About working from home during COVID-19: the manuscript and the guilt can wait.

Contagion_Poster

Have you seen the movie Contagion? It’s about a deadly virus that takes the life of many and sends the world into chaos while a group of scientists work to find a cure. It seemed realistic while simultaneously far-fetched, if that makes sense? Perhaps one of those, “it won’t happen to me” things, I don’t know. But I can tell you what I do know, I never thought I would be living through something similar to the movie Contagion.

It was around February before I really paid close attention to COVID-19, it was, after all, a world away in Asia. Then it came quickly to our doorstep and the seriousness of this deadly virus suddenly became very real. Within weeks it seemed everything was shutting down: my sons sports, then all the schools in the province and then the University I work at, Memorial University of Newfoundland, shut its doors and all classes moved to an online format with professors working from home. I am fortunate that I have a job where I can work from home at times and still be productive, it’s definitely one of the perks. But in the age of COVID-19 with the country basically on lockdown, no school and no sports, working from home looks and feels very different than some random day when I decide to stay home and write. Working from home now comes along with feeling pressure to be a professor/scientist, grade 5 teacher and playmate, all at the same time! Throw on things like making meals and keeping the house tidy(ish) and keeping physically active – the weight is tremendous. Weight that comes along with a large dose of guilt.

Oh the guilt. Guilt for not keeping in touch enough with my grad students, guilt for not keeping the house clean and tidy enough, guilt for not doing enough schoolwork with my son, guilt for doing my own work, guilt for not doing my own work, guilt for not playing with my son enough, guilt for playing with my son too much, guilt for wanting to relax when my wife comes home from work – who, by the way, is one of the many frontline heroes we keep hearing about. She is working her tail off as an occupational therapist at the Health Science centre. My guilt is nothing in comparison to her stress levels and though perspective is important that doesn’t diminish how much guilt I feel. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt.

So what should I being doing as a professor as I work from home? I should be preparing lectures for the Spring/Summer semester and writing papers now that I have all this time, right? Oh the guilt. When this first started I put a lot of work in upfront to get my course online and working well. Luckily for me I only had 1 grad course and an on-line course, so it wasn’t bad at all. I moved the grad course to online, did one short lecture and figured out how to let students submit presentations for evaluation – pretty easy actually. But here is the guilty part – I have not done much related to my research. It is tough. I need time to get into my writing and be able to think. I am an extremely slow, methodical writer at the best of times, let alone with all the feelings of guilt I have.

Adding to the guilt, or maybe some frustration actually, is seeing Tweets from academics around the world discussing how much time they have and how they can get so much done. Yeah, not happening, not here, not yet anyway. Good for you and all, but definitely not that easy from my end. Why? Because my biggest concern right now is my family. I want my son, 10 years old, to look back on this in years to come and tell his kids that “it wasn’t that bad” because he got to spend a lot of time with his dad. I want my wife to look back and say it was stressful but we made it through. And me, I want to look back without feelings of guilt knowing that I put my family first. The research is important and all, but as long as I keep my graduate students on target to help them get the things done that they need to (not pressure them), read some papers and maintain my undergraduate course, I’ll be content. And by content I mean not letting the guilt run me over like a steamroller.

I will continue to plug along and try not to stress and feel too guilty about everything all the time. My son is doing some math, we read together and we are playing together lots. We actually played the “Rainy Day Olympics” today. It consisted of mini-hoops, mini-sticks, super deker, curling, mini golf, NHL 20 on PS4, table hockey and darts. He won. He legit won and will be making a powerpoint presentation on the day as a journal of sorts later this evening. I’ll have dinner ready for when my wife comes home and try to be there for her when she needs a sounding board. I’ll talk with my grad students and help them whatever way I can. I’ll get some work done when I can, but the manuscript and the guilt can wait.

 

Til next time.

 

Kevin

Numbers, numbers, numbers…counting in Science and the need to take a shower…

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I love to count. Indeed, Count Dracula was one of my favourite Sesame Street characters – one, ah ah ah, two ah ah ah…you get the point. All throughout my schooling math was one of my favourite subjects and I even debated doing a math degree as an undergrad [glad I changed my mind – great calculation there ;)]. But there is another part of counting and math skills that just don’t add up – the ever present pressure and false sense of significance (see what I did there – scientific reference!) placed on metrics in science. Metrics, as defined by Wikipedia are, “quantitative measures designed to help evaluate research outputs.” There is a way to measure everything and it has gotten, or is at least getting, to the point that I can’t take it anymore!

Recently I received word from an academic journal, for which I am an Associate Editor, that the website Publons now makes it possible for you to get ‘credit’ for papers one handles as an Associate Editor. They also track papers you review. Essentially they keep a tally of how many papers you make decisions on as an Editor and how many reviews you complete as a Reviewer. At face value, this is a good thing. As academics we often do these tasks frequently, for free, and nobody knows, including our Administration (bosses). So it is a nice way to officially say look, I do all of this on top of my other work and I am contributing to science on an international stage. This is good of course as it  officially gives you credit for your scientific contributions. So after I uploaded my information, why then did I feel dirty, like I needed a shower?! Because it reminded me of a quote I read in a book called “The Slow Professor” which basically put to words how I felt about academics in many regards. It is basically a manifesto for slow thinking – the notion that to truly think through research and teaching you need time, the greatest commodity in academics and the one there never seems to be enough of – time is fleeting. The quote was,

“not everything worth counting can be counted.”

How accurate and awesome a quote is that(?)! There are many ‘things’ that I do on a daily basis that can’t be counted or at least not accurately. For example, to me quality is important and I have, up to this point, resisted the quantity over quality mantra that could certainly be used to build my Metrics. But how do you quantify quality? With Metrics of course! The impact factor (prestige of the journal you publish your research in – the higher the number the more prestigious) is often considered by most, even though we know it is far from perfect. In terms of number of published works, I could easily have more, but I don’t and I won’t be a co-author just to boost my numbers. If I don’t contribute substantially to the work, I won’t be a co-author – thank me in the Acknowledgements. My stance on these issues has undoubtedly hurt my academic career to a certain extent, but I won’t get into that here. Suffice it to say that research granting agencies and administrative types at universities are high on metrics.

While I despise Metrics, I am almost embarrassed to say that I gave in and included them when others thought they were necessary. By doing so I have become part of the problem whether I rage against metrics or not. I will always try not to get caught up in counting and instead look for significance in other ways. What other ways? I don’t know exactly and perhaps the importance of my own work (research publications) won’t be realized for years to come and maybe what I am doing will never seem to reach high importance. I simply do not know. My hope, however, is that my work will ultimately aid people in the future (I hope to help people recover from neurological disease and injury) – unfortunately, the metrics currently available do not have the ability to see into the future. So until then, I guess I will have to count – one, ah ah ah, two ah ah ah…

Shower time.

Kevin

 

The ageing professor: a mid-career teaching crisis and pop culture 101?

“Have a great weekend and don’t drink and drive.” That is commonly how I end my final lecture for the week in each course I teach. Why? A couple of reasons; students get a chuckle at my expense and I actually mean it. But truth be told, what I’m really saying is “have a great weekend and be safe.” I only started doing this a few years ago and I can’t help but think it is linked to being a father and also because I am beginning to feel more like a father-figure to the students in my classes – not because they need to look up to me or anything self-centred like that, but because the age gap between my students and I is approaching a ‘tipping point.’ It’s always the same thing every year, the students stay the same age and I keep getting older.

Since I started teaching at the university level 20 years ago (I was 21!), I’ve always let my personality come through in my teaching. If you know me at all, you’ll appreciate that I like to have fun, which means, amongst other things, plenty of #DadJokes (for better or worse) and “funny” videos or movie clips from YouTube (loosely linked to the lecture). For me, it works, and I think the students enjoy it too. A favourite of mine is Adam Sandler (don’t worry, I keep it PG!). For example, when discussing parts of the brain and their function, I play a clip from “The Waterboy” where Sandler’s character and “Kernel Sanders” debate the function of the Medulla Oblongata (FYI, they are both wrong). It is a funny clip that ends with Sandler tackling the professor – always good for a laugh. The part that I’ve been realizing over the years is that students today don’t know who Sandler is and heaven forbid I show a clip of John Cleese (Monty Python and Fawlty Towers) describing the anatomy of the brain! My once popular celebrities are popular no more and so my lectures sometimes turn into “Pop Culture 101” where I take the time to “educate” the students on the funniest movies they’ve never seen. And yes, some actually let me know that they did indeed watch a movie I’ve recommended and actually enjoyed it – perhaps I should be a movie critic(?).

But what does all of this really mean? As I’ve taken some time to reflect on my teaching style and pop-culture references, I’ve realized that I am in somewhat of a mid-career teaching crisis. I am no longer similar in age to the students nor am I old enough to be their parent (though I am getting there). So my interactions with students have begun to change from a very approachable 20-something professor to a 40-something less approachable professor (though I think relatively speaking I am very approachable). So I have begun to question myself.

  • Should I cease all jokes referencing 90s (and earlier) pop-culture? Perhaps, but that would certainly remove some of the fun from my lectures – moments that at least I find funny!
  • Should I simply get new, timely, pop-culture references? Maybe, but I’m a little ‘out of touch’ with current pop-culture and if I tried to incorporate new references into a lecture, it would probably seem forced and would come off as a feeble attempt to be ‘funny’.

The answer to these questions (and more) are not trivial. How I interact with students in my classes greatly influences how much I (and they) enjoy my lectures. But the reality is that I won’t change anything about my pop-culture references in the immediate future. I will, however, continue to reflect after each passing year and perhaps a ‘tipping point’ will be reached in the not-so-distant future where my references no longer achieve the desired effect – a good laugh – then I’ll have to seriously consider adjusting my lectures. But for now, my students and I are still laughing and learning together – so as the old saying goes,  “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”

That’s it for now and remember to “have a great weekend and don’t drink and drive!”

Til next time,

Kevin

Here’s “the Waterboy” clip in case you are interested:

The patient professor…and shopping?

Shopping. I. Detest. Shopping. Going to Costco on a Saturday (or any other day for that matter) is like nails down a chalkboard – except worse, way worse. I detest finding a parking spot in an overcrowded lot that is about 2 miles from the entrance. I detest when I get to the doors that there are no carts left. And I detest going through the aisles to pick up a few things as people browse and cross aisles (all the time getting in my way). I detest waiting in the checkout line as people talk loudly on their cell phones. I detest getting in another line to exit the store while I wait for the person who checks your stuff on the way out to draw happy faces for kids. Shopping. I. Detest. Shopping.

Contrary to the above statements, I’m actually a pretty patient person, but it takes work. The frustrations of shopping don’t bother me as much anymore and it is linked to being a professor. Let me explain. As a professor, I hear it all. The stream of excuses for late assignments, missed tests or low grades is seemingly endless – and tiresome. But I don’t get frustrated by them anymore, at least not as much as I once did. Perhaps I am a gullible professor getting softer with age, but I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I try to put myself in other peoples shoes, especially the students because you never know what struggle they are having. The student falling asleep in class, I don’t bark at them to get their attention. For all I know they could be a single parent struggling to balance school, a job and child at home. If the classroom is where they sometimes catch-up on much needed sleep, so be it. Good for them for even making the effort. You never know. Maybe they are helping take care of an ailing parent or family member and are awake late at night. Perhaps they have a close friend battling a horrible disease in the hospital and spent most of the night by their side. Dramatic example(?), maybe, but you never know.

The late assignment or missed exam, perhaps there is major anxiety related to those stressors that the student has yet learned to deal with. You never know. The low grade on  an exam(?), maybe the student really did study hard like they said and they blanked. You never know.

My point? The world does not revolve around me, my research, lectures, exams or assignments. I am not the most important person in the room and you never know what people are dealing with … so relax. That person in the checkout line at Costco on the phone who is annoying me(?), maybe this is the only time they get some alone time during the week and are calling a friend who’s voice they really needed to hear. You never know. And maybe the kid who just had a happy face drawn for them is on cloud nine after a crumby day and now they and their parents are in a better mood. You never know. But I tell you what I do know, it’s not all about me. I don’t assume I know the situation of anyone, student or otherwise and maybe I get suckered sometimes with assignments or whatever, but you know what, it doesn’t bother me that much. Because I also know that trying to be considerate of others and giving people the benefit of the doubt has plenty of benefits and not just for the students. My stress levels go down and I try to stay in a good mood. Tell me you’ve never had someone smile at you when you were in a bad mood and it didn’t make you smile back. You can’t. It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about us.

So the next time you are shopping and you feel your blood pressure rising and you are going to explode because someone in front of you is super slow, blocking the aisle or talking (loudly) on their cell phone, give them the benefit of the doubt, cause you never know.

I’m not perfect and yes I still get frustrated like everyone else, but that’s what I try to do and I think my students would agree – we are both better off for it.

 

Til next time,

 

Kevin

 

Saw this video a few days ago, “This is Water”, by David Foster Wallace (link below). It gave me cause to reflect on how I’ve changed as a professor over the years. Have a look at the video, worth the ~10 minutes.

 

Work/life balance and how my 4-year old son helped me find it.

“I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date, no time to say hello good-bye I’m late” (White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland). Our work lives can get extremely busy and we end up rushing from one meeting to the next. It’s no fun and our lives in general are very busy! My wife and I both have full-time jobs and a soon-to-be 9-year old who plays soccer and hockey and is also in Cubs. We also have a 2 year old dog (Reese) so finding that work/life balance wasn’t easy, though I think we’ve got it down pat now. But it took a jolt from my son, 4 at the time, for me to find it.

It was a simple enough question asked to me by some graduate students in a recent meeting that really got me reflecting on my experience, “How do you find work/life balance as a professor?” Simple enough question, but not so easy to answer. When I first started as an assistant professor, the pressure was on to start teaching classes and get my lab up-and-running. I was stressed and I don’t stress easily. So I found myself not being in the moment a lot of times when I was with my family – my thoughts drifted to the next paper or research project or the next ‘thing’ that I had to do for work, it was suffocating. Don’t get me wrong, I loved (and still love) the work, BUT it was all-consuming. There was little balance.

When we moved back to NL in 2012 I had to start a new lab all over again. I thought, however, that I had a handle on things. I didn’t work at home until my boy was in bed and didn’t do a lot on the weekends – or so I thought. My turning point was when my son brought home a picture he drew of us at school. What was I doing in the picture you ask(?), I was in my home office working at my computer! That moment hit me hard and forever changed my work/life balance. Now it’s not like I was working 24/7, I have always been a very involved parent. I spent (and still do spend) large amounts of time playing with my son, but I was also busy with work – and it showed. As a side note, I am quite the ringer when I play street hockey with my son and his 9 year old buddies! But I digress. So even though I knew that I had really cut back on the work at home, it wasn’t his perception, and his perception is all that mattered to me.

So what did I change? Well, I am still very busy with work but I don’t have the same pressure that I did when I started – my lab is up-and-running and the teaching is going swimmingly, so time has been my friend in that respect. Funnily enough though, as I move further into my career I actually have much more on my plate! I am still busy in life too, I coach hockey 4-5x per week, was the assistant coach for his soccer team in 2018 (2-3x/week) and am an occasional Scout leader (and don’t forget street hockey ringer!). On top of that I’ve taken up the Triathlon as my new sport – that soaks up a lot of time too. I’m actually more busy now than I was when my son drew that picture, but the biggest thing that I’ve changed is that I manage my time VERY effectively. Everyone talks about time management, but actually doing it is very different than just talking about it – and if you do it right, it has a major rewards for that work/life balance.

So how do I have work/life balance? Ironically I had to work at it! But it’s paid off and I don’t know if things could get much better. While I don’t have a detailed list of how to manage your time effectively, I guess I can give some simple advice on a few big ones off the top of my head that worked for me:

First, I hardly watch T.V. anymore, unless it’s hockey and that is family time anyway in our house!

Second, I get some chores done when everyone else is busy.

Third, and this one may be controversial, I eat lunch at my desk at work. That means I have time for a 30 minute run, swim, weights, bike or whatever. I also swim at 9pm twice per week which is after my son is in bed and my wife is sleepy! On weekends, I exercise early morning because I’m up anyway and my wife and son aren’t ready to go anywhere til around 9ish at the earliest.

Fourth, and this is a big one, I’ve learned to delegate at work and release my strangle hold on the research in my lab, particularly manuscript preparation! I have good trainees as part of my research team and they are trained to the point where I can trust them with data collection and analysis and some writing. This was a MAJOR change for me.

Fifth, I spend time with my wife and son at his sporting events. I am the coach for a lot of stuff so I actually get very involved as opposed to watching. Not everyone has this opportunity, but if you do, take it! My wife is even the hockey team manager this year (we call here the Momanger), so it’s a family affair.

And remember, “don’t kill yourself working because if you were to die tomorrow your job would be posted before your obituary!” (social media post somewhere!). Balance is important.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date, no time to say hello good-bye I’m late! Just kidding, I’m actually going to school some 9 year olds in street hockey! 🙂

Until next time…

Kevin

First year excitement and the “Freshman 15”

It’s that time of year again, when students flood the halls of university, creating a noticeable buzz resulting from nervous excitement! Plenty of students have now moved into the capital city (St. John’s, Newfoundland) to begin the next stage in their life’s journey. I can remember my first year, my first days even, and how excited and nervous I was – I couldn’t wait to get started in my classes. And living on my own, well that was just icing on the cake! Free at last!

With all the excitement of first year students, I began teaching my Introduction to Human Kinetics and Recreation class by asking them some basic questions – here are couple of interest for the purposes of this post:

  1. how many moved into St. John’s and are living away from family for the first time?
  2. how many played high school sports?
  3. how many are playing sports now or have a team lined up?

I ask those particular questions for a good reason. Why? Because those questions have an impact on what students refer to it as the “Freshman 15,” the idea that in your first year of studies new students tend to put on some weight, somewhere in the order of 15 pounds. Is there evidence to back that up(?), I don’t know and I didn’t look it up! But look back at those questions and think about it for a second. Many young people move into to St. John’s and are now living on their own. That means a lot of day-to-day activities have now changed, in particular cooking for yourself, which is now a harsh reality!  That often means not the best/healthiest food choices – oh, by the way, I should’ve mentioned that I speak from experience for basically all of this post! Now add to that the fact that these same young people are likely experiencing an enormous drop in physical activity levels because they are no longer playing high school sports and haven’t yet found a team to play with in a new city. On top of that(!) throw in the fact that schooling is more difficult and time-consuming than it was in high school and what do you get? You get young people who don’t eat as healthy as they did, who aren’t as physically active as they were and who are now stressed because of school work and other pressures. That equals reductions in health, including the infamous “Freshman 15.”

So what can I do as a professor and exercise physiologist to help(?) – that is a question I’ve asked myself. One thing that I do in my Intro course is really push the idea that we are all likely in HKR because we enjoy being healthy and active. When I ask the question who played high school sports almost everyone in a class of 130 raises their hand. That number decreases substantially when I ask the follow-up question about who is playing sports now. So in my course I have built-in a Move or Read assignment (handed down to me). The “Move” portion is meant to include 25 hours of recorded physical activity followed by a 3 page assignment, essentially describing what they did and how it makes them feel. It is a reminder that they enjoy being active! Something I preach time and time again, get out there and meet people, play sports, go to the gym, join a running group, do something to get moving.

Here’s my point, physical activity and exercise are not leisure activities that should be pushed to the side or that is exactly where your health will go – to the side. It’s about feeling good, being healthy and meeting other people. That is something that gets lost in all of the excitement about this new chapter in your life, because once the excitement wears off you will be in a routine and having physical activity as a part of that routine can only benefit you in the short and long term. So like Hal and Joanne always say, “Stay fit and have fun!”

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No, professors don’t have the summer months off!

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As the school year comes to an end and many of my teacher friends get a well-deserved break from teaching and a chance to recharge their batteries, I start to address the same comment over and over, “must be nice to have the summer off now!” No, professors don’t have the summer months off! How many times have I said that over the years I wonder(?)! Running into old friends, students, meeting new people – the vast majority end up saying something similar about summers off once they know what I do. It can be frustrating for sure though I don’t place blame on anyone – why would someone know what a professor does during the summer months anyway? Just to be clear, I am not looking for sympathy or comparing my occupation to that of my teacher friends, just trying to inform whoever wants to read this post about what professors do.  Hence this blog post 🙂

As a university professor in Canada, we do not have the summers off. In my particular case, I actually use the summer months, or third semester (May – end of August), to get a lot of writing done and hopefully additional research. It is during these months that I normally do not teach and thus have more time to think about my research. I cherish this time. Having said that, because professors teach from September to the end of April, it also during the summer months where we can take our vacation time – in fact its the only time we can take our vacation time! So yes, we take vacation during the summer months but we do not take the summer off all together.

So why does this matter? The regular academic year when students are abundant and teaching is going full tilt, it can be hard to actually think about what you are doing in your research – to reflect on what you’ve done so you can conjure up the next set of experiments. Just like most businesses, we also have ‘death by committee meetings’ during the year and those seemingly endless meetings, which I admit are often required, soak up a lot of time and effort.

So bring on summer – let me enjoy the weather (if it actually gets nice), take some vacation time and also give me a chance to write some research papers and conjure up the next big idea! And to all of my teacher friends out there, enjoy your time off because as I read today on social media many of you likely agree with this saying, “Just so you know, teachers don’t have the summer off. They just do a years worth of work in 10 months.”

As always, I invite you back again soon so we can learn together.

Until next time…

 

Kevin

P.s. have a safe and fun summer!

 

“It’s time for Memorial’s professors to come down from their Ivory Tower!”

After earning her PHD, Repunzel was right ar home in her academic ivory tower.

Hmmmm…should I or shouldn’t I? That was basically my thought process as I sat down and tried to decide whether or not I should write a blog on the title of this post, given the potential backlash or misinterpretation of my thoughts. The title is a comment I recently saw on a Telegram article discussing the budgetary cuts to Memorial University during this time of financial uncertainty. I assume it was in reference to the point that part of the reason Memorial is in financial trouble is because of it’s overpaid, underworked employees, namely the professors. It’s a comment I seem to read or hear fairly frequently in one way or another. Obviously, I don’t like it and I don’t agree with it. But as I debated whether or not to address the comment and it’s underlying meaning, I remembered my original blog post where I state that one of my goals of blogging is to try and inform people about what university professors do (or don’t do). So here I am, discussing ‘the comment.’ I’ll try my best not to rant!

Before I could really start to discuss the ‘comment’, I found myself asking “what does it even mean to say one is in an ivory tower?” According to an online dictionary, ‘ivory tower’ is: “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world.” So presumably as a university professor I sit in my office, pipe in hand, reading the newspaper – all the time not having a sweet clue of what is happening in the ‘real world.’ Sorry, but I disagree. That is an image and a false stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood movies – it isn’t reality. That doesn’t mean, however, that as a professor I don’t have it pretty good. I am well-aware that I have a job that affords me a flexible schedule, a good salary, good health benefits, a good pension plan (for now at least) and perhaps most importantly, job security. This is not lost on me, I get it. Having said that, this job wasn’t handed to me on a silver platter – read my prior post on Dora the Explorer and you’ll see what I mean! But how does this place me in a position of ‘privileged seclusion’ exactly? Because of the aforementioned points? Ok, I can understand that to a certain degree – not everyone can check each of those boxes off regarding their job/career. If that’s the meaning behind privileged seclusion well than I guess I am in the proverbial Tower.

But let me pose some questions about being a professor:

  1. Do I think I am smarter than everyone else because I have a PhD?
    • No, of course not! Read my prior posts – that’s not what I think at all (education should not be confused with intelligence).
  2. Do I have ‘attitude’ or a sense of snobbery about me?
    • Nope. Ask my students, friends or neighbours – I would be surprised if any of them characterized me using that type of terminology. In fact, when people I meet ask me what I do (for work) I usually say, “I work at the university” and there usually isn’t a follow-up for specifics. Why don’t I like telling people I’m a professor (?), because of the very stereotypes and preconceived notions that some people have regarding professors.
  3. Am I lazy at work? 
    • Definitely not! I take pride in my work ethic, a characteristic my father played a major role in cultivating. As he would always say, “if you’re not fifteen minutes early, you’re late!” That saying is about much more than the obvious, ‘be punctual’ message. It was about working hard, respecting the time of others with whom you work (don’t have people waiting on you) and carrying oneself with a sense of pride. It’s a motto that I repeat time and time again and more importantly, try to live by.

Having said all that, I do not have my head in the sand so here are some additional questions:

  1. Are there professors that probably don’t work as hard as they should?
    • Sure there are.
  2. Are there professors that think they are smarter than everyone else?
    • Sure there are.
  3. Are there professors who probably get paid a perhaps undeservingly high salary (not sure how that is even determined…but)?
    • Sure there are.

But aren’t the answers to these last few questions true for any position you can think of? Tell me that you don’t know someone you believe to be slack at work, snobbish or overpaid – regardless of whether they actually are?!?! You can’t! Professors are people and just like people in other professions there are some that fit the stereotype and most that don’t, though Hollywood would have you believe otherwise (moment of personal insight: why do I always sound anti-Hollywood?). I can’t leave it there though as I would be remise not to point out that the vast majority of professors that I know are highly educated, but not arrogant; they are hard-working and anything but lazy; have a fair salary; love their jobs and take research, teaching and service to the community (e.g. coaching, public seminars, science fairs) and university very seriously.

So much for not going on a rant! There are many additional points I could discuss in this post, but that would be an essay in-and-of-itself – so I won’t. I doubt that I’ve dispelled the Ivory Tower comment, and I am sure that if enough people were to read this post (which they won’t!), I would probably get some ‘interesting’ comments. I simply ask that before you ‘tar all professors with one brush,’ make comments about them living in the Ivory Tower or accuse them of having an easy/cushy job, that you please consider the points I’ve raised. And remember, professors are people too.

As always, I invite you back again soon so we can learn together.

Until next time…

 

Kevin

 

What ‘Dora the Explorer’ taught me about academics and life…

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Dora, Dora, Dora the Explorer! Did you just sing that in your head(?), I did! I watched Dora with my youngest son on many occasions and loved it, lots of fun sprinkled with lessons on both Spanish and life [my other favourite was Handy Mandy, to whom I owe most of my handyman skills :)]. It’s funny to watch those shows as an adult because you realize that the lessons they teach don’t just apply to children, most of them stay true for the rest of your life. So what lesson did Dora the Explorer offer? There was one saying in-particular that stuck with me and makes me think about my personal experiences in pursuing my dreams and it is one that many students would do well to remember. Three words that were simple, yet very powerful, “never give up.” Why am writing a blog about never giving up? It all starts with reference letters…

As they do every year around this time, reference letter requests have begun to flood my inbox like a tsunami. Unlike a tsunami that destroys everything in its path, however, this tsunami carries with it the hopes and dreams of students – young people trying to begin the next stage of their life/career by being accepted into another academic program, typically physiotherapy, occupational therapy or medicine. Students have worked hard over the last 3-4 years to obtain their undergraduate degree and now they are ready to enter their dream profession. The harsh reality, however, is that not all of these students will get accepted into their program of choice, it is an extremely competitive process and this will undoubtedly be heartbreaking to many. Why? Think about it for a minute, all of a sudden those 3-4 years of undergraduate preparation seem to be for nothing and students will be left asking the question, “now what do I do?” Perhaps even worse, they will have to answer similar questions from family and friends. It will be tough, no question. But they will succeed, perhaps just not how they had planned.

How can I say something like that, what do I know about never giving up other than watching Dora? I want to share with students my experience about the importance of hard work and perseverance when you are told you aren’t good enough or when failure seems inevitable. I am living proof that when one door closes another one opens and am also quite familiar with things not going as you planned. So by sharing my story I am hopeful that students can say, hey look, it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies for him and now he is doing something that he loves. Here’s my story.

Part I: don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something

The year was 1999, I was in my second year of my undergraduate degree and I had a meeting with a physiotherapy representative from a Canadian school to discuss the possibility of me being accepted into the program. I don’t remember much of the conversation, but I do remember this – the representative essentially told me that I should look into different career options because I wasn’t going to get accepted to physiotherapy based on my grades (and I had good grades!). I remember feeling as though that individual was condescending and dismissive when they spoke to me. How could anyone so passively and nonchalantly stomp on my hopes and dreams? The reality, of course, is that I was probably just upset that someone was giving it to me straight and that my grades just weren’t good enough to get into a program, not something I was accustomed to hearing. I was devastated. Luckily for me I am super competitive and that conversation lit a fire inside me. I literally couldn’t wait for the next semester to begin (I was on a winter work term placement) so that I could show ‘them’ that I was smart enough for their program. I’d get my grades way up and I’d get into to physiotherapy. I’d then send a thank you letter to that representative who told me I wasn’t good enough, not to be mean or sarcastic, but because nobody had ever motivated so much in my entire life. I still feel that I owe that individual a debt of gratitude.

When the summer semester was over I finished with over a 90% average and never looked back for the rest of my degree. By the time I was ready to graduate I am positive that I would have gotten accepted into multiple physiotherapy schools across Canada.  Obviously that didn’t happen. My final work term as a teaching assistant and researcher changed my career path. By the end of the Fall 1999 semester I knew that I would be a Kinesiology professor. 10 years later I received my PhD and even came back to MUN in 2012 where I said I would end up.

Part II: I almost quit during my PhD – never give up!

I spent my first academic year as a PhD student taking graduate level courses in subjects like Cell Biology, having never even done an undergraduate course in the subject matter! It wasn’t all fun, but I worked my butt off and learned a lot of new information. Things were going swimmingly. Mission accomplished.

Then the end of April hit. I literally went into the lab the day after my last final exam. I was pumped to work at the bench and learn my new research techniques. Day-after-day I performed experiments with no results which lasted for a full 1.5 years! Yup, a year and a half of my life was spent doing research that did not produce results. Frustrating would be putting it mildly. It was during that 1.5 year period that I contemplated quitting and switching to a different program or trying to do a medical degree. Only one problem with that, I was the proverbial “dog with a bone” and there was no way on God’s green earth that I was going to give up. I had never given up on anything in my life and I wasn’t about to start.  I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently Dora was my kindred spirit! Never give up.

So I chugged along. I was two and a half years into my PhD program before I finally had data. The high of getting that first recording, however, was all I needed. I was hooked again. I plugged away in the lab trying to build off of previous research and wouldn’t you know it, I couldn’t get it to work. I spent another year trying to fix that problem. Didn’t work. 3+ years into my PhD and nothing to show for it – nada, zip, zero, zilch – nuttin’! Again I seriously contemplated quitting – it was tough, and I mean tough. Cue the Dora and dog with a bone phrases – for better or worse, I simply wasn’t going to give up.

Dora was right, you should watch the show

To try and make a long story a little shorter, my hard work and perseverance paid off. My ‘never give up’ attitude pushed me to succeed and we prevailed (couldn’t have done it without my wife’s constant encouragement). I completed my PhD and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Why? Because that experience, those years of frustration that ended up with me coming out on top had instilled in me the belief that I could do anything, absolutely anything. I have no fear of failure because I know that if I give it my best good things will happen, just not always the way I planned. I mean I did have to switch my PhD thesis topic and that was fine – I did it, it worked, and here I am. When I reflect back on my PhD, those years were amongst the most frustrating, yet rewarding, years of my academic life. And Dora was right, of course, never give up.

Follow your dreams and never give up

So whats the main point of my blog/rant(?), I know it’s been a bit of a long one. The point is life can feel like a competition and a lot of the reference letters I’ve written, and will continue to write, will be for students that will unfortunately not get accepted into their dream program. I feel bad for those students, but I also feel optimism. And with that, here is the main point of my blog that is directed at you, the students that don’t have things go as planned. Don’t let anyone, and I mean anyone, tell you that you can’t achieve your goals. If they do, use that as motivation, turn any frustration you may have into action, pull up your bootstraps, and get to work! And you know what(?), if you give it your best effort, I mean you really give it your best and it seems that your dreams are just out of reach and the door is closed, don’t worry, another door will open – I promise. ‘When one door closes another one opens’ is a cliche for a reason – it’s true. But don’t just sit back and wait for something to happen, go out and MAKE IT HAPPEN. There’s always another door. You just have to find it and walk right through. Never give up.

That was a bit of a long one and if you made it through to the end I hope you found it useful. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a hankering to watch Dora the Explorer and maybe even an episode of Handy Manny, I do have a shelf to put up later and I’m not 100% sure on how to do it.

As always, I invite you back again soon so we can learn together.

Until next time…

 

Kevin

 

About some of my thoughts on Teaching at a University

 

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I am not Robert Langdon!

As a university professor, teaching is about 40% of my job, and it’s an important one that I take seriously and enjoy. But what does it mean to be a university professor when it comes to teaching? Most people, myself included, conjure up images of a professor that you see in movies, like Tom Hanks as professor Robert Langdon in the 2006 film, “The Davinci Code.” He stands in front of the class discussing symbolism with the students who are enthralled by his tales and wisdom, hanging on every word so they don’t miss a thing. But that simply isn’t accurate, especially the part where all the students are hanging on every word – at least not in my case! Perhaps if I were a millionaire movie star it would be different (?), but I digress. The following is a glimpse into my teaching philosophy, my big picture thoughts on what it means to teach at the university – in real life, not in the movies.

So what is teaching at the university level?

That is a tough question to answer. One definition I saw online for teaching was, “to show or explain to (someone) how to do something.” Now I don’t think this is entirely wrong, nor do I totally agree with it. In fact, I prefer not to think of myself as a teacher at all! Why not you may ask? Because I view my role more as a learning facilitator, not a teacher. Ok, so now you are thinking, ‘he is just playing with terminology here, they’re the same thing.’ I disagree. I believe that a university education is more than just professors and students, teaching and learning. It is about helping others develop the skills to think critically, independently, and to engage in self-directed learning. Although I have taught a considerable amount, it has been my experience that I learn from the students just as they learn from me. It is a reciprocal relationship – I help them understand the course concepts and they in return help me to think of the material from a different point of view which enables me to become a better instructor and mentor. My goal is therefore not to feed students information, but to try and foster critical thinking. I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t always easy or straightforward and I certainly don’t always succeed, but I try. I want the students to WANT to learn, to enjoy it, not just sit in class and try and get an “A” in the course so they can move on to the next thing (which in HKR is typically a desire to be a Medical Doctor, Physiotherapist, Occupational Therapist, Recreation therapist/specialist or Physical Education teacher). This is a tall task and it isn’t easy – in fact I’m still learning how to best motivate students and have learned that just because I love the material doesn’t mean that everyone does! That was a tough one for me to digest because I am pretty passionate about what I do.  I’ve learned not to take it personal when students don’t like my class and/or the course material. Regardless of whether or not they love the material, I want them to appreciate it for what it is. I often say that if one or two of my lectures or big picture concepts from my courses somehow make into their consciousness as they progress in their respective profession(s), than I have succeeded as a professor.

A word on admirable students

The young people in my classes are intelligent – in fact, sometimes I think about how many of these students are far more intelligent than I am, seriously. Being a professor doesn’t mean that you are necessarily more intelligent than anyone else, it just means that you have more education, mainly focused on a central topic – neurophysiology in my case. And let me tell you, intelligence and level of education are not the same thing! I know plenty of people that don’t have PhDs that I consider more intelligent than I am. Maybe I’ll blog about that in the future, so back to the students. Whether they admit it or not, the vast majority of students that I encounter at the university level like to be challenged! Here’s one recent example, though I’ve got plenty.

Just this week I had a first-year student in my office and we chatted about the transition from high school to university, let’s call him Bob. Bob had a difficult transition, new province, new city, new friends, new school (much more challenging than high school), new everything. As a result, Bob has seen his grades slip quite a bit through the first part of the semester and Bob was a high school honours student! This isn’t uncommon for first year students. In addition to the increased difficulty of university courses and a substantial increase in workload, many students are also transitioning from living with their parents to living on their own – a whole new set of challenges that I also went through, so I feel their pain! But one thing the student said to me stood out. Even though Bob’s grades have slipped and his stress levels are high, he said he actually enjoys the challenge of the university courses! Imagine that. Bob actually enjoys the challenge! His marks have gone down and he isn’t sulking (he met with me for advice, not to beg and plead to have his grade changed), he is using this as motivation to improve himself. Talk about inspirational, Robert Langdon be damned! It isn’t always the professor that inspires with words of wisdom, I just got inspired by a first-year undergraduate student who is half my age! The point is that I deal with some amazing people, and they just so happen to be students. Though students may not realize it they can have a major impact on how I approach my working life and sometimes, like this student, my life in general.

These types of students are the ones that inspire me the most – like I said, I learn from the students just as they learn from me and I’m not just talking about in the classroom.

Keep on learning

As I continue on my journey of being a university professor I will continue to learn and work on how best to engage students and feed their curiosity. This is a difficult task and I may never have a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching – and that’s a good thing. I mean, how boring would it be if everyone were the same? As the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life” and in my mind that also means diversity.  But perhaps like Robert Langdon, I too will find the Holy Grail, at least as it relates to teaching and then every student will hang on my every word!

That’s it for now. As always, I invite you back again soon so we can learn together.

Until next time…

 

Kevin