Reflections on the year in higher education 2019: Part 3

When I realized that the first of my six catch-up 2019 blog posts was really long, I split it into three posts!

Some thoughts about my past thirty years as a professor: 1990 to now

As I juggled my family with research, teaching and administrative duties during the 1990s, I realized that my kind of tenured academic career is a marathon composed of consecutive sprint stages. Long ago, in high school, I chose to do biology (my worst grade 13 subject) rather than history at the University of Toronto, and after 40 years, I got to do some history again. I now know that the idea of doing footnotes for 40 years was a factor steering me to biology!

I recently completed the fourth sabbatical of my academic career marathon, during which I collaborated with my History department colleague, Professor Kate McPherson, to research the history of women in Ontario botany and horticulture during 1870-1915. Our work enlarged my perspectives on, and knowledge about feminism and science history, and helped me to situate my own experience as an ecologist and botanist. I wish that more of my colleagues would acquaint themselves with the history and philosophy of science.

In the past five or so years, I have been interested to read the many tweet threads and blogs about work-life balance in academia. Twenty to thirty years ago, these kinds of public conversations were unusual. My attempts to have them were invariably shut down rapidly be colleagues. One time, in the late 1990s, I pointed out that an inaugural Biology committee meeting was scheduled at a time I couldn't make because of daycare pickup. During the missed meeting, fellow Biology profs appointed me as committee secretary in my absence. When I complained that these actions were highly problematic and unethical, a senior professor told me, a recently tenured associate prof: "don't get your knickers in a twist".

My experience that there has been a woeful lack of conversations about work-life balance in STEM was reinforced by the many grateful emails that I received after my 2005 feature about my Life Coach was published in University Affairs magazine. While they are much more common, in my view, we still need many more discussions about so called "soft skills" like mentorship. They are as important as the "hard skills" of STEM, and are mis-labelled as "soft" because they are very hard to learn and require much practice.

In 1981 I became the first member of my large Anglo-Indian family to obtain a university degree. I have always been acutely aware of my privilege, first as an undergraduate, then a graduate student, and after that as a junior research fellow and a tenure-track and tenured professor, even as I experienced and observed the ongoing systemic and casual misogyny and racism present in the anglophone higher education system. It's only in the last ten of my thirty years as a professor that we are finally having conversations about implicit and systemic bias, but the failure to do this hasn't been due to a lack of effort on the part of members of equity-seeking groups, like me.

As I have often stated in talks, and written in articles, professors like me are not formally trained in pedagogy and education, management, communication, equity and leadership. Just as I had to learn about the Hidden Curriculum of academia, over the decades I have also sought mentorship and training in these areas from colleagues.

However, it's also been my experience that the majority of my faculty colleagues have not voluntarily invested time in this kind of thing. Recently, a York University Dean asked me my opinion on how to better support their faculty members, and I replied without hesitation: "develop ongoing skills training for both tenure track and tenured professors in leadership, management, mentorship and ethics."