A Peek into Academic Life: Jul & Aug is “The Writing Season”

Today, I woke up and felt like a man with a mission. A mission to write.

Academic life can seem idyllic to many outside the business: professors, especially those with tenure, can largely set their own hours, work from home, and get to interact with energetic and interesting people of all ages. While there is truth to this claim, the other, workaholic side of academia often goes undiscussed.

Academics live in a world of ideas, research, teaching and service. The service part is probably pretty familiar to most. Service in a university is very similar to service in other professions: setting up new programs, sitting on committees (admissions, hiring, student life, etc.), and participating in the governance of the university (budget committee, university planning, etc.).

The teaching component is fairly easy to understand as well. Professors spend time either lecturing (generally first or second year) or leading seminars (third and fourth year) with undergraduates, teaching graduate classes (smaller and more research-oriented) and supervising MA and PhD theses, capstone projects or major research papers. Graduate supervision is very time-consuming, because it is one-on-one, and students often need a lot of guidance, as well as moral support. It also requires that the professor have an active research program.

So what is this “research” thing that academics are always saying they don’t have enough time for? Unfortunately, the answer is not entirely straightforward. I will break it down into three, over-simplified, categories.

For “bench scientists”, research means sitting in your lab, at the bench in front of the table where your various experiments are being conducted. You spend countless hours there, observing, taking notes on paper or on a voice recorder, and working with lab assistants, grad students and post-docs. At the end of the process, you publish short articles (4-20pgs) that have many authors, who represent all of the people who worked on the project in a substantive way.

For social scientists – this includes a massive swath of the university in fields as diverse as business, health studies, kinesiology, psychology, linguistics, communications, history, etc. – doing research means going into the field and doing things such as: interviewing, conducting focus groups, doing a content analysis, participant observation, etc. This work is very labour-intensive as well, although less expensive than bench science, because fewer materials are needed. Most social science research only really requires travel money to get to the phenomenon you are researching, computers and recording equipment. It also means needing to hire a lot of people to help gather the data and then analyze it.

A third type of research might be called “philosophical” or “theoretical.” In this model, an academic works largely on his or her own, thinking through a problem, using expertise, knowledge and wisdom that he or she has accumulated. Much research in pure math is done this way, as well as much research in the humanities. This sort of research is the least costly, because it usually only means that the researcher needs a good laptop, access to a library (although this is largely happening on the Internet now), and a travel budget to visit archives, museums and other universities. Dialogue is very important for this sort of research, so the researcher will spend a lot of time discussing with other researchers and grad students. Often, this sort of research leads to publication of very long articles in journals, monographs or full-length books. Producing these takes a long time and a lot of quiet and inner peace. Often bench scientists or social scientists will conduct this sort of research later in life, when they have published enough empirical work to justify credibly writing a book-length treatise on their subject matter, usually from a philosophical or theoretical perspective.

If you are curious about me: being a communication researcher, I am somewhere between the social science model and the “theoretical” model. Up to now, all of my scholarly work has been published in journal articles or as chapters in books. I have been a co-author on a couple of textbooks, as well, which helped me work through the ideas of my field from various perspectives. I was granted tenure a few years ago in 2006, so now my aim is to take my research to the next, more theoretical level.

So when does all of this research happen? As you can well imagine, it takes a lot of concerted effort and “thinking time” to get it done. It is hard to find that time during the school year, because of the teaching and service commitments I described above. What is most difficult is that research requires large blocks of time and a measure of psychological and emotional quiet.

The only time that academics can really find this is during the summer, or when they go away on research leave. Most of my colleagues – especially the younger ones – have taken very little vacation in the many years I have known them. And during their “vacation” they are constantly thinking about and working on the research that they are obsessed with and haunted by. I have grown to believe that this is why so many young academics that I know are either single, childless or divorced. Academics also know that research is vital because it ensures that they are bringing the most modern and up to date ideas into the lecture hall and seminar room. The whole of an academic life is greater than the sum of its parts.

Modern academics, especially those who were hired for their potential as researchers at a research university, such as McMaster, where I work, live their lives through the lens of their research and writing. So summer becomes the writing season.

For me, this means working on three projects:

  • a new book, Understanding Public Relations in Canada, with two co-authors: Terry Flynn and David Estok.
  • the second issue of the Journal of Professional Communication
  • a single author book on communication theory and practice
This means a busy summer of writing for me, but one that I look forward to!



July 1st – A Day of New Beginnings

Well, yesterday was finally July 1, 2011. A fateful day. A day of change and thresholds.

Before I tell you why it was so important, I have to say that I spent the evening in lovely surroundings, at my friend and colleague, Dr. Terry Flynn’s house in Kitchener. He and his wife put together a wonderful impromptu feast of shrimp and bbq steak, mushroom, onion and potatoes. I brought some Gazela, a Vinho Verde; and a yummy, jammy Australian cabernet-shiraz called Cat Amongst the Pigeons. After dinner, Terry served up some gelato and limoncello, which was a wonderful digestif. So, we spent the night by their beautiful torchlit pool, chatting excitedly about our plans for the years to come.

So what was special about July 1st?

First, it marked 10 years that I have been a professor at McMaster. I joined Mac in 2001, to co-found the communication studies program with Dr. Graham Knight. The last 10 years have just flown by. They have been filled with amazing students and colleagues, productive hours spent in the lab, and many wonderful hours spent in the classroom with many people whom I am now proud to call my friends. I love our communication studies alumni. Their success is truly my success.

Second, my colleague Terry Flynn’s transfer to CSMM is now complete and took effect on July 1st, 2011. He had a rough go of it in the DeGroote School of Business, where colleagues did not share his enthusiasm for communications management. I suggested to him a couple of years ago, after helping out a little with his renewal and seeing first hand his predicament, that he should transfer to CSMM, where he would be appreciated and cherished for his unique talents and experiences in professional communication. He decided to take the leap of faith, and, on July 1st, 2011, the transfer came into effect. All of us in CSMM are very excited about the expertise, enthusiasm, experience and dynamism that Terry will bring to our department.

Third, as of today, I moved my appointment to be fully in the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia (CSMM). I was on the committee that founded the new McMaster department in 2006, when the Multimedia program left the School of the Arts and merged with us in communication studies to form a new department. However, in 2001, Communication Studies was just a free-standing interdisciplinary program, and Dean Woolf could only appoint me to an existing department. The result of this was that I was jointly appointed between Communication Studies and the French Department. That appointment is now coming to an end, and I am now fully appointed to the program I co-founded 10 years ago. That feels good.

Fourth, the DeGroote School of Business recently voted to transfer the Master of Communications Management (MCM) program to Humanities. My colleague Terry Flynn founded this program at McMaster in 2007 and has shepherded it to its current success. With his transfer to CSMM, it made sense that the MCM follow him. I teach in this program and am very excited that it is now coming to our department, where it will be nurtured, welcomed and actively developed.

Fifth, July 1st marks the beginning of a new process of program development that we are spearheading at McMaster. I am co-chairing the committee to develop a PhD; and chairing the committee to develop a Bachelor’s program in professional communication, joint with Mohawk. These are big steps forward for our unit, as we strive to become a professional communications powerhouse in Canada. Professional communications is a field that is just coming into its own, and I am happy to see that our generous and visionary Dean of Humanities, Suzanne Crosta, is investing in it actively and enthusiastically. We wouldn’t be able to implement these programs without Terry Flynn joining CSMM. He is a cornerstone of all the development of professional communications in CSMM and Humanities.

I also looked forward into the future, through fading light of dusk, as fireworks exploded overhead, happy to think of the many exciting adventures which lie ahead. Adventures full of new experiences and personal growth. Adventures full of helping others discover things about the world and about themselves, and working with new generations of students so that they might succeed.

What could be better?

Dr Terry Flynn & Dr Alex Sévigny standing beside the statue of someone in China infinitely wiser than either of them.

How I became an academic: from tenure until the present

During the last month, I have been recounting the story of how I became an academic. In this, the final blog entry in this series, I discuss what it was like settling into the reality of becoming a middle-career academic and learning to savour life a little.

During the last two years before tenure, I decided that it was important to move beyond the work I was doing in the communication studies program and see how I could be of use in other departments. At McMaster we have a system where you can become an honourary member of another department: it is called “associate membership.” I quickly became an associate member in two departments: psychology (which has been renamed “psychology, neuroscience and Behaviour”) and modern languages and linguistics (which has been renamed “linguistics and languages”).

In 2006-7, Dr Bob McNutt – one of the most experienced university administrators in Canada and a truly decent human being – took over the Dept of Modern Languages and Linguistics and he asked me if I could co-chair (with Dr Magda Stroinska) an ad hoc decanal committee to recommend changes to the existing curriculum or come up with a new one that was more modern. My background training was in French linguistics and I had a pretty good sense of where the field was going. The department had experienced a few issues – in fact the Dean of Humanities at the time, Dr  Nasrin Rahimieh, actually had to step in and name herself acting chair of the department before Dr McNutt stepped up to be acting chair for a couple of years. During those three years, Dr we undertook a consensus-building process to set up a new cognitive science orientation for the department – which was adopted – and has given fruit to much success in the hands of those to whom I handed it off, after it had been approved.

Dr Rahimieh is another person of whom I think highly. She is a profoundly humanistic person who also has an iron will. Over the three years that she spent as our Dean of Humanities, after Dr Daniel Woolf left, she and I collaborated on several academic endeavours and she became a mentor and friend to me. I respected her drive and her vision. Dr Rahimieh asked if I would co-chair (with Dr Magda Stroinska) a committee to construct a new undergraduate linguistics program which would be supported by the Dept of Psychology. My partner in this project from psychology was Dr Karin Humphreys, who, with her husband, Dr Scott Watter, was to become one of my dearest friends at McMaster. With equal representation from both psychology and linguistics, the committee was a great success: within eight meetings we had a new Bachelor of Arts designed, in Linguistic Cognitive Science. I chaired all the meetings and made a huge effort to make sure each and every person on the committee had input and I made certain that we established a consensus around every aspect of the new program. It was a fun process – one that everyone told me they enjoyed and felt energized by. I personally made coffee and brought cookies for each meeting.

After we had a description and a curriculum ready, I brought the program forward (with the strong support of Dr McNutt) to every university committee: the departmental committee, the faculty of humanities general assembly, the faculty of humanities undergraduate curriculum committee, McMaster undergraduate council, the university planning committee and finally the university senate. It was approved at every stage! But what an enormous amount of work, and thought and consultation and planning. It ate up a goodly part of my year – and I wasn’t even a member of that department! It was, however, worth it – at the end of the process, McMaster had one of the most up-to-date and innovative linguistics programs in Canada. And I felt as though I had given something back to the discipline that had been my foundation.

A very innovative feature that we built into the program was an area of concentration that was basically “pre-speech and language pathology.” This stream was designed to prepare students for entry into professional degrees in SLP. It was a necessity because speech and language pathology is an interdisciplinary field that spans health science, science, humanities and social science, and it can be very tricky for students to assemble all of the pre-requisites given the differing requirements and enrollment limits across different faculties at the university. Karin and I built this part of the curriculum after umpteen meetings with various speech and language pathology practitioner associations. I was so very impressed with the community of speech and language pathologists: they managed to combine being scientists with a profound humanism and respect for those among us who face challenges communicating; whether those challenges be congenital or were acquired because of brain injury. Years later, I am still thrilled when I bump into the worthy people from those associations. They were so very excited by the idea of a program specifically designed to prepare students for entry into professional SLP programs. The community of practitioners was also enthused by the thought of having an outlet for research collaborations outside of the clinic, the school board and the hospital. It was win-win all around. I recall those meetings with pleasure and a little nostalgia. What a dynamic group.

Another large part of building the linguistic cognitive science program was recruiting associate members from across the university who were interested in linguistics, cognitive science or both. This was an absolute delight for me: I visited with, and pitched the program to a very diverse set of colleagues from computing and software, philosophy, psychology, health sciences, gerontology, multimedia, English, French, psychiatry and neuroscience. It was an enriching experience for me. I ended up recruiting 11 associate members for the department, most of whom would form the faculty that would back the proposal for a new M.Sc./PhD in the Cognitive Science of Language which we would develop the next year.

Once the undergraduate program in linguistic cognitive science (it has since been renamed “BA in the cognitive science of language” to align with the new grad program) was rolling, it became very successful. In fact, it began to eclipse the mainstream program in linguistics. In the year following that success, Karin and I proposed to use the successful platform provided by the undergraduate program in linguistic cognitive science to build an innovative graduate Master of Science and PhD program in the Cognitive Science of Language. I actually postponed my sabbatical for one year to bring this new program from dream to approval within McMaster.

Building the grad program proposal was the same exhausting process that we experienced in developing the linguistic cognitive science undergraduate program: umpteen meetings and the writing of an exhaustive proposal, which would be presented to the many committees at every level of administration at McMaster. It was approved at every step of the way.  I have to say that I am very proud of this achievement. It taught me an awful lot about how the university works, as well as how inter-faculty politics can be tricky and sometimes even bitter. In fact I learned how true the maxim is: “Conflict is born of perceived scarcity.” The lack of resources we have been experiencing at the university makes people nervous and tentative about the thought of introducing new ideas. But academics love progress, and when we made a serious business case and passionate intellectual case about how important this new program could be, we succeeded in achieving those approvals.

The final piece of the puzzle in the revamping and renewal of linguistics was the hiring of a new chair for the department. We were very fortunate to recruit Dr John Connolly and his wife Dr Elisabeth Service – they are both superb scholars and have taken the program forward since their arrival at McMaster in 2008-9, the year I finally went on sabbatical. I am proud to say that I was part of the recruitment of Drs Connolly and Service – they even spent a significant amount of time as my house guests, which was a real pleasure. Dr Connolly and I share a love for NFL football – it was great to discover an affinity. Dr Connolly took the proposal that we got approved at the university level, improved and refined it, and then carried it across the finish line by securing its approval by the Ontario Council of Graduate studies (OCGS). Since then, he has taken total ownership of it and really devoted himself to turning it into a success. Hats off to him – he’s done a great job! It feels good to see something into which I put so much effort, passion and sweat-capital not only be successful, but also thrive and grow. I wish Dr Connolly all the success in the world as drives the program forward.

It was a big sacrifice for a junior professor to put so much time into saving a program that I was not officially affiliated to. I didn’t even have tenure, so I exposed myself to great career risk to build the new linguistics programs. But, I am very proud of all the hundreds of hours that I put into co-developing the linguistic cognitive science BA and the cognitive science of language MSc/PhD programs, as well as working tirelessly to secure university approval for them. It felt good to give back to the discipline that I had studied for so many years. For me, it was a sort of swansong, as I already had plans to to leave linguistics behind after the programs were secure, and throw myself more and more deeply into the fields of political communication and professional communication – which were quickly becoming my greatest passions.

During three of those years, before my sabbatical, I also served on the McMaster’s University Planning Committee and the University Budget Committee – two blue ribbon committees that really give you a voice in shaping the future structure, finances and culture of the university. I owe that one to Dr Rahimieh, and did I ever learn a lot. I stood for a university-wide election and won in a pool of candidates many of whom I felt were far more experienced and worthy than me! Wow. But I thank my colleagues in my faculty and across the university for their faith in me. My time on those committees was a true education: I learned how budgeting works and I got to watch every dean, vice-president and staff director come before those committees to justify their plans for their units’ futures and budgets for the upcoming year. On those committee, we approved policy for the entire institution and also wrote the budget that the  university would have to work within. It was both exciting and enlightening.

After  the two new linguistics programs were approved and passed to the capable hands of Dr John Connolly, I decided it was high time that I took my sabbatical. During my sabbatical, I took some time to do some fieldwork by doing a pile of political communication volunteering. I had done a little by helping Ms Judy Marsales in communications during her campaign to become elected in 2003, and in 2005 I had joined Gerard Kennedy’s leadership campaign in its very last stages, upon the instigation and invitation of Jessica Martin who now works as a transit reporter for CP/24 in Toronto. She is a McMaster alumna whom I never taught, but whom I met at her graduation. We quickly became fast friends, through working on Gerard’s leadership campaign and going to the Montréal Liberal leadership convention. She remains one of my favourite people to this day! The little I experienced of Gerard’s leadership campaign made me respect him enormously as a politician and also as a very decent human being. I made a personal commitment to help him get elected, should he ever run for federal office.

In 2008, the occasion presented itself, and I served as communications co-chair of his campaign to become elected in Parkdale-High Park in Toronto. It was an exhilarating 39 long days and often sleepless nights. Jessica and I worked day and night together: designing literature, placing ads and arranging media appearances. What a rush. On October 14th, at our victory party, we found out that Gerard had won. I have to say that making that announcement in front of everyone gathered and the media was one of my best life experiences yet. After that, Gerard invited me to come and help set up his office in Ottawa and serve as his senior advisor. I agreed to do this with pleasure, and while the adjustment to life on Parliament Hill was a little jarring from the cozy varsity life I had enjoyed at McMaster, we accomplished a lot while he was Industry Critic and I think that it was one of the most important experiences of my life. I thank Gerard personally and profusely for it. I can say that my respect for his ethical, caring and evidence-based approach to being a politician grew steadily.

I was on Parliament Hill for the coalition and prorogation scandals – what an experience that was! And I left with the end of that session of the 39th Parliament. I learned an awful lot while practicing political communications during my sabbatical – it was a dose of reality and a return to the world of professional communications practice, a world that I had been away from since my summer jobs as an undergrad and grad student. Above all, I gained a fresh perspective on the state of the art in my field and brought that knowledge back to the classroom and the lab with enthusiasm and pleasure. As well, I returned to McMaster with a clear sense of the direction I wanted my research to take: political communications, media content measurement and analysis, and public relations.

As soon as I came back, I started simplifying my life. One of the first people I spoke with was our new Dean of Humanities, Dr Suzanne Crosta. What an absolutely amazing person. Dr Crosta is a dynamo of activity and energy. She is also a model of fair-play, caring and mentorship. Dr Crosta sat me down and asked me directly where I wanted to go with my career, now that I had had a year’s sabbatical to reflect. We talked for over an hour and I can honestly say that that hour was one of the more reassuring and life-changing I have ever lived. She validated my plans for the future and said that she would endeavour to help support me to realise them, as she does for all of the professors who work in her Faculty of Humanities. I am extremely grateful to her for this.

I had felt that I had drifted away from linguistics and so I didn’t ask to renew my associate membership in the new department of linguistics and languages (as it had been renamed). I also asked that my joint appointment with the department of French be transformed into a single appointment in the department of communication studies and multimedia. I started the COMM-Lab: McMaster Communication Metrics Laboratory with Dr. Philip Savage (I am executive director and he is managing director).

I also started developed a solid teaching and research collaboration with another colleague who has become one of the people whom I respect most, and whom I consider to be a true friend: Dr Terry Flynn of the DeGroote School of Business. Terry and I have started the Journal of Professional Communication, the first Canada-based journal for both communications and multimedia academics and practitioners: very, very exciting. He also invited me to teach communication theory in the Master of Communication Management program – an opportunity that has enriched my life enormously and put me in contact with the executive education students from the world of professional communication, many of whom are some of the most fascinating, alive and aware people I have ever met. It’s a true pleasure to teach in the MCM program. An honour, actually.

Since then, I have been focused on two things: writing books and being the absolute best teacher and mentor that can be to for our students. As I have said several times, they are the center of my life and the highlight of my days. I look forward to seeing them every Autumn and I wake up excited to see them and to speak with them every morning. In terms of research, I see some books in my future: textbooks, a scholarly monograph and a book describing my approach to public relations practice. I am excited and energised by the potential of these projects.

In closing, I have to say that – several years post-tenure – I am still as much of a workaholic as I ever was. I love progress. I love building things. I love, love helping people realise their potential by opening doors for them. Especially doors that were closing.

As I progress into my mid-thirties and feel a little more settled as a man, I am very open to what adventures may lie before me:

  • I would love to meet a beautiful, vibrant, generous woman who will share the joys and simple pleasures of my life, and maybe even have a child or two.
  • I would love to build a PhD program in the dept of communication studies and multimedia.
  • I would love to  deepen the department’s links with the world of professional communication practice.
  • In fact, I would like to get more involved in professional communication practice and public speaking on the topic.
  • I guess I would eventually like to seek promotion to full professor.
  • I might even buy a sports car along the way.

In the meantime, I will continue to savour every day, pay attention to those around me, and generally try to grow into a better teacher, a better researcher, a better communications strategist, and, above all, a better person.

How I became an academic: Building the communication studies program & getting tenure 2001-2006

In this seventh post about how I became an academic I’ll describe how the pre-tenure experience was for me and how I had an unusual time as a young professor, co-founding a brand new program in communication studies. It was quite a ride for young professor in his late twenties and early thirties!

The tenure process is a challenge for any new faculty member. It means a lot of stress, no vacations and 12-14 hour days, seven days a week. Especially at a strongly research-intensive university like McMaster, where not only are the faculty expected to be developing a world-class research program, but also finding ways of engaging both graduate and undergraduate students in the research process. I love the McMaster environment, because I am a very strong believer that research and teaching go hand-in-hand and that it is impossible to separate the two. I love my students – they inspire me when they learn new things, they improve me with their questions.

The first three years were really all about getting the communication studies program going. We had to hire all of the faculty in the program, which meant that I sat on more than 10 hiring committees before I was awarded tenure in 2005. We also had to design a curriculum, committee structure and, of course, make sure that our students were well-shepherded through the first exciting, but slightly turbulent years of a brand new and wildly successful program. We slowly built our team: first we were joined by Dr Laurence Mussio, a professional communicator in Toronto who agreed to teach the communication history course, and who is now an Adjunct Professor in the program. Then by our first administrator, Ms Rosemary Viola. After that by Dr Catherine Frost, who was cross-appointed to political science. After that by Dr Violetta Igneski, cross-appointed to philosophy. Then Dr Christina Baade, who was cross-appointed to music and Dr Jeremy Stolow, cross-appointed to Sociology. It was quite a roller-coaster of hiring and expansion. All the while, our student numbers swelled, making us one of the three largest programs in the Faculty of Humanities at McMaster.

We had some turbulent times in terms of program directors. Dr Graham Knight was with us for one year, followed by Dr Magda Stroinska for two years. After that we had Liss Platt, MFA, for a year, and then Dr Geoffrey Rockwell for one year as well. It was under Dr Rockwell’s direction that we joined forces with the Multimedia Program to become McMaster’s brand new Dept of Communication Studies & Multimedia – a happy place that continues to be a model unit to this day! After Dr Rockwell’s year as director, we were rejoined by Dr Graham Knight for a five-year term, which is ending this year, actually. We finally had stability and were able to progress.

I have to take a moment here and pay tribute to two people: Dr Daniel Woolf, who was the Dean of Humanities who hired me and sponsored the creation of the Communication Studies Program and Dr. Suzanne Crosta, Associate Dean of Humanities at the time (and currently Dean of Humanities). These two individuals were truly visionary and supportive. They saw the potential that the program presented and they supported it unflinchingly. Exemplary university administrators, both. Hats off.

Meanwhile, things were changing rapidly around us. In 2007, we hired Dr Philip Savage, who is now co-director (with me) of the COMM-Lab: McMaster Communication Metrics Laboratory. Several colleagues left us: Dr Frost became a full member of political science and Dr Stolow left to take a position at Concordia University. We also hired three new members: Dr. Christine Quail, Dr Faiza Hirji and Dr David Ogborn all joined our happy and productive departmental family.

I sat on every hiring committee, every planning committee and went to almost every student recruitment fair that presented itself. It was so exciting. What an opportunity – to be allowed to co-found and then shape the evolution of a university program – even co-found a department at a major international university like McMaster! I couldn’t believe it. I was sure that they must have the wrong guy.

While I am proud of all of what we have accomplished in communication studies at McMaster, I have to say that I am particularly proud of the incredible curriculum and learning environment that we have created for our students. People talk about us being student-centered. Well, let me tell you – I included the students in almost every decision and choice I made. After all, it was about them and for them.

I am also incredibly proud to have initiated the departmental internship program, which has generated practical opportunities for our students to apply their skills in agency, broadcasting, journalism, government, corporate or not-for-profit contexts. Those students had memorable experiences and often found their calling (or what isn’t their calling) during those internships. The program is now in the capable hands of other colleagues who are developing it and deepening our department’s connections to the world of professional communication.

I am so proud of having served as Undergraduate Coordinator for the six first years of the program. Being a mentor and guide to many, if not most, of the students who began the program during its first six years of existence, from 2001-06 was a gift for me. I was 27 years old when I started, and we walked together – experiencing the highs and the lows of a start-up program. They would encounter a challenge and come to my office, and we would often have to innovate – writing up new policy as we went forward, working with the Dean’s office and McMaster’s capable and caring administrative staff. It was exhilarating. It felt real. And now I rejoice whenever I see one of our students succeeding in the great big world outside of McMaster’s halls: as an entrepreneur, an artist, a critic, a public relations practitioner, a journalist, a public servant, a businessperson, or the myriad other paths that our students have followed as they embarked on the journey of their lives. I feel a connection to them. I care about them. I share their successes, as well as the burden of their sadnesses and their tragedies.

Our program was not without tragedy. I have witnessed some of our students falter and stumble. Others have, sadly, passed away. Yet others have been victim of the unkindness of others. Seeing these things, and treading the lonely paths of sadness and loss with the students has made me grow as a person. Any cynicism or nihilism I may have once felt has been washed away by the brilliant and unextinguishable light that burns in them. For when they fell, I saw their classmates rally around them. And when one passed away, I went, with dozens and dozens of our students and faculty to pay tribute to a young life that ended too soon. Theirs is the blazing light of hope, of belief in the world. Theirs is the faith that things can be changed, improved and made more human. And although experience has taught me that life is often marked by the alternation of light and dark – I am inspired and amazed by our students’ stubborn persistence in chasing the rays of light, however faint, that they see before them.

During this time, I also focused on research – I finished the Metallic Mìgmaq-English Reference Dictionary (with my friends and colleagues, Dr Danielle Cyr and the late Mr Emmanuel Nagugwès Metallic) and I published many articles exploring the power of language, culture and communication. I went to conferences in Canada, America and Europe. I built research partnerships with colleagues. I co-hosted an international workshop on linguistic theory at McMaster. I worked and worked and worked. Finally, in 2005, I stood for tenure and on December 19, 2005, I received a letter from then McMaster President, Dr. Peter George, informing me that I had been awarded tenure. Tenure is an incredible moment for an academic – the result of 10 years of school and then six or seven years of mad, intense work as a junior assistant professor. What a moment for me – when I received the letter, I actually wept quietly for a moment in my office – just from the relief.

In my next and (I really promise) last post on how I became an academic: program building and my first sabbatical.

How I became an academic: my first day of teaching & September 11, 2001

In the last six posts, I have described, in a somewhat impressionistic fashion my journey from elementary school through to getting hired as an assistant professor at McMaster University. In today’s post I describe my first teaching experiences and how September 11 marked them.

The story starts on September 11, 2001, really, but first a little description of my first lecture – it was quite something!

I had started teaching the week before – my first lecture was quite something. Dean Woolf, who is now Principal of Queen’s University had said, during my job interview with him that he would be happy if we got 75-100 students enrolled in CMST 1a03 Introduction to Communication, a course I was designing. Well, I did my best, trying to incorporate interesting readings and practical skills from the realms of critical theory, mass communications, interpersonal communication, political economy, public relations, performance studies and new media. First year courses are meant to be surveys of what is to come in the program. I was pretty proud of the course – it touched all the bases I wanted and was actually very challenging: it highlighted Canadian contributions to communications theory, with an emphasis on the foundational work of Canadians Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. The course also had a significant “communication skills” component, which I thought was a must for future communications practitioners and academics.

My first day of lecture was quite something. I entered into an amphitheatre that contained 325 students – JHE 376, which is a stadium-style lecture hall. That means that the students tower over you, on very steep incline: I felt as though they were inches away from me and could see my every move. To my surprise, Dean Woolf and the Acting Director of the Communication Studies Program, Dr Graham Knight, we seated front and center. I walked over to shake their hands and say hello and they both chuckled and said: “Well, we thought we would get you and the program off to a good start. Don’t worry, we’ll only stick around for 20 mins or so of your lecture.” Well now, each of them gave a little speech saying how happy they were to launch the new program and how the students were pioneers. Then they took their seats and I gave my first lecture ever: in front of an expected crowd of 325 students, the Dean and the Acting Director. Baptism of fire. It went well, however, and I can certainly say that my teaching career started with a feeling of moment.

The program just took flight from there. We had 17 students transfer into communication studies to major in 2001 from other programs, and they were our first graduating class in 2003. I think that I am friends or friendly with almost all of them – many of them are doing very well in broadcasting, policy, media, government and journalism. In our second year, we were up to 85 majors. In our third year, 117 and so on. It just mushroomed. And we had a wonderful time.

Back to September 11, 2001.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the day of my second CMST 1a03 lecture, I heard that the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center on my ride into the university. In the parking lot, I ran into colleague Dr Susan Fast and we chatted for a moment about what we had heard on the radio. Then I went into my lecture just after the second plane hit the towers. The students received the news on their phones, through text messages. They were very anxious – in fact a surprising number of them had relatives who worked in the twin towers. So we talked about terrorism.

I spent the day with one of my students, Simon de Abreu, who has since become a great friend. We went with Dr Graham Knight to his office, where he had a little tv. Graham and I watched the coverage and talked about what the media was doing throughout. It was a surreal day. After that I drove home to my parents’ house (I hadn’t bought my house in Ancaster yet), and we watched the American cable networks all night. We were all fairly shell-shocked from the enormity of what had happened. The greatest empire that history has ever known had been struck at its heart by an act of terrorism. We knew, we could feel that everything would change on that day.

I was 27 years old, a brand new professor. It was my second lecture ever as a professor. September 11 set a tone of urgency and reinforced the power of the media and public relations to me. It was a sort of baptism of fire for a new communications professor. What a way to start an academic career.

In my next (and last, I promise!) post in this series – “Building Programs, Getting Tenure.”

How I became an academic: Getting hired into the tenure-track at McMaster

In the last five blog posts, I described to you my journey from elementary school to the end of my postdoctoral fellowship among the Mìgmaq and how it all led to me becoming an academic. In this blog post, I will describe how I was hired at McMaster.

I got a phone call from my mother, who told me that there was a job open to start a communications program at McMaster – it was a joint appointment based in the Dept of French, since they needed a linguist to replace Dr Christine Portelance, who left McMaster to take a job at – what a small world – Université du Québec à Rimouski! In fact, I had met her in the reception after I gave a guest lecture at UQAR when I was doing the first part of my post-doc there under Danielle Cyr’s supervision, while she was Vice-Rector. Christine had told me all about how she left McMaster because she missed Québec and French culture. So on the night of the day of my talk at UQAR and my lunchtime reception conversation with Christine, I spoke to my mother who mentioned this job ad and suggested that maybe I should apply: “Son, you were always fascinated by the news and media.” The next day, I was told about the job by a McMaster administrator at a party, so I thought to myself that it was fate: I really ought to investigate the possibility. At the time I was focused on completing my two-year post-doc at UQAR and then start looking for a job, but I had become convinced that this idea was worth exploring. I love media, had worked in both market research and public relations in the past, had run a small graphic design and marketing communications company with a friend in first year of university, and was incredibly well-informed. I read every newspaper, magazine and pamphlet I ran into. I also had an encyclopedic knowledge of television news anchors – their personalities, my perception of their political slant, even which interviews had been the most successful for them. I was a regular reader of the Hansard of the House of Commons and Senate – for fun! I thought to myself: “Hmm, yes, maybe I am someone who could start a communications program.” Ah the headstrong confidence of youth, I  was twenty-six years old and thought that anything was possible. Little did I know the challenges that would await.

So I took the long train ride back to my parents’ house in King City and then borrowed my grandmother’s car (I had sold my Jeep YJ), and drove to McMaster. It was a cold day in January and I had never been to Hamilton before. I had an 8am breakfast appointment with Dr Owen Morgan, the chair of the French Dept at McMaster, but I got to Mac really early – at 7am! I was nervous and didn’t know my way around, so I went to the Harvey’s in front of the McMaster Children’s Hospital and had hashbrowns and a coffee. I felt mostly calm – just a little nervous. At 7:30, I went to meet Dr Morgan (who died tragically early last week), and then we went for a coffee. It was a quiet morning, and McMaster struck me as a sedate place with a good vibe. Throughout that day, I had interviews with the French Dept hiring committee, Provost Harvey Weingarten, Dean of Humanities Daniel Woolf and Geoffrey Rockwell, Director of the Multimedia Program and Laura Finsten, Acting Dean of Graduate Studies. The interviews all went quite well – I actually enjoyed them. During that day, I gave a scholarly presentation to the Dept of French and made two friends, Dr Michael Kliffer (a French linguist who was my official host for the day) and Dr Caroline Bayard (an amazing philosopher and political theorist who taught postmodernism and French literature). Both Michael and Caroline would become two people whom I respect enormously as professors and human beings. Through Michael I learned about the gay liberation movement and through my dozens of conversations with Caroline, I learned much of the history of the NDP. I am neither gay nor an NDPer, but I developed a powerful empathy for those two communities and a profound respect and understanding of their social and ethical priorities.

You may be wondering why a person applying to found a communication studies program was interviewed by the French Dept! The answer is simple. I was being hired to c0-found the program, so it did not exist yet. I had to be appointed to a department that already existed. The French Dept needed a linguist, so it seemed a good place for the university cross-appoint someone with a communications background. A little odd, but it worked. Sometimes you have to be creative to make change and innovate in an institutional setting like a university.

I should tell you precisely how my day went.

After my breakfast and conversation with Dr Morgan, I was met by my host Dr Kliffer. He took me to meet the Dean of Humanities, Dr Daniel Woolf. I was very impressed by Dr Woolf – he was dynamic, funny and very straightforward. There was no posturing, just unbridled enthusiasm for his new baby: the communication studies program! He asked me, with a laugh and a big smile: “Do you think you’re up to being a co-founder of a program? You look pretty young to me!” I replied: “Yes sir! I love the media and I have a strong language research background. Also I love the challenge of starting new things.” After that, Michael took me to meet Dr Harvey Weingarten who asked me about interdisciplinarity. He told me that he was a huge proponent of that philosophy and asked if I thought it was an impediment to an academic career. Again, I told him, very sincerely, that I thought it was a wonderful thing – that I had never really felt as though I belonged in one of the traditional disciplines. After that I went to meet Dr Laura Finsten, Acting Dean of Graduate Studies. We had an excellent meeting – she grilled me about my research program and asked me some extremely insightful questions about my philosophy of graduate student supervision. We also talked about NFL football. After that I had lunch with Dr Morgan and several other colleagues in the University Club – it was very pleasant, although they continued to ask me questions that tested the boundaries of my cultural knowledge of the Francophone world. By this point, I was settling in to the day and was feeling pretty good. This was followed by a 90 minute interview with colleagues in the French Department where I was asked lots of questions about my research program, my teaching philosophy, my vision for the communication studies program and my philosophy of graduate supervision. My final major trial of the day was my “job talk” wherein I expounded my theory of content and text analysis and explained how I use computational linguistic methods to parse newspaper texts. It went really well. I felt great about it.

My second-last meeting of the day was with Dr Geoffrey Rockwell, Director of the Multimedia Program, and someone who had been instrumental in getting the communication studies program passed through university committees so that my job could be created. I met him on the second floor of Togo Salmon Hall in one of multimedia labs that was just being unpacked. It was a chaotic room full of maroon office chairs, white laminate desks and beautiful, gleaming Apple computers. Geoffrey was waiting for me in the middle of the room. In fact, it was Dean Woolf who brought me down to see Geoffrey – he dropped me off and said, upon leaving: “Enjoy the conversation!” Geoffrey and I became immediate fast friends. I had met a kindred spirit. We both loved the finer things in life: great food and wine, art, opera, ballet, movies, philosophy, technology and literature. We both shared a passion for McLuhan and the philosophy of technology and culture. The hour with Geoffrey flew by and I felt that I had met a life-long friend and mentor. When Dr Kliffer came by to pick me up to take me to my last appointment, Geoffrey shook my hand and said that he hoped that they would pick me.

My final appointment was dinner at the University Club with Dr Morgan. I will never forget it – a fabulous lobster bisque, accompanied by a lovely Sauvignon Blanc. Then a scrumptious grilled salmon over bed of couscous with maple syrup glaze. So good. Finally, a creme brulée and a glass of well-aged Hennessey cognac. Heavenly. A simple coffee after. We talked very late – for a couple of hours. About literature, about truth and beauty, about the media, about rugby (Owen had been a professional rugby player), Formula 1 Racing and sports in general.

And as the light faded, Owen walked me to my grandmother’s little white Chevy Cavalier and sent me off into the coming crepuscular gloom. I drove slowly, and it took me about an hour to get back to King City. I didn’t think about much on my way home – I was exhausted. But I was happy and satisfied that I had done the best I could.

At 10pm that night, the phone rang and my mother answered. It was Dean Woolf – he spoke with my mother and told her he was calling for me. I picked up the and Dean Woolf said, in a very cheerful voice: “You were the last candidate we interviewed. The committee met just after you left. We have decided to offer you the job. I’ll send you the details of the offer in an e-mail. Congratulations. I truly hope you accept to join us.”

I was speechless. I had just been offered a tenure-track position to co-found the Communication Studies Program at McMaster University. I stammered my thanks and told him that I looked forward to his email. I received the email a few moments later and thought that the offer was generous. I negotiated a tiny bit and we settled the next day. Dean Woolf sent me the papers quickly and I signed.

I had become the first tenure-track assistant professor of communication studies in McMaster’s history. Wow. The reality of it wouldn’t strike me until I got down to brass tacks a few months later, with the first director, Dr Graham Knight, a sociologist of the media who would become a dear friend and mentor over the next few years leading up to tenure.

But co-founding the communication studies program and tenure will be the subject of my next and last post in this series on how I became an academic.

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: my year in Paris at the ENS

As I mentioned in my last blog post,the last thing I did in the second year of my PhD was to apply to spend a year as a guest of the French state. I applied to become a pensionnaire étranger at the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm in Paris. I wasn’t sure why I was applying – I operated under the cover that I would go and work in the LaTTiCe Lab under Catherine Fuchs. She wrote a letter of support for my application, engaging me in her projects studying the links between literature and cognition.

The application was a long-shot. I was not one of the “in crowd” in the Department of French at the University of Toronto – I wasn’t literary and the sort of linguistics I was interested in – cognitive pragmatics and sociolinguistics – wasn’t really in vogue that time, so I asked one of last coursework professors, Dr Philippe Martin, whether he would write a letter of support and use his tuyaux in the French system, given that he was a professor at the University of Aix en Provence. My friendship with Philippe will play a huge part of the next blog post I will write about how I wrote my thesis during the last two years of my doctoral studies.

Well, to make a long story short, Philippe Martin’s support convinced Catherine Fuchs that I would be a good addition to her lab, and I was received in the office of the department chair, Dr Paul Perron (the man who was executor of Michel Foucault’s final testament, amongst many other laurels). Paul and I sat together – he in his exquisitely tailored suit and my 21-year-old self in shorts and an orange t-shirt with a pair of rollerblades hanging off my waist. We were quite the pair, sitting facing one another on the beautiful leather couch in Paul’s office. He came straight to the point: “Alexandre, on vous a choisi pour le poste à l’École Normale. Félicitations.” And so it was done – I was going to Paris, and I was going in style. The French government would pay me the equivalent of $2000 per month in today’s currency and a paid-for apartment in the heart of the city. As well, I would join the élite international fraternity of normaliens, that is to say people who have been accepted in the ENS through one of their concours.

I boarded my flight to Paris on a late August evening and, with my two large suitcases in tow, spent a few hours of quiet, thinking of how Canada was disappearing behind me and a new life in Paris was assembling itself behind my eyes, in my imagination. I was seated near the plane’s engines, and their rumble lulled me into a deep, transformative sleep. Those hours of slumber were populated by intense dreams full of vibrant hues and surreal vignettes featuring the people that I know. The truth was that I had not been very happy during the six months prior to my leaving for France. I had dated someone, Charlotte, who was a tall, pretty French woman and it had ended badly. To enter that relationship, I had to ignore the interest of someone else, a Canadian model and fencer named Lilly, whom I really liked. I chose Charlotte because she was French and sophisticated. Honestly, I was an idiot – I should have stuck with Lilly. Lilly was elegant, beautiful and heartfelt. She understood my passion for fencing and my obsession with culture and fashion. Charlotte did not. She was an intellectual through and through – she found many of my interests affected and criticised me liberally. It was very unpleasant. At the end of the Charlotte experience, I dated another model, Heather who was sincerity incarnate – she had the most ravishing strawberry blond hair and crystal-blue eyes. She supported me and wanted me to succeed – she loved my intense, broody artistic self and supported me when I was down in one of my funks. Heather was stylish, brilliant and lithe. I was very fashionable and arrogant – I really thought that I had all the answers. I had met her at the York Fencing Club, in which I had been practicing in the year prior to my going to France. She was great and we decided to continue our relationship long-distance whilst I was in Paris.

These relationships had marked me and I hadn’t been the best boyfriend. I was seeking something – I wasn’t sure what. I was unhappy with what I was studying. I felt like I wanted to write but had no inspiration. I felt that I had great ideas to share, but couldn’t find the words or the mental scaffolding that would enable me to express them. I was angst-ridden and selfish. I felt useless in graduate school – aimless and small.

So, it was these unhappy thoughts that drifted behind me, a dark wake that made me and those around me unhappy, very unhappy. I was tortured by the tragedy in my childhood, I was anguished by an upbringing in which I chased ephemera and wasn’t true to my fundamental artistic inspiration. I was confused by the intense materialism I had engaged in, being fashionable, going to fashionable clubs and criticising those who chose not to share my obsessions. I went to Paris to escape and to find myself.

And I did – or at least I started to.

Paris was a magical whirlwind of intense experiences for me. I went to visit Catherine Fuchs and she could tell that my interest in cognitive science was secondary to the spiritual quest that I was on and she basically told me that I wasn’t bound by my agreement to her lab – there weren’t any resources involved and that she felt I should have a year in which I experienced the City of Lights – a year of fencing, walking and discovery. I left her office feeling very light and fleet of foot. She had liberated me from the terrible weight of my sense of duty and set me free to learn things as they came.

That is what I did – I attended lectures all over Paris. I spent countless hours strolling hours strolling through its avenues and peering over walls into beautiful gardens. Paris is a city of closed doors and any time spent there is only as rich as the doors at which you dare to knock or push open. I can say that I probably walked in every quarter of Paris. I made extraordinary friends, and saw extraordinary things.

One of the highlights was the year I spent fencing for the Racing Club de France on their Division II and III teams, as alternate. It turns out that French fencing teams are allowed a foreigner as alternate and I had appeared very conveniently at their door just as the selection was being made. They chose me to fencing for both D2 and D3 teams, as needed. This meant a lot to me – first, it meant that I would not have to pay the normally gigantic fee associated with fencing at the RCF; second it meant that I would make a set of French friends that included some of the best fencers in the world – several members of the French national team. I also met several people who would become my lifelong friends and who have later on found me on Facebook and with whom I now enjoy a consistent connection. I fenced at the RCF four or five nights a week and enoyed every minute – from the cedar-closet lockers to the marble shower, to the wall of windows in the Salle d’Armes which overlooked the Champ de Mars that led up to the Eiffel Tower. I traveled all over France with the RCF, fencing in different cities on the weekends, discovering la France des Français. I will never forget that year, nor will I forget those friendships – I am forever in the debt of the Maître Jeanny, head coach of RCF Escrime who opened those possibilities to me and accepted me as a brother at arms with the other members of the RCF. They became a family for me and that feeling of normalcy that I enjoyed around them began to pull me out of my narcissistic haze and back into the reality of being a part of society. I started to realise that I wanted to be in the world of relationships, and friends and beers after practice, and girlfriends and marriages and apartments and houses. Not just a weird brilliant monastic scholar. I realised that the monastic lifestyle and professorial asceticism that I had affected were nothing but a cloak and a shield to keep the possibility of having a real life at bay – a real life with all of the challenges and raw feelings and insecurities and potential for pain that come with it .

I spent an awful lot of my time at the ENS reading and walking. My relationship with Heather ended at Christmas and I started dating Kimberly, a truly gorgeous American political science PhD candidate from Princeton who was spending a year living at the ENS but studying at the École Polytechnique. She and I were both far too broody and self-involved for that relationship to be healthy. We felt deeply for one another, but we also were far too intense and it ended up being a negative experience for both of us. I miss Kimberly with her high cheekbones, her jade-green eyes and sandy brown hair. She was an inch taller than me and absolutely brilliant. She and I would argue late into the night about many arcane points, over a bottle (or two) of wine and then greet the dawn by falling asleep in a pile on the floor. Like I said, it was intense but ill-fated and didn’t last.

The one thing that Kimberly and I did share was the World Cup. In 1998, France won the World Cup of Football on its own turf and the City of Paris erupted into a three day party of wild and rambunctious celebration. It was unbelievable. The city shut down as people streamed in and out of the metro, not paying for their tickets and the ticketeers allowing them in without question. Cafés and bistros exploded in expressions of neighbourhood joy and offered free goodies to passersby. For three days, stodgy, stuffy classist, segregated France was aflame with solidarity. It was so beautiful to see… but I could also see that it wouldn’t last. That there would be a come-down period and then a return to the old separations of the past. And things return to normal. But I saw something during those three days of glory that marked me: I saw what could happen if the population was united and mobilised and set free behind an ideal of solidarity and hope. Amazing things can happen. I promised myself that one of my life-goals would be to help this creative, striving, egalitarian energy to be released in my home country of Canada.

If you are thinking that my time in Paris wasn’t very academic, you are absolutely right. I read an awful lot and spent countless hours in cafés and parks thinking. I thought through my childhood, my countless fears and insecurities and my inability to find happiness or contentment in my studies or in my relationships. I wondered why I was unkind to my parents, why I had rejected spirituality, why I had taken a dark path that could only have led to nihilism in the end. I wondered. I wondered. I wondered.

In Spring, toward the end of my time in Paris, a friend of mine, Andrew who was a sniper in the Canadian Army came to visit me whilst on furlough. He had joined the York Fencing Club while a student at York and we had been the same team for year. We had grown close – he was half Italian and half Croatian and felt the world deeply, much as I did. His visit for a few days marked me. We walked and talked, made ourselves sandwiches and drank some wine. I tried to show him my Paris, knowing that he would understand, and he did. At one point, he insisted that I take him to Notre Dame Cathedral and we both took the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I scoffed at the thought when he asked me to accompany him in doing this, but this cynicism turned into stark anxiety as I waiting in line to enter one of the glass booths set up for the purpose. Everyone looked so calm and serene, waiting their turn to enter the booth and unburden themselves of their sins to God. I didn’t know if I believed in God, and I felt dirty for having taken so many pot-shots at the Church during my last several years of smart-ass smugness and condescension. Something happened to me in that queue – something snapped. I felt a dam break and emotion rush out. I felt an acute pain, real and powerful and as I approached the podium, as I helped the crippled African man into the both and promised to hold his canes as he confessed, as I felt the warm light streaming in on my face – something opened in me. I confessed, and then walked Andrew back to metro. He disappeared into its dark tube, and I walked away in to the fading light of an early Parisian evening – the feeling of openness and lightness didn’t go away.

Something had changed in me and I knew that I had to change my own life to match it. I felt as though I had rediscovered the path that I felt I was walkign when I was a boy. When I was carefree and full of joy at the simple pleasures of life. When I respected and loved my father and was sensitive to the exquisite emotions that dance across my mother’s face of restraint. I no longer felt I had to put up an intellectual front – that I could be open and kind to people and compassionate.

The truth was that Paris had opened a door in my heart. A door that when opened could no longer be closed. A door that opened on the path back to becoming human. A path that would be a life-journey, a challenge, a roller-coaster. A path that would be painful at times and raw at others. What was important, however, was that it was the path back to reality – to having a real life. A life of service, of connection and contact.

I flew back from Paris saturated by French thought, culture and food. I had gained 20 lbs, but I felt incredibly light. I didn’t know where my journey would take me, but I finally felt as though i were on the right path.

I felt deliberate and purposeful.

And I will tell you how that affected the last two years of my PhD in my next blog post. This one has already grown too long…

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.