The Summer of Somerville

Now that the dust has mostly settled from the teaching term, I’ve begun organizing my plans for the summer. One of my top priorities is preparing for my new seminar on ‘The Somerville Novelists,’ which is the first official academic manifestation of the reading I’ve been doing about Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, and Margaret Kennedy. Oh, and Dorothy Sayers, except that my interest in her goes back longer and I’ve taught Gaudy Night several times before, so there I don’t feel I am starting so much from scratch.

As I wrote in a previous post about the way reading changes when it becomes research, I am having to think now not just about what I’m interested in but also about what I need to know to do the job. But since there’s no pre-existing definition of “the job,” this early phase has to be both open-ended and creative: ‘there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.’

I’ve actually been thinking that I’d like to preserve that lack of definition going into the course, rather than trying to get everything under control according to a template of my own. I’m enjoying the sense of discovery as I read in this new (to me) material, and ideally that’s something the students will feel too: that together we are finding things out, rather than that they are trying to catch up with my expertise. I don’t think my seminars are usually stifling, but they do often focus on material I know very well and have gone through often with students. This has the advantage that I can steer our discussions in what I know will be significant directions and give guidance on research and assignments that I feel confident about, but it has disadvantages too, not least of which is that there aren’t a lot of surprises, and the level of personal commitment from students isn’t that high. I don’t mean that students don’t work hard and aren’t often very engaged, because I’ve had some great seminar groups and usually the students are enthusiastic about them (at least judging from their course evaluations). But I’d like to see them working together on something they think is important–on something they feel collectively responsible for, rather than accountable to me for.

I’m going to be thinking through the summer about how to organize the course to create this kind of atmosphere, and especially about what kinds of assignments and course requirements to include. I’ve been thinking in terms of class projects – a wiki, perhaps, to go public at the end of term, or a collaborative Prezi (I’ve seen some that cover an enormous amount of content in really interesting ways). I’m also thinking less about critical essays or research papers of the conventional academic kind and more about writing projects that show off the class material for a general audience. If anyone has suggestions, especially of assignment sequences that have worked well when exploring non-canonical material for which there simply aren’t a lot of academic resources, I’d be very interested!

In the meantime, I’m brainstorming lists of things I need to know about that will probably become part of our class discussion, including historical, biographical, and literary contexts and connections. Here’s the list so far, in all its unpolished open-endedness:

  • Individual writers from our list (Brittain, Holtby, Sayers, Kennedy)
  • Core readings (Testament of Youth, South Riding, Gaudy Night, The Constant Nymph)
  • Other books by them not officially assigned to class (perhaps for student projects or presentations)
  • critical / theoretical approaches and contexts
  • History of Somerville / women at Oxford (perhaps women in Canadian universities?)
  • Boer War
  • WWI, especially women in the war (nursing)
  • Suffragist movement
  • Women’s / feminist press, e.g. Time and Tide
  • Other contemporary writers–Olive Schreiner, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, Robert Graves, maybe D H Lawrence?
  • Genres, e.g. autobiography
  • Literary movements, e.g. modernism, in relation to our writers
  • Virago Press

I’m thinking in terms of a giant Venn diagram, with all these topics overlapping in different ways. The central artifice of the course is that there’s something coherent about our group of four, but part of what’s so interesting is that there isn’t, really, except that they all went to Somerville at roughly the same time and all became novelists. I’m used to organizing courses that are much more strongly unified by some kind of internal logic, usually thematic (the one I’ve offered most often is ‘The Victorian “Woman Question,”” for instance). Probably (though it’s too early to be sure) we will return regularly to the question of whether we’re doing something that makes any sense, and whether that matters. The diffusion of topics could lead to confusion in the course, so one of my jobs this summer is to bring it under control without spoiling the fun. You can expect lots of updates as I explore.

I’ve started, because it seemed pretty fundamental, with the history of women at Oxford, which has been really interesting to learn about. One of the first things I realized was that this aspect of the new class actually follows much more closely than I had realized from my usual teaching, including the  ‘Woman Question’ seminar, because an instigating factor in the movement of women into Oxford was the pressure to educational reform stimulated by the difficult situation of governesses in the mid-Victorian period (Jane Eyre!) and the statistical imbalance between men and women highlighted in the 1851 census and of increasing concern towards the end of the century (The Odd Women!). Many of the names of early advocates for women’s education are moderately familiar to me from my 19th-century studies: Emily Davis, Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon), Matthew and Thomas Arnold, Mary (Mrs. Humphrey Humphry) Ward. George Eliot donated to the founding of Girton College, Cambridge — a modest £50 only, but evidence of the precedence she gave to education over political rights.

And on that note, it’s back to the Oxford History of Oxford!

8 thoughts on “The Summer of Somerville

  1. Samantha May 4, 2012 / 12:35 pm

    If you’re including Virginia Woolf, have you considered Vita Sackville-West? I’ve only read one of her novels (All Passion Spent), but it was amazing, and there’s apparently a rich and fascinating backstory in the relationship between Sackville-West and Woolf.

    In any case, this sounds like a fascinating seminar, one that I myself would love to be a part of!


  2. Rohan Maitzen May 4, 2012 / 12:38 pm

    We would look at Woolf by way of wondering why she has such a big place in the literary history of the 20th century compared to these lesser-known contemporaries. I think it would be important not to go too far in the direction of ‘covering’ the Bloomsbury Group or other modernists (since they already get lots of attention), but at the same time, the issue of canonization, especially with women writers of this period, is really interesting. Holtby wrote a biography of Woolf which I will be reading: I’ve read a bit about it and she’s clear that she knew Woolf to be a very different kind of writer and intellectual.


  3. Samantha May 4, 2012 / 12:44 pm

    Canonization is a fascinating topic in any field, I would guess. I’m in music history, and I’ve probably spent an inordinate amount of time wondering why the musical canon is what it is, and whether it is valuable to construct curricula based only on famous pieces. What about works that didn’t push the envelope? Why do some composers get all the attention while others, who wrote similar works or in a similar style, do not? Is the canon based only on historical convention? I would guess that these questions could be applied equally well to the study of literature.


  4. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 4, 2012 / 3:33 pm

    The MLA International Bibliography counts of publications since 1947are:

    Woolf: 4,951
    Sayers: 248
    Sackville-West: 80
    Brittain: 44
    Holtby: 33
    Kennedy: 5

    Some opportunities here! Dorothy Richardson is an interesting contemporary example of a pioneering but lesser-known Modernist (MLA: 147).


  5. Rohan May 4, 2012 / 10:08 pm

    Wow: great numbers to contemplate. That’s the whole story right there, isn’t it, if we just knew how to tell it? And I didn’t turn up anything on Doreen Wallace, and only one on Muriel Jaeger. Though of course the MLA measures what academics write about, which is only one way to estimate canonicity. I’ve never read any Dorothy Richardson, though I remember my first-year English professor talking about her quite a bit. Lines! I must draw lines! I’m just hoping I can draw them so that D. H. Lawrence is on the other side. If not, I will console myself with Wayne Booth’s arguments that Lawrence is better than he (Booth) thought he was.

    Samantha, canonization is a huge question in literary studies. It should probably go on my list of potential topics for us to discuss explicitly. I have a colleague who teaches a whole seminar on it: I’ll have to hunt him down and ask for some recommendations in the secondary literature on it.


  6. Dorian Stuber May 4, 2012 / 11:52 pm

    Hey now, let’s give Lawrence a chance…


  7. KarenB May 5, 2012 / 11:09 pm

    Sorry to nitpick, but Mary Ward’s husband spelled his first name without an “e.” (It’s such an unusual way to spell Humphrey that it causes a “stutter” in the smoothness of my reading every time I come across it.)

    The subject of canonization is a great one to address in your Somerville course, even if briefly. Your posts make me wish I lived in Halifax so I could take your courses!


  8. Rohan May 6, 2012 / 9:30 am

    Karen, nitpicking is not just welcome, it’s essential! We all need to do our part to keep the internet groomed. Thank you for the correction. That is indeed an odd way to spell ‘Humphrey,’ which is my excuse for spelling it like a normal person would.

    Dorian, I admit I haven’t really read Lawrence, except for some short stories that crop up in my teaching anthologies–which I have liked, actually. So I am prepared to give him a chance. Booth’s discussion of him in The Company We Keep is actually really interesting. I was thinking he might be relevant not just because of chronological proximity but because there’s a kind of earthiness about Holtby’s novels — an interest in people’s connection to the land and its rhythms, as well as in their own earthy or natural instincts — that made me think of what little I know about him. Any suggestions about which novel to lead with? Sons and Lovers?


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