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Plenary Interview: Justin Shaw

Interview by: Bethany Gaunt (BritGrad 2021 Registrar)



Continuing with our plenary introductions for BritGrad 2021, we present an interview with Justin Shaw! He shares with us the challenges of moving and starting a new position during a pandemic, a sneak-peak of his current work regarding accessibility and inclusion in Shakespeare, as well as some advice for future PGR graduates!


For his official bio, click here!



From your career to date, what work are you most proud of?

My dissertation, Race and Melancholy in Early Modern English Literature, showed me that I could finish a thing. I became an English major in college, at Morehouse College, because I wanted to be a novelist, not an academic. I wrote all these ideas in journals for stories and TV scripts over the years. But I never finished any of them. I would always get side-tracked. Writing the dissertation (thesis) felt daunting at first. I had no clue what one looked like when I started my PhD at Emory University. But then I found a few online and printed them out to get a tangible sense of what this genre could ultimately look like, feel like, when completed. Writing the dissertation had its uphill and downhill moments, curves and corners. But in the end, I finished it. Writing a substantial piece of scholarship was one thing. Finally putting the finishing touch on a work of literature that had, to some extent, a beginning, middle, and end, and that I could call my own -- that was another. It wasn’t so much the content of the dissertation that I was most proud of; it was the completion of the artifact itself that had more significance. I finished it -- of course with the support and encouragement of a village -- and it felt extremely validating and justified.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve overcome in your academic career so far?

The first thing that comes to mind: finishing my PhD, moving across the country, and starting a tenure track faculty position all in the middle of a global pandemic. While these things happened, I don’t see them in the frame of “overcoming.” It’s extremely difficult to make the immediate transition from graduate student to faculty member in a normal year. Those difficulties were multiplied exponentially during the (still ongoing) COVID-19 pandemic. There’s the psychological shift that begins to occur, from thinking of yourself as a student to thinking of yourself (and being addressed) as a professor. There’s a huge economic shift that happens, too, somewhat overnight -- from relative poverty to the middle/professional class. There’s a geographical shift that happens (due to the limited nature of the job market) of possibly moving thousands of miles away from home, loved ones, and/or social communities to take up a new job in the profession in an unfamiliar place. There’s the establishing of new networks, navigating new spaces, and building new social communities that can be difficult for anyone at anytime, but especially those living with mental illness and disabilities. There’s the professional shift of learning a new work environment and establishing new routines. All these are real experiences that were greatly exacerbated, complicated, or postponed by the pandemic. And it makes anything under the umbrella of scholarly productivity and teaching incredibly and continuously difficult.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am starting my second year as a tenure-track assistant professor of English. However, in many ways, it feels like the first year given that my actual first year was dampened by the global pandemic. I’m preparing to teach on campus and engage in faculty meetings, student advising, and university service for the first time at this level. I’m organizing my syllabi and designing new undergraduate courses. It’s quite a lot to wrap my mind around, and a lot to adjust to if I’m honest. Thus, I’m trying to hold space – and I encourage everyone else to do the same -- for rest and mental health. I suppose I should mention that I’m writing articles and working -- albeit slowly -- on my monograph. And I am doing those things. I’m working on an article about the work of antiblackness and disability in Shakespeare’s Richard III, an edited volume about accessibility and inclusion in Shakespeare, and a monograph about the relationship between melancholy and racial identification.

What advice would you give to graduates looking to pursue a career in academia?

Prepare early by diversifying your portfolio. You can absolutely go through (post)graduate school and get by simply excelling in your seminars, passing your exams, completing your dissertation/thesis, presenting at a conference or two, and maybe publishing an article. By most standards, that is success, and it’s something to be quite proud of. But it probably won’t guarantee you any success on the job market. Think about ways to extend and apply your research in unusual and non-traditional outlets. Try on digital and public scholarship. Think about how to connect with scholars and activists working in the public sphere to get your scholarship and pedagogy out in the community beyond the university. It’ll help you become a better communicator, and you’ll gain a much richer insight into the real stakes of your own work. Moreover, it’ll give you something interesting and personal to write about in your application statements and to talk about with colleagues and students when you start interviewing on campuses for jobs.

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