Dr John Troyer is Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath. He is also Deputy Director of the Centre for Death and Society, also based at the university.
John is an academic expert in the field of death and dying and lectures on the only UK foundation degree in Funeral Services. His interest in the subject undoubtedly stems from a childhood growing up in the States, where his father was a funeral director. Death and dying were not taboo subjects in the Troyer family, although John had no idea he would end up working as an academic in this field.
John spoke about his interesting role combining teaching and research at the University of Bath.
“Death, dying and the dead body are different things but they are all related to one another. This is what fascinates me, and I am fortunate to be working at the world’s only inter-disciplinary research and study centre in this field, here at the University of Bath.
“Growing up as the son of a Funeral Director, everyday discussions about death and dying were entirely normal. My father was very upfront, honest and forthright about his work, and I think that’s really important. So really from day one, even as a young child I had an awareness that people die.”
John didn’t follow his father into the family business but instead went to the University of Minnesota, majoring in Political Science, Theatre Arts and Dance. After graduating he dabbled in politics, working as a paid intern for a congressman at the House of Representatives in Washington DC for a year.
“During my undergraduate degree I had been doing some fundraising work for the alumni and I later found work for the Minnesota Medical Foundation. At the same time I worked as a professional actor for film and TV commercials. Having experience outside the academic world is really important, and is something I always advise my students to do. Whilst I was going my office job, I started going to academic conferences in my own time for fun initially!
“These conferences gave me a taste for the academic life, and at the same time a couple of friends who were working in academia thought working in a university would suit me. I subsequently enrolled on a PhD at the University of Minnesota. This was a programme in Comparative Studies, Discourse and Society. In the US PhDs involve three years of full-time study, followed by research and exams. My PhD was entitled “Technologies of the Human Corpse.”
John’s PhD took him on a tour of Parisian history in the 1890s, where morgue officials put unidentified corpses on display for people to see. This led him to further investigate the history of embalming, and its theory and practice. John was already interested in technology and memory, and decided he wanted to further investigate how time can be prevented from affecting the corpse.
“I also looked at nineteenth century photographs of dead bodies and the technologies involved in embalming. I would define technologies as things invented by humans to improve nature.”
After completing his doctorate in this field John did some lecturing in the States before moving to the UK and the University of Bath as a research fellow, funded by the Research Council of the UK (RCUK).
“This job was ideal, as it was a hybrid programme of research and teaching, and offered me permanent employment at the University of Bath. After conducting research at the University for two years I was offered a lectureship position.
“Research is a very important part of my work here at Bath, and I have been involved in various projects including green issues such as how to recycle the heat from crematoria and the use of water based systems. I am also looking at mass fatality planning with funeral directors – how to enable and facilitate mass disaster planning. Another area of my work involves looking at the illicit, global trade in human tissues and body parts, and organ donation.”
John also has his fair share of teaching work, both as Lecturer in Sociology as well as in his role as Director of Studies in the Foundation Degree in Funeral Studies.
“On average teaching and all the necessary support work such as preparation and marking usually occupies around one day a week. The Funeral Studies course is distance learning, which involves three intensive one-week teaching blocks each year.
“I really enjoy the teaching aspect of my work, and this is something that I’ve actually been doing for years now, ever since my PhD. I like encouraging the students to think and to ask questions. What I also enjoy is designing the courses, such as planning the content and collating all the necessary research readings.
“Moving to the UK has been a great experience for me and the universities in the two countries really are quite similar. However, there are differences in the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. If I’d known about this before I moved here I might have done things a little differently.
“My advice for anyone wanting to pursue an academic career is to make sure that this is really what you want to do and then to get your doctorate. You also need to be sure that you want to teach, and that you enjoy it, as this will inevitably be part of the work. You never know where you are going to end up. I had only ever heard of the city of Bath in the context of Chaucer – I never imagined I would end up working here!”
Dr John Troyer holds a BA Honours degree from the University of Minnesota, US, where he majored in Political Science, Theatre Arts and Dance. He minored in American Indian Studies, Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature. John received his PhD from the University of Minnesota in 2006, and was awarded the University’s Best Dissertation Award in the Arts and Humanities for that year. From 2007-8 he was Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University, where he taught the cultural studies of science and technology. He then moved to the University of Bath in the UK.