Queen's University Queen's University

Dr. Yolande Chan

E. Marie Shantz Professor of Management Information Systems
School of Business

[Yolande Chan]

I try to create a sense of adventure and engagement and not just put dry concepts on the table, but try to bring them to life through examples.

Yolande Chan thoroughly enjoys what she does. But like many professors, the path to her chosen field took a few unexpected twists. Early on, she thought she might be an actuary or an engineer, and her master's degree nicely combined both electrical engineering and computer science. But her path took another turn the day she realized that she wanted to interact with people more than with technology.

"I decided to go into business one day while working as a graduate student in an MIT lab. My office mate had slept on a cot in the lab that night, and I realized it was the fourth day he hadn't left the office. I knew that was not the life I wanted." As a Rhodes Scholar, Chan studied management in the UK, and then for a few years she worked as a management information technology consultant, traveling extensively in Canada and the US. Then there was yet another "ah-hah" moment.

"Again, I realized that this would not be my terminal destination. I was spending more than half of each year outside the country. I was married, and the pivotal moment came when I returned from a trip and got into an elevator. It turned out that my husband was in the same elevator, but I didn't even recognize him! It was definitely time to make a change."

After getting her PhD at the University of Western Ontario, Chan came to Queen's in 1991. "I was drawn to academia because of teaching and my love of people. But I soon learned that research is also important in shaping one's profile. So I began to foster my love of ideas as well."

Learning from experiences bad and good...

Chan's teaching inspirations actually came when she learned what a good teacher was not. "In business school I was doing a case course. My first strategy class involved the discussion of a case, and at one point I enthusiastically put up my hand to volunteer a response. I explained what I thought needed to be done in this particular case. The professor simply said, 'That's a load of BS.' I struggled to calmly sit down. In that moment, he transformed an excited go-getter into someone who learned to play it safe in his class and who would only put up her hand if she knew the right answer. One set of comments from a professor shifted my learning in that class significantly. I learned then just how important the culture, the atmosphere of a class is, and just how fragile an individual's engagement can be."

But of course Chan observed great teachers as well. "I had instructors who shared from their personal business experience and I found that engaging and entertaining. I was always shocked when those classes ended because they'd been so absorbing. The professors had high energy, high engagement, a connection with the students and illustrated the concepts, all while making it look effortless. When you're carried along by the storytelling and the interaction, you become part of the experience."

A winner of both the Commerce Teaching Excellence Award and the Commerce Professor Student Life Award, Chan remembers one particular class fondly. "I had a group of about 10 PhD and MSc students, and we held the entire course at the Grad Club. I was unsure at first because it put the power in the students' hands, but then I thought – why not? As it turned out, there was a sense of informality and comfort of setting so they felt free to discuss and debate. It engendered many hearty conversations."

"In that class we emphasized shared leadership, and each student had an opportunity to lead a session. I would meet with them before class to set out goals and a class outline, but on the day, they would own the teaching and I was simply a resource. Of course, if a person was struggling, I would help. They all wanted to be academics so it was great for them to experience firsthand some of the challenges that come with planning and leading a class. Students learned a lot with this participatory approach and even though it had a high workload, there was also high energy, involvement and satisfaction."

Former student Tracy Jenkin can vouch for that. "Dr. Chan taught me as an undergraduate. Ten years later, when I returned to Queen's for my MSc and PhD degrees, I choose to work with her because of the strong impression she made on me. By clearly articulating her performance expectations and providing constructive feedback, Dr. Chan motivates her students to continuously strive for higher and higher levels of quality in their work, both in the classroom and in research activities. She also instills a strong culture of mutual support and cooperation among her students by reviewing each other's work and supporting each other's research activities. The resulting supportive network helps students become better academics and produce better research."

Knowing her audience...

Chan tailors classes to those in them. "I talk to my students at the beginning and tell them who I am and what I bring. Then I try to learn about them, to find out who they are, what their experiences are, and why they are taking the course. It gives a sense of the variety in the classroom. After all, young undergraduate students can be stressed and unsure if they even want to be in your course. Grads know better what they want. So teaching has to take into account who you are teaching and not just the subject."

"Even in a single course you might have to use different strategies. It is not just different learning styles you take into consideration, but their different abilities to deal with concepts. Business school is both theoretical and practical. Some students may have lots of work experience, and others have none which leaves them without an anchor point. So you might have those with more experience talk to the class. This gets the students' attention because they will listen to their peers. The teaching approach must provide some learning for everyone."

These days Chan seems to have found that illusive balance between work and play. She fits in some jogging and reading, and has yet to put a cot in her office which pleases her family greatly! And, she still loves what she does. "It is important to have some humour. You can't be so serious about mishaps. If you think things will go one way and they don't, that is a learning opportunity. Life is about learning so I continue to learn and will till my last breath. Life continues to evolve; it always changes and rebalances. You see the vision and move towards it."

Profile by Patricia Henderson