Some of Dr. Amy Hodgson-Bright's best memories from her time as a student at Mount Allison university 15 years ago were of dinners at her professor’s home with a handful of classmates. the professor would often invite an author, which led to intimate and lively discussions about not only the craft of writing, but the life of the writer.
The experience was so influential that Hodgson- Bright wanted to replicate it for her own students, even if it came with the limitations of a global pandemic. In-person dinners were impossible, so she turned to technology, connecting her Writing for Children and Young Adults class with five internationally renowned authors for a series of video visits.
“Halifax-writer Sydney Smith has won one of the most prestigious awards in Canada for one of his picture books, the Governor General’s Award, and he was so relaxed and informal with students when he visited our virtual class,” explains Hodgson-Bright, who teaches Composition and Creative Writing in the General Arts and Sciences program and who has written two young adult novels.
“He presented from his studio, and invited students into his workspace. He showed students that authors are not untouchable people living lives and careers that students can’t aspire towards. They’re really just normal people who love to write and have turned that into their job.”
Other guests were Seattle-based author Deb Caletti, who is a National Book Award finalist and Printz Honor recipient; Canadian author Heather Smith, winner of the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award; and Chicago-based comics artist Kat Leyh, recipient of the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book. Lethbridge cartoonist and educator Eric Dyck, illustrator of Slaughterhouse Slough (and regular contributor to Wider Horizons), also spoke to the class. The visits were supported by an internal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Exchange grant, giving Hodgson-Bright the ability to recruit guests from across North America for a one-of-a-kind student experience. Wider Horizons spoke with Hodgson-Bright to learn more about her work.
WIDER HORIZONS: You speak highly of the opportunity to meet authors while you were a student. How did those experiences influence your writing?
DR. AMY HODGSON-BRIGHT: I felt really supported in my creative writing, and I ended up writing my first young adult novel as my honours thesis at Mount Allison University (Before We Go, published in 2012.) And I think that came from being able to meet with so many authors in the four years that I attended Mount Allison. Research shows inviting authors into the classroom helps students connect to writing and reading in meaningful ways.
WH: How did you have to alter your approach once the pandemic moved your course online?
AHB: In my research grant proposal, I initially proposed to invite one author to Lethbridge College to visit the class. I was able to adapt the proposal when we went online, so I actually had enough funding to invite five authors from across North America during the fall semester, and I was lucky enough to get two incredible Alberta writers to speak to the students in an introductory creative writing class in the winter.
WH: Did your students enjoy the visits?
AHB: They loved it. Many said it was a highlight of the class and for some, it was the first time they’d ever met or interacted with an author. I know a lot of students connected with our last author, Deb Caletti, who’s from Seattle and has written over 20 books for young people. I’ve personally been reading her books since I was 16. I emailed her on a complete whim, and she accepted the invitation to speak to students. Her road to writing was not very straightforward or easy. She talked a lot about the personal hardships she had to work through to become a writer and the students really connected with that. Many of the students said that Deb Caletti was their favourite author visit of the whole semester.
WH: Did you notice a difference in the students’ writing after the visits?
AHB: I did. They responded and even changed their writing to reflect the information coming from the different authors.
WH: You’ve also received a separate research grant to begin development of a new literary magazine. Can you give us a sneak peek at that project?
AHB: I received a SSHRC Explore grant to propose starting a student-run literary magazine on campus, which I will get off the ground in September 2021. It will be not just for students in a creative writing class, but for any student who’s interested in being part of or contributing to a campus literary magazine. We have a strong and unique focus on creative writing here at Lethbridge College, so we need a magazine that reflects that focus where students are able to publish their creative writing.