A good day: bought golf clubs, planned a program, went swimming.

Today was a sporty day for me. I bought golf clubs and had a nice swim.

I went to the Ted McMeekin Golf Classic on Tuesday at the Copetown Woods Golf Club in Ancaster, where I live. That was a really pleasant day in support of a politician whom I think is truly one of the most decent and honourable people I know, Ted McMeekin. I reconnected with old friends, made some new ones, and had an all-around wonderful day with some great folk.

What that day on the links told me though was it was time to buy some golf clubs of my own. I have rented too many times. So I went to golf town and came home with a set of Callaway Diablo Edge golf clubs. They are not for golf pros, but they felt good, looked good and were very comfortable. I felt good about having my own clubs. I have always liked having my own sports equipment, even if I don’t use it as often as I should.

After that, we had an excellent planning meeting for our future PhD in Communication and New Media Practice. It will be offered through the Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia (CSMM), in which I work. The same department that now hosts the Master of Communications Management executive education degree. I am blessed to work in such a great department. Our PhD will be ground-breaking for Canada, offering: Media Art & Performance; Media Culture, Politics and History; and Professional Communication.

Finally, I went for a splendid hard swim. It was the first time in months that I do this, and, Good Lord, do I miss it. It was wonderful to feel the water flowing coolly over over head and shoulders and along my body. I lost myself in the deep blue water and rhythm of my strokes. My muscles felt real and I felt alive.

I am now deliciously exhausted, sitting in my wing chair, sipping some almond milk and thinking that I won’t go without swimming for a long stretch again.

It just feels too good!


My Writing Process (Or “How I Am Productive”)

A number of people who read this blog have written to me and asked me to share my writing process, having been intrigued by recent posts on academic workflow. Many people who know me ask about how I manage to get a lot of writing (and other stuff) done. I thought I would try to cure tonight’s insomnia by writing about it in a blog entry!

I should start by stating that I am a something of an uncertified graphomaniac – I love writing and find that it is in prose that my imagination finds its best expression, and my mind can come to rest and find peace.

In fact, apart from the writing I did in school and uni, I have written quite a few scholarly articles, parts of books, a dictionary of Mìgmaq (a First Peoples language), parts of a few textbooks, many journalistic pieces and countless reports, appraisals, proposals, and grants. I have also written speeches, ad copy, packaging copy, telemarketing and sales scripts, canvass scripts, minute-by-minute plans for events, strategic plans, vision documents, and so many other sorts of technical pieces that your eyes would water.

So how do I do it?

I find that the first strategy is to give writing and thinking about writing the time that it takes. Contrary to what many people will have assured me, just forcing myself to write regularly even if what I am producing is gibberish doesn’t work for me. I need to feel driven to the page. This can happen organically, or I can nudge it by doing things that I enjoy.

Security. I need to feel safe and secure to be able to write. If I start to feel psychological turmoil, or cognitive dissonance, then I will not be able to put pen to paper. I need to feel stable, unencumbered and at peace.

Fitness. Bizarrely, I write best when I am in good shape. When I get flabby or feel ungainly, my creativity drops. I have contemplated whether this has something to do with self-esteem or whether it is truly biological. I now tend to think it is biological, since my self-esteem has always been pretty solid.

A clean house/office. I often will go through a heavy cleaning of my house or office before embarking on a new project.

Cheerful, superficial conversations with people I like or find attractive. This may be weird, but emotional intensity throws me right off when it is time to be a productive writer. This means that when I need to write, I avoid all the drama-oriented people in my life. Actually I tend to avoid them in general (unless they need my help). I particularly avoid them when I need to write. There is nothing like sweet sunshiny convo in the hallway with a nice colleague, or with a neighbour on the sidewalk or at the mailbox, just before sitting down to the keyboard.

Positive reinforcement. Having others tell me that they want me to be creative, or that it is important to them that I be creative. That’s helpful. Not sure why, but this is a really motivator.

Avoiding criticism or negativity of any kind. This is *huge* for me. When I am seeking inspiration to write, or getting into “writing mode”, I often do a variety of things that others may find they are critical of: watch silly tv shows, listen to superficial pop music, lie in all morning reading magazines, take inordinately long baths, go for a drive in a friend’s sports car, or other such banalities. When someone expresses negativity toward these things, it *really* throws me off and can mar my productivity until my brain is reset by a good night’s sleep. Sometimes one night’s sleep isn’t enough – it needs to be a night’s sleep and then immersion in escapist banalities until the negative emotional memory recedes away. If someone does this to me, even inadvertently, I have been known to viscerally avoid contact with them or harbour resentment for weeks, or even forever. Irrational, I know – probably a sort of self-defense mechanism for my productivity.

Finally, avoiding interruption. When I am on a roll, I turn off the ringer on my phone and put my blackberry away (I have always been bad with voicemail anyhow). I get into the zone, and then tune out the world.

If I can get into the zone, I can work at a writing project until it is done – producing thousands of words at a sitting.

I hope this blog entry sates your curiosity! Or that it speaks to you. Does any of this ring true?

Being productive at the Fairmont Battery Wharf in Boston.

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.

A Great MCM Summer Residency 2011

Today marked the end of the summer residency of the Master of Communications Management. We had a blend of the first-year students and the upper-year students as well. What a fantastic group of professional communication leaders from across Canada. I taught MCM 739: Understanding Social Media Publics and my good friend and colleague, Dr. Terry Flynn taught MCM 741: Crisis Management.

The course was an absolute joy to teach. Interacting with leading communications pros from across Canada, brainstorming new strategies, studying the latest technologies and cutting edge case studies is a joy for me in my various incarnations as professor, researchers and PR practitioner. We covered both theoretical and practical approaches to online community-building, architecture and design theory, socialnomics, the business of influence, and social media measurement in my class. Fascinating, stimulating discussion. We even did a full-day crisis management simulation.

I find I learn as much from the students as they do from me. An all-around enriching experience.

Now we will pick it up in our on-line tutorials until we reconvene in October! I can’t wait for the first tutorial. I know the students are excited too.

The MCM is an executive education program for seasoned professional communicators (five years experience, minimum) which is taught through a distance-learning model and very selective about both admissions and in-program standards. Students come to campus for a week, during which they take two courses, one in the morning, from 8:30-12:30, and the other from 1-5. All classes are taught at the Ron Joyce Centre at McMaster’s Burlington Campus. Gourmet breakfasts and lunches are provided. As well, we organize networking opportunities and a chance to meet the program alumni. This year, our networking evenings were held in the beautiful and elegant surroundings of Peller Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Stonehouse Restaurant in Burlington.

Giving a speech in honour of colleague and friend, Dr. Terry Flynn.


Back to Hamilton Tales

Now that I have finished the 100 Life-Loves series, I am going to go back to writing the Hamilton Stories. I hope these are just little tales meant to bring out parts of Hamilton that I have known and seen, and to try to tell stories about everyday characters that everyone can relate to. I hope you enjoy them. Certainly don’t hesitate to send me constructive criticism if you don’t like them!

You can find the first six instalments here.

A Newly Civil House of Commons

It has been a pleasure to watch the House of Commons Question Period the last couple of weeks. The members seem to have truly taken NDP Leader Mr Jack’s Layton’s challenge to heart. This has, just looking anecdotally, led to what feels like more questions being asked. It also feels as though women appear to be more prominently featured, which is an excellent thing too. Much of this is owed to Mr. Layton’s keeping his civility pledge. This seems to have really taken civility forward! Maybe now is the moment for civility to be brought to the fore in a structural way. Mr. Michael Chong has proposed such reforms in the past – might it be a good moment to bring them into a larger debate?

Whatever the case, it is impressive that MPs are opting for more civility.

Hats off to Mr. Layton for leading the change. He is doing something good for Canadians, for if this civil discourse continues, citizens may start tuning in to QP again!

Life-Love 100 (Final One): The Good Life

There is nothing more precious than life. We often lose sight of this, burying life behind the darkness of our anxieties, our plans, our ambitions.

Life is all around us, but so easily missed. It is in the sparkling eyes of children who are enjoying the playground for the first time on a watery spring morning. It is in the expectant eyes of a person who feels another’s love, but awaits confirmation that it is true. Life is a dim but present sparkle in the eyes of someone who has been hard done by, and has opened a door of hope through the kindness and caring of another.

We only see these things if we are looking for them, and only understand them if we are at peace with ourselves and the world. Otherwise, they are glimmers and shards which we glimpse, but never see in their whole splendour.

Gentle caring love. Life. Second chances. Life. Sweet, simple moments of shared bliss. Life.

The trouble is that we forget life is something that must be nurtured and cared for. It must be treasured and protected, but also allowed to be free and grow, unstifled. Indeed, life is a delicate balance between structure and freedom, between inspiration and stability, between action and quietude. Finding this balance is the single most important journey that many of us will take.

We find great traces of the path in the feelings of others. We know when we’ve had a positive impact on the life of another person, and we also know when we’ve had a negative one. Strangely, this doesn’t necessarily come naturally. The good life has to be built, and just as we need to learn the craft of building house and master the use of tools to do it, so too must we learn the craft of living. For living is a conscious practice.

Living is a practice which requires examination. Examination of ourselves, our actions and their results, and observation of others, how their actions, attitudes and words impact our life and what we observe to be the effects they have on the other people they touch. These are the signposts on the path of life. However, when we observe, it is important that we observe with a loving eye. For to observe judgmentally without love, is to never be able to truly understand another. There is a big difference between having a critical but loving gaze when we observe others, and judging them. Loving critique is human, but judgment is mechanical. This way, even our mistakes and falls become but forks on a sunlit path, rather than pitfalls which lead us into darkness.

In the end, as we sit on patios and porches, sipping drinks and chatting, playing games or reading, surrounded by nature and the artifice of human construction, we can, if we take a moment to breathe and feel our world, feel at peace with its rhythms, its heartbeat, and thereby begin to intuitively feel that we have a special place in its arms. A place that we define by ourselves but which is also defined by others for us. In the end it is a place built of negotiation, examination and observation.

We are on the path to the good life when we find the flow of the world around us and sync ourselves to that flow. Then life becomes a harmonious whole, rather than a series of challenging episodes. Life also then becomes something that we no longer seek to control, but rather something that we seamlessly feel we belong to and belongs to us.

The good life is worth seeking. In fact, the journey is probably just as good as the destination, since it is a journey that must be guided by love, empathy, caring and forgiveness of ourselves and of others. In fact, the journey is the destination. The good life is an evolving thing, a state of being, the set of all of our actions, attitudes, words, feelings and thoughts.

In fact, you are living right now. Why not seek to make your life a good life? The journey is the destination.

Really, there is no better occupation of our time.

Life-Love 99: Retelling the past through the eyes of the present

We love to run forward, but how often do we take the time to think back. To allow ourselves to be overcome by a desire to journey into our past, explore it, relive it.

We have all experienced what it feels like to suddenly feel awash in memory. To momentarily leave the present and be transported, through the swirling stream of consciousness back to moments we have already lived. Some of them good, some of them sad – many of them times we wish to be able to take back or at least revisit. Remembering the past allows us to retell our old stories to ourselves through the eyes of the present.

It is important to relive the past, but it is also important to retell it in the words of the present. It is easy to allow the past to fester in the feelings attached to the moment of our experience of it. A terrible break-up, the loss of a loved one, a moment when we were rude or dismissive of someone – all of these are events in our lives which live on in our memories. The trouble is that we often let them sit like a great big anchor keeping us fixed to a place that should be left behind us.

To retell the past in the words of the present is to allow ourselves to grow and move forward. This is not revisionist history. No one can change the facts of the past. We can, however, change our understanding of them, put them in context. Often this means finally judging one of our past actions as bad, and then moving on from it, having made our peace with it, accepted that we did something uncaring, or stupid, or reckless or selfish, and then rejected it. That is a liberating thing. It means we can clear that blemish from our hearts, and walk with a spring in our step again. To simply accept regrets as “part of me” without being critical of them, evaluating them or rejecting them make prison-houses of our memories.

To retell the story of the past through the lens of the present is profoundly human. It fits into the idea that “time heals all wounds.” It is liberating. It makes us understand that we are limited by context, and we should be aware of this limitation.

Really, this way, the pain then can become part of the happiness now, as was famously said by C.S. Lewis. If we don’t re-evaluate past regrets in light of present-day achievement or happiness, then what happens is that we accumulate regrets, and they become like a thousand anchors, forever keeping us paddling just to stay in place. They pull us back and forth, and we are never master of our own lives.

No, to look at things from our past that we regret and retelling that story in the context of who we are today, who we surround ourselves with today is a first step toward forgiving ourselves. That makes us more likely to forgive others.

Life-Love 98 – The rustle of leaves

We may live very busy lives, full of places to go, people to see, and anxieties that weigh upon our minds, nature is constant and reassuring. A walk in the woods is a salve for the soul, and the most beautiful music in the world is that composed by rustle of leaves in the trees, stirred by a breeze. Soothing and mysterious, it calms us and reminds us that the whispering melody, subtle and changeable, is a quiet anthem, giving us information and reminding us that we are alive.

The rustle of leave is a constant in our lives. We have heard it as we walked home from school as children, and when we went for a run to burn off some calories in middle age. We have heard it during quiet moments on park benches, when we contemplated something in our lives – a break-up, a success, or simply the joy of a quiet moment in the park with a coffee or a sandwich at lunch. We have heard the whispering rustle of the leaves in our travels – on any continent, a stroll or a moment of idle reflection was always accompanied by the flow of the air, made real and symphonic by the trees around us.

And so the rustle of the leaves is constant for us – a whispered reminder of our humanity, our connection to nature. It is a sound of portent, for we only really hear it when we are listening to ourselves – our thoughts, our feelings, and the story of our memories.

My father put it best once, as we were walking through the woods, north of Toronto in the Hockley Valley. We sat down on a stump and ate our BLT sandwiches, sipping coffees from little steel cups. We were quiet for a while, then he asked me: “Do you hear that?” I replied yes, of course. He said that it was his favourite sound in the world, and eager to understand a piece of the puzzle of my father’s life, I asked why. His answer was simple:

“Because it was the song of my childhood.”

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