Information Services Office   4.4.2012


Prof. Simon N. Haines
Newsletter No. 395 > Thus Spake… > Prof. Simon N. Haines, Chairman, Department of English

Prof. Simon N. Haines, Chairman, Department of English


You once mentioned that there is a shared values crisis across our increasingly globalized and materialistic world. How can the Department of English respond to this crisis?

Any humanities department can and should be responding to this crisis. The world is increasingly secular and obsessed with the immediate, as well as increasingly materialistic. This means that an increasing proportion of our values conversation and reflection has to take place somewhere other than in the religious or spiritual spheres, where a good deal of such reflection has traditionally happened. It has been recognized in European literary scholarship for a long time, at least since the Romantic era, that great literature, along with the evaluation and discussion of it, has always been one vital place, maybe the most vital of all places, where this can happen. But you could say the same of philosophy, or historical studies, or quite a number of the ‘liberal arts’: including of course the study of religion itself. In any case it seems that a great university should aspire to being a place where such values conversations and recognitions happen widely and regularly. We try to play our part in filling this values space by helping our students understand and work with probably the most influential of all the world’s modern languages and literatures. Like any language and any literature, English has values concepts and dilemmas almost coded into its DNA; students can’t help but come to terms with them in some way. Teaching is by far the most important thing we do. Our job isn’t to ‘teach values’ in some way: but part of it is certainly to make our students aware of the complex values-world we all live in.

What’s in the pipeline for the department in the next couple of years?

Same as everyone else in the University: a double cohort, a new curriculum and a certain amount of financial uncertainty! We have revised our course offerings to reflect the new (or returning) four-year curriculum, and we are looking for new resources to provide our students with more opportunities for experience in native-English-speaking environments. Our Shakespeare Festival has become a landmark annual feature of the university calendar on the mainland and in our region, and we’re hoping to build on that success too. We are especially keen to expand our postgraduate offerings, since with its large number of native English speakers allied with its ‘Chinese University’ title the department is an attractive destination for mainland postgraduates. Meanwhile we are in the later stages of developing a new ‘capstone course’ for our final-year undergraduates which we hope will help them pull together and reflect on everything they have learnt with us, and then present their findings in a ‘mock-interview’ setting which will help prepare them for job interviews and presentations.

You have written extensively about how the modern self is made and how it evolved over time. Could you tell us about your latest writing project?

My most recent focus is the concept of redemption in the works and lives of Romantic poet William Wordsworth and philosopher Immanuel Kant. We’re all sinners. Christ died in order to redeem us. But what happens when the Christianity that says these things is no longer a faith for most people? These concepts live on in a secular environment. Redemption as nature-worship in Wordsworth shows how this formerly Christian concept can mutate. In my book on The Making of the Post-Christian Imagination, due out later this year or early next, I discuss a secularized concept of redemption in Wordsworth and Kant.

Why Wordsworth?

It was during the Romantic period (1780-1830) that for the first time in history, poets started to think of their writing as redemptive. But for poetry to feel redemptive, it had to become less poetic and more philosophical, or argumentative. The most representative figure of that kind of poetry in English was William Wordsworth. Wordsworth’s poetry imbues rocks, rivers and landscapes with moral qualities as it pleads for the conversion of others and of himself to a state of moral goodness through a belief in poetry. And conversion, or for that matter, salvation, atonement and forgiveness, are just some of the manifestations of an underlying desire for redemption. So while Christ paid with his life, language was the poet’s ‘coinage’, what he paid with by spending his life writing it.

What’s it like teaching English majors at CUHK?

As any university teacher will understand, this is the most important and enjoyable thing we do. Talking about something you regard as the most important subject in the world (which is how we all tend to think of our disciplines) to intelligent young people who are there specifically to learn about it—this has to be as good as it gets in life! Writing books and papers is rewarding in a different way, but it isn’t the same as reaching those minds directly in the classroom, or at least trying to. Socrates said this: no writing is as important as the direct impression made on the soul of the listener. But as for teaching at CUHK, as opposed to other universities, my only comparisons are with universities in the UK and Australia. I’d say that there one could naturally assume a greater breadth and depth of reading in English, and more familiarity with the idea of critical disagreement. But here there is a higher general level of enthusiasm and the wish to succeed and do well, in a subject which may have an important bearing on one’s success in any future career. CUHK has some top-quality English majors, and whether or not they are planning on academic careers (many of our best graduates do not become academics) they know that fluency in English will make a big difference to them. Also, it’s often more interesting to teach in a field where the students still have a great deal to learn. They are appreciative, and the teacher for his or her part is obliged to think more carefully and broadly about the subject.

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