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Interview Lecturer at the English Department: Who is Lettie Dorst?

Background Information:

1999-2000 – Propedeuse, General Arts at Universiteit Utrecht (Cum Laude)
2000-2003 – BA, English Language & Culture at VU A’dam (Cum Laude)
2003-2005 – MA, ICT & Translation at VU A’dam (Cum Laude)
2005-2011 – PhD Student at VU A’dam (use of metaphors in literature)

It’s a Monday afternoon when I meet with the newest addition to our beloved English Department: Lettie Dorst. She is our new Language Acquisition lecturer, teaching LA1, LA2, LA5 (stylistics), LA6, and Translation English-Dutch (minor).

I asked her about her experiences at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) both as a student and as a lecturer, her PhD project, and her time here in Leiden, and compiled a list of her ‘favorites’. The conversation flew by comfortably and easily which meant that though I did not directly ask all of the questions that are written here.

To start off, what type of student where you in university?
I was the type of student who was always extremely nervous about exams and who then always got the highest grade. I’m sure even my friends found that annoying. They would say ‘you always complain but you do so well!’ I was a perfectionist, but also easily distracted, talking with friends in class. The lecturers seemed to be OK with it though, as long as we stayed on topic and did the work. I loved being at the university and involving it in my everyday life: hanging around with friends, having tea, having lunch, talking to the lecturers. I simply enjoyed being there and didn’t feel like I had to be there.

Did you do a lot of extracurricular activities?
I was a member of the study association at the VU along with 6 of my friends, and I was the editor of the paper for English. My friends and I revived the association, first as an “underground” board and then officially. We merged slightly with other humanities boards (we were all friends) and organized events together, such as a James Bond trip to Istanbul (Turkey). We were very active, organizing whiskey tastings, bowling nights, pub crawls, and movie nights. We sometimes invited teachers to give lectures but it was mostly just for fun.

To my knowledge at least, the English Department at Leiden does not offer (many) courses on research methodology. How did you prepare for the research part of the PhD?
I kind of fell into it. I was approached by a teacher who said: “There is going to be a huge metaphor project and I would like you to be on the team”. I thought, “Research for 5 years? Well, it will give me something to do for the next few years.” I had been working at a translation agency for a year and I loved translating but I wanted a challenge. I wanted to learn something new. I was doing the same every day, and getting better at it every day, but nothing really new. I wanted to go back to researching, studying and reading. The project seemed the perfect way to do that.

What was the easiest / hardest part of the research?
I was lucky that the project was already there, so I didn’t have to design the project, formulate the research question or anything. The project was there and we just had to do it. There are both benefits and drawbacks to that. It’s easy because you can just start right away and you don’t have to go through the whole thinking/creation process. It’s harder because you are forced to do it the way they designed it. The first year that’s fine, the second year you start to think “I would have done this differently”, or “I disagree”, or “I don’t want to do that”, but then you have to because it’s not your project.

Would you want to set up your own project?
I’m trying to set up some projects but finding funding is very difficult. I have tried some big fellowships but you can always tell that internationally speaking my research topic isn’t that ‘hot’. It’s linguistics, and mostly corpus linguistics. And timing is everything. When my supervisor applied for the big project metaphor was hot; right now it’s all about forensic linguistics.

In the Netherlands it’s easier to get a PhD position at the same university as you did your MA. Dutch universities often prefer their own. Internationally this is very “not done”.

What parts of doing the research did you enjoy the most?
I really enjoyed doing the manual analyses. We took large corpora and manually analyzed each word. It sounds horrible but that is really what I liked. Looking at a text, and word by word say “yes, no, maybe”, classifying the word as a metaphor or not. We had group discussions as there were 5 of us, including the supervisor. We would sometimes spend an hour discussing one word, whether it was a metaphor or not. Our project was unique because it was four different PhDs working on the same thing with different texts. I really enjoyed that because I enjoyed working together, talking about the method, the materials, everything we were doing. If you’re in a team you always have to find the happy medium.

Were there times then when you wished you were doing this on your own?
I never had the feeling I wanted to do it alone, though one or two of the PhDs might have wanted to. Some may have thought that it was going too slow and that it would go so much faster if they didn’t have to discuss everything. Other PhDs were sometimes jealous of us because we always had someone to talk to about the project. Someone who understands exactly what you mean and who can help you and give you feedback. It was also stressful, because you have four competitors. But I was already close friends with two of the other PhDs before we started, so that made it easier. It is quite traditional to have one person working on one project. Working in a group is very beneficial. Having larger projects with more PhDs may be the future.

To quote a part of the abstract of your dissertation; “[it] shows that fiction – contrary to popular beliefs – was not the domain with the most linguistic metaphors. The fiction texts [in the corpus] contained few linguistic metaphors than the news texts and the academic texts. In addition, the majority of metaphors in fiction were highly conventional rather than innovative or attention-grabbing. Nevertheless, fiction was characterized by a relatively large number of direct expressed metaphors (similes) and creative and deliberate personifications.” – What does this mean for us, students and lecturers, in practice?
I think that it shows that a part of what makes ‘literature’ literature is the fact that people know that people know that they are reading literature. They are very aware of everything that stands out. As soon as they see a metaphor they realize they see is, they think about it, and they think about what the author meant by it. When they have finished reading they feel that there were many “deep” metaphors in the text when there might have been just 4 or 5 of those in 500 pages.

I think what my research showed was that it was not a matter of numbers but more of the attention you give the metaphors you see. We somehow assign more importance to them, probably because we’re reading fiction. In a news text there are many more metaphors. But people think about news as being objective and about facts; they ignore the fact that they read metaphors. Sometimes it stands out to much that they say “this writer uses a lot of metaphors”, but it happens in almost all the news texts. Fiction contains more direct metaphors (similes), which tend to stick in your memory – making you think you read many metaphors.

What I to show is that most of it is conventional, part of everyday language; it is not special or unique. People studying metaphor have a tendency to ignore all of that because it is not considered interesting. If you only show the results that are interesting and present them as if they’re representative of the whole field, then you’re not being honest. I took 12 random novels and I did not find that much. That says a lot. It shows that if you have an author that uses a lot of metaphors then that author is probably rather unique.

I saw that you are now also researching metaphors used in health communication. That’s where I want to go, yes. That’s what you’re trying to get the funding for? Yes. Why health communication?
It basically caught my attention that whenever you read about HIV (this was around the World Cup), it’s always about prostitutes and drug users. The very negative language that was used to talk about people with HIV I thought was interesting.

When you listen to health institutions they warn us that in the Netherlands it is adolescents and people who start dating again after their 50’s who are at risk. So there’s a big discrepancy between how we talk about people with HIV and who are at risk. I thought it would be interesting to see how metaphor could play a role in that. Do we distance ourselves from these people by using metaphor?

What are you expecting to see in your results?
I don’t know yet! Hahaha. I’m still trying to figure out which disease and what kind of texts to use. I’m still trying to figure out where I want to go.

What is the added value of the use of metaphor in health communication?
Take internet fora for cancer patients. What you see is that the people writing those texts aren’t realizing that they are using metaphors at all. They don’t see “fight against cancer” as a metaphor. Metaphor studies have tried to make policy makers aware that the language you use to talk about a problem determines how you deal with it. If you see immigration as a disease or a tsunami, it determines how you try to handle the problem. Regarding HIV, especially with young people, if you use the wrong language to talk about the disease they’ll think that it doesn’t apply to them.

OK. So let’s move on to University of Leiden. What made you choose Leiden University as your new workplace?
Well… I really liked the job. That was basically the main reason to apply here. I also just needed to be somewhere else. I did everything at VU (BA, MA, PhD, teaching), it was really time to go. I think it’s good to work at a different university. It’s nice to have new colleagues, new input, and new ideas. The students are different as well.

What do you think about Leiden University so far? And how does it compare to the English Department and VU Amsterdam?
I really like being in a full English program again. The VU now has a broad bachelor without separate language programs. We attracted many communications students who didn’t see English as their priority. It was something they found useful, a tool to get somewhere else. They wanted to work in PR, communication or marketing, and they thought English would be useful. I often felt they thought “I don’t care” and “it’s not practical so I can’t do anything with it.” It slowly creeps in it you let go of that holistic English program.

You mentioned earlier that the students are different. What are the main differences between the students of LU and VU?
Somehow the combination of linguistics and literature attracts a different type of student than linguistics and communication sciences. The students at LU seem to be more interested in everything to do with English. I’m not saying that the students are worse or better, just different. As a teacher you have to find out where you fit in, and I like the program in Leiden. I don’t want to lose the connection with literature or see English only as a tool.

What do you enjoy the most about this new job?
The cohesiveness between the subjects. The people are very friendly here and enthusiastic, both lecturers and students. It’s more relaxed here, probably in part because LU has more students and the rules are less strict; Leiden seems to be happy to be a bit chaotic.

I know you have not been here for a very long time yet, but if you had the power to change the course module of English Language and Culture, what would you change?
Oooh… I don’t think I have seen anything I’d want to change. But I am not entirely in tune with everything yet. I’d probably add something on metaphor.

was going to ask something about that… As your research results showed the metaphors used in fiction are not groundbreaking or imaginative. I’ve noticed that we as students get little chances to write creatively / freely, non-academic stories. Do you think that offering us courses in creative writing / or letting us write more freely in some classes would increase the use of new metaphors, and encourage us to come up with original metaphors in fiction?
Yeah. Probably. I’ve also tried to incorporate some creative writing in the stylistics course. I think it’s a way to show students that linguistics in not only describing language, but also taking it as a tool and doing something with it. For instance, with point-of-view; why would you have to study all the different points-of-view in fiction? One reason is that when you write a novel/short story you have to think about which effect point-of-view will have. I think metaphor is a part of that. If you make people more aware of how to use metaphor they can do more with it, in any kind of writing they do.

Would you prefer to have a course in that then (stylistics)? As 4-5 weeks in a LA5 course is quite little.
I would love to have a whole 10-12 week course on that! I think it would be very interesting to do. Then combine analysis and creative writing. I think creative writing is one of the best ways to learn English other than essay writing. I don’t know if there’s a course on genre analysis. That would probably be one thing I would add. Genre analysis is also one of my hang-ups.

Thank you very much for answering all those. We are nearly done. I just have a few trivia questions / personal fun facts. A couple of favorites:

Book: Lord of the Rings. The first one. Except for the first chapter. I hate the first chapter, I always skip it. Even in the movie it annoyed me.

Quote: The quote that best reflects my outlook on life are the first two lines from one of Tolkien’s poems in LOTR: “All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost;”** Shrek: Ogres are like onions! Donkey: They stink? Shrek: Yes... No! Donkey: Oh, they make you cry? Shrek: No! Donkey: Oh, you leave ‘em out it the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs… Shrek: NO! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.

Metaphor: That’s a tough one, but my favorite example is definitely from Shrek, as it brilliantly demonstrates how versatile the meaning of metaphors is, even when expressed as a simile.

Superhero: Rogue (only in the comics, not in the movies). Ironman, only in the movies. Favorite fantasy character would be Aragorn.

Dish: Homemade pizza. With meat, nothing vegetarian.

Country for vacationing: Definitely Scotland.

Do you have any advice for the students here?
If you have international ambitions, do your BA, MA (and PhD) at different institutions, especially if you want to work in the UK or US. Internationally it is considered “academic incest” to do all of your studies at the same university; it’s typically Dutch. If you have the chance to go abroad – do so right away.

As the interview came to an end I left Dr Dorst’s office quite cheerfully. In that hour I had laughed a lot and felt very comfortable throughout. I, for one, am looking forward to her classes later this semester in LA5. I am sure that they will be thought-provoking and a lot of fun.<

By James Lokas

** These answers were sent in an e-mail at a later date.