Alumnus Hoi Cheu came to the University of Waterloo to study science–but one course later, he had started on the path that led him to become a professor of English at Laurentian University. Read on to find out which UWaterloo professor taught that course, and what Dr. Cheu is doing now!–JLH
JLH: Can you share how you came to study English at UWaterloo? Was it an obvious choice or route?
HC: Attending Waterloo’s English program was not an obvious choice. When I applied, I was a science student from Hong Kong. I got into Waterloo because I had an A+ average in mathematics and sciences. At Waterloo, I failed the English proficiency test and attended what was then called “the Writing Clinic.” I took English 109 with Dr. Murray McArthur, loved the class, and ended up in English Literature.
JLH: What stands out from your time here?
HC: Waterloo’s program is relatively small in a hugely successful university; it enjoys having world class innovations without the rigid constraints common to larger institutions. Its flexibility can also become adaptive care for students. For example, as an international student, I needed extra time to read difficult texts and complicated theories. My professors devoted many invaluable office hours to work with me. In my third year, I started to get ahold of the methods used in literary studies, and I received my first A+. Because of that little success, my professor invited me to attend his graduate course, and the program was flexible enough to allow the paper for that class to fulfill my undergraduate thesis requirement. In the program, I learned about poststructuralism, the new rhetoric, bibliotherapy…. All of them were cutting-edge ideas 30 years ago in 1987. Now, some of them have become the standard, and others are just beginning to flourish.
JLH: You also did a Masters in English at UWaterloo: how did that shape your understanding of graduate school and the possibilities?
HC: The MA program at Waterloo started my academic “split personality”: on the one hand, I continued the hard work of my undergraduate years on poststructuralism and James Joyce, which would become my doctoral thesis; on the other hand, I learned about bibliotheraphy from Dr. Joseph Gold, which would become my current practice in applied literature and arts-based health research. I presented my very first paper at Congress and developed my doctoral thesis topic before I graduated from Waterloo’s MA program.
JLH: Can you tell us a bit about your current research?
HC: My current research focuses primarily on the application of arts and literature in health and medicine. I have three major projects, funded by the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and the Ontario Ministry of Health respectively. They are all interdisciplinary, interprofessional teamworks: the first conducts a meta-study of arts-based health research in Canada; the second develops a social work program to engage arts and literature for helping youth at risk; the third tracks the stories of rural physicians who are graduates of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine. All these longitudinal studies began around the time I completed my book in 2005, and they are bearing fruits at the publication stage.
JLH: Finally, once the semester is over what books do you look forward to reading?
HC: This year I invented a new course called “Science Writing.” All texts in this course are written by significant scientists who have successfully communicated mind blowing (if not life changing) ideas to the public. Although my research projects will take up most of my time in the summer, I look forward to the in-depth study of books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962, this book almost single-handedly changed the public opinion on pesticide and led to the ban on the use of DDT for agriculture.