How I became an academic: thesis writing and defense

In the last three blog posts, I have recounted how my elementary, high school, undergrad, early grad and year in France led me to become an academic. In this blog post, I take the story to the end of graduate school, and the introspective journey that was my PhD thesis writing and defense.

I returned from France equipped with a new vigour, a new hope. I left the moody skies of Paris behind me on a grey, wind-whipped drizzly day in early September, just before Labour Day. The flight back was a very different one from the flight out. I felt peaceful while boarding, and slept easily and deeply. It was a comfortable, dreamless sleep – restorative instead of transformative – a night’s swim through dark, warm waters which felt so enveloping that it was hard to tell whether I was swimming or flying through soft, warm humid air.

The first thing I did upon my return from France was try to recover. The euphoria that I had felt while in Paris had actually masked several minor health problems that a year of living in a very polluted diesel-fueled city, eating far too much bread and cheese, and generally not taking care of myself had brought on. Living in a cloister, as I had been at the École Normale Supérieure, can be a very healthy thing, if one also assumes the self-denial and structured rhythms of the monk’s life. I had not. I had experienced Paris to the fullest, and it had worn me out – physically and emotionally. I just hadn’t felt it because I think I had been on a year-long adrenaline rush. To make a long story short – I came home and crashed at my parents’ home in King City for two weeks. I also discovered that I had developed a spasmotic colon (which went away), very mild asthma (also went away) and a host of childhood allergies that resurfaced (still struggling with some), once my body began to re-adjust to being home.

This was when I really began in earnest to try and live healthily. I cooked almost entirely for myself as well as for my parents, grandmother and brother. When I wasn’t cooking, I learned from my grandmother, who is such a purveyor of gourmet fare that I felt no difference when exposed to the great feasts of the expat elite or the diplomatic corps that I experienced while in Paris. I had eaten like royalty all my life and, in fact, our nourishment was greater than that of king or queen, for it had been prepared in the fire of profound and caring family love. I have always cooked with caring since, and I remain convinced that easy and graceful hospitality is at the heart of the good life. I also learned that deep-city living isn’t for me – better the pastoral hills of King Township, the maritime idyll of the Gaspésie or the golden farmer’s fields of Ancaster for me. I have found though, that a drive into the city and you are there in the thick of things  – a small sacrifice for a healthy life.

Academically, one of the great conundrums that I faced upon my return was what topic my thesis should center upon. Up to that point, I had been enamoured with the study of the human mind through the lens of the various ways evidence of its breakdown can be found in the decline of a person’s human language faculty. That is to say, I was fascinated by what speech and language pathology could tell us about how the mind works. The problem was that I found the methods and results of clinical investigation to be profoundly unsatisfying. I love big ideas – I love uncovering the myriad connections between unlike things: how does a word come into being in the mind? what part of my mental landscape does it occupy? how does my mental world differ from that of others? How is it that communication has such a profound impact on our feelings, thoughts, beliefs and desires?

These were the questions that animated my thoughts, and they pulled me inexorably out of the orbit of linguistic theory and toward the world of communications, content analysis and cognitive science. It was at this time that I started really hanging out with Philippe Martin, a brilliant, yet reclusive engineer with many patents and two PhDs – one in acoustic engineering and the other in experimental phonetics – who introduced me to the world of computer programming, artificial intelligence and the philosophy of intelligent systems. I was fascinated by the concept of modeling human cognition in formal systems and machines and we spent countless hours talking about how the soft version of AI was going to slowly, but without fail, change the world as we know it – integrating machines more seamlessly into our lifestyles, workflow and thought processes.

It was during the fall of 1998 that I also met the extraordinary character who ran the McLuhan Centre at the University of Toronto – Derrick de Kerckhove, a Belgian aristocrat, professor of French culture and confidante of Marshall McLuhan. His enthusiasm for McLuhan’s thought and futurism inspired me to investigate the realm of communications and media studies. I read the Mechanical Bride and rekindled a an on-and-off lifelong love affair with communications, media studies and public relations that fuels my inner fire to this day. I found McLuhan’s intricate reasoning process fascinating and engrossing. I would read some his work and not see the hours pass as my mind ran through the richness and texture of McLuhan’s critical thought and writing style.

From McLuhan I moved on to Harold Innis, from Innis to Gadamer, from Gadamer to Lonergan, from Lonergan to Ellul and Derrida, from Derrida to Teilhard de Chardin, Baudrillard and Foucault. Then I was struck by the profoundly political nature of this work, and I dived into an intense two-year-long conversation with my old friend and confidante, Lars Wessman, who had by now joined me as a doctoral student in French Linguistics at the University of Toronto. Lars opened the world of political philosophy to me, and I read the founder thinkers of the neo-conservative movement – Strauss, Bloom, Rosen and many others; and the foundational thinkers of leftist political philosophy – Habermas, Marx, Hegel and many others. Much of this reading mirrored the social theory courses that I loved at York University – I was finally weaving the different threads of philosophical yarn together into a tapestry that made sense to me. At the same time, Philippe Martin was exposing me to the great thinkers of computer science and the philosophy of computation, and Parth Bhatt was stressing the importance of knowing the works of the great pragmatic American philosopher and arguably the founder of the field of cognitive science, William James.

I was drunk on the limitless possibility of drawing connections between philosophy, culture, technology, communication and politics. Everyday was spent reading and letting my mind – a little row boat – bob and weave through the stormy waters of Western thought. It was exhilarating and all-consuming, of current interest and ancient, focused and yet dispersed. I was 24 years old and suddenly a flood gate had been opened in my mind. Paris had been the crysalis that permitted my transformation and now I was in full-swing.

It was a rocky time emotionally – I was conflicted about what to write my thesis about. I wasn’t sure how to tie these strands together in a work of scholarship that would not only satisfy the requirements of the PhD program in French Linguistics at the University of Toronto, but also make me employable in a very tight job market. Positions in the humanities and social sciences were extremely rare and subject to hundreds of highly qualified applicants, many of whom had far better résumés than I. Unemployment, and the possibility of not being able to continue along my current trajectory of thought and complete engagement with reading, writing and teaching those ideas with which I was in love, terrified and depressed me.

Doing a PhD is not like taking a second 4-year BA, or picking up intensive training in a technical specialty. It is a complete mental, emotional and spiritual commitment to a project at a time in your life when most people are getting married, buying cars, making babies and fighting off the cozy chubbiness brought on by comfortable evening bbqs on the deck and casual meetings with friends at Starbucks. Goodness no! Doing a PhD is a profoundly moving, deeply introspective, lonely journey of four or five or six years during which you face yourself, your inner motivations, your ability to commit to a project that is entirely and inescapably yours.  A project, the success or failure of which will define a large part of your identity for the rest of your life on Earth. The PhD is not a trifle. It is the last true remaining institutional life-challenge, in our age of grade inflation and credential creep. It is a lonely trip into your mind and across the mental landscapes of those who have come before you and have formed the world of culture and science that most of us take for granted. A successful PhD is, quite simply, proof of your capacity for depth as a person. Doing your PhD is a gigantic personal commitment.

So you can imagine the fear that a PhD student feels when he or she thinks of the possible poverty and career oblivion that await should the prevailing winds of the job market blow awry. You can be taken off course and into the doldrums, just when you are ready to set sail and make your mark as a newly minted doctor. So, I would visit with my parents often and, upon every visit, I would go for a very long walk with my mother. She was a great source of advice, for she had enjoyed a very successful academic at York University – she designed the first incarnation of York’s French teacher education program, as well as the first incarnation of French Linguistics in the Department of French Studies at York. She has also been Master of Calumet College (a Dean of Students position) and done much to further the cause of women faculty at York during her 35+ years tenure there. My mother is also a highly respected and much beloved pedagogue, having won several teaching awards and been co-author of 14 textbooks. Finally, she has served as consultant to several organisations on matters pedagogical. In sum, she has had a very rich and service-oriented career as a university professor. We would walk and talk – she would listen and give me the same simple advice: “pursue your passion, keep the thesis focused, and above all – GET IT DONE FAST!” And so I did – I ended up working with Philippe Martin, Parth Bhatt and Graeme Hirst (of the Computational Linguistics group) – all of whom inspired and mentored me in countless way, and to whom I am eternally grateful.

I finished the thesis in April of 2000, midway through my fifth year and defended it on September 18th on a dark, gloomy and rainy day at in a small room at the School of Graduate Studies on St. George St. at the University of Toronto. The defense was long and challenging, but I think I answered the questions fairly well and after 2o minutes of deliberation and discussion, the committee welcomed me back into the exam room and each member shook my hand: “Congratulations Dr. Sévigny – after some minor revisions, which we are leaving in the care of your supervisor, we are ready to pass your thesis and grant you the title of Doctor of Philosophy.” Afterward, we all went to the University Club, had a drink and then, because for the others, this was one night among seven in their week, of thirty-odd in their month, and they had things to do and people to see, we scattered into the inky liquid darkness of a rainy, cold Toronto night and I found myself alone. I walked on my own for two hours that night – letting it sink in that my journey of the last five years was finally done. I couldn’t believe it – I felt flat and calm and small… I was done. Wow. Done. How could I be done? How was it possible? Most of all, I felt I just needed to sleep.

So I had a coffee at a Tim Horton’s near the university, warmed up, dried off and gathered my thoughts. Then I slipped into the entrance of the Museum subway station and took the long ride up to Yorkdale Mall, where I had left my car. I got there just as the shops were shutting down and the Mall had that tired, dreamy feel that comes at day’s end – shopgirls were tippy-toeing in their colourful heels to pull down security valences and grillings, teetering but not falling; service workers were sweeping languidly and the last commuters were shuffling out from the subway entrance, through the mall and toward the parking lot, their cars and a short evening of peace alone or with their families, before sleep should overcome them.

I walked through this scene like a ghost – not sure what my role in the play was; feeling like a wraith after my ordeal of a few hours before, when I had been examined on my life project, on my passions, on my personal convictions and had passed. One of the members of the committee had even said that during the defense I became the examiner of my examiners, but I think she was just being kind. Now I was in the most normal of Canadian environments – a Mall. And it all felt as though it had never happened.

I walked to my car, put the key in the lock, got in, fired up the engine and drove robotically to my parents’ house in King City. I hadn’t called home, so my mother was on pins and needles to find out what had transpired. After a few minutes of recounting how events had unfurled, we had some home-made Macedonian pizza, called komat, a little cup of Turkish coffee and then I took a long, hot bath and went to sleep.

I knew that I had a new great challenge waiting for me in two weeks – a challenge that would change all of my thinking about what’s important in life and redefine my understanding of what it means to be Canadian. For I had a post-doctoral position awaiting me, under the supervision of my long-time friend and mentor Dr Danielle Cyr, who was Vice-Provost at the Université du Québec à Rimouski. We were about to embark on the construction of a dictionary of the Mìgmaq language and culture.

The postdoc changed my life, my thinking and transformed my ambitions. It is also what brought me to my tenure-track position at McMaster.

But that is a tale for my next blog post, in which this story takes a very surprising turn…


How I became an academic: First part of grad school (1995-1997)

In my two previous posts, I gave an impressionistic account of how my experiences in elementary and high school, and undergraduate studies influenced my eventual journal to academia. In this post I will discuss my grad school experiences and how they contributed to who I am now.

I finished my B.A. with the idea that I wanted to access to a life of making a difference. I wanted to have the possibility to find quiet, to be able to focus my thoughts, develop myself and grow into an identity that would permit me to do something that would help the world in some way. I was not enthralled with business because, while I respected commerce enormously as a means of unlocking the constructive potential in people’s hearts, doing it was a secondary focus for me. I lived in the world of my mind: I loved learning, solving problems and exploring the thoughts and minds of those who had committed their mental universes to paper. I loved reconstructing the inner worlds of those philosophers, writers, artists and scientists whose work I studied.

I was fascinated by 20th century French philsophy. In fourth year I took a reading course with Dr Paul Laurendeau, a man who since has left York University.  When I knew him, he was one of the most brilliant and passionate scholars of literature, language and philosophy I had ever met. He lived for the ideas that we toyed with every Thursday in his office in McLaughlin College at York University, and it is because of him that I ended up doing an MA in French Linguistics at the University of Toronto.

My M.A. year at the University of Toronto was challenging. My M.A. supervisor was Dr. Parth Bhatt – a brilliant and kind man who opened the world of neuroscience to me. Parth’s approach was philosophical rather than experimental and that suited me just fine, a young man of 19 who loved abstraction and was thirsty for a macroscopic understanding of the world. Language has always been my greatest skill and so a degree in linguistics made sense. My native language was French, which made the department a propitious place for me to feel comfortable, and the French school of linguistic theory was far more interdisciplinary and open-minded than American linguistics, which had become dominated by generative grammar, a theory of mental grammar first developed by Noam Chomsky at MIT in the late 50s. I wasn’t interested in the static model of language construction that Chomsky’s theory was based on and promoted. I found it reductionist and unrealistic. I recognise now that Chomsky’s vision for linguistics was necessarily thin – he was trying to build a theory of a very specific thing: a backwards-engineered model of the LAD (language acquisition device). At the time, I wanted to understand how language contributed to the human condition and helped to build reality. So I did my MA in psycholinguistics, analysing two cases of conduction aphasia from a semantic perspective. I think it was a successful work, although I never published it. I was too busy reading the next book, figuring out the next big idea that I wanted to explore. I was so excited by knowledge.

After finishing my M.A. degree, I embarked directly on the PhD. I started when I was 20 years old. I was a little young for a PhD student – a bit of an oddity in the Linguistics Section of Department of French at the University of Toronto. I did my coursework, but was bored through much of it. I loved the functionalist courses I took with Parth Bhatt and Henry Schogt – they excited me because they blended the social with the cognitive. Science with culture. I was thrilled to learn of the intersection of psychology and linguistics. But as the first year ended and my second year began, I was tiring of linguistic theory. It seemed contrived to me – a complete construction born out of a desire to fit a square peg into a round hole. I felt as though the work I was doing with aphasic data wasn’t getting me anywhere, that the results I was coming up with were very narrow and anecdotal. So I did my first comprehensive exam with Henry Schogt on Danish School Functional linguistics, with a focus on Louis Hjemslev. It was fascinating and exciting. I did my second comprehensive with Parth Bhatt on communication disorders. I enjoyed that immensely too – mostly because of the depth and breadth of Parth’s knowledge and compassion as a scholar.

The other thing that happened during the first two years of my PhD was the Internet. It changed everything. Suddenly an international community of scholars was open to me. I got my first email account, in 1995, at the instigation of my friend at the time, Henriette Gezundhajt. She a Jewish woman from Paris, who was completing her PhD when I started. She quite a character – an extraordinary person who opened many ideas up to me. I thought the world of her and we got on like a house on fire. She was eccentric but brilliant. The world wide web opened my also – I started my own webpage and started to understand the power of being able to communicate across the world. I remember the very first time I used a website – it was on my Macintosh PowerBook – I checked out the website of chass (computing in the humanities and social sciences) at U of T. Wow. It hit me like a ton of bricks: walls were tumbling down, limits were being erased, structure was both imploding and exploding at the same time. Ideas were being pulled into a vortex of change and the social and discursive structures around us pulled down with them.

It was at this point that I became acquainted with the work of Marshall McLuhan – but that wasn’t something I would delve into until a couple of years later. At the time I visited McLuhan’s coach house at the U of T, at Henriette’s instigation, and met the enigmatic Derrick de Kerkhove who had been McLuhan’s student and confidante.

At the very tail end of that year, I did a “Concours par dossier” and was accepted as a pensionnaire étranger at the École Normale Supérieure, 45 rue d’Ulm in Paris. It was a year that would change my life.

But my time at the ENS will be the subject of my next blog entry. Until next time.

How I became an academic: My undergrad years

In my last blog post, I talked about how my elementary and high school years influenced me to become an academic. In this post I will talk about university. For a synopsis of my undergrad experience, you can read the first part of this post on why I am a university professor.

I had an amazing time during my undergrad years. I got involved in many things: I played sports, I traveled, I joined cultural and political clubs. I dated for the first time – yes, I was a late bloomer in that regard, but I was very picky about my partners, as I have always been (maybe that’s why I have been single for the last few years). I went to concerts and clubs. I studied very hard and achieved high grades and won essay prizes. I held a very wide range of part-time jobs. I worked in positions as diverse as staffer to the owner of a small PR agency, telemarketer, translator-interpreter, gas station attendant and aide in a nursing home. It was quite something. I also ran my own company for a little bit, with a friend of mine from childhood, Luigi Aceto. It was called “DPS: Desktop Publishing Specialists” and was quite successful while we both had time to make a go of it. I haven’t seen Lui in a long time – I wonder what he has become.

I threw myself into the world, but I have to say I cautious and impulsive at the same time. I tried really hard to stay within the realm of my principles. I knew that crossing certain thresholds could ruin my chances at a full and happy life replete with opportunity. So I was impulsive and headstrong and probably pretty high strung, but I was also very careful and tried to make good choices.

In terms of sports, I tried out for a York hockey team and got so badly clobbered by a malicious hit that I suffered a pretty bad concussion. That was the end of hockey for me – a sport that I really loved. Seventeen years old and very resilient, I started looking for a new one. I didn’t have to wait long. The summer after my first year of university, I went to live in the South of France to allegedly study French Language and Literature. Ha. What I really did was take 6 months worth of Art History and archaeology courses. I spent many a beautiful day in the cathedrals, monasteries, country churches, vinyards and museums of the South-West of France. I particularly lover the Roman ruins overlooking the city of Montpellier. My friends and I would cook up a storm and then take it with us in wicker baskets to the top of the Montpellier Aqueduct, which is still functioning and in use from Roman times. We would dine on blankets and watch the sun set spectacularly over the horizon, splashing colours across the grey-blue canvass of the heavens at dusk. The aqueduct was a long, elevated highway to the sky trailing out to the horizon. A sky lit up in the vivid, breathtaking reds, mauves, ochres and oranges that splash and bathe the desert countryside of the Languedoc-Roussillon, exploding in a final burst of creative fire before night would come to bring cool, dry darkness and a canopy of stars tracing sparkling serpents in the sky.

One day, while in the Place de la Comédie – Montpellier’s central square – while lounging over coffee with a Dutch model whom I had befriended, and who was in town for a photoshoot that seemed to last for weeks, I saw a demonstration of a what appeared to me a most peculiar sport. A few men and women had gathered in the centre of the square, near the fountain, and assembled a stage on tiny risers that hovered about 6 inches off the smooth cobble stone. They were dressed in white and looked terribly elegant. They had a pavillion under which they were relaxing in café chairs, sipping water, eating oranges and emptying large oblong bags. The bags contained swords! How very strange. And intriguing. I watched as two of them – two women – suited up and slipped on their masks and fought. It was poetry in motion. They were so good at it. They glided up and down the piste, struck quickly and then retreated. Sometimes they would have extended rallys (I later learned they are called “dialogues”) which were elegant and very quick. I fell in the love with the sport – its romance, its intrinsic sense of honour and fairness, its beauty and history. I loved the fact that men and women both did it together. When I got back to York, after getting registered and making sure that my French Art History credits would count for something, I signed up for fencing and began what would be a love affair with an ancient art and modern sport that lasts to this day. I will write a blog post about fencing another day.

My undergrad was also a time of experimentation for me. At that moment, York was the site of struggles between many conflicting political perspectives. It bred radicalism the way mainstream television breeds apathy – radicalism was part of York’s DNA. York’s campus, for all its suburban blandness and industrial parks nearby, was electric with the possibility of political change, of revolution. Whether you were a liberal, a socialist or a neo-conservative, you could find your clan and surround yourself with people who were passionate and cared profoundly about arguing that their utopian vision of the world was the right one. The one that would change everything. How much espresso and how many beers did I consume while talking about politics? Most days and many nights, we lobbed ideas at one another and then ripped them apart. It was fantastic. For a preppy, somewhat sheltered, and slightly nerdy kid of 17, this was not only an education, but it was a taste of a cosmopolitan reality that I had just read about in Russian novels up that point. I got deeply involved: I published op-ed pieces in Excalibur, I edited the Francophone student’s newsletter and I became president of the French Club, the Fencing Club and became engaged with many other clubs. They were good times.

When I said I was impulsive, I wasn’t kidding. I had some crazy adventures – leaving to backpack around Romania on a whim, organising a whole trip or 15 people to Quebec City because I wanted to spend time with my Swedish girlfriend at the time and show her some of French Canada. I also debated what I would do with my life. I was tempted by law because I was a good talker, loved logic and reason and had a romantic turn of phrase. Something held me back, though. For a lefty Liberal, I had a surprising nose for business – always finding good jobs, favouring ones that worked on commission, because I knew that I would close many sales. I did some entrepreneurship on the side in desktop publishing, event planning and translating/interpreting. Life was good, but business didn’t feel quite right for me either. In fact, in fourth year, a charismatic professor told me: “You’re too creative and intelligent to go into law school or do an MBA. You should try a theoretical MA.” I wasn’t sure whether to believe him – I liked comfort and the finer things. I worried that the academic life would be too ascetic for me.

The one thing that got me down about York was the political correctness that was so rampant in the 90s. That was a real challenge for me – a child of reason, a progressive and emotional Catholic, a believer in old values of honour, virtue and decency. I believed strongly in “the Good”. And I still do. I was an undying optimist and I found many of my profs and TAs to be cynical – to have capitulated to fear. I often agreed with their critical perspectives. I saw misogyny and racism and classism around me too, but I believed passionately and fervently that we could change the world, make it more inclusive, deeper, friendlier, more caring. Every conversation I had with yet another jaded, enraged or complacent leftist academic actually strengthened my resolve to change the world. I organised people, I joined protests and I started to educate myself about Canadian politics for real. Most of all, I decided I would try teaching – it was a place that I could have a direct impact on young people’s lives (hopefully for the better), do meaningful research and deepen my understanding of the world.

However, my classes were a challenge. While I loved shooting the breeze with the radical lefties who taught my liberal arts, social science and humanities classes, I found their seminars constraining and boring. I was so frustrated, wanting to shake these old profs and bitter, defeatist, resentful young TAs and say: “Let’s do it. Let’s not just criticise, but let’s envision a better way. Let’s solve problems.” I realise now that much of this was driven by the arrogance of my youth and my own angst, and that I probably was a thorn in many a prof and TA’s side. However, when I meet them now, 15 or 20 years later, they all remember me. Most of them fondly. Many tell me that they support what I do now and what I stand for. I always felt they were my allies, but at the time they felt nihilistic and defeated. They had succumbed to the dark vortex of extreme relativism and I was too young and too optimistic and fully of energy to discern the symptoms. I believed in something then, and I still do today. I believe that you should believe. Believe in those you love. Believe in your values. Believe for those who have given up hope. Believe for those don’t believe. Believe in the transformative power of ideas. Believe in decency and equality. Believe. Believe. Believe. For I am convinced that belief is at the heart of a joyful life of purpose.

When I left York University, I felt that I had grown as a person. I was still very immature and quite arrogant, but York had planted the seed of thoughtful introspection and critical reflection in me. I gained an education during my undergrad, but I also gained a sense of purpose. A sense of the breadth of human experience and suffering. A sense of the profound loneliness and alienation many feel.

Most of all, I gained a sense that we have to change the world.

Not just in the often abstract way you hear from politicians. Rather in a human way – in a forgiving way. In a way where people feel comfortable with themselves and with one another and can find achievement, satisfaction and respect. Politics, economics and culture are one thing – but I got an intuitive feeling, leaving my undergrad at York, that the real change necessary was a change heart and change of path. That change had to be personal. It required knowledge, awareness and commitment to a set of principles that would guide you through the seething dark forest of potential pitfalls and sublime opportunities that the post-modern world presents. I realised that one must seek to activate something in others – something deep and ancient. Something good and noble.

What I didn’t know was just how much the World Wide Web was about to turn the world that I had known on its head. The ground would shift beneath our feet. That, however, is a story for my next blog entry.

Coming soon – How I became an academic: grad school.

Why I am a professor

A friend of mine challenged me recently to explain why I am a university professor.

“Why did you choose this path?” she asked me, over a glass of pinot grigio and nibblies on the terrace of the Bad Dog Café on trendy Locke Street in Hamilton, Ontario. “You’ve sacrificed a lot of your private life to build this career. Was it all worth it?” It was too heavy a topic for a sunny, breezy day, so I promised I would write her a reply on my blog.

I did not begin this path knowing where it would lead me. I remember being an undergraduate student at York University, and terribly impressed on the first day of my first class – The Classical Experience, taught by Dr Paul Swarney. It was a blustery, freezing January day and I was a few days shy of my 17th birthday. I had accelerated through high school because of a gifted program called PACE and, not wanting to waste any time, had enrolled in York’s winter-summer admission program. In some ways it was a back-door entry into the university system, and it meant that I missed out on all the festivities associated with frosh week and the pageantry of the beginning of a new academic year. In fact, I was done my last exam at Sacred Heart Catholic High School in mid-January and by the end of the month I was in my first university lecture. I loved what I heard and experienced. I loved wandering around York’s suburban snow-blanketed campus. I loved going to the Scott Library and reading under one of the skylights or listening to my walkman and drinking a coffee, watching the world go by. Although I was very social, I didn’t make many real friends. That has always been a challenge for me – I am very independent and have always taken a long time to trust others. I did enjoy many conversations though, attended a lot of club meetings, cultural events and the like. It was during my B.A. that I developed a lifelong love for watching dance: modern and ballet, ballroom and freestyle. My first term of university life opened up a world of possibilities for me, possibilities that are still unfolding in my life today.

And that is the central mission of the university for me – opening windows to a new understanding of the world in students’ minds.

I strongly believe that wisdom is born of lovingly applying reason to one’s experiences. Compassion and empathy are born of this practice. So is depth of feeling and caring. Why are these things important? Because they are at the core of the good life. I have met many people in my various travels who have told me that the good life comes of material possessions. This is false. Material possessions are wonderful and can adorn one’s life in the manner of a beautiful watch or bracelet, or make it easier in the manner of a blender or a four-wheel drive car. What they cannot do is bring you closer to the good.

Universities should strive to build in students a yearning for the good life. They should be accessible, open places, and a professor should be both a guide and a companion on that journey. I grow with my students. Sometimes through discussion over coffee or a beer in The Phoenix, our McMaster University pub. Sometimes through in-class interaction – answering questions, fostering discussion, sometimes even through the silent nonverbal feedback I get when I am lecturing. Sometimes during quiet, emotional moments in my office when young people who are faltering at meeting the challenges that life or the university has dealt them, open up to me and relate to me their dreams, their sadnesses, their frustrations and their aspirations.

Take the example of a student who, a few years back, faced great challenges because her father had suffered a heart attack which caused huge financial strain on her household. She was a bright, cheerful young lady who enjoyed socialising with her girlfriends in the student centre, going to football games to cheer on our McMaster Marauders, and studied very hard. Her world was rocked when she was suddenly flung into adulthood – having to take three jobs to pay her tuition – and thereby feeling that she was missing out on her youth and her university experience. Her grades suffered. She was struggling. We spoke for an hour – and she told me the tale of her troubles. She wept openly, and hid her face in her hands several times. We spoke of philosophy, of striving toward a goal, of personal honour and virtue. We talked of heroes of yore and those who have overcome great challenges. We talked of faith – in oneself, in others, in the future. We talked of prayer and meditation. And as our conversation flowed along, her heart was eased. Not by me – but by the connection to the tales of the alternation of light and darkness that are our history, both national and personal. By the firm belief that when one overcomes darkness and steps into the light, the glories of one’s life shine brighter than before. She left consoled.

A few weeks later, she sent me a note saying that it was conversations like the one she had had with me, with other professors and with thoughtful friends that keep her going. That lift her spirit and allow her to break the petty bonds of the sadness of the everyday. To strive, unflinchingly, for a brighter future.

That is the role of the university. To clear a path through the dark and forbidding forest that is fraught with fear and frustration. To give to students the space to develop the questioning spirit and the hopeful will to improve themselves and push forward and clear the path for themselves and then lead others to a better tomorrow.

That is how society progresses. We are all uplifted by a subtle but perceptible measure when a heart is turned from despair to hope. When a destructive influence is thwarted and an easy sunlit path is opened before someone. We all step a little more lightly when someone among us has experienced the freedom to feel joy. We are all enriched when two souls meet and find a sharing, generous love.

We live in a cynical age. In the 19th and 20th centuries, we put our faith in the machine, but the machine has failed us. Materialism has reduced our sensitivity to one another, to nature, and to the future. We have been numbed by the machine. People are not machines. We are far more complex than the most intricate of computers or space stations. The least among us is an astonishing blend of knowledge, and feelings and experiences.

Universities are one of the last bastions resisting against the onslaught of the machine. Although much diminished by materialism, closed mindedness and instrumentalism, they remain places where a citizen may find quiet. Where professors are allowed to exist in monastic autonomy and organize themselves. Where the ideas of the world meet to be debated, examined and pondered. Where people from all social classes, walks of life and backgrounds can gather in safety to discover one another and, in the process, perhaps discover something about themselves.

Universities are places where the classes mix – where we learn one another’s mores and cultures and ways of speaking and interacting. This knowledge is invaluable – without it there can be little success, since such a big part of being successful is knowing how to communicate with others in words that they understand; in appropriate words that make them comfortable. That is why universities must be accessible and professors must have the time to be available. Students must have the time to interact with one another too – in quiet ways, not just in the frenzied and often frantic hot house environment of the night club or the disco, but in the sweet moments of a crisp winter’s day walking from building to building; or on a park bench in the shade with a sandwich and some mineral water, a breeze caressing the skin and not a care in the world.

Our students live with a lot of stress. I see it in their faces. They are surrounded by machines. A laptop in front of them. Ear buds blocking out the world. A smartphone buzzing with always urgent messages. Email. Electronic learning systems that encourage them to communicate with other students online. Televisions flickering ghostly representations of how things ought to be, everywhere they go. Techno music blaring in clubs thumping to the beat of the heart, the beat of sex. Drugs, which are really just biological technologies, for improving their memory, keeping them awake longer, improving their mood, giving them access to a momentary feeling of freedom and bliss.

I find that technologies create a false sense of urgency, of expectatation that you’ll miss something if you log off, even for a moment. They reduce the way we think of our lives to inputs and output. One techonology causes you to feel stressed, so you find another technology to relieve that stress. Inputs and outputs. Machines – both mechanical and digital – impoverish our lives in that way. They distract us from seeking the good life – which is a shared, thoughtful, caring and human experience.

This saddens me. Not because I hate technology – anyone who knows me personally can attest to the fact that I am surrounded by it! But I live my life mostly in my mind, and I stubbornly refuse to allow the machines that I work with and that surround me to determine my actions. I try and grow a garden. I cook for myself a lot. I use a fountain pen and I wear a hand-made mechanical watch. I like the fact that it doesn’t keep absolutely precise time. My research may one day help to build intelligent digital machines, but I am quite happy to sequester myself away from them.

Universities should offer respite from that machine intelligence. They should be peaceful places. They should allow the people in them to move at their own pace – within reason, of course.

I became a professor because I love learning. I love reading and thinking. I love debate. I am addicted to the sweet intoxication of writing a good sentence.

I continue as a professor because I am profoundly moved every time I see a door of possibility open in a student or colleague’s mind. I am filled with joy every time a person around me shifts from confusion to understanding. I feel an upwelling of tears of hope and strength and relief when I hear a tale of someone overcoming personal darkness, insecurity and nihilism to take those blessed strides toward peace and freedom and confidence.

Do all of my colleagues think as I do? Certainly not. Some would call me a pollyanna. Others would promote the reduction and mechanization of the place. Some would take exception to my references to faith or classical heroes. Others may question my vision of the good life, of virtue and honour. But that is part of the richness of the place. It is a place where diverse ideas are put to the test of public controversy.  I would have it no other way.

For me the university means peace. It means freedom. It means inclusion and respect. It means sometimes holding back the curtain of darkness to let someone run through to light.

I firmly believe that these things are good things and I will struggle to protect them. I invite you to join me. For there is much more at stake than my job description, should our universities be transformed into training centres. At stake is one of the last remaining oases of freedom and civility and progress.

That is why I am a professor.

Measuring up for tenure and promotion at McMaster

Today we had an interesting discussion in our tenure and promotion committee meeting around documentation.

For those of you who know about how secretive universities tend to be, and how much word of mouth tends to rule the roost, you’ll be surprised to learn that universities are moving to a system where less is done verbally and more is done in writing.

What do I mean?

Well, when I went up for tenure and promotion to associate professor in Fall of 2005, I faced a system that was very much based on my ability to guess what was required in terms of putting together a good dossier. This meant formatting my CV the right way, making sure my teaching philosophy statement was understandable and clear, and outlining my research statement and putting my best foot forward in terms of institutional and community service. This was then mulled over by various committees: the departmental (in my case two departments, since I was in a joint appointment at the time) committee, the Faculty of Humanities, the Senate and finally the Board of Governors. In the department, the committee deliberated as a group of equals; at the Faculty of Humanities committee my case was presented by my chair and a companion; at the Senate it was the Dean of Humanities who presented the case. The process was a game of rhetoric and persuasion – very much a case of having good, well-briefed rhetoricians (my chair and my Dean), acting on my behalf. Very little of what I had actually done was written down on paper, other than my statements and the letters from my external referees. Everythings was discussed.

Now things are changing. The process is about to become a lot more paper-driven.

We are instituting a mentor-system, where once a year, a junior or mid-career faculty member, seeking tenure and promotion to associate professor, or simply seeking promotion to full professor, has an interview with his or her chair and assigned mentor. The result of this meeting is a memo outlining the chair and your mentor’s opinions on your progress, as well as suggestions about things you might focus on and others you might de-emphasise.

As well, we are now meant to write up and maintain a teaching portfolio, in which we outline our innovations as educators, discuss our strengths and the way in which we engage students in our research. This is meant to be kept updated yearly and subject to discussion and commentary.

On the surface, these seem like two very good activities to do: being mentored, and keeping a record of teaching approach, both mean that records are kept, best practices can be noted and disseminated.

But there is a transformation underway in the Academy: a move away from collegial trust – the sort of trust you see in a law firm or a public relations firm among the principals, for example. The idea in the liberal professions is that once you become a “member”, that means tenure and promotion to associate professor in Academia, in law or PR firms it means becoming partner, you are a trusted member of a community of equals. In the Academy, it means that you share responsibility for the university’s governance, for its finances, for its image and reputation and for its physical beauty (grounds, buildings, works of art, etc.).

When we move away from the “college of equals” model toward a more bureaucratic one, we diminish the identity of the professoriate. We turn professors into civil servants and highly paid staff of the university. That means reducing the status of the profession, as well as making it less of an “oasis of calm” in a paper-pushing, key-performance-indicator measuring world.

Does this mean that documenting excellence in teaching and guiding junior professors toward productivity in research is wrong? Not at all. I think that official memos and continual mentorship are actually a modern means to promote a healthy exchange of wisdom from an older generation to a younger one. We live in a crazy busy world, and making mentorship and teaching portfolios an “official responsibility” are probably an effective way of making sure that the age-old college of equals is preserved and maintained.

It is however, important to remain vigilant about measurement and reporting. Whenever you leave a completely oral culture where everything is done verbally and informally, and start to adopt “written standards”, you risk having those “written-down standards” starting to count as precedent for things like refusing to grant tenure and promotion. “Sorry, Dr. Jones, we couldn’t grant you tenure and promotion to associate professor because you didn’t listen to our mentorship memos and you didn’t live up to your high-falutin’ teaching portfolio statements.” Taking advantage of the fact that there is documentary evidence of collegial, private mentorship so as to hit someone over the head with it is taking that documentation and turning it into bureaucratic process.

And what makes being a professor in the Academy such a great job is that there is an enormous amount of trust invested in professors. Trust from the parents who send us their children, trust from the tax payer who pay for a portion of our operating budgets, trust from one another to behave in a decent, caring and upstanding way. Trust from our students that we teach them with goodwill, honesty and open hearts – to create an oasis of learning and contemplation for them, that they might grow as people in a secure and peaceful environment.

There are so few secure and peaceful environments in our grasping, loud world. Let’s make sure that any changes we make to the Academy protect what’s great about our universities.

This means reinterpreting old traditions of collegiality, democracy and mutual trust – not replacing them with modern bureaucratic systems that diminish the university for all those who have placed their trust and hopes in it.

What’s wrong with Canadian universities – part 2: How to reform them?

On April 15, I wrote a blog post about why I think Margaret Wente is wrong to say that universities are sitting ducks for reform because the system is overly focused on professors and research. She said that professors, because of a sense of entitlement and because of tenure, think that they are above the citizenry. In my last blog post, I took this idea apart. In this post, I hope to start a conversation about how post-secondary education should be reformed. Not to reduce the system in the thoughtless way Ms. Wente advocates, but to truly position Canada’s citizens to be leaders in the Information Society that is upon us.

I want to emphasize that these are personal musings and shouldn’t be taken as a manifesto. They are born of my experiences and life path. I hope they are meaningful to you.

Education means to bring something out of someone, or to help someone reach personal potential. To do this requires sustained human contact. The professor-student relationship is exactly that – a relationship. And human relationships need time, and kindness and patience to develop. To bloom, relationships between people need space, and quiet as well as the opportunity to make mistakes and be forgiven.

Human contact doesn’t develop well in a constantly stressful and overcrowded environment. Being jostled, constantly waiting in endless line-ups, habitually not being able to enroll in the courses you want, not having a spare moment between waking and sleep. All of this leads to distraction, anxiety and a lack of focus in both faculty and students. It leads to a feeling of personal insecurity, of always feeling winded. Of running forward in breathless anxiety. But running where? There is no time to think about this and find out.

Downtime and quiet time is essential. Structure is necessary, of course. Structure provides order and predictability – stability, in a word. However, there must be a large place for unstructured living. I have heard the argument that giving students more leisure will lead to bad behaviour – drunken excess, drug-riddled partying, etc. I disagree. I think that these phenomena are the result of too much stress and busyness coupled with only tiny windows for leisurely contemplation.  Too many options, too many requirements, and heavy expectations for “productivity” are to blame for this situation. All of that structure and process infantilizes the students and transforms professors into service providers. There is no room for wisdom. No room for mastery of a craft. No room for theoretical and philosophical contemplation.

How can this situation change? Allow me to speak a little of my personal experience.

I have been a part of the McMaster community since 2001, when I was hired as the first professor in the brand new communication studies program. Because the program was new, I was able to play a huge part in building it from the ground up. Because the program was small and limited to a couple of hallways in Togo Salmon Hall, I got to know all of the students, and had a role to play in building our faculty team. I watched as our program grew and matured and developed around me. I watched our first cohorts of students mature and we changed the program to match their experiences. I kept live connections with our alumni through the new social media available to me: Facebook, Twitter and, of course, through my website. It all felt very familiar and familial – and continues to feel like that today. Our communications program merged with McMaster’s multimedia program in 2005 to form a new department. This year, our department had the largest number of undergraduate majors in the faculty of humanities. I am convinced that the smallness of our numbers and the intimacy of our space contributed to the special sense of community that we enjoy. It has been a whirlwind journey through almost ten years of growth and building. I have loved every minute (even the tough, low ones).

What did I learn from this unique set of professional circumstances?

I learned that a university education is born of the balanced interaction of five things:

  • Learning and mastering practical, professional skills. If you don’t know how to make things, it will be very hard for you to identify the good in things. There is a limit to armchair criticism.
  • Gaining an understanding of what those skills can do in the broader context of society, ethics, culture, economics, politics and, yes, perhaps even faith. All skills have value and have impact on the country. Gaining the theoretical frameworks to understand how your profession can have impact on your country is fundamental to being able to make ethical choices.
  • Mastering a discipline and thereby gaining a lens through which to understand your experiences in the world. There is a wisdom that comes of having intimate and profound knowledge of your craft, discipline or trade. It is solid. It becomes your way of understanding the world around you. If you are a communications person, you understand the world in terms of relationships between people and institutions and story-telling. If you are an engineer, you see a world organized around and by machines, rationality and buildings. Enlightened democracy comes of the conversation between people speaking credibly through these established “lenses.”
  • A sense of community with all other members of the university: faculty, students, staffers and service-people. The Academy should be a community devoted to learning, contemplation, character development, and discovery.
  • An open walking-bridge between the university and the other sectors of the country-at-large: government, industry and not-for-profits. Professors, industry people and civil servants should have greater mobility between among the three sectors. Right now, there is no flexibility and very little movement between these sectors. This is specialization and “sector atrophy” is leading to a “fragmented democracy,” where experts rule over tiny fiefs with closed minds and exclusive power.

In a knowledge society, the way we categorize knowledge in the school system will be mirrored in government and commerce. A society based on this kind of specialization can easily become a closed, stagnant technocracy. That is to say, a society governed by its experts instead of by the breadth of its own people. Openness, balance and flexibility are the keys to success for universities and colleges in 21st Century. Not expert rule.

To accomplish these five things, you need a post-secondary education that makes room for students (and professors) to gain knowledge, life experience, wisdom and caring.

Our universities and colleges should be re-organized to make this happen. Is it an impossible dream? Certainly not.

Building these institutions requires a basic material investment, of course. It means proper buildings, better grounds and more shared public spaces in which students, professors and community members can interact. Public spaces that also act as portals for the university to the other sectors. Public spaces which are easily accessible, open and welcoming. Places where people come together to observe, to share, to lounge, to eat and drink, to listen and to perform.

More importantly, this mission for universities and colleges requires a major cultural shift – away from the notion of a one-size-fits-all and one-speed-fits-all education. This means breaking down the walls between colleges and universities – and not just by tacking on a “College Year” at the end of a four-year Bachelor’s degree at university. It means finding a way of integrating college and university curricula in a thoughtful way that makes passing from one system to the other seamless. It means a thoughtful consideration of what colleges and universities contribute to the life of the mind and to the life of the hands. How do skills and theory come together to forge people and citizens who are better equipped to seek the good life?

A few years ago, Dr Geoffrey Rockwell and Dr Terry Flynn led a team that I worked on to develop a project like this for McMaster. We were going to build an integrated college-university learning community in Burlington as a new campus for McMaster University. This community would blend “applied skills”, theory, ethics, commerce and socio-cultural awareness in a small, urban, community-oriented campus environment. Students would graduate from a 5-year program with a college diploma, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree – while working on multi-year projects driven by socio-cultural, commercial or not-for-profit needs. It was splendid. And it would have worked. Administrative priorities changed, and the “Burlington Project” ended up being a graduate education centre for our business school – a great project, but very different from the original, radical concept.

Our students are leading the way forward by adopting social media and choosing personal growth and development, rather than seeking the trappings of conventional success. They are building Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village. They communicate quickly, learn fast and value emotional depth. They are also profoundly lonely, often overwhelmed by choices and stressed out by what appears to be a society where order has been replaced by “trends” and “information flows.” Business and politics are becoming much more Athenian in this way – rhetoric and persuasion are growing in importance and influence. Rules are becoming norms. Society is becoming symbolic. Information is everywhere – no longer is information confined to libraries and professors’ seminars.

Universities and colleges must adapt to this new reality. Not by paring down to the “bare bones” or by superficially rebranding themselves. Rather, they must become what they always should have been – open communities that serve society by permitting it to explore itself on campus. They should be cosmopolitan and flexible. The place of the professor is to help students and citizens (through public scholarship) navigate the ebb and flow of information. To be a trusted mentor and guide. To be an agent for change and a caring critic. To be a participant in community life and a trusted friend to the learner.

There are as many ways of feeling the world, knowing it and navigating it, as there are individuals in Canada. Each of us is born with a rich inner mental world. Each of us has dreams and fears, inspirations and anxieties. Each of us has a path to chart in our lives. Our technologies have suddenly and very abruptly shattered the dams that held back information in the past. We are flooded with ideas, images and feelings.

Universities and colleges should be safe and quiet places for us to explore ourselves. Explore knowledge, and explore how the world works.

They should be open places. People should be able go through their programs at different times during their lives. They should be open places where seminars and lectures invite the public learn and debate the pressing issues of our times. They should offer a constellation of diplomas, degrees, mini-courses, seminars, skill-building workshops, community learning, and distance-education programs.

Building this system will require a lot of thought. The system needs to be restructured to respond honestly to the changes that the information society and new communication technologies are bringing in the way we live, do business, relate to each other and govern ourselves. This sort of restructuring means new resources and a new investment. But more crucially, it means collaboration – collaboration between policy makers, professors, students, parents, industry people, civil servants and media types.

To properly and honestly adapt the post-secondary education system is a gargantuan, multi-year endeavour. But the 21st Century is the Century of Information and Communication. And the post-secondary system is the key to success and leadership in the 21st Century.

It’s time to wake up and re-build post-secondary education in an intelligent, caring and thoughtful manner.

The politician who leads the process of reform of post-secondary education for the 21st Century will join the pantheon of Canadian heroes.

NEXT TIME – What does it feel like to be a professor or a student these days?

What’s wrong with Canadian universities – part 1

The university system is limping, that’s for sure. But it’s because of short-sighted decisions by policy-makers, not because of rebellious professors, as Margaret Wente would have us believe.

I have been a professor of communication studies and French at McMaster University since 2001. In July of that year, I joined McMaster as the first professor in the Communication Studies Program. We started the program on a shoestring and a prayer. We had many students, one faculty member and lots of enthusiasm. I was 27 years old. Those were heady times.

Since then, the program has grown and matured, developing into the program with the largest number of majors in the Faculty of Humanities. Our alumni are very successful, our research and the fine art our faculty members produce is internationally recognized. This year we started a graduate program – a Master of Communication and New Media. We have an internship program that places at least 15 students per term. Now here’s the kicker: we did all of this with 5 and a half full-time faculty members. We are lean and efficient.

We do not have a sense of entitlement.

In fact, I think that Ms. Wente would be hard pressed to find the professors who don’t understand that they work for the citizenry. My colleagues are exquisitely aware that their jobs, and tenure, create for them a very privileged place in society. A sacred privilege that bears with it a serious responsibility to act as critics and commentators: people who are given the freedom by society to criticize it freely. This is a fundamental part of our democracy. It’s important.

I sat on McMaster’s University Planning and Budget Committees for three years from 2005-2007. I had a first-hand look into the pains that Deans take to make sure that every penny counts. I watched them struggle valiantly to meet the no-deficit stipulation put forward by McMaster’s Board of Governors and enforced by us on the Budget Committee. They cut where they could, they spread more work over fewer faculty. They downloaded as many tasks as possible. The faculty took all of this on and worked with it. They asked their research assistants to do more with less. They took care of many more menial tasks than ever before. They shouldered the administrative tasks of retiring colleagues who were not replaced. They did their part. For the most part, they didn’t complain.

Let’s talk about salaries.

Most faculty don’t really earn much money before their early thirties.

Think about this for a second: a typical young person finishes her BA at 22 years old, then her Master’s degree two years later at 24. Her PhD will take her 4-5 years, so that puts her at 28 or 29. After that, she’ll probably take a postdoctoral fellowship to beef up her publication record. That’s at least another two years, if not four. So now she’s 31. That means that she’s been in school, living on survival wages until her early thirties.

Then she might find a tenure track job – if she’s really lucky. If she lands a tenure-track job, she’ll probably be hired at a salary of about 70k. 31 years old, with neglible income during her 20s, makes 70k at 31 not a great payoff. Then she has to get tenure. That means another 6 years of 10-12 hour days and constant worry about whether she’s meeting the bar for achieving tenure in research, teaching and administration.  That means that at 38 yrs of age, she’ll be granted tenure and promotion to the rank of associate professor. She might be making 100-110k. She might still be single, not having found the time to marry or have children. She might be divorced, the stress of the previous 20 years leading up to tenure being far greater than many relationships could bear.

Then, to earn her annual salary adjustment or merit increase, she will have to face constant criticism and peer review. Constant scrutiny on a level only certain lawyers and surgeons and parliamentarians ever have to face. Again, if she’s lucky, she might be promoted to Full Professor seven or ten years later, at 48 years old. At that moment, she might be making 120-130k.

All-the-while, her “media profile” is measured and reported to her Dean, who encourages her to increase it. She has to apply for grant money from government, private and not-for-profit sources. She has to write op-ed pieces. She has to publish, direct MA and PhD theses, and go to at least one or two conferences per year. She gives public lectures, she is involved in community service, political action or community education.

Does this sound like a gravy train to you?

I didn’t think so.

What the system needs is an injection of resources to be able to keep professors productive. It makes no sense to have professors who work with skeletal administrative support. It makes no sense to have professors teach classes of hundreds upon hundreds of students. That isn’t education. It isn’t even training. It is a simulation of education – it’s just going through the motions and saying “we have universities and we push a large percentage of the population through those universities.”

If you look at the amount of money that the Province of Ontario spends on post-secondary education, it looks like a large number. But bear in mind that this is a number that hasn’t grown since Mike Harris cut funding to post-secondary education in the 1990s. Funding was flat-lined. This means that universities have been limping along using 1990s dollars in a 2010 economy.

A proper post-secondary education costs money. It is not cheap. Rather than bullying professors and threatening to take away tenure – neither of which will do anything to reduce the cost of delivering world-class higher education in Canada – Government should be finding ways of injecting much-needed resources into the system. That means choosing between a few options:

  • greater investment of taxpayer money,
  • multi-tiered system of universities,
  • privatization of several universities,
  • deregulation of tuition fees.

America has colleges that deliver spectacular results, both in terms of research and educating well-rounded, thoughtful citizens. But American student-professor ratios of 10 to 1 are very costly. Tuition fees often hover between 25-40k, and we’re not talking about ivy-league schools here. Just typical, small, liberal-arts colleges.

The great American institutions, such as Dartmouth and Princeton are small and spectacularly well-funded. Princeton has fewer than 7,000 students. Yale has fewer than 12,000. Those are small institutions compared to Canada’s giant schools (McMaster has approximately 22,000 students, U of Toronto has over 60,000, York more than 50,000).

So, in a word – Margaret Wente should understand what she is talking about before she speaks.

The Canadian university system need fixing. But let’s get our facts straight: the professors aren’t the problem – the funding model is.

Canada needs a powerful, national vision for post-secondary education. And it needs it now. Post-secondary education is the key to prosperity from today until the year 2100.

The policy-maker who comes up with a serious plan for post-secondary education will be remembered as one of this century’s great visionaries.

TOMORROW – why education matters.