Interview with Dr. Ema Vyroubalova, 13th October 2011
The first thing I wanted to ask is: it’s a long journey from Stanford to Haifa to here, would you tell us a little bit about it?
I did all of my university education in the US. My B.A. is from Amherst College and my PhD from Stanford, so I moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and then I started searching for academic jobs, pretty much looking all over the world and I ended up in Haifa.
I was there for a year, and it was an interesting and productive year. I learned some Hebrew and I travelled around Israel, but I felt like I wanted to return to Europe (I am originally from the Czech Republic).
Professionally I also felt like I wanted to be in a place where I would have colleagues whose work relates to my own interests and, where there are archives that I could use. Trinity and Dublin in general have all of this to offer.
That leads me to my next question, which is how are you finding your time in Trinity?
It’s about 3 weeks since I started teaching here and a little over a month since I arrived, and it’s been a very busy but also very exciting few weeks.
Which courses are you teaching?
I’m teaching parts of three freshmen lecture courses; Shakespeare, Fables and Gods in Literature and a Sophister Seminar on Global Shakespeare.
Which would you say is your favourite at the moment?
It’s hard to pick! But if I have to it will probably be the Fables course, because by a funny coincidence I’ve always been really interested in animals in literature and the focus of the course is more specifically beast fables and beast literature. Since it turned out that both myself and Brendan O’Connell (with whom I am co-teaching the course) are really interested in these genres, we ended up steering the course in that direction. That’s really exciting for me because it’s something I’ve been fascinated by, but my dissertation was on a completely different topic, so I haven’t had a chance to work on animals in a sustained way like I am now with this course.
How do you find teaching? How was the transition going from not teaching to teaching?
I actually did a fair amount of teaching during my PhD studies — a couple of writing courses and tutorials for literature courses. At University of Haifa last year I taught a survey of British literature from Chaucer to 1800, Shakespeare, and Literature of the Tudor Age. But the load I am doing right now is definitely the most teaching I have done in any given academic term. It helps a lot though that I am sharing several of the courses with colleagues who have taught them before so I get to benefit from their experience and advice.
And whilst you’re teaching here you’re still carrying out your own research?
Yes. I have just given a presentation on part of my research related to early modern Ireland and I am working on a longer version of the same paper for a talk at UCD next term. I am also preparing for a conference in Seattle in January, where I am organizing a panel of papers. I find that presentations and conferences a really useful way of sharing my work with other people and getting feedback. Literary research can be a bit lonely, sitting there on your own or in the library/archive, so I always try to find opportunities to share it with other people – colleagues, students, academics from other institutions… Lat year I presented a paper in Paris on early modern travel narratives, and two papers at Haifa, also on travel narratives.
Could you tell me a bit more about travel narratives?
I was originally going to have a section on multilingualism in early modern English travel narrative but I didn’t quite have room for it in the dissertation and the time for it in the end so now I am hoping to incorporate it into the book manuscript I am working on. Many of these travel narratives talk about English travellers going abroad and I am interested in how they would have communicated there. They wouldn’t have been able to use English almost at all because it was very far from being a world language back then.
Over the summer I was also working on an article on stage properties in Shakespeare’s Richard II – a kind of a little pet project.
Do you have many other little pet projects? Is it easy to get side-tracked into other things?
Yes, it is, but I usually try to connect the smaller projects to my teaching or to some aspect of my broader research. For instance, in the Global Shakespeare course I am teaching we are looking at foreign productions and films of Shakespeare’s plays and I am planning on writing about some of these later. There is this wonderful Czech puppet film from 1959 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I’ve wanted to write about for a while. I might even try to write and publish something about the process of teaching Shakespeare from a global perspective.
So would you say that teaching sometimes helps you in areas of research and gives you ideas?
I think it definitely does, yes. It often helps to remind me of what’s really at stake in and what is really exciting about a particular text when I hear what students have to say about it and what they like about it.
People don’t tend to decide when they’re little that they want to be an academic. Did you always want to go on and study English?
No, not really. I did at various points want to be a teacher, probably because my grandmother was a teacher. She was a very good teacher and she was truly passionate about it. It was also the kind of hands-on job you relate to more easily as a child (my parents were accountants) so if I went with my grandmother to school I would see her teach and meet the students and saw her do lesson plans and grading and I would always want to hear more about all these different aspects of her work. When I was a student myself I often found myself thinking about why the classes I really enjoyed worked so well and for those that didn’t quite, how they could be made better. I actually still think of the good teachers I had many years ago. But I only decided to do a PhD in English towards the end of my undergraduate degree.
Why English as a subject?
Sometimes I ask myself that! I did have reasons though. I was really interested in Shakespeare and theatre, but I wasn’t quite a theatre practitioner. Although I did a little stage managing and dramaturgy, I felt an English programme would fit me better as someone interested in analyzing the texts and performances. So I went into graduate school wanting to do primarily Early Modern Drama. I guess in the end it was my passion for Shakespeare, and I also always liked reading literature in different languages.
How many languages do you speak?
I speak French and German reasonably well, and a little bit of Italian too. My first language is Czech. I can kind of read Latin and I learnt a little bit of Hebrew last year.
Do you find knowledge of other languages really helpful when you come to English Literature?
I do, yes. English literature is after all part of a multi-lingual corpus of world literature. English Departments in English-speaking countries sometimes tend to be a little isolated from the departments that teach literatures in other languages. I hope that through my work I can help in some small way to bring the disciplines closer together.
Why do you think English is important to study and keep alive?
Studying English in English Departments in English-speaking countries mostly means studying literature, which is useful for a lot of things. It gives people the ability to see different perspectives, to think differently and gain insights into other ways of thinking and other ways of life. At the same time, reading a lot makes us into better writers. It also has a kind of linguistic turn to it. I think it’s useful for people to think more about how language and rhetoric work; it makes people much more savvy readers and interpreters of a lot of things, from political discourse to advertising.
And what are you reading at the moment just for pleasure? Do you get to do much?
Not too much at the moment. When I have a bit of spare time I try to watch films or go to the theatre. I recently went to a couple of things at the Dublin Theatre Festival.
What did you see?
I really enjoyed Slattery’s Sago Saga in Rathfarnam Castle. It was a hilarious multi-layered comedy that reflected on the process of writing itself. I haven’t been to a live theatre performance that was genuinely laugh-out-loud funny like this one in a long time.
And you said you’d been watching a few films recently?
A lot of these are films that I’ve been pre-viewing for my Global Shakespeare course! Probably the most exciting of those has been Pier Paolo Pasolini’s short film Che cosa sono le nuevole? (What are Clouds?), which has a puppet performance of Othello embedded in it but the puppets are played by real actors. It’s a wonderfully moving piece that really says something about the play, its tragedy, its characters.
Anything else you’re interested in?
I’m a great animal lover – I just got a cat, my first pet really since I’ve been moving around so much that I couldn’t easily have one before. I also like to travel, study languages, and when I have the time I like cooking and baking.
What’s the best place you’ve ever been to?
I really like London – all the things I really enjoy like theatre, art, early modern books, good food, are there. I also really like New Zealand
And just one last question – can I ask what your cat’s called?
Ariel, after the Shakespearian character…