Shauna Graham, Contributor.
An interview with Dr. Stephen Kelly
Former Head of English between 2016 – 2018 – specialising in late medieval literature and critical digital humanities.
Shauna: Firstly, I wanted to ask how important studying English was for you trying to find your way after graduation? Did it start you off the right foot for life afterwards?
Dr. Kelly: I graduated, in 1993, at a very different time and in a very different place. The “peace process” in Northern Ireland was in its nascent stages and there was a dearth of opportunities for graduates. Today, that’s different – no less challenging, given the political inertia here – but our graduates look outward now in ways that seemed impossible for many of us in the early 90s, and there are a range of post-industrial career paths in NI now that simply didn’t exist then. Anyway, I wanted to write and read, so when I graduated I did precisely that.
Shauna: If you weren’t going to into academia, would there have been another profession you would’ve like to pursue?
Dr. Kelly: I originally intended to go to the University of Kent to study English and Art History, but for a number of reasons decided to do English and Philosophy at Queen’s. For both personal and academic reasons decided to switch to single honours English instead. So in another life I might have ended up as an art historian or working in conservation. Art and art history, along with English, fired my imagination at school and I really saw, and still see, them as inseparable. Sadly, academic disciplines for the most part force us to stay in our lanes of expertise.
Shauna: What opportunities did Queen’s offer you that really stood out to make you dedicate your professional career to it? Have there been projects you’ve been particularly proud being a part of when you were head of English?
Dr. Kelly: My career at Queen’s is more accident than design. My first job was at the University of Kent, as a temporary lecturer. That was a fantastically warm and collegial place, even if the students weren’t of the same calibre as I had been accustomed to at Queen’s. I returned to Queen’s to a post-doctoral research fellowship and was appointed to a lectureship in 2006. I am most proud of the doctoral students I have supervised and have brought fifteen to completion to date. Watching these students develop intellectually, and apply their imagination and talents to jobs in academia and beyond has been a real pleasure.
As subject lead of Head of English between 2016-18, I suppose I was pleased to address students’ long-standing concerns about some aspects of our curriculum and to help ease the transition for students who had started in the School of English, some of which now find themselves in the School of Arts, English and Languages.
Shauna: Why specialise in late medieval literature as opposed to other areas?
Dr. Kelly: I am promiscuous in my literary and cultural interests, and ended up a medievalist because staff in that area when I was an undergraduate treated me and my opinions with respect. Also, the literature is difficult and in order to grasp it properly one needs a foothold in one thousand years of art, history, theology and philosophy. I like difficulty and that drew me to this particular area of literary history.
Shauna: What were your thoughts on Queen’s making the decision to merge all of the Arts, English and Humanities together into one single department? Has it impacted the course itself in general?
Dr. Kelly: I welcomed the possibilities for cross-fertilisation and inter-disciplinary afforded by the new school. There is also a strategic vision in some quarters of the university that sees ‘traditional’ disciplines such as English as old-hat; this is based on a rather outmoded understanding of what we actually do in English. While English enrollments nationally are in decline in favour of supposedly vocational or STEM degrees, I’m confident that this is a temporary blip.
The new school, and a new Faculty-wide education policy led by Professor David Phinnemore, have greatly enhanced student choice. So not only do we have a more diverse English curriculum but students can choose a range of exciting electives from across AEL and AHSS.
Shauna: What are your thoughts on Queen’s connections with employers outside? Can Queen’s help English grads make the right connections for afterwards?
Dr. Kelly: The university is making excellent progress in better engaging with local, national and international employers, but I suppose we need to help English graduates recognise the wide range of practical and personal skills they have acquired during their degrees. Students, too, need to better engage with the opportunities the Careers Service regularly advertise.
When Google says that it prefers to employ Arts and Humanities graduates rather than STEM graduates, what they are saying is that the flexibility, imagination, creativity and initiative that we foster in the seminar room on a weekly basis is critical to a future where divisions between arts and sciences are disappearing. Short-termism, which typically guides governments and university leaders, means we continue to prioritise STEM. But as companies such as Google and Apple understand, automation and AI will asset-strip many currently-existing STEM careers (AI has even been employed to make legal judgements in the US!). Add to this that the climate crisis cannot be solved technologically, but only through a change of politics, ethics and morality, and English graduates have a key role to play.
But how does this help a student graduating next month? What I would say is that students need to capitalise on all those annoying tasks we made them do during their degrees: public-speaking, working in teams, delivering presentations, responding quickly and creatively to seminar tasks, student conferences – all that nerve-wracking stuff. This prepares you not only for any workplace, but to lead in the workplace too.
Shauna: Would you recommend pursuing the PhD as a suitable alternative to actually pursuing a career after their initial bachelor’s degree? Are there any benefits to staying on that maybe don’t immediately stand-out for grad students?
Dr. Kelly: Undertake a MA if you love your subject and want to study more. Yes, a MA can help differentiate you from other job applicants, but it’s not as clear-cut as all that. Undertake a PhD if you are driven by intellectual curiosity and can’t let go of your subject. But enter a PhD with your eyes open: it is not a guarantee of a career in academia. However, the independence, self-motivation and discipline you garner on a PhD will be invaluable in any career.
Shauna: Would you recommend teaching as a career to any English grads out there who’re still unsure of where to go afterwards? Since you’ve dedicated your life’s work to academia, do you find it a worthwhile career still?
Dr. Kelly: If teaching has not been your life’s goal, then don’t suddenly jump into a PGCE at the end of your degree. In Northern Ireland we have a surplus of teachers and not enough jobs for them to do; if you want to teach and successfully complete your PGCE, spread your wings and head to Ireland, GB, Australia, the US, or Europe, where there are plenty of opportunities.
Higher education is a different beast. Levels of work-related stress are through the roof because being an academic means have three or more jobs at once: we spend our summers doing research, administration or writing grant applications; in term-time, we are teaching or doing administration or writing grant applications. Teaching remains deeply satisfying, however.
Shauna: I know that you also specialise in the critical digital studies- What has been your draw to this specialised area? In your opinion, will AI have major implications for the work of writers in the future? If so, what would these be?
I work on this area because I am a geek, but I’m also highly sceptical about the narratives that accompany the critical digital studies. I teach a module on digital textualities and the history of the book, which places the digital revolution in the context of that other great media ‘revolution’, the invention of the printing press. In taking the long view, I ask students to scrutinise the stories they’re being told by the technology giants of the present. I show them a short video from ABC News in 1993, which was publicising the invention of email – they react to the presenters’ consternation as if they are looking through a portal into the ancient world. Smartphones, now ubiquitous, have only been with us since 2007 but have completely transformed society. We couldn’t guess the impact of email, the internet and smartphones and likewise, we cannot guess the impact of AI and AR. Will we have AI-generated fiction in the coming years? Unquestionably. Given that the income of the average full-time writer is less than £10,000 per year, I suspect we may be dealing with another endangered species – or, as AI proliferates, artists will once again be accorded the roles they had in the medieval and early modern periods: either as anonymous grafters or embodiments of supreme human genius (hopefully, the former, I have to add).
Shauna: Finally, have you any advice for English grads going forward despite being met with criticism for their choice of degree? Particularly in terms of those thinking where to go next after Queen’s?
Dr. Kelly: I don’t think there is as much criticism of English or humanities graduates as some people think. But students need to stop thinking about a career and think about careers, plural. It is likely that most graduates now will have half a dozen or so careers. Let’s think about which type of degree best prepares graduates for an ever-evolving workplace. Consider engineering, where students have much more class time than in English. They are learning to be engineers and to monetise their engineering skills. But given that a recent survey indicated that around 66% of engineering graduates never work in engineering, how have these students been prepared for the variety of careers they will likely have? It is for universities and governments to refrain from privileging one type of graduate over another. English students are well-prepared for the challenges ahead.
My advice to graduating students is to do what I did not when I graduated: seize every opportunity that comes along; be adventurous and bold in your life choices; get out of Northern Ireland for a while (although some of you should come back because we need you!); and be confident that the degree you have garnered is a kind of passport in confidence: if you have done well and flourished in your studies, you will succeed in whatever you turn your hand to. I wish you good luck!