Mike Borkent

Woodcock Centennial Celebration, November 22, 2012
CanLit Guides and the Graduate Student Experience
Presented by Mike Borkent

MikeBorkentThe CanLit Guides project has provided me with a wealth of opportunities to learn and grow as a graduate student. To be sustainable and kept up to date, the project needs ongoing support of future graduate student involvement. Of course, graduate students always need money too, but this project will give them, as it has given me, a great chance to broaden their horizons.

Students typically turn to the web rather than the library to find research materials. All of the issues of Canadian Literature between 1959 and 2007 are now freely accessible on our website from anywhere in the world. We, as teachers and critics, want undergraduates to learn to turn to the high-quality material in academic journals like ours, rather than pulling their ideas from the mass of less authoritative material out there. We want them to learn that Answers.com does not necessarily have the answer.

The goal of the project is to introduce undergraduate students to the genres and practices of literary criticism by integrating articles, reviews, and poetry from these open-access issues into guides on topics such as nationalism and Indigenous literatures. To begin, I had to wade through the archive of the over 200 issues published since 1959. In the process, I learned about the history of the journal, the shifting uses of critical genres, the changing questions, focuses, and theoretical frameworks which inform critical approaches, and of course the literatures and histories that they engage with.

Developing this material has been an invaluable learning process, as I now have a much wider perspective on the literature and criticism as well as of the broader history of social changes in Canada. The specialist focus of doctoral studies doesn’t readily support this broad, generalist perspective, and yet this perspective is an essential part of my preparation as a teacher and a supervisor of students of Canadian literature.

Thinking about how to present the field of Canadian literature to undergraduate students is very different from writing a thesis, as I am, on cognitive science and the interactions between visual and verbal characteristics of Canadian visual poetry and comics. And yet this wider perspective informs my work as a scholar as well, by placing my contemporary interests in a richer historical and critical context. Likewise, my personal interests have informed the project, through sections focused on close reading different forms of poetry and a liberal sprinkling of poems (including visual ones) across the guides.

All of this so far might give you the impression that this project has been a solitary venture. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The project has always involved working closely with the general editors of the project, the respected teachers and critics Margery Fee, Laura Moss, and Judy Brown. It’s also involved working closely with our techno-wizard and project supervisor, Matthew Gruman, the managing editor, Donna Chin, and the other graduate student writers and developers Cara Woodruff, Karen Coreia Da Silva, and Alissa McArthur. Several undergraduate students have also worked on the project; their names are listed with the poster.

As one of the first graduate students hired for the job, I’ve had the privilege of spearheading the directions for development, compiling resources, and drafting early versions of the guides. At the same time, the form and content has often altered (sometimes greatly, sometimes in small but significant ways) through suggestions, criticisms, and questions that have arisen as others have entered into the writing and editing process. Likewise, having the opportunity to work closely with Margery, Laura, and Judy, has been a rewarding and inspiring learning experience unto itself and I can’t begin to say what a privilege it’s been.

For doctoral students like myself, writing is a largely solitary venture; this project has offered me an opportunity to actively collaborate in the research and writing process. Through this we’ve not only produced the guides that we are so proud of, but I’ve had the opportunity to learn about the collaborative process in ways that have prepared me to better direct or contribute to future collaborations as well.

Similarly, in working at the journal, I’ve come to a better understanding of what happens behind the scenes there (and, yes, it involves lots of coffee!). This has included conversations about issues of copyright and permissions, funding, peer-review processes, editing, and so on. Doctoral students are not typically exposed to such conversations, but they have certainly added to my professional development. Apart from writing my thesis, I am supposed to be publishing articles in high-quality peer-reviewed journals, and now I have a better idea of what that entails.
This project also involved me going into six undergraduate classes, under the supervision of Laura Moss, to give lectures drawing on the nationalism guide. This allowed us to get student feedback. This teaching process required me to be flexible and open to changes to my teaching style, the content of the guide, and the reactions and comments of the students, and Laura provided further crucial support, suggestions, and feedback along the way.

There were certainly challenges that required on–the-fly adaptations, like the time the digital projector wasn’t working properly, or when I ended up teaching what was going to be a visually intensive lesson to a class with a visually impaired student. These required fast changes to carefully planned lessons, but thankfully it all worked out well, and responses to the guides have been incredibly positive. These classes, including the challenging ones, gave us many insights into changes to the content and design of the guides. These changes will better address the needs of students in developing scholarly reading and writing skills. This experience certainly also contributed to my development as a teacher, in particular regarding the usefulness and challenges of integrating digital resources into my classes.
As you can see, the CanLit Guides project has added immeasurably to my time as a graduate student, and to my future prospects as I head out onto the job market. Likewise, we’ve been delighted by enthusiastic enquiries about the Guides from all over Canada, from high school teachers to leading academics, and are hoping to continue to update and develop the series. With this project, the journal has extended its contributions to the scholarly community, beyond the excellent scholarship it has published for over fifty years, by supporting teachers and mentoring the next generation.

But there is more to do to meet the expressed needs of the students and to offer a more diverse array of resources to teachers. To do all this requires more work than the editors or the staff can reasonably do, since their main job is putting out four issues of the journal a year.

Therefore, we’re asking you to help us establish an endowment fund to sustain the project. Crucially, this will maintain the involvement of graduate students in this project, so that others can have this invaluable opportunity that I’ve had for professionalization and scholarly growth.

I’d like to extend a warm thank you to those who have donated. And if you would like to donate to this fund, we have pledge cards available with Karen as well as an online form on the journal’s website. Please pledge what you can, and spread the word to others you think might be interest. Please help us keep this opportunity available to future graduate students of Canadian literature. This initiative deserves and needs sustained support.