Gatepost Interview: Kelly Matthews, English professor
By Nadira Wicaksana
What is your educational and professional background?
I went to college at Harvard and I majored in English. I wrote my senior honors thesis about W. B. Yeats, which I guess was a turning point. I was doing American literature up until that point. I hadn’t really thought about studying Irish literature before. I also considered being a French major – I got the chance to be an exchange student in Belgium when I was in high school ... I kept up with the language, but in terms of literature, I found that writing papers in French was less fun than having conversations in French. ... That’s why I became an English major, and later, shifted focus to Irish literature and studied in Ireland for a year, but then went off the academic track for a while. I volunteered at a peace center in Northern Ireland, which was really formative for me. It was during the final year of the Troubles ... I never thought the Troubles would end. I got the sense that nobody thought it was going to end. It had
been going on for 30 years, so people my age had grown up with it, including my husband, who’s from Northern Ireland. ... I got really interested in doing youth work and decided to become a high school teacher back in the United States. I moved to Boston, taught at Boston public schools, then taught at UMass Boston, then realized I needed to play the game and get a doctorate if I wanted to stay teaching at the college level. So, I moved back to Ireland, not just to get my doctorate – my husband wanted to go back and we ended up living back at the same peace center where I had worked before. ... Living there meant living in a remote, absolutely beautiful, almost postcard-perfect environment, but very different from having lived in Boston and Cambridge for so many years. I finished my doctorate there in Irish
literature with a focus on the 1940s period, and was lucky enough to see there was a job opening here at Framingham for someone who had a literature background, but also had high school teaching experience. I had also trained student teachers at UMass Boston, so the position here was really a perfect fit for me.
You studied in Ireland as well as the United States. What do you think are some major
One is the idea of general education – that’s a very American idea. In Ireland and the UK, when you go into college, you have to pick your major from day one, and you really only take classes in that major. So, I think that means you don’t get as much interaction even with other students who are studying other things. On the flip side, you get a real sense of focus and depth, which is what’s valued in their system. We grumble about having to take gen ed requirements, but I still think of some of the ones I took in undergrad, like the economics one I took. I really didn’t have to because I was an English major, but now when I read the newspaper or listen to the news, I often find myself going back to things I learned in that gen ed class on economics. ... I wouldn’t have learned that if I had only taken literature
classes. I think another difference is the kind of assumed life of the student, if that makes sense. ... There’s still the sense of the archetypal poor student in Ireland – students don’t always live in dorms. They certainly don’t have cafeterias where food is cooked for them. If you live in a dorm in Ireland, you have a kitchen you share with other students, and it’s expected that you cook all your own meals. So, students tend to live and eat very cheaply. There’s a little more correlation between there and places like Framingham State, where most students are working and paying their way through college. Students over there are also working to put themselves through college and living as frugally as they possibly can to really prioritize their studies, and that sense of value is something that I really like about
our Framingham campus and Irish universities where I’ve studied.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have two big ones – one is that I’m hosting the American Conference for Irish Studies, which is serendipitously happening over spring break this year. We set the dates four years ago before I even knew when spring break would be. I’m really excited – there’s an opportunity for Framingham State students to come and participate in the conference and to volunteer at the conference, and I’m really grateful that there’s a particular alumna who has made that possible through some funding that she’s provided. ... That’s going to bring professors and graduate students from really all over the world – but especially from the United States and Boston – to the Park Plaza for four days to share what they’re working on, to share teaching ideas. We do panels all day and present our research. A lot of conversations are sparked during those panels – I hear about new writers. I’m also writing a book about the Irish playwright Brian Friel and how he got started as a writer, and I’m about halfway through that
What is some advice you have for FSU students?
Learn from each other as much as you learn from your professors. College is an amazing experience where people are brought together who might not be together in other scenarios for the rest of their lives. Learn from the person who’s sitting next to you in class. Learn from the person you’ve never talked to before, also. Take the opportunity to see what your peers are doing, to go to performances on campus, to start conversations with people in the library or other people in clubs. Meet someone new and ask them questions and find out where they’re coming from.