Category Archives: staff wellbeing

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