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Interview With dr. Joke Kardux

On a rainy Thursday afternoon we sat down for a chat with Joke Kardux, who chairs the master’s program in North American Studies. Many of us know her as the tutor of quite a few BA and MA courses in American Literature. She generously made room in her busy schedule to answer our questions:

What did your student years look like?.
I studied English Language and Literature at Utrecht University. One of my professors urged me to study in the US for one year. In those days, it was not as common as it is today to study abroad, but I was encouraged to apply for a special grant, the Slater International Fellowship, that allowed four European women to study at Wellesley College for a year. I did not really expect much from my application, but after a few months the phone rang. To my surprise it was a voice telegram for me. I was 21 years old and had never received a telegram before, let alone a voice telegram, so that was quite an extraordinary experience. In the days before e-mail, this was one of the swiftest means of communication. The message was that I was offered the grant and that I had 24 hours to confirm that I accepted it. I remember feeling both elated and a bit overwhelmed, because it was a big jump into the unknown. I had never been in the U.S. before.

So I ended up studying for one year at Wellesley College, which was a life-changing experience for me in many ways. I feel very lucky that I was given this unique opportunity. Initially I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that Wellesley College was a women’s college, but in fact this made it an especially stimulating place intellectually. Wellesley belongs to a group of seven prestigious liberal arts women’s colleges in the US, called the ‘Seven Sisters’. It was founded in 1870, at a time when women were finally given access to higher education. Because the students at women’s colleges did not have to compete with men, they had more opportunities to excel and were stimulated to do so. An interesting fact, especially now during the U.S. elections, is that Wellesley College is the alma mater of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

During my year at Wellesley, I made one life-long friend, now a television documentary maker in London, whom I still visit regularly.

At Wellesley I was encouraged to pursue a PhD at an American graduate school. My then boyfriend, a history student, figured that he could get himself interested in American history (which was not as popular a subject in Dutch academia as it is nowadays) and decided to apply for admission to a PhD programme too. Of course, this made things a bit more complicated, as we both had to be accepted at the same university. We applied at various universities and ultimately ended up at Cornell University, because they offered us a fellowship.

In your experience, what are the main differences between studying at a Dutch university and studying at an American university?
In those days, the Dutch system surrounding PhDs was different: there were no PhD positions, but you basically started working as a lecturer and wrote your dissertation alongside your teaching responsibilities, which would sometimes take up to ten years. In America, however, there were, and are, separate graduate schools. The big difference with having a PhD position at a Dutch university is that PhD students in the U.S. must first do three years of additional course work – about 20 graduate courses in total – before they are allowed to write their PhD dissertation.

After obtaining my MA degree in Utrecht, I felt that I did not have enough knowledge to start working on a PhD dissertation right away, so the American graduate school system very much appealed to me. In my fifth year at Cornell, I heard that Leiden University was setting up an elective program in American Studies and that there was an opening for a program director. Since at the time, in the mid-1980s, academic positions in the Netherlands were even more scarce than now, I worked hard to finish my dissertation on time, so that I could apply. I still feel very lucky that I succeeded in getting the job, straight out of graduate school. In 1986 I started working here at Leiden as director of American Studies, and I have worked here ever since.

Was American Studies a big field in those days?
Not really, American Studies is a relatively young discipline at Dutch universities. Together with the University of Amsterdam, Leiden was a pioneer in the field. American history and American literature have been taught at Leiden since the 1950s and 1960s respectively. When I came to Leiden in 1986, the US embassy very actively promoted teaching and research in American history, culture, and literature, and this stimulated other Dutch universities also to start American Studies programmes. Those years were, for example, the beginning of my Utrecht colleague Maarten van Rossum’s rise to fame! But I was very happy to be able to contribute to what came to be a very successful elective program in American Studies at Leiden. Since 2012 we even have an MA department in North American studies. Just this week we got the news that the Leiden North American Studies program is the best program in the Netherlands according to the Elsevier student survey. I still visit the US regularly for research and conferences. I am also involved in a faculty exchange program between Leiden and the College of William & Mary in Virginia. Next semester Professor Elizabeth Losh of William & Mary and I myself will participate in the exchange. Professor Losh will come to Leiden to teach my American literature course Lit 4A and she will also teach an MA course in her area of expertise: “Posthumanism: Alien Bodies, Cyborgs and Artificial Intelligence in American Literature and Film”, an elective course in both the Literary Studies and the North American Studies programs. I will teach course on Slavery and Memory in Transatlantic Perspective at William and Mary. Since the same course will be taught at Leiden next semester (by a colleague), the plan is that we are going to put the American and the Leiden students in contact online to share their research on the ways in which slavery is remembered in American and Dutch museums and monuments. I’m particularly keen on taking my American Students to the new African American History Museum in Washington, which was opened by President Obama a few days ago.

What do you like most about your job?
At high school, I considered studying medicine, but I am grateful I made a different choice. For me, the most enjoyable part of my job is the contact with students. I particularly like the personal contact with students as a thesis supervisor, brainstorming with them over their thesis topic and getting to know them better. It’s great to work with young people; seeing them discover their passions is very rewarding.

What is your advice to students who consider to study in the US?
Studying in the US is a unique and very formative experience, so I would definitely recommend it. There are many good exchange programs out there. However, you do have to start planning early. In order to go to the US in your third year, you already have to apply in the first semester of your second year. The deadline is rather early: in December. But it is really a great opportunity and reasonably affordable: you pay the Dutch tuition fee, whereas American students often have to pay up to $50,000 per year. Also, students should realize that American universities are not only of interest to students with a focus on American literature: many American universities have a strong tradition in British literary studies. Stephen Greenblatt, for example, a leading expert on Shakespeare, is an American (he is a Professor at Harvard University, Ed.).

Do have you have a funny or memorable anecdote involving students you taught that you can share with us?
Oh, this is hard! But now that I think about it, something great happened quite recently. Last Friday, I went to Amsterdam to attend a lecture by Teju Cole, author of Open City, who was reading from his most recent book. Afterwards I was approached by a man whom I had met at a conference in Warsaw a couple of months earlier. Though he works in my field, I had somehow never met him until the Warsaw conference. He introduced me to the woman next to him, and to my surprise she knew exactly who I was. It was a bit embarrassing, because I recognized her face and name, but could not remember how I knew her. To make things worse, she said, “You know, you really changed my life!” It turned out that she had been an Art History student here at Leiden about 20 years ago – no wonder I did not immediately remember her! At that time I was coordinating an exchange program with the University of Texas at Austin, and one day, just as I was getting ready to go home at the end of the day, this student came to my office. She said she had just heard about the exchange program with UT Austin and would really like to sign up. She had just missed the deadline, but things were a bit more relaxed and less bureaucratic back then, so I gave her the application form and arranged that she could still apply for that round. She eventually got the scholarship, and had such a great time there that she later went back to Texas for her PhD degree. I remembered that because it does not occur very often, and over the years I would occasionally wonder what had happened to her. She now told me that she came back to the Netherlands ten years ago and started teaching in the Art History department at Radboud University in Nijmegen, where she still is. That really moved me: that such coincidences and small decisions, like allowing this girl to apply for a grant after the deadline has passed, can have such big, even life-changing, consequences. It was really nice to meet her again and hear her success story.

This event ties in with something else that happened recently: A little while ago, we got an email from our research insititute (LUCAS) about a poetry project: They want to put lines of poetry on the sides of the bridges connecting the buildings of Van Eyckhof, Van Wijkplaats and Matthias de Vrieshof. I suggested the last three lines of the poem “The Road Not Taken” by the poet Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in the wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I thought these beautiful lines would resonate well with literature students.

We conclude this interview with some exciting news that is here publicly announced for the first time: The lines from “The Road Not Taken” have been selected to grace the sides of the bridges over the Van Wijkplaats.

By Susanne Belonje and Birgitte Breemerkamp

The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.