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An Interview with the University of Waterloo

Check out the University of Waterloo English Department's blog for an interview about my time as a grad student there!

It’s always fun to read about the research other people are doing. But the research of Erin MacDonald, a UWaterloo English PhD grad, surpasses all of my expectations for entertainment: she writes on everything from the films of Robert Downey, Jr. to Homicide: Life on the Street. (I can’t help but think her primary source research makes for a better date night than mine.) Read on to find out where she is now, and what she’s doing next. Thanks to Erin for sharing!–JLH

JLH: How did you decide you wanted to do your Masters and PhD at UWaterloo? What made it stand out from other programs? EEM: I did my undergrad at Lakehead U in Thunder Bay and the English department there did not have a PhD program at the time. Also, my mother was living in Cambridge and was diagnosed with cancer, so I wanted to move close to her to spend as much time with her as I could before she passed away. I was impressed with UWaterloo because they offered a joint Literature/Professional Writing program that even came with a co-op option, although I didn’t end up using it. When it came time to apply for the PhD program, I chose Waterloo because they offered more teaching opportunities and more scholarships than U of Toronto or York, and Waterloo was a much more reasonable place to live, cost-wise. Plus, I had enjoyed the courses, professors, and atmosphere at UWaterloo during my Masters year and knew I would feel comfortable staying there. JLH: You had the opportunity to teach at UWaterloo while you were doing your degrees: how useful was that? EEM: Having the opportunity to teach during my graduate degrees was invaluable for both educational and financial reasons. I taught so many different courses, from Introduction to Academic Writing to The Short Story, over so many years, that I gained a huge amount of confidence in my teaching abilities as well as in my ability to multitask. Although I likely would have completed my PhD sooner if I hadn’t taught while I was writing my dissertation, I wouldn’t change it if I could go back. I greatly enjoyed the autonomy I had at Waterloo, being able to design and teach a course like The Rebel in Literature from scratch, and focus on the authors who excited me the most. By the time I was hired on as a professor at Fanshawe, I was already an experienced teacher, so my transition to full-time work was fairly smooth as a result.

JLH: What stands out most when you think about your time in the graduate program? EEM: When I think about my experiences in the graduate program at UW, I think primarily of three things: my classmates, my mentors, and my engagement with the theories and ideas that I was being taught. When I began my MA, I was shocked and delighted to be taking classes with people who were so like me in their love of literature, writing, and exploration of intellectual thought. I hadn’t encountered many like-minded people in my life up to that point, so that was a revelation. I made some great friends at UW. We helped each other through the tough times and hung out together to blow off steam in our down times, and I am still friends with many of them today.

I also really valued my relationships with my professors, such as Catherine Schryer, who taught me Composition Theory—she had a mix of high standards and empathy that I greatly admired; Dennis Denisoff, who taught me Victorian Literature and Queer Theory and was my supervisor until he switched schools—like Catherine, Dennis encouraged me to do my best and to explore new ideas, and he was very accepting and supportive; and Victoria Lamont, who became my supervisor when I switched my dissertation topic from Victorian literature to detective fiction—she was new at the time and I was very happy to see someone such as herself specialising in pop culture at a time when it was still considered a bit risqué. That gave me the confidence to forge ahead with my own pop culture studies and to defend them as worthy.

Finally, I think about the theories of postmodernism, deconstruction, queer theory, gender theory, cultural studies and pop culture that I learned during my time at UW and that have stayed with me and informed everything I do, from what and how I teach in my own courses to what I choose to research and write about in my spare time. My graduate studies were an exciting time for me intellectually, and I remember that aspect fondly.

JLH: You’ve been productive as a researcher, especially in the realm of popular culture. Can you share some of the highlights with us? EEM: Shortly after completing my PhD, I was asked to submit a proposal for a literary companion book on the American police procedural novelist Ed McBain (real name Evan Hunter). I spent several years working on it while starting my new career and raising my two young children, and it was published by McFarland in 2012. The book (Ed McBain/Evan Hunter: A Literary Companion) traces the development of his writing from the 1950s until his death in 2005. In 2014, I published Robert Downey Jr. from Brat to Icon: Essays on the Film Career. This book was a new experience for me because it is a collection of essays written by film and pop culture scholars from around the world and editing it was great fun. I also wrote the book’s introduction, biography and three of the eighteen essays, which examine more than twenty-five of Downey’s performances. This March, I will have completed the first draft of my new literary companion book on Scottish mystery author Ian Rankin. If I can keep on schedule, it should be published (again, by McFarland) either in late 2017 or early 2018. Check my website at for updates! In addition to these books, I’ve also published several articles on pop culture topics, including a chapter on the 1990s TV show Homicide: Life on the Street for a media textbook, an article on Ed McBain for the Journal of American and Comparative Cultures, one on the metaphor of ghosts in Ian Rankin’s Rebus series for Clues, and a chapter on Inspector Rebus for Barry Forshaw’s book Detective, published by Intellect in the UK. JLH: Like anyone who teaches, I presume you have a pile of unread books taunting you. When you find the time, which ones will you pick up first? EEM: As if I don’t have enough to keep me busy, I’ve renewed a childhood interest in genealogy, which I can remember my mother poring over at the kitchen table. My latest genealogy-related read is Highland Settler: A Portrait of the Scottish Gael in Nova Scotia by Charles W. Dunn. It’s always enlightening to read about my stubborn Scottish ancestors! Of course I’ve been reading a lot of Ian Rankin’s novels, including his latest, Rather Be the Devil. On my to-read list are James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Laidlaw by Scottish crime fiction writer William McIlvanney who recently passed away, and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. The first two have Rankin connections and the third is just for fun. I can’t read any of these, though, until my draft is done!

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