By Jade DU Biyu
Alan Durant is currently Visiting Professor in the School of English at HKU. His permanent post is as Professor of Communication in the School of Law at Middlesex University, London, where his teaching and research involve applying a background in linguistics and cultural analysis to legal fields, especially in media and intellectual property law. He studied at Cambridge University, UK, where he gained a double first in English and a PhD on the poetry of Ezra Pound.
Before joining Middlesex, Alan was Professor and Head of the Department of English at London University, Goldsmiths; he joined Middlesex also initially as Head of English, Cultural and Communication Studies, a field including literature, linguistics, journalism and media, but he later moved into the School of Law. His research interests include language and the law, and the analysis of keywords in civil society (he convenes the international and interdisciplinary ‘Keywords Project’, co-funded by Jesus College, University of Cambridge, and the University of Pittsburgh).
J: Hello, Alan. Thank you for sparing time to do this interview. You have visited Hong Kong quite a number of times before, but this time is different. You are staying longer and can manage to see different parts of the city. Is there anything impressive you hadn’t discovered on previous visits? And have you experienced any culture shock in the past months?
A: I’ve been here nearly five months now but am still busy discovering. There are many ‘old favourites’ to visit, from temples and parks through to shopping streets and restaurants. But this time I’ve had more chance to explore Hong Kong’s remote hills and sea coast, which are such an incredible natural resource. Away from hotspots even on the hill paths that experience gridlock at weekends and on public holidays, it’s so easy to find yourself in unpopulated landscape, looking out from High West or Lantau Peak onto a fabulous view or into impenetrable mist, depending on the day.
J: I am interested in your teaching experience at HKU. Can you share some of your observations? Do you find more similarities or differences compared to universities in the UK?
A: I’ve been teaching three interrelated groups here: some students taking law, some studying English, and some following the highly distinctive ‘law and literature’ double-degree programme. I’m impressed by students’ academic ability, which in some cases is formidable. But also by their academic thoroughness and openness to ideas and discussion. As a Western visitor I’ve often heard of students ‘educated by exam’ and encouraged to reproduce learning from authoritative sources, rather than think for themselves. Occasionally there’s evidence of that in student expectations, including expectations of themselves. But I’ve come to admire the combination students here are able to achieve between disciplined learning and independent thought. Some of the best and nicest students I’ve ever taught, and I’ve run courses in many countries besides the UK.
J: I am amazed at the wide range of research you have conducted over the years. Originally working on poetry, you then moved to linguistics, law, and media. How did you develop and expand these research areas? What would be your advice for junior researchers pursuing academic careers?
A: I was lucky. A need to raise money for an international conference led into a spell of instant television production for UK Channel 4; and a chance phone call involved me in expert evidence in a libel case that led to wider research engagement with law. I’ve benefited immensely from such interdisciplinarity. But with regret I’m not sure I’d recommend young people to follow an equivalent route. These days university studies worldwide – and university careers – favour specialisation over connection. While there have been major gains as a result of the former, there are losses as a result of the latter.
J: Apart from research, you have also done much non-academic work related to public communication, including PR, advertisements, and documentary films. Suppose you were now invited to advise on the production of an advertisement to promote the tourist industry of Hong Kong, what aspects of the city would you include in the video?
A: That’s difficult. It would be a tough call anyway, but it’s especially difficult because Hong Kong is already well promoted. Some of the established messages are well understood internationally: business and shopping opportunities; successful (though possibly now over convergent) theme parks; a range of people and cultural traditions in everything from food and fashion through to music, dance and sport. Maybe some aspects don’t get enough attention, such as the archipelago mix of land, sea and maritime history; or the historical strata in architectural styles – not just skyscrapers but for instance housing and land up in the New Territories. I suppose these are just side-effects of the rush to get from past to future.
J: Can you tell us something about your project on keywords?
A: Yes, it’s an ongoing process of research involving an international group of scholars into the history, changing meanings and current disputes surrounding social ‘key words’ (in English) that people argue over in assessing the strengths and weaknesses, and future directions, of their society and culture. For us, words worth investigating include terms like ‘civil’, ‘enterprise’, ‘legitimate’, ‘market’ and ‘terror’– as well as other, less expected words like ‘celebrity’. I say international, but the project is really Anglo-American in emphasis. As it happens, though, there’s now an ‘Asian Keywords’ project partly hosted by HKU, based on collaboration among scholars across the region. Necessarily, the project is bilingual, looking at words both in Chinese and in English. I’m not involved but I certainly wish this worthwhile humanities project well.
J: Finally, do you mind sharing something personal: what is your favourite place in Hong Kong? And your favourite food?
A: An even more difficult question than the one about tourism! Too many to choose from, and still strong prospects I haven’t managed to visit. Over the last few months – no doubt coloured by an intensive schedule of work – I’d probably say Nan Lian Gardens, the so-called ‘treacherous path’ up High West, and the nearby beach at Deepwater Bay. Not escapist but I like the counterpoint of city and accessible open spaces. As regards food I’m a vegetarian, which narrows the field down a bit. Best not to get me started on my efforts to re-engineer tofu dishes by improvisation that I enjoy eating when I’m out. No great successes on that front to report so far, I should confess.
J: Thank you, Alan. It was really nice talking to you. I hope you enjoy your stay in Hong Kong and I wish you all the best in your work and life. Looking forward to your next visit.