In the wake of the OCUFA generously giving me one of their teaching awards, I was privileged to be interviewed by Share News, A Jamaican-Canadian magazine out of Toronto.
I’ve archived a PDF of the published interview here. But I like to keep the raw text from all the interviews that I’m a part of, and try to make that public whenever possible.
So in the interest of transparency, here is the full text of the interview:
Could you expand on the significance of this honour and how it validates the work you are doing?
OCUFA represents all the unions and faculty associations of professors in Ontario. To be recognized by them is to be granted acknowledgement by my peers. I see my work as a university professor as serving four stakeholder groups: first and foremost, the students; second, the taxpayers and residents of Ontario, who ultimately pay for our educational infrastructure; third, the employers and institutions in society who will eventually rely upon my students; and fourth, my peers, the other educators. To be recognized by one of those stakeholder groups, based in large part on the testimonials of my students, is, frankly, validation. It means that my philosophy and methods, while unusual in some eyes, are nevertheless acknowledged to be effective.
Where did your passion for teaching come from?
Frustration and example. Each of us was formed by our role models, caregivers and educators. The extent that I have been able to express excellence in my life is directly dependent on the efforts and qualities of those who invested in me, primarily the excellent teachers that I was fortunate to have.
In those instances where my teachers were not up to the task, I remember the frustration I felt in not being understood, or in being held back from exploring an idea or thought.
So, remembering both my own feelings of frustration as a student, and the excellent examples in my life, I feel a responsibility to try my best to save my students from similar feelings of frustration, and to be as good of an example as my teachers were for me.
You have been at the University of Ottawa since 2008. What attracted you to that institution and what is it about the institution that has kept you engaged for the last eight years?
I never intended to be a professor. I stumbled into it. I was serving as a Chief Scientist to the federal government, which is a fairly high ranking position. It was suggested to me that the title of Professor would be a useful asset, so I applied for a position mostly for marketing purposes. I was living in Ottawa, so the Universit of Ottawa was the rational choice. It was never my intent to be an academic, teacher, or full time researcher. But I was stunned by how much I enjoyed the teaching aspects of the job; and being a professor then became my primary job, and I continue to love almost every aspect of it.
What I like about this place is its students. They come to me wide-eyed and looking for guidance. I think we have a bit of a crisis in modern education, where we no longer have genuine mentors, senior people who look out for students’ education, as well as their larger life questions.
My vision of being a professor is of someone who is not just supposed to teach a class a particular subject. It is supposed to be someone who helps a charge move through the formal educational phase of their life. As a result, I’ve dealt not only with students’ specific learning challenges, but also when, for example, one of them was being forced into an arranged marriage, or was about to be deported to a foreign country to face torture, or was about to be evicted from her home, or was in hiding from a violent parent.
I was not expecting the multidimensional demands of the job, but I am happy to serve where I can.
You spent a almost nine years at U of T…How did that university shape your life?
I was lucky. I couldn’t afford to leave Toronto to go to university, as I was able to live with my parents in Toronto and save money. It was fortunate that the only university I could really afford to attend happened to be a world class institution.
I completed three degrees at U of T, and did my doctorate elsewhere. But, without exaggeration, I learned more in the four years of my undergraduate studies there than I have at any other point in my life… and I want my students to have that same experience!
In the first week of my arrival at U of T, one of the professors in my department won the Nobel Prize for Physics –John Polanyi. Later that year, one of the graduate students in the same department discovered a supernova and was put on the cover of Time Magazine. I thought that this was the normal experience of every university student!
To be honest, being a science student at U of T back then was a lonely and cold experience. It wasn’t until I decided to maximize my opportunities that things started to blossom for me –a strategy that I encourage my students to follow. I joined every extracurricular learning experience I could fit into my schedule, because I realized that this would be the only time in my life when I had the flexibility to be exposed to so much. At U of T, despite being a physics major, I studied archery, swimming, massage, journalistic writing, fencing, gymnastics, yoga, etc.
But it was the martial arts that would change my life. During my time there, I studied as many martial arts as I could find, ultimately learning 12 styles of combat. My black belt is in Shotokan karate. From that experience, it was not the physicality that left its impact, but the psychological impact. The discipline learned from enduring discomfort while striving for expressive perfection is a life skill that informs the rest of one’s life.
In addition, I learned something important about teaching from my karate master, Sensei Tominaga. He was a tough little Japanese man who, despite the implicit violence of the content, taught through love, not fear. We were inspired to be our best because we wanted his approval, not because we feared him. I learned that the affection and respect of one’s students is a prerequisite for impactive teaching, and that the way one obtained those things was to be honest and open and giving.
How do you combine your passion for teaching and writing?
I don’t see a distinction between being a writer, scientist, teacher and whatever else I am. To my mind, all actions in this life are steps down a path of exploration. When I write, I learn. When I teach, I learn. At a certain point, we each move beyond learning about the factual universe, and dedicate ourselves to learning about our true selves and our place in the universe.
To be a good teacher, I believe, you must know yourself. How can you presume to dictate to others, when you are unsure of your own identity, values, beliefs, motivations, and probable destinations?
Similarly, to be a good artist or writer, you must know yourself. The personal purpose of art, I believe, is to understand the self. To write for others is to access the true selves of an audience, to reach them in the heart of their innermost identities.
In this way, deep and robust teaching is no different from serious and heartfelt artistic expression, the type I strive to achieve as a writer.
Do you have any books forthcoming?
I just finished writing a textbook on the Determinants of Health, and have a contract to write a second edition of my International Health textbook. I’m also planning on e-publishing some smaller textbooks on similar topics, that can be released at vastly reduced prices for low income countries and people.
I haven’t had a lot of time of late to focus on my fiction writing. However, I have completed an adapted collection of South Asian folktales, which I hope to get out early next year. And I am about halfway through a new work of fiction, a collection of short stories linked by the theme of death and the afterlife. Sounds depressing, I know. But I promise it won’t be!
If you were to dedicate this award to someone, who would it be and why?
I dedicate all my awards to my parents, Walter and Sursati Deonandan. They are both intelligent people who are engaged with the world. But due to harsh economic realities and personal misfortunes, they were both denied formal educations when they were young. Yet they never failed to remind us that education is the most valuable asset in the modern world, and the surest way out of poverty; all of their five children have higher education, and two are even university professors –not bad for a couple who literally scratched their way out of bare poverty. They also continue to serve as examples of how, despite lacking formal higher education, we can all still better ourselves and be lifelong learners.