A disclosure: I’ve been fortunate enough to know UWaterloo alumnus Chris Wodskou for years, long before arriving at UWaterloo. While we’ve talked about literature in great depth–and I still think back to some of the points he made over a decade ago–we’ve never discussed his experience as a UWaterloo student. Find out how he went from UWaterloo undergrad and Imprint writer to what he calls “the dreamiest radio gig for someone with an English degree.” –JLH
JLH: Can you talk a bit about why you chose Waterloo for an undergraduate degree in English? Did it turn out like you expected?
CW: It was kind of by default, to be honest. I had originally chosen Waterloo for the Co-op Physics program, the result of adolescent Carl Sagan fantasies and a high school guidance counsellor who figured my marks in math and science had me earmarked for a career in physics or engineering or some such. He figured wrongly. I flunked first-year calculus and algebra and transferred to English, which was always my first love in high school, anyway. I wasn’t alone, either — my English classes had lots of other castaways from other faculties.
I went in with romantic expectations of what doing an English degree would be like; I thought I’d spend every waking moment parsing literature with iconoclastic professors and debating philosophy and poetics all night with eccentric, charismatic and over-the-top passionate classmates. I found to my surprise that just about everyone was nice, smart, interesting and relatively normal.
I do remember vividly my first-ever class in an English course — a British literature survey. The professor, Eric McCormack, explained in his much-loved Scottish brogue why we were only spending two days on Shakespeare: “I’ll let you in on a secret … Shakespeare was a wanker!” I wasn’t totally convinced Shakespeare was a wanker, but that class totally sold me on the English program.
JLH: What was your motivation for continuing to the MA program? Does anything stand out from that year?
CW: Um, I didn’t have anything better to do. No one was clamouring to hire me as a journalist, I didn’t want to go to teachers’ college, and my friends who were getting jobs straight out of their BAs all seemed to be working as technical writers, which was not an appealing option for me. I didn’t know what else I wanted to do at that point, but I did know I loved having a show at CKMS, writing for Imprint and taking English courses, and I enjoyed living in Waterloo, so it just made sense to keep at it.
I loved my time in the MA program, so much so that I started thinking seriously about a career as an academic. A few things from that time do stand out in my mind. Murray MacArthur’s Joyce course, which gave me some idea of just how deep you can go into a text. Bill MacNaughton’s 20th Century American Novel course, where I was introduced to Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Becoming a teaching assistant and learning how to teach. Initially feeling like I was entering some sort of guild as a fledgling wannabe academic and ultimately learning humility from being surrounded by people way smarter and way better-read than I was.
JLH: How did you end up at CBC?
CW: It was largely serendipity. I had spent a lot of time at Imprint
and CKMS while at Waterloo and then at the campus station at York University, while I was working on an PhD. So I was already dipping my toes in the media. And I didn’t have a scholarship while I was working on the PhD, so I worked as a freelance writer and editor to pay the bills. One of the editors at a music magazine I wrote for ended up getting a job at CBC to help build its website in the mid-90s, and he was tasked with putting together the CBC’s first Olympic website for the 1998 Winter Olympics. He remembered that I was a bit of an Olympics geek, so he brought me on to help him write the content for the site.
After that, there was a succession of contracts at CBC TV, Newsworld and CBC Sports Online, and I was lucky enough to work for a number of people who valued graduate work in English more than a journalism degree; I think they reasoned that that sort of background might actually provide better training in researching, writing, editing and narrative structure than journalism school. Eventually, one of those people started The Current and hired me to be one of the original producers there.
JLH: Has your English degree shaped your work at CBC?
CW: My English degree had little direct bearing on my work until I started working on The Sunday Edition, which is possibly the dreamiest radio gig for someone with an English degree. I’ve produced lengthy segments on James Joyce, James Baldwin, George Orwell, Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, Willa Cather and Shakespeare, the idea being that great literature is excellent material for a current affairs program because it never loses its currency; Baldwin is as relevant in the context of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as he was when he wrote The Fire Next Time.
But that does speak to one of ways in which an English degree really is great preparation for this kind of work. First, you know that whatever’s happening in the world today — however novel or unprecedented it seems — there are probably writers who have already imagined and thought a lot about it.
And then there’s this: If studying literature teaches you anything, it’s that everything and everyone is more complicated and nuanced than you think at first blush, which is a nice counterbalance to the journalistic impulse to rush to immediately explain and analyse things before you know all the facts, let alone before you’ve had time to process them.
JLH: Finally, what are you reading now?
CW: I just finished This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz, which is brilliant in a let’s-seduce-you-with-electric-prose-and-frustrate-the-hell-out-of-you-with-an-exasperating-protagonist kind of way. Diaz is a seriously great writer.
The real revelation for me this year, though, was John Banville. The same friend who got me my first job at CBC was telling me for years that Banville is the greatest living writer in English, and I always said, “Yeah, yeah, sure, I’ll get around to reading him someday.” So I did get around to reading The Infinities and The Blue Guitar a few months ago. And I think my friend might just be right.