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Interview with Frans Willem Korsten

Frans Willem Korsten is Professor of Literature and Society and works at the Department of Film- and Literary Studies. Most of you will know him from the second-year Introduction to Literary Theory core course. This course has been completely revamped this year, making use of the latest teaching methods and modern technology. So who is the man in those cool videos on Blackboard? The Angler went out to investigate.

What was your own time in university like?
When I was in high school I wanted to become a doctor, so I graduated in beta subjects like physics, chemistry, and biology. However, when the time came to fill out the university registration form and indicate which study I wished to register for, my hand moved to ‘Dutch Literature’ instead and ticked the box. It was not a conscious choice to study Dutch Literature, I suspect it had to do with my great love for reading. So I studied Dutch Literature at Utrecht University, and I definitely did not regret my choice. Literary Theory was not a separate scientific discipline in those days, but after graduating for the ‘kandidaats’ diploma (the equivalent of a BA degree) it was possible to choose Literary Theory as a so-called ‘kopstudie’. This Literary Theory course was taught by Mieke Bal (the legendary Literary Theory guru, Ed.). It was the first year that Mieke Bal started teaching and it was a very exciting time, both for her and for us students. As I was also interested in politics, I took a course in Sociology of Literature at the University of Groningen together with five fellow students from Utrecht. Sociology of Literature was strongly associated with Marxism, particularly in those days (the early 1980s, Ed.). After getting my ‘doctorandus’ diploma (equivalent to an MA degree), the logical next step was to do a PhD. However, after spending so many years in school and university, I wanted to get a job and do some ‘real work’. But this was difficult at the time, as unemployment was high in the mid-1980s. A year and a half later I landed in a job at a high school in Rotterdam. I very much enjoyed teaching and also set up a theatre company and staged some plays. After about six years, however, I got restless and decided to quit my job and pursue a career in academia instead. I did my PhD at the University of Amsterdam, under the supervision of Mieke Bal and Frans van Eemeren. After getting my PhD I started working here at Leiden University in 1998, and I have been working here ever since.
I am currently Professor of Literary Theory at the Department of Film- and Literary Studies. Since 2007 I hold the endowed chair in Literature and Society at the Erasmus University Rotterdam (Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication) and since 2013 I am connected to the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam as a parttime teacher. It sounds like I am travelling around much, but I spend most of my time working and teaching in Leiden. Even after all these years, I still feel very much at home here.

What was the topic of your dissertation?
For my Phd thesis I studied the interaction between narrative and argumentation in cultural criticism. I started out analysing how texts are narrated, but after two years I got into a big crisis and discovered that most narrations are, in fact, mixed forms. So I ultimately included argumentation and shifted the focus somewhat. My analysis of how texts are mixtures of narratives and arguments was never published and this has still not been studied enough, so one day I would like to pick it up again and complete this study.

You have completely changed the Literary Studies course this year. What changes have you made to the course?
Yes, it has become an entirely new course and I am very pleased with how it has turned out. In the new format, the focus has shifted from lectures in the classroom to online lectures on Blackboard, which students can watch whenever they want and as many times as they want. So it is more flexible. Students prepare for class by reading one or two articles and part of the reader, which are all made available on Blackboard. Furthermore, they must watch two short videos explaining a literary problem in distinct periods that concerns literature’s interaction with the political situation in a given time period. A third element is a short movie, the ‘analytical movie’, that introduces academic terms for text analysis and the concepts are applied to an example: either a book, a play, a painting, or a movie. The analytical movie also contains questions students have to answer, which they can do individually or collectively. Students then come to class and are given the opportunity to ask questions about the movies and discuss the questions posed in the ‘analytical movie’. As a result, the course has become much more interactive. Combining literature to politics is also a new element that I have added to the course, as this topic has always fascinated me.

Another new course that I set up explores the relationship between Literature and Law. It is called “Literature and the Questions of Doing Justice or Making Law”. In this course we look at the ways in which literature and law have been entangled from the very beginning in European and Western history. As for the term literature, we will take it to be synecdoche for the arts in general. The issues that we will be focusing on is how the arts have worked, throughout the centuries, on what one can call the limits of law. In the United States Literature and Law has been big and much studied for quite some time already, whereas here in Europe, and especially here in the Netherlands, it is only now emerging as an area of study. The manner in which our justice system is built up has been an important factor in limiting research into these matters. In addition, I am involved with developing a course for Urban Studies as part of a completely new BA, like International Studies, in The Hague, which explores the way the city is imagined and depicted.

You sound like a very busy man. Do you have any time left for hobbies?
Oh yes! I enjoy making music and play in a band, Zimihc, which is an acronym for “Zat ik maar in Hoog Catharijne” (I wish I were at Hoog Catherijne). Our songs are in Dutch and it will not come as a surprise that lyrics are very important for us. We started out as an avant-garde band – “Dada1 under the Dom”- doing all kinds of weird stuff, but over the years we have moved towards pop and work with translated texts. In case you are curious what our music sounds like: our latest album Anna vertaalt can can be acquired for free via an email to appiealferink@gmail.com. People can have a look at www.zimihc.com. It has been released on our private label and has been well received, among others by the Dutch music magazine Oor.

After several years the band, in the eighties, had become quite successful and we came at a crossroad: do we continue as an amateur band or do we go professional? Two band members wanted to go professional and two members wanted to stay amateurs, so the idea of going professional was abandoned. Instead, we decided to set up a foundation and used the money we made with the band to set up an Arts Centre in Utrecht, which also bears the name ZIMIHC and is very well-known locally (www.zimihc.nl, Ed.). When you Google our band name, you will probably find the Arts Centre much easier than the band. And beside of making music I also like jogging and playing squash.

What are your favourite novels?
Oh that is almost impossible for me to say! I do not have a favourite genre, and which books I like most tend to change over time. However, when I look at which books I pick up to re-read with a certain regularity, there are certain authors whose books I keep returning to: Maria Dermoût, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and many Russian authors. The last couple of years I also read many words by the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño. But I also find poets very important and like to look at texts in combination with music, such as opera and pop music.

What do you like most about teaching?
What I like most are when new, wonderful things happen during a class, which affect both myself and the whole group. When analysing poems, for example, the common way to do it is to give handouts to the students. What happens, then, is that students bow over the sheet and stare at it. This seriously limits the interaction between students and teacher. So I decided fairly quickly to take a different approach. I blow up the poem and hang it in the front of the classroom so that we can all look at the text together. I then ask students if they notice certain words or phrases that stand out, or if something about the poem that strikes them. This sounds very simple, but it has a profound effect: students would often note things I had never noticed before and this not only wows me, but the entire group.

A “mind is blown” feeling?
Yes, exactly! And this is not something I experienced once or twice, but many times. And I can still vividly remember each time this happened in detail: what the room looked like, who the students were… these are truly chronotopical moments (chronotopical moments are moments in which time and place fall together, Ed.).

Are there any other topics we have not discussed which you wish to bring up?
I think this is something that many of my colleagues experience as well: Over the years our research field has grown so big, there are so many things awaiting to be explored. But you just cannot find the time to study everything, or to study it in detail. Take TV series, for example. During this year’s Introduction to Literary Theory course, one of the students of English Language and Culture mentioned the TV series The Last Kingdom. I had never heard of it, so my curiosity was piqued and I have begun to watch it. And it is great, I very much enjoy it! In general, I think TV series are under-studied. More research should be done on them, especially now that series increase in popularity, particularly among young people.

Lastly, I would like to say that I am happy that the Introduction to Literary Theory course has been moved to the second year of the English Language and Culture bachelor programme. In the past it was taught in the third year and I encountered many frustrated, angered students who said: “Why did we not get this earlier?” I hope that the course, now that it is taught in the second year, will become more valuable and useful for students of English literature.

By Birgitte Breemerkamp


Notes

1. Dada, or dadaism, is an art movement of the European avant-garde in the early 20th century, which flourished in Paris. The Dada movement consisted of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and antibourgeois protest in their works. Source: Wikipedia