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: my year in Paris at the ENS

As I mentioned in my last blog post,the last thing I did in the second year of my PhD was to apply to spend a year as a guest of the French state. I applied to become a pensionnaire étranger at the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm in Paris. I wasn’t sure why I was applying – I operated under the cover that I would go and work in the LaTTiCe Lab under Catherine Fuchs. She wrote a letter of support for my application, engaging me in her projects studying the links between literature and cognition.

The application was a long-shot. I was not one of the “in crowd” in the Department of French at the University of Toronto – I wasn’t literary and the sort of linguistics I was interested in – cognitive pragmatics and sociolinguistics – wasn’t really in vogue that time, so I asked one of last coursework professors, Dr Philippe Martin, whether he would write a letter of support and use his tuyaux in the French system, given that he was a professor at the University of Aix en Provence. My friendship with Philippe will play a huge part of the next blog post I will write about how I wrote my thesis during the last two years of my doctoral studies.

Well, to make a long story short, Philippe Martin’s support convinced Catherine Fuchs that I would be a good addition to her lab, and I was received in the office of the department chair, Dr Paul Perron (the man who was executor of Michel Foucault’s final testament, amongst many other laurels). Paul and I sat together – he in his exquisitely tailored suit and my 21-year-old self in shorts and an orange t-shirt with a pair of rollerblades hanging off my waist. We were quite the pair, sitting facing one another on the beautiful leather couch in Paul’s office. He came straight to the point: “Alexandre, on vous a choisi pour le poste à l’École Normale. Félicitations.” And so it was done – I was going to Paris, and I was going in style. The French government would pay me the equivalent of $2000 per month in today’s currency and a paid-for apartment in the heart of the city. As well, I would join the élite international fraternity of normaliens, that is to say people who have been accepted in the ENS through one of their concours.

I boarded my flight to Paris on a late August evening and, with my two large suitcases in tow, spent a few hours of quiet, thinking of how Canada was disappearing behind me and a new life in Paris was assembling itself behind my eyes, in my imagination. I was seated near the plane’s engines, and their rumble lulled me into a deep, transformative sleep. Those hours of slumber were populated by intense dreams full of vibrant hues and surreal vignettes featuring the people that I know. The truth was that I had not been very happy during the six months prior to my leaving for France. I had dated someone, Charlotte, who was a tall, pretty French woman and it had ended badly. To enter that relationship, I had to ignore the interest of someone else, a Canadian model and fencer named Lilly, whom I really liked. I chose Charlotte because she was French and sophisticated. Honestly, I was an idiot – I should have stuck with Lilly. Lilly was elegant, beautiful and heartfelt. She understood my passion for fencing and my obsession with culture and fashion. Charlotte did not. She was an intellectual through and through – she found many of my interests affected and criticised me liberally. It was very unpleasant. At the end of the Charlotte experience, I dated another model, Heather who was sincerity incarnate – she had the most ravishing strawberry blond hair and crystal-blue eyes. She supported me and wanted me to succeed – she loved my intense, broody artistic self and supported me when I was down in one of my funks. Heather was stylish, brilliant and lithe. I was very fashionable and arrogant – I really thought that I had all the answers. I had met her at the York Fencing Club, in which I had been practicing in the year prior to my going to France. She was great and we decided to continue our relationship long-distance whilst I was in Paris.

These relationships had marked me and I hadn’t been the best boyfriend. I was seeking something – I wasn’t sure what. I was unhappy with what I was studying. I felt like I wanted to write but had no inspiration. I felt that I had great ideas to share, but couldn’t find the words or the mental scaffolding that would enable me to express them. I was angst-ridden and selfish. I felt useless in graduate school – aimless and small.

So, it was these unhappy thoughts that drifted behind me, a dark wake that made me and those around me unhappy, very unhappy. I was tortured by the tragedy in my childhood, I was anguished by an upbringing in which I chased ephemera and wasn’t true to my fundamental artistic inspiration. I was confused by the intense materialism I had engaged in, being fashionable, going to fashionable clubs and criticising those who chose not to share my obsessions. I went to Paris to escape and to find myself.

And I did – or at least I started to.

Paris was a magical whirlwind of intense experiences for me. I went to visit Catherine Fuchs and she could tell that my interest in cognitive science was secondary to the spiritual quest that I was on and she basically told me that I wasn’t bound by my agreement to her lab – there weren’t any resources involved and that she felt I should have a year in which I experienced the City of Lights – a year of fencing, walking and discovery. I left her office feeling very light and fleet of foot. She had liberated me from the terrible weight of my sense of duty and set me free to learn things as they came.

That is what I did – I attended lectures all over Paris. I spent countless hours strolling hours strolling through its avenues and peering over walls into beautiful gardens. Paris is a city of closed doors and any time spent there is only as rich as the doors at which you dare to knock or push open. I can say that I probably walked in every quarter of Paris. I made extraordinary friends, and saw extraordinary things.

One of the highlights was the year I spent fencing for the Racing Club de France on their Division II and III teams, as alternate. It turns out that French fencing teams are allowed a foreigner as alternate and I had appeared very conveniently at their door just as the selection was being made. They chose me to fencing for both D2 and D3 teams, as needed. This meant a lot to me – first, it meant that I would not have to pay the normally gigantic fee associated with fencing at the RCF; second it meant that I would make a set of French friends that included some of the best fencers in the world – several members of the French national team. I also met several people who would become my lifelong friends and who have later on found me on Facebook and with whom I now enjoy a consistent connection. I fenced at the RCF four or five nights a week and enoyed every minute – from the cedar-closet lockers to the marble shower, to the wall of windows in the Salle d’Armes which overlooked the Champ de Mars that led up to the Eiffel Tower. I traveled all over France with the RCF, fencing in different cities on the weekends, discovering la France des Français. I will never forget that year, nor will I forget those friendships – I am forever in the debt of the Maître Jeanny, head coach of RCF Escrime who opened those possibilities to me and accepted me as a brother at arms with the other members of the RCF. They became a family for me and that feeling of normalcy that I enjoyed around them began to pull me out of my narcissistic haze and back into the reality of being a part of society. I started to realise that I wanted to be in the world of relationships, and friends and beers after practice, and girlfriends and marriages and apartments and houses. Not just a weird brilliant monastic scholar. I realised that the monastic lifestyle and professorial asceticism that I had affected were nothing but a cloak and a shield to keep the possibility of having a real life at bay – a real life with all of the challenges and raw feelings and insecurities and potential for pain that come with it .

I spent an awful lot of my time at the ENS reading and walking. My relationship with Heather ended at Christmas and I started dating Kimberly, a truly gorgeous American political science PhD candidate from Princeton who was spending a year living at the ENS but studying at the École Polytechnique. She and I were both far too broody and self-involved for that relationship to be healthy. We felt deeply for one another, but we also were far too intense and it ended up being a negative experience for both of us. I miss Kimberly with her high cheekbones, her jade-green eyes and sandy brown hair. She was an inch taller than me and absolutely brilliant. She and I would argue late into the night about many arcane points, over a bottle (or two) of wine and then greet the dawn by falling asleep in a pile on the floor. Like I said, it was intense but ill-fated and didn’t last.

The one thing that Kimberly and I did share was the World Cup. In 1998, France won the World Cup of Football on its own turf and the City of Paris erupted into a three day party of wild and rambunctious celebration. It was unbelievable. The city shut down as people streamed in and out of the metro, not paying for their tickets and the ticketeers allowing them in without question. Cafés and bistros exploded in expressions of neighbourhood joy and offered free goodies to passersby. For three days, stodgy, stuffy classist, segregated France was aflame with solidarity. It was so beautiful to see… but I could also see that it wouldn’t last. That there would be a come-down period and then a return to the old separations of the past. And things return to normal. But I saw something during those three days of glory that marked me: I saw what could happen if the population was united and mobilised and set free behind an ideal of solidarity and hope. Amazing things can happen. I promised myself that one of my life-goals would be to help this creative, striving, egalitarian energy to be released in my home country of Canada.

If you are thinking that my time in Paris wasn’t very academic, you are absolutely right. I read an awful lot and spent countless hours in cafés and parks thinking. I thought through my childhood, my countless fears and insecurities and my inability to find happiness or contentment in my studies or in my relationships. I wondered why I was unkind to my parents, why I had rejected spirituality, why I had taken a dark path that could only have led to nihilism in the end. I wondered. I wondered. I wondered.

In Spring, toward the end of my time in Paris, a friend of mine, Andrew who was a sniper in the Canadian Army came to visit me whilst on furlough. He had joined the York Fencing Club while a student at York and we had been the same team for year. We had grown close – he was half Italian and half Croatian and felt the world deeply, much as I did. His visit for a few days marked me. We walked and talked, made ourselves sandwiches and drank some wine. I tried to show him my Paris, knowing that he would understand, and he did. At one point, he insisted that I take him to Notre Dame Cathedral and we both took the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I scoffed at the thought when he asked me to accompany him in doing this, but this cynicism turned into stark anxiety as I waiting in line to enter one of the glass booths set up for the purpose. Everyone looked so calm and serene, waiting their turn to enter the booth and unburden themselves of their sins to God. I didn’t know if I believed in God, and I felt dirty for having taken so many pot-shots at the Church during my last several years of smart-ass smugness and condescension. Something happened to me in that queue – something snapped. I felt a dam break and emotion rush out. I felt an acute pain, real and powerful and as I approached the podium, as I helped the crippled African man into the both and promised to hold his canes as he confessed, as I felt the warm light streaming in on my face – something opened in me. I confessed, and then walked Andrew back to metro. He disappeared into its dark tube, and I walked away in to the fading light of an early Parisian evening – the feeling of openness and lightness didn’t go away.

Something had changed in me and I knew that I had to change my own life to match it. I felt as though I had rediscovered the path that I felt I was walkign when I was a boy. When I was carefree and full of joy at the simple pleasures of life. When I respected and loved my father and was sensitive to the exquisite emotions that dance across my mother’s face of restraint. I no longer felt I had to put up an intellectual front – that I could be open and kind to people and compassionate.

The truth was that Paris had opened a door in my heart. A door that when opened could no longer be closed. A door that opened on the path back to becoming human. A path that would be a life-journey, a challenge, a roller-coaster. A path that would be painful at times and raw at others. What was important, however, was that it was the path back to reality – to having a real life. A life of service, of connection and contact.

I flew back from Paris saturated by French thought, culture and food. I had gained 20 lbs, but I felt incredibly light. I didn’t know where my journey would take me, but I finally felt as though i were on the right path.

I felt deliberate and purposeful.

And I will tell you how that affected the last two years of my PhD in my next blog post. This one has already grown too long…

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.

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.