Episode 28: Seeing and Not Seeing Opportunities with Dr. Victoria Wyatt
Victoria Wyatt is an Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Victoria. She teaches courses on responses of Indigenous artists to colonization in North America, and on visual studies and the impact of the Internet. She received the Faculty of Fine Arts Award in Teaching Excellence in 2017 and the Harry Hickman Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching and Educational Leadership in 2020.
"Be open to unexpected opportunities."
Dr. Victoria Wyatt
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. Victoria Wyatt, an Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Victoria. She teaches courses on responses of indigenous artists to colonization in North America and on visual studies and the impact of the internet. Victoria received the faculty of fine arts award in teaching excellence in 2017 and the Harry Hickman Alumni Award for excellence in teaching and educational leadership in 2020. I took so much from this conversation with Victoria, not only about her own experience as an undergrad and as a graduate student who was trying to figure out what interested her and what paths she should take in her career, but also, I took so much from her words about teaching through the pandemic and about the possibilities of online teaching. And indeed, this whole conversation is really about being able to see opportunities and some of the challenges and reasons why it’s really hard for students to see opportunities that are before them and to act on them. We really begin our conversation with Victoria talking about some of the opportunities that she saw in online teaching, namely that it was a chance to really break away from and break out of what she describes as some of the very colonial structures of education, some of the limitations to access that are really built into the current system, and how, while she struggled at first, like so many teachers trying to work with the online platforms, she quickly realized that there were so many opportunities for her as a teacher. And for her students to really do things differently, to learn together differently.
And so, I really found this to be a powerful part of our conversation because I think that we tend to focus on a lot of the ways in which online teaching maybe isn’t working or some of the real challenges of it. And so, this conversation is really about, as I said, about opportunities, and how we can, perhaps as a community of teachers, of learners, really start to look at pathways that are actually these beautiful opportunities to change the systems, to change what isn’t working and as I say, to learn differently. About her own experience as an undergrad and a grad student, Victoria also shares how she struggled, at times, to see opportunities, to take a different path– openings to different courses or different programs, but how she also at times was able to actually recognize and really grasp opportunities that were before her. And even when she was at Yale and feeling a lot of pressure as a graduate student to follow a particular path, Victoria was able to see opportunities for studying a different subject matter and moving into a different program of study.
And so, she shares how she learned to have a kind of patience with herself, to recognize that it was just taking time for her to figure out what she wanted to do and what she wanted to study. And Victoria really reminds us all that there isn’t that kind of timeline that even though we might feel there is such pressure, that students need to know, that they can be patient with themselves and patient with the journey and the process of following up on certain opportunities and seeing where they go and that there will be other opportunities if those aren’t the right ones for them. But being able to see them is also about having this kind of patience, giving yourself that chance to pursue different paths as you move through your undergraduate and graduate career. In our conversation, Victoria shares how hard it can be to be flexible with yourself, to be open to other ideas and other paths, and to open your eyes to opportunities when there is so much pressure to just stay focused on one specific goal. She beautifully reminds us of the power of being able to be patient with yourself and being able to stay open to what might become. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. Victoria Wyatt, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.
Victoria Wyatt: Hello, thank you for inviting me.
Rebecca Gagan: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m so happy that you are able to join us today. How have you been doing?
Victoria Wyatt: Oh, I’ve been doing okay. It’s definitely different times; there was a lot new to learn in this last year. And I actually was really concerned about what the online teaching would be like in the fall. I’m not teaching this term, but in the fall, I was and, in the summer, leading up to it, I was really concerned about what that would be because it’s so important to have a close relationship with the students. I’d never done anything like that before, and I actually ended up loving it.
Rebecca Gagan: Wow. Well, I actually want to hear more about that; if you don’t mind sharing a little bit about what it was about, the online teaching that turned out to be really so fantastic.
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah. Okay. Well, first, I started thinking about what I was losing and obviously, what I expected to lose was that face-to-face intimacy, but what I also was losing was the physical structure of the classroom that I normally taught in, which is a very colonial, hierarchical, Western-oriented educational context with the tiered desks; so people are staring at the backs of people’s heads, I’m at the front of the podium with this distinction between the instructor and everyone else, and it’s just not a welcoming environment. And I began to realize actually I’m freed from that. And that made me start thinking; I have an opportunity here to be freed from some of the other structures too. And maybe instead of meeting twice a week, which we do face-to-face, where I’m the only person the students listening to during that class time, that I could meet once a week and use the time saved to ask the participants to look at resources on the internet in indigenous voices and diverse indigenous voices, and it would make the content so much richer for them and so much– and they would hear from so many different people and so many different perspectives, instead of just listening to me all the time, and so I got to do that, and I really enjoyed it.
Rebecca Gagan: Wow, Victoria, I hadn’t actually thought about the move to online teaching as actually a movement away from certain colonial structures in the classroom. And of course, you’re right; that the way the classroom itself is set up that with you the professor at the front, the students all in rows, or even if it’s in a kind of tiered style, that it’s still that same structure. And so, you’re sharing something that actually I haven’t heard from anyone else yet; that this actually introduced freedom, a kind of freedom from those structures. So even though the certain kind of system is still in place, some aspects of that system could be disrupted. Yeah, I think that it’s really important for you to point this out because one of the things I think that we all feel, of course, and it’s not the case that it’s, you know, that we’re overlooking that right now, in terms of thinking about the way in which online learning can be very challenging, both for instructors and for students, but from your perspective, you’re really sharing about how it was an opening.
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah, it was an opportunity. And it was an opportunity to take advantage of the resources available on the internet, which of course, are there in face-to-face teaching, too, but it’s a matter of students’ time, and if they are expected to be sitting there in the classroom for an additional 80 minutes plus commuting a week, that’s time that they can’t be spending looking at other resources instead of listening to me. So yeah, so that was really great. And then when the class started, I realized the students were interacting and they were discussing, and they were– I didn’t lecture in those sessions, we discussed current events, we discussed materials related to what I’d asked them to be looking at, and then I did make short videos for them to watch offline, not synchronously. And then we’d talk about those two. And yes, there was no reluctance to talk. Some students who ordinarily would not probably speak in a classroom context were leaving their ideas in the chat, which was great. Everybody was equal on the screen. Everybody is in the same square. Some people chose not to have their videos on, which was just fine.
I made that clear that it was fine; some people did. It varied from week to week, but everybody is equal; there’s not this hierarchy that you get in the classroom, and everybody can see the presence, at least, of everybody else. And when videos were on, it was people in their domestic spaces, which is much more relaxed, actually, than everybody lined up in a desk and cats prowling around. And yeah, it was just a friendly atmosphere, cats, as we say, it was just a friendly atmosphere, and then I loved the way that the students used the chat because if somebody made a point in speaking and somebody else thought it was a good point, they’d say that in the chat, or somebody would refer to an article they’d read for another class, and they’d pop the URL in the chat, but what was so different from face-to-face was this affirmation that normally in a face-to-face setting if somebody makes a point and another participant thinks it’s a good point, they probably won’t raise their hand to say that unless they’re going to expand on it.
Rebecca Gagan: Right. They would feel pressure to do so.
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah. Whereas in the chat, people are just saying,” Hey, I hadn’t thought of that.” “That’s really great,” or “thank you.” That really makes me see things in a different way.
Rebecca Gagan: Cause they can just write a quick little note of appreciation that’s also a moment of connection, right?
Victoria Wyatt: It’s a moment of connection. Yeah, exactly, and they’re really getting a sense from their peers that they’re helping each other, and so that was neat. I really liked the poll feature on Zoom. I didn’t use it to see how people are grasping material? It was more “how has your workload in this course compared to others?” so that I could check-in and that way, or for the options I’m presenting, for your commentaries, “are you normally finding ones that are of interest to you?” so I was able to take the temperature that way, and it seemed that people were really interested in what their peers were thinking and experiencing, so that added a dimension to the class that you don’t normally get in face-to-face, they were anonymous, so people didn’t need to worry about that, so it made me feel that I was more able to be in touch with how people were doing and how the course was working for them as we were going along, which was neat.
Rebecca Gagan: So, it sounds to me that, in fact, your own engagement increased; not only did the student’s engagement increase but the way in which you were able to engage with students was even more emphasized, right? That you could have a stronger sense of how they were doing in the classroom, like through the polls and how were they feeling about workload and things like that. Victoria, it really seems as if the joy, and the kind of freedom that you found in online teaching, was very sustaining for you throughout this now-almost year. Was there anything else that really helped you, or has been helping you, to cope with these, you know, these very challenging days?
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah. Well, I should add that it also is a lot more work for the instructors, as well as the students, and in some ways, that helped to cope because there’s always something you need to be doing. There’s always an imperative. There’s no empty time. And so that actually it was difficult to get it all done, but it was actually, I think, actually positive to have something that, you know, there’s always something you need to be doing.
Rebecca Gagan: A focus.
Victoria Wyatt: A focus. Yeah.
Rebecca Gagan: And I think that you go on a certain amount of momentum, but I do think that you know, a focus these days, is very good. My husband is working away at very sort of discreet home reno projects all around our house, and as soon as one is done, he embarks on another. And for him, it’s like, “No, I have to have something.” So something that I can focus my energy on, which I think for students too, and I’ve heard this from other guests, that that’s also a very useful kind of strategy and a method of self-care– to make sure that in addition to school, that there is something else that you can focus on as well that brings you joy, but also, as you say, I think what, Victoria, you’re trying to get at, I think, that work was a kind of focus and a distraction, like a positive distraction for you, even though it was more work, but it allowed you to kind of focus those energies– I guess, in some ways, I feel it’s a focus for this kind of, you know, always bubbling low-level anxiety and uncertainty about the future.
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah. Yes. And something else that was really positive is early on in the last year– I forget exactly what month it started, but some of my classmates from when I was an undergraduate formed a monthly Zoom Coffee– well, they call it a happy hour– most of them are on the east coast, so for me, it’s more a coffee hour, but so we meet once a month, and I think for most of us, it’s a group of maybe about 25 people with a subset of that meeting every month. And for most of us, I think, maybe there are one or two people in the group who we knew quite well. And I graduated in 1977, so we’re going back a ways, and then most of them were people we either just knew as acquaintances or didn’t know at all, but we have the shared experience of this place, and it’s just been wonderful to reconnect, to get to know them as adults, as people near retirement or even retired, and to have this connection once a month, where we’re sharing a part of our lives, that we all, even if we didn’t even know each other, then it’s a part of our lives that we all share and have in common, and points of reference we really care about. And so, during this time, when other connections have been, in some ways, severed, it’s been really nice to be able to do that. I look forward to it.
Rebecca Gagan: Victoria, you have just created the best segue yet, into my next segment of this episode because you have just talked about connecting with your peers from undergrad and reminiscing about your undergrad self. And so, can you tell us a bit more about what it was like for you as a student and maybe share some of your own experiences as an undergrad or as a grad student?
Victoria Wyatt: I went to Kenyon College in Ohio. It’s one of the many small liberal arts residential schools that are prevalent in the US and not so much in Canada. There were only 1,480 students there at the time. So, for, for all entirely undergraduate, so it was very small, and it was also very rural. So, there was literally nothing there, like no movie theatre, there was nothing in the place that happened in less, either the students or the– I’ll call it college cause that’s what it’s called there– or the college made it. And that meant that we were all responsible for our own entertainment, so to speak. There were lots of opportunities for students to get involved, and I was involved in student government. I was involved in organizing a folk festival every year, where we’d bring in groups from around the country. So, lots of responsibility on the part of students to be working in a community, and helping to shape that community for themselves and for other people, and that was part of our educational experience because we also were sharing similar courses and we knew the profs, they all lived in the same town, and yeah, so it was immersive. Let’s put it that way. As it was an unusual type of circumstance, and great that way.
It also meant it was very insular, and this was before the internet, so our connections to the outside world were phone calls to our parents, which we didn’t do a lot because long distance was expensive, letters which took a long time, or if you happened to find a TV in a dorm lounge somewhere and watch the news, which very few people did, so yeah, it was so different from what it would be like today with how easy it is to communicate externally, which meant that our energies and focus were so much on what was happening on that heel, both academically and socially. Yeah, it was a real, immersive experience in what it means to be an active part of a community, where the community members themselves are building the community rather than taking advantage of what happens to be in the city around them.
Rebecca Gagan: So, as you say, so different from the experience of today’s students where there may be a community that predates them, pre-exists them, and certainly the community on the web, right? On the net, on the internet, that through social media and everything else, right? So, as you say, you were really contributing to building it and sustaining it, and creating those connections, really actively, and that you needed to do so in order– it sounds like, in order to even have some entertainment.
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. It’s something besides your studies. So, did you find that, as an undergraduate, you experienced any kinds of challenges or difficulties?
Victoria Wyatt: Definitely. I thought when I went there that I wanted to major in English because I was interested in creative writing. And in fact, Kenyon has a Kenyon Review– still does– it’s well-known for its writing, but this was 1973 when I landed there. And I very quickly realized that actually, the way the writing program was set up, you didn’t even start taking creative writing until you were in your third year, so that was unfortunate. And then I realized that in 1973, what was happening in the discipline of English was this focus on French literary criticism, where it seemed like the main endeavour was to be analyzing these theories about literature, and I was really quickly fairly disillusioned. And I needed to come to terms with that. I also thought that I was interested in law. And I was interested in law because it seemed to me to be a sort of career where– and this sounds so silly looking back, speaking of it retroactively– but it seemed to be the sort of career where you could connect it to almost anything you were interested in.
So, if you’re interested in environmental, which I was, you could go into environmental law, we’re interested in anything– you’re injured– and you know, what I should have realized in retrospect was if you’re interested in something, maybe that’s what you should go into, instead of trying to go into something that will enable you to connect to it. But at any rate, I didn’t see that at the time, so I had a couple of like, “what am I going to do?” I realized that I wasn’t attracted to the English as it was there, and I also realized that I wasn’t attracted to law. I took a course on constitutional law, and no. And so, I was feeling a little bit at sea. Like these plans that I thought I had –and that I thought I had for good reasons– were not yet, and I realized I was taking history courses. I really liked them. And I began to realize that what had attracted me about English was the human stories, and I was finding those more in the history context than I was in the English context, so I ended up deciding that I would switch majors. I was still interested in law and had to come to terms with over the next year or so, that actually no, a good reason to go into something is because you’re interested in it, and not because it might help you connect to something that you think you’re interested in, so I had to do that, and it was partly a function of needing to realize that it was alright to shift from what I thought was going to be the path. It is alright to reconsider that, to not consider it a failure that I had realized, that it wasn’t the path for me, and to look around for what are the other opportunities that are here? It wasn’t so much a matter of making opportunities, which I didn’t really have the experience to do, but more looking around and realizing that actually what attracted me to English was resonant there in the history I was taking, and that’s why I liked the history so much, sort of looking for what are the opportunities that are out there and how can I realize that there are some resonance with those.
Rebecca Gagan: And so, did you end up studying history?
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah, I ended up majoring in history, but the instructor, whose approach I really liked, was doing European intellectual history, and so that’s what I majored in. I did my honours paper on that, and when I went off to graduate school, I was going to study European intellectual history, and I landed there and hated it. At Kenyon, we have been reading primary sources and discussing those people and the relationship between their ideas and the societies they were living in, and the people who were in those societies and I got to Yale, and it was all in European intellectual history. This historian had said about what that historian has said about what a third historian has said that John Stewart Will May had said on page 22 of, on Liberty, it was intellectual chess games, and I hated it. And so, that first year in grad school was really demoralizing, and I kind of went through the same process of realizing that it wasn’t going to work for me and looking around for other opportunities, and I was hugely fortunate that the place I was at, had a very strong program in history of the Canadian and American West. And this was what I was really interested in, and what should have tipped me off to that, but didn’t, was before I went to grad school I had been working in the summers during my first three years as an undergrad, and I wanted to do something fun before I went off to grad school, and so instead of thinking well, I’ll spend the summer reading European intellectual history, I thought I will spend this summer trying to do something in Victoria, BC– I was living in Washington, DC area at the time. I will try to do something in Victoria, BC, where my grandparents had lived, so I been coming here all my life that relates to Northwest Coast Indigenous Arts, which I loved.
And I spent the summer in the archives at the Royal BC Museum reading the field notes of a collector, CF Newcomb, who had been collecting among the Haida in primarily, Haidaguaen Southeast Alaska around 1901-ish. And that really should have tipped me off; that if that was my idea of fun, maybe I was pursuing the wrong field in grad school, but it didn’t until I got there and saw what European Intellectual history was like. And there, I was just by complete serendipity, at a place that had a strong focus in history of the Canadian and American West, and so I was able to make that shift, and I ended up working on ways that Indigenous peoples in Southeast Alaska had responded very creatively and with resilience to all the impressions of colonialism, for 1867 to 1912. And so that included looking at economics, it included looking at art markets, looking at responses to missionary activities and education policy, it looked at a range of different areas and was so different from what I thought I was going to do when I tried it off to… yeah.
Rebecca Gagan: Just to finish your story before I respond. So how did you then end up, like, how did you come to UVic?
Victoria Wyatt: Oh, how did I end up in Art History?
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. I’m trying to, in my head. I’m trying to think, but I’m pretty sure she does art history.
Victoria Wyatt: I didn’t do art history. I’ve never taken an art history course in my life. Yeah. What happened was back when I was an undergrad and grad student, if you were interested in indigenous arts, you weren’t taking art history, you were taking anthropology because– and you certainly weren’t taking history– the way that Indigenous history was treated at the time was the history of military, you know, Western military history, as it involved oppression of indigenous peoples or missionary history, education history as it involved indigenous peoples and colonialism. There was not opportunity to be looking at history of Indigenous peoples and many, many other non-settler groups from their own experiences and the point of view of how they shoehorn into what a colonialist were doing to them. And that wasn’t very attractive to me. So, I had never studied, even though I loved Northwest coast Indigenous arts, my parents had collected contemporary arts when I was growing up, and I’d grown up with it. I had never wanted to study it formally because of all of that, and at history at the time, too, visual resources, anything non-written was considered almost popularizing. If you wanted to publish an academic paper and you had based your argument on a visual resource for which you needed a photograph, you couldn’t get into a journal that was considered serious; you would have to get into a journal that was considered coffee table or popular quote-unquote. I don’t like those hierarchies, but they existed then as they do now, and it would be seen as, if you’re using a photograph, it would be seen as a sort of entertainment. And so, it was very difficult to be working with the sorts of forces that actually spoke in Indigenous voices at that time because, as historians, we were supposed to be working with written text, and those were primarily left. Nevertheless, I really wanted to do that, and so I got into looking at artworks and way that the artwork’s reflective responses to colonizers. I looked at oral history. I did oral history. I looked at historical photographs, which, if one is very careful and has the right conditions, may give you some glimpse of the experiences of the subjects. And in some cases, mirror cases actually were taken by Indigenous photographers. And so, I got this opportunity, there was a chance, and I didn’t make it, but I noticed it. There was a chance to do an exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum that I could curate on ways that artists, in the Northwest coast, Indigenous artists had responded with creativity and resilience to oppression of colonization. And so, I did. And —
Rebecca Gagan: What year was this?
Victoria Wyatt: When did that come out? I was in grad school from 77 to 85, the early eighties, maybe 1980, something like that. I got a grant where I could travel around to museums and just choose from their collections what I wanted to display and organize, so it was a great opportunity. And the reason it relates to your question is that a catalogue came out of it, which was also complete serendipity of the person who was in name only, the curator, because, in those days, you couldn’t possibly have a graduate student to be listed as a curator, so there was a, yeah, he happened to be sitting on an airplane next to the editor of the University of Oklahoma Press, and by the time the plane landed, we had a catalogue, so.
Rebecca Gagan: Back in the day, when those conversations could happen on planes.
Victoria Wyatt: And so, there was a publication that came out of that exhibit, and that enabled me to apply for positions in art history because here I was with a publication showing that actually, it was legitimate. And I wouldn’t have been able, it would’ve been much harder in a historical context to be working with the art, and even in those days with the oral history, which was still somewhat, considered somewhat, less legitimate than a written text, so that was how I sort of slipped into art history. I had a job first at the University of Washington in their school of art, and after three years, they came up here in Victoria, and I really wanted to spend my life here, so.
Rebecca Gagan: I find that such a fascinating story for many reasons, but I think that for students listening, it strikes me as just so valuable for them to hear about your process, Victoria. Like just how you– it started with well, I’m not sure that post-structuralism is for me in terms of English and studying literary theory. Not sure that interests me and then starting to shift into thinking about, maybe law and then finding a place in history, but then history ultimately ended up taking you down another path and that, you had to make not just one shift, but many shifts. For example, as you say, when you went to Yale and realized the actually, I don’t want to do European intellectuals, I hate this, and that, you refer to it as having your eyes open to opportunities. So seeing opportunities, and sometimes, as you say, not seeing them; that you are still single-minded about certain aspects of your own future, and your own interests, that you couldn’t see, but you did do something, which I think is so important for students to at least try to do, which is, I think, to– it was like you were filtering, or kind of working out, where your interests resided, and then how could you maybe just try to experiment and try that out and see what that fit was like and that it sounds like you were open-minded enough, even if you still couldn’t really see your way through to, you know, a direct path to what you wanted, but you were open-minded enough that you tried things.
That’s what it sounds like to me– is that you really– you try things. Like even talking about that, you know, the piece where you went to Victoria and then the archive– like you did that, that you thought we’ll just gonna try something. You had family who had lived there. And so, it felt familiar to you, but you still risked something– like to just to try that. And then, that came back to you; that experience resonated but stayed with you and guided some of your other sort of decisions, I guess. And so, I think it’s, as you say, in retrospect, you can see how one thing led to another, but at the time, it’s hard to see that. So, I guess I’m just wondering what advice you might offer to students about being able to get into that space of being open to trying and to shifting out of perhaps an idea that you had about how your life is going.
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah. I think it’s important if things don’t appear to be what you had hoped– to try to identify what had interested you about what you had wanted to do and to see whether you can find that element somewhere else so that you’re not losing; it’s not like a complete package where you’re discarding it, and that also is discarding what attracted you to it in the first place, or what you thought it would be attractive, but instead, you’re retaining that and just seeing where you might be able to plug it in somewhere else. So, I think it’s partly that. I also– there’s a fair amount of patience required; that it may take some time and sometimes time is luxury, but it can be, you know, if someone needs to take some time off and just be working while one looks for opportunities or figures things out more that’s not wasted time– it’s not a race as long as one has what one needs to live. That’s a fruitful time, too. And I think that’s fine to do.
Rebecca Gagan: So, having some patience with yourself, and I’m just curious, hearing you talk about going to Yale, which I’m sure Yale was then, still what it is now, in terms of this very prestigious school and you found yourself there really disliking what you were studying. And so, I can’t help but wonder what that was like for you, and I appreciate, absolutely, and I think it’s so valuable to think about having patience, but I’m just wondering if you were impatient then?
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah, it was difficult. And at one point, I had just thought, “okay, I’ll just try to get through this as fast as I possibly can.” It’ll be the earliest I can graduate this in four years. I’ll just keep my head down work hard for years. I’ll be out of here. And no, I realized that wasn’t a solution, that it, yeah, I just needed to. I needed to make a change. And then, I wasn’t sure what to change to; that I hadn’t really clicked in that that there was this– I wasn’t taking a course at the time from the professor who worked in– or the two professors– who worked in Canadian and American West. And so that you would think it would leap out at me as what I should change do, and it didn’t. I was taking a course from a professor I really liked to do, colonial history, American colonial history, so I thought, well, maybe I should try to work with them along with 1800 other people. And when I got to Yale, I had made a point of meeting graduate students who were farther along cause I thought that would be helpful in getting a sense of the lay of the land, and indeed it was. I had just run into one when I was in the graduate office for history and introduced myself, and he introduced me to some of his friends, and they were about to go out to lunch. I went with them, and so I had gotten to know some more experienced grad students, and when I was having this crisis, I was talking about it to one of them, and he said, “colonial history, there are 1800 other people doing that.” He said, “do I have an advisor for you.” And so, he said, “we have this great advisor who does History of American West and this other one who does History of Canadian West, and obviously that’s what you should do.” And, of course, he was right. And I don’t know if I would have reached that conclusion myself because I didn’t really have my radar out for– I wasn’t taking a course from that instructor. I didn’t really know about them, so that was a situation where I knew about the opportunity because of having gone out of my way to try to meet people who would be more experienced in that context.
Rebecca Gagan: So, it wasn’t just serendipity in the sense that– I mean, yes, it was serendipitous that this peer, your classmate shared this more senior student, but you both you were open-minded to opportunities when they came your way, but you also created them by making those connections.
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah. And I’m surprised that I did make those connections because I actually am really shy. And then the other thing is, the advice I would have is don’t worry that much about prestige if something is right for you. And the example I have is that when I needed to get this switch from European intellectual history to history of American Canadian West approved, of course. And you had to be approved by the grad advisor. The graduate secretary, who I think wasn’t sure whether or not there would be a problem, introduced me to him by saying, “this is Victoria Wyatt. She wants to switch from intellectual history to history American Canadian West.” And considering that we once had a student who, and she laid out a much bigger shift than that, “I’m sure there won’t be a problem.” And then she walks away, and the advisor had to save face somehow, so having just been instructed of what he had to do. So, his answer to me was, “I see you want to switch from the study of intellectual history to the study of a region that never has had, and never will have an intellectual history.” I said, “yes.” Yeah, so, you know, if it’s right for you, don’t worry about that other stuff.
Rebecca Gagan: And I think by prestige, it can also be thinking about not just prestige of working with a particular supervisor, but the prestige of thinking about the field, as you say, you might be going into, or the career that you might have, that if that is the piece that’s guiding you, it can take you very much away from your passions and what you are interested in, and then lead you down a path that may make you quite unhappy because it’s, you know, you’re pursuing it for perhaps some of the wrong reasons. And the other thing that I see as, or that I’m hearing is, just really important, here, Victoria, is that: you’ve talked about taking pieces, like trying to reflect on what it is that you connected to in a particular course or a particular field of study, and even when you talk about your experience at Yale, it wasn’t that you just– when you realized that it wasn’t what you wanted–you didn’t just dump the whole thing in terms of walking away from Yale. And likewise, in your undergrad, you didn’t just completely abandoned the course altogether, that what you also have just shared, I think, is that there is a way you can make it work for you. It just, as you say, it takes patience, but it’s about trying to tap into the parts that you like and move away from the things that don’t interest you, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw the baby out with the bathwater– to use a terrible expression. That you can find a way through all of those cases you did, right? Like you found a path– it wasn’t a straight path, but it seldom is. It seldom is this straight line from point A to point B. And that you find your way by sometimes circling back or going off in these directions, but you don’t have to just get rid of everything; that all is not lost– that you just need some patience with yourself and having your eyes open to some opportunities. And it sounds to me like that’s what you were able to really embrace in your whole trajectory that you had, that kind of spirit of, “okay, I’m going to try to figure this out.”
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah. I think that what surprises me when I look back on it is how many points along the way. I feel that something should have been obvious to me at the time that is only obvious retroactively. It’s sort of like, oh my gosh, I’m so glad that I eventually realized because it wasn’t from analyzing this, you know, choosing to have fun by doing something other than studying what I was going to grad school to study. That should have been a clue. That sort of thing. Yeah, that you can’t always expect that things will be really clear at the time you’re going through them. They may be clear later, and you may think, oh my gosh, why didn’t I see that at the time, but when you’re going through things, there are so many factors and so many emotions that you’re dealing with and yeah, so it’s really important if one dislikes a situation, also to think why am I here? What did I think I would like? And how can I take that and just move it somewhere else, move it in a different way?
Rebecca Gagan: And just make those shifts, and so that absolutely, that there’s a way of finding–even in a situation where– and as you say, it seldom is clear when you’re going through it– and so you’re just doing the best that you can, I think, as you described just so powerfully is that, you’re just doing the best you can to try to figure out what’s working, what maybe isn’t. And most importantly, having that patience to give yourself the time to figure it out, if there is the– if it is a luxury.
Victoria Wyatt: You know, I acknowledged that is a luxury, but if one can, with what needs the time, and can make it, that it’s fine to do that. There’s nothing that says you have to get through university in 4 years.
Rebecca Gagan: That’s right. And absolutely. I think we both understand the financial pressures that students experience to really expedite their education to get it finished because there are loans, there are jobs. There are so many pressures on students right now. And I guess, I think even if there’s a way in which a student can open up, even just a little bit of time for themselves to hit pause, in some capacity, to be able to think a bit about the path and if there is a different path that they might want to follow.
Victoria Wyatt: Yeah, exactly.
Rebecca Gagan: Victoria, it has really been so enlightening talking to you today, you know, everything from thinking about some of the real positives of online learning in disrupting systems and colonial systems, and you know, just our conversation here about the very windy path to– and the many shifts that are required to find what’s working for you and to find your way. And I just was so interested in hearing your story, so thank you so much for sharing it.
Victoria Wyatt: In the sort of not expecting path and realizing it– when I first thought about becoming a university professor, I thought that’s not for me because as I mentioned to you, I am very shy, and the thought of being there, it just didn’t seem like a good career for someone who is shy in that way. And I actually love it. And I realized, in retrospect, that that element that I mentioned had made me, like history and creative writing, that sense of connection with human stories; that as a professor, when has the opportunity to get to know so many students and to learn from them, it’s not delivering a package of knowledge to somebody else, like a commodity; It’s a relationship. So that it has sustained me throughout my career to have so many wonderful students who have wanted to have that type of engagement, and it turned out to be just exactly the right career for somebody who is interested in connecting with human lives and human stories, but I never ever would have thought that being a quiet shy person who didn’t like being center stage and I needed to put that aside as I was looking at career paths. And yeah. So again, be open to an unexpected opportunity.
Rebecca Gagan: And as you say, the consistent thread in your story is an interest in people and an interest in their stories, right? That’s what has been the guiding thread through every move you made to the point that you’re at now. And I think, similarly, I’ve reflected a lot on what I enjoy doing and so much of that for me, for teaching, exactly, is about being in relation with my students, at being in relation with my community here that sustains me. And it’s the stories. And that’s also in part why we’ve been having this conversation because we know that as Thomas King says, “stories are all that we are,” and so it’s really important to share them and to be able to reflect on them. So, thank you so much for sharing yours today, Victoria.
Victoria Wyatt: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
Rebecca Gagan: Bye for now.
In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Andrew Murray, an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of English here at UVic. And just in time for back to school, Andrew shares his own thoughts on how to do university. Andrew talks about how he struggled to figure out how to really do university, how to organize and manage all of the aspects of university life in his first year. If you are starting at UVic in the fall, or even if you’re a more senior student, you’re not going to want to miss this episode with Andrew Murray. 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.