Gail Fincham

Professor Emerita

Professor Emerita Gail Fincham: In Conversation…

“I do miss teaching…” For Professor Gail Fincham this is one of the few complaints about ‘retirement’, which for the past three years has been an enjoyably busy, challenging and productive time of writing, editing, supervision and research.

Officially retired in December 2011, having begun teaching English at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1984, Professor Fincham wants in 2015 to resume a mentoring role with first-year English students. She has always felt they require particular support in this crucial stage of their development. Her own interaction with good teachers, as an undergraduate at Columbia and an MA student at Tel Aviv University, has undoubtedly shaped her ideas. Professor Fincham was taught by renowned Conradian H. M. Daleski and Henry James specialist Dorothea Krook, so her research project was “always going to be either Conrad or James.” The die was cast in England when she met Jacques Berthoud who suggested she join him at York University for her DPhil: Conrad it was. And Berthoud, she recalls, was “exactly what a good teacher should be… able to say, ‘well, alright, I wouldn’t do it that way, but…’ and then help you to find your own scholarly direction”.

Born in The Netherlands to South African parents, Professor Fincham lived in the various cities of her father’s diplomatic postings, until coming to Johannesburg in the late 1970s to teach at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS). Her subsequent move to UCT was the beginning of life in Cape Town and what she describes as a more liberating teaching experience based on “optimizing individual strengths”.

Professor Fincham’s commitment to optimizing her students’ strengths was evident in her 2011 monograph Dance of Life: The Novels of Zakes Mda in Post-apartheid South Africa, published just before her retirement. The book showcased undergraduate essays, crediting and promoting their young authors; while her book, Outposts of Progress: Joseph Conrad, Modernism and Postcolonialism, is a collection of articles generated by a 2011 conference held at UCT and at Goedgedacht, the olive farm near Malmesbury. This week-long symposium, which brought together some of the world’s leading Conrad scholars and their graduate students, was organized by Professor Fincham together with Norway-based colleagues Jeremy Hawthorn and Jakob Lothe, with whom she co-edited the new book.

Since ‘retiring,’ Professor Fincham has also helped steer UCT’s involvement in a three-way exchange with Kenyatta University and the Free University of Berlin. While enjoying the time and flexibility afforded by retirement to write, supervise research and attend international conferences, she stresses the importance of personal interaction to spur research. One such meeting in Innsbruck (Austria) last year led to her current writing project and a growing engagement with eco-critical theory… and, in turn, to the challenge of rethinking theoretical paradigms with which she has been working for years. “It’s completely changed the way I think about literature now,” she says, referring to new interdisciplinary dialogues. As in teaching, as in learning, these dialogues precipitate stimulating conversations. Or, as Professor Fincham suggests, It’s an ongoing process.”


Story by: Kate Burling, 2015