Convocation ‘20: Andrew McWhinney

Social Justice Through a Literary Lens

Donna McKinnon - 9 June 2020

Like many undergraduate students, Andrew McWhinney’s initial plan for his degree changed when he encountered ideas that stirred his imagination in unintended ways. Finding links between his political coursework and a first-year literature class, Andrew took on the challenge of a combined honors in English and political science, and with this interdisciplinary approach, found new ways to look at issues like social injustice.

Using this framework to inform the subject matter of his honors thesis, co-supervised by Fiona Nicoll (Political Science) and Marie Carriere (English and Film Studies), Andrew addressed Canadian class discourse in relation to the difficulties faced by the precariously-employed (“precariat”) and the under-employed. As noted by Katherine Binhammer, Associate Chair (Undergraduate Programs) in English and Film Studies, given the economic recession that is upon us, Andrew’s critical and compassionate eye on the question of economic disparity is crucial.

Committed to speaking truth to power, Andrew joined the University of Alberta student newspaper, The Gateway, serving as both the Opinions Editor and the 2019-20, Editor-in-Chief where he tackled, among other issues, the current provincial budget cuts. This fall, Andrew will be attending McMaster University as a SSHRC-funded masters student in English and Cultural Studies.

What drew you to the area of your study?

It's funny; initially, I thought I was going to do political science as my major and economics as my minor. I had no intention of studying English past the 100-level. That all changed when I took my first English class. It made me really fall in love with the discipline; I was fascinated by the links between politics and literature I was beginning to learn about. After that, I jumped in head-first, taking a mix of English and political science courses, and eventually, I changed my major and applied to the honors program at the end of my second year.

I'm passionate about the link between literature and politics because literature isn't this innocuous thing separate from the political; it is deeply bound up with it, and therefore can give many different viewpoints into how we see our world. Literature can do many things: teach us about our current moment, show us the possibilities of the future, challenge our core beliefs. All in all, it can reveal to us in its own unique way certain truths that we maybe can't normally access otherwise — whether they're ugly truths, messages of hope, or otherwise.

There's a ton of societal value in looking at literature this way, but one key thing I'd highlight is that it allows us to perceive and tie together ongoing histories of violence, as well as histories of resistance against that violence. While progress has been made on different socio-political fronts in the last few decades, violence against the marginalized is still happening. Look at how labourers have been forced back to work at the Cargill meat plant in outbreak conditions, with no resistance from the provincial government, for example. The ideologies that allow injustices like this to happen — as well as counter-ideologies that challenge such injustices — are bound up in the literature we have produced and currently produce. If we want to understand the conditions of our world and work to change them, literature is an excellent place, though not the only place, to start.

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

The work of Karl Marx, and the work of thinkers that have followed his legacy, have had a tremendous impact on my academic work. I think his analysis of the structure of capitalism, as well as extensions of his model, are still essential for understanding our world today, especially in our moment of late capitalism.

Did you face any significant challenges, and if so, how did you deal with it?

I think the biggest challenge for me was moving from my hometown of Calgary to Edmonton to attend university. I think I speak for a lot of students who move cities to attend university when I say those first few days on campus are pretty distressing. You're typically plonked into residence with a ton of other people you don't know, on a campus that you've maybe visited once, or in the worst case, not at all. I dealt with this by realizing that everyone here was feeling the same as I was, and that we all really wanted to make connections, get to know the U of A campus, and be good students. That helped me really open up and make a ton of valuable connections across campus, including meeting some of my best friends.

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning?

It was certainly difficult; having your entire world kind of flip upside tends to be that way. But I countered that by still doing my best to keep a steady schedule, even if I wasn't leaving the house. It allowed me to focus just enough on the remainder of my classes so that I was able to finish off strong.

At the same time, I think the biggest mantra I held was to be kind to myself. I tried not to feel obligated to push myself in places where it wasn't needed, and I also made sure I was checking in with family and friends to process the event that is COVID-19 and the impacts it was having on us. That kind of mental and I guess sort of spiritual work was just as important as structuring my life. 

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

You don't need to rush into a certain discipline or area of focus. Take your first year to really feel things out and find out what you love. Sometimes that takes just one class in your first semester; other times it takes until your third year. But it's always worth it to find something you love to dedicate yourself to in university instead of committing to a degree in something you hate.

The Future is Arts! This story is part of a series celebrating our graduates. Please join us for a virtual convocation, Friday, June 12, at 10 a.m. MST. at Registration is not required.