Episode 1: Introducing Waving, Not Drowning with Rebecca Gagan

In this episode, Rebecca Gagan introduces UVic Bounce’s podcast, Waving, Not Drowning. She shares a bit about the inspiration for this series and how Bounce came to be, as well as some of her personal struggles that she has faced throughout her academic career. This episode is the beginning of many conversations that we hope will change the way we care about ourselves and care for each other.

"Nobody has to feel like they're drowning, and can't ask for help."

Rebecca Gagan

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. I’m so happy that you’ve tuned in today for our very first episode of Waving, Not Drowning. So, this episode is actually being recorded from my home, so you certainly might hear some dogs barking, cats meowing, children asking for things. It’s pretty much near impossible, as I know you all well know, to find a really quiet place to do just about anything.


Since today is our very first episode, I thought it would make sense to tell you a little bit about what UVic Bounce is and also to share with you a little bit about who I am and what my story is in relation to UVic Bounce. So, all future episodes won’t be solo episodes, so I’m really hoping that they won’t be as hard as this one is, and I’ll be talking with faculty members about the challenges and struggles that they experienced as students and asking them for some advice and guidance that they can share with you as you go on your journey. I’ll also be talking with them about how they’ve been, really coping themselves during the pandemic and, again, what kind of advice they might have, what kind of support, supportive words they might be able to offer for us.


So, all future episodes, as I say, we’ll feature a guest, but today’s episode is just me. So, I think I’m going to start by telling you a little bit about how UVic Bounce came to be. And in order to do that, we need to go back about six years to the summer of 2014. I remember that summer pretty well because I had applied for an academic position, and academics are always applying for things: applying for grants, applying for jobs, submitting journal articles, so we’re always undergoing assessment, I would say. And so, I had applied for this job, and I really thought I was going to get it, and I had my hopes up pretty high, even though I always try to temper those hopes. But, in this case, I had them up pretty high, and I really thought I was going to get it. And, well, I didn’t get it. And so, I was really shattered by that news. And while I’d had other disappointments in my life, there was something about this disappointment that hit me pretty hard.


And I was really at loose ends as a result of this setback. And I can remember that my oldest son, who was maybe about six at the time or maybe seven, said to me, “Mommy, are you ever going to stop crying and talking on the phone?” because this was what he was witnessing, daily and hour by hour. And, so one of my colleagues and friends actually sent me a link to a video, and she said, I think you should have a look at this. I think it might help. And so, I opened up the link, and it was a link to a video from something called the Stanford Resilience Project. And the video was by a faculty member there, but he also happens to be a writer. His name is Tobias Wolf and, in the video, he talks about his own professional or academic setbacks, setbacks that he’s had in his education and how he coped with them. And towards the end of the video, he says, “I just tend to think of life as a draft, and if you keep working at it, maybe you can make it good, maybe you can turn it into something beautiful. “And it was this metaphor of “the draft,” life as a draft, that really resonated so strongly with me. Maybe it’s because I’m a professor of English and I teach a lot of writing, and also do a lot of writing myself that, the idea of life as a draft, that something could be in process in revision just really struck me.


What also struck me in that moment, so deeply, was that I hadn’t thought of my life this way as something that had room for errors, for mistakes, for imperfections, for the space to cross something out and rewrite it, or hit delete, and then, re-type the sentence. I just hadn’t thought of my life like that, and I think that also really hit me; that I had been so focused on just getting the draft, making it perfect and making it perfect the first time, so I absolutely didn’t think of my life as a draft, but as I started to bring this metaphor closer, to really take it in, something really started to change in me, and I also felt this tremendous relief. And, so, of course, I started to dig deeper into where did this video come from? What was it all about? And I learned that it was part of a larger project at Stanford, as I said called the Stanford Resilience Project, in which many, many professors from across the Stanford campus made videos in which they talk about the challenges and difficulties that they had in their own education.


So, they really go into their own educational histories and share some of the things that they found difficult, and then offer advice and guidance to students. And, of course, these difficulties range from perfectionism to feeling like a fraud, to feeling alone and not belonging, to being a student who’s struggling financially, being an international student, and being a student of colour.So, there are all kinds of ways in which the videos really try to address the student experience and to meet students where they are and with the kinds of challenges that they are having, and so I was so inspired by this video, and I also felt that it had really helped me. And I thought, if it helped me that much, then perhaps there’s a way in which it could help my own students. And at that time, I had already been teaching at UVic for about ten years and had been teaching many, many first-year students and had been really witnessing firsthand the increase in stress levels challenges with my students’ mental health, and so I really thought, “what about if we try to make our own resilience project at UVic?” And so, at that moment, it was that kind of a light bulb moment, and so I stopped crying and talking on the phone and set about trying to figure out how to create a resilience project at UVic.


So, I guess it was that summer that UVic Bounce was born. So as with anything, projects take a long time to come into fruition, take a long time to bear fruit, and so what I started doing was telling everybody who would listen about this resilience project and really lobbying to try to get some videos made here at UVic. I went to conferences around Canada and talked about the need for the entire community to come on board to support students in their journeys through university and that faculty really have a special role to play there in that. You know, not only have faculty been through so many of the challenges that our students are experiencing, but also so often, faculty members are one of the first point — and sometimes the only point — of contact that students have, especially if it’s a smaller class.


And so, there’s really a way in which faculty are poised to really support students in learning environments and support them with their wellbeing and with their mental health. We’re going to fast forward a bit to 2019, and the Faculty of Humanities generously supported the creation of a series of eight Bounce videos, which you can now watch on www.uvic.ca/bounce under the videos tab, and you can also find them on the UVic Facebook page under videos. And so, we have eight videos in which faculty members from across our campus, mostly from the humanities and a few alumni, share some of their own experiences as students. And there are three-minute versions of these videos and also 60-second versions. I really encourage you to go onto the Bounce website and watch the longer versions if you have 24 minutes to spare because they are really powerful, and even though I helped to create these videos, I actually still watch them myself because I find that the wisdom in these videos continues to help me and support me as I move from day to cope with the various challenges that I experience. In 2020, UVic Bounce was so fortunate to receive the President’s Strategic Framework Impact Fund grant that will allow us to go ahead and really expand the video series so that students, regardless of the faculty that they are in, will be able to see one of their professors sharing, some of their own story and some advice in a Bounce video.


But, as you all know far too well, 2020 also brought with us this global pandemic, which has made getting together to make videos really difficult. In the fall term of 2020, I just noticed how much students were struggling. I was teaching four first-year literature courses, and I thought, “You know, I can’t wait. We can’t wait to get some additional support out to students.” And I came upon the idea of creating a podcast. I’ve never done a podcast before. This is really a first time for me, but I thought a podcast if it doesn’t take too long to get up and running, will allow us to talk to faculty members, have that same kind of interview experience, and get it out to UVic students much faster than we can get the videos out because we’d have to wait until it’s safe for us to gather, to make the videos.


So, we started thinking about the podcast, and I just want to tell you a little bit about the name of our podcast, Waving, Not Drowning and where that comes from. So, it’s actually, the title is actually a bit of a play on the title of a quite a well-known poem, a 1957 poem by Stevie Smith. That poem is called “Not Waving, but Drowning.” And I’m just going to read this poem for you.


Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They spoke.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.


I’ve known this poem for a long time, and I went back to it and was looking for a recording of Stevie Smith reading it. I came across one in which Smith talks about how she came to write the poem. And there, she says that she would often get material from like the news. And she had read a story about a man who drowned because his friends who were on the shore thought that he was waving. Smith goes on to say that it’s very much the case in life, that there are people who seem quite a jolly, which is the word she uses, but in fact, feel very alienated from life. And I think she says they feel as if they are not at home in this world. She goes on to say that they put on this kind of brave pretense. They feel they must put on the brave pretense in which they never show their true feelings and they never show that they’re struggling. They never show that they’re drowning. I just was really thinking about how this poem gets at that very fuzzy boundary between waving for help because you’re drowning. And the waving that is an actual wave to say hello, that how it can be unclear to people, how people can’t see unless you feel that you can really share those difficulties and unless you can really voice that you’re drowning.


And so, I was so moved by her discussion of how she came to write this poem because I think that, especially at university, there is a way in which students can feel, in which we all can feel that we have to put on that brave pretense. We can’t show that we’re struggling and often maybe feel that we’re the only ones who are struggling, who are drowning.

And so, we don’t ask for help. And so, I wanted to call this Waving Not Drowning because I think that really speaks to what this podcast is about, which is trying to promote resilience. You know, trying to find ways to keep our heads above water. But, also, I wanted to call it this because, based actually on Smith’s description of how she came to write the poem because I think that there’s a way in which we hide the truth of ourselves and we hide our struggle and feel ashamed of it, feel ashamed of the kinds of difficulties we’re encountering.


I have students who write to me for extensions, and they do so always feel [that they have to] apologize. “I’m so sorry that I have to ask for this, and I’ve never done this before, and this will never happen again.” And I write right back to them and say to them, as one of my dear friends and mentors said to me, “no, there is no place for shame here.” It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to show that you are struggling. And so, if you show that you’re struggling, then somebody can reach into the water and pull you out and that you don’t have to do it alone.And so, I’m really hoping that this podcast series will help students to realize that not only are they not alone in their struggle, and that it’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to talk about the difficulties that they’re having and to share them, but also the very people teaching them have experienced some of the same challenges and difficulties and can offer support, and can offer advice and wisdom that can help. We often think the faculty’s only job is to deliver the content of the course: teach me how to do close reading; teach me organic chemistry; teach me biology. Of course, faculty members have so much to offer here in trying to support you as you go on your journey and offer advice about how to cope with the challenges of university, which are real and which we understand.


And so, Waving, Not Drowning hopefully will promote your own resilience and let you know that if you’re feeling too far out and that you felt too far out for some time, it’s not too late; it’s never too late to ask for help. And certainly, that there is no shame in doing that; that you can get the support you need by letting others know that you’re drowning and that you need a hand out of the water.UVic Bounce has a goal of trying to change conversations. To really catalyze conversations about challenge and about difficulty by having faculty share and have conversations about challenge and difficulty. So, universities tend to talk an awful lot about success and excellence. And rightly so, we want to really celebrate all that we’re doing well here and this wonderful production of knowledge, and we want to celebrate our wins, of course. But what happens when we don’t also include space and make room for difficulty, for challenging, for those conversations, is that we can start to feel like it’s not okay to not be okay.Just last week, one of the executive directors of the organization, BC Campus, wrote to the whole organization, to all of the members and said something like, “You know, one of the many things that the pandemic has taught us is that it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to not be okay.” And that these are the kinds of conversations we need to be having on our campuses. And again, the goal of UVic Bounce is to have those conversations so that it makes it easier to share with each other our difficulty, so that we can come together as a community to support each other, and that nobody has to feel like they’re drowning, and that they can’t ask for help. So, I just want to share with you one last story before signing off on today’s podcast. So, in 2019, and I’m thinking now that this is another summer story, but a very different summer from 2014. In 2019, my family and I travelled to the very north of the island. So, seven hours from Victoria to Telegraph Cove, which is at the very opening of the Brownton archipelago. And if you’ve ever been there, it’s an incredibly beautiful, peaceful, spiritual spot. It’s the place where I think I feel most myself and certainly the most connected to this beautiful island. We took our little boat over to Alert Bay because we wanted to tour the U’mista Cultural Centre. And as part of that tour, we were so privileged to be able to go to the big house and to watch a performance of the Kwakwaka’wak Traditional Potlatch dances. At the start of the performance, Andrea Cranmer of the Nonghees first nation.


And one of the co-founders of the T’Sasala cultural group shared with us some of the history of her culture, of her people. And she also spoke with us about how important it was that when we were watching the performance, we didn’t just think about how cute some of the dancers are because some of them were quite young, so as young as five, but that we recognized the importance of their participation in this group as a part of their own learning, their own education about their culture so that they could pass that culture on. And then she said something that really just changed everything about how I think about teaching, how I practice every day, in terms of my own teaching and my own learning.

She said that so many of her people had never had the chance to learn with love. And, of course, he or she was referencing the profound trauma of residential schools and the traumatic legacies of that experience for her people. And in that moment, I realized that I had taken it for granted that I had had the chance to learn with love and as a professor to teach with love.


Now, I want to tell you that I was recently in touch with Andrea Cranmer because I wanted to ask her permission to share her words with you. And so, we had a phone conversation, and we also corresponded over email, and I told her how her words had changed me as a teacher and as a human.And she wrote to me that she was so happy that “I had been able,” she writes, “to receive all the good Bakwum medicine,” and she said that indeed one of her teachings is to listen. She said that she was happy my heart and my mind had been able to receive it and gave me her blessing to share this story with you. And so that day, after she finished speaking, she invited us to share and join with the group and to dance around that roaring fire and to really share and to open our hearts to what they were teaching us. And from that day forward, I made a commitment to not only always teaching with love and learning with love but also to use the word love.I think that we, you know, as academics, I guess I can only speak for myself, but certainly, I think I was explicitly and implicitly taught that if you use the word love in some way that’s not rigorous or, that’s not done. But there, in that big house in Alert Bay, I realized that I would speak the word love openly and loudly. And I would do so as a way of honouring every day all those who did not have the chance to learn with love.


And so, part of the work that this podcast is doing, and that UVic bounce is doing, is really trying to, openly and open-heartedly, engage with Andrea Cranmer’s words and with the need to teach with love by sharing our stories of difficulty, our stories of meeting obstacles, and doing our best to cope with them as a way of really supporting each other. Late last winter, I played for my students (I always play music in class) the Willie Nelson and Karen O cover of David Bowie’s Under Pressure. If you’ve not heard it, it’s an incredible cover and feels so relevant and kind of a song for our times. And there’s a stanza— I don’t think I’d ever really heard the lyrics properly—and one of the stanzas says: “Cause Love’s such an old-fashioned word And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.” And, I was so hit by these lyrics because the words, “love dares you to change our way of caring” about others and about caring about ourselves.


And, you know, I think that as Mary Burgess of BC Campus said, something has changed in us as a result of the pandemic, and it’s our capacity to be willing to be vulnerable in order to care for others. And, so I think that UVic Bounce and this podcast it’s daring you to change your way of caring, first of all, for yourself and caring for others. And I hope that you will join me in this good work of supporting each other through our shared vulnerability and our shared commitment to changing the kinds of conversations that we have here on campus and at campuses across Canada as we work to support each other. We’re now at the end of the very first episode of Waving, Not Drowning, but we are at the beginning of many conversations that I hope will really change the way we care about ourselves and care about each other. Thanks so much for tuning in. 


Until next time


Be well.