Designing for Hope University: The Award-Winning Educators Series with Juan Carlos López
Jessica Riddell 00:07
Today it is an honour to welcome Dr. Juan Carlos López, a faculty member at Acadia University to our award-winning educators series. It is a tremendous pleasure to have a conversation with somebody who is innovative in both his classroom and his research and takes very seriously the partnerships with students and community members in making more socially just, and equitable spaces for all. Juan Carlos has won a series of awards culminating in a 2021 award called the Acadia alumni faculty award for excellence in teaching. He has had a tremendous impact in his work as a soil microbiologist, he creates these transformative biology laboratories which explore different aspects of how organisms interact in their environments. So in some ways, the content of his disciplinary expertise also informs the way in which he understands students interact in learning environments. He partnered in one project recently, with a student partner named Leah Creaser, who went on to get a 3M student fellowship for her work in partnership with Juan Carlos. Because what they did they created a new concept of what a lab looks like, a pedagogical and training space, that brought alive indigenous forms of knowledge and traditional knowledge in working with Mi’kmaw student, Leah Creaser, with elders in the community to imagine biology through this lens. He walks with grace and humility in all of his leadership and his teaching. And it is just a pleasure to be able to spend the next little while with Juan Carlos, thank you so much for joining us today.
Juan Carlos López 02:06
Thank you, Jessica. It's hard to walk with humility after this introduction.
Jessica Riddell 02:21
Your work has impact. I mean, you have such a tremendous impact, and anybody who brings up your name brings up the kind of joy and humility and the power of listening and collaboration that you model in everything that you do. It is a tremendous honour to be able to have a conversation with you about how we build hopeful spaces and where we build resilient systems. The first question that we ask in conversation with our award-winning educators is, tell us your story. How, how did you get here?
Juan Carlos López 03:14
I'm originally from Venezuela. I was born and raised in Barquisimeto, which is in the Midwest, in Venezuela. I originally wanted to go into medical school and we had a wonderful med school in my hometown; I wasn't even going to leave my hometown. Then, I get this scholarship from the Venezuelan Government. The scholarship was very generous and offered that I go to university abroad, they of course meant the Western world, and Canada was on their list, not many people came to Canada to study at the time. I would do anything to take this chance to go abroad. So, I forgot about medicine and I thought, I'm going to do something that will get me a good career, good post career prospects. I went to the States, and the scholarship was really generous because it paid for our language training, I did not know English at the time. The closest I could get to med school was biology, but I thought engineering will give me better prospects. I went to a school that would allow me to do both, and I ended up choosing biology. I come from a long line of teachers, my mom was a high school math teacher, and she asked me if I was going to become a biology teacher, and I said, not quite, I think I am interested in research. So, I got more involved in research, and off I went. When I finished my undergrad, I had wonderful experience working in labs and meeting my teachers and going to conferences, it was an excellent opportunity. I went to Washington University in St. Louis, and then I went back home, because my idea was to go back home to Venezuela. This is where it gets a bit more complicated. I went back home, and I got into a graduate program to do a PhD in biology, and I decided to take it. Things changed politically in Venezuela, and I was worried. Hatred was being planted from the top down, that was not a good path. I loved my country, I had gone back, and I met my partner there, we got married, but when I started applying for postdoctoral positions, and I got one in France, I left with the thought of we'll see where this takes us. I went and I did a one-year postdoc in France, and then back to the states, and I lived there for five more years. I was exploring what to do, how do I find a place to live and work? One of the options was to come to Canada as a permanent resident and that's how I came here. It was 2008, a very difficult time for academia. It was a migratory decision, this was not a professional decision, per se, it was more of a life decision. A month before we actually had to move, I got a call from UNBC (University of Northern British Columbia), they were offering one course for one semester. I ended up being at UNBC for four years.Then I spent a year of trying to find my way in Alberta, not finding a job. I came to Acadia for a one-year position and I moved here by myself first, my family stayed in Calgary. I later applied for the permanent job that became available that year. That's how I ended up here.
Jessica Riddell 13:42
Well, and I love that story, because it is so rich, it tells us a journey that is both geographical, but also transformative in terms of the critical reflection necessary to understand teaching and scholarship is something I don't think we teach intentionally in the academy. I don't think we talk about it enough. Also, that you came through that influenced by a family of educators and your mother, who's outside of the academy, outside of those positions, suggests for you to then take a scholarly approach to your teaching as a pedagogy, as a practice but also as a discipline is very powerful. I think about hope University as both a thought experiment, but also as how to anchor it in practice, and you've just articulated one of the design principles, which is if we're going to understand that one of our moral contracts to a broader society is to educate a future generation for public good for social justice for Equity and Diversity for nuanced thinking; We have to be able to design our classrooms with intentional, scholarly and informed practice. We don’t do that and it's a surprise to anyone outside of the academy that we don’t, it’s a surprise to the students.[…] So you've gone to universities, and now worked in universities in many different places, that were different institutions in both size and scope, can you talk to me about maybe some of the differences and or the commonalities within institutions?
Juan Carlos López 16:26
This is something I usually think about in terms of the scientific path, meaning the research path, versus the pedagogy path. I remember that one of the things about my education back when I started was that it was extremely rigid in Venezuela, and then to be a student in this idea of Liberal Arts education in the United States, where I took philosophy, I took Spanish literature. I did all kinds of exploring that I couldn't have done back at home had I been in University in Venezuela. I remember later walking into grad school in Venezuela, I did a degree that was a four-year degree and did not really have a thesis or any of that. I remember walking into classes as a grad student knowing that my classmates had to have done five years and I've only done four, they have done a thesis, as undergrads they were TAs, and although we had learned things differently between their more rigid system in Venezuela and my more liberal education, we were at the same level. I was a bit afraid thinking maybe they could be more advanced than I was, maybe they are at a higher level and I'm going to have to catch up to them. But it turned out that my liberal arts education had given me the tools I needed, and we were all part of the same discussion, at the same level. So, one of the things that I learned from that experience is that systems may be different, but if we keep critical thinking, everyone is going to be at the same level. I think there are certain concepts that we have to keep, there are universal ways of teaching, you know, and I think one of those things is critical thinking and being able to put information together and put it out there, be that in an art class, or a science class, it carries with you and will allow you to do your work.
Jessica Riddell 20:29
You’ve made such a compelling case for a liberal education in the 21st century, and the ways in which you take different concepts and disciplines such as philosophy, literature, history, science, and you put them together in a way to illuminate a particular problem or an issue. I am grateful for you telling us about your own journey as a student in different contexts. What is so compelling is that you also do that for your students. I mentioned in the introduction, you work with bringing in divergent and creative thinking, by understanding different knowledge systems and understanding that the collisions between these systems is beautiful. Could you talk about your own learning journey alongside mentors, both with your undergraduate students and community members and members of Mi’kmaq First Nations, just the kind of process of being able to take scientific knowledge, which is considered very Western, very rational, very fact based, and to be able to put it alongside different kinds of knowledge is a really radical disruption, that I think is really important to a 21st century liberal education. Could you tell us about that project and your journey?
Juan Carlos López 22:35
Of course, the work that Leah and I did for developing this lab has been hands down, the most fulfilling experience I’ve had as an educator. In retrospect, one of the things that I was not familiar with, that I did not understand was that whole idea of privilege and what you have and what you don't have. The concept of colonization itself was not something that I could grasp in its fullness, even though we have similar stories. You know, my country was colonized by Spaniards, but the big difference is that we did not have the presence of the of the indigenous people where I grew up. There are some visible groups, but only certain areas of the country will have that experience. A large portion of people in Venezuela does not have exposure to indigenous culture. So that is not a concept I had. I lived in all these places, I moved to France, in the US I moved to Pennsylvania, to Ohio, and I had also lived in Missouri and South Carolina. I've lived in all these places and never had any awareness of indigenous people and colonization. Then I moved to Prince George, and at UNBC, by virtue of being located where it is located, the university had more indigenous presence. That's where I learned about land acknowledgements and many different concepts. It took a few more years of me learning about more events that we have had in our recent history in Canada, until I started grasping more, what it meant for, and what happened to indigenous people. I started tuning in, I started listening more. When I went to teaching conferences, I would go to talks about indigenization and why that's important, because it was something that I didn’t know about, and I wanted to learn. When I moved here to Nova Scotia, one of the things that was really shocking to me was when I would go to an event, and there was no land acknowledgment, I moved here in 2014, so it wasn't that long ago. That was a very small change, I started making, I just did it without necessarily explaining it in my class, but I would do it. To this day, I do it in every single lab I teach. I also began being more intentional about the historical and human context of the content being taught in my biology labs. We are in a liberal arts institution, so I never felt like that kind of contextualization didn’t belong.
After knowing Leah for a while, she told me that I had nothing on traditional knowledge in my labs, and I told her it was funny she said that because I was looking for someone to help me do this, and I wanted her to help mei. I said, I know you like animals, I know you like fish, and you do not care as much about plants, but the opportunity is on this area, I think you should start with this as a research topic, that is on tree identification. She had to go to her band, she had to go and get the knowledge needed She had to go on nature walks and connect with her elders. This eventually became the lab that we later started doing and that we now teach to all first-year students. Among the many other things, she has done, this led her into that wonderful 3M award. I thought that it wasn't that difficult to do, to make the changes and incorporate this into our teaching, but when I stepped back, and I saw all the things that had to happen so that we could get to that point, there were many stumbling blocks on the way, there were many barriers that we had to overcome, and that’s what is wrong with the system. You know, she had every reason not to make it to the point where she could work and do this this lab, and yet she persisted. So when I think it wasn't that difficult to do, I then realize that it wasn't that difficult for me, but when I think of everything that she had to do to get to this point, that’s when I actually realize that it's nearly impossible sometimes.
Jessica Riddell 46:30
For me that is tied to the story of resilience at an individual level, that we ask people to be resilient and have academic buoyancy and be gritty have academic grit or personal grit so that they can overcome barriers that we really need to dismantle. Part of the project that I've been working on is to move the conversations from the individual resilience, so the expectation that an individual needs to have a triumphal narrative or not, and place the responsibility on systems. So to say, I would like to create a system where nobody has to be resilient, I would like to create a system where we never have to worry about triumphal narratives, because everybody is flourishing and are harnessing their social purpose to their project, and that we do not have hoops to jump through. I wonder if there's work that you are doing as a as a biologist, because you study ecosystems, and you study resilience, and you study what the conditions are for flourishing, whether that is plants or trees or other kinds of organisms, I wonder if you've given some thought to the multiple layers of your research, of your laboratories, of your teaching, and of your own journey, where we can learn something from biology and microbiology, about moving away from individual resilience to an ecosystem of resilience.
Juan Carlos López 48:34
I really like your question, I haven't given that much thought until now, until you framed it like that. The work that I do as a soil microbiologist is on mycorrhizae, and mycorrhizae are what we call the good fungi, the ones that help the trees grow, they form a symbiosis in the roots of the trees and are able to capture nutrients and other things that the tree could not capture itself. The tree has to give up something to the fungi so that the fungi grows, so it gives out carbon, which is very precious, because that's what you get from photosynthesis, but it gives it to the fungi and this is a very intimate relationship between plants and these fungi and there are many nuances in there. We have learned that, there are chemical cues that go from one tree to the other via the mycorrhizae. If you put that in the in the frame of finding people who are willing to make things better, and if you cannot do something yourself, find someone else on your network or some other way of doing it. Mycorrhizae are important for the ecosystem to function, as are all other organisms, everyone has their own value. We all need each other, with the good and the bad.
Jessica Riddell 1:02:05
I think that there's such an amazing pedagogical philosophy embedded in just what you spoke about for the last 45 minutes. I was so struck by is the deep critical empathy of occupying different spaces, and being an outsider and an insider in your journey and in your travels and the way in which that has deepened your appreciation of what the fundamental values are of your work. But also one of the fundamental values is the unlearning and relearning that is iterative, that it is ongoing. So I just want to thank you so much for your work and your thinking and your reflection. I know this is not going to be our last conversation about it. I'm going to follow up with you about the ecosystem of resilience, and more about the fungi and the ways in which we can understand your role as a life giving carbon giving tree to an ecosystem, both in your research in your classrooms, in your educational leadership and of just your incredible modeling of citizenship in this world. So I really, really appreciate it. I've learned so much from you and I look forward to our future conversations.
Juan Carlos López 1:04:33
Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure talking with you. I really liked the questions you asked.