Julie Funk is one of the most well-rounded UWaterloo English students I’ve encountered, with one foot in every stream of our program. She’s also the only student I’ve met who has combined Marxism and teddy bears in a project. Read on to find out more. Thanks to Julie for sharing–JLH
JLH: When you applied to UWaterloo were you aware of how different the English department here is from others?
JF: This is actually a funny story, one that I think to think of as laced with serendipity through and through. I grew up in Waterloo, I actually went to high school just down the street and around the corner from campus. Spending my entire life in the same city, the last thing I ever wanted to do was stay here for my undergrad. I’m ashamed to admit I never even considered English at UWaterloo as an option at the time. The summer of 2012 I had accepted my offer to UofToronto’s VicOne program, anticipating that I’d declare my major in English Literature and study in the shadows of the Canadian greats – Northrop Frye, McLuhan, Atwood. Soon enough my dream shattered into fragments of disillusion when I realized I simply could not afford to live in downtown Toronto for four years. Two weeks before the start of the new school term I applied to Honours Arts at UWaterloo, was accepted, chose courses, and got textbooks, cut off four inches of my hair for cathartic reasons, and started my undergrad.
I never once realized how many opportunities the English Department at UWaterloo gives their students to build their own education before studying here. From rather traditional canons of literary studies to new mediums of digital literature and rhetoric, the scope and span of study here is really amazing and uncontested. What I find really unique about the department is that you have all these choices – literature, rhetoric, digital media, communication studies, professional writing – right in one place.
Right now I’m sitting happily in the middle of it all as a Literature and Rhetoric student. It’s an experience I honestly don’t think I would have had if things had worked out differently.
JLH: You’ve taken both traditional literature courses and some less traditional ones. How did these factor into how you’re now plotting your degree?
JF: My first literature course was 108F, “The Rebel” which I took in my very first term at UWaterloo. My final paper for “The Rebel” was on militant sexuality and weaponization of the sexualized human body as tactical response to political oppression. I wrote this paper with respect to dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984, and Susan Swan’s The Wives of Bath. At times the paper could be pretty graphic, but it was also really liberating to write. I remember thinking to myself, “I could never get away with this in high school”. You just can’t do that kind of stuff in such a closely-monitored system, at least not without a mandatory trip to the guidance counselor for being “disturbed”.
What non-traditional literature courses like “The Rebel” have ever-so-aptly taught is to always push the limits of the structure. Over two years later in a Visual Rhetoric course with a final project that involves the symbolic and literal mutilation of plush toys through a Marxist-Derridian deconstruction of the commodity, I find myself doing the same thing with a new medium. Studying in such a dynamic environment with respect to both the traditional and experimental canons of text and culture have really opened my eyes to the creative freedoms I have as a student.
JLH: What excites you most about your program right now?
JF: Besides everything? I honestly think the answer “everything” really does describe what gets me excited about my program. I’m an upper-year student, but I’m still at a point where I have all these possibilities set out before me. I imagine it like one of those corridors from a gothic novella that are lined with infinite doors to choose from, but for me the doors don’t all look the same. They’re not mysterious or daunting. They’re open windows, attics, cellars, and stairways all leading to different specializations and areas of study.
I’m three quarters of my way through a specialization in digital media studies, and through courses in contemporary and alternative rhetorical studies, I’ve been finding new and creative ways to read audio and visual media. I think this is a marvelous response to our rapidly intricate ways of communicating in a “digital world”. On the other hand, a part of my heart is rooted in American Modernist literature and its tendency towards creating a sense of magical realism from nothing. I guess in a way, that’s kind of how I feel right now. I have the unique opportunity of creating my own legacy out of nothing but some fertile ground and a dream, so to speak.
I think for now, the best I can do with all these possibilities is to just explore them, and maybe try to get lost on purpose. I’ll see where that takes me.
JLH: Has anything surprised you about your program so far?
JF: Honestly, I think I would have to say the people I’ve met are the most surprising part of my undergrad. I’ve met people that are coming from so many different personal, cultural, academic, and theoretical backgrounds, and when you mix a dynamic group like that in an open discussion, you never know what you’re going to get.
As Humanities students, we naturally deal with a lot of abstract concepts, and what is the most fascinating to me is when you meet someone who has taken the same concept as you, but has interpreted it in a completely different way. They’ve assigned a different value to it than you have, and in essence the same non-material thought has become two completely different but equally applicable things. I think that’s so neat.
I’m also often surprised by people’s different attitudes and approaches to material. I had a class with one student who was so comfortable completely dismissing one theorist’s work, and for good reason once she explained her stance. That’s someone I could really take a lesson from – to learn to be so confident in your own capacity to understand, critique theory, and justify your beliefs when the common or safe approach is to appeal to any class text as an authority – that takes guts!
JLH: Do you have advice for high school students who are thinking about studying English at university?
JF: I guess the best advice I can give is to really know what your options are. I think many people dismiss studying English at a post-secondary level because they’re not interested in studying straight traditional literature, or because their high school English experience has left them cynical and disgruntled with Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lord of the Flies. The top two reactions I usually get when I tell someone my major are “Oh, so you want to be a teacher?”, and “Wow, I really hated reading x book in high school”. I know there was a period in high school where I refused to even consider study English in university because many of my teachers told me I should (remember how my first English class was “The Rebel”).
My best advice is that students considering English need to understand that they won’t be so limited. You don’t have to be limited to any certain high school curriculum reading list, you don’t have to be limited to the traditional English literature, and you don’t have to be limited to a career in teaching if that’s not what you want. If you do want all of those things that’s great! You can do all that, but my point is that you don’t have to.
I dunno, go and cut up some teddy bears if you want – that’s what I chose to do. But don’t, please don’t, think that you’re stuck colouring within the lines.