How I became an academic: Building the communication studies program & getting tenure 2001-2006

In this seventh post about how I became an academic I’ll describe how the pre-tenure experience was for me and how I had an unusual time as a young professor, co-founding a brand new program in communication studies. It was quite a ride for young professor in his late twenties and early thirties!

The tenure process is a challenge for any new faculty member. It means a lot of stress, no vacations and 12-14 hour days, seven days a week. Especially at a strongly research-intensive university like McMaster, where not only are the faculty expected to be developing a world-class research program, but also finding ways of engaging both graduate and undergraduate students in the research process. I love the McMaster environment, because I am a very strong believer that research and teaching go hand-in-hand and that it is impossible to separate the two. I love my students – they inspire me when they learn new things, they improve me with their questions.

The first three years were really all about getting the communication studies program going. We had to hire all of the faculty in the program, which meant that I sat on more than 10 hiring committees before I was awarded tenure in 2005. We also had to design a curriculum, committee structure and, of course, make sure that our students were well-shepherded through the first exciting, but slightly turbulent years of a brand new and wildly successful program. We slowly built our team: first we were joined by Dr Laurence Mussio, a professional communicator in Toronto who agreed to teach the communication history course, and who is now an Adjunct Professor in the program. Then by our first administrator, Ms Rosemary Viola. After that by Dr Catherine Frost, who was cross-appointed to political science. After that by Dr Violetta Igneski, cross-appointed to philosophy. Then Dr Christina Baade, who was cross-appointed to music and Dr Jeremy Stolow, cross-appointed to Sociology. It was quite a roller-coaster of hiring and expansion. All the while, our student numbers swelled, making us one of the three largest programs in the Faculty of Humanities at McMaster.

We had some turbulent times in terms of program directors. Dr Graham Knight was with us for one year, followed by Dr Magda Stroinska for two years. After that we had Liss Platt, MFA, for a year, and then Dr Geoffrey Rockwell for one year as well. It was under Dr Rockwell’s direction that we joined forces with the Multimedia Program to become McMaster’s brand new Dept of Communication Studies & Multimedia – a happy place that continues to be a model unit to this day! After Dr Rockwell’s year as director, we were rejoined by Dr Graham Knight for a five-year term, which is ending this year, actually. We finally had stability and were able to progress.

I have to take a moment here and pay tribute to two people: Dr Daniel Woolf, who was the Dean of Humanities who hired me and sponsored the creation of the Communication Studies Program and Dr. Suzanne Crosta, Associate Dean of Humanities at the time (and currently Dean of Humanities). These two individuals were truly visionary and supportive. They saw the potential that the program presented and they supported it unflinchingly. Exemplary university administrators, both. Hats off.

Meanwhile, things were changing rapidly around us. In 2007, we hired Dr Philip Savage, who is now co-director (with me) of the COMM-Lab: McMaster Communication Metrics Laboratory. Several colleagues left us: Dr Frost became a full member of political science and Dr Stolow left to take a position at Concordia University. We also hired three new members: Dr. Christine Quail, Dr Faiza Hirji and Dr David Ogborn all joined our happy and productive departmental family.

I sat on every hiring committee, every planning committee and went to almost every student recruitment fair that presented itself. It was so exciting. What an opportunity – to be allowed to co-found and then shape the evolution of a university program – even co-found a department at a major international university like McMaster! I couldn’t believe it. I was sure that they must have the wrong guy.

While I am proud of all of what we have accomplished in communication studies at McMaster, I have to say that I am particularly proud of the incredible curriculum and learning environment that we have created for our students. People talk about us being student-centered. Well, let me tell you – I included the students in almost every decision and choice I made. After all, it was about them and for them.

I am also incredibly proud to have initiated the departmental internship program, which has generated practical opportunities for our students to apply their skills in agency, broadcasting, journalism, government, corporate or not-for-profit contexts. Those students had memorable experiences and often found their calling (or what isn’t their calling) during those internships. The program is now in the capable hands of other colleagues who are developing it and deepening our department’s connections to the world of professional communication.

I am so proud of having served as Undergraduate Coordinator for the six first years of the program. Being a mentor and guide to many, if not most, of the students who began the program during its first six years of existence, from 2001-06 was a gift for me. I was 27 years old when I started, and we walked together – experiencing the highs and the lows of a start-up program. They would encounter a challenge and come to my office, and we would often have to innovate – writing up new policy as we went forward, working with the Dean’s office and McMaster’s capable and caring administrative staff. It was exhilarating. It felt real. And now I rejoice whenever I see one of our students succeeding in the great big world outside of McMaster’s halls: as an entrepreneur, an artist, a critic, a public relations practitioner, a journalist, a public servant, a businessperson, or the myriad other paths that our students have followed as they embarked on the journey of their lives. I feel a connection to them. I care about them. I share their successes, as well as the burden of their sadnesses and their tragedies.

Our program was not without tragedy. I have witnessed some of our students falter and stumble. Others have, sadly, passed away. Yet others have been victim of the unkindness of others. Seeing these things, and treading the lonely paths of sadness and loss with the students has made me grow as a person. Any cynicism or nihilism I may have once felt has been washed away by the brilliant and unextinguishable light that burns in them. For when they fell, I saw their classmates rally around them. And when one passed away, I went, with dozens and dozens of our students and faculty to pay tribute to a young life that ended too soon. Theirs is the blazing light of hope, of belief in the world. Theirs is the faith that things can be changed, improved and made more human. And although experience has taught me that life is often marked by the alternation of light and dark – I am inspired and amazed by our students’ stubborn persistence in chasing the rays of light, however faint, that they see before them.

During this time, I also focused on research – I finished the Metallic Mìgmaq-English Reference Dictionary (with my friends and colleagues, Dr Danielle Cyr and the late Mr Emmanuel Nagugwès Metallic) and I published many articles exploring the power of language, culture and communication. I went to conferences in Canada, America and Europe. I built research partnerships with colleagues. I co-hosted an international workshop on linguistic theory at McMaster. I worked and worked and worked. Finally, in 2005, I stood for tenure and on December 19, 2005, I received a letter from then McMaster President, Dr. Peter George, informing me that I had been awarded tenure. Tenure is an incredible moment for an academic – the result of 10 years of school and then six or seven years of mad, intense work as a junior assistant professor. What a moment for me – when I received the letter, I actually wept quietly for a moment in my office – just from the relief.

In my next and (I really promise) last post on how I became an academic: program building and my first sabbatical.

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