Educator – Dr Chris Gair – Issue 16

Dr Chris Gair is a Senior Lecturer in American Studies at Glasgow University.
KIRSTEN BUCHANAN is asking the questions.

What did you study at University and where did you go to do this?
   My first degree was in English Literature at Loughborough University. I think I went there as much for the sport as I did for the literature!
   My favourite courses there as I expected were the ones on American literature so once I’d finished I went on to Nottingham University and took an MA and a PhD in American studies. My PhD was on Jack London.

What was it that fascinated you about the American culture, what was it that got you hooked, just the literature or a combination of things?
   It’s a combination of things. That’s the joy of American studies that it enables you really to study any aspect of the United States that you want to.
   My initial work was pretty much literature-based but ever since then I’ve been focusing more and more on visual culture, on music. I published a book few years ago on the American counter-culture, which had chapters on literature, on cinema, on music, on painting and I’m particularly interested in that relationship between American art and American literature.
   I’m very lucky in the set-up at Glasgow so much so that I have the best of both worlds.
   I’m in English Literature as a subject but I also work in the Andrew Hook centre for American Studies so I can flit between the two as I see fit!

What do your students go on to do after graduating?
   If I listed all of the different careers then we could be here quite a long time! I was watching one of them last night on TV, who’s a professional poker player!
   Also remembering the first year that I taught American Studies, in my very first class of 12, I keep in touch with quite a few of them. One of them his first novel is about to be published. Another is a successful songwriter.
   A more recent American studies graduate is a journalist for The Times, another has just written a book about beer!
   It’s very broad, but I wouldn’t guarantee to anyone going into doing American Studies that they’ll end up doing one of those things.
   Quite a lot go into teaching, journalism is popular. But also something in terms of employability, it’s a very good degree in that it encourages you to think in many different directions, interdisciplinary ways.  I was speaking to a very successful businessman and he said that he would never, ever employ anyone with a business studies degree because their thinking is formulaic, but someone who has degree in American studies, or philosophy was the other example that he gave, he said that these are the best people to bring in because they’re creative, they’ll work out problems in new ways.

What are the major differences for students in Britain and students in America?
   I’ve had a couple of stays working in the US, University of Chicago and Yale, so I do have some experience with this. Glasgow has an exchange with Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, so we have Dartmouth students here and a lot of them chose to take American Literature when they come across to the UK.
   In the US they tend to take more courses and have more short assignments.
   In Glasgow, there are fewer courses with longer projects, which are submitted towards the end of the year.
   British students are encouraged to think for themselves more, particularly at undergraduate level, this changes with graduate students, whereas a lot of the American courses I’ve been involved with its a case of internalising critical work and then mapping out your own essay around that.

Do you travel to America a lot, where’s been your favourite places?
   Yes, I do go quite a lot. I was actually doing a count the other day; I think I’ve ticked off about 30 states, 20 to go! The favourite place is usually the one I’ve just been to.
   I always love going to Chicago, it’s a cultural centre. It has all of the things that I love, blues and jazz, of course, great art museums, fantastic architecture, one of the best universities and research libraries in the world, so all of those things are there.
   For very different reasons San Francisco. I spent many years, when I worked at university in Birmingham we had an exchange with the University of California and one of my more ‘onerous’ tasks was flying out to California in early January every year to visit smaller campuses. I’d probably single out Berkeley of course, but also Santa Cruz and San Diego.
   I was in Hawaii a couple of years ago, and maybe it’s not quite the intellectual hub that you would find in Chicago or New York or Boston but it still had its charm.
   Likewise I’ve always enjoyed going to the more rural parts of the US, Wisconsin a couple of years ago and then the same thing in Idaho.
   Just talking to local people and finding out what they think.

Do you find that a lot of students go to America after their studies and re-locate?
   Yes, quite a lot do. There are opportunities while they are students to do that, to go and live it and spend a semester or a year perhaps at an American university.
   Quite a lot do go back; a lot are desperate to get back to the campus where they lived when they were a student. But of course they travel around.
   I think there is that combination of fascination with America, the great love for its popular culture, coupled often with exasperation at its politics.

Some of your chief research has been in the ‘beat generation’, do you mind telling us a bit about that?
   I wrote my masters dissertation on Jack Kerouac, and then I put it to one side for a few years as I wrote my PhD on Jack London who was writing in the early years of the 20th century, although in lots of ways you could see him as a kind of proto-beat he hobo-ed across the United States and was a big inspiration for people like Kerouac.
   I then went back to it once I’d started work in American Studies. The beat always fascinated me. It’s hard to know why.
   I think as an undergraduate I was caught up in the excitement of a lot of the texts, and then it was only quite a few years later once I started reading them that I discovered the kind of philosophical complexities that are at work there.
   When I was an undergraduate many of the beat texts were out of print, whereas now it’s a major revival of interest. We’ve seen that in the adaptations of ‘On the Road’ and ‘Howl’ and many other texts, the fact that there always seems to be documentaries about them.
   I’m now holding in my hand the second volume of the ‘Journal of Beat Studies’, which just arrived yesterday, which shows the kind of academic interest in them as serious writers which simply didn’t exist even 10 or 15 years ago.
   And likewise now there’s a steady stream of students knocking at my door asking to write dissertations on them.

How has this course changed from when you were a student to now?
   I think that a lot was changing at that time. The 1970s, 1980s saw things like the emergence of multiculturalism, the challenge to the notion that all great literature, all culture was produced by the dead white males.
   That’s something that’s continued to be developed again in the 1980s, early 1990s.
   One of the biggest changes has been post 9/11. This has persuaded people to reconsider the United States’ place in the world.
   It’s produced an enormous volume of new literature and criticism. So a course that stops in the late 1980s wouldn’t be very much use now because of all that new material.
   There has been much more of a shift towards engaging with popular culture and recognising, and the beats are a great example of this, recognising that as an artist you can be serious and still engage with that.
   Probably a lot of that is to do with the beats and their immediate aftermath, somebody like Bob Dylan would be a great example of that, but there are also far younger artists who have emerged in the last decade or so who are working in this way.