An Update from Ali in PEI

My dearest, darling Artsies:

Sorry it’s been forever since my last update! I have been ridiculously busy with research and presentations and conferences and (of course) essays. I know by now that many of you are also feeling the crunch. Don’t forget to take some time out for yourselves though...your brain and sanity will thank you!

For the last few months, I’ve been working with Professor Esther Wohlgemut in the English Department. She’s working on a research project dealing with secret societies and conspiracy narrative in 18th Century British literature. This means that my duties entail photocopying, summarizing, collecting books and trolling both journal databases and e-books for information about fictional representations of such societies. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to dedicate as much time to my position as I would like to in the last few weeks, but the great thing about the position is that I can postpone my hours when there’s a lull and start up my research again when life is less hectic. Esther is also extremely flexible, letting me do my own thing and changing gears if a specific research task doesn’t particularly thrill me.

So what have I been up to lately? Well, I took part in the Atlantic Canada Regional Conference in Charlottetown this past weekend. This conference was organized by the Millennium Foundation (the same people who organized the Think Again conference), and it was somewhat similar, though on a much smaller scale. It took place at the Rodd Hotel downtown from Friday to Sunday. I took advantage of several workshops that touched on issues of social capital, the development of the Foundation’s Discovery Program, determining my personality type, and the importance of laughter. =) Of course, like the Toronto Conference, I learned tons of important things about myself (and others!) that will help me in my academic and other endeavors. I was also able to network with lots of other people, including some ultra awesome kids from PEI. Everyone seems to get excited when I tell them I’m here from Toronto, as lots of them haven’t been there. I also learned how to Hungarian folk dance!

If anyone is thinking about participating in the EDGE program next fall, I would strongly strongly strongly urge them to take a class with Jane Magrath, even if they aren’t pursuing the English option. She’s the co-ordinator of the English Honours Program at UPEI, and probably one of the best teachers I have ever had. I’m in her 18th Century Literature class, and I can honestly say I throughly enjoy all class discussions and analyses. I always leave with more questions than I came in with because she raises thought provoking ideas I wouldn't have normally considered.

About a month ago, she asked us to finish the sentence “As a student studying at UPEI, I feel...” with a metaphor. She then asked us to explain our metaphor, but told us not to put our name on the paper. The next class, she read all of the metaphors and their explanations aloud before sorting them into three separate piles. The 30 or so papers were put in negative, neutral and positive piles. There was about 24 in the negative pile, one in the neutral pile and the remaining lay in the positive pile. And then she discussed the results of it with us. Urging us to explain why we felt so negative and burnt out and stressed out and hopeless, she was trying to find out exactly what was wrong so she could fix it.

To my surprise, the majority of the class seemed to be on the same page as I was: the stressed / burnt out page. Many people remarked that they felt unequipped to deal with a degree that has no “defined” career path, or that it was hard to finish university all in four years, or that their loans were constantly looming over them, or that they felt they needed to get on the Dean’s List, even if it was at the expense of a social life. Jane countered this by pointing out that such worries are not inherent, these are worries we invent. Who says you have to finish a degree in four years? Or that you need to be on the Dean’s List? Sure, these are positive goals to strive for, but are they really worth your sanity?

She informed us of her unconventional career path (she dropped out after her first year and completed her undergrad in six years) and of all of the people she went to school with who didn’t pursue any post-grad work, those who graduated with “just” an English degree. These people now occupy job titles that did not exist 10 years ago, and yet they are making enough money to buy a house in Toronto (of all places!). I’ve always thought that professors have always loved school, gotten wonderful grades and have had everything fall into place for them. To hear Jane talk about her struggles made her more approachable and relatable. People always extoll the virtues of following your own path, but personal anecdotes about personal struggles prove much more inspirational. I came away from the class feeling more positive about my situation (or at least at ease with the fact that everyone is as confused / stressed as I am!) and recognizing the fact that there are different paths. A path that’s right for one person may not be right for another, and that’s okay.

Being the co-ordinator of the English honours program, Jane legitimately seems interested in making a difference in the lives of her students. She seeks the opinions of her students and values their input, using them to brainstorm ways (such as internships or alternative assessment methods) of making an English degree less terrifying and stressful. She’s always around in her office and is completely open to drop-ins. I’ve stopped by her office several times (mostly for academic advice), but our conversations always end up focusing on my experiences, as she is genuinely interested in any way she can ease my transition. She even told me in September that it was her personal goal to convince me to stay!

However, I will be returning to Ryerson in January, ready to rock with Arteries, the Continuist and all of the great initiatives that the Faculty of Arts is planning for the next several months! I miss you all dearly and can’t wait to share my pictures and experiences. =)

Until next time,
Ali

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