Somewhere in between dabbling in music, photography and other art forms, Dr. Catherine Jenkins managed to successfully defend her dissertation this fall. In addition to being a lecturer in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson, Dr. Jenkins is also a Toronto-based writer whose work moves from poetry to fiction, and non-fiction. And she has many more creative outlets than that! Get to know the newest PhD scholar in ProCom.
By: Ian Ray Barcarse, MPC 2015
Dissertation focus and real-world experience
Ian: First of all, congratulations on a tremendous accomplishment! I am sure that many MPC alumni can relate to the research, writing, and presentation process. Tell us a little bit about your research and your road to defending your dissertation.
Dr. Jenkins: The dissertation focuses on communication between older patients and physicians, specifically when imaging technologies are present. The research grew from a combination of my medical education work at U of T, and advocating for my parents when they got older. I realized that sometimes there’s a gap between the idealized way that medical students are taught to communicate with patients, and what actually happens in practice, and I wanted to understand why. Because Canada has an aging population, as well as increased fiscal stress in hospitals, this is an area of research with a very real impact on Canadian society.
The field research was complicated. Based on interviews with older patients about their experiences with medical imaging, I created roles for simulated patients (SPs), supported by medical images and findings, and then scheduled encounters between the SPs and physicians with the images present. In the midst of this work, a texting taxi driver T-boned my car, leaving me with a concussion. The downside was that I didn’t function very well mentally for most of a year and that put me behind on the dissertation. The upside (yes, I found an upside!) was that I could add my own imaging experiences to the dissertation.
“In the midst of this work, a texting taxi driver T-boned my car, leaving me with a concussion. The downside was that I didn’t function very well mentally for most of a year. The upside (yes, I found an upside!) was that I could add my own imaging experiences to the dissertation.”
In the next few years, I hope to publish some of the findings to make a difference in how physicians consider patients when medical technologies are present, and also support older patients’ autonomy.
Writing as an art form
Ian: In addition your dissertation, you have also published two books over the years. Tell us more about your creative writing experience.
Dr. Jenkins: For me, writing is as essential as breathing and water. It’s not just something I do; it’s who I am. I knew I was a writer when I was 10. I was fortunate to find a mentor in poet and visual artist Dennis Tourbin, who saw that my poetry was published by the time I was 12. I’m a very open person, and that’s reflected in my writing. There are things I’ve observed or confessed on the page that I’d never admit verbally. If I’d had access to today’s rampant online universe when I was in my teens and twenties, I would’ve been a disaster!
Taking care of my parents and then going immediately into the PhD hasn’t left a lot of time, mental space, or energy for non-academic writing in the last few years, but I have six books at various stages of incompletion. With the dissertation done, I’m really looking forward to getting back to the more creative work.
Outlets for creativity and expression
Ian: In addition to writing poetry and novels, how do you express yourself creatively?
Dr. Jenkins: I’m a sometimes musician. I’ve trained as a pianist, flautist, guitarist, and vocalist, but I’ve also played bass, and some sax. I was with three different bands in Peterborough in my twenties, mostly original reggae dub with some jazz influence. One Mind, the most successful of those bands, has reunited for gigs in the last couple of years.
I’m a sometimes photographer. I’ve had a few photos published, but have never considered myself more than a serious amateur. I also have a background in performance, something that’s helped me promote my writing. Occasionally I dabble in paint, and textile art. Guerilla knitting is a fabulous way of doing something mischievous, yet harmless. I’ve even considered pursuing composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music, but I think I need a bit of a break from being a student.
Ian: Last year, one of your students from CMN 100 – Professional Health Communication won the Jacqueline Atkins Scholarship. Tell us how you engage students about the need for accuracy, clarity, and audience consideration in professional writing.
Dr. Jenkins: I think of teaching as performative, and I put a lot of energy into that performance because I know that I’m sometimes competing with electronic devices. I get genuinely excited about ideas, and I love having the opportunity to see what other people are thinking and working on. I see my role as helping people improve their communication skills, so they can more successfully share their ideas. I have experience as a writer, an editor, on Bay Street, and in medical education, so I bring a lot of anecdotes into the classroom. It’s educational and fun seeing how theory has played out in lived examples.
I find that often students are so fixated on meeting their instructors’ expectations, on getting good grades, that they don’t take full advantage of the possibilities for thought and experimentation that could actually lead to better grades. Aristotle said: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” A more contemporary take on this notion comes from Joanna Cole, author of The Magic School Bus: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” I think this is the only way to make education your own, and to succeed academically and professionally. Strive to be brilliant, not mediocre. Students who are fixated on meeting expectations are B-range students. Those who can surpass these expectations by applying critical or creative thought, move into the A-range. I’ve had more than a few conversations with students who don’t understand this difference.
“Strive to be brilliant, not mediocre. Students who are fixated on meeting expectations are B-range students. Those who can surpass these expectations by applying critical or creative thought, move into the A-range. I’ve had more than a few conversations with students who don’t understand this difference.”
Ian: As the fall term winds down, any plans to relax and celebrate your accomplishments over the holidays?
Dr. Jenkins: You bet! On my way through the PhD, I kept thinking that once I was done, I owed myself something special, maybe a trip. For a while, I was considering backpacking through Europe, something I missed when I was younger, but that’s on hold for now. Instead, I’m going to South Africa for three weeks over the winter break! My Dad was born there, and I still have family there. They’re excited that I’m coming, because although they visit Canada regularly, none of us has ever visited South Africa. They’ve got my itinerary all planned; I told them that as long as there are opportunities to see animals, and maybe do a wine tour, I’d be happy. I have a new telephoto lens, so I’m hoping to get some great animal shots.
Also on my way through the PhD, my magpie mind has come up with ideas for future research. I’m just revising an article on the tension between witchcraft to pharmacology during Venice’s plague years that’s been accepted for a special medical humanities issue of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies. Also, you may have noticed the Spiderman and Wonder Woman posters in my office. My next big research project will tackle the medicalization of comic book superheroes. Yes, really!