This Month in My Sabbatical: Marching On!

I feel as if March was a reasonably productive month, sabbatical-wise. Let’s see:

Graduate Supervision and Advising: This is one part of my ‘regular’ workload that doesn’t go on hold during a sabbatical (or during maternity leaves, just by the way). This month I received thesis installments from all three of my continuing PhD students. I also met with two of them, one in person, one by Skype, to discuss the progress of their thesis writing and do some long-term planning. I alsomet with a former PhD student who withdrew from the program about 18 months ago but has been wondering about returning. I find this part of my job a disconcerting mix of pleasure and pain. These are all wonderful young women–smart, accomplished, hard-w0rking, and just plain nice. So the pleasure comes from spending time with them, learning from them, and doing my best to support and improve their research projects. The pain, of course, comes from worrying about their professional situations. I have been, I think, very clear and direct with them, encouraging them to prepare to be competitive for academic jobs but also to consider other options–I’ve sent them links to a range of online discussions about graduate school in the humanities (including Thomas Benton’s infamous Chronicle columns as well as this one from Hook & Eye) and to some of the many sites addressing PhDs about non-academic options. In one case I think there is actually no intent to pursue a tenure-track academic position anyway; in another, options will be limited by geography, which makes the likelihood of a tenure-track option just that much smaller. But in that case, presumably if there was a local opening you’d still need to be competitive to have a shot, and in the case of the other continuing student, Lennard Davis’s advice is probably good to share–except what he doesn’t say but should is that it is perfectly possible to work insanely hard to do all the things he says, and you still might not win the job lottery. He also seems a bit sanguine about the pace of academic publishing: it’s all very well to submit things, but from submission to acceptance can take months or years. The hardest conversation, from my point of view, was the one with the student considering coming back. “You escaped!” was most of what I really wanted to say to her, along with what I more or less said, which is that a PhD in English is no kind of safety or default option. It seems attractive (if, and that’s a BIG if) you can get steady funding, because it’s a known world with clear expectations, work you’ve already trained for, and genuine intellectual rewards. But you could well end up, four or five years from now, right back in the difficult situation of trying to figure out what else to do–only by then you’ve invested heavily in your specialized training, including comprehensive exams and the huge chore of writing a thesis–not to mention trying to publish and otherwise pump up your c.v. (These are the features of the PhD program that make it difficult for me to accept the whole “it doesn’t have to be seen just as preparation for academic positions” argument. Sure, it doesn’t have to be, but if it’s not, what is the point of this intensive training in narrowly specialized fields and the hard, hard work of thesis-writing following stringently academic models? Unless we introduce streamed PhD programs, these will remain key components, and streaming is impossible as long as luck remains such a big factor in who actually gets a shot at the tenure-track when it’s all done.) In the end, as I told her, it’s her choice, and I understand it’s a difficult one. All of this (plus reading La Vendee, which is the subject of one of the thesis chapters now in progress) took up a fair amount of time but also, almost more significantly, a lot of mental energy this month. And the next pieces of chapters are already landing in my in-box, so on it goes! I’d be even more busy with graduate students if I hadn’t refused to take on any new MA supervisions: this is thesis proposal / first chapter season, and then the writing heats up heading into May and June. Usually I have at least one, and some years I have had as many as three. When my sabbatical ends, I’ll come in as second reader on a couple of theses, I expect, but it is a relief not to be juggling these meetings and drafts at this point.

Soueif Project: I did some relevant reading, reviewed my research notes, and drafted some new pages for the academic paper I’m trying to produce on Ahdaf Soueif. Then, prompted by reflections about how dissatisfying this work felt when Soueif’s current speaking and writing is all directed towards the Egyptian Revolution, I took the advice of some of my commenters and let myself address that new context in a separate piece, “A Novelist in Tahrir Square,” which appears in this month’s Open Letters. I wanted to use the time and thought I’ve given to her fiction, connecting its ideas to the sense of broader changes in perception and understanding that accompanied the Revolution. It was very challenging distilling the overflowing details of the novels and of my own notes and ideas, but I felt pretty good about it when I finally sent in the revised version (I appreciate very much the input I got from the other editors at Open Letters–though of course any lingering stupidities or infelicities are all my fault). I hope this will have settled me down so that I can appreciate the academic project for what it is: as some of you said, no one piece needs to do or be everything.

Filing and Stuff: I did quite a bit more of my electronic file sorting. I do think it will be helpful when I begin to put my course materials together for 2011-12 that I have eliminated a lot of redundancy and put lecture notes, handouts, quiz questions, exams, and assignments into a system that doesn’t require me to remember in which year, or in which course, I did that group exercise on Felix Holt or whatever. The problem turns out to be courses that aren’t themselves really focused on a particular genre, period, or author. My materials for Close Reading, for instance, will stay all together for now: the lectures and worksheets and assignments I devised on Middlemarch for that course are so different from the ones I use in my Victorian novel courses that I think it’s easiest just to leave that as its own category.

Reading: I have blogged about most of my reading for this month–except The Transit of Venus, which I will write up later today, as the discussion gets underway at Slaves of Golconda. The highlight has definitely been Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Most of my reading was not strictly work-related (though, as I’ve often noted here, you never can tell–wouldn’t an honours seminar on the ‘Somerville Novelists’ be cool, for instance?). The coming month will be different, though, as I’m moving on to another of my sabbatical plans, which is catching up on criticism in my field. In January I took some recent monographs out of the library, but I think this is not actually the best way to proceed: many scholarly books now are just so specialized that the rest of us don’t really need to know that much about their subject. The case has been made a few times recently, I think, that many books in the humanities are artificially inflated essays–the introduction is crucial for making the argument, but then the chapters offer variations on the theme rather than essential development or elaboration. I really do think this is true, and I wouldn’t exempt my own book–though I suppose it hardly counts as recent (© 1998). There’s nothing wrong with the chapters, but there’s really no necessity to my choice of novels to discuss in the context I’d established–they were the ones I wanted to discuss, as much as anything. In any case, I’ve decided to try a different strategy and last night I downloaded a whole bunch of book reviews (and a few articles, but mostly reviews) from the past several years of Victorian Studies–71 PDFs, in total. Going through the reviews will alert me to books I may wish to read, or at least leaf through, in full, but it will also give me a sense of what people are up to, what is trending, and so forth. (I’m sure there are people who do this kind of upkeep on an ongoing basis. Obviously, I’m not one of them! But maybe I’ll find a good routine for it in future–this is something that my iPad will be very helpful for, for instance, as I can load the PDFs into GoodReader and page through them at my leisure.)

Paperwork: Finally, this month I confirmed my intent (or, I should probably say, my hope!) to participate in a panel at the British Association of Victorian Studies in Birmingham the very first weekend in September. I can’t be absolutely sure I can pull this off until I find out what level of funding I can get, especially at the rate air fares are going up. I do think it would be a really good professional opportunity for me, though, not just through my own participation but for what I expect will be the quality of the rest of the conference, so I’m going to give it a good try. I have had some pretty bad conference experiences in recent years, so I’d love to go to one that might help me feel excited about “my” field again.  In aid of that, I’ve begun assembling the necessary paperwork to apply for a travel grant.

And so, onward, with all of these tasks and also with some pedagogical planning, as book orders for the fall are due soon, which means I have to commit myself to my detective fiction list as well as my first round of 19th-century novels, for the Austen to Dickens course. . . .

6 thoughts on “This Month in My Sabbatical: Marching On!

  1. Annie April 4, 2011 / 1:51 pm

    I think you have to have been there to really appreciate just how draining the mental energy you require to supervise graduate students is. It’s not so much while you’re actually with them, because the adrenaline generated by the dynamics of the discussion keeps you going, but afterwards, when you come down from that adrenaline high, the exhaustion is tremendous. I really miss the discussions, but not the aftermath. Fingers crossed for Birmingham.

  2. Maire April 4, 2011 / 3:47 pm

    You write so wonderfully about balancing the teaching and writing workload required of professors. It’s always such a pleasure to read your thoughts on that. And I am shocked about how much student guidance is required while on sabbatical!

  3. Rohan Maitzen April 5, 2011 / 9:11 am

    I agree, Annie. There’s the preparation, too, and in these cases a fair amount of brooding and researching in order to give what I felt was responsible mentoring for each individual situation.

    Thanks, Maire. As Annie says, the discussion with graduate students has rewards, but reading and commenting on written work is demanding. I have also participated in both PhD comprehensive exams and thesis defenses while on leave–it’s just understood that graduate supervision continues regardless of your circumstances. I can’t say that the students I worked with while on my maternity leaves got me at my very best, what with the sleepless nights and general mental confusion! It took real determination this time to refuse new MA supervisions, but I have only a few months off from other teaching obligations (and, as I’ve discussed, some of those continue too, with planning and book orders and so on) and those are the same months in which a lot of intense work goes into getting the MA proposals done and the research underway. I have colleagues who almost never supervise MA theses at all, never mind when they are on leave, so I decided it was time to practise the art of saying no!

  4. Susan Messer April 6, 2011 / 2:04 pm

    Very interested to read the Soueif piece and sorry that I haven’t had a chance yet. And as before, I do like these progress reports. In the academic supervision portion of your post, I was struck by how difficult a balance it is between all these elements: your own intellectual engagement in someone else’s project, the task of offering constructive feedback, the growing personal connections, the need to be honest about where the work might lead vs. the desire to help someone toward completion. I can see why students would want you on their team, and I can see why you also have had to learn to say no.

  5. Adam Roberts April 6, 2011 / 3:20 pm

    I’m staggered you don’t get relief from PhD supervision during maternity leave! How can you possibly supervise a PhD student adequately immediately after giving birth? At my place (University of London, UK) we have to supervise our PhDs during our sabbaticals, sure; but not maternity leave! That seems crazy to me.

  6. Rohan Maitzen April 6, 2011 / 10:45 pm

    Well, it’s worth noting that we have a small graduate faculty and fairly generous leave provisions, and there’s really no way someone else can fill in at an event like a comprehensive exam or a defense. And there were times when getting out of the house sans infant to talk literature with another adult seemed quite the treat, however (in)coherent I might have been.

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