UBCO Professors, such as George Grinnel, are unequivocally, irreversibly, and inevitably as human as us.
This week in A Day in the Life, I followed English and Cultural Studies professor, George Grinnell. Besides his dog named Charlie, George has a BA and MA from the University of Guelph, and a PhD from McMaster University, where he specialized in Romanticism and theory.
George’s initial plan was not to stay in university for that long. In fact, he just wanted to do a three-year general degree in Ontario and be out of university because he “felt really burnt out after high school,” as he “arrived at university without really knowing what [he] wanted to do.”
That plan failed though. As he often tells his students, “I was absolutely terrible at executing the plan I had when I came into university… I stumbled into English, and all of a sudden, my jaw dropped, and I didn’t realize that there were people thinking about these sorts of issues, thinking about ideas that I had been thinking about independently, thinking about the sort of social and political involvements that arts and culture can have… I very quickly discovered that I loved what theory was in English and so, I didn’t really succeed at my effort to do three years and get out.”
He has been teaching at UBCO for 12 years, falling in love with the natural beauty of the Okanagan valley, if not so much with its political views. George was brought up in a “hippie-centric progressive city in northern Ontario, so that culture is very different out here.” He continued, “many of my neighbours [in Kelowna] are very conservative in their mindset.”
I first met Dr. Grinnell in a second-year English class on critical theory. This is, up to date, one of the most difficult classes I’ve taken in university and the one that made me fall in love with English. A lot of that had to do with George. It had to do with his understanding and non-judgemental nature towards a scared first-year that was in way over her head.
When I asked what his favourite course was that he has taught so far, and he has had some really interesting ones like DIY Punk culture and NBA narratives (next semester), he surprisingly said Romanticism and Friendship, a course I had with him. Not only is this his area of expertise, but he claimed that “I’ve never had as much fun, walking into that classroom and knowing how ready everyone was to work in this particular area, an area that most people in the room had no particular affinity for…but there was just this remarkable electricity in that room and I think it had less to do with the course, certainly less to do with me, and everything to do with your cohort.”
I think you can gather by now the sort of compassionate professor George Grinnell is. Not only that, but he is well-known on campus for his mental health advocacy and because he usually teaches a first-year English course, which we all get to take.
The way these articles usually go is that I will try to narrate a day in the life of the interviewee with my voice interjecting on their narrative ever so often. However, if I did that now, I would not be honouring George’s power with words, so I’m just going to let him take over as he tells you about his hectic Wednesday.
“Most days start more or less the same. After the alarm clock goes off, I am heading out the door with the dog for a walk. It’s about a half-hour walk or so. I never know exactly where we are going to go. He gets to pick the route in the mornings… usually we end up saying hello to a few deer and some other wild animals along the way.
Then, we come back and we are just making coffee, things like that…After that, this particular day I did a quick workout before coming to work and then I am usually dropping Charlie off at Day Care along the way. And then showing up here, and the first thing I usually do is check my email, putting out any fires and addressing other matters that require immediate attention.
I am then probably starting to get prepped for class. This is a new version of English 153 that I am running right now, so a lot of the lectures are either new to me or they are ones I have altered significantly from earlier forms. Usually, I’m not doing a full class prep the day of. Usually I am just going over notes I prepared, perhaps two or three days earlier, when I have a bit more time to think about what I want to do for the class. But in the hour before class, I am just looking to go over the PowerPoint, notes, and make sure I know what I’m going to go in there and say.”
Profs have to think about time management too —perhaps we should learn a bit from them (just saying). George’s class runs from 11:30 am – 12:30 pm.
“The end of the class is weirdly, usually, the most enjoyable part of the day. And what I mean is that immediately after the class ends, I get students coming up to talk to me and I think that’s so exciting. Especially in a 200-person class, because it is really easy to not be engaged, right? To sort of just look at me as one more screen in your day, and you are just watching something happening. So, when I get a number of people coming up afterwards, that’s really rewarding and it tells me people are engaged.
I have office hours immediately after class, this particular day doesn’t end quickly at all. After those office hours, I have a meeting with a hiring committee. So, this is a committee of my colleagues and we are looking to, at that particular meeting, create a shortlist of candidates for the position we are going to hire for on this campus. We had all gone through, I think about eighty applications or so, and this is a very substantial process because we are academics, we like to write things, we like to provide a lot of content. This is looking at cover letters, CVs, looking at samples of their research, letters of reference, and teaching statements... things of this nature. So then we get into a room and we all have our shortlist and we try to see where our things mash-up.
Surprisingly, what emerges in a meeting like that is a fair bit of consensus, more than you might expect initially given academics and how much we like to argue. It’s always interesting to go into those sorts of meetings and discover where and how people are reading different files and things of that nature. I always have these kind of utterly irrational responses in these sorts of meetings where I very quickly decide like, ‘oh my god, I can never work with this person again, I can’t believe the things they are doing and saying.’ And then I have another person in the meeting, ‘you’re the most beautiful person in the world. I want you in every meeting I ever have.’ So, it’s interesting. I know I’m entirely irrational this way… that’s kind of how it works.
And also, at this particular moment, reviewing some copy-edited proofs of a book that I have coming out. And so, after that meeting, I am coming back into the office… and what I’m doing there is I’m looking at what an editor has suggested to change with a given chapter, so I have a couple of things I have to do. First, I have to go through and see everything they’ve changed to make sure I’m okay with that or [if] they have questions about something, I can answer those questions and make changes if they are flagging something. Then I need to read through the whole chapter to make sure it makes sense… and that’s about the end of the day at that point.”
Hectic, right? A lot of work, a lot of what you’d expect from an English prof, but some things that perhaps students don’t think about when they look at their professors. I was particularly caught by the fact that George has a “religious” workout routine. I asked him if this was part of his well-being and he replied, “Workouts help a lot. I am pretty religious about doing that. I have a 7-minute workout that I do religiously every morning. I try to do a workout with weights at some other point most days. This time of year, when things are especially busy, time not working is spent doing something physical, something active. I find that so important.
I try to sleep as much as I can and I also try to put some boundaries around work. Those boundaries might be pretty wide sometimes, but you know, it might be that I am still checking email at 9:30 at night, that’s not unusual. But I do recognize that come 9 p.m., 10 o’clock, that I need to shut down, so I give myself that space to wrap things up. Other times of the year are not quite so severe. But this time of year, you know, the sun is shining, we are making hay. It’s time to get busy.”
After telling me about his day, I was interested in knowing more about what George the person looks like, rather than George the prof. It’s weird to think that these two are separate entities, but this is how he understands it: “There is definitely two different personas there. I hope and I work really hard at trying to do this, especially in larger classes; I hope I’m human in those spaces. I have an ongoing fear that I’m not, for a number of reasons that I’ll explain. But certainly, who I am in the classroom is a version of me, but it’s not all of who I am in that I recognize there are certain ways of being who I am that simply aren’t going to be particularly useful in that classroom.
So part of who I am that’s really important to me is a sense of my roots in Punk culture, and while I have the opportunity to teach some of that in upper-year classes, that’s not something I’d say I’d generally display, you know?
I’m a very meticulous and organized person. I think that’s important, I think that’s especially important when I’m working with TAs in a first-year class. I need to make sure that I am supporting them effectively and that I’m prepared both for undergrad students and for those graduate teaching assistants. As a result, I think I can sometimes come off as robotic, as having an impossibly high standard, because that’s what I might hold myself to. But I certainly am, I think, no different from anyone else when I’m outside of this job.
I’m not working all the time. I’m working a lot right now, but there’s a lot I really appreciate about the opportunity to work hard because it means that I can work less hours in the middle of the summer. I can decide if I want on a Friday afternoon to go for a hike with the dog and know that I’ll get the work done on a Sunday evening.”
There are so many things we assume and so many things we don’t know about the people that spend their time lecturing us and answering our academic questions. I don’t know if this happens to anyone else, but can’t you just imagine a professor listening to classical music while they correct exams? I can, but I couldn’t be more wrong.
“I absolutely love going to concerts. I wish I could do that more than I get to these days. A lot of bands I want to see are not necessarily showing up in Kelowna, and that makes things a little bit trickier. Listening to music is still something I do routinely. I can always remember my partner talking about how she knew when my writing is going particularly well because she would hear my feet tapping to whatever I was listening to. I’m such a kinetic thinker that way, I find I need to move around and teaching is wonderful for this.
What kind of music? Mostly loud, I’d say. Still lots of punk music, lots of aggressive-sounding music that still speaks to me in all sorts of ways and yeah, a lot of independent stuff as well. Anything in a kind of punk, hardcore, even metal spectrum is what I love.”
Something else George loves doing is being active, “So, going for a hike on a beautiful day is fantastic. There was a time probably in my teens and twenties when I would see my parents going out walking all the time. What are they doing? Why is this interesting? But I now understand walking and hiking to be much more of a kind of meditative experience. It’s something I really value and appreciate. I sometimes run into bears during hikes and I think that’s absolutely remarkable, because this isn’t something that’s going to happen most days—there’s something special about that, there’s something remarkable about that.”
What’s more remarkable is the way our interview ended and what I am going to leave you with. Professor Grinnell was telling me about his undergrad years: “That’s what I remember about the very best years of my undergrad is that it wasn’t about the courses we were taking; it was about the community we had built.”
I also asked him to tell me about a crazy experience he had and I couldn’t have asked for a better anecdote that truly depicted George Grinnell, the academic and the human: “In the mid-nineties in Ontario, we were facing a provincial government that was slushing funding to higher education. And so, I can remember participating in protests around that and this was largely, not quite, but largely in a pre-internet era, so we didn’t have social media. What we had were phone lists, and I can remember getting a phone call the night before that said, ‘show up at the library at 6:30 tomorrow morning. We are doing an action’. You all had a list of who you were going to call and so you kept the phone going all night long, connecting with more people, bringing everyone out. And to protest particular cuts to education, we locked ourselves in the middle doors of the library. We had brought bike locks that we put on the doors so that the doors couldn’t be open with all of us inside. So that was something crazy that we did.”