Interview Spotlight: Theo D’haen, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, KU Leuven

Interview Spotlight: Theo D’haen, Emeritus Professor of English and Comparative Literature, KU Leuven

In our latest interview, we ask Professor Theo D’haen MAE, Professor Emeritus at KU Leuven, about his career highlights, the relevance of his research, the role of international collaboration in research and his thoughts on Plan S.

Prof Theo D’haen MAE, Professor Emeritus KU Leuven

About Theo D’haen MAE

Theo D’haen is Emeritus Professor (English and Comparative Literature) at the Universities of Leuven (Belgium) and Leiden (Netherlands). He held the Erasmus Chair at Harvard (USA), and guest professorships at the Sorbonne (France), University of Vienna (Austria), Tsinghua University (China), Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China), the University of Sichuan (China), and the University of the Dutch Antilles (Curaçao). He was awarded the Dr.h.c. by the University of Bucharest (Romania). He is Past-President of FILLM (International Federation for Modern Languages and Literature) and a trustee and Board Member of Academia Europaea. He has published extensively on (post) modernism, (post) colonialism, American, European and world literature.

The interview

Theo, could you give us an overview on the milestones in your professional career?

“Actually, my beginnings were the most difficult part of my career! The first and most important milestone was probably being the first member of my solidly working class family and the first child of my entire Antwerp neighbourhood to finish secondary school in the Greek-Latin stream. At the age of eighteen I was a fully qualified primary school teacher. I had opted for this track because my father had died when I was still in my early teens and apart from going to work as a factory hand, an apprentice such as a hairdresser, or a longshoreman in the Antwerp harbour (which is what my father had been), this was the fastest way to get an education that also guaranteed social promotion as well as job security. I should say, with immense gratitude, that it was my mother’s doing that I could continue school after the age of fourteen, which at the time was the mandatory minimum school leaving age in Belgium, and therefore also the age that most of my friends and relatives quit school. My mother worked in a factory all her life, and I only much later realised the immense sacrifice she must have made to keep me in school on her very meagre wages.

I taught school off and on for the next four years as a substitute teacher in the Antwerp school system, while studying at the highly-regarded School for Translators and Interpreters in Antwerp. I graduated as a translator (Dutch, English and Spanish) in 1972. I was then offered a Teaching Assistantship at Vanderbilt University and moved to Tennessee, but I soon found that the TA-ship was not enough to live on. After one semester I returned to Belgium and re-enrolled at the School for Translators and Interpreters, graduating as an interpreter in July 1973.

By 1974 I was married and had started working as a professional interpreter for the European Commission. My wife and I decided to try our luck pursuing an American graduate education and left for the University of Massachusetts, where my wife completed an MA in Political Science in 1976. My fellowship allowed me to work on my PhD dissertation anywhere I wanted so we returned to Europe, where I did my research and writing while working as a freelance interpreter for the European Commission, Parliament and Court of Justice.

The rest was easy! In 1978 I got a job as an Assistant Professor at Utrecht University, was promoted to tenured Associate Professor in 1980, and then was offered the Chair of English and American Literature in Leiden in 1986. I moved to Leuven in 2002, mainly for family reasons, as my permanent home had always been in the vicinity of Brussels where my wife had risen to a Directorship with the European Commission. I had to mandatorily retire at 65, in 2015, but since then have guest lectured extensively, primarily in China. I also serve on evaluation committees, appointment and tenure committees, etc.”

You are a very active member in Academia Europaea and have wide international experience. What is the role of international collaboration for research excellence in your opinion?

“In the humanities, international research collaboration is a more recent phenomenon than in the natural sciences, and in my particular field – literature – I think there will always be room for individual research, but even here the trend is to larger-scale projects. On the one hand, this is driven by changing funding strategies, with sources for funding shifting from research time allocated to individual researchers at university level to multi-institution projects funded by national science foundations or transnational projects dependent on European Commission funding, although Horizon 2020 has primarily favoured the natural and applied sciences with more limited opportunities for the social sciences and the humanities. On the other hand, the advent over the last two decades of so-called digital humanities, relying on large sets of data and on quantitative – next to qualitative – methods, also underlies this trend.

International collaboration also fosters interdisciplinary approaches with scholars bringing different methods, which in the social sciences and humanities not infrequently issue from different national traditions, to bear on a common problem. In all these cases I think international collaboration promotes excellence by subjecting individual scholars’ results, while the work is still going on, to the scrutiny of peers and colleagues working in different traditions, with different methods and from different starting points, thus leading to more balanced and more verifiable outcomes. In fact, I think that increased international collaboration may now be even more important for the humanities than for the natural and applied sciences, which largely rely on common methods and approaches regardless of location anyway.”

Your research focuses on world literary history. How do you think literature relates to modern society? What contribution can literature make to face present-day major challenges?

In our present age of economisation, the study of literature and the humanities in general has lost much of its luster, to say nothing of its status. In many ways this is absolutely understandable. Our European welfare societies are facing urgent demands caused by ageing populations and increasing health costs. At the same time, and this applies to all of Western society, we have to compete in an increasingly globalised market economy in which many non-Western countries have the advantage of large and youthful populations, low wages, and an abundance of raw materials, all of which we lack. Brains and how to use them for innovation, particularly in STEM-related developments, are our only remaining capital. Not surprisingly in these circumstances, investment of the scarce means at our disposal in more immediately “profitable” courses of study is preferred. Add to this that in our increasingly democratised mass societies, literature in the traditional sense in the eyes of many – including some of our more “populist” politicians – has more and more come to be perceived as elitist, and hence reprehensible.

We should probably admit that this kind of literature – Literature with a capital “L” – indeed probably is the province of a certain elite. If such literature still has an impact it often is re-packaged as popular media entertainment – think for instance of the Iliad as reworked in Troy, featuring Brad Pitt as Achilles. Next to this, all kinds of indeed “popular” literature enjoy increasing success: crime fiction, science fiction, popular romance, fantasy, comics, both in printed form and, increasingly again, via other media. Literature as printed medium, then, is up against heavy competition these days. Yet, even now there is something to be said in its favour. To begin with, and perhaps most basic of all: reading any kind of literature increases one’s verbal ability. Then, as for instance the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued, works of literature allow us to lead vicarious lives that lay out various scenarios that may help us to determine what to do in real life. Of course, there are works that tempt us to ally ourselves with what we may call the “dark side.” Even these, though, may serve as warnings. More often, literary works will appeal to our sense of right versus wrong, and in this sense serve an educational, even a moral, and finally a social purpose.

In these Brexit-shadowed days I here cannot resist pointing out that in recent fictions by three of the more successful British thriller writers, John leCarré, Philip Kerr and Mick Herron, Britain’s (probably) leaving the EU inspires the main characters to come out in favour of “Europe”. John leCarré in A Legacy of Spies, published in 2018, has British secret agents George Smiley and Peter Guillam look back upon what happened in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the novel that sealed leCarré’s reputation in 1963. Guillam now lives in France, Smiley in Germany. Reflecting upon why they did what they did as spies, Smiley muses whether it was all for England? But “Whose England?” he asks, “Which England?  England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe.

Finally, a word on world literature. As you may deduce from my career sketch, I have never been a great believer in the study of national literature as such. I think that for too long we have concentrated too narrowly on national literatures and, if we ventured further abroad, on European literature. In a globalising world, in which Europe will of necessity come to occupy a less commanding role than has been the case this past half-millennium, it is no more than fitting that we should also give other cultures, and their literatures, their due place. In this fast-changing world I would hope that the study of world literature may contribute to making our students better world citizens. That has been the thrust of the various volumes I have published – often in collaboration with colleagues – on various aspects of world and European literature over the last decade.”

You are Editor-in-Chief of the AE journal, The European Review (Cambridge University Press). Based on your extensive experience as an editor in multiple publications and advisory boards, how do you think Plan S will impact research?

“In principle, I think Plan S is a worthwhile initiative, that will enable researchers everywhere to immediately benefit from publications resulting from public funding. However, as until now only a relatively limited number of European institutions, national bodies, and other foundations have signed up for the initiative, there is risk of a division between those scientists and scholars that receive automatic funding for Open Access publication and those that do not. The work of the former will be disseminated more rapidly and more widely, which will increase their visibility and their impact; greater recognition almost predictably will result in greater chances of success in funding applications comprising Open Access provisions, and this will not only continue but actually accelerate the division I mentioned earlier.

Eventually this may create a two- or more tier research landscape in Europe. For scientists and scholars from non-participating systems, the gain of free access to publications by colleagues from participating systems is undeniable, but as far as their own contributions are concerned they face a severe handicap in what is now no longer a level playing field. This applies to scientists and scholars from particular parts of Europe as well as – and even more so – from beyond Europe, and particularly from the poorer parts of the world. On the other hand, it may well promote contributions from still affluent or newly-affluent parts, such as for instance China. Obviously, what is crucial in all this is that the qualitative selection mechanisms – peer review, etc. –  presently applying to scholarly publishing remain intact for Open Access journals and other publications.

I foresee that there may be some re-alignment of journals, with some of them going for all Open Access and others opting for a hybrid model, which however would disqualify them from hosting Plan S funded contributions according to its present guidelines. Again, this risks creating a two-tier arrangement in scientific and scholarly publishing. I think it may well be particularly difficult for journals in the humanities, and possibly also in the social sciences, to become all Open Access according to Plan S guidelines, simply because there is much less money than in other fields. Many of these journals depend on subscriptions, which in general are not very expensive when compared to subscription prices in the natural and applied sciences, or in the field of medicine, but which cannot easily be offset by possible gains from Open Access fees.

A particularly pressing additional problem, again I think more applicable to the humanities than to the natural or applied sciences, is that of so-called independent scholars, and retirees, neither of whom can draw on any kind of institutional support, and who in a full-out Plan S are left orphaned. In varying degrees some of all this applies to the European Review (Cambridge University Press), which publishes in all disciplines covered by the Academia Europaea – it can function very well as a hybrid type, with some contributions Open Access, and others not, but I cannot see it able to sustain itself as a purely Open Access journal. These issues, and others related to the implementation of Plan S, will be the subject of a “Plan S Event” to be held in Leuven on 5th and 6th November 2019:  “The Future of Research: Assessing the impact of Plan S”, and a follow-up event organized by the HERCulES group of the Academia Europaea at the Wenner-Gren Foundation in Stockholm in May 2021.”

You are on the AE Cardiff Hub Steering Group. What do you see as the Hub’s role in the future?

“I think the Hub has already done splendid work on SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies) related issues, such as its leading role in the Food from the Oceans and Making Sense of Science reports, and I would hope – but I am actually very confident on this score – that this will continue in the future, in collaboration and concertation with the other AE Knowledge Hubs in Bergen, Barcelona, Wroclaw, Tbilisi and, it is to be hoped, shortly also Munich. Beyond this, the Cardiff Hub in a very short time has succeeded in securing for itself a vital role in the Welsh research and general academic landscape. As such, it is an excellent example of what the Academia Europaea sees as its mission: to further research and increase knowledge in Europe and beyond, and to do so by bringing together the best researchers across Europe while at the same time not lose sight of the importance of local and national moorings.”

18th June 2019. For further information please contact

Interview Spotlight Series

Interview Spotlight Series

Read our series of interviews with Members of Academia Europaea connected with the Cardiff Knowledge Hub. Our members share their career highlights and their views on key issues in research.


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