Interview with Martin Crowley

© Martin Crowley and Figure/Ground
Dr. Crowley was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. December 20th, 2012.

Dr. Martin Crowley is Reader in Modern French Thought and Culture in the Department of French at Cambridge. His current research examines responses to crisis and catastrophe in the work of modern French thinkers. He is the author of: L’Homme sans: Politiques de la finitude (Lignes, 2009); with an afterword by Jean-Luc Nancy); The New Pornographies: Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (co-authored with Victoria Best; Manchester University Press, 2007); Robert Antelme: L’humanité irréductible (Lignes/Éditions Léo Scheer, 2004); Robert Antelme: Humanity, Community, Testimony (Legenda, 2003), and Duras, Writing, and the Ethical: Making the Broken Whole (OUP, 2000); and the editor of Contact! The Art of Touch/L’Art du toucher (L’Esprit Créateur, Fall 2007), and Dying Words: The Last Moments of Writers and Philosophers (Rodopi, 2000).

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

It was mostly a matter of keeping going with what I enjoyed, to be honest: free, critical thinking, and engaging teaching. I made a conscious choice to come back into academia to do a PhD; after that, I just kept on down the track.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

As an undergraduate, I was tutored by Prof. Nicholas Mann, who taught me the intellectual value of a combination of imagination and rigour; I was also taught by Prof. Ann Jefferson, who later became my PhD supervisor, and from whom I learned both how to mix theoretical understanding with detailed literary analysis, and how to work with clarity. During my PhD, I had the good fortune to work with Prof. Malcolm Bowie, whose joy in creative thinking, and ability to make room for this within academic institutions, were inspiring to me and to many others. My PhD examiners (Prof. Colin Davis and Prof. Leslie Hill) have been major influences throughout my career so far, teaching me in particular the patience of detailed thought.

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

More external scrutiny; plus, decisively, an ever-expanding administrative load.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by attention deficit and information overload?

The core components are pretty much the same as ever, I should think: commitment to the development of students as independent, critical thinkers; interest in students as already insightful thinkers; love of subject and ability to open up what’s fascinating in it to new minds. If anything, this kind of contact is less common in a faster-moving and information-saturated context; bringing students into relation with dynamic thinking through teaching which respects and engages them can already attract attention by its rarity value alone.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

To be honest, any advice I might have is rather negative, or at least to do with self-protection: the pressures involved in getting and then doing an academic job are such that I wouldn’t recommend anyone to go into this line if they aren’t aware of these pressures and reasonably prepared to face them. I’d certainly advise anyone thinking of an academic career to have a good look at their motives before committing themselves.

Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?

In the UK, the public university is certainly under threat as an independent institution free to pursue learning for its own sake, with the removal of state funding for arts and humanities courses and the consequent attempt to impose market-style competition between universities, the weighing-down of students with large and ill-calculated (by the government) amounts of debt, and the socially-divisive effects of widely-differing fee levels between institutions, not to mention government attempts to align research funding priorities with partisan slogans. I don’t see the age of information as a particular threat, to be honest; certainly not compared to this. (Much of which I imagine may perhaps look pretty run-of-the-mill from a North American perspective.)

Francis Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. He believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion?

I’m not convinced by Fukuyama’s argument (not for the first time). It hardly seems likely that a reduction in job security throughout the sector will produce greater innovation and risk-taking, or indeed a greater desire or ability to communicate beyond the academy. Abolishing tenure will tend to make academics even more dependent on seeking external favour and finance, reducing freedom and hardly encouraging daring work.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Martin Crowley
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “Interview with Martin Crowley,” Figure/Ground. December 20th. < >

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