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.

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3 Replies to “How I became an academic: First part of grad school (1995-1997)”

  1. What do you really know of Professor Laurendeau?! What do you know of what ‘ruined’ him, of his ‘personal demons’? If it is ‘demons’ you are after, look no further than the fascist administration of York University.

  2. Good Point, Chloe. I changed the language to make it more neutral. I really admired Professor Laurendeau’s intellect and passion for philosophy. He was one of the most “mentally alive” scholars I have ever encountered.

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