Meet the Faculty: Judith Koeller

Our “Meet the Faculty” interviews provide a window into the work lives of faculty across the University of Waterloo. Faculty members talk about the day-to-day joys and struggles, and share tips for getting the work done and staying mentally and physically healthy in academia.

Judith Koeller is a lecturer with the Dean of Math office and the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing.

What do you teach?

I teach Classical Algebra and Linear Algebra for math majors. I also teach online in the Masters for Math Teachers program. And I’m working on a course with Peace and Conflict Studies on the peace implications of math. A lot of professions have some kind of ethical training—there are things that have to be reported and protection for whistleblowers. Some fields in math, like CPAs, have professional associations. But for many math and CS graduates, but there are a lot of social implications to their work without much clarity around ethics and whistleblowing. This course will get students thinking about what kind of ethical issues they might face in their careers.

What else do you do on campus?

I do a lot of service through the Centre for Education in Math and Computing. We create math contests for grades 7-12 that are written around the world, and visit a lot of schools to get students thinking about what they can do with math. I’ve visited schools in five or six countries as well as across Canada.

I’ve also served on the FAUW Equity Committee, responding and advocating for policies on campus for equity seeking groups. Through that I’ve become a facilitator for the University’s Making Spaces workshops, which specifically advocate for LGBTQ+ people.

What is it about your work that you’re really passionate or excited about?

When I connect with a young kid who really has an interest in mathematics and a lightbulb goes on that maybe they could pursue that in more depth than they realized. Sometimes it’s a kid who doesn’t think about themselves as being strong in math, but maybe there’s a particular problem that they do really well at and they see themselves in a different way. That’s really exciting.

Also being involved in advocacy work, finding ways to take my values and bring them into my work, particularly exploring how we can do better at serving LGBTQ+ and indigenous folks. We are missing opportunities for diversity within Math and Computer Science, so I’m looking at how we can do better to attract those people and keep them in the pipeline.

And teaching: helping students, laughing in class, and anticipating questions. Just bringing math to life.

It’s hard to lean in. Rethinking a culture that encourages a 50-60+ hour work week could benefit everyone, and in particular could play a real role in bringing competent women into leadership roles.

What’s your biggest struggle at work?

Work/life balance, absolutely. There are lots of things that come up that I’m capable of doing and I’m at a point in my career where I know I’m good enough and experienced enough to do them, but I also know they’re going to compete with my time with my own children. I’m constantly asking myself: a year from now what will be the impact on my life, on my kids, if I do this thing? It’s hard to lean in. I feel a lot of pressure to lean in, and I feel like it’d be really fun to lean in, but I’m mindful of what that means in my own family life.

I worked half-time and then five-eighths time (which is ridiculous, but it worked out) for about eight years while my kids were young. It allowed me to stay in my dream job but also be at field trips and bake cookies with my kids, and I think it served my family and helped with work/life balance. It would be nice to see that option available to more people if they want it.

I am grateful to have a fantastic job that many people would want. At the same time I think it’s important to slow down the arms race of overwork. There’s lots of research that shows that women in hetero relationships do more than half of the work at home. So with jobs that expect much more than 40 hours a week, how are you going to get women into leadership? Rethinking a culture that encourages a 50-60+ hour work week could benefit everyone, and in particular could play a real role in bringing competent women into leadership roles.

What’s the last thing that surprised you at work?

Yesterday I went to a meeting advocating for student wellness within the Math Faculty. I was representing the importance of preferred names being picked up in systems like LEARN and Quest. This issue is significant for many international students who choose “English” names, and especially for trans students whose legal name is at odds with their gender identity. I was delighted with how well the issue was received and how much impetus there was to make progress.

What does a good day at work look like?

A good teaching day happens when students ask really insightful questions, sparking a great conversation. It could be office hours where somebody comes in for individual help and they leave here in a better place either with the material or emotionally. Or visiting a school and helping kids see math as something powerful and strong and something they can do.

Cheerleading helps: If I’m feeling discouraged, I try to notice what colleagues are doing and congratulate them.

Are there any productivity tools or practices that you find essential for getting stuff done?

It really helped when I turned my instant email notifications off. Sometimes working at home or eliminating distractions when I need a period of real focus. I like those door hangers that FAUW gave out. Triaging my email for “What can wait and what can’t?”. And when the task list seems overwhelming, starting with some “low-hanging fruit” so that I can check a few things off the list.

How do you stay healthy either mentally or physically?

I bike to work all year round, a few times a week. I run. I write in a gratitude journal. And cheerleading helps: If I am feeling discouraged, I try to notice what colleagues are doing and thank them and congratulate them.

Is there anything you wish you’d known when you started your career?

I’ve learned some hard lessons about the importance of speaking up when something isn’t going well.

And I wish I had reached out to other women when I started. When I went on maternity leave for the first time, there had been no precedent in my department, I didn’t understand the policies well enough, and I was a pre-continuing lecturer so I really felt the need to rush back to work. I’m sure a lot of people feel that. So I wish I’d looked for wisdom from other people.

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