Episode 23: Keeping Your Studies in Perspective and Finding What Makes You Happy with Dr. Stephen Ross
Dr. Stephen Ross is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. Stephen has always been a bit obsessive and anxious, from his early days as a “gifted” student (translation: anxious and people-pleasing) to his on-again/off-again relationship with academia—about which he remains profoundly ambivalent to this day. That journey has taken him from Chilliwack, where he grew up, to Burnaby for his undergraduate studies, and Kingston, Ontario for his MA and PhD, before bringing him back to Victoria for his career. He considers himself to have won the lottery in this last step in particular. As a professor at UVic, he especially values building relationships with students, and sees the role of teaching literature as inevitably bound up with the project of acquiring and spreading wisdom. His motto and future epitaph is “how hard can it be?”
"You are a lot more than just the grades you get."
Dr. Stephen Ross
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. Stephen Ross, a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. Stephen shares with me that he has always been a bit obsessive and anxious from his early days as a quote-unquote gifted student; translation, anxious and people-pleasing, to his on-again, off-again relationship with academia about which he remains profoundly ambivalent to this day. That journey has taken him from Chilliwack, where he grew up, to Burnaby for his undergraduate studies in Kingston, Ontario for his MA and PhD. But we’re bringing him back to Victoria for his career. He considers himself to have won the lottery in this last step, in particular. As a professor at UVic, he especially values building relationships with students and sees the rule of teaching literature as inevitably bound up with the project of acquiring and spreading wisdom. His motto and future epitaph is “how hard can it be?” In our conversation, Stephen shares with me his experience of being an undergraduate student and then a graduate student who was living with anxiety and OCD, and really trying to figure out how to keep his studies in perspective. Now, this is something that we’ve touched on in other episodes of Waving, Not Drowning, but in this conversation, Stephen really goes into a lot of depth here about that struggle to not just keep things in balance, but how in the midst of stress and competition and pressure for grades to really be able to figure out what makes you happy and how to keep your perspective so that the academic work that you’re doing doesn’t become the central focus of your life, to the exclusion of all else, and then, you know, it starts to affect your mental health and wellbeing.
And so we really talk about how as cliche as it seems to, you know, find what makes you happy and to really prioritize that and to remember what is important in your life, and to really think about, you know, those relationships and family and, you know, the other things that you love to do, and that are nourishing to you as a way of really helping you to keep perspective when you’re really experiencing that kind of overwhelming stress, where nothing feels more important than, you know, getting that A. I think as a student, I probably heard this kind of advice and, I likely, you know, dismissed or just had a hard time taking it in. And I thought, “well, you know, what do a couple of, you know, late forties, early 50-ish adults, you know, have to say to me about, you know, my own life and you know, what do they know about keeping things in perspective?” And all that matters to me right now is, you know, doing well in this course, and nothing seems more important. And so, I think Stephen and I really get that it can feel just hard to sort of take in that advice, but I think what this conversation reveals is that it’s something that you can start to think about now, early on in your studies and that you should prioritize it and, you know, keep that question of, “oh, am I happy doing this? What makes me happy?” at the forefront of your minds. And that will be something that will be work that you’ll be doing, just as Steven and I are still at this stage in our lives, trying to really reflect on those questions and keep thinking about them and, and keep prioritizing relationships and family and thinking about what makes us happy even at this stage in the game, and it may be more important than ever now, but it’s something that you can do now. These are questions that you can think about now. And I think that that is really my big takeaway from this conversation with Stephen. My late dad said to us, “kids, that it was so important to figure out what makes you happy and to do that now.” This is really the subject of my discussion with Steven today. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. Stephen Ross, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.
Hi Steven, thanks so much for being here today.
Stephen Ross: Thanks, Rebecca. It’s great to be here.
Rebecca Gagan: So, I know that we are hopefully moving out of– I don’t even know if that’s the right phrasing– moving out of the pandemic or moving to a place where we can at least be back face-to-face on campus, but it’s certainly been quite a year. And I’m just wondering, you know, how you’ve been doing and how you coped with things and, you know, what advice you might have for students as we do move now to hopefully a different place in this pandemic.
Stephen Ross: I think the thing that I did– I mean, I coped, I think, pretty well, generally speaking. It was a hard year, and it was a year where, like a lot of the students that I was hearing from, my motivation levels were just rock bottom. It was very hard to– forget about getting excited or enthusiastic about things; it was very hard to just drum up enough energy to do the basic things that one has to do. And I think I definitely saw that from students who were just consistently saying, and you we’re seeing in sort of public forums that they were just finding it hard to even just attend a class and do sort of basic assignments and things like that. And, you know, for me, I did two things. One was, I just decided what was the minimum I had to get done or had to be able to do, and I tried to do that, and I put no pressure on myself whatsoever to do anything more than the bare minimum, and I got outside a lot, and I know that’s a common bit of advice on “go outside.” There’s a lot of research that backs that up, right? But if you’re standing and you’re sitting in front of a computer, and your eyeline stops two feet in front of you for 17 hours a day. That works a whole different part of your brain from looking to the horizon, and we need to do that, just as sort of beings that have evolved up to about 10,000 years ago and then since then, have developed a whole range of cultural practices that are not well suited to our biology. So, for me, it was, you know, getting outside, looking at the ocean, looking at the mountains, looking at the trees, that kind of thing. It sounds sort of West Coast-y but, you know, I had students I was in touch with who were around the world because I was teaching graduate seminar there were a lot of students stuck in places like Nigeria and the Czech Republic, and China, and across the states, and in the UK, and Germany, and so on. And I discovered that some of them were not leaving their rooms for days at a time. And so, I actually imposed on one of them; I said, “you know, you have to go outside and send me a picture every day of the outside of your building so that I know that you left.”
Rebecca Gagan: And, you know, I’ve actually heard from other faculty that they created assignments that were exactly like that, Stephen; that they would ask students to get outside in nature, like during this particular time, and then send the– like upload the photos. And I think, wow, like, you know, if you build it into the curriculum even, then students might be more interested in doing it.
Stephen Ross: Yeah, I think so. And the other thing– I sort of combined this, was because we’re not, we were not meant to be spending time in the flesh talking to one another, except that, you know, outdoors. So, I started going for walks with people– people I would not normally have sort of gone for a walk with… I’m not the world’s biggest walker, but I would do things like I actually started a Discord for students and faculty and staff.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, I knew about that. Say more about that.
Stephen Ross: Yeah. I just– I asked my classes, you know, what do you think? And because I think the thing– sorry, the idea was that you would just set up, what we call, a walk and talk. We had some rules to make sure it was safe, so, you know, only during daylight hours, only in public places and stuff like that. And always, you had to make a note of who you were meeting and when on the Discord, so there was always a public record of who was meeting whom, where and when. And just with the idea that you could go and see people face-to-face and actually make eye contact because I’m– no research to back this up whatsoever. This is entirely my speculation, but my guess is that one of the really detrimental things about Zoom is that we don’t make eye contact on zoom.
The only way to make eye contact is to look directly into the camera. And then you’re looking at a camera. You’re not looking at someone’s eyes. And, you know, again, to come back to the sort of biology of it, eye contact is really, really critically important for– you know, for human interaction. So, you know, there was that idea of getting out and talking and meeting up with people in real life, and that was that was really important– even just meeting up to talk about– talk about assignments, talk about work, but also just talk about, you know, how are things going? What are you doing? And, you know, I don’t know, a lot of people signed up for the Discord. You know, there was a tiny fraction of them who actually, I think, went for walksand talks, but I think the thing that absolutely hammered students this year was the lack of social interaction. You know, with Zoom, it’s all appointments. You don’t bump into people, and you don’t– it’s not– you don’t hang out the same on Zoom, the way you might do in a lounge or in a coffee shop.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, as you said, everything’s scheduled, right? It has to be planned, so those impromptu meetings that we know are so important and offer so much. They’re just gone, and yeah. So, Steven, do you think that… like the walk and talk is still going? Like do you think you’ll keep–
Stephen Ross: The Discord is still active. I don’t know how much uptake there will be. You know, it’s one of those things where I sort of ask a bunch of people, and everybody said, “yeah, that’d be great. I would do it.” And, you know, starting it up was negligible. I had a work-study student who helped me just sort of establish it and establish the rules and things like that, but it’s not an official UVic thing, so it doesn’t have any kind of official standing, it is just sort of there. And I don’t know– I mean, like I say, I don’t think– I think far fewer people used it than indicated they would use it.
Rebecca Gagan: I’m wondering if that goes back to the motivation piece.
Stephen Ross: I think it’s the motivation piece. And just when push comes to shove, people were not up to just, you know, going into this sort of contrived situation where you may go and meet up with somebody and discover you have nothing to talk about. And then maybe you’re sort of logged in to spend half an hour now with this person awkwardly walking and not saying anything to one another. I mean, I went on a few walks with students. You know, and students seem to kind of like the novelty of that. I had a couple of students say, you know, I was the only one of their professors they actually met in real life all year round. You know, so I think it was probably useful for that reason. And I know some people actually became friends after doing the sort of walk and talk thing. I don’t know. I think I suspect that it will not be as you know, once we’re back to sort of in-person classes– and just not even in-person classes, just being on campus together.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. I think that whether students are still taking some classes online or not, the fact that they can actually gather on campus, being able to be there will just make such a huge difference in terms of being able to go on those walks themselves without having to even plan that and being able to do that, but I like the idea of how that combines though, you know, getting outside and being able to walk and talk in that way. I’ve heard actually about faculty doing office hours like that– like even during regular times, like let’s just go for a walk together around like ring road and, you know, talk through that issue you’re having with your assignment.
Stephen Ross: Yeah. Yeah. No, I think that’s true. Yeah. And it’s– you know, we’re so lucky–you hear this all the time, but we can do that pretty much all year round, here, and we really ought to.
Rebecca Gagan: So, it sounds to me, Stephen, like, you know, as we hopefully return back to face-to-face and being able to gather on campus, that you’re taking with you some of the habits and practices that you developed during this time, so getting outside– and what about the motivation piece? Like how did you, like — I know that– it sounds like the, you know, the going for the walks and getting outside helps with the motivation. Was there anything else that helped you to really mitigate some of those challenges around staying motivated or getting motivated in the first place?
Stephen Ross: Yeah. Lowering expectations. That really was key. You know, just saying, you know, just getting through the year is going to do it. You know, I basically adopted a policy that you know, students would have to try to fail my class. No one was going to fail if there was any sort of excuse. I was sort of handing out extensions on assignments like candy, you know, it was just– I decided to, to my, to the students a couple of times like, I don’t want to be the guy who’s going to. You know, be the last final straw on the camel’s back here. So, you know, you’re not going to ask for an extension unless you really need it because nobody wants this to go on any longer than it has. So, you know, if you ask me for an extension, I will just believe that you need an extension.
And I would much rather you do that than that you make up a dying relative or, you know, some disaster and even so, I had students who got to the end of the term and then had to apply for concessions or retroactive drops and so on. And, you know, uh, it’s– you know, it sounds really corny, but I was talking to my family the other day, and I was saying, you know, basically all year long, I tried to do two things. One was give people the benefit of the doubt, wherever possible, which is really hard for me when I’m driving in Victoria. I find that to be very difficult for me to say, “okay, well maybe that person has an open container of chilli in the passenger seat” or something, but so that’s really– but give them the benefit of the doubt and just try to be compassionate because you don’t know what people are going through. And a lot of people were really isolated, and you know, this is one of the things I was really, really lucky because I live with my family in Victoria. So, I was not deprived of human contact, in the way that some students really were– or hugs or, you know, just hanging out on the couch and watching TV, or having dinner with other people every day. And, you know, I think that was the biggest sort of buffer for me compared to what some other people were going through, where they were not seeing, touching, interacting in sort of the same space with people.
Rebecca Gagan: And I was just going to say, I think that you’ve also share– and it’s maybe something you’ll talk about a bit more in a minute, but, you know, thinking about how to adjust your sort of levels of productivity and what you feel able to do depending on sort of the context, right? Like the situation, which is another kind of compassion that you have for yourself, right? But you said that you struggle with motivation, and it was sort of like, okay, you know– also sharing with your students– like do what you can do, but maybe that’s like far less than what you usually are able to do, which I think is so hard for students and for faculty– for anybody that’s involved with a university. There is so much pressure to feel that you have to be always working at a particular level, and if you’re not productive in that way that you’re used to, then what does that say about you? And yet it’s– there are these points– and it’s not just during the pandemic, but there will be many points in a student’s life and when they are no longer a student, where in order to do what’s best for them and their health, they actually do have to be able to give themselves time to just say, “okay, you know, I can’t do more right now,” and that is okay. But it’s, it’s also trying to learn how to care for yourself in those times of challenge.
Stephen Ross: Right. And to care for other people as well. And one of the big problems I had– I taught a graduate seminar in the fall term in 2020. And one of the– the way the assignments were set up was a student did a presentation and posted it to Brightspace on the Monday. And then, by Wednesday afternoon, everyone else in class was meant to have commented or asked a question or whatever in the discussion forum. And it became clear to me by about halfway through the term that the students were spending huge amounts of time preparing well-crafted essay responses to these presentations, and they were running– you know, they were running to like a thousand words. And then each of them was reading all of the other ones. You know, they were reading so 10 or 12,000 words a week and responding to them. And, you know, I said, the discussion forum– this should take you an hour. It should take you an hour a week. And my guess is that they were spending closer to eight or 10 hours a week.
Rebecca Gagan: Oh, my goodness. Okay.
Stephen Ross: So, you know, partway through the term and– no one told me this. I sort of had to take a look at it and say, well, it’s taking me this amount of time to read these responses and to think of replies; it has to be taking them even longer. And so I had to, at one point sort of intervene and say, you have to stop doing this because you’re killing yourselves, but you’re also killing each other because every time one of you posts a well-thought-out crafted 1000 word response, he raised the bar and then everybody else feels like they have to do that too, even though the assignment is explicitly not to do that. You’re creating these sense of expectations amongst one another that are producing a really punishing work environment. So that was hard. It took me most of the rest of the term to get them to ease up and to stop posting quite so much stuff. And to clarify, you know, that they didn’t have to respond to every single thing everyone else had said; they could pick one thing to reply to her, to ask a question about. I put a hard word limit on the length of what they could post and things like that. But, you know, that’s, I think, probably the biggest pitfall in– for students and for faculty, for staff, for everybody, is that really blurry line around, you know, what is your identity and how has it wrapped up in achievement?
And yeah, because everybody who’s here was a high achiever. You know, at a previous level– or all previous levels, perhaps, I mean, I personally wasn’t until I got into grade 11, and then I suddenly decided, oh, I should probably try. And, you know, but then the one thing that drives me crazy is when students come in, and they say, well, I’m an A student. And I think, no, because that’s not– that’s an identity category. And actually, what you are as a student who most often gets A marks or earns A grades. And that is not the same thing. Because then, if you get a C, you don’t have an identity crisis. Right. It’s not that, “you know, now I no longer an A student, what am I? Or I’m an honours student” or whatever. And we all do bad work from time to time. And, you know, we all write stuff that we wish had never, ever been committed to the page or the screen at some time or another, and some of us even publish things we live to regret for the rest of our days; that doesn’t have any– that doesn’t say anything about who you are. And I think that that’s a really hard thing– particularly for honours students, for high-achieving students, for students who are on scholarships and things like that– to draw that distinction between their achievements and who they are because you are a lot more than just the grades you get.
Rebecca Gagan: So, Steven, this sounds like a good time to maybe segue into talking about your own experience as a student. And because it sounds to me that you understand this now as a professor, and it’s something that you can share with students as do I– however, it took me, I would say much longer than I care to admit, to come to a place of being able to understand that my identity, myself worth wasn’t tied up with grades and other people’s assessments of my work. So maybe you want to share a little bit about how, you know, your own undergraduate experience or graduate experience and how you came to really embody this understanding about, you know, the importance of separating out your academic productivity and achievement from who you are as a person.
Stephen Ross: Right. Yeah. That’s so tricky. Well, I’ll tell you the story. So, I had a ball as an undergrad. I was a good student, in the sense that I didn’t– I rarely took notes. I was, you know, creative and a good sort of analytical reader and writer, and I liked to take on the hard stuff, whatever it was. So, at the time, it was, you know, critical theory and modernism. And I took that stuff on because it was the hardest stuff, and I wanted the prestige that came with working on the stuff that was the most challenging stuff. You know, cause I was 18-, 20-, 22-year old dude. And I would loathe me today. I mean, I would run into me as a student and think, “you are so big for your boots.” But, you know, I just had the best time because it was intellectually exciting, and it was fun, and it felt adventurous to me. I was not having to work full-time. I think that’s a huge difference between students then and students now. You know, I had no money. There were a lot of times when I had $5 in my bank account. You know, but basically, I just went to class, and I read books, and I rode my mountain bike a lot. And, you know, I was largely motivated by, you know, overweening hubris on the one hand and shame on the other. So, you know, I would go to class, and the professor would talk about Russo’s confessions, and I would be ashamed of the fact that I had not read Russo’s confessions.
But then I would stop at the library, and I would go home, and I would read Russo’s confessions, like overnight, so that I now had read that. And then no one would ever mention it again. It was one of those things where it’s like, oh, okay, well that was, you know– but then, you know, now I’ve read the confession. And I don’t know, that’s– you know, that’s something that I think may have been a little idiosyncratic– to be sort of that sense that, “well, I ought to already know these things. And since I don’t, I ought to remedy that as quickly as humanly possible.” But all that said, I also got incredibly cynical about studies and about the university and so on because by the time I got to fourth year, I had figured out how to get A’s in my classes no problem. And it was largely a product of strategic thinking. So, I had a prof who had come from the University of Toronto, and he was a Shakespearian, and I figured out, pretty quickly, that everything he was telling us came more or less straight from Northrop Frye, so I went and found Northrop Frye’s lectures on Shakespeare and low and behold, I had the whole class in front of me and– you know, so I knew what to write. But what that did was make me very cynical about, you know, the creativity and the insights and the intellectual work that was involved. So, when I finished my undergrad degree, I swore off university. I put all of my books that I had gathered over four years as an English major into the back of my friend’s car–
I didn’t have a car; I had a mountain bike– and drove it to campus, and I gave them away, opened up the trunk, and I said, “here you go, free books.” And, you know, I told my friends, “That’s it, I’m done. If you ever hear that I’m going to grad school, you are to find me and kill me.”. And that was– and then I spent two years working in a warehouse– shifting boxes from A to B, riding my bike, and watching movies. And then, you know, kind of found myself reading Hagle and teaching myself Latin and, you know, doing stupid stuff like that, like no one in their right mind sort of does, and I went off for a four month trip to Europe. One of those, you know, penny-pinching, backpacking trips to Europe. And I came back with a backpack full of books that I had picked up along the way, which was the beginnings of my new book collection, as it turned out. And I thought, well, maybe we’ll give it a try. You know, I’ll apply to some master’s programs, and I will see what happens, and we’ll go from there. And, you know, I got in, I liked it, and I was good at it, and my experience in life has been that those two things don’t often overlap. There are lots of things that I like to do that I’m just not very good at, and there are lots of things that I’m good at that I don’t really like to do, so I kept going with it. But I think that was, you know– there’s a certain sense in which, you know, in a very roundabout way, I came to that whole, you know– it’s, you know, love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life, which is just horse crap because every job involves, you know, bad days, but I think if you can find that overlap between what you like to do and what you’re good at, then that’s– you know, that’s as good as it possibly gets.
Rebecca Gagan: And so, you found it in grad school and then obviously, you know, just continued on, Stephen, to become a professor of modernism and critical theory really here, University of Victoria. So, what you started with when you were 18 and were interested in, you’ve circled back to and came back to and have kept doing the thing that you like and that you’re good at. And so, how through all of that experience– so it sounds like maybe your understanding of the necessity for proportion came maybe when you were in graduate school?
Stephen Ross: Yeah, grad school was hard. You know, that was where I developed an anxiety disorder. It’s where I was diagnosed with OCD, which should not really come as a surprise because academic life rewards obsessive behaviours. And you know, if you– you know, the statistically speaking academics have far higher rates of anxiety disorders, and especially obsessional disorders, than the general population does. You know, it’s what makes us good at what we do, but it also can create the conditions for real misery, which was certainly my experience through my MA and into my PhD. And yeah, having a partner, and then a spouse, who was not an academic was critical to succeeding in that because there was somebody who did not see a conflict between academic life and family life, or, you know, we talk about work-life balance as the work is not life in some way, you know, and I remember the day I sort of said– I had my infant daughter, and I said to my wife something about work-life balance. And she just sort of said, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about because there is life, and then you work in the whatever’s leftover.” and you know, that sense of proportion rate of needing to exercise, do things that are not always feeding into the mill, of work, and writing or research or teaching, or whatever, you know, do fun stuff. It’s not your whole life. When I first started at UVic.
This was back in 2001, and I had a senior female colleague who took me aside at one point cause I was basically on campus at eight and leaving at 5:00 or 5:30, and then going home and eating and then working in the evenings. You know, that’s pretty common for sort of starting out, right? And this colleague took me aside and told me a story of actually a former– I won’t mention his name because I don’t want to sort of out anybody– but a former colleague, who I never knew, who had worked in the English department at UVic his whole life, had been forced to retire at 65. This is when they had mandatory retirement at 65 and killed himself within a year because he had no family, had no wife, he had no kids, he had no outside interests. He had no outside– nothing to take him away from work. All he had was being a prof in the English department at UVic. And when he was forced to retire, he was absolutely rudderless. And I think that’s where you get a case of kind of one-dimensional identity and no sense of proportion. Everything is bound up in that one thing, and it was bad enough to be deprived of that identity that he took his life. And that really stuck with me, you know, that end. Her also saying, “you know, no one ever gets to their deathbed and says, God, I wish I’d publish one more article.”
Rebecca Gagan: You know, that is so true. And I think that you know, that colleague who took you aside and shared that with you clearly saw that you were, you know, not having that sense of proportion in terms of putting everything into work, and so wanted to share that with you to get you to maybe rethink where you were getting your sense of purpose or identity from. Right. And you know, when– and you’re so right. I mean, Steven, you know, that I recently lost my dad, and he was an academic and published, you know, four books and did lots of things, a very accomplished academic, but he emphasized over and over and over again that it was not his work that was important to him. It was not his work that he was proud of; it was his relationships– his family, the love that he gave and the love that he received. And it’s interesting that you say, you know, find the thing that you are good at and that you like and do that because he said, “find what makes you happy and do that, and do that now.” Right. And so, you know, if you’re lucky enough, that the work you’re doing or the path that you want to go on as a student is going to bring that, but remember that it’s not the work that is going to give you that sense of identity, necessarily, right? I mean, of course. It contributes to it, but when you see your work, is the thing that– is who you are, right? And as you said for students, coming in and like– I just think that’s so powerful, Stephen, what you said about the student who comes and says, “well, I’m an A student” and that’s how they understand who they are, or– and so that when they get a grade that is less than stellar, which everybody does, they are shattered because it challenges their sense of how they understand themselves.
And so, Stephen, you’ve talked about having, you know, a lot of anxiety as a graduate student, being diagnosed at that time. And I’ll just say that so many faculty members that I’ve talked to over the course of this podcast have shared very similar stories of sort of living with anxiety as undergraduate students, but not until graduate school where all of, I think, those pressures around competition and productivity and achievement get multiplied by like a hundred. And so then. Okay, that’s when some of that comes to the surface much more and is often diagnosed, and students can start to get treatment for that to help them, but I guess I’m just sort of wanting to go back to that point of thinking about how you started as a student. Like, did you start as a student to be able to shift out of that understanding of yourself as being defined by achievement? Or was that just later when you were a prof?
Stephen Ross: I think it was, you know, all the way along. I had the same partner who was not an academic, and that played a key role for me because that just kept me directed. You know, there was always a sizeable chunk of my life that had to be directed to people who were not academics. And so, we would go and visit family, for example, and none of them were academics, and they did not want to hear about the Marxist critique of post-modernism or whatever. And so, I was kind of forced to be a different person, right? Or to cultivate that other part of me that was not, you know, necessarily bookish and bound up with being, you know, smart and so on. But the other thing was, you know, I determined– I made two decisions when I went to grad school: one was that I was going to be nice to everyone until they gave me a reason not to be, so I was not going to get sucked into, you know, resentments and jealousies and things like that. And that took work–
Rebecca Gagan: Everything in grad school takes work.
Stephen Ross: And it didn’t– you know, I was not 100% successful by any stretch. You know, but the other one was that I was not going to play the secrecy game, so one of the things that I noticed about grad school, and I think it actually is pervasive amongst undergrads even now as well, is that no one tells anyone what they got on things. You know, no one says anything about what grade they got. I mean, what was really hard for me in grad school cause I’d been out of university for a couple of years and then came back. I didn’t know if the grades that I got was bottom of the group, middle of the group, top of the group, like when I got an 85, was that a really good mark compared to what other people were getting, or was it a bad mark? And so, I just made it a policy of just being open about what I was getting, and saying, you know, no one else almost no one ever told me what they got in return, I have to say, but I would also– you know, if I tanked on something or if I sent off an application or a proposal for something and it got rejected, I would share that news, too.
Because I just thought, you know, we might as well be honest about our successes and our failures, and then hopefully that’ll help alleviate some of that anxiety around not knowing. I don’t know if I’m doing as well as, or worse or better than other people, and, you know, in the end, you just do what you do, and you’re either successful or you’re not successful. So, you know, those were things where I just thought, “well, why aren’t we just being open with one another?” Because it’s not like I just didn’t try, and– but that also comes down to that identity as sort of — you know, we spent a lot of time as grad students– foolishly stupidly, trying to figure out where we stood in the department. And you know, now having been a faculty member for whatever 20 years, I laugh because the level of sort of organization and coordination that it would have taken faculty to arrive at the kind of ranking system that we assumed they had, it’s just clearly not possible. Like there’s just no way a department could get together and decide, oh, this is our number one student that, you know– this and even like broad tiers or bands of students–like these are our best, these are middling, and these are our worst students. No one cares–
Rebecca Gagan: That got into your head, though, right? And your– we’re like, “oh, well this must be what they’re thinking about. And this must be how they’re ranking us,” right?
Stephen Ross: Yep. And you know, “oh, you got offered a TAship in a second-year course, and I got offered a TA ship in a first-year course, that must mean that they think better of you” when that I guarantee you is not what’s going on.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, and what you’re getting at, Steven, I think, is something that’s also at the heart of UVic Bounce, which is about being able to talk about our successes, but our failures, too, or our difficulties. And when you said, “well, I decided as a student that I would talk– I would ask people, I would want to talk about grades, but I would also share my, you know, challenges or my failures,” if you want to call them that– things where I wasn’t successful, like in equal measure, but that’s not– I think– certainly, at the university that is not typical. I mean, I’ve talked to this podcast about how that’s a conversation that I’m trying to change because I think that’s what fuels that sense, right? That, well, I’m only worthy if I’m successful. And clearly, everyone else around me is not having difficulty. They’re not failing assignments, or they’re not getting C’s, but it’s not the case. It’s just that nobody talks about that. And so then, it drives this competition, the sense that we’re only here to be successful. And if you’re not, then, you know, that’s where you know– you feel shattered in that way. And so, but it sounds like what you were doing was very anomalous.
Stephen Ross: Well, it felt anomalous and, you know, as I say, was not wholly successful by any stretch. It’s not like it was sort of, you know, people were like, “yes, absolutely, this is the way we ought to do this,” and took up the task and everybody started openly sharing their, you know, their grades and so on. That just absolutely did not happen, and I’m pretty sure it’s not happening now at any level of that I teach as well. One of the tragedies of contemporary higher education is that so much is tied to grades… so scholarships, fellowships, standing admission to graduate schools or professional programs, things like that. And you know, this is not new. This is not a new complaint that I have, but in my experience, the result is that students are far less interested in learning things than they are in getting good grades.
And those are not necessarily incompatible things. But what I see more often than anything is students who are unwilling to take risks because they don’t want to risk getting a bad grade. They would rather get that solid B over and over and over again and not actually push themselves outside of their comfort zone to learn something than take a risk and possibly get an A-plus or possibly get a C, but you can learn a lot more from a C than you can from an A a lot of the time. So that’s one thing that just drives me bananas. And I get it. I understand why students are obsessed with grades a lot of the time, but when that gets in the way of learning, it gets in the way of taking risks and taking chances. I just find it really deplorable, and I find our students are increasingly scared.
Rebecca Gagan: And I think it’s the– it’s you’ve just said it– it’s a fear of making a mistake, fear of getting it wrong. And so, again, like that is what UVic Bounce is trying to disrupt– the sense that, how has it come to be that we are so afraid of– like our students are afraid of making mistakes, of not getting the right answer, as if there is a right answer, right, or only one way to get to that right answer; that they won’t take risks or they’re like– they’re understandably afraid, and I think that it’s about again, like trying to change that conversation. So just as you said, Stephen, you take a chance, and it might be the case that that ends in an A-plus, but it might also be the case that it learned ends in a C and that that’s something from which you have to learn. And that, you know, being driven by curiosity and an interest in learning is always the better path, but I feel like that can’t happen for our students unless we make it possible for them to feel like just less afraid– like it will be okay, right? That it will– we all have written, as you say, crappy essays, you know, absolutely embarrassingly bad. We’ve all had, you know, made mistakes if you want to call them, and changes of path and, you know, direction and like errors, all of that. It doesn’t– you can’t study without having all of that right? And so, I just–
Stephen Ross: You’re not going to learn something, and I mean, this is where we come down to, you know, the number of students I talk to– because I’m an English professor– and I talk to students all the time who say, I really would like to major in English, but I’m going to do geography, or I’m going to do computer science or whatever, because in effect, they say, I’m afraid that I’m going to finish my degree and I’m not going to get a job, and, you know, so what they’re doing is they’re emphatically choosing not to follow what gives them joy. And you know, and instead they’re trying to safeguard themselves against an unpredictable future. And I remember reading– this was a couple of three, four years ago that contemporary young people, so whatever generation that is– it’s the zoomers now, I think, are the most risk-averse of any generation since the Great Depression.
And I saw this… we had a grad student here at one point, and she was offered a full ride to go and spend three years doing a PhD in the South of France, and she turned it down because she was afraid to go. She was worried about what would happen. She was worried that she wouldn’t, you know, succeed, or– I said, worst-case scenario, you spend three years there. You don’t earn the PhD, and you come back having lived for three years in the south of France. That’s the worst-case scenario, but it was too risky for her, and that was when I sort of came to the realization that you know, the students have had it drummed into their heads from the start –and not necessarily wrongly– that economic security is the most important thing in life, you know, barring all other things. And I think that’s true up to the point of being able to comfortably live. To afford food, shelter, utilities, you know, that kind of thing, but the number of– I mean, if you take a look at the statistics of things, like the number of people who complete law degrees and then do not go on to practice law– it’s astronomical the number of people who get engineering degrees, who are no longer engineers after five years– astronomical. And so, a lot of those choices are being made, and they’re costing people half a decade or a decade of their lives doing something they don’t like. And they may be good at it, but they don’t like it. And I really think, you know, the world of work is so different from the world of academia, that, you know– the fact that your major doesn’t have a corresponding profession, right? Like you’re going to do psychology to become a psychologist. You’re going to do engineering to become an engineer. You’re going to do history to become a historian. You’re going to– those kinds of things, they’re just not equivalent, right? People go on and have all kinds of careers across all kinds of different industries.
Rebecca Gagan: And how can you possibly know at 18, even that that’s, right? Like, I think, you know, one of the things–I talked to high schools and I talk about making the transition to post-secondary and one of the things I say is exactly what you’ve just shared, Stephen, that well, I recognize those financial pressures and that they are, of course, different kinds of financial or economic pressures than I had as a student, because we are living in different times; however, if I could go back again, I would still do more of what I liked– like more of what I was interested– to take more courses in what I was just curious about because ultimately, yeah, it almost doesn’t matter like what degree you get– an undergrad degree– you know, you’ll find a way to do the thing that you’re interested in, but if you are so rigidly attached to… you know, to say in that first year, particularly, of university, “no I must do this degree because this is where I want to get without” realizing are many ways to get where you want to get, but where you want to get might also change.
Stephen Ross: Well, on the technical specifications will change.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. And you’ve got to allow yourself the room and the freedom, and so I tell students, you know, or advise them to not be so wedded to some kind of future outcome, right? I can’t even see at this point right, but–
Stephen Ross: Well, we already know that success in careers comes down to being happy, confident, and capable. It does not come down to knowing how to program a formula into an Excel spreadsheet, and frankly, AI is going to be doing most of that in no time anyway, right? So, it doesn’t matter what profession you want to pursue. If, you know, you come across as actually, you know, a confident well-rounded person, you will succeed, and you will excel in ways that– you know, that go way beyond technical training in anything, you know, whether it’s–
Rebecca Gagan: And also, just coming back, Stephen, to your point about the importance of being happy at what you’re doing, that that’s different from being good at it. You’re lucky if you have both of those things. You know, one of the things I hear, too, from students, just like you, is, “oh, I would like to study X, but I’m not sure I’m good enough at it, and I know I’m good at Y so I’m going to do Y” right? And then I always try to say, but, you know, if you love X, you should do that, and you’ll learn like how to write better essays or what have you. Like that can come. But what is irreplaceable, like what you can’t learn, is how to enjoy doing something. And I think that sometimes students follow the path of, well, I’m good at this, so that must mean I should do it. And it’s like, no, you’re probably good at lots of things that you actually shouldn’t pursue.
Stephen Ross: I’ll tell you what. I was a really good shipper receiver.
Rebecca Gagan: Yup. But that’s not going to bring you that wasn’t gonna bring you the joy, right? in–
Stephen Ross: It was not making me happy, you know, and it was going to punish and destroy my body and, you know, so I was just like, okay– well, I mean, you know, there was a point where my now wife’s extended Eastern European family thought that I had no business marrying her because I was doing a PhD in English, and what kind of job prospects did I have and so, you know– and from that narrow perspective, they were absolutely right. The odds of be getting a– you know, a permanent job in the field were astronomically small and, you know, maybe not as small as they are today, but they were small– you know, but I knew that what I had to do. And that I also knew that, you know, what that gave me was a sense of confidence and capability and aptitude, so that I knew– it didn’t really matter. I always tell students saying, “oh, well, what could I do with a degree in English,” but what can’t you do? You can do anything, you know, except maybe like surgery, right?
Rebecca Gagan: Although, if you can write the MCAT, you could still go on and do that with your degree.
Stephen Ross: Yeah, I mean, you might need to get an additional qualification, but you know, honestly, you know, we know, more and more, the work that can be automated, is being automated. The work that can’t be automated is the work that only people can do. And people want to work with people who they perceive to be complex, well-rounded confident, you know, caring, empathetic, capable people. And that’s what you got– that’s what we should trying to teach our students. I don’t care if you actually know what Paradise Lost is about, but you should be able to read carefully and attentively anything put in front of you and understand what its commitments are. Because if you don’t, people will lie to you and take your money. That’s the line I was used when I taught first year English. If you don’t learn to read carefully, people will lie to you and take your money.
Rebecca Gagan: It’s about also being able to contribute, too. Like being able to read critically and carefully, and we know that to be able to find your own voice– as you say, you talk about confidence, Stephen, right? So, the confidence to be able to contribute to your communities in certain ways, right? With your own voice and through communication and all of those things, and to not have somebody lie to you and take your money, or to know when they’re doing that and to be able to stop it, also essential skills. So, you’ve sort of already said it Stephen, but if you were to leave our listeners with– many of whom are students– with some words of support or advice– you know, whether they’re just starting post-secondary or, you know, in the thick of it and moving onto grad school, what would you want them to take away from this conversation?
Stephen Ross: You should be having a good time. And if you’re not having a good time, you should figure out if that’s because you’re not doing what you enjoy. And I’m not saying sit in your basement and get high and play video games all the time, right? Because I mean, that’s also fun, and go ahead and do that sometimes. Sure. But in terms of your studies, if you’re not having a good time, you’re not going to enjoy working in that environment, and no amount of money makes up for working 80 hours a week at a job you hate. And so yeah, if you’re not enjoying it, follow what you enjoy. It’s hard to see when you’re 20 or 22 years old, but you have the rest of your life to be miserable, so you might as well be happy when you’re at university. I mean, this is where you get to explore and find new stuff and try things you wouldn’t otherwise try. And I’ll tell you this, too. Once you get your undergraduate, once you get your BA, or your BSc, or your BA or your BFA, nobody gives a flying crap about your marks. They go, “oh, you have the credential.” When was the last time you ask your GP what he got in grade in medical school, right? You don’t ask because you go, “oh, you’re an MD, and that’s good enough for me.” So, no one is going to ask to see your transcripts, and unless– you know, so there’s no reason to be chasing only A’s unless, you know, you want to go on to graduate school or something like that. But even then, graduate schools are going to want people who are not afraid to think creatively and solve problems and take risks. So, you know, take some chances and have some fun for God’s sake.
Rebecca Gagan: I just– I’m so happy we’ve had this conversation because I think that it’s actually not said enough, and I feel as if there can be a way in which okay older faculty members, you know– sort of sharing this advice and maybe to students, I hope it doesn’t sound cliched– who are these, you know, old people telling us we should, you know, have fun and do what we enjoy when we have all of these pressures and all of these challenges. But I think we lose sight, actually, of that piece that we’ve been talking about so much today of– actually, your happiness is really important. And at the end of the day, as you’ve said, being able to study what you enjoy and find some joy in it, and some happiness is going to count for so much more than, you know, sticking with something that makes you miserable because you feel it’s what you should do or what others expect of you. You know, so I just– I really want to thank you, Stephen for this conversation today, which actually has brought me a lot of joy, and it’s been really such a treat to talk to you.
Stephen Ross: Great. Thank you. You know, you were talking, and I was just thinking, I know– it’s Pam on The Office, right? She’s working as a receptionist at the office, year after year after year, but what she really wants to do is become an artist.
Rebecca Gagan: I haven’t seen that show. Does she ever become an artist?
Stephen Ross: She does. That’s one of the nice narrative arcs of that whole thing across whatever it is– nine seasons– is that she eventually sort of gets the confidence to do what makes her happy and to stop being a receptionist and to become an artist and a graphic designer. And you know, the youth will recognize The Office. Jim does the same thing. Jim wants to go into sports promotion, and he doesn’t want to be a paper salesman forever, you know, but it’s about sort of getting to that point where you go, I’m going to do– I’m going to follow, you know, what makes me happy and what brings me joy, even though it’s risky.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. But as you say, those risks they’re worth it.
Stephen Ross: And even if they don’t pay off, you still learn something.
Rebecca Gagan: It’s still growth. It’s still learning. Even if the risk turns out– it doesn’t turn out the way you want it to turn out, and it’s still going to be worth it. It’s still gonna be okay. It’s just, yeah, so …
Stephen Ross: You try stuff. It doesn’t work. You go, “Okay. So, I won’t do it that way next time.”
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. But how else do we learn?
Stephen Ross: That’s right.
Rebecca Gagan: Thanks, Stephen.
Stephen Ross: Thank you very much. That was great, Rebecca.
Rebecca Gagan: Bye for now. In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I interview another member of the UVic Bounce team, Debra Ogilvie, our Communications Assistant. In our conversation that shares her really powerful story of being an undergraduate student and experiencing significant loss and going through a lot of grief and how she dealt with that. And then also the unexpected joy of having her son Grant, while she was an MA student and raising him as an MA student. And Deb shares how she really found her studies to be a place of sanctuary and where she was really able to find meaning and assign meaning to her own story. I really hope that you’ll tune in for this powerful and moving story. 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.