PhD graduate’s career weaves together digital technology, primary teaching, and poetry

Creative Writing PhD graduate Dr Ben Egerton is a poet and a teaching lecturer in primary Digital Technology and English at the Wellington Faculty of Education. We find out from Ben how he has successfully woven these three hugely contrasting spheres—technology, poetry, and primary teaching—into a working career.

Ben begins by explaining that, for him, these spheres are complementary: “The job of a primary school teacher is to help kids make sense of their world, to navigate, and to explore their world, which I think is exactly the same as what art and poetry does.”

The idea of exploration in and through poetry was central to Ben’s PhD. For the research component, he examined Michael Symmons Roberts’ poetry collection, Drysalter, examining how faith can be explored in today’s post-secular environment, and used this to inform and create his own poems for the creative component.

Ben had read Symmons Roberts’ work during his Master of Arts in Creative Writing (Poetry), having been introduced to this British poet, novelist, and librettist by then Chaplain John Dennison. He was immediately taken by it. “He does what I was trying to do. I have faith, but I don’t want to write religious poetry. I try to make sense of the world through the different lenses I have, and faith is one of the lenses for me.”

Ben explains that Symmons Roberts work can be understood as ‘post-secular’ that is we’re at a point where we are so secure in our secularism that notions of religion, religious conversations, and religious language can be re-invited into discourse without secularism being under threat.

“That was my frame of reference for my research,” says Ben. He explored the use of religious language and secular or profane language, and the blurring and borrowing that happens. “In environmental literature for example, there are terms borrowed from the religious realm—paradise and Eden—they don’t have the religious resonance to them, but are widely understood as a kind of unspoiled perfection.”

He likens this blurring to the interdisciplinary nature of school subjects, like the need for literacy and numeracy skills. “Even if you’re solving a maths problem, you’re still reading, and the content of the question often related to the world outside the classroom, from grocery shopping to sports.”

He also draws parallel with his own career spaces: “I reject the notion soundly this is your literature world, and this is your teaching world—I think they are absolutely complementary.”

The work he did analysing Symmons Roberts’ poems resonated with his day job of being a technology lecturer: “Part of being a poet is pulling apart other people’s work and seeing how they do it. The same can be said for technology—I’m asking my teaching students to get their school kids to figure out how things are done by reverse engineering, pulling things apart, and putting them back together.

“You pull something apart to see how it works, to take some of that understanding and apply it to something else you are constructing, and both technology and poetry are about constructing. Technology is a creative subject. It shares characteristics with art and creative writing, but also with science and maths.”

Ben will continue to teach at the Wellington Faculty of Education now that he has his PhD, but hopes to make the most of his own interdisciplinary skills and interests with research in education around creativity in schools and in literature with Symmons Roberts, and continue to create poetry.