by Elizabeth Kate Switaj
My PhD idea came to me after a mugging on a beach in Cambodia. No, seeing a knife pointed at me didn’t make my life flash before my eyes. The adrenaline didn’t help my brain rush to some shocking new insight.
What changed things was that my passport was stolen. Getting a new copy wasn’t a problem: I had a photocopy and a digital copy saved to my Gmail account. Getting a new visa for China, where I had been teaching English at a university, would prove more difficult. I soon learned that I would have to return to the US and go through the same process I had before to get my visa initially. It would take more time than was remaining before the start of the semester.
I decided then that my career as an EFL instructor had reached its end and that it was time for me to pursue a PhD. My experience teaching EFL, however, led directly to the project I would propose.
After finishing my MFA [Master of Fine Arts] in Poetics and Creative Writing, I had moved to Japan where I started teaching English at one of the infamous Eikaiwa (English conversation) schools – the one with the evil chicken-beaked pink bunny as a mascot. My experience at the now-bankrupt company was unusually positive: during my first year there, I worked at a small branch with very little supervision and during my second year, I rarely set foot in a branch as I taught in elementary schools through the government contracts program. After I left Japan, I spent about a year in New York teaching English to immigrants in the evening (and writing copy for an online kimono retailer two days out of the week – but that’s another story). Then, I moved to China where I taught composition, oral English, and movie courses to English majors for three semesters.
Along the way, I continued writing and publishing my poetry. I was checking my email in a (literally) freezing Beijing hostel while on break from the university that I found out that Paper Kite Press was going to publish my first collection. The language of those poems – the language of all my written work – had been deeply influenced by my teaching experience. My understanding of the mechanics of the English language had been refined by having to explain them and by discovering which idiosyncrasies of language produced by my students interfered with communication and which did not. I also found that other poets of my acquaintance who taught the language in which they wrote (many but not all of whom I had met through a monthly open mic in a British pub in Tokyo) could trace similar influences in their writing.
This understanding of how language teaching can shape literary work led me to wonder whether similar connections could be found in the work of earlier authors. And when circumstances convinced me that it was time to return to academia and pursue a PhD, I decided that I wanted to apply this inquiry to the work of James Joyce. Not only did Joyce spend years teaching English to speakers of other languages, but also, his famously unique uses of language made his work seem particularly well-suited to being considered from this angle. Going into the third year of my research, I still think that’s the case, though I’ve also found a related pedagogical streak in his works that goes deeper than I had realized.
Elizabeth Kate Switaj is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast and an Editorial Assistant for Irish Pages: a Journal of Contemporary Writing. Her first collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. You can find her creative writing at her website http://www.elizabethkateswitaj.net or follow on her on Twitter at @EKSwitaj