Meeting the Minds—Dr. Hugh Notman

Dr. Hugh Notman is Associate Dean of Learning Technologies in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Associate Professor of Biological Anthropology. 

How did you find AU? Why did you choose it?

AU found me if I am honest.  It was eleven years ago.  I was looking for a faculty position.  I had just finished a postdoc at the University of Lethbridge when I came across an advertisement for biological anthropology at a place called Athabasca University

I was fortunate because I live in Alberta and had just had my first child.  I was wondering how I am going to feed him when I saw this position.  It was in Alberta.  It was great.  If I am honest, I had not heard of AU before because I am not a native to Canada,  I am from Bermuda.  So, I didn’t grow up here, but I did my PhD  here in Calgary for five years.  I had not come across AU during that time, so the job was, to me, almost a bit of a risk.

About your research in biological anthropology, what are the main research questions that you pursue?

So my area is primatology.  I study primate communication and cognition.  I worked with chimpanzees in Uganda During my PhD and masters, and now I study the communication of vervet monkeys in South Africa, as well as spider and howler monkeys in Belize.

I am interested in questions like, “What are the things that animal communicates? Is it language-like? How does animal communication relate to language in humans? Are there any actual parallels in the sense that we can find the roots of human language in non-human primates? If so, where are they qualitatively different?”

So, what are your students interested in?

Most of my AU students are interested in the individual courses.  So, I try to make the courses reflect my own interests.  We offer a variety of courses in primate behavior and evolution as well as courses in social and cultural anthropology and archeology.

What tasks and responsibilities come with being a professor at AU?

The ones found in most other universities.  You have your commitment to teaching and course development, and research, then university service and administration.  I do a lot of course development rather than teaching.  I also teach at the U of C as a sessional.

A unique challenge at AU is to design a course so that students can effectively learn on their own.

So, I will say a unique challenge for professors at AU is getting good at course design.

Where students have an interest in getting their degree in anthropology at AU, what are some tips for them?

So, to do well in all their courses, read, read, read and write, write, write.  Those are key to success in social sciences.  To do that, you need to be interested and passionate about whatever it is you are learning.

So, yes, you want to do that.  If you are interested in pursuing something biological anthropology related, that is a huge sub-field of anthropology as a discipline.  Bio-anthropology can include things like forensics, osteology, medical anthropology.  These areas have a more practical application for some folks career-wise that is not just academia.

Those are the things that draw a lot of students because you dig up bones and stones.  There are things like human genetics and migration patterns and primatology

What are directions of the departmental initiatives for the next five years for AU?

We talk about the growth of the anthropology program.  More generally, I am the biological anthropologist.  I am responsible for the bio course offerings.

So, we have had myself as the bio-anth person, an archeologist, and a socio-cultural anthropologist.

Both myself and the archaeologist run our own separate field schools in Belize I, of course, have the primatology field school there.  So, that’s the area where we are excited about drawing more AU students.

What about for graduate school, for students, what should they do in terms of getting involve with research?

If you are interested in doing graduate work, you would first of all decide what it is you are interested in.  When you apply to a university, look into the research area and interests of your potential supervisor to do graduate work, don’t send an email and say, “Hi, I would like to do graduate work at your school.  Can I get a master at your school?”

You need to approach them and say, “I have an interest in doing XYZ, which I see aligns nicely with your research interests.” It shows you have done your research about the person and you have a more focused idea for your graduate work.

If you want to do grad work in primatology, you could say, “I see you work with this species on these subjects or on these areas.  This is what I would like to do.  Here is a draft proposal.” It doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to do that with your potential supervisor.

They might have his or her own idea, but at least it shows that you have done your homework and that you have similar interests to your potential supervisor.  So, s/he is much more likely to consider that application or that request more seriously than a cold call out of the blue.

So, I would say, do your homework and make sure you have an area or topic that you are interested in.  It should align at least somewhat with what the potential supervisor does.  That’s the main consideration.

Any final thoughts?

People think, “If I do a degree in this (primatology), does it mean I have to end up working with monkeys?” No, of course not.  It doesn’t matter what degree you do, or what it’s in.  You can do whatever you want.

You learn crucial skills in any of the social sciences: like how to research, how to communicate, and how to write (which is a vanishing skill). These are things that are important skills to have in any profession.