By Caitlin Vandertop
This autumn marks the end of an era, as Professor Douglas Kerr retires. Our own Caitlin Vandertop caught up with Professor Kerr for a conversation about what HKU means to him, and what his plans are now.
CV: When are you retiring?
DK: On the last day of 2016, after upwards of 37 years at HKU. First I was in the Department of English Studies and Comparative Literature, then in the Department of English, and finally in the School of English.
CV: Do you have any regrets?
DK: No. I don’t regret any of my years working at HKU, and I don’t regret the decision to retire. I am taking early retirement, so I will leave the university a bit before my time is up. It’s important to listen to the rhythm of your life, and I feel that now is the time to go.
CV: Is HKU a better or worse place to work than when you first came?
DK: It’s bigger and more diverse, more professional. It’s certainly a much better research environment, especially in the humanities. When I arrived I was told ESCL was a “teaching department”. There was no expectation that staff would want to do research, and virtually no research culture, no mentoring, guidance on grants, or anything of the sort. I didn’t have the time to do much research for the first ten years or so, but in those days you could get substantiated – tenured, in effect – without research publications. We did a lot of teaching – there were very few teaching assistants or postgraduates in those days, the professoriate did almost all tutorial teaching and grading, and in the earlier days we were also expected to do a lot of public-exam marking, including the Use of English paper. Today the pendulum has swung the other way; research is nurtured and prioritized and many staff care a lot more about their research than their students, and do what they can to keep away from the classroom. So you can see why I find it hard to answer your question. There’s a lot more support for staff these days, but a lot more pressure as well. I think this is the case for the students too.
CV: What are the best and worst things about the university?
DK: There is an increasingly tiresome culture of monitoring, appraisal, performance indicators, learning objectives, endless reviews, implementation of “best practice” models and so on, much of it couched in a kind of jargon everybody knows is pretty meaningless, and yet which we find ourselves obliged to adopt: this encourages intellectual dishonesty. All this is done in the name of “accountability”, which is hard to argue with, because after all we are a publicly-funded outfit. But it’s based on the premise that universities are no different from corporations in competition with each other and driven to demonstrate productivity – hence “league tables” and the like – and this is emphatically not the case: we are in the business of education. But this way of thinking also encourages people, especially managers, to want to make everything measurable, because if everything can be measured to the same scale then you can easily see which activity or unit is better or worse than others – this is the theory – and reward and punish accordingly. But most intellectual activities can’t be measured or set in competition in these ways. Is a book about Kafka better or worse than an article in a journal of civil engineering? It’s a meaningless question.
I am a loyalist by nature: the university has treated me well and I have tried to repay that with service. But I must mention another thing that dampened my affection for HKU, and that was the events that led to the University Council’s infamous decision to deselect Professor Johannes Chan as the recommended candidate for Vice-President last year. In my opinion this action was disreputable, with ominous implications for academic freedom in Hong Kong. Many staff, students and alumni lost respect for the Council after this affair.
That was two of the worst things. Among the best things, I think I would list most of the students, the university library, the centennial campus, and the fact that HKU is in Hong Kong! And the MTR station with an exit right underneath our building.
CV: What are you proud of?
DK: I’m quite proud of the books I have written; I think they stand up quite well. I have had some teaching successes, and I am proud of these, though they are more ephemeral. Then the Deanship: I was a bit surprised to discover this was a job I was able to do, despite misgivings. Don’t ask me next what I am NOT proud of.
CV: What are you not proud of?
DK: Next question please.
CV: Say some more about being Dean.
DK: I was Dean of the Arts Faculty for only eighteen months. Most academics affect to despise administration, but besides being necessary in a complex organization, administration has its intellectual interests and rewards. Scholarly projects can end in a journal article or a book published, but administrative work is endless. Being Dean of Arts was like being in charge of a very large machine with hundreds of moving parts, most of them working pretty well, and a few dysfunctional, in a rather unpredictable environment. Scholars can specialize but a Dean has to pay attention to everything and take responsibility for everything. I learned a lot. But a year and a half in that job was long enough for me.
CV: What about your radio work?
DK: I’m glad you mentioned that. I presented a radio programme for RTHK Radio 3 called The Big Idea: so far I’ve recorded about 60 half-hour programmes. I would describe this as a left-handed project. The format was that of a conversation on a given topic, with two invited speakers, and I was given an entirely free hand to choose the topics and the speakers – so we did historical, musical, scientific, political, anthropological, all sorts of subjects. I enjoyed it and learned a lot. You can listen to the whole archive of past programmes online, or as podcasts, here: http://podcast.rthk.hk/podcast/item_all.php?pid=333¤t_year=2016.
CV: Will you continue doing academic work after you leave HKU?
DK: Yes. I am involved in a large project of scholarly editing, which is a new departure for me. We are planning a 20-volume scholarly edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, for Edinburgh University Press, and I am the general editor. The project will probably last longer than I do.
CV: What else are you hoping to do in retirement?
DK: I intend to walk the earth, like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction.