Episode 2: On Not Being Sure with Dr. Erin McGuire

Dr. Erin McGuire is an archaeologist and Associate Teaching Professor in the Department of Anthropology. She’s also a UVic alumna. Erin teaches ANTH 100 and a number of archaeology courses and is the Undergraduate Advisor for Anthropology. To get through the pandemic, she is taking walks, cuddling her cat, and talking to her counselor. 

"You don't have to have the answers to everything during your degree. Being okay with not being sure is an important thing."

Dr. Erin McGuire

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, I talk with Dr. Erin McGuire, an archeologist and associate teaching professor in the department of anthropology here at UVic.


Erin is also a UVic alumnui. She teaches ANTH 100 and a number of archeology courses and is the undergraduate advisor for anthropology. Erin is also the very first recipient of the Excellence in Teaching for Experiential Learning Award. In our conversation today, Erin shares some of her own experience as an undergraduate student who was trying to sort out that really complicated and tricky question of what is it that you want to do with your life. Quite often students feel that there is this pressure to know, even on day one, not only what your major will be, but also what you will be doing in post-grad, what your career will look like, and basically just the whole trajectory of your life. I think students often feel just such intense pressure to have it sorted out.


And then also a lot of pressure to commit to that trajectory and to not change their minds, so Erin’s words today, I think, will be very helpful as she really discusses how she tried to cope with some of those feelings of failure and shame around not knowing what she wanted to do, and also her feeling of really wanting to honour who she was and her strengths and her passions, and to really root herself in that so that at the end of the day, she was pursuing something that actually felt like a good fit for her We’ll also be talking a bit about the importance of building support networks. And this can include, of course, counselling or therapy as a way of untangling and really having a space to reflect on some of these feelings that come up, as you navigate, your undergraduate experience and as Erin shares Therapy can be a piece that’s so helpful in coming to understand oneself and to really be able to sort out some of these feelings that are really tricky to navigate on your own. I’m so happy that you’ve joined us today. I’m Rebecca Gagan here with Dr. Erin McGuire, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.


Hi, Erin! Thanks so much for being here today. How are you doing?


Erin McGuire: I’m getting by, Rebecca but it’s been a complicated year.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, it certainly has. How have you been, you know, coping this past year? Oh, it’s now almost a year hard to believe.


Erin McGuire: it was, you know, it was really scary in the beginning months of it, just the uncertainties and not really understanding what was going on in the world around us, and some of that fear hasn’t really gone away because although we know more, we still are left with a lot of uncertainties, and that’s, hard to wrap your head around sometimes. So, it’s, been a struggle for me. I’m definitely feeling the fatigue. That’s the combination of things like Zoom fatigue cause I’m on Zoom All the time and pandemic fatigue because it’s just the same news in different flavours all the time. And it’s exhausting, to be honest. So, it’s definitely been a bit of a roller coaster and a bit of a struggle this last year. 


Rebecca Gagan: I think that you know, one of the things I’m hearing this term and, sort of talking to students a bit about is, asking them, now that they’ve had a term of this behind them is it easier or does it, feel smoother this term. And actually, I think. You know what students are feeling. And certainly, what I’m feeling is, what you’ve, said, Erin just like a kind of just exhaustion that it, just reaches a point where it’s, not a matter of it feeling easier. It’s just that you’re, continuing to keep going.


As you say, in the midst of uncertainty and perhaps getting used to it isn’t that’s not a positive thing. So, if, somehow feel like, okay, like this is our, way of living now. And so, yeah, I think that the burnout is very real for students and certainly for faculty. So, if you found anything, Erin, over the past months that has been helpful for you.


Erin McGuire: Yeah. There’s a few things that I’ve been trying to build into my daily strategies to help me out. One is I’ve got a counsellor that I talk to on a regular basis. And I’m taking antidepressants, and they work for depression and anxiety, and I’ve been very meticulous about taking those on time and being vigilant about it because the chemistry in my brain needs to support right now. And then the big one that my counsellor has been encouraging me to do, and there’s sometimes an effort to do is just that getting outside on our regular basis to try to get outside every day, just for a little bit. It can be hard because I feel like I have so many things I should be doing, but that’s a piece that helps me do the other things better if I make the time to do it. So, getting outside has been a really big one. And then the other piece that’s been an absolute lifesaver was an accidental thing that I stumbled into. I started using Microsoft teams as a tool to communicate with my students and to get some support for some of the technologies we’re teaching with.

A group of us ended up forming a, kind of,  an informal support group for faculty. So, people who are teaching and going, oh my God, this is so hard—and just having somebody else who could say, yeah, it is really hard right now, or share silly memes or, you know, just, something. So, you don’t feel so alone because that was a big part of the problem is, here we are all working from home, and you don’t have the chance encounters with people in the hallways. You don’t have somebody to talk to at the end of a class or over your lunch, and you just feel so isolated. And so, connecting with some other people informally outside of class time and everything else just to say, ugh has been really beneficial.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, I think that you know, for faculty and for students missing those on campus, informal interactions where, you know, I certainly, and just adding in the outside piece, like I think about walking from even just from building to building right from when I would be going from class to class, and you would see students, or you’d see colleagues and you could then. Just to have a chat, a brief chat and say, how are you doing? And just all of those connections, which would have also been outside, you know, are so crucial. And I think that we have taken for granted. I certainly have those moments. I didn’t realize actually how supportive they were to my mental health, to my wellbeing in a day.

And as you say, I’ll just spend the day sitting in front of the screen and then think to myself, oh, I should really go outside. And then the hours will pass, and I’ve not done it, but yet I know that that will be sustaining for me. And I think too what you’ve been saying, Erin is just so important around you have to rally all the supports. You have to figure out for yourself what you need to get through. Recognizing that it’s so hard, and I think for students being able to just have that compassion for themselves and say, this is really hard. To do this kind of schooling in this environment, in this pandemic, is new, but also so darn hard as you say, to have like your friends or colleagues or fellow students be able to just say, I love that you say, just to say ugh like that is enough.


And it just really helps to remind us that what we’re doing is so hard, and I think it has been so challenging for students in particular. And as you know, you’re here today because we’re trying to have faculty really talk about their own experiences of challenge and difficulty as students, just so students know that they are really not alone in having these difficulties and not just difficulties that are absolutely emphasized and deepened by the pandemic, but, in non-pandemic times that, they are not alone and that there’s absolutely no shame in, sharing those challenges. So, I’m hoping today, Erin, that you can maybe share with us, just I’m so interested to know about your own experiences as a student.


Erin McGuire: Sure, absolutely. My undergrad was…it was long…it was a very long period of time. I had actually been living on a military base in Germany when I graduated high school. And it was right around the same time that the base was closing down. And so, they packed us all up and sent us back to Canada, and my family moved to the Chilliwack area. There used to be a military base up there, and that was dad’s last posting, and it was. I just graduated high school, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. I was trying to figure it out. And so, I went to what was then a university college. Now they’re Fraser Valley University or something like this, but at the time, it was the University College of the Fraser Valley.


I did a couple of years there, and I, God, I changed topics so many times I started out, I was determined I was going to do computer programming And so I did like computer programming and math and physics, and I did some language for fun. I took Russian and French, funnily enough, from the same instructor, which meant that I mixed the two languages together all the time, but what I realized at the end of that first year, and this is kind of ironic now, was that I did not want to spend the rest of my life staring at a computer screen. So, I’m like, nope, computer programming, not for me going to change to something else. So, I don’t have to look at computers all day long. The irony of that is not lost on me.

So, I switched and started doing more stuff around language because language was really fun. I took some philosophy; I took some sociology, and then I applied to UVic, and so I did two years at this college, and then I came to UVic for my undergrad. And I started out in UVic’s Slavic studies program. So, I was doing lots of courses and things like Russian and Russian history. And I kept doing French because I liked it and frisky, which was my mix of French and Russian was entertaining. I actually used to write really bad poetry in frisky, and I just, I kept doing courses kind of all over the place. And, as I was getting close to the end of my Russian degree, By that point. I’d probably been in post-secondary, the college, and the university for five years or so, and I was looking at how many credits I had to do still and, I needed at least one more year to finish the degree because I’d been all over the place.

I couldn’t figure out still what I wanted. And the big thing that started scaring me with that I was doing a degree in Russian, and I didn’t know what kind of job I was going to do. I’m like, I’m not fluent enough to be a translator. There really aren’t any teaching jobs in Russian in BC. And what on earth am I going to do? And my friend at the time, who actually, funnily enough, is now, as of yesterday, my husband of 19 years. But at the time, he was my friend and, he and I sat down and took a look at what I’d been studying. And we realized I was actually this close to a second degree in medieval studies. And so, I talked to the academic advisors that UVic and I ended up completing what they called concurrent degrees. So, two completely separate BAS and it took me seven years total, and I came out with two bachelor’s degrees, one that was a Russian with a minor in linguistics. And the other was medieval studies with almost, but not quite a minor in anthropology. I was totally scared by the science side of anthropology.


So, I didn’t quite finish the minor. The irony of that is that now I actually love the science side of anthropology. It’s one of my favourite parts of the course to teach, but as an undergrad, I’m like, I’m no good at science. I can’t do this thing. It scares me, and I steered clear of it. So, my undergrad was characterized by indecision and kind of fear of the unknown and not knowing what I wanted to do with myself. And it just was sort of all over the place. It took me a really long time and cost me a fair bit of money. But as I kind of came to the end of it, what I did know for sure was that I really loved being a student, and I loved learning all of these things, and I decided that I wanted to go onto grad school, and so I then was a little up in the air. What kind of grad school do I want to do, and what subject? And I knew I wanted to keep going with the medieval stuff, but I couldn’t decide if it was going to be history or literature or archeology. And funnily enough, what ended up deciding me in the end was. I applied to a bunch of grad schools got accepted to several, and they were all different programs. So, I was in a lit program and a history one, and then an interdisciplinary one and an archeology one, but I got a scholarship for the archeology one. And so that was the thing that decided me finally, I’m going to do archeology because there was funding to do that.


And, It led to, so I did my master’s, and then that led to my PhD. And, at that point, I was set. I knew where I was going and what I was doing as long as I could find a job after, which was always the kind of terror. But, through all of that, the thing that was most consistent for me was that I love–A learning and B sharing my learning, which really meant that teaching was the thing that I was most passionate about. as a grad student, I loved being a teaching assistant. I absolutely loved working with groups of undergrads. And so, when I was looking for work, although I obviously was looking at the kind of traditional academic jobs. I also started looking at these teaching jobs, and I went that route in the end and got the teaching position that I’m in now at UVic in the anthropology department. So yeah, the kind of consistent theme through the whole thing was not really knowing where I wanted to be or what I wanted to do until I got there.


And that was finally like, oh, this is the place that is what I want to do. And sometimes I still find myself going, I can do another degree, or I could go learn about this other thing. And I’m going to teach this different course because it’s something new that I can learn about. And that keeps me motivated and keeps me going.


Rebecca Gagan: Erin, I’m just wondering if, when you were doing your undergrad, for example, which you described as really this kind of journey of trying to discover, not necessarily, which discipline you wanted to sink your energies into, but also it sounds to me like you were trying to figure out, what was your passion you know outside of the discipline, right? What were the things you liked to do in terms of the skills you like to use and things like that? So, it sounds like that was a long journey to discover that. And I know that many students feel, especially these days, just so much pressure to complete. And of course, as you say, it was expensive. So, the financial toll that takes off, staying longer to figure it out and students will say, “no; there’s isn’t anytime like I can’t keep funding this right. So, I need to know what I’m doing so that I do that path. I don’t change my path, and I then end up with a job to start paying off all of these costs and debt.” 


So, I guess what my question you know, did, you encounter, or did you feel like in your undergrad, like pressure to kind of sorted out? Because I think there is that feeling of you, hit the ground running, on day one of university and students feel like they have to have it figured out that they have to know what they’re doing with their whole lives, So I’m just wondering what you might say to that.


Erin McGuire: So, I was really lucky in that my parents didn’t put a ton of pressure on me. I mean, I was paying for it, and I got some scholarship money to help, and I got a lot of student loans. I’m actually still paying off my student loans.


Rebecca Gagan: Oh, I only just paid off mine a couple of years ago.


Erin McGuire: I got two more years to go, and then it will finally be done.


Rebecca Gagan: It’s a happy day.


Erin McGuire: Exactly. I’m looking forward to that because my parents weren’t the ones dumping tons of money into it. They were really sort of, you know, do, what makes you happy? And that helps. Cause I know a lot of students do face pressure from family to finish this thing and get the right kind of job and so on. And having some honest conversations with family can help around that, but I was just one of those lucky ones who didn’t have that leaning on me. I am a perfectionist though I really struggled with perfectionism, and I have really ridiculously high expectations for myself. So, the person who was beating me up the most for not knowing what I wanted to do with myself was me. I was the one putting a lot of pressure on myself. And then, at the same time, I was also trying to give myself room to figure things out.


So, it was really frustrating to me that I didn’t know what I wanted, but I also. I really couldn’t force myself to pursue the stuff that I would try it and then it wouldn’t be the thing. Like the computer programming and I, was so sure that was going to be it. And then I tried it, and it was terrible. And it was so not what I wanted for my life. And rather than force myself to stay in it, I tried to be really compassionate with myself and say, okay, let’s try something different. So, I was angry with myself. For what I perceived as a kind of failure in a way, but then I could learn to step back from that a bit and allow myself to try it’s something different.


Rebecca Gagan: And it sounds like as you say, you were–it was something that you wrestled with, right? For your undergrad, that kind of tension between putting the pressure on yourself to have it sorted out and to not take more time. But also, it sounds to me like you knew almost instinctively or intuitively what you needed.


Erin McGuire: Yeah. You know what I really wish, though. I really wished that, as an undergrad, I had actually seen a counsellor of some sort. I didn’t get into counselling for mental health stuff until my grad studies. And then it was late in my PhD when I started seeking help that way. And I wish I’d had somebody to help me figure out early on that it was okay to change my mind. It was okay to not be sure. I wish I’d had somebody who could give me some strategies to cope with the negative thoughts that were in my head around that kind of stuff too so that it wouldn’t have been quite so painful to wrestle with this sense of failure that I had for not figuring it out, and that was a piece that I was really missing. You know, I felt like there was a lot of stigma in terms of needing help at the time. This was quite a while ago, and mental health wasn’t something people talked about during my undergrad years, and I wish it was because I think it’s so crucially important, and I didn’t understand it in myself.


Rebecca Gagan: And I don’t know if you were like me Erin but it sounds a bit like you were you know like you I did not start seeing a counsellor until I started grad school. And I think that was a sort of common experience but I’ve been reflecting on this and I think well actually I really I think struggled as an undergrad with pretty, at times, debilitating anxiety and certainly perfectionism and these kinds of things. I think in retrospect I thought that was just what it felt like to be a student or something I don’t think and people didn’t really talk about it And so at least now we’re talking about it more but if I could talk to my undergrad self I would say you get yourself very quickly to counselling and this will really help you and help you to understand yourself but also to realize that what you’re going through in many ways is a as part of that wrestling that you do as an undergrad But as I say it was very late in The day when I first started that and it started to address my anxiety. And I think, as you say, it was just not something that people really talked about, and you just kind of sucked it up or something. And so I really appreciate you sharing that and it sounds to me like that’s a good segue, Erin into you’ve already started to sort of answer my question of what advice would you give to students who are just maybe starting their degrees or starting grad school or any of those things


Erin McGuire: I’d say it comes down to a few things. One is it’s okay to not be sure, to try different things, especially I teach these large first-year courses, and so a lot of students are coming to me fresh out of high school, and they don’t know what they want to do with themselves yet, and that’s okay. Or, they do know, but then they change their mind, and that’s okay too. And then I do have students who are in their third or fourth year, and they’re still going, “I still don’t know what I want to do,” and that’s actually okay as well. You don’t have to have the answer to everything during your degree, so being okay with not being sure, I think, is a really important thing. Try a lot of different things, take different subjects, also look at things like different clubs and stuff to get some experience beyond the classroom, which is harder right now, of course with the pandemic, but it’s an important side to university, and I hope something that can become available for students again. 


And then getting a good support team together, whether that support team is your medical doctor, a counsellor, or the people at the center for accessible learning, a group of friends, your parents but have a support team that will work for your particular set of needs because not everybody needs counselling, but a lot of people do. So, if that’s something you might benefit from, try it and see how it works, and tied into that is be willing to try it more than once if you don’t have a good fit, try again with a different counsellor or if the first couple sessions feel weird to give yourself time. It’s something new; it’s okay to keep trying again. And then the other one that relates to the support group and student connections through things like clubs and those kinds of stuff. What we’re missing are those opportunities to build those relationships on campus, and so many people are so lonely, so my other piece would be to grab at whatever opportunities are available to you to make connections. If your prof throws you into a breakout room to talk about something related to the lecture, talk to the people there; unmute have a conversation, and maybe even grab some contact information so you can carry on the conversation or talk about something else later. If, in my course, I’m using teams as a tool to help my students contact me and ask questions, but it’s also a place where they could be talking to each other. There’s Discord sites for a lot of courses and things like that, so reach out to people. I know it’s hard. Again it’s that uncertainty of how somebody else is going to respond. It’s the kind of fear of loneliness and rejection and all of that, but bear in mind, they’re probably feeling that too. And so, if you can, it’s like taking that walk outside; if you can just push yourself out the door to talk to somebody, and maybe it will help. You got to give it time, but I hope that you can make some connections that will help things feel a little less isolating.


Rebecca Gagan: Thanks, Erin. That is just really such just such supportive advice, and I especially think your advice around trying counselling and kind of keeping at it and the other piece I think is so true that it can really feel in terms of the isolation that you’re the only one who’s really struggling or who is so desperately lonely, but You know my side of it as an instructor.


And I think you probably, experienced this as well is that you hear from students. And so, I always tell students, no, I can assure you are not alone. I know this with a hundred percent certainty because I’m hearing from other students who are sharing their feelings. So those efforts to reach out, I think we’ll just be met with joy, and as you say, it’s hard to feel these days, especially when we feel this great burden on us. It’s hard to take the step outside the door, but I think you’ve really reminded us of the importance of doing that as well for mental health. Well, Erin, it has just been such a pleasure talking with you today, and I know that I have felt supported listening to you. And I’ve really learned from you today. And so, I’m sure that our listeners are feeling the same.


Erin McGuire: Thank you so much for having me. You know what I’m going to do after we wrap this up, I think, is go out. I can see some blue sky out my window, and I’m going to go set foot outside my door for at least five minutes. Maybe even fifteen if I can pull it off and just get some of that fresh air. 


Rebecca Gagan: I think I’m going to do the same. I see the sun shining and the dog. It’s just pretty much giving up on me ever taking her out. So, I think I better surprise her today and take her out for a walk. Well, thanks so much, Erin, and be well. In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Peter Locke, UVic’s dean of science, about how to handle rejection and also about how to develop a healthy relationship to assessment. That’s right. We’ll be talking about grades. I really hope that you’ll join us for that conversation. In future episodes of this podcast, I’ll have conversations with faculty from across this campus, from engineering to fine arts, in which faculty will share their stories of challenge and difficulty as students and offer some helpful and supportive words. You can find wherever you listen to your podcasts and also on Instagram @uvicbounce. Thanks so much for tuning in.


Until next time.


Be well.