Congratulations to Dr. Chad Wriglesworth on his recent accomplishments: a book, an award, and participation in a major event with some of his research subjects. Read on for the interview, and thank you to Chad for participating!–JLH
JLH: Can you tell us abut the award you’ve just won? Do you know of the previous winners?
CW: The FEDS Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award was developed in 2012-2013 by feds Vice-President Education Adam Garcia. The award is administered entirely by students, with the intent to recognize and celebrate excellence in undergraduate teaching. Last year, Alex Shum, a graduate instructional developer with the Centre for Teaching Excellence, and a sessional instructor with the Faculty of Mathematics, was selected as the winner of the first award. This year, undergraduate students nominated 21 professors for the award and three winners were selected: Dr. Josh Neufeld (Biology), Dr. Richard Ennis (Psychology) and Dr. Chad Wriglesworth (English). The nomination and selection process was handled by Academic Affairs Commissioner Maaz Yasin, and the Feds Teaching Award Committee, which consisted of five at-large students from different faculties. To pick the winners, the committee conducted in-class visits and considered student comments in the nomination forms.
JLH: What particularly impressed the committee, do you think?
CW: The committee told me that my award nominations all came from my Modern American Literature (ENGL 344) and American Literature Since 1945 (ENGL 347) courses. It means a great deal to me that these students went out of their way to nominate me for an award that is administered by the undergraduate community. I have them to thank for it. My students work hard and push me to become a more creative and effective teacher. I cannot speak for them, but I think (hope) they appreciate the relational dimension of my classes. In addition to teaching course material, I try to learn about their lives, personal commitments, and future ambitions. During office hours, I work with them on writing, find time to talk about ideas, and am sometimes able to point them toward additional books, films, or podcasts in a more personalized way. St. Jerome’s University is an excellent place to develop this style of teaching. Face to face conversation is the way to cultivate a life of lasting ideas. I would not want it any other way.
JLH: Did you consciously model your teaching style on anyone when you first began?
CW: I grew up near Portland, Oregon, and was fortunate to attend a place called La Salle High School for a couple of years. At the time, I had no interest in becoming a teacher. However, looking back now, I can trace ways that my teachers shaped my style and approach to teaching. My religion teacher, Fr. Francis Chun, probably made the deepest impact. He introduced me to ideas that made my head spin. The questions he asked resisted reductive answers. Writing a five paragraph essay was not an option. Instead, everything he taught seemed to rest within the give-and-take of paradox. He talked us through philosophy, literature, theology, and art—without any notes—and taught us to practice meditation in a disciplined way. Fr. Chun set high academic standards, but he was also filled with joy and humor. I remember that when students gave responses that slid toward sentimentality or nonsense, he would pull out a sign from behind his lectern and parade it around the room—high above his head—with a playful smirk on his face. The sign was of a bull awkwardly squatting and “relieving himself” with a big red slash through it. I liked the idea of a laughing priest (and still do).
JLH: There’s that standard question in academic interviews: what would your ideal undergrad course look like? What about your ideal grad course? Have you had a chance to teach those yet?
CW: When teaching broad undergraduate courses in modern and contemporary American literature, I sometimes feel limited by the constraints of a twelve week term. Wonderful material always gets left out. However, soon the English Department will start offering 400-level special topics courses, which will create opportunities for more specialized teaching and chances to develop courses that appeal to students’ evolving interests. I am interested in teaching a course on place based literature, as well as courses on selected authors and topics tied to my research. I think this is a good change. It will be exciting to see the range of 400-level courses that begin to emerge in the near future.
JLH: It’s standard practice to bring our own research into the classroom: how have you done that?
CW: Just about everything I teach tends to be in conversation with my research on American literature, the environment, and religious thought. I’ve just finished editing a book titled Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder. It gathers more than forty years of letters between two of the most important environmental writers and activists of our time. I teach work by both writers and am noticing how ideas from their letters—about writing, religion, ecological design, land use, and economics—are already beginning to show up in my courses. A couple weeks ago, I attended the release of the book at the Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky, where Berry and Snyder participated in a conversation about the book with their long-time friend and editor, Jack Shoemaker.
After their talk, the two writers signed books and invited me to join them, something that I will not soon forget.