Episode 9: Making Decisions and Making Connections with Dr. Jessica Rourke
Dr. Jessica Rourke is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Victoria. Jessica is also an online teaching faculty member at Thompson Rivers University and a complex case manager at Restorative Justice Victoria, where she works with victims and offenders of crime. At UVic, Jessica teaches a number of classes ranging from first year to fourth year, including introduction to psychology, interpersonal relationships, psychology, and law
"I've had to really learn to be okay with some imperfection."
Dr. Jessica Rourke
Waving, Not Drowning
Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning. A UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples.
In today’s episode, I talk with Dr. Jessica Rourke, an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Psychology here at the University of Victoria. Jessica is also an online teaching faculty member at Thompson Rivers University and a complex case manager at Restorative Justice Victoria, where she works with victims and offenders of crime. At UVic, Jessica teaches a number of classes ranging from first year to fourth year, including introduction to psychology, interpersonal relationships, and psychology, and law. In our conversation today, Jessica shares with me her experience of really making what she calls a defining decision to stop following a particular path through her undergraduate career to drop the French that she was studying as part of a double major, and really, even more important than that, to make a decision that allowed her not just to survive her undergraduate degree, but really to thrive. And so, we talk a lot in our conversation today about what is resilience and what is it not, and that there can be so much pressure on students to continue along a path at all costs, even when it might be making you really miserable. And Jessica shares that she was really struggling with French, that she was not enjoying it at all, and that it was a kind of turning point for her to realize that she didn’t have to do her degree that way and that she didn’t have to suffer in that way. And so, it’s a really important conversation.
And it’s one that I’ve been having in different versions with guests over the course of this podcast so far. We also talk about how to make connections, both in an online learning environment and face to face. And Jessica shares the importance of making those connections, even though it was tough for her as a student who was quite shy, and how she really had to push herself to actively try to make those connections both with her fellow students and with her professors. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Dr. Jessica Rourke. And this is Waving, Not Drowning.
Jessica Rourke: Hi, Rebecca.
Rebecca Gagan: So happy that you are able to be here today to talk with me. How have you been doing?
Jessica Rourke: I am. I’m doing well, hanging in there, and trying to find some positives, for sure.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. How has– it’s hard to believe that it’s almost been a year now since we really started coping with the pandemic– how have you found the movement to online teaching, and how have things been going for you, even personally, throughout this whole long year?
Jessica Rourke: Yeah, personally, it’s been okay. It’s, you know… I live in a fairly small house, and I’ve got my husband and three kids. And so, there definitely are times when we’re just feeling really on top of each other, but we’ve really tried to just acknowledge this is a different year and do things a little differently. So, I will say, we have allowed a bit more video games and TV watching, but we make it fun. So, it’s a household Mario Kart tournament; I’ve gotten my youngest ones into mystery movies, so I watched that with them, and we have a lot of popcorn. There’s been a lot of popcorn eating in my house this year. And just trying to get outside as much as possible. So, in the summer we went, did a lot of camping. Just that. Just trying to do as many fun things as we possibly can to really focusing on trying to help the kids get through the past year. In terms of teaching, the move to online last March was really… I think jarring is the word I’m going to use to describe it. It was… I remember being in class on the Friday, but they shut everything down, but it was the afternoon, and students being like, what’s happening because some of the schools out east had started shutting down. I literally know as much as you do. I haven’t heard anything. And you know, we’ll keep you posted; my guess is we’re going to shut down, too. I’ll probably see you next week, and then we’ll go from there. We’ll make a plan. And then three hours later, we got the email saying, “Hey, you make a shutdown. Everything’s online.” So, it was just this instantaneous switch, and something that we weren’t used to; moving to, you know, from trying to record lectures, trying to figure out whether to keep assignments or, you know, say all these assignments don’t– you don’t need to worry about them anymore.
My problem was that in some of my classes, they had these group presentations they were supposed to do, and they’d been working on them in class. So, 60% of me wanted to cancel them, and then the other 40% of me was like, you can’t do that. They’ve already spent time in class and out of class working on them. So, it was trying to revamp that assignment, and some students liking that, and some students being really irritated that classes were just completely cancelled and you got the grade, you had kind of thing. So, it was… nobody really seemed content and okay. In that semester, everyone just got through I’m the very best they could, whether they were students or instructors. And then, we moved into summer, UVic switched us to Brightspace, and it was like, okay. Really happy they did that because for what we needed to do this year. It’s been a better platform, better suited to the university’s needs. And at the same time, during a pandemic with all the stress we were experiencing and having just switched to online teaching, I thought my brain was going to explode. Weeks and weeks in workshops– two or three workshops every day, just trying to figure out how I was going to move into the online teaching in a way that felt authentic to me and still helped me enjoy teaching and hopefully helped the students enjoy learning. Yeah, it’s been a learning curve, but I think we’ve adjusted their works. I’m still learning stuff. I still get into Brightspace sometimes, and I’m– I don’t know how to do something, or Zoom has a mind of its own. So, you’re in the middle of teaching, and something that you’ve never encountered before just happens, and you just have to roll with it and laugh at yourself. And sometimes, you have really tech-savvy students that help you, which is great.
Rebecca Gagan: Oh yes. I’m very grateful for those students who give me instructions very helpfully in the chat about how to deal with a particular Zoom issue that I’m having. And yeah, I mean, one of the things I’m hearing from you, Jessica, which I think is so useful, is you’ve talked a bit about both with your family and work, that you’ve had to adopt a certain kind of attitude, a kind of approach, which as you say, is rolling with it. But also, you’ve talked about trying to figure out how to make it manageable and less stressful both for you and for your students or for, as you were saying, for your kids. That acknowledgement that this is such a tough and challenging time. So, how can we find a way to live within it from day to day that allows for, as you say, some– this flexibility and a kind of grace with each other so that there can be fun, there can be also, as you say it, that kind of flexibility. So, you’ve had to adapt and say this year there’ll be more video games and more popcorn, or in the classroom, maybe yeah– there’s going to have to be some changes to the syllabus to try to figure out how to have a course that’s thinking at all times, as you’ve said, about both what is best for the student, what is best for that classroom experience, but also for you as a teacher. So how to have an experience that still feels, as you say, authentic, and I think it’s a lot to juggle and we talk a lot about trying to make structural changes, right, so moving into a Zoom platform, but what you’ve talked about is also that necessity of a kind of approach to one’s, work and to one’s personal life that allows for, I think, that kind of just the only other word I can think of is just a kind of grace, right? And I’ve certainly done that in my own classrooms, but also in my own family, and that the priority is about getting everybody through this. And that applies to my students. It applies to my own family, as well, recognizing that the students will never probably have to– well, let’s hope not– live through another time in history where they will be studying under these circumstances. Jessica, you’ve already talked a bit about what’s helped. Is there anything that’s been sustaining for you this past year?
Jessica Rourke: For me personally, as cliche as it sounds, it is a little bit of self-care. When we first rolled into the online teaching, the adrenaline was pumping. You just did what you did, and you got through it. And then that May, I had to teach a summer course and trying to teach it online, and it was a brand-new course. I was up until four or five every morning and then getting up again at seven to get the kids ready for their online schooling and to teach my class that day. It was just… it was three weeks of really awfulness, and I realized that I couldn’t sustain that. And so, it’s kind of, you know, my mantra is, it is what it is. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I’ve had to really learn to be okay with some imperfection to, you know, take one of my pre-recorded lectures, and we’re just going with that. So just that attitude adjustment in myself. I make time for myself to do yoga, almost every day. And then as of late, I’d say the past kind of two or three months, I’ve really recognized how much I disconnected from the land. I just stayed inside, and maybe I would go outside to get the mail or if there was sunshine, I’d maybe sit outside to have my lunch, but just on my concrete slab in front of my house. So, I’ve really been trying to make the time to go for at least a half-hour walk, three or four times a week, whether it’s on a chip trail or on the beach, but just getting myself out there in nature even if I feel like I don’t have time, is making such a difference for my own mental health, which then helps me. I show up better for my students and my family as well. So just that really, really carving out time for myself and being okay with what I perceive is imperfection.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, and Jessica, so far in this podcast series, every single guest echoed your remarks about the necessity of fighting the urge to hunker down inside in front of the screen and to get outside, even if it feels like there isn’t time, like to almost really force oneself like to get out and that that will then feel so supportive if you can actually do that. And we’ve been talking about how all of those opportunities to be outside, moving from class to class, for example, we’ve lost those, so you have to impose those structures right? The time to get outside and to go for a walk. I also really what you’re saying about how you had to wrestle with your own perfectionist tendencies, to do things a particular way, and that you had to shift out of that in order to care for yourself, so we often don’t think about self-care. As sort of shifting, approach; we tend to think of it as, okay, let’s you know, take some time to watch a show or read a book, or maybe, you know, go for a walk.
But what you’re talking about is that one way in which you have been able to care for yourself is to allow a certain kind of acceptance of imperfection; that maybe things are going to go a bit differently, and maybe you won’t always be happy with that video lecture, for example, but that you’re going to give yourself that space and grace in order to get through this as a form of self-care. I think that’s very useful for students to hear because I keep telling my own students that right now, coping with what you’re coping with, that you can do the best that you can, but also acknowledge the condition under which you are labouring, right? And that means that you have to give yourself a break; that maybe this is the best that you can do at this particular moment, and under different conditions, maybe you would produce a different kind of assignment, for example. But like you, it’s the same sometimes, yes, I’m making video lectures, or I’ll have a class it’s like no, I’m really not happy with how that went, but I don’t hold onto that for very long. And I try to cut myself a break as much as I can, as you’ve said, as a kind of form of self-care. And I think that’s very wise because students can be very hard on themselves in at the best of times. And I, as a student, was very much like that. And I think it’s important for students to hear what you’re saying right now about the necessity of allowing some room for yourself, so thank you for that. So, Jessica, you know that I’ve asked you here today in part because I really wanted to hear about your own experiences as a student with challenge, with difficulty, and to know what sort of words of support you might offer students. Students, as we’ve just discussed, are living through probably one of the most difficult times to be a student, and that’s really deepening and emphasizing those difficulties that are present for students in non-pandemic times. So, maybe you could tell us a bit about your own experience as a student?
Jessica Rourke: From the get-go, I knew I wanted to do psychology. I come from Quebec, and after grade 11, you do what’s called Sageup, and Sageup is very similar to college, what we call college here, for instance. So, you’re on a university campus often, and you’re taking courses with professors as you would at college. It just costs a lot less than university. And so, that’s where I experienced psychology for the first time, fell in love with it. So, when I got to university, I’d already had the advantage of having a few psych courses under my belt. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. But coming from Quebec, I speak, and French was my first language. And so, I thought I’ll just do a double major and same price, but I’ll walk out with two degrees. The thing is that I grew up speaking French and French classes in Quebec– you have to take French class every day for an hour throughout your school career, but it’s really focused on being able to speak fluently. So, we didn’t focus that much on the writing and the rules and all of that. But because French is my first language, I naturally knew how to conjugate verbs and that kind of thing. But going into my first French class in university, it was a huge wake-up call for me.
I have never experienced such a difficult class in my life. I really walked in there thinking I was going to be a breeze, and it was the worst because it was really based on grammar. And for your tests, you had to explain the rules and why you were doing everything. So, I have never studied so much for a class in my life. I remember having my dorm room walls papered with verb conjugations and all these things. And the best thing I did was drop the idea of doing that double major. And I think, some people will say when the going gets tough, whatever the saying is you stay there, and you push through it. And if you drop it, then you’re running away from your problems, taking the easy way out. And I really disagree with that. I think that was a defining moment in my life where I recognized how miserable I was and would be for four years if I kept on doing that. And it wasn’t easy to walk away from it, but I did. And just focus on the classes that I loved, and that opened the door for me to take electives and some really neat things that I never would’ve gotten to take. You know, I hear some of my students right now who are doing six courses. And in the best of times, I think five is the maximum they recommend right now. They’re saying, you know, three is probably a good idea. And yet, we just– our culture has shaped us to want to push ourselves and feel like we have to push through the tough times. And I just… I really disagree with that. This is the time to figure it out what is actually bringing you some joy in your life because we don’t have much opportunity to go out and find that right now. And so, take the classes that you’re enjoying. That doesn’t mean they’re easy, but French was hard, and I wasn’t enjoying it. I had other difficult courses too, but I like to learn in that material. So that makes a big difference. Take the courses you enjoy. It’s okay to drop a class. And if you have to take that class for your degree, you can pick it up later, but be kind to yourself and recognize that there’s actually some wisdom and resilience in recognizing when it’s time to walk away from something either forever or for just a short period of time, but was a really good decision that I made for myself in my educational career.
Rebecca Gagan: Wow, Jessica, I have been thinking about this exact point quite a lot lately because I think that there can be some kind of confusion around what resilience is, for example. So, resilience isn’t preserving in something that is bringing you pain; that is, as you say, in which you’re really struggling… there’s a term that gets used a lot– grit, right. And that term, I personally have a lot of issues with, because I think the word that gets used is you just need to be grittier. And I think there are certain conditions, first of all, that allows students to be gritty in the first place, as we know a certain systemic problem that really make it hard for students to have that kind of grit. But also, grit, as you say, suggests hanging on at all costs, when actually what you’re getting at Jessica is that stopping something, quitting something, walking away from something, that’s resilience. That’s winning. And I’ve been reading about this quite a lot lately; just even seeing various sort of quotes and memes and things like that circulating to remind people of this, what I think is, a kind of truth, right? That sometimes the best, the very best thing you can do, as you’ve said, Jessica, is to choose something else– is to away from that. And students often feel that they no, no. I’ve got to tough this out. That’s the way to success here. And no, you don’t, and I’m just laughing because I had the exact same experience in French. So, I wasn’t a French speaker, but I did French immersion. And then I thought, “oh, I’ll take university-level French. And it will be a breeze.” And it was very much the same that it was french with lessons in grammar and things like that. And I’ll never forget that at one point, I wasn’t doing well, so I was getting very poor grades in that class. And at one point, I had to give a presentation, and I remember my TA saying something like, “I didn’t even know that you could speak a word of French” because I was just so terrible at this class. And I did. I ended up with a D, I think, in that class. That was maybe my first year or my second year. I can’t remember, probably first year, and that was it. I never took any more French, but yes, it made me very unhappy because it wasn’t what I thought it was. But yes, absolutely. I hear a lot of students just struggling to drop down from six courses to like four courses, but then I’ve also heard from students who have done that and have said that was the best decision for me because now I can focus on the courses I am taking, enjoy them. What is the reason to take all six courses when I actually don’t have to do that? So, I think that’s just such, such great advice, Jessica, in terms of just how to be compassionate to yourself as well, and know that walking away from something, or even if we use the word quitting– quitting can be winning. And that that’s really, really important. Were there any other experiences Jessica at university, either as an undergrad or as a grad, that you felt defining for you?
Jessica Rourke: I know, for me, I was a little bit shy and so you know, made friends with my roommates and stuff the first year, but not necessarily with anyone in my classes. And then, finally, about halfway through my second year, realized that there was this one particular person. She was in like four of my classes, so one day, I just went and sat next to her. And I was like, “I think we’re in like four classes together,” and she became one of my best friends. And we’re missing those social interaction opportunities that we get before and after class or even in those small group activities, but they’re still out there. They just look different, so whether it’s group projects in the Zoom breakout rooms, or you can still show up to if you have a live class session, in Zoom, you can still show up 10 minutes early and chat with the people that show up early or chat with your professor.
I know, during the mental health awareness week, Rebecca, you and I were in a panel together. And one of the things that struck me was just how lonely some people are feeling, especially if they’re in Victoria and they don’t have roommates, so they’re literally seeing nobody and that a lot of them weren’t aware that you can still go to campus. It’s almost this idea that campus has completely shut down, but you can still go to campus. You can book study space in the Biblio Cafe, in the Mystic Cafe. You can go to, I think, The SUB, and even just sit at some tables. They have them spaced apart, but there’s something about being there and seeing other human beings. Even if you can’t be close together, you can still talk to people across the table, at least smile at each other. There’s just something almost energizing and uplifting about being surrounded by human beings right now. You know, even though those opportunities might seem like they’re not there, they are there, and you just have to look for them and polish them off a little bit. You know, I would just encourage students to step out of your comfort zone. It was really hard for me to, first of all, go sit right next to her in that auditorium, in the classroom. And then, second of all, to open my mouth and say something to her because what if she rejected me? But it would, again… it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. We’re still great friends today, so just step out of your comfort zone. This is a really uncomfortable year anyway, so why not be a little more uncomfortable and find those opportunities for social interaction, if you can. There’s also clubs on campus that are going hiking or something like that. So that can be a great way to connect with people, too.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. And as you say, Jessica, it’s as if it’s a little bit like having to force yourself to walk out the front door, to go for a walk; that there is so understandably this tendency to become even more isolate because of this… the situation. And as you say, in the best of times, it’s hard to sit down beside someone in class and strike up that conversation, but the rewards of that are huge. And like you, some of the friends that I made in my classes, so not through residence, not through some kind of off-campus activity, but actually in my English classes as an undergrad, are still my friends today and were my friends through all of undergrad. And so, I always tell my students that whatever opportunities there are to meet students in class, meet fellow students in class… that try to seize those, and you’re right. It’s harder– it’s harder right now, but I love this idea of if you are in Victoria, being able to even just come to the campus to get the feeling of being with other students on campus at a distance. And if you’re not, to try in your classes to make those connections, whether that’s through like Discord servers or, you know, before classes start, like the 10 minutes before class, or in office hours or… in my classes, we run sort of tutorial workshops where students can come and meet other students as well while they’re working on their writing, but those opportunities might feel, and indeed are, fewer, but you have to push yourself to try to make those connections because yes, I think students are feeling lonelier and more isolated. But it does remind us of that importance of peer support– of finding those connections, wherever you can, even as you say, Jessica, just being in the same space with other. With other students, even at that distance, to see, okay, they’re studying over that table, and I can try and approach them from a distance or however we are doing that smile from behind the mask. So, to try to make those connections. So, Jessica, what do you think– what advice would you maybe– or words of support– might you offer students– not just for this particular time, but even as we move into non-pandemic times– what kind of advice or support might you offer to students?
Jessica Rourke: I would say, get to know some of your professors, just in general. I often will have students who asked me for a reference letter, but they’ve taken one course with me, and maybe it was even a few years ago. You know, take the opportunity to get to know your professors, whether it’s to talk to them before or after class or go to their office hours. If you can, take more than one class with a professor that you like. The more that you can– you know, if they have a research lab, volunteer in the research lab– the more you can get to know them in those various ways, the better they’re going to remember you, the better and more tailored they can make your reference letter. And, it applies today, too, not just for reference letters, but just again for that social connection. Come a little bit before class and chat with your professor, or I always, if I can, if I don’t have another class I have to go to right away, I try and stay a bit after class in Zoom if there are questions or come to my office hours. A lot of the time I have two or three people that come to my office hours, and that’s it. So, I’m sitting there, and I have that time open, and it doesn’t have to be questions about the course. It can be questions about your degree. It can be questions about university in general. You can just come and chat about something you found interesting that you read that somehow relates, in my case, to psychology; it doesn’t have to be a specific assignment question or anything like that. And especially if you’re– if you are struggling, to not be afraid to reach out to your professors. I get that a lot as well: people reaching out almost– it’s never too late, but almost to the point where they’ve struggled for so long, and they’re so far behind; for instance, it’s really hard to catch up. We’re there to help you. And for the most part, we’re going to respond in a compassionate way and do what we can to support, you know, within the parameters that we have and to really recognize that we’re not there to just say what we need to say in a lecture and get the heck out of there. We’re happy to chat with you. And certainly, on my end, anyhow, I want to support you to do the best that you can, so I’m always willing to sit down and chat with students, whether it’s face-to-face when we can, but through email or on Zoom, or even on the telephone.
Rebecca Gagan: And I, again– I feel this connects so well, Jessica, with what you’ve been saying throughout this whole conversation about it can feel really hard to reach out to a prof. And so, for that reason, sometimes students quite understandably, wait a very long time until their situation is feeling pretty dire for them, as you say, they’ve been struggling sometimes for a long time, and they don’t know that their professors can be a resource for them to connect them, to support, to help them get their studies back on track in terms of you know, helping them to apply for an academic concession, for example, if they need that, or just, as you say, just having a chat about the material or about university, or, as you say, within the parameters that really guide that. And it’s never too late of course, to reach out, but know that yes– that we are here for students, and that some of those conversations I find that I’ve had with students and like you, Jessica, I’ve not had a ton of students in office hours, but I’ve really encouraged students to come out over Zoom, to talk because those conversations I’ve found, have been, you know, even more supportive in the sense that we’ve been able to really spend time working on the skills that are necessary for the class, but also having that connection that is so needed– and not just for the students. I have found it very sustaining, as well, to be able to talk to students over Zoom in my office hours, and they’re all over Canada, in some cases, and being able to really come together in that way has felt, I think. Beneficial for everyone involved really in this online experience. And yes, I hope that students will take from what you’re offering here, Jessica, that the knowledge that coming to office hours can be such an important part of the entire sort of course experience and the university experience. So, I teach, sometimes, smaller classes of about 30. And so, for many students, if they’re taking really large classes, I might be the only prof who knows their name or who might recognize them on campus. And so, I– but I also really encourage students to try to get to know some of their profs in some of those bigger classes by going to office hours. And as you say, especially now, it’s one more form of connection that is so essential. Jessica, is there anything else that you might want to say?
Jessica Rourke: No, just thank you for having me, and this is a different and somewhat difficult time for all of us. And we may not see it now, but we’re gonna find some nuggets that are good, that we can take with us when we move out of this. You know, I don’t know that we’re going to go back to exactly how it was. And I think that that’s something that helps me too, is pausing and taking a moment, even when my day didn’t seem to go that well, trying to think of at least one thing that did go, at least, okay—and just recognizing that for myself because it’s just so easy, especially right now, to get in your head and focus on all those negative things. So, finding that one positive thing each day is something that I find just helps motivate me to keep putting one foot in front of the other the next day.
Rebecca Gagan: I think, Jessica, that’s just one more form of self-care to be able to try to think each day about. Perhaps, what went right. And I do this exercise actually with my kids before they go to sleep to try to get them to think about something that was positive, and it’s something that I’ve been trying to do myself, that we as we move through this time, it’s tough to think about silver linings when there has been so much struggle, and so much loss, really this year, for people. And so, I am always hesitant to use that language, but one of the things we’ve been talking about today is that there is a necessity here in terms of self-care to really change our approach to our day-to-day life. In terms of thinking about, okay, how can we be kinder to ourselves? And also, as you say, those nuggets, where can we find the goodies– something that to hold onto that is actually a kind of positive coming out of this. So, thank you for reminding us of the importance of finding the good nuggets.
Thanks so much for being here today, Jessica.
Jessica Rourke: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Rebecca Gagan: In next week’s episode, I talk with Dr. Jeff Corntassel, a writer, teacher, and father from the Cherokee Nation. Jeff is an Associate Professor in Indigenous Studies at the University of Victoria and acting director of the Center for Indigenous Research and Community-Led Engagement, or CIRCLE, here at UVic. In our conversation, Jeff shares with me his journey as both an undergraduate and a graduate student and how he had eventually came to find a kind of groundedness, or rootedness, within himself by connecting with his own roots and with his culture. We also talk about Toughee, the Cherokee word for living according to the pace of nature, and Jeff explains what that word has meant to him, both in his family life and as a student, who was really trying to find their passion and find their way. 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 and a follow-on Instagram @uvicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.