Summer 2009: Taking Stock

September’s here, the kids are back in school, there’s a buzz of expectation and activity around campus…time to review what I’ve been doing since classes ended in April and think about how to focus the limited time I’m going to have for anything outside of teaching and administration for the next eight months.

My main ambition for this summer was to make some measurable progress on my Ahdaf Soueif project. This is actually an interesting example of the difficulty in defining boundaries between reading I do “for myself” and reading I do professionally. I first encountered Soueif in 2007, when I picked up The Map of Love at Duthie’s on a trip to Vancouver. Later that year I read In the Eye of the Sun and got increasingly intrigued by the idea that Soueif is the “Egyptian George Eliot” (as she has been called by some reviewers). I began to develop a research project in the spring of 2008, when I sent a conference paper proposal in to NAVSA (it was rejected, without any feedback, which frankly I found not just discouraging but a tad unprofessional). I kept puttering away and eventually a somewhat revised version of the proposal was accepted for presentation at ACCUTE this May. A large part of the work I was doing along the way was familiarizing myself with central terms and issues in post-colonial theory, not because that was the research I wanted to do, or wanted Soueif to be part of, but because I felt (perhaps wrongly) that it was going to be an inevitable part of any critical conversation I had about Soueif. After exams ended in April, I worked hard on the paper and finally wrestled it into shape for the conference. Of course, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it, but the purpose of a conference paper is to put your ideas into circulation and get input from your peers, so that you can take your work to the next level, namely publication in a “real” (i.e. established, peer-reviewed) academic journal. I didn’t get any useful input from the ACCUTE audience: though they seemed interested in the novel, for instance, nobody asked any probing questions about my attempts to generalize about and critique some aspects of post-colonial theory. I did get some good comments when I posted the material here and at The Valve, though–which, FWIW, I think confirms the value of academic blogging.

How far have I taken this project since then? Well, not as far as I would have if I had concentrated on it and nothing else, but I did make a mental breakthrough that I think is going to be very helpful as I move forward, which is to see, finally, that all that work on post-colonialism, though important, was in some sense a mistake. I’m interested in other things–and that’s OK! The post-colonial material I have been reading will not go to waste, and as it brought me to a somewhat different understanding of Said and also brought me around eventually to Anthony Appiah, I think some of it will be part of the paper that I hope eventually to write (and publish). But it won’t be the kind of paper I was trying to write and gave a version of at ACCUTE.

Now that I am thinking differently–more clearly, I think–about what I’m doing, I have begun compiling notes and references with a different angle: more about humanism, cosmopolitanism, and ethics, for instance, and less about imperialism, hybridity, and hegemony. I’m re-reading The Map of Love, because in the version of the paper I now imagine, it provides a useful contrast in several key ways (form, for one thing) to In the Eye of the Sun. I’ll be trying to add to my notes over the teaching year, and hoping to write and submit the revised paper (“George Eliot Goes to Egypt”?) by the end of next summer.

I would probably be further along in this work if I hadn’t also spent a fair amount of time this summer puttering away at teaching-related tasks, some quite concrete (planning course readings and outlines, gradually building up the Blackboard sites for my five 2009-10 courses), others more speculative (thinking about and then learning how to use PBWorks, for instance, for a Wiki assignment I think I’m going to use in the winter term). Just choosing books for new classes can be very time-consuming, and is also another area in which “personal” reading can turn out to have professional consequences. I’m teaching a new Brit Lit Since 1800 course, and one of my preoccupations this summer was choosing “the” 20th-century novel to assign for it. I’ve settled on Atonement, which I read as leisure reading several years ago. I liked it so much that I picked up Saturday as soon as the paperback was available and ended up assigning that novel in my first-year class in 2006. Other novels I considered for this year’s course included White Teeth, Waterland, Mister Pip, and Midnight’s Children–all books I picked up to read out of personal interest. I guess the point is that in my own small way, I’m a professional intellectual, so reading is never “just” a hobby for me. Everything I read becomes part of what I know, as well as part of who I am, and so part of what I can, at least potentially, teach. Really, the university should give us all book buying budgets! (Ironically, perversely, books are the one thing you can’t usually get money for in a research grant–your university library is supposed to do the job–but try persisting in a reading or research project when books are in heavy demand by other users.)

The rest of my time went to the usual sorts of things: until July, I was still Graduate Coordinator, and there was still some work to do for admissions; I supervised another MA thesis to completion (congratulations, Alexandra!) and there’s one more almost done (bring it home, James!); my Ph.D. students (I’m supervising four right now) are all in various stages of reading and writing, always a pleasure to keep up with; I started on a couple of new committees that turned out to have some important things to get done over the summer; I just chaired an appeals committee. Lots to do, but the nice thing about May-August is that the pressure is so much lighter. During the teaching term I have “must-do” work every night and every weekend. Over the summer, I can read or watch TV (In Treatment and Mad Men were, predictably, the highlights!) without feeling guilty. That is all about to end, so I should probably spend this long weekend quite irresponsibly.

There have definitely been some reading highlights this summer, but I’ll save those reflections for another post.

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