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…

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  1. Alex,

    Thank you so much for these candid and simultaneously informative posts.

    Although you and I come from different backgrounds and had different experiences (and much different command of the French language, haha), I see similarities between what you experienced as a child as a teen, and as an undergrad and what I experienced.

    As someone about to embark on a Masters program, you’ve shed the light a little bit on what I can come to expect over the next two years; and possibly the next four to five should I choose to pursue my PhD.

    I’m excited to read your forthcoming post about your post-doc the Mi’kmaq dictionary. Non-Native allies are a research interest of mine, and one I hope to pursue through classwork this year.

    Also, I had no idea how young you are! I guess I never really pieced everything together based on when you received your tenure.


  2. Hey Alex: I found your site by googling ‘half Canadian and half Macedonian’. The reason I was doing the search was frivolous really except that something caught my attention when you write about being allergice to food perservatives. My son, age 29, SFU grad, is also 50% Canadian (that’d be my half!) and 50% Macedonian (his Dad Lubin). My son, Shaun (or Sashco as his Babo and Dedo called him) has been suffering with unusual and life disrupting digestive symptons for last FIVE years….many tests, appt’s, etc., have been undertakn only to land with a (non) diagnosis of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). When I read you are allergic to perservatives in food I wondered if that might be something for Shaun to look into. So my question: how did you find out and/or confirm your allergy to perservatives? Thank you in advance for any information. Sincerely, Julie Kevilovski, North Vancouver, BC

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