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#UofTBTS16: U of T profs look forward to the 2016-17 school year

(clockwise from top left): Lee Ann Fuji, Sarah Kaplan, Nicholas Rule, Marney Isaac - just 4 of the 14,000 faculty members at the University of Toronto

As students and professors alike head Back to School, keep in mind that U of T is home to 14,000 outstanding faculty members who teach and do ground-breaking research. Here are four to watch:   

Lee Ann Fujii, who studies political violence, ethnicity and race, and African politics.

Marney Isaac, who works on applying ecological principles to agricultural landscapes.

Sarah Kaplan, who is the co-author of a best-selling business book on creative destruction.

And Nicholas Rule, whose insights into appearance and nonverbal behaviour frequently appear in the media.

U of T News talked to Fujii, Isaac, Kaplan, and Rule about their academic pursuits, current interests and teaching styles.


Lee Ann Fujii

associate professor of Political Science, University of Toronto Mississauga

Her most memorable accomplishment last year
Going through the transcripts of the International Criminal Tribunal of ex-Yugoslavia for Show Time, my book on Bosnia, Rwanda, and the U.S. I was using the transcripts to learn about this one war criminal from Bosnia, Duško Tadić. Reading the testimonies from all his former neighbours about his life before the war, before he became a war criminal, was really painful. Learning about who his friends were before the war and what he did to them during the war literally brought tears to my eyes. I had to take constant breaks, but even when I was out and about and enjoying the city (I was in New York City last summer), what I had read stayed with me. It still does.

What she’s working on
I’m on sabbatical at the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I've also been working on a second book  about "relational interviewing." It’s for a book series on Interpretive Methods, edited by Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea who have been mentors and my toughest critics from the moment I met them while I was still in graduate school.

I also plan to spin out some articles from Show Time. I'd like to learn more about the literature on race, which is focused mostly on the U.S. As an American and a person of color, I cannot help but be interested in the politics of race and ethnicity, especially in this very, very important election year back home.

Her classroom technique
To make sure I kept my writing going during the Fall semester last year, I assigned chapters to my students in different sections of a senior/grad seminar on Race & Violence. The students were amazing. I thought they'd be reticent about tackling work by their professor, but they were not. They did not pull any punches and came up with excellent feedback and ideas. Sometimes I argued against the manuscript and they argued right back, defending the chapters they had read or the argument. It was a terrific experience for everyone I think.


Marney Isaac

associate professor of Environmental Science, University of Toronto Scarborough

Current research
I’ve been conducting fieldwork with colleagues in Costa Rica. Research in agroecology focuses on understanding how more biologically complex systems may present both short and long-term environmental and socio-economic benefits, such as enhanced food security and agricultural resilience to environmental change. Our preliminary analysis shows that the diversity of plants and their traits are pivotal to evaluate causes and consequences of environmental change, and initiate management actions in response.

I’ve also just completed a long-term research program in Ghana this year, where my post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Hanson Nyantakyi-Frimpong, designed and gathered data for a study on agrarian information networks and agroecosystem management. We’re using novel modeling methods to see how informal farmer networks influence resource-conserving agriculture in an era of recurring climatic change.

Most significant accomplishment last year
My research group has identified how trait-based research can be applied to questions in agroecosystem management. We published a research blueprint last year, providing a framework on how and why to choose species that play complementary roles in agroecosystems to foster resiliency. We also called for a consolidation of crop functional trait data. We expect this data can help us better understand agroecosystem functioning, and ideally inform sustainable agricultural management strategies. This work was highlighted in many news outlets last year and has inspired my research group to investigate how this data can help impact nutrient cycles, respond to climatic conditions, and change over time. 


Sarah Kaplan

professor of Strategic Management, Rotman School of Management

What she teaches
I teach a course called Corporation 360o. This is an advanced elective course for MBA students. The focus is on looking at the corporation in society, examining it from the vantage point of different stakeholders: workers, suppliers, communities, the environment, consumers, managers and shareholders. In the course, we examine the implicit trade-offs across stakeholders that occur in any business model and discuss ways to innovate around or balance the trade-offs. The goal is to wade into the complexity of managing an organization and get students to think in an integrated way about the challenges. I am currently writing a book on these topics.

On engaging students
My strategy for engaging students is to ask provocative questions and be open to the possibility that I don’t have the answers myself. I see the classroom as a space in which we collectively produce insights and solutions. I encourage debate, seek out students who might have different perspectives and don’t try to dominate the flow of the conversation.

What she’s working on
My research generally focuses on how organizations participate and respond to the emergence of new technologies and fields. I am in the process of launching a new research center called the Institute for Gender & the Economy. I am very excited about the prospect of being able to support research that connects questions of gender with questions of economic, organizational and personal prosperity. The Institute will eventually exist through partnership with corporations and will support outstanding new research as well as pedagogical innovations to bring new ideas to the classroom.

On creative destruction
The term “creative destruction” was coined nearly a century ago by Joseph Schumpeter. I find it useful because it focuses on the fact that innovation is not an “add on” but often “destroys” existing ways of doing business. In my own work, I have built on Schumpeter’s idea that innovation and obsolescence go hand in hand. Companies and economies cannot be innovative without recognizing the change and dislocation that might come with it.


Nicholas Rule

assistant professor of Social Psychology, Arts & Science

What he teaches
In the Fall, I'll be teaching PSY339, the Psychology Department's laboratory course specific to studying individual differences in behaviour. The course aims to give students a chance to take all of the content they've learned in their first two years of psychology courses and begin to apply it in a practical way. For instance, our students learn a lot about various statistical tests and methodological designs that psychological scientists use to measure behaviour. When I was an undergraduate, all of these techniques seemed really abstract until I started to actually use them. Only then did I genuinely understand how to use them and why they were important. In my lab course, I take students through a quick whirlwind of designing, executing and reporting on a research study. We cover a lot of ground, and it can be a little overwhelming but it gets their feet wet with how psychologists conduct research from start to finish. With only 12 weeks, we have to go broad instead of deep but it's my hope that the course will be a first step for students to go on and hone their skills.

On engaging students
I try to talk to my students instead of at them. My academic roots are in nonverbal behaviour. All too often, I see people speaking to groups who might as well be on a television. It’s as if there's a glass wall between the speaker, and his or her audience. Communication is a dynamic exchange though. A speaker needs to be dialed in to what the audience is thinking and to respond to their responses, adapting how and what s/he says until the thoughts within the speaker's mind have effectively made their way into the listener's mind. Therefore, I try to make things as personalized as possible while I'm teaching to connect with the students and facilitate comprehension.

Current research
Our research addresses questions around social perception and cognition: how people take in information about other people through their senses and then process this in their mind and brain to come to a decision (conscious or non-conscious) about how to act in response. Right now, we've got projects examining this process in relation to racial stereotyping, sexual orientation, social class, music preferences, narcissism, political and business leadership, and even cosmetic surgery. We cover a lot of topics, We are always expanding into new territory and considering new ideas.

Involving students in research
Without the students, there would be no research! At any given time, my lab has between 20 to 30 undergraduates working on projects in various forms. They work as small teams on sets of projects, and the teams then collaborate to cooperatively tackle bigger projects. I've published multiple papers with undergraduates from my lab as co-authors (even the lead authors) on the work. I really enjoy working with students on research. It's the one area in my schedule where I feel that I could never have enough time.

Memorable moments from 2015-2016
After many years of work, my lab published several papers demonstrating that snap judgments can literally be a matter of life and death. In one body of research that we started seven years ago, we found that people's perceptions of sexual orientation affect whether they decide to hire someone for a variety of jobs – without even knowing that the candidates they're considering differ in sexual orientation. They seem to process whether the person is gay or straight non-consciously and use this information to make a hiring decision. In another stream of work, we found that perceptions of how trustworthy someone's face looks statistically predicts whether he is sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty for the same crime. These studies show how our quick impressions of other people based on their facial appearance can have very serious consequences. I'm really glad that we were able to let people know about these effects.