Forget Saturday morning cartoons

Students want English

(April 1, 1999, Gazette)

By Jean Graham

What do high school students do on a nice spring Saturday? Would you be surprised to hear that 250 of them spent a full day at Memorial learning about studying English?

The one-day conference Breaking out of the Books, held Saturday, March 20, was, according to Dr. Annette Staveley, the brainchild of Katie Nicholson, a fourth-year English student from Mount Pearl, who is currently the president of the Memorial English Students' Society.

In January, the English Department was invited to send students to a Nova Scotia university to participate in a conference at which the students could present papers. Naturally, sending more than a couple presents a funding problem for a cash-strapped university.

So Ms. Nicholson suggested having a similar conference here, and inviting area high school students to participate, both as presenters and as spectators.

The idea "fell dormant" for a few weeks, said Dr. Staveley, then re-emerged in mid-February. Through a hectic buzz of preparations a program emerged and invitations went out to area high schools.

"We were expecting 50 to 100 students maximum," said Ms. Nicholson, "especially as this was the first time the English Department had done anything like this.

"Then I got this tremendous fax back from Holy Heart and I nearly fell off the chair!"

Originally, 300 students were going to attend but one high school was forced to cancel at the last minute. Still, both students and faculty were thrilled with the response. As both Dr. Staveley and Ms. Nicholson said in separate interviews, "And they stayed all day!"

A day at an academic conference doesn't sound like part of a dream weekend. So what was it that brought the students out?

"There's a need for it," explained Ms. Nicholson. "There are lots of students out there enjoying high school English, but they don't know that they can go on to university, study it, and branch out into dozens of different directions." She herself plans to do graduate work in film studies next academic year.

From the high school students who attended, she said, she got the sense that "there was an interest in studying English ... They wanted to know what was available at MUN."

And they certainly got an eyeful.

Faculty presentations included Drs. Mark Cumming and Linda Vecchi on love poems; Dr. Roberta Buchanan on developing creativity; Dr. Phyllis Artiss on women's studies; Dr. Pat Byrne on Newfoundland Literature and Folklore; Dr. Noreen Golfman on horror films; and Prof. Donna Walsh on science fiction and fantasy.

Alumni showed up to help out as well. Bill Martin (BA (Hons.) 1998) joined with faculty member Dr. Don Nichol for a session on parody, featuring the acidic hits of The Disclaimers. CBC Radio reporter Dave Cochrane (BA, 1997) spoke about journalism, and more particularly about how an English degree has helped him in his career.

The afternoon was split between student presentations and an introduction to the drama option offered as an choice for English majors at Memorial's St. John's campus, presented by Prof. Dick Buehler and Dr. Denyse Lynde.

"They're thirsty for information," said Ms. Nicholson. "There's needs not being met in high school, so they needed to know what MUN has. Newfoundland, Canadian, creative writing, film - there's a course here. (MUN student) Mark Hoyle spoke on the need for creative writing, and these students need to know that what they're good at, what they like, is important and will be important to them later in life."

She added that the communication works both ways. "It's no good to crawl into a little hole and spend all your time reading old writing. You have to know about technology and new media, and it has to be part of what you're studying.

"We presented different facets of studying English at MUN, but for some of these genres there is only one course ... The sheer numbers that a film workshop brings in is indication that students are interested in the subject and maybe we should be offering more than one course."

While not designed as a recruitment event, Breaking out of the Books will likely aid in the effort to attract more students to Memorial and to the English department, said Dr. Staveley.

"Certainly we had tremendous support for the event from the Office of Student Recruitment," she said, indicating the folders of university information given to attendees.

"Students are desperate for recognition," she pointed out. "Anything we can do to humanize the face of the university and demonstrate our concern for them will only help both the university and its students."

And will the event go ahead next year? Katie Nicholson will have graduated by then, but she said, "Definitely ... (English department head Dr.) Gordon Jones in his closing remarks called it Ďan annual event.'"