Episode 19: Treating Your Studies Like a Relationship with Dr. Jane Butterfield
Dr. Jane Butterfield earned a BSc in Mathematics from the University of Puget sound in 2006, followed by an MS in the Teaching of Mathematics and a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Illinois in 2012. Her PhD research was in extremal graph theory, but she also enjoys topological graph theory, Ramsey games, and pursuit games on graphs. While a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, she received three teaching awards, including the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. She then spent two years as a visiting Assistant Professor, teaching talented high school students for the Math Center for Educational Programs at the University of Minnesota in addition to UMN courses. While there, she studied the effect of minor adjustments to timed entrance tests on gender diversity in the Center’s program. Jane is now an Assistant Teaching Professor of Mathematics at the University of Victoria, and works with both the Math & Stats Department and the Division of Learning & Teaching Support & Innovation. In addition to teaching a variety of courses, including a lot of introductory calculus, she manages the Math & Stats Assistance Centre, which supports students across campus with their 1st- and 2nd-year mathematics and statistics.
"I spent a lot of graduate school feeling as if I didn't belong."
Dr. Jane Butterfield
Waving, Not Drowning
Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning, a UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples.
In today’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Jane Butterfield, an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Victoria. Jane earned a BSc in mathematics from the University of Puget sound in 2006, followed by a Master’s of Science in the Teaching of Mathematics and a PhD in mathematics from the University of Illinois in 2012. Her PhD research was in external graph theory, but she also enjoys topological graph theory, Ramsey games, and pursuit games on graphs. While a graduate student at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champagne, she received three teaching awards, including the Campus Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Jane then spent two years as a visiting Assistant Professor, teaching talented high school students for the Math Center for Educational Programs at the University of Minnesota in addition to UMN courses. While there, Jane studied the effect of minor adjustments to timed entrance tests on gender diversity in the center’s program. Jane is now an Assistant Teaching Professor of Math at the University of Victoria and works with both the Math and Stats Department and the Division of Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation. In addition to teaching a variety of courses, including a lot of introductory calculus, Jane manages the Math and Stats Assistance Center, which supports students across campus with their first and second-year mathematics and statistics.
In our conversation, Jane shares with me some of her experience of being a student and, in particular, a graduate student who was feeling very much like an outsider, like they didn’t fit in, and she talks about imposter syndrome and how she feels that in some ways, it didn’t affect her because she always felt like an imposter, like an outsider. Jane goes on to talk quite a lot about how she really worked to build communities and to participate in extracurricular activities outside of her own field of study as a way of really supporting her mental health and wellbeing. When you are studying such a focused area of expertise and really working with what Jane describes as a kind of sliver of a single field, she really gets at how important it is to branch out, to get involved in other activities with peers who are in different fields and disciplines, and really be able to kind of get outside of your head, get outside of your small area that you are studying. Jane also talks very openly about her own mental health as an undergraduate student and as a graduate student, and in particular, she shares how she waited until she was a graduate student to really begin therapy and to really start working through some longstanding issues and some of the struggles that she was having. And Jane shares really the importance of not waiting until it’s a crisis and really trying to access support early and to find ways of supporting your mental health regularly and not just when it reaches that crisis point. To this end, Jane talks about the importance of understanding your engagement with your studies as a kind of relationship. And she uses that metaphor very explicitly; that your studies is a kind of relationship, like other relationships that you might have, and so it is essential that you re-evaluate– as it was for her– how she was doing in that relationship? How was she feeling? Was she happy? And how she had to check in with herself regularly to really ask those questions. Did she want to keep doing this? Did she want to keep being in this relationship? And she shares how hard that can be, especially when you’ve sunk so much time and energy and perhaps money into your relationship with your studies, that it can feel as if “well, how can I walk away from this?” And so Jane really gets at how it was so necessary for her to be able to feel at home and this relationship with her studies, to feel as if she could be herself, and that’s how she was really able to quantify, to understand that this was a good relationship for her, that the path she was on, was working, Jane shares that like all relationships, the one that we have with our studies is one that might not always be easy, it will have challenges, but it should be nourishing, it should be supportive, and it should really make possible our potential to thrive. And if it’s not, perhaps it’s time to think about changing course. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. Jane Butterfield, and this is Waving Not Drowning.
Hi Jane. Thank you so much for being here today. I’m so pleased that you were able to talk with me. How have you been doing?
Jane Butterfield: I realize it’s reading break right now, and I realized earlier on this week that we’re close to one year of this, and that was hard to absorb. It’s not an anniversary I was expecting to celebrate. This time last year, I think we were deciding whether or not to close the assistant center for snow… like campus was– Facebook reminds you of these things, right? That this time, last year it was snowy, campus was closing, and I remember we were debating whether or not to close the assistance center… we ultimately did, and it wasn’t that long after that, that we realized the assistant center was going to have to move to online delivery for the rest of the year.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. It’s, as you say, I think we all thought that this would be over– you know, very soon. And I was talking to someone yesterday who said that he had thought it would just be the summer online… that we’ll be through this, and so, as you say, approaching the one-year anniversary. Yes. It’s not an anniversary we thought we would be marking and that we’re still in it. So, what have been some of the challenges for you this past year, Jane?
Jane Butterfield: I think it’s been difficult to accept how challenging it continues to be. I was really– we learned a lot very quickly. And over summer, and then for Fall, we were all absorbing these new learning technologies, the whole new teaching technology ecosystem that UVic has adopted now. We all learned how to use them; we did our best for Fall. I think we all felt okay; I’ve learned how to do that; now, Spring is going to be better. And then it turns out, it’s actually still quite challenging, even once you’ve gotten experience in it, and of course, I’m teaching a different course this term than I was last term. I’ve been a little disappointed that it’s still frankly, very hard– that’s also being difficult to accept.
Rebecca Gagan: Yes. Yeah. So, I feel the same way. Just when I feel like I have a handle on Zoom or on Brightspace, something happens, and I realize that I still don’t really know what I’m doing.
Jane Butterfield: I think part of it is just the nature of academics, as well. I learned how to use those tools, so now I’m trying to use the more advanced features and new things, and I’m pushing myself, which in some senses, is very healthy and it keeps me interested, but it also means that I’m setting it up to be hard for myself. And I need to constantly check-in and think, okay, is there a value to my students from this? Is this actually improving their course experience?
Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. So, Jane, what have you found has been sort of helpful or sustaining for you this past year?
Jane Butterfield: I’ve I think I’ve read about this. I don’t think I’m making this up, but even if I’m making it up, it sounds very believable that one of the reasons it feels as if it’s been marched for 11 months is that we don’t have things to look forward to and we’re not noticing a lot of change. Even simple things, like seeing the seasons change. That hasn’t been registering for me as much, which is a little odd because I’m lucky enough. For my living situation I have access to a garden, so I’m working in the garden, and I’m seeing change, and I’ve seen the seasons past there, but it’s somehow not the same. So, I live with my husband, and he and I have been trying to find ways to build stuff into our schedule, into our daily activities, that will help us mark the passage of time, and we’ve been trying to plan things that we get to look forward to, so the simplest thing we do is we’ve made an effort. Almost every day, we do go for a walk, cause I think we’ve all noticed working from home. We’re not outside very much, and there’s chemical stuff that happens outside; we breathe things in from the trees; we breathe things in from the earth. It’s not just that exercise is good for you. There’s stuff that happens when you’re outside and when you’re moving, so we’re trying to do that every day. And early on in the lockdown situation, we decided that on weekdays, we would turn left at the end of the driveway and go for one of our routes in that direction, and on Saturdays and Sundays, we turn right, and we go on one of the walks in that direction because otherwise, it became very hard to tell whether it was the weekend or not.
Rebecca Gagan: I have to say, Jane, this strikes me as such a remarkable way of coping with what you’re describing, as I think they call it like pandemic time, I think– that what it is… because there’s been all of these memes, of course, about it’s been March for 12 months or what have you, and so– and I’ve, as you know, I’ve been talking with lots of people for this podcast and this subject comes up about imposing routines and how to organize your life, so that there are these demarcations, these kinds of milestones if you want to use that word. We’ve tried to impose routines and schedules to signal to us that time is changing, nobody has remarked quite in the way you have, Jane, about really kind of missing a sense of the movement of time, like through the seasons and even from, as you say, from a weekday to a weekend because that’s something that I’ve heard a lot about… that, oh, well it doesn’t feel like the weekend is the weekend.
Jane Butterfield: Yeah. I think some of this is, it was always a habit of mine, so something that I think might sound very unusual about me, although I wish it weren’t unusual. I was a high-achieving student in high school. I was a high-achieving student in undergrad. Then I went to graduate school, where I think maybe nobody feels high-achieving. I always got eight hours of sleep a night. That was never an option for me. If I had too much work to fit into a day, sleep was not the thing that went away, so I’ve always been very protective of my sleep time. And in order to be protective of your sleep time, you have to be protective of the bookends around it as well. So, it was already a habit of mine to sort of build in these formal demarcations of when things happen– when work ends and home time begins, and I think having that habit already has been very hard.
Rebecca Gagan: And even, as you say, that habit that you created with your husband to decide on weekdays, is it? That you would go left?
Jane Butterfield: Yeah. Weekdays are left. Weekends are right. I think we’re probably going to do that for the rest of our lives, actually, because it’s become such a habit and it’s something we look forward to– like the weekend walks are really long; we go for about an hour, usually.
Rebecca Gagan: But I feel like it’s so brilliant, there’s something about that. It seems like such a small thing, right? But what you’re suggesting is that it’s signalling to you in a very actually embodied level.
Jane Butterfield: In a physical way; I also have tea for breakfast on weekends and coffee for breakfast on weekdays, so like there’s all sorts of signals going on in my body about what day it is.
Rebecca Gagan: And as you say, that you will carry those forward, and we’ve been talking to you about what kinds of habits and structures will carry forward–
Jane Butterfield: But what are we going to keep from this?
Rebecca Gagan: But to me, this just also sounds like such a kind of healthy way of starting to establish, or continuing to establish, those kinds of routines. And it’s– I’m going to have to try and take some of your tips here, Jane, and build those things into my life and have– yes, I like the coffee on the weekday and tea– is the tea on the weekends? Is that right?
Jane Butterfield: Tea on the weekends. Yeah. On the weekends, we’ll make a pot of tea, and we have it slowly over the course of the morning. So, you know, it makes sense. You don’t need quite as big of a hit of caffeine for a weekend as you might for a weekday. I think one of the reasons that I’ve got this sort of ritualized habits it’s very easy for academics, particularly cause my training is I’m a mathematician, and we’d say one of the nice things about mathematics is you don’t need a lab to do it. One of the problems about mathematics is you don’t need a lab to do it. You could literally be doing math all the time. And many of us start to, and if you’re– you know, if your research is your passion, that’s a wonderful thing, but it’s also a dangerous thing because it might mean that you’re always on, you’re always working, and so protecting your work-life, sorry, protect– that’s an interesting Freudian– so protecting your home life, and not letting the work-life become an all-consuming thing?
Rebecca Gagan: So, how have you done that this year?
Jane Butterfield: Well, it’s something that I’ve always tried to work on. And I think what we’re seeing in many ways with the pandemic and the situation is that things that were already a problem are a worst problem; any type of inequity that already existed in the system has been amplified. And that’s a very long conversation that I’m probably not qualified to have, but what I do see locally is if we are– if you were already a person who experienced workday creep, it’s creeping very badly right now. And so, I was lucky– I’ve been such a– I have it so easy. Really, I’ve got so many of the things that can help you survive in the circumstance; like, I have space, I have a garden– and one of those things is I already had this habit of trying to protect my home time, so I stopped working after dinner a couple of years ago– I have a pretty long workday.; I’ll stay late. We discuss this, my husband and I: what part of our time do we want to protect? So, I’ll stay late in the office so that I don’t work after dinner and that works for us. And because I already had that habit, it’s helped protect our private time. It’s helped protect our home time and our, I think, our mental health as well under the work from home situation.
Rebecca Gagan: And this is something, Jane, that I’ve been talking with other guests about, and I think it’s helpful for students to hear this, that it’s establishing these kinds of… like habits and routines, and as you say, protecting your home, your leisure time, right? Like your social time. That those are habits that will continue when we are back face to face.
Jane Butterfield: And always important. They always were important.
Rebecca Gagan: That absolutely– and I think that students have really, of course, been hit so hard by this pandemic and by the shift to online learning, and they’ve had to try, very quickly, I think, to figure out kind of new routines and habits, and I was just talking with a guest yesterday about this, and he was saying, you know, this is the work of university– in part, is to figure out how to be a university student, and how to get those work habits, but students this past year have had to like hit the ground running with that and try to figure it out in very extraordinary circumstances, but I think the upside if there is one, is that they will have those structures very firmly rooted in their lives, I think, that will really help them as they continue forward into the rest of their academic careers–
Jane Butterfield: Even if they don’t feel like they’ve got those structures completely figured out right now; if you’ve got it half-figured out right now, you’re going to be okay once– we’re playing on hard mode right now. Yeah, actually, so I’ve got a cat… and my husband and I both quite like playing video games– I don’t play them so much anymore, but we joke that there’s a level above hard mode on video games, which is cat mode, which is where the cat decides he wants to sit on your game controller and face while you’re trying to play.
And I think, right now we are playing on cat mode. And when we go back to merely hard mode, any of these habits of mind or rituals that you’ve developed are going to be useful in the real world as well, once we get back to the real world.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. And it won’t– and after playing in cat mode, hard mode will feel pretty good. Those routines will be working for you, as they should now, Jane, you know, that I have asked you to talk with me today, in part because I’m really eager to know more about your own experience as a student, since UVic Bounce is really about trying to share faculty experiences of challenge or difficulty so that students feel themselves more able to reach out and share their own struggles and to get some support for those, so I’m hoping today you might be willing to share some of your own experience?
Jane Butterfield: So, my academic background is perhaps a little surprising– an interesting thing is also that I never realized it was surprising until I talked to more of my colleagues here, so I’ll give kind of an extensive biography, CV, of my academic background. So, I grew up in the United States. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. It’s actually physically quite close to where we are now, but that’s a small liberal arts university. When I say small, I think we had about as many students at that university as I had at my high school– I want to say it was about 1400 students, but I might be off by a factor of 10. Maybe it was 14,000– quite a small liberal arts university. I was in the honours, partially because my mother wanted me to go to a slightly fancier university, and so I had to convince her that I’ll be in the honours program, so Puget Sound will be good enough. I had a special scholarship, which meant that I needed to stay in Washington state because I could only spend that scholarship in Washington state. But the honours program at Puget Sound. It’s not what people at UVic might think. It’s not just do everything but more or do everything but harder. The honours program at Puget sound was a focus on classics. So, we had all the same sort of general requirements of courses to take, but for instance, the lab science course I had to take was ancient astronomy. So, we did ancient astronomy. I think there was some things about lenses, parabolic lenses, sort of things like that, so they kind of tried to incorporate this classical perspective throughout the program, which means there, there were a lot of white European authors in my education. So, the caps– they kind of were aware of this issue, I think it resulted– so the capstone course, we expanded that, and we studied the Bhagavad Gita and there’s this Chinese epic novel, The Story of the Stone, that we read.
I ended up reading the rest of it cause I liked it so much, so it was a really interesting program, and I really liked my time at Puget Sound. The reason I’d really wanted to go to UPS was because I had a fifth-year master’s of education program, and at the time, I was quite certain I was going to be a high school teacher in either math or English…probably math. But the summer before my fourth year, I had an opportunity to do a summer research project in mathematics. So, I ended up doing a graph theory project with my undergraduate advisor that summer, and that got me hooked on research, and I said, well, that was really fun and really interesting. And I went to do more of that, so maybe I’ll put the whole be-a-high-school-teacher plan on pause, just on pause, and I’ll go get a PhD in math. I think I had some idea that, well, maybe I’ll just teach college instead of high school. I’ll just go do some graduate studies cause I want to do some more research, so I ended up going to the University of Illinois and Urbana-Champagne, which is an R1 research university. It had about as many graduate students in math as Puget Sound had students in my year. I’m exaggerating a little bit. I think I might’ve had about 500 students in my graduating Europe– Puget Sound– and there were 280 graduate students in mathematics alone, not including statistics. That was a separate department.
So, an enormous school, but also in some sense, approximately the same size, right? Because the ratio is of graduate– if you just look to the graduate program, it was even smaller than Puget Sound, so it was kind of an enormous transition, but it also made sense to me; it seemed reasonable. And so, I went on this sort of unusual path. I think most of my colleagues at UIU see we’re not from a liberal arts background. Most of them had gone to places much more like UVic or Waterloo. Like they were mostly from places– some of them had already taken graduate-level courses. I took every math course that Puget Sound offered, and I had fewer math credits under my belt than these other students here cause Puget sound being a liberal arts university, it was trying to produce diverse learners. I had to take courses in a variety of different areas. There was no opportunity to just bury your head in one discipline and just take math. I actually thought it was really weird that there are people out there who just took math cause that’s so alien to the liberal arts philosophy.
Rebecca Gagan: So, Jane, you came into graduate school then with this broad background, and did you find that there were some challenges to coming into that group? With this very different background?
Jane Butterfield: I spent a lot of graduate school feeling as if I didn’t belong. I think a lot of people spend a lot of graduate school feeling as if they don’t belong, so it’s not necessarily an unusual feeling to have, but the reasons for it might’ve been a little bit different for me. There were sort of two things that I think made it a little bit different for me. One is, yes, I was one of the few liberal arts students at UIUC, so that certainly fed into my feelings of being an imposter. Interestingly enough, though, the way the graduate program at UIUC is set up, it’s almost designed to minimize that difference, so all of us, regardless of background, I was working with students who had a master’s degree already; I was working with students who are straight out of an undergraduate program. That was like what we have here, but we all had to pass the same exam, so they put us all in a big, massive group office, and until you pass what we would call candidacy exams here, we were all treated the same.
And then once you got past those, you were all at the same starting point, and so it was really only the first couple of years that that felt like a massive difference to me. It certainly came up in my teaching because part of the way that you fund graduate school in math in the United States is you get a half-time dog job being a TA, so I was working 20 hours a week as a TA, never having had a TA, not really knowing what TAs were, kind of just making it up as I went along and loving every minute of it. I really enjoyed teaching, but the first semester of that I felt like I was– I’d been cast in a play without getting a script. I didn’t even know what a TA was, so I just sort of went with it and made it up and ended up doing some additional training and discovered, you know, I’d gone to graduate school because I fell in love with research, and I wanted to do some research. And then once I got there, I fell back in love with teaching, and I wanted to do more teaching. And that’s where I’ve been ever since. I like being around research. I like having access to research. I like going through research talks and conferences, but teaching is my primary focus now.
Rebecca Gagan: So, Jane, you used the word imposter, and it’s something that I think a lot of students at the undergraduate level, and certainly at the graduate level, experience that this– the term, you know, imposter syndrome, or feeling like an imposter. Can you say a little bit more about that? About your experience of feeling that way either in undergrad or graduate school?
Jane Butterfield: The first time I learned about the phrase imposter syndrome was when the director of graduate studies in the math department at UIUC sent an email to all of graduate students, saying that there was an opportunity to participate in a workshop about imposter syndrome. And then there was a little paragraph explaining what that was. And in order to secure a position on in this workshop, all you had to do was email him back to let him know that you didn’t belong in graduate school. I don’t think that’s how he meant to phrase it, but… so I learned about imposter syndrome… did not secure one of the positions on this workshop because I was not going to email back the director of graduate studies and say, “yes, that’s me. Please let me go.” I’d be curious to know if anybody replied. My guess is nobody replied, and he congratulated himself on having such a robust group of graduate students that none of us felt like imposters. One day I should probably let him know that that happened because perhaps none of us ever gave him that feedback. Because I am a woman in math, we’re fairly low representation, so there’s always a sort of background noise of most of the people here aren’t like you. I’ve talked a lot recently with people about similar experiences; it’s getting better– gender diversity in mathematics, but we’ve still got an enormous racial diversity problem in mathematics as a discipline. And it often strikes me that I– it doesn’t seem to have impacted me as much as it impacted other people. I definitely was the only female graduate student in one of my courses, for example, but I’ve really just recently, I think, that one of the reasons that those gender-based reasons for feeling like an imposter didn’t strike me quite as hard as they may be struck some of my other female colleagues. I was already pretty used to it by then. I’ve always felt– and yeah, actually I think I can, as a mathematician, I hesitate to use words like ‘always’ and ‘every,’ but I think I can here– I think I have always felt in every situation like I don’t belong because I never have.
So, I was actually born in New Zealand. My mother moved to the United States when I was about 16 months. My stepfather, whom she married when she moved there– she moved to the US to be with him. He was also a New Zealand juror, so I was raised speaking English in a certain way at home– both of them spoke very proper English. I think the dialect is called BBC New Zealand. They talk like newscasters. They don’t have New Zealand accents, which is interesting as well… my cousins speak very differently, so they suppose they both speak very proper– very properly, and I was raised speaking that way at home, which meant that at school, I was always just a little bit foreign, even though I definitely grew up in the United States… we would also travel back to New Zealand pretty regularly. My mother and her second husband… they were both travel agents, so we were able to do that. I think that might be part of why they opened a travel agency, actually, so that we could travel back home fairly often.
So, when I was a child, it felt like every summer we spent in New Zealand, which is part of why I don’t like hot weather because, of course, it was summer in the US, but it was winter in the Southern hemisphere, so I skipped summer and went and got a second winter. But then when we were in New Zealand, visiting relatives there– my cousins would always introduce me to people as their American cousin, which I don’t think they know was devastating to me because I spent all of my time in the US being a new Zealander and thinking if we just hadn’t moved here, if I was just still in New Zealand, I wouldn’t feel so much this way. And then I would go back to New Zealand, and it was quite clear that that pack was rejecting me as well, even though I don’t– I’m sure they didn’t think of it as a rejection. I think they just liked the fact that we had peanut butter and Oreos because they didn’t have those in New Zealand to this day. And then we would bring Oreos with us, and all I got in exchange was Vegemite. So, people there thought I had an accent; people at home thought I had an accent– I’ve actually never lived anywhere that it wasn’t perceived as having an accent, and it means that I do very strange things with my vowels. I kind of absorbed local vowels, occasionally. I’ve still got a bit of a Minnesota’ o’ that I picked up while I was there. That’s where I did my first job after graduate school– was a limited-term position at the University of Minnesota.
Strangely enough, in some ways, Victoria– I feel less obviously accented because there are so many different accents in Victoria. I find it easier to disguise myself here. So, people still occasionally here look at me with a certain expression as I’m talking and then afterwards like I can tell what they’re thinking as they’re going to try to guess where my accent’s from, and it’s geographically unlocatable. It doesn’t exist. Right. So, I’ve always felt like I don’t belong. I’ve always felt very other. And so, these additional little things and school, they didn’t add up all that much, right? So, I was recently on a panel discussion about gender-based discrimination in science, and one of the questions they asked the panel was about our own experiences– feeling either isolated or excluded in our own careers. And I realized that for me, I didn’t really feel isolated or excluded in my own career because I constantly feel that way, so the fact that I was a liberal arts student at an R1 university might’ve made it a little bit worse. And the fact that I was one of few women in a male-dominated field probably made it a little bit worse. The fact that I really wasn’t open about my orientation with any of my friends in graduate school probably also made it a little bit worse. I’m sure that all added up, but in another sense, it almost weirdly feels as if I was inoculated against imposter syndrome, somehow. I’m not really recommending this as a solution to imposter syndrome, but I do wonder if the fact that I was already used to feeling other and working through that and pushing through that is part of why I didn’t perceive it holding me back too much in my career.
Rebecca Gagan: And I think that, Jane, being able, it sounds to me, as you say, you can trace it back to your very early days as a woman living as a girl living– from New Zealand, living in the United States, and then wherever you went, sort of feeling maybe a sense of not necessarily dislocation, but feeling a bit alienated, or that others were perhaps alienating you. So, feeling that sense of otherness or even a kind of foreignness in some way, right? That what you’re describing, is that when you then became a student, and there was a sense of feeling other, that was kind of intrinsic, like to who, how you understood yourself.
Jane Butterfield: It’s almost like a core part of my identity was not having an identity.
Rebecca Gagan: And so, then these other factors, as you say, being a woman in math, and having had a different undergraduate background than perhaps some of your peers… those things affected you, but as you say, you had already felt that that way– you know, in your bones, or in your heart, in a sense, right? And so how, Jane, did you kind of cope with that… so whether that feeling of otherness, as you say, was something kind of intrinsic to how you understood yourself or whether that’s something coming from those other forces… so I guess I’m just curious about how, as a student, you were able to just–and maybe cope is not the right word, but you know, how did you kind of deal with it, I guess, as you were going through those, as particularly, as a graduate student.
Jane Butterfield: The short answer is I got help. And the long answer is it got worse, and I had to seek help, so partway through my first year of graduate school, my mother and her husband– she divorced the New Zealander. She was married to an American by this time, and we’ve kept him. He was the right one, so she’s still married to him. She let me know that their business was going under– that they were going to have to file for bankruptcy and that they would probably need to move to New Zealand for financial reasons, and it was devastating. I’d never wanted to live in the US; she dragged me to this horrible country, and now she was going to abandon me there. That’s how I felt at the time. And it got really bad. It led to depression and self-harm, that was finally enough to make me think maybe I should look into some mental health support, and that got me into the healthcare system. So, I was fortunate enough to get one of the spots on a therapy group for graduate women at UIUC. And I stayed in that therapy group throughout graduate school, and that made an enormous difference. It’s important to look after your mental health and to seek help from experts. I try to find opportunities to mention that experience because mental healthcare is still stigmatized to an extent, which I think is ridiculous.
Rebecca Gagan: Yes, yes. And I was just talking in a previous episode, uh, with actually our very, our second episode of Waving, Not Drowning with Erin McGuire and we were having a conversation about, uh, how many students don’t seek therapy or help until graduate school, even if it’s something that maybe they’re needing earlier on.
Um, and that it’s often in that graduate school environment where perhaps, because it is this kind of pressure cooker of an environment that, um, students often find themselves, um, needing and wanting to, to get the help then. And it sounds like Jane, um, you, you, at that point, um, started to, to get to, uh, to engage with therapy and con continued on. And I think that that’s also something that’s important for our student listeners too, to hear right. That it’s something that can be short-term it can be long-term, but it’s a way of trying to, in your case, you were trying to understand and work through, uh, as you say that bout of depression and, uh, kind of personal situation, but that it helps you understand yourself as a student as well.
Jane Butterfield: Yeah. So, for me, I ended up getting the help that I probably could have used a lot earlier because I’d reached an acute crisis, but I ended up staying in therapy group past the point of acute crisis because it turned out that there was also just low-level chronic stuff going on. And when it comes to mental health care, some of this, you know, it’s in the US context, it was difficult to access healthcare, graduate students at UIUC. At the time, we had, I think two therapy appointments covered per year. And it was only because I happened to be lucky enough to get one of these spots that I was able to have an ongoing conversation. So, some of its access, a huge parts of part of it is access as well as stigma. But we, we tend to take this. Maybe it’s a generational thing too. I, I hope that younger people don’t feel the way that I did. I hope that they are more likely to seek preventative health care in the area of mental health, but I wasn’t. Right. I went there because I, I, I went, I went in when I needed a hip replacement, instead of having gone to physical therapy for years, it sort of feels like why don’t, why don’t we do preventative maintenance. I could have used some preventative healthcare there.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. Yeah. And I think as you say that, like you, I hope things are changing, and that students can feel that they don’t have to wait until a crisis; that they can do the preventative piece by going to talk to somebody when, you know– even if you don’t feel that they’re in a crisis, right? That they–
Jane Butterfield: Cause it’s a spectrum, right? It’s a spectrum. And like, I didn’t think that I could access mental health care unless I had a breakdown, and that’s not how you would treat your car. It’s not– it doesn’t really make sense. It’s just sort of the environment that we are in. There’s also– like you don’t necessarily have to go straight to a healthcare professional, right? There are other things you can do as well. Really, I think what was most important for me, particularly in graduate school, was talking to other people who weren’t doing the same thing I was doing. So, there’s a reason that a lot of people reach crisis and graduate school. There are a lot of reasons why a lot of people reach crisis in graduate school. I think one of the key components is that what you are there to do, is to study this tiny, tiny, tiny sliver of the universe in great detail. Like a PhD is you becoming the world expert on something that two or three people know a little bit about, and that is a recipe for losing perspective.
It’s also a recipe for some serious calamity, right? Cause sometimes, particularly in math, you might spend years studying something only to discover that you can’t prove anything about it, or it wasn’t as interesting as you thought it was. And if that tiny, tiny, tiny thing has become your entire universe, any amount of failure on it can be really devastating, so it’s a recipe for needing help. It’s a recipe for losing perspective, and it’s kind of– it’s like a psychically, dangerous place to be, so you have to– you have to deliberately look outside of the academic structure because the academic structure is designed to facilitate your study. It’s there to help you focus on that tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny sliver of the universe. That’s what it’s there for. You have to find other ways to recapture your perspective. So, for me, it was a therapy group, but it was also joining– I studied Japanese tea ceremony throughout graduate school. That was the other thing I did. It was an opportunity to talk to people who were not doing the same thing I was doing. They were all affiliated with the university in some way cause it was at Japan house, which is a facility at UIUC, but they weren’t mathematicians. One of them was– two of them were engineers. But just talking to people who know– who are doing something similar enough to you that they understand where you’re coming from, but not exactly the same thing as you.
Rebecca Gagan: And also, as you say–
Jane Butterfield: Outside of your lab!
Rebecca Gagan: But you’re also getting outside of your own head in a way, right? So, you’re seeding more than just, as you say, the– what did you call it– like the sliver of the world that you’re working on. And that– I feel like that that is such a wonderful wisdom here, Jane, in terms of thinking about how it’s not just about therapy, it’s about being in a position to see that your life and your world is bigger than just your studies, right? And the very small thing that is important, but that small thing that you were studying–
Jane Butterfield: But also, the opposite, in some ways. So it’s useful to realize that there are other things out there at game perspective; it’s also academically useful to know how the work you’re doing interfaces with work other people are doing interdisciplinary studies is– I think it’s growing because we’re realizing that we can’t solve modern world problems without interdisciplinary approach, so there are economic reasons to do it, too, but the other thing that you discover, and which came up a lot in my therapy group, of course, was the things we had in common. You know, so the way that my therapy group was set up– they would never take two people from the same department because of conflict of interest in wanting to preserve anonymity and things like that. So, none of these other women were in math, and yet we had certain things in common and we saw similarities in our experiences, and it’s useful to be able to say, “you know, this happened to me, and it felt weird.” And to have other people say “that’s because it was”, so you know, it’s important for us to talk with other people who are having different experiences, but it’s also really validating sometimes to hear that they’re having the same experience, and when you think that you’re the only person something is happening to, it’s so hard to effect change, but once you realize that there are other people who are having a similar experience, you can support one another and you can work.
Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. And I think, too, Jane, that we are with this podcast, with UVic Bounce, we are trying to really help students know that absolutely, they are not alone, and also that by sharing these stories, just as you’ve done today. So, for example, talking about your experience of feeling other; feeling sort of alone in certain ways or different, that there can be a way in which you feel like, well, you’re the only one who feels that way, or the only one in your graduate school feeling that way. And I’m sure you hear this from students. I hear this from students a lot that they will share something about their experience, about how they might be struggling with a particular– you know, aspect of the course even, and feel like, “well I’m embarrassed. Like I am sure I’m the only one who feels this way.” And it’s like, absolutely not. Others, of course, are feeling this way, but you don’t know that when you’re in it. And as you say, it’s a strength in numbers, but it’s a way of sharing that is comforting. It’s validating. And also, then there’s a way in which you can work together to effect change.
Jane Butterfield: And sometimes you get good advice, too. I mean, you’ve probably– I think all educators have had this experience of a student finally mentioning to you, very tentatively, “oh, well, yes. Okay, so this was going on,” and it’s something that if they’d mentioned two months ago, you would have had all these accommodations lined up for them. It’s in the course outline. You have a plan in place. It’s not an unusual request. You’ve dealt with it before, but to the student, it’s the only time they’ve experienced that, so of course, they don’t know what to do, and somehow, it’s always the ones who you really want to help who don’t ask for help. There’s some selection bias going on in that statement.
Rebecca Gagan: But yes, that you–
Jane Butterfield: It feels like this enormous catastrophe for just you because it is, but I’ve had thousands of students over the past few years. I’ve had more than one student in almost the exact same situation, and I have a plan in place to cope with it if I know that it’s going on.
Rebecca Gagan: And then can get help if you ask. So, Jane, if you were to leave students with some final thoughts, I guess, or words of support, what might you say?
Jane Butterfield: This doesn’t necessarily segue well from some of the other things I’ve said, except that it’s a quote from my therapy group leader, and it really stuck with me, and I have to explain it after I say it cause it sounds kind of terrible. So, what she would often say is “that’s okay. I don’t need you to like it.”
Rebecca Gagan: Okay.
Jane Butterfield: It sounds dark, but it isn’t. It’s inspirational. What it means is that just because you’re not liking something a hundred percent of the time doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. I find myself reiterating this advice to students, and even though I’m not a parent myself and have no business giving advice to parents– to parents, too, you are not going to love every minute of graduate school. You are not going to love every minute of parenting. I refuse to believe anyone enjoys changing diapers, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. If you think about postpartum depression and how devastating and isolating and judged that is. It’s cause we have this idea of like, “oh, you’re pursuing your dreams. You’re a parent. This is wonderful. You’re pursuing graduate studies. This is what you wanted to do with your life.” That doesn’t mean that every single part of it is fun. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong just because you’re not enjoying it. If you are seldom enjoying it, if it’s harder, more frustrating, or if it hurts more than you want it to, that might mean that there’s something wrong– even that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are doing it wrong. It might mean that someone else is doing something wrong. It might mean that you’re in a bad position. So that’s why I think it’s so important to talk to other people; people who have enough in common that they understand your situation, but who also have a different perspective on things and can help you reflect on what’s going on.
Rebecca Gagan: Can you just read that quote one more time, Jane?
Jane Butterfield: It’s okay. I don’t need you to like it.
Rebecca Gagan: It’s okay. I don’t need you to like it. I feel like when I repeat back a quote– but there’s a lot of truth and wisdom there in, in that quote, right? That I think sometimes, and you’ve created a very nice distinction here between, feeling sometimes like, “oh, I don’t know if this is the right path for me because I’m so miserable and I really don’t enjoy this” and then, “oh, this piece is hard. I don’t like this particular aspect of what I’m doing” that there are distinctions to be made there.
Jane Butterfield: And it can be hard to tell the difference between them as well. There are mood tracker apps out there, which I’ve used myself. Do I just occasionally really hate this one aspect of my job, or do I actually hate my job? Like those are– it’s hard to tell the difference because we focus so much on the negative that it feels as if it’s really big because it takes more energy for us to cope with, so as a scientist, I like to measure things. And I think with school, because of the words that we use– like you don’t stop doing school because you decided it was a bad relationship. You fail school, or you drop out of school. I don’t like that either. I think it’s completely valid to leave academia, just as I think it’s completely valid to leave any relationship. And I find it very useful to think about your relationship with your studies as a relationship, and then go read some advice columns, and it resonates, right? So, if you’re staying in a degree or a job or a relationship because you’ve put a lot of work into it, like that’s one of those classic things that people mentioned of it might not be a healthy relationship you’re in. And I think it applies to our work and our studies as well. And for me, once I decided– you know, I, I could do something else.
I don’t want to; I want to do this, but I could do something else. I developed a much more healthy relationship with my studies. If you’re in a relationship that you don’t think you can leave, it’s almost impossible for that relationship to be healthy, so having a backup plan or having external interests, having some part of your identity that is not your schooling, is really important for maintaining a healthy relationship with your schooling. So, I actually became much more authentic educator once I decided that even people in my professional life could take me as they found me or not. I scrapped my teaching statement. I rewrote the whole thing, and I ended up at UVic. I applied to this and maybe only a handful of other jobs, I was very, very focused. I only applied to positions that I genuinely wanted. And I sent out application materials that I thought were almost shockingly frank about the sort of person I was. And I decided that if none of them wanted that person, then that’s fine. I didn’t want them either. And I ended up here.
Rebecca Gagan: It sounds to me, Jane– I mean, you’ve really kind of beautifully summed up, in a way, your journey, to yourself in a way. So, you’ve, you’ve talked about that relationship with your studies, but your relationship with yourself, and we’ve– you’ve shared about feeling different and other in your studies to the getting therapy, to understand yourself better and your relationship to graduate studies, to education, to all other aspects of your life. You know, in framing this as a relationship, which I hadn’t thought about before, really. But to think of it that way– and is it sort of healthy and are you happy in that relationship, and also what you ended on here is do you feel like yourself and can you be yourself, and do you feel authentic? And I just love how you shared that when you applied for jobs, you’re just like, “no, this is who I am.” And I’m not saying that means like you never have those feelings anymore of feeling that you don’t belong or feeling other or anything like that.
Jane Butterfield: It still comes up. You know, I’m at a Canadian university now, never having done any of my schooling in Canada. I continue to learn interesting facts about Canada, even after having been here for six years.
Rebecca Gagan: And so, yes, I think that you still grapple with those feelings, but it sounds to me like you were able to find a way– and a lot of different ways, right? Not just– it doesn’t sound like just one thing was the ticket, right? There were all of these other pieces that helped you as you’ve explained, and that then you come into a place where you feel more authentically, you– and then you’ve transformed a relationship to yourself and to your studies, and I think that you’ve really offered students, offered our listeners here so much to think about in terms of just what they can do for themselves in that relationship. As I say, I love this idea of thinking about being in relation with your studies.
Jane Butterfield: I think it’s a really useful metaphor. And if you have that in your mind, you’ll– over the next few weeks and just read any random advice column on the internet, really, I think you would be surprised just how well it works as a metaphor. Good relationships are not constantly hard work. They’re not easy. You can’t take them for granted, but they’re not constantly hard work. And because we think that they are, it puts us in a position. It makes us so vulnerable to so many other types of relationships also being bad because it fits the pattern. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the negative feelings you’re having– cause negative feelings drag us down. They take a lot of energy, and so, in our memory, they occupy a lot of time, so sometimes it’s hard to tell. Am I intensely reacting to an occasional task I don’t want to do? Like is there a small part of my schooling that I don’t like? Is there a certain aspect of my job that I don’t like?
Or is it more pervasive and low-level? Do I constantly kind of dislike everything that’s going on? The latter– that’s a really bad sign, right? That’s a sign that there’s something dysfunctional in the relationship, and then it needs to– it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get out of it, but you need to examine it. You need to consider what am I getting out of this? Is it worth the effort that I’m putting into it, or am I just putting effort into a relationship that’s not giving back? If it’s the first one of just– occasionally, I really dislike certain parts of what I’m doing. That’s not necessarily unhealthy. That could be quite normal, but because we’re such subjective animals, it’s hard to distinguish between the two of them. So, like, my solution to that of course, is just data. You can write this down. There are mood tracker apps as well, which, again, not necessarily intended for assessing whether your choice of degree is a good fit for you, but they can be repurposed for that as well. I think nearly anything that is designed to help you assess whether a relationship you’re in is healthy or any advice about improving a relationship that you’re in can be applied to relationships with non-humans, so it can be applied to your relationship with your job; it can be applied to your relationship with your studies. And I found that a very useful metaphor.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, and I like how you refer to the importance of data that it could be even Jane, you know, writing out a list, right? So those pros and cons of staying in a particular program or following a particular degree, right? So, something concrete that you can look at. And the thread here, though, is reflection and the importance of examining and reflecting on that relationship.
Jane Butterfield: And reflecting with other people can really help too. You know, if you’ve ever noticed a friend of yours, you’re like, “you know, you always seem really irritated on Friday afternoons. What are you doing on Friday mornings? That’s putting you in that headspace.” They might never have noticed. So, talking with other people and get them getting those other perspectives as well helps you see patterns as they emerge.
Rebecca Gagan: And whether that, as you say, is with therapy, or with friends, or with a whole host of others that you can talk to in order to continue to reflect on that very important relationship that you have, with yourself and how that affects your relationship with your studies. Well, Jane, thank you so much for being here today. It really has been so illuminating talking with you. And as I say, I just really like this metaphor of thinking about your relationship with your studies as actually a relationship and all that flows from thinking of the time that you spend here at university, whether as an undergrad or as a graduate student, as one of the most important relationships that you will have. So, thank you so much for being here.
Jane Butterfield: Thank you for having me.
Rebecca Gagan: In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Bruce Ravelli, a Teaching Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Victoria, where he teaches many first-year introductory sociology courses, as well as community-engaged learning courses. In our conversation, Bruce shares with me his experiences of being a student who had a lot of privilege, and he talks about how he’s had to really turn a critical lie to himself, and to those experiences, and how this is work that he has been doing since he was a student and continues to do as a way of being able to better support the students in his classes now. I really hope you’ll tune in for this illuminating and powerful episode. You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you stream your podcasts. We’d love it if you would give us a like and a follow on Instagram @uvicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.