How I became an academic: my first day of teaching & September 11, 2001

In the last six posts, I have described, in a somewhat impressionistic fashion my journey from elementary school through to getting hired as an assistant professor at McMaster University. In today’s post I describe my first teaching experiences and how September 11 marked them.

The story starts on September 11, 2001, really, but first a little description of my first lecture – it was quite something!

I had started teaching the week before – my first lecture was quite something. Dean Woolf, who is now Principal of Queen’s University had said, during my job interview with him that he would be happy if we got 75-100 students enrolled in CMST 1a03 Introduction to Communication, a course I was designing. Well, I did my best, trying to incorporate interesting readings and practical skills from the realms of critical theory, mass communications, interpersonal communication, political economy, public relations, performance studies and new media. First year courses are meant to be surveys of what is to come in the program. I was pretty proud of the course – it touched all the bases I wanted and was actually very challenging: it highlighted Canadian contributions to communications theory, with an emphasis on the foundational work of Canadians Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. The course also had a significant “communication skills” component, which I thought was a must for future communications practitioners and academics.

My first day of lecture was quite something. I entered into an amphitheatre that contained 325 students – JHE 376, which is a stadium-style lecture hall. That means that the students tower over you, on very steep incline: I felt as though they were inches away from me and could see my every move. To my surprise, Dean Woolf and the Acting Director of the Communication Studies Program, Dr Graham Knight, we seated front and center. I walked over to shake their hands and say hello and they both chuckled and said: “Well, we thought we would get you and the program off to a good start. Don’t worry, we’ll only stick around for 20 mins or so of your lecture.” Well now, each of them gave a little speech saying how happy they were to launch the new program and how the students were pioneers. Then they took their seats and I gave my first lecture ever: in front of an expected crowd of 325 students, the Dean and the Acting Director. Baptism of fire. It went well, however, and I can certainly say that my teaching career started with a feeling of moment.

The program just took flight from there. We had 17 students transfer into communication studies to major in 2001 from other programs, and they were our first graduating class in 2003. I think that I am friends or friendly with almost all of them – many of them are doing very well in broadcasting, policy, media, government and journalism. In our second year, we were up to 85 majors. In our third year, 117 and so on. It just mushroomed. And we had a wonderful time.

Back to September 11, 2001.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, the day of my second CMST 1a03 lecture, I heard that the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center on my ride into the university. In the parking lot, I ran into colleague Dr Susan Fast and we chatted for a moment about what we had heard on the radio. Then I went into my lecture just after the second plane hit the towers. The students received the news on their phones, through text messages. They were very anxious – in fact a surprising number of them had relatives who worked in the twin towers. So we talked about terrorism.

I spent the day with one of my students, Simon de Abreu, who has since become a great friend. We went with Dr Graham Knight to his office, where he had a little tv. Graham and I watched the coverage and talked about what the media was doing throughout. It was a surreal day. After that I drove home to my parents’ house (I hadn’t bought my house in Ancaster yet), and we watched the American cable networks all night. We were all fairly shell-shocked from the enormity of what had happened. The greatest empire that history has ever known had been struck at its heart by an act of terrorism. We knew, we could feel that everything would change on that day.

I was 27 years old, a brand new professor. It was my second lecture ever as a professor. September 11 set a tone of urgency and reinforced the power of the media and public relations to me. It was a sort of baptism of fire for a new communications professor. What a way to start an academic career.

In my next (and last, I promise!) post in this series – “Building Programs, Getting Tenure.”

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