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“Professors Are People Too”: Part 1

By: Karen Chen

Featuring: Professors Michael Wood and Bruce Frayne

For me, going into the Environment 3 building for the very first class of the semester was scary for several reasons. Chief among them was that I was late. Not far behind though were the fears of making a bad first impression on my cohort for the next 5 years of my life, and the inevitability of crashing my bicycle into the bike racks. However, one thing that should not have been intimidating was meeting my professors.

We are already halfway through the term and after reading week it’s time to reflect on what we have learned, how far we have come, and think about who we want to be and what we want to do in the coming weeks. At the beginning of the term, we at ‘The Radicle’ posted a survey to get a feel for how the students in the Environment Faculty at the University of Waterloo felt about the pandemic, about online school, and tried to look at the bright side of things. Six weeks later, those same questions have been asked of some of your favourite professors.

The first term of university can be daunting for many students in the fall. You’re a small fish moving from a small pond into basically an ocean of people where you run the risk of becoming just a tree in a forest, a bum in a seat, a number. 

In other words, just another student.

I’m here to tell you that the truth is, their bark is worse than their bite. Believe it or not, they don’t actually want you to fail.

Nice to Meet You, Professor Michael Wood

Michael O. Wood

  • Email: michael.wood@uwaterloo.ca
  • EV3 4223
  • Ph.D – Strategy and Sustainability, Ivey Business School, Western University
  • M.A. – Environmental Studies in Sustainability Management, Western University
  • B.A. – Science, University of Guelph
Skiing Down the Environmental Kuznet’s Curve

If you are an Environment and Business student, like me, you probably remember him from ENBUS 102, one of the first courses you ever took at the University of Waterloo. If you haven’t met him in class,  you’ve probably seen him walking around the environment buildings wearing his signature plaid shirt, glasses, and blundstones. He is currently a lecturer and the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies at the School of Environment, Enterprise, and Development (SEED). He holds a PhD in Strategy and Sustainability from the Ivey Business School at Western University, andhis research encompasses the conflict of the false dichotomy between environmental degradation and economic growth. 

When he’s not at the office, he likes to spend time with his family and explore outdoor spaces. Like many of you, he is hoping to get a chance to hit the slopes for skiing and snowboarding when winter comes. 

When we talked about the idea that ‘Professors are People Too’, he expressed: 

“We are people. We’re not robots that live in the closet and only on teaching days do we wheel out. And you know? Talk at you and then, you know, when everything is done, wheel back into the closet and plug ourselves in until the next time we’re needed.”

He was excited for the interview and when I asked him the same survey questions we asked all of you, this is what he said.

1. What are/were some challenges you face(d) working or studying from home?

For Professor Wood, distractions were both positive and negative, with welcome interruptions from family. He understands that it’s difficult being at home and doing work where you need to be completely immersed, and additionally finding your train of thought stopping at every station. For example: if you were writing an essay about XYZ and you finally see that elusive perfect thesis within your reach before it slips out of your grasp as your mom or dad, your kids, or even your dog calls for your attention.

As we reminisced about being on campus, Professor Wood stated, “I miss the face to face interactions with students and faculty, even just in passing, as students get lost in the halls”. Compared to what most students in the Environment Faculty answered, Professor Wood answered in kind. 

Forms response chart. Question title: What are/were some challenges you face(d) working or studying from home?. Number of responses: 30 responses.

2. What are/were some unexpected upsides or benefits from working or studying from home?

“I am surprised by how much I like working from home,” Professor Wood chuckled as he explained that, despite the challenges in staying focused with all the distractions, he has enjoyed the extra time that he has been able to spend with his family. Although he may have taken a manic approach in the beginning — getting kids to school, taking meetings and phone calls, and answering endless emails. He has learned important lessons that have (and will lead) to positive changes in the future.

3. What are your strategies for working/studying from home? What kinds of new habits have you picked up in the past 6 or so months?

When I asked Professor Wood for some ‘Pro Tips’ for Working for Home (WFH), he made sure to mention the importance of taking breaks. We laughed about how there are times when it is easy to lose track of time and forget the little things – like the view out the window when you stand up from your desk, or what natural light looks like when you look up from your computer screen.

It is also very important to understand your natural schedule. Like many professionals, Professor Wood is most productive in the morning. He emphatically declared that sleeping, exercising, and eating right shouldn’t be optional. Just because we’re all at home doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be healthy and active individuals.

4. What brought you joy in quarantine?

In true ENBUS fashion, we talked about urban resilience. How it’s not always about the diameter of a water pipe in preparation for a massive flood, it’s about people’s relationships and how they can support each other in times of crisis. This crisis gave society a chance to slow down and reevaluate what is really important, “this woke people up”.

“I think what’s really special about our program and the students and faculty that we have in SEED… from any other place that I’ve worked or schools that I’ve attended…we have a really special group of faculty and students.

I think that we generally want to support our community and build that community, and I think that’s consistent with what we teach too; about the importance of building social equity and social inclusion and wanting to build capacity and try and find ways to to build our social capital. 

And so, I think that that’s a pretty special thing.”

5. What are you most looking forward to this fall term?

Professor Wood is a glass half-full kind of guy even in times like these. When I asked him this question he smiled and said “Actually, I’m excited to see how education can change.”

Looking beyond the present, Professor Wood optimistically has already begun to theorize and plan how the idea of school can turn on its head. 

“I never liked the idea of being the ‘sage on the stage’ and it’s only what I bring to the conversation. The way I see it is that the materials that I curate for the course, the topics we discuss and those that we don’t, are meant as a launching point. It’s not meant as a destination.”

https://artsonline.uwaterloo.ca/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Arts-Blog-570×255.jpg

A classroom can become a narrative where we the writers, each cohort continuing the dialogue and acting out history as it happens.

In the absence of face to face opportunities, Professor Wood has given students the opportunity to achieve a bonus mark for attending his office hours at least once. At the end of the first month of school 20% of his students had booked in a meeting with him.

Good Morning, Professor Bruce Frayne

Bruce Frayne

  • Email: bfrayne@uwaterloo.ca
  • PhD – Geography, Queen’s University
  • MCRP – Planning, University of Cape Town (in South Africa!)
  • BA – Geography and Sociology, University of Natal (also in South Africa!)

On the fourth floor of EV3, there is a warm-hearted Professor named Bruce Frayne with a South African accent that reassures audiences in his lectures the same way awesome environmental documentaries do; calmly telling you about how the whole world is coming down because of historical grievances and modern forms of neocolonialism brought on by a history of conflict and atrocities AND that your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to scramble to find a solution for all that’s wrong on this Earth. In this way, Professor Frayne engages students in sensitive topics, by taking time to take apart each issue and unique event, and explain its historical significance and long lasting repercussions. 

He is open to discussing his research interests which fall within “the broad ambit of sustainable cities, and encompass the three related areas of human migration, urbanization and food security”. In addition to being an awesome Professor of International Development, he is also the Director of SEED at UW, is leading the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Canadian Cities Index project, and regularly works in Sub-Saharan Africa and cities of the Global South.

In his free time he likes to spend time exploring the art of cooking and food preparation. 

“I am particularly interested in bread. I lived in a place where fresh bread was difficult to come by and so I started to bake at home. Eventually I went to the UK for training as a baker. I also bake for a local community market in the summer.”

In our interview, we talked about how sometimes when your professional private lives overlap, often unconsciously, it’s a sign that you are really doing something you love. In this case food security, preparation, and sustainability are intertwined.

1. What are/were some challenges you face(d) working or studying from home?

When I asked Professor Frayne this question he sighed and explained he misses being present in collaborative situations in general. It is “more productive and more enjoyable [to work and be together]. We are social beings after all.” 

One big challenge that he cited was the constant stress of COVID-19 and the psychological toll that it can have on individuals and society. He empathizes with students over disappointments in missing in-person gatherings like convocation or graduation trips. 

“Believe it or not that actually bothers me. It makes me feel like: ‘Why are we even doing all of this?…They [the students] have to sit in this online world.” 

And we all know that it’s just not the same. 

2. What are/were some unexpected upsides or benefits from working or studying from home?

We didn’t talk about very many upsides of the pandemic and we were careful not to use language like ‘silver linings’. However, Professor Frayne took this question as an opportunity to highlight that we are still alive. Not only that, but many of us still have jobs and the fact that we can still go to school at all is a privilege that is easy to take for granted. As he said, “there is a lot to be grateful for.”

Forms response chart. Question title: What are/were some unexpected upsides or benefits from working or studying from home?. Number of responses: 29 responses.

3. What are your strategies for working/studying from home? What kinds of new habits have you picked up in the past 6 or so months?

When the lockdown and school closure were first announced, Professor Frayne was in South Africa and had flown back to locked doors and a grim campus back in March. He scrambled to get everything done in a hurry and smiled as he recollected, “Lucky I had my laptop with me!”

Now Professor Frayne has a dedicated work space with lots of natural light where he both bakes and answers emails. As a strategy for avoiding a work-stress burnout, he makes it a habit to take frequent walks. He remarked, “Exactly when you feel like you don’t want to take a break because you have so much to get done. That’s when I think you should take a break.”

Finally, Professor Frayne is an early riser. By making a point of waking up everyday at about 6AM, he can get a good amount of work done before many, including myself, decide not to hit the snooze button for the upteenth time. Thus reinforcing the point that those habits that keep you healthy and happy before the pandemic are just as, if not more important, in keeping  you happy and healthy during the pandemic.

4. What brought you joy in quarantine?

One thing that brought Professor Frayne joy during quarantine was the changing of the seasons. He mentioned that “Fall is my favourite season. I love the changing colours.” In the city of Waterloo, autumn can be quite remarkable, and not just because of the geese.

5. What are you most looking forward to this fall term?

When I asked Professor Frayne this particular question, his tone changed to one a tad more serious. Next term, which has already been announced to be online, he is hoping for more synchronous learning opportunities where he can speak to students in real time. 

Notably in times like these, it is hard not to be disorganized when everything is constantly changing and you feel like there are too many factors that sit outside of your control.

We talked about how the workload is not only perceived to be greater for students but also for professors and faculty. For Professor Frayne, it takes two days of work to get all the recordings uploaded for students whereas normally it would only be 3-4 hours of work each week. We are all learning to adapt and it is important for everyone to be patient as professors navigate these new challenges.

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