefully less eventful than in The Martian—missions to Mars. “My research informs us of the types of rock we might expect to find on Mars or how the Martian rocks may have been affected by impact,” says Erin. The instrumentation she uses to explore their mineralogy and chemistry are the same as the miniature versions onboard rovers and landers, so her work also informs scientists on mission teams about the spectra signatures to look for that could indicate a shock that occurred from an asteroid or comet hitting the planet at high speed.

What really happened in the provincial and federal election campaigns?

If you listened to the radio, watched television or read the news in 2015, chances are you probably heard Associate Professor Chaldeans Mensah comment on the provincial or federal election campaigns. The political science faculty member did 62 media interviews last year. What exactly was he talking about?

“Typically the media is interested in short-term determinants of voting behaviour during a campaign—not just the ups and downs, but the issues that inform the voting decisions, specific policies and leadership styles. As a political scientist, I can be analytical without recommending any particular leader,” he says.

Looking back, Chaldeans says that both election campaigns shared a common theme.

“In both cases, the electorate really honed in on change,” says Chaldeans. “Notley and Trudeau ran brilliant campaigns that exceeded expectations and tapped into the tenor of the electorate’s desire for progressive change—and that translated into an unexpected outcome.”

But Chaldeans says it remains to be seen how the two new leaders will implement their campaign promises—and whether those changes will resonate with Canadians.

“The biggest things both leaders need to do is manage expectations,” says Chaldeans. “In the context of Alberta, the economic downtown with the decline in oil prices is a major headwind for this government. Job losses are beginning to mount, especially in Calgary, and that is going to have a profound impact on the financial numbers as they come in. Going forward, the provincial government’s ability to meet some of the challenges is going to be circumscribed by the dire financial situation because of our dependence on the resource sector.”

While Chaldeans says that Prime Minister Trudeau’s prospects are better due to the fact that Canada’s economy as a whole is less dependent on oil, he has similar work to do.

“He definitely has to start to address some of the job losses we’re having in Western Canada because they could be damaging politically looking forward.”

Chaldean’s prediction for 2016? What’s left of the honeymoon period is about to end. “The ball is really in the court of these two leaders. This is a difficult period of time in our economy and how they manage to meet expectations will be key.”

IMAGE_STORY_2015_StarWarsWill the Star Wars marketing machine make its way into School of Business classrooms?

There’s no denying that the machine that is Disney has outdone itself when it comes to marketing and merchandising the latest Star Wars movie.

“George Lucas was pretty good at laying the groundwork for things like crowdsourcing—making consumers part of the production of the product—that we talk about a lot now in marketing,” says Bob Graves, associate professor, Business Management. “Things like Star Wars action figures really advanced the marketing of movies, but today Disney is pushing that right to the limit.”

In spite of the buzz—and the fact that you can’t turn around in a mall during the 2015 holiday season without seeing Star Wars slapped on something—Bob says it likely won’t be the first example he brings forward in his marketing classes next semester.

“Star Wars is really the exception to the rule,” says Bob. “Marketers are always trying to find that little snag that will catch our imaginations and go viral. That connection with a group at a particular point that reaches a tipping point and makes it into the mainstream. With Star Wars, they don’t have to work very hard to reach that tipping point, all they have to do is take advantage of it.”

And while Bob says that Lucas’s ability to tap into the blueprint of what makes an effective story has had a lasting legacy on the new slate of Star Wars movies, marketing that story is an entirely different thing.

“I would not look at Star Wars as an example of how to market a product because this is a very unique product—even Disney likely won’t be able to repeat this with their next movie. There is no fail-proof recipe when it comes to marketing. If there was, we would see this type of buzz all the time.”

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