Interviewed by John Scott Daly
Professor Julia Kuehn has postgraduate degrees from the Universities of Oxford, Bonn and London, and also completed the Habilitation at the University of Bamberg. Her research interests lie in Victorian literature and culture, travel writing (related to China) and critical theory. She is currently Head of the School of English at HKU.
Hello Julia. I’m sure you’ve been interviewed for the Alumni Magazine before, but not yet in your new role as Head of School. How’s that all going?
It’s going well. There are lots of things happening in the School. There are always lots of things happening in terms of teaching and research and outreach work, but there are particularly good things and new things happening that we are all engaged in. And that includes work with the Black Box Theatre, which is very busy. We have new internship partners for our undergraduates, we have start-up grants for new staff members which allow them – and, by definition, the whole department – to do larger things and have larger visions. There’s great impact work going on in medical communication. We’re busy! But it’s all good.
It must bring new challenges too. Unruly colleagues, needy research postgrads…?
[Laughs]. Well, I thought I knew about admin because I was Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning for seven years. And I’d worked under three Deans, so I thought I knew everything there was to know about administration. How little did I know! [laughs]. The School Head comes with some of the same challenges, as it does with being involved in policy and the implementation of new policies, but what has been really new for me has been the Human Resources side of things. No unruly colleagues! But with contracts, temporary staff, leave days and leave applications, HR is new to me and finance is new to me. But, thankfully, I’m a very nerdy person and I like figures and Excel sheets, so that’s actually quite interesting for me, especially as we have a bit of financial room to manoeuvre because of our MA that is going really well. It’s a decent budget that I’m in charge of, and that’s actually quite thrilling, because it enables you to do things.
You recently described the School as having a ‘general good vibe’, and I must say that from the first day here, I’ve felt that. What do you put that down to, except two parties a year, with wine?
I think there’s genuine collegiality. In this day and age when universities are far more professional than they were ten or twenty years ago, when there’s far more managerialism and they’re run more like businesses, it’s sometimes hard to keep the collegiality going. Everyone has to work for themselves, work towards the next performance review, the next promotion, or tenure, or book. But I think in the School of English we actively go against this managerialism and we continue to say – because that’s what we believe in – that we are an intellectual community of scholars. I think you see that at its best in the Seminar Series. The Thursdays just structure my week, because it’s something to look forward to for me, but it’s also this space where we all continue to learn. So, whether you’re in literature or language, people come, contribute and engage. And I think that’s what contributes to the good vibe.
That’s interesting. I like how, literature or linguistics, we’re all interested in English, or maybe just language in general, and I like how in the Seminar Series, you get different perspectives, so you might hear a literary perspective on a linguistic issue, or vice versa. Is that something that you can relate to?
Absolutely. But I think what we all share is not just English, language or literature, but something cross-cultural. Whatever you want to call it – ‘China/West’, ‘globality’, ‘colonial’, or ‘post-colonial’ – I think it’s just general cross-culturalism, because of where we are. We are the School of English at Hong Kong University with all its history and baggage but also all its great global, international possibilities. And I think this is where we all come together. There’s always something cross-cultural that keeps us all in the same room and in the same discourse.
How have HKU and the School of English changed since you’ve been here?
HKU, well, it has become more professional, if we phrase it positively. And I think we see a lot of that professionalisation when we think about our postgraduates. We need to get them ready for the job market, because academia is a job, right? It’s lovely if it’s a vocation, but at the same time it’s a profession, and we need to get our postgrads ready. That’s if we call it something positive. If we are a bit more pessimistic, we could say there’s a lot of managerialism. So, HKU has an audit culture that is sometimes not very productive, and that can keep us from doing the work we should be doing – in the classroom, or with research, or work with post-graduates or in the community. We’re busy writing reports, and that becomes increasingly worse every year, unfortunately. I don’t want to come across too negative here though, because at the same time, HKU has become a far more international university. We have international staff, no question about it, but I see far more international students, in the postgraduate and undergraduate communities. And I think that’s great, because that really makes us truly international and global, in our outlook and our composition.
Last one: as a bit of advice for us research postgrads, what is the single most important thing you’ve learned in your academic career?
You’ve got to find research topics that you genuinely care about, rather than trying to hit a wave or trying to anticipate what the market will want in the next couple of years. I believe that if you are genuinely interested in your research question, you’ll do a great job.