Episode 29: Learning "How to University" with Andrew Murray
Andrew Murray came to UVic in 1990 to do an MA. After beginning a PhD in 1992, he gradually morphed into a sessional instructor and then a continuing sessional. He taught his first class for the English Department in Fall 1995 and has been teaching ever since. In 2014, Andrew was hired as an Assistant Teaching Professor with his primary responsibilities being in the Division of Academic Writing, now the Academic and Technical Writing Program. Andrew’s doctoral dissertation was on representations of reading in Chaucer, but his primary focus now is teaching, particularly ATWP 101, ATWP 135 and ENGL 146 and ENGL 200A. Andrew brings energy, enthusiasm, and kindness to every class he teaches. His interests include Chaucer, the pedagogy of teaching writing and literature, contemporary fiction in English, and the Arsenal Football Club.
"Students may feel that they are genuinely the only ones who are lost and that is very infrequently the case."
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 Andrew Murray. Andrew came to UVic in 1990 to complete an MA. After beginning a PhD in 1992, he gradually morphed into a sessional instructor and then a continuing sessional. He taught his first class for the English department in the fall of 1995 and has been teaching at UVic ever since. In 2014, Andrew was hired as an Assistant Teaching Professor, with his primary responsibilities being in the division of academic writing, now the academic and technical writing program.
Andrew’s doctoral dissertation was on representations of reading in Chaucer, but his primary focus now is on teaching, particularly ATWP 101, ATWP 135, and ENGL 146 and ENGL 200A. Andrew brings energy, enthusiasm, and kindness to every class that he teaches. His interests include Chaucer, the pedagogy of teaching, writing, and literature, contemporary fiction in English, and the Arsenal football club.
In our conversation, Andrew shares his own experience of making the, often really challenging and a tricky, sometimes overwhelming, transition from high school into university. And he talks about that transition as “How to University,” and this is a phrase that he learned from one of our new colleagues in the ATWP here at UVic. And it’s one which I think is so powerful in terms of thinking about that transition to university as one that is so much more than just picking courses and figuring out your major and understanding how to perform. In your classes at the university level, the phrase “How to University” really gets at, I think, those complexities of making that transition that really requires adjustments and adaptations, and a kind of openness to change in all areas of your life as you move from high school into this new environment. And so, Andrew shares some of the challenges that he had some of the assumptions that he brought with him to university about his own skills his aptitudes, and he talks about how he was really inclined to, sort of, take courses that he knew he was good at that he found easy and that if something was hard, then perhaps it wasn’t meant to be, that he shouldn’t pursue it and how he really came to unravel those assumptions. Andrew also talks a lot about how he came to realize that there was support available to him, that he could access all of the support that the university provided so that he could be successful so that he could thrive on campus. The conversation really couldn’t come at a better time as we are all faculty and students alike, starting to really prepare for the transition back to campus.
And for some students, this will be their first time on campus, the first time at UVic, even if it’s their second year. So, in many ways, it’s like making that transition to first year again, in some ways. And for all of us, it’s a return to campus, a big transition when we’ve been off-line and off-campus. So there’s lots of transitions and adjustments that we’ll all be making. And I think that this conversation is so timely and so powerful because it really gets at how significant the transition to post-secondary really is for a student, how there is so much involved that takes in really, the whole student and not just that part of them that, you know, sits in a class and studies. I think part of what Andrew shares here is that, if you are thinking about “How to University,” a crucial part of that is preparing for some of the challenges that you will inevitably experience. And not just preparing by getting your books and thinking about your courses, but also preparing by really trying to think about what kinds of supports you can put in place for yourself, what supports are available for you once you come to campus; whether those are through counselling, through peer support, through the center for academic communication, that there are so many supports to take advantage of, not at a crisis point, not later in your degree, but really the minute that you start to hit campus. Andrew and I both primarily teach first-year students, and so we get to bear witness to and try to offer our support to students as they navigate both the joys and challenges of “How to University.” I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today, with Andrew Murray. And this is Waving, Not Drowning.
Hi, Andrew. It’s really such a pleasure to have you here today for this conversation. I know that we are friends, and so we typically, friends and colleagues, tend to see each other quite a lot on campus and pop into each other’s office and have a chance to talk. But sadly, that has not been the case for a long time. And I’ve missed talking to you, and I’m wondering how you’re doing.
Andrew Murray: I’m doing better than I thought. I was thinking I was going to write an email to my students from this time last year cause March 13th was the last time I saw them, so I thought on a year anniversary, maybe I’ll just write an email to each of those classes. I mean, it’s not been as difficult to adapt as I suspected, I’ve found the professional challenges much more daunting than the personal ones. So, Emily and I are getting along fine at home and living. I mean, she’s not used to having me around all the time, so she’s had to adjust, but it’s really going quite well. And it’s mostly been the technical side of work and managing all the net new technologies that has proved stressful for me, honestly. I miss going out and doing things and seeing people; I miss seeing you in the hallways. I go to UVic once every ten days or so to water my plants, and Richard is always there, so I always talk to him cause he’s on study leave and he’s just working there, but there’s not a lot of people around, for sure.
Rebecca Gagan: I keep thinking, oh, I’m going to go up there, and I’ve only honestly been up there a handful of times since, wow, as you say, a year ago, really. Almost to the day since we had the initial pivot and shut down, and I love this idea of you reaching out to you’re thinking about reaching out to your students on an anniversary that no one wants to celebrate. But to, I guess I’m imagining that you were wanting to touch base with them to see how they’ve been doing.
Andrew Murray: Yeah. Just to say, you know, we were robbed of the last three weeks of our class, really, and some of the classes were going really well, and so there’s genuine sadness there. And, ever since then, the classes I’ve taught, there was no expectation of the same kind of in-person experience. So it’s slightly different to me; the feeling of that interruption as something that I would like to address. So, I think I will do that. I don’t expect them to write back. I just want them to know here we are a year later on; I hope you’re well, and I’m still sad that we lost some time together. No more than that, really.
Rebecca Gagan: I was thinking, too, in the same way, I was thinking about some of my students from this time last year and how there was such really this kind of abrupt end, and I was just seeing a headline of an article today that was talking about the hopefulness around vaccinations. Hopefully, soon coming to an end of the pandemic, but the article was signalling that people needed a time to grieve, and I was thinking about loss and, you’ve registered this as well, and thinking about writing to your students, really. What you’re pointing to is that they would have felt more acutely than students who have been working all along in this online environment, a certain kind of loss, of a kind of experience. And I think this article was getting at, obviously, the loss of life, but also the other ways in which we’ve had to grieve certain experiences. And I think students have really felt that. And certainly, I think we’ve all been feeling that in different ways and to different degrees. And so, I was at a workshop recently where somebody was just referencing the idea that we were all in the same storm like we’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat, that we have–
Andrew Murray: I was there, too!
Rebecca Gagan: Oh, that’s right. You were there! The Toronto workshop, yeah.
Andrew Murray: I hadn’t heard that before, but it’s definitely a good metaphor.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so for it. See, we have seen each other more recently, and I’m forgetting, I guess, it just is you know, it’s mediated by– it’s not the same. It’s not the same as seeing each other.
Andrew Murray: I had my camera off a lot for that meeting because I was doing lots of other things, so it wasn’t like I felt as present as usual because usually, I keep my camera on, but I didn’t that day.
Rebecca Gagan: And I think that we understand, as faculty attending these kinds of meetings, you know, how students are also juggling with all of the reasons why they would keep their camera off. That I think like you, we encourage students to turn it on if they feel comfortable and able to do but, certainly we understand why they might not do that. And that that’s perfectly okay. Well, it’s certainly nice to have another chance to talk to Andrew, even if it’s mediated by Zoom. So, you know that I’ve asked you here today because– not just because I’m calling on all of my friends to see you in podcast interviews, but because even though you’ll be very shy about this. You are a beloved instructor of first-year English courses, in both the English department and the ATWP program, and you also know that balance is all about really trying to de-stigmatize experiences of challenge and difficulty by having– and also really bridging the distance, I think, between faculty and students. So, by having faculty share some of their stories about being a student, and particularly stories in which they experienced challenging difficulty. I’m hoping that you’ll share some of your story. I know a little bit of it, but not all of it, and you don’t have to tell us all of it, but I’m hoping you’ll share some words about your own experiences as a student.
Andrew Murray: Okay. Yeah, happy to. I think I thought about this, knowing the question was coming in. What I was struck by was something that would date, as a starting point, back to high school and then reflect on my early undergraduate experiences as a consequence. So, I went to a small country high school. I don’t think anybody that ever went to that high school got into a good university or anything like nobody was aiming for Harvard or something like that. And my dad said, yeah, just have a good time, don’t bother. And so, I did. I had a great time. I loved high school, but I realized like halfway through grade 12, I want to go to university, but I haven’t applied myself or anything.
So I thought, no danger, I’ll just crush the provincial exams, and I’ll get a late admission to the University of Regina. I grew up in Saskatchewan. Then toward the end of grade 12, like in maybe May, this would be 1985, I was playing a game of murder tennis with my friends. And murder tennis is like dodge ball on a tennis court, where you just hit the tennis ball really hard at your opponents, and if you hit them with it, they’re out. And I was bending down to pick up a ball to serve at my opponents. We were just whacking them back and forth inside a gym with tennis nets up. And as I stood up, my good friend, Darren Paulus, hit a hard serve, and it hit me square in the eye socket, so I went down like I’d been punched, and we thought he’s okay. And then that night I went to a party and this friend of mine said, “your eye is all full of blood. You should probably take a look at that.” And it was true, I looked in the car rearview mirror, and my eye was bright red. And so, I thought I’d better go home. And my parents took a look at me and said, “you’re going to emergency.”
And they were right. I had ruptured my eye socket. I almost lost that eye, and I had to go immediately from emergency into long-term care. And I had to lie very still so that the blood would drain and the eye would heal. I mean, the consequence of that story is I never wrote the provincial final exams, so I never got a chance to boost my grades. So I graduated from grade 12 with like B minus C plus marks because I never applied myself. Like I knew I wasn’t stupid. I just followed my dad’s advice, “don’t worry about it. “Which wasn’t good advice. The thing is he was an educator himself, and he was like, “yeah, high school. You never use that anyway.” So, I spent most of the second half of May and part of June in hospital, and I got the provincial discharge. So, I graduate from high school, and then I thought, well, “I can’t go to university. I’ll just get a job. I’ll do a gap year,” which I did. But that meant when I got to university in 1986; I didn’t know; like I heard this phrase the other day, I didn’t know “How to University.” I didn’t know how to study, how to apply myself. And so, I really struggled in that first year with the demands of university-level writing and thought, and my marks were all over the place, even in English, which obviously I regard it as a strength. I can remember getting really low marks on quizzes and early assignments because I didn’t know how to do them properly. I haven’t taken my education seriously, and so I started on the back foot as it were, like reacting to things and not knowing how to proceed. And I didn’t know– you know, Homer Simpson said one time that “if something doesn’t come to you right away easily, you shouldn’t do.”
And I kind of lived by that philosophy as a young person. So, I couldn’t get algebra, so I didn’t do it. And then you get to university, and there’s all kinds of things that you can’t do. So those notion– those assignments that you can’t do in an hour, where you have to do sustained research work and build arguments and go back and forth, I just couldn’t do those. I didn’t have the stamina or the toolkit. So, to me, that was the big challenge is learning “How to University,” and it took me a semester or two. And in those days, I had a very sympathetic, very intelligent girlfriend who tried to help, but she would throw up her hands in despair. Sometimes she would get mad at me because I couldn’t spell the different layers, you know. She was like, “you really need to learn spelling.”
Rebecca Gagan: She didn’t caution you that perhaps you shouldn’t take advice for life from Homer Simpson?
Andrew Murray: This is retroactive because Homer said that after I– I just remember it really resonating me, you know because if something doesn’t come to you easily, it’s not worth doing. And the other thing I always loved that Homer said is “nothing is more important than being popular.” And, you know, I think those are really good things to live by anyway.
Rebecca Gagan: I’ll just say that my kids have watched, in this pandemic, 30 seasons of The Simpsons, and now I think, “am I a bad parent that I let that happen?” And now, almost every reference, every word, that comes out of their mouth, is wisdom from Homer’s. I’m thinking, “oh maybe, there is a lot there that we should listen to,” but I’ve also never heard the phrase Andrew which is surprising to me; “Learning How to University,” is it kind of like adulting?
Andrew Murray: Yeah.
Rebecca Gagan: It’s an interesting phrase. Like, I’ve never heard that, but it is so apt. It really does make sense because, of course, that’s the piece that students–you think you might be coming to university to study chemistry or psychology or English, but actually the very first thing you have to do, and you do it all the way through, is to figure out “How to University.”
Anthony Murray: Yeah, I learned it from–I’m on a hiring committee right now– and I learned it in one of the job interviews from one of the candidates. I’ve not heard it before, but I think, Rebecca, it speaks to both of us because one of the things you do in smaller first year courses, like the ones we teach, is help students figure out “How to University,” right? This is what’s expected of you. This is how you do research. This is how you go to office hours. This is how you write an email to a professor. You don’t start with “hey dude,” or “yo,” you need to learn those genres of communication. And so, saying how to university makes sense. And yeah, my point is I had no idea. Like I had less of an idea then, I think, most of my peers did at that time.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, I was talking to another guest who was saying that trying to learn university or do university, like what’s the phrase again?
Andrew Murray: “How to University.”
Rebecca Gagan: So, trying to figure out “How to University” during the pandemic has been just, you know, adds this extra level of difficulty, right? Because one of the things we were talking about, and this episode has an aired yet, but we were just discussing how students had to figure it out really very much on their own and not in the context of like your class or, let’s say my class or all of the classes that actually work to help cultivate those skills; how to do how to try to do it and with really wacky routines and all of this. So I think, something that I’ve been saying to my students, too, is to remember that they– that the context is off, and so they’re not being able to have a chance to develop those skills in certain ways that would work in the actual context of being face-to-face and having a more normal routine.
Andrew Murray: Yeah, that they’re going to have to learn “How to University” twice. They had to learn “How to University” on Brightspace, and then they’re going to have to learn “How to University” on campus.
Rebecca Gagan: So, Andrew, what did you do? Like how, so it sounds like you had some well-meaning advice not just retroactively from Bart Simpson, but from your girlfriend who, was trying to help and you were getting, as you say, like lots of different pieces of advice and guidance, not all of it useful, like what did you do to try to figure things out or what happened?
Andrew Murray: My advice and this is what I did was I started to seek out resources; like my professor said, “if you don’t understand this, come to office hours.” So I would go to office hours. And, you know, in first year you have bigger classes with TAs, and I had some really helpful TAs. I had a really helpful grammar TA and a really helpful TA in my psychology course. And I just sought them out and said, “look, I don’t really understand this, or here’s– what can you do to help me over this?” I think now, and I must say, that the avenues toward resources, not just in COVID times, but period, there are more choices for students. Universities, I think, are much more conscious of that need and much more motivated; I think, to make students aware of resources, you kind of have to seek them out. When I was young, and you still do, but the avenues are maybe a little smoother, so that was my approach was that I don’t know what I’m doing in certain circumstances, so I went and sought help from the people who did know what they were doing. And then, invariably, that was good. And that girlfriend, I mentioned, she was in her second year. Like she started the year before me, so she was, she was like a peer, but a resource too, that said things like “you shouldn’t just sit there with your book closed,” you should look at the blackboard when the professor is writing.
Rebecca Gagan: You really were pretty lost, Andrew.
Andrew Murray: Yeah, like I said, I think the things I liked had come easily to me, and then, all of a sudden, nothing was coming easily. And yeah, so I needed that guidance and advice, and I really applied myself. I didn’t apply myself in high school. So, I had to prove in a way that I had it in me to do these things. I mean, my trajectory was a positive one, but the beginning parts were the rocky parts, for sure.
Rebecca Gagan: But I think you’re getting at something that’s really fundamental, that, you know, in really not following Homer Simpson’s advice. That it can really feel as if when something doesn’t come easily, that oh, then that’s not my path, it’s I’m not meant to do that because I really have to work being good at this. And I think, especially as you say, coming out of high school where maybe there are strengths that are very obvious, right. Or that maybe you didn’t have to work that hard at certain things, to be, to be good at it. And then suddenly you’re in university, and it’s like, “Holy smokes,” everything I’m doing– it feels challenging. And what you did, Andrew, it sounds to me is that you really eventually went against that advice, too, to just well surrender because it’s not coming easily and you sought out like you did also the work of getting help, to like ask TAs, ask your professors and that it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, or it’s not for you because it’s tough; it’s a different kind– as you say, it’s all part of trying to figure out “How to do University.”
Andrew Murray: Yeah. Yeah. That’s the truth. It is an important lesson to learn. I mean, if I had stuck by my principle of, if I can’t do it easily, I won’t do it, then I’m I wouldn’t have graduated because I would have avoided all kinds of courses that I had to take to get my degree. You know, I wouldn’t have learned it. This is the library back in the days of card catalogues and, wandering around the stacks, looking for books, and I didn’t know how to do those things. Not that they’re difficult, but you still have to learn and then you have to apply the knowledge. And so, yeah, I don’t want to leave the impression that that advice from Homer is something we should follow in our lives. The reward comes with the sense of achieving something difficult that maybe you weren’t sure you could do when you started, but you apply yourself and be patient with yourself, and you know, you experience success. Not always, but a lot of the time.
Rebecca Gagan: I mean, I think that it can be the case that absolutely you’ll put in a ton of effort and that assignment still might not be a success, but I think that the point that it’s really trying to not feel also that, somehow if you’re finding it hard, that you might be the only one finding it hard and that you need to just somehow, grit your teeth and just figure out on your own how to do it. And I think you’re quite right, that unlike when you and I went through undergrad, I think the availability of resources now is, you know, there’s just so many more, but also at least I’d like to think, and I feel this is the case that. Accessing support is now understood, I think, as a key piece of doing university, right?
That it isn’t the case that anybody is expecting students to just like try to figure it out on their own, and my wager is that when that is the feeling; so, the feeling that it doesn’t come easy. So, and this is really hard, so, therefore, it’s not for me, but also that there must be something wrong with like how I’m doing this or something wrong with me that all of these other students and I’m sure, like me, you hear this from other students a lot, right? Why is it that other students seem to understand what’s going on or seem to be able to, you know, write this beautiful prose, these wonderful essays, and I can’t. And I always say to students that well, that can be the perception, but it’s not the reality that so many students are finding themselves struggling. And they also feel that they must be the only ones.
Andrew Murray: Yeah, one interesting phenomenon of online teaching is the use of discussion boards as places where students can ask for help. And there is a reluctance sometimes to admit to a difficulty on a public forum that your peers can read. And I understand why because those students might think I’m the only one who can’t figure this out, so I would be much more comfortable approaching the professor directly rather than admitting to my ignorance on this public discussion forum. And in point of fact, as you just said, the public admission would be reassuring to peers who also don’t know what’s going on and would value the same answer. So I don’t mean that as a criticism of students; I totally understand. They’re more likely if they’re genuinely confused to want to seek you out as an individual professor, but that’s a sort of thing in relation to discussion forums that I hadn’t thought of before, was that it’s a fairly big step to admit your ignorance publicly or your uncertainty. And in these kind of fragile times, that might be a step that people reasonably are not willing to make. But it does, it reflects a kind of sense that students may, as you say, feel that they are genuinely the only ones who are lost, and that is very infrequently the case.
Rebecca Gagan: Yes. And I think as teachers of large first-year classes, we can speak with–at least, I feel I can with complete certainty that many students are feeling– if you’re feeling lost or, you know, you’re not understanding what’s going on, so are so many other students. And I think that you know, certainly from hearing you talk today, Andrew, it’s very clear that we do understand what that experience is like, and you’ve offered really some just really helpful words here around how to get through it. So if you were to leave students with some words about “How to Do University,” what might you say?
Andrew Murray: I think I would say don’t be embarrassed or ashamed not to know things; rather, ask questions. University is as much about the pursuit of knowledge as it is the knowledge gain. And if you don’t ask, you won’t discover things and if you don’t seek out resources or seek out your professors or your teaching assistants. You may feel alone when you’re not alone. I mean, universities want students to stay around, right? Like we were young, there was a sense of professor standing at the front saying, “20 of you are going to fail this, and that’s great, you’ll get out of here,” But that doesn’t make financial sense for universities among other things. So retention is really important, and universities have come to realize this. So, I would say, seek the resources that are available to you and don’t feel that you’re alone or unique in your struggle because here are two professors talking right now who have both faced the difficulties of being at sea as an undergraduate.
Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. And I think you’re so right that the culture has shifted because I certainly had that kind of messaging well, basically. Yes, like sink or swim. Which seems like we’re talking on a podcast Waving, Not Drowning, so we’ll keep with that kind of metaphor here, but it was very much like I certainly didn’t feel as a student that when I was really struggling with issues related to my studies or anything else, that I could necessarily come forward with that even if those resources were available. And I think that the experience of trying to figure out “How to Do University” and not having the answers and not knowing, right? That what you’re saying, Andrew, is that remember that you’re part of a community, a larger community where everyone’s moving towards the same goal of contributing to knowledge, producing knowledge, learning. We’re all learning together in every respect. And so, to not feel alone in that effort to figure out “How to Do University.” And I also think there’s a lot of grace there. So, I feel like when– and I do get lots of emails, “Hey Rebecca.” You know, I think there’s a lot of grace in terms of trying to guide and help students to figure it out, that we don’t expect them to know how to do all of those things. So that there’s room to grow and room to learn and to maybe not put too much pressure on themselves to have it all figured out, like right away.
Andrew Murray: Yeah. I agree. It’s a process, not an instant result. Yeah. I never would not answer an email because it began “Yo prof.” I would still answer it. I would wonder about this.
Rebecca Gagan: You would be answering many emails if that was the case. Yeah, exactly.
Andrew Murray: Hopefully, if I write back to that student, dear X, and then with a proper signature and stuff, they may be, will learn that that’s a genre that they need to familiarize themselves with.
Rebecca Gagan: Yes. And that it’s also the case that just as it’s not the goal to, you know, give up on anything that doesn’t come easily. Maybe it’s also what was Homer’s other piece of advice that popularity is the most important thing. Nothing more important than being popular. I’ll let students decide for themselves on that piece of advice about whether they want to adopt that or not. Well, Andrew, it’s really been such a pleasure talking with you today, and I’m glad that we had this opportunity to talk since we don’t really get a chance to talk at department meetings or anything else like that. Thank you for sharing your experience of “How to University.”
Andrew Murray: Thanks very much, Rebecca. It’s been my pleasure.
Rebecca Gagan: Okay, bye. For now, Andrew,
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