On the Importance of Authors in Residence
By Derek Newman-Stille
A few years ago, when I was Senior Tutor for Trent University’s Champlain College (http://www.trentu.ca/colleges/champlain/) and while I was teaching my course Werewolves as Symbols of the Human Experience at Trent, I decided that I would help my students to meet a current Canadian author. Trent used to frequently have authors in artists in residence who would contribute to the intellectual growth and wellbeing of students and provide an opportunity for students to learn more about the intersection between the academy and the arts.
In my werewolf course, one of the key texts was Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten, which was one of my favorite werewolf novels and one of the first novels to get me really excited about Canadian Speculative Fiction.
We were able to intrude on Kelley’s busy schedule to have her visit Trent for a week and stay in residence with our students. She was given the guest suite which allows her to interact with students and meet various students on her way to and from events. This level of interaction between students and professionals used to be part of the Trent experience when college dons, the college head, and senior tutor used to live on campus with the students and eat with them in the residence halls. Students had the opportunity to meet with faculty and staff of the university in informal settings, asking questions and having discussions that helped to propel their interest in academic pursuits and the general search for knowledge. Shifts in our societal culture of learning have made these interactions problematic, and, as a former Senior Tutor, I probably would not have enjoyed living in residence with the students (I was fortunate enough to become Senior Tutor after Senior Tutors were able to live off residence). However, there is a virtue to the experience of students seeing that learning can happen outside the classroom and the opportunity for students to interact with people who are contributing to knowledge. The benefit of this experience is not just to students themselves, but also to academics and other knowledge-professionals who interact with them. It reminds us that students are knowledgeable and have something to contribute to our knowledge. So often, when we are teaching, there is a tendency to distance ourselves from our students (after all, we have to assess them critically and without bias) but I have found that it is possible to be unbiased and still see our students as contributors to knowledge; not as vessels to be filled with learning, but rather as people who can think of new ideas and question things that are dominant in academic culture. They force us to look at how accessible our work is to a non-academically trained (or little academically trained audience).
Because I see students as contributors to knowledge and recognise the importance for our students to engage critically with the world around them and have opportunities to learn outside of the classroom, I thought it would be worthwhile to combine my interest in student teaching outside the classroom with my interest in Canadian Speculative Fiction and invited Kelley to stay at Trent for a week.
Kelley and I worked on a schedule of events that accommodated a variety of student interests and her own interests (Kelley was very excited to have the opportunity to engage with young learners). We combined community events with events at the university, having Kelley speak at Peterborough’s Sadleir House (http://www.sadleirhouse.ca/ a space that combines student and community organisations) as well as speaking at various locations at the university, allowing a diverse group of students to have access. Kelley was able to do author readings, book signings, a lecture for my werewolf course, dinners with students, faculty, and staff, author drop-ins with students who were interested in her work, author critiques of student creative writing, and author lectures on creative writing in general, and teen fiction writing in particular. By having Kelley stay in residence, students were able to have those informal conversations and educational moments that taught them that learning happens both in and beyond the classroom. These informal conversations turned out to be some of the most important and valuable experiences for students and for Kelley herself.
The enthusiasm of students for an author can be different from a general fan base. They have critical questions and ideas that allow an author to really reflect on her craft and look introspectively at the pedagogical experience of writing. It was very exciting to see students lined up down the hall waiting for the opportunity to talk to Kelley and have her sign their books.
As an academic and instructor, it was incredible to be able to facilitate her visit and be involved in her stay. It was incredible to be able to help students and author interact and to see the inspiration spread across the faces of students as they got new and brilliant ideas. Several students came up to me and told me that although they had not thought about becoming authors previous to this, they now had a vision that they felt that they wanted to share with the world.
I strongly encourage academics to get involved in facilitating author visits and the opportunities for authors to become authors-in-residence. I also encourage authors to take advantage of these opportunities and facilitate connections to universities. There is nothing quite like seeing the faces of young people as they become inspired by your words of advice or by the passion with which you share your stories and vision.
Several of my students mentioned that they had never read Canadian Fiction before meeting Kelley or said that they had never felt that Can Lit spoke to them until they encountered her work. This event evoked a passion in students for Canadian Speculative Fiction.
(As a side note, I also have to admit that I purposely brought Kelley to parts of the university that I thought would be inspirational for new stories – the spooky, weird parts of the university that I knew from personal experience had spun off a creative spark in myself.)