Dr. Helen Ellis calls her first year in Waterloo’s English Department a "trial by fire." "When I arrived in 1965 the Department had twelve faculty members," she remembers. "But then there were a pair of tragedies." On Labour Day of that year the professor who taught American literature was killed in a car accident as he drove up from Windsor, and over the Christmas break, UW’s Shakespeare scholar had a fatal heart attack. To compound the emergency, the person hired that fall to fill in as the American literature instructor broke her ankle and could not come to campus after the Christmas holidays. That January, Dr. Ellis’s colleague (and Department chair) Dr. Warren Ober took over the courses on Chaucer and Shakespeare, and Dr. Ellis took on the American ones. "I spent two weeks teaching [Mark Twain’s] Huckleberry Finn—much longer than the time originally allotted it in the syllabus—in order to read the other novels on the syllabus, which I was teaching for the first time."
Despite that wild first winter (or perhaps because of it), Dr. Ellis was pleased with her move to UW. Having come from Indiana’s Purdue University, where the English Department had over a hundred faculty members, she appreciated the support that colleagues in a much smaller unit gave each other. As the newest member of Purdue’s Department, she had lacked the seniority to teach courses in her area of specialization, Romantic literature, because the department already had twelve Romanticists who outranked her. Most frustratingly, she felt that the position did not allow her to do justice to some of her students. "One year, on three days' notice, I was given a class of twenty-eight U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officers to teach," she recounts. "It was the first course I had ever taught. But these were no ordinary first-year students. I could have taught them so much more had I known ahead of time that they were coming!" The University of Waterloo represented an opportunity to teach in her field. The year-long course system allowed for an intensive treatment of the Romantic writers she loved. One year, she made the Death of God the thematic focus of English 200 (the Survey of British Literature), spending much of the fall term on Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. She pioneered the study of Blake’s Illuminations, introducing the analysis of visual culture in conjunction with literature to the UW English classroom.
Dr. Ellis wonders whether students in the thirteen-week course system the University has today get the same feel for the "sweep" of English literature that they did when courses ran through the fall and winter. On the other hand, the switch to the semester system brought certain improvements. Having the semester system made it possible to add co-op to the list of program options. Co-op brought dramatic changes with it, nowhere more so than in the lives of female co-op students. When she first arrived at UW, Dr. Ellis's female students often assumed that their job prospects were limited to teaching and librarianship. That sense of limitation ended with co-op: "Suddenly, female students had new employment opportunities and were applying for jobs they never knew existed."
Another positive change she saw over the years involved the development of a new attitude towards Canadian literature, which was not taught at all here (nor indeed on other campuses across Canada) in the 1960s: "Many people said that Canadian literature was just no good. But the same had been said of American literature until the 'thirties, when there was a big push to encourage people to read it. Whether it was good or not did not matter; it was part of one's history, one's culture. And in fact some of it was good." Gradually Canadian literature started to appear on course outlines. Dr. Ellis had always felt that E.J. Pratt's long poem on the early Jesuit missionaries to New France, Brébeuf and His Brethren, was brilliant, and when she taught the epic in English 101, she began with Beowulf and ended with Brébeuf. Her favourite course to teach, however, was 251 (The Theory and Practice of Criticism), which she opened with Aristotle. Like her students, she appreciated his empirical, first-hand approach to drama: "Aristotle observed the things he wanted to describe, deducing the conventions of tragedy and comedy from watching plays in performance."
Some UW students in Dr. Ellis's time found that there were limits to the amount of first-hand experience they wanted. Ever wonder why there's a raised brick circle between the Arts Lecture Hall and Modern Languages? When Dr. Ellis first arrived on campus, several English Department offices overlooked the open square in front of the Porter Library then under construction. The stone circle surrounded a fountain into which first-year students were so routinely thrown that it was soon filled in. Today a mature tree grows where the fountain once was.