by Jason Eng Hun Lee
I had arrived suited and booted as they say, typically drenched in my own sweat and in mortal fear of being given short shrift for what would be my first post-doc interview. Having taken a wrong turning somewhere, I checked in barely ten minutes early, whereupon I was immediately shooed into a crowded room with stern academic faces and weary coffee-shot eyes. Gruff nods and a shuffling of papers ensued, and to my consternation I noticed that no one had extended a hand in greeting nor offered the usual cup of aqua vitae.
The interrogation commenced with a variation on the 3-minute thesis competition – the dreaded elevator question. How would I describe my thesis to a layman in three sentences or less? I recall mumbling something about the field of literary cosmopolitanism, treading lightly on the jargon and holding off on my criticism of Appiah, Beck and co. Next came a more practical question – had I any experience in teaching Shakespeare, Bard of Bards? Luckily, I had done the rounds as a tutor for A-level and IB kids in International Schools, so I could reel off ten or so plays I had taught and made the pitch of being able to make it accessible to non-native speakers. What about Public Speaking? Another staple of the extra-curricular education industry I had lived off for two years. Sure. Not a problem. I was slowly beginning to enjoy this.
A voice crackled from a futuristic-looking gadget on the table. Given that most of the students for the MA programme would likely come from mainland China, and given that few had any concerted experience in writing literature papers or conducting individual research, how would I teach them graduate research skills, commensurate to their own entry-level abilities? Inhale. I replied that a discovery-oriented approach, consisting of weekly workshop activities and utilizing both my own research experience and eliciting the students’ own interest in and limited exposure to literature, would help them develop their own research skills while at the same time laying the foundations for their extended MA project. Exhale. Did that even make any sense? There was a slight, inaudible sound coming from the machine, followed eventually by a simple but polite Thank You. Phew!
There were one or two other dodgy questions in there, but as I kept plugging away I felt that the tide was beginning to turn in my favour. However, just as my nerves had settled I was blindsided by another question. How would I implement the university’s policy of whole person education, and in particular, how would I use experiential learning as part of my course design? I was dumb-struck. Should I ask the audience? Phone a friend? A smile appeared on the questioner’s face. In short, if I could take the students out of the classroom, where would I take them, and what would they learn? Relief. I’ve done this before. Poetry events. Public events. Cinemas. Museums. Another question. How would I get my students to participate more in class discussion? Well, I’d set my expectations at the beginning, informing my students that it’d be part of their assessment criteria, and I’d routinely pick on small groups of students and rotate across the room. I’d encourage individual students to contribute with the tried and tested ‘did you have your hand up? Oh, I thought you did’. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll have to rely on my natural charisma! Did I really just say that? I can’t believe I just said that.
Finally, we got to the last question. Why do I want the job? Because I’m desperate? Because I need to support my 8-month pregnant wife and recently hired helper? Because I need to know that the past four years of my life spent twiddling my thumbs and changing topics as often as accommodation was not in vain? Because… ‘Because it plays to my strengths as a teacher and academic, and because I can teach all of the courses you’ve indicated in the job ad and interview. Because I’m familiar with the institutional set-up of the university and its various organs, and I’m versatile enough to teach courses at both MA and undergraduate level.’ As I got up to leave, instead of being met with grim looks, what appeared to be winning smiles emanated from all around. I even managed to crack a joke with the cute receptionist in HR as I skipped out of the office. What a coup!
That was two years ago, and I’m firmly settled into my new life here at Baptist U. I even have my own office with my name blazoned across the front, a far cry from the prospects I had envisaged for myself when I first handed in my PhD thesis, woefully under-researched and lacking a definitive introduction or conclusion. I suppose a confession is in order here. I had an insider’s perspective on the job being offered. Due to the hands-off supervision I received and my subsequent retreat into the literary community of Hong Kong, I was able to schmooze with professionals from all the universities and had already met three of my interviewers in far more convivial surroundings. But I’d like to think that those advantages paled in comparison to all that work I had put in outside of my immediate duty as a PhD researcher, volunteering for extra TA work, doing the odd lecture here and there, copyediting, consulting, judging, and of course, my labour of love, all those poetry-related activities and workshops that gained me the attention of my future academic colleagues. I’d also have to admit that, these factors aside, I was just plain lucky, but with the luck I had over those preceding four years, I knew that Lady Fortune would eventually smile down on me.
Jason E.H. Lee is currently a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at Hong Kong Baptist University, teaching courses as varied as 21st Century Fiction, Literary Theory, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, and W.B. Yeats. He is also a poet and former alumnus of The School of English.