Books Were My Liberation: an interview with Alan Rice

Alan Rice

‘To shoot hard labour’ is an Antiguan colloquialism that means to work hard, very hard. It came to mind when I met up with Alan Rice last December, in Lancaster. Rice is the sort of lecturer we all wish we had or perhaps strive to be: he is immediately warm, stridently positive about his subject(s) and (a very few minutes will evidence) an intensely serious scholar – the type around whom you immediately, willingly, raise your game. Instead of just the interview, he invited me up to Lancaster to spend the day, have lunch, and do a specialised tour of Lancaster; indeed he does not do half measures. He also, by stealth and by proclamation, reminds one of the privileges and pleasures of being a university lecturer.

Rice is Reader in American Cultural Studies and English at the University of Central Lancaster, where he has worked since 1995. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Edinburgh, his MA at Bowling Green State University and earned his PhD at Keele University in 1997. He is the author of Radical Narratives of the Black Atlantic (Continuum, 2003) and co-editor (with Martin Crawford) of Liberating Sojourn: Frederick Douglass and Transatlantic Reform (University of Georgia Press, 1999). As these titles suggest, Rice contributes to many subject areas, but, more than anything, he sees himself as an American Studies scholar and teacher. Always a ‘really interdisciplinary animal’ his undergraduate studies at the University of Edinburgh helped him to understand his passion for American Studies per se: ‘The most interesting people teaching at Edinburgh,’ Rice told me, ‘were either doing drama or American Literature or History.’ From the beginning of our interview to the end, Rice gave a collective narrative: continuously citing the work and mentorship of others in telling the story of his own development. At Edinburgh, ‘there were these giants of American history – Owen Dudley Edwards, Rhodri Jeffrey-Jones and Sam Shepperson,’ whilst in literature, ‘Colin Nicholson and Randall Stevenson managed to convince me that English wasn’t all bad.’ These men and women, such as Faith Pullin, inspired Rice, who decided then and there that he wanted to be a university teacher.  With only a ‘very moderate 2:1’, however, it was an arduous process to get funded for a PhD, and eventually required a detour to the US.

In what he described as his ‘hiatus period’, Rice doggedly, but unsuccessfully, pursued postgraduate bursaries. To get by he worked a variety of jobs, usually more than one at time: ‘I worked as a home help, worked cleaning cafes and worked in the afternoons at the National Library of Scotland.’ The idea was, he explained, ‘to keep my eye in research, mainly about jazz music and politics … I eventually got published in the Edinburgh Review but still couldn’t ever get funding to do a PhD’ It was at this early moment in the interview that I thought of that Antiguan phrase. For in addition to working for wages, and doing research on the side, Alan also became involved in local and community politics. Friends thought he was punishing himself, and after two years of unsuccessful funding applications they tried to convince him to go for something else. ‘I was like Sisyphus; I was just going to carry on pushing that rock up that mountain till I got there.’  On the recommendation of Mary Ellison, the professor he hoped to work with at Keele, he was offered a job as a graduate teaching assistant at Bowling Green State University. Although it was a long way to go, Rice nevertheless reasoned that it was perhaps the only way to get started towards the PhD, and he was proven right: he did a two-year MA in American Cultural Studies in just one year while teaching six hours of English Composition ‘to farmers’ sons and daughters – totally unreconstructed kind of Midwesterners – it was very, very busy, it was very strange, but I loved it.’ Again, the phrase ‘to shoot hard labour’ came to my mind. Armed with excellent grades for his MA, he applied for the Keele scholarship a third time, got it and went on to write a dissertation on the jazz aesthetic in Toni Morrison’s novels, while teaching American Studies to undergraduates. ‘It was a wonderful American Studies department with brilliant, collegial teachers like Richard Godden, Mary Ellison and, the late – and much lamented – Charles Swan, and very interdisciplinary – very much jazz and music and literature and history, all kind of feeding off of one another.’

Given Rice’s postgraduate experiences, it is not surprising that teaching and research have remained symbiotic elements over the course of his career. I was curious however, about what drove him to keep going for the Keele scholarship, and how did he know, as an undergraduate in Edinburgh, that he wanted to be a university lecturer? For Rice, to reflect on his role as a teacher included reflecting on his upbringing, his undergraduate years and the evolution of his research interests in black Atlantic and radical narratives. In the following extracts, from our 90 minute formal interview, I received some fascinating answers.

Becoming a teacher

‘I think I just thought that it is a really important role and it’s something whereby you can make information which is really important, accessible to a group of people who can hopefully go on and do something important with that information. I suppose a lot of it comes from being someone for whom books were my liberation. I was born and brought up on a council estate in Surrey. It’s great being born and brought up on a council estate in Manchester – there’s a working-class culture up there! We don’t have a working class culture [in Surrey], well there is one, but in fact it was at the dog ends of Thatcherism … There was this horrible consumerism all around you and nothing to hold up against it, you know, just in terms of getting a handle on that world around you. You had working class people just gagging to buy their council houses!  For me, what had saved me had been books. I really wanted to give that to other people, I really wanted to be involved in the world of ideas. But also I love performing … I really like the banter of being in a class, taking them on and making them think beyond the box, that’s why I do it.’ 

The pull of black American culture

what had saved me had been books.
I really wanted to give that to other people,
I really wanted to be involved in the world of ideas.

Nearly all of Rice’s publications have either black Atlantic or black American culture at their centre. Where did his interest begin and how did it develop?

‘I think the most important moment for me was probably getting into jazz. My friend Nigel used to bunk off school and sit in his room and play jazz music. He went to a different school than me with different holidays, so I could pretend that I was bunking off school with him but I wasn’t – because I would never do that. I used to sit in his room listening to jazz music from all ages and all periods. I didn’t get into it straight away at all but once I got into it, I really loved it. When I went away to university at Edinburgh, I used to spend most of my time in record shops, just buying more and more jazz. And then, when I went on to do American literature and American history, I gravitated towards black American literature and black American history spaces ... When I think about it, the reason I did it was because I was wanting, I think, to study a different culture, (and one that spoke English, because my languages were never going to be good enough) and also I wanted to study radical culture. I did do lots of work on the Levellers and Diggers and all that good stuff, doing history, and I was interested in it, but it was almost, it was always too close. I am very interested in working-class histories, but I’m really glad I’m interested in them now, having come back to them from African American histories, and through that black Atlantic prism.’

In the classroom

When asked what words he would use to describe himself in the classroom the quick fire answer was, ‘chalk and talk!’ and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Rice is quite mobile and energetic, but while his lectures are now ‘very improvised’ this wasn’t always the case:

When I was an undergraduate ... I’d get the essays back from the English literature people saying ‘there’s not nearly enough practical criticism here’

‘When I first went to Preston I actually wrote out all of my lectures, longhand, that was partly because I didn’t have a year beforehand to kind of sort things out, I was just thrown in the deep end, and I really needed [the script]. But now, especially in the Black Atlantic class, there won’t be a note in sight usually … I tend to do mini-lectures now; 20-minute lectures and then encourage questioning and debate … I am very traditional – I’ve only just started to use PowerPoint – I’ve always used overheads and slides. And I’m not really that keen on it, but increasingly you’re forced into it by the technological world around you. I tend not to put text on [PowerPoint], it’s just a way of showing illustrations with the odd quote. If you’re doing PowerPoint in the way everybody else does it, which is, here are the three main points, here are the other three main points – that’s  really constrictive, because actually there never are three main points, and that’s my problem with it really – it makes (the lecture) almost a consumerist thing.’

The interdisciplinary way

It was clear to me that Rice’s commitment to interdisciplinarity stretched across the various facets of his professional identity. So I asked him to talk about the practicalities and consequences of doing interdisciplinary work and training undergraduates in English and American Studies. His answer, a cross between a lecture and a sermon, was intense and absorbing. I gained a visceral sense of what a student in one of Rice’s no-lecture-classes might experience.

‘When I was an undergraduate in English literature and history, I’d get the essays back from the English literature people saying “there’s not nearly enough practical criticism here – context is great but you’re over-selling your context.” And when I’d get my essays back from historians it would be “you’re taking far too long over this source, this document, there’s context there but there’s not enough context.” And I was determined that when I was an academic that I would never say, never say, those things to students. What they should have been saying to me was something along the lines of “actually, this is the way criticism should be, but if you want to do something more to it you could bring this in or that in.” So what my practice is about, for instance, showing people a paragraph out of Beloved and then doing almost a mind map but not literally, I don’t do it of that paragraph. So, for instance, you’ve got that paragraph in Beloved which is about cannibalism. You know the one where Stamp Paid is looking at the window and he says “it’s not what racism has done to black people, it’s what racism has done to white people.” Where they’re eating it up, they’re eating themselves up – it’s self cannibalism and its cannibalism and you know it’s a paragraph! And what I suppose I do is to say, in this paragraph we could look at Freud here, we could look at ideas to do with psychology and the whole psychology around cannibalism, but you could also look at the history of the cannibal in postcolonial discourse and the way in which this comes into it. Then there’s the whole thing about American history, and the way in which the black body which has been eaten in order for the white culture to live and sustain itself, and then you would almost say, well let’s trace that in this novel. At one point in Beloved there’s the line that says the Ku Klux Klan are actually like cannibals – that image goes through the text and each time it has a different kind of contextualisation which leads you to somewhere else. So you can’t hold this text in to a practical criticism – you don’t want to hold it in to a practical criticism, you don’t even want to hold it in to a contextualisation around history, you want to have contextualisation around so many different things. Then you might want to say, well actually, let’s have a look at some of these pictures of lynchings, to talk about the way in which people took away trophies from those lynchings, cut-up the bodies. And that’s what Morrison’s talking about again and again. She’s not just talking about slavery; she’s talking about post-slavery as well. She’s not just talking about Reconstruction, she’s not talking about the 1950s, even. What she’s talking about is the way in which the history of racism has impacted us all. So I suppose what my teaching practice is about is, as an English teacher, and I do teach English students as well as American Studies students, I don’t change one iota when I teach English students. Not one iota do I go back to those days when I was – at times – poorly taught at Edinburgh, being forced into a very narrow view of textual criticism as the be all and end all.’

Escaping the ivory tower

Although it is difficult to fathom where he finds the time, a significant aspect of Rice’s life as an academic is the work he currently does outside of the classroom and the university. A key point however, and a lesson to beginning lecturers especially, is that each of Rice’s activities link up – they feed in and feed back into his courses and books, while what he teaches and writes gives him credibility as well as expertise in new environments beyond the walls of HEIs. His passion for this aspect of his working life also has deep roots dating back to those days in Edinburgh.

‘Even before I got into academia, I found people who were working on ideas in a broad sense. We had a reading group, mainly people who were on welfare, on the dole in Scotland, and we were all reading Derrida (this is the mid 1980s). We were reading Derrida, and about half of us were then going out on the miners’ picket line the next morning. The other half were saying ‘No!’, and arguing about Derridean ideas around it! But you know some of us were doing both and then we got very involved in the anti-poll tax movement. We were involved in community action but were also spending all our spare moments in the National Library reading things like Bataille … One of the guys, a guy called Jack Fuller, actually managed to get some money from the Adult Education to run a Derrida class, and we all hauled into this Derrida class ... that class sort of gave me a community even at that moment when there was no community for me, in terms of there was no department or anything like that. That gave me a real grounding in the fact that ideas don’t just happen in academia, they happen all over the place, and that seemed to me to be a really important lesson from that time in Edinburgh.’ 

It gave me a real grounding in the fact that ideas don’t just happen in academia, they happen all over the place, and that seemed to me to be a really important lesson from that time in Edinburgh.

Rice was an early English Subject Centre project holder, on the Americanisation and the Teaching of American Studies (AMATAS) project, and, more recently, he worked with Lancaster city partners on the Slave Trade Arts Memorial (STAMP) project. He has also curated ‘Trade and Empire: Remembering Slavery’ at the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery (June 2007–April 2008). So I inquired about the relationship between his different working environments – his knack for juggling them – and I solicited his opinion on public intellectuals. ‘Let’s talk about the STAMP project, because I think that’s a really interesting model. One day in 2002 there was a training day for teachers to teach slavery. And Lancaster, to give it credit, was doing some of this work because it is a slave port and they were grasping towards getting it into the curriculum. There were about 10 teachers there and we did a day with them. I devised this slavery tableau – a tableau of the Atlantic Triangle, and it worked quite well. I developed it for work with schoolchildren as a way of explaining the Middle Passage, the whole triangle in fact, with 18 different character cards and they move round. The characters are based on characters in my book, Radical Narratives … It’s a dynamic way of teaching, and I use it in my Black Atlantic courses with my own undergraduates, just as a means of a different way of showing people how things work. At the end of the workshop we all sat down – people from the council diversity group, the museum, and the local non-governmental organizations like Political Link … We said, there’s a bit of a gap really, there’s the  display in the museum which we know is a bit tired, but there’s nothing much else in Lancaster, and the only place people do go to think about slavery is Sambo’s grave, which is tidal – you can’t get there sometimes and you can get cut off there, you know?! So we all sat there and said it would be great to have a memorial wouldn’t it? We said, well maybe we can do this. A group to set up a slave memorial got together … and suddenly we were on the game and having public meetings and then we got some funding which just came out of virtually nowhere! And not just for the memorial but for a whole educational thing around the memorial, so we went into dozens of schools and us organisers spoke to nearly a thousand school children over the life of the project. We then commissioned an artist – the council gave us lots of support – and we now have the first ever memorial to the victims of the slave trade on a quay-side site in Britain. It’s a wonderful memorial but it’s also there permanently, so there’s always a place people can go to find out about slavery.

I’ve got somewhere to take my students now, every single field trip. There’s a memorial right in the town next to me, to take my students to, to show them so they can discuss the issues around that memorial. What they have tended to do is stand by the memorial and start interviewing members of the public about what they think about it and getting different views about it and then writing them up and talking about these kinds of things. So it becomes a whole new method of how to work because of that memorial being there. I love that aspect of it. [The curatorial work] is very important to me as well, it means that I’ve been able to translate a lot of my academic work from Radical Narratives and since into an exhibition, which means being able to bring a whole new community into that work. So it’s teaching in a different kind of way.

The university gave me full support to do this, even though it wasn’t in Preston, which I thought was quite good, because they/we were saying this is about community in the larger sense. But also it fed into my teaching as I started doing weeks, then developed a whole module, called ‘Monuments and Memorials of the Black Atlantic’, for our MA course. I think it is a great shame there are not more public intellectuals among academics … It’s a disgrace that the RAE culture means we are not being public intellectuals, both in the sense of having the time to be involved in community actions which feed into your academic work and having the time and energy to do curatorial work … Far too many academics are content to talk only to one another, and I am not content to do that.’


Rice and I had started our day together, disregarding wind and rain, with a tour of places of interest and significance regarding Lancaster and the Atlantic slave trade. I was shown a private residence which is still home to the descendants of a major slave trader, the magisterial Lancaster Priory and parish church where,
between the pews and stained glass windows, prominent city fathers have towering plaques detailing their good works, while history records their extensive dealings in human flesh and the profits they reaped from it. Most movingly perhaps, was when I saw the memorial to victims of the slave trade – the only one in Great Britain at present – the physical manifestation of the STAMP project. We ended the day in Rice’s home having tea with his partner, perusing his library and welcoming his young daughters as they arrived home from school. I have written elsewhere that we don’t often have the opportunity to visit each other’s classrooms, but my day with Alan Rice gave me that and more – I glimpsed a bit of the complex process of how we juggle our identities as teachers, researchers, members of families and tribes. It was quite a day. My last question to Rice was what he’d be doing if he weren’t an academic (and a curator and a community activist). He replied ‘I wouldn’t want to do anything else. It’s about the teaching and it’s about the research and it’s about the project thing. No, I don’t think I could do anything else, it’s in my DNA.’

Newsletter Issue 14 - April 2008

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