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.


How I became an academic: Part 1: My Elementary and High School Years.

Sometimes committing to something years in advance is a tricky thing. Your life can change significantly in the intervening time and you can find yourself feeling a little anachronistic when the moment of fulfilling your commitment arrives. That’s what it felt like for me to organise and host the LACUS linguistics conference a week ago. Here are a few thoughts on how my life background led me to academia. Or at least led me to where I am now.

Elementary School

Oh, what blissful moments I spent in elementary school! I loved reading and writing and painting. Sports and phys-ed class were my faves. Playing hide and seek, frisbee in the schoolyard with the other kids, playing handball against the wall of the school. I as competitive, but in a caring way – in the end, I really wanted everyone to win! It’s funny, when I think back, I was such an open, caring and loving little guy. Sadly, a terrible tragedy struck my family when I was in grade three and it threw us into a tailspin that lasted quite a while. It is something that marked me for the rest of my life, really. It deepened an often complicated relationship with the Roman Catholic faith that I practice and love for its compassion, inclusion and forgiveness. The other great event from elementary school was in grade 6 when I was identified as “gifted and creative” and enrolled into the P.A.C.E. Programme – an experiment in educating highly creative young people. I will write a post about that experience on another day. Suffice to say that PACE put me in a lot of very unique learning and social situations from grade 6 until the end of high school… I went to three different schools every week in grade 7 and then switched schools again in grade 8. In fact, I went to Kindergarten at the Toronto French School, then grades 1-2 at St. Bonaventure under Sister Mary Anthony as Principal, then grades 3-6 at Holy Name School in King City, then grade seven between three schools: Monday-Tuesday at Holy Name, Wednesday at St Anne’s, and Thusday-Friday at St. David’s. Grade 8 was spent at St. David’s in Richmond Hill. All in all, it was a pretty unstable but exhilarating experience! I encountered many many interesting people. In fact, I was cabbed to school from grades 7-8 and my cab driver was a former engineer on Space Shuttle Program who washed out because he suffered from anxiety disorder. He was driving me and my friend Paul Racco back to Holy Name when the space shuttle Columbia exploded, on my birthday, January 28. That was just one of the many characters and weird experiences I had because of PACE.

High School

When I was in high school, at Sacred Catholic High School in Newmarket, Ontario. I was interested in many things. In retrospect, I realise that I was experiencing life in funny ways – on the one hand I was an extrovert who loved people, but I was also two years younger than everyone else given that I had skipped a grade in elementary school and essentially compressed grades 7/8 into one year. Life was pretty good, but I didn’t really fit in and I wasn’t sure why at the time. So I lost myself in the arts and in literature. I literally lived through the performances that I attended, by my fellow students – I would, at times, be moved to tears at the ballet or at the opera. For me art galleries and literature opened windows and brought transport to the imaginations of the artists – free, creative places where I could experience the world. Even though I was a boy with a delicate composition who loved sports, spoke with a very slight accent and had very European manners. I loved sports, but I had to be careful because I hurt myself easily. My peers didn’t mock me, rather they embraced me – protected me.When I played hockey or soccer or baseball (all of which I was quite good at), my team mates would protect me ferociously, and often try to elect me captain. I didn’t fit in because I hadn’t found my voice – the thing that would define my contribution to social life. I revelled in trips that we took to Athens and Rome, Paris and London. I lived for editing Heartline, our student newspaper, and writing short stories or poems that I shared with my close female friends. I didn’t have a girl friend, but I had many very close friends who were girls. It was a strange, ephemeral moment in my life. I knew that high school was a waiting room to other places, and, although I enjoyed it, I never really felt a part of it.

PACE was interesting in high school because it opened doors to creativity for me – even though it made me a bit of a social outcast. It also allowed me to go to a “gifted kids conference” at EPCOT Centre – that was an amazing experience! Being surrounded by the smartest and most creative kids from all of Canada and the USA was a mind-bending and exciting experience! We talked philosophy, mathematics, literature and culture and futurism. We were lectured by superb scientists, crazy hippie computer programmers, and psychologists who made us meditate. Plus we got to go to Disney World, which I really enjoyed. We also took courses in “Personal Life Management,” presumably because we were gifted, artistic and high-strung. Hmm. PLM involved daily meditation, lots of introspection and studies in interpersonal communication and the psychology of communication. It was really something. In fact, I now recognise that it was PLM that started giving me the sensitivity to communication that has made me an effective communications practitioner and academic today.

I finished high school very quickly. In grade 8 I did two grade 9 credits: one in Maths and the other in History. That gave me the impetus to accelerate through high school, taking two condensed courses every summer – one summer at Brother André in Woodbridge and another at Westview Centennial High School in the Jane/Finch. It was quite the experience. Incredibly enriching and diverse for a preppy French Canadian from a well-to-do academic family living in King City.

More on my university experience in Part 2 soon.