Meghan Loch is a coursework Master’s student at Memorial University. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she completed her undergraduate degree in Fredericton, New Brunswick at St. Thomas University, and recently returned to Canada after living and teaching in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where she also studied Mandarin Chinese. After missing the East Coast, and wanting to continue her studies on literature, place, and the stories we share in specific places, she and her patient partner of seven years, Mitch, left the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean to hunker down next to the cold Atlantic and enjoy breathing in the cleanest air in Canada. They spend their free time hiking Newfoundland’s breathtaking trails and taking selfies with Newfoundland ephemera.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
I still have the emails I sent back and forth with Dr. Danine Farquarson when I first considered the program, and my reasons then were about strong identities and ties with place. After living overseas for a few years, my partner and I wanted a strong return to a local sensibility, and I wanted a small, student-centered program in Eastern Canada. In addition, I had heard positive recommendations about particular professors at Memorial when I was in my undergraduate program, and St. John’s has a reputation for a strong arts community – which it’s lived up to! I think it’s more and more important as you progress in your academic career to listen to your mentors’ advice, and to ask for it, and the advice given to me was that Memorial would be a good fit. It has been.
What drew you to explore English originally?
I have an insatiable curiosity about stories. It’s as simple – and as complicated -as that. Pursuing English for the sake of stories came naturally, but I also am fascinated by the complexity that develops as you start to widen your definition of what a narrative is. You see how deeply narratives and the theories around them reach and keep reaching back into each other, like a literary ouroboros.
You have been keeping a blog for the School of Graduate Studies this year – what has that experience been like?
The blog is a like a serene little pool of self-reflexivity. I get to stop and look at my own story and what I’m doing and feeling, and that’s invaluable. I’m so grateful to Memorial for the opportunity to do it and for providing that for other students to look at. I rely on reading other people’s blogs and experiences for inspiration, so I hope I can provide that same inspiration for someone else in a kind of written-word pay-it-forward way!
How important is a sense of place to you?
Place is so crucial, but defining it is like peeling back layers of complexity. Are local spaces the centre of our worldviews? What about connections we have with larger places as travelers and literary wanderers? We can sometimes struggle to balance a sense of rootedness in a local place with our growing access to places all over the world.
At the heart of it, I think your approach to a place and the amount you give back to it is important, and you can trace the connections you make to the larger global community through that. For example, from September to March when I arrived here, I volunteered weekly as an ESL tutor for refugees with the Association for New Canadians. I did this because I remember how hard it is to be in a new place where even the language is a barrier, and how many connections you make to a new place through the people and words you share. It gave me a role in the community here, and connected me to the larger issues at hand in the world in a meaningful way through the people who were experiencing this place in a way totally unlike my experience.
How is being a graduate student different from being an undergraduate student?
I have kept in contact with the professors from my undergraduate program. Recently, I emailed one, Dr. Lissa Beauchamp, and was relating how much the differences surprised me. She wrote in reply, “It's good to go into grad school blind, because that way you see things you might not otherwise notice,” and I think she’s right. You can’t control it, and I’ve written in my blog about trusting the process. That’s very important – you need to be organized and on top of things, but a sense of openness to possibility and new directions in your studies is the most important. A lot of people I know, the brightest students, were already heading into specializations in their undergraduate degrees, and that narrowing is good practice; however, a graduate degree should represent an intellectual opening. If your focus is too narrow, you have no space to grow.
Practically speaking, the biggest difference is in your research and presentation. You’ll spend much more time in the details of both your subject and the process of reading and writing. You’ll refine your methods of reading, remembering, and presentation time and time again, and you’ll take an actively reflexive position rather than just reflective – you’ll look at all the systems as a whole and consider your role and relationships within them.
From your blog I see that you took Dr. Joel DeShaye’s course on the role of public intellectuals. Can you comment on how you see the role of public intellectuals in Canada?
This course, or a similar iteration of it, should be part of every humanities degree. The course was beautifully opened and closed with the same question: what is a public, and what is a public intellectual? We struggled with this focalizing question through our own engagement with public blogs and the course material, and I think for me the answer was that a public intellectual does not need to be a specialized academic, but instead a figure whose goal is to reach out and work the academic level of complexity down into public discourse. The public is a shifting idea – it could be small, like specialists in our fields, or wide, like a diverse classroom.
In English, we’re increasingly engaged in a battle with words and specificity when we communicate. We want precision, we want poetry, we want poignancy; but we need to do that while using language in a way that’s accessible and not alienating. That’s why our role is to imagine and write to a public. The more you delve into the writing and speaking process, the more you see how words are at the heart of having a public voice. This is important for English majors to understand. We can easily get lost in theory and poetics, and we move towards an academic style of language because we can forget the versatility of an English degree. We imagine ourselves becoming theorists, researchers, and professors – we love working with intricate writing. However, there are so many (sometimes unexplored) opportunities for English graduates to go on to so many public roles! Our potential publics are unlimited, just like our future careers.
Can you tell us a bit about your current research?
I’m exploring posthumanism and digital humanities, because I think there’s still so much for us to learn about how computers are changing narratives and the impact that computer mediation can have on how we read and how we do research.
I’m lucky to be working for Dr. John Geck in the English department on a project that combines digital humanities and my background—medieval studies, and reading manuscripts—mapping place names from the texts onto a database that will be accessible for other researchers. We’ve had to develop the methodology for the project from the very first moment of looking at the text and saying “what next?” and that’s very exciting. Dr. Geck is an energetic project leader and encourages team-based research, which is a fantastic break from the often isolating work we do in the humanities.
For my personal research, I’m considering how digital technologies like fitness apps and social media impact narratives of health and bodies, and looking at critical theories that intersect with writing about these ideas. It’s interesting how varied and yet consistent my coursework degree has been for me in this respect – my first presentation in my second week was on a very similar topic, and my final research project reflects just how much my understanding and engagement with this topic has deepened.
A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor Dr. Danine Farquarson bring to her role as your advisor and mentor?
Danine was probably the biggest unspoken factor in my decision to come to Memorial. As a coursework student, I would be working relatively unsupervised, but Danine’s guidance and advice put me into the right courses and kept me on track. She is endlessly supportive of student ideas and the students she works with, and watching her teach was probably the most inspiring moment of observing an instructor I’ve seen all year. She brings such genuine energy to teaching – I’ve even seen her brightly energize a night class over a discussion of MLA format!
With the pressure to research and write turned up so high in graduate school, it’s easy to lose sight of one of the most important reasons that I got into this program in the first place: to learn, and to teach. I was lucky to work as a Teacher’s Assistant for Danine this year, and she took the time to guide me through her educational methodology and get into the details of how and why she structured a course. This kind of experience is often lacking from graduate programs, so I’m beyond grateful to the attention Danine pays to the whole academic graduate experience. This includes her work to make sure students have access to all the skills they need for the job market after graduation.
Have you attended any conferences/delivered any papers this year? Can you give details?
I’m looking forward to attending the Petrocultures conference this year at Memorial. It’s going to bring together so many vital ideas that engage Newfoundland interests. As for myself, as a coursework student who’s been out of school for a few years, I decided to focus on reorienting myself to academia, so I decided to hold off on presentations!
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off? If so, can you explain and detail such involvement?
I spent the better part of the academic year volunteering as an assistant at the Association for New Canadians, although I’ve taken the summer off for vacation. They look for volunteers with previous teaching experience, and I knew my experience working with absolute beginners would be valuable. I’m so grateful to have the kind of skill through English that lets me give back to the community.
Working with these students was challenging. Teaching adults is worlds away from teaching children, and many of the students came from difficult circumstances and had varying degrees of familiarity with reading and writing. It was humbling to see how hard these people were working to learn to hold pencils or learn a new alphabet, and I was happy to share in their successes as they mastered new words, and became Canadian citizens. I remember one day so clearly: a man, new to the class from Syria, was overjoyed to learn the word “birthday” and the number “60” in English so he could tell me how happy he was to celebrate his sixtieth birthday in Canada with his wife. Despite leaving his home and coming to a new language and culture, this man was only focused on the opportunities he had ahead of him. Classroom moments like that are what teachers live for.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
Incredible support. Innovative research. Unique culture. These three things are repeatedly themes in my degree. Every time I have an idea or a question, there’s support. I see this is my cohort as well. The support is generous, and in a graduate program, that’s vital.
The research, as part of coursework and research projects, is on the edge – a common phrase in this place, one that’s resonant. For example, the upcoming Petrocultures conference brings together narratives and voices that look at scientific, economic, and literary perspectives on a very real, very critical issue of our times. Projects like these invigorate scholarship and offer opportunities for new ideas to tackle big social issues. What we do matters.
The departmental culture is wonderful. From the welcoming employees in our office (who I cannot say enough about), to the professors, to our fellow students, we have a strong culture. That doesn’t happen by accident – it’s made that way by the genuine efforts of the people involved.
What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?
I want to teach again! I miss teaching so much – I’ve taught ESL for a few years, from the youngest to the oldest students, at all levels, and I love it. I have a strong interest in travel and creating literary communities, so I’m looking forward to heading overseas again to teach and start up community writing groups with my incredibly supportive partner of seven years. We are a team, and after he finishes his graduate degree, we’ll look at combining our research and educational experience to explore intersections of health and humanities as we travel the world.