By Carmen Tomfohrde
I am writing to reflect on my transition from the part-time Master of Arts in English Studies (MAES) to a full-time PhD in the School of English at HKU.
As a part-time student in the MAES, I disciplined my full-time job as the developer of a learning resources center to a curt nine to five. On school nights, I boarded the bus from Mong Kok to HKU before rush-hour traffic clogged the arteries of Nathan Road. I relished the MAES evening classes in travel writing, cultural semiotics, the politics of English, global fictions, postcolonial representations, and world Modernism, and the dissertation gave me my first taste of pursuing a previously unexplored research topic full-throttle.
My weekends and free evenings were consumed with turning research into essays. During the weekdays, my full-time job had several points of contact with the MAES. The curatorial aspect of developing a library for a theological seminary required intensive research and collaboration with professors and academic advisors, and the cross-cultural and theoretical aspects of the MAES benefitted my performance of working with a translation group and a multi-language publications company.
Life was blasting along with adrenaline and intensity, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Everything changed in a split second when two months into the MAES, I slipped on a banana peel. Unlike the pristine yellow bell curves featured in sitcoms and cartoons, this banana peel was a mashed-up mottled brown slug, camouflaged in the shadows on the brick sidewalk outside the Tai Po bus terminus as I hustled home from evening classes. I vacated the scene by ambulance, having apparently dislocated my knee.
During the first semester of the MAES, I hobbled to campus on crutches, weighed down by a backpack of books. In the second semester, I wore surgical masks while rehabilitating my knee on exercise bikes in physiotherapy. Six months of physiotherapy and the conflicting advice of three orthopaedic doctors prompted me to invest in a bicycle as a long-term alternative to surgery.
Near the start of the third semester, I was left alone at the start line of my first cycling race, when I failed to lock my shoe into the pedal and the lead peloton sprinted away. I’d blundered into a highly professional sport as a complete novice. My most pungent memories of Tai Po involve the whisper of wheels as I spun along on damp roads in the quiet, cool and humid air before sunrise. It was cycling that pushed me outside of my comfort zone and motivated me to study Cantonese, and through it I assimilated more deeply into Hong Kong.
When I graduated from the MAES, my friends gushed congratulations that I would now “have my life back.” While I appreciated their kindness, I felt disappointed that a meaningful part of my life had ended. I put my energy into my job, and into evening Cantonese classes. I spent more than a year testing my commitment to various leads for PhD research. I found my topic by following my appetites, excavating leads until I found a topic that provoked more questions the more I read, and promised to challenge me while adding meaningful new insights to the academic field. Because I so thoroughly enjoyed the MAES, I was honored to accept an opportunity to return to the HKU School of English. It has so far proved to be a very hospitable germinating environment for my current research, under the expert supervision of Professor Heim.
Despite knowing it is physically impractical to responsibly pursue knowledge from multiple academic fields in serious depth, I can’t help chasing down the contact points of my topic with other disciplines. Keeping an attitude of interdisciplinary integration not only gives me something to talk about with a vast array of other people, but also sharpens my research and keeps me conscious of its relevance to the external world. As a full-time student, I have enjoyed the opportunity to drop in on relevant lectures hosted by other departments, in addition to seminars, a reading group, and a conference in the school of English. In addition, living in campus housing has introduced me to an interdisciplinary community of peers.
My former boss’s nugget of advice encapsulates the dream life of a PhD student just starting out: “don’t pretend to know more than you do.” I am now able to labor over a more intricate intellectual construction than I could have achieved during the part-time MAES. I have enough time to patiently work through the nuances of my topic, allowing the topic to unfurl its full tangle of complexity and letting it surprise me and expose my wrong assumptions. The new opportunity to give full space and time to this research is an opportunity I do not take for granted, and I look forward to making it matter to Hong Kong and the broader world.