I have a couple of resources of “questions to ask yourself” or “what if…” scenarios. Things to make you go “hmm…” or to play at parties with friends. I played with two “what if” questions last year, one about teleporting if you could and one about living through a specific war if you had to do so. Today’s is a bit different.
The question I have today is:
Who do you owe in life that you can never pay back?
Wow. That’s quite the question. Oddly enough, I know some people obsessed with financial debts would interpret that question to be about loans and things, but it isn’t about that. It’s about personal indebtedness or gratitude. If I cheat a bit, I can go back and think of things somewhat chronologically and it will help me write a series of posts.
Teachers are an obvious choice, with a dozen bright stars leaping to mind from my academic life.
My grade 6 teacher, Bruce Hutchison, had a Latin phrase that resonated with me, and looking back, I feel it helped define things for me. “De gustibus non est disputandum” — in the matter of taste, there can be no disputes. Everyone is entitled to their own tastes, views, preferences. Grade 6 was the year I started to think of the question “Who am I? What do I believe in?”. I was more consciously aware of choice creating reality, although I couldn’t articulate it in those terms. He held me understand that better.
My grade 8 teacher, Eileen Gallagher, was your classic quiet but firm old style teacher, the iron fist in the velvet glove. I struggled with social issues in Grade 8, and while she was of no hope for that (or at least I never tried to get her to help with it), she reinforced in me that I had better-than-average smarts for academia. I might not be the most popular kid, but in a relatively small class of 25, I could be the smartest. If I applied myself, I could not only get decent grades, but also top grades. If I did the work instead of coasting. More importantly, she was also the one who had to sign course selection forms for high school and she refused to sign mine. Everyone else’s went in without a hitch. But mine? She balked. Across the board, I had selected advanced level classes, but in English, my high school also offered an “advanced enriched” option. I hadn’t chosen it, and so she wouldn’t sign until I upgraded my selection. In her view, while my math skills were solid, she thought I was underestimating my writing ability as my real strength. That choice fundamentally altered my learning about language, writing, communication in general, although at the time it was simply, “Okay, I guess I can do that.” By the time I realized the impact of that decision, she had already passed on.
High school was a difficult time for me, which is probably a bit of a cliché to think I was unique in that regard. But in Grade 9, when I went from being in an mixed level class in elementary school into classes of all advanced students, suddenly there were a lot of really bright people around me who could kick my butt academically. Academics had been one of the few things I was good at and as it turned out, I wasn’t “that” good, apparently, with a mix of Cs and Bs. I found the relatively large increase in the number of students from my one-class-per-grade elementary school to four/five-classes-per-grade high school a bit chaotic. But amid the chaos, I had Mrs. Pearson for math class. It was an oasis in a storm, and while she was quirky, I liked the nerdy quirkiness. I had her again in Grade 10 or 11 (I forget which) and she was the computer teacher too, so I learned to program in Basic on Commodore PETs, thanks to her. She even hired me as a computer geek in Grade 11 to help setup the new computer lab. I had never really thought of myself as particularly gifted with the computers, but she saw something and wanted to nurture it. So she hired me somehow to learn the new systems and then teach her and her younger students. She also got me writing the math contests early on, which continued through to Grade 13. Math and computers were my rock when other things were quicksand.
In Grade 10, I had Mr. Tapp for English class. He had a biting sense of humour, a bit dark / satirical in his views of some of the works we were reading. The classic idea that “yes, it’s a book”, “yes, it’s assigned”, but more about “what does it make you think about, if anything?”. What do YOU get out of it? Sure, he had a curriculum to cover, but it seemed more fluid than that. My marks still sucked in English, despite my Grade 8 teacher’s view I was somehow gifted in English. I was a C+ student on a good day, and all through Grade 9, 10 and 11, that was my fate. If I worked hard, I got a 70. If I coasted, I got a 68. If I really, really, worked hard, I’d get 69. There was seemingly no correlation between what I did or wrote and my mark. So I stopped caring about the marks.
That was a watershed moment for me, and one that continued through to university, and cascaded into other subjects. I stopped caring what my marks were and started focusing just on what I was learning and in particular, in English, what was fun. I used to go to him in Grade 12 (I had him again in regular Advanced English when the Advanced Enriched program was cut), and say, “Give me something DIFFERENT”, not your run-of-the-mill essay topic. Give me a DIFFERENT book. So he assigned me A Separate Peace by John Knowles and told me to write how one of the characters is like a Christ figure. I even TYPED the essay (unheard of in our high school in 1986). I did a terrible job on it, but I had a blast doing it. I did EXTRA research to think about how I was going to make this argument, not based just on the text, but what knowledge I had from my Catholic upbringing that would infuse my essay. I started to have FUN with learning and writing.
I feel terrible about my next teacher, because for awhile tonight, I was TOTALLY blanking on his name. Mr. Allen. He was my Grade 11 and 12 teacher for Accounting and Law. He thought he was funny, most students thought he wasn’t, but not harshly, just more groaning. He picked me for an accounting contest, along with a more senior student, and sent us off to a city-wide contest. The test was a series of accounting scenarios, kind of like a math contest, where you worked through the word problem, figured out what they were asking, and picked the multiple choice answer that best fit the question. He chose me for the experience, the older student was quite good, and the teacher fully expected him to have a chance at winning. The student was even going to be an accountant for a living, that was his goal. I was in Grade 11, I didn’t even have a goal let alone a career choice, and I dutifully went along to be the junior rep. I won. I got a little trophy, the only trophy I ever won for anything in my life. It’s cheesy, but it’s still in a box somewhere. When I eventually get to it in my purge, I’ll take a picture and toss it, but it meant a lot to me at the time. Something I was good at that could actually be a career? That was news to me. Law was also fun, and despite my future, I didn’t feel drawn to it.
I did an undergraduate degree in Administrative and Policy Studies at Trent University, and of all my professors through the four years, I have a few choices I could use. My first-year computer professor, my second-year accounting professor, my second-year history professor (Elwood Jones) or my third-year environmental professor (Robert Paehlke), both of whom I am friends with on FaceBook because of a shared love of Peterborough! All solid choices.
But the one who changed my life was my politics professor, Keith Brownsey. For many students, particularly university students, this would devolve into a non-classroom description of discussions during office hours, or thesis writing, or maybe beers and mixers. Nope, I only knew him through the courses I took with him and some conversations on the margins of the class. I saw him once outside of class, a Christmas get-together in their dorm (he was a resident Don for one of the colleges), where I met his wife and kid, that was about it. But he influenced me in three major ways.
First and foremost, he would engage with us in real discussion on the content. We could be critical of the content, even completely disagree with it if we had our reasons, and he encouraged us to FIND those reasons. He was teaching applied political economy for recent real world events, not theoretical history/political philosophy of the 1800s. We were talking about REAL government decisions in ways I hadn’t done before. It got me thinking of government not as an institution but as a breathing entity that changed and acted and made decisions that affected us.
Secondly, when he engaged us in discussion, perhaps slightly irreverently, he didn’t dismiss our views or act condescending. One of my lasting memories with him was a discussion we had with 10 other students in a tutorial / weekly discussion class (at Trent, the tutorials are run by the professors, not TAs). We all had to sign up for a week in the semester to be the lead discussant, and I had chosen my week based on my fourth year schedule, not particularly looking at what the material was about or who had written it. When I went to read the texts, I was surprised to see that despite the fact that almost every class was journal articles written by other people, that week’s class were about two readings written by him and two others written by another K. Brownsey that turned out to be his cousin. All four readings were by his family and I had to lead the discussion? Grrreat.
We started the week and he joked about my having chosen the week with readings by him and his cousin, and was I ready to discuss them. I was, and when he asked me what I thought, as a general opener, I swallowed and said, “Well, I think you and your cousin are full of crap.” Yep, I said that. He looked at me from the other end of the table, with two sets of students down each side starely at me like I was crazy, and he said, “Well all right then, let’s rock.” And he made a production of rolling up his sleeves and leaned forward. We then proceeded to have a verbal ping pong match for about an hour where we went through his arguments and lines of evidence, and I picked apart some of his methodology as best I could. I really did think they had over-reached in their analysis, which is my view of political economy for the most part anyway, and the hour was one of the best I had in my entire undergraduate career. We left the room laughing, and he said openly that it was fun for him too. Meanwhile, the other students still thought I was nuts. Some would cast that as “truth to power” or “career-limiting moves”, or maybe just arrogance. But it is a recurring thread with me in life, I am comfortable pushing back on things I disagree with and having the discussion that follows. Pushing the envelope. I don’t always say it as diplomatically as I should, but I will ask tough questions.
Finally, since I had him in both third year and fourth year, some of our side conversations were about what happens after university. I didn’t really have a desire to do a Ph.D. and become a professor, but I did have a desire to do something somewhat government-related. And I started thinking of a MPA degree maybe or a law degree. I wasn’t sure. And while his degree was political science, both of my degree options are kissing cousins in many ways. There are lots of people in both who come from political science backgrounds. I considered both, partly because of him, but the big influence was my choice of university. He had gone to school at the University of Victoria, and both were rated highly for smaller law schools (perhaps top 3 in the West) and general public administration (probably top 3 in the country). His opinion was really important to me, and when he recommended the university, it went to the top of my consideration list. When I found out that I could do law and public administration together, along with a co-op option at UVic, my fate was sealed.
And yet, even with all that, he wasn’t the trigger for my eventual future. My fourth-year ethics professor was the catalyst. At the end of third year, I had reached the point where I was thinking I wanted to do something “government” long-term, and something more “practical than theoretical”, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I was thinking it was something called “public administration” but to be candid, I didn’t really know what that meant. I had an opening in my fourth-year schedule for a reading course, and I was trying to find someone in the university who would supervise me for a overview on public administration. I got no takers. He was the head of our faculty at the time, and he had no suggestions for me, nor did he want to cave and offer it himself. But just about the time I was banging my head on an intangible wall, the university got an invitation from the University of Saskatchewan and the Institute for Saskatchewan Enterprise for a student to attend a conference on privatization.
The invitation went to the President of the university, who kicked it to our overall faculty, who gave it to the head of our school of administrative studies who was my ethics professor for the coming year, Doug Torgerson. The invitations were for law students but we didn’t have a law school; it was for Masters Students in public administration, but we didn’t have a MPA program; or for political studies. He saw it and according to him, he immediately thought, “Who was in my office earlier today wanting to study government administration?”. It probably didn’t hurt that I was also a Peterborough boy and readily available to meet to discuss it.
I said yes, the University of Saskatchewan sent me plane tickets, and I went to Saskatchewan for a three-day conference. I had never flown before. I had never been out of the province on my own before. I was excited and also scared. While I would love to tell you it was a resounding success, it wasn’t. I was my normal introverted self, and I was surrounded by MA students and law students. I was the only one still in undergrad and I had a year to go to boot. I loved the panels, but I didn’t bond with the other students. I walked back to the university one day with two other students from downtown, about an hour-long walk, and the whole time they were debating federal politics. They went back and forth with points and counterpoints, I had no idea what they were talking about. I barely even knew the names they were throwing around as political figures.
But two things happened. First, as I said, I loved the panels and I saw for the first time something that looked like public administration above the municipal level and gave me the idea that maybe I could go to graduate school to have those types of conversations too. Perhaps outside of Ontario. And second, when I returned, there was an essay contest about privatization with five prizes. I won one of them, $1000 as I recall (I don’t think many entered), but in doing the research for it, I bought a copy of a book called Canadian Public Administration by Ken Kernaghan and David Siegel.
Oh. My. God. That text changed my world. I saw what an MPA would study and I was IN. I applied for law school and public admin programs that fall, wrote the LSAT and GMAT, chose UVic, and started graduate school at the University of Victoria 14 months after buying the book. I knew what I wanted to do with my life and it was all the different things described in that book. I still own that copy and if there were new versions of it today, I’d probably buy one.
Law school was a giant shock to me both in terms of content and living abroad. I’ve written about some of it before, but since this is a text about teachers, I’ll talk about my first-year Constitutional Law professor, Hester Lessard. At the time, the law school promised at least one “small” class in your program, under 25 students, and mine was Constitutional. In February, we were discussing a case where an average Joe got screwed not once, but twice by elitist judges, and it cut me to the core. I could see my family, my friends in Peterborough in this guy who got screwed, and it bothered me not only that he got screwed, but that nobody else in the class could see it or cared.
She spoke to me after the class and noted that I was still seeing the people in the cases, while other students no longer were, they only saw legal precedents or rules. It wasn’t a good/bad thing, it was just a thing, and she wanted me to know that if I was still seeing them, I would continue to do so all the way through law school. She wanted to give me that perspective so I wouldn’t be ripping my hair out that others didn’t see what I saw. And to be honest, the people in the case had been dead for 50 years, it wasn’t an “active case”. I had a similar experience when I was in my undergraduate law course, and again here with her. And four years later when I decided to drop out of law school to stay in Ottawa and just do public administration, it was the conversation with her that came back to me and helped me be comfortable making that decision, the right one for me.
When I started my public administration courses after first-year law, it was like a breath of fresh air. YES, this was what I loved. And the person who influenced me wasn’t exactly a professor. He did teach part-time for one of the classes, not one I had, but he was the graduate advisor for the co-op program. When I ranked first at Foreign Affairs and second at Treasury Board for a co-op job, Mark Loken encouraged me to take the Foreign Affairs job first, since I was more interested in TBS, and then take a TBS job later when I was closer to graduation. Considering that the Foreign Affairs job turned into a four-year stint at DFAIT, seven at CIDA, and two more at HRSDC doing international work, that’s a pretty big influence.
For my final two teachers, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my friend’s father, Martin Rudner. Back in ’94, my boss at DFAIT convinced me to stay for another semester instead of returning to law school, and I was worried about getting too rusty “academically” after having been out of university and working for 20 months. He suggested I see if there were any classes available at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA) at Carleton and maybe take an elective. I called over, bounced around a bit, and eventually talked to Dr. Martin Rudner. He let me down gently that all the classes were full, it’s hard to get into the program, etc. There wasn’t really an option to just “let” me enrol in a class willy-nilly. I told him it had been my boss’ suggestion, no worries, I understood, it had been a long shot to try. He asked me what I was working on, and when I said APEC, he became very animated. After chatting for another 10 minutes about what I was doing and the files, he said, “Hmm…you know, there IS one course you might be interested in. It’s my course on Asia Pacific regionalism, and since it’s my course, and I’m the current head of the program, I could let you into that one if you wished.” I did wish. I didn’t know it but the word APEC was like catnip at the time, a magic word to open all doors, as there was very little information publicly available about APEC and here I was offering to write essays about it for him based on what we were actually doing. And so I started my time at Carleton that eventually led to me switching all of my courses to Carleton and finishing my MA (public policy) degree there.
My last formal teacher to reference is the last professor I had at Carleton, Susan Phillips, who taught the last course I took for my degree, a class on Civil Society Organizations. It was awesome. I loved the comparisons with government, the focus on governance as a concept more than the institution, the issues that voluntary sector boards faced. A whole different spin on governance than anything else I had studied. But I think the biggest impact was my first paper for her. Without elaborating on what went before, I had a few professors who were more “regurgitate what I told you” than “tell me what you think”, and a couple of the classes were just “do them cuz they’re required”. By contrast, the CSO course with her was more participatory, similar to what I had enjoyed in my final year at Trent. I wrote a paper on tax regulations and CSOs, and I knew when I wrote it that I was going against the position that she herself had written about previously. I had a different take on it, directly opposed to her position, and I wrote it anyway. I thought I argued it well, had a good framework for it, and brought in accounting, law, social justice issues, etc. as well as simple government administration. It wasn’t some big thesis or anything, an early first assignment, and I still remember her comments. “Well-written and well-argued. You’ve even made me rethink some of my own position.” Wow. I was not only relieved, but just warmingly thrilled. The exact kind of teacher you would want every year. And I lucked into her for my last formal university course and every topic was fun to write and work on.
A final professor
It seems a bit strange to credit my next professor as I have never met her. Nor is she aware I ever took her class. Back in 2015, I wanted to try a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) to see if I would like it. I found one called “Understanding Video Games” taught through Coursera based on a live course at the University of Alberta for credit, and taught by Leah Hackman and Sean Gouglas. Through a series of 11 weeks, the two walked students through the concepts of “what is a game”, “game mechanics”, and “social issues in games”, and what I thought initially was going to be some light class turned into a real discipline with rigour in their methodology and analysis. While Gouglas was good, I found myself riveted with Professor Hackman’s content and style of teaching/speaking. I loved the subject matter and she made it fun and interesting, even if the format of streaming pre-recorded video lectures could be kind of passive.
I had been wondering if I might do some more university classes, maybe a psychology degree or something, or legal studies (not law school), but I don’t feel the need for a “structure” or another degree when I’m done. I want to go where the wind blows me and find interesting classes that will engage my mind. The class with Professor Hackman convinced me that those classes DO exist in the virtual space, and with a bit of luck and searching, I could find them. I’ve only done one other one since (Meta-Literacy) and parts of two others (photography and a practical Powerpoint one), but when I retire, I suspect I’ll delve more deeply, with one per semester. I don’t need the institution, I just need the content and have it well-presented.
A concluding thought
For my teachers, I feel like the general theme is one of nudging me in certain directions that made my life better.
- Mr. Hutchison taught me to believe that I could create my own reality and that it was MY choice;
- Mrs. Gallagher encouraged me to write;
- Mrs. Pearson got me interested in math contests and computers;
- Mr. Tapp taught me to forget about grades, and focus on learning and fun;
- Mr. Allen showed me a path forward for a career (law or accounting);
- Professor Brownsey helped me to challenge experts arguments, to think of government as a living entity, and to consider law and public admin for further studies;
- Professor Torgerson inadvertently nudged me to go outside Ontario and to consider public admin, which made me end up at UVic;
- Professor Lessard helped me to see what was different about me from other law students, and also the source of much angst and dissatisfaction with the way law is taught in a law school;
- Mr. Loken sent me to Foreign Affairs;
- Professor Rudner welcomed me to Carleton;
- Professor Phillips showed me another side to governance issues besides government and made me want to keep learning even though I was done my formal studying; and,
- Professor Hackman showed me that yes, indeed, there was a place for me to study quality material in an engaging way without having to be in a degree program or a formal classroom.
All of them have nudged me in positive directions, all of them have created lasting debts that I cannot repay. All of them have helped me become who I am (or at least who I think I am).
What a great question to ponder today.