Alex Wetmore, PhD, is an assistant professor of English at UFV. He holds a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of English, from the University of Toronto. At present, he’s the faculty-student liaison for UFV’s English Student Association, and helps organize the Scholarly Sharing Initiative (SSI), a series of monthly meetings — open to all UFV members — where faculty share their current research.
What first made you want to teach university–level English?
I had some great English professors in my undergrad at Concordia. I would love to give credit to Nichola Nixon and Marcie Frank, among others, for stoking my interest in literature, supporting my work, and encouraging me to apply to graduate school when I didn’t even really know there were degrees and programs to take beyond a bachelor’s. I also would like to give credit to Don Dedrick, with whom I took upper-year philosophy courses on cognitive science and the philosophy of the mind. I think it was really when I started seeing connections between the issues we were talking about in English classes (around literary theory, language and culture), and what I was learning about in a new discipline (around minds, artificial intelligence, computational linguistics), that I started aspiring to stay in universities as long as they would let me hang around, and see if I could make a living at it somehow.
I know you’re doing a lot — including the English Student’s Association and the Scholarly Sharing Initiative — but what’s getting you most excited right now?
I’m working on a new course for Winter 2018 titled “Laughing Matters — The Rhetoric of Stand-up Comedy” (ENGL 271). To give some background, we’ve been developing a new shell course to introduce students to the age-old (but still relevant and changing) field of rhetoric — which studies, what makes linguistic expression effective, powerful, and persuasive — by looking at popular culture and contemporary issues. I am excited to say that the course just got approved by UFV, and I also get to run the first version of it this winter, which will study the language and structure of stand-up comedy. I’ve always found stand-up a fascinating art form, and it offers a lot of chances to talk about the power of words, of oratory and public speaking (which is where the field of rhetoric originated, incidentally), and, of course, to talk about humour, comedy, and why people laugh. Stand-up comedy has also enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, both in terms of popularity and critical acclaim, with a growing “comedy nerd” fan culture, comedy podcasts and interview shows taking the medium and its performers seriously, and a recent wave of widely discussed and innovative stand-up specials on Netflix, HBO, and other platforms.
Tell me about your current research.
I’m presenting at the next Scholarly Sharing Initiative (SSI), on Nov. 19, on my recent research into the connections between technological devices, emotion, and subjectivity, with a specific focus on how these things intersected in the Age of Enlightenment (even more specifically, 18th-century Britain). My latest work looks at what was a new invention in that era — the barometer — and how it evolved into a common metaphor for human emotional sensitivity. A student researcher helped me with some of the research, Rachel Bodnariuc, who has since gone on to pursue a master’s at SFU, and she will come talk about her own experience and reflections on research and material she uncovered.
More long term, I’m also working on a “digital humanities” project, with fellow UFV English professor Heather McAlpine, on the rise of spa towns and natural springs as health resorts and commercial tourist destinations in Britain and beyond. Like watching stand-up comedy, visiting spa towns and “taking the waters” can seem a frivolous activity and therefore unimportant, but in fact had a perhaps underappreciated cultural significance. Some of the first libraries and bookshops outside of London were at British spa towns, many famous authors visited or lived in spa towns like Bath and Harrogate, and these spaces helped develop a fashionable cultural turn toward feeling in the 1700s, as people in Britain began to embrace their sensitivity and delicate nerves as part of their identity and personality, moving away from more rationalist views of the self. This comes through in the early poetry and cultural representations of these spaces devoted to health, leisure, nature, and recuperation.
On the more fun side, there has been some talk about “Riverdale 2.0” in the winter term, possibly in collaboration with the upcoming Valleyfest. Last year, I played a small role in a fun “pop-up” conference at UFV on the popular TV show Riverdale, which is filmed in the area. People from a number of departments, as well as photographers, former students, casting agents, and others also participated in our “semi-academic” exploration of the show and of the Archie universe. We even received some media coverage beyond The Cascade. With a new season, and the new affiliated Sabrina series on Netflix, there is plenty to talk about.
What’s your favourite part of being an English professor?
I feel I need to begin this answer by acknowledging first that the academic job market is unfair and abysmal, and too many highly-qualified scholars live off of too little pay and precarious income without sufficient benefits. This is an industry-wide problem and not in any way unique to UFV, so before I talk in glowing terms about the pleasures of being a professor, I want to acknowledge this reality as well as my comparative good fortune as a full-time tenure-track assistant professor. Part of that good fortune is that, beyond a regular paycheque, I get to read and teach interesting, strange, beautiful, provocative texts as part of my livelihood. What’s better than that? I also get to ask big questions of our engaged and curious students about the importance and transformative power of art, our relationship to culture and community, and the ways in which literary texts, narratives, and language impact our sense of self, of the past, of society, of our surrounding world. I get to have an intellectually fulfilling career, while also feeling like I am helping students go into the world as critically-engaged, active citizens with new tools for understanding the world and contributing to it. I hope, in a modest way, my work helps people and also helps the wider community become more knowledgeable and understanding of themselves, their world, and each other.
What’s one book you would recommend right now?
There are so many good books — it’s really hard to narrow down. We just had a whole bunch of amazing Canadian authors, many of whom are based here in the Lower Mainland, come to UFV for the Fraser Valley Literary Festival, and I picked up a few books there. I would recommend anything by those authors, and by our recent writers-in-residence. Jen Sookfong Lee is both a former UFV writer-in-residence and participant at the festival, so I’ll recommend her novel The Conjoined, which I bought at the fest and am enjoying a great deal. She also hosts a fun literary podcast called “Can’t Lit,” by the way.
Image: Wendy Bickis