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.