Thoughts on arriving in 1969

By Chris Wiseman, Professor Emeritus of English & Creative Writing

Calgary itself was a small city with perhaps 400,000 people – I forget – and the then Husky Tower was very new and the tallest building in the city. Very little traffic, except at rush hours, speed in miles per hour, no parking meters, parking plentiful downtown, coffee a dime, Woodward’s bookstore about the best in town, no computers/cell phones, tiny airport buildings nowhere near the present terminal, regular train service to Vancouver and central and eastern Canada, no Market Mall, Brentwood Mall an outdoor strip mall, Cochrane & Midnapore country towns, hardly any imported cars, no footpath/bike path network, no Arts Commons – concerts, plays at the Jubilee – and the average 3-bedroom bungalow cost $20,000.

The university kind of the same. Tallest building was the Education Tower, library a leaking low-rise California-type building, English Department on top 2 floors of Calgary Hall (now Craigie Hall), MacEwan Hall tiny and dark, no Oval of course, parking lots mostly unpaved gravel and free, I’m pretty sure. The Faculty of Arts and Science covered most departments in the university. Brian Wilson was Dean in 1969. Earl Guy was Head of the English Department, which was made up of exactly one-third Canadians, a third Americans and a third British and others. There was no course in Canadian Literature at any level. Library books had “The University of Alberta Calgary Branch” in them, as independence hadn’t happened long before. The Social Credit government was quite generous to the universities, giving them a lot of autonomy. We were all given a typewriter, stationery, pens, office equipment we’d have had to buy these days, the Departments had many more support staff than now – there was even a secretary for those of us on the 6th floor of Calgary Hall as well as several more in the main office on the 5th floor. More professors were being hired each year and everywhere we felt as if we were building something new and exciting. More and more areas were strengthening in the university and it was a time, all in all, of goodwill and anticipation as student numbers grew steadily and we expanded to meet that influx. In English, we had a very happy coffee room, shared by other Calgary Hall departments like Classics, in the basement of the building with one half of the serving hatches for students and one for staff.  Some very good and productive conversations were had in that place and there was probably as much planning and curriculum talk there as in the growing number of committees. Physically it was a rather stark dusty place but the morale, as far as I could feel it, was high and things looked good. 

In 1969, every student entering the UofC HAD to take a full-year course in English literature – really a “great books” course from Chaucer to the present day, which was part of the idea behind educating the person rather than the specialist, but this led to problems from science, engineering and other faculties who were finding some of their students failing the English course even though they were good at their specialized subjects, and there were many curriculum changes made in the next 10 years to overcome this problem, including the introduction of half-courses, which, in the Humanities, had been rare, but arguments in committee and General Faculties Council were, on the whole, fairly civilized and even mellow.

The Library was, during the 70s and later, busy acquiring the papers of well-known, and especially Canadian writers, and, to this day, has a fine collection of literary and other papers and books in its Special Collections, which is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of the university. Canadian literature was finally being taught and very successfully, and more and more Canadian faculty were hired in the English Department, which was a happy place to be, on the whole, as there was a common purpose and understanding that teaching great works of literature is a deeply enriching and valuable part of the education of the human mind and spirit in an increasingly materialistic and cynical world.

The Conservatives kicked out the Social Credit government, and there were years in the 70s and early 80s (and later) when they imposed financial cuts which were not what the growing and still new university needed, but we rode them out, and, compared with the situation today (2015), they weren’t close to mortally damaging. I and others in our Department started new courses, teaching evaluation was discussed and, in a limited way, adopted. But academic life was still hopeful and reasonably pleasant during the 1970s, and we managed to keep our English classes to 30 students at the freshman level so that individual help could be given to students who found writing required assignments, or set books, difficult. People today would be amazed at how much professor/student contact there was back then to everyone’s benefit. MA and PhD degrees in English were argued about but eventually approved after much discussion. More and more of us arranged for writers to come to campus to read to classes or, with more important writers, to anyone who wanted to come. I personally introduced two writers who went on to win the Nobel Prize – Seamus Heaney and William Golding – to university audiences, and another, Alice Munro, at Central Memorial Park Library. We also ran conferences, mainly on Canadian literature and run by such professors as Hallvard Dahlie and Charles Steele, which were successful and, in a good way, controversial. We were very fortunate in our Department Heads and our Deans, who, with people like Terry Penelhum, Bob Wright and Peter Craigie were highly supportive of the arts and humanities subjects back in those early days when the university was, in a way, settling down. The establishment of the Institute for the Humanities – a small but influential group of people who gave Fellowships to faculty – was another step forward. And there were many more in my first ten years at the university. They even paved the parking lots and some excellent landscaping helped to make the uninspired and mismatched concrete buildings less oppressive and ugly, though the university will never be beautiful. Today, with all the new buildings in the past 45 yrs. – new student dorms, a hotel, etc. the starkness and sense of an isolated place on a dusty hilltop is long forgotten, and just as well.

More personally, and I shall hurry up as more recent things are better remembered and less extreme, I had wanted to create a Creative Writing program to supplement the academic study of English. There was, when I arrived, one Continuing Education non-credit course called Beginners’ Creative Writing (I believe) taught by Myra Paperny. No-credit courses as in Canada and Britain, as opposed to the USA, such courses were not common at all and highly controversial, as traditionalist thinking saw them as a soft option and that anyway nobody can be taught how to write a novel or poetry. I started an Advanced Continuing Education class in Creative Writing, and taught that for three sessions, I believe, doing poetry and fiction, but with no entry requirements, while I started lobbying within the English Department for a credit course. There was opposition, but also support, as I had published a book of poetry and had my PhD in English and had been a student at the famous Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa for 3 years, so was pretty uniquely qualified. Long story short, after temporarily losing some colleagues’ friendship, the first Creative Writing class for credit, at second year level, was taught by me in the 1973-74 academic year, following the Iowa model of students being accepted by submitting a portfolio of work, plus some twists I gave it, and it was a great success. It was a full year class, and had 15 students. At the end of the academic year, I had those students read to the English Department work they had written that year and distributed an anthology of their best work. To my relief and pleasure, the students got a standing ovation from my colleagues, and that one reading was a very important step in cementing the place of Creative Writing in the English Department’s credit offerings. At first, as I was the only teacher, it was poetry only, but in the later 1970s, we appointed W P Kinsella to teach fiction (“Shoeless Joe” and “If you build it they will come.”) and the applications for both poetry and fiction Creative Writing classes were growing each year. In the years that followed, to cut a long story short, we moved to 400-level, 500-level and to full post-graduate level Creative Writing courses, and eventually offered a “creative” MA thesis, and, in the 1990s, a creative PhD dissertation, which was the very first in Canada. I was privileged to supervise the first Doctorate dissertation in Creative Writing – an opera libretto by Mark Morris – and, by the time I early-retired in 1997, my many students in this area had, between them, published well over 100 books, and now, in 2015, it’s over 150. Other professors had to be brought in to cope with the expansion of the subject, which one President called “a jewel in the crown of the University of Calgary,” including Aritha van Herk, Fred Wah, Nicole Markotic, Christian Bok and four or five others. During all these years of teaching Creative Writing between 1973 and 1997, I was also teaching courses on modern British Literature, freshman courses, academic courses on poetry, graduate seminars on modern poetry, giving readings from Victoria to St. John’s of my own published books (eleven), doing a great deal of work going into Calgary High Schools to read and to give presentations to staff on teaching poetry, helping to set up some of Calgary’s first reading series, with the help of small bookstores and the Calgary Public Libraries, being the founding Vice-President then President of the Writers Guild of Alberta (started after much lobbying by us in Edmonton to the Minister of Culture), serving on Government and other committees about writing in the province, doing a great deal of jury work handing out grants from lottery funds to arts organizations and individual artists, teaching in the summers for the National Parks and, later, at the Banff Centre, while coaching soccer, finding time to do my own creative writing, and to see my family! Those first 15 years at the UofC especially, and also later, were very very hard work, but by far my most important contribution at the university was fighting for, starting, and developing Creative Writing as a strong and viable contribution to the Dept. of English. All this amidst the most cruel blows of many English Dept. faculty and support staff, most quite young, dying unexpectedly and in unexpected circumstances, as well as the death of Peter Craigie – a superb Dean and a lovely, talented man. With his going, the University of Calgary lost someone who, we all felt, was irreplaceable, and who had supported me strongly in my enthusiasm for pushing forward with Creative Writing.

I have spent a lot of time on those early days of my time at the University of Calgary as more recent events and developments are more accessible and familiar, from many new buildings, re-organisations of Faculties, severe budget restraints, huge classes of several hundred students, a lowering of, I’m told by many people, morale and expectations among faculty and administration, the changes in teaching methods because of personal computer, tablet and smart-phone use and many other things. The English Department moved, not happily, from the top two floors of Craigie Hall to floors and tacky offices up high in the Social Science building, and the coffee-room conviviality and conversation became almost a thing of the past. Morale in our Department was certainly lower than it had been up until the mid-1980s and factions appeared among faculty which spoiled the sense of unified belief in our subject and what it actually had been, was, and should be. This was not just at the UofC, though we were given a huge blast of change which other universities didn’t quite suffer. 

To summarize very quickly and crudely, English Studies were rapidly becoming altered. A whole new radicalization, based on “cutting edge” theory derived most immediately from the USA (where else in Canada?) and tracing its roots to avant-garde writers and critics in France, Germany and elsewhere, the age of “theory,” of post-modernism, of post-structuralism, of “cultural studies” began to attack the traditional teaching of English, Canadian and American literature as it had been taught for close to a hundred years. A lot of new faculty arrived (too many too quickly because of the deaths in our Dept.) who were, as one of them proudly told me, intent on radicalizing and feminizing the English Department. When Aritha van Herk succeeded W P Kinsella to teach Creative Writing Fiction, her first act was to post a notice on her office door reading “SUBVERT THE DOMINANT PARADIGM,” and there were very tense and difficult times for the Department during the mid-1980s and 1990s which divided faculty (and students) in an extremely serious way – many of us seeing the value of teaching great literature to educate students by enlarging their imaginative and emotional sympathies, engaging them with the greatest creative insights into love, death, sadness, joy and the whole human condition, threatened by quite inexperienced and agenda-driven young faculty intent on a radicalization which would turn English into a Dept. of cultural, sociological, theoretical and media studies. Instead of Milton, Keats, Dickens, Frost, Chaucer, we should recognise that “all text is equal” in the reader’s mind, and that we should move into areas like feminism, LGBTQ studies, French “deconstruction” theory etc. and replace the student essay by diaries, found objects, family histories etc. This is simplification but accurate in its simplicity. Freshman students, age 18, instead of being exposed to the imaginative depths and brilliant poetry of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, were taught that wonderful play as “post-colonial allegory” rather than as literature, and Gay or Feminist or Experimental literature used texts not as texts to be studied, appreciated and clutched by the imagination, but as just examples of the subject the professor wanted to talk about. This theoretical and post-modern craze swept through universities in the 80s, 90s and noughties, but, thank heavens, is now dated and played out to a large extent. But it caused huge rifts between professors in English, Philosophy, Education and Language departments. Louis de Bernieres, the well-known British author of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (novel and movie with literally millions sold) was here on a Distinguished Writers fellowship and he took me aside one day and said, “Chris, how do you stay here and stay sane? This department is teaching students a lot of BILGE.” I agreed. New appointments in Creative Writing faculty were largely out of my hands as the theorists started to outnumber of us dinosaurs, and we appointed Fred Wah, Nicole Markotic, Suzette Mayr, Christian Bok and other very experimental writers who taught very experimental writing to Creative Writing classes, insisting on post-modern theory essays in creative dissertations, and, by the end of the 1980s and until I retired in 1997, I kept a box of Kleenex in my office for students utterly confused, baffled and disillusioned with the post-modern experimentation they were being made to do. I kept teaching Creative Writing Poetry, and supervising dissertations the way I felt was right, and had heartening support from students. (Same in my literature classes.) In 1988 I was awarded the Students’ Union Teaching Excellence Award much to the amazement of my trendy colleagues, I gather! Ha! All this, however, was wearing me down, and when an early retirement package came along in 1997, I and five other non-o=post-modernists took it, with some regret but glad to be out of the war zones. I gather the UofC continues to lead the country as proponents of “the dark side” followed by the UofAlberta, which now doesn’t have an English Department but a Department of English and Film Studies, as if film and its very specialized technical, collaborative demands were somehow similar enough to a great poem or novel to be rammed together. 

But I must not end like this. Let me now move to what has made me happy and proud. I have been very fortunate in my time in Calgary and those years of fighting for, then teaching, Creative Writing and literature, have brought me many awards which I could not have received without the experiences and support I had at the UofC, from professors, administrators and students. In all my years there, I managed to publish eleven books, well-received, travel all over Canada to read, to teach in the UK and the Banff Centre, to twice win the Alberta government’s Department of Culture award for best poetry book, the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Poetry Award, an Alberta Achievement Award for Literary Excellence from the then Premier, The City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Literary Award from the Mayor., and, from the Governor-General in Rideau Hall, the Order of Canada for “Starting and developing a small-class format for Creative Writing at the University of Calgary as well as for his own high-quality publications.” This latter is, of course, a great and lasting honour and, as it is so closely linked to my starting and teaching Creative Writing, it goes right back into my years at the University of Calgary and how grateful I am to have been given the chance to found the writing courses. And recently I was given the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for my teaching and writing. Of all of these awards, I value most the Teaching Excellence Award from the students at the University of Calgary, and the adding of the “and Creative Writing” to my Emeritus description as a token by the university of my work in that field.

Grateful, and lucky, I should say, because, without my having the quality of student I had in my Creative Writing classes, it would not have been anything like so enjoyable. I am still in close touch with many of my writing students, and still edit the work of some though I’m long retired. To name names is a trap as you always miss out some you should have added to the list, but I should say that, from my classes and the 150-plus books, Jan Zwicky, Gloria Sawai and Robert Hilles have won the incredibly prestigious Governor General’s Award and Jan has been shortlisted for another. Weyman Chan, Joan Clark and Laura Lush have all been shortlisted too for the GG award. Joan Clark and Edna Alford have both won the Marian Engle Prize for writers in mid-career, Joan Clark was a juror for the Giller Prize, Micheline Maylor has been shortlisted for a major national prize run by the League of Canadian Poets, five or six other students have either won or been shortlisted for Writers Guild of Alberta awards, several have gone into running publishing ventures, several are now teaching Creative Writing themselves, others have won fellowships to writing schools, many are well-known in Canadian literature – Robert Hilles and Jan Zwicky and Joan Clark and Nancy Holmes, who have more than 40 books between them are just four examples. There are many others. My ex-students, now friends, taught me a lot, and, in their many ways, showed me how to make things better in the classroom when Creative Writing was developing fast. I owe them, and the non-post-modernist colleagues, the Department Heads of the English Department, the Deans and higher administration a great deal. Because of all the support they gave me, good things have happened which by far outweigh the bad. 

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