Interview with QUB Medievalist and former Head of English Dr Stephen Kelly

Example of Medieval literature. Photo Source: Cambridge University Press

Victoria Brown, Editor.

I had the absolute privilege of interviewing one of my favourite lecturers at Queen’s, Dr. Stephen Kelly.

Dr. Kelly is the former Head of English at Queen’s and a specialist in Late Medieval Literature. Throughout his career, he has written on contemporary political philosophy and philosophical hermeneutics, translation studies, digital humanities, and contemporary art. He is now currently working on Imagining History in Medieval Britain (Bloomsbury, 2019), an account of the ideological interests and literary strategies of English historiography from Gildas to John Stow. He is also working on an incredibly lengthy project, ‘Meke Reverence and Devocyon’: A Reader in Late Medieval English Religious Writing (Exeter Medieval Texts: Liverpool UP), co-edited by Ryan Perry (Kent), which will be the first representative anthology of Middle English devotional texts — many of which are edited for the first time — since Horstmann’s Yorkshire Writers (1895-6).

Many students spend three or four very important years of our lives here at Queen’s, but we do not often get the chance to get to know the person behind the lecturer. My interview with Dr. Kelly is a great opportunity to get to know a pretty class member of the Arts and Humanities faculty.

Victoria: It’s probably pretty uncommon for academics to have decided on this particular career at a young age. Was this something you had always planned?

Dr. Kelly: I never planned to be an academic. I’ve never made a plan for anything. So I kind of drifted out of my degree…I spent a year trying to write a novel, which I didn’t like, and then I was encouraged to apply for a PhD which I commenced in 1994 here at Queen’s. I got funding to do that PhD so I proceeded, got the PhD in 1998. I had various teaching roles between 1998, getting my first job at University of Kent in 2001. I was then offered what’s called a post-doctoral research fellowship here at Queen’s in 2003, and had a choice to make: to stay on at Kent where they couldn’t necessarily promise an extension of my contract, or to come back to Belfast where I would have an additional year. So, I came back. And then in 2006 I was appointed to a lectureship here, and I’ve been here ever since, like the photograph of Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining.

Victoria: You said yourself that you didn’t plan for this, but did your sixteen-year-old self have any aspirations?

Dr. Kelly: Yeah, my sixteen-year-old self was reading writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino. I wanted to be a writer, but my twenty-six-year-old self couldn’t stand the prose that I was writing, so that was the end of that. But yeah, I wanted to be a writer. I came to Queen’s to do a degree in English and Philosophy and switched to single honours English after first year…and yeah, read everything I wasn’t supposed to, and nothing I was supposed to. So, I was a bad student.

Victoria: Why did you decide to drop Philosophy?

Dr. Kelly: Well Philosophy at Queen’s then was very different to Philosophy at Queen’s now. I didn’t think that the kind of approach to philosophy that was being taken was really my kind of thing.

Victoria: Your academic interests are largely historical. Is that something you were always interested in or did that develop as you progressed in your career?

Dr. Kelly: That’s a really good question. When I was a youngster I saw a television series called The Day the Universe Changed by the historian of science James Burke, and this told the story of science from the ancient Greeks to the Moderns. At the same time, I was doing Byzantine history at school, and I suppose my interest in history really coelest around art because originally, I was going to do a degree in English and Art History, that was my original plan. But for various reasons that are too boring to put in print, I didn’t go to, believe it or not, the university of Kent to do my English and Art History degree.

So, did I expect to become a Medievalist? No. But then I’m interested in everything, really. I’m a dilettante. I’ve always been interested in the past, I’ve always been interested in other cultures. My wife did a degree in Anthropology here, so I read all her books, and in many respects, I see myself as a frustrated art historian or frustrated anthropologist. That’s why I bring these into my work where I can. It turned out then, that I discovered…I went to school in Derry, to St. Columb’s College, the same place the famous Seamus went to…and it turned out that James Burke, the presenter of that television series I mentioned, who went all over the world – he was in Bagdad, he was in Florence, all over the place – was born in Derry! So, I was like, “whoa! People from this small place can do interesting things”.

Victoria: You held a lectureship over at the University of Kent. Was your experience there different to Queen’s, or was it quite similar?

Dr. Kelly: Very different. Now this is…sixteen years ago now, so Kent is a very different place now but when I was there the students were very, very vocal. So, they were very good in class, very talkative, but they weren’t as good as the students that I had become accustomed to teaching here at Queen’s. Our students at Queen’s tend to be, less so these days, but they tended to be quite shy, quite reserved, and you would discover that they were thinking deep thoughts when they submitted their essays. Whereas in Kent, they were very talkative and lively but maybe not so good when it came to doing the work. A student once asked me a question in a seminar at the University of Kent which I treasure: “the Bible’s a novel, isn’t it? Who wrote it?”. Which is a measure, I suppose, of the secular culture that the rest of the UK has to compared to certain parts of Northern Ireland, where I would assume people would know about that. But actually, contemporary students in the past three or four years have very poor knowledge of these sorts of things too.

Victoria: Your current research, ‘Imagining History in Medieval Britain’, is obviously a very big project. How would you approach something like that?

Dr. Kelly: Well, I was commissioned to write that book far too long ago now, and the commission asked me to look at historical writing from its earliest origins in Britain up to the so-called end of the Middle Ages. Now, when was that, precisely? What I’m doing is looking at work from the historian Gildas in the 5th and 6th century in texts like the Historia Brittonum in the 9th century, texts in the 12th century in Latin, the Medieval romances, a whole bunch of different types of texts and chronicles. So, it’s been a huge project and it’s been hugely time consuming and was distracted from it during the two years that I was Head of English, or Subject Lead for English as it’s called, so that will be out, all being well, early 2020. It’s a big old project: three languages, 900 years’ worth of writing…a bit ambitious.

Victoria: Are there any areas that you haven’t researched in depth that you would like to in the future?

Dr. Kelly: I would love to write a book about my favourite writer of the last fifty years, an English writer and critic called John Burger, who is best known for a 1972 television series called Ways of Seeing. This is still required reading in art courses because he taught us to treat images with scepticism and to recognise the encoded ideologies in them. He was also a very politically committed writer, and a fine novelist, essayist and critic. He won the Booker Prize in 1972 for a novel called G, which is a kind of experimental, historical novel. He notoriously donated 50% of his prize to the Black Panthers in London, who were fighting for civil rights for Black Britains. As a result, the British literary establishment turned its back on him. He moved to France, and he died last Janaury, Janaury 2017, at the age of 90, and the obituaries for him were fascinating in their judgementalism. They were very snooty about him, described him as a Marxist and this, that and the other, when he was much more. Someday I would love to write about him.

I have a long-postponed project that I want to write about, which is about ideas of enthusiasm. Where does the idea of enthusiasm come from, historically? How is it expressed in religious cultures, in political cultures, and in artistic and literary cultures? That’s something that’s been long postponed, but I would love to get back to that one. I haven’t looked at it for about ten years, but I want to.

Victoria: You’re a self-proclaimed former Goth. Does your current music taste reflect this period in your life?

Dr. Kelly: When I was a first-year student we tended to get grants to do our studies. So, the first thing you did when you started a degree was you went to whatever part of the university was issuing the grant cheque, and there was normally a small riot to get to the front of the queue. And with my grant cheque, I bought a pair of trousers – now, you have to imagine someone who was considerable skinnier than he is now, okay? – that I had to tie myself in to and a black shirt that had a big long tail that reached down to the back of my knees, and I had long jet black curly hair that went down to my ass. And I was about eight stone in weight. Skinny as a stick. And I listened to The Pixies, Joy Division, The Smiths, The Cure. The first album I bought as a student at university was called Elizium by a Goth band called Fields of the Nephilim. But I never had the courage to put the make-up on. I was a failed Goth. I wasn’t quite like The Divine Comedy song ‘Happy Goth’, I wasn’t a very miserable goth.

Victoria: So, as we approach the end of 2018, are there any books, TV shows or films that you have particularly enjoyed?

Dr. Kelly: Films, yes. The best film I’ve seen this year is Mandy, starring Nicholas Cage. It is absolutely outstanding, and mad as a box of frogs. Best TV show? The BBC’s Black Earth Rising […] and Counterpart, which is an American speculative series about a bifurcation universe where there are two Berlins. It’s a kind of sci-fi parody of John McCary’s fiction. What’s really good about it is that its main actor plays himself in two different places, and he gives an absolutely extraordinary performance. So that was terrific. Um, books…what have I read this year? I tend not to read new fiction. I’ve got a pile of books by my bed, I’ve a pile of books in my house but I haven’t got time to read any of them. What book am I looking forward to reading? Our new professor of Creative Writing, Ian Sampson’s, book of short stories. Published a couple of weeks ago and available in No Alibis bookstore.

Oh, and MasterChef Australia. My wife makes me watch MasterChef Australia, and it’s a bit like Pavlov’s dog, you end up loving it. It’s even better, even bigger, even badder than everything else.

Victoria: What kind of things do you enjoy doing outside your academic career? Hobbies, etc.?

Dr. Kelly: I don’t have any time outside my academic career, I’m sorry. When I was Head of English I was doing 50 hours a week on just being Head of English, or thereabouts, especially during term time. But when I’m not teaching, I’m in the office catching up on email, or I’m doing the shopping or helping around the place. That’s the height of it. Hobbies? What are those?

Victoria: Students of English, Arts and Humanities are often told that what they’re studying is pointless. As a teacher, how much value do you think a degree like this has, and what would you say to a student who is starting to express doubt?

Dr. Kelly: Well, the problem we have is that we’re constantly struggling against a narrative that is built around STEM: science, technology, engineering and medicine. That story implies that if you do a STEM degree, you will be making a valuable, lucrative contribution to society when you graduate. But I’m afraid the statistics don’t reflect that. For example, it was reported a year or two ago that 66% of engineering graduates never work in engineering. Given the vast amount of information that they need to acquire during their engineering degrees, I do wonder how they’re being prepared for life after their degrees.

Students of the Humanities, on the other hand, are multitaskers. They are taught to have initiative, they are taught to be free thinkers, they’re taught to be critical thinkers, they’re taught to have imagination. They are taught to look at the world with scepticism and not to take everything at face value. All of these make them incredibly employable people. Google, for example, has recently argued that it wants to hire more Arts and Humanities graduates because it has all the engineers it needs, it has all the software engineers it needs. Now it needs people who can negotiate the complex, political, cultural, and ethical issues that its technologies are engaged with.

So, there’s going to come a point in the next ten, twenty, thirty years when much of what we teach STEM graduates to do is undertaken by automation and artificial intelligence. We’re going to have to find a way to bring disciplines together, to enable students to go out into the world and use their creative and critical skills, and have those valued at the same standard as their technology, as their medical, as their scientific knowledge because the old model of the university, where you have these disciplines living in their own little bunkers is over. It’s not sustainable; we don’t live in a society like that anymore.

The other issue is, for me, one of the other areas of interest I have, is in ecology and ecological crisis. How the ecological crisis, climate change and all that, reinscribes a whole range of ideas about apocalyptic thinking, about history, that we’ve seen in previous generations and societies. How can people from an Arts and Humanities background contribute to the debate and the action that is required in combatting climate change, when climate change can’t just be solved by technicians and scientists? It needs a complete reorientation of the way we live…and what do we talk about in Arts and Humanities? How we live.

So, I would say to a student to be positive, take every opportunity that comes your way during and after your degree. And realise that you are being given so many skills just by sitting in a seminar, or by doing a presentation, or being asked to work collaboratively with a colleague or a class peer. You’re being given so many skills, that now you might see as chores in the middle of a module, but as soon as you get out into the world you’ll realise how all that was actually really useful. For example, if you’re doing a presentation you’ll not have stage fright or worry about what people think of you because you’ve been doing it for years already.

We give you lots and lots of life skills. We teach you to be critical about the way the world is going. We teach you to be sceptical of the stories we are told by politicians, by our religious leaders, our community leaders, etc., and that means you get to live a more engaged, more fulfilling, more thoughtful life…rather than just be a wage slave.



Thanks again, Dr. Kelly!

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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