This month’s Thriving Faculty interview is with Gary Schajer, Professor of Mechanical Engineering in UBC’s Faculty of Applied Science.
Thriving Faculty is a regular column highlighting UBC Faculty who exemplify integration of health and wellbeing into their classrooms, research, departments and communities. Thriving Faculty support others in their health and wellbeing, in addition to making a commitment to their own self-care. This column highlights personal and professional stories of Thriving Faculty.
What are central challenges you face in your role as Faculty?
I teach three large undergraduate courses within Mechanical Engineering. As in every other part of the university, the class size has steadily increased over the years, now with 100-130 students in every course that I teach. I like teaching our undergraduate students because they are at a pivotal time in their lives when they are making the transition to independent adults responsible for their own destinies. I often feel like a gardener tending the plants and watching them bloom. Accordingly, it is my job to give our students good growing conditions. It can be challenging to try to convey one’s humanity within a large lecture class, and to give students effective guidance on how to think, not just what to think. I have to say that most of our students are very tolerant and are quite attentive when I talk philosophy to them. Actually, they seem to like it, just as long as I don’t do it too often.
Based on your experiences, please describe the relationship between student mental health & wellbeing and learning?
For several years I was the Undergraduate Adviser in the Mechanical Engineering Department. I got a lot of satisfaction from the job because I felt that among all the things that I did, this was the activity that had the most direct and human impact. Students face many challenges, commonly pressure of work and uncertainty in what the future many hold for them. The need to find meaning and purpose in their life path is a big issue. It is my job to give encouragement and reassurance.
Please describe the role of your own mental health and wellbeing in your teaching, research and service to the community?
Students are psychologists and they pick up very sensitively on the characteristics of their teachers. Within this context, what a teacher is becomes more significant than what a teacher does. This can be a frightening thought because who you are is the part of your teaching over which you have least control. In this respect, I seek to come to class with as positive and constructive mindset as I can because this very directly impacts the atmosphere in the room. Some days I feel “up” and the class goes really well. Other days I feel quieter and class can be a bit flat. Fortunately, our students are very tolerant and they cut me some slack on the off days. I appreciate this and seek to return the favour when marking their final exam papers. From those pages it seems that some of my lectures were not quite so clear.
Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote health, mental health and wellbeing?
In the past couple of years I have started attending various Wellness activities arranged within UBC. My most significant activities last year were two Mindfulness@Work courses on I took, both really helpful. I found that the mental focus that is encouraged by the Mindfulness approach significantly helps me handle tough issues. A group of us from the two courses come together every week for a communal meditation. Don’t get too impressed by this, we are just like-minded friends who take half an hour out of our week to sit together to do and think … absolutely nothing.
What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as Faculty?
Like everyone else, there are ups and downs in my life, things that go well and things that don’t. I make a point of spending time with positive and supportive people; fortunately several friends are very kind to me. I seek to do things that make me feel calm and contented, such as riding my bicycle on sunny days. The trip out along the Richmond dyke and then tea at London Farm is one of my favourites. Bernard-Paul Heroux was right, “There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea”.
Gary Schajer is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science. In the fall he celebrated 25 years of teaching at UBC. He often thrives, sometimes not, and mostly just muddles through. Gary was educated in Cambridge and Berkeley. At UBC he teaches Mechanics of Materials and Electronics.