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“Professors Are People Too”: Part 2

By: Karen Chen

Featuring: Professors Leia Minaker, James Nugent, and Jennifer Lynes-Murray

The second term of university went a bit better for me in terms of first days. A New Year’s Resolution to not be late anymore, and lessons learned from the fall term, provided me with a new perspective. No more bike accidents. 

And…

No more waiting until the last minute to ask the professor that important question about the final exam, or about what could have been done better on that last term paper. 

Hello, Professor Leia Minaker

Leia Minaker

  • Email: lminaker@uwaterloo.ca
  • Ph.D. Public Health Sciences, University of Alberta, 2013
  • M.Sc. Health Promotion, University of Alberta, 2006
  • B.Sc. Health Studies, University of Waterloo

One of the rites of passage in the Faculty of Environment is to pass the class, ENVS178, a statistics class that not only gives you the necessary skills you need to interpret data for  research papers, but also teaches you how to use Microsoft Excel. It takes a special type of teacher to be able to make spreadsheets interesting and fun. Although you won’t get to laugh at Professor Minaker’s corny hilarious jokes in person, she and Professor McCordic have recorded some awesome lecture videos for you to learn about STATS (with a blooper reel just for laughs).

If you haven’t met Professor Minaker yet, you can spot her around campus as a fast-walking, bright smiling individual whose outfits are always on point. She has taught at UW since 2016 and her research focuses on healthy cities, healthy lifestyles, food governance, and planning. Recently, she is interested in how urban design features can help with people’s mental health. 

Contrary to popular belief, professors do not live at school and they don’t know everything. They are constantly in a state of learning; and not necessarily about the same things they teach. That said, when Professor Minaker isn’t at the office, she likes baking, gardening, running, and recently has begun learning the skill of foraging. We began the interview simply laughing about stories from the past few months. 

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

“Being in your [own] brain right now is a distracting thing.” Sometimes the emotional and mental strain from the constant worry at the back of your mind becomes overwhelming for all of us. Professor Minaker shared a story with me where, one of the few times she went out to eat with her partner, she recalled how normal it used to be before suddenly starting to sob. The little things we once took for granted are the same things we miss the most today. On a much lighter note, we joked that we have some of the same thoughts floating around as we try to get work done at home. Thoughts such as, “I wonder what’s in my fridge right now”- knowing fully well that we’re just bored and not hungry, or “Am I actually being productive right now? Or am I just sitting in front of my computer screen?”. 

 Some other welcome distractions were often hearing her kids calling from the other room, “MOM! Can you help me with something?” 

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

When I asked Professor Minaker this question, she stated that she enjoyed having much needed time to be silent and think. Something that we miss in our busy everyday lives is the chance to stop and smell the roses. The pandemic has given Professor Minaker the chance to slow down relative to her usual fast paced routine. In this time, she has taken the opportunity to make social interactions more meaningful with her family and in her local neighbourhood.

This comes with some challenges too. In our interview, Professor Minaker opened up about how nervous she was about her children going back to school. One active case was even declared at one of her daughters’ schools. Undoubtedly, in the midst of this pandemic, there is an important decision for all families to make. On one hand, going to school and having social interactions with friends and extended family are extremely important, but, on the other hand, it is important to limit these outings and stay safe.

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?

For strategies, Professor Minaker is big on lists:

  • To-Do Lists
    • Daily
    • Weekly
    • Monthly

Lists give you a sense of satisfaction each time you check off an item and they help you categorize action items into “discrete activities” or ongoing projects. (Somehow she snuck math talk into this.) A discrete activity is something like making lunch, drawing a picture, or taking a quiz: it gives you tangible results that you can look back on and feel good about yourself for. She emphasized the importance of interspersing long events with these activities. I think it helps give you a better sense of time passing and when I mentioned that, the topic of deadlines came up. Time management and organizing deliverables can be difficult when you don’t physically travel across campus from building to building where each Prof reminds you to prioritize studying their class. To remedy this, Professor Minaker suggests giving yourself deadlines. However, just like voluntary environmental restrictions or unratified supra-national agreements, some parties may struggle with this and we may not see change immediately. 

4. What brought you joy in quarantine?

Forms response chart. Question title: What brought you joy in quarantine? . Number of responses: 30 responses.

When Professor Minaker and I discussed the results of the survey, specifically the fact that 30% of our responses suggested that “home pants”, pyjamas, and sweats have become the norm. At this point, Professor Minaker chuckled as she mentioned that it was hardly new since university students wore sweatpants WAY before the pandemic started.

During the quarantine, Professor Minaker has taken up:

  •  Baking, 
    • With a special focus on buttery light croissants
  • Gardening, 
    • She is especially happy with her blackberry bushes, new Paw Paw tree, and Chicago Hardy Fig Tree.
  • Running,
    • Just as she loves learning about sustainable cities, she also enjoys exploring local trails.

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

“I love that look on people’s faces when they’re like ‘Aha, I get it now!’”

Professor Minaker is most looking forward to getting back to in-person classes so that she can witness that “Aha!” Eureka moment face to face, in real time. Notably, with a pre-recorded presentation, Professors have no way of knowing if students understand their explanations. They won’t be able to see our confused faces about certain topics, that little head tilt or shrug of the shoulders. 

“I understand that you might be shy.” Even if you know that a Professor is a person, you might still be scared of sounding dumb in front of someone with a doctorate degree and years of experience in their careers. We forget that professors love teaching and that’s why they chose it as a profession. They are here to help you learn (not necessarily to give you good grades).

Good afternoon, Professor James Nugent

James Nugent

  • Email: j3nugent@uwaterloo.ca
  • PhD Human, Urban and Environmental Geography, University of Toronto
  • MA Human & Environmental Geography, University of Toronto
  • HBSc International Development Studies & Environmental Science, University of Toronto at Scarborough

A tall basketball player with swooped hair who spends time with his family, loves the outdoors, and advocates for climate change initiatives and economic reform, Professor Nugent lives what he studies. Growing up on a sheep farm in rural Simcoe County and spending years working at Provincial Parks, he developed a holistic point of view on environmental studies before he even began his Ph.D in the urban center, Toronto.

You may not know this, but Professor Nugent has had a hand in shaping the future of the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo. Those who have taken ENVS131 with him will understand, and may recall, that he is working on a new way of delivering education in environmental communications and other classes. He also helped write the new Environment Peer Mentor program, and aims to include “service” and extracurricular activities (hands-on learning) into school curricula. To add even more to his plate, he still maintains a vision for a future project to engage students’ groups on campus with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through the “living labs” model.

To Professor Nugent, it is important to be balanced and have a range of talents and expertise. This quirky millennial is a fan of the Raptors and a fan of superhero and sci-fi films but, if you’ve ever been in one of his classes then you’ll know, he also loves a good nature documentary. His research highlights the importance of intersectionalities between environmental studies and every other discipline; and how without cohesive cooperation, conflict ensues.

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

One of the challenges that Professor Nugent faced during the pandemic lockdown was being unable to see his parents. Because they have health issues, he did his best to keep away and distracted himself from his concern for them by working all the time. 

He additionally struggled to keep a sense of normalcy with the constant apocalypse fatigue and crisis input with the Black Lives Matter social movement, climate change issues over new pipelines, and of course the virus. Some things just keep you up at night. 

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

This was a sensitive question for Professor Nugent. “I don’t think there are any upsides to a pandemic,” he replied, but he made connections to our course content and took the opportunity to bring attention to the fact that we have the unique opportunity to discuss history as it is being written. When this idea dawned on me, my mind was blown.

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?

We are all still learning new strategies for how to best work from home. When I asked Professor Nugent about his methods, he took the time to explain what was difficult and what has since improved. 

Like many of us, Professor Nugent uses a small portion of willpower NOT to watch Netflix all day, to maintain good sleeping patterns, and exercise and eat healthily. Again, the same good habits that would have helped before the pandemic are the same ones that will help you get through it. What made sustaining these habits difficult however, was the fact that the overall psychological toll from the pandemic majorly affects sleep, and many sports like basketball or ultimate frisbee require group contact. Without good social interactions in those teams, coupled with anxieties over family, it is easy to turn off your brain and watch ‘just one more episode’.

To remedy these challenges, Professor Nugent recommends taking time for yourself to do things that you like as a break; and to stay engaged in social movements and politics when you can, but accept that there are limits to what we can accomplish as individuals (which is why we need collective action).

My rugby coach used to say, “I promise to do all that I can so never do less than I ought”, and I think that applies here. We can only do so much as individuals and as much as we want to actively engage in everything: we need to understand our own limits.

Forms response chart. Question title: 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?. Number of responses: 29 responses.

4. What brought you joy in quarantine?

During the quarantine lockdown, Professor Nugent was teaching Spring term courses but also took time for hobbies like cooking and starting a new garden. It was a productive time that he spent connecting with nature, although it pales in comparison to being surrounded by awesome students, going to movie theaters, or spending time in libraries.

Professor Nugent is a regular at the Environment Student Society (ESS) Cafe and frequently shares conversations with students about everyday topics (and how they relate to environmental studies) like what kind of tea or coffee you like or recommendations for which vegan brownie is best.

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

When I asked this question, I was expecting an answer along the lines of ‘setting my own pace for work schedules’ or ‘blasting music’ but Professor Nugent put a profound spin on something seemingly superficial. In our interview, we discussed how inequalities were sharpened into focus with the onset of the pandemic. Questions popped up like ‘What exactly is an essential worker?’, that brought attention to the fact that we should value the labour of all people in different classes and services and that right now, we’re not.

“People started to see potential in what a different world we could live in.” The pandemic is making people reflect and changing the world and changing politics. “Usually people don’t always participate in those movements because they had to go to work. But this pandemic gave them the chance to engage.” I think we are all cautiously optimistic about how this will affect future issues, especially those regarding the ongoing crisis of climate change.

Hello, how are you, Professor Jennifer Lynes-Murray?

  • Email: jklynes@uwaterloo.ca
  • PhD, Environmental Planning, University of Griffith (in Australia!)
  • MES, Environment and Resource Studies, University of Waterloo
  • B. Commerce, Marketing, University of Guelph

Former associate director for the undergraduate ENBUS program, former chair of the non-profit organization Residential Energy Efficiency Program (REEP Green Solutions), and co-founder of the North American Sustainable Concerts Working Group, Professor Lynes is slowing down in light of the pandemic. Nowadays, in her free time, she’s opting for a night in with a good episode of Brooklyn 99 or 30 Rock in lieu of her usual busy life on campus and around Waterloo. Despite these efforts to take a break, this time of year is always active and she makes the most of it by researching social and community-based green marketing, residential energy conservation behaviour, and engaging youth in environmental issues. Her background, with degrees in both Business and Environment, gives her a unique perspective for generating solutions for the ongoing crisis of climate change brought on by the imposed dogma of neoliberalism leading to the belief that there are infinite resources despite our finite world. 

That is to say, Professor Lynes’ research is really cool. The conversations that you can have with Professor Lynes are lively and yet mind-blowing. I’m not sure what it is but something about a dialogue encompassing a network of connections between civil society, the private sector, and governments all over the world is difficult to put your finger on.

When Professor Lynes isn’t at the office she likes to clear her head through competitive speed skating. She enjoys training at the Lake Placid in New York or, you know, just casually at the Olympic Oval leftover from the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary. She enthused about each turn, each pass, each stride around the bend of the oval being a mess of decisions that are both exhilarating and relaxing. I hope to try it someday!

“I never thought that going around in a circle over and over would keep me occupied since I’m not one for liking repetitive things.”

This she remarked as she casually reminisced about participating in triathlons, ocean swims, and skating marathons. 

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

One of the most pressing challenges that Professor Lynes has to face was “trying to ‘spatula’ [her] kids off the couch”. I have had the opposite experience of my mom lifting the couch up from under me! 

In a more serious tone, she explained how trying to accommodate all the students in her classes was quite heart-breaking. Some quarantine camps overseas are unsafe and not ideal for a university education, to say the least. She talked to me about how even going grocery shopping became this whole event that was both physically and mentally draining, as specific plans had to be made to reduce social interactions and outings in general. It sometimes became overwhelming to have had to make so many decisions all the time about things she’d never thought she’d have to.

We also joked about “getting out of shape in terms of social interactions”. The more I think about it, the more I think she has a real point. Just as with muscle memory for sports, or math exercises, perhaps social interactions like small talk and smiling at strangers are skills we can lose if we don’t practice. This is concerning as “we will always need physical face to face interactions”. Professor Lynes cited the fact that banks haven’t closed even though e-commerce and electronic banking is more widely used than ever before. In fact, even though Toronto Dominion Banks (TD) have the widest network of internet banking, and are even opening up new branches! As Prof Lynes quipped, “We have a threshold for technology I think.” There are some things that we can’t replace. 

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

When I asked Professor Lynes this question, we talked about books that we like and shows we binge, namely anything by Margaret Atwood. But, when we got serious she said:

“I don’t want to get into this circle of never going out. Before the pandemic we were always, ‘Go! Go! Go!’ There’s always something to do…But do you really want to go back to being busy all the time?”

This was a welcome chance to reflect on what’s really important in our lives and rethink the way we’ve been living. Beyond sustainable fashion or pipelines infrastructure, she’s focusing on family and time with her kids that she doesn’t want to miss a second of.

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?

If you ever have a chance, you should ask Professor Lynes about her dog, because he is adorable. Taking responsibility for or taking care of someone else was really helpful in keeping up a routine and coping with the pandemic. Little things like taking her dog out for a walk at the same time every morning or making breakfast for her family before her kids went to school (maybe it will be down the hall in a virtual class but still, point made) helped Prof Lynes maintain a sense of normalcy. 

Routine is healthy but can also leave you to lose track of time in the monotony of the days. For this, Professor Lynes suggests having a purpose for each day. Carpe diem!

How to walk a human being - The Oatmeal
https://theoatmeal.com/comics/how_walk_human

4. What brought you joy in quarantine?

Professor Lynes joked about the phenomenon of the ‘WFH Mullet’, where there is little incentive to dress up in full workplace attire for remote work. Although we had a good laugh about this, she asserted that it is best for productivity if you dress like you would normally go to work. Much like the social interactions skill, there are some habits that we don’t want to lose. 

Other than those funny types of anecdotes, Professor Lynes has enjoyed spending more time with her family and has gotten back into reading. Often in our busy lives as students and professors we don’t make the time to read for fun when we have endless research articles and expensive textbooks waiting for us to open them…eventually.

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

Professor Lynes is looking forward to the ‘end of the pandemic’ as I believe all of us are but, in the meantime, she looks forward to a long fall term consisting of digitizing lecture material, moving regular deliverables into Learn, and making un-boring slide decks for Winter Term.

At this point, Professor Lynes remarked about how she had gone on a recon mission back to campus. (“Don’t worry, Karin in the Faculty is watering all our plants!”) It was surreal because of how quiet it was and honestly kind of spooky. 

To the students, she realizes that “you’re missing out on a big part of the university experience”, and she wanted to share these pro-tips:

  • Paraphrasing Confucius: “Don’t get it right, get it done” and “Don’t let perfect get in the way of the good.”
  • Keep track of your deliverables and don’t miss out on the easy marks!

“Don’t make the focus of your life be about the marks, make it about what you’re learning. Sometimes we have the best learning experience from failing.”

Forms response chart. Question title: What are you most looking forward to this fall term?. Number of responses: 30 responses.

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