The lost art of being selfish

By Lauren Soluk, graduate student in DISE, shares an opinion piece on life lessons as a graduate student.

Attending a new university, I was eager to involve myself in graduate university life. As my first semester progressed, I choose to take advantage of all the opportunities that presented themselves. Ambitious, like many other graduate students, I had difficulty saying ‘no’. Studying a full course load, working, maintaining familial and social relations, all while trying to remain mentally healthy, began to take its toll. How much can one person handle?

Being me, and like many other graduate students who don’t want to say ‘no’, I took on too much. Saying ‘yes’ to every job opportunity that came my way proved to be my demise, which I would experience later in summer. In the summer, I worked a full time day job part time, part time hours with university departments, provided childcare at night, and committed to other familial obligations. By July, I had reached the point of exhaustion, self-inflicted because of my inability to say ‘no’.

For the first time, I felt like I failed, especially when I knew I let down those who relied on me. For someone who wants nothing more then to succeed in life, that was a difficult experience to go through.

The other day, I noticed a professor had the sign “slow down” taped to his doorframe. When I commented on the sign, he directed me to a blog post he had written to explain the meaning of the words (his post can be found here). The moral of the story was simple, despite the hustle and bustle of the 21st Century, we need to slow down and take time to appreciate our surroundings. We need to realize that work will always be there – something that many of us tend to forget.

When I lost my father two years ago, my life philosophy changed and I vowed to appreciate my life more and take time for those around me and myself. The hustle and bustle of graduate living seemed to take its toll on me as I soon forgot this mantra. This fact was recently pointed out to me when my significant other’s mother said, “Tell Lauren it’s okay if she can’t attend [Thanksgiving in Muskoka]. She has a tendency to overcommit herself!” I believe my summer experience with exhaustion, reading the slow down story, and recent reminder that I overcommit myself, inspired me to write this blog post and reconsider my actions.

Recently, for the first time, I was proud of myself. I had previously decided that I wanted to involve myself in yet another school activity but after careful consideration, I decided that I shouldn’t overcommit and extend myself. For the first time, I felt as if I put myself first. I was selfish!

As graduate students, we often forget that we are people first and graduate students second. Although it’s a competitive job market out there, it’s okay to say ‘no’. While some may read this and think, “No! You have to take every opportunity because it could lead to bigger and better opportunities,” I urge you to reconsider. I’m not suggesting that we should say ‘no’ all the time however, I am suggesting that we strive to strike a balance between the two. On that note, I want to end this post with one final thought: Whether you are a graduate student, a professional, or someone who is just busy, I want you to ask yourself, do you work to live or live to work?

MOOCs and pistol shrimp in the Sea of Cortez

By Marcy Slapcoff, Teaching and Learning Services.

I think this opinion piece from the New York Times  presents an interesting and original take on online courses. Are MOOCs so highly organized (curated, is the term the author uses) that they eliminate the possibility of learning anything that is not on the syllabus, anything that cannot be easily assessed?

Great face-to-face courses create situations where everyone, including the instructor, can tackle problems together and discover something new in the process. The author describes a field course where two of his students discover what makes the the popping sound in the Sea of Cortez (spoiler alert – it’s the pistol shrimp!) The course becomes a triangle between the instructor, the student, and the world and the learning outcomes are surprising and likely to be remembered forever.

I think there is the potential for MOOCs to be designed as inquiry-based instruction, but most of what is currently out there focuses on the delivery of content  above all else. Imagine MOOCS as arenas for global citizen science – a place where instructors could help their students not just figure out the mating calls of shrimp underwater but also  grapple with the uncertainty around them and deal with unanswered questions. Thousands of students could be mobilized worldwide to address  pressing issues while learning something at the same time. Wouldn’t that be exciting??

Photo Credit: Standing Watch by, on Flickr

MOOCs and human interaction

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

An interesting article by the president of my Alma Mater, David Naylor at the University of Toronto on the continuing need for interpersonal contact in the university educational setting. Here, he is commenting on the use of MOOCs (massive open online courses). To quote him:

“At U of T, recent curriculum reforms have deliberately leavened academic and technical skills with what one might call “renewable competencies,” such as critical thinking, effective writing and communications, problem-solving, teamwork, and ethical and social reasoning. These are competencies for a lifetime, for any job and for every citizen.”

This is also the raison d’être for McGill’s Inquiry network (

Naylor also says: “It’s hard to imagine nurturing such attributes effectively without some in-person interactions. It’s even harder to imagine how traits such as resilience or emotional self-awareness can be developed in an online cocoon with its pseudo-socialization. In contrast, if student A debates student B in a seminar, neither can reboot as their pet arguments get shredded. And the good news is that they might thereafter engage in civil discourse and discover the most important piece of human geography: common ground.

Also, here is a link to a lot of good articles on the risks and opportunities of online learning and MOOCs:


To lead or to manage…

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

Thought-provoking commentary on the use of metrics to evaluate academics. The most striking thing to me was how ultimately damaging they can be when (as they are now) they are used to run universities the way businesses are run. Who benefits from this? Students- no. Academics- no. Universities- no. Society- no. Both articles conclude that universities don’t need managers- they need leaders.


Student evaluations as customer satisfaction surveys

By Terry Hébert, Pharmacology and Therapeutics

Are student evaluations the best way for professors/lecturers etc. to get helpful and critical feedback on their teaching skills? In my time at two universities, after being evaluated by a large number of students- what have I taken home from these evaluations? Frankly, not as much as the few times that I have been evaluated by my peers- which must be solicited and can be time consuming. Student evaluations feel more like customer satisfaction surveys- sure there are some helpful comments but mostly it is uncritical complaining or just as bad uncritical praise. Why do we do this if not to give students some way to demonstrate their satisfaction/dissatisfaction as paying “consumers” of education? On the other side, the university also seems very concerned with the amount of grant dollars we bring in as researchers- rather than with the research outputs themselves. There must be better metrics to critically and constructively evaluate teachers and academics. I would argue that a meaningful, peer-to-peer system which has mentorship as a goal rather than customer satisfaction or dollar values of grants would really help us new and established academics get better at our chosen professions. Who has the time to do this though? I don’t know the answer to that but in the coming age of MOOCs, it will be education consumers rather than producers who will have more to say about this then ever before. Let’s prepare ourselves to be the best- not just to say we’re the best.


Back to Dewey

By Jennie Ferris, Teaching and Learning Services.

He is among the key educational philosophers of the late 20th Century, and until recently, I confess that I had only read about John Dewey and his ideas, and had not actually read his work itself. When I finally read Experience and education, I was impressed by how the themes, questions and challenges that he addresses remain relevant today, 75 years after the book was first published.

Dewey is categorical when it comes to the question of experience: “It is not enough to insist upon the necessity of experience, nor even of activity in experience. Much depends upon the quality of the experience which is had” (pp. 27-8). He recommends an organic connection between education and personal experience, but cautions that education and experience cannot be directly equated to one another, as not all experiences are equally educative. After proposing a philosophy of education “of, by, and for experience” (p. 29), he articulates the situated nature of experience – how it relates to the past and impacts the future, and how the environment and its level of authenticity can be expected to impact the nature of the experience and its usefulness.

He advocates for the learners’ involvement in forming the purposes that direct their activities in the learning process, and challenges instructors to “arous[e] in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas” (p. 79). Educators are encouraged to select issues “within the range of existing experience that have the promise and potentiality of presenting new problems which by stimulating new ways of observation and judgment will expand the area of further experience” for students (p. 75). This is consistent with Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development – a concept introduced just a couple of years before Dewey wrote this book. Dewey goes on to note the importance of building in time for genuine reflection after these experiences.

Finally, I was struck by the simple elegance of one of his concluding thoughts: “The educator should view teaching and learning as a continuous process of reconstruction of experience” (p. 87).


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Toronto: Collier-MacMillan.

Discussing what matters in higher education.