John Cranfield Interviewed by Evie Matyjas
I have a personal interest in the history of botany and the history of how humans discovered ways to domesticate plants and animals. So when I heard you talk about agriculture and economics in agriculture, I found that pretty interesting. So I was like “I want to interview that individual there.”
The one thing that I found in getting ready for our 150th anniversary is the conversations I have with people, and it doesn’t matter whether they were from the class of ’51, because we still have some alumni that are still around from that long ago. Or someone who just graduated, the connections that they have to this place that we now call the University of Guelph, is really about the people and the experiences that they had with people here. There are some traditions that we’ve lost track of - they used to have snow sculptures out on Johnston Green, during what we now call College Royale. So we’ve lost some of those things.
Do they still do the tradition of the President of the Agriculture school living at the President’s House?
I did a little blog post on that for my Public History class and I thought that was pretty cool.
So the way that we’re organized, we are one in the seven colleges of the University. The Dean of the OAC used to be a President until Guelph became a university in 1964.
And then the founding colleges each had a Dean and there was a President of the University. So the President’s House is for the President. We haven’t had a President live there since Mord Rozanski. So when did he step down? 2003, I think. He and his family actually lived there.
That’s more recent than I thought to be honest.
Yeah, they had a teenage son and there was a basketball hoop outside. And you know, you think about where it’s located by Lampton. If you ever get a chance to go in to the building, it is really…
I definitely am interested in doing that, because it’s pretty cool how it was built where, what’s that food place? Creelman’s.
Yeah, and then they moved it with horses and logs and they didn’t take any of the furniture out and they somehow…
They just picked it up.
That amazed me too. I could not, could not imagine that.
It’s those pieces of the history, of this place that I think really make it a special place. Like this part of campus around Johnston Green. You know, the history of War Memorial and the story of how OAC students dug out the foundation for that. You know - Mill’s, Johnston, Mac Hall which now has the business school. Some of the buildings beside the library. They all kind of bring the history of the place alive. To me, part of my job is working with our liaison team that goes into high schools to try to recruit people to come to Guelph. When I was back in my home department, as a regular faculty member, I was involved in managing our undergraduate program, so whenever we would have students on campus, it was a chance to engage with them. And to a T, whenever we get people on campus, they are like: “Well, I always heard you guys had a nice campus, but this is amazing.” The campus sells the place and the vibes of the campus. The vibe I get when I’m in the UC, when I’m in the library, when I’m walking around, it’s no different now then when I came to Guelph in 1988.
I definitely empathize with what you’re saying. So I originally started my undergrad at McMaster and I have nothing against McMaster, I think it’s a phenomenal institution, but something was missing when I was there. I had heard great things about the University of Guelph, so I transferred here. Also, I’m from Hamilton, so I probably wanted to move away from home, which is understandable. I like the school spirit here. The campus is just so beautiful, you have a good mixture of greenery, you have old architecture. Like you said, there’s just something about this school and the vibe that you get from it.
And that hasn’t changed, as far as I can, that hasn’t changed in the time that I’ve been here.
How long have you been here? I know you did your undergrad here. I did a little research on you.
So I came in ’88 for undergrad and then we moved to the United States in ’95 and came back in 2001.
Is that when you did your PhD at Purdue?
So I actually came to Guelph, because like a lot of people I wanted to be a veterinarian. I wanted to be wildlife veterinarian. Then in second year, I was like “yeah… this… hmm…” so I grazed that semester, took a course in history, took a course in accounting, took some courses in economics. And the economics, I really enjoyed.
Which is funny, because that is such a contrast from veterinary school. You have pretty hardcore math, looking at numbers. Totally different.
I ended up in an agriculture economics program. Transferred into that in third year and that was when I was like “I’m starting to get school.” I understood calculus. I had a way to explain calculus that wasn’t about calculus.
Like being able to explain it in more than just a theoretical setting.
I could use it to explain a discipline and the phenomena of a discipline. Which I really gravitated to, because you know in economics they talk about firms trying to maximize profit, in calculus you try to maximize a function. Instead of just thinking about a function, it’s about a decision. In my case, it’s about a farmer who had to make a decision about how much fertilizer to put on their land in order to try to get as much out and try to make money off it.
And then I also like from that perspective, you’re not just applying economics to maximize your profits, you’re actually doing it for a good thing. I kind of like that about your field. It’s my understanding that your professor recommended you go to an event or something and that’s kind of how you stumbled upon this field.
Wow, you have done your homework. [Laughs] So I ended up in co-op actually and did Work Terms of Agriculture Canada in Ottawa and I realized there that I knew what I didn’t want to do. So I’ve always been fascinated by agriculture policy, as long as I’ve been an agriculture economist. I thought maybe that’s what I wanted to do. So, I had a couple of work terms in Ottawa at Agriculture Canada in policy branch and thought “maybe not.” And then, in what ended up being my last semester, I was taking a couple of courses from a faculty member, who’s at the University of Alberta, she’s now retired. Her name was Ellen Goddard and she got me really interested in doing applied research. So applying principles of economics and commodity modeling and statistics to build models of agricultural markets to understand that if we took this policy away or put this policy in, what would happen? And I was kind of like, “Well that’s kind of cool. People get paid to do this?” I was like, “Wow, that’s fun.” So she encouraged me to go to what was called the Student’s Section of the American Agriculture Economics Association annual meetings. There were two parts to that. One was they had an academic bowl - I don’t know if you ever saw Reach for the Top?
I have not.
Okay, it’s basically teams of students from different schools against one another in kind of a quiz show format. And that was fun, that was a lot of fun.
That would be fun.
They also had a paper competition. Undergraduate students could submit a paper, go and present, compete. So I did a paper, I submitted a term paper that I had written in one of Ellen’s classes and I came second. And I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool, that’s kind of fun.” And so, by that point I was on my way to graduate school for a Master’s. I didn’t know where I was going to end up. The next thing I know, I’m applying for PhD programs and the next thing I know I had a faculty job. Now I’m here.
It’s kind of nice that you came back to square one, where you started.
Yeah… well there is a family side story to that. My wife was born and raised in Guelph. We met here in second year. I got married two weeks before I started grad school, which was interesting. The plan was always to come back to Guelph. Just because it was home for her, it became my home in the time that we were here. It is a great place to live.
It really is. I consider Guelph to be my second home too. I love it.
Yeah, like all cities, it’s got issues.
Nowhere is perfect.
Yeah. But Guelph really and the city as it’s grown really hasn’t change too, too much. I think if there has been change, it has been change for the good. You know, better bus service, more amenities. And so, the plan was always to come back to Guelph, we just didn’t know when it was going to happen. So my first faculty job was at the University of Manitoba and about a year into that job, a faculty job at Guelph opened up. And I was like, “I got to apply.” You know and it’s normally not good to be in a job for one year and go apply somewhere else, but I don’t know when this is going to happen again.
You have to shoot for your opportunities when they become available right?
So, I came back to Guelph in 2001 and I was pretty focused on a career that was going to be about teaching and research. About helping and working with graduate students on scientific discovery, doing my own stuff. Also working and helping undergraduate students with learning. Then sort of gradually over my career, got exposed to a little more leadership opportunities and responsibility and as you become a little more senior, there is a little bit an expectation that you did a little bit more [chuckles]. So I always say, “I’m an accidental leader, I never intended to be an associate Dean.”
I always feel that those are the best leaders though.
Sure, I’ll take that [laughs].
I feel like the individuals… looking historically, when you’re looking at leaders of countries and stuff like that, it’s usually the ones that never intended to be in that position or perhaps they are not so singularly ambitious towards it, so they don’t make selfish decisions, they make decisions that are best for the people. So I kind of feel that an individual in your situation is a strong leader.
Before I was a department chair, we were having some challenges in our department and having some conversations about what are we looking for in our department chair? I said, we got to remember that there is a department chair paradox. The person who wants to be the department chair, shouldn’t be the department chair, because they want to be the department chair. Who you want as the department chair, is probably someone who is really good at what they do, but you want them to keep doing that. So a good researcher or a good teacher. And you don’t want them to be the department chair, because you are going to take them out of the productive side of that role. But then I also learned, it’s about scaling the impact that you can have. So, I was effective in the classroom, I was a good researcher, my grad students won awards for the quality of their research. So you know, I felt like I was having an impact through people like that, but then I became a department chair and I realized, “Oh wow, you can have a much broader impact at scale.” And that’s part of the rationale why I wanted to become an associate Dean was, to have an even bigger impact. So you can start to think about you can affect people’s lives on a regular basis, sort of one or two at a time or think about leadership positions where you’re doing that dozens at the time or hundreds at a time. So it’s about that perspective and recognizing that you know you can’t do it all and you got to make sure that there are people willing to be a part of that process.
That absolutely makes sense. Do you have a history of agriculture in your family?
Short answer is yes. So on my mother’s side, her grandparents both grew up on farms in Southern Alberta. [Points to framed picture on wall] So that’s a picture of a place called Mountain View in Alberta that my mum took and that’s the terrain that my grandmother grew around.
That is gorgeous.
Grandfather was on the other side of Lethbridge. There is that familial connection. I have an uncle who owns a potato farm in Idaho. I have another uncle who is an agricultural economist. So I mean, it was there on one side of the family. On my dad’s side of the family, we had a branch of the Cranfields that ended up in Saskatchewan farming, but I didn’t grow up on a farm. I was always interested in how we grow food. The way I explain it to people who aren’t agricultural economists, I say, “I try to understand why people put the food that they do in a grocery cart, on a plate or in their mouths.”
Consumers really drive our food system. Producers can produce whatever they want to produce, but if it doesn’t sell, then it’s not going to sell. So consumers drive a lot of what is going on, recognizing that there is technology shifts that can shape the landscape. So I really focus on trying to understand that consumer piece. And because I am trained as an agricultural economist, I try to translate that back into the farm sector. So what does that mean? For instance, I did some work on enhanced housing for lane hens, so if you enhance the housing that they have, that they’re in, what does that do for them in terms of ability to exercise natural behaviours and all that. And how do consumers react to that? Lo and behold, consumers are willing to pay a little bit more, that’s not rocket science.
Costs a little bit more, but they’re willing to pay a little bit more.
Yeah and translating that down to the farm gate, by saying that if the farm price of conventional eggs is $1 and the farm price from alternative housing systems is $2, does that difference then give enough of a rationale for producers to make investment to convert their barns? Because they’ve got to face that cost as well. So they have to get paid for it. So it’s that translationfrom something that’s esoteric to consumers are willing to pay more but so what? Well the so what is: is this a profitable business decision? And people sometimes get uncomfortable with that. So you’re talking about profit in business in the context of food. The reality is, the food system is in the private sector. It’s not run by the government. So that is sort of what we have to accept, in terms of our food system.
These farmers, even on a large scale, they’re trying to make a living themselves and they need to be able to make profits to keep the business alive and to support their families. So I fully understand that. Little bit of a follow-up question to that. I really like where this is going, I also have an interest in this, so I’m a history and anthropology student and so one of my anthropology classes we just watched the video, documentary “At the Fork,” I can’t remember the rest of the name, but it’s basically about how consumer interests drive farming practices. It showed farms that practiced really unethical behaviours to maximize profits versus farms that allowed the animals to operate in their most natural behaviours, but they charged a little bit more, but the consumer was happy with that. So I was just wondering, how has the consumer’s preference for greater ethical treatment of animals evolved since you first started in this field? I feel like it’s become a more prevalent issue over the years.
It’s become much more mainstream. When I was an undergraduate, when there was a discussion about animal welfare and animals rights, it wasn’t thought of as mainstream and a lot of consumers thought, “I just want food that’s going to be relatively, reasonably priced, safe, wholesome and nutritious.” So they weren’t attributing or mentally putting attributes onto food that reflects how it’s produced. That’s very much changed. From AN animal ethics and animal treatment point of view, it’s really changed. And we’re seeing that in spades I think with the changes we’ve seen on the housing for hens, the evolution of codes of practice for handling and housing animals. I mean, I get frustrated sometimes because yes there are some people that do things that we wish they didn’t do and sometimes the things that they do are unethical and illegal. But it’s few and far between and what I see most, are producers who care deeply for the health and well-being for the animals that they have responsibility for. It’s not necessarily an investment per se, treated like an investment, this is about them being about who we are as a farm enterprise. That connection producers have with animals that are in their care and even land that is in their care, that runs really deep in agriculture. I think when in the past we heard about people protesting animal agriculture and confinement agriculture, producers’ backs got up, because partly their enterprise, their way of living is being questioned. But I think it kind of hurts too.
It does, because I feel like in a way, a lot of people take for granted what [food producers] do and they still participate in the industry as consumers, but then they will go freely criticize the way that farmers go about it and it’s not necessarily fair. They are doing a practice that most people would not be willing to do. So I feel like to criticize them so harshly is just not really fair.
Go and spend time with a farmer in the barns with him. You will see how much they care for their animals and the same applies to land stewardship. Do we want to sometimes see producers use different production practices that are going to keep more top soil and soil on the ground? Absolutely, but most producers also recognize that this is an intergenerational issue, that, that land is going to get passed on to their children or someone else and they want to make sure that they are that good steward. Food culture has changed dramatically in the 24 years that I’ve been a professor – we are very concerned about how food is produced. Free range poultry housing is a good example of that. Nutritionally, it really doesn’t affect the egg. Tina Widowski over in Animal Sciences will tell you it really doesn’t make that much of a difference. We as humans, place an attachment to that, because that hen that laid the egg, is doing what we think it’s supposed to be doing for that bird, which is being able to exhibit its natural behaviours. So we’re putting something that we value onto that food, we’re attributing something to those food products. We see it with animal welfare, we see it with local, the local food is a good example of that. We saw it a long time ago with the idea of slow food. The Slow Food Movement - I don’t think it is that big anymore - but that was eat what’s seasonal, eat what’s local. So we’ve seen all of these attributes sort of come and go in terms of what’s important. Now the big one now is sustainability and regenerative agriculture. I think what this reflects is people starting to see the food choices reflecting, they can see their values reflected in the food choices that they’re making. People also recognize that the food choices they make, can change the food system. They are marching with their feet.
Right, like I feel the consumer is more empowered than perhaps they were 10 or 20 years ago.
Yeah and the pendulum has started to swing, I mean if we were having this conversation 25 years ago, it would have been: price, taste and nutrition and food safety. We need to be careful, because there is a vast heterogeneity of consumers. But now we’re starting to see other attributes come into play that are more important. How are animals treated? Is this from a regenerative agricultural system? Are there farm workers involved and how are those farmers treated? So there are a bunch of ethical issues and broader societal issues that are being attached to food. I think part of that is a reflection of the fact that most consumers are at least three generations removed from how their food’s produced. So they don’t necessarily know how it’s produced, so we’re seeing a resurgence in the interest in that. I actually think we can thank or blame, depending on how you look on it, the Food Network. I don’t have a way of testing this, it’s not a testable hypothesis, so it’s a speculation. I think back to when we moved back to Canada in 1999, the Food Network was on and the Food Network then was a very different Food Network than what it is now. Now it’s all game shows. Then it was about cooking. You had chefs like Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver and people who were sort of hip and sort of doing really creative things with food. My generation, Gen X’ers, largely lost those kitchen skills, because our parents were both out of the home working and would probably have little kids. But the kids of Generation X got exposed to food and cooking from the Food Network.
That is an interesting hypothesis.
Where your food comes from matters. What do we see sort of 20 years after that? Maybe 15 years after that? A real strong rise in terms of, and I think there’s some intergenerational effects there, about deep caring of where their food is coming from and how it’s being prepared and who is preparing it and what understanding the story behind it.
I feel that is my generation that really drive this. I feel that it is usually people in my age group that they’re more likely to be vegetarian or vegan and just really care about the ethics of animal agriculture. It seems to be much more of a contentious issue when you’re talking about it with individuals from your generation. When you’re talking about the ethics, if I bring that up with my parents.
Or your grandparents.
I would never bring it up with my grandparents, because they don’t want to hear about it. Even the parents get annoyed by it right? So it’s really interesting the generational differences that we have.
It’s paradoxical because I’ve been saying this more and more frequently. The thing that weaves all of humanity together, that brings everyone together, now, in the past and in the future, is we all have to eat. You know Evan Fraser in the Food Institute, I think has said this. What’s the one question that we all ask ourselves? What am I going to eat today? So I find it paradoxical that you see some divisiveness around food and what is represents when really it should be something that brings people together.
I brought coffee because it kind of bring us together for our interview or if you go on a date, you go get dinner. Food is intertwined into our lives. I feel the best part of my day is when I have dinner. Food is just an innate part of the human experience and all organisms’ experience really.
Yeah absolutely. Sentient beings eat. So you know that’s the one thread that does weave us together. I mean we’re born, we’re going to die, I guess those things weave us together too, but on a daily basis, it’s that we’ve got to eat.
Okay, we haven’t even started talking about the pandemic. What was your job like when the pandemic started?
I have the role that I still have. I was Associate Dean for External Relations. I’m not teaching or doing much research anymore. My job as Associate Dean External Relations focuses on fundraising and alumni affairs: working with our alumni, working with our fundraisers to go out and bring in money for the College to support our people, our places, our programs. I had responsibility for our college communication team. I also had oversight and responsibility with our high school liaison team, so this was a team of a couple of staff members and a team of students that would go into high schools and talk about: here’s opportunities in food agriculture and communities in the environment, to raise awareness of the programming that we offer and the fact that there are lots of jobs in these sectors. I have responsibility of our philanthropically supported scholarships and awards. Then what the Dean would jokingly call “other duties as assigned,” which was a bit of a catch-all for some capital projects that we have going on, not the least of which was rebuilding our honeybee research centre. So there is a whole cadre of things that were in my bucket, none of them that were really deeply connected and a lot of that just sort of got turned upside down in the pandemic.
Yes I could imagine so. Let’s see. How did the initial shutdowns affect you? I could imagine, now I know the Ontario Agriculture College, because of the protocols that you guys set in place, really allowed you to keep researching. Can you describe some of that, describe some of the protocols?
Let’s talk about what the shutdown looked like. The protocols were not ours. They were the University’s. So we are one college in the University and the Office of Research worked with the Associate Deans Research and Graduate Study to develop research protocols to allow for continuity of research on projects that were either time sensitive or considered critical. We had some people in the Vet College for instance, they’re not part of us, but the OVC, who are working on vaccines. So very critical. For us in agriculture, we’re considered essential services and we had some time sensitive things. So that’s one of the things that I wanted emphasize. It was Malcolm Campbell and people who work with Malcolm, like the Associate Deans for Research and Graduate Studies who really set those protocols up and allowed us to have the continuity. I can talk a little bit more about that. Leading up to the shutdown, we were having, weekly and then twice a week and then daily calls as leadership of the University. So think President, Vice President, Deans, got down to my level, people from Student Affairs and Student Life. Different parts of the University, what’s coming? How do we prepare for this? You know the week before we closed, this would have been the week of March the 8th, 2020, there is just a flurry of conference calls around what we’re going to do. Then all of a sudden the decision: we’re going to shut down classes for the week, everyone is going to go to remote, we’re going to send everyone home. When we knew that was coming, basically it was a drop everything and what we need to do to get our team members ready to work from home. Does everyone have adequate access to the internet? Do people have computers that they can take with them? People saying, “Can I bring my chair from my office home?” Little things.
Yeah, little things that you wouldn’t really think about to be honest.
Yeah and I mean at one point I had a conversation with someone who was here in his office. He’s gone back to his faculty position and I was like, “So is thing going to be SARS? Is this going to be a couple weeks?” He knows quite a bit about science and he was like, “No this going to be weeks if not years, or months if not years.” And I was kind of like, “Really?” So I think most people when they went home were thinking it’s going to be a couple weeks.
I remember that.
We very quickly realized, “Oh, it’s not.” So it was about making sure that people are able to have the things that they need to continue working as best they can from home. In our office and certainly with my team, You know there’s a duty of care when there’s people working for you. So part of that was, young family with little kids now in the house. Do you actually have the time to do your job? And giving people grace and understanding and recognizing that they’ve got two little kids who would normally be in kindergarten and grade 3 and now they’re running around at home. That’s more important. So making sure there’s that understanding and that grace to give people the time that they need to adjust. There was also, we were really intentional on having initially very, very frequent check-ins with our team members, such as with people who report to me or who report to other Associate Deans and the Dean. On one part mental health check-in and one part just “How you doing? Do you need a break? Are you handling things okay?” You know, trying to normalize saying, “I’m not having a good day.” Trying to normalize, “I’m scared. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t want to go out of my house. I’m getting frustrated.” So really it was about supporting people one on one.
Yeah. I like the way you worded that, normalizing it, because I feel like before the pandemic, people didn’t really talk about that kind of stuff as much. I think [the pandemic] really increased awareness towards mental health.
Yeah, so the first few days were very much around, “How do we support people? What communication needs to go out?” And the communication piece actually became very complicated, because you have central communications, that is the voice of the University and we need to have our own internal communications that pushes message out to people in the College. What we’re doing was basically trying to amplify anything that was coming out of central communications, it was us saying, “It’s not us making policy, this is the University policy we’re pushing out to people.” Then also we have internal communications encouraging people, you know have the check-in, having the Dean send notes around, just casual check-ins with people. The other part of it is, Teams and Webex and all that was new.
Yes, I had never heard of Zoom before the pandemic right?
So a lot of it was just getting used to a new way of working. I remember one time I had to send a note around to my team to say, “Okay at one point today, two of you we’re talking to me on Teams on different chats, one of you was phoning me and texting me and another one was emailing me. I can’t look at four things at once.” So I was like, “Use Teams. Let’s just agree to use Teams now.” It just makes it a little bit easier. I think that helps with that attention management, because you’re under stress and when you’re under stress your mind, you’re in fight or flight mode and your mind is going to going in different ways. So if you can take one piece of that confusing, frustrating puzzle out, it’s going to make it easier to think clearly. So the focus was really on getting people settled, making sure they had everything they needed and trying to figure out the new, “How are we going to do this?” The other part to that was, “How do we do our jobs?” So my advancement team that does fundraising and goes out and meets with alumni. Fundraising is a very personal thing. It’s not phone calls, you have to be there with people meeting in person. We couldn’t do that anymore and we didn’t know how long we could that for. So it was about trying to find new ways of doing that.
What were those ways?
Some of it was old-fashioned phone calls, getting on the phone. Then as people became more comfortable using Teams, Zoom, and Webex, connecting that way. And this is one thing that I thought was really cool was that sort of the generation older than me, they got it. They embraced it. I’ve got, we’ve got some alumni who are in their 90s. One class, two classes in fact, OAC ’51 and ’53, they’ve had reunions every year since they’ve graduated. Including during the pandemic and they were meeting on Zoom.
That’s so cool. They were able to figure it out. I shouldn’t say it that way, I don’t mean it in a pejorative way, but you would think…
But I know what you mean, because we look at the older generations and we all have this perception that they are technology-adverse right?
It’s figure-out-able. So it was about trying to figure out how to use technology in ways that we couldn’t. Once some of the restrictions eased on eating outside, we would meet with people with outside. We were very careful about that. So you know basically we went from doing everything in person up until March the 8th 20202 to nothing after that for at least a year. It was really painful for our Liaison program, which is very much an in-person thing. They go out to high schools or high schools come to us and my Liaison manager was like, “Well what do I do?” And our approach was: “Well, there’s not going to be a lot that we can do to engage with teachers, because they’re trying to figure this out at the same time. So, the Liaison team had a bit of a change in terms of what they were responsible for. They ended up supporting central recruiting, by trying to get students, trying to help students that got an offer of admission to the University. We call that conversion. You get an offer, you convert someone…
Yes, I remember you bringing that up on the first class.
So the Liaison team had a complete change in terms of what they were doing, because it was going from trying to get a student to apply to now getting them to accept.
Because I would imagine that there was probably a considerable drop off in the amount of students that did ultimately convert right?
Yes, we saw numbers go down, but not as much as we thought.
No? Okay that’s positive then.
I think it was because it a full-court press. It was all hands on deck, how do we make this happen? It elevated to the point, where I’m on the phone calling people - we’ve got President’s Scholars or students who had applied to the College and they hadn’t accepted yet or could get a President’s Scholarship. I’m on the phone like, “Look this is $16,000, this is a lot of money, it’s really great support, it’s really recognized your excellence. I know you can’t come to campus right now, I wish you could come to campus right now.” Just sort of having that connection at a personal level as best you can. The loss of the in-person events with our Alumni was a real big challenge for us, but we figured things out. We ended up having a lot of virtual events. Same thing with our students – our students and student clubs, they do a lot of in-person events. Ours figured out how to go online.
So you adapted.
Yes, it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pain-free. I can only, no I can’t imagine what it must have been like being a student, because I’m just so far removed from that.
I’m fortunate that I was not one at that point. I didn’t have to experience…
Yes, but high school.
I’m actually older, so I’m 25, so I was here from 2016 to 2019 and then I dropped out for a bit. So I was working during the pandemic, so that was an interesting experience I got. This is my first semester back.
Okay, oh good. Koodos to you on coming back.
Thank you. Thank you, it’s been an amazing experience.
On March the 16th, we met with the executive from our Student Federation, this is the College’s student government. We said: “the University’s closing. Everyone’s going to be sent home. We don’t know when you’re going to be back. We need you to help spread the word to all the students to bring everything with you.” Our college has a lot of traditions, whether people like them or not, but a lot of them are geared around the end of that fourth-year experience. And these were fourth-year students and the look on their faces was they were gutted, because they knew they weren’t going to be able to prank the Dean’s office. They weren’t going to be able to do some of the other things that the other classes had done for decades and decades and decades. So they felt robbed, they literally felt robbed of that opportunity. My heart went absolutely out to them. The only way I could describe this was, “This sucks.” Probably said something a little stronger than that [laughs], but you know it was also about being there for the students to make sure that they have a successful transition out of the University. That they can recognize their success and their accomplishments.
I’m sure that being robbed of that experience will be something that they will always take from the pandemic. It’s definitely unfortunate.
I was also the Honorary President for one of the classes. So OAC class of 2022, they were in the end of their second year, when everyone got sent home. So they did their third year remotely. Then their fourth year was kind of hybrid. And I remember seeing some of them, it was September of ’21, that was when we had sort of a campus population back, but we didn’t really have a lot of people back. Some of them were in classes and they were like, “I’m just happy to be back in a classroom with people.” Then this year, you know even more so. The students that I’ve seen, the classes graduating this year were in first year when the pandemic started. So they knew what being a classroom was like and now they’re back in it. Because I think they saw what those other classes had gone through in terms of that lost opportunity, so I think they’re just really grateful that they’re able to complete their experience in a way that they’ve come accustomed to.
Right, it’s a normal university experience this year. Like I said, I didn’t experience the Covid-university experience, so I know what it was like pre-Covid-19 and being here this semester, it feels normal. The only difference is, you see way more students wearing masks. I don’t think I ever saw a student wearing a mask before, but now you see that. That’s the only difference that I can even gather.
So I started coming back to the office in August of ’21. So the President, was she President? She might have been the Provost, I can’t remember when she took over as President, sent a note around saying that faculty can go back to their offices. So I’m like “Okay, I’m going to go start going back.” I love my wife. We learned that we’re compatible in retirement, she could handle me being in the house, but I think we both knew that it was good for me to get back into the office. I started coming in gradually to the office and it was a light ghost town. Honest to God, it was like some of these dystopian horror films. There was no one around. And then in September of ’21, I mean I know I’m going completely off script.
No you’re actually segueing into my next question, so this is perfect.
So in September of ’21 when we had more students back, but everyone still had to mask, we still had to social distance. There was a lessening of some of the protocols, but what I noticed was, so normally on Labour Day, Mother Nature flips a switch and all the energy comes back to campus, because the students come back. September ’21 it didn’t happen and I remember coming into the office the Tuesday after Labour Day and normally that day the place would just be hopping. But the first day of class that Thursday, none of that.
That must have been demoralizing.
It was. It really was. It was like, “Oh my God is this the way it is going to be from now on? Or for how long is this going to go on?”
And you had that sense that this could go on for years longer right? Because we had already been in it for years and we just didn’t know.
And then I compare that to this last Fall, this September. This last September was what it normally is like. Which is, Labour Day, Mother Nature flips a switch and “Wow I forgot what this was like!” And especially having an office here right, because we’re in a student residence. So you hear students going up and down the hallway, up and down the stairs. You hear them out there [points to the window]. It was energizing. It was just so energizing and it was like, “Okay now I remember why I am doing this job. Now I remember why I loved working here. This is amazing, this is great.” And we didn’t have the restrictions like we used to have and so people aren’t being dumb and people are being respectful. If somebody wants to wear a mask, that’s your choice and I will never question that. Likewise, if I wanted to wear one, I would hope that people don’t judge me for that, because you don’t know my life. So I think that part of it, the return to campus has really, you know there’s the energizing bit, but there’s also the heartening bit of people coming back and being a little more humane, more human with each other. A little more understanding.
Well we’re social beings right? I gather you are too, I’m a very extroverted person and so when I had to separate from society like that, I felt very drained, I felt, it was very taxing on me to not be around people. So when the students came back, that must have just been so uplifting, I would imagine.
I’m actually the opposite. I’m heavily on the introvert scale. I fake it.
You fake it very well.
Where it comes in, I’m comfortable… my wife thinks I’m an ambivert, I’m on both sides of sort of the tipping point. If I’m in front of a class, it’s showtime. I love being in front of a class. If I’m at a party when I don’t know anyone, I’m the guy in the corner, sort of sitting there looking at my drink like, “Okay can we go, can I leave?” So in some ways, I don’t think the joke landed as well as I thought it would. When everyone got sent home, I was like, “Hey I’m an introvert, I’ve been training for this my whole life.” But it wore on me. My wife is an introvert as well and it does wear on you eventually. Likewise, one of the people I get to work with, she’s extremely extroverted and I could just tell how it was wearing on her. What I think’s happened through this, is that people have sort of, you know they talk about introversion and extroversion on a bit of a scale. Well I think people are getting closer to being in the middle.
Right, yeah. I think people that are more extroverted, perhaps they appreciated some of the alone time they got, but now they’re happy to be back. You know what I mean? And you got all the alone time that you needed, but then maybe you’re like, “Oh maybe I do miss a little of the interaction.”
You realize how much you appreciate and enjoy that interaction with people.
So yeah, you’re right. We’ve all kind of gone onto the middle. So this was, like I said, this was a really good segue. When people returned to the campus, did your work have to change at all?
That’s a great question. So my work changed when we went into the pandemic, because it was a drop everything and do what we had to, to support our team and students. So I was doing things that I would normally wouldn’t have done. I was working on stuff that I normally wouldn’t have done. About nine months, maybe a year into it, I started getting back to normal. So while it was all done remotely and virtual, we were getting back into the fundraising conversations. We were getting back into meeting with Alumni and so even before our return to campus, I was finding that I was getting back into what was the status quo. Even our Liaison program was because they were able to pivot from all in-person to all virtual. So they figured out how to use technology to their advantage. They created some digital assets that could be viewed on-demand, but then they also had virtual programming that they could share with a classroom. So they could dial into a virtual class and join them and talk about, “Here’s everything you need to know about why soil science is cool and why it’s really an application of physics.” So for me the return to campus, seemed like, okay I’m doing my job, but now I’m doing it from the office, rather than from home. What was different was, there were very few people around. So in some ways the thing that was weird, was that even though I was physically in the office, most of my meetings were on a computer because there wasn’t people around. And even when we were meeting, we had to be careful because there were still protocols that were in place around social distancing, around masking, we were very mindful of not compelling people to come in. The University had a slow burn, in terms of people coming back. So for me the big change was getting back to doing the in-person stuff. And in some ways, that was kind of like riding a bike I think. You just, you know if you haven’t ridden a bike for a few years, you know how to balance but you’re going to forget a few things and may be a little bit wobbly.
I would imagine the first couple meetings were probably a little bit nerve wracking, a little bit uncomfortable. And then you get back into the swing of things right?
We were very mindful about how we did this. When the province started to lift all of their restrictions, we started going back to having some bigger in-person things, bigger in-person events. We have a way of recognizing donors in our college, called the Order of OAC, so if a donor gives $100,000 in their lifetime, they get inducted into the Order of OAC. It’s a little bit of a recognition. You know think about the Music Hall of Fame or if you’ve got a favourite sport, that sport hall of fame or whatever it is. So that had all been kyboshed, right? Because we couldn’t do that. We decided that we didn’t want to do it virtually and so May of last year, we had an in-person Order of OAC dinner. So it’s a whole dinner and everyone had to wear masks still, because the University still had a mask requirement. So, it was a little bit awkward, but I get to be the MC on these kinds of events, because it’s about our Alumni and I’m thinking about, “We’re rusty. We’re really rusty.” We haven’t done this for, that particular event we haven’t done it for three years. I just need to make sure that people are a little understanding that we’re rusty. So I literally got up and had said, “Welcome,” who I am, do a land acknowledgment and said, “I want everyone to please be very patient with us. We’re very rusty.” And I’ve used this line quite a bit, “Give us a bit of a grace.” It’s not going to be perfect, but we’re getting there. And people have been really understanding of that. So that was sort of the narrative that got woven into a lot of our in-person events as we started getting back to those bigger things. Like we would normally do last year, so we had our undergraduate and graduate student award events, big in-person events, sort of same thing right. “We haven’t done this in a few years, so please be patient.”
I feel like that was a smart strategy. I’m a big believer in transparency and when you are transparent like that, people, they understand right? And they’re like, “Oh, yeah that makes sense.”
To a T, what we heard from people who had been at some of these in-person events was that, “I’m just so glad to be back.” I think of a couple of Alumni who I would see almost on a monthly basis, partly because they’re involved in our Alumni Association. Then I saw them in person and I was like, “Jeez, Bill, I haven’t seen you in three-dimensions in like three years.” [Both laughing] It was just kind of like one of these heartening moments of like, “Man you know the pandemic’s not over, but this, this kind of helps.” One of the things that we’ve grappled with in the College, you notice that we don’t have a lot of staff around right now, because we’re doing a renovation with some of our office space. It’s taken our kitchen and our washrooms out of commission and so we don’t want to call people into the office if we don’t have a place for them. So to us, it’s been a little bit of a slower burn for that return to campus. But we’re still, people are still coming in here and there, just not everyone all the time.
So we’re still, the OAC and I’m sure a lot of the University, we’re still on the road back to normalcy.
I think most of the place is mostly back to normal. In our case because of the renovation, we don’t want to force people to come in when they don’t have a place to take care of themselves. One thing that is different, is the University now has an official policy on remote work. So they’ve codified that in terms of, okay so here’s a policy that says if an employee wants to do remote work, they have to talk to their manager, here’s the sandbox. I think that’s actually a really good thing for us to have.
I think it’s fantastic too. I’ve already experienced the benefits of it. Like, I have a three hour night class for one of my anthro classes and so every other week we do it on Zoom, it just, it is a huge benefit to everybody. To not have to be on campus until 10:00pm. And it’s safer for everybody, I think it’s a good thing. We’ve learned, we have gained some benefits from the pandemic.
You know, I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit, like, “What have we learned? What are the good things that have come out of it?’ And I think as an institution and this is maybe more the University as an employer, has learned the importance of giving employees the flexibility to work remotely. So if you look around the county, Southern Ontario, all sorts of organizations are saying to these employees, “Yeah, by all means let’s figure out some way you can work remotely.” It makes the employees happier, it gives the employer a bit of an advantage, because now they can say to prospective hires, “We’ve got a flexible work arrangement.” Not everyone likes how some organizations are sort of going to that hot desk kind of model where you don’t have a set desk or a cubicle. You sort of come in and wherever’s open is open. I think we as a University took a huge step forward in saying that we’ve got support for that sort of remote work. I mean, faculty can do what faculty are going to do. I think that dual way of having a classroom is an amazing thing to do, because it’s really nice to have that one-on-one connection in the classroom, but it’s also great to not have to be on campus.
I know that in terms of advantages, being positioned to hire really talented people for staff positions, having that remote work policy is a big step forward for us.
I agree and it almost seems almost on a more general scale, the University has improved on a humane level. Just understanding their staff’s and student’s needs and just taking care of them a little bit better.
Yes. As an organization I think there’s more empathy. I think there’s more self-awareness. I think there’s a greater level of understanding and recognizing that what work’s for one person may not work another person. You know, I think about my team, I’ve got 16 people who work with me and one of them lives in Guelph.
Really? That’s interesting.
One lives as far north as Arthur, I got some out in Orton and Erin, someone in Oakville, people in Hamilton, couple people in Cambridge. So you know, me, it’s about understanding their life’s circumstances and being aware and understanding that, “Oh you know, roads are pretty bad. You know what don’t come in. We can figure this out.”
100 percent. And that’s just one of those benefits, we’ve learned how to use that technology and now we’re taking advantage of what was unfortunately a terrible situation.
I think another piece of that, that you mentioned, you know we still see people wearing masks. I’m not a Public Health expert, so I’m not speaking from a place of expertise but I think normalizing that notion of “If you’re not feeling well, stay home and if you’ve maybe got just a little sniffle, wear a mask.”
I feel like it’s become a stark contrast to how it was just a few years ago, because in my family and in the workforce, it was always, “If you’re sick, suck it up.”
Tough it out, yeah.
“Go to work.” Like you don’t miss work. You better be extremely sick if you’re going to miss work. You have to think about how many people you’re putting at risk now, by operating with that mentality. Let’s not be a hero, let’s think of everybody, be a little more selfless and you know, we’ll figure this out, stay home, wear a mask, be smart.
Yeah, I mean we’ve talked about that in the office, “You know if you’ve got a little bit of a sniffle and you’re normally coming in, don’t. Because you can be remote, we can do that.”
Absolutely. It’s usually just a few days. It’s not the end of the world right? Let’s see, were there any aspects of pandemic life that were good for you? This can be any aspect of your life.
Yes, at a professional level, there’s a lot of growth that happened. In terms of being a better leader, being a better boss, being a better person in your organization. At a personal level, I do a lot of endurance sports. So I do triathlons and long-distance running.
I did a triathlon too.
Triathlon was a casualty of the pandemic for me, because all the races got canceled. I think I was a little bit burnt out from it. So the first summer I was kind of kicking the dirt and swearing and then middle of the summer, I was like, “Wow, I got a lot of energy. I actually don’t feel as run down and as tired and I got more time.” Because I wasn’t out training 15 hours/week. And so, you know for me, one of the good parts of the pandemic, was sort of taking a step back and saying, “What in my personal life do I want to shed? Or do I feel like I don’t need to hold onto anymore?” And you know I still run, I will still bike, I don’t know if I’ll ever do triathlons ever again, but I found that I had a lot more energy in the summer. So I could go out and enjoy the yard, I could go out and do things with my wife. Instead of coming back from a long ride on a Sunday morning and sleeping the rest of the day, I would actually be able to do something. I feel a little bit silly sharing that, but it was the opportunity to say, “Are there things that I was doing, that I can’t do now, but my life is better for not doing them?”
It offered you a little bit more perspective on your life.
Yeah, I really like how you framed that. And I think, I’m not young, I’m not old, I’m kind of middle aged and so it was also an opportunity to sort of think about, “Well what is it that I want to do with the rest of my career? Is it what I want to do with the rest of my life?” So that perspective and stock taking. I don’t know if other people have had that similar experiences. My wife and I had been married a long time, so I think it was also good for us, because as I mentioned, we learned that we’re compatible being in the house together. Because, I’ve always been a come into the office to work person. I’ve always struggled working from home.
Right and this is a job that I’m sure demands fairly long hours and so it probably was an adjustment for you to be home so often. I’m sure you two learned a lot about yourselves.
I’m glad you mentioned the hours, because my sister-in-law works for the Provincial Government and we would sometimes joke about, “You’re not working from home, you’re living at work.” [Laughing together]
I haven’t heard that one before and I like that saying.
One of the things that I learned to do during the pandemic was: having much clearer boundaries on when I’m working and when I’m not. So work would often spill into later in night then it should of or into the weekend or all the time and I learned you can’t be on these jobs without being vigilant to your phone.
Probably receiving emails all the time.
But, okay, 8 o’clock the computer goes on, 6 it goes off, maybe check something at night. So putting some better boundaries around what work looks like, I think was one of the positives of this.
I don’t want to get too personal, ask too personal, but I would imagine this improved your marriage for the better.
Yes, you’re more present, you’re a more present person. Absolutely. I think also that shared experience of it. I’m going to be curious to see 10 or 15 years from now: how people look back on the last three years, in terms of that shared experience?
Just to share a little bit about myself. Over the pandemic I feel like it allowed for a lot more introspection and I definitely learned about myself. I discovered one of my favourite hobbies, not too dissimilar to you discovering that perhaps you didn’t love the triathlons as much as you thought. I started doing martial arts and I discovered a love for that and then I discovered how much I love history and anthropology and how I wanted to come back here. Now I have never worked so hard as a student in my life as I have this semester. I feel like we really all learned a lot about ourselves. That’s kind of one of the positives that we can gather.
Yeah, for sure. But, at the same time, I mean I think there’s also been people who have been devastated by it, both from personal and family loss. Different circumstances. So it’s that difference in experience that I think has been shocking and something that I’ve had to be very attuned to. Not everyone’s had the same experience.
I’m glad that you say that because I feel like, I didn’t want to frame it so positively, because you’re right, it was a very tragic experience. How did the pandemic impact your friends and family?
That is a great question. In some ways, it made some family relationships closer. In particular with my wife’s family. In other ways, it made some parts of my relationship with my family, a little more distant because I started to pick up sort of differences in perspective on vaccines and the pandemic, that I hadn’t seen before. And it was kind of like, “Huh. Don’t know where that’s coming from. Okay.”
That was an interesting thing that I came out of the pandemic, how it was politicized.
I have one family member on my side of our family, who basically said, “If you effers are going to make me get a vaccine, I’m not going to like it and I’m only going to get one shot.” And they proceeded to get Covid several times. So I think you get that perspective and you have to remind yourself, that their views are their views and you have to be patient with them. They’re not trying to ram it down my throat, they’re not being obnoxious about it, but they just have a different perspective. As long as there’s that respect, I’m okay with that. Still sometimes shake my head though, “Like come on, what are you thinking?”
I know exactly what you mean, you try to be understanding, but it can blow your mind a little bit right? But at the same time, just like you don’t want them to inflict their views upon you, I kind of want to give them that same respect.
In terms of the friendship, I tend to be somebody who doesn’t have a really wide friend group. So those friendships tend to be pretty deep. So I’m in a book club with a number of other people and we initially were meeting online and you know, we’re all really good friends, about the same age, same point of view on life. As soon as we could start meeting outside, we did. We were meeting in the middle of winter outside, at night.
I had a semi-covered porch, so it was open on three sides. We weren’t violating any of the lockdown rules or anything like that. But it was like snow pants and snow shoes and all that, because it was maintaining that sense of connection. We actually had a couple other people join the group at the same time. So it was really neat in that respect.
When we met last week we were meeting inside, because we can and we were joking about, “Wow, were we really that pathetic and desperate?” [Laughs]
I have to say I admire your guys’ dedication. Was it in Guelph where you were meeting?
Because Guelph is only 40 minutes away from Hamilton, but the cold in Guelph is so much more bitter I find. So the fact that you guys are meeting in the Guelph winters, that amazes, that’s all.
It’s either commitment or we’re just too stupid to know what’s in our best interest. [Laughs]
Maybe it’s somewhere in between.
Bit of both yeah. [Both chuckling]
Do you feel the pandemic has ended or that it is still ongoing?
Yes to both?
Yes. I think there’s yes to both. You know, the World Health Organization hasn’t declared an endemic, it’s not made a step back from the levels. So from a governance point of view, okay, but we’re seeing federal, provincial/state governments all sort of stepping back from a lot of those sort of emergency lockdowns. So on the one hand, Covid has not gone away. This is with us forever.
Right. Much like how the Flu has been since 1918 right?
Exactly. So you know it’s still going on. Thankfully, we’ve found a way to deal with it and a way to manage it. But I also think for that a lot of people, it ended over a year ago. I think in Ontario, as soon as the mask mandate went away and all restrictions were lifted, it was almost like back to normal. So I think it varies from person to person. You know my wife and I are pretty careful. If we go into crowded spaces, so if we got a grocery store, if we go to the liquor store, department store like Home Depot, we’re wearing a mask. If we go to a restaurant, we probably should wear a mask. So I think there’s a lot of grey area and for some people it’s like, “Yeah that was over years ago.” And for a lot of people, it’s like, “Oh my God, this is still going, we’re going to die.”
It’s almost like socially it feels like its ended, but then from a public health standpoint and scientifically, it still is ongoing right? So you’re absolutely right, that’s why I said there’s no wrong answer, because it very much is a grey area.
So I think, you know I think in the sense of the pandemic is still going on, the bigger issue is from a science and neurology point of view. It will always go on. You know we’re hearing about a new variant now, okay. It’s just going to be there. My wife and I tend to be in the camp of, “Okay, every 6 months we get a booster now.”
Yeah, it’s no different in how I get my Flu shot every year. It’s no different. In fact, I got my fourth shot and my Flu shot on the same day. So it’s just a new part of life.
So yeah, when I saw that answer, or that question, the first thought I had was: “Yes. Yes it’s both ongoing and it’s over.”
Yeah, you seemed to have that prepared.
Yes, I thought about that a little bit actually, because well it’s a good question because I think if you asked your classmates that, you’re going to get a range of different answers too. So that’s part of the different range of experiences that people have with it and different perspectives that they’re going to have like, “Oh my God this is not over. It’s still going on.” But other people are like, “Meh. I got my two shots, I’m done, I’m moving on.” And then there’s a lot of people in the middle, who are like, “Yeah, I’m moving on but I’m just being smart about it.”
Absolutely. Okay, I think that wraps this up.
Excellent. This has been a great conversation.