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Faculty Profile: Dr. Sinikka Elliott

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Note: This interview was conducted in February 2016. It is being shared now in honor of Dr. Elliott’s departure from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology after 9 years of teaching, engagement, and service at North Carolina State University. She will be joining the faculty at the University of British Columbia in the Fall of 2017. 

We pride ourselves on the research coming out of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Our faculty have contributed to the breadth and depth of the discourse in their research areas. Ranging from political economy to craniofacial growth, those research areas are as diverse as the complex human endeavor our faculty strive to analyze and understand. Ultimately, their fine research aids us in understanding human behavior and relationships, the foundations of human cultures and societies, which each of our faculty explores from a distinct perspective.

Today, we meet Dr. Sinikka Elliott, who joined the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in the 2008-2009 academic year as an Assistant Professor specializing in Family, Inequality, Gender, and Sexuality.

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Personal History

Teaching

Current Research

Further Questions

Personal History

Let’s begin by talking about where you’re from.

I grew up in Canada in Cape Breton. My parents were Americans but they were back-to-earth hippies. We grew up on a farm so we were self-sustaining farmers, [with] cows, chickens, and pigs. A big farm and big garden. But I also spent a period of my teenage years in Texas, then returned to Canada at 16 and finished high school there.

I did my undergraduate degree at a university in Halifax, Nova Scotia called Dalhousie University, but I was actually accepted into a program at the University of King’s College, which is located on the campus of Dalhousie University. They had what was called a first-year program. It’s a one year intensive program where you read the classics and get four course credits. I was reading Plato and Aristotle but I found that I was really drawn to the readings that gave me a sociology credit. I didn’t even know what sociology was but I encountered it and I thought, “Okay, so maybe this is what I want to pursue.” As a result of that, I chose sociology as my major and did a four-year degree. It was a wonderful, small sociology program at Dalhousie that really nurtured the students. In Canada, you don’t take all those general education classes. You focus on what you’re interested in, so it’s a three year program but stretches to four years if you’re an honors student. I was, and I did an honors thesis where I collected my own data and did a what we would consider a master’s thesis here. It was a phenomenal experience.

What was it about sociology that appealed to you?

Some of the very basic tenets of our discipline: the focus on why people behave the way they do, how institutions, policies and regulations, and government control can change our behavior for better or for worse. As a very young person, I was very interested in human nature. Until that time I had only thought of human nature in this kind of biological or essentialist way, like we’re programmed. So, it was thrilling to discover that we weren’t programmed, that we were very malleable. And then we got to think about how we could infuse our forms of governance with ways of improving well-being on a group level. Those are the things that drew me to sociology.

And what was your undergraduate thesis about?

I studied eating disorders, and so the title of my thesis (which I still think is pretty cute) is “Obsessed or Oppressed: Women, Eating Disorders and Capitalism.” I was concerned with the great big ideas about capitalism and the objectification of women, and what that meant for how women experienced their bodies. I contacted an eating disorders support group and interviewed several women, mostly college students, who attended that support group or with whom I made contact through support group members. I used a lot of Dorothy Smith’s [work], who’s a pretty famous Canadian sociologist and social theorist. She talks about women’s “bifurcated consciousness” and how, because so much of our social world has been constructed by men and around principles that align with masculinity, women experience a lot of contradictions and schisms.

Bifurcated consciousness, that’s a good word for it.

It’s kind of like Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness, right? Always feeling like the other.

Was it a clear trajectory for you from that to a master’s degree program?

I had a lot of time in between. In my final year, when I was doing my thesis, I had some wonderful mentors who said you should continue and pursue a graduate degree but I’ve never taken the easy route in life. So, I decided: No, I was going to do other things. It took eight years before I went back to graduate school. But in the meantime I did some really interesting things and I learned a lot about the world outside of academia but never lost that love of sociology and learning.

Can you share some of what you did while away from academia?

Oh sure! In many ways it’s kind of conventional. I met someone the summer before I started my final year and he was a traveller. He grew up in Scotland but his parents are English. He went to British Columbia and hitchhiked across Canada, and a  friend of mine picked him up [hitchhiking] in Nova Scotia and introduced us. We clicked and so he stayed [in Nova Scotia]. Eventually, we got hitched in a very unconventional style. I wore jeans and a tie, because that was dressy enough, and he wore a handkerchief and a jean jacket. And then we travelled and had lots of adventures and two children along the way. And now we have a son who’s 21 in Montreal, Canada and a daughter who’s 18 and in college at Wilmington.

What made you decide “now is the time” after eight years?

During those eight years I had a lot of odd jobs but one thing that I ended up doing for the last four [years] really stuck and was also pivotal: I worked for a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about domestic violence and eradicating it. I was living on a small island in Canada at the time and we had one shelter and not a whole lot of services given the need. So I got involved in that group and ended up writing some grants that were funded. But because I only had a bachelor’s degree I couldn’t necessarily have my name on the grants. That experience made me think, Oh okay, the people who had been able to put their names on the grants had master’s degrees, so I thought I needed to get a master’s degree.

At the time, I had family in Texas and applied to the University of Texas at Austin since it would be easier to deal with the kids if we had family nearby because we didn’t have any family in British Columbia. I applied not really understanding that it was a PhD program. I thought I’d just get my master’s and then we would go back to British Columbia. Then I got in [to the PhD program] and fell in love with it again. After the master’s it was clear that I needed to keep going and do the PhD and I did.

Was the focus of your master’s research still on women?

Yes, it was. I explored how women who identify as feminists experience a feminist identity and express their feminism to others. So yes, very much focused on that. And then for my dissertation, I explored how parents of teenagers think about teen sexuality. At the time, sex education and issues related to students’ access to sexual images were pretty hot topics.

What led to that transition from women and feminism to parents, teenagers, and sexuality?

I had some classes that were helpful in terms of getting me to think about sexuality sociologically because I really hadn’t before. When I started at UT Austin I was lucky to start about the time that two phenomenal assistant professors started there. One of them, Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez, happened to study sexuality from this very sociological perspective showing how, when people immigrate, the way they experience their sexuality and their bodies is very much shaped by their new immigrant location. I thought, “Wow, this is exciting!”

And as a parent with children in the school system, I was also kind of switched on to things that parents were talking about and worrying about. I decided, kind of as a parent but also as a graduate student, to attend a couple of school board meetings where they were debating the adoption of new student health textbooks. That’s where sex education is taught, in health classes [in Texas]. At that time, abstinence had really started to become very hegemonic in terms of educational content, both in schools and also outside of schools, so the school board wanted to remove all information about contraception other than their failure rates from the student textbook. They actually got that approved and the new textbooks don’t contain that information. I went to all three meetings and I kept hearing about parents. Parents wouldn’t want this. Parents would do this. Every parent expects their children to do this. I thought, “Hm, I don’t know. Do we actually really know what parents are thinking about this topic?” Of course, I went to the literature and saw that we don’t and so I wanted talk to parents and see what was going on there.

And that became your book, Not My Kid: What Parents Believe about the Sex Lives of Their Teenagers?

Yes.

How did you conduct your research?

I knew that I wanted to talk to parents who weren’t involved in the debate because I knew I wanted to learn about the everyday parent, the typical parent, not the parent who was an activist. And that did present a conundrum. I also wanted to really think about parenting and teen sexuality, not as this kind of individual thing that happens behind closed doors but as really intricately and intimately connected to our social world because it is. I decided to recruit the parents through student health classes in four schools. I chose a middle school and a high school in a pretty affluent area, and then two high schools in lower income areas. I found a sex educator who introduced me to a couple of other sex educators who introduced me to a couple of others who allowed me to send letters home with their students asking their parents to participate in the study. And I defined it as a really broad study about puberty, dating, and sex because I  wanted parents who were interested and who could talk about their kids as experts, but I didn’t necessarily only want parents who would be comfortable agreeing to a study about sex. So that’s how I got most of the parents and I also advertised and got referrals for a handful of other parents. I interviewed about 50 parents in total. I also was able to do ethnographic observations in a couple of those health classes, so I also got  to see then what the youth of the parents I interviewed with were actually learning about sex in school.

What did you find?

I found that, given so much of what parents hear about teen sexuality is kind of fear-based, road to ruination or what I call the danger discourse of teen sexuality, parents didn’t want to think about their teens as sexual beings because to do that would be to think of them as imperiled. Parents often talked about their kids as good kids, as kids that aren’t really that interested [in sex], as naive and immature in comparison to their peers who they saw as a stereotypical, hormonally-crazed, sexually-driven teen. Parents really wanted to protect their kids from their peer group, and protecting them from sex is an important part of that. I also have a chapter where I talk about how parents are ambivalent about how to control their teen’s sexuality. What’s the best route? Is it abstinence? Is it contraception? There wasn’t a clear, neat division among the parents as the big debates would suggest. There was more blending and merging of ways to govern teenage sexuality and it really helps to show parents’ anxiety and concerns that are larger than just sexuality. Their concerns are about their kids’ futures, about their accountability as parents for protecting their kids and keeping them safe, for getting them to adulthood and helping them to achieve at least if not more than they themselves achieved.

How much time passed between completing your PhD and becoming an assistant professor at NC State?

Those school board meetings were in the fall of 2004 and I proposed the project the following spring and then collected data in 2005 and 2006. I got this job in the fall of 2007, defended the dissertation in the spring of 2008, and then came here in the summer of 2008.

Teaching

What were you teaching when you first arrived at NC State?

I taught the graduate Gender class and it was a great experience to teach a graduate class right away. It was phenomenal.

What other courses do you teach?  

I teach Qualitative Methods at the graduate level, although I’m in the process of developing one at the undergraduate level. I also teach Gender at the undergraduate level, [the course is called] Women and Men in Society, and also the Sociology of Sexualities course.

How would you describe your teaching style?

Well, I think as a teacher I’m always growing and learning and I try to make my classes really inclusive and participatory. I put a lot of emphasis on knowledge, learning, asking questions, and thinking creatively, on learning by doing as opposed to learning for a grade. I use a lot of active learning techniques. When I was in graduate school and I was trying to figure out how it was you do this business called teaching I took every workshop I could find and a lot of what I found were on active learning and so that helped me to learn that, as a teacher, I did not have to have all the answers and my job wasn’t simply to fill students heads with facts but to help students learn how to think sociologically and make sense of all the facts we’re bombarded with on a daily basis.

What would a successful student look like in your class?

Being very inquisitive and being able to make connection across class readings from week to week, but also making connections with other classes that the student is taking. It’s always very exciting when students approach a problem in a novel way.

If you could create and plan a dream course, what would it look like?

I feel like in some ways I have. We have a lot of autonomy with the courses we create. I love my classes. The Sociology of Sexualities class is a really fun class and, in some ways, it’s probably my dream class.

What are some of the favorite assignments that you give to students in that class?

I’ve done a lot of different assignments in that class. Some of the students are a little bit aghast when they take the class and they’re assigned very dense readings for the first six weeks. I like to joke that academics can make even sex boring, but then I ask them to take these theories and apply them to a popular film. That’s a pretty cool exercise and their observations are often really fun to read and enlightening.

Do they get to choose the film or do you provide them with a list?

Thus far, I’ve told them which film to see. If they’re all watching a bunch of films that I’m not as familiar with it makes it more challenging for me to judge the level of sophistication that they’re at with their analyses. The other really cool activity that I’ve done in that class is to put the students into groups of five and each group has the opportunity to teach an entire class. I work a lot with them and give them a lot of parameters but they assign the readings, they choose the topic, and they create activities that each person in the group might lead.

And is this at the undergraduate level?

Yes. It’s pretty cool. I’ve only done it once but I’m thinking that I’ll do it again. There is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes but the results are really cool. Another thing I’ve done in the class, which is also a lot of work but really cool, is having them do a semester-long research project on a topic of their choosing, within some parameters, and asking them to apply two or three of the theories that we’ve discussed in the class to this topic. The students do everything from pornography to sex trafficking to rape to homophobia. Big big topics. I teach them how they can write a research question and develop an argument that’s theoretical using a small amount of empirical evidence. They do a proposal, they do an extended outline, they do a first draft, and a final paper. They get feedback all along the way. It’s so thrilling to see their ideas develop and to see things starting to click and make sense. It’s a neat assignment.

Do you feel like your teaching and research influence one another?

Oh yeah, definitely. I think there’s a very symbiotic relationship between research and teaching. Of course, I designed the Sociology of Sexualities course around my research that produced the book. But, with all my classes, we’ll talk about whatever I’m researching, and the students, their questions, their observations, and their engaged interests give me insight into how people potentially outside of academia might be thinking about this topic in new ways or will help me think of new ways to approach it.

Current Research

What are your current research interests?

They’re pretty varied. Broadly, my interests continue to be family and inequality. With [Dr. Sarah Bowen, Associate Professor of Sociology], I’m now learning more about the sociology of food because we have this project that’s looking at low-income families’ food beliefs, practices, access. I’m still working with a couple of colleagues at different universities on college students and hooking up. I’m also working with a couple of graduate students here and [Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ithaca College, Joslyn Brenton],  a former graduate student here, on a project we started a few years ago looking at racialized mothering. We’re looking at low-income single black moms and how they experience their family work, their caring work. These are moms of teenagers, too, so that’s especially important given that their daughters are often constructed by dominant culture as highly sexual and their sons are constructed as highly criminal. This exacerbates and is like another layer of mothering work for these women.

How did the project with Dr. Bowen come about?

Sarah can probably tell the origin story better than I can, but we were in a faculty meeting and the Dean was invited and the department head at the time asked us all to give an elevator speech about our research interests. I said I was interested in family and gender and sexuality, but also in family health and society and what that means for family well-being. Sarah said that as she was listening to that she was thinking of issues of food access and insecurity because she’s a Sociology of Food scholar. She approached me afterward and asked if I’d be interested in working on a grant proposal that would merge our interests – mine in family health and well-being and hers in food, and I agreed. I think it was a good opportunity. We worked together and managed to get a big grant. It’s five years and this research has taken us into two rural counties and one urban county in North Carolina. We’ve met many fantastic people and have gotten to know the communities, and we’ve been collecting some phenomenal data. It’s the biggest project either of us has ever undertaken but we’re enjoying it. It’s always a learning process and we’re just fortunate that we’re here at NC State, that we have good resources, and that the graduate students who are working on the project are wonderful. It’s been an exciting opportunity.

                                     The research team of Voices Into Action.

What are the research questions that you’re trying to explore with this project?

How are low-income family’s food practices and beliefs situated within a context including childhood obesity, unequal food systems, precarious employment, weight discrimination, racism, and sexism? And with what consequences? What we basically found when we started to write that proposal is that you had a lot of work on family, food, and health that focused at the individual level. These were pieces by nutritionists or public health scholars who focused on what individual people were eating and how they purchased it. Then you have a lot of work by sociologists and geographers who were looking at the structural level, so they were looking at agricultural policy and proximity to food resources but they weren’t really including the individual. As sociologists, we felt like there was a good opportunity for us to merge these approaches and look at individuals within their social, structural environments.

I’m sure this is a question that you’ve answered plenty of times in those interviews, but what did you find?

Here’s the thing: The project is ongoing. The article, “The Joy of Cooking?” which happened to spark some public attention actually merged the 120+ interviews we’ve done with the low-income mothers as part of our grant with the 30 interviews that Joslyn Brenton did for her dissertation with middle class mothers, using the same interview guide. We merged the data because what we found were these really similar things across these women who are very diverse in terms of class, race, and ethnicity. Both groups contain large numbers of black, white, and Latina moms. We’ve found that time pressures, money constraints, and the burdens of feeding others were all consistent themes that the mothers shared with us. The themes look different depending on social class issues but they were very salient across the groups. We also found that mothers are doing a lot of cooking. So, it’s not as if women have abandoned the kitchen as we sometimes hear food pundits say. There’s actually a lot of cooking going on but cooking is far more complicated and fraught than I think is often portrayed in popular culture, and that’s the argument.

What is the next half of the project looking like?

We have several papers that we’re working on. In the first year of the grant we did interviews and surveys with the moms and then in the second year we did intensive ethnographic observations with 12 of the families. In the third year, we’ve re-interviewed the moms with new questions that we’re asking learning more about various related topics and then next year we’ll do those observations again. So, the data are cumulative and longitudinal but, of course, the analysis is ongoing.

Another paper that Sarah and I are working on is looking at how the low-income moms we interviewed for the project are making sense of their children’s health and weight and how their interactions with various healthcare providers, from WIC nutrition counselors to school caseworkers to pediatricians, shape and inform those understandings. We’re looking at how children are being weighed and measured in a variety of institutional contexts, and how their weight is often used as a proxy for their health and their eating is monitored in schools through the school lunch program, breakfast program, with various consequences for mothers from this surveillance of their children. So you can see this is the gamut, from cooking in individual homes to thinking about women’s contact with institutions and healthcare providers and how they make sense of the information they receive about their kid’s weight and health.

Did you face any challenges with this project?

Oh gosh, yes. I’ve never undertaken a project of such magnitude, so data management is a challenge. And the research is longitudinal so just learning how to maintain contact with the families over time. We’ve done a lot of things from sending regular newsletters, to holiday cards, you name it. We’ve created databases where we can maintain a sort of systematic form of demographic information for the families, and these are households that change a lot. So now that we’re revisiting the families in the third year we’re finding new configurations. We encounter challenges almost weekly.

Where do you store all of that information?

Well, that’s the other thing. Of course, everything has to be password protected. We certainly can never email anything, so we have a password protected folder where we store data. And we store things in different places so that it’s not all in one place.

Are there any theories that you’re applying to this research or are you and Dr. Bowen generating your own theories to account for what you’re finding?

It’s too early to say but given the depth of the data, hopefully this project will allow some theory generation. I think right now we’re relying on our backgrounds. For me that means symbolic interactionism, feminism, intersectionality, theories of family, and critical race theories.

It’s that there’s going to be some public benefit to the research that you’re doing but are you actively working with any sort of organizations as you’re doing this research?

Yes, in addition to the data collection, the other major part of the project is an outreach component. We work with [North Carolina Cooperative Extension] and we have actively worked to create community mentors, advocates, and community advisory groups in each of the three areas. We’ve had workshops where we’ve invited stakeholders and community members to come together and talk about the assets of the community in terms of food and health, in terms of access to affordable nutritious food and places to be active. We’ve looked at what communities have and what assets the community can better utilize and what the community is hoping to have more of. We also give out small grants in each of the communities to create everything from walking trails to community gardens to Zumba classes, lots of really cool projects.

You mentioned a research project on college students and hooking up?

That is a long time interest and project with a couple of other colleagues. In graduate school we were all teaching our own classes and we had this idea to do a class activity. We presented the students with two versions of a scenario describing a casual hookup followed by a formal date and asked the students to make sense of the scenario. We also gathered some very basic demographic information about the students. In the end, we had nearly 300 of these [scenarios] and we’ve treated them as textual data that we’ve coded and analyzed. We’ve published some research, for example, showing that college students are judging women somewhat more harshly when it comes to hooking up but their behavior is more complicated than the way we hear about it in popular discourse. So we’re questioning the sexual double standard that’s not quite as clear cut as it used to be.

More recently, we’ve got an article that’s under review and it’s looking at how college students talk about hooking up in terms of setting, norms, and expectations, in contrast to this idea that hooking up is norm-less. For example, there’s the perception that there is a lot of misunderstanding that people might think hooking up means more than it does, but the students’ answers really suggest that there is a lot of understanding about what a hookup is and what it means, where it occurs, and even what kind of lighting is involved and the music. It’s really interesting how much the students elaborated on this very bare bones scenario that we provided them with.

Do you have an idea of where you’d like to see your research go in the next 5-10 years?

Well, I think it’s been on a good trajectory and I’d like to see that continue. I know where it’s going to go because I know the data that we’re collecting for this big grant will be occupying a pretty significant part of my academic career. What would be nice – and I think that Sarah has informed my thinking in this way because she does embrace outreach – would be if our research really had a strong public policy impact. I think that would be very satisfying. When you’ve been doing this for awhile and you feel like you have something important to say having politicians and policymakers listen and maybe even make changes as a result is cool.

As sociologists, we study the social world. We think about human behavior. We want to improve the world around us and we hope our ideas will do that. But, I think we have to be very reflexive about our role and even how our thinking is shaped by our larger social environment. So, whenever I get excited about policy I always have to think, “Okay, you have to be very sure that you’re being reflexive about this and thinking about how your larger social environment also affects your own theorizing about what the problem is and how we can best tackle it.” I do worry about it.

What do you hope the implications of the research you’re doing with Dr. Bowen will be for future researchers?

I think that there are a lot of wonderful things about this project like the fact that’s it’s qualitative and longitudinal. I’m hoping we’ll see more longitudinal qualitative work. If we just take a snapshot of people’s beliefs and practices and lives, we’re often not getting the full picture. To follow people over time helps us to better understand the issues and I think also helps us to better understand what policies might be more effective at better supporting and nurturing people. So, methodologically, I hope it has some influence.

There’s also the fact that we’re doing both research and outreach and really trying to have the research inform the outreach and the outreach be a part of the research. There’s more of a dialectical relationship, and that’s novel and not always easy to do. Then, of course, in terms of what we find, our empirical arguments, I love that people are talking about cooking now and questioning the assumption that cooking must happen in individual people’s kitchens and that we can think more collectively. People need to eat. People need more access to affordable, nutritious meals. How do we make that happen given that many of us are experiencing things like overwork, precarious work, non-standard work, and the expectations for how we spend time with our kids have intensified?

Further Questions

What do you feel are some of the big unanswered questions in your areas of interest?

I think as a discipline we’ve come to learn that we should have a lot of questions and a lot of diverse answers. We used to think that we needed a universal theory that could answer everything and I think we’ve grown to appreciate that the world is very complex, and the ways we are segmented into different places in society mean that we really have to delve into a multiplicity of experiences and research questions.

In terms of in my own research, that’s been something that I’ve been trying to address. For example, low-income single black mothers of teenagers is a very specific group that’s been either neglected in research or oversimplified but when you start to talk to these women you see very diverse experiences, very diverse reactions and beliefs.

Is there a subject you wish you knew more about?

Oh everything! I mean I’m certainly learning a lot about food from this project. I’d like to joke that food and sex aren’t that different because my interest has always been family, inequality and gender but I’ve explored these by looking at sex and now I’m looking at food but there are a lot of parallels.

What are some of those parallels?

A lot of people engage in both food and sex. We’ve often thought of them and talked about them as biological processes but they’re tremendously social. I think in sociology we’ve often been very resistant to think about them as social. It’s kind of exciting to bring them in and say that these are parallel to some of the concepts that sociology has more fully embraced as socially constructed. All the expectations that we place on people with regard to food are very gendered, for example.

What is the most significant or exciting piece of research that you’ve read in the last year on your own?

In the last year I’ve probably read about three books that I thought were very important. I can tell you those three books. There is Abigail Saguy’s, “What’s Wrong with Fat.” This is a sociologist troubling the obesity epidemic. There’s Alice Goffman’s, “On the Run,” a six year ethnography of a Philadelphia inner city neighborhood where a lot of men are caught up in the criminal justice system, and Mignon Moore’s, “Invisible Families,” which is a fantastic book about black lesbian families. Again, in theories of motherhood and family, we don’t often include the voices, understandings, and practices of lesbian moms but when we do, almost universally they’re white lesbian moms. To hear the experiences of black lesbian coparents is very powerful.

Do you have any words of wisdom for young scholars who are either about to finish their PhD or they’re thinking about getting their PhD and want to conduct their own research someday?

Well do it! I think it’s a great profession. I think it’s a great opportunity to pursue something that you’re passionate about. I feel very fortunate that I get to be absorbed by my work on a regular basis and to follow questions that I have about why this is and how this works and who’s thinking that. It sounds trite, but I think following your passion, being creative, and being prepared for graduate school to be very hard probably are a few words. I don’t know if they’re words of wisdom, but a few words.

What do you enjoy most about this work?

I like a lot of my job. I like the fact that it changes as I meet a lot of new students from semester to semester, and I meet a lot of new colleagues as my research interests shift into a new area. I like that I’m constantly learning, constantly trying to say something better, constantly trying to figure out how something works differently. There’s a lot of flexibility in this job and I like that.

If you hadn’t followed this path, what do you think you would be doing?

I don’t know. I think I would be doing something social justice-related, like working in a nonprofit, writing grants probably. I’d be doing something like that. One of the final grants I was involved with on the island where I lived was for nonviolence workshops in high schools and they were so innovative. We created some materials for use but this was all student-led and student-run. The students really took it and made it their own and it became part of the culture of the school. That was a really phenomenal thing to see, and is probably the kind of work I’d be doing.

In sociology, we talk a lot about social environments but is there a physical environment that you enjoy most or would like to visit?

Well, I haven’t been to Cape Breton where I grew up much as an adult, but there is a place that, for some reason, always draws me in. I lived on the gulf of St. Lawrence, which is basically part of the Atlantic Ocean. But in this little fishing community [near where I grew up] there was this river called the Red River and there was an estuary where the river flowed out and met the sea. This was just a magical place and what I loved about it was every time we went there, the river had carved a new path. You see the confluence of the river and the sea and it’s always different. It’s always changing. There’s always something new to see. Somehow, it’s very bracing and it’s my favorite place.

And our final “fluff” question.

When you do have free time, are there any television shows that you like to watch or activities you like to engage in?

I haven’t had a lot of time to do gardening but I like to do it when I have a chance, having grown up gardening and living off the land. And I have dogs, so I walk my dogs, and occasionally go running. I do watch Scandinavian crime shows. That’s very much a guilty pleasure. Do I have to elaborate? (laughter) I just like them because they show people as very complicated. There’s lots of pathos and the storylines are never neat and never tied up in a nice little red bow at the end. And the female characters tend to be a little bit more complex.

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