Meeting the Minds – Dr. Angie Abdou

Dr. Angie Abdou is an assistant professor in the English department, specializing in creative writing. Dr. Abdou’s own creative writing has won awards and media recognition.

Please fill us in on the range of course you have taught or designed at Athabasca.
Dr. Abdou: I am in charge of the writing courses, primarily. I do all the creative writing, which includes Introduction to Creative Nonfiction, Introduction to Fiction, Speculative Fiction, and Advanced Fiction. I also do one academic writing course, which is intermediate composition. Those are the courses I design and coordinate, but I also work with students who have manuscripts, and I mentor them in independent study courses, 491 and 492.

Are those courses just nonfiction manuscripts?
Dr. Abdou: I have a mix. I have some fiction and some nonfiction.

What are some of your most memorable awards, positions, or acclamations?
Dr. Abdou: One of the most memorable things that has happened in my writing career was being a finalist for Canada Reads in 2011. I got coverage on CBC for quite an extended period of time, and my novel was defended by the celebrity Georges Laraque, which was wonderful?very exciting.

That was fun, but also really wonderful, the same year, my novel was chosen for a MacEwan Book Award in Edmonton. That university picks one book every year, and honours the book by teaching it across the disciplines and having the writer come visit the campus for a whole week. The students put on plays and art displays in response to the book. The writer is invited to do public lectures and workshops and all kinds of things. It was really exciting to have that kind of attention devoted to my work.

What were some of your childhood passions?
Dr. Abdou: Mostly swimming. I was a competitive swimmer. Anyone who swims competitively knows that takes up a lot of time: four hours a day in the swimming pool.

In a way, it set the ground for being a writer. For one thing, while I swam back and forth, my imagination was always working. For another thing, swimming taught me a lot of the skills required for being a writer such as discipline, work ethic, and goal setting.

If you could instantly learn one thing in its entirety, what would that one thing be?
Dr. Abdou: To play the guitar and sing. Can I count that as one?

I love attention. I love being on stage and having everyone listen to me. As a writer, you get that once every three or four years when your books come out. But, if I could sing, I would never write another book. [laughs]

What is your greatest purpose in life?
Dr. Abdou: Teaching, probably. Teaching is where I feel I do the most good. I have students come back to me years later and tell me that I helped shape the direction of their life, so That’s a wonderful feeling.

What is your favourite hobby?
Dr. Abdou: Mountain biking. I love it.

Tell us about one of the most memorable things that has ever happened.
Dr. Abdou: I have so many highlights around writing. One was getting an email from Alex Baumann, the Olympic swimmer after he read my swimming novel The Bone Cage. That was very exciting.

It’s funny. When you say the most memorable thing that ever happened to me, I think ? maybe I don’t like to live in the past. I like to always be going forward. I don’t dwell on those memories. Though I know wonderful things have happened to me, I have dig to bring them to mind.

I have things that I do every year that are always memorable. For example, every year I go to the Vancouver Writers Festival, which is just a fantastic festival, and I interview writers on stage, and I interviewed Patrick Dewitt, Roxanne Gay, Steven Heighton, Miranda Hill, Trevor Cole ? so many really wonderful and accomplished writers. That’s exciting every year.

It’s my Christmas. I look forward to it always.

Who is the one most influential person in your life?
Dr. Abdou: Oh boy! [Laughs] Right now, my children. My children are the most influential people in my life. They influence my energy and my day-to-day existence and my powers of concentration, but they also have incredible imaginations that inspire me. Children have a way of looking at the world which isn’t predetermined, and we lose that. That’s what writers need: they need to see the world without all the filters we develop as we age. Children do that automatically. Everyday my kids say things that surprise me and that remind me of the value of imagination and unfiltered observations.

As an instructor in online education, what are some of the challenges as well as some of the highlights of teaching online?
Dr. Abdou: The one thing I miss is the energy of a classroom, how a teacher can really connect with the students, partly through eye contact and other visual cues. But I have found ways to develop those relationships in the online environment, so what I do in online is I take on more of a personal mentorship role. I work at developing personal relationships with each of my aspiring writers, and I become invested in their success, and they become comfortable with emailing me with their various questions, or talking on the phone, or skyping. I work to make up for that missing classroom energy by fostering the one-on-one relationships.

How do you aim to stimulate student motivation in online learning environments?
Dr. Abdou: I’m lucky. In creative writing, students are already motivated. Nobody would take a creative writing course unless they were really passionate about it. The students come to me keen and full of energy, really grateful for someone who is willing to help them.

In that way, creative writing is one of the subjects that works best online.

What is your approach to providing feedback for students to help them with their learning objectives?
Dr. Abdou: I feel that in creative writing the students’ objective is to write the best possible manuscript they can with the ultimate goal of getting published. I work with them almost the way my editors work with me. I might even say that, at points, rather than treating it as a student?teacher relationship, I treat it as a collegial relationship, and I work with students as an editor helping to develop their work.

Sometimes the student?teacher relationship might sound hierarchical, like adult to child, whereas I take it as an adult relationship and a professional relationship. Students respond well to my confidence in their work and my confidence in them. And, of course, typically AU students are older than other undergraduate students, so the approach makes good sense.

What do you purport to be the role of technology and multimedia in online environments? How do they aid or complicate online learning?
Dr. Abdou: Again with creative writing it is simpler than that: it comes down to the words on the page. We don’t need a whole bunch of different technologies. That being said, I am aware that students learn in different ways, so if I find a really good video on writing or a really good audio file, I try to see what might spark interest, and I do implement a variety of technologies, which might be helpful. In the end, with creative writing, it comes back to the word on the page.

What is your particular philosophy on student evaluation?
Dr. Abdou: My philosophy of student evaluation is that It’s another form of feedback. I don’t get really hung up on the numbers of the grade. It’s a way of saying to students: Your work is here right now and here’s is where it needs to go. An A+ to me is reserved for works that I think are of publishable quality, or at least getting very close. An A+ is a grade that not all students will get to immediately, but It’s where they are all aiming. My students do tend to have aspirations of being published.

So, I use student evaluation not with some kind of obsession about grades, but as another way to give feedback to help them along to their ultimate goal of publication.