Category Archives: staff wellbeing

But I HATE Group Work Part I: Getting group formation right

In the next series of posts, I’m going to tackle something that is close to my heart– as I recently finished grading 100+ individual assignments that reflected on group projects across two of my upper year courses.

I am struck by the number of reflections that start off with or contain the phrase something along the lines of ‘I normally hate group work, having had a number bad experiences in the past…’.  If I had to estimate, I’d say at least 80% of student reflections contained something along these lines.  And, by the way, whether or not they like group work is definitely not part of the prompt they are given to guide their reflections!

I find this somewhat alarming for a few reasons. One of these is student well-being. The number of students who follow up their ‘I hate group work’ statement with some kind of reference to how much stress it causes them is concerning.  Second, most (well designed) group projects are meant to improve student learning, both in terms of content and  the development of professional skills such as leadership and team-work.  That these learning outcomes are either not being achieved or recognized by students is something we should reflect on.

Finally, given the topics I currently teach (Conflict Negotiation, Peacebuilding, Human Rights Advocacy) I’m concerned that students’ initial and sometimes sustained reaction to group work is so negative.  Whilst of course they are there to learn content, which can be learned individually,  many of them aspire to work in these or related fields.  No jobs in these areas allow for purely individualized work.  None of the global issues about which they are learning  will ever be solved without extensive cooperation between individuals and institutions.  Indeed the following line appears in one of my syllabi in a prominent place:

 “One last note on group work:  this is a course on peacebuilding and conflict resolution”

I even make a note of reading this line out loud to the class on the first day, followed by a dramatic pause and a stern look towards the audience.  This often elicits a few awkward giggles, and several students have noted to me how this was actually really important for them to hear—how they were actually considering dropping the course when they saw it had group work, but this convinced them to stay.

Yet, the ‘I hate group work’ refrain persists.

In this first of post four posts on group work, I’ll explore some options on how to formulate groups in the first place– to try and ensure not only a better start, but a more productive experience for students (and therefore also a less stressful experience for instructors).  In my next three posts I’ll offer some further thoughts and advice on designing and delivering group work on issues that come up frequently in discussions with students and colleagues:  what to do about free-riding; preventing the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality; and some of my thoughts on grading and assessment.

Below I will describe the following options for group formation, and briefly reflect on my own thoughts about their strengths and weaknesses: a) Student Choice/No Instructor Input b) Student Interest c) Mixed Ability/Skills/Diversity d) Random Allotment

I should note that I don’t think there is one right way to ‘do’ group formation. I have used all of these in some way with varying degrees of success and failure.  For me, making a choice depends on the number/type/attitude of students I have in the room, the reason for choosing group work and my current workload.  What follows is simply a list of things to think about and consider regardless of which approach you choose.

Student Choice/No instructor input: This first options is probably most familiar to all of us.  How many times have we, either for informal class discussions or even for formal group assignments just told students to ‘get into a group and do xyz’.  Simple, straightforward—let your students make their own decisions with little to no direction.

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  This does allow students to have greater ownership over the process.  It can increase their sense of agency and with a bit of instruction (ie giving them advice on WHAT to consider when forming groups), it can work very well.  Also, our students are adults and so many people feel that on these grounds alone they should have the freedom to make their own choices as it pertains to their learning, and indeed that there are lessons for students to be learned in terms of making their own  academic/professional decisions. To be honest it can also prevent, if things go pear shaped, them being able to ‘blame’ the professor–ie ‘If you hadn’t put me in such a crummy group or made me work with this student, I wouldn’t be in this mess’…

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this:  This system can also be exclusionary.  Perpetual nerds with no natural athletic abilities like me will remain scarred for life after a childhood full of being picked last for gym-class baseball, soccer, volley-ball  teams.  OK, I’m being melodramatic and I actually didn’t care.  I learned to love/own my bookishness at a very young age. But I digress.  In a classroom setting as people rush to get into groups based on either already existing professional/friendship groups or based on who they think are the ‘smart kids’ they want to work with—various groups of students will be excluded.  These include but are not limited to exchange students, transfer students, students who because of caring/work/chronic health conditions have not been able to be on campus as much/foster friendships within their programs, student who have struggled on a previous assignment for reasons out of their control and are thus deemed unreliable/unintelligent.  The list could go on.

I’m not saying student choice is NEVER an option to consider, and often times there are one or two super empathetic students who are actually on the look out for this and address exclusion without being asked. But, we can’t rely on these students always being present or fully aware of the exclusions happening in the room.  For this reason, I think there are things we should consider and steps we might want to take if utilizing this strategy  to prevent forms of exclusion in our classrooms.

Student Interest:  With this method  students are asked about their interests (for example in terms of project type if there are different projects to choose from or case study/thematic area of interest…).  Student groups are then created based along these interests/preferences.  In small classes this can be easily managed by having students email you.  In larger classes a google form or other survey tool might make it more manageable.  I usually ask students to tell me their top 2-3 interests in case certain a project/case study fills up faster than others.

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  SPOILER ALERT: This is my favorite method to use for assessed group work. I really like this method, first of all because it creates student ownership over the process and therefor has many of the benefits seen in the ‘Student Choice/No Instructor Input’ option noted above.  Related to this, students come to the group all knowing that their colleagues also have a shared interest in the topic/project.  It can immediately reduce some of the anxiety around free riding (which I’ll blog about in a future post).  There is also an automatic ice breaker built into this model as once students get into groups one of the first things you can have them do  is discuss why they listed this as their preference. Shared interests and these personal narratives can also lead to quite strong professional-personal friendships—which I’d like to add, I’m actually quite shocked at the number of students who in their final reflections make note of this.  Related to this, and this is a whole other set of posts, I am shocked at how many of my 3rd and 4th years students also say they have not made many strong friendships within their classes.  Concerning, but I digress.

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this:  It can be a lot of work in a large class as you try and ensure everyone gets their top choices.  If you ask students for their top choice(s) there will definitely be an expectation (rightly or wrongly) on their end that they will then get one of these choices.  In cases where certain projects or cases prove popular this can be very difficult.  You either have a massive jigsaw puzzle on your hands trying to get it all to work out—this  can be VERY time consuming if you take everyone’s preferences in at the same time.  Or, if you do like I generally do and go with a first-come-first-serve approach (ie first to get their preferences in get first dibs), popular choices fill up fast and then students who are late to the game  are disappointed.  In some cases (but not always) the last options to fill up (whatever is left) are not full of entirely committed students, and the benefits noted above are lost.

Mixed Ability/Skills/Diversity    This is admittedly a system I have never tried, but have spoken to colleagues who’ve had great success with this method.  One colleague has students self-assess their skills in different areas related to group work (research, writing, organization/leadership etc) and then tries to formulate groups that have a good mix of skills sets.  Other colleagues who teach in classes where there is a real mix of students for example, in different years of study, will try and create groups where there is a mix of students from different years and/or programs.   In classes where there is a diversity in terms of international v domestic students and/or nationalities, colleagues might try and create mixed groups in terms of nationalities/background of students.

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  Diverse groups are often strong groups—with multiple skill sets and perspectives coming together to create dynamic/well rounded teams.  If done well/right, this method can increase the likelihood that each person feels that they have a unique role to play, whilst other team members model/mentor other skills sets or positions.  A diversity in perspectives can also encourage greater critical thinking and can increase the likelihood of an output that has balance, innovation and/or considers a range of counter-arguments.

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this:  As with the previous model (Student Interest) this can be a lot of work as you either have to conduct a skill survey, or trawl through the class list trying to make decisions based on available data about year/program etc.  Students might also not like not having any choice in who they work with which can limit their sense of agency.  Further, if a student has self-assessed as ‘strong in XYZ’ and then is actually not strong in XYZ, it can somewhat defeat the purpose.  Students might also develop a ‘divide and conquer’ mentality—deciding to divvy up the work based on what THEY are good at or their perceived role in the group, leading to less than ideal learning outcomes and threatening the coherence of the project/task.  I’ll blog about this problem in a future post

Random Allotment: With this strategy the professor simply creates groups using one of several techniques that lead to randomly selected groups.  For example, when creating groups for my simulation of the Good Friday Agreement, I simply assign students Alphabetically (Last names A-D will play the role of the British Government, E-G the role of the Irish Government and so on and so forth).  I’ve heard other professors (in smaller classes) draw names out of hat, lottery style (for a bit of drama and excitement).

Strengths/Reasons to choose this option:  If done right, this can prevent the issue of exclusion noted above.  Though, see cautionary notes below.  This is also the simplest instructor led process to manage.  I myself use it for ‘low stakes’ types of group work not associated with grades and where diversity of groups/opinion/approach etc doesn’t matter too much.  Other colleagues feel this is a good model as it also replicates the ‘real world’ where you don’t get to choose your colleagues and where who you are working with on a committee/project can indeed be quite random.  In this sense, it can teach students important transferable/professional skills related to leadership, conflict management and team work that they will encounter in their future lives.

Limitations/ Reasons not to choose this: An exception to the ‘this can prevent exclusion’ argument above  (and one of my fears about the lottery style allocation in particular) is if students have a way of voicing (dis)pleasure over the assignment of a particular student to their group. Envision everyone cheering when Popular Student A’s name gets pulled out of the hat and there being zero response to Unknown Student B’s name being pulled.  Even if groups are assigned less publically, the kinds of displeasure that might be signaled by some students that we couldn’t possibly be aware of could be problematic for students already feeling marginalized.  Further, leaving things entirely to chance can lead to real forms of inequity in group work if one group finds itself made up of mainly strong students who breeze through, other groups being of mixed abilities, and some groups possibly made up of primarily struggling students.  In these cases the groups and individuals within them could have vastly different learning experiences (and, grades) that don’t reflect either our aims for the assignments nor each individual student’s true potential.

Lest we forget: Teaching, Scholarship and the Travel Ban(s)

Whilst the US Travel Ban (and the new revised 2.0) was hot news for several weeks, it has nearly disappeared from our news screens already. Nonetheless, the ban(s) and current US politics continue to pose difficult questions for universities, scholarly communities, and students around the globe.  Of course, universities in the US are faced with some of the greatest problems and questions.  At ISA 2017  in Baltimore, I acted as discussant on a panel on ‘study abroad programs’ in which the QnA quickly turned to the issue of the travel ban and other immigration ‘moves’ in the US.  I saw how my American colleagues were facing issues that we in Canada do not face– for example, having to counsel and advise students who now fear participating in these valuable programs at the risk of not being able to return home.  There is of course the wider problem of campuses becoming so deeply divided (politically) that teaching (politics in particular, but many other topics) has at the same time become more difficult and ever more important.  Many “teaching in the Trump era” guides, news articles , and editorials have responded to this new challenge.

Here in Canada, the recent Travel Bans and immigration moves in the US have not had  as obvious an impact (though there are many colleagues and students who are directly impacted by recent events– I by no means wish to wash away the many people who are experiencing the real ramifications of recent policies).  However, the problem here is quantitatively and qualitatively different.  The topic has of course come up with students, and we’ve discussed things in class, but it has, in my experience, been very civil and though students are indeed interested in what’s going on south of the 49th, they are (for the most part) not as personally impacted and thus the issues arising are, again, different. Far fewer students have a fear of leaving the country, lest they not be able to return to their studies. Colleagues may need to re-route their flights but are much less at risk of not being able to return to their offices, labs, homes and families in Vancouver (though for some with family in the US there is of course a fear about when/if they will be able to visit loved ones again and their safety).

Still, the recent travel ban and shift towards populist or nationalist governments around the world have ramifications for all of us in the classroom, and for universities around the world.   These events have put the spotlight on issues affecting the academy that have always been there (academic freedom, scholars at risk, lack of equal opportunities for students etc), but have not been talked about widely or enough by administrators, departments or with our students.  In response to all of this, several of us drafted a letter to the UBC administration voicing our concern.  My colleague Prof. Christina Hendricks has written about our motivation for this, and provided a copy of our letter here.  We received a formal reply from the university which noted our concern and detailed a range of actions the university is undertaking.

I am re-posting all of this hear in the hopes that the specific issues raised for our students and colleagues around the world do not fall out of view as the news cycle turns.  The impacts and fears remain real and, as I note above, raise issues that have always existed with in the academy, though often in less publicized ways.  Recent events in both Turkey and Hungary are but two other examples. I also hope that some of my readers will have a look at some of the actions our university is trying to take in response to issues related to (and beyond) the travel bans and consider ways that we can make academic freedom as well as the safety and security of a range of marginalized groups on our campus and in our profession a regular and intentional part of our conversations.  On a more personal level– check in with your students. The ways that recent politics (in the US and abroad) are impacting your students may remain hidden to you.  Invite students to meet with you to discuss concerns they may have regarding their status at your university, their future their well being.  In the same way scholars around the world work to protect each other, so must we protect the most junior scholars among us.

A sheepish hello to my readers OR in solidarity with those who did not achieve their summer writing goals

When I first started my blog and looked into the various articles about what makes a successful blog, one of the common threads amongst the various pieces I read was an oh-so-encouraging ‘most blogs fail within in a year’. Nice.

‘Not mine!’ I said with a determined glare—what did these people know!

Well, apparently quite a lot because almost like clockwork, nine months into my blogging experiment, my voice disappeared. The small but loyal readership I’d built up dissipated along with my thoughts and reflections on teaching, learning and social justice.

Now the weird thing to me, as I engage in a post-mortem, is that I was able to keep the blog running with fairly regular posts during the semesters—when I was busy with a full teaching load and helping with the start-up of a new first year program here at UBC. It was in the summer months, when I had ‘all the time in the world’ that I stopped paying attention to my blog. At a time when I should have been pumping these out, the blog fell by the wayside.

This isn’t because of a lack of interest in teaching, or a lack of ideas to write about, but more about me taking on far too much over the summer (something we all do of course). I had set myself unachievable goals.   A blog post every other week, get three already written articles ready for publication, finish my co-edited book on crime, write a new text-book proposal, apply for three funding calls and most importantly rework my classes for the upcoming academic year. Somewhere in between I figured I should also take a holiday, and oh yeah, finish planning my wedding and get hitched.

Now of course being on the ‘teaching tenure track’ I prioritized getting my courses in tip top shape for the upcoming year—which took twice as long as I had allotted. I then began to panic, yes panic, about my edited collection (I couldn’t stand the idea of letting my co-editor and authors down!). A small rough draft of the textbook I want to co-write also got sketched out, but not in a form I was happy with. I managed to get a small teaching and learning grant. Nothing else got a look in—oh, except I did get round to the small issue of a wedding!

I ended the summer and began my September in a rut. Feeling terribly disappointed in what I had (not) achieved. My blog, my articles did not get touched, I did only minimal work on my textbook proposal and only one small grant was applied for/won.

It is only now, that I’ve pulled my head out of the sand and actually written down what I have achieved that I realized I have not had a failed summer. A completed book manuscript, my first teaching and learning grant, my next big project sketched out, two courses renewed and organized, with an exciting community based learning initiative for the third also mapped out. If anyone else told me that this was ‘all’ they had achieved over the summer I’d be damn impressed. But no, in our profession when we look at our own achievements we tend to think that we are never good enough, that we have never done enough for our students, never enough for our CVs, there is always one more article to write, one more book, one more conference presentation. So, my advice to myself—a list for me when I next feel like a failure for not achieving, my often ridiculous, high standards and self-imposed deadlines (I hope others who are too terribly hard on themselves also take note):

  1. Give yourself a break. You are not superwo/man. You know how you are constantly counselling your students to relax and not see every missed deadline or missed opportunity as some kind of professional Armageddon? Take that advice on board for you too.
  2. You don’t have to achieve everything you want to do before tenure/promotion; there is always next year, and the next, and the next. Have a conversation (before the dreaded annual review) with your mentor or your department head to put things in perspective. Make sure you are doing enough (or ideally slightly more) to get where you need to be professionally, but let go of the need to be like that superstar in your discipline who publishes a book and four articles every year, whose students love everything about them, and who is also a super-nice person (you know who you are!). You might get there someday, once you’ve had time to figure out the profession and your place in it—but for now focus on being excellent at YOUR career stage.
  3. Make time for your family, your friends and your health. I’m not even going to go into more detail on this one. Just do it.

On ‘those’ teaching days (weeks, semesters!) that just don’t go to plan: the importance of documenting your ‘little wins’

This was a post I had wanted to write at the end of last semester when I felt I needed to take stock of what had and had not gone to plan in the previous months.  That I didn’t get around to it until mid-January (and that new blog posts have been, ahem, lacking) is perhaps your first clue into whether or not my desire to be an uber-reflexive lecturer went to plan….

I had some great teaching experiences last year but I don’t want to give the false impression that it was sunshine and roses every day.  I had some real ‘funks’ this past semester.  A collision of professional and personal circumstances (yes, let us not forget that what is going on outside the classroom impacts our teaching) made it a challenging semester.  And while I reflect on these and create a list of blog topics to address specific challenges,  I’ve decided to write down my ‘little wins’—the often overlooked or seemingly mundane experiences on which we should all focus when we are feeling like less than effective teachers.   We often put huge expectations on ourselves,  expect to have these huge overall impacts and lose sight of the more tangible day to day  successes of our work.

Here  are my top moments from last semester that a) got me through the not so great days  b) are the types of ‘moments’ that I will keep an eye out for this semester to keep me motivated and c) that I hope can give others going through a rough time in the classroom pause for thought about their own ‘wins’ .

Wait—both of these approaches can be used to justify violence!’  (on those moments where students make an incredible leap forward)

This was my first year teaching a full intro class to incoming undergrads.  Teaching the ‘basics’ is a totally different exercise to teaching  higher level courses to begin with.  Throw into the mix that I am a critical scholar who takes real issue with ‘the basics’ and for me, this class became a huge challenge.  Yes.  It was hard—for me and the students.  Things didn’t always go to plan, and I often found it very hard to tell if they were ‘getting it’.  Now removed from the situation, I realize I was maybe putting too much pressure on myself and my students (there were lots of things I probably didn’t ‘get’ in my undergrad and I turned out OK—intellectually speaking) .  But I also have to reflect on those handful of moments where students took individual, unprompted and unscripted leaps forward:    a first year, after learning the basics of realist and liberal approaches realizing that both  sets of ideas, taken to their logical end could be used to justify violence;   a student in the same class pointing out differences between Berlin’s and Kant’s work after only a few moments of working with the text; another realizing the textbook might be written from a ethnocentric point of view.  I certainly didn’t have these ‘firework’ moments every day, but sometimes reflecting on the individual success stories can help us recognize that we are getting through to our students, even if on the whole we didn’t feel things went particularly well.  I guarantee that for all of you,  no  matter how badly you feel a class is going, there will be similar moments—you just have to keep an eye out for them.  Write them down—keep a ‘great moments’ file at hand that you can return to after a particularly rough day.


Let me tell you about Operation Turquoise and extreme vs radical florists (on learning something from your students)

Although I wouldn’t describe all my days in the office as ‘inspirational’, I have been inspired by some of my colleagues who have encouraged me to think of teaching more as an intellectual conversation rather than a simple transmitting of knowledge.  And taking this perspective, I’ve had some truly great moments to draw on looking back. In particular, my peace studies class exposed me to cases and analytical approaches to specific interventions that I’d not been exposed to before.  I was forced to have a bit of a rethink on Rwanda, my understanding of the use of ‘radicalism’ vs ‘extremism’ and the destabilizing effects of freedom.  I also don’t think I have ever said ‘I don’t know—there is no research on that—you should do a PhD on it’  so many times in a semester.  My only wish here is that this kind of experience could have somehow been replicated in my first year classes to a greater degree.  It has made me think about how I can redesign my intro classes so as to allow my students to take more of a lead role in the intellectual conversation so that I am learning and growing alongside of them (instead of the onus being purely on me to ‘teach’)


The rolling egg, the penguin dance and  the Kumbaya sing-along (on laughing with your students and not taking things so seriously all the time)

Ask my students (and colleagues), I tell terrible jokes.    Fortunately, some students provided  their own moments of kindness and humour  in the classroom– sometimes unintentionally.   For example, an early morning class was interrupted by an egg, randomly and slowly rolling down the walkway of a tiered lecture hall.  Eventually determined to be a student’s breakfast on the run,  the incident probably did more to lighten the mood and wake up the students more than any of my ‘active learning/let’s get our brains warmed up activities’ ever could have.  Similarly, I had other students recognize the importance loosening up, team building and thinking outside the box—the interpretive dance element  of student presentations is now forever burned in my mind. Creating spaces for students to be creative and to build rapport with you, rather than thinking YOU are entirely responsible for this element of the classroom dynamic is essential.  Capping the term off  with a salute to my self-deferential jokes about peace scholars, to me showed this rapport and respect was there. And fortunately the excellent essays from this group at the end of term showed that they had also met the learning goals.  Fun doesn’t have to come at the expense of intellectual achievement.  There is of course a line—we aren’t there to entertain or be their friends, but thinking about how to co-create a professional but relaxed learning environment is something I’ll now spend more time thinking about.

I think our quest for ‘excellence’ (driven partly by our own personalities but also the stresses of pre-tenure life) can sometimes translate into work and teaching environments that are not healthy for us or perhaps our students.  With mental health problems on the rise for both our students and for academic staff, taking a bit more time to reflect on the overall learning environment and how to lower the stress levels for all involved seems a sound investment.  Maybe interpretive dance wont work for everyone, but still….

The Great Outdoors: Part 2 (From Well Being to Ethics)

As classes are now in full swing, my future posts will necessarily focus on what I’m doing inside from here on in, but as a final good bye to summer I will spend a bit more time exploring the outdoor spaces here at UBC.

Following on from last week’s post which focused on using spaces to motivate and inspire students, this week I will look at how outdoor spaces on campus can also be designed to promote student and staff well being, remind readers on how spaces can be used as ‘tangible texts’ to support learning outcomes and discuss the ethics of knowing and learning about our campus spaces.

Recognizing that nature and/or spaces that facilitate calmness are important to students and staff

There is an increasing awareness on the importance of student and staff well-being at universities.  This is a great development given increases in mental health conditions in society more generally and among university staff and students specifically[1].    Of course there are essential services that must be our priority in terms of well-being— resources must be spent on ensuring student and staff health services are properly resourced and that faculty receive support in helping students with both acute and chronic well-being issues.  One’s physical environment, however, can also affect one’s mental health and general well being.[2]

choi BuchananCourtyard

View of my office from the forested area behind it and the internal courtyard of the Buchanan courtyard.

Now here I could just be a total braggart and plaster this blog with the amazing natural spaces which are within and arms reach of me at UBC—I won’t mention the beach here (oops). I work on one of the most beautiful campuses in the world in terms of the nature that surrounds me (the first picture above being taken just outside my office window).  Not every office can look out into a beautiful northern forest,  where an eagle may land on a branch in front of you and engage you in a staring contest (this really did happen to me one day!).  But all campuses could do more to consider the importance of nature or the built environment on the culture and well being of its student/staff body.  This might be especially difficult for city centre campuses with little room to grow or dedicate space to ‘nature’—however the second picture above of the courtyard in our Buchanan complex is an example of a small design feature that incorporates both nature and the built environment in order to transform a fairly bland and industrial place into a beautiful and potentially calming space for students and staff to socialize or study.

As one of my colleagues once said (looking at the day to day schedule of our incoming students)—‘We need to make sure that they have time to just sit under a tree and think’.  Whilst this is perhaps a romantic notion of student life, there was a serious point being made. We must all recognize that students need  time (and space) to to reflect on, internalize and thus learn at a deeper level the materials which are presented to them.  The addition of outdoor study and reflection spaces need not be big or costly.  Again, UBC campus has done well (I think!) to provide spaces for rest and contemplation which are both essential to learning and well being.  Below are examples of just two of these spaces—the giant bean bag chairs outside of our main library and two-person swings which have recently popped up around campus.

swing beanbags

Recognizing the history of place and space as both an intellectual and ethical endeavor


Picture of one sign that forms part of the ‘Native Hosts’ series by Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds

My last picture relates to one of the most important issues related to UBC’s learning spaces.  UBC’s main campus is built on ancestral, unceded territory of the Musqueam people (for more information see   This sign, and others like it, are but one reminder of the history of our places of learning.  What needs to be said about this important fact can not be said in a short blog piece—I would do a great disservice to try and summarize the history of this First Nation, Canada’s colonial history, contemporary injustices,  and ongoing attempts to resolve these in the political, legal and cultural spheres.

What I do want to use this blog piece to do is to remind staff and students of the importance of engaging with the history of spaces in which we have the privilege to spend our days.  The justification for this is twofold.  First, exploring the history of our buildings and campuses provide another set of tangible texts and easily accessible case studies through which we can make our often abstract lessons ‘come alive’.  Whether your campus is has been built on a site with a rich and contested social  history, next to or on key industrial sites, or at the epicenter of a relatively new urban environment, the birth and growth of your own institutions can themselves be treated as  unique and fascinating ‘texts’   that can be linked to your class’s learning outcomes.   For example, the above signs became a subject of inquiry for UBC art history students, resulting in an excellent paper written and published by an undergraduate on their history and significance.[3]

The second justification for this is of course an ethical one.   Many campuses (particularly in North America, Australia and New Zealand) have been built on Aboriginal lands.  In other places, campuses might exist on land that certain groups consider to be unjustly ‘occupied’, and still others will see university campuses as sites of elitism, symbolic of wider societal stratification.   Being aware of these histories,  being honest about the ways in which are campuses may historically or presently  exclude some groups in our societies (and indeed trying to rectify this) is an ethical imperative both in terms of being a ‘good’ in and of itself, but also in terms of being able to seek truth, knowledge in the widest sense of those words.  Universities must be more inclusive if they are to survive and be relevant in the future.  Confronting the histories and ongoing structural inequalities that exist in our spaces of learning is first step in this process.

[1] Many  blogs aimed at university faculty discuss issues of well being and it increasingly being covered in the popular press.  See for example the ‘Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia’  There is a growing body of literature exploring these issues in the student body as well.  I have found the following quite interesting Lu, SH et. al. (2014) ‘An internet survey of emotional health, treatment seeking and barriers to accessing mental health treatment among Chinese- speaking international students in Australia’ Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 27(1): 96-108. El Ansari, W and Stock C (2010) ‘Is the Health and Wellbeing of University Students Associated with their Academic Performance?’  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 7: 509-527.


[3] Halls, Catherine (2010) ‘Today your host is speaking out:  Ideology, Identity, and the Land in Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds’s Native Hosts.’ UBC Undergraduate Journal of Art History, Issue 1.

The Great Outdoors: Part One

The inspiration for my first blog post comes from an ongoing research interest of mine as well as some of my other ‘duties’ at the university.  At the moment, I am working on a project with a colleague related to answering the question ‘Where is Peace?’.   I have also been part of the Jump Start programme here at UBC—a two week induction programme aimed primarily but not exclusively at international students.  Here I am working with colleagues to help students adjust to being in a new ‘place’ (Vancouver) and what for them will also be a very new  ‘space’  (a university setting).[1]

On top of this, I have set myself a challenge of getting outside for at least 20 minutes during my work day as both a mental and physical break whilst I juggle (like we all do) a range of tasks.  OK, if I’m honest, having a legitimate reason to wander around campus and enjoy the last few days of summer has been central to the choice of my introductory post (‘I’m working on my blog about innovative teaching, not just skiving off for a pleasant walk– honest’).

I realized that all of these tasks involved thinking about space—how we define it, how we use it and how it influences us.  It struck me how we, in our busy lives as academics and students, running from class to class, meeting to meeting, take for granted the spaces in which we spend a not unsubstantial part of our adult lives.  The aim is to get us talking about how spaces at our universities do or do not facilitate student learning. I hope to challenge universities and the people who populate them to think about how spaces can be improved to both motivate students and facilitate learning outcomes.

So, my first two blog posts will explore the characteristics of outdoor spaces that can help facilitate learning.   Next week I will carry on with this theme and discuss the importance of exploring nature and the built environment in this regard as well as coming to terms with the history of our campuses.

Using spaces to remind students of the purpose of academic endeavors

There are many reasons why students come to university and why academics have chosen to focus on their particular areas of research.  These are often highly personal and range from the economic to the altruistic, to simply an often inexplicable fascination with a particular topic.  Unfortunately, staff and students often find their motivation for being here  waning (particularly at the end of term when we are all fatigued  and/or stressed and/or disappointed with our progress). Feeling disillusioned with various aspects of higher education, it is easy for us to loose site of our original motivation and our essential task.   I also find that students  often lose sight of the purpose of learning itself as they (necessarily at times) focus on the material they need to know for a specific test or paper, losing sight of the original motivation for their studies as they strive for excellence on individual pieces of work.


‘Wisdom’ rock outside C.K. Choi building—part of installment displaying 5 Confucius characters


‘Start an Evolution’ flag—found all around campus (note: personal urge to add an ‘r’ to these flags)

For me, as I enter my office I am provided with a very tangible reminder of what I am here to do.  A small rock garden just outside my building presents five Chinese characters  based on the basic principles of Confucius.  The one I encounter first each morning represents wisdom and knowledge.  A gentle reminder of this several times a day as I head out to classes and meetings is a useful motivator.  A similar reminder comes from flags scattered around the campus, which encourage students to ‘Start an Evolution’ (I myself always imagine an ‘r’ in front of this, but I digress).

If we think about the breadth, depth and quantity of material we throw at our students every week,  taking a few moments or finding ways to bring the conversations back to the ‘wider prize’ may be useful.

Using spaces to inspire students on the importance  of their academic endeavors and as a tangible set of ‘tangible texts’ to study

Linked to the above, I have noticed how several spaces on campus have been used and designed to inspire students to achieve excellence in specific subject areas as well.  The random allotment of my teaching space for my Critical Peace Studies seminar last semester was particularly inspiring.  Teaching in the law school, as no rooms were available in the buildings where most Political Science courses are taught, required my students and I to walk over and past a range of sayings related to peace and justice—just two of which can be seen below.

peacebench1 peacebench2Benches on my way into the law school where I taught critical peace studies, engraved with various sayings, including ‘the most advanced justice system in the world is a failure if it does not provide justice to the people it is meant to serve’ and ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’

I imagine this is where some readers might scoff at the ‘warm fuzzy’ sentiment behind this reflection (yes you, the Realist in the corner!). However, it was more than a simple reminder for me and my students about the importance of achieving success in our studies—it also provided concrete learning opportunities that contributed to my learning outcomes.  These quotes were discussed and debated on the first day of class as we explored (as per the course syllabus) competing definitions of peace (physical vs structural violence,  ‘just peace’ vs stability).  In fact, my students also identified over a dozen further ‘tangible texts’ on campus that signified different definitions and intellectual understandings of peace and security.

The potential of spaces to be used to remind students of the key intellectual debates and developments in their field, not only as inspiration but as another set of ‘tangible texts’ that teach students something discipline specific is another area of consideration for those able to influence campus planning.  Challenging students to not only to identify these texts themselves but to also debate and discuss these texts that are present in campus spaces is a great learning activity that exposes students’ creative and intellectual capabilities.

….Join me next week for more on outdoor spaces at UBC and how they contribute to positive learning environments and help us meet our learning objectives……

[1] My colleague in geography, Dr Siobhan McPhee does a fantastic 30 second lecture on the difference between place and space should anyone want to discuss the finer points of this conceptual distinction