Episode 4: The Value of Asking Questions with Kaveh Tagharobi

Kaveh Tagharobi is an instructor in the Academic and Technical Writing Program and an EAL (English as an additional language) specialist at the Centre for Academic Communication at the University of Victoria. He started working at the CAC in 2013 (then called the Writing Centre) when he was still a graduate student in the English department. Since 2019, he has been teaching ENGR 110 in the ATWP program, which is a first-year design and communication course for engineering students. 

“No one expects us to get things right the first time. The real answer is knowing strategies and using resources to keep improving your work.”

Kaveh Tagharobi

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 unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples.


In today’s episode, I talk with Kaveh Tagharobi, an instructor in the academic and technical writing program here at UVic, where he teaches Engineering 110. Kaveh is also an English as an additional language specialist at the center for academic communication. In our conversation, Kaveh and I will talk about the challenge of establishing working in studying routines when the hours and days and weeks all seem to blend into a single moment. We’ll also talk about Kaveh’s experience as an international student at UVic, where he was pursuing his second master’s degree in English literature. Kaveh will share how, from that experience, he learned of the importance of asking questions and asking those questions, even through the fear and the shame of doing so. I’m Rebecca Gagan here today with Kaveh Tagharobi, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.


Hi, Kaveh. It’s such a pleasure to have you here today to talk with me. How are you doing?


Kaveh Tagharobi: Hi Rebecca, thank you so much for having me. Well, the past few months have been good and bad. I first thought I would really enjoy working from home and having more freedom with my time, which I did for a while, but as probably has been the case for many, it has posed its challenges as well. I found that I am missing a routine. COVID has made school and work, once separate parts of my life, into a fuzzy continuum. And my workday that used to be structured in numerous separate events, kind of punctuated by other activities, as you know, like, walking on campus, running into colleagues, getting lunch, now seems to be a whole day block. So, I mean, before I would take some time in the morning, get ready, pack my lunch and snacks, get into car, listen to a podcast on my way to work. And as I walked to the library, climb the stairs, fourth floor, put my lunch into the fridge, then work. Then a break, you know, run into someone in the hall, have a conversation.And the day went on like that, but now I would wake up in the morning and get out of bed. I would go to my computer two meters away in my pyjamas. I mean, that’s almost it. I wouldn’t take a break or just go back to the bat. If I do, lying down, scrolling through the phone. And that has been almost every day.


I mean, I’ve noticed that my days in lockdown can easily blend together if I’m not actively preventing that. So yeah, it’s been good and bad. It’s been– there’ve been some difficulties. I’m not all complaining. I mean, it’s really given me flexibility to work from home, but like I said, the blend actually seems to become something that I need to think about.


Rebecca Gagan: Well, and I think for faculty and students alike, right– that I think the blend, as you call it, I was talking with a colleague yesterday who described it as the feeling of– I think he said like a highway hypnosis where you’re driving in the dark, and there’s just a sense of, you know, everything blurring together, as you say, right. I mean, they’ve been talking a lot about pandemic time, as a kind of phenomenon that, you know, we don’t know what day it is, but, I think, Kaveh, you’re getting at something that a lot of students have probably experienced this year in particular, that there’s, you know when you say, you get out of the bed and your working day starts two meters away, you know, the computer. And I certainly have experienced that as well. You know, I just go downstairs to my makeshift office and yeah. And some days it just feels as if you just work all the time because you can’t get away from work because it’s the computer that is there, sort of just flashing at you or whatever.


 And so, that is, as you say, I think for students too, who are working in their homes and sometimes, you know, in their family homes and you know, they shut their bedroom door. It’s where they sleep and try to rest and recharge, but it’s also where they are working, you know, 10, sometimes 12 hours a day at their schoolwork. And so, it’s so hard to find rest. So, what have you done Kaveh to try to just cope with this past year?


Kaveh Tagharobi: Yeah. So, like, those were the first month, you know, what I said about like waking up and getting into work mode immediately. And yes, recently, I have tried to create a work routine. Wake up in the morning, and besides the usual routines that I have, anyways, I also start getting dressed, you know, even if I do not have Zoom calls. I know it might feel good to have a casual day every now and then, like work in your PJ’s, but I have noticed that missing out on the morning routine for a long time can make me feel a bit low in spirits. And does not have to be a full dress out, but putting on my watch or buttoning up my shirt, like signals to my brain, that I’m entering a different domain.


Rebecca Gagan: I love that doesn’t have to be a full dress-up. I haven’t done a full dress-up in like almost a year. But a partial dress-up, as you say, is good.


Kaveh Tagharobi: Yeah. You know, simple things. I’ve also tried doing work at the time and pace that I normally do. You know, when you’re on your own time, it might be tempting to cram work, and you get up later in the morning and then work into the evening, you know, like cramming while studying cause students might do. And actually, there are some discussions about students cramming a course now that is all available on Brightspace, you know, in the new online environment. And it can be useful sometimes, but I think it’s important to have a normal, balanced pace, you know, both for work and study, so I’ve been trying to make sure that I worked like a time I was in the office with a similar pace and rhythm. I mean, I sometimes make my days a bit longer with meaningful activities, kind of sprinkled throughout, like, take extra 15 minutes, here to exercise it to the laundry or play with my cats and then work a bit longer in the afternoon. But generally, I’ve benefited from starting and finishing within the boundaries of an eight-day– sorry, an eight-hour day, give and take. And this is not just to ensure that I work more effectively, but also making sure that I remember to take meaningful breaks, you know? Not just scrolling on my phone and my desk or eating while I’m still reading emails, but the breaks in which I do something healthy or fun, like making a cup of tea or having that on the balcony or during a longer lunch break, going for a walk around the neighbourhood and yeah. One that has actually helped me to regain my rhythm as being the Pomodoro technique, you know?


Rebecca Gagan: Oh, right. Yeah. Yeah.


Kaveh Tagharobi: Brilliant idea of using a kitchen timer to work for 25 minutes and then taking a short five-minute break or a longer 10-minute break. It helped me write my thesis, and it now helps me structure my day working for 25 minutes and then taking a five-minute break –works perfectly for someone like me who gets bored and agitated pretty quickly. It’s a way to getting work done in relatively small increments. And I think for everyone else, it can be a way of structuring time and keeping track of progress. It’s kind of nice to think of your day in terms of like 6, 8, 12 chunks. Yeah. Tomato-shaped kitchen timers.


I actually give myself Pomodoro stickers for each twenty-five minutes that I was writing my thesis and say, yeah, I use it for my writing in the beginning and still recommend it to students who are writing longer pieces like a thesis or dissertation, but it can be a way to structure, know, any work and get any type of work done, including the work that I do. So, it comes down to having a rhythm in working; like for me to try to separate, you know, life and work, it’s almost like remembering to breathe regularly inappropriate intervals. What I don’t want to happen is my days blending into one routine that is verbal enough helps me do that. This is why sometimes I become a bit of, you know, Sheldon Cooper, like a character in The Big Bang Theory. You know, Wednesdays are laundry day, and I have the pizza nights on Thursdays.


Rebecca Gagan: So very rigid. Like you’ve had to, it sounds, kind of impose this with a lot of intention, right? Like, impose this structure. And then as you’re saying, be kind of rigid about it, like sticking to it because in the absence of all of that, and I think what you’re also saying, Kaveh, is that the quote-unquote sort of the normal routines that would you know, just going to class, as you say, and how that schedule would really structure you at when you’re on campus and all of those things. In the absence of all of that, it’s really up to you to impose that structure on to your day. And that becomes then a way of really coping. I used to tease my husband, who is now working at home, and he was always working at an office from about 8:30 to 6. And when we started into lockdown and working from home, I would tease him because he would always get the full dress-up. Right. So why are you doing that? Like, why aren’t you wearing your cozy pants? And I even bought him some like, you know, cozy pants to wear, but he wouldn’t. And I see now that for him, just as you have said, Kaveh, it’s about your brain gets a signal, right? Like when you get dressed, you get ready.


It’s like, okay, now I’m moving out of this kind of rest mode. I’m moving into work mode. And then at the end of the day, you know, maybe then I’ll put on my PJ pants, and then my brain gets another signal that that work has done, and that has to be done. So did you do anything about having your computer, like two feet from your bed?


Kaveh Tagharobi: Yeah, so definitely I’ve tried. English work and home, you know, by creating a dedicated workspace. I’m working on it, but it’s still going on. I used to work from our bedroom because that’s where I could close the door on our cats and have my quote-unquote professional space, but eventually, I found that did not work for me. I mean, it contributed to the blend with the capital B of work and home. Basically, so my whole day in the bedroom working late, you know, taking the lazy breaks, working again and then in the evening, well, that’s where I would be again, the certainly blurred parts of the day. It was a factor when I started experiencing more anxiety and fatigue. And it was kind of as if I was associating the place with stress from work. And I guess an amount of stress is always there with work, but when you leave your office at the end of the day, you kind of lock it in there, or at least to a degree. This is why now I think that the bedroom should not be my workplace, if possible. I have not done it yet, but I hope by partitioning my space, I can let work be work and rest be rest.


And you know how important it is for rest to be right. And for work to be good quality work. They usually talk about the importance of preparing your environment in a way that you do not always have to fight temptations, like checking your phone or being distracted by children pets. After all, I think we all have a limited amount of willpower, and we will need that for critical situations. It’s probably easier to take an untimely nap when you are working next to your bed, or the ubiquitous temptation to check your phone would be easier to avoid if you’re not– you know, you don’t have your phone in the same room where you’re working unless you need to be on a call for an urgent reason, but you know what I mean. Optimize environment in a way that have the best productivity.


And I think it ultimately comes down to separating work and rest spaces. So, this has been always important, but I find it a lot more important during COVID, so that’s why I’m planning on moving to our den. And today is the first day I’m recording from the den. I actually have ordered some selfie ring lights on Amazon with a mini tripod or phone holder or whatever. And I will retreat downstairs as a first step.


Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. Well, and I think likewise here I have, you know, moved downstairs, and my husband works down here as well. So, we’ve kind of made the downstairs– even though we haven’t been able to block out pets, just barge in and have fights and everything.


But I do find that helpful, so then I know when I go upstairs, that’s kind rest time and break time and yeah, keeping the bedroom as a place for rest. And I think that it’s well-documented that throughout all of this, students and everyone has been having a lot of trouble with sleep and rest and trying to recharge. And so, I think that’s excellent advice, Kaveh, to try to create a space that’s designated for rest and a space that’s designated for work. And my feeling, and I could be wrong, is that this work to impose routines and scheduling in that way to really benefit one’s mental health and wellbeing.


Their habits, I think you’re sort of speaking to, Kaveh that, carry over to a time when perhaps we’re not working this way. Right? Like there are established ways of working that many students have to negotiate any way when they come to university or at some point in their undergrad. So, a really good habit to separate out those spaces. I think your advice and sharing your own experience on this is so helpful also for the long run, right? So coping mechanisms, or coping skills, now, but then they will be in place to really help, I think, students thrive in the future right? When they need to be able to establish those routines.


O Kaveh, you know, that your– I sort of asked you here today for lots of reasons, but in part because I was hoping you might be able to share with us some of your own experiences as an undergrad or as a grad student. And experiences in particular with challenge and difficulty. UVic Bounce and this podcast is really focused on trying to share these stories so that students, you know, across the campus and with all different needs, can realize or hopefully feel that they are not alone in experiencing some of the difficulties and that our sharing of these stories will make it easier for them to reach out. So, we know each other. So, I know a little bit of your story, but I would just be so pleased if you could share with us some of your own experiences.


Kaveh Tagharobi: As a student, right? So, yeah, definitely. I have been in school for a long time. On the first grade in 1990, thinking I hated school, pledging to leave school as a six-year-old, but I’m still here 30 years later.


And I’ve always been considered, you know, I’m good– Iike somebody who will eventually like school, good student, I guess, going through ranks one by one. But to be honest, I’ve always had my challenges. I think I’ve tried and maybe succeeded, not because there’s been smooth sailing, but despite obstacles and I would say internal resistance to the structures of traditional education, generally school as an Institute, especially when I was in Iran before coming to Canada. And since moving here, I’ve found myself in more harmony with the learning and teaching style and it keeps making more sense as I go on especially as an educator, but even here, a new set of challenges emerged, especially in the beginning when I started.


Rebecca Gagan: And when you first came here, or when you were in Iran, Kaveh?


Kaveh Tagharobi: When I first came here. So, I started my second master’s at UVic in 2013. After I moved here from Iran, I already had a master’s in English literature, and I had been an English instructor for ten years, helping students who were preparing to continue their studies in an English-speaking university. So, I kind of thought that I would not have many challenges as an international student, but boy was I wrong. There were a lot of things that I would find challenging, figuring out a new educational system, you know, academic expectations, new assignment types, genres of writing, and even English proficiency, which I thought was my biggest strength.


I even started doubting that. I mean, you teach IELTS and TOEFL for years. And then you come to an English-speaking country thinking you’d be on par with everyone else, but then you see that there is still a gap, and that can really make your imposter syndrome flare-up. I remember constantly apologizing to my profs to my writing or speaking was not good enough, no matter how many times they told me that I was a good writer and communicator. It was as if I had much more expectations of myself than everyone else did. So that experience has made me so much more aware of student concerns about their skills, not being good enough, and sympathetic to their fears and concerns.


Now that I work at the centre for academic communications all the time, I come across students who have a lot of anxiety about, you know, not being able to fulfill requirements, whether it’s English proficiency for, you know, international students, those who have English as an additional language, academic writing, critical thinking, et cetera. And I always make sure to take the time to remind them that no one expects them to be perfect and that there are doing fine as long as they are, you know, on a path of improving their skills and building on whatever foundation they have. I also think sometimes, just being aware of shortcomings is enough to give you an advantage, even over those who are ahead of you, that has at least been, you know, my experience with academic work is, especially academic writing since English is not my first language. And since I experienced a bit of shock after moving to Canada, realizing I still could improve my communication skills, I have become so much more self-conscious of, for example, language use, especially when writing and that has helped me actually be a pretty good writer. I may say so myself. I often tell my students in my engineering 110 class that you might find it interesting that English is not my first language and then add, which might make you go, “wait, what?”


English is not his first language, and he ended up being an English teacher. Well, here we are. And then explain that although I might not know, you know, every word or expression or grammatical rule, I have the power to use the resources to revise my work and revise it again. And again, and I joke, and I say, this is a superpower. I’m a super reviser. Get the pencil on a draft. You know, that’s what writing we think is. Writing is revising, and I think this resonates with a lot of students, both EAL and non-EA, because, let’s face it, academic writing is no one’s first language and acknowledging the fact that most of us do not intuitively get it. And there is always the option of playing it safe, and checking everything gives comfort to many students. Like I said, we say writing is revising, and not just revising, but you know, planning, drafting and revising. It’s a process. And there are many steps between the final product and the starting point.


And so, following these steps can help anyone achieve great writing success. It does not matter how much you know about punctuation or APA off the top of your head. If you know where you can get information, and you have developed a habit of looking things up and being careful, you can nail it. And I think generally, this is something that many students can use in many different aspects, not just writing. That it’s okay if there are shortcomings. Know that there are resources out there and that it’s about using those resources and constantly working on your skills to gradually improve them. No one expects us to get things right the first time. The real answer is knowing strategies and using resources to keep improving your work. It’s not about knowing everything, but knowing how to find out.


Rebecca Gagan: I think, I mean, one of the things that you’ve just said here is so important, I think for students, to really take in, and I say this to my own students, but when you said: First of all, no one expects you to be perfect and to have it all figured out, right?


When you start the work of engaging with academic writing and trying to do that, especially when you’re new to the university, and I would say, as you’ve said, it doesn’t just apply to students for whom, you know, English is an additional language or international student, but many students enter into university feeling this pressure as if somehow they should already know how to do this work of academic writing and get it perfect, like the first time. And so, I certainly say to my students, “no, like. We get it. Like we know that you have to learn these skills.” And so, this is why perhaps assignments are low stakes, you know, tailored so that students have room for error.

And I think something that you’re getting at, Kaveh, that is so important, maybe you can say a bit more about this is that, as a way of sort of combating imposter syndrome in a way, that you’ve talked about, it’s a kind of compassion for oneself where you recognize that you can make mistakes; that you can be imperfect; that there’s so much room there. I love the idea of revising, right, and the super reviser that you can take that approach to your studies as a whole and to your life, right? That you’re constantly, bit by bit, working to make changes to improve. I’m just going to start thinking myself as a supervisor in all aspects, Kaveh.


Kaveh Tagharobi: Exactly. Like I said, it doesn’t really have to be able to have it writing. I come from a writing background, and this is how I think, and this is where my examples come from, but it can really be in any aspect of, you know, university, work or even outside of that; knowing that we can take things one step at a time and access resources. That’s the other very important piece, you know? Not knowing is not a sin; not asking a question might be one. You know, you have to get out there and see what’s available, get the services of– know the services that are available and then start accessing them. And then, little by little, and you know, step-by-step, you can create something, build something. And that’s the idea.


Rebecca Gagan: So Kaveh, what would you maybe say to students who are unsure, you know, nervous to ask for help or you know, in the position that maybe you were in when you first came to UVic from Iran and sort of grappling with that feeling of not being good enough for suddenly doubting yourself. What kind of words might you offer to a student, whether they’re living through the pandemic or even if this is a another time, which we hope that different time will come sooner rather than later, but I’m just wondering what kinds of things you might say to that.


Kaveh Tagharobi: Well, first of all, I want to say you’re not alone. And a lot of us might feel that way, and getting help is not easy. I just want to say that I understand that you might struggle in the beginning to access resources. That’s what happened to me, like simple things. Like I said, asking questions getting help from the services available. As I said, I was a teacher for years, and I actually taught before coming here. And I really thought I was supposed to know everything, so I did not get help with my schoolwork, especially as an English major. I remember in my first term at UVic, I had many questions about writing papers, and I knew there was a writing center, but I did not even consider going there. I remember eventually I emailed an upper-year grad student in the English department whom I knew and was working at the center at that time. And I asked them to send me some sample papers. I mean, I really could not bring myself to go and get help when I needed it only because I thought I was supposed to know the answers and different people might have different reasons for not getting help, but that was mine; and that was for getting help from resources outside the course, like the writing center, but I even had reservations about getting help from inside the course, like from our professors, especially because of different academic cultures and the rather limited availability of faculty in Iran.


I was always worried that I would be quote-unquote, bothering my prompts by asking them too many questions. I remember emailing Steven Ross, who was, by the way, one of my best teachers and mentors in the English department. And at the end of the email, I apologized for asking too many basic or obvious questions. And he said that he’d rather answer questions now than have to mark a paper that simply proceeded without knowing what to do later. And that he actually wished more people would ask first instead of waiting to see if they got it right later, and this really stuck with me. And not only did it help me to start getting more regular help, but to this day, I try to have the same approach with my students, trying to show them that their communication is more than welcome. It’s encouraged and that no question is too small to ask and that we are here to help them. And I find that students really appreciate this too.


Rebecca Gagan: Yes. And I think– I love this story of, the wonderful Steven Ross, you know, just reminding you and encouraging you to ask questions. I think sometimes students don’t feel that we understand, and that’s what we’re here for. We’re here as faculty to answer questions, and we have been in the position also of being very nervous to ask questions, for fear that we might expose ourselves as, you know, not knowing enough or, and especially as a grad student, but certainly undergrads I know, feel this way too. That well, what if this is a silly question or a stupid question, or maybe there’s some sense that I should already know this. And so, I love these words of support, Kaveh, because I think it is so important for students to know this. And it can be about academic matters; it can be about all manner of things that, you know, we have office hours as faculty, and we love to see students there. And even when it’s over, if it’s over Zoom, but I really think that it’s too bad that there has been a way in which this sense of the university and undergrad experience has sort of just elided or repressed. I’m not quite sure what the word is here, but it absolutely is not the case that students need to know in advance of knowing, I guess, is what I’m trying to get at. That, and in all aspects, right? That this is where we come to learn and to think together and to ask those questions, which, as you say, are so crucial and the questions are so welcome.


Kaveh Tagharobi: Absolutely. And I will say, you know, ask for help. And ask for help early. Do not wait until the last minute, but even if you do always communicate clearly with what someone, you know, could be an instructor, someone in a place like the center for academic communication and clear communication is key–I might not know– they might not know that you need help if you don’t tell them. And in many cases, we know whatever the problem is, instructors and educators are ready to help if you contact them. So yeah, I love the name of the podcast, Waving, Not Drowning, because of the exact same reason. I was listening to the first episode the other night.


And I said this is exactly what we want to tell students both, as you know, an instructor in engineering 110, and also someone working at the center for academic communication. Please come out, and we will be there for you.


Rebecca Gagan: Yes. And so, the waving, right, and nobody needs to feel as you say that they are drowning and can’t clearly, you know, can’t ask for help and that we see you and we want to help. Well, Kaveh, I’ve so enjoyed our conversation today, and I’m going to be taking with me this, which I’m going to call a kind of metaphor, even though it’s both literal and figurative, of the super reviser. Just sort hold on to that as a really good way of thinking about moving, not just through academic studies, but also thinking about that approach to life as well.


So, thank you so much for being here. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, Kaveh.


Kaveh Tagharobi: Thank you so much for having me.


Rebecca Gagan: Bye for now.


In next week’s episode, I talk with Christine Sy, an assistant professor in gender studies here at the University of Victoria. We’ll be talking about finding your passion, the lifeline, and the arts of starting again. I really hope that you’ll join us for that conversation. You can stream Waving, Not Drowning wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can also find us on Instagram @uvicbounce. We’d love to hear from you, so please drop us a comment, share your ideas your thoughts, follow us, like us, and please do share this podcast with anyone whom you think might enjoy listening.


Until next time.


Be well.