Alumni Spotlight: Jennifer M. McMahon (Class of ’00)

See Jennifer’s Alumni Profile

Why did you choose to attend the Graduate Center?

There were three reasons.  The first is that Professor Charles Molesworth had been a visiting professor at Lafayette College while I was there.  I really liked him, and he had been very encouraging of my desire to go to graduate school.  I was interested in taking classes with him.  In addition, I really wanted to move back to New York, and I wanted to attend a public university to avoid incurring huge amounts of debt.

What memories stand out to you about your time in coursework?

I thoroughly enjoyed my classes at the Graduate Center. I did study under Professor Molesworth who taught a great theory seminar.  I took fascinating classes with Professor Luke Menand, including one that was co-taught with Professor John Brenkman who went on to be my thesis advisor.  I also trace my interest in narrative back to Professor Anne Humphrey’s Theory of Narrative class which fundamentally changed and vastly expanded how I think about narrative.  I was rarely bored, but in those moments of distraction, it was great to look out from the 40th floor of the Grace Building over New York City.  I love the new building, but I have to confess to also loving the seminar room on the 40th floor.

What memories stand out to you about your exam/defense experiences (the comprehensive exam, oral exam, language exams, defense)?

Frankly I found each and every one of those pretty challenging.  I worked very hard for each one.  That said, I thought each was incredibly fair.  I never felt like I was being asked something that wasn’t relevant or important (with the exception of the exam on Spanish grammar which has been of no use to me at all).  I think that’s a real credit to the program as each of those hurdles can devolve into a sense of just checking the box.  I didn’t feel that way walking out of any of those exams.  I felt like I had been asked to master material that was fundamental to building a strong foundation in the study of English literature and later my own interests and that what they were asking was relevant to that pursuit.  I think many students emerge from those exams, especially the comprehensive exam, feeling like time was wasted to check that box.  I did not feel that way and felt lucky to be in a program that took care with students’ preparation.

I enjoyed my dissertation defense.  While it did include some pointed questions, it evolved into a conversation about where the research could go next, what interesting questions it provoked.  It was so stimulating, and I remember walking out feeling much more like something new was beginning rather than something had just ended (though it was an enormous relief to have it behind me).  I had a great committee – Professors Brenkman, Menand, and Kelly – and each one brought such a different perspective to the table.  Their ideas were dynamic, provocative, challenging.  It was a great conversation.

What memories stand out to you about your time working on the dissertation?

What I most remember was the stark contrast between the research I did at the University of Michigan, which has a great Filipiniana collection, and the research I did in the Philippines.  While the scholars I worked with in the Philippines were unbelievably gracious (and remain so today), the various archives I was trying to access were in such terrible shape.  I would go from one archive (damaged in a flood) to the next (damaged in a fire) to the next (not catalogued).  In the end I found much more about the colonial educational system in the Philippines at the turn of the century in Ann Arbor than I did in Manila.

Also I remember how accommodating my committee was.  I was living in Hong Kong and Tokyo while I was working on my dissertation.  I would fly home three times a year and meet with each of the professors on my committee.  I would fedex my latest draft about 2 weeks in advance, and each professor was prepared with really thoughtful comments at every meeting.  This went on for a few years without interruption, and never did my living so far away cause a problem.  That said, it would have been great for me to be able to avail myself of their wisdom more often, but working in those concentrated doses helped moved my project along in a way that might not have happened if I had been in NYC.

Can you explain the trajectory of your career path since leaving the GC? What is your current position and how did you come to it? 

My career path is a bit funky.  As I have explained, I was living in Hong Kong and working at Hong Kong University while I was working on and when I finished my dissertation.  I had my first daughter just a few months before my defense, and my second daughter was born the following year.  As a result, I continued to work part-time at Hong Kong University rather than pursue a full-time position.  We moved back to New York at the end of 2001.  When my second daughter was almost a year old, I began teaching part-time at Hunter College.  The following year they asked me to work full-time as a Visiting professor.  I enjoyed that year but chose not to pursue full-time work again because by that point I was looking after both my young daughters and my mother who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Around that time I was asked to teach American literature in the Masters program at Hunter.  I loved that work as it was so intellectually stimulating and focused and continued to do that for several years, generally teaching material that was relevant to my research interests.  As everyone knows, it’s really hard to find adjunct work that is reliable and stimulating.  I should add that at that time my husband was in finance and doing well so I was lucky enough to not worry about the paltry pay.  I felt lucky to have part-time work that was important to me, was challenging and was fulfilling.

In 2009, we moved to Singapore.  At the time the National University of Singapore was in the midst of a hiring freeze.  In the end, that worked out well for me.  I re-connected with friends at the University of the Philippines and was encouraged to turn my dissertation into a book.  I spent about a year on that and to my delight the book was published in 2011 and went on to win the National Book Award for Literary Criticism in the Philippines.

In 2011, we moved back to Hong Kong.   While I had enjoyed being able to work on my book without the distractions and interruptions of teaching, I was by that point really anxious to get back to teaching.  I was lucky that most of the faculty who had been at Hong Kong University in 2001 were still there in 2011 and welcomed me back as an honorary assistant professor (a much nicer title than “adjunct” but essentially the same thing).  Since my arrival back in Hong Kong, I have been teaching American and Modernist literature.

There are times that I regret not pursuing a tenure track position but not often.  I went into the PhD program in English because I wanted to teach at the university level and pursue my own academic interests in literature.  Those were my two main goals, and the path I have taken has allowed me to do both.  At the moment I am working on a project about the challenge posed to American identity by the American colonization of the Philippines and the way that’s explored in American literature at the turn of the century, and I am working on the Modernism class I will teach in the fall.  This is exactly the kind of work I wanted to do.   Choosing this unorthodox path has allowed me to care for my family – both my daughters and my mother – in a way that would have been really hard otherwise.  And frankly, I’m not sure that I could have led this international life and held a tenure track job, and I have really enjoyed being an expat.  My life is much richer for having lived in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Singapore.  But I will always be someone who has one foot in and one foot out, and there are times when there is a fundamental insecurity to being neither fish nor fowl.

Do you have any other advice or insights for students who might pursue an academic position outside the U.S.?  (particularly at your location/institution in Hong Kong)?

Teaching abroad is a great experience.  Period.  You learn about the culture of your adopted homeland in a much more meaningful and concrete way and that enriches your whole life.  This is especially true when you have very little chance of mastering the local language which in Hong Kong is Cantonese—a dialect arguably more difficult than Mandarin.  Also, you learn a lot about yourself as most of your assumptions are called into question at one time or another.  I think teaching in Hong Kong also helped shape my teaching in New York as I felt more nimble, more confident when I went back to New York.  I had developed a professional maturity that I’m not sure I would have had if I had only taught at Lehman College throughout my whole education.  I learned a lot at Lehman as well, but teaching in Hong Kong gave my teaching more nuance and depth.  Also, I think it made me a more interesting candidate.  I would definitely encourage students to think beyond the borders of the U.S.  Hong Kong, in particular, pays much more than most starting positions in the U.S. so that is also a big draw, especially when grappling with student debt.  And it puts you in conversation with scholars who come from very different perspectives, and I think that is always helpful to shaping a deeper, more considered approach to your own research.