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.

 

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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.