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.

Advertisements

One Reply to “How I became an academic: from tenure until the present”

Leave a Reply