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.”

Life-Love 97: Being bold

Fortune favours the bold, said the classical Roman poet, Virgil.

It is easy to live life meekly. In fact, our culture encourages meekness and self-effacement. We are told that we shouldn’t speak too much of our accomplishments, or the people we know. We are told that we should fit in and conform. What’s most surprising is that the individualistic culture of social media and the Internet, seems to have actually encouraged the opposite personality! Facebook and Twitter feel like they are having a levelling effect on many of us – presenting a normal way of thinking about politics, fashion, morals and even things like what we feel is right, or good or true. So while we feel in control as we surf the boundless ocean of information on the ‘net, we feel the weight of communal opinion, rather than the freedom to be ourselves.

This is logical, in a way. Social media has brought us into a more oral culture than before. We read less linearly, we jump from hyperlink to hyperlink. We focus less and make quicker judgements: “Is this page pleasing to me? Should I stick around?” The quick-change nature of the medium encourages us to graze information and to look at things that we might find objectionable or difficult to hold in our hands, if they were written in a magazine or a book. When we hold a magazine or a book, it feels like we take more responsibility for the contents of those communication products than when a flickering assembly of light and colour and sound dances in front of our eyes as the result of a click.

In a word, the culture of social media encourages conformism. That’s why it is so refreshing when we feel the drive to be bold. Being bold means stubbornly sticking to principle and values in a room full of people with whom we disagree. There is nothing more uncomfortable, but ultimately more satisfying than busting up a dinner or cocktail party by refusing to participate in spreading a rumour, or, stubbornly defending someone who is being gossiped about or even slandered. Sometimes being bold requires putting your neck out, and being considered a carmudgeon, black sheep or a stick in the mud.

It is reassuring when someone does this. It makes you feel more comfortable in the world, knowing that someone is standing on principle. It makes that person’s behaviours predictable and reliable. It means that you can count on that person to stand up for you if you are standing on truth or principle. Being bold means sometimes striking out on your own and walking a lonely path. Being bold about the truth means that you are shooting an arrow into the future, an arrow whose trailing filament will lead others to the bold vision that you have had. They will follow its shimmering arc, and find its landing spot. There, they will congregate around you or your idea, and you will have changed the world.

Virgil was right.

Life-Love 96: Missing someone

We spend so much of time focused on the future. We are told to keep our noses to the grindstone, our eyes on the prize, and make sure that everything we do has future-focus. While this attitude and approach to life can assure that we will expedite the achievement of our goals, it can also narrow the focus of our dreams and our imagination. Being so focused also makes it difficult to appreciate those around us. We tend to reduce our appreciation of them, not see them in the fullness of what they bring to us.

Sometimes we even dismiss the people around us, or avoid them because we worry that they will detract from laser focus on our goals. We do this and don’t even notice it. We don’t see the longing looks that people give us, the extra moment they tarry at our door before they walk away at the end of the day, the wide-eyes – deep pools of feeling – that are turned upon us. We don’t bathe in the depths of that affection, rather we shrug it off and get back to work. Or, we aren’t sure if expressing or noticing the depth of another’s feeling towards us is appropriate and we allow ourselves to be bounded by the strictures of propriety.

There are moments, however, when we break through the boundaries of our ambitions, our focus and of propriety. Sometimes we are struck by how much we miss someone.

It generally happens in an unexpected moment. And it is most acute when you feel otherwise happy and secure. For when you feel anxious, fragile or unwell, it is natural to miss those around you, but those feelings are suspect because they are born of weakness and dependence.

Rather, it is when the pangs of longing for another’s company, her hand, her face in proximity to yours, strike you during sunny and secure moments, perhaps even during moments of victory or celebration, that you know how real your feelings for that person are.

When you are in the company of good acquaintances at dinner, or during dinner after a successful day of meetings and business – these are moments when you should be satisfied and comfortable, when we should enjoy a glass of wine in peace. Perhaps at the movies, a concert or at the opera, and experiencing something beautiful and inspiring – your heart is sent soaring by the art you are witnessing. But all is not right in what should be a delicious moment.

When memory of a person or a yearning to have them here with you, sharing the moment of victory, or quiet transcends your appreciation of the moment – you know that you truly miss someone. You feel changed. You feel as though you are deeper. You are suddenly happy to know that the person you miss exists in the world – a realization that makes the world suddenly seem a lot more full of beauty and possibility. You can’t wait to see the person again.

This is an electric moment.

For you have discovered something beautiful, because you’re feeling something exquisitely human. Someone has touched your heart and left an indelible mark.

Life-Love 95 – College life

As a society, we really are enamoured with power and control.On a grand scale, our leaders speak of controlling deficits and borders, our national image and crime. Closer to home, we think a lot of what it means to be in control of our lives. We worry about being manipulated or not realising all of our potential freedom. We are sometimes suspicious of others, thinking of them as possibly wanting something from us, or wanting to trap us and use us.

Sadly, this is sometimes – perhaps even often – justified. Ours a world that has become terribly materialistic and lost its sense of wonderment at the simple things: being alive, having friends and family, maybe just feeling each of your breaths. Everywhere we turn, we find ourselves being seduced, charmed and cajoled.

But these are shallow feelings. They are brittle. The seduction of the material is not a call to love, rather it is a call to control. It makes us look at others for their attributes, rather than for who they are.

I remember a story told to me by one of my students. She was a very striking young woman, who had made a career in modelling and come to university a little later than the norm, in her early twenties. We went for a long walk around McMaster’s campus, upon a sunny summer afternoon, for she was taking my evening Introduction to Communication class and had come a little early to ask me some questions about one of the assignments. She talked a lot during our walk, which must have lasted about 20 minutes. We wound our way around the campus, through the lovely flowerbeds that criss-cross the central commons, past the green houses containing the mysterious flora gathered and grown by the university’s botanists.

I didn’t say much, I just listened. For her words painted a scene of incredible depth and beauty. She spoke in broad brush strokes, since, due to the many travels afforded a successful model, her years were full of experiences, of beautiful things and vistas she had seen and touched, of people she had encountered. Her eyes shone and her pace quickened when she spoke of nature or of things crafted: the craggy cinque terra, driving through the Swedish forests, attending haute couture runway shows where the clothing told her stories of the dreams of the artists who designed them.

Her face was often shrouded when she spoke of the people she had met. She’d look down, and her voice would deepen, her words would slow. She told stories of artists, yes, who inspired her, but mostly she spoke of grasping, small people who wanted to trap her. Who didn’t speak to her, but at her. Who classed her as one of the objects in the room, to be admired, put on a pedestal or – sadly – to be put down, controlled and used. They weren’t human to her, they were wraiths who drained the young women, aspiring artists and designers around them, who are so hopeful and full of creativity and dreams, taking away the spark of life and humanity. Reducing everything to brittle image and stuff.

She told me she was happy to be back in Canada, studying at university, surrounded by people who appreciated one another a little more for who they are and what they have to say, what they can do. She loved delving into the ideas of men and women who think critically about society, media and culture; who imagine beautiful possible futures and then express them in word or art or sound. She told me that felt her heart soften and her breathing slowly deepen when she had conversations with those who revel in trying to understand the world and feel empathy for others.

Our walk ended as we came back to my office building. She said smiled, thanked me and walked off to buy a coffee to make it through the late evening lecture. Dusk had gathered up the light of the evening, and I had to take a moment to plan the three hours of lecture and discussion I would lead very shortly. As I walked up the narrow staircase to my office, and sank into my chair, putting my legs up on my desk and leafing through my notes, I realised that I forgotten to turn the lights on. I got up and flicked the switch which clicked, and my office was filled with electric light. I stood there immobile for a couple of seconds, adjusting to the sudden change in illumination. As I sat down and leaned back in my chair, I realised that my life is rich, that I am blessed to be able to share moments such as one I just had, that conversation and sharing are really at the heart of the academic life.

I felt a surge of tenderness for that young woman, who had travelled so far, experiencing so much, but who had discovered a path to truth and imagination in her own backyard. For she had reminded me of why I love college life. At its best, it is a human life; a gentle life. A life of thinking and feeling, creating and discovering. It is a journey  – both into your heart and out toward society. Indeed, college life can be profoundly human.

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