A Tribute to Don Taylor
This post is a departure from our usual blog format of short pieces about research and practice in our group: it's a personal reflection (from Winnifred Louis) on Donald Taylor as a person, and his scholarship and influence.
I was a masters student with Don starting in 1994, when I wrote a thesis on reactions to gender discrimination at McGill University. I then went on to complete my PhD with him from 1996, looking at reactions to English-French conflict in Quebec. He generously involved me in projects and papers on attitudes to immigrants in South Africa and heritage language retention in Quebec, and we worked together on a paper on responses to 9/11, and then on responses to terrorism. After I graduated, he cheered me on and welcomed my students’ visits. He passed away from cancer last month, in November 2021. I can’t possibly express how much I love the guy and what he meant to me, but here is a short list of some of the key things that come to mind.
Autonomous students. Like all Don’s students I worked on projects close to my heart and my interests, I didn’t build an empire for him. He used to laugh at people who would take credit for their students’ work and say, “good supervision is when you set it up for students to steal *your* ideas!”. Students would come in rambling and riffing, and he’d point them to the relevant literatures and send them off to forage, then when they came back, distill their chaotic learnings into hypotheses and a sound research design, and loop them to repeat, as they developed “their” project. Don loved the diverse research that this approach brought to him. And when the PhD students finished, he set them up to develop new collaborations, so they could establish themselves as independent scholars, instead of milking their PhD, not matter how successful it was. “If I couldn’t totally change my research focus every seven years I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Incredible hulk. Don was a guy who was broad-shouldered and beefy, a football and hockey player at the varsity level. His fashion sense was erratic - in our first meetings, I was alarmed by his 70s style, with shirt open to mid chest, and gold chains nestling in his chest hair. I thought this must mean he was terribly sexist – and some of his unsavory comments didn’t help allay that fear, talking about how the girls chased the players on varsity teams, or how he and a friend in grad school had planned to start a university so they could fool around with the undergrad girls. He used to wear an Australian Akubra cowboy hat and oilskins - he liked the look - and signed an email to me in 2020 with a smiling emoji wearing a cowboy hat. Even in our last ftf meeting, when he was in his late 70s, he turned up in his Akubra, and told me with glee how he’d been captured by the cult of cross-fit, referring to himself as a gym-jockey. But what I quickly learned was that for all this flamboyance - he loved attention, he loved sports, he loved physical challenges – Don was very far from the stereotypes of toxic masculinity, insensitive or domineering. Instead, he was a gentle and often a humble person. The more shy and powerless the other person, the more Don was respectful and kind, quick to self-deprecate or joke, hunching down and tilting his head, attentively listening and learning.
Support for square pegs. The transition from football scholarship to academic research saw Don scrape over class barriers that were very much alive in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe that was why he was always ready to support square pegs to work their way into the system. Anyone who battled their way through was liable to find him ready to hold the door open into his lab – female students, or people from minority ethnic groups, at times when that was still unusual at McGill. Refugees from Iran and Rwanda. Myself as a lesbian, at a time when I didn’t know anyone at all, in all of academic psychology, who was openly gay. Quirky characters with narrow focus, and people raging against the system. He savoured the diversity and the joyfulness of people whooshing out the doors of his lab with skills and drive. “You’ve got to launch them!,” he said to me on mentoring grad students. “You don’t just churn them out, you launch them!”
Passion for teaching. At the same time Don loved and respected undergraduate teaching. Famously he never missed a class in his 40+ years of undergrad teaching, even the day after a hockey game where he had 20 stitches to his face. “You will influence many more people through your teaching than through your research,” he used to say to me and others. He would teach huge classes of 700, but always remembered to see the students as individual people. He would discard the scheduled lecture content to respond to climactic events, like 9/11. He would talk to students and he would listen to them.
I used to fear public speaking tremendously myself, to the point of blushing, trembling, and cracking voice, complete overwhelm. “You feel fear as a teacher when you are thinking about yourself,” he said to me kindly. “Try to think about your students instead - how much you want them to learn what you’re saying. Think about the content, and how much you love the content, and why you care!” Good advice - he was an excellent public speaker.
“You’ve got to live for the anecdote!,” he used to say. Don was also a story-teller who would mercilessly blow the time limits of his talks, and of his classes, in order to digress to stories that made people laugh, think and act differently. But he was also someone who, in his everyday life and his career, would turn to go down less travelled paths, stop to hear from unexpected people, and choose something strange and different whenever the choice was offered. “Live for the anecdote!,” he would say. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Don’t pass by the opportunity that won’t come again. Live with panache!
Make a difference! Don’s career was impressive in many respects, but perhaps most unusual in showing his long-term commitment to sweeping social change around the world. For five years as a PhD student, I flew up annually on seven-seater planes to Kangiqsujuaq, a tiny village in Arctic Quebec, 100s of kilometers above the treeline. I was part of a 30 year rotating team of students and RAs who learned about the North and contributed to research co-designed with Indigenous Inuit communities on language, identity, and social attitudes. Another time, with Don, I contributed to a special issue in memory of William Robinson, a language scholar who was retiring, and who lamented that at the close of his career he was disappointed that he had not overthrown the class system in the UK. Don and I laughed – but Don applauded that he had never lowered his sights. “They just don’t get it!,” Don used to say irritably, skimming the latest incremental, trivial study, or self-focused theoretical micro-dispute. The world was full of huge problems, with real people struggling - *these* problems needed attention and theorising. The big problems, the big picture – his students were always pushed to consider how our research fit into these categories. Moving beyond the WEIRD context before it was labelled as such, Don introduced me and dozens of other students and collaborators to challenges facing disadvantaged communities, and encouraged us to study them – by going there, by being there, by listening, by working with them, by following their agendas. He supported scholars from the disadvantaged communities and in the global south, and amplified their voices and their theorising.
Pragmatism and sober-minded clarity. He was woke before there was wokeness, but at the same time, he would never have presumed that others would feel the same way, or waste time being surprised if others rejected those values. Don was always really clear about the academia that we worked in as not valuing social change or positive benefits to communities, and even being hostile to them. Maybe that’s not true now in some cases – I hope so. But I still teach my students what Don taught me in the 1990s. He said, you need two lines of research: a mainstream one using mainstream methods published in mainstream journals – this will get you your job, tenure and promotion. It will get you grants. The other work, your applied work, you have to be ready to have dismissed. It has to be for the benefit of communities, so it may be slower, or grind to a halt, or blow apart due to politics. Maybe there will be no academic outcomes for years, or at all. Publication may be relegated to journals and conferences that powerful gatekeepers don’t care about at all, or even see as harmful. (In my own career, a former Head of School, which is like a department chair, once remarked, “If you’re going to publish in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, why publish at all?”) So you have to do both mainstream and applied work, to secure your future, Don would say. You have to publish. But it’s not *just* about job security. Applied work will make you a better theoretician, Don said – more alive to complexity, more aware of received wisdom that’s not actually true. Go outside the box. Look back from the outside. And also: theorising and experiments will strengthen your contribution to application – they will help to untangle causality. And they will credential you to go out to communities and speak to policy makers.
Money matters. In the same pragmatic vein, Don was always keenly aware that money matters. He learned from Wally Lambert, a social psychologist at McGill famous for his research and his own memorable stories of cheap-skatedness, to never stay at conference hotels, as being too expensive and a ripoff to the taxpayer. Over the course of his career, Don used to reflect with smugness, he’d directed thousands of dollars from his grants towards research participants and RAs, by staying in shared rooms at hostels when he travelled, or with friends, instead of living it up in luxury. He loved the vibe as well – or at least, male graduate students and RAs that’d shared with him brought back stories of Don sitting around in his boxers playing the guitar, and late nights talking theory and drinking beer. More nefariously, in his later career Don used to sneak into conferences to give his research talks without paying to register for them – something that puzzled and exasperated the conference organising teams, often made up of his former students and friends. “These are ridiculously expensive,” he said at one point when I asked him about it - I guess he decided other student and research expenses were more worthy. It’s a choice he felt was legitimate for him to make, which tells you a lot about him.
Bend the rules and make them work for you. Don understood the importance of institutions, and cultivated relationships with policy-makers for immigration, language, and race relations carefully all his career. He also kept a vigilant eye on university politics. But he despised bureaucracy and institutional politicking. So he was always ready to bend the rules. He helped set up courses at McGill for Inuttitut education that effectively became offered in intensives, creating a path that allowed Inuit students to credential themselves as teachers with less difficulty. “What kind of names are these?,” the Dean asked him in bewilderment at one point, peering at the -iaq and -miq graduands – unexpected lists of names ending in q and k. Don used to laugh happily to us as he recalled getting the system to work for the students this way. Look for ways to make what you want to do fit a label the system can live with. Look the authorities in the eye and smile blandly. Hold the door open to let others through.
Human at work. All of these things influenced me, and they help me now, and my students too, but the thing that speaks most loudly to my heart now is that long before the term was fashionable, Don was ‘human at work’ – he was authentic and real, and not just defined by his job. He spoke to us about his family, and he asked about mine. He came to my wedding. He played music, and sports, and coached kids’ sports, and took time off for holidays with his wife and kids – and he encouraged us to do the same: take time off for other things. Be real. Have friends and family. “It’s different now,” we used to say to him – we grad students of the 1990s – “it’s too competitive, you’ve got to work all the time and stack up publications, you can’t get by and take weekends off”. “I worry that’s true,” he used to say. But work expands to fill the time you give it. Have the best career you can, within the boundaries you set.
Don had a great career. He won national awards for teaching, for research, and for service. He was also deeply loved, as much as anyone else I know or more so. At a symposium we had in honour of Don at the Canadian Psychological Association conference in 2016, people came from all over the world to celebrate his influence and research. I came myself from Australia. He was utterly astonished – he was completely flabbergasted that so many people would go to so much effort to celebrate him and his work. I will close this tribute, as I closed the talk on the day, with these words:
Thank you Don!
For tremendous support personally & professionally for more than 20 years
…For an inspiring vision of a great life filled with joyful curiosity, research, family, sports, music, and activism
…For moral indignation always translated with determination and humour into action and alliances,
…For boundless scepticism about authorities and bureaucracy, but tremendous faith in teaching, science, and possibilities,
… And for highlighting the value of living for the anecdote !
Other tributes to Don for those who knew him or are curious:
In his own words
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