Guest lecture today from Don Smith of the Canada Revenue Agency.

Don Smith, Director of Operations, Public Affairs Division at the Canada Revenue Agency dropped by our CMST 4n03: New Analysis, Theory and Practice class to deliver a guest lecture and lead a discussion about working for the federal government.

He presented his M.A. thesis which was a content analysis of compliance messaging for the CRA in Canada’s major dailies. He then presented a case study on how the CRA dealt with the crisis of the internet going down a couple of years ago. He described his issues management approach and how the crisis management team was constructed. It was fascinating. After his two presentations, Don fielded questions on how students can become employed by the federal government. It was a spirited discussion and there were several questions.

We had a bit of a curveball thrown to us at the beginning of class, when one of our student presenters took very ill and had to go home. Life is never boring in News Analysis!

Don and I went for lunch at Cora’s in Ancaster and had the all-day big breakfast.

An excellent day.


Breakdancing in the McMaster Student Centre

Yesterday, I stayed late, writing in my office. I had a manuscript to finish for submission to a journal. It was an interesting piece about how Barack Obama uses time words to create a link between past and present in his speeches.

I had a quick dinner and glass of merlot with a friend at 1280, McMaster’s student-run pub and café. The wine was okay and the service was great. I have to say that 1280 is a great improvement over Quarters, the pub that used to occupy that space until it folded last year. I also had a carboholic Irish nacho fries – a caloric nightmare, but they tasted good.

After that, I went to the library and had an extended convo with one of the desk clerks about the pros and cons of unix, Mac OS and linux. Finally I decided to go to my car and finish writing at home. It was about 8 o’clock.

As I was leaving the student centre, I saw a group of kids breakdancing in the common area. The beats were great and they had some amazing moves. Most of all, I was amazed at how natural the whole thing felt – there was quite a crowd, maybe 120 people sitting in a circle around the dance floor, which was marked by yellow tape on the ground. The kids would take turns on the dance floor, sometimes they would coordinate in pairs. It was amazing. I was impressed.

I like working late and seeing McMaster’s campus after-hours. You never know what community event or performance you’ll run into.

Every day is an interesting day at the university.

Two great nights out: One Duke and CLiC at the Art Gallery of Hamilton

On Wednesday night I went out to a new pub for me – One Duke in Hamilton. It was a night of great conversation and good wine. The grilled calamari was excellent. It’s a shame that busy schedules and time constraints don’t let me hang out with one of my favourite people as much as I would like.

Last night I went out to the CLiC Paparazzi event at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. I went with my friends from, a PR and advertising agency that specialises in youth marketing. I met Meg Coppolino and Chris Farias at their shop at 7pm and then we went to CLiC. The theme was celebrity and paparazzi so people showed up dressed like their favourite celebrities. Meg won “best costume” with her likeness of Lady Gaga to which she added a Hamilton twist as Lady Gage Park. Very clever.

The CLiC event was really well put together. The crowd was lively and mixed well. The space was great – small enough to feel full but not claustrophic. The food was Asian-inspired and there was a good selection of drinks. There was a diverse and fashionable crowd, representing Hamilton’s entrepreneurs, lawyers, business people and artists, most of whom were under 40. Good networking event.

There was an excellent lecture and tour by featured artist Jesse Boles, who does large-scale photographs of industrial sites, mostly in Hamilton and Toronto. His work was very beautiful and evocative. I love the detail that large photos of industrial wastelands and scenes provide. You can stare at it for hours. His show, Crude Landscapes, is featured at the Art Gallery of Hamilton right now. Check it out. Highly recommended.

Future public servants evaluated on opinions about Conservative Economic Action Plan.

The highly controversial Conservative Economic Action Plan is being used in an essay question for potential applicants to an elite management training program in the federal public service.

One of my former research assistants was really excited recently – he was applying to get a job in Canada’ public service. So he logged on to the Public Service Resourcing System to fill out requisite forms. Part of the job application process meant writing an essay. Making applicants write a 1000-word essay is probably a good way to see whether candidates can reason.

But look at what the topic was:

  • “In 1000 words (maximum) ‘In 2009, the Government of Canada introduced Canada’s Economic Action Plan to help Canada’s economy weather the economic storm. In 1000 words or less, please choose two of these measures and discuss their implications for Canada. In your answer, please consider, as appropriate, the social, economic and international policy imlications of each measure.”

It seems as though, to be recruited into the public service under the watch of this government, you must find a way to discuss the Economic Action Plan – a plan that has already been communicated to Canadians in a strongly partisan fashion.

The political communication around the Economic Action Plan has been venal to the point of being divisive:

  • the scandalous Conservative-branded cheques,
  • the fact that municipalities have to ante up money to pay for signs advertising the Action Plan, the uneven distribution of stimulus (with the majority being doled out to Conservative ridings),
  • etc.

The highly politicized, outrageous political communication of the plan has been so riddled with controversy that it has effectively invalidated the Action Plan as fodder for an impartial essay question for a public service entrance exam.

It doesn’t seem right for the Government of Canada to potentially make applicants feel as though they should pass a partisan or ideological litmus test to get a job with the public service.

Here is the screen shot of the webpage in which you type out your essay. Just make the text bigger to see the picture in higher resolution.

Canadian Public Service Job Applicant Essay Question

The Web Address and Text of the Job Description:

Accelerated Economist Training Program (AETP), Post-Secondary Recruitment

This career choice is part of the Post-Secondary Recruitment Program* (PSR) which provides entry-level positions to university and college graduates.

Department Name: On behalf of Government Departments (current participants: Department of the Environment, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Department of Industry, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Department of Health, Department of Transport, Treasury Board Secretariat, Privy Council Office, Department of Finance)
Locations: Ottawa, Gatineau
Classification: EC – 02
Salary: $49,381. The salary may be increased with relevant experience.
Closing Date: November 9, 2009 – 23:59, Pacific Time Useful Information
Reference Number: FIN09J-009189-000371
Selection Process Number: 2009-FIN-EA-BL-17074
Employment Tenure: Indeterminate
Vacancies: between 8-12 positions.

The Program is seeking highly motivated candidates who have an interest in Canadian public policy and governance, and who possess good judgment, analytical skills, leadership talent, and the ability to work as part of a team. The Program offers four challenging, six-month assignments in central agencies (i.e. the Privy Council Office, the Department of Finance Canada, and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat) and various other departments in the National Capital Region (Ottawa/Gatineau). Participants will have an opportunity to analyze and contribute to a variety of social, economic, and international policy issues. Upon completion of these assignments, participants are eligible for intermediate-level positions in the Public Service of Canada. The combination of hands-on work experience and training provides participants with a unique introduction to a challenging and rewarding career and a chance to serve Canada and Canadians.

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.

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.