It is hard to not get excited about welcoming new faculty. It’s even harder to restrain one’s enthusiasm when the new faculty are so fantastically interesting. This is definitely the case with Dr. Lai-Tze Fan, who joins us this fall. In advance of arriving, Dr. Fan was gracious enough to chat with me about itchy academic projects, guilty pleasures, and Game of Thrones trivia. Read on to find out more…
JLH: Firstly, welcome to UWaterloo! You’ve lived in Waterloo before, but it wasn’t a straightforward path to our department–more circuitous, than anything. Can you tell us a bit about that?
LF: I did indeed previously live in Waterloo—I did my Master’s in English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier, which is just down the street. While that Program allowed me to dapple in media studies, my interest in digital media in the context of literary studies led me to apply to be an OVGS (Ontario Visiting Graduate Student), so that I could take a graduate course at U Waterloo. I took “New Media Genres,” which was my first exposure to many scholars in digital media studies, as well as the first time I’d been challenged to think critically about everyday online texts and spaces including blogs, digitized texts, or Twitter. I have fond memories of being a graduate student in Kitchener-Waterloo: getting together with friends at the Duke (of Wellington) pub, catching up on my readings at Café 1842, and going to Oktoberfest! Waterloo has changed so much in the time I’ve been away. For starters: I hardly remember any buildings higher than three floors! Now the food options, transit growth, and cultural fabric have all expanded and I’m delighted to be back to experience it.
It was quite the circuitous path after my MA. The short version is that I did my PhD in Toronto, moved to Germany while I finished my PhD, completed a Postdoc in Montréal, and was then lucky enough to have a tenure-track job at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, where my father was born. The travels have been exciting, but I am grateful to be coming home to Canada and to be back in the KW. (:
JLH: I was on the hiring committee, so I do know what you’re up to, but for others, could you share a bit about your current research project?
LF: My research combines literary studies (primarily narratology and contemporary literature), media studies (including digital humanities and media archaeology), and cultural studies. I’ve written and published in all of these areas, but right now I’m focusing on two major projects. The first is called Unseen Hands: A Material History of Women and Technology in 20th/21st Writing Machines. This project traces an alternate literary history in which the material labour of women–the secretaries, muses, and wives of important literary figures—is represented as having been as invisible as the labour and production of material technologies. The second project is called Open (Re)source, a research-creation project that focuses on mediating key issues of material sustainability by building an interactive narrative platform. The project aims to allow everyday users to be reflexive about the different roles of materiality in digital infrastructure—from minerals to processors, from interfaces to open source.
JLH: I’ve been telling graduate students to pay attention to what itches, meaning those things that have potential, but you don’t know what to do with them yet. Still, they keep insistently making themselves known. Do you find that being sited in different locations has created more of these insistent “itches”?
LF: My itch is circuitous and involves a lifelong pull towards being an artist. There was a time I abandoned painting for words, but ultimately I’m a visual thinker and I itch to make pictures.
Actually, this is how I became interested in research-creation, as during my time in art and start-up heavy Montréal, I combined my training as a youth in fine arts and crafts (I sew and cross-stitch. A lot.) with some of my research interests, including, for example, the history and labour of textiles and clothing in global contexts. While this is often gendered work, what is more important to me is that this is often invisible work, unseen work—only the consumed product is encountered with. I itch towards making again, combining maker culture as a technological trend full of ethical and environmental issues with the work of making with one’s hands. Another visual itch: I’m interested in writing and directing a film or two in the future.
JLH: Do you see UWaterloo as offering certain advantages in terms of your work?
LF: Absolutely! The ways in which my work can be situated in UWaterloo is something I tried to emphasize during my interview, especially in the English Department. I know that UW is renowned for its science/engineering, and in English, that kind of practical application can take the form of praxis of critical ideas. For instance, UWaterloo’s co-op program aims to situate students in real-life scenarios towards educational/experiential growth, and that’s the kind of integrated and engaged work I seek to perform myself as well as to teach. And of course, Kitchener-Waterloo is a true tech hub of Canada and pulls in international attention all the time. I remember how exciting it was in 2010 when Stephen Hawking had visited the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.
JLH: Book recommendations are always welcome: what have you been reading for fun in the past year?
LF: As a theorist of media, maybe I’ll offer a few varieties: books, films, and online “texts.” Print books I’ve been reading are Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media and Zadie Smith’s NW. I also really like biographies, and have been re-reading Stacy Scriff’s Véra (about Véra Nabokov) and Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette. Recently I’ve been watching Stanley Kubrick and Louis Malle films, and re-watching the Harry Potter series. Online, I spend an unhealthy amount of time watching badly acted historical documentaries on Netflix and YouTube. Look up “Britain’s Bloody Crown” on YouTube, on the War of the Roses. Trashy goodness. Trivia fact: the family rivalries between the Starks and the Lannisters in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is based on the War of the Roses’ rivalry between the Yorks and the Lancasters. 😉