Using his degree at Microsoft: Alumnus Richard Lander

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Richard Lander knows how to maximize things: he definitely got the most out of his UWaterloo English degree in Rhetoric and Professional Writing (now Rhetoric, Media and Professional Communication). And he appears to have utilized every classroom and co-op experience in his position as Principal Program Manager Lead on the .NET Team at Microsoft. Read on to learn more about his time at UWaterloo, his appreciation for Dr. Paul Beam (now deceased), and what he’s hoping to leave to his children. Thank you to Richard for participating!–JLH

JLH: Can you tell us how you ended up studying English Rhetoric and Professional Writing at the University of Waterloo?
RL: In high school, I was interested in three topics: computers, politics, and writing. As it came time to look at universities, in grade 12 and OAC, I explored all three of those options. In the end, I decided to select a university based on an Arts degree and then add computer science (CS) as a secondary focus. I already had a lot of technological experience – my brother and I ran a pirate BBS during high school – but I still felt like my strengths were in the liberal arts.

Waterloo was an easy choice. My older friends went there, it was only an hour away from home, and the school had an incredible general reputation. Also, I was well aware of the strong CS program, so it seemed like an excellent place to get the CS education I was looking for as a non-major.

At first, I was more focussed on political science at UW and had vague ideas on becoming a lawyer. I was very interested in both Canadian and US politics and a huge fan of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. I also followed Conrad Black and his writings. Then, in first and second year, I had some eye-opening English courses with Drs. Neil Randall and Paul Beam. That got me fully focussed on English and I dropped the idea of continuing with political science.

JLH: Thinking back, what stands out from your time at UWaterloo?
RL: Everything about Waterloo was amazing. I loved my classes, co-op was a major game changer for me professionally, and I met my wife! If I’m to really pin it down, I have to talk about my work with Paul Beam. I worked for his online learning company during a couple of my work terms and while I was on campus. He put a lot of trust in me, giving me fairly vague marching orders and just letting me execute my own (more specific) version of his requests. I spent most of my time work on an online course called “Professional XML Authoring.” I created the course (content and software), marketed it globally, and then taught it as well, to students on four continents. It was strange to be preparing for a test in Hagey Hall and marking an assignment from a student in Europe as part of a commercial online course, all in the same evening. It was also really challenging from a time and stress management standpoint.

As my professor, Paul let me do more than my fair share of “independent study courses” in the English department. I used those to study XML and related technologies, which were very new in the mid- to -late 90s. I was able to take a bunch of that work and add it to the courses I was producing for his company. That might sound oddly circular, but to me it was a great opportunity to get my work published and gain experience. In many cases, I was learning the technology as I created the content, too. You hear students complain about being taken advantage of by professors. That wasn’t the case at all. I was the primary beneficiary, unknowingly building a strong resume for an employer in Seattle, WA.

I also got to present about XML and related technologies to companies Paul had relationships with and at the local Society for Technical Communication on campus. We also presented papers we worked on together at Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) conferences. Needless to say, I was privileged to get these rare opportunities. I remain incredibly thankful for that.

JLH: How did your course of study influence your career? Were there specific experiences that proved more useful?
RL: We have two roles in the product groups at Microsoft: developers and program managers (PM). If I wanted to be a developer, I should have taken CS (as a major). There are tons of successful Waterloo CS folks at Microsoft. My choice of RPW + CS was great academic preparation for becoming a PM at Microsoft. You need to be a great communicator and technical.

The technical part of the job is often the easy part. Often, you have a variety of options on the table to solve a problem and you like one best. You have to decide how to convince others that this choice is the best, sometimes through straightforward and other times less than straightforward techniques. This is where the Rhetoric part of RPW comes in, although the Professional Writing comes closely behind as a poorly written great argument is never a winning strategy.

Other times, I need to be more introspective, particularly when reading or listening to a proposal that is outside my area of strength. I use skills I learned in a critical analysis course to help navigate these more challenging situations. In that class, we had to analyze works according to a given (often unfamiliar) analytical style, for example a feminist analysis. That experience is always a good reminder that there are multiple points of view that are objectively equal in nature. Further inspection can uncover biases, assumptions, and other flaws in each of these points of view. From that vantage point, the points of view remain equal in nature. It’s sometimes important to keep my initial thoughts and opinions in check as I analyze a proposal. I will search for a set of “first principles” that I can use to consider and analyze the proposal to develop an opinion. This approach usually results in a strong opinion that I have confidence in because it’s not based on an emotional response, but on values that are broadly shared and durable.

JLH: You seem to do a fair amount of outreach in your current position: can you tell us a bit about what you do and how that came about?
RL: For the first few years after school, I just focussed on my core job and didn’t do any external outreach at all. I was absorbing so much new information that it felt like I was doing a Masters degree at “Microsoft University.” We also had our first child relatively early on, after moving to Seattle. After catching my breath, I started writing for the .NET blog, the primary public outreach for the .NET Team at Microsoft. I later started the @dotnet twitter account. I’ve also written a bunch of documentation.

In terms of outreach, I’d say my primary activity is blogging. Every time we release a new version of the product, I write an approximately ten-page blog post that describes why you should care about the release and how you can use it. I have a few simple goals with each of those posts: tell a compelling story about the product, describe the state of the product at a point in time, and answer all of the obvious questions.

When I’m writing those posts, I try to answer most of the questions that appear in my head as I work through the various topics that need to be covered. I get feedback from my team that I’m “wordy” but I feel strongly about answering the main questions in the body of the document as opposed to in a disconnected FAQ. Also, while we have a ton of customers in Western English-language countries, we have another large set that have to work harder to get meaning out of blog posts written in English that may contain Western phrases and jokes. I try really hard to make sure that people in Japan, China, Egypt, and Germany, for example, can read my blog posts, assuming a base level of English competency. It is an exercise for the reader if I’m successful at that.

JLH: Finally, are there any books you are really looking forward to reading?
RL: I’m a fan of Patrick Rothfuss and his Kingkiller Chronicle series. The first book, in particular, was intellectually really exciting for me. Like many other people, I’m waiting for his third book in the series. The series is apparently going to become a movie, so I’m worried that he’ll get distracted finishing the last book. I did get to see him speak at Emerald City Comicon. He’s a great speaker and a very interesting and compelling personality.

I’m also interested in reading more from Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. I’ve been watching youtube videos and listening to podcasts by them recently, but I think it is time to dig in a bit deeper with those folks. Sam Harris is a bit controversial, and I’d like to understand that further and be able to participate in that conversation. I’m almost planning on going back to reading Noam Chomsky and some of the ancient philosophers. I plan to do that while taking time off in December. The recent election in the US is part of my motivation for reaching for these writers and topics.

I just read The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster. It’s a novella from 1909. A bit like works by H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley, it’s an early but incredibly prescient dystopian tale. You can read it in little more than an hour. Recommended. While I like and appreciate dystopia, I think the genre is a bit overdone in contemporary novels and film, probably because it sells well. The recent movie Arrival is an example. I’d like to see more focus on possible futures and shared societal experiences that are compelling and possible and that I might want to leave to my children. That’s very much an open landscape for writers and artists.

Digital Abstinence Strikes Again

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You are invited to join us for a Digital Abstinence Symposium & Posthumanism Potluck, this Wednesday, December 7, 2016, 4 – 6 pm, at the University of Waterloo English’s Critical Media Lab (44 Gaukel, Downtown Kitchener). The symposium features work by students from Dr. Marcel O’Gorman‘s fall 2016 graduate class.
Schedule
– Short Introductory Remarks by Stephen Trothen and Marcel O’Gorman
– 15 x 2-Minute Presentations and Objects-To-Think-With from a “Digital Abstinence” Grad Class
– Critical Response by Professor Ron Broglio (Arizona State University)
– Posthumanism Potluck
FEATURING:
Lucy Barnett
     “Ping/a Lonesome Heart
Shawn Dorey
     “Traversing the Divide: Intentional Digital Abstinence as a Form of Empathy”
Julie Funk
     “Pace-Taker: Getting to the Heart of our Digital Anxieties”
Miraya Groot
     “Entrepreneurship and Technique: A Conversation with the Conservative Mennonite Managers of the Wallenstein General Store”
Omar Gutierrez
     If (human)

= {survive}
else if (robot)
= {we are doomed}

Stephanie Honour
    “Ditching Devices: Re-enchanting the Self while Disenfranchising Others”
Megan Honsberger
    “(Un)Wearable Tech: From User to Nonuser”
Farzaneh Irani
     “Digital Purity: Discovering and Coping with the Anxieties and Social Oppressions of Digital Abstinence”
Zahra Jafari
    “Rhetorics of Invasion: A Narrative”
Salman Jivani
     “The Sands of Digital Time: An Experiment in the Art of Waiting”
Hari Jnawali
    “Reflections on Digital Fasting: Exploring the Paradox of Agency and Changed Social Perception”
Randy Lawrence
     “The Camera Obscurascope”
Marcel O’Gorman
    “Treachery: Digital Rituals for the End of the World.”
Onie Tam
     “Shush, you’re safe in my hands now”
Caitlin Woodcock
    “Basket Case
CRITICAL RESPONSE by Professor Ron Broglio, Arizona State University

Alumnus Tom Cull: Poet Laureate of London

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I wanted to know: how did University of Waterloo English alumnus Tom Cull become Poet Laureate of London, Ontario? So I asked him if he’d do an interview telling me all about it, and he graciously consented. Read on to find out what he’s reading, writing, and how he feels about time spent at the Bomber. Thanks to Tom for participating! –JLH

JLH: What made you decide on UWaterloo for your undergrad?
TC: My grade 13 English teacher, Mr. Armour, told me to apply to Waterloo. He said the classes were small and the professors good. He was right on both accounts. I didn’t even apply to another university. His word was good enough for me.

JLH: Do you feel the program or specific courses shaped you in any particular way?
TC: Yes. The program had great balance. It gave me a great basic grasp of the English canon (I, like everyone else, lugged around that huge Norton anthology) but there were many courses that added to it, subverted it, questioned it, upended it (Norton hears a Who?!). More than any specific course I remember professors: Linda Warley, Fraser Easton, Kevin McGuirk, Kathy Acheson, Brenda Cantor, Dennis Denisoff—I’m forgetting some names here. These professors taught me how to think, read, write, speak, and teach. They prepared me to tackle my PhD (did you know I did my MA at Waterloo also?). I look very fondly upon my years at Waterloo (and my years working at the Bomber).

JLH: You are now poet laureate of London, Ontario–can you tell us how that came about?
TC: When I moved to London about 8 years ago, I was living a pretty lonely existence. I was holed up in my mom’s basement finishing my PhD dissertation at York. I didn’t know too many people in town, but I started to meet a lot of folks when I began attending the Poetry London reading series. I was just starting to take my own creative writing seriously at that time and I met a great community of writers and literary arts organizers—many of whom have become close friends. Within a year or two I was on the organizing committee for Poetry London and about to publish my first chapbook.  Around the same time, I started working in the English and Writing Studies Program at Western and was lucky enough to teach some creative writing courses. I have, over the years, become very involved in a number of not only arts-based groups, but also civic/community organizations. Applying for the position of PL seemed a way to bring all of this together. And so I applied.

JLH: How would you characterize your current work?
TC: I’m just finishing up my first full-length manuscript which I’m tentatively calling Bad Animals. As the title suggests, many of the poems deal with animals. Some of this stems from my environmental work (my partner and I founded and run an Antler/Thames River conservation group), but I’m also interested in the categorical slipperiness (like a fish) between humans and animals, and the ways we talk to, for, and about animals. Not to mention how virtual animals mediate our virtual selves. For example, what’s up with so many interspecies love youtube videos (cats rearing rats sort of thing)? What’s the relationship between the population explosion of animals on the internet and the extirpation of animals in the real world? That sort of thing.

But I’ve also started a new project that focuses more on my childhood and upbringing in rural Huron County. I’ve started to revisit the gravel runs, funerals, fist fights, and hockey games of my teenage years.

JLH: Finally, can you tell me a bit about what you are reading?
TC: As with everyone, I don’t have as much time to read as I’d like. I am, however, reading a lot of contemporary Canadian poetry. I have Liz Howard’s amazing book by my nightstand. I’m also currently reading Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City by Pier Giorgio Di Cicco. Di Cicco is a former Toronto Poet Laureate; his book is like a blueprint for my tenure as Poet Laureate. He’s all about art as an essential mode of civic engagement and city building.

I have read one novel this term: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. As a fellow Americanist, I’d love to know what you think of that novel. In fact we should do something fun like organize a symposium on it. The poet Jeffery Donaldson wrote a collection of poems called Slack Action which, among other things, is about his dad who worked on the railroad. “Slack Action” is a railroad term that refers to the necessary play in the couplings between railroad cars. It allows trains to bend around corners and such, and it works through a certain jostling back and forth between cars as they bump together and are pulled apart. I find it a useful way to begin thinking about Whitehead’s book. Not just about how the chapters fit together, but also how the book fits together/jostles with other African American novels. Train of thought so to speak.

Photo credit: Kerry Manders

Animal Studies and the Voice of the Other

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Join us Monday, December 5th, for this free public talk by Dr. Ron Broglio of Arizona State University. In “Animal Studies and the Voice of the Other” Dr. Broglio will trace back to the 18th-century sensibility movement contemporary post-humanist ideas of animals having a voice. He will also pursue what animal studies can push against in terms of the animal “rights” movement.

Dr. Broglio’s books include: Beasts of Burden: Biopolitics, Labor and Animal Life in British Romanticism (forthcoming SUNY 2017); Surface Encounters: Thinking with Animals and Art (University of Minnesota Press 2011); and Technologies of the Picturesque: British Art, Poetry, and Instruments 1750-1830 (Bucknell 2008).

 Time: Monday, December 5, 2016, at 5:30pm
Place: J.G. Hagey Hall of the Humanities (Room 110)

Very Useful Courses: English 202A

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Not being raised a Christian, it’s not surprising that as a child I missed many of the Christian references in the books I was reading. For instance, it went completely over my head that Aslan was an allegory for Jesus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Likewise, I missed the parallels between Uriel and Heaven in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and allusions in who-knows-how-many other works. It wasn’t until high school that I realized how much of Western literature referenced the Christian Bible.  This is why a course like English 202A: The Bible and Literature 1 is eminently useful. Offered by Dr. John North in the winter term 2017, the course is intended to familiarize students with the themes, stories, and literary elements of the Old Testament. Time: 9:30-10:20, Monday/Wednesday/Friday.

Image credit: Etsy

What are our Harry Potter Students doing?

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This semester we ran three sections of English 108P: Popular Potter. The classes had some overlaps, and some differences. We all applied literary and cultural theory to the texts; we all mined the books for various literary archetypes and devices; we all worked on producing writing which demonstrated understanding of the Harry Potter universe and the conventions J. K. Rowling deployed in crafting it. As one of my students said today–the last class–“I don’t want it to end! This should be a full year course!”

At two points in the semester I asked my students what had been most notable thing we had discussed so far: they noted the books’ intertextuality, the effect of limited third person omniscient narration on the reader, Rowling’s use of myth and history–they had a lot to say about the French Resistance, Hitler Youth, and the Fabian Society–the applicability of Critical Race Studies, Rowling’s representation of ethics, the development of critical reading skills by the characters, and much much more. In an interesting twist, Cho emerged as a new star of the series.

If you want to see what some of our 108P students have been doing, check out this edition of the Daily Prophet, produced by Dr. Frankie Condon‘s class. Intended to commemorate “The Battle of Hogwarts: 10th Anniversary,”headlines include: “He Who Must be Named,” “Our Fallen Heroes,” and “Learning from Our Past: Ministry of Magic Reformed.” For just five galleons, this special commemorative edition can be yours!

Dancer on the Stairs

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Here’s your chance to read an excerpt from Dr. Sarah Tolmie‘s new book, Two Travelers (Aqueduct Press, 2016). The online magazine Strange Horizons has reprinted a short story from the collection, titled”The Dancer on the Stairs.” They have also produced an audio recording of the story, as well as an interview with Dr. Tolmie in which she discusses error, Piers Plowman, and Bob Dylan–among other things.