Alumni, English

Alumna Profile: Janice Morris, English

February 19, 2016

After spending her early career as an executive search researcher and recruiting consultant in the corporate world, Janice Morris came to SFU in the early 2000s with the intention of earning her BA in English, completing the Professional Development Program (PDP) in Education, and becoming a high school English teacher. Morris, who received both her BA and MA in English at SFU, now teaches English for the Faculty of Academic and Career Advancement at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) where she is also founder and organizer of the university’s official documentary film festival, KDocs.

Discovering her passion for teaching was rather serendipitous, recollects Morris, “when the company I worked for in executive recruitment and consulting downsized, they offered us career counselling as part of our severance packages and—while I didn’t think I needed it, since I intended to find another job in consulting—I decided to go anyway. Through a series of consultations with a career counsellor, who had me spilling my guts and discussing my ‘hopes and dreams,’ I discovered what I had always been passionate about was teaching high school English.”

Upon the advice of the career counsellor, Morris called up a local Vancouver high school to learn more about the job and path to get there. Coincidentally, that same phone call reconnected Morris with her own grade seven English teacher who, she recalls “apart from my own parents, had the biggest influence and impression on my life.”  Deciding to become a high school teacher, Morris began consulting in a freelance capacity to pay bills while working towards her BA.

“I transferred to SFU from Langara College with the specific intention to get my BA in English, complete the PDP program, and teach high school English. I planned it out quite precisely and there were a number of other things I had to do—volunteer work, extracurricular activities—to ensure I would be admitted to the PDP program. Graduate school, funnily enough, was never a part of that plan. I actually applied to the MA program more as a back-up, but somewhere along the line, my thinking shifted.”

Seeing the challenges public school teachers faced in her volunteer work were a part of that shift, Morris recalls, as well as receiving encouragement from her SFU peers that she would be well-suited to post-secondary teaching. She also says experiencing the benefits of smaller teaching and learning communities as a student at Langara—smaller classrooms, more contact with professors, for example—made her realize that she too could teach at a similar type of post-secondary institution if she were to pursue graduate work.

Morris says the community fostered by the English Department’s graduate program was like no other she had experienced and that she was in her element fulfilling the responsibilities of being a teaching assistant. “I loved what I was doing. My peers were all—for the most part—very like-minded. I felt such a sense of belonging and it was fun to spend time with people who I didn’t need to always explain myself to. I felt like people just ‘got’ me. We cared about ideas, we were passionate about teaching students to read and think critically. I absolutely loved being a TA. I loved—I still love—the job of facilitating students’ ability to express themselves, to engage critically with texts and media.”

While Morris went on to win a SSHRC doctoral scholarship to pursue a PhD in English at UBC, she says the lustre of being in academia faded when she realised she wouldn’t be able to teach during her doctoral studies and when she realized that the landscape of the job market in post secondary education had shifted during her time in graduate school and job prospects were bleak for PhDs.

Making the difficult decision to leave her doctoral program, Morris says the experience was a valuable lesson in rethinking what “quitting” meant: “I learned that thinking I was quitting was wrong. I had to reflect upon my perfectionism and my physical health during my time in graduate school: I was not well; I had been in and out of the eating disorder clinic St. Paul’s hospital and I was miserable. I realized that you can be the Dean’s medal winner, you can win all the awards and scholarships; you can do all the things right and still not get the job. That was a hard pill to swallow. Like many people, I adhered to a kind of Protestant work ethic that says if something isn’t working out, you just put your nose to the grindstone and work harder and harder until it happens. But it doesn’t always happen. I came to learn that hard work is not the path to success, it’s the path to the opportunity for success.”

With the challenges of graduate school behind her, Morris says she is happy teaching a regular course load of Academic Composition and Preparatory English at Kwantlen. She has also worked tirelessly with others in the KPU community to build the KDocs film festival, an achievement Morris is proud of: “When we started, Helen [Mendes] and I had this attitude of ‘Why not? Why not try to just screen a film?' Later on, why not try and get Margaret Atwood here and screen Payback? Why not bring these fantastic films to our students? It’s been a lot of ongoing work raising the funds to bring these films and finding partnerships, but the response from the students and our community makes it so worthwhile, seeing everyone come together at the screenings and participate in the discussions that happen afterwards. It’s exhilarating!”