We should teach the principles of commerce to young kids

One of the greatest brakes on people’s success is their lack of social capital. I have seen this in action at the university where I teach. The students who come in knowing how to start businesses, seek internships and network have a huge advantage over those who haven’t been given those skills or exposed to those ideas earlier.

It’s a question of familiarity. Even if the university were to start teaching students about entrepreneurship and financial management, it is too late for most. By university, those young people are way ahead, who were, as children consistently exposed to those foundational principles of business and money as part of the fascinating puzzles of everyday life. For the students who have know them since childhood, those principles will have critically shaped and coloured the way they view the world. Rather than seeing commerce as forbidding, they see it as an opportunity.

We live in a commercial world. The market and business make most of the things that we do, the services we use and the jobs we get happen in Canada. Whether it is directly, through commerce, or indirectly through the tax revenues generated through commerce.

To understand commerce and business and entrepreneurship at an early age allows kids to have a critical look at the business and services they encounter at an early age. When they go to a restaurant, rather than just buying a sandwich, sitting down an eating it, they could look at the product, the location, the furnishings in the store, the quality of the materials and the service and start deducing what the restaurant’s business model might be.

This is an entirely different way of viewing the world. All of a sudden, even the mundane experience of buying a hot dog from a street stand becomes a puzzle: is this a good location? How many hotdogs does this stand move? How could performance be improved?

I was extremely fortunate to have been born into a family where business, entrepreneurship and finances were discussed openly and cheerfully, even if the news was sometimes bad. We discussed how to turn a chance to spend money at a store into a way that one could make money, if one could buy the product more cheaply elsewhere and resell it for a profit. We talked about how restaurant eating was vastly more expensive and often lower quality than a much cheaper home-cooked meal.

Not only is this knowledge practical, it turns what would otherwise seem like a world of closed doors into a world of challenges, puzzles and opportunities.

The problem is that many families do not have the knowledge and experience of business, entrepreneurship and finance to pass on to their kids. If we really want to make a serious dent in Canada’s alleged productivity gap, I think the real answer is simple: make commercial awareness a part of the curriculum from junior kindergarten until the end of university. This should not replace reading the classics, learning mathematics and music, or science or practicing drama and public speaking. Rather, business should be a literacy taught alongside these other literacies. Even if they chose not to become business people, they will understand the workings of the world in which they live and work.

In our capitalist society, teaching little kids about business, entrepreneurship and financial literacy is the greatest and most empowering gift of social capital we could give to the next generation, bar none.



The challenges of teaching professional ethics

I have been having many discussions – with colleagues and practitioners – about what it means to teach ethics to professional communicators. Ethics is a challenging subject to teach at the best of times, because it requires that the practitioner have experience. How do you get a student or a mentee to have that experience, even if you need to do it vicariously, through case studies?

In her commentary piece in the latest issue of JPC, Patricia Parsons, a professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, discusses the challenges of teaching ethics in a professional program. In 2004 study she conducted (the results are as valid today as they were then!), she discovered the following eight challenges for public relations ethics education. Her JPC article fleshes out each challenge.

1. Failure to plan where the course ought to be placed in the curriculum.

2. Course objectives that fail to consider all three domains: knowledge, attitude and behaviour.

3. Failure to allow students to build on their own value systems and construct a new awareness from where they are.

4. Heavy reliance on case studies that focus on higher-level, managerial situations. The most commonly used method of instruction reported was the use of the case study.

5. A belief that the best guest speakers are those in high-level positions when most grads need to understand the non-managerial issues.

6. Taking a shotgun approach to ethics.

7. Failing to allow students time to reflect on what they are learning.

8. Lack of creativity in developing evaluation instruments. Reliance on tests and case studies is a more difficult issue than many of us are willing to admit.

You should read her JPC article. It’s a very thoughtful piece.

Students don’t read anymore. What does this mean for democracy?

I have spent most of the last week marking papers. As professors, we sometimes grumble and complain about this task, but it is important to consider how vital evaluation and feedback is to student growth. The thing is, marking work is a two-way street.

I have been thinking a lot about the value of assignments and marking papers over the last little while. What kinds of assignments are appropriate? What do students learn from a particular assignment? Should assignments be on hypothetical situations or should the examples be drawn from the real world?

I have settled upon a compromise in the courses I teach, particularly at the fourth year level. I ask students to work on assignments incrementally, handing in a draft, which I mark up and then a final version, to which I assign a grade. I find that this is the only way to encourage a culture of constant improvement and self-evaluation. I also walk students through the elements of research methods and theory in every class I teach. It is a challenging balance to maintain, but it is valuable, since by the end of the seminar, they have produced a piece of work that they are usually proud to include in their portfolios, for presentation to potential employers.

The thing is, this strategy requires a commitment of effort and good faith on the part of the students. They have to commit to doing the readings and working through the theoretical components of the course, so that they are ready to come to class and have wide-ranging and profound discussions. There is a problem, however: many students have to work long hours to pay for their tuition and there seems to be a culture of “work hard, play hard,” which leaves very little time for reading, reflection and deep thought.

This is worrisome, because it downloads all of the learning onto the actual time students spend in class, which is not considerable. University seminars are two or three hour sessions, once a week. That just isn’t enough time to cover all of the material that would need to be covered to assure the depth and breadth of learning expected in a university level class. This means that students are leaving with a piece of paper that says “Honours Bachelor’s of Arts/Science/Commerce/Engineering/Etc.” but it is a degree that doesn’t represent what it once did. I can attest that student attitudes to reading and reflection have changed from even a few years ago, in 2001, when I started being a professor.

Whose fault is this? I don’t know. Students tell me they simply don’t have time to read, between work, internet and social commitments. They tell me that there is no culture of political, ethical or philosophical discussion – only a constant chatter about celebrity news and lifestyle information that is pulled from various outlets online. They explain that there isn’t really a desire for more heady conversation, either; that they get shut down by peers if they try to talk politics or current affairs.

This will not lead our culture, our economy and our democracy anywhere good. An uneducated, unreflective public, tuned in largely to passing fancies and trivialities can’t make good voting choices, smart investments or career and lifestyle choices. This can only lead to a two-tiered society, where people who are “tuned in” make all the decisions and have all the know-how and depth of understanding to pull the levers of power and influence, while the rest – both men and women – are chatting about celebrity gossip and dieting/workout tips.

How do we repair this situation and right the good ship education? Or is it our culture that is broken?

The last day of class

Yesterday, I had my last day of class. This is always a bittersweet moment, since I love teaching and look forward to it as one of the highlights of my week!

This has been a big term! I have been busy working on many different projects: a new journal, a program review, an election campaign, a new phd program proposal, a proposal for a new bachelor of professional communication and taking over the directorship of the Master of Communications Management Program. On top of this, I taught four courses (which is double a usual research professor’s load).

Through all of this, I have looked forward to every class I had to teach. I gain energy from my students and I revel in their learning and their epiphanies. Seeing them master course content and guiding them through what’s sometimes a very challenging academic journey are truly what makes me get out of bed with a spring in my step.

So, to all of my students who are now preparing their exams: good luck! I hope each of them knows that I am in their corner, rooting for them.

Lecturing in CMST 1a03. Photo: @JoeyColeman
Lecturing in CMST 1a03: Intro to Communication

Cool breezes, fresh thinking

The cool breezes of autumn are upon us, and I couldn’t be happier. This is my happiest time of year – as nature falls asleep and we have to bundle up to keep warm. I find that the coolness keeps my mind crisp and focuses my thoughts on what is important.

Last weekend, I went to watch the McMaster Marauders play in the Yates Cup semifinal against Queen’s Golden Gaels. It was a wonderful night out, with my colleagues and co-authors, David Estok and Terry Flynn. I found myself watching the game unfold and the crowd cheering as McMaster routed one of its perennial rivals to advance to the Yates Cup final.

As the final splashes of orange and crimson light glowed and faded over Ron Joyce Stadium, I felt the cold air  penetrate my fleece and black McMaster baseball cap. The cold made my skin tingle and focused my mind – I felt that I could watch the plays unfold before me with renewed clarity. As the game was a route, my mind drifted to  thinking about my work as an academic.

As we move to open higher education to a majority of the population, we need to rethink our offerings across the board. This means forging partnerships that span the divide between community colleges and university, and offer professional programs that are steeped in the liberal arts and sciences to provide a broad education, but also focused in on the skills, training and coop experiences that will make student ready to get a job when they graduate.

I teach professional communication and communications management. My field is really the liberal arts applied to organizational communication and strategic management. In our discipline, students can achieve a liberal arts education while learning skills that could grant them entry into the thriving public relations and communications management industry.

The reality of today is that a majority of young citizens are entering the higher education system. Letting in such a great proportion of the population means that we are welcoming people from a diversity of backgrounds – socio-economic and cultural. No longer are universities only serving the upper middle and middle classes.

To ensure a good start for everyone, a blended theoretical-practical education is the way to go. It is a way for universities to help transfer social capital and cultural capital and even the playing field for young people. This is how universities and colleges can work together to make sure education continues to be a solid path toward social mobility.

Blended programs need not be any less intellectually challenging, nor must the skills taught be watered down. In fact, I think that this kind of blended education will be more challenging and fulfilling – making young people more self-reliant and well-equipped to forge their own futures.

The road will not be easy. Offering this sort of education will mean a major mindset change for many academics – particularly in the humanities – who are used to living in a separate world from the business, government and not-for-profit sectors. Often the mindsets of such colleagues is mistrustful of entrepreneurship, business or professional studies. However, the humanities cannot sequester themselves in a shrinking critical and ideological circle. Splendid isolation only leads to loneliness and irrelevance.

The humanities used to be the “school of leaders”. Over the last 30 years, it has gradually become the “school of critics”. Society needs critics, and it certainly needs its citizens using critical thinking, but critics are, by definition, not leaders and doers. Critics are by definition voices from the sidelines or from the stands, leaders are always in the field, at the forefront of the action.

Action and enterprise are central to the social media world we are entering. As Chris Anderson describes in The Long Tail, the networked social media society that is upon us requires more leaders, more entrepreneurs and more innovators. Obviously not everyone can be a leader. Everyone can, however, develop enterprising and leadership qualities that make them more confident and engaged.

The winds of change are picking up for universities – especially in the  liberal arts! These are cool, crisp currents. The change will be exciting. I can’t wait.

My Keynote at REVISE: Social Media is a Key to Personal Branding

On Friday afternoon, I gave a keynote address and three one-hour workshops on building a personal brand using social media at REVISE, an event organised by Steph Seagram, program director, Cossart Exchange in Hamilton, and Vanessa Sage, a PhD student in Anthropology (working on the James St N arts renaissance in Hamilton). The theme of the day was how grad students can and should look for opportunities outside the academy, given that tenure track appointments in universities and colleges are becoming more and more scarce. The Cossart Exchange was started by Jeremy Freiburger, founder of the Imperial Cotton Centre for the Arts in Hamilton, Ontario.

The event was an unqualified success. Steph, Vanessa and I had said that if we got 25 people out to the event it would be okay, 40-45 would be a great success. In fact, we had 60+ participants! It was fantastic to see so much interest. The crowd was very diverse: students from McMaster, Western and York, from every disciplinary area imaginable: from health sciences to fine arts, from physics to anthropology, from psychology to engineering. It was wonderful.

The crowd was also pretty realistic. They knew that opportunities for grad students are relatively limited in the tenured-academic stream.

My talk focused on why this has happened. I focused on two things:

  • grad school has moved from an apprenticeship model that was the norm 25 years ago to a “selection model” that is the norm today
  • the Ontario government asked universities to produce more graduate students in 1-year terminal Master’s degrees, but instead most universities responded by accepting more students into academic Master’s degrees.

The reason that we have moved to a selection model is simple: numbers. 50 or 25 years ago, there were many fewer graduate programs and their intake of students was smaller than before. When I joined the MA program in French Linguistics at the University of Toronto, my cohort only had 7 people – and I was the ONLY linguist. This has changed dramatically. Almost every department in every major university now boasts at least a Master’s, if not a PhD program. And the numbers of students being accepted is huge – our little MA in Communication and New Media in my dept at McMaster accepts 15 students per year, among a competitive pool of at least 80 applicants. And we have only been in business two years.

The second point is a little more complicated. The McGuinty Government for the Province of Ontario mandated a major graduate expansion in mid-2000s. I believe the Government wanted us to introduce more single-year “terminal” Master’s degrees to improve Ontario’s indicators in terms of grad school participation and also to build a more highly-skilled and specially trained pool of human capital in the workforce. The problem is that many university departments had an ideological and functional aversion to the idea of graduate school as an extension of the “training paradigm” and responded to the Premier’s call by simply expanding existing academic grad programs or building new academic program options. Did the Premier start the graduate expansion program because he wanted to train hundreds and thousands of new academic, tenure-stream professors? Certainly not. Universities interpreted his directive that way though, and now the employment statistics for grad students in university tenure-stream jobs are going from terrible to horrific.

Is this lack of tenure-stream opportunity necessarily a bad thing? No, not necessarily. When university faculty change their elitist attitudes, grad school will become an integrated part of the life-stream of the citizenry. Right now it is a misfit in the continuum of diverse education and training options that start in junior kindergarten and end with the PhD. Rather than offer more diversity, grad school has remained a privileged place that clings to an out-dated vision of its meaning and function in society. Because of this, grad school can be an alienating, lonely place for many students who will probably not find a tenure-track job and know it. For them, it can be a place that feels futile and isolating. A place that feels darwinian rather than collegial. This negative environment can be overcome, but as of right now, given that there is no culture-change on the horizon for academics, it is something that has to be overcome personally, in a personal struggle to gain inner strength and self-knowledge.

In the three one-hour workshops that I ran after my talk, I got the participants to ask themselves three questions:

  1. Who cares about your research?
  2. Who influences your professional and personal choices?
  3. Who can help you get your work and name out among those who are really receptive?

I made them answer a slew of other questions after that to paint a concrete picture of their existing personal brand and the network of their  relationships to receptor communities. I was happy to have Melonie Fullick, a former honours thesis student of mine there to help me run the three consecutive workshops post-keynote. Melonie is now a successful PhD student at York, as well as power-tweeter in the field of higher education policy.

After the self-knowledge exercise, we talked a lot about social media and Twitter in particular, since Facebook is not a very useful as a tool for professional personal brand-building (it’s more of a friends and family thing). I explained that social media can be a tool for building a personal brand, and that personal brand-building is extremely important to professional success in the contemporary world. In the world of wage labour, or rigidly structured workplace cultures, building a personal brand is not so important. In the world of the Academy, or any other professional environment, a strong personal brand is the key to mobility, workplace satisfaction, status and recognition.

Twitter is a great way to achieve this. It is a means of connecting with like-minded people across the world and being informed of the latest and most relevant ideas from your field. It is also a way to build a personal relationship with highly placed people, or “ideas people”, who can help you hone your core self, as well as help you disseminate your message to others. You have to learn how to use Twitter right, and this takes time and practice. It goes without saying that you have to be very careful what you put out on Twitter as well, everything you put out in social media is part of your permanent personal branding exercise.

Using social media to build an effective personal brand can give you greater personal satisfaction as well as more professional opportunity in a highly competitive job market.

How I became an academic: My brief postdoc with the Mìgmaq and Danielle Cyr

In the last four blog posts, I described how my experiences in elementary school all the way to my PhD thesis defense influenced how I became an academic. In this post, I will describe my brief post-doctoral fellowship under the supervision of Danielle Cyr, during her time as interim Vice-Rector of the Université du Québec à Rimouski. She introduced me to the world of First Nations culture and we wrote a dictionary of Mìgmaq together – of all my projects, the one of which I am the most proud. That year changed my life and led me directly to my unusual professorship at McMaster, where I was tasked with co-founding (with Dr. Graham Knight) a new Communication Studies Program.

My post-doctoral adventure started when I found out, in late May of 2000, that I had been awarded two post-doctoral fellowships: the first, a Châteaubriand Fellowship from the French Government; the second, SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Government. The Châteaubriand is the most prestigious fellowship the French Government offers and only one Canadian social scientist is chosen each year. Mine was awarded to me so that I might spend a year at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris to work on computational text analysis methods applied to media analysis from a cognitive linguistic perspective. The second fellowship was from SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to work with Dr Danielle Cyr, a French Linguistics professor at York University, to help her realise her dream of a comprehensive, culturally-authentic Mìgmaq-English reference dictionary. SSHRC postdocs are for two years and extremely sought-after. The success rate of applicants hovers around 20%.

I had a long, hard think. I asked myself what was more important to me: going back to Paris for a fabulous, well-paid year and an excellent chance that I would find a permanent job there; or going to the far end of Canada to spend two years in the bush, by the sea, with people whose culture I had no idea of. I just didn’t know. So I went for a very long walk with my father through a wooded area in the Hockley Valley, north of Toronto.

I find that I need to walk in the forest when it is time to make a big life-decision. It must be a long, exhausting walk that lets me cross the threshold of silence – away from the cacophony of the thoughts and emotions which fill my everyday; away from the influence and admonitions of those close to me. Long, exhausting country walks clear my head and open my heart. So we walked – in silence – for hours. My father and I had hiked this path in the past and I knew that it would take us up to 5 or 6 hours to reach the end of the trail.

I listened to the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves above me and I felt an alternation of warm and cool on my skin, as we stepped though sunbeams which slit through the green canopy to shine shards of golden light on the mossy loam underfoot. I concentrated on making my mark, each time I hopped from stone to log to stone to cross a burbling brook. I paused to watch guppies and carp glide lithely beneath the glassy surface of still pools, protected from the flow by errant branches. Once, when we crested a hill, I looked across a large clearing – more of a valley, really – and saw how the forest had surrounded what had been a cleared field and was slowly encroaching upon it, reclaiming the open territory and replacing it with the dark green mystery of the woods.

After several hours of walking, the rhythms of my footfalls and feeling of the cool, moist air of the forest against my skin – tangible in its caress – all of this became part of the rhythm of my walk and of my thoughts and I felt that fleeting serenity that comes in moments of perfect alignment and flow. It was then that I started to say a prayer to the Creator of the beauty that surrounded me, and so relaxed me, and I asked for guidance: what to do? which fork in the road should I choose? I felt keenly that my choice would change everything and set me on a path that would irretrievably set the direction my life would take for the next several years.

I have come to realise that life often presents us with choices and we sometimes think: “Well, I will make this choice now, and then I will change later. I am young, I still have options.” Experience has taught me that this is a fallacy, a pitfall trap which can consume years of people’s lives, only to release them changed: scarred and full of baggage. Our decisions, about who we date, where we live, what jobs we take – all of these decisions shape and colour our lives in profound and permanent ways. In ways that determine the future. We are necessarily slaves to our choices, and that is why it is so important to always consider your options carefully and then choose wisely. Consult people you trust, but, above all, trust your gut. If you feel uncertain – run away. It is better to choose the safety of aloneness or exclusion over something that feels even slightly wrong. At least that way, you retain the ability to choose in the future.

As I walked, I knew the seriousness of my decision. I had to choose right. And, by the end of the walk, as we slumped into my father’s well-weathered and road-dusty burgundy Oldsmobile, I had made my choice. “I am going to the Gaspé,” I said to my father, simply. He replied: “You’ve made the right choice.” And that was all we said about it, really. The rest of the ride was spent talking about family matters, theology (one of my father’s favourite topics) and the North. My father is a northerner and a tortured romantic at heart. He is in love with the world, and often heartbroken that his love for it is sometimes unrequited.

And so I took the long train ride to Rimouski and joined Danielle Cyr on the 1st of October, 2000. It was already quite cold in Rimouski, and Danielle had arranged that I would stay in a Seminary about an hour’s walk away from the University. The seminary was a great place – it was a dark and imposing French Canadian building, like so many that one finds in Québec. The highlight was the great hall, where the seminarians and boarders would sit, have coffee and watch television by the fire. I had many wonderful, warm conversations in that hall and learned more about Québec politics and popular history than I would have in an entire bachelor’s degree, I think.

The old-timers and monks who lived there loved talking and enjoyed making fun of my mid-Atlantic French accent. My accent has always amused French people everywhere. While it is obvious that I am a native French speaker, people can’t place where I am from, based on how I talk. This is a source of great consternation for French people, because accent is such a large part of a French person’s identity. Being unclassifiable also offends the French mind’s love of structure, order and process. A Québecker who’s just met you can tell you pretty much exactly from whence you come in French Canada, and a Frenchman can pinpoint your region of France within minutes of speaking with you. I can still visualise the strained expressions of Québécois taxi drivers, French farmers, and colleagues at schools in both places, as they struggle to place me. I have a funny blend of melodies and styles in my accent: some of the rhythms and nasal peculiarities of the South of France, an undertone of clipped syllables and thin vowels of Paris, and a hint of the twangy, musical cadence of my French Canadian origins.

We spent a few weeks in Rimouski, while Danielle finished her term and I coded the database that would house the electronic version of the dictionary. We prepared incredibly thoroughly for the work we would do on site in Listuguj. I worked through a grammar of Mìgmaq, written by our research partner, Mr Emmanuel Nagugwes Metallic, poetic, gentle soul who loved words and felt that he was the keeper of his culture’s words. It was tough going, but I found the language beautiful, and the heartfelt and often hilarious example sentences Manny had chosen entranced me.

I learned a lot from Manny during the brief time we spent together. I learned of his profound respect for his ancestors, of his humility in front of nature and its glorious spider’s web of interconnected beings, songs and stories. I learned of his patience – born of a life of quiet frustration at being an outcast everywhere: among First Nations people he told me he felt jealousy and unease because he was a writer and an intellectual; among white people he felt out of step, as though he wasn’t living life according the same rhythm as them – he found his life didn’t flow in the same ways as those of the white people and that made him really uncomfortable. I learned of his mysticism and his poetry – born of the forest and its secrets, expressed through stories and myths and parables. Above all, I learned patience – a quiet, powerful, nostalgic patience that Manny had: a patience that kept him writing despite the mockery of his neighbours; a patience that kept him alive throughout his lifelong struggle with alcoholism. Manny eventually lost this struggle – a great tragedy for First Nations culture and a great loss for the field of anthropological linguistics. I remember I was working as a senior policy and communications advisor to Gerard Kennedy in November of 2008 when I heard of his tragic death. I was in our office suite (#832) in the Confederation Building when I got the email from Danielle Cyr that Manny had died in a house fire caused by an overturned kerosene lamp. I wept quietly at my desk and walked to the washroom of the 8th floor of Confed, a washroom that had a window overlookimg the craggy copper roofs of the building and the Rideau Canal below, and I watched the sunset. It felt like a great ending to me, of both a chapter in my life and as though a great light had been extinguished.

Manny was patient and kind. He listened to the wind and to his little dog. He spoke with the rocks and the trees and his neighbours and the Acadiens near by, and Danielle, and to me. Now, before you start thinking that he was crazy, let me assure you that he knew what he was doing. He told me once, as we walked by the sea, near his home, that every being has a song, a rhythm, a melody – you only had to find it by listening carefully and being open to its quiet sound. He told me that he’d tried very hard, all his life to hear it, to converse truly and fully with those around him, seen and unseen. He told me that, on a rare occasion, when the wind was just right and the sun just so, he could hear nature’s song of rustling leaves and breaking waves, of creaking trees and animals’ cries – and that to him it was the most beautiful lullaby, without equal and of all time, for to Manny, it was the song of his childhood.

Whilst working for several months on the dictionary in Listuguj, I lived at the seaside ranch of my supervisor, Dr. Danielle Cyr, in the guest house. What an idyllic location that was. Danielle is a truly extraordinary person – she has lived several lives, an early marriage to a dashing jazz musician and then quickly mother of four children, then divorce and the beginning of a new life as a mature student at university, a successful PhD defense in her forties, a tenure-track job at York University and travel around the world, sharing her anthropological and cognitive linguistic theories. Danielle has a special connection to Sweden, where she did spent time during her PhD and she has always told me that she thinks the Québécois have more in common with the Nordic peoples than they do with the French. Quiet, introverted and reflective, believers in order and community – somber in taste and literature, jovial in fest – who knows, she may be right. I am not sure, for these comparisons are really subject to our personal experiences of the world and the people we encounter in it. I can see how she felt it that way, though and in many ways her ranch reflected her beliefs. It sat on a cliff at the end of a long dirt road, just outside of New Richmond. The cliff overlooked the Baie des Chaleurs and you could hear the sea from Danielle’s stately century manor home and coquette guesthouse, decorated expertly with a blend of French Canadian antiques an Scandinavian minimalist furniture. Danielle has an eye for colour and shadow and design – her ranch is evidence of this. A particularly beautiful touch was the glorious fireplace in the manor home and the great oaken doors that she had salvaged from a dilapidated church. The manor house was under serious renovation while I was there, so we both stayed in the guest house – she in the bedroom and I on the fold-out IKEA sofa-bed in the main room, by the firelog stove. It was wonderful. We would wake up with the dawn, make a sumptuous sea-food breakfast, drink some strong coffee, go for a little hike and then work on the dictionary all day. We spent a few weeks like that, in the snow, until the Spring thaw came and we were able to see more of the country.

We interviewed many Mìgmaq people, we worked hours and hours with Manny, and we consulted Elders, education experts and others who worked at the Mìgmaq immersion school that Danielle took three years out of her life and her professorial career at York to found. In fact, during those three years, Danielle built the school and served as its first headmistress. Didn’t I tell you that she is an extraordinary woman? Danielle loves First Nations people, their languages, their cultures and their politics. Well, maybe not so much their politics – she was always exhausted by the long negotiations required to gather the umpteen permissions for us to be able to use culture items as sources for the dictionary such as: love letters from WWII, old copies of local newspapers, audio cassettes of Elders’ meeting and personal home videos. She is a passionate woman and can sometimes have a short fuse. She also feels things very deeply and can’t help but take the mean things that people can say during a negotiation to heart. Danielle would sometimes be depressed and sad in the evening, and when we would meet for dinner, she would tell me, over a snifter of cognac, Scotch or some mulled port, how it hurt her to be insulted but that she understood it was the voice of insulted ancestors speaking through the person who said the hurtful things, and that they didn’t really mean to hurt her. She would often, after some time had passed, find the people who said mean things to her and there would be tearful or sometimes sombre and matter-of-fact reconciliations. When you deal with people whose ancestors live among them, and through them, the stories you tell and the things you say can get woven together into complicated knots. I discovered, however, through watching Danielle interact with the Mìgmaq and listening to Manny as he told me of his interactions with his peers, that if you are very patient, and let time pass, and listen hard enough to and value what others have to say, that knotty carpet gets smoother and smoother until you have a glorious tapestry. A tapestry that tells the stories of those who participated in weaving it, as well as the stories of those whose voices echo through history in the minds and the conversations of the people alive and telling each other stories around a campfire today.

It would take me an entire essay to tell you about how much I was changed by my time with the French of the Gaspesian Peninsula and among the Mìgmaq, immersed in their culture and their words. If I tried, it would be an impressionistic tale, of sunrises over the Matapedia River on the observation deck of the VIA train (after having been woken up by the romantic French conductor who told us they would ring a bell at sunrise because “Some things are too beautiful to be missed, even if it means you will be tired.”), watching the river catch fire as the morning sunlight in reds and ochres and violets raced up its length, illuminating two mountains as they fled the sea and skimmed inland. It would be a tale of jokes told around a bonfire, gentle humour and long silences as people pondered the story that someone had told of an Acadian woman so heartbroken at the loss of her love at sea  that she wandered, clothed in her bridal gown, down to where the breakers smashed the rocks and was lost forever. It would be a story of hiking quietly through snow-heavy spruce forests and listening to the muffled rumble and crunch of passing Jeeps. It would be the tale of trying to understand a shimmering, culture that changes depending on the light and the time of year, and an ancient language that greeted my ancestors when they arrived from France. It would be the tale of how I learned that Canada was not born of conquest, but of understanding, and how these quiet, practical people, with their beadwork art, lobster traps and Sunday socials, joyful pow wows and spirit walks, have had a consistent and powerful, but largely under-appreciated influence on how we Canadians define ourselves, how we resolve our conflicts and how we came to be so generous to errant folk and those in need of help – both moral and monetary. It would be quite a story – but a little too long for this blog post.

When I took the last train back to Toronto for my interview at McMaster in January of 2001, I was a changed man. When I took the train back again in June of 2001 to move into my office at Mac, I was a transformed man. I owe the Mìgmaq an awful lot – they shared with me their language, their culture and their outlook. And it would be something that I continued to touch me through my first years at McMaster, culminating the in publication that was the cornerstone of my tenure case. It haunts me to this day.

Finally, I keep a special place in my heart for Danielle Cyr – mentor, teacher and friend. Not only was she the first linguistics professor I ever had, in my second year of university at York, but she was the best professor I ever had. I owe her so much that it wouldn’t do that debt justice were I to try and write it down here.

In January of that year, I got a call from my mother about a job at McMaster that someone had mentioned to her might be good for me. It was a tenure-stream professor position to start up a new communication studies program. I applied and… well… that crazy story will be the subject of my next blog post in this series.

How I became an academic: thesis writing and defense

In the last three blog posts, I have recounted how my elementary, high school, undergrad, early grad and year in France led me to become an academic. In this blog post, I take the story to the end of graduate school, and the introspective journey that was my PhD thesis writing and defense.

I returned from France equipped with a new vigour, a new hope. I left the moody skies of Paris behind me on a grey, wind-whipped drizzly day in early September, just before Labour Day. The flight back was a very different one from the flight out. I felt peaceful while boarding, and slept easily and deeply. It was a comfortable, dreamless sleep – restorative instead of transformative – a night’s swim through dark, warm waters which felt so enveloping that it was hard to tell whether I was swimming or flying through soft, warm humid air.

The first thing I did upon my return from France was try to recover. The euphoria that I had felt while in Paris had actually masked several minor health problems that a year of living in a very polluted diesel-fueled city, eating far too much bread and cheese, and generally not taking care of myself had brought on. Living in a cloister, as I had been at the École Normale Supérieure, can be a very healthy thing, if one also assumes the self-denial and structured rhythms of the monk’s life. I had not. I had experienced Paris to the fullest, and it had worn me out – physically and emotionally. I just hadn’t felt it because I think I had been on a year-long adrenaline rush. To make a long story short – I came home and crashed at my parents’ home in King City for two weeks. I also discovered that I had developed a spasmotic colon (which went away), very mild asthma (also went away) and a host of childhood allergies that resurfaced (still struggling with some), once my body began to re-adjust to being home.

This was when I really began in earnest to try and live healthily. I cooked almost entirely for myself as well as for my parents, grandmother and brother. When I wasn’t cooking, I learned from my grandmother, who is such a purveyor of gourmet fare that I felt no difference when exposed to the great feasts of the expat elite or the diplomatic corps that I experienced while in Paris. I had eaten like royalty all my life and, in fact, our nourishment was greater than that of king or queen, for it had been prepared in the fire of profound and caring family love. I have always cooked with caring since, and I remain convinced that easy and graceful hospitality is at the heart of the good life. I also learned that deep-city living isn’t for me – better the pastoral hills of King Township, the maritime idyll of the Gaspésie or the golden farmer’s fields of Ancaster for me. I have found though, that a drive into the city and you are there in the thick of things  – a small sacrifice for a healthy life.

Academically, one of the great conundrums that I faced upon my return was what topic my thesis should center upon. Up to that point, I had been enamoured with the study of the human mind through the lens of the various ways evidence of its breakdown can be found in the decline of a person’s human language faculty. That is to say, I was fascinated by what speech and language pathology could tell us about how the mind works. The problem was that I found the methods and results of clinical investigation to be profoundly unsatisfying. I love big ideas – I love uncovering the myriad connections between unlike things: how does a word come into being in the mind? what part of my mental landscape does it occupy? how does my mental world differ from that of others? How is it that communication has such a profound impact on our feelings, thoughts, beliefs and desires?

These were the questions that animated my thoughts, and they pulled me inexorably out of the orbit of linguistic theory and toward the world of communications, content analysis and cognitive science. It was at this time that I started really hanging out with Philippe Martin, a brilliant, yet reclusive engineer with many patents and two PhDs – one in acoustic engineering and the other in experimental phonetics – who introduced me to the world of computer programming, artificial intelligence and the philosophy of intelligent systems. I was fascinated by the concept of modeling human cognition in formal systems and machines and we spent countless hours talking about how the soft version of AI was going to slowly, but without fail, change the world as we know it – integrating machines more seamlessly into our lifestyles, workflow and thought processes.

It was during the fall of 1998 that I also met the extraordinary character who ran the McLuhan Centre at the University of Toronto – Derrick de Kerckhove, a Belgian aristocrat, professor of French culture and confidante of Marshall McLuhan. His enthusiasm for McLuhan’s thought and futurism inspired me to investigate the realm of communications and media studies. I read the Mechanical Bride and rekindled a an on-and-off lifelong love affair with communications, media studies and public relations that fuels my inner fire to this day. I found McLuhan’s intricate reasoning process fascinating and engrossing. I would read some his work and not see the hours pass as my mind ran through the richness and texture of McLuhan’s critical thought and writing style.

From McLuhan I moved on to Harold Innis, from Innis to Gadamer, from Gadamer to Lonergan, from Lonergan to Ellul and Derrida, from Derrida to Teilhard de Chardin, Baudrillard and Foucault. Then I was struck by the profoundly political nature of this work, and I dived into an intense two-year-long conversation with my old friend and confidante, Lars Wessman, who had by now joined me as a doctoral student in French Linguistics at the University of Toronto. Lars opened the world of political philosophy to me, and I read the founder thinkers of the neo-conservative movement – Strauss, Bloom, Rosen and many others; and the foundational thinkers of leftist political philosophy – Habermas, Marx, Hegel and many others. Much of this reading mirrored the social theory courses that I loved at York University – I was finally weaving the different threads of philosophical yarn together into a tapestry that made sense to me. At the same time, Philippe Martin was exposing me to the great thinkers of computer science and the philosophy of computation, and Parth Bhatt was stressing the importance of knowing the works of the great pragmatic American philosopher and arguably the founder of the field of cognitive science, William James.

I was drunk on the limitless possibility of drawing connections between philosophy, culture, technology, communication and politics. Everyday was spent reading and letting my mind – a little row boat – bob and weave through the stormy waters of Western thought. It was exhilarating and all-consuming, of current interest and ancient, focused and yet dispersed. I was 24 years old and suddenly a flood gate had been opened in my mind. Paris had been the crysalis that permitted my transformation and now I was in full-swing.

It was a rocky time emotionally – I was conflicted about what to write my thesis about. I wasn’t sure how to tie these strands together in a work of scholarship that would not only satisfy the requirements of the PhD program in French Linguistics at the University of Toronto, but also make me employable in a very tight job market. Positions in the humanities and social sciences were extremely rare and subject to hundreds of highly qualified applicants, many of whom had far better résumés than I. Unemployment, and the possibility of not being able to continue along my current trajectory of thought and complete engagement with reading, writing and teaching those ideas with which I was in love, terrified and depressed me.

Doing a PhD is not like taking a second 4-year BA, or picking up intensive training in a technical specialty. It is a complete mental, emotional and spiritual commitment to a project at a time in your life when most people are getting married, buying cars, making babies and fighting off the cozy chubbiness brought on by comfortable evening bbqs on the deck and casual meetings with friends at Starbucks. Goodness no! Doing a PhD is a profoundly moving, deeply introspective, lonely journey of four or five or six years during which you face yourself, your inner motivations, your ability to commit to a project that is entirely and inescapably yours.  A project, the success or failure of which will define a large part of your identity for the rest of your life on Earth. The PhD is not a trifle. It is the last true remaining institutional life-challenge, in our age of grade inflation and credential creep. It is a lonely trip into your mind and across the mental landscapes of those who have come before you and have formed the world of culture and science that most of us take for granted. A successful PhD is, quite simply, proof of your capacity for depth as a person. Doing your PhD is a gigantic personal commitment.

So you can imagine the fear that a PhD student feels when he or she thinks of the possible poverty and career oblivion that await should the prevailing winds of the job market blow awry. You can be taken off course and into the doldrums, just when you are ready to set sail and make your mark as a newly minted doctor. So, I would visit with my parents often and, upon every visit, I would go for a very long walk with my mother. She was a great source of advice, for she had enjoyed a very successful academic at York University – she designed the first incarnation of York’s French teacher education program, as well as the first incarnation of French Linguistics in the Department of French Studies at York. She has also been Master of Calumet College (a Dean of Students position) and done much to further the cause of women faculty at York during her 35+ years tenure there. My mother is also a highly respected and much beloved pedagogue, having won several teaching awards and been co-author of 14 textbooks. Finally, she has served as consultant to several organisations on matters pedagogical. In sum, she has had a very rich and service-oriented career as a university professor. We would walk and talk – she would listen and give me the same simple advice: “pursue your passion, keep the thesis focused, and above all – GET IT DONE FAST!” And so I did – I ended up working with Philippe Martin, Parth Bhatt and Graeme Hirst (of the Computational Linguistics group) – all of whom inspired and mentored me in countless way, and to whom I am eternally grateful.

I finished the thesis in April of 2000, midway through my fifth year and defended it on September 18th on a dark, gloomy and rainy day at in a small room at the School of Graduate Studies on St. George St. at the University of Toronto. The defense was long and challenging, but I think I answered the questions fairly well and after 2o minutes of deliberation and discussion, the committee welcomed me back into the exam room and each member shook my hand: “Congratulations Dr. Sévigny – after some minor revisions, which we are leaving in the care of your supervisor, we are ready to pass your thesis and grant you the title of Doctor of Philosophy.” Afterward, we all went to the University Club, had a drink and then, because for the others, this was one night among seven in their week, of thirty-odd in their month, and they had things to do and people to see, we scattered into the inky liquid darkness of a rainy, cold Toronto night and I found myself alone. I walked on my own for two hours that night – letting it sink in that my journey of the last five years was finally done. I couldn’t believe it – I felt flat and calm and small… I was done. Wow. Done. How could I be done? How was it possible? Most of all, I felt I just needed to sleep.

So I had a coffee at a Tim Horton’s near the university, warmed up, dried off and gathered my thoughts. Then I slipped into the entrance of the Museum subway station and took the long ride up to Yorkdale Mall, where I had left my car. I got there just as the shops were shutting down and the Mall had that tired, dreamy feel that comes at day’s end – shopgirls were tippy-toeing in their colourful heels to pull down security valences and grillings, teetering but not falling; service workers were sweeping languidly and the last commuters were shuffling out from the subway entrance, through the mall and toward the parking lot, their cars and a short evening of peace alone or with their families, before sleep should overcome them.

I walked through this scene like a ghost – not sure what my role in the play was; feeling like a wraith after my ordeal of a few hours before, when I had been examined on my life project, on my passions, on my personal convictions and had passed. One of the members of the committee had even said that during the defense I became the examiner of my examiners, but I think she was just being kind. Now I was in the most normal of Canadian environments – a Mall. And it all felt as though it had never happened.

I walked to my car, put the key in the lock, got in, fired up the engine and drove robotically to my parents’ house in King City. I hadn’t called home, so my mother was on pins and needles to find out what had transpired. After a few minutes of recounting how events had unfurled, we had some home-made Macedonian pizza, called komat, a little cup of Turkish coffee and then I took a long, hot bath and went to sleep.

I knew that I had a new great challenge waiting for me in two weeks – a challenge that would change all of my thinking about what’s important in life and redefine my understanding of what it means to be Canadian. For I had a post-doctoral position awaiting me, under the supervision of my long-time friend and mentor Dr Danielle Cyr, who was Vice-Provost at the Université du Québec à Rimouski. We were about to embark on the construction of a dictionary of the Mìgmaq language and culture.

The postdoc changed my life, my thinking and transformed my ambitions. It is also what brought me to my tenure-track position at McMaster.

But that is a tale for my next blog post, in which this story takes a very surprising turn…

How I became an academic: First part of grad school (1995-1997)

In my two previous posts, I gave an impressionistic account of how my experiences in elementary and high school, and undergraduate studies influenced my eventual journal to academia. In this post I will discuss my grad school experiences and how they contributed to who I am now.

I finished my B.A. with the idea that I wanted to access to a life of making a difference. I wanted to have the possibility to find quiet, to be able to focus my thoughts, develop myself and grow into an identity that would permit me to do something that would help the world in some way. I was not enthralled with business because, while I respected commerce enormously as a means of unlocking the constructive potential in people’s hearts, doing it was a secondary focus for me. I lived in the world of my mind: I loved learning, solving problems and exploring the thoughts and minds of those who had committed their mental universes to paper. I loved reconstructing the inner worlds of those philosophers, writers, artists and scientists whose work I studied.

I was fascinated by 20th century French philsophy. In fourth year I took a reading course with Dr Paul Laurendeau, a man who since has left York University.  When I knew him, he was one of the most brilliant and passionate scholars of literature, language and philosophy I had ever met. He lived for the ideas that we toyed with every Thursday in his office in McLaughlin College at York University, and it is because of him that I ended up doing an MA in French Linguistics at the University of Toronto.

My M.A. year at the University of Toronto was challenging. My M.A. supervisor was Dr. Parth Bhatt – a brilliant and kind man who opened the world of neuroscience to me. Parth’s approach was philosophical rather than experimental and that suited me just fine, a young man of 19 who loved abstraction and was thirsty for a macroscopic understanding of the world. Language has always been my greatest skill and so a degree in linguistics made sense. My native language was French, which made the department a propitious place for me to feel comfortable, and the French school of linguistic theory was far more interdisciplinary and open-minded than American linguistics, which had become dominated by generative grammar, a theory of mental grammar first developed by Noam Chomsky at MIT in the late 50s. I wasn’t interested in the static model of language construction that Chomsky’s theory was based on and promoted. I found it reductionist and unrealistic. I recognise now that Chomsky’s vision for linguistics was necessarily thin – he was trying to build a theory of a very specific thing: a backwards-engineered model of the LAD (language acquisition device). At the time, I wanted to understand how language contributed to the human condition and helped to build reality. So I did my MA in psycholinguistics, analysing two cases of conduction aphasia from a semantic perspective. I think it was a successful work, although I never published it. I was too busy reading the next book, figuring out the next big idea that I wanted to explore. I was so excited by knowledge.

After finishing my M.A. degree, I embarked directly on the PhD. I started when I was 20 years old. I was a little young for a PhD student – a bit of an oddity in the Linguistics Section of Department of French at the University of Toronto. I did my coursework, but was bored through much of it. I loved the functionalist courses I took with Parth Bhatt and Henry Schogt – they excited me because they blended the social with the cognitive. Science with culture. I was thrilled to learn of the intersection of psychology and linguistics. But as the first year ended and my second year began, I was tiring of linguistic theory. It seemed contrived to me – a complete construction born out of a desire to fit a square peg into a round hole. I felt as though the work I was doing with aphasic data wasn’t getting me anywhere, that the results I was coming up with were very narrow and anecdotal. So I did my first comprehensive exam with Henry Schogt on Danish School Functional linguistics, with a focus on Louis Hjemslev. It was fascinating and exciting. I did my second comprehensive with Parth Bhatt on communication disorders. I enjoyed that immensely too – mostly because of the depth and breadth of Parth’s knowledge and compassion as a scholar.

The other thing that happened during the first two years of my PhD was the Internet. It changed everything. Suddenly an international community of scholars was open to me. I got my first email account, asevigny@chass.utoronto.ca in 1995, at the instigation of my friend at the time, Henriette Gezundhajt. She a Jewish woman from Paris, who was completing her PhD when I started. She quite a character – an extraordinary person who opened many ideas up to me. I thought the world of her and we got on like a house on fire. She was eccentric but brilliant. The world wide web opened my also – I started my own webpage and started to understand the power of being able to communicate across the world. I remember the very first time I used a website – it was on my Macintosh PowerBook – I checked out the website of chass (computing in the humanities and social sciences) at U of T. Wow. It hit me like a ton of bricks: walls were tumbling down, limits were being erased, structure was both imploding and exploding at the same time. Ideas were being pulled into a vortex of change and the social and discursive structures around us pulled down with them.

It was at this point that I became acquainted with the work of Marshall McLuhan – but that wasn’t something I would delve into until a couple of years later. At the time I visited McLuhan’s coach house at the U of T, at Henriette’s instigation, and met the enigmatic Derrick de Kerkhove who had been McLuhan’s student and confidante.

At the very tail end of that year, I did a “Concours par dossier” and was accepted as a pensionnaire étranger at the École Normale Supérieure, 45 rue d’Ulm in Paris. It was a year that would change my life.

But my time at the ENS will be the subject of my next blog entry. Until next time.

How I became an academic: My undergrad years

In my last blog post, I talked about how my elementary and high school years influenced me to become an academic. In this post I will talk about university. For a synopsis of my undergrad experience, you can read the first part of this post on why I am a university professor.

I had an amazing time during my undergrad years. I got involved in many things: I played sports, I traveled, I joined cultural and political clubs. I dated for the first time – yes, I was a late bloomer in that regard, but I was very picky about my partners, as I have always been (maybe that’s why I have been single for the last few years). I went to concerts and clubs. I studied very hard and achieved high grades and won essay prizes. I held a very wide range of part-time jobs. I worked in positions as diverse as staffer to the owner of a small PR agency, telemarketer, translator-interpreter, gas station attendant and aide in a nursing home. It was quite something. I also ran my own company for a little bit, with a friend of mine from childhood, Luigi Aceto. It was called “DPS: Desktop Publishing Specialists” and was quite successful while we both had time to make a go of it. I haven’t seen Lui in a long time – I wonder what he has become.

I threw myself into the world, but I have to say I cautious and impulsive at the same time. I tried really hard to stay within the realm of my principles. I knew that crossing certain thresholds could ruin my chances at a full and happy life replete with opportunity. So I was impulsive and headstrong and probably pretty high strung, but I was also very careful and tried to make good choices.

In terms of sports, I tried out for a York hockey team and got so badly clobbered by a malicious hit that I suffered a pretty bad concussion. That was the end of hockey for me – a sport that I really loved. Seventeen years old and very resilient, I started looking for a new one. I didn’t have to wait long. The summer after my first year of university, I went to live in the South of France to allegedly study French Language and Literature. Ha. What I really did was take 6 months worth of Art History and archaeology courses. I spent many a beautiful day in the cathedrals, monasteries, country churches, vinyards and museums of the South-West of France. I particularly lover the Roman ruins overlooking the city of Montpellier. My friends and I would cook up a storm and then take it with us in wicker baskets to the top of the Montpellier Aqueduct, which is still functioning and in use from Roman times. We would dine on blankets and watch the sun set spectacularly over the horizon, splashing colours across the grey-blue canvass of the heavens at dusk. The aqueduct was a long, elevated highway to the sky trailing out to the horizon. A sky lit up in the vivid, breathtaking reds, mauves, ochres and oranges that splash and bathe the desert countryside of the Languedoc-Roussillon, exploding in a final burst of creative fire before night would come to bring cool, dry darkness and a canopy of stars tracing sparkling serpents in the sky.

One day, while in the Place de la Comédie – Montpellier’s central square – while lounging over coffee with a Dutch model whom I had befriended, and who was in town for a photoshoot that seemed to last for weeks, I saw a demonstration of a what appeared to me a most peculiar sport. A few men and women had gathered in the centre of the square, near the fountain, and assembled a stage on tiny risers that hovered about 6 inches off the smooth cobble stone. They were dressed in white and looked terribly elegant. They had a pavillion under which they were relaxing in café chairs, sipping water, eating oranges and emptying large oblong bags. The bags contained swords! How very strange. And intriguing. I watched as two of them – two women – suited up and slipped on their masks and fought. It was poetry in motion. They were so good at it. They glided up and down the piste, struck quickly and then retreated. Sometimes they would have extended rallys (I later learned they are called “dialogues”) which were elegant and very quick. I fell in the love with the sport – its romance, its intrinsic sense of honour and fairness, its beauty and history. I loved the fact that men and women both did it together. When I got back to York, after getting registered and making sure that my French Art History credits would count for something, I signed up for fencing and began what would be a love affair with an ancient art and modern sport that lasts to this day. I will write a blog post about fencing another day.

My undergrad was also a time of experimentation for me. At that moment, York was the site of struggles between many conflicting political perspectives. It bred radicalism the way mainstream television breeds apathy – radicalism was part of York’s DNA. York’s campus, for all its suburban blandness and industrial parks nearby, was electric with the possibility of political change, of revolution. Whether you were a liberal, a socialist or a neo-conservative, you could find your clan and surround yourself with people who were passionate and cared profoundly about arguing that their utopian vision of the world was the right one. The one that would change everything. How much espresso and how many beers did I consume while talking about politics? Most days and many nights, we lobbed ideas at one another and then ripped them apart. It was fantastic. For a preppy, somewhat sheltered, and slightly nerdy kid of 17, this was not only an education, but it was a taste of a cosmopolitan reality that I had just read about in Russian novels up that point. I got deeply involved: I published op-ed pieces in Excalibur, I edited the Francophone student’s newsletter and I became president of the French Club, the Fencing Club and became engaged with many other clubs. They were good times.

When I said I was impulsive, I wasn’t kidding. I had some crazy adventures – leaving to backpack around Romania on a whim, organising a whole trip or 15 people to Quebec City because I wanted to spend time with my Swedish girlfriend at the time and show her some of French Canada. I also debated what I would do with my life. I was tempted by law because I was a good talker, loved logic and reason and had a romantic turn of phrase. Something held me back, though. For a lefty Liberal, I had a surprising nose for business – always finding good jobs, favouring ones that worked on commission, because I knew that I would close many sales. I did some entrepreneurship on the side in desktop publishing, event planning and translating/interpreting. Life was good, but business didn’t feel quite right for me either. In fact, in fourth year, a charismatic professor told me: “You’re too creative and intelligent to go into law school or do an MBA. You should try a theoretical MA.” I wasn’t sure whether to believe him – I liked comfort and the finer things. I worried that the academic life would be too ascetic for me.

The one thing that got me down about York was the political correctness that was so rampant in the 90s. That was a real challenge for me – a child of reason, a progressive and emotional Catholic, a believer in old values of honour, virtue and decency. I believed strongly in “the Good”. And I still do. I was an undying optimist and I found many of my profs and TAs to be cynical – to have capitulated to fear. I often agreed with their critical perspectives. I saw misogyny and racism and classism around me too, but I believed passionately and fervently that we could change the world, make it more inclusive, deeper, friendlier, more caring. Every conversation I had with yet another jaded, enraged or complacent leftist academic actually strengthened my resolve to change the world. I organised people, I joined protests and I started to educate myself about Canadian politics for real. Most of all, I decided I would try teaching – it was a place that I could have a direct impact on young people’s lives (hopefully for the better), do meaningful research and deepen my understanding of the world.

However, my classes were a challenge. While I loved shooting the breeze with the radical lefties who taught my liberal arts, social science and humanities classes, I found their seminars constraining and boring. I was so frustrated, wanting to shake these old profs and bitter, defeatist, resentful young TAs and say: “Let’s do it. Let’s not just criticise, but let’s envision a better way. Let’s solve problems.” I realise now that much of this was driven by the arrogance of my youth and my own angst, and that I probably was a thorn in many a prof and TA’s side. However, when I meet them now, 15 or 20 years later, they all remember me. Most of them fondly. Many tell me that they support what I do now and what I stand for. I always felt they were my allies, but at the time they felt nihilistic and defeated. They had succumbed to the dark vortex of extreme relativism and I was too young and too optimistic and fully of energy to discern the symptoms. I believed in something then, and I still do today. I believe that you should believe. Believe in those you love. Believe in your values. Believe for those who have given up hope. Believe for those don’t believe. Believe in the transformative power of ideas. Believe in decency and equality. Believe. Believe. Believe. For I am convinced that belief is at the heart of a joyful life of purpose.

When I left York University, I felt that I had grown as a person. I was still very immature and quite arrogant, but York had planted the seed of thoughtful introspection and critical reflection in me. I gained an education during my undergrad, but I also gained a sense of purpose. A sense of the breadth of human experience and suffering. A sense of the profound loneliness and alienation many feel.

Most of all, I gained a sense that we have to change the world.

Not just in the often abstract way you hear from politicians. Rather in a human way – in a forgiving way. In a way where people feel comfortable with themselves and with one another and can find achievement, satisfaction and respect. Politics, economics and culture are one thing – but I got an intuitive feeling, leaving my undergrad at York, that the real change necessary was a change heart and change of path. That change had to be personal. It required knowledge, awareness and commitment to a set of principles that would guide you through the seething dark forest of potential pitfalls and sublime opportunities that the post-modern world presents. I realised that one must seek to activate something in others – something deep and ancient. Something good and noble.

What I didn’t know was just how much the World Wide Web was about to turn the world that I had known on its head. The ground would shift beneath our feet. That, however, is a story for my next blog entry.

Coming soon – How I became an academic: grad school.