Reflecting on a remarkable journey

In the 1970’s, women did not commonly practice Shorenji Kempo (Japanese martial arts) in Japan. For Karen Fox, a Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation leisure professor since 1997, being accepted into a male-dominated martial arts dojo (place of the way) was something truly transformative.

It was the day before the examination for promotion to the next level. The sensei arrived and announced on that night they would run. Karen, who had practiced less than a year with them, felt apprehensive since she was not a runner. It was February, with snow falling and on the ground. As an old city, Kyoto is filled with cobblestone streets, uneven sidewalks, and slippery trolly car rails. They were wearing only Dōgi (martial arts uniform) and no shoes.

“I thought to myself, how am I going to do this?!,” said Karen. “I was sure I would fail—that I would fall behind and left in the dark unable to find my way.”

Sensei headed out the door, and the class followed. Karen, after thirty minutes, slowly understood the run was for the entire dojo, not an individual test. In fact, the test was not about the run.

“I looked around and realized that the dojo ran as one—it was a test and not a test about running.” Slowly, she connected to the energy and being part of an integral whole—the dojo. It was an awakening. “I saw how beautiful Kyoto was—large snowflakes falling and the hint of the moon’s light. I fell into rhythm with the dojo, feet gripping the surfaces and attentive to the movement. It was the first time I actually rested in a deep understanding that we’re all related—the practices and experiences were about the unity of all beings.”

The sensei and students ran for three hours. Exhausted yet confident, Karen felt ready for the examination.

“Well, I didn’t pass the test.”

According to Karen, this dojo tested on how you applied the skills to new scenarios—not simply on the skills learned. She had forgotten to ask about the examination process. Despite sensei describing how well she did for so few months of training, he felt she needed more. Karen was disappointed, and sensei understood. He added, “Your commitment and skill development is impressive. You were attentive and honoured our practices, however, your path lies elsewhere—serving and teaching others.”

This moment was pivotal for Karen, “The hard lessons, insight from sensei, being part of a larger spiritual whole….well, they shaped who I became—even as I rarely found similar experiences.”

The path leading to academia

Anyone who has interacted, studied, or researched with Karen knows this is just one anecdote in a lineup of remarkable moments of her life. Born in the Territory of Hawai’i, Karen moved every two to three years as the daughter of a U.S. military officer. While she visited several countries before going to college, Karen first really experienced other cultures as an undergraduate student at the Callison College at the University of the Pacific in the early 70’s.

“As part of our degree, Callison required the entire class to study in a non-western country for the second year. As the charter class, we went to India to learn Indian culture, politics, history, one of the official languages, dance, and music. This experience deepened my love of travel, learning about different cultures, and allowing myself to change.”

Following her undergraduate degree, Karen obtained a Master’s degree in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. After graduating in 1973, she worked in a variety of fields that caught her interests.

“Well, I was an assistant director for Callison College when they moved the program to Japan. Returning to U.S.—specifically New Mexico, I worked with the Ramah Navajo High School; as a river guide and member of a search and rescue organization, safety officer for a highway construction company, water conservation officer for the City of Albuquerque; wilderness and environmental activist for preservation of the Chama River; and safety and health consultant for Sandia National Laboratories. Each of these contributed to a wilderness ethic and interest in activities that would protect the natural world.”

Her return to academia occurred because of two experiences: researching and protecting wilderness in New Mexico and the sudden passing of her husband. Her husband died of a heart attack shy of their third wedding anniversary. She was an EMT-IV tech when her husband’s niece, who was a recreation professional, invited her to the National Recreation and Park conference in Texas.

“I met Leo McAvoy, an outdoor leisure professor from the University of Minnesota. I had no idea I could get a “doctorate in camping”, as a family member interpreted the field. I immediately knew I wanted to study with Leo and about leisure. His ethics and approach to research captured my heart and interests. The doctoral program was filled with outdoor trips, experiential learning, opportunities to work with the range of outdoor professions, and unique experiences leading people with disabilities on trips.”

Since Karen had to pay for her education and living expenses, she worked as a natural history museum guide, camp outdoor recreation leader, guide for the earliest travel and outdoor programs for people with disability, drove a city and university bus for people with disabilities, taught CPR and first aid to industrial businesses, and research assistant all the while pursuing her PhD.

Karen completed her doctoral degree in 1990 and accepted an offer from the University of Manitoba. While her heart remains with the New Mexico land, the offer north of the 49th parallel was an opportunity not to be missed.

One of Karen's many jobs she held before her academic career was a white water kayak instructor in numerous locations across the US. 

One of Karen's many jobs she held before her academic career was a white water kayak instructor in numerous locations across the US.

Exploring the philosophy of leisure

The UofM recreation faculty were vibrant, productive in research and community engagement, and provided strong support for Karen to develop a research program addressing outdoor recreation and needs of Indigenous communities. In addition, experiential education ranged from classroom to research arenas.

“Leisure studies brought together my interest in philosophy, ethics, wilderness, and people of different cultures. There was a vital group of professors, at the time, who were interested in the ethical and spiritual dimensions. I was interested in leisure beyond instrumental purposes.”

Karen eventually arrived at the University of Alberta and the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation (KSR) in 1997 at the behest of friend and retired KSR professor Tom Hinch. Shortly after she settled in, KSR dismantled the outdoor recreation program, which led Karen to search other research avenues.

One of Karen’s early doctoral students was Brett Lashua with an interest in music and young people who are least served by recreation programming. Working with Boyle Street Education Centre, Brett guided Karen into the world of Aboriginal hip hop. The project helped establish a music program, assist in performances, and use hip hop to express Indigenous culture and spiritual relationships. Eventually hip hop artists became school and community instructors and travelled to the Music Hall of Fame to learn about hip hop and education.

“It was a lot of fun and fit my style of integrating research with something that had an immediate and clear benefit for the “research participants.” I was amazed to watch these young people become teachers at the Music Hall of Fame! That was the most important outcome of the research.”

The project also enhanced Karen’s commitment to understand leisure from an Indigenous point of view. Since most Indigenous languages do not have a word for “leisure”, she was excited to learn that the Hawaiian language might have a word for leisure. While the connection was a colonial one, she was able to tease out aspects of Kanaka Maoli culture that was different—honoring one’s place in the universe, celebrating the power and life of all things, and being with each other. Cultural influences and experiences led Karen to see leisure as essential for being more than a list of activities or benefits.

“It’s a form of expression and being. The project with Boyle Street Education Centre highlighted how succeeding in music sustained other areas of their life. Music allowed them to express who they were, their world, dreams, and hopes, connected them with traditional culture, and expressed their capabilities and intelligence. The connection of ethical and spiritual aspects of leisure is especially important to Indigenous people—and often how many of us learn about life.”

Lessons in perspective

Having many elders and ordinary teachers share their wisdom, Karen appreciates the serendipitous nature of profound learning from everyone. Her teaching commitment consistently focused on experiential learning which engages students across emotional, intellectual, and ethical arenas, even if difficult and frustrating.

“It was about including perspectives that challenged established ideas and learning across differences. It was providing experiences for students to learn and change based on the multiplicity of the world and the limits of our own knowledge.”

She also learned from her students. She learned that not every student is cut from the same cloth, and that learning is a deeply personal practice. These students came to her class with their own stories and experiences. From her perspective, teaching is acknowledging these differences and dancing with multiple ways of knowing. Everyone has valuable knowledge and experience to contribute. She admits, this is difficult and disconcerting when many people search and want definitive, concrete information.

Karen hopes the lessons she offered resonate with her students for years to come as they choose their life’s path(s). As Karen knows, life is never what you expect it to be.

“I have lived a life full of ups and downs. I encountered many changes, challenges, and barriers.  I have been fortunate to have compassionate, committed, diverse, and intelligent teachers along the way. What I treasure most were the experiences and stories that are still relevant as I navigate my own life course. Hopefully, my teaching reflected these teachings and added to the resiliency of the students as they go forward.”

Leaving with gratitude

Sensei’s prophecy was prescient. Karen’s path opened her to the multiplicity of the world and strengthened her appreciation of differences. She is grateful for the difficult times which tested her ethics, opened new doors, and taught her perseverance. She is grateful to all the people who crossed her path and left a little bit of themselves along the way.

“It’s funny because, at that time, I didn’t think the sensei knew me that well. Turns out he was right all along.”

The academic chapter of Karen’s life comes to a close on June 30, 2020 with her retirement from the University of Alberta. Her plans for retirement have already been adjusted for the pandemic, but she is exploring leisure in a more personally fulfilling way.

“There is time for strengthening my meditation practice, exploring more of Alberta, returning to wildlife and nature photography, kayaking, and learning gardening for food, bees, birds, and butterflies.”

She will also spend time with her little dog, who is quite sick, and, when travel bans are lifted, visit her grand-nephew in California.

“I think the heart and soul of leisure is something that allows people to know who they are, to value themselves, and to create and connect with other people, nature, the environment and their ethical and spiritual practices. I look forward to this leisure.”

While Karen is grateful for her time at the University of Alberta, she is leaving it with no regrets.

“It has been a grand journey at U of A. There were a lot of ups and downs, but it was a journey I was meant to walk. I leave it with gratitude.”

Last Lecture with Karen Fox

Dr. Fox presented her last lecture to friends, family and colleagues on June 17th. To view her presentation in it's entirety, please check out our YouTube channel.

Last Lecture with Dr. Karen Fox