English department offering innovation

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Dr. Demers’ prison writing course aims to explore an emerging genre -- Poster by U of R Department of English, featuring artwork by Molly Fair

Dr. Demers’ prison writing course aims to explore an emerging genre — Poster by U of R Department of English, featuring artwork by Molly Fair

New courses examine prison writing, indigenous literature

A new semester means new courses being offered, and the English department has no shortage of interesting new subjects available to students. The English department prides itself on the wide variety of courses that it offers, from the more traditional to the brand new, and this semester is no different. The Carillon sat down with department head Dr. Troni Grande and a few other professors to talk about the unique and interesting courses available to students this semester.

One of the major new courses that Dr. Grande pointed out to the Carillon was an indigenous literature course designed for non-English major students. The course represents an opportunity for students to take their required indigenous knowledge course, as well as the English department’s efforts to make their courses more accessible to those outside of the program.

“We have a new course for non-majors, which is English 214, Indigenous Literature with Randy Lundy,” Dr. Grande told the Carillon. “What we found is that a couple years ago, the Faculty of Arts decided that English 110 would not be required of all arts students. So, we’ve noticed a drop in enrolment in 110, and we’re not attracting as many non-major students. So, we’ve started to experiment with 200-level courses where anyone can take them across the university.”

Other new courses to keep an eye out for include a playwriting course (ENG 252AE) taught by well-regarded Saskatchewan Playwright Kelley Jo Burke, and a creative writing course (ENG 251) taught by Sheri Benning, who earned a PhD in creative writing from the University of Glasgow.

One of the challenges faced by the English department is trying to balance the traditional academic courses against the more specific and unique courses that tend to draw interest from outside the department. Dr. Grande explained the importance in striking that balance between the necessary traditional courses, and the experimental, and unique courses that students have great interest in.

“In its course offerings, the English department does its best to strike a balance between rigorous, cutting-edge, academic courses that give English majors a taste of all that the discipline can offer, and popular culture and writing courses that give students a chance to explore how English is plugged into some of the most engaging, controversial, and urgent issues of our time.”

One of the new courses drawing a lot of attention this semester is, in fact, a 110-level course focused on prison writing, directed at non-major students, taught by Dr. Jason Demers. Dr. Demers talked a bit about his background, and why prison writing became an interest of his.

“I was at Queens and Kingston, with Kingston being the prison town, the [most] notorious being Kingston Penitentiary. I ran into a program where I was able to spend time each week with an inmate doing literacy work. What I found during these experiences was entirely different from what I thought prison was,” Dr. Demers told the Carillon. “So, I thought the best way to actually understand what prison actually is, and who’s in prison is to look for inmate accounts, and that comes from prison writing.”

So, what does one read in a prison literature course? Well this is one of the innovative courses that Dr. Grande was talking about, involving digital and social media. While Dr. Demers has some traditional forms of literature (novels, poetry, letters), he also has some of the newer stuff that you don’t see very often in courses today, like blogs, podcasts, and even interrogation tapes. Dr. Demers talked about the excellent opportunity this provided for students to really talk about what prison writing means, and societal impact that it has.

“Prison literature or prison writing doesn’t have an established canon, because the first book about prison writing came out in the ‘70s. What that does is provide an excellent opportunity to talk about what prison writing is, and what it might be as a group,” Dr. Demers stated. “I’ve put on some stuff on the syllabus that isn’t entirely conventional, from slave literature, to civil rights stuff, to parts of the black power movement. Then we have more unconventional stuff like interrogation videos. If one of the points of prison writing is to get information out of a place that by its nature is separated from the rest of society by an impenetrable wall, then how do we know what’s going on in prison? Sometimes we have to look at these other documents that are released from prison in other ways.”

Other texts on Dr. Demers’ syllabus include Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Omar Khadr interrogation video released by Canadian officials, Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman by Rudy Wiebe and Yvonne Johnson, and Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, the novel that became the basis for a popular Netflix series.

One course noted by Dr. Grande was Romanticism’s Nervous Bodies, a brand new course being taught by new Assistant Professor Dr. Chris Bundock. Being one of the leading Romantic scholars in Canada, it makes sense for Dr. Bundock to teach this course focusing on the concept of imagination from a Romantic point of view, which Dr. Bundock elaborated on:

“A common topic when it comes to Romanticism is imagination. Sometimes I think the way we think of imagination today is as an insubstantial faculty, for making up things that aren’t true. What I think is interesting about this is that the Romantics took imagination very seriously.”

Looking to the future of the English department, Dr. Grande noted the interest in continuing to expand upon how English is taught, through the recent innovations of the Internet and social media, as well as a focus on digital humanities.

“A course that we’d really like to try is something in digital humanities, and prison writing is getting close to that, something that is starting to look at lots of different forms of texts, many which are available on social media. We need to make our courses more capable of commenting on current cultural issues,” Dr. Grande stated.

“It is really important to us that we touch on relevant cultural anxieties, desires and passions. We want to have a balance between doing something that’s very solid academically, and something that is engaging in terms of current cultural interests.”

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