1.1 Armstrong Interview: 8.10.2010
Jolene Armstrong & Catherine Melnyk
An interview with Jolene Armstrong, Assistant Professor in the Centre for Language and Literature at Athabasca University.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in Comparative Literature? What was your educational path? Can you describe your research interests, past and present, as well as where your education has taken you?
I first became interested in Comparative Literature in the final year of my bachelor’s degree. I was majoring in Anthropology with a minor in English, and I needed a humanities credit. The Department of Comparative Literature offered, what was entitled at the time, a Third World Literature course that sounded interesting, and so I registered. I loved the instructor, the course materials, the approach to studying literature. The novels and stories we read really came alive in a way that had never happened for me before in other courses. I really thrived in the course. Then, in one of the final classes of a theory course for Anthropology, the professor talked a little about where she thought the future of Anthro was headed. I don’t recall exactly what she said now, but the gist of it was that a marriage between Comp Lit and Anthro was the future. I’m not sure that this has really happened – at least not yet – but maybe a little in the emerging field of Cultural Studies. Nevertheless, I think I decided right then and there that if I did pursue Graduate Studies, I would apply to Comparative Literature. When I was first accepted into the graduate program and searching for research topics, I was originally interested in performance theory and, in particular, the resistance potential of Indonesian Shadow Puppet performances or the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. I did some initial research in this area, but my efforts at field research were hampered by an attempted coup in Indonesia and the implementation of martial law. There were no performances allowed to take place. I made the difficult decision to switch topics as I didn’t feel like I could continue my research without the field aspect, and I needed to move along in my program. I ended up looking at the postmodern implications of the radical plays of British playwright Sarah Kane.
2. What path did you follow upon graduation? Travel? Teaching abroad?
When I graduated from my undergraduate degree, I spent time traveling and teaching English overseas in South East Asia. I spent time in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Sri Lanka. I ended up bumming around England for six months before heading back to Canada to begin a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature. Bizarre financial circumstances that year resulted in me doing a Ph.D. by-pass. I never did finish the MA. When I completed my Ph.D., I had already been teaching as a sessional at both the University of Alberta and Grant MacEwan [College], and very shortly after that, I began tutoring for Athabasca University. Three years after graduating and about 2000 students later, I was offered a tenure track position at AU [Athabasca University]. It was actually specifically a Comp Lit position in the Centre for Language and Literature. I still feel very lucky to have gotten that position, especially given the difficult financial times over the last 10-15 years.
3. What is your personal challenge as a working member within the Comparative Literature field?
My personal challenge is probably one that many people from Comp Lit experience: that people are surprised to learn about Comp Lit or that they have never heard of it. I am constantly trying to explain what it is, why it is important, how it differs from traditional disciplines such as English. I sometimes feel as if I am an ambassador for the field. As more and more Comparative Literature departments are closed or down-sized to programs within larger departments or centres, this becomes more and more of a challenge. Yet, I feel that myself and others with a Comp Lit degree are well-poised to teach in emerging areas such as Cultural Studies because of our diverse educational backgrounds. It seems to be working out well. I don’t regret earning a degree in Comp Lit.
4. What was your experience getting published and starting your career? As graduates we are consistently told to build our CVs by attending conferences, submitting papers and applying for scholarships. What has been your experience in building a successful CV? Do you consider it an ongoing process as an academic?
It is definitely an ongoing process to build a body of research, and that body of research changes over time as one shifts from being a graduate student to being a full-time academic. The process of getting published is a slow one, so it is a good idea to get started early. Having said that, many senior academics do not really expect recent grads to have a large body of published research. They expect that recent grads will have participated in graduate student activities and conferences, will have served on some administrative committees, but that the main focus of a grad student’s time is the writing of the thesis. I think it is the first couple of years after graduation that must be the most productive in terms of publication and research. It is a good time to focus on publishing the thesis and presenting papers based on that research. I was never successful in winning any major scholarships, and yet, I have managed to create what I feel is a rewarding and (so far) successful career. It would have been easier to be a student with scholarships, to be sure. I ended up holding down a full time job for the last three years of my Ph.D. program in order to support myself. That gave me some good work experience and variety and prevented me from getting too deeply in debt. However, there is more pressure these days to finish the program in a more timely fashion, so winning a scholarship is probably even more important now than it was a few years ago. Everything is more competitive now and students have to be aware of what sort of pressures are being put upon them, not only from academia but from the financial world as well. Funding is probably scarcer in these economic times too, so students need to get creative about supporting themselves and ensuring that they look after their academic goals. The CV is a work in progress and should be built thoughtfully over time, reflecting the growth of the academic. It isn’t something that you graduate with already completed.
5. In the summer of 2010, it was announced that the University of Toronto recommended that the Centre for Comparative Literature be disestablished as of 2011. With the recent crisis in Toronto, what do you see for the future of Comparative Literature?
I’m worried, quite frankly. I don’t think this is a good sign of things to come for the discipline itself and more broadly for the humanities. There has been a systematic chiseling away at humanities programs for the last decade partially, I believe, because they do not attract as much outside funding sources the way some of the science and technology areas do. I think there is also a public perception that Arts and Humanities courses are sort of a waste of time because they don’t logically lead anywhere in the ‘real world.’ I think that students need to take a strong stance against this trend and voice their demands to maintain a full complement of arts and humanities courses and programs. Without a strong Arts and Humanities presence, Universities start to look pretty barren and are unable to offer students a well-rounded education. It has been demonstrated over and over again that graduates from Arts and Humanities based programs bring valuable skills to the work force that are unique and beneficial and that Arts and Humanities grads are, by and large, very successful once they enter the work force. It is a desirable degree to have. There seems to be a real disconnect between the labour market and the way in which universities are shaping their programs when they close programs such as Comparative Literature. Part of the problem is that it is difficult to define the skills gained from taking Comp Lit courses, or Classics, or Art History, for example, and yet, we all know that valuable skills in critical thinking, language and communication, for instance, are gained that can be applied to a broad area of expertise in the work force.
Note: The University of Toronto decided to keep the Centre for Comparative Literature open. -Ed.
6. If you could go back to when you were a graduate student, what is one word of advice you would want to hear?
The best advice I have been given recently, which I wish I had heard years ago when I was a grad student, was to just focus on my work. Don’t worry too much about the petty details, politics, rumours and day-to-day workings of the University. Just work hard, do good work and work on something that really interests you. Keep an open mind about where the degree might take you and, most importantly, remember that the pursuit of the degree should be a pleasure and an accomplishment in itself. Enjoy the time being a student. It’s over too quickly; although at the time, it may seem like you will never get that thesis written.
Jolene Armstrong is Assistant Professor in the Centre for Language and Literature at Athabasca University. Her research interests include popular culture, material culture and narrative, and aboriginal literature. She has just completed an edited collection of essays on writer Maria Campbell (Guernica Press) and is writing many new courses for AU, including a course on the Harlem Renaissance and American Literature post-1950.
Catherine Melnyk graduated from the University of Alberta in 2011 with a Masters of Arts in Comparative Literature. She has since published works in Westworld Alberta Magazine. Catherine is now a student of the French language continuing her studies at Alliance Française in Bordeaux, France. Catch her trail-blazing spouse musings at travelismyheartbeat.com.