2015 - Winter

“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.

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