Ricardo Olenewa: what higher skills get you

Ricardo Olenewa generously agreed to an interview about his undergrad at UWaterloo, as well as his MA–which he didn’t finish, but with good reason, and interesting outcomes. I was so excited to share the interview, but it arrived in my inbox just as a cup of coffee was propelled onto my laptop. Returning to it, I promise you, it is worth the wait, if only to find out: how did half an MA make a difference in his life and career?

JLH: Upon reflection, do you think you chose UWaterloo for the right reasons? Was what you got in the end what you anticipated in the beginning?
RO: I chose Waterloo for, arguably, the wrong reasons. After finishing my first year in science at Guelph, I took a year to travel and work; in the meantime, my girlfriend was accepted to UWaterloo, so I followed.

I got much more than I anticipated from my BA. I didn’t really understand the purpose of a university degree before I started, but I had a suspicion that I would want one. The degree, as an artifact, was the least interesting thing that I earned during my time at Waterloo. I learned to think rigorously and articulate clearly. Everything that I’ve done since my BA has built on those skills.

When choosing a school for my MA I had a few constraints, but I chose Waterloo because the people with whom I wanted to work were in this department. That’s a message that we don’t hear enough: what you do matters less than who you do it with. Whether you’re choosing a spouse, a thesis supervisor, or an employer, the people that you’re with make all the difference. Great things come from places where you find great groups of people. Waterloo has a great group of people. I could go on, but I’ll stop and get back to the question.

When I came back for my MA, I was clearer about my purpose. I wanted to join the ranks of great literary critics, or in the words of Northrop Frye, I wanted to think beautiful thoughts and occasionally write them down. Again, I got much more than I expected. I never finished my MA as a result, but I accelerated my career based on what I learned here.

JLH: You did an undergrad and began an MA in English at UW: what made you decide to continue?
RO: I tried a lot of things after my undergrad, including very short stint in commercial real estate, teaching Computer Programming at George Brown College, running the IT department for a large social service agency, and founding two start-ups. I applied the analytical skills that I learned from reading literature to everything that I did, and I really loved teaching at the post-secondary level. Some changes in my life prompted me to stop “goofing off” and commit to something. Continuing with my literary studies seemed like the most obvious choice.

Things worked out differently than I intended when I started my MA, and I still carry a lot of guilt for not finishing (probably my Catholic upbringing). I feel like I let people down in some way, and I try to make up for it every day.

JLH: Can you talk a bit about your experience at UWaterloo?
RO: I didn’t take advantage of the co-op program, but during my MA I was awarded a MITACS grant to design the conversation strategy for an appliance that enabled you to control a BlackBerry by voice. I worked with Professor Randy Harris and a local start-up. I ran a qualitative study that investigated how people interacted with their email while driving. This was an amazing experience because I touched everything from designing the study and getting approval from the Office of Research Ethics, to building a driving simulator, to analyzing conversations, to reporting and making recommendations.

JLH: How was your current career shaped by your experiences?
RO: My grant project gave me experience and confidence with techniques that put me on similar footing to people with much more industry experience. I’ve adapted and used qualitative research techniques to lead others to do more, to be more creative, than they thought they could be. Also, taking responsibility for the scope and complexity of tasks that the grant demanded helped me exercise my strategic thinking skills.

JLH: Working in the field you do, how common are people with English degrees? Do you feel it makes you look at things differently than some of your colleagues?
RO: Technical Writers come from a lot of different backgrounds. A few of my colleagues are English PhDs or ABD. Others are computer scientists, engineers, physicists, or linguists. I find that the educational level of my colleagues has more of an impact on their perspective than the discipline that they came from.

My colleagues with STEM backgrounds are great analytical thinkers. The quality that makes them most endearing and most frustrating is their relentless attempt to find quantitative or algorithmic solutions to every problem. If you squint, there might be a rough correlation between the degree they’ve achieved and how much they’re willing to accept that some problems aren’t amenable to computational solutions. They’re not always sure how to solve problems without computational solutions, but they know how to ask the right questions and find a solution.

My colleagues with Humanities backgrounds are outstanding systems thinkers, but they don’t think of themselves in that way. The quality that makes them most endearing and most frustrating is that they see a problem from (sometimes too many) perspectives. Squint at this group and you might see a rough correlation between the degree that they’ve achieved and their ability to envision and execute an entire program of work around a problem.

In the long run, the best people converge on the same set of skills, but those with higher degrees seem to develop those skills sooner.

Thank you again to Ricardo for participating in Words in Place.–JLH

Showcase of Student Accomplishments in English and High Tech

Please join us on June 2nd for a celebration of the role of English graduates in the regional high technology sector!

Experience cutting-edge student projects, enjoy great food, and network with outstanding local business people, alumni, and students.

Support our students’ research and development on the technological frontiers of gaming, smart cities, creative media, and user documentation.


As the region develops its new Innovation Corridor with the City of Toronto, this event highlights how good communicators are crucial to content creation, documentation, and usability in the high tech sector, and how UWaterloo English provides that community with exceptional co-op student and graduate talent in media and professional communication.

Speakers and panelists (beginning at 6:00 pm) will include:

  • Iain Klugman  (President and CEO of Communitech)
  • Kate Lawson (Chair, English Language and Literature, UWaterloo)
  • Elizabeth Chesney Hanson  (Manager of Strategic Communications at OpenText)
  • Patrick Hofmann (User Experience Designer, Google Australia)
  • Richard Lander (Principle Program Manager Lead on the .NET Team, Microsoft)
  • Gian Mancuso (Product Designer, D2L Corporation)
  • Sherry McMenemy (Director Global Intranet at Volaris Group)
  • Scott Wahl  (Director of Software Projects at Dematic)

Panel moderators:

  • Mandy Lam (Senior Manager, Employee Communications, OpenText)
  • Ricardo Olenewa (Engineering Documentation Manager, Ads and Developer Infrastructure, Google).
$20 ($160 Group seated tables of 8)

The Tannery Event Centre
151 Charles Street, Kitchener, ON

Follow Innovation + English on Twitter: @uw_englishPlus



Teaching Excellence: Dr. Katherine Acheson

The Centre for Teaching Excellence at UWaterloo is publishing stories about amazing instructors, and English’s Dr. Katherine Acheson was one of their top choices! Read on for Maggie Bradley’s article.

Teaching Stories Katherine Acheson: The Capacity to Participate

For Dr. Katherine Acheson, teaching is about empowering students. She is an idealist who believes that universities build not just employees, but citizens. She is motivated by a passion for supporting students as they expand their knowledge of themselves and the world around them.

Acheson says that she believes “in the idea that we [the instructors] build competencies and skills that are transferable to people’s everyday lives, including their working lives. We build consciousness and the capacity to participate as human beings in our world.” For students, this experience empowers them for future success; for Acheson, it’s personally rewarding to help students discover what they are capable of achieving.

Kathy’s teaching style is very unique in that she goes to great lengths to get to know her students. She uses this relationship to make everyone feel more comfortable participating in class and also to find more analogies and examples that students will be able to relate to.”

Beyond the aforementioned skills, Acheson also encourages her students to expand their world view by envisioning alternative ways of being. Reading, she notes, is vital in this regard because “literature provides a grand set of thought experiments.” Acheson knows that what she wants her students to achieve can be complex and challenging – but she also believes that at even the most basic levels, they should be very proud of what they can accomplish.

In her 100-level Shakespeare course, Acheson invites her students to imagine themselves as detectives, meticulously piecing together literary clues to support their arguments. These critical thinking skills are complemented by her emphasis on helping students learn to write effectively: “Learning to write well,” she says, “is just profoundly liberating. It gives you power and control over things that you can’t get any other way.”

Acheson’s advice for undergraduate students is to participate fully and interact vigorously with all learning experiences, a goal that she aims to facilitate in her courses. In this term’s Shakespeare course, for example, she encouraged her students to interact with the rubric that she had developed for an assignment: they were each given the option of determining the weighting for the various sections of the rubric. Students were also free to propose an assignment other than the traditional essay. For this alternative option, students submitted a proposal in advance so that they and Acheson could develop a rubric in collaboration.

Acheson hopes that her students who are majoring in English remember that “their commitment to reading and their capacity for writing are special things that they can use to help other people and make their way in the world. I don’t want them to take it for granted.”

When asked to describe the essence of good teaching, Acheson’s response is brief: “To help people do better.”

Written by Maggie Bradley, Special Projects (Teaching Awards), CTE

Two faculty, two prize nominations

Not one but TWO of our English department faculty have had their work shortlisted for prizes this month. Sarah Tolmie‘s poetry collection Trio has been shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. The League of Canadian Poets has posted an interview with Dr. Tolmie. Whether you want to know where she writes (hint: Greyhound buses figure), how she writes, and what new writer she thinks everyone should read, it is worth reading the interview.

Likewise, Winfried Siemerling‘s The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past has just been shortlisted as one of the three finalists for the Gabrielle Roy Prize, with the winner to be announced in May. The prize jury writes:  “a ground-breaking and consequential volume. It examines black Canadian writing in both English and French from the early eighteenth century to the present, contextualizing it vis-à-vis the nation-state and the transnational black Atlantic. Poised to galvanize scholarly and classroom conversations on this understudied corpus, Siemerling’s book, which analyzes black Canadian literary representations of history, is history-making in its own right.” Dr. Siemerling has also created a website to accompany the book, featuring useful resources.

Congratulations to both Dr. Siemerling and Dr. Tolmie!

Emma Vossen, storyteller

Congratulations to PhD candidate Emma Vossen, who made the top 25 list in the annual Storytellers contest. Never heard of it? Well, “The annual Storytellers contest challenges postsecondary students from across Canada to demonstrate—in three minutes or 300 words—how SSHRC-funded research is making a difference in the lives of Canadians. ” Click on the video to find out more.

UW Throwback Thursday

What did campus look like in days of yore? from Wives Clubs to early computers, scroll down to find out.

Student wives club 1968

Yes, there really was a Student Wives Club. Here they are meeting in 1964. And below, early residence life.

residence 1978WATLOOPS Computer at Village 2, 1984

The WATLOOPS Computer at Village 2, 1984.

For more see residence photo gallery.

English 208 students share their work

Do you want to know what UWaterloo English students are doing? The ENGL208A Forms of Fantasy class will be holding a gallery event where students will be displaying their final projects. Each student is creating an artwork (we have stories, visual art, games, and other creations) that comments on one or more of the themes we’ve discussed this semester, including gender, sexuality, race, and ability.
The gallery takes place between 11:30-1pm on Monday, April 11 in the English Department’s Games Institute Presentation Room, and guests are welcome to come in any time in those two hours. Snacks and refreshments will be provided!
Students, Staff, and Faculty in the English department who would like to attend are invited to register here.