Meet the Faculty: Brian Doucet

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.

Brian Doucet is the Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Urban Change and Social Inclusion and an associate professor in the School of Planning. In this extended interview, we dive a little deeper than usual into Brian’s research and its local applications.

What do you teach and research?

My main focus is trying to understand how people experience big forces of change that shape their neighbourhood. A lot of my previous work has focused on the lived experiences of gentrification and I am increasingly focusing on the relationship between neighbourhood change and mobility, with a particular emphasis on cycling and transit. In teaching, that connects to some of the big trends taking place in cities today: inequality, polarization, housing challenges.

Where does your interest in these aspects of cities come from?

I’ve always been interested in the ordinary, everyday parts of cities, and curious as to why things are where they are and what is driving change. There’s a lot of inequality in our society, so there’s a lot of inequality replicated in our cities and I’m trying to find genuine ways to reduce those divisions, whether it be through housing or transportation—and not just superficial ways, but looking at the root causes of some of that inequality.

When and where do you do your best work?

I find now that I have children, almost out of necessity, I tend to work well in the mornings. One of the big pressure points of the day is around dinner time, so I like to try and get home for that. Having a very spacious office that’s only a 15-minute bike ride or a 30-minute walk from home, I find I tend to come in to work much more than I did when I lived in a different city from where I work. Sometimes I’ll even come back up here after the children have gone to bed because it’s a better place to work than the dining room table.

When I go on holiday, I do not check my emails; I even delete Twitter from my phone for a few weeks in the summer.

How do you stay healthy and balanced?

I’m very privileged that I am able to walk or cycle to work, and I really enjoy that. The 30-minute walk is a good way to just get yourself in the right state of mind and stay active. I almost never drive to work, and if I do on the odd occasion, I find I miss that aspect.

I’ve tried to bring some of the approach to work/life balance that I developed in the Netherlands back here. I try not to have any expectations of getting things done at weekends, unless there’s something out of the ordinary. When I go on holiday, I do not check my emails; I even delete Twitter from my phone for a few weeks in the summer to really take a break from work and things like social media that are part of my job.

I communicate to my students that I check email during the working day, and if they send an email at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday, it won’t be answered until Monday morning. That doesn’t mean I’m not working at other times, but if I’m working in the evening I’m also setting boundaries and expectations that I will not be available 24/7. That means if I must work in the evenings, I’m working on something; I’m writing, reading, grading—not sending emails back and forth (or if I am sending emails, I’m blocking time to do this single task). I know you can be an excellent teacher because you’re available 24/7. You can also be an excellent teacher because you insist on, for yourself but also for the students, having time where you log off. And it’s not that one is right and one is wrong. It’s just different approaches for different people.

“You can be an excellent teacher because you’re available 24/7. You can also be an excellent teacher because you insist on, for yourself but also for the students, having time where you log off.” – Brian Doucet

Are there any productivity tools or practices that you find essential?

I don’t often get a chance to do this anymore, but when I was in Holland there were days where I would just take the train to random places, maybe have a look around for half an hour and then get back on the train and go somewhere else, and spend the time on the train working. I find that time on the move tends to be very productive.

I find it helpful sometimes to change locations, maybe go work in the library or a café. I don’t feel great after not leaving the department all day. It’s nice just to get out for some of the day; take your lunch and walk, on your own or with a colleague. I find that’s a good way to break things up a little bit.

I also think it’s helpful to focus on one activity or task for a particular block of time, rather than trying to accomplish everything that needs to be done at once. If I have a half a day, I may dedicate that to revising an article, and turn off my email while I’m doing that, so as not to be distracted.

What’s your biggest struggle at work?

I think we often put more expectations on ourselves than other people put on us. There’s this idea that you can spend all your waking hours working and you can probably still do more. So one of the biggest struggles is figuring out: what are the expectations that you have for yourself and how do you balance that with other aspects of your life?

Because we’re all so passionate about what we do, it is very difficult to switch off, right? But it’s necessary. It’s necessary also for our own productivity. I sometimes find if I work fewer hours, but they’re more focused, that in the end I get more done.

Hear more on work-life boundaries from Brian at FAUW’s Unplugging Lunch & Learn on November 28.

What do you wish you’d known when you started your academic career?

One thing I’ve learned is that if your work life is suffering it impacts your family life—and if you don’t have enough time with your family, that impacts your work and your overall well-being. Ensuring that you have enough time for that, for me has been important to whatever kind of success that I’ve had in this profession.

Last year, when my son was born, I waited until the end of the term and then took four months of parental leave. It was necessary, but it was also a privilege and I was very grateful that I could spend that time at home. I can see the benefits of it and would encourage everybody to do it.

And, again, it is important to think about your expectations for that time. I did a few media interviews, especially as my Canada Research Chair was announced while I was on leave, but in terms of real academic work (grant writing, articles, etc.), my expectation was zero. Now, will that come to hurt my career down the line? I don’t know, but that’s less important to me than actually being able to make sure that all aspects of my life are working really well.


Bonus material: what Brian’s working on in Waterloo Region right now

You’re applying your research locally. What are you working on in the community?

Partly because of my experience living in the Netherlands, which has very different mobility norms, I’ve become interested here in issues of cycling, walking, and active transportation. The neighbourhood research is related to that through the ways in which the new light rail transit (LRT) line is reordering the social geography of the region. Some of the areas along the LRT line are already experiencing gentrification as more people want to live in areas that offer choice in terms of how you get around. I want to understand what that means for people who are living in these areas.

You see it in Toronto: the areas that are upgrading tend to be older areas with good transit, good cycling, walkable areas close to the subway. And many of the areas that are downgrading are areas where you can really only drive.

You’ve recently moved back from the Netherlands. How has that transition been?

Check out Brian’s photo exhibition, ‘Ordinary Cycling: unremarkable photos from the Netherlands,‘ at Fix Coffee + Bikes, 80 Gladstone Avenue, Toronto, until March 31, 2020.

It’s been a challenge and an eye opener. For 13 years, it was normal to be able to cycle everywhere perfectly safely. Moving back to Canada has been an adjustment. I mean, you can cycle; it’s not that it’s impossible. But there’s a real privilege to living in older core areas where there is, if not cycling infrastructure, at least streets that are amenable to cycling and destinations that are close enough to get there by bike. These areas are becoming increasingly expensive to live in as more and more people want that kind of environment and lifestyle.

How the Dutch built their cycling infrastructure was something I was always aware of as an urban geographer, but it wasn’t the focus of my research. Moving here, I’ve become much more involved in issues of cycling and mobility because I’ve seen two very different normalities. And feeling compelled to contribute to cycling debates is now leading to academic research. This is the subject of my first photo exhibition: depicting ordinary cycling in the Netherlands and challenging us over here to think about how cycling can reshape our relationships with our cities, our communities and our environments.

As a Canada Research Chair, I feel it is important to participate in public and policy debates in order to bring academic knowledge and research that can enhance these conversations; this photo exhibition is part of that idea.

There are a lot of people here in the Region of Waterloo who have been advocating very hard for the kind of stuff that I took for granted in the Netherlands. It’s a bit of a balancing act in terms of how you contribute your experience and insights to the conversation that is already happening.

What would you change in the region?

On the cycling infrastructure front, I would think about how different pieces of cycling infrastructure are or are not connected—a bike path that disappears for a few hundred metres, for example, or one that ends at a crossing and you’ve got to cross the street without any help. It’s those connections that are important for building an actual seamless network.

If we are thinking about the relationship between transit and gentrification, I would also look specifically at affordable housing policies along the LRT corridor. We’re seeing a lot of development, but I think there’s a danger that it will all be fairly small, market-rate condos that will only serve one segment of the population. I’d like to see more consideration and regulation to ensure that there’s a diversity of housing types along the LRT corridor so that people from a range of backgrounds and incomes can afford to live in close proximity to good transit. There is a lot of publicly-owned land downtown and Uptown; today it’s in the form of surface parking lots. Tomorrow it could be the sites of affordable housing.

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