I finished Dr. Wunker’s last course at Dalhouse with a mixture of satisfaction and remorse. The class was a spring session course entitled Making Space: Contemporary Canadian Poetics and by far my favourite class of University to date. The idea for this very blog was inspired by a series of lectures from that class on the BC TISH poets, and other similar poetic movements.
Its conclusion came with the profound realization that this was likely the last time I would sit in on one of these lectures that I had come to love so much. The week prior, Dr. Wunker had formally announced to the class that, having taken a contract at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, she would not be returning to Dalhousie for the fall semester. While she had hinted at the possibility of this outcome earlier in the course, it was with great sadness that we listened to it declared with such finality.
In many ways the announcement of Dr. Wunker’s departure felt like a confused, almost premature end: my undergraduate education still has another year, yet the basis for so much that I’ve taken away from university so far, Dr. Wunker’s classes at Dalhousie, will be no more. It’s been a saddening realization, but I’ve realized that the time I have had has been enough to take and apply the skills that Dr. Wunker has so attentively taught. And while I do wish there were more courses to come, I am grateful for the time I had in the presence of such a brilliant educator
It wasn’t a fluke that I ended up in Dr. Erin Wunker’s Intro to Lit class in my first year. Unlike all the other courses I’d enrolled in, high school taught me enough to know that a good English course is as, if not more, dependent on the professor than the subject matter. In picking my time slot for first year English, I went to the department website, scrolled through the profile pictures and brief bios of each of the faculty. Having read Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient the year before, I was certain that I was a Canadianist and, more specifically, I was certain that I was a contemporary Canadianist. As I read through each of the faculty member’s profiles, Dr. Erin Wunker’s stood out. Listed as specializing in contemporary Canadian literature and poetry, especially that dealing with the urban, social justice, and activism, Dr. Wunker’s area of expertise seemed to closely, if not perfectly, coincide with my own literary interests. So I picked an Intro to Lit class that she was teaching. As it turns out, the best decision I’ve made in my university career.
I credit my experience in Dr. Wunker’s first year class as the reason I switched from a BSc to a BA majoring in English, and then I credit her again with the addition of a second major in Canadian Studies. That’s not to say that another professor couldn’t have inspired the same shifts, or that I wouldn’t have eventually come to the same realizations on my own, it’s just formal recognition of the level of inspiration Dr. Wunker instilled in me. And I am not alone. While I initially thought I was the only person having so much fun in school (it wasn’t long before my close friends and roommates joked that I was majoring in Wunkerism), it quickly became apparent that Dr. Wunker has inspired a whole range of students. Since that first introductory course, I’ve taken an additional five classes with Dr. Wunker, equating to a whopping four full credits; almost a third of my entire degree so far. In discussing our despair at Dr. Wunker’s departure over lunch one spring afternoon, my friend Katrina told me that she too had switched faculties and majors based on the experience she had had in another one of Dr. Wunker’s Intro to Lit classes.
During a period of declining enrollment in the arts, Dr. Wunker inspired students to see their relevance and value.
Dr. Wunker had a following within the Faculty of Arts at Dalhousie; certain faces became familiar because, like me, they consistently enrolled in every course she taught. I pointed this out to her once. She humbly noted that her field was somewhat narrow, that there wasn’t anyone else teaching/researching the same subject matter at Dalhousie. Valid, but it’s uncanny how many times fellow classmates tell me : “Wunker is the reason I like Canadian Literature,” or contemporary theory, or poetry, or school. So yes Dr. Wunker, you may have been the only person teaching certain subjects, but trust me when I say that for many of us it wasn’t the subject that led us to take the class: it was you. And there are plenty of damn good reasons why (and we’ll skip the superficial bullshit about shoes and tattoos that somehow makes it into anonymous online professor ratings: how is that supposed to help me choose my courses anyway?).
Like her classes as a whole, every lecture Dr. Wunker gave was clearly organized and eloquently presented. She conveyed information with a rhetorical deftness that often transgressed into the realm of poetics. Yet all of this was done without ever sacrificing clarity. Dr. Wunker never failed to elucidate “jarganous” passages, often repeating a complex thought multiple times in progressively simpler terms in order to accurately convey meaning. It is the combination of lyrical presentation with sincere concern for comprehensibility that made Dr. Wunker’s lectures so enjoyable to attend. But these lectures were made more fascinating by the way Dr. Wunker actively grounded the subject matter through relating it to accessible contemporary examples. Whether it was a Heritage Minute, a recorded reading of a particular poem, or a Dr. Pepper commercial, these examples demonstrated the value of our education. Dr. Wunker’s efforts to tie abstract theories to recognizable, concrete examples validated our liberal arts educations at a time when government rhetoric often perpetuates claims of its uselessness. In effect, she not only cared that we understood the material she taught, she also cared that we understood the relevance of that material in a social, political, and cultural context.
Dr. Wunker brought to class an obvious interest in the material she taught, a sense of activism, and a concern for social justice. These characteristics inspired a heightened awareness and concern amongst her students; it was not uncommon to see students from Dr. Wunker’s classes in attendance at special guest lectures, protests, or community events mentioned in class. I remember listening to a brief talk by Dr. Wunker as part of a larger Idle No More event held on the Dalhousie campus. While still on university soil, it was an event that targeted a much broader community, and it was jam-packed. People were sitting in the aisles, and standing in rows at the back right up to the rear wall. And while people were there for a larger purpose, and while there were other speakers, Dr. Wunker’s brief lecture on “unlearning,” and more simply her active participation in this event demonstrated a concern, and sense of activism that reached well beyond the walls of the academy. Watching this, I remember being struck with a sudden sense of both the necessity and practicality of my education.
When major funding cuts and tuition hikes were put in place during my first year at Dalhousie, students from each of the Halifax universities came together and organized a citywide day of protest. In the weeks leading up to the event, Dr. Wunker repeatedly emphasized the importance of the event. Despite having a scheduled class on the same day, she (like many other members of the Dalhousie faculty) encouraged us to participate, protest, and fight for our right to have affordable education. Dr. Wunker’s classes provided us with the tools necessary to create change, and her community involvement and activism inspired and motivated us to effectively use them. It is this inspiration and constant support that I will miss so dearly in the coming year.
I know deciding to seize a new opportunity and take a contract at Mount Allison was a difficult decision, but I also know that wherever you are, Dr. Wunker, you will be making a difference. In my second year, in a bout of seeing the world and it’s injustices especially morbidly, I asked you whether it all mattered; what anyone could really do to fix the massive social, cultural, political and economic problems that affect society today. You told me there were many ways to make change, but that a starting point – and this I remember distinctly – lay in education. Not necessarily formal education, not necessarily academic education, but being informed: recognizing and understanding societal problems was a necessary first step to changing anything. This is something I am always going to remember, and take away from my time in your classes. As you begin work in a new city, at a new school, I have the utmost confidence that you will be successful. On behalf of myself, and all those students you similarly inspired, I would like to say thank you, and good luck in your new position.