Friday, April 2, 2021

Veterinary bibliotherapy: Letters from a Former Dean


Letters from a Former Dean, Vet, Books, Bibliotherapy, study
My well-thumbed copy of Letters from a Former Dean by Emeritus Professor Trevor Heath.

How are you doing? It seems that everyone I ask has had an extraordinarily challenging time in the past couple of two years.

I’ve come to the realisation that, especially when I am stressed, I seek solace in books. I know, one should be focused on eating, sleeping, saying “no” to additional commitments and getting regular exercise. But if I know I have a book to read on the bus, or in a queue, or if I can steal a moment at home, it gives me comfort. Bibliotherapy.

I recently read by Emeritus Professor Trevor Heath, former Dean of the University of Queensland veterinary school.

I corresponded with Trevor for several years about his research on veterinary careers, issues around retention of vets, and the veterinary profession in Australia. I learned that he was often approached by students and graduates about all kinds of problems, from lack of motivation, to trying to cope with personal tragedy, to struggling with the transition to practice or considering moving out of the veterinary profession.

It must have been at least a decade after we e-met that I finally saw Trevor in person, giving a talk on mental health challenges for veterinarians at an Australian Veterinary Association conference. He spoke not just of challenges that others had approached him with – but his own gremlins, as he called them.

I can see why so many have sought his advice over the years: they trust that he will treat their problems with his compassion, respect and thoughtfulness.

As someone who has existed in the world of tertiary education for over 60 years – as a student, teacher, supervisor, mentor, researcher and Dean – its not surprising that Trevor is in a position to see patterns in the problems people have sought counsel about.

A few years ago he began writing letters of advice to a fictional student, and sharing them with others. These are now compiled in Lettersfrom a Former Dean: Advice for Students on Navigating Their Studies for aSuccessful Career, published by Australian Academic Press.

It is a short, accessible, gentle book covering four major themes: managing university studies, mental health, relationships with others, and career planning. And the final chapter is a distillation of those, in point form.

Unsurprisingly, it contains solid advice, including tips on staying engaged. It made me think about my own undergraduate life. If I felt overwhelmed at uni, I would skip lectures, trying madly to catch up, while simultaneously falling behind, worsening a spiral of overwhelm and crushing motivation. In hindsight, this was a strategy that set me up for failure, but its obviously a common issue.

But it isn’t just about being a good student. Trevor knows a lot about what makes a good teacher, and the potential undermining powers of the “hidden curriculum” (i.e. what we teach through our actions rather than our behaviour).

He offers some beautiful illustrations of the Dunning-Kruger effect (when we believe we know more about something than when we actually do (here is a run down from ZDoggMD), and some ideas on how to avoid it.

And, from his own “long experience with depression”, some very practical advice.

I am sure I could calculate the ratio of tags I stick in books relative to page numbers, but that’s an exercise for a quiet day. However, there are plenty of sticky tags in this book which I feel is the basis for a recommendation. Definitely worth a read. And a re-read.