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.

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