Dr Nicholas Luke joined the faculty of the School of English this year as an Assistant Professor. He holds a DPhil and an MSt in English Literature from The University of Oxford, and degrees in Law and Arts from the University of Queensland. His first book, published with the Cambridge University Press and titled Shakespearean Arrivals: The Birth of Character, argued for a revised conception of the role and meaning of character in Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. His current work is on Shakespeare’s engagement with religion, in the context of intersections between early modern drama, theology and philosophy.
In this ‘introductory’ interview, which comes quite late in the year in part thanks to the unique events which have shaped our lives over the past months, we discussed Nick’s research and teaching approaches, but also asked him to reflect on these distinctive first semesters.
Would you please introduce your academic background and research interests? What drew you to Shakespeare?
For most of my undergraduate studies (Arts/Law, University of Queensland) I thought I’d end up working in the law. While I loved literature, I didn’t view it as a “career”. So I worked part-time in law firms and then found a job as a Judge’s Associate in the Federal Court of Australia. However, towards the end of my studies my views began to change: in particular, during my Honours year in literary studies, which included a dissertation on the links between Ahab in Moby Dick and Satan in Paradise Lost. With encouragement from my supervisor, Dr Ruth Blair, I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship and was lucky enough to go and study literature at Oxford. I didn’t plan to research Shakespeare at Oxford, but taking a Shakespeare course with Professor Simon Palfrey during my MSt changed that. I was soon taken by the constant newness and surprise in Shakespeare’s language and character-creation. The way his words seem to create new worlds, alter minds, and expand the limits of what is said – and what is sayable – about our own minds and worlds. So I stayed on and – eventually – completed my doctorate under Simon’s supervision. A number of years later, I revised my doctoral thesis into my first book, Shakespearean Arrivals: The Birth of Character (Cambridge University Press, 2018).
What are the most important things you learned from your graduate study?
Probably the most important thing I learned was the courage of losing one’s convictions. The second most important thing I learned was to stop thinking I was good enough. In other words, I learned both my own ignorance and inadequacy. I learned that my first thoughts were never sufficient (or, indeed, my second or third or seventh). For me, these were necessary lessons. It might be possible to sail through undergraduate literary studies by thoughtfully explaining one’s impressions of literary texts, but that isn’t going to cut it in the world of academic scholarship (though I sometimes wish it would!). Unfortunately, someone has almost certainly already had the same impression of Hamlet as you over the past four centuries. And someone has almost certainly written it down in a thoughtful, cogent (and often brilliant) manner. To my irritation, I learned that I had to read a lot of secondary criticism about Shakespeare in order to discover what I could contribute. To my excitement, though, I learned that all was not lost: that by exploring things like early modern religion and philosophy one could contribute to a rich history of ideas in which Shakespeare plays a major role. But this was hard work. It required constantly rethinking my thoughts and assumptions. For instance, trying to rethink the way in which we understand (in my case) Shakespeare’s creation of tragic character. So, for me, graduate study meant losing faith in what I thought was the right approach to reading literature and very often losing confidence in my own abilities. Whether this is a good or healthy way to spend three or four years of one’s life remains an open question…
Why did you choose to work at HKU? What specific things attracted you to work here?
I first came to Hong Kong as a “trailing spouse” – a term I learned in Hong Kong. At first I looked after our baby daughter but once she grew a little and our wonderful helper joined our family (thanks Connie!), I decided it was time for me to try and get back to work. I was lucky to teach some courses at HKU and was immediately struck by the friendly, welcoming atmosphere at the School of English. (You may be shocked to learn that this isn’t always true of literature departments!) Over a number of years, I enjoyed both teaching the excellent students in the School of English and the many lively discussions with colleagues in the School, which meant that HKU was the obvious place to work in Hong Kong. (Plus it offers excellent support for serious research projects.) After some time away, including a research fellowship in Australia, I jumped at the chance to apply for a full-time position in the School. I started in August 2019, just in time to learn about the wonders of online teaching during the ensuing protests and pandemics…
What are your teaching interests? What is your “teaching philosophy”? (Would you share your ideal percentage weights for teaching and research?)
My teaching interests focus primarily on early modern drama and poetry (I teach courses on early English sonnets and Shakespeare). But my interests also extend to literary theory, aesthetics, and philosophy more generally, so I also teach courses on the history of literary theory and criticism.
At the moment my teaching philosophy is: I wish we could get back to the classroom! More typically, my hope, when teaching, is to help students develop their own engagement with great literary texts. While there are many strands to this – including the basics, like providing enough context and background information to ensure the texts make sense to students – fundamentally, I want the students to think and ask questions about a play like King Lear. What do they make of it? What is their stance on what others have made of it over the centuries? How do they think it works? How does it challenge them? Why do we take pleasure in a tragedy of unparalleled bleakness? Why does it still matter? What is at stake in our response to it? And so on. The foundation for all this is close attention to the language of the play. But it also requires a broadening of perspective beyond one’s initial impressions or sympathies, including thinking about how and why the author constructs the text in the way he or she does. When students do this, they not only engage thoughtfully with great literature, they offer insights and observations that I could never think of on my own.
I suppose my ideal split between research and teaching would be 50/50.
This has been quite a year for HKU – one effect has been that a large amount of teaching has been delivered online; how has that gone for your courses? And, do you have any other reflections on what it’s been like to be part of the faculty of HKU in a year like this?
It has certainly been a crazy year: online teaching has been a challenge for everyone involved. Trying to change one’s teaching strategies and methods on the hop isn’t easy, nor is it easy for the students, who have been cut off from vital contact with fellow students and teachers. To be honest, I don’t think I made the greatest start to online teaching when it came upon us unexpectedly toward the end of first semester. The silver lining was that that semester was three quarters complete, so it was short term. It also meant we were better prepared for what happened this semester: almost an entire semester of online teaching due to the virus. I think (I hope!) the result is a marked improvement in my online teaching, which now uses a combination of audio recordings over PowerPoint slides, Zoom meetings for tutorial discussions, and of course the Moodle online learning platform. In fact, the audio slides have been something of an inadvertent discovery. They seem to be quite popular because they allow students to return to particular points or passages in their own time. I’m actually thinking of using them in the future in order to save more class time for discussion-based learning.
But while online teaching isn’t all bad, it is still not the ideal way to discuss complex literary texts. It’s harder to connect with the class and see what they’re getting (or not getting), or enjoying (or not enjoying), and it’s harder for the students to get into organic, student-led discussions. It can also be isolating. I feel for the students who are missing out on the experience of unplanned discussions and gatherings with their classmates. Even for the staff, who have been coming into campus a little more, the situation can sometimes get you down. The upside has been the supportive and collegiate culture in the School. There are people to talk to and discuss strategies with. There’s plenty of good humour – and gallows humour – to go around.
Published on: May 29, 2020 < Back >