Meet KPU: Ross Laird
Ross Laird uses a creative approach when instructing at KPU
Ross Laird is a faculty member of the creative writing department at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and has been teaching there for 15 years. Laird is also a clinical consultant and has written many books and articles on mental health and the impacts of trauma.
Through his teaching, Laird believes in the importance for students to experience the outdoors and have a balance in school work from their day-to-day lives. He uses an experiential teaching approach, which helps motivate students to want to learn and understand the subject, rather than lecturing and providing exams.
When did you join the KPU community, and why?
I originally came to KPU in 2007. At that time, there was an interest in starting an art therapy program, which didn’t exist before, so I got to know a couple of people in the community. About a year after that, there was an opening in the creative writing department. I have done quite a bit of writing about mental health, creativity therapy, and counseling, so it was a good fit. I’ve taught in educational studies and also started the interdisciplinary expressive arts (IDEA) program at KPU, so I’ve been a bit of a nomad here.
I find that the area I study applies to all fields and disciplines, so the subject has been of interest to people. There have been more courses focused on mental health and more people talking about it. For me, that has meant I have been able to get involved in new initiatives as they come along. Over the years, I try to make my teaching as experiential as possible and we do a lot of creative activities. We go outdoors and I keep trying to do things that I find engaging and fun while being consistent with what educational research shows about teaching and learning.
Research shows we learn when we are motivated by joy and passion for a subject. We learn best when there are no exams and grades, although we have to have those at KPU. We learn best when there is lots of collaboration and play and less lecturing and content delivery. I try to implement all those things in my classroom.
What is your favourite story of your time at KPU?
Last week is a good example of something we did as a class, which was quite fun. In our ARTS 2000 Wellbeing class, we went to the Coastal Climbing Centre, which is actually quite close to campus. It was a really rewarding experience and we are going to be doing it again next week. There was a combination of excitement and terror, for sure.
One of the things we talked about in this class was that we are living in a strange time, because many people feel constantly stressed out and overwhelmed, especially university students. However, there is kind of a paradox there because in order to get better at managing stress, we have to stress ourselves out a little bit and rock climbing can be quite stressful.
Many of the students in the class were hesitant and didn’t know whether they would feel comfortable enough to do it and we had several conversations leading up to the event about how this is a great opportunity for us to recognize that if we want to manage stress, we need to do things to help us practice managing stress. In the end, most students were pretty open to it. We did have a couple moments of fear and terror on the wall, but it was a lot of fun.
COVID-19 was tough for me because my classes are experiential. So, converting things to an online format was a challenge. I tried hard to reproduce as much as possible, by having students do the activities on their own. One of the things I’ve noticed is that there is an adjustment for students to feel comfortable in a social space again, and be with other people to talk and share after two years online. This semester, I think it is getting better. I would not have felt comfortable taking students rock climbing last semester.
What is something you would like to say to people new to the KPU community?
I think KPU undersells its uniqueness and we try too hard to be like our local peers, UBC and SFU. KPU’s strength is that we have instructors teaching in different ways than the mainstream approach with a 35-seat classroom, and we do not talk about this enough because we are trying to be more formal and academic like our peers.
I think the path should be toward establishing our uniqueness as a university and not comparing ourselves. Students should recognize that KPU is not just the place you go until you transfer to UBC, but a place where there are unique opportunities that do not exist in other universities. My suggestion is to try to find one or two instructors whose approach suits you and then try to get one of those classes every semester with them throughout your program. You can get that opportunity more at KPU than anywhere else.
What are you working on right now?
I recently contributed a chapter to a book about educational innovation. My chapter is about the importance of taking students outside and the benefits of having a classroom environment where you wander the landscape. That is a project I have been working on for a bit. I also have been consulting for educational institutions and did a recent series of projects focusing on trauma informed approaches to the museum experience.
When you put on these exhibitions, sometimes they have content that is going to be emotionally provoking for people, and people react to what they see. Normally at a museum, you just let visitors have their reaction and then they go home, but these days, museums are wanting to tackle complex issues, like the legacy of residential schools, for example. People can be traumatized by going to the museum, so I am working with museums to help them adjust their approach and how they can train their staff to be more trauma aware.
I just finished a project with the Canadian Museum of History to help teach their staff and their organization about trauma informed museum practices, and they recently redid their residential school exhibition. Part of my work is helping reframe the experience for visitors, so that they can be exposed to stuff that could potentially be highly traumatic in a safe way.
What is something you’d like people to know about you?
I love climbing, running, and hiking. I have a deep appreciation and love of the landscape around us and try to explore it as much as I can.