The start of a new month seems like a good time to take stock, once again, of how my plans and projects for this sabbatical term are progressing. May is actually the point in a winter term sabbatical when being on leave stops meaning that much, as the regular teaching term is now over for everyone anyway. May is often very busy with meetings, though (including our department’s traditional ‘May Marks Meeting’), so my time is still more my own than it would be otherwise.
Looking back over the past four months, it does seem to me that I have been making pretty good use of that protected time. Since I placed my book orders for September, my early project to refresh my reading lists has been less of a priority, but it has definitely had results. The biggest change so far is to the approach and book list for Women and Detective Fiction, which I wrote about in my March update. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my postscript to that post, I ran into problems with my revised book list for Pulp Fiction (specifically, True Grit turned out not to be available from a Canadian supplier), so I decided to go with Valdez Is Coming again and accept that the onus is on me to teach it differently to make it more accessible. Because I wanted at least something to change for this iteration of the course but had rather run out of enthusiasm for novelty, I switched out The Maltese Falcon for The Big Sleep, which I know reasonably well from teaching it in Mystery and Detective Fiction. My overall enthusiasm for Pulp Fiction is actually flagging right now; I hope that in 2020-21 I can offer a different first-year course, perhaps ‘Literature: How It Works,’ which would let me go back to the broader range of texts and topics I used to cover in our (now retired) courses ‘Introduction to Literature’ and ‘Introduction to Prose and Fiction.’
I have until the fall to settle on the book lists for my winter term courses, which are British Literature After 1800 and 19th-century British Fiction (the Austen to Dickens variation). I’ve spent quite a bit of time examining anthologies for the survey course and concluded that the most reasonable way to go is a slim custom text assembled from Broadview’s wide-ranging options. (Who is actually assigning these behemoth volumes? And how do they assign enough in one term to make it worth their students’ expense?) The down side is that for copyright reasons I can’t include much material past Joyce, but I think I can fill in a small number of contemporary poems and a story or two by other means. I have been playing around with a lot of different options for longer texts that I think would work well in combination, because the assignment sequence I am planning to use includes a final essay for which students would compare our last book with either of our previous ones. (One reason for this is that it means one way or another everyone has a stake in our final reading.) Right now the front runners are Great Expectations, Three Guineas, and The Remains of the Day: I can imagine a lot of interesting ways to connect Remains with the other two, including first-person narration, questions of class, dignity, money, and morality, and connections between personal and public politics. The 19th-century fiction book list is still uncertain: one of the big questions for me is whether Wuthering Heights will make it in or whether I’ll lose my nerve and fall back on old favorites.
Since fall book orders went in, I have been dedicating most of my time to the more open-ended research I discussed in my earlier posts about the value of ‘uproductive’ time and re-learning patience. Although it still makes me intermittently anxious that I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with all this, I am relaxing more into the process of reading and inquiry–and I am also starting to get a sense of how the different things that interest me might eventually coalesce, though I am a long way from being sure about how to frame the central question, much less how to answer it. I am genuinely enjoying the luxury of just being interested: “curiosity-driven research” is supposedly fundamental to our work, but as I discussed in my post on ‘fallow time’ there are lots of professional disincentives to following your interests in new directions.
Having said that, the more I read about Holtby and Woolf, and especially the harder I try to understand what’s going on with The Years, the more I’ve been identifying continuities between this material and longstanding interests of mine, including genre (my monograph was about history and fiction as means of telling particular kinds of stories about women’s lives) and the relationship between literary form and ethics (something I’ve addressed both explicitly and implicitly in a lot of my essays and academic articles). I had long casually accepted the image of Woolf as (to quote Janis Paul) “a kind of patron saint of inner vision and consciousness”; the books I’ve been reading on Woolf’s politics and cultural criticism have helped me see her differently, and especially as perhaps not so entirely unlike Victorian novelists in her interest in using fiction to make a difference in the “real world” (as Alex Zwerdling’s Virginia Woolf and the Real World has it). This week I’ve also been reading scholarship on Woolf’s connections to her Victorian predecessors, including Janis Paul’s The Victorian Heritage of Virginia Woolf and Emily Blair’s Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel, neither of which (though both are very interesting on their own terms) turned out to address quite the things I was looking for–but of course in some ways that’s encouraging, as it shows where there might be room for me in the conversation.
So that’s where I am now, at the two-thirds point in this six-month sabbatical. I have checked off a number of the concrete tasks I set myself, and I have made progress on the more amorphous but no less important task of refreshing my own intellectual engagement. There have been other things going on too, of course (including Maddie’s performance in Jesus Christ Superstar and, exciting in a different way, her acceptance of a place in Dalhousie’s Fountain School of Performing Arts for next year), and as always I’ve been doing other reading, most recently Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage and a reread of The Break for my book club (where it was a big success). My leisure reading right now is Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, which I am not liking at all (my goodness, her sentences are dull!)–but that’s a subject for another post!