An interview with Dr Will McKenzie, French

This week, Jess Allen interviews Dr Will McKenzie, a new arrival in Durham and lecturer in French, to give us an idea of what pursuing an academic career actually entails…

Hi Will. First of all, can you tell me a bit about your background?

I’ve worked for over ten years in Higher Education, chiefly at various colleges of the Universities of Oxford and London. I’m a comparatist, and at the moment I’m interested in why the period of Shakespeare and Montaigne is so often described as ‘early modern’. Why do we imply such continuities between their period and ours? When and why do these continuities begin? On what bases do we establish the historical origins of modernity?

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Dr Will McKenzie

What are your current research projects and what do you hope to achieve?

I’ve just finished a book called The Student’s Guide to Shakespeare (out on EUP in 2017), which seeks to introduce young Shakespeareans to various approaches to literary analysis, as well as to the literary-historical context that informed Shakespeare’s texts. My current book is called Narcissus, Modernity and the Comparative Study of Shakespeare and Montaigne and is coming out on Legenda, probably at the end of next year. What do I hope to achieve with it? Well, it seems to me that narcissism is a hot topic in contemporary politics, perhaps in everyday modern life in general. Montaigne and Shakespeare both read Ovid’s Echo-Narcissus story as part of their humanist education, and in very different, often subtle, ways they show us that the original myths are much more richly complex than our own narrowly narcissistic dismissals of ‘narcissism’ would imply. But to find out just how they do this, you’ll have to read the book 😉

What does being a Lecturer in French actually entail?

I teach on second-year language modules, and next term I’ll be taking over from Dr Tom Wynn a module called ‘Love and Longing’ which deals with literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I also supervise finalists’ dissertations; there are some fascinating projects in store on, say, writers like Marguerite de Navarre and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I of course also assess student work, which takes up a lot of time as I try to do so as fairly and as carefully as I can. 

How would you describe your average day?

One of the good things about the job is that it is so varied: I am currently answering these questions from a train to Oxford, where I’ll be celebrating a friend’s book launch. An average day consists however of about a billion emails interspersed with twelve strong cups of coffee, anything between two and six seminars, a lecture or two, marking assignments, and helping students during office hours with individual questions or queries (‘how do I reference?’, ‘how do I structure my argument?’, ‘does she fancy me?’). There are also meetings with colleagues on everything from outreach and admissions policy to strategies for modern languages after Brexit. I love every second.

What do you like about Durham and would you recommend it to postgrads/researchers?

Durham is a great place. I’ve only been here a month but have been made to feel so welcome by everybody. The School seems very ‘together’ in the twin senses of collegiate and sane. Pourvu que ça dure! I like the sense of intellectual experimentation and adventure which comes through in the various discussion- and reading-groups. The Ustinov College Global Citizenship Programme, say, offers great scope for intersections of literary, cultural and political analysis, and I shall be giving a talk on early modern eroticism later on this month with colleagues from Classics and Medieval History. So, yes, I would recommend this scholarly community unhesitatingly.

Do you have any advice for budding postgrads and academics?

For postgraduates, the facilities at Durham are excellent. I have been put up by Ustinov College and socially, intellectually, it’s a wonderful place to be. This is especially important because as a postgrad in the humanities you need to strike a balance between an often solitary working existence and finding enjoyably social outlets. If you can strike this balance you’ll be more productively happy over the longer term.

As for budding academics, well, this is a hard question. For me personally there is nothing more rewarding than contributing to knowledge by teaching and doing research, and I know that many people feel exactly the same way. We do however need to be upfront and honest about the very real challenges facing the Higher Education sector in general, and budding researchers in particular. Times are tough. I think it is important, therefore, that ‘budding academics’ put their heads together in these post-Brexit, post-austerity times, and seek thereby to come up with ways of maximising their longer-term opportunities collectively. I’ll be happy to join in any discussions or events that could arise.

If you’d like to find out more about Will and his research, click here for his faculty profile.

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