Some advice for college and university students

[This piece was originally posted as a note on Facebook on Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 15:24 and republished on the Talent Egg Career Incubator on September 15, 2009]

The three or four years you will spend at college or university should be some of the best years of your life. You have a rare privilege: a few years to devote most of your time to learning about yourself, your culture, your society and your areas of interest. Understand that your real purpose here is not only knowledge but also to develop a life guided by wisdom and reason.

You have moved out of your parents’ home. You are meeting new people and starting to make your own decisions, your own life. You are now pretty much your own boss. But you are also on your own and that can be unnerving, lonely and a little scary.

This is your opportunity to struggle with your new environment, to understand your challenges through reflection, insight and the help of others. Use the support systems at the university. You are never alone, and the very act of seeking help or advice, of opening up to others, may become a vital part of your education – of your experience of learning about yourself through others.

Speaking of dialogue, I recently met a woman at an alumni dinner, a graduate of my department. She had graduated with high B average and now works in a public affairs agency. I’ll call her Simone.

It was a beautiful night – a fancy dinner, elegant surroundings and quiet, meaningful conversations among alumni and professors who shared the bond of having been members of the McMaster community. I was seated beside Simone and we chatted for much of the evening, mostly sharing memories: people we knew in common from her grad year, observations that she and classmates had made about faculty quirks of dress or mannerism, little things. We laughed a lot and reminisced. At the end of the evening, as we got up to say goodnight, she looked at me fixedly and said:

“Alex, I want you to tell your students something from me. Do you know what I really gained from my years at Mac?”

I shook my head, surprised by her suddenly intense expression.

“I gained understanding. Understanding that the world is complicated and profound, even when it is trying to be simple and ridiculous. Understanding about how to learn and how to know. Above all, I understood that although the world is sometimes sad, it is never boring and that I should love it, and try to improve it, even though it sometimes seems to betray me.”

I was surprised by her comments. She had obviously thought about this very deeply.

“Alex, I didn’t understand until maybe the middle of third year. I finally understood that education is about storytelling – the stories of art and science, society and engineering, health and commerce and how they all weave together into the grand story of our lives together.”

Heed Simone’s advice. It is wise. Learn to catch the storyline of the courses and conversations and relationships and solitary epiphanies you will experience at college or university. It isn’t easy. It requires a lot of hard work. It requires a personal sense of purpose. It requires an open heart and a seeking mind. But the payoff is amazing: a life that is transformed from mere existence to living. From shades of gray to millions of colours.

A life in which every experience becomes a possibility for adventure, growth and love.

Advertisements

Guest lecture from Andrew Laing of Cormex Research at McMaster

My 4th-year News Analysis class had a special treat today. We had a guest lecturer – Dr Andrew Laing, president of Cormex Research.

Cormex Research is Canada’s leading media content measurement and analysis firm. Here’s an example of the sort of work Cormex does.

Andrew is a unique and admirable person. He took time out of running his company to go back to school to complete his PhD (thesis advisor, Dr. Fred Fletcher) in the Communication and Culture Graduate Program at York University in Toronto. His thesis is on developing a new research methodology – the “media-centric model” – for studying agenda setting effects. He defended his thesis three weeks ago – congratulations, Andrew!

Today, he described for the class how his company conducts content analysis research – what the process is, the types of people he employs and the types of clients that he works with. He also described two case studies that his company has developed – one about genetically-modified foods, and another about satire in the Canadian media. After his presentations and a 10-minute break, Andrew workshopped with each project group in the class. The students really benefited from his advice and mentorship.

One more thing – we had an excellent student presentation on the article “Agenda Setting and the ‘New’ News” by Althaus and Tewksbury. A classic article describing a set of content analysis and audience research experiments comparing agenda setting effects in on-line and paper versions of the newspaper. The findings are interesting: the regular paper news readers showed an agenda setting effect and the readers of the electronic newspaper didn’t. The student presenters did a great job – congrats to Michelle Woodruff, Laura Braun and Darryl Spong.

Afterward, Andrew and I went for a late lunch at Maccheroni Cucina Al Fresco in Westdale, near McMaster.

An excellent day.

Ontario must invest in higher education.

When I began teaching at McMaster University on July 1, 2001, I had a pretty unique experience as a new professor.

I was the first person hired into the Communication Studies Program at McMaster University. The program was so new that it didn’t even exist. In fact, the program only officially took existence with our first enrolled program students who all had to have taken the two first year courses in 2001 to be able to enroll in 2002! I taught the Introduction to Communication, and we were joined by Dr. Laurence Mussio, a successful communications consultant in Toronto, who taught the other first year course in the History of Communication.That was it. We were the program.

The newness of our program made my experience as a newly-minted tenure-track faculty member completely atypical. Graham Knight and I built the program from the ground up. I have had the opportunity to sit on every hiring committee since the program’s inception. I remember the lean days, when we truly offering the program on a shoe string. It was exciting. We had hundreds of students, starting in our first year. Our first graduating class was in 2004. It was composed of 17 students – all of whom had already begun in other programs and transferred into communication studies. The next year we graduated over 60. Now we graduate a steady state of about 125 students in our honours and combined honours BA programs. We have about 5 tenured and tenure-track faculty in communication studies. This year, we began our Master of Arts in Communication and New Media. We’ve been growing constantly.

The ride up to now has been exciting. It’s been a story of constant change and growth. But our situation is stabilising. We are now beginning to face the challenges of a mature department.

What this has meant for me personally is that I am now getting a sense of what faculty and students in other mature departments have been feeling all along during the last 10 years. We aren’t atypical anymore.

Faculty and students feel frustration at the fact that classes are so big. This is not a case of fat cat professors complaining because they have to mark a few more papers. Rather, this frustration is born of the fact that professors see the future of Canada through a lens that many Canadians don’t get to peer through.

Professors see that students – especially those who don’t come from families where parents are not university-educated – need the mentorship of committed, permanent faculty to help them make sense of the university system, the job market and the confusing world of media, politics and money that they are stepping into. Large classes put up huge barriers to building these mentorship relationships.

Let me take a moment to talk about the larger institutional context.

The Faculty of Humanities at McMaster has been very intelligently managed. Starting in the late 90s, the faculty has completely revisioned and redefined itself. It has become very lean, fiscally. All faculty teach their share of classes. Research productivity is higher than it has ever been. Almost every department has reflected deeply on its mandate and mission. Many have completely re-defined themselves: the French department (to which I am proudly jointly appointed) adopted “Francophonie and Diversity” as its theme, English added “Cultural Studies and Critical Theory” to its program offerings, music and linguistics have redefined themselves along cognitive science lines, and, of course, a new department – Communication Studies and Multimedia – was formed. At the same time, all the fat was cut.

I sat on the McMaster University Planning and Budget Committees for three years (2006-08) and I can say that, from what I saw and read, there is nothing non-essential to cut in Humanities. There is no fat. There are no frills. There are simply basic needs that are being met: base operating costs, the cost of maintaining a basically safe physical plant and the basic cost of supporting faculty research costs. No more food at meetings. No free lunches.

Any budgetary issues in Humanities now are – quite simply – problems of basic income. That income, however, is not market-based. We don’t charge students the full cost of their education. We rely on government.

Since the Harrris government, there has been a chronic underfunding of higher education. No subsequent government has restored funding to higher education. And the underfunding is reaching crisis proportions. Ontario is 10th among Canadian provinces in its per student investment in higher education. Roger Martin reports in, “Who killed Canada’s Education Advantage?”, in the November edition of The Walrus, that faculty-student ratios have risen from 18.8 students per permanent faculty member in 1993 to 24.4 students per faculty member in 2005.

The greatest education is when students spend some quality time discussing ideas with faculty that were touched upon in class. When they feel comfortable enough with ideas to chat about them over coffee with one another in spaces that are conducive to such conversations. The problem is that unless you come from a family background in which such conversations about ideas, culture, science and future plans are common and normal – chances are excellent that you don’t know how to have them. They are outside of your ken. Learning how to converse about your life in a considered way is one of the greatest pleasures and benefits of post-secondary education.

The problem is that this requires time and opportunity. The opportunity to make the personal contact. The time to have the conversation. Both time and opportunity are becoming scarce commodities in the current higher education system.

In our Faculty of Humanities, the one I know best, any cuts now will mean dropping successful programs with high enrollments. Cuts will mean even bigger classes. Cuts will mean fewer meaningful conversations between faculty and students. There are no more “savings” to be had.

At risk is our future as a Canadian civil society that encourages social mobility through education.

In fact, we may be graduating young people who are not as well-equipped as previous generations to understand the complicated world they will step into and eventually be in charge of. This is a terrifying and disheartening prospect that will affect our productivity, our international competitiveness and – most importantly – the health of our democracy and the strength of our social cohesion.

A society that doesn’t allow its citizens the time or opportunity to reflect upon itself will crumble under the weight of individual self-interest and short-term thinking.

Governments must invest in higher education. Ontario parents and students should demand it. Our future depends on it.

Canadians deserve evidence-based politics

It is about time that political communication caught up to medicine by applying modern standards of evidence to its practices.

The practice of medicine has been revolutionised over the last 20 years by the emergence of evidence-based diagnosis and treatment. The idea behind evidence-based medicine is that doctors should apply the findings of scientific research to medical decision-making.When you go to the doctor, you don’t expect to be treated with certain drugs or diagnosed with a certain disease because the doctor thinks it will improve his public image to diagose or treat you that way. You want the right diagnosis and treatment for your symptoms.

Why shouldn’t politics in Canada be held to the same standard?

This is the Internet era. This is the Information Age.

Canadians must demand that its politicians adopt an evidence-based approach to political communication and political decision-making.  We expect our doctors to present evidence for their diagnoses, but we allow our politicians – of every stripe –  to convince us with anecdotal evidence, generalisations from the specific and a hundred other fallacies of argument.

Gerard Kennedy, Official Opposition critic for Infrastructure and MP for Parkdale-High Park and his team of staff and volunteers have been tearing up the spreadsheets coming up with evidence for how the Conservative Government is distributing infrastructure stimulus money around Canada. His latest press release describes how infrastructure money is being spent unequally, on a per-student basis, on small, conservative institutions based in Conservative-held ridings.

Whether or not you agree with Mr. Kennedy, this is just simply good political communication. He has taken the facts – the data – and parsed them so that they make sense. He has used evidence and simple statistics to start a critical discussion about what the Government is doing. The beauty of Mr. Kennedy’s evidence is that you *can disagree* with him in an intelligent way. You can challenge his evidence. You can produce evidence of your own.

It is no coincidence that Mr. Kennedy has been scooping up news stories and front-pages across Canada with his evidence-based criticism. He is setting a new bar for political communication – away from anecdotal allusions and personal attacks toward evidence, facts and argument.

This can only be good for Canadian democracy.

The challenge for the other Opposition MPs, Liberal, Bloc and NDP, is to meet and exceed his example.

The challenge for the Conservative Government is to respond with transparency – to show Canadians the evidence for their infrastructure program. Here is the Government’s first evidence-based attempt.

Mr. Kennedy is forcing this Government to get away from rhetoric and present Canadians with the evidence.

If medical doctors must use evidence to justify why they have chosen one diagnosis for you instead of another, Canada’s Government must use evidence to justify how its infrastructure stimulus investment is equitable and good for all Canadians – not just those who live in Conservative-held ridings.

My first MCM student defends his thesis.

Today was a truly a happy day. I woke up early and met my thesis student in the Master of Communication Management program, an executive MBA program offered by the DeGroote School of Management at McMaster University, in which I am an adjunct faculty member. We rehearsed a little and drove into McMaster for the presentation. He did a fantastic job – no nerves, no fear. Just a great speaking style, a great defense of his ideas and, of course, great data and analysis. I was so pleased to see him succeed. It was just excellent – very insightful and full of humour. He even included a clip from the Beatles song, “The Taxman” and a clip from “Corner Gas.” Excellent job, Don! Congratulations. After that we went for a celebratory drink at the Collins in Dundas and then a long walk out to see Webster’s Falls and Toews Falls in the Spencer Gorge. So beautiful. The leaves were aflame with colour and seemed to glow as the fading light of the evening gave way to crepuscular gloom. Then dinner at the Bean Bar, where we tried the most decadent chocolate cake I have ever had – I think it was called Utopia. Highly recommended.

An evening at Rosewood Estates Winery

I had a beautiful day today. First, my parents surprised me by coming over and helping me clean my house in exchange for a lunch of couscous with tilapia, red bells, tomato and garlic that I prepared. I love cooking and it was my pleasure to whip something up for them. They left at about 5pm, and then I drove over to Rosewood Estates Winery in Beamsville, Ontario, where I joined the MCM students (Master of Communication Management, in which I teach) for a case study about the winery by Eugene Roman, who is also the owner. It was fascinating.

Eugene explained how he has applied the same sort of innovative thinking that led to his success at Nortel, Bell and now at Open Text. He focused on how thinking differently has always been the key for him. The winery is just stunning. Château Rosewood is beautiful – I was struck by Eugene’s comment that “I wake up every morning overlooking the Riesling vines.” These words took me back to the time that I lived in Montpellier, in the Languedoc-Roussillon in France when I was 17. I spent many happy hours both on the seaside near Palavas-les-Flots and also at a winery owned by the father of a close friend. I too remember waking up to see the clear morning Mediterranean sun spill its soft yellow light over the vines. We would sit and drink espresso, and sometimes play pétanque – that lazy version of bocci that has filled countless quiet afternoons for southern French men.

Eugene served us an extraordinary dinner of butternut squash soupe aux poires accompanied by a scrumptious venison stew with gnocchi so light that they floated in the  russet broth like little cumulus clouds. Dessert was a crème brulée with blackberries and blueberries. What a wonderful feast – just right for a brisk fall evening. Many thanks to Niagara Gourmet for catering the tasty fare. It was a nostalgic experience for me to dine on heavy, rustic, French-style wooden tables, surrounded by the oaken casks containing the vineyard’s wines.

I took home a wonderful Sémillon and two bottles of Ambrosia honey wine, which I particularly loved during our tasting. I also took home one of Rosewood’s cherry-honey wines to experiment with. I look forward to enjoying them with friends.

Honey wine over vanilla ice cream, anyone?

Snowy Edmonton – Content analysis and old friends.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting my old friend and mentor, Geoffrey Rockwell. It was a great trip. I stayed at a beautiful hotel, the Fairmont Macdonald Hotel, where I spent a good part of Saturday with my laptop in the great room, looking out the window and writing. The talk was interesting. It has been a while since I have co-delivered a talk with someone, but Geoffrey and I see eye on most issues, so we were able to segway between our parts quite well. We presented on the idea of whether the actual product of a text or content analysis is a new cultural or scientific artifact, separate from the texts or corpora from which it was pulled. One of the strong points of the argument, I think, was the idea that content analysis, because of its use of human coders, but also the very structured and bounded form of reading that is imposed on the coders retains the best of the interpretive, human, subjective element of reading, while integrating the order and rigour of the scientific method. I left Edmonton inspired to get back to work, but a little nostalgic for the good times that I used share with Geoffrey at McMaster. He was one of the reasons that I initially joined the faculty there and was always a trusted friend. At least the Maple Leaf Lounge in Edmonton was really pleasant, and since it was Thanksgiviing eve, the Air Canada staff offered us vin à volonté. Nice.

Everything starts somewhere…

Well, I have thought about blogging for an awfully long time. A lot of people have asked me to start using a blog as a tribune for my ideas, the interesting things I do and come across. So I have decided to plunge into the world internet commentary. This blog will be eclectic. I’ll talk about communications, multimedia, linguistics, cognitive science, politics as well as any random (and presumably interesting) things that happen in my life. Let see how this goes…