Category Archives: Teaching

Sweet Smoke! It’s English 492!

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Just like the excitement generated by the announcement of award nominees,or upcoming movies, there is enthusiasm in our halls timed to the announcement of special topics courses. This semester’s offerings include: English 492 “Sweet Smoke of Rhetoric!”: Shakespearean Persuasion in Theory and Practice, taught by Dr. Michael MacDonald. A description follows:

Although humanism was closely associated with the rediscovery of key manuscripts of ancient rhetoric, Renaissance theorists and artists were not content with parroting classical authorities—they appropriated Greek and Latin rhetoric for their own purposes. The plays of William Shakespeare provide a dramatic example of this transfiguration of ancient rhetoric at work. Ranging over the tragedies, histories, comedies, and romances, this course investigates how Shakespeare “figured and disfigured” the classical rhetoric drubbed into him as a boy at the King’s New School. At the level of practice, it examines how Shakespeare retools classical rhetoric in the “quick forge” of his imagination, fashioning a new kind of vernacular English eloquence for the London commercial theatre stage. At the level of theory, it examines how Shakespeare rehearses the vexing ethical, political, and philosophical problems rhetoric posed for his culture. Over the course of the semester, we will see how Shakespeare dramatizes the arts of persuasion in all their comic and tragic ambivalence: rhetoric can be both intoxicating and toxic, “ravish like enchanting harmony” and poison the mind with “pestilent speeches.”

Image: Postcard showing the destruction of Shakespeare Memorial Theatre by fire, 6 March 1926 (Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

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Creative Writing from Engl 332

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End-of-term launch party.

Creative Writing is always popular–students are excited to take it, and those who teach it enjoy talking about their students’ achievements. This year’s English 332 course was no exception. Taught by Carrie Snyder (a nominee for the Governor General’s Award for fiction), it was a resounding success, as Carrie documented on her blog. She has generously given us permission to share her post. Read on to hear about the work, and see photos of the students with their final projects, stories in comic form.

The time for this is always with us
–Carrie Snyder

I’m done teaching for another term. My course was on the creative process: how to set goals, envision a major project, and lay the groundwork necessary to complete the work. I spent a couple of days this week and last meeting with students to hand back their final projects (stories in comic form), and to chat about the term. Some themes emerged in our conversations. Here’s what we learned.

2019-04-18_01-13-012019-04-18_01-12-532019-04-18_01-12-44The importance of mistakes. So many students talked about how important their mistakes had been in shaping their project, how an apparent mistake had turned out to be important or valuable to their drawing, or how freeing it was to allow themselves to make mistakes. My theory is that through mistakes our unconscious mind gives us important information we couldn’t otherwise access; and drawing is the perfect medium for this communication with the self, because we see our “mistakes” pretty much instantly, and have to figure out what they’re trying to tell us.

2019-04-18_01-12-352019-04-18_01-12-262019-04-18_01-12-16The freedom of stepping away from perfectionism. Students also expressed how freeing it was to embrace their mistakes, or even how freeing it was just to give themselves permission to make mistakes. Creating a major project by hand is time-consuming and laborious, and if you don’t accept the mistakes you’ll inevitably make, you’ll never finish what you’ve started.

2019-04-18_01-12-082019-04-18_01-12-002019-04-18_01-11-40The calm that exists inside creation. Every student in the class put a lot of time into their projects, and some put in vast swathes of time, far more than they’d anticipated, or really, that was required to meet the project’s guidelines. (In other words, they didn’t care about the rubric, they cared about the work itself.) Students talked about losing themselves in what they were doing. It didn’t feel like work. It was fun, it was relaxing. The time flew. There is a meditative quality to making things by hand, to being focused in this way; engaged.

2019-04-18_01-11-012019-04-18_01-10-472019-04-18_01-10-40The time for this is always with us. (To paraphrase Lynda Barry.) This feeling of calm, this experience of getting lost inside a pleasurable task, is available anytime. And yet, we seem to need someone to remind us of this, we need a reason to get engaged in this way, a task, a project for a class to give us the excuse to get lost in making something that requires focus and effort, that is time-consuming, and that ultimately may have no material or monetary value. We feel like we have to prove that it’s worth it. I wonder why? When it seems so obvious, looking at these wonderful students and their amazing artwork — their unique, truthful, serious, funny, silly, brave, thoughtful beautiful art — that it is worth it.

2019-04-18_01-10-322019-04-18_01-10-242019-04-18_01-10-16This course gave the students permission to make art. To draw. To colour. To turn their lives, their observations, their ideas into cartoons. Many expressed how valuable this practice was for them, and how much they hoped others would get the chance to take the course too. “Everyone should have to take this course!” “You have to teach it again for the sake of future students!” In truth, I’m not sure what I taught was a course so much as a concept: what I tried to do was make space for the students to make space for themselves.

2019-04-18_01-10-082019-04-18_01-10-002019-04-18_01-09-49Anyone can draw. Most of the students had no idea what they were signing up for when they entered my classroom on day one. They thought they were taking a creative writing course; the course description was vague; they were surprised to learn they’d be doing so much drawing. They weren’t sure they could do it. Many hadn’t drawn since high school, or even grade school. “I never thought I could draw well enough to …” And to a person, they could — they could tell the stories they wanted to tell through cartoons. (“Well enough” went out the window; “well enough” had no place in our classroom.)

2019-04-18_01-09-392019-04-18_01-09-272019-04-18_01-09-182019-04-18_01-09-07Pride in accomplishment. The final projects undertaken by the students were big!! This was no small undertaking. And everyone did it! The deadline got met, and each project proved to be as unique and individual as the person who created it.

Thank you, Artists of ENGL 332! Thank you for your trust. It was an adventure.

xo, Carrie

What do our Harry Potter students do?

spell count per book
I’m in the midst of grading our first ever online offering of English 108P: Popular Potter. As you might imagine we talk about things one normally discusses in English: narrative voice, allusions, intertextuality, cultural capital, and more. Not surprisingly, this is a popular course, which appeals to students from across campus–which is how Ian Minoso, a UWaterloo undergrad, ended up taking 108P in conjunction with Adaptive Algorithms, Distributed Computing and Field Ecology.

Ian wrote about his final project in “A textual analysis of Harry Potter by an amateur data analyst” published on Medium. He writes: “I used this assignment as an opportunity to learn and definitely picked up some interesting natural language processing and textual analysis techniques while using Harry Potter as a basis.” And the images generated are fantastic.

word dispersion in series

I will clarify: Ian wasn’t in the online course. There are reasons for generating different assignments for online courses, versus courses where students are more likely to meet with you. For other examples of student work see: What are our Harry Potter Students Doing? and Harry Potter fiction from 108P.

Engl 108P, Popular Potter, now online

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Grab your quills and keyboards! As of Winter semester 2019, you can take English 108P, Popular Potter, online. Are you curious about how Rowling draws on mythology and folklore to ground and structure her novels about the boy wizard? Perhaps you have always wanted to talk about the traces of World War II in the novels, or consider how the ideology of the Fabian Society influences Dumbledore’s philosophy and the Order of the Phoenix. Do you have a burning desire to express your frustrations with Harry’s romance with Cho–but in literary terms, which reflect on the limitations of narrative voice? Or maybe you can’t wait to talk about Dobby and why it’s initially funny when he is forced to hurt himself, but then suddenly isn’t humorous at all. Setting aside all of these possibilities, what about the luxury of taking a course for which you probably have already done the reading in advance? Wingardium Leviosa!

Image source: Etsy

Welcoming Dr. Stacy Denton

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You may have thought we were done with the blog posts welcoming new faculty, but we have one more to sneak in as classes start! Dr. Stacy Denton earned her PhD at Concordia, and most recently taught at York University; she will be dividing her time between UWaterloo English and Arts First. During her interview day she gave a teaching presentation that generated significant debate and discussion among faculty, while also providing significant humour. I’m positive students will be as enthusiastic as we are!

JLH: Welcome to UWaterloo. You have an interesting position, in that you will be teaching in English as well as the Arts First Initiative.  Do you anticipate any differences?
SD: Thanks — I’m really looking forward to this upcoming year! I do think that there will be significant differences in my experience with the English classroom and the Arts First classroom at UWaterloo. The most important difference that I anticipate is the fact that Arts First is focused specifically on first-year students who are just beginning to navigate their postsecondary education and may not know what discipline they want to pursue. This will require me to introduce concepts related to the fields that we associate with English at UWaterloo, as well as provide a sustained focus on the process of engaging with these concepts in an academic setting. As a result, my Arts First classrooms will spend a lot of time drawing out critical thinking and analysis of texts and ideas, and how this can be accomplished through both writing and — gasp — presentation. In the English classroom, at least for non-academic writing courses, there will be less emphasis on strengthening skills and “finding one’s voice” in the same kind of way. Because we can focus less on adjusting to the academic context, my content-driven English courses will more deeply engage with theoretical concepts and close reading of texts (literary, filmic, or otherwise) in light of the unique expertise that students bring to these materials.

JLH: You have significant experience teaching academic writing at different levels: what has been the most rewarding part of that for you?
SD: In order to answer that question, I think that I need to refer to the phrase just mentioned in my last response: the most rewarding part of teaching academic writing is helping students “find their voice” in an academic context that may initially seem alienating or, at the very least, impersonal and strange. I have worked with students at all levels of their academic careers, from first-year students to PhD candidates, and I have noticed that while students at these different stages face different challenges, there is a resounding similarity in the struggles surrounding “academic” writing. For example, writers at all levels will face, at some point, writer’s block or just a feeling of not being able to write anything coherently. In my experience (with my own writing and in guiding other people’s writing), these issues arise due to the anxiety that occurs as people push themselves beyond their comfort zones, as they engage with new ideas and incorporate them with their own perspectives. Instead of ignoring this uncomfortable feeling, I encourage students to embrace it, as it is my belief that the discomfort and insecurity that accompanies this stage of inquiry is an important part of growing as a writer and a scholar. “Finding one’s voice,” then, becomes more than one’s writing style (although, of course, this is fundamental!), but to embrace all the aspects (both positive and negative) that make someone a unique and important contributor to knowledge — and when somebody “gets” that, it is a nice thing to see.

JLH: Can you tell us a bit about your academic research, and how you might bring it into the classroom?
SD: In a general sense, I have been (and continue to be) interested in the postwar (1945-1970) period in the US. It was such a fascinating time period due to the seismic social, cultural and economic shifts that occurred in what must have seemed like an instant. It is also fascinating because these changes and their aftereffects still resonate in the 21st century. But what I have been primarily interested in researching are the ways that representations of the rural, white, working-class were (are) used to help make sense of these changes. The similarity of these postwar representations across journalism, the social sciences, literature, film, and popular culture is very striking; it is almost as if this demographic became one of the important characters in the narratives of progress and development that were propagated across the postwar. However, while I love to talk about this specific time period and this particular kind of representation in my courses, I can’t always do so given the mandate of a given course. But what I concretely bring into my classroom from my research is an emphasis on the usefulness of interdisciplinarity in helping us understand the many layers of a society through its different kinds of “texts.” Through this emphasis, I also try to highlight how different disciplines speak to and strengthen each other.

JLH: Many academics find their interests either shift post-dissertation, or broaden. Has this been the case with you?
SD: Absolutely! There is a lot of unfinished business that I feel I could only touch upon in my dissertation and wanted to explore further. For example, in my dissertation, I was very much concerned with isolating a potential counter-narrative to the discourse that pushed a very specific kind of “American-ness” that seemed to be largely defined through a middle-class sub/urban lens. I want to further understand how this narrative/counter-narrative continues to influence the US in the late-20th/early-21st century, and more recently, I have pursued this interest through analyzing the ways that film engages with the larger socioeconomic shifts occurring in rural areas in the 1980s and 1990s. I also think things in this arena have gotten infinitely more complicated in the last five years, and I am only starting to touch on that topic. I have also found that, because of my focus on teaching across disciplines and the time that is required to organize different kinds of classrooms, I have become fascinated by some topics that are quite different from what I originally started researching. For example, I am currently investigating the work of the postwar painter and writer Rosalyn Drexler, something that is certainly adding to the quilt of texts that I am using to understand the importance of the postwar period. And, finally, I want to embark on a new scholarly avenue that considers the role of interdisciplinary pedagogy in the 21st century university. This scholarly interest is very much inspired by my experience of teaching in different places, across different disciplines, in the last ten years.

JLH: Finally, what are the books you’ve most enjoyed reading for pleasure this past year?
SD: Three books that I have read for pleasure in the last year and that stand out to me are Alice Munro’s The Lives of Girls and Women, Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, and a re-read of Thoreau’s Walden. Although I am familiar with Munro, I had never read this particular work, and I felt that it was time to pick it up. There aren’t many writers who can capture the quiet desperation of people with seemingly few choices, but as with Munro’s other writing, this work really draws out just how complex such an experience can be. I mention Edwards’ novel here as well because I was surprised at how enjoyable it was (I had randomly picked it up at a used book store and didn’t bring any expectations to it). Among other things, it is a beautifully written meditation on the failures of the American Dream, and what people feel they need to give up to achieve it. And, finally, in light of the current political and cultural divisions of our present context, I wanted to return to Walden. Although written in a completely different set of circumstances, I feel that Thoreau still offers us things to think about in light of the pursuit of unthinking economic “progress.” In particular, what do we give up as individuals and as a society when we become too complacent with “the way things are”? Who gets sacrificed for the comfort of the few, and at what environmental and moral price? And, perhaps most importantly, he seems to be asking the reader what it is they are going to do once they have answered these questions for themselves.

Typewriters! Femme fatales! Zeppelins!


English 460A: Early Literature of the Modernist Period in the United Kingdom and Ireland, taught by Dr. Dorothy Hadfield this fall, promises modernism as you’ve possibly never imagined it. Typewriters! Zeppelins! ZEPPELINS! There’s something delightfully steampunk about it all. Read on to find out more about English 460, which runs Tuesday/Thursday 10:00-11:20am.

Vampires. Prostitutes. Typewriters. Femme fatales. Zeppelins.
As the world moved towards the 20th century, the spirit of modernism was in the air… and on the ground, and in the machines…. Literature of the fin-de-siècle reflected both the optimism and the anxiety of a nation in transition. This is the age of Dracula and Sherlock Holmes—villains intent on destroying the sociopolitical order and agents intent on thwarting them. It’s the age of Major Barbara, pitting a Salvation Army crusader against her arms-dealer father in an argument over which of them will save the world. But some of the most controversial literature of the period revolved around Grant Allen’s notorious novel The Woman Who Did, hotly debating the propriety of what the woman did – or didn’t – do. In this course, we will look at both the literary texts and the historical and social contexts in which they were written to examine how a range of early modernist writers were coming to terms with the future they see approaching.

Welcoming Dr. Megan Selinger

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Historically Blackberry has hired English’s people; this time, the process was happily reversed when Dr. Megan Selinger agreed to join our department. We consider ourselves extremely fortunate to have gained a colleague who not only has professional expertise as a technical writer, but also boasts significant experience teaching Communications to STEM and Business students. She has impressed us all, and I have no doubt her students will be equally enthusiastic. However, you don’t necessarily have to take her course to benefit from her wisdom: read on to find out what she has to say about dangerous apps, overcoming a dislike of writing, and more!

JLH: Has your teaching been influenced by your practical experience as a technical writer in industry?
MS: One of the first lessons that I learned as a technical writer was to consider my audience: how are they receiving the information I am trying to provide? Can they parse my language, follow my instructions, and understand the data I am attempting to pass on? How can I write cleaner, clearer, and more concisely?

I’ve continued to ask myself these questions for every communication – and that includes in my lectures. When teaching, I look to the needs of my audience – of my students – to best assess what format I should use, what tone and word choice I need to employ, and, most of all, what method best ensures that I can provide an enriching and entertaining classroom experience.

That’s not to say my more practical tech-writing side doesn’t, on occasion, clash with my more stylistic writing – especially when I’m writing for presentations or to produce particular effect, but I always ensure that the needs of my audience are met before throwing in a dash of alliteration or a hint of humour. It was a hard lesson to teach myself that alliteration doesn’t innately improve interaction. (A lesson I’m clearly still learning.)

JLH: You’ve been teaching a lot of writing and communication courses: what do you think is the most rewarding part of these classes for you?
MS: Teaching any course is rewarding; you gain the opportunity to see students engaging with material and ideas that are new to them. But I would say that writing courses provide an additional benefit as they can change the very structure of a student’s way of communicating. That is, my course could positively improve every future communication a student has. The students write with more confidence; they present material in a manner that is well-structured and sound. Most importantly, once the student can be sure they are communicating effectively, they become more adept at developing their own personal voice and style in order to enhance their writing and presentations. Even requests for assignment extensions are far clearer near the end of the term than they were in those first few weeks. I have to say, it’s a lot harder to turn down requests using the correct format.

JLH: Do you have advice for students who think “I can’t write” or “I don’t like to write”?
MS: I’ve found that most students have only been taught one method of brainstorming, one method of writing essays, and one method of editing. These methods may work wonderfully for students who benefit from those particular learning styles, but they work against students whose main strength resides in a different learning style.

My advice is to first attempt to get over the general fear of writing and “blank page paralysis”. Write 100 words a day – every day – even when you aren’t actively working on an assignment. Train yourself to translate thoughts into language and language into narrative.

Second, try a ton of new brainstorming techniques. Use traditional cluster or word association, but also consider apps like Written Kitten – which rewards you for your writing (http://writtenkitten.co/) – or The Most Dangerous Writing App – which uses the “punishment” side of the reward/punishment dichotomy to ensure you don’t stop writing. (https://www.themostdangerouswritingapp.com/)

Above all, remember that writing is just like everything else. It requires practice, training, and continual learning to keep your communication skills sharp and focused.

JLH: Finally, I generally close on a book question: what was your favorite book (or two!) of the last year?
MS: Late last year, I finally tackled Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It had been on my “to read” list for a number of years, but I was glad I waited until after I submitted my dissertation. Danielewski’s book references many of the texts that I read for my courses, field study, or research. It gives the book that extra bit of uncanniness when you remember a text that is referenced in the footnotes (or even footnoted in the footnotes), remember the section of that text that is being referenced, and yet you’re fairly sure that the quote itself is fictional. But not quite sure. (And as you get further and further in the book, you become less and less sure.)

I’ve also been reading through Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Once I’m finished, I’ll finally be able to watch the movie version of Annihilation. I’ve always felt the need to read the source material before tackling a text’s adaptation, which can create quite a backlog of TV shows and movies. (One day I’ll finally watch The Shining.)