Welcoming Dr. Megan Selinger

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Historically Blackberry has hired English’s people; this time, the process was happily reversed when Dr. Megan Selinger agreed to join our department. We consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have gained a colleague who not only has professional expertise as a technical writer, but also boasts significant experience teaching Communications to STEM and Business students. She has impressed us all, and I have no doubt her students will be equally enthusiastic. However, you don’t necessarily have to take her course to benefit from her wisdom: read on to find out what she has to say about dangerous apps, overcoming a dislike of writing, and more!

JLH: Has your teaching been influenced by your practical experience as a technical writer in industry?
MS: One of the first lessons that I learned as a technical writer was to consider my audience: how are they receiving the information I am trying to provide? Can they parse my language, follow my instructions, and understand the data I am attempting to pass on? How can I write cleaner, clearer, and more concisely?

I’ve continued to ask myself these questions for every communication – and that includes in my lectures. When teaching, I look to the needs of my audience – of my students – to best assess what format I should use, what tone and word choice I need to employ, and, most of all, what method best ensures that I can provide an enriching and entertaining classroom experience.

That’s not to say my more practical tech-writing side doesn’t, on occasion, clash with my more stylistic writing – especially when I’m writing for presentations or to produce particular effect, but I always ensure that the needs of my audience are met before throwing in a dash of alliteration or a hint of humour. It was a hard lesson to teach myself that alliteration doesn’t innately improve interaction. (A lesson I’m clearly still learning.)

JLH: You’ve been teaching a lot of writing and communication courses: what do you think is the most rewarding part of these classes for you?
MS: Teaching any course is rewarding; you gain the opportunity to see students engaging with material and ideas that are new to them. But I would say that writing courses provide an additional benefit as they can change the very structure of a student’s way of communicating. That is, my course could positively improve every future communication a student has. The students write with more confidence; they present material in a manner that is well-structured and sound. Most importantly, once the student can be sure they are communicating effectively, they become more adept at developing their own personal voice and style in order to enhance their writing and presentations. Even requests for assignment extensions are far clearer near the end of the term than they were in those first few weeks. I have to say, it’s a lot harder to turn down requests using the correct format.

JLH: Do you have advice for students who think “I can’t write” or “I don’t like to write”?
MS: I’ve found that most students have only been taught one method of brainstorming, one method of writing essays, and one method of editing. These methods may work wonderfully for students who benefit from those particular learning styles, but they work against students whose main strength resides in a different learning style.

My advice is to first attempt to get over the general fear of writing and “blank page paralysis”. Write 100 words a day – every day – even when you aren’t actively working on an assignment. Train yourself to translate thoughts into language and language into narrative.

Second, try a ton of new brainstorming techniques. Use traditional cluster or word association, but also consider apps like Written Kitten – which rewards you for your writing (http://writtenkitten.co/) – or The Most Dangerous Writing App – which uses the “punishment” side of the reward/punishment dichotomy to ensure you don’t stop writing. (https://www.themostdangerouswritingapp.com/)

Above all, remember that writing is just like everything else. It requires practice, training, and continual learning to keep your communication skills sharp and focused.

JLH: Finally, I generally close on a book question: what was your favorite book (or two!) of the last year?
MS: Late last year, I finally tackled Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It had been on my “to read” list for a number of years, but I was glad I waited until after I submitted my dissertation. Danielewski’s book references many of the texts that I read for my courses, field study, or research. It gives the book that extra bit of uncanniness when you remember a text that is referenced in the footnotes (or even footnoted in the footnotes), remember the section of that text that is being referenced, and yet you’re fairly sure that the quote itself is fictional. But not quite sure. (And as you get further and further in the book, you become less and less sure.)

I’ve also been reading through Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Once I’m finished, I’ll finally be able to watch the movie version of Annihilation. I’ve always felt the need to read the source material before tackling a text’s adaptation, which can create quite a backlog of TV shows and movies. (One day I’ll finally watch The Shining.)

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Congratulations to our newest PhD, Dr. Benjamin Woodford

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Congratulations to Dr. Benjamin Woodford, who successfully defended his dissertation “Institutions, Theology, and the Language of Freedom in the Poetry and Prose of John Milton” on August 10th. He was supervised by Dr. Ken Graham, with readers Dr. Rebecca Tierney-Hynes (via Skype) and Dr. Sarah Tolmie. Thank you to his external, Dr. Tobias Gregory, Catholic University of America and internal-external: Dr. Troy Osborne (Conrad Grebel, History). Dr. Woodford is the author of numerous articles, as well as the book Perceptions of a Monarchy without a King: Reactions to Oliver Cromwell’s Power (McGill-Queens UP). A description of the dissertation follows.

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Institutions, Theology, and the Language of Freedom in the Poetry and Prose of John Milton

Freedom is an essential topic in the writings of John Milton, but what he means by this term varies over the course of his career. Milton’s prose works centre on religious and political liberty, which explore how the church and state interact with Christians and citizens. His early prose tracts express skepticism about the contributions of institutions, particularly coercive institutions, to freedom. As the English Revolution progresses, Milton begins to separate religious and political liberty based on the role of institutions in each type of freedom. In Milton’s commonwealth and late prose, religious freedom protects the individual conscience from being coerced by any civil or ecclesiastical institution; institutions are limited to persuasion and admonition in religious matters. Political freedom, in contrast, involves parliament leading, schools educating, and the army compelling the English people so that they accept a commonwealth, as political freedom is only possible in a commonwealth. Although these institutions often act against the will of the electorate, Milton’s language presents them as expressions of popular sovereignty. In his epic poem Paradise Lost, Milton shifts the setting from England to the mythical realm of heaven and presents an additional dimension of liberty. Paradise Lost incorporates much of the language regarding freedom and institutions from Milton’s prose, but it expresses a theological freedom that focuses on a Christian’s relationship with God. Theological freedom involves both free choice and dependence on God. Milton uses the character God to articulate the principles of theological freedom, and the characters Satan and Adam and Eve to illustrate failures in theological freedom. These failures shake the reader’s confidence, but the poem ends with the restoration of freedom, encouraging the reader to accept freedom through dependence on God.

Welcoming Dr. Heather Love to English

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Welcoming yet another new colleague makes me feel as if UWaterloo English is basking in an embarrassment of riches. Except–and I looked this up, because I am in English after all–the phrase “embarrassment of riches” also implies that we have more than we know what to do with, and nothing can be further from the truth. We are excited to welcome Dr. Heather Love precisely because we can’t wait to draw on her exciting scholarship, breadth of experience, and far-reaching knowledge, and have already anticipated any number of ways her presence will enrich our program. Read the Words in Place interview with Dr. Love below to find out more.

JLH: Welcome to UWaterloo. This will be a return to Canada for you–what are you most looking forward to?
HL: I am absolutely delighted to be back in Canada! As for the things I’m looking forward to, a whole bucket list comes to mind: from universal health care to being able to look into my wallet and tell my bills apart at a glance, and from the 12- (rather than 15-) week semesters to the fact that I won’t face blank stares from students when I pronounce words like “advertisement” and “process” the Canadian way. After three years on the wind-swept plains of South Dakota—which certainly have a beauty all their own—it’s been great to start exploring canoeing, hiking, and camping available around Waterloo. And I’m very excited to be part of a department that boasts such a diverse range of approaches to English through its three “streams” of study and its co-op opportunities.

I confess that I am also happy to be back in the land of hockey – I’ve played in recreational leagues since I was 12, and coached kids’ teams for the past 10 years or so, and while I was fortunate to find some really wonderful communities at the small hockey programs that were available in South Dakota and Indiana, it was certainly not the “#1 sport” in those areas that it is in Canada. As a Vancouver Canucks fan, I expect to be in the minority here; however, after a decade of standing out in my maple leaf gear in rooms full of die-hard “stars and stripes” fans during various world championship and Olympics match-ups, I think I can handle the heckling.

JLH: You were hired for a position in Science, Culture, and Literature. Can you tell us about your research in this area?
HL: Certainly. My research is grounded in the analysis of experimental early twentieth-century modernist literature, and I like to bring that literature into dialogue with ideas from fields like science and technology studies. My current book, for instance, works across these disciplinary lines by inviting readers to consider a network of concerns about and approaches to information that developed during the first half of the twentieth century. As the project has come together, I’ve been charting a variety of ways in which modernist authors became part of a broader historical phenomenon: the emergence of what I label “cybernetic thinking,” which was taking shape in the decades leading up to World War II.

During these years, an influx of media across multiple platforms—print culture, sound reproduction and transmission, cinema, and more—in tandem with a quickly evolving field of communication-technology capabilities made it necessary for people to confront and devise tactics for navigating larger quantities of information than ever before; they were required, we can say in retrospect, to think cybernetically. The field of cybernetics is most often associated with mid-twentieth-century technologies that mobilize data for statistical prediction, and with folks like the MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener, Bell Laboratories engineer Claude Shannon, and psychiatrist W. Ross Ashby. I’m proposing that modernists like James Joyce, Sophie Treadwell, Ezra Pound, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf also engaged with and contributed to this emerging way of thinking—and that they did so through the experimental aesthetic strategies they developed in response to their increasingly data-saturated world.

With the completion of this book on the horizon, I have also started thinking about a new project that continues my interest in this interdisciplinary “triad,” but shifts slightly to focus on modernist literature’s engagements with twentieth-century medical technology. I am particularly interested in the ways that authors incorporate references to medical innovation in order to show how these scientific discourses are implicated in hierarchies of race, gender, and ability. Hopefully that offers a bit of a glimpse into the ways that I approach the intersecting, overlapping space of “Science, Culture, and Literature” as a researcher!

JLH: You have an interesting relationship with IEEE (Institute of Electric and Electronics Engineers). How did that come about?
HL: Yes – unusual as it may seem for a scholar of literature, I serve on the Board of Governors for the IEEE’s Society on Social Implications of Technology (SSIT), and I’ve volunteered with the organization for several years in various capacities that include producing a monthly newsletter for members, organizing and presenting at conferences, and editing special issues of the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine (T&S).

My affiliation with this group came about through a conference on “Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century” (21CW) back in June 2014, which the SSIT was hosting in Boston. The organizers decided to convene a group of academics and professionals for discussions, panels, and plenary talks focused on the various ways Wiener’s legacy continues in the present. I was working at the time on a chapter focused on Ezra Pound and cybernetic feedback loops, and part of the argument was that we might learn new ways of navigating our present-day world of information and data if we looked back at the cultural prehistory to Wiener’s cybernetics work. I didn’t know anything about the SSIT or the IEEE, but I thought, “why not apply?” The paper was accepted for inclusion in the conference program, so off I went to Boston.

At the event, I was delighted to meet a welcoming group of folks who hailed from a range of engineering programs and professional careers, or who had disciplinary homes in mathematics and the social sciences. They were excited to hear that a person from the humanities was interested in Wiener’s work and cybernetics’ ongoing cultural influence, and I was happy to see how much they were focused on the ethical and social dimensions of technological development. After the conference, I contacted the SSIT president to express an interest in future 21CW events, and was invited to join a team of guest editors to oversee a special issue of T&S based on the Boston presentations, and to help organize a 2016 follow-up conference on Wiener’s legacy. I’ve been involved with the organization ever since, and I look forward to mobilizing that connection to the engineering world in ways that can benefit my students here at U Waterloo.

JLH: What kinds of texts might students expect to study in your classes?
HL: The balance between different types of reading will vary, of course, depending on the focus of a particular class. In general, though, my commitment to interdisciplinarity filters into my courses through their mixture of (a) literary texts that draw from both canonical and lesser-known authors, and (b) texts that come from complementary disciplines (e.g. cybernetics theory by Norbert Wiener and Ross Ashby in a course on “Literature and Information Management”; explanations of narrative medicine by Rita Charon and New York Times articles on “Living with Cancer” by Susan Gubar in a course on “Literature and Medicine”). In addition, students in my graduate seminars can expect to encounter and work closely with a range of scholarly texts that include articles and monograph chapters; I find that these types of readings not only offer various interpretations of and approaches to the literature we’re studying, but also provide jumping-off points for discussions about models of academic writing that students can strive to emulate (or avoid at all costs!) as they cultivate their own voices within the critical conversations that are happening in their chosen fields of study.

JLH: Finally–because I often ask–what are you reading for fun?
HL: It’s been an interesting summer for me, in terms of reading. I’m usually a “one book at a time” kind of person, but during these past few months of moving and road tripping and settling into a new home, community, and job, I seem to perpetually have three or four books on the go on any given day…

For slightly work-related purposes, I’ve been making my way through several popular press books on the history of cybernetics, computers, and information culture – these include George Dyson’s extremely detailed account of the development of computer technology, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (2012); Tessa Dunlop’s more anecdotal “collective memoir,” The Bletchley Girls: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss: The Women of Bletchley Park Tell their Story (2015); Pedro Domingos’s rather techno-utopic tour through various approaches to machine learning, The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World (2015), and Thomas Rid’s Rise of the Machines: The Lost History of Cybernetics (2016).

When I need a break from the non-fiction, I’ve been turning to Young Adult fantasy and speculative fiction. Most recently, I’ve picked up Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series, and earlier in the summer, in honour of my upcoming return to Canada, I read Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves (a 2018 “Canada Reads” selection), which I highly recommend.

 

And finally, since I’ll be having a baby in about a month (!), I’ve been combing through various pregnancy and parenting books. I’m pretty sure that no amount of reading can fully prepare a person for this new kind of adventure, but I figure it can’t hurt either.

English 408B: The Discourse of Advertising


I am grateful to anyone who gives me an excuse to share that vintage image of a pig bisecting itself. In this case, it’s Dr. Gordon Slethaug who, this fall, will be teaching English 408B: The Discourse of Advertising. According to the description:

Print advertising is dead; Long live advertising. Well, no, door-to-door advertising mainly involving newspapers, magazines, and other printed material and is not entirely dead, but it no longer represents the main thrust in advertising or the bulk of revenue. Still, because TV and digital advertising now surrounds us in ways that it never did before, the volume of it and the revenue have been steadily climbing and are expected to climb further. Moreover, of the 584 billion dollars spent on advertising in the US in 2017, over 50% of that is said to be on Google and Facebook. In fact, 97% of Facebook’s enormous revenue comes from advertising. So, the face of advertising may have changed, but the consumer is increasingly influenced as never before. This course will introduce students to the history and present reality of the discourse and rhetoric of advertising that surrounds us at home and increasingly abroad. In addition, students will have ample opportunity to write about advertising, create ads of their own, and compile a portfolio of advertising copy and discussion to show prospective employers.

Texts:
Barry, Pete. 2017 (third edition). The Advertising Concept Book. New York: Thames and Hudson
Various online and PDF articles on LEARN as required
“Glen talks” by Glen Drummond (Quarry Communications) and Gordon Slethaug

Evaluation:
Test X 2 (30%)
Twice a term (Oct. 16, Nov. 29), in a full class period of an hour and twenty minutes each, students will write a test applying readings and lecture material to ads. Each test will cover a specific section of the course. Both will hold equal weight with regard to your final grade. (15% each)

Advertising Portfolio: Reflections (32%/8% each)
Students will create and maintain a portfolio for the duration of the course. Four reflections of about 1200 words each submitted on LEARN as well as in hard copy will give students the opportunity to create, analyze, and edit ads within the context of course readings and lecture material. Reflections will include:
–Oct 2: Use Barry’s basic tools and campaign analysis to unpack an advertising       campaign
–Oct. 11: Reflect on the semiotic use of color in a campaign
–Oct. 30: Reflect on the use of males or females in advertising or relationship between the two
–Nov. 15: Subtervise (substitute/revise) either a single ad or campaign

Advertising Portfolio: Major Campaign (15%)
–Nov. 27:  This major assignment will require students, working in groups of three (a sign-up sheet will be distributed), to design and comment on a multi-platform advertising campaign (consisting of 3 print ads, 2 TV spots, 1 viral component), present the projects in class, and submit them to me.

In-class presentation (13%)
Students will work in groups of three to make PowerPoint presentations on material for one particular day.  This should be 30 minutes long, commenting on some of the main take-away points of readings with reference to selected ads.

Participation (10%)
By enrolling in this course you obligate yourself to read the assigned texts in advance of class, attend classes, and enter readily into class discussion. Our class discussions will be an important part of your learning, and that is reflected in the mark distribution. Should you miss a class, it is your responsibility to find out what you missed.

 

Welcoming new faculty, Dr. Lai-Tze Fan!

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It is hard to not get excited about welcoming new faculty. It’s even harder to restrain one’s enthusiasm when the new faculty are so fantastically interesting. This is definitely the case with Dr. Lai-Tze Fan, who joins us this fall. In advance of arriving, Dr. Fan was gracious enough to chat with me about itchy academic projects, guilty pleasures, and Game of Thrones trivia. Read on to find out more…

JLH: Firstly, welcome to UWaterloo! You’ve lived in Waterloo before, but it wasn’t a straightforward path to our department–more circuitous, than anything. Can you tell us a bit about that?
LF: I did indeed previously live in Waterloo—I did my Master’s in English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier, which is just down the street. While that Program allowed me to dapple in media studies, my interest in digital media in the context of literary studies led me to apply to be an OVGS (Ontario Visiting Graduate Student), so that I could take a graduate course at U Waterloo. I took “New Media Genres,” which was my first exposure to many scholars in digital media studies, as well as the first time I’d been challenged to think critically about everyday online texts and spaces including blogs, digitized texts, or Twitter. I have fond memories of being a graduate student in Kitchener-Waterloo: getting together with friends at the Duke (of Wellington) pub, catching up on my readings at Café 1842, and going to Oktoberfest! Waterloo has changed so much in the time I’ve been away. For starters: I hardly remember any buildings higher than three floors! Now the food options, transit growth, and cultural fabric have all expanded and I’m delighted to be back to experience it.

It was quite the circuitous path after my MA. The short version is that I did my PhD in Toronto, moved to Germany while I finished my PhD, completed a Postdoc in Montréal, and was then lucky enough to have a tenure-track job at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, where my father was born. The travels have been exciting, but I am grateful to be coming home to Canada and to be back in the KW. (:

JLH: I was on the hiring committee, so I do know what you’re up to, but for others, could you share a bit about your current research project?
LF: My research combines literary studies (primarily narratology and contemporary literature), media studies (including digital humanities and media archaeology), and cultural studies. I’ve written and published in all of these areas, but right now I’m focusing on two major projects. The first is called Unseen Hands: A Material History of Women and Technology in 20th/21st Writing Machines. This project traces an alternate literary history in which the material labour of women–the secretaries, muses, and wives of important literary figures—is represented as having been as invisible as the labour and production of material technologies. The second project is called Open (Re)source, a research-creation project that focuses on mediating key issues of material sustainability by building an interactive narrative platform. The project aims to allow everyday users to be reflexive about the different roles of materiality in digital infrastructure—from minerals to processors, from interfaces to open source.

JLH: I’ve been telling graduate students to pay attention to what itches, meaning those things that have potential, but you don’t know what to do with them yet. Still, they keep insistently making themselves known. Do you find that being sited in different locations has created more of these insistent “itches”?
LF: My itch is circuitous and involves a lifelong pull towards being an artist. There was a time I abandoned painting for words, but ultimately I’m a visual thinker and I itch to make pictures.

Actually, this is how I became interested in research-creation, as during my time in art and start-up heavy Montréal, I combined my training as a youth in fine arts and crafts (I sew and cross-stitch. A lot.) with some of my research interests, including, for example, the history and labour of textiles and clothing in global contexts. While this is often gendered work, what is more important to me is that this is often invisible work, unseen work—only the consumed product is encountered with. I itch towards making again, combining maker culture as a technological trend full of ethical and environmental issues with the work of making with one’s hands. Another visual itch: I’m interested in writing and directing a film or two in the future.

JLH: Do you see UWaterloo as offering certain advantages in terms of your work?
LF: Absolutely! The ways in which my work can be situated in UWaterloo is something I tried to emphasize during my interview, especially in the English Department. I know that UW is renowned for its science/engineering, and in English, that kind of practical application can take the form of praxis of critical ideas. For instance, UWaterloo’s co-op program aims to situate students in real-life scenarios towards educational/experiential growth, and that’s the kind of integrated and engaged work I seek to perform myself as well as to teach. And of course, Kitchener-Waterloo is a true tech hub of Canada and pulls in international attention all the time. I remember how exciting it was in 2010 when Stephen Hawking had visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

JLH: Book recommendations are always welcome: what have you been reading for fun in the past year?
LF: As a theorist of media, maybe I’ll offer a few varieties: books, films, and online “texts.” Print books I’ve been reading are Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media and Zadie Smith’s NW. I also really like biographies, and have been re-reading Stacy Scriff’s Véra (about Véra Nabokov) and Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette. Recently I’ve been watching Stanley Kubrick and Louis Malle films, and re-watching the Harry Potter series. Online, I spend an unhealthy amount of time watching badly acted historical documentaries on Netflix and YouTube. Look up “Britain’s Bloody Crown” on YouTube, on the War of the Roses. Trashy goodness. Trivia fact: the family rivalries between the Starks and the Lannisters in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is based on the War of the Roses’ rivalry between the Yorks and the Lancasters. 😉

Five odd questions: MA Candidate Jessica Hawkes

UWaterloo English graduate students come from across Canada and beyond. I thought it would be interesting to interview Jessica Hawkes, as someone who moved from Mount Allison University, in Sackville, New Brunswick, with just over 2000 students, to UWaterloo, boasting over 30, 000 students. And fortunately she agreed to the five odd questions format!

JLH: What was your biggest fear about starting a Masters, before beginning?
JH: My biggest fear about starting my Masters was losing the familiarity and support of the English department at Mount Allison. I still really miss the department, but everyone there has still been amazing when I visit or over email, so that helped with the transition!

JLH: What is a thing you never thought you’d discuss in English that you’ve now discussed in English?
JH: I never thought I would discuss “things” in English. In fact I did not know that thing theory was a thing (if that sentence doesn’t make it clear, I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word thing used more times than in the Things class this fall). So along with that comes questions about object-oriented ontology and how we perceive things, and how (or whether) they perceive us or each other. I never thought I would discuss these things in general, let alone in English.

[Ed: Drs. Marcel O’Gorman and Kevin McGuirk team-taught the Things graduate course in Fall 2017.]

JLH: You came from a very different university. What has been you most unusual moment of culture shock here?
JH: I don’t know that there have necessarily been any “unusual” moments of culture shock at Waterloo; the whole experience was a culture shock when I first got here. One of the biggest adjustments for me was the size of the campus. I always tell people who ask what my undergrad was like that I think you could probably fit the whole town of Sackville on Waterloo’s campus. It took me a while to get my bearings, and I still find it weird that not only are there still buildings that I haven’t set foot in, but there are still buildings, the names and functions of which I don’t even know.

JLH: Academic robes are a holdover from another century–or more. Any thoughts on how we should redesign them?
JH: I don’t think we need to redesign academic robes!! I like the old-timey look and feel about them. They lend a sombreness to academic ceremonies that we don’t otherwise experience often in academia. I think the robes are nice because they link students to older traditions and reinforce the significance of the education we’ve received.

[Ed: pockets. We need pockets in robes. And better fasteners for hoods that don’t presume one is wearing a tie.]

JLH: What is the book you would most like to read in the location where it was set, and why?
JH: The book I would most like the read where it was set is Once A Runner by John L. Parker, Jr. It’s one of my all-time favourite books, and it’s set in the Florida panhandle. The reason I would like to read it in its setting would be in order to run the routes the athletes run in the book. Between the road running in town and the trail running out in the woods, it’s a book that has always inspired me to run (no matter where I am), but I think it would be cool to run in that setting.

Fresh off the press: TNQ 147

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Fresh off the press: The New Quarterly, a literary journal house on campus, announces issue 147, featuring poetry from English department faculty Dr. Lamees Al Ethari. Keep an eye out for her poetry collection, From the Wounded Banks of the Tigris, forthcoming from Baseline Press in autumn 2018. Dr. Al Ethari is also currently featured on The New Quarterly blog, in their series on Writing Spaces.