This Month in My Sabbatical: Reading and Writing

Though nothing especially momentous marks this month in my sabbatical, I am pleased that I have continued to move fairly steadily through the various projects I set for myself back in January. Though I appreciate having the time to read, reflect and reconsider, though, I have to say that this month I have felt particularly isolated, because it’s the two aspects of this job that you are relieved of on sabbatical (administration and teaching) that actually bring you into regular contact with other people. Without classes and meetings, much of what we do is strictly solitary, and during a regular term that quiet can be very welcome, precisely because teaching and committee work are hectic, demanding, and often as annoying as they are stimulating. At first, it was just a relief to be free of the incessant demands on my time and attention. But after a while, it’s lonely, even a bit depressing, puttering away by myself. That’s one reason this post on academic blogging (thanks to Jo VanEvery for the link) resonated with me, especially this bit:

a college of one’s own is essential to scholarship. Sometimes we get lucky and our collaborators are able to participate in that world, but more often they need us for narrower purposes: our technique, students, or grants. Who then to bump ideas off of? Who to share our latest little discovery or epiphany? How to communicate the interest of an article or book? Where to find a reader? Who will forgive us our latest and dumbest ideas? How to feel that slight flare of getting the last word in a debate among learned colleagues?

It’s true, as the author continues, that “a blog can provide those things, and more besides,” and I’ve been grateful for the interest and input I receive from so many of you on my posts here. (The post I link to also gives a thoughtful account of changes in the culture of academic life that have made that collegial interaction more difficult to achieve–if anything, I think he underestimates the role played by sheer day to day busy-ness.) I was thinking that it’s no accident I first began blogging on my previous sabbatical: without really knowing much about it, I was looking for more ways to communicate with other people, and it was exhilirating to discover the conversations going on online and then to become part of them myself. I wonder sometimes why I feel this lack, even when I’m not on sabbatical, and (as far as I can tell) most of my colleagues don’t. It’s true I’ve always been a chatty type (if my parents are reading this, they are muttering “no kidding” and recalling their coinage “talkit” … ) so there’s that; some of my colleagues are just more reclusive or scholarly by instinct, happy to burrow away in their research; some, I think, for whatever reason have a better network of peers and collaborators that provide input, support and energy; others might enjoy blogging but haven’t tried it, or think it would be a distraction from their “real” reading and writing. In any case, the solitude of sabbatical work has made me appreciate my online network more than ever. And it has also made me realize how much of the return I get for my investment in this career comes from my students, from the challenge and the fun of getting them involved in our readings, from their curiosity and energy and enthusiasm. I miss students! (Remind me I said this when I’m whining about grading their assignments in the fall, would you?) I miss my colleagues, too, a little bit … but it’s not like we do spend much time on the kinds of conversations evoked above. When we do talk about work-related topics, it’s more often griping conferring about workload, curriculum, or policy issues, about pedagogical problems–or about each other! Well, it’s a workplace, after all. (Those colleagues who are also personal friends are another matter, of course.)

So: what have I done? I’ve read and commented on more thesis material–and another 120+ pages sit in my inbox at this minute. I’ve read, or scrolled through, a large number of the nearly 100 reviews and articles I downloaded, getting “caught up” on–or at least refreshing my sense of–recent work in Victorian studies. That has not been as disheartening as I frankly expected it to be. The sheer quantity of scholarship in this field is potentially overwhelming if the idea really is to internalize all of it. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that most of it is of peripheral signifiance: the accumulation of it, trends and directions, are more revealing than any particular arguments, and even at that level I haven’t seen anything that suggests a paradigm shift on the scale of, say, feminist criticism or post-colonial criticsm: I haven’t seen anything that makes me think I need to fundamentally change what I think about or say about the material I teach. It’s possible to acquire lots of little insights, or to file things away in case they become relevant to some future class or project, but most of what I’ve read has left me unmoved. This result, in turn, has me reflecting on the pleasures of learning new topics. I have one colleague whose list of teaching interests struck me, back when I was first interviewing for my job here, as astonishingly diverse–but there’s an intellectual buzz that comes from discovery, and it’s hard to get that feeling at the level of highly specialized research. On the other hand, it is easy to get it when you don’t already know the central problems and paradigms of a field you are just starting to explore for yourself, so I can see the appeal of turning to new things, like a kind of learning junkie who can’t be satisfied anymore with yet another way to read the economics of Bleak House or the poetics of Goblin Market!

I’ve read more books that I thought might be appropriate for my classes, including Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and more of the Martin Beck mysteries–and in the last week or so I’ve drafted up a schedule for the course that actually includes Devil in a Blue Dress and The Terrorists. Other course-related reading included most of Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower (which I ultimately decided not to assign),  a text book called Close Reading and the TOCs of numerous anthologies of crime fiction. I haven’t made the call yet about Close Reading but I did finally discover a Dover anthology of crime fiction that includes all the authors I wanted and is economical too–this is one more small testimony to the value of a sabbatical, because it took me ages to find and consider the alternatives here and if I had been in the midst of teaching, I would have given up and stuck with one of the books I’ve used before, even though for various reasons I wasn’t happy with them. (I have now ordered almost all the books for my fall classes and set up preliminary websites for them.)

I’ve also read a lot that wasn’t strictly for teaching or research, but then, as I say so often, in this job you never really know what reading will end up affecting your work, and I’ve been finding Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby so interesting I am now wondering if at some point I could put together a course on the “Somerville Novelists”–not least because we have no in-house specialist in 20th-century British literature (crazy, I know) so I’d actually be helping round out our curriculum a bit if I did so. Just think: another excuse to assign Gaudy Night! (There’s that lure of the new, again: this would involve a whole process of learning and discovery.) Coming up for my two reading groups I have Somerset Maugham and Elizabeth Bowen–so more 20thC British fiction there too.

As for writing, well, there’s the blogging that goes along with all that reading, and I also decided to review Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature after all. Following on my meditation about “giving myself permission,” I thought it might help overcome my writer’s block if I worked in a form I am very familiar with, so I did the review as a kind of feedback form. I thought it suited, because the book, though full of interesting and provocative threads, really read to me like something unfinished. I don’t understand why it got published without further revision, to be honest: what editor would be satisfied with something so amorphous? Despite my anxiety that it would seem unforgivably snarky to treat the book as I did, I did find it freeing to write it that way: for better or for worse, that is who I am, after all. And just as I do when responding to student work, I made sure to give credit for strengths as well as weaknesses, and to try to be constructive in my criticisms…

One thought on “This Month in My Sabbatical: Reading and Writing

  1. Jeanne May 6, 2011 / 10:51 am

    It’s dismaying how small a part talking about books can play in an academic’s life. At my institution, I blame specialization; people in the English department tend to assume that other adults aren’t interested in their tiny little corner of literature.


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