Category Archives: Interviews

All interviews of MUSE Magazine.

“I don’t have my full body presence without my coffee.” – Interview with Kevin Curran

Image: Kevin Curran in his office © Sandrine Spycher

Author: Sandrine Spycher

“I don’t have my full body presence without my coffee”

Interview with Kevin Curran

Beginning of term, new classes, new students, and new professors. New professors that students don’t always know. It seems to me that for a long while, each time I mentioned Kevin, people would reply “who?” and I would say “you know the new professor of early modern English literature.” But you probably know him by now; he’s that handsome guy walking around the department with a neat shirt and necktie, not a single hair out of place, a clear-cut moustache, and a cup of coffee in his hand.

So here I am, headed for his office for an interview. The first thing that you notice when you walk into his office is the imposing emptiness. A few books, an empty bottle of water, an almost empty cup of coffee, and a drawing that says “Keep calm and Macbeth on.” I walk in and he immediately offers me some space on his desk, with a cheerful “oh, the interviewer!” While I set my recorder and laptop, I tell him that I have basic questions and silly questions. He laughs. The kind of laugh that says “this should be interesting” and “oh my, what did I agree to?” at the same time.

As he talks, he looks at me in the eye, as if my laptop didn’t exist between us. He talks with his hands, seems very at ease, rolls back and forth in his chair. The whole interview feels like an informal chat over a cup of coffee. I get more confident and ask my first questions, trying not to sound like some kind of inspector.

Quite obviously, my first question concerns our English department and its uniqueness. “This department was particularly welcoming, particularly friendly, very helpful,” Kevin tells me. “So yeah, I had a very good experience arriving here,” he adds with a smile. Despite having been part of the department for only a few months so far, Kevin has already noticed two special features that make it unique.

First of all,” he says, “I think the department is very egalitarian. I think there’s a real spirit of shared governance and collaboration. And I was very struck by that because for an American coming into the Swiss system, if you just look at the structure of the system from the outside—both the departmental structure and the university structure in general—it looks very hierarchical. There are many ranks and different corps that the ranks are divided into, and people in different sections have different kinds of obligations and duties and they seem pretty fixed,” he explains patiently. “But then you get here and you realize that, in practice, the spirit of the place completely disregards those boundaries for the most part, and people really work together. And there’s a real sense of respect. There is a real commitment to finding consensus. When there’s new ideas on the table in terms of departmental policy or procedure, people take the time to schedule the meetings that are needed, to listen to each other and to talk about things.”

One thing you notice when talking to Kevin is how dedicated he is in his answers. No short answer will do, only detailed explanations based on careful observations. He leans on his desk, clears his throat, and continues. “The other thing that I’ve noticed is that the students in the department are incredibly creative. That’s very striking. It’s not just that they are creative in their thoughts and their contributions to class, there’s a real kind of entrepreneurship that’s mixed with that creativity. Students make things, they start things: theater groups, performance events, reading groups. These are not official university organizations with a faculty adviser. These are things that the students do. And they do them well, they do them at a very professional level.”

After such praise of our beloved department, I cannot wait to hear him talk about our lovely city. “The city?” he says with wide eyes, “the city, I really love. You know, it’s not like when I arrived in the American South for the first time: in Texas, people are like knocking at your door and saying hello and inviting you over. The people of Lausanne aren’t a warm welcoming people in terms of personal interaction, but I think there’s a real kind of politeness on the street. People have very good manners.” Kevin adds that Lausanne is much smaller than other cities he’s lived in, such as Paris, Montreal, and Dublin. “And I’m particularly impressed by the fact that a city you know relatively small has so much going on in the arts: so many theater companies, so many dance troupes, an amazing music scene that extends genres from classical to indie rock. So there seems to be an extraordinary amount of energy in the city, especially in relation to its size.”

As Kevin is a Shakespeare scholar, my next set of questions concerns, quite obviously, Shakespeare. However, in an attempt to be creative and entertaining, my questions are personal rather than scholarly. Thus, I first ask him his funniest memory linked to Shakespeare. “Hmm, good question,” he says, sipping on his coffee. “I don’t know if I have any personal experiences viewing or reading Shakespeare that are particularly funny, but I definitely have loads of funny memories in teaching Shakespeare. From students. And I find, you know, especially undergraduate students can take a liberty with Shakespeare that some of us who have been highly trained and for whom Shakespeare is linked to a profession and something serious with high stakes are not as willing to take those liberties.” As he explains this, I think of Caliban, making a silent comparison between undergraduate students and this character who complains about having been forced to learn a certain language, just like students seem to be trained to learn a certain analysis of Shakespeare. I smile and report my attention back to my interlocutor. “For example,” he continues, “when I used to assign directing projects in my undergraduate classes—projects where they’d have to actually make a film of a scene, write about it and then submit it to me, and I’d watch all these films—I have laughed so hard at some of these. And I think a lot of times, students gravitate towards the humorous, towards lightening the subject of matter rather than darkening it. But without losing any of the intellectual depth, in fact sometimes with the effect of bringing more interesting ideas out of the text. I’ve encountered such funny ideas in those projects, things I would have never dreamed of. And I think that’s because these students are coming to this material fresh, without a set of expectations and assumptions that are hedging them in.”

It is with a smile on my lips that I ask my next question: can you describe yourself with a Shakespeare character? Kevin laughs. He takes time to think, visibly mentally going through all of Shakespeare’s plays to find a suitable alter ego. “I don’t know, most of Shakespeare’s characters are so…,” he hesitates, “… have such deep flaws.” We both laugh at this quick analysis. “I feel like I’m gonna come off either looking very arrogant or like a deeply flawed person if I compare myself to Hamlet or Macbeth or Prospero, you know. There are major problems with that comparison.” He sips a mouthful of coffee. “I think some of the characters I’ve been most interested in have been Shakespeare’s women characters. Helena from Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ophelia from Hamlet. They often strike me as more human because they’re not required to meet these generic standards of historical figure or tragic hero or clown. All of which can be individualized a bit through particular characters in particular plays, but also always have this broader typological function to play. And a lot of the women characters aren’t locked as readily into those modes. I feel I can connect more with them sometimes and they’re often more complicated figures, I guess also because Shakespeare was particularly adept at writing female characters at a time when that wasn’t necessarily an expectation.”

I leave my personal questions aside for a moment and come back to a more departmental discussion as I ask Kevin about the Lausanne Shakespeare Festival, an event that recently came to life thanks to the collaboration of a handful of Shakespeare aficionados. Excitement sparkles in his eyes as he describes our common project. “Well, the Lausanne Shakespeare Festival is happening from June 24th to June 25th 2016 at Théâtre La Grange de Dorigny,” he says, checking the dates on his iPhone. “The idea really came out of just making some very basic observations about what’s going on here at the university and here in the city. I noticed that there’s a lot of theatrical talent, there’s a lot of theatrical activity, and a lot of it remarkably gravitates around Shakespeare. And at the same time, I saw this lack of an actual official Shakespeare event, which so many other universities and so many other cities around Europe and North America and elsewhere seem to have. So it seemed natural to do something that could get the university and the city some positive attention, that could be fun, and also that would, in a sense, be kind of easy because the pieces are all there already. All the people are there, all the talent is there. Hell, we even have a theater on campus! You know, that’s really nice.” He laughs. “And it also happens to be a university where both the faculty and the administration are very open to creative initiatives, which is not something to be taken for granted because even many very prosperous and successful universities are not always open to new ideas, especially in the arts and humanities. But that’s the case here, so that’s wonderful.” Kevin pauses to catch his breath and sip some coffee. “So that’s the idea,” he continues. “So this is going to take place. Everything is being organized. And the first year is going to be quite modest, you know, it’s gonna be a couple of plays, a couple of workshops, and some other events going on as well. And I hope that it will grow over the years. I hope that it will grow in scale, ambition; I hope that it’ll get more and more attention, and I hope that it’ll also continue to be unique. I don’t want it to be just another Shakespeare festival that happens to be in Lausanne. I want it to be Lausanne’s Shakespeare Festival, to have a distinct footprint on it. And we’re gonna try to make this happen from the beginning by having performances in both French and English for example, and by having everything created by local people rather than bringing in experts from England or North America. But as I stay here longer and learn more about the place and the people, I think there’s gonna be even more ways I discover of making the festival unique. And other people will have ideas about that too. I’m looking forward to it!”

As I quickly go over my notes, a new question forms in my mind, something I had not thought of but that springs from Kevin’s previous answers. I notice that creativity from students seems important to him and ask how he fits that into his classes. “Well, on the one hand, there’s just the pragmatics of integrating creativity. And that involves assigning projects that have both a critical and a creative component. It involves posing questions in class that veer out of the literary critical and into the theatrical for example. All of this stuff is also premised on a certain attitude about the profession of literary scholarship which I think is very important. That attitude is, for me, that artists and critics, or artists and scholars, have a lot to learn from each other and they actually have more in common than we sometimes think.” I nod in agreement. “The artists are often seen as less rigorously intellectual than scholars, and more pragmatic, more like craftsmen. And scholarship is often seen in the humanities as kind of just another version of the social sciences where we gather certain facts and try to make certain arguments and prove them with our facts. And I think both are unfair characterizations. Good scholarship is always creative. It should always be about invention. And no matter how much we rely on facts to connect our ideas to a certain historical context, we should also always continue to think about what the plays, poems and novels we study continue to make possible in our own ethical and political grounds. And this is about imagination and being creative. And I also think that good art is grounded in critical thinking; that a good play, for example, starts with asking hard questions about the text, about the language, about character. You have to find answers to those questions and then make decisions based on them. So I think when we put those two modes of thinking into conversation, we’re drawing from the widest possible intellectual pallet. You know, literary criticism doesn’t have to be just history on a literary theme. Literary scholarship is, or at least can be, much more complex, much more creative and inventive than that, and to me that’s a great opportunity. So if you come into the classroom with that set of assumptions, and you try to communicate that to the students and make them excited about it, then you have an environment where you can think like this. And then the students start being receptive to non-traditional assignments as well. They see it as an opportunity rather than something scary.”

With this interview, I also want to uncover a part of Kevin that has nothing to do with his profession, and therefore I ask him if he had a special talent. He first laughs, but quickly starts describing his love for music. “Well, music is my other great passion. And modesty forbids to say that I have a true talent, I don’t know. But it’s definitely my other great passion. I love music. I like playing music, and listening to music, and going to see live music, and talking about music with people; I mean, I love music. And I think that if I hadn’t become a professor, something in the world of music or musical performance would have been the next kind of step.” I ask what kind of music he likes, and he answers without hesitation. “Rock. Rock is my home base. But I take that term rock in its widest possible formation. So I mean, if you go to a record store—although even saying record store sounds a bit dated now—but if you go to a record store and look in the rock category, you find things that are experimental, you find electronica, you find very heavy things, you find folk influence things, you find things with hip hop influence, contemporary indie music has a strong classical baroque influence as well. And I’m interested in all of that. And because of that wide range, I also end up listening to lots of classical music, I listen to hip hop, I listen to metal.” Having noticed his tattoo—the symbols of rewind, play, stop, and fast forward on his left forearm—I ask him if his passion for music is what inspired it. “It is!” he says with enthusiasm. “I guess it is kind of the story behind my tattoo, that’s right! You know, I’ve never been forced to talk about it, but I guess in some ways the tattoo is an intersection of interests in language and interests in music. There’s a clear musical reference here, but these are hieroglyphs also, right? It’s a symbolic language. Some languages die, you know, and I wonder if these symbols will constitute a dead language at some point because these symbols used to have a real analog meaning: pressing this button meant that reels turned in that direction. We don’t have that anymore, but you know if you listen to music, you’re still gonna have them, although it means nothing, literally. But it kinda survives, you know.”

As the interview draws to a close, Kevin finishes his coffee and that makes me think of just one last question; a question that seems to define the man. And thus, I ask him to add a final word about coffee at UNIL. He laughs. “Yes, people have noticed that I drink a lot of coffee. And, you know, the one thing I’m having a hard time adjusting to is the fact that I used to always teach with coffee. I like coffee, but it’s also a prop and a habit, and it’s come to help me think. And of course, in America, you get these very large coffees; they’re very hot, they take a long time to drink. It’s not the best way to drink coffee, but it’s very handy if you want to drink coffee during a class because you’re gonna do a class for an hour and a half and this thing is gonna last for the full duration of the class. Well, now I have these very small coffees and it’s a real problem. I come in with my coffee and by the time I get to the top of the stairs, it’s cold. And I get into the classroom and I finish it after five or ten minutes. And you know, I feel like kind of an amputee: I don’t have my full body presence without my coffee. So I’m kind of adapting to this. But then again, if that’s your biggest problem in your new job, it means things are probably going pretty well,” he concludes with a smile.

The Tragedy of Macbeth : Interview with Florence Rivero, director and actress

Image: www.sweetsorrowtheater.com

Author: Corinne Morey

The Tragedy of Macbeth directed by the talented Florence Rivero was presented during this year’s Fécule Festival and received high praises from students and other members of the Unil community. Despite her very tight schedule, Florence took the time to answer a few of our questions regarding her interpretation of this timeless play.

Dear Florence, you now have quite a few successful play directing experiences behind you and I am confident you have many more ahead. Could you tell us what was your main challenge for this play in particular?

For this adaptation of Macbeth, I decided to mostly focus on the internal and psychological struggle of the characters, avoiding any supernatural or mystical interpretations. A very significant challenge was how to show to the audience the psychological distress our characters are going through. How does one show a fragile mind, a psychological manipulation, psychopathological consequences, hastily made decisions from a broken mind and internal suffering? To do so, a lot of work was done acting-wise and with the relation towards the audience. However, the most important element was the adaptation of the original script. That is where it all started, the first step, where everything had to make sense so it could actually work later on stage. This is the first of four productions where I have done an unrestricted and careful adaptation of a Shakespearian play, focusing on what I personally wanted to highlight.

What do you wish to emphasise most in your version of Macbeth? What approach did you choose for this play?

My emphasis is on the psychological journey of the character of Macbeth. That is the reason why I kept the original title of the play in its entirety: The Tragedy of Macbeth. I really wanted to show this tragic character’s mental decline. I do not see a bloodthirsty man wanting power; I see a man who is destroyed by it, even during the process of acquiring it. I want the public to feel compassion for him or at least to relate to his tragic being. He is not an evil character; he is lost and mentally disturbed.

You are rather known in Unil for staging the lighter and more comic of Shakespeare’s plays. Was this a change for you or have you already had this kind of experience in the past?

Our choice to start doing comic plays four years ago was because the troupe and I thought they were easier to do and more accessible to the public (I question that now). However, after our first play, Much Ado About Nothing in 2012, my wish was to follow up with a tragedy, but I did not feel ready as a director. We then did A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2013 and I still did not feel ready after it. Nevertheless, I wanted to start experimenting, that is why I decided to direct A Winter’s Tale last year. It is a tragicomedy that presents a very serious and sad first half, followed by a comical second part. That experience really helped me to make the transition to a classic tragedy. I would still love to do more comedies, but I think I feel more comfortable doing tragedies. They inspire me greatly.

We guess you had your say in the selection of the cast, of course. Who plays the main character Macbeth and why did you choose this person?

Raphaël Meyer plays my main character. We met when he did the casting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream back in 2013, where he eventually played my character’s love interest. Raphaël and I have been together as a couple since then. In 2014, he played Camillo in A Winter’s Tale, a small character yet a motor for many of the actions and twists of the play. Raphaël transformed Camillo from a simple functional character to an endearing, complex and multidimensional one. I was so impressed by his work that when I decided to do Macbeth, I thought he would be perfect for the role. Sadly, he didn’t want to audition for it since he felt incapable of portraying such a big and intense character. It actually took me months to convince him and to reassure him that he did have the talent and acting potential to do it. He did finally audition and got the role by a unanimous decision of our four-member jury. I’m very lucky to have him as Macbeth, although I cannot lie, it is a difficult challenge to direct your significant other. Fortunately it worked out great at the end, for both the play and for our relationship!

Blood is a very important symbol in this tragedy; will there be blood for all our gory/gothic lovers?

Blood is extremely important in this play! For me, its physical presence is fundamental. However, it is very important not to overuse it. Shakespeare mentions the presence of blood in several scenes and in my opinion, those should be the only times where it must be shown on stage. Blood represents the tangible reality. It should be there to remind both the characters and the public of the consequences of their actions. So to answer your question, yes, there will be blood.

Your choice of character for yourself also changes from what your public is used to. You play the witch who prophesizes many, if not all, of the events of the play. What made you choose this character and what do you like most about playing the witch?

As most of you may know, the witches in Macbeth are originally three sisters. In this adaptation, I decided to portray them as only one character: a mentality disabled beggar. I like the fact that she is a real person, suffering from real psychopathologies. Her prophecies can then be interpreted as merely coincidences, or maybe as psychological influences on Macbeth’s decisions and actions, and not as a mystical force. As an actress, playing this character has been very demanding. It is both a very physical and mental character and it demands a lot of energy. I’m usually exhausted after one scene, but it has been a very enjoyable experience.

If you did not get the chance to see Florence Rivero’s version of The Tragedy of Macbeth, it will be played three more times on the 29th, 30th and 31st of May at the Centre Pluriculturel et social d’Ouchy (CPO)! For more information please visit the Sweet Sorrow Theater Group’s website at www.sweetsorrowtheater.com!

Interview: Juliette Loesch and Eugénie Ribeiro

Image: Photo © Elvis Coimbra Gomes

Author: Corinne Morey

Interview with Juliette and Eugénie – 10th of December 2014

MUSE: Could you present yourselves briefly for us?

Juliette: Shall I start? I am Juliette, I am from Switzerland actually, I was born in Vevey. I have been doing ballet and contemporary dance ever since I was a child. I am in my second year of MA in English and French at the Unil.

Eugénie: Hi, I am Eugénie. I am a master student in English. Actually I don’t have any hobbies any more (joking). I don’t really have time to do anything else! But I used to like sports, tennis and snowboarding and such.

MUSE: Do you remember how you felt on your first day at Unil? Can you remember?

Eugénie: At that time, I had not gone to school for a year. I had taken a gap year between high school and Unil so it was pretty scary for me. I felt like I had forgotten everything I knew, but there was some part of excitement of course.

Juliette: Yes I guess for me too. It was a really new step. Everything was so big and there were so many people! I wasn’t used to that. But I remember the presentation for the English section. The teachers seemed all really nice and welcoming so that part reassured me.

Can you describe for us what your everyday tasks are as assistants?

Eugénie: My job usually consists in making posters and flyers for the department. When there is a special event in the section we usually also participate in the organization. Basically we are here for the teachers: we try to help them and do our best to make their life easier.

Juliette: I’m maybe more linked to the Linguistics section, for which I do administrative tasks, like contacting various people for different kinds of projects, or translations. I work more specifically with Jürg to help him set up his course for next semester on “Language Recovery after a Stroke”. Besides, we’re in charge of the Department Library, we do a few scans, and other administrative stuff.

And how would you describe how you feel in your current position in Unil?

Juliette: I would say I feel more at home now.

Eugénie: Yes.

Juliette: Actually, it really is like my little home.

Eugénie: Yes it is true. We study what we like, we do things we enjoy, teachers are always welcoming and very nice.

Can you think of a particular teacher who helped you decide and choose what you want for you yourselves and your life?

Eugénie: Go ahead, take this one.

Juliette: It is hard to pick just one, because a lot of them throughout my school years had an influence. My French teachers in secondary school and high school really helped me see that literature was my thing. And now at Unil, many of the English teachers have also mattered a lot in my choices. They really helped me see what I want to do in my life, maybe Martine more specifically since she’s the one who introduced me to Translation Studies.

Eugénie: My English teacher in high school influenced my choice truly. But I guess I would say that Agniezska is the one who made me discover that I really enjoy Gothic fictions and those kind of readings.

Which is your favourite quote?

Eugénie: “If opportunity doesn’t knock… Build a door” – Milton Berle

Juliette: It’s really hard to pick one quote, but maybe Nietzsche’s “Without music, life would be an error.”

If the English Department was an animal, what would it be and why?

Juliette: A Cat! she says bursting out laughing.

Eugénie: Yes, something cuddling, you know, something cute and always warm.

Juliette: but still independent!

Eugénie: Yes, something cute and nice. A little Guinea pig, or maybe not, I don’t know, she laughs. Let’s say a dog. It’s like your best friend but still you should not mess with it too much.

Do you have future plans, or should we not talk about that?

Juliette: I would like to do a PhD and stay as long as possible at University, though I know it is very very difficult to pursue an academic career afterwards. But I’ll try at least a PhD, then we will see.

Eugénie: Yes, me too. The more I study here, the more I want to work here. However if that does not work out I guess I’ll just become some kind of French teacher, though that is not really the first option.

What is your dream?

Juliette: Not to have regrets, I would say, and to be happy with the choices I made and where I’m going. And try to enjoy the moment.

Eugénie: Personally, I want to have the feeling that I have lived, you know, that I have done things, that I have travelled and I did not simply stay put, doing nothing at all.

If your colleague was a color, what would she be and why?

Eugénie: Juliette would be pink. She is always happy and nice. Or yellow like the sun. She is always in a good mood, ready to help you.

Juliette: Oh I really don’t know

Eugénie: Just say orange, no need to explain.

Juliette: Yes orange is quite good. It is lively like you. And it’s a warm colour, which shows how caring you are, always ready to help others (sometimes to the point of forgetting about yourself).

Which is your favourite band now?

Eugénie: For me right now it is Tegan and Sara, Canadian twin sisters.

Juliette: For me it is the Arctic Monkeys.

Eugénie: We have very different taste in music. I don’t know much about Juliette’s music. Every band she listens to I have never heard of, she laughs.

Juliette: I like what she listens to actually. Angus and Julia Stone for example. The last concert you went to of Ben Howard. He is quite nice as well.

Which was you favourite band when you were 13, if you remember?

Juliette: It was U2. Bands like U2 or Queen have been around ever since I was a kid, she laughs.

Eugénie: I used to love Sum41, Linkin Park, you know, these rock bands, Avril Lavigne.

Juliette: Oh yeah! Sk8ter boy and all.

Now for seasonal questions: Do you like the Christmas season?

Juliette: Yes! Because we can watch Love Actually again! she laughs. Christmas season is fun. It is the only part of winter that is cool, because I don’t really like winter actually.

Eugénie: Well for me winter is cool when there is snow, but there is not even snow now. It is just cold. Though I still think it is nice.

What does Christmas mean to you?

Eugénie: Gifts! Money! she jokes. Family gatherings and such, you know. My birthday actually comes right after Christmas so it is really a festive time and a celebration for me.

Juliette: I would say that too, it’s really about family gatherings around great food for me.

Do you still believe in Santa Claus?

Juliette: I can’t answer, she laughs.

Eugénie: Of course! Don’t you!?

Do you have a favourite Christmas song?

Juliette: I would say Wham’s Last Christmas.

(link : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8gmARGvPlI)

Eugénie: I guess for me it would be Michelle Branch’s song called River. It is not a true traditional Christmas song but it is beautiful.

(link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gl1CefBWFZo)

Thank you!

Humans of the English Department

Image: Photo © Flikr.com

Author: Rebecca Frey

Humans of the English Department

2014 is coming to its term and again I realize how time flies by super fast. My plan to figure out what comes next, after I leave the cosiness of UNIL, has not much evolved since the beginning of the year. So I decided to ask around and see what other ‘humans of the English Department’ have to say about their plans for that thing called ‘Future’. But I also wanted to know more about their childhood and asked a number of people two questions:

MUSE: What did you want to become as a child? And now? What do you want to be now?

Frank, 23: When I was a kid I wanted to be something between an astronaut and an archaeologist, maybe like an archaeologist on the moon!

And now… I want to be a rock star! … I’m still at university, I’m allowed to dream!

Chloe, 22: When I was about 5 I wanted to become a post office counter woman, because I loved to stamp things.

Now I want to be what I am meant to be… I don’t know… a singer!

Raphael, 23: Between the age of 7 and 13 I wanted to become an actor. Now: a filmmaker.

Philip, 27: As a child I wanted to be a football player. Now I want to become a full professor at UNIL or Harvard as second choice, (or else a go-go dancer).

Constance, 26: I wanted to be a lot of things as a kid: a baker, a pilot, an archaeologist, an astronomer and an archer (most things that started with an a really…). Now I want to be a journalist, or else a Red Cross special envoy.

Florence, 28: I wanted to be a Disney animator after I watched the Little Mermaid. My dad showed me the making of and I got really exited about that. Now I want to be either a filmmaker or a theatre director. (MUSE: Or both at the same time?) And maybe you could also put ‘famous’ in front of that!

Renaud, 27: When I was small I wanted to become an oceanographer… or oceanologist? Anyway… now I just want to be happy!

Damien, 28: I always wanted to become a palaeontologist, but I didn’t manage… maybe because I didn’t dig deeply enough. Now I, I guess just want to be an outsider, a bit off and with a shovel in my hand…

Marie, 25: I wanted to become a fashion stylist and then an archaeologist. And now, now I just don’t want to be bored.

Agnieszka, 46: I spent my whole childhood planning to be a vet and I enrolled in university as I biology major at first. Now if I had to change jobs or could start over again I would become an investigative reporter. I think it’s a super important profession and it would be nice to feel like your work can make a difference. With teaching it’s harder to see long term results.

Valeria, 24: I wanted to become a fashion designer when I was a child, and now I am torn between actor and writer, or anything to do with theatre and film or publishing and writing.

Frédéric, 22: I always wanted to become a rail-road engineer driving locomotives. Now I want to become Boris Vejdovsky’s PhD student.

Luc, 24: I also wanted to be a rail-road engineer but on a very precise section of line, between Porrentruy and Alle. (For your information: the distance between Porrentruy and Alle is 4.7km, it is a 5min train drive. MUSE)

Now I probably want to be an inspiring French teacher somewhere abroad, starting with the US.

Patricia: I wanted to become a veterinary surgeon when I was a child. Now I want to be a linguist at university of Lausanne.

Merry Christmas from a Playmobile Santa Clause
Merry Christmas from a Playmobile Santa Claus!

Interview with Marie Walz

Image: © Eugénie Ribeiro

Author: Juliette Loesch

Interview with Marie Walz, graduate assistant in English and Comparative Literature

To begin with, could you tell us more about your academic path and how you came to start a PhD?

Sure, I can do that. Well, actually I haven’t been going straight towards a PhD in English. I had always wanted to be an archaeologist since I was very young, and so I started University in Archaeology and English with this clear idea in mind. I chose English as my second discipline de base because I was coming back from a year in Oxford where I had learnt English. Since I was into classic culture, I studied Latin and Greek at school instead of English, which is the reason why I decided to go and learn English in Oxford. Since I really enjoyed the experience and the language, I thought, why not go on and study English in parallel from Archaeology? But as I really got into Archaeology at University, I came to realise how hard it was to make a living out of it and it turned out to be more of a hobby than what I wanted to do with my life. At the same time, my interest in English literature was growing, especially in medieval and fairy-tale literature. As a result, I dropped Archaeology when I started my Master to make History of religions – my discipline complémentaire at the BA – my second discipline. As far as English was concerned, I carried on taking classes in medieval literature as well as fairy-tale studies and happened to be following simultaneously a class with Marco Nievergelt on Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and another with Martine Hennard Dutheil on Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Working on the two topics at the same time, I enjoyed noticing how much intertext there was between Spenser’s poem and Carter’s stories, so much so that I jumped on that subject for my mémoire. I didn’t want to do a PhD at that time – I hadn’t even thought of this possibility – but as I got to the end of my mémoire, I could feel there’d be more to be done on the topic and I guess I would have felt frustrated not to have been able to develop those pending aspects. Around the same time, Martine told me about an available assistantship in the section and encouraged me to apply. Because I realised I wanted to explore my topic more in depth, I took the opportunity, and so here I am!

How did you realise English literature was your thing?

I guess I already knew it in Oxford, though unconsciously maybe. But, as I’ve told you, I had been interested in Latin and Greek culture for a long time, since my teenage-hood. Because it was such a passion, I was not ready to give up on it so quickly, so I thought I would at least give it a serious try. And yet, I really got into English literature when I was in Oxford and I enjoyed so much going to those bookshops which also have little cafés in which you can read whilst having a cup of tea. This is one of those great things they have in England and I found all this really appealing. Nevertheless, I had not realised yet that English literature would be so central because of my other centre of interest. It became clear when I actually started studying that English literature was something I could not live without. I wasn’t thinking of a PhD yet though, but I realised that I was definitely keen on reading in English and that I would always want English books to be in my living-room.

Can you tell us more about your job in the Department? How do you juggle between your own research, your teaching and the assistantship you do with the section?

Well, juggling is really the most difficult part of the job. All these tasks are interesting and I love doing them all. I also love reading, but this is probably the activity to which I’ve got less time to give unfortunately. The assistantship requires a lot of administration, but then it gives you the feeling to be part of the Department, which is also nice. The main difficulty is to make sure that teaching and administrative tasks do not take over your research. You have to be careful to devote 50% of your time to research and another 50% to the other tasks, but this is really a hard thing. Inevitably, I find myself working less on my PhD during the semester when teaching and administration take over. But I try to focus more exclusively on my research during the semester breaks. I also try to set up deadlines for articles and conferences throughout the semester as another way of working on my research and making indirect progress on my PhD by exploring specific aspects of my topic.

How does the life of a PhD student look like? How do you carry your research itself?

When I started, I had this ideal plan in mind of spending my first three years on research and then turning to the writing stage. But I quickly realised that this was a bit of a utopia, because I did not take the teaching into account. So what I try to do now is to set up aims connected to the PhD thesis for the semester breaks. As I said, working on articles and conference papers during the semester helps make progress, too. But it is really important to set precise goals all the time, otherwise you’re faced with too many things to do simultaneously. Even if I don’t reach all my goals, it helps me organise my thoughts and research, and it also allows me to get a broader view of my PhD to spot what is missing and should still be addressed in my work. Five years may seem pretty long to complete a PhD, but it’s actually difficult to deal with such a limited amount of time. Even if I theoretically anticipated this, time still goes faster than excepted in reality and it’s hard to find ways of dealing with that. But I reassure myself with the fact that even if I don’t actually write, I am still working on my research. Part of the writing process does not take place in the redaction itself, which I find reassuring. I guess I’d get depressed it that wasn’t the case!

Now let’s turn to your PhD itself. What is your research actually focusing on? And how did you decide to explore this particular topic?

My PhD thesis is the continuation of my mémoire. For the mémoire, I compared Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Angela Carter’s collection of fairy tale rewritings, The Bloody Chamber. This was my initial corpus of study but as I got to develop my PhD thesis, I included more texts by Carter that resonate with Spenser’s epic poem, for instance The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. My principal aim is to study the intertexts and connections between these two authors’ works. We know that Carter took classes in medieval and early modern literature at University and scholars have acknowledged the links between her texts and medieval and Renaissance literature in a few studies, but no one has fully explored the influence of medieval literature on her work, so I thought there was a gap to fill in there. The part of my PhD thesis which studies the connections between The Faerie Queene and The Bloody Chamber is very much centred on intertexts, on the textual relationships between these two works, but as I explored my topic more in depth, I started to bring in other texts, such as Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which oriented my research towards another type of comparison, namely through the genre of allegory. Spenser’s poem is an allegory and Carter reclaims the genre in her own writing. I am now asking myself such questions as ‘what does it mean to reclaim this genre for feminism? how does Carter’s take on allegory change its conventions?’ etc. So my PhD got to adopt a new angle, more theoretical and genre-related, making it a much more complex project.

Coming back to your job with the Department, I know that you had to take on one more class this semester because of the great amount of new first-year students. How do you explain the growing size of the English Department and its attractiveness for new students?

That’s because we’re cool! (laughs) More seriously, I see different reasons explaining this popularity. First of all, I guess students are willing to study English and American literatures because they’re massively present in the media today. For instance, a lot of Hollywood films are based on that kind of literature. It is really part of the culture we’re exposed to in our everyday lives. Then, students are also probably interested in English as a language. Since it is the most used language in the world, they might feel the need to master it. These students may be disappointed though, because they haven’t quite realised what we do in the Department. We always lose some students at the end of the first year, possibly for that reason. But in short English, both as a language and a component of culture, is part of the atmosphere we are all bathed in, which may explain many students’ interest. I also think that, within the Department itself, we offer a range of subjects that are quite attractive and more interesting than more traditional fields. We are open to new trends, such as Fairy Tales, Fantasy, Gothic fiction, Gender and Queer Studies, Translation Studies, and many others. So I guess these are attractive and more modern fields than what may be offered in other disciplines.

Would you have any advice for students wishing to pursue an academic career?

Since I personally never thought of doing a PhD before actually starting one, I have no advice on how to situate yourself during your studies. But I’d say that students interested in an academic career should always do their best in classes and really invest themselves in their studies. They should also talk to their teachers and supervisors about their interest, because it’s always good to let them know so that they can help with advice. But I think the most important advice I could give students is to work on a topic they’re passionate about. A PhD really takes up all your life and, even when you’re not actually working on it, it’s always at the back of your mind. The MA memoire, taking place over six months or even a year, is already a good try out to see if you’re ready to spend three or five years of your life on a topic. So, in short, what I think is most required if you would like to write a PhD is passion and enjoying working on a topic and a set of texts. Your thesis then becomes so closely related to your life that you also find yourself enriched by your topic. I personally connect quite strongly to a quote by Judith Butler who said that “We lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world.”[1]

[1] Judith Butler’s McGill Commencement Address on Value of Reading and Humanities, 30 May 2013.