Portrait of the Academic as a Student: Anna Kiernan


Anna Kiernan, Senior Lecturer in Writing, reveals what she was really like as an English student.

What did you study at university, and why did you choose that subject? 

I read English at Sussex University, sort of by accident. I thought I’d applied for English and American studies, which would have meant I’d spend the third year in the States, but I must have put the wrong code on my UCAS form. Oops. At the time, I didn’t have the wherewithal to change courses, so stuck with English. It turned out OK as English at Sussex was a fairly interdisciplinary beast – I got to take modules in post war European Cinema, theatre and philosophy, as well as more traditional literary courses. I say it turned out OK but, actually, I didn’t love English at Sussex (though I did love Brighton). The emphasis was on theory, and I never quite got my head around Derrida, as it were. (Am I allowed to say that here, Niamh?!).


Which book changed the way you viewed the world or yourself? 

A few inspirational books and literary fragments from my time at university include Virginia Woolf’s radical refrain in A Room of One’s Own, Marguerite Duras’ heartbreaking screenplay for the 1959 film Hiroshima Mon Amour, the character of Isabella in Measure for Measure (particularly her rebuffing ‘is it not strange?’ speech) and Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper.

As with The Yellow Wallpaper, The Bell Jar also presented sometimes sinister insights into the fragility of sanity. I vividly remember reading Plath’s account of Esther’s breakdown after she started college in New York. I identified keenly with her world, as a Fresher sat on the single bed in a small, carefully arranged room, alone in a strange city. I had felt utterly bound up in her character, who felt everything almost exactly as I did (or so I thought) and then – boom! – there she lay, broken: ‘To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.’ (Plath, 1999, p.250)

(I’ve written about this very subject in the journal Book 2.0. December 2016, Vol. 6 Issue 1/2, pp.47-57.)


If you could give your eighteen-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be? 

Here are two:

1.     Don’t panic.

2.     Find a mentor.


What was the hardest thing to learn?

“We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

This quote from Pablo Picasso is about many things, one of which is persuasion. We can’t convince people that our ideas or ideals matter unless we learn to speak – or at least understand – their language first, be that the language of appropriate academic conventions or other more complex or abstract discourses. I am still learning this.


What was the soundtrack of your undergraduate years?

There were many, but Josh Wink’s ‘Higher State of Consciousness’ is a banger that’s stood the test of time and Joni Mitchell’s exquisitely heartbreaking album Blue is still perfect for moping, reading or wistful thinking.


Show us a shelfie.

I used to review photo books, so was lucky enough to be sent a lot of beautiful books for free. Here are a few of them.



Anna Kiernan has a professional background is in book publishing and arts policy and management, while her research focuses mainly on reading communities and cultural criticism.

This year she'll be teaching Pitching for Publication, Introduction to Publishing and Reading as a Writer.

Outside of academia, she works for creative agencies like YCN and Stranger Collective.  You can read more about her work at http://www.annakiernan.co.uk