We’ve shared a few stories about UWaterloo students and alumni who started out in other programs before landing in English. But this is the first time I’ve come across someone who came to UWaterloo for actuarial sciences–and from another country–only to land in English, continuing with a Masters (before travelling elsewhere for a Ph.D.). I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Kris Singh give a paper at a conference in Toronto; now I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him for Words in Place. Read on to find out more.–JLH
JLH: Can you tell us a bit about how you ended up at UWaterloo studying English?
KS: I’m from Trinidad, where UWaterloo has cultivated a reputation as offering an exceptional Actuarial Science program. Having studied mathematics and accounting in high school, I pursued admittance into the elite club that UWaterloo seemed with grand plans for becoming an actuary. After my entry into the mathematics program and despite excelling in terms of grades during my first semester, doubts pecked at my commitment to this subject. It gradually became clear that math and actuarial science were not for me as I witnessed amongst my peers a passion that made me envious. I wanted to be that passionate about what I was studying. At the same time, it was becoming more apparent to me how privileged I was to be pursuing tertiary education, and I felt that in order to make the most of this opportunity, I should be able to delight in my studies. I began exploring courses in the arts program because I was curious as to how they would contrast with the math, economics, and computer science courses I had done. English readily stood out to me. I did a short story course with Bruce Wyse, which exposed me to authors I had heard of but never had a chance to read. I realized that this is a field to which I could gladly give myself over.
JLH: In retrospect, do you think you things you privileged as a high school applicant actually mattered as much once you were in the program? Or did other things come to the fore?
KS: To some extent, I re-evaluated my priorities in my time at UWaterloo. As with most undergraduate students, my values either came under scrutiny or became especially hardened. My high school experience, which was largely structured by inherited British models, stressed individual competition and specialization from a young age. My education had been, in a sense, streamlined as it emphasized efficient, goal-oriented learning and unforgiving, highly consequential modes of assessment. At university, slowing down and broadening my intellectual scope became a priority. It may sound trite, but I desired the opportunity to roam and ruminate. I discovered that English afforded me this freedom and even necessitated such flexibility, unhurried reflection, and curiosity. So I made it my refuge. This transition allowed me to revise my perception of education as necessarily linear or as an investment in hopes of subsequent financial reward. I also began to note the wealth of Caribbean literature and history that I had never been aware of or had not taken the time to explore. Realizing that game-changing figures like Frantz Fanon, Edouard Glissant, C.L.R. James, and Sylvia Wynter were from these tiny islands humbled and invigorated me. If in my high school years I was readied and encouraged to move beyond my islands, then in my undergraduate years I began to realize how much those islands hold and how sincerely I must reflect on my relationship with them.
JLH: You did your MA here as well, before going on to do a PhD elsewhere. How did your time at UWaterloo prepare you for graduate school? Did it shape your interests?
KS: My MA at UWaterloo was crucial because it showed me how much I didn’t know and thereby renewed within me a craving to learn. Moreover, it highlighted the fact that while I needed to appreciate the boundaries and categories that organize knowledge into something that is approachable, I should not become defined by those limits. Though my MA allowed me to decide on my speciality of postcolonial literature, it also instilled within me a fear of becoming too comfortable within the perceived limits of this category. I say fear because I was/am afraid of missing out on all that is available to me through literature. The wide selection of graduate seminars at UWaterloo encouraged me to abandon any naïve notions of mastering an entire field or even a subset of that field in favour of accruing the skills and disposition needed to engage with literature of all types.
JLH: Now, with a PhD in hand, you are on the other side of the classroom. Do you regard your UWaterloo professors differently from that vantage point?
KS: Having now taught in various capacities, I have certainly developed renewed respect for the effort and intelligence of my former teachers. UWaterloo professors like Victoria Lamont, Tristanne Connolly, and Rebecca Tierney-Hynes directly influence my current pedagogical philosophy. Prof. Lamont’s graduate seminar modelled the academic rigour I try to inculcate in my class conversations. Her willingness to engage with students one on one informs the relationships I build with my students and my inclination toward honest dialogue. I distinctly remember Prof. Connolly’s graduate seminar because I was often stumped by some of our reading materials, but her passion for the material always came across in class and made me want to delve into the texts further. I’ve realized that modelling such contagious enthusiasm is much harder than it may seem, but I continue to strive for it. Finally, Prof. Tierney-Hynes, who made me think realistically about my reasons for entering graduate school, motivates my perception of students not as passive recipients but as active creators of meaning. These professors guide my definition of my classroom as a resource-rich, creative, hopeful space with purpose and consequence. I am deeply grateful for them.
JLH: Finally, what is on your list of fiction you can’t wait to read?
KS: Right now, I’m working through Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I first encountered Le Guin’s work in a science fiction course at UWaterloo, and I always meant to explore her work further. I’m finally able to get to it, and getting lost in the world she built affords me some space to decompress between semesters.
I’m also sitting with Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman, a necessary exploration of the legacy of indentureship. It helps me parse my cultural inheritance while also prodding my wonder about the generations of women in my family, how much I owe to them, how much I have learnt and can learn from them, how much I don’t know and may never know about them.
I’m looking forward to reading The Last White House at the End of the Row of White Houses, a poetry collection by fellow Kingstonian Michael e. Casteels. I also hope to get my hands on The Good Immigrant, edited by Nikesh Shukla. Finally, I must make time for Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake.