How I became an academic: Getting hired into the tenure-track at McMaster

In the last five blog posts, I described to you my journey from elementary school to the end of my postdoctoral fellowship among the Mìgmaq and how it all led to me becoming an academic. In this blog post, I will describe how I was hired at McMaster.

I got a phone call from my mother, who told me that there was a job open to start a communications program at McMaster – it was a joint appointment based in the Dept of French, since they needed a linguist to replace Dr Christine Portelance, who left McMaster to take a job at – what a small world – Université du Québec à Rimouski! In fact, I had met her in the reception after I gave a guest lecture at UQAR when I was doing the first part of my post-doc there under Danielle Cyr’s supervision, while she was Vice-Rector. Christine had told me all about how she left McMaster because she missed Québec and French culture. So on the night of the day of my talk at UQAR and my lunchtime reception conversation with Christine, I spoke to my mother who mentioned this job ad and suggested that maybe I should apply: “Son, you were always fascinated by the news and media.” The next day, I was told about the job by a McMaster administrator at a party, so I thought to myself that it was fate: I really ought to investigate the possibility. At the time I was focused on completing my two-year post-doc at UQAR and then start looking for a job, but I had become convinced that this idea was worth exploring. I love media, had worked in both market research and public relations in the past, had run a small graphic design and marketing communications company with a friend in first year of university, and was incredibly well-informed. I read every newspaper, magazine and pamphlet I ran into. I also had an encyclopedic knowledge of television news anchors – their personalities, my perception of their political slant, even which interviews had been the most successful for them. I was a regular reader of the Hansard of the House of Commons and Senate – for fun! I thought to myself: “Hmm, yes, maybe I am someone who could start a communications program.” Ah the headstrong confidence of youth, I  was twenty-six years old and thought that anything was possible. Little did I know the challenges that would await.

So I took the long train ride back to my parents’ house in King City and then borrowed my grandmother’s car (I had sold my Jeep YJ), and drove to McMaster. It was a cold day in January and I had never been to Hamilton before. I had an 8am breakfast appointment with Dr Owen Morgan, the chair of the French Dept at McMaster, but I got to Mac really early – at 7am! I was nervous and didn’t know my way around, so I went to the Harvey’s in front of the McMaster Children’s Hospital and had hashbrowns and a coffee. I felt mostly calm – just a little nervous. At 7:30, I went to meet Dr Morgan (who died tragically early last week), and then we went for a coffee. It was a quiet morning, and McMaster struck me as a sedate place with a good vibe. Throughout that day, I had interviews with the French Dept hiring committee, Provost Harvey Weingarten, Dean of Humanities Daniel Woolf and Geoffrey Rockwell, Director of the Multimedia Program and Laura Finsten, Acting Dean of Graduate Studies. The interviews all went quite well – I actually enjoyed them. During that day, I gave a scholarly presentation to the Dept of French and made two friends, Dr Michael Kliffer (a French linguist who was my official host for the day) and Dr Caroline Bayard (an amazing philosopher and political theorist who taught postmodernism and French literature). Both Michael and Caroline would become two people whom I respect enormously as professors and human beings. Through Michael I learned about the gay liberation movement and through my dozens of conversations with Caroline, I learned much of the history of the NDP. I am neither gay nor an NDPer, but I developed a powerful empathy for those two communities and a profound respect and understanding of their social and ethical priorities.

You may be wondering why a person applying to found a communication studies program was interviewed by the French Dept! The answer is simple. I was being hired to c0-found the program, so it did not exist yet. I had to be appointed to a department that already existed. The French Dept needed a linguist, so it seemed a good place for the university cross-appoint someone with a communications background. A little odd, but it worked. Sometimes you have to be creative to make change and innovate in an institutional setting like a university.

I should tell you precisely how my day went.

After my breakfast and conversation with Dr Morgan, I was met by my host Dr Kliffer. He took me to meet the Dean of Humanities, Dr Daniel Woolf. I was very impressed by Dr Woolf – he was dynamic, funny and very straightforward. There was no posturing, just unbridled enthusiasm for his new baby: the communication studies program! He asked me, with a laugh and a big smile: “Do you think you’re up to being a co-founder of a program? You look pretty young to me!” I replied: “Yes sir! I love the media and I have a strong language research background. Also I love the challenge of starting new things.” After that, Michael took me to meet Dr Harvey Weingarten who asked me about interdisciplinarity. He told me that he was a huge proponent of that philosophy and asked if I thought it was an impediment to an academic career. Again, I told him, very sincerely, that I thought it was a wonderful thing – that I had never really felt as though I belonged in one of the traditional disciplines. After that I went to meet Dr Laura Finsten, Acting Dean of Graduate Studies. We had an excellent meeting – she grilled me about my research program and asked me some extremely insightful questions about my philosophy of graduate student supervision. We also talked about NFL football. After that I had lunch with Dr Morgan and several other colleagues in the University Club – it was very pleasant, although they continued to ask me questions that tested the boundaries of my cultural knowledge of the Francophone world. By this point, I was settling in to the day and was feeling pretty good. This was followed by a 90 minute interview with colleagues in the French Department where I was asked lots of questions about my research program, my teaching philosophy, my vision for the communication studies program and my philosophy of graduate supervision. My final major trial of the day was my “job talk” wherein I expounded my theory of content and text analysis and explained how I use computational linguistic methods to parse newspaper texts. It went really well. I felt great about it.

My second-last meeting of the day was with Dr Geoffrey Rockwell, Director of the Multimedia Program, and someone who had been instrumental in getting the communication studies program passed through university committees so that my job could be created. I met him on the second floor of Togo Salmon Hall in one of multimedia labs that was just being unpacked. It was a chaotic room full of maroon office chairs, white laminate desks and beautiful, gleaming Apple computers. Geoffrey was waiting for me in the middle of the room. In fact, it was Dean Woolf who brought me down to see Geoffrey – he dropped me off and said, upon leaving: “Enjoy the conversation!” Geoffrey and I became immediate fast friends. I had met a kindred spirit. We both loved the finer things in life: great food and wine, art, opera, ballet, movies, philosophy, technology and literature. We both shared a passion for McLuhan and the philosophy of technology and culture. The hour with Geoffrey flew by and I felt that I had met a life-long friend and mentor. When Dr Kliffer came by to pick me up to take me to my last appointment, Geoffrey shook my hand and said that he hoped that they would pick me.

My final appointment was dinner at the University Club with Dr Morgan. I will never forget it – a fabulous lobster bisque, accompanied by a lovely Sauvignon Blanc. Then a scrumptious grilled salmon over bed of couscous with maple syrup glaze. So good. Finally, a creme brulée and a glass of well-aged Hennessey cognac. Heavenly. A simple coffee after. We talked very late – for a couple of hours. About literature, about truth and beauty, about the media, about rugby (Owen had been a professional rugby player), Formula 1 Racing and sports in general.

And as the light faded, Owen walked me to my grandmother’s little white Chevy Cavalier and sent me off into the coming crepuscular gloom. I drove slowly, and it took me about an hour to get back to King City. I didn’t think about much on my way home – I was exhausted. But I was happy and satisfied that I had done the best I could.

At 10pm that night, the phone rang and my mother answered. It was Dean Woolf – he spoke with my mother and told her he was calling for me. I picked up the and Dean Woolf said, in a very cheerful voice: “You were the last candidate we interviewed. The committee met just after you left. We have decided to offer you the job. I’ll send you the details of the offer in an e-mail. Congratulations. I truly hope you accept to join us.”

I was speechless. I had just been offered a tenure-track position to co-found the Communication Studies Program at McMaster University. I stammered my thanks and told him that I looked forward to his email. I received the email a few moments later and thought that the offer was generous. I negotiated a tiny bit and we settled the next day. Dean Woolf sent me the papers quickly and I signed.

I had become the first tenure-track assistant professor of communication studies in McMaster’s history. Wow. The reality of it wouldn’t strike me until I got down to brass tacks a few months later, with the first director, Dr Graham Knight, a sociologist of the media who would become a dear friend and mentor over the next few years leading up to tenure.

But co-founding the communication studies program and tenure will be the subject of my next and last post in this series on how I became an academic.

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