Jon Warland interviewed by Alexis Beard
Before the Pandemic Started what was your Job?
A faculty member of the school of environmental sciences and the director of the school board at the time as well.
Did the initial shutdown affect you in any way? Any issues that needed to be sorted out beforehand?
The two big things immediately that week were having the staff for the school picked out, which I had to oversee as the director and then I was teaching as well too, so I had to figure out what to do with my class for the last three weeks. It was a lab-based course so it did throw a wrench in our plans.
When did you start returning to campus and did that change your line of work in anyways?
January 2021, except for Omicron hit in January, so it ended up being February of 2021, which is when I began teaching again in person.
What do you think the most challenging aspects of the pandemic were for you?
At the beginning, it was just so much unknown, and being in a position of minor authority, there just seemed that there was a lot that I was supposed to figure out but without a lot of guidance because nobody knew what to do. There was a lot of fear and anyone tried to make any sort of decision about whether our decisions would impact someone negatively and so we were very scared to do that but recognizing we couldn’t just shut things down. In the beginning, there was just so much uncertainty and so knowing it was hard to navigate all of that kind of decision-making and over time it became more normalized and things were sorted out, and the challenges became more normal. I would say it went back to more of the ordinary management issues that you would always have with just a different flavor; people wanting to do things this way when you're trying to get them to do it that way. Coming back was hard just because it has been so sporadic as to who comes and when, sometimes you show up and no one else is there, sometimes it’s good and as more and more people are on campus, it is becoming much easier to transition back in.
Did you find that the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted your friends or family?
The general and global stress was very impactful to everyone. For us, working from home was no big change, my partner’s worked from home for twenty years so, not much has changed there. It is disappointing not being allowed to see our friends as much but many of them worked from home or were retired and so it was less or wasn’t as impactful. There weren't financial implications, there wasn’t any
managing how to work, how to go to work, and stuff like that. Around us, the people who owned businesses in town were certainly impacted at first but we are in Elora, which is a very touristy town and they were trying to figure out ways to shut down the streets and have tourists who were looking for day trips who could not travel at night. So, we did quite well around here in navigating all that and I think that reduced a lot of the stress for many of our friends in this neighborhood.
Do you think the pandemic, on a personal level, changed your life positively or negatively?
Certainly, a positive change that we are still experiencing here today is that there are lots of reasons to go to campus but I don’t have to be there, you know, the same 10 hours a day, 5 days a week where before that’s if the meetings aren’t going to be in person and it makes sense to work from home, then I can save up the gas and save a lot of time with the commuting and it’s a more balanced way of working. If I was commuting or living close to campus, I probably would be there most of the time but that’s the convenient thing and a positive impact, just rethinking how we do things. You can see how poorly we responded as a global society both with political responses, the backlashes to measures, and all that stuff which is pretty frightening when we're seeing more and more calamities relating to climate change, which are only expecting to increase, we start to panic like if we couldn’t handle that when it gets rough, how are we going do as a global society and that is a very daunting thing. As an environmental scientist I feel it impacts what am I doing at my work. We are working to try to understand better how to live but if we’re so challenged when it comes to acting on what we know we need to do; how does that change what we're doing, as scientists, to better understand how we could ameliorate some of the environmental damage that we have undergone.
When looking at the weather and climate change, especially during the pandemic, did you notice any changes in the atmosphere?
The best estimates I read from scientists who look at that kind of thing was that greenhouse gas emissions dropped by five to ten percent for the first little while, that was mostly when China shut down so it wasn’t a huge impact on that. It was nice to have a lot less air traffic overhead and not have noisy jets going and I definitely noticed a lot more of that lately. The unfolding of climate change is happening quicker than what was forecasted by the models from ten to twenty years ago and a lot of scientists are writing about that, so the last few years have seen a lot more climate-related events that have nothing to do with the pandemic, it’s just all happening at once it seems.
Considering your particular study, which does consider a little bit more hands-on work, did you consider it a challenge when you had to move from in-person to online?
The teaching was the hardest one and as I said it was a lab course and we were planning on building some equipment together in the lab and taking it outside and making some measurements. I ended up just in a panic not knowing, so just called the course done at that point and the students I spoke to were thankful for that because they were finding the whole thing extremely stressful and so it’s one less thing to worry about but it’s good for us all at that point so I'm glad that worked out. Getting used to the online meetings was hard at first but since most of my work as an administrator is talking to people in meetings, it wasn’t as bad as it felt. It’s just hard to get used to but to get used to it was looking at it as the same meetings in a different format.
Did you find that any other areas in your studies changed or were affected due to COVID-19?
I only had one graduate student working and he was already working from home because he was doing computer modeling for his work. We were able, in the School of Environmental Science, i think to keep most of the fieldwork going by just adapting some different protocols about relying more on technicians who could go out on their own and knowing how to do it, how people travel with the windows down and stuff like that. As far as I know, there were some delays with fieldwork and I think some stuff ended up being delayed by a year but for the most part, we were able to keep a lot of the fieldwork going throughout the school.
Do you think that after the pandemic you were more connected to your studies than you were before the pandemic?
That is an interesting question, but yes. Because there is less going out to eat, not going out to concerts, a little more time at home that way but also more time because of saving the 6 hours of commuting, even though at first it was busy, I think ended up reading a bit more than I would've otherwise, and a bit more broadly so I have been able to get more into environmental philosophy and stuff that I wouldn't have normally have read that’s related but it's extended how I think about the work that I do, so that hibernating for a couple of years because of the pandemic had broadened my reading and also my thinking about the work that I do, so I can make that a positive outcome.
Did you find it a struggle to change from your original job position to a newer one during the pandemic?
I thought I was well prepared to take on the role, I think I was a lot less prepared than I thought, but it was really hard to get to know the new people I was working with remotely and what I really missed for the first year or the first two years was all the hallway conversations and the conversations before and after meetings, and all the informal information exchange that occurred with that, which made it much harder to understand the job and to get to build the relationships one needs to do the job. So now I'm entering my third year and I'm starting to feel a little more comfortable but I think trying t learn a new job from home without all the extra support that comes in person through informal communication was an extra challenge.
This is more a general question that relates to my last one but did you find it difficult when changing positions?
It’s always exciting but daunting taking on a new role. It was really exciting and daunting to become the department chair and going to associate dean, the same thing. This last summer, there has been construction in the buildings, which happened throughout campus I think. I don’t know if all that construction was planned before the pandemic or if people being out of their offices made them move ahead. But very much so, any new role it has nerve-racking for the people working for you with
colleagues around and everyone I work with is very good with taking a call or taking a meeting when I ask but there's nothing quite like the extra information that's exchanged when you run into someone in the kitchenette or walk to a meeting together or before the meeting starts, you chat about whatever. There’s just a surprising amount of understanding as to what’s going on and it comes through that informal contact and missing that has been quite a challenge.
Did you teach multiple classes or was it just one in general that was put online?
I was teaching one course when the pandemic hit and we canceled it the following winter. I taught it again this last winter. I also help teach another course this summer and this fall; in the summer we start showing up to teach in person and all the students came online so we ended up just going online. We did have in the fall students start to show up in the class and that was great.
Did any of your students fluctuate when it was moved to online? Did any of them manage to overcome the challenge?
When I taught last winter, a year ago, we were able to sort of do hybrid but if someone needed to join zoom, they could come in but they still had to show up when they could to do the exercises with the equipment since it was an instrumentation course, they had to set up the stuff and do measurements. We were able to sort of stumble our way through last winter when there was a lot of illness going around, and a lot of people had trouble attending all the time. I also redesigned the course in a way that I have been intending to before the pandemic, but the pandemic pushed this along. There’s a lot more smaller value assignments that don’t have strict due dates and trying to tie in together what the assignments are with what we are talking about in class with how it's supposed to link to the pedagogy and so forth, and students ended up finding that design works well. This year everyone coming to class except for those that are sick and that has been just great. In thinking about what challenges to teaching the pandemic brought out, for the course, it is not possible to do hybrid because of the laboratory nature of the work. The re-design was really good for the course and it’s given me new insight into what good pedagogy is for students these days.
Did you think you became accustomed to the pandemic, once it hit the two to three-year mark as everybody else did, or did you find it a struggle?
I think once we were all vaccinated in the summer of 21, and we started to see hospitals not being so overwhelmed other than the problems with omicron a year ago and living in a small town too I felt that we were okay.
I noticed that you focus a lot on physics in your studies and teachings? Is it because of the love and the passion for it or is it because some of your studies all correlate to physics?
Before, I got interested in physics and the environment, I was an undergraduate taking courses for radiative transfers and equations on how the wind works to transfer heat and all this and explain these basic analyses, like the actual phenomenon we experience in the world, like why does fog form up here and not there?; why does it feel warm here and cool there?; why is frost forming here and not there?; why
does the temperature outside stay this way instead of that way? All those sorts of things I just found interesting explaining the basic physics of our experience of our local environment, our microclimate. It turns out, I got really interested in microclimates in terms of how it attracts high value of specially cropped production stuff like peaches, plums, and other kinds of fruits in Niagara and the grape industry how important microclimates are for apple production up in the Owen Sound area and, if you think about food security in Ontario, being able not just to produce not just corn and soybeans for pigs but also to produce fruits and vegetables as well. Microclimates become the key important part of assessing the land for suitability for production and I feel strongly that we need to protect the lands and have good microclimates for that type of production. So is from real joy and understanding why are we experiencing these things as they are to now also think of the practical needs for us as a society to be able to feed ourselves.
Do you think maybe the pandemic may have helped some studies that you had with your subject area? Do you think it benefited anything you were trying to study previously?
It’s hard to say what would have been different without it. I know other people who were starting to do a lot of video meetings before the pandemic but I think more people getting used to that has benefited the research side of things just in terms of being able to have meetings and conversations with people over a distance without having to build up the travel time and cost. I know people were interested in my Ph.D. student’s defense last march because he was talking about climate change in Northern Ontario and so people from OMAFRA up North were able to attend that talk which wouldn’t have happened before the pandemic. It has been a little bit easier to schedule meetings with people in Vineland or other more remote areas and build up some more connections that way. Everyone getting comfortable with notions of a video conferencing has helped I think, improve some of the communication that supports the research. It is not a huge shot in the arm or boost forward but it is a positive step and I think it does make a difference.