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Plenary Interview: Vanessa Lim

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

Interview by Tony Ferguson (BritGrad 2021 Treasurer)

BritGrad2021 is less than a week away, and what better way to get into the mindset than to get to know your plenary speakers!

Starting us off is Vanessa Lim, who shares here experiences with teaching during the pandemic, her appointment to the board of Shakespeare Survey, as well as her current research. You can find her full bio here!

From September you will become a visiting scholar at the university of Fribourg. What are you most looking forward to about spending time in Switzerland? I am of course very excited about the prospect of cheese and chocolate! I am also really looking forward to meeting the great community of early modernists and Shakespeare scholars in Switzerland. Pleasingly, one of my supervisors also worked in the same department at Fribourg at the beginning of his career, so it feels nice to be (somewhat) following in his footsteps. You have edited a collection of poetry written by migrant workers in Singapore. Do you have a passion for poetry and do you write your own poems? I am especially pleased to have been a part of the project you mention, as all proceeds went towards supporting migrant worker causes in Singapore. It was a real privilege to edit the collection and work with the poets and translators. I did use to dabble in writing poetry, but those days are long behind me (and deservedly so, since I was never particularly good)! The only poems I write these days are Korean acrostic poems: I’m learning the language as a hobby, and it’s a fun word game I play with myself to help get my head around new vocabulary and grammar. Your forthcoming monograph Shakespeare’s Deliberative Art is concerned with ideas of classical rhetoric and moral / political decision making. To what extent does your work with Shakespeare connect to contemporary ethical issues? This is a great question! I’ve been thinking a lot recently about rhetorical color. This is a term with technical and non-technical definitions, and discussions vary across different rhetorical handbooks. But as the metaphor of colouring suggests, it can broadly refer to a kind of embellishment—a rhetorical ‘gloss’ or ‘varnish’—used to redescribe the morality of a person, a deed, or a course of action. Shakespeare uses this to great effect, for example, in Brutus’s soliloquy in the orchard, where a decision has already been made, and Brutus is searching for motives to justify it. In his speech, Brutus acknowledges that he has no personal cause to spurn at Caesar or personal knowledge of Caesar behaving tyrannically. So he applies some rhetorical color in order to ‘augment’ Caesar’s criminality and thus justify the assassination. I think there’s an interesting connection here to the modern concept of ‘spin’, which is more or less rhetorical redescription by another name. Paying attention to classical rhetoric helps us to see exactly what is going on in this scene and the specific strategies Brutus is using to fashion an understanding of Caesar for his purposes. In the same way, being alert to how an issue is being ‘spun’ helps us to see what is being redescribed, and gives us a more clear-eyed sense of what is at stake. Shakespeare Across Media is a ‘hot topic’ for discussion at the moment, particularly in the light of the restrictions imposed upon live performances. This year’s Britgrad conference is attempting to incorporate a traditional conference with elements of online performances and virtual networking opportunities. What do you feel are the most positive aspects we can take away from our time working and studying through a global pandemic? As it happens, I had the amazing opportunity to teach a module titled ‘Shakespeare Across Media’ last academic year at Maynooth University, which not only looked at adaptations of Shakespeare but Shakespeare across social and digital media too. Needless to say, our current circumstances played a big part in our discussions on this front. Students had the opportunity to submit a creative piece for their final assignment, and there was some really brilliant work which took this into consideration. One student, for instance, adapted Othello into a vlog in the style of breakup videos popular among YouTube influencers. If their amazing submissions are anything to go by, restrictions on live performances don’t diminish the way we can creatively engage with and perform Shakespeare. On a more general note, I feel that events are much more accessible than before now that they’re taking place online or adopting a hybrid approach like BritGrad. While in quarantine recently, I attended an online conference with participants from all over the world, and I will be joining BritGrad from a different timezone and a different continent. Increased ease and equality of access can only be a good thing, and as much as I miss travelling and seeing new places, I feel a bit better knowing that I’ve managed to keep my carbon footprint down. Congratulations on your recent appointment to the board of Shakespeare Survey. How important is this journal to the profession and particularly as a resource for early career researchers? Do you have any words of wisdom for students who are starting out on their journey? Thank you! I think Shakespeare Survey is absolutely crucial to the profession, so I’m extremely excited to be a part of its work. So many mainstays of Shakespeare criticism have appeared in the journal, and with its commitment to innovative, accessible, and international scholarship, I’m sure it will continue to remain at the forefront of our field. For early career researchers, Survey isn’t just a resource for important new scholarship, but also an avenue to submit your work for publication. In each issue, an article is made open access to help early career researchers and scholars of colour make their work more visible, so we want to hear from you! As you may know, my appointment (along with three other new additions to the board) is also part of the journal’s response to tackling the systemic structures that prevent scholars of colour from participating in academic publishing. This is something I feel especially strongly about addressing—both in my capacity as a board member and a scholar more generally—so I want to take this opportunity to encourage graduate students and early career researchers to consider submitting to the journal. As for words of wisdom, I don’t feel like I’m wise enough to offer any! But in terms of advice I wish I had when I was starting out… I think it’s important to remember that you are more than your academic career. It’s easy to let your work consume you (and especially so during this isolating time), but you’re more than the piece of research you produce at the end of your degree. Your academic successes and failures don’t define you as a person, so find joy in a hobby, a daily walk in the park, baking—something outside of your research that makes you feel happy and content.

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