Some advice for college and university students

[This piece was originally posted as a note on Facebook on Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 15:24 and republished on the Talent Egg Career Incubator on September 15, 2009]

The three or four years you will spend at college or university should be some of the best years of your life. You have a rare privilege: a few years to devote most of your time to learning about yourself, your culture, your society and your areas of interest. Understand that your real purpose here is not only knowledge but also to develop a life guided by wisdom and reason.

You have moved out of your parents’ home. You are meeting new people and starting to make your own decisions, your own life. You are now pretty much your own boss. But you are also on your own and that can be unnerving, lonely and a little scary.

This is your opportunity to struggle with your new environment, to understand your challenges through reflection, insight and the help of others. Use the support systems at the university. You are never alone, and the very act of seeking help or advice, of opening up to others, may become a vital part of your education – of your experience of learning about yourself through others.

Speaking of dialogue, I recently met a woman at an alumni dinner, a graduate of my department. She had graduated with high B average and now works in a public affairs agency. I’ll call her Simone.

It was a beautiful night – a fancy dinner, elegant surroundings and quiet, meaningful conversations among alumni and professors who shared the bond of having been members of the McMaster community. I was seated beside Simone and we chatted for much of the evening, mostly sharing memories: people we knew in common from her grad year, observations that she and classmates had made about faculty quirks of dress or mannerism, little things. We laughed a lot and reminisced. At the end of the evening, as we got up to say goodnight, she looked at me fixedly and said:

“Alex, I want you to tell your students something from me. Do you know what I really gained from my years at Mac?”

I shook my head, surprised by her suddenly intense expression.

“I gained understanding. Understanding that the world is complicated and profound, even when it is trying to be simple and ridiculous. Understanding about how to learn and how to know. Above all, I understood that although the world is sometimes sad, it is never boring and that I should love it, and try to improve it, even though it sometimes seems to betray me.”

I was surprised by her comments. She had obviously thought about this very deeply.

“Alex, I didn’t understand until maybe the middle of third year. I finally understood that education is about storytelling – the stories of art and science, society and engineering, health and commerce and how they all weave together into the grand story of our lives together.”

Heed Simone’s advice. It is wise. Learn to catch the storyline of the courses and conversations and relationships and solitary epiphanies you will experience at college or university. It isn’t easy. It requires a lot of hard work. It requires a personal sense of purpose. It requires an open heart and a seeking mind. But the payoff is amazing: a life that is transformed from mere existence to living. From shades of gray to millions of colours.

A life in which every experience becomes a possibility for adventure, growth and love.

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Quiet Heroes

(This was originally posted to my Facebook page as a “Note” on Monday, 13 July 2009 at 23:24)

I recently had an unusual moment while sitting on a bench, at Lime Ridge Mall, in Hamilton, Ontario.

It was the end of a long day and I was tired. I let my eyes close gently and fell into a sort of momentary reverie, into a half doze, I suppose. After a minute or two, I drifted back to the world and noticed that a woman, in her late 50s or early 60s – it was hard to tell, she had one of those ageless faces – had sat down beside me. She looked disconsolate. Being naturally nosy, and seeking a momentary diversion from the day’s efforts, I asked her what was wrong.

She turned her head sharply to face me, as though I had startled her and then moved her gaze to some imaginary place on the tiles in front of us. In a gentle, lilting voice, she told me that her heart was broken that day. She looked down at her shoes. She was embarrassed by the fact that I had noticed her emotions. Expecting a typical tale of love lost, I asked her what was wrong. That was when she related to me a most extraordinary story.

I will call her Jeannette. She lives in an apartment building in Hamilton. She is alone but has a roommate. It is a run down building full of older people and their pets, cats and dogs mostly. Jeannette had lived on her floor for 25 years and seen many people come and go. She had seen prosperity and then decline. As the years flowed by, her friends started passing away or leaving, but one friend in particular worried her. This friend had an autistic son who had grown up to be a dysfunctional adult – for lack of health care and therapy but also because of the severity of his affliction and his mother’s poverty. His mother had spent much of her time and all of her scant resources caring for him. About ten years ago, she had lost her job and Jeannette had felt it was her duty to step in and help her friend cope.

Jeannette spent time caring for the son when his mother was not around or too depressed to be able to. She took him to the store and to his medical appointments, as well as for walks in the park. She says that he didn’t talk much – he just enjoyed sitting on the bench with her and watching people walk their dogs or looking at squirrels chase one another up and around the oak trees. The chattering squirrels always made him laugh. Jeannette didn’t go on vacation very often because she knew that mother and son couldn’t take care of themselves without her help.

Very recently, the son had passed away, and then, a few days before our chance meeting, his mother passed too. Jeannette suspects that she took her own life.

So this morning, Jeannette woke up decided to go to the mall, alone and free for the first time in years. To spend a few hours among people. To take her mind off things. She was not at ease. Her mind was racing with the reality of what had happened. She had spent the last seven years as a sort of sleepwalker in a dream, slowly deepening her commitment to helping mother and son, until she became a primary caregiver. Now that they are gone, Jeannette is struggling with the fact that her life was put on hold for so long. She doesn’t resent or regret anything – she just feels sad and lonely. She feels spent.

After this encounter, an idea entered my consciousness. The idea of people, strangers often, feeling the responsibility to care for one another and going to great sacrifice to do so. I heard similar stories again and again from others. The roommates in a house who cook and clean for a housemate who has severe panic-anxiety disorder. The student who falls into a deep depression and becomes dependent on her neighbours to the point that they took her on vacation and paid for her, for fear that she would hurt herself while they were gone. The brother and sister who put their lives aside for years to care for a sibling who has a personality disorder. The friends who take a friend who is scarred from an abusive relationship into their home and under their wing. These are but a few examples of those, who like Jeannette, have felt the moral or ethical duty to help and care for the people around them who are vulnerable and hurting because of mental illness.

These stories reveal a hole in our social safety net.

We have not figured out how to deal with the social cost of mental illness for the people who live around and care for the sufferers. Quite often it seems that it is these quiet heroes, who give so freely and completely of themselves who are the only firewall between the mentally ill and complete social alienation, loneliness and rejection.

They stand at the edge of the abyss and are vigilant – pulling the vulnerable back from the void when they approach it. They bring a measure of security and stability to lives that would otherwise be precarious. They bring love and the light of friendship to lives otherwise hidden behind a closed door or shrouded in the darkness of profound loneliness, isolation and hurt. They do this at great cost to their finances, emotional well-being and personal freedom.

Something has been overlooked here.

Building a caring society – a loving society – means finding ways to take the pressure off the generous family members and strangers who are dealing with the wages of knowing and caring for someone who has mental illness.

These quiet heroes are holding the ladder while the rest of us climb. Something must be done to help shoulder their burden. As a society, we have moved toward de-stigmatizing mental illness. Investing millions to improve the identification and diagnosis of mental illness is one thing. Building a more caring, loving and mutually supportive society is another.

Is this utopian? Not at all. It simply requires a cultural sea change away from selfishness and personal insecurity toward sharing and confident openness. Jean Vanier’s L’Arche communities are an excellent example of how this can be achieved. It is possible to build more humane, caring communities.

This is a job for governments and faith communities at every level. It can no longer be ignored. We need to start working hard to build, with our leaders, a better culture of mutual support and respect, rather than one that seeks to maximize personal success and prestige.

To walk this road, we need to acknowledge that by including the vulnerable as equally valuable to us, we are not being condescending or charitable, but rather engaging in an exchange that will lead to mutual transformation. The helper becomes the helped.

We must link arms and find a means of integrating, including and healing those who suffer from mental illness rather than isolating, rejecting and neglecting them.

Then, perhaps, we will be able to unburden the quiet heroes, like Jeannette, who give so freely and so completely of their lives to keep the vulnerable away from the cliff’s edge of despair, while the rest of us live on in happy oblivion.

Guest lecture from Andrew Laing of Cormex Research at McMaster

My 4th-year News Analysis class had a special treat today. We had a guest lecturer – Dr Andrew Laing, president of Cormex Research.

Cormex Research is Canada’s leading media content measurement and analysis firm. Here’s an example of the sort of work Cormex does.

Andrew is a unique and admirable person. He took time out of running his company to go back to school to complete his PhD (thesis advisor, Dr. Fred Fletcher) in the Communication and Culture Graduate Program at York University in Toronto. His thesis is on developing a new research methodology – the “media-centric model” – for studying agenda setting effects. He defended his thesis three weeks ago – congratulations, Andrew!

Today, he described for the class how his company conducts content analysis research – what the process is, the types of people he employs and the types of clients that he works with. He also described two case studies that his company has developed – one about genetically-modified foods, and another about satire in the Canadian media. After his presentations and a 10-minute break, Andrew workshopped with each project group in the class. The students really benefited from his advice and mentorship.

One more thing – we had an excellent student presentation on the article “Agenda Setting and the ‘New’ News” by Althaus and Tewksbury. A classic article describing a set of content analysis and audience research experiments comparing agenda setting effects in on-line and paper versions of the newspaper. The findings are interesting: the regular paper news readers showed an agenda setting effect and the readers of the electronic newspaper didn’t. The student presenters did a great job – congrats to Michelle Woodruff, Laura Braun and Darryl Spong.

Afterward, Andrew and I went for a late lunch at Maccheroni Cucina Al Fresco in Westdale, near McMaster.

An excellent day.

Ontario must invest in higher education.

When I began teaching at McMaster University on July 1, 2001, I had a pretty unique experience as a new professor.

I was the first person hired into the Communication Studies Program at McMaster University. The program was so new that it didn’t even exist. In fact, the program only officially took existence with our first enrolled program students who all had to have taken the two first year courses in 2001 to be able to enroll in 2002! I taught the Introduction to Communication, and we were joined by Dr. Laurence Mussio, a successful communications consultant in Toronto, who taught the other first year course in the History of Communication.That was it. We were the program.

The newness of our program made my experience as a newly-minted tenure-track faculty member completely atypical. Graham Knight and I built the program from the ground up. I have had the opportunity to sit on every hiring committee since the program’s inception. I remember the lean days, when we truly offering the program on a shoe string. It was exciting. We had hundreds of students, starting in our first year. Our first graduating class was in 2004. It was composed of 17 students – all of whom had already begun in other programs and transferred into communication studies. The next year we graduated over 60. Now we graduate a steady state of about 125 students in our honours and combined honours BA programs. We have about 5 tenured and tenure-track faculty in communication studies. This year, we began our Master of Arts in Communication and New Media. We’ve been growing constantly.

The ride up to now has been exciting. It’s been a story of constant change and growth. But our situation is stabilising. We are now beginning to face the challenges of a mature department.

What this has meant for me personally is that I am now getting a sense of what faculty and students in other mature departments have been feeling all along during the last 10 years. We aren’t atypical anymore.

Faculty and students feel frustration at the fact that classes are so big. This is not a case of fat cat professors complaining because they have to mark a few more papers. Rather, this frustration is born of the fact that professors see the future of Canada through a lens that many Canadians don’t get to peer through.

Professors see that students – especially those who don’t come from families where parents are not university-educated – need the mentorship of committed, permanent faculty to help them make sense of the university system, the job market and the confusing world of media, politics and money that they are stepping into. Large classes put up huge barriers to building these mentorship relationships.

Let me take a moment to talk about the larger institutional context.

The Faculty of Humanities at McMaster has been very intelligently managed. Starting in the late 90s, the faculty has completely revisioned and redefined itself. It has become very lean, fiscally. All faculty teach their share of classes. Research productivity is higher than it has ever been. Almost every department has reflected deeply on its mandate and mission. Many have completely re-defined themselves: the French department (to which I am proudly jointly appointed) adopted “Francophonie and Diversity” as its theme, English added “Cultural Studies and Critical Theory” to its program offerings, music and linguistics have redefined themselves along cognitive science lines, and, of course, a new department – Communication Studies and Multimedia – was formed. At the same time, all the fat was cut.

I sat on the McMaster University Planning and Budget Committees for three years (2006-08) and I can say that, from what I saw and read, there is nothing non-essential to cut in Humanities. There is no fat. There are no frills. There are simply basic needs that are being met: base operating costs, the cost of maintaining a basically safe physical plant and the basic cost of supporting faculty research costs. No more food at meetings. No free lunches.

Any budgetary issues in Humanities now are – quite simply – problems of basic income. That income, however, is not market-based. We don’t charge students the full cost of their education. We rely on government.

Since the Harrris government, there has been a chronic underfunding of higher education. No subsequent government has restored funding to higher education. And the underfunding is reaching crisis proportions. Ontario is 10th among Canadian provinces in its per student investment in higher education. Roger Martin reports in, “Who killed Canada’s Education Advantage?”, in the November edition of The Walrus, that faculty-student ratios have risen from 18.8 students per permanent faculty member in 1993 to 24.4 students per faculty member in 2005.

The greatest education is when students spend some quality time discussing ideas with faculty that were touched upon in class. When they feel comfortable enough with ideas to chat about them over coffee with one another in spaces that are conducive to such conversations. The problem is that unless you come from a family background in which such conversations about ideas, culture, science and future plans are common and normal – chances are excellent that you don’t know how to have them. They are outside of your ken. Learning how to converse about your life in a considered way is one of the greatest pleasures and benefits of post-secondary education.

The problem is that this requires time and opportunity. The opportunity to make the personal contact. The time to have the conversation. Both time and opportunity are becoming scarce commodities in the current higher education system.

In our Faculty of Humanities, the one I know best, any cuts now will mean dropping successful programs with high enrollments. Cuts will mean even bigger classes. Cuts will mean fewer meaningful conversations between faculty and students. There are no more “savings” to be had.

At risk is our future as a Canadian civil society that encourages social mobility through education.

In fact, we may be graduating young people who are not as well-equipped as previous generations to understand the complicated world they will step into and eventually be in charge of. This is a terrifying and disheartening prospect that will affect our productivity, our international competitiveness and – most importantly – the health of our democracy and the strength of our social cohesion.

A society that doesn’t allow its citizens the time or opportunity to reflect upon itself will crumble under the weight of individual self-interest and short-term thinking.

Governments must invest in higher education. Ontario parents and students should demand it. Our future depends on it.

Canadians deserve evidence-based politics

It is about time that political communication caught up to medicine by applying modern standards of evidence to its practices.

The practice of medicine has been revolutionised over the last 20 years by the emergence of evidence-based diagnosis and treatment. The idea behind evidence-based medicine is that doctors should apply the findings of scientific research to medical decision-making.When you go to the doctor, you don’t expect to be treated with certain drugs or diagnosed with a certain disease because the doctor thinks it will improve his public image to diagose or treat you that way. You want the right diagnosis and treatment for your symptoms.

Why shouldn’t politics in Canada be held to the same standard?

This is the Internet era. This is the Information Age.

Canadians must demand that its politicians adopt an evidence-based approach to political communication and political decision-making.  We expect our doctors to present evidence for their diagnoses, but we allow our politicians – of every stripe –  to convince us with anecdotal evidence, generalisations from the specific and a hundred other fallacies of argument.

Gerard Kennedy, Official Opposition critic for Infrastructure and MP for Parkdale-High Park and his team of staff and volunteers have been tearing up the spreadsheets coming up with evidence for how the Conservative Government is distributing infrastructure stimulus money around Canada. His latest press release describes how infrastructure money is being spent unequally, on a per-student basis, on small, conservative institutions based in Conservative-held ridings.

Whether or not you agree with Mr. Kennedy, this is just simply good political communication. He has taken the facts – the data – and parsed them so that they make sense. He has used evidence and simple statistics to start a critical discussion about what the Government is doing. The beauty of Mr. Kennedy’s evidence is that you *can disagree* with him in an intelligent way. You can challenge his evidence. You can produce evidence of your own.

It is no coincidence that Mr. Kennedy has been scooping up news stories and front-pages across Canada with his evidence-based criticism. He is setting a new bar for political communication – away from anecdotal allusions and personal attacks toward evidence, facts and argument.

This can only be good for Canadian democracy.

The challenge for the other Opposition MPs, Liberal, Bloc and NDP, is to meet and exceed his example.

The challenge for the Conservative Government is to respond with transparency – to show Canadians the evidence for their infrastructure program. Here is the Government’s first evidence-based attempt.

Mr. Kennedy is forcing this Government to get away from rhetoric and present Canadians with the evidence.

If medical doctors must use evidence to justify why they have chosen one diagnosis for you instead of another, Canada’s Government must use evidence to justify how its infrastructure stimulus investment is equitable and good for all Canadians – not just those who live in Conservative-held ridings.

Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie – a great documentary

I have spent the evening writing up a grant to fund a new research project (while eating lots of chicken couscous that I made yesterday) on political communication using the technique of content analysis. I will be submitting it later on this week. More on that project in a future post.

While I was writing, I had a film about Ingmar Bergman‘s creative process playing in the background: Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie. It is fantastic. While watching it, I realised how challenging his creative life must have been. He was identified early on as a creative prodigy and his work usually involved deeply personal insight. Often his work would involve reflections on the nature of God, prayer and the contemplative life. In the documentary, which is composed of a series of interviews with him and his crew, Bergman reflects on his desire to produce films that move people and capture a feeling of place. He describes, quite candidly, how these goals obliged him to always move among people. What is most interesting, however, is how he keeps coming back to the idea of blending in, of anonymity. He says, at one point in the documentary, that he had no greater desire than to fit in to be anonymous – but that the very fact that he was capable of pulling truths and feelings out of the people, society and scenery around him made him stand out and maintained his celebrity. What a paradox.

I think the world of political communication is similar. A good political communicator is always among the people of his or her riding, empathising with them and then finds a way to synthesise the feelings, thoughts and dreams of his or her constituents into policy, communication and action. The politician becomes the tribune for the dreams, fears and everyday concerns of the population – something that requires maintaining a critical distance at the same time. I hadn’t realised how much politicians and artists have in common. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me – both artists and politicians deal in raw human needs and desires. There is a lesson to be learned here somewhere for Canada’s politicians. A little soul-searching is in order. To return politics to its place as the ground for negotiating the order of things in the City, it is necessary for political communication to become less stunt and attack oriented, and focus more on telling the story of Canada’s citizens in the House of Commons, then translating that story into legislation that retains what is good and beautiful, but points the nation toward a better future. This better future cannot be communicated as the imposition of a party’s ideology (“After all, you voted for us!”), rather it should be the weaving together of the stories that all members bring to the House, whether they are members of the Official Opposition, or of the Government.

I highly recommend the movie – very thought-provoking. Ingmar Bergman has a lot to teach political communicators in Canada.

Canada’s choice: political communication as dance or war?

Yesterday afternoon, I gave a lecture to my first year communications class on George Lakoff‘s idea that our thinking is fundamentally rooted in metaphor. Lakoff explains that the underpinnings of how we structure our understanding of the world is metaphorical. He gives the example of “Time is money” – a metaphor that expresses a principle which guides us to use our time parsimoniously. He also says, in Metaphors We Live By, that “Argument is war” is the metaphor that governs how we interact when we debate a point. Lakoff asks us to think about what the world would be like if we lived by the metaphor that “Argument is dance.” It would certainly change the way we speak about debating and how we behave while debating. For example, we would no longer say things like: “I shot down his argument.” or “I really clobbered him with that point!”

After class, I was walking in the rain back to my cozy mustard yellow corner office in Togo Salmon Hall. A couple of students, excited by the ideas presented in lecture, were walking with me. But I was a little distracted. In fact, I was thinking about how metaphor structures political communication in Canada.

We have seen a marked decline in parliamentary courtesy and civil discourse – both in the House, during Question Period, in the media, and in attack ads. Why is this so irksome, when we have been watching the same thing evolve below us in the US for decades? I think there is an answer that many may have overlooked.

Marshall McLuhan suggested, in Medium is the Message that the United States is a society that was a product of the printing press, like France – a society where the uniform communications permitted by printed media enabled a “legalistic” system of government. One that depended on rules.

Now, Canada comes from a different tradition. Our Parliament is part of the Westminster system, like the United Kingdom. The Westminster system was not born during an age of industrial mechanization and laws. It was born during a feudal time in the midst of an oral culture where relatively few things were written down. This required a much more consensus-based system of political communication where people built the national narratives through storytelling and tradition. These national narratives that would later become – through the power of precedent – principles that would guide political function. This is completely different from the American or French systems, which depend on laws and the interpretation of the judiciary.

On top of this, let us consider John Ralston Saul’s argument, laid out in his latest book, A Fair Country, that our culture is actually a Métis product – a negotiated hybrid of British, French and First Nations culture. The British culture was oral and precedent-based, First Nations culture was oral and precedent-based. And, remember that French Canadian culture was developed in pre-revolutionary France (which was a feudal society) – so French Canadian culture was also oral and precedent-based. This meant that the thrust of our politics has been to encourage negotiation, compromise and continuity. In these oral, precedent-based cultures, “Argument is dance.”

What we are seeing, in the change of tone of our political communication toward warlike aggression, partisanship and spiteful attack, is fundamental change toward a more “legalistic” or “structured” society. We might call it Americanized, because it is becoming more and more similar to the American model and they are the greatest cultural influence we face.

The fact is, though, that it represents a fundamental change in our political culture – a shift away from our roots in oral cultural traditions. An oral cultural tradition which necessitates that “argument be dance” because of our mutually shared responsibility for telling the national story and keeping it alive, renewing it with ever more subtlety and nuance – human nuance – which is inherently subjective and flexible. We are shifting toward a national definition captured in a set of laws that we write down, print out and hammer into shape – and then fight over.

We are seeing the ideas on which our culture is based move away from storytelling, toward objectification and rules.

I think it’s a sad development. I love the stories and myths of our past – Paul Bunyan, Louis Cyr, Gitche Manitou.

Canadians chafe at the ideas of laws – they’re constraining. So let’s decide to be civil.

Maybe we can shake hands over it and give one another our word.

At least then we will be true to our historical roots in oral culture.