Dr. Jessica Riddell & Dr. Pat Maher

This episode expands upon the project outline. How it took shape before 2019, was funded by a 3M Canada SoLE grant in 2019 and how its deliverable was modified and delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This episode also puts Pat and Jessica in the “hot seat”, answering some of the same questions that future episode guests will respond to.


for for joining us uh for the the narratives of failure and hope um this

is sort of an outtakes blooper reel or more uh you know just getting to know Jessica and I as we pull this project

together so this project is the result of about three four maybe even more

years of thinking on the subject of failure and vulnerability and hope and

growth and and all of those sorts of topics um and so Jessica and I were were lucky

enough to receive funding from the soul grant program through uh stlhe

um and as a result we got talking about all of these sort of difficult subjects

or or hidden subjects within higher education um and just as we were about to sort of

launch a wonderful project Along Came This Global pandemic so courtesy of covid-19 we’ve sort of had another two

years to think about this and think about what we really wanted as meaningful outcomes from this project so

not just a journal article or something boring like that or a conference presentation and that’s where we really

landed on this series of conversations this uh series of

um just discussions narratives riffing off of one another with with our colleagues

from all over the world and as a result of covid-19 we all got way more comfortable on zoom and and here we are

so the other piece that that Jessica and I thought about was it’s not really fair

to ask these questions of all of our good friends unless we ask them of ourselves so what you’re going to see in

the next uh the next few minutes is sort of a rapid fire succession of responses

to the same questions from Jessica and I and so I guess I get to go first with the questions

oh no yeah here you go so Jessica uh what keeps you up at night or what gets

you out of bed in the morning in relation to teaching and learning um you know are they the same thing are

they different things what does it sort of um showcase thanks Pat and I think that the answer

changes depending on you know the moment of of failure the moment of of um us on

a trajectory of of change and what I love about um you and I having conversations not

just with each other but also with 3m fellows across Canada is finding the outliers and innovators and normalizing

failure and despair as part of the process that it’s not a bug of the

process it’s not a flaw but it’s actually part of the system right as you go and you think how can I make this

better more inclusive more Equitable more just and then you you sort of get your your people together and you sort

of get something in in the works and then you go and try it and you inevitably or inevitably in my case get

shot down right or blocked or defeated and you sort of pick yourselves back up

because it becomes intensely personal when you believe that something is going to make the the lives

of students better or the lives of equity deserving groups better or the lives of your colleagues better

um you’ve got a lot to invest at you’ve got a lot of your sort of personal um identity tied up to making the world

a better place which sounds super Pollyanna but in fact is I think what we’re trying to do in education and

within our institutions and our disciplines so you know I think what keeps me up at night

is working through the the wicked problems the complexity of change and

and trying to figure out where those levers of change are and where inevitably we mess up we can’t imagine

the brick wall that we’re going to run into we can’t imagine the cliff we accidentally fall off and that’s the

thing that keeps me up at three in the morning um but the thing that gets me up out of bed is also that right this is a wicked

problem you’ve got to to name it you’ve got to understand the shape of it you’ve got to find a way to intervene there and

usually it’s a sort of like okay you felt sorry for yourself at three in the morning but at seven in the morning

you’ve gotta dust yourself off and and go back out into the world and try again

and that’s not an absence of howling into the abyss it’s like howling into

the abyss and then moving it into laughter into the abyss and just getting ready to to get back

out there so it changes the particular Wicked problem sometimes changes but

that like sort of cycle of Despair and hope for me is something that um that

recurs but what about you Pat like what what keeps you up at night and and what gets you out of bed in the morning I

think the thing that keeps me up at night is really how to juggle all the balls right so

it’s it’s this this necessity of flexibility right it’s the you know now that I’ve spent 17 years as a Prof

I’m looked at as some sort of educational leader and how do I juggle those balls or how do I solve the

problems also be inspiring keep my own mental health put together

um you know just all of those pieces together are what what keep me up at

night right just the Lots on your plate um trying not to drop it but inevitably

you will drop some of it and that’s the notion of failure and I and I feel you know quite quite privileged and I

recognize my privilege in this sphere as a middle-aged white man

um that that I have the privilege and the ability to to let some of these fall and pick them back up again and dust

myself off and and figure out how to make it better the next time because I

feel like what gets me out of bed in the morning is if I go to bed and I have all this sort

of like ah too many things on my plate what gets me up in the morning is the like aha I had a great light bulb moment

and now I know how to solve this and now I know how to solve that and it’s usually not for me it’s it’s something

else to assist someone else or uh or sort of modify something that I tried

five years ago or completely throw out something I tried last week it’s just

the excitement of trying new things that image of like the the balls in the

air and managing them and one of the best pieces of advice I got in the middle of the global pandemic managing

intense you know professional convergences but also our our personal

lives where we have young children where we have Partners where we have the complexities of just living in the world

and and um Shannon Murray a 3M fellow from 2001 said figure out which balls are rubber

and figure out which balls are glass and let the rubber ones bounce let them fall

and I just that for me was a sort of light bulb mom where I was like right most of them are rubber and in fact the

ones that are glass are as you say Pat your mental health your well-being the health and safety of your children and

of your family and to have enough resilience and enough energy in your tank to be able to get back up in the

morning and to try again well that’s that’s it exactly the enough in your tank to be able to get up and

and and and do it again because quite often it’s it’s the same thing it’s the same thing and and and having the

resilience to be able to walk through that door um when you when you half expect or or

just completely assume um that the same the same outcome is going to happen

so resilience I’m gonna pick up on that term because we have heard a lot about resilience over the last two years and

we’ve heard a lot about how to get gritty and bounce back and build back better and you know all of the different

kinds of phrases are around persistence or academic buoyancy often related to

our students and we don’t see the same conversations happening about staff and faculty members and administrators

but one of the the things I think that has shifted for me over the course of the last two years is

more attention or being at least more attentive to the narratives of resilience at the individual level and

shifting that to a systems level so how do we stop asking people to be more

resilient and get out of bed in the morning in deteriorating conditions and how do we actually reframe those system

structures and policies so people don’t have to be resilient we hear a lot about like how is the institution resilient

which usually means how is it going to continue to recruit and you know stay in the black and not post deficits but

that’s not what I mean how do you create systems that allow people to be

resilient and flourish in communion with one another and so that’s sort of sparked my thinking around hope

University and a book project that I’m working on but intimately related to some of the conversations you and I have

about failure and despair so if you were to build hope University with the idea

of resilience systems so individuals don’t have to be what are one or two easy low-hanging pieces of fruit that

you could just point to to say no this is where I would start to me the number one thing centers

around flexibility and centers on on humanizing the University right and that

that that could be everything and and nothing altogether but what I really

mean by that is just you know there’s a level of empathy that we’re we’re all

human I don’t know what’s going on in your life you don’t know what’s going on in my life but at the end of the day

do I need to keep you here until 4 30 when you’ve had to go jump through hoops

to get child care for your kid but if you left at four o’clock you that would be fine and or can I just be a little

bit more human and say you know what what matters to me this report this

deliverable I I I sort of you know if you send me an email at seven o’clock at

night because that’s when it’s easiest for you because you’ve put your kid to bed then then by all means and if you

had to you know leave the office from one to two um that’s what you had to do and and I

think we’ve learned some of that flexibility because the pandemic has made us learn that flexibility when so

many of us were working at home juggling kids in online learning managing all the

like constant runny noses that meant that they couldn’t go to daycare or whatever else we just realized you know

at the end of the day the university didn’t fall over when we started doing

Senate meetings on on Zoom the university didn’t fall over when we when we were more flexible and more caring so

why don’t we just do that from now on and and that could permeate all kinds of things like tenure and promotion

processes um you know teaching workload related conversations

how we position sort of research and travel and and things like that into the

day-to-day job of the scholar but what is your hope University look like Jessica

oh my God Pat you’re asking me as I’m in the middle of writing this book I am 40

000 words in so I’m feeling like I’m halfway through and I’m in the despair

stage because I think how in God’s name or God the gods the classical gods or

whomever you you yell at when you’re mad can can one person pull together all of

those different threads and it feels like syphus is sort of rolling that that big boulder up the hill and then having

to do it over and over again it feels overwhelming and so um I sit in in the discomfort of that

recognizing that no one human can build hope University that that hope has to build be built in as Paulo Freire says

in communion with the other so this entire project is animated by I’m I’m a

facilitator not a um the designer where I’m convening conversations with you and

award-winning Educators but also hosting hope summits and focus groups and workshops where we’re looking at it from

where people are so we’re going to where people are in their own context and asking them those questions so for me

that the fundamental is in communion with other Bell hooks says that healing can only happen in communion with in

with others and I I feel like part of the Hope University is to be able to sit in the discomfort of not

knowing sit in the grief of what has happened to us and of the recognition

that our systems right now are inhospitable that they’re impervious

that they are not welcoming that they are not built on our fundamental values of empathy compassion consent and

community that what we say we are as institutions of Higher Learning and how

we actually do that in practice there’s a gap there and I feel that that Gap is widening so the ways in which I

build hope University not just as a thought experiment but as a daily

practice and anchoring it in our everyday is to facilitate and bring into

conversation diverse thought partners and so you know that’s how you build it is you

build it where you where you are you meet people where they are and you give them trust and self-determination and

sovereignty and deep love and you ask them those questions and then you listen

and you listen with the intention to transform and how that that sort of manifests itself as you say can can

permeate every aspect of our institutions our structures our policies and our systems that’s everything from

do we grade to do we charge tuition do we um you know review people’s research or

contributions in different kinds of ways but we start with that values-based leadership and we understand

that we don’t know and that we have to start asking with some curiosity and Imagination to be able to do better

so I’m going to throw a question back at you though Pat I love your work on failure and I love

the work that you do with your cohort with the 3M fellows how you model it how

you are so candid in in spaces and you’re willing to have candid conversations in contested spaces and I

just I want to think about with you how hope doesn’t happen in the absence

of Despair it happens because of Despair it happens in our relationships and our

lived experiences with failure and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about maybe one experience of of failure

whether that’s in your professional or personal life um and how you sort of sit sit in the

sit in the discomfort and then how you how you manage it to proverbially

get out of bed in the morning and and keep going it’s a question that I’ve thought a lot

about but but I don’t want to use sort of the same examples that I’ve used elsewhere so I was just sort of trying to think of a new one and and I feel

like if if anything the the the covid-19 pandemic has taught us like a lot of

can go sideways right and and it’s pretty easy to get in a space where it’s

all down down down oh I hate teaching online oh there’s no way I want to come

back because I don’t feel safe on campus oh you’re going to make me teach in a hybrid or high Flex

um modality and so for me one of the big pieces um is is that you know I come from an

inherently Hands-On field-based um discipline right so I come from

outdoor education and you know jumping into the online

teaching sphere was never an easy sell but it was one that I stumbled and

fumbled and muddled and fuddled my way through for probably 15 years so I was in a pretty

good place when the pandemic came along trying to like Inspire folks or say well here’s a whole bunch of lessons that I

learned over the last 13 years that made things really difficult so don’t do what I do or don’t do what I did

um so so some of my failures were just around you know lack of Engagement with

the students in the online sphere which which has become better and better and and and I had a really good

experience about five years ago teaching an entire course on Facebook now this

was before Facebook got in trouble for all of their privacy concerns so it wouldn’t work quite the same now but it

was one of the most engaging courses that I ever had period face-to-face online anything because it was so easy

for the students to connect with the course material because like they would see something flash up in a

magazine on Facebook and pop that over into the class space and then 12 students would try to chat about it for

the next three days and someone else would pop something in there and you know that doesn’t even happen in many of

my face-to-face courses so it’s it’s really been neat just the ability to

experiment and the ability to try things out in little doses right like not do

egregious overhauls of courses but what if I did this and what if I did this and and I re and I recognized that some of

that comes from my positionality right as a tenured faculty member um who has gone through the system and

and in in many ways because of my 3M National teaching fellow oh that’s Pat

what he does must be good he’s allowed to experiment more so than others because that gives it some credibility

so so in a roundabout way lots of my failures in the online sphere

just led up to this like I it’s not a glorious moment but the

silver lining in the pandemic is the fact that you know I’d had some growth over a number of years because I wasn’t

afraid to take risks because I wasn’t afraid to fail yeah

so how about you same same question I guess or or a flip from the question

right like how have you grown from failures in your in your teaching or in

your practice well you know I think that I you know I fail and all the time and spectacularly

and I fail um you know I failed in my first year as an undergraduate I actually dropped out

of University before I failed out and I um was a very different kind of student

depending on the space and stage of my trajectory

um but you know the this is a lesson that the Universe continues to ask me to learn is to sit in the vulnerability and

to sit in the lesson and to transform and so you know just as you say well you know we’ve we’ve got privilege as 3M

National teaching fellows that we can play and experiment it’s also been a life-changing and

transformative experience to realize that what I know as an educational leader doesn’t always translate into

being a good boss and so how do you build a team thinking that you can use

the same skills in the classroom or thinking you can use the same skills as an educational leader but build a team

that is connected that feels supported trusted loved and mentored through

um this this difficult time so I I had a sort of deep failure as my first foray

into being a boss into thinking that it was just a mentorship of a student right

and reproducing those those Dynamics and those power relationships without being really intentional about them and so I

had to sit in that discomfort and sort of teach myself organizational behavior

and how to be a boss how to manage a team how to develop a team how to create

Communications how to have social norms that are respectful and joyful and

mutually enriching for everybody and so I learned and grow grew tremendous

amounts over the last two years as I sort of had to unlearn some of the things that I

learned as an educational leader and as a pedagogue but had to sort of really rethink in terms of what are the

logistics of building a team and you know having upskilled conversations

for bad behavior and how to do performance reviews and evaluation in ways that are generous and and joyful

and but also difficult and so um I’ve grown tremendously and I have a

chapter in The Hope University book about why transformative leaders sometimes make really bad bosses and I

speak about that in my own and to sit with that vulnerability and just sit and

listen to these podcasts about like yeah okay how do you do this how do you make sure that shame isn’t baked into the

walls as you’re running a hundred miles an hour in One Direction has been a

really really powerful learning experience but it was grounded in failure and despair and heartache and

then the vulnerability to be able to transform through that process it’s really interesting that you say that

Jessica because I feel like this is another um large-scale fault of our current higher

education system which is you did a PhD it was about research and now we plunk

you into a place that is not 100 about research it’s about research and teaching and service and a million other

things but it’s also the the piece about you know as one grows through their

academic career and they’re expected to be a leader or an administrator or a

boss us right we don’t necessarily give people the appropriate tools to be able to do this and and I’ve only recently

realized that there’s a lot of value in you know executive education courses and

things like that that really speak to that job to which I am now expected to

perform at at a university I’m not in the classroom as much as I would like to

be as the dean of teaching I’m not doing as much research as I would necessarily

like to be as an as an active scholar but but my training has never taught me

these sort of these sort of skills and so I I think it’s uh

it it is a conversation about not necessarily about failure but about vulnerability what what do I not know

that I don’t know yeah well and you know Pat part of the thing that I started to

do to sort of own that discomfort is I took up a hobby in covet I started to

paint and I started to paint without any background in um art and without any

training and without any classes and I had bought my kids a bunch of acrylics and and canvases they were four and six

when the lockdown happened and so we spent a lot of time together getting creative I thought let’s let’s do this

let’s sort of uh and I’ll sit next to them and be a learner and so as I started to make bad art and I I have to

be bad at it like I have to be it has to be something that I can’t master because

we try to master things like in higher education right we’re over Achievers I had to sit and be bad at it and I was

listening to a series of podcasts as I was painting and one of them brought me

to tears because it gave me a language that I didn’t have before and it was brene Brown’s podcast episode on daring

versus armored leadership and what I realized in higher education is we create armored leadership that

everything has to look perfect it is a product it is impervious it is rigorous whatever that means rigorous also is

rigor mortis right it is inflexible it is inhospitable that it values lines on

the CV but doesn’t teach us how to do the human stuff that we need to to build

communities of practice and so Renee Brown was talking about how daring leadership which is brave and messy and

vulnerable and open and full of hurt but full of failure comes up and collides

against armored leadership which looks for metrics and rois and shiny two-page

reports by Consultants being paid exorbitant amounts of money to tell them things that they’re going to discard

and what we’ve done is because people have been as you said sort of promoted

through the ranks in ways that they’re actually promoted beyond their skill set you know

neuroscientist is not taught about you know um emotional and social intelligence and

building a team around performance assessment or a chemist is not taught how to run collegial governance at the

Joint you know table around a grievance and yet we’ve promoted these people into

positions where they’re deeply uncomfortable and woefully ill-equipped to manage the the human nature the human

formula that is our our institution and so um often they reproduce armored

leadership because that’s what they see and they see those systems and structures and and use those to bludgeon

out the human and so you know I could look at that and be like oh you know those those silly people or those un you

know uninformed or critically unreflective humans and then I go and do it myself right where I’m like

educational leadership makes me a great leader in any context it doesn’t translate and so I think sitting in that

and being vulnerable and not and asking people to think about that wherever they

are whether they are you know Junior faculty member of precarious contract faculty member a first-year student or a

president of a university to think about those those concepts of vulnerability and of critical reflective

practice and of modeling that has a huge knockdown effect on everybody else who

are like oh maybe maybe I can also admit I don’t know this and I need to work on

conflict resolution or upskill for difficult conversation or build my my

wheelhouse and project management or change management and so there’s a lot

of as you say there’s a lot of places where we’ve got to be able to say we don’t know we don’t even know that and

and I think the strength there is really in the reflective piece and being conscious of you know I think about

um when I teach my classes I I don’t go in there trying to be the sage on the stage right and and I don’t do the

flipped classroom because it’s the new sexy buzzword that’s come out of you know left field I sort of I teach

because of the way that I had great teachers right and so you know try try

to do what they did that that I found valuable and and and not do

um what they did and I found to to not be of value I feel like

the more that we can say you know I don’t know the answer I’m not sure I’ll

try to figure it out I’ll take some training in that heaven forbid as a faculty member I might actually ask a

staff member who that’s what they’re good at um you know I I think these are the conversations that we need to have in

higher ed and and if anything um the pandemic has has pushed us a

little quicker up that hill that then then we otherwise would have

so final question then and this is one that I haven’t worked out because we’re not yet post coved but the intersections

between failure and hope of of Despair and of learning and of transformation

we’ve changed dramatically in the last years and I think you’re right we’ve accelerated our our sort of learning

processes how has this changed if you can think about sort of pre-covered present

circumstance and then looking towards a post because at some point we’re going to be posting right like give me some

throw me a bone here of hope that we’re gonna like move into that space that if we’ve got those three stages for you

what is what or how is the relationship changed for you between failure and Hope

that the global pandemic has taught you I I feel like

um I feel like I’ve become more hopeful through this Global pandemic not and

maybe that slightly changed given we’ve now got the the situation in the Ukraine and and things like this but I think

related to the pandemic I feel like I’ve become more hopeful because

you know I recognize we were all in the same storm but we were in different boats and my boat was pretty good right

like I I held down a job and my family stayed happy and healthy

um and you know I could work from home and and things like that so so I feel

hopeful that some of those wonderful traits like flexibility of working

um work from home uh Etc will continue I think

I think it’s maybe more so changed my outlook on failure though because I kind

of don’t like apart from the gigantic colossal failure

that you know like a building exploded or something like that most failures

I wouldn’t call failures anymore they’re just stops on a spectrum they’re stops

on a bus route they’re they’re uh when this happens it was a minor mistake I

tried this out it didn’t work um they’re just they’re they’re

yeah they really are like bus stops going up a hill towards the the end goal

and so that really I think has has changed because I would have seen some things as you know minor failures or

major failures but to me failure is something that I now would would reserve

for the big the colossal yeah and I think that that for me as

well that it’s a failure of imagination a failure of critical reflection a

failure of critical empathy a failure of challenging the actual in the name of

the possible for me that’s that’s failure it’s not the lumps and bumps and

messes and and you know brick walls that I just mixed all of my metaphors as a

literature Professor they’re just super fun but I think it’s it’s also about like it’s about creativity right it’s

about it’s about just like this thing happened and and past Pat would have

said oh my gosh that’s a big issue but current Pat says well how can I spin

that or how can I roll with that or or what does that bring to the table that’s good and then that takes future Pat to

to a much better place because you know if we never failed then you know that

would be the most detrimental piece I agree I agree and you know I I’m I

think the answer to that question about how is covid changed the way in which

our our relationship to failure and hope has has manifested I am so much more

attentive to how people tell stories about things and how they narrativized

their place in the world and the place that they’re going and so I’m really attuned to critical hope which as you

say acknowledges and invites into the conversation transformation and discomfort and says hey guess what we’re

just figuring this out as we go and we are adapting and upcycling and changing

all of the time so critical hope for me is marking the space for our transformation and the discomfort that

we know comes with that it always hurts when you when you evolve when you transform evolutionary biology

in stories and play is it hurts when we transform but that doesn’t mean it’s a

bad piece it just means we have to Market and frame it and so for me the failure is if we

go back to normal and we tell stories we tell narratives that are for me um I’ve

called them toxic positivity that we refuse to acknowledge that we’ve learned grown transform and hurt and if we can

assure those narratives because that’s that’s the easy thing right let’s go back to stasis let’s go back to what it

was because maybe it’ll hurt less if we can go back to normal and that isn’t

possible well and I just think so there so there’s there’s two quotes from Nelson

Mandela right who’s arguably sort of someone who’s lived through the most in

our time and it’s probably one of the greatest storytellers too and the fact that we are in higher education I think

just speaks to these quotes right so education is the most powerful weapon which we can use to change the world

right so let’s let’s use it let’s figure out what we can do with higher education

and move forward and change the world for for the better but also we have to

think about the fact that the greatest glory in living lies not in Never

Falling but in Rising every time we fall right and that’s the little bits and pieces of picking yourself up dusting

yourself off and moving along to the place that you want to be yeah and creating systems where somebody will

give you a hand and pull you up and a system will allow you to fail and bounce you back up right so that yes there is

an importance to cultivate resilience as an individual trait but we have to think

about the systems and the the entire ecosystem that makes that failure safer

more transformative less dangerous so that you can go on that Journey both as an individual

and in communion with others and I think that that is something that we’ve we’ve

learned and I think resonates in our conversation is that we can’t do this on our own we have to do it in conversation

with others we have to do it with compassion and consent and a deep deep

um honoring of our communities in all of their diverse and inclusive spaces and

and intersections so Pat thank you we there we are we we

did it we asked each other the questions I’m so excited as we go on this journey

as we Embark upon it what we’re going to learn and what kinds of threads we can pull from people in really different

spaces in different kinds of models of institution large and small comprehensive research intensive but

also across Canada in Europe in australasia and in the global South and

I’m just so grateful to be able to learn alongside you on this curiosity driven

Adventure excellent well it’s a wonderful journey to be on

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