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Thoughts on research and education: A Q&A with Alan Reid



Dr. Alan Reid is a biology Professor at UFV with a passion for bringing course material alive. He goes to great lengths to make the class come alive in a way that engages students.

He has led a Jane’s Walk on the UFV campus where participants explored and talked about the on-campus ecology. He is currently working to document all the plants on campus.

What kind of projects, research, or course development have you worked on at UFV?
Primarily, I am an ecologist by training, I’m a Southern Hemisphere trained ecologist, so the whole thing I needed to do was to learn that everything was backwards in North America. But what I am interested in is, I want us to acknowledge that this campus is a really good ecological spot, and so at the moment what I’m trying to do is to map all the trees and shrubs on campus. So far, I have all of A building mapped, and I’m trying to program it for a touch screen, so we can touch the screen and once you’ve pushed it you can get the picture of the plant, map of the plant, and the history of the plant.

What brought you to work at UFV?
The reason for coming to UFV was to make an impact, like some of my professors had made on me. I thought that I could do that by working with the government, but the government doesn’t like creativity and individualism, and wanted to do things their way.

I was previously teaching at Vandusen Botanical Garden where they wanted someone to design a course for them, so they can give it to the tour guides.

UFV had a reputation of having small class sizes, and a good one-on-one, and therefore I came here as a sessional teacher initially, and eventually became a full-time professor.

What got you interested in this line of research?
I didn’t start off as a science student, I started off as an art student, because I refused to do chemistry, math, and physics. They have their place, and they are good subjects, but for me I couldn’t see how it was going to help me being outside in the world. Of course it helps a lot when getting the data, but everyone should be able to get the basics, and see what wanders out there first.

My lectures always have about six words on the slide and a humongous picture. I want people to say, “Wow, I remember seeing that picture.” People coming from high school are used to writing everything down, and reading the whole book, but if that was the case I’d just tell you to buy the textbook, and I’d come back in three-months’ time to give you the exam. That’s not the right interaction, we should be talking to each other, and be able to see the big picture.

A lecturer should provoke someone into thinking and having an opinion. You must have emotional stories that will make people think.

How does that affect how you lead a class?
There’s two types of people you come across. There are people solely focused on prestige and rank. I’ve always said not to call me Dr. Reid — it just means I was too stupid to get a real job, I just kept on getting another and another degree because I was too stupid to get out and get a job, but ranking doesn’t bother me. People think, “If I’m not getting 98 per cent I’m failing,” but the question is, did you learn anything? A lot of times 75-80 per cent students are some of the better students, they just don’t want to sit and recite for three hours before every exam to get 98 per cent.

So what if you got 70 per cent? You get 6 credits for the course whether you have 70 per cent, 99, or a 100 per cent, so you’re not enjoying yourself to get 98 per cent.

What kinds of things should someone be focusing on in class then?
I think everybody needs to know the geography of Canada, and plants and animals of B.C. — people should know how to balance their checkbooks, and do simple algebra, and not just go to the money machine.

We have to think about what a university is, and it is a universal system. In my plants and drugs course we got students to study opera snake poison. I pulled out every plant and animal reference I could find. We looked at what it meant, how it releases the poison, how it poison things; we did Shakespeare and Agatha Christie and poison. Thirty-three books of Agatha Christie’s had plant or animal poisons that killed the murder victim in them. So what did it mean, why did she use that in her books and how did she use these things, what is the history behind these things?

This will allow students to read these stories a lot better, and relate to things outside in the world, and how we use these things, and I think we should go more towards a bachelor of arts program rather than a bachelor of science program with geography.

We should learn about a variety of areas then?
We should think about history, you should know that in 1980, Mount St. Helens blew its top off, and all over Abbotsford here there was ash, there was ash all over Vancouver, there’s still earthquakes and lava flowing at the top; on Mount Baker, it’s a volcano.

I was astonished since I have never been to Mount Baker and I thought that because of the presence of the snow, how could there be a volcano? Mount Baker is somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000 feet up, and the outside is cold because of the altitude.

They had been dormant for so many years, and in 1980 St. Helens exploded, the whole lecturing thing comes down to, “Do you know this?” Four out of five doctors recommend Colgate, what does that one doctor who’s saying “No I don’t agree with it” know? Because we should be questioning things, asking why.

Ninety-nine per cent of the world is happy because they have their big screen TV, they have their hockey game and their cold beer and 2.7 children — which is the national average.

As lecturers and as students we should say that we are privileged to be here, a lot of people in the class are just going through the motions. We must think differently. Someone saw me sharpening my pencil with a pocket knife, and they said they’ve never seen that before, and like, where have you been? Everyone uses mechanical pencils.

Have there been any colleagues or students that have been particularly influential in what you do as a teacher?
Well, not really a colleague, it’s been my parents and my grandfather. They would take me around and show me all kinds of weird things, say, have a look at this cool plant growing in the garden, have a look at this thing in the forest, or on the floor, and we would look at all sorts of shiny objects and stuff. You just need one person to be able to spark your interest, and my mother was really good because she would take me to all sort of things, and show me dinosaurs, and books on Robin Hood, and things like that because I would read like crazy and then go out into the books — they’re books that have pictures of insects, and other things. Going to museums, doing scavenger hunts and stuff — but as for colleagues, I don’t really know. There have been so many people that have contributed to so many things.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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