Questions from grad students: on stress, being a generalist, and publishing

I was recently invited down to the Arkansas to be a “student-selected” speaker for their entomology Department. Their graduate students decide on someone to invite down to Fayetteville, and the honouree gets to visit that lovely part of the world, meet with grad students and professors in the Department, and give a seminar. It was a fabulous trip, and it was incredibly special to be recognized by graduate students. Thank you!

Quite a lot of my discussions with students ended up focusing on career development, pressures of the tenure-track run, and professional development. The students asked great questions, so great that I thought I would post them here, with some responses. (Surely other people will have better advice than what I have written, and please comment if you are so inclined!)

So many professors I know are always so stressed. How do you avoid burn-out, and why would anyone want to be a prof since it takes a real toll!

Indeed, there are days when the work is stressful, and pressures of the tenure run can be really tough. Grant writing, learning to run a lab, teaching and supervising all happen at the same time. Even after 14 years as a Prof, the stress can remain and still rears its ugly head. The job doesn’t get easier or stress-free over time.

I know this seems somewhat counter-intuitive at first, but for me, the best way to reduce work-related stress is to not work too much. You do not need to work 80 hrs a week to succeed in Academia, and finding balance between work and life is critically important. Even if you *love* everything about your research, take time away from it. Real time. Proper weekends. Find hobbies or activities that take your mind and body to somewhere else, whether it’s playing the ukulele or learning to bake. Making time for exercise is important too. A healthy body really does help with work productivity and lets you get a little distance.

The work will always be there. No matter how hard you try to get ahead on a project, the next task or project will be waiting for you. Nagging you and calling you name… Don’t give in!

This relates very much to the overwhelming urge to be a perfectionist, and do *everything* at an unattainable level. This must be jettisoned. Now. When you start to work a little less, you will actually start an important process of prioritizing and leaning the skill of time management. With less time at work, you will get more efficient with the time you do spend at work!

Why would anyone want to be a stressed-out Prof? Well… It remains a rather amazing job, and if that’s your career goal, go for it! But it doesn’t have to be a career goal, and we need to all do a better job at recognizing and valuing PhD career paths outside of higher education (check this out about “life after Academia“). Regardless, however, leaning how to manage stress and time are a part of the work, whether at a university, research institute, in government, or elsewhere. If you are doing grad work, it’s unlikely you will work in a “stress free” environment in your future.

We have to be so specialized during grad school, yet also need to figure out how to be generalists. How do we make that transition?

This is a great question, and very true! We become experts at the end of a MSc or PhD, and then are suddenly thrust into teaching an intro Biology class, or having to write a collaborative grant on a topic at arm’s length from our own expertise. For those interested in a career in Academia, the job requires people to be specialists and generalists, and that’s not always easy.

However, the transition is easier if you start taking small steps towards being a generalist early on. Often a qualifying (or comprehensive) exam during a PhD gets us thinking in more general terms, as that’s a time we are thinking a lot about how our research fits into a broader conceptual framework, or perhaps we are asked questions outside of our area, as a means for the committee to assess limits of knowledge. After these exams, it’s easy to slip back into our projects with a sigh of relief, and we delve back into become experts. It becomes a nice and cozy comfort zone. However, it’s important to start and keep some habits and continue on the path of being a generalist. Here are some ideas:

  • Spend a bit of time, every day, reading interesting stories at the periphery of your subject areas, whether that means checking out science blogs, listening to podcasts or following interesting people on social media. I do this every morning with a cup of coffee: I have a number of blogs I follow regularly, and I always check out tweets from scientists with an eye for interesting stories (e.g., Malcolm Campbell is a great person to follow). Most of these stories are not related directly to my area of research, but they help me keep up on what is happening in ecology, evolutionary biology, entomology and Arachnology, Heck, these stories sometimes help me rethink my own research, or give me ideas for new avenues of research. It’s a great use of time.
  • Try to attend any seminars offered by guest speakers, whether in your own department, or elsewhere. Often these guests are excellent speakers, and are doing interesting things worth hearing about. It is sometimes tricky to justify getting away from the lab bench, but exposure to different areas of study will help you become more of a generalist.
  • If your department offers a journal club, take part as much as you can, as this will expose you to new literature in other areas of study. The papers you will discuss may end up being great case studies when you first teach that intro ecology class. This will also help you learn methods, techniques and language from other disciplines, which will also help you later in your career, especially when you write collaborative and interdisciplinary grants.

How do we play the “impact factor” game with publications, knowing how flawed that index is! It’s sometimes so hard to know where to try to publish! Help!

Groan. This is a tough one! Despite the known issues with impact factors, some people/search committees still put value on perceived value of journals, and want to see a CV that has publications in “top tier” journals. The push for publishing open access (OA) is sometimes at odds with this, since not all OA journals are indexed in the same way as other journals, and some of the great OA journals coming on stream are not well known to some of the people that may be reviewing your CV.

So, the best advice I can have is to try to diversify your publications as much as you can, showing that you *can* publish in higher “impact” journals, but that you are also well aware of other publications venues, and most of all, that your work is of high quality. You can make a direct case on your CV or cover letter to help explain your logic, and there are excellent reasons why you might choose one journal over another despite a perceived difference in that journal’s impact.

What remains important in publishing as an early-career researcher is that it’s clear to any committee what *your* research is, and how you have made important contributions to your discipline, even if all your papers aren’t in top-tier journals. Any search committee  wants to know you can be a leader in your discipline.

Sometimes it seems “frowned upon” to say you want to work at a more teaching-focused college instead of a big R1 school. Why does this bias exist? 

I think this actually comes from a good place in that supervisors want the very best for their students, and the “best” is often thought of as a select group of R1 (research-intensive) schools. This ends up being pervasive in the culture of higher education, and there becomes an assumption that everyone wants to work in R1 schools but many end up “settling” for a lesser-known University. So, this means that all the profs not at R1 schools done really want to be there, and everyone is looking longingly towards greener pastures. This is, of course, entirely flawed logic because rankings are fundamentally flawed. But, speaking as both a parent and a supervisor, we don’t often think logically about those we care about and are mentoring. However, I firmly believe that it’s generally bad advice to bias any student’s thinking around their career path. An open mind is much, much better.

That being said, it is important to look critically at yourself and figure out what gives you the most joy and happiness. If you love being in the classroom, embrace it! If you can’t stand teaching but are at ease behind a lab bench or writing grants, embrace it! Then, once you have done this self-examination, stick to your guns and have an honest and frank discussion about this with those doing the frowning. Your supervisors and mentors really need to know what you want, in the best-case scenario, because they are a strong ally for you when you are looking for a job, whether it’s giving an informal reference over the phone, or writing a letter of reference.

Now, we all know that academic jobs are not that easy to get, and despite what you may *want* as a perfect job, this should not stop you from applying to any positions that you might be qualified: keep a open mind because you may find yourself in a R1 school, and you might love it (I know this from personal experience: I always saw myself at a smaller college/University yet managed to land a job at one of the big research Universities in Canada, even though I didn’t think I had a chance of landing the job! And, I’m very happy with the job).

Once you do land a job, and you are happy about it, spread the word. Discuss how great it is to be at your University, whether a liberal arts college, Land grant University, or Ivy League. They are all great.

The pillars of the ivory tower remain deeply planted, and despite increased interest in public engagement and outreach, Universities remain slow-moving, old, conservative institutions. Will this ever change? 

Ok, so this is a pretty big question. So big that it will wait for another post since this one is getting a little too long… I will save that for another time.

In sum, interacting with grad students at Arkansas was truly a delight. They were confident, bright, engaged and inquisitive. Spending time with a group of graduate students gives me great hope and optimism, and their insightful questions are an indication of this.

Rethinking the University Classroom: Ban the podium-style lecture, not the laptop

There has been a lot of recent coverage/chatter about bans on laptops in the lecture halls of Universities and colleges (e.g., see here, here and here). I am particularly interested when instructors implement outright bans on laptops in their classes, citing reasons related to distraction, both by students on their computers, but also distraction for students sitting nearby classmates with their screens aglow. There have also been some recent studies about how students retain and learn content more effectively when taking hand-written notes instead of typing notes. Are laptop bans the solution?

What bothers me about this debate is that most coverage actually skirts around the true issue, which to me is about a fundamental problem of podium-style teaching. A traditional lecture hall environment is not always a great place for teaching and learning. It is in those environments where the issues of note-taking and distraction arise, and where laptop bans occur. I certainly don’t hear complaints about laptops in seminar/discussion courses, or in those occurring in active learning classrooms.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

I was student for a day once. This as a view from my seat in the lecture hall. Students were using laptops to take lecture notes.

Here is my opinion: in most teaching environments*, laptop bans are unnecessary and should be avoided. Some students need to take notes with a laptop, perhaps because of a disability (eg, arthritis), and accommodation is needed. Sometimes it is useful for students to follow along a PowerPoint presentation, or fact-check or Google some of the content during the lecture (heck that could even provide opportunity for some class discussion!). If students are distracted, this likely indicates a bigger problem, and the instructor should look into ways to make the classroom more active and engaging. It is perhaps easier to look to issues with distracted students and laptops than it is to rethink the way material is being taught. We are living in a digital age with our students being true digital natives, and I worry that sometimes a ban on laptops is a reflection on biases by the instructor and, frankly, doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Let’s make our lecture halls inclusive environments, and perhaps ban policies about banning laptops!

Ok, fine, but… but … but… what if other students are bothered by their peers with laptops? What if students just don’t want to be in that “required” course, and are grumpy… and become easily distracted? I think some of this can be solved. I suggest that all instructors have a frank and open conversation about technology in the classroom. A discussion about your concerns, and the concerns by students, can go a long way. It also may be useful and necessary to develop some guidelines around technology in the classroom – and perhaps adjust the seating plan to avoid issues with students being distracted. Check out if your University has a formal policy about this, and see how your thinking aligns with this policy (as an example, here is McGill’s policy). Another option to help with the “boredom” factor (a potential reason for distraction) is to allow “tech time” mid-way through a lecture. Stop halfway through**, give everyone a break for a few minutes (to stretch, nap, text or post to Facebook).

Or even better, rethink the fundamental ways you are teaching.

I posit that boredom and distraction in a classroom, and the broader concern about laptops, learning, and note taking, are because instructors are stuck in the “lecture hall rut”. The debate points again to a need to embrace active learning, and work to increase engagement within the classroom. Most profs only learned one way to teach: at the podium. It’s what we were exposed to during our undergraduate degrees: the podium is the standard. But it’s not the gold standard and a serious rethink is long overdue.

How to break the tradition? How about taking the active learning challenge? There are small, simple things instructors can do, even in large lecture halls (yes, there are infrastructure constraints – not enough of our learning spaces are built for active learning). There are amazing resources out there to better understand active learning, and why it’s important.

Learn from other instructors who are doing different things in the classroom – hang out with the innovators, and use their strategies in your classroom. Watch videos, take workshops from your teaching and learning units, and work with your chairs and Deans to rethink the classroom context.

Work to integrate technology (and laptops!) into the classroom – on-line quizzes can be done in class, with technology – perhaps with mobile devices, laptops or student response systems (aka, clickers). Try integrating social media to the classroom, via a course hashtag or course blog. Use the tools that students are using: this will work to increase engagement in the classroom. We are truly living in an exiting time for the integration of technology into teaching – it’s time to harness the possibilities and harness the power of technology, instead of ban it.

I won’t lie: rethinking why and how you teach the way you do will take time and energy. But the short term pain will lead to long term gains. Students will appreciate the efforts, the classroom dynamics will change, and I believe the amount of boredom and distraction will decrease. Active leaning is not just a catch phrase, it’s a meaningful and important way to improve the classroom experience, for the students but also for the instructor.

There is little need to ban laptops in classrooms that are active, engaging and break from the traditional podium-style lectures.


*There are some kinds of classes in which laptop use can be questioned, such as a hands-on laboratory, field course, studio-class or with some seminar/discussion classes. However I believe these are a minority. (If there are other examples you know about, please leave a comment!)

** this strategy was shared by Prof. Matthew Cobb, at Manchester – he says it works very well!

How to succeed at University: twelve tips for undergraduate students

Note: this is an updated/edited post, it was originally published several years ago.

The start of term is an exciting time for those of us who work at a University. There are many new students arriving on campus, full of enthusiasm, hope, and questions.  As an Associate Dean, I meet many of these students, and I am often asked for advice during orientation week. Later in the term, I sometimes see students who are struggling, and looking for strategies to help with balancing their academic work with other priorities, or looking for ways to make their time at University a little easier. So, here are my twelve tips for success at University:

1. Work hard. At the end of the day, hard work pays off. You made it into University, which suggests you have the fundamental skill set required for higher education. However, don’t forget to keep your eye on the ball and buckle down and get the work done! It’s easy to get swayed by social life,  students clubs and activities, athletics, and by trips home to see family. These things are all important, and your well-being often depends on these extracurricular activities but academic success largely rests with a developing and maintaining a strong work ethic. Make lists, prioritize, and focus on getting the “job” of being a student done well.

2.  Listen to your academic advisor:  Most academic programs have an ‘academic advisor’ associated with them (e.g., see here for McGill’s website about advising).  These individuals are there to help you get through your program. Advisors typically help  with course selection, and help plan an academic program from start to finish.  When arriving on campus, you should book a meeting with your advisor, and more importantly, listen to their advice!  Advisors know the ins and outs of your program, and paying attention to them will help you in the long run.  You don’t want to end up messing up your academic program because you decided to avoid taking required courses early on in your program! Advisors can also help you get on the correct path should you wish to pursue research or internships later in your program, or a term away such as a field semester or an exchange program.

3.  Have an agenda, and use it:  This seems like pretty obvious advice, but you would be surprised how many students (and Professors!) don’t have a good system for managing time.  University is a lot about managing your time: getting to classes, dealing with e-mails, assignments, planning for exams, and squeezing in a social life, or a part-time job.  It’s a struggle to manage all these tasks, and therefore it is essential to develop a clear and straightforward system of ‘calendar + tasks‘.  Under calendar, include your class schedule, important dates and meetings, and most importantly, LOOK at the calendar regularly!  I personally prefer using an on-line calendar that syncs with my mobile devices – but some people prefer the old-fashion (yet dependable) hard-copy calendar.  For tasks, include short-term tasks (with deadlines – cross-referenced with your calendar) and long-term tasks, so that you are reminded of on a regular basis.  I use a small notebook for my task list, and it is always with me – for me, the act of physically writing down a task list helps me remember what I need to work on.   A good system for your agenda and tasks will make your life a lot easier.  Using an agenda and task list properly will also help you refine your time management skills, and these skills are truly essential to future success almost anywhere.

4.  Show up on time and don’t miss deadlines:  Again, this seems pretty obvious, but it’s also pretty easy to mess up.  Treat University like a professional job – you need to be mature, you must be on time, and never miss deadlines.  Try to have everything done early (with good time management skills, this is very possible!).   Being late to lectures, or having to ask for extensions on papers or projects (without extenuating circumstances), does you no favours, and  Professors, generally speaking, are not impressed by these behaviours.   At some point, you may need to ask your Professors for a letter of reference, and it is much better to be remembered as the students who hands in papers early, then a student who can’t manage deadlines.

5.  Go to class:   Lectures, labs and seminars are there for a reason:  they provide you with value-added content, and a context for the course materials.  It’s true that some of the content may be available on-line, or with a text-book, but in most cases, lectures or labs will help to draw connections between different content, and/or provide a valuable context to the material that might be available elsewhere. Labs or seminars provide important opportunity for hands-on and interactive learning, and this cannot be replaced easily.  Instructors take a lot of pride in lecturing or leading a lab demonstration, and most of them work hard to make the time worthwhile,  interesting, and thought-provoking.  You will soak up an amazing amount of material by just being there, and paying attention.

6. Keep up! This point is closely related to the previous few ideas – but is important to keep in mind as a separate item.  Assignments at University tend to sneak up on you – deadlines seem so far away, until you realize that there are three written reports due within a two week period, with Thanksgiving in the middle! Similarly, lecture content builds upon itself, and assuming you will just naturally be able to keep up may not be the best idea. Try to build some habits in your life so that you review the content soon after each lecture or laboratory, and/or spend a bit of time each morning prepping for your day and keeping an eye on the week ahead.  Do your best to stay on top of the material: in my experience, if students start to fall behind a little bit, this quickly spirals as the weeks pass by, and the stress level increases as you try cram for an assignment or final exam.

7.  Get help when you are struggling:  At some point in your University career you will likely need help, whether it is with difficulties with finances, a personal relationship, failing a course, or struggles with mental or physical health.  The University system is a compassionate and collegial environment and it’s a place with a lot of wonderful resources to help you when you are struggling (e.g., see this example for McGill).  Don’t hesitate to seek help when you need it, or if you know you already have some struggles with anxiety or depression, be sure to be aware of what resources are available to you ahead of time. If you are feeling sick, visit health services. If you are struggling with your program, touch base with your academic advisor. If you are feeling overwhelmed or isolated, touch base with counseling services. Know that you are not alone in your struggles (although it may feel that way), and the community will support you. As part of this community, you also have a responsibility to keep an eye on your classmates and friends, and if they need help, you can be in a position to direct them to the right resources.

8.  Ask questions:  In most of my classes, I tell students that there are no stupid questions (except for “Will this be on the exam?”).  This is very, very true.  If you are confused about a concept, or failed to get the point of a slide, or discussion, you must ask for clarification. Although it can be intimidating to ask a question in a large lecture hall, it’s important to try.  If you are confused, it’s highly likely that other student’s are also confused.  You are helping yourself, and your peers, when you put your hand up. In many cases, there is a on-line course management system for each class, and often there are discussion boards available: this provides another opportunity to ask questions of your instructor or TA, or you can ask questions that your peers may be able to help with.

9.  Get to know your instructors:    Whenever possible, get to know the instructors of your courses, be they Professors, Lecturers, or Teaching Assistants.  Most instructors have office hours, and these hours are there for good reason – they provide time to meet your instructor, ask questions, and have a personal connection with them.  Don’t be intimidated by instructors: we are people, too, and most of us recognize that life as an  undergraduate student can be stressful and difficult.  We can provide you help with course content, but also help direct you to other resources.  Getting to know your instructors also helps when you might be seeking a summer job in the future, or when you need a letter of recommendation.

10. Avoid ‘grade panic’:  I am living proof that it is possible to do poorly at undergraduate courses yet still have a successful career!  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph, I just about failed my first year physics course and I was terrified that this would make it impossible to succeed in any kind of career.  Of course this was not the case – a University education is much more than a single course, or a single quiz or examination – an academic program has many components and even if some of the components fall off the rails, this does not mean everything is lost.   Aim for excellence in your academics, but also remember that EVERYONE has bad days, performs poorly on an exam, or just can’t seem to figure out a particular subject.  This is normal, and you must keep everything in perspective!  Your University career is not defined by a single moment of failure – keep the bigger picture in mind, and don’t sweat the small failures.  In a University environment, success at everything is nearly impossible to achieve.   Keep a level head,  keep calm, aim for excellence, but don’t panic when things go wrong.

11.  Stay healthy: Your mother was right – eat your vegetable and get some sleep.  Invariably, influenza and/or a bout of gastro will whip through residence halls sometime around when mid-term exams are starting.  Your best line of defense is a healthy immune system, and part of that includes nutrition, sleep, and exercise.  I think it’s more important to be less prepared but well rested than over-prepared and exhausted – and if you attended lectures, your rested mind will be in a good position to access the course content. Related to this is a little reminder to “slow down” every now and then (I need to remind myself of this, daily). Take some deep breaths, perhaps meditate or do yoga, or just find a bit of quiet time now and then to pause and reflect.

12.  Have fun!   Life as an undergraduate student is truly incredibly. It is a time of personal growth and reflection, and it is an enriching experience on intellectual, emotional, and social levels.   Remember that you are immersed in an amazing experience. University provides a wealth of opportunities (student groups, sports, lectures, laboratories, and more), and you will make close friends, meet future colleagues, business partners or partners in life.  Don’t forget to take it all in – in the future, you will remember a lot of details from your University days and you want these memories to be more than sweating over deadlines and grade panic. Stay well.

The Challenges and Opportunities of University Administration: reflections from a Deanlet

A “Deanlet” is a cutesy name for an Associate Dean. I have no idea who came up with this title, but I first heard it from Terry McGlynn about a year ago, just before I started my first year as an Associate Dean of Student Affairs. Yes, it’s been a year. A very quick and exciting year. And a year is a good point to stop, pause and reflect on life as an Associate Dean*.

An Associate Dean is a level of the university administration just below a Dean (who typically oversees a Faculty). A Deanlet helps run a Faculty because there are too many bits and pieces for one person to handle. In my case, I oversee the affairs of undergraduate students in our Faculty (of which there are about 1,400 undergraduates). This includes recruitment efforts, aspects of student records, dealing with and helping students in academic difficulty, sitting on various committees at various levels in the University, working closely with my Faculty’s executive committee to help establish and oversee larger projects, and a myriad of other tasks (for example, reading names at convocation – something I get to do tomorrow!). In my role I spend a lot of time communicating and collaborating with students, staff, professors, and administrators. I see and experience many aspects of our Faculty.

So, let me report and reflect on three challenges with being a Deanlet, and three of the greatest opportunities that the position has offered me in the first year.


1) Perhaps the biggest challenge in my role has been learning how to help students in difficulty. Student wellness is a priority for me, but it’s not always easy to navigate and find the best solutions when students are struggling, and every situation is context-specific so few ‘generalities’ exist. Sometimes the struggles are academic, and sometimes they involve issues of mental or physical health. I’m often on the front line, and have to make difficult decisions: decisions that affect people. This can be stressful and difficult at times, and certainly means the work doesn’t always stay at the office. Thankfully I have received some excellent training, and have a great team to help, I feel supported, and I am gaining experience that will certainly help me into the future.

2) A second challenge is time management: I have meetings scheduled almost every day, and although they are worthwhile and important, they take time. I remain active as a teacher and a researcher, and I will continue to have a lab and teach my classes, but it can be difficult to balance everything. Before becoming a Deanlet I had a high degree of flexibility in my schedule, which is something many Professors value. However, that flexibility is much diminished, and it has required a lot of adapting. I have no regrets and I expected this (and no, I’m NOT complaining about how busy I am), but I would be lying if I didn’t state that this year has been a big adjustment. The other issue around time management is that when many hours are spent in meetings, this means squeezing other work into weird times of the day.

3) Being a Deanlet sometimes places me in a position of having navigate collegiality: being a colleague in one circumstance, but an Associate Dean in another, can be a challenge. I sometime have to make decisions that do not always please my colleagues (e.g., here’s a new policy XYZ that required you to change how you fill in paperwork XYZ), but also collaborate with my colleagues in research projects, in teaching and on committees. Another example is when a student brings an issue to my attention, perhaps in reference to a grade they received – I sometimes need to bring this to the attention of an instructor and these are not necessary simple or easy discussions. We are all adults, of course, but there is sometimes a divide between administrators and academics, and a professor who is an administrator (this is more-or-less the model at my institution) needs to be cognizant of the different hats, when to wear them, and how to strike the right balance. That being said, I can honestly say that my colleagues have truly been collegial. In my opinion, our institution runs relatively smoothly and effectively in part because our administrators keep one foot in the classroom and research lab.


1) It may sound cliché, but the best part of my Deanlet position is the people I get to interact with. A professor sees students in a classroom or research lab, and interacts with her or his peers, and certainly a Departmental chair, on a regular basis. A Deanlet gets to do this, and more: I see students for a suite of reasons (beyond teaching), and I meet Profs from many different corners of the University, largely because of the University-level committees I sit on. I also work in an office with *amazing* staff, who really run the show! These are individuals deeply committed to the University, and who have the students’ best interests in mind. A university runs well because of its staff, and the Deanlet appointment has afforded me very new and important perspectives on this. In general, Academic staff do not always appreciate the administrative and support staff, and the stresses and challenges they face. This is among the most valuable lesson that my Deanlet appointment has given me so far.

2) The second reason being a Deanlet is a great opportunity is because it places you in a position to understand the inner workings of a University. I have been able to see how the different arms of the University operate, and been in a position to compare and contrast operations in different Faculties with those in my own. It has allowed me wonderful insights into my institution, and allowed me to be an active player in the future directions of my Faculty, something I had hoped to do as part of this appointment. It is sometimes easy to criticize the ‘administration’ from the outside, but once being part of the process, I am much more sympathetic and sensitive to the reasons why some processes, policies and procedures are a certain way, and I am learning about how the system of collegiality at a University works to make change, and why that change sometimes takes time.

3) From a more selfish reason, a valuable gift of my Deanlet appointment is the constant learning it has provided: every day is different, there are always new projects, and the academic year brings different waves of activity, with each wave bringing its own sense of adventure. I’m the sort of person who thrives on variation, and thrives on new problems to solve, whether it be learning the finer points of a student assessment policy, or figuring out the best wording for recruitment materials. A University is a complex place, and delightful in this complexity. University Administration is another set of doors, levers and handles, and figuring out what they all do, and where they all go, is a good fit for me.

I hope this post provides some insights into the role of an Associate Dean in a University (don’t believe everything you read!). Of course, every University is different, and many of the challenges and opportunities will depend on institutional contexts and culture, but I would also think that some of the challenges and opportunities are relatively general (any Associate Dean’s out there wish to comment, below?). When others are afforded the opportunity for administrative appointments, I hope it’s considered seriously, as it’s certainly been a rewarding experience for me.

I will end with a sincere thanks to all the people who have supported me over the past year. The learning curve has been steep but my colleagues, staff, mentors, and my family have been patient and supportive. I’m excited and feeling ready for the years ahead.


* I’m not 100% sure why I wrote and published this post. And it was one that I wavered on for a while. However, I suppose it’s a way to time stamp my own thoughts, for selfish reasons – at the end of my term as a Deanlet, in four years from now, it will be interesting to see how my perspectives change. Perhaps it also because many people don’t know what a Deanlet does and I wanted to provide a glimpse into this portfolio.

A University in the future

What will the University of 2050 look like?

This was the fundamental question that guided a three day workshop /conference /event that I attended last weekend (you may have seen some activity on Twitter about this!). It’s a very difficult question, but an important one! Conference attendees prototyped a future university but did this in a very structured way, starting with a discussion (on the first day) about the “core values” that need to remain in University 35 years from now. There was general convergence around these values: critical thinking and unfettered curiosity, access & freedom of expression, diversity, community, and the importance of person-to-person interaction.

The second day was devoted to discussions about “game changers” – broader factors that might challenge the core values of Universities. These game changers included external factors such as shifting geopolitics or environmental catastrophes, to technological advancement such as artificial intelligence, “holodecks”, cognitive enhancement or ever-increasing life expectancy (and its implications), or some kind of Black Swan event.

Day three was about designing a future University given the core values and given the influence of game changers.

Here’s my group’s vision* for an institute of Higher Education in 2050: an institute we called “Horizon University”.


Horizon University is still a campus, but is part of a globally connected network of Universities. Campus remains as a physical space for intellectual discussion, social engagement, clubs, activities, and a safe space for its students. The students themselves are from around the world, and many are returning to University after holding down a first (or second) career for many years. Although many students may attend HU classes virtually, there will still be students who will be present, physically, in classes. There are no longer large lecture halls, and instead HU is comprised of suites of collaborative learning spaces. Enrolment in a class may be large but the number of participants in each room remains small: the instructor’s avatar can move among the rooms. Students are paired with peers in most activities, and collaborative learning is the norm.

Our group's visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Our group’s visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Failure is also the norm: the process of learning takes precedence. The instructor is less a “professor” and more of a facilitator, largely because the sum of all information is at everyone’s fingertips (or implanted in our neuro-cortex). The classes are mostly “topic” or “project” based, because Universities are nimble, agile, and a place in which research and teaching are focused on society’s needs and struggles, although there remains places and spaces to discover for the sake of discovery. Professors still exist as subject experts, but are never working in isolation. Learning is truly interdisciplinary.

Classes run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and individuals from outside of HU may (virtually) drop into classes that are of interest to them. Many of the administrative functions of HU itself are largely run with the help of AI (artificial intelligence). In fact, AI acts as a type of “virtual assistant” for students: helping students schedule and get to class, checking in on their health and wellbeing, and doing the (objective) course assessments (i.e., to divorce this from the act of instruction), and doing the credentialing (assuming some kind of “degree” is still granted). The AI assistant can pick up on cues related to student wellbeing, and help get a student in to see a real person whether it is for counselling, advice, or to meet the facilitator for a course they are following.


Our group then assessed what important actions would be required to see Horizon University come to fruition, and we felt there needed to be, in this order, (1) equality (ie, at a global scale), (2) teams of people to develop AI, (3) interdisciplinarity (within and among institutions) (4) rethinking the concept of “9 to 5” to the concept of “24/7” education, and (5) complete redesign of all learning spaces.

We then thought about the feasibility of those five actions, into the future, and came up with the following order: (1) learning spaces, (2) AI development, (3) 24/7 scheduling, (4) interdisciplinarity, and (5) Equality

Clearly feasibility doesn’t align with the importance of the actions, which is itself interesting, and challenging!

Caveats: I don’t believe everything we came up with, nor should you. Our group didn’t agree all of the time, and there are certainly some rather large flaws in some of the ideas, the logic, and the entire model may not be economically feasible.

But it doesn’t matter: it’s about the discussion. It’s about reflecting on the things we value in a university and the challenges we face. It’s about charting a path forward in an increasingly technological age and an age where research and knowledge is moving in new directions and where we are questioning fundamental concepts around teaching and leaning. Prototyping a University in 2050 is about starting a conversation and being part of an incredibly exciting time.

On a more personal level, the most valuable part of the experience was learning from people from different places, different career stages, and from different perspectives. The conference included writers, artists, computer programmers, undergrad and grad students from a suite of disciplines (e.g., humanities, social sciences, and STEM), professors, university administrators and more. It forced me to open my mind, listen, and reflect on my own biases. There is so much value in diversity, and tackling questions about the future of University means bringing in as many stakeholders as possible.

I leave you with a few questions:

What do you envision as the future of your own institution?

What are your ideas about how to maintain core values of a university in the face of game-changers?

How can technology facilitate higher education?

Have you had this discussion at your own institutions? If so, what have you learned?

Please join the discussion. And you can follow the Event Horizon Blog here.

Postscript: the day after the conference I did some field work in an amazing forest near Montebello Quebec (see photo, below). What a contrast after three days of intense discussions, full of technology, data and information! I breathed in fresh air, watched some butterflies for a while, heard the birds singing and there was no cell reception. It was wonderful, refreshing and uplifting. This had me reflecting a bit more about a University of the future, and how that University should perhaps be much more closely integrated with our natural systems. That would be a good goal.

The forest.

The forest.


*  I hope I have adequately described the key aspects of our group’s vision – it was more detailed then what I have presented, and I wholeheartedly admit that my writing may not reflect everyone’s opinion of our prototype University. (Sorry if this is the case!)

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Expanding boundaries and increasing diversity by teaching with technology

“As teachers, technology encourages us to be more creative, more influential, and more mindful of the implicit and explicit impacts our words have on students, and to explore new ways to make our classrooms more diverse”.

That’s a quote from a paper by Josh Drew, published last week. In this paper, Drew provides some fascinating case studies about how teaching with technology can help break down some strong barriers in higher education, with a focus on STEM disciplines. For example, students from the LGTBQ community, visible minorities, and other marginalized groups are often at a distinct disadvantage in a university context, whether it’s lack of access, finances, support, or mentorship. Drew argues that teaching with attention to this problem, and in a way that embraces diversity, is critically important, but is also a challenge. Technology can be a potential facilitator for this, and help overcome the challenge. To help other instructors, we need creative ideas, approaches and case studies, which is what Drew provides.

In the first case study, Drew gives an example of a marine conservation course that pairs students from a poor neighbourhood of Chicago with students from Fiji and through online resources, student learn content together, and do group projects with their peers. I was most impressed with how the capstone project in this course meant the students needed to problem solve with other students who were from entirely different cultures – something that is very difficult in a more traditional classroom setting. Typical courses in STEM seldom embrace a learning context that literally connects students from around the world.

The second case study focuses on how Drew used Twitter to continue teaching at Columbia University after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, and many students could not get to class. Students were given access to class notes via Figshare, and lectures were delivered in 140 character packets. Given the open format, the tweets could be viewed by anyone in the world, which created an inclusive learning environment for everyone, whether registered in the class, or not. Although this is a more indirect way of teaching with attention to diversity, Drew argues that Twitter is an effective tool to help break down barriers and can be used effectively to increase student engagement. (The Twitter course was, by the way, how I got to know Josh Drew on Twitter, and his example helped me shape my own teaching with Twitter).

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

The third case study was a hands-on marine conservation workshop in Fiji, held jointly by Columbia University and the University of the South Pacific. The “real world” aspect of the course was facilitated by simple and inexpensive scientific equipment, and had a focus on open-access data by the participants. Of note, the students in the workshop were from six different countries, brought together to work on conservation priorities of relevance to the South Pacific. This case study certainly resonated with me, as I try to have my students tackle projects in the field (with all its challenges) as this provides a rich learning opportunity for all. However, unlike my course in Montreal, Drew’s example includes a very unique cultural experience for the participants. Teaching and learning in different places certainly embraces diversity in STEM, and although not always practical or feasible, such opportunities should be sought and supported.

In sum, Drew’s paper resonated strongly for a few reasons. The case studies are themselves great examples for all of us involved in teaching in higher education. The technological aspects are relatively straightforward and inexpensive, and many of tools highlighted are accessible. I appreciated his arguments at the end of the paper about ensuring accessibility; instructors must pay attention to ensuring class participants are able to get and use the tools, especially when thinking about students access to computers, smartphones, data plans and WIFI.

Perhaps the part that spoke to me the most was thinking about how technology can be a facilitator for increased diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom. I must be honest in saying that I don’t typically consider my own teaching with technology thought this lens, but I am now starting to look at this differently. Not all students from all communities will face a traditional classroom in the same say, and the “podium style” of teaching and learning in higher education may really marginalize some people more than they already are. Online classrooms, Twitter and active learning in partnership with peers are great examples of ways to open up our universities regardless of potential constraints, whether they be economics, race, culture or gender identification.

Thanks, Josh Drew, for making me pause and reflect, and for giving us all some good ideas.


 Drew, J. Using technology to expand the classroom in time, space and diversity. Integr. Comp. Biol. (2015) doi: 10.1093/icb/icv044

How to become an Arachnologist

So you want to be an Arachnologist?

You just need to immerse yourself in the world of eight-legs: read, watch, connect, share & study.

I recently did an interview with a high school student from Indiana, who wanted to be an Arachnologist. This is not a common occurrence, in terms of a high school student expressing interest in this field of study, and because there are actually relatively few Arachnologists out there to act as role models!

I Tweeted about the interview, and a few people were quite intrigued by this, and asked me how they could train to be an arachnologist: a question worthy of a blog post! So, here are some thoughts and ideas, separating into three categories: elementary school, high school and finally, students entering college or University.

The younger years:

Kids like bugs. Children are naturally fascinated by arachnids: often not exhibiting as much fear as adults. They are curious, keen observers, and sponges for neat factoids about spiders and their relatives. At this age, responsibility for fostering arachnophiles really falls upon parents and teachers. Within the classroom, teachers should be encouraged to take kids outside, think about doing units/projects about natural history, and see about getting special activities into the classroom that focus on ‘biodiversity’. To me, it matters less that these activities are about spiders (or insects), but that they are celebrations of the natural world. It’s about keeping kids keen on the natural world continually engaged and interested in the natural world.

Parents can do a lot outside of the home – connecting with local naturalist clubs could help connect youngsters with some mentors and experts. Getting kids out to “Bug shows” is also a great idea – these are sometimes done through local museums, colleges or community centres. I always like to scroll through photos from these kinds of events: you can really see the enthusiasm on kids’ faces! Birthday parties could also be an opportunity to bring in biologists instead of clowns or princesses. A few quick web searches will reveal a suite of amazing workshops out there.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

The teenage years:

I currently have two teenagers in my house, and this is a very interesting age: an age where habits get set, interests develop, and passions for hobbies either solidify or disappear. In the classroom setting this is where some students can really get turned on to science and biology, and for those keen on natural history, most students find the curriculum doesn’t satisfy as they are looking for a lot more. The high school student who interviewed me is a good example: she wanted to take courses more related to insects and spiders but such courses just don’t exist at high school – if lucky, they may just show up as part of the biology unit.

For those teenagers wanting to become arachnologists, some work is required. It may be possible to connect with local naturalists, or perhaps the nearest museum or college/University. These places may help facilitate the interests, and may even allow opportunities to have volunteers work with an insect of arachnid collection. Getting into an actual lab or research museum could be a positive life-changing experience for a teenager, but certainly isn’t an opportunity available to everyone.

I think during the teenage years the Internet and social media are invaluable tools. Heaps of information is available thought organizations such as the American Arachnological Society, or the International Society of Arachnology. Facebook groups or Twitter can also be a great way to connect with other Arachnologists: I personally use Twitter all the time to discuss spiders with colleagues from around the world, and these networks can also help spread the news about exciting discoveries in Arachnology.

Unfortunately it is rather difficult to recommend specific “spider courses” for teenagers wanting to become arachnologists. Instead, becoming an arachnologist at this age is really about learning what you can, wherever you can, and trying to connect with other arachnologists. For those wanting more academic pursuits, the best advice I can give to aspiring arachnologists is to become a good naturalist: observe, record, and be fascinated about the natural world. Good things will always come from this! In school, take the sciences and maths, especially biology, and when it’s time to head to College or University, think about selecting one that offers some courses in entomology.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things... Photo by Sean McCann.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things… Photo by Sean McCann.

Off to college!

There are virtually no Arachnology programs at colleges or Universities, and instead college student should look to the sister discipline of Entomology. Many (most?) Universities offer some introductory entomology courses, and in these courses it may be possible to get some exposure to Arachnology. The instructors of these course can probably help point to other resources or local people with additional expertise or interest in arachnids.

When seeking an undergrad program, I do advise aspiring arachnologists to take a strong Biology or Zoology Major: this will give a great grounding and foundation and be perfect for a springboard to graduate school. It’s certainly worth considering selecting a University that has an entomology program, or at least a Department or solid offerings of insect-themed courses, and has some arthropod-themed research happening.

If time and money permits, there are some “spider courses” out there and perhaps it’s worth taking one of those (although I have never taken one, I have heard they can be quite worthwhile). At the very least, do LOTS of reading, including books like The Biology of Spiders and field guides like Rich Bradley’s (for North America), and stay active on social media.

Becoming an arachnologist is about finding good mentors: these people may or may not be arachnologists, but their encouragement and support is so important and can change lives. This was certainly the case for me, and an entomologist at University of Guelph helped facilitate my interests in Arachnids and gave me a desk to work at, and offered plenty of encouragement. My independent undergraduate research project about spiders set me on a path to becoming an arachnologist.

It’s a bit of a shame, and a bit of a mystery that Arachnology just doesn’t show up on the radar for very much of K-12 nor does it show up in undergraduate programs: becoming an arachnologist with a deeper level of training really happens at graduate school, so for those who are really passionate about arachnids may need to take a long view and plan on moving on to a Master’s degree. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be an arachnologist in other ways! (Some great Arachnologists I know don’t have advanced degrees). However, the more advanced training can help formalize and structure the learning process.

Meet Catherine! She's an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders... Photo by Sean McCann

Meet Catherine! She’s an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders… Photo by Sean McCann

How do you know you are an Arachnologist?

This is a great question, and a difficult one to answer! There certainly isn’t a certificate or plaque that you get once you become trained as an Arachnologist. As you accumulate knowledge you will also realize that there is so much we don’t know about Arachnids. New species are described all the time, and we continually hear amazing stories about their natural history. Expertise is all relative, and once some expertise is acquired, the limits of our knowledge become exposed.

You don’t need to publish in scientific journals or do experiments on spiders to become an Arachnologist. You do have to learn some biology and arachnid natural history, and do your best to share what your know with others. Bottom line: once you have acquired enough knowledge about Arachnids, and people start looking to you for advice and answers to their own questions about our eight-legged friends, you can probably call yourself an Arachnologist.

So, to sum it up: to become an Arachnologist you need to read, watch, connect, share & study.


Are there jobs for Arachnologists? That’s a topic for another post…


Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.