Notes from the Field: #GE2019conf

ge02019-logoIn retrospect, I’m glad my pitch for a article reporting back on the George Eliot Bicentenary Conference was rejected: the cognitive dissonance I struggled with during the conference was strong enough that I have been puzzling over how or whether to write about it even here, in relative obscurity and without being answerable to anyone else for whatever it is that I come up with to say.

It’s not that I have bad things to report. In many ways, it was a wonderful and invigorating experience. I spent time with a lot of lovely people, including some I have known for ages on Twitter and finally got to meet face to face but also new acquaintances met at the breakfast table or in the courtyard or at sessions. At all-purpose conferences like ACCUTE it can be hard to find a critical mass of people who share your interests, or even to see the same people at two different panels; I have typically found such events deadening rather than enlivening. This group, in contrast, was unified by a common commitment to understanding George Eliot and her work better; though there were multiple sessions in each time slot, a sense of community emerged pretty quickly as faces and names became familiar. I enjoyed many good informal conversations about George Eliot, about 19th-century literature more generally, about teaching, about academia, and about our lives. Then there was the stimulating if slightly surreal experience of seeing in person scholars who work has been familiar to me for as many years as I have been doing scholarly work on Victorian literature–most notably  George Levine, Gillian Beer, Isobel Armstrong, and Rosemary Ashton (whose biography of George Eliot I have often recommended). All of the plenary addresses were conference highlights (as they should be), but especially the moderated discussion between Levine and Beer about George Eliot studies then and now (and in the future).

Conference-Court

Of particular importance to me was finally meeting Philip Davis. I have been interested in his work with The Reader Organisation for nearly as long as I have been blogging; their journal The Reader was one of the first non-academic venues for thoughtful writing about literature that I became aware of. He first became aware of me (as far as I know) when I reviewed his fascinating book The Transferred Life of George Eliot for the TLS a couple of years ago. He wrote to me about my review and we struck up a correspondence that led to my writing an essay for The Reader on Carol Shields’ Unless (which readers of this blog will recognize as an old favourite of mine). When I saw the announcement for the bicentenary conference the first thing I thought of was that he and I should put together a panel on bringing George Eliot to broader audiences. Happily, he liked the idea too, and that’s what we did; we called it “George Eliot in the Wider World.”

strangled-tote.pngEach of the presenters on our panel addressed quite a different “application” for George Eliot. I spoke about what I see as reasons for but also the difficulties with “pitching” her work to the kind of bookish public I have been trying to write for–at left is my design for a George Eliot tote bag meant to illustrate the case I made that her books are not, as too often assumed, too long and dull for the “common reader” but too fierce. Phil spoke about the often profound impact Eliot’s work has on participants in the groups run by the Reader Organisation; his University of Liverpool colleague Josie Billington discussed the therapeutic value of particular elements of George Eliot’s writing, especially her use of free indirect discourse; and Alison Liebling from Cambridge University talked about the relevance of George Eliot’s ideas to her work on the ethics of prison culture. I admit, hearing the other speakers made me fret for a while that my contribution was on the frivolous side: it seemed to matter much more to help people change their lives or feel more human than to compete for the attention of editors and magazine readers. But then I thought about the essays I have in fact written and I felt OK, both about them and about the people I have actually reached with them. If one thing unified our slightly disparate presentations it was a shared conviction that the more people who read George Eliot the better, in however many different ways and for whatever different purposes.

GE-Plaque-Griff-House

So far so good! I would also add a couple of other sessions to the unequivocal plus column. One was on teaching George Eliot, which of course is something I work on and worry about a lot; I particularly appreciated the presentations by Jennifer Holberg and Steven Venturino (both Twitter friends I was so happy to hang out with in person!), which made me think a lot about ways to slow down by, for instance, letting go a bit of the coverage model and allowing more time for things like reading passages aloud and really lingering on them. I have always done some of this, of course, but there’s no question that for many students keeping up with reading long books is a challenge these days. Jennifer offered some really useful data related to that, partly to make the point that we need to focus on teaching the students we actually have, not the ones we might wish we have or–a common problem, I think–the ones we were ourselves, or at least think we were. Steven spoke convincingly about the value of “serial reading.” The other panel I would single out was on George Eliot and the modern reader; in particular, Valerie Sanders’s paper about how George Eliot is discussed or drawn on in contemporary literary culture had strong resonances with my own.

Book Club Cover

What distinguished these three panels from the others I attended is that they were outward-facing: they were all organized around ideas for talking about George Eliot and her fiction to people besides other scholars and academics. They focused on and generated discussions about mobilizing what we know about her work, about turning our informed enthusiasm into something for other people to use or share or benefit from. I want to make sure I am very clear about this next point (because the opposite case is made too often by people with very different aims than mine): I have no objection to discourse that is exclusively for and between experts. Not every conversation has to be for everybody, and literary scholarship is a specialized field of inquiry like any other: those who pursue it need opportunities to share and test their ideas with other specialists. Although I have written many times on this site about my own vexed relationship with academic literary criticism, I have consistently explained that I don’t think nobody should do it–I just no longer believe that it’s the only (or, sometimes, the most valuable) kind of work for people in my profession to pursue. Crucially, I no longer think it is the kind of work I want to do. (I haven’t written as much about these issues lately; if you want to review what I have said about them you can browse the academia or criticism indexes and read as much or as little as you like!)

What I’m going to say next follows predictably both from what I just said and from what I’ve been saying here for over a decade. The part of the conference I (mostly) did not enjoy or find rewarding was what some people might consider the actual conference, that is, the panels of finely wrought, scrupulously argued, and (by and large) highly abstract and specialized academic papers. I really tried–to listen closely, to engage with the ideas and arguments, to think my way into the conversations they were having. Mostly, I failed. I found this genuinely disheartening, though really I should not have been surprised. I am not criticizing the presenters. They were doing what they came to do, what their profession requires of them, what–presumably–they find interesting and intellectually stimulating, and they were doing it well. Some good evidence for that is that at every panel I attended, there were questions from the audience that showed a high level of attention and engagement. As the conference wound up, there were many expressions of excitement about how stimulating and transformative and generative it had been. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity. For people who like this kind of thing, there was a lot of it to like at this conference!

Books

But I don’t like it–not much, or not usually, and, mostly, not this time either. I thought I might do better when all the papers were on George Eliot, but that just made me more frustrated–at myself, mostly, for not getting it. I have previously described my experience of attending academic talks (#NotAllAcademicTalks) as making me feel like a non-believer in church, and for all my belief–for all our shared belief–in the interest and value of paying close attention to George Eliot, that’s how I felt at a lot of the sessions I attended. I wondered beforehand if the conference would inspire me to return to more conventional academic scholarship, if not as a producer, at least as a reader. I even hoped, a little, that it would. I did hear about some projects and lines of inquiry that seemed genuinely interesting, and there was something generally encouraging about the evident energy around the scholarly enterprise as a whole (as I have said here before, whatever my feelings about individual trees, I am a committed supporter of the academic forest).  Overall, however, my conference experience reminded me of the reasons why I have been doing something else for so long. This is where the cognitive dissonance comes in, though: how can I think it’s a good thing and yet want no part of it myself?

Cover2It isn’t exactly that I want no part of it, though. As I hope I have also made clear here over the years, my own intellectual life has been shaped and enriched by many kinds of academic scholarship (though not always the most currently trendy kinds). I have contributed to that specialized work and remain proud of those contributions. Who knows: I may make more! Probably not about George Eliot, though–the conference confirmed for me that I want to keep moving in a different direction with my research. I’m not ruling out doing any more writing about George Eliot. I already have one piece in the works for the fall (I hope) and she will always have my heart. But after three immersive days listening in on what academics talk about when they talk about George Eliot now, I am more convinced than ever, not that I don’t need them, but that they don’t need me. I have nothing to add to the work they are doing, and (as I have long argued) there are enough people engaged in it that the field can spare a few of us to go and do otherwise–indeed, it not just can, but almost certainly should.

Fruitless or Fallow: On Being ‘Unproductive’

success-measures

One of the frustrating things about the way productivity is typically measured in academia is the near exclusive focus on outputs: what counts (what can be counted) is the product of our reading and thinking, not the process. One side effect is that this makes it risky to change directions, because it takes time to explore a new field and figure out the contribution you can make to it, time that might end up looking “unproductive” on your c.v.–which then becomes a mark against you when you are up for professional evaluation.

anthologyI have first-hand experience of this. After I earned tenure on the basis of my scholarly work on 19th-century women historians, I did some hard thinking and decided I did not want to work on that material any more. It just did not feel very important or interesting to me, so while I could imagine (and in fact had put together some preliminary outlines for) new projects in that field, I decided to take advantage of the security of tenure to do something that mattered more to me–something that felt more urgent–which was the work I went on to do on ethical criticism. I eventually published two peer-reviewed essays based on this work, one in Philosophy and Literature on Martha Nussbaum and the “moral life of Middlemarch” (in 2006), the other in English Studies in Canada on Victorian ethical criticism (in 2007). A further result of this reorientation of my research was the edited volume of Victorian criticism I published with Broadview in 2009.

These are the tangible–countable–results, but I would say that the effect of this work on my teaching was every bit as important as these “outputs,” particularly the conceptual framework I developed for Close Reading–a course I offered for the first time in 2003, when it was required of all majors and honours students in the department and have taught six or seven times since then, meaning its effect has been “incalculably diffusive” (to quote from Middlemarch, which I boldly made the centerpiece of the course). I think it’s fair to say, though, that all of my teaching since then has been affected by the reading and writing and thinking I did about ethics and literature starting in 2000, when my tenure was awarded and I could approach my research in less instrumental ways. The questions I pursued about the nature and purpose of criticism also played a significant role in my eventual decision to start blogging and begin writing for non-academic audiences: I actually consider this later period the most productive of my entire career.

fallow-fieldNow consider how that phase of my scholarly life was described in the letter denying my promotion appeal. The committee’s assessment was that my record showed “limited scholarly activity between 2000 and 2005″* followed by a “second burst of scholarly output.” Where do you suppose they think that “burst” came from? It came from giving myself time to read, think, and write–and it’s worth keeping in mind that I was in fact writing both of the articles that I’ve mentioned well before their actual publication dates, because the academic submission process takes forever. During those years I also gave conference presentations related to my ongoing research and attended a symposium on literature and ethics in Australia convened by a prominent scholar in the field. This is all scholarly activity! It is “limited” only in the sense that it was preparation for the “output” to come rather than (mostly) measurable outputs in the moment.

The same committee described my career as having “long periods with few scholarly publications.” The validity of this description depends on how you define “scholarly.” They were particularly exercised about the period between about 2010 and 2016 (when they issued their verdict). It is true that during this period I published only one article in a conventional peer-reviewed journal, and it turned out they didn’t think this article counted as peer-reviewed because it was solicited by the editor for a ‘forum’ rather than double-blind peer reviewed (if that’s the actual standard for what counts, they should also have discounted my academic monograph). My arguments that projects and publications during this period, including the Middlemarch for Book Clubs website and my many essays and reviews on 19th-century literature–or, for that matter, essays like the one I wrote on Gone with the Wind, another example of the ways my research on ethical criticism infused my critical work–are indeed “scholarly” clearly failed to persuade them. (In fact, in the one comment that probably still rankles the most from that whole process, they said that apparently what I had decided to do instead of scholarly publishing was to “write about books and elements of popular culture that interest her”–which is an odd way to say “invite a wider audience to understand George Eliot’s secular ethics” or “explain Anne Brontë’s devastating critique of toxic masculinity in an accessible way”).

Gone_with_the_Wind_cover

Anyway! My aim here is not to relitigate that dispiriting process (sorry–obviously I am not over it yet) but to highlight the way its professionally powerful agents explicitly devalued time I spent changing and growing as a scholar. That time without new publications was anything but unproductive–but that attitude towards time spent not writing, or more accurately not (visibly) publishing, is pervasive. I am free from overt professional consequences at this point: I’m not applying for promotion again, so I have the extraordinary privilege of being able to define productivity on my own terms. (If we just keep going through the motions, then what is tenure even for?) Even so, I find it hard to shake off the guilt and anxiety that comes with not, right now, knowing what my next “output” will be. I said before that one of my key goals for my sabbatical was to work this out, and I have been trying to, I promise! But after all this time, and especially after the emotional and psychological drubbing I took during that promotion process, the little creatures Jo Van Every calls “gremlins” can get awfully noisy and discouraging. As much as any specific reading and writing I am doing, I am spending time right now trying to give myself permission for some quiet time, some “unproductive” time–because while I know I need to let the ground lie fallow for a while, I’m afraid that from the outside that looks (and from the inside it can also feel) as if my time is not being well spent.

Cover2An important step in this process was self-publishing my (non-academic) essays on George Eliot. This was not an easy or entirely happy decision, but I thought I needed to do it so that I could move on, and to some extent this strategy has worked: it is now pretty clear and not entirely disappointing to me that it’s time to stop focusing on George Eliot and write about something else. At least I have something to show for my years of effort. Also, I’m not giving up on George Eliot altogether! In fact, I have one (last?) essay I am currently writing that I hope might find a home somewhere during this, her bicentenary year, plus I am preparing a paper for presentation at the upcoming George Eliot conference. (I am so excited about going to this!) I will keep teaching her and will write about her again if the right occasion or invitation arises. Having given up on a cross-over book, though, and with no incentive to contribute anything to the academic literature (the MLA Bibliography calls up 4,254 results for ‘George Eliot’ – that seems like plenty), all that remains would be constantly searching for a ‘hook’ to pitch, and that approach (for reasons I will probably be talking about at the conference) just seems wrong to me.

southridingOne way to think about where I am now is that I am having the critical and scholarly equivalent of a “but why always Dorothea?” moment! This is a good thing, or it will be, and I do have some ideas about which direction to go in. I’ve been reviewing things I’ve read and written about over the last decade or so, and it quickly became clear to me that the work I did that excited me the most was the reading (or was it research?) that I did on the ‘Somerville novelists.’ This did have some measurable outputs already (though not of the kind that really “count”): a new course, offered only once so far but perhaps one I could try again soon, a large number of blog posts, an essay at 3:AM magazine on Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf, and a “listicle” on Vera Brittain at For Books’ Sake–which in turn led to a very pleasant dinner with Brittain biographer Mark Bostridge when he passed through Halifax. I loved working with this material, for its own sake and because it did not seem to be already overworked: the MLA Bibliography, for example, turns up just 49 entries on Winifred Holtby, 71 on Brittain, and 17 on Margaret Kennedy. Dorothy Sayers has a somewhat more intimidating 334 hits–but that’s still a long way from Eliot’s 4000+ or Virginia Woolf’s 7232. This is a crude measure, of course (countable things!) but it does suggest there’s room in those conversations for someone else and that figuring out what they are and how I might join in will be a manageable task as well as an interesting one. brittain

I suppose there’s nothing really surprising about this new plan, but I personally have been surprised at how much mental effort it has taken to stop doing one thing–to accept that I’m stopping, that it is no longer going to be my priority–and to start doing something else. Now I need to grant myself time to do it, to accept that this next phase, though it may feel aimless at first or not look productive, will be necessary to my next “burst” of activity the same way those post-tenure years were essential to my transformation from one kind of scholar into another. I know how lucky I am to be able to take this time: I wish all scholars could reclaim their time in this way rather than chasing metrics and measures of productivity that (ironically) actually discourage innovation by making it so risky to stop and think.

*It occurred to me after I posted this originally that I was also on maternity leave during some of this period, as my daughter was born in June 2001.

Refreshing My Reading Lists III: Brit Lit Survey

babl-volumebThe third course I plan to spend time rethinking during this sabbatical is British Literature After 1800, one of a suite of 2nd-year survey classes we originally established to orient students in the big picture (nationally and historically) as context and preparation for our more specialized upper-level courses. These curricular intentions are compromised (some might say, rendered inoperable) by the way our program actually works now: the surveys are no longer specific program requirements but are simply part of suites of classes from which students make their own selections. We do not have the option, either, to make specific surveys prerequisites for specific upper-level courses. I wish it were otherwise, and we did at one time have a more structured (and thus, IMHO, more coherent) curriculum. But here we are, and here these courses still are, and in Winter 2020, for the first time since 2010, I will be teaching this particular one again.

mla-handbook

In 2010, not only was it clearer how this course fit into our overall offerings but it also was supposed to do specific kinds of work for our majors and honours students, focusing not just on literary content but also on research and writing skills at a a step up from what we typically cover in our first-year classes. Now that the surveys are no longer program requirements at all, much less part of a deliberate skills-based sequence, that is no longer (as far as I know!) a necessary part of them, any more than it is in any of our other 2000-level offerings. This alone would mean reconsidering the structure and assignments I set up for it when I offered it before, when students did (among other things) an elaborate annotated bibliography. Even if the place of the course in our program had not changed, however, I would want to rethink the reading list.

When I drew up the syllabus in 2010, I followed a very conventional — by which I mean, quite canonical —  model. This was not (or not just) a failure of imagination on my part: given the very wide range of our other course offerings, it seemed like a priority to address the “standard” classics that (in my experience) students have often had surprisingly little chance to read at the outset of an English major, ones that are often touchstones or pushing-off points for later authors or movements or specific texts. While in some ways this might seem like a conservative approach, in other ways I consider it essential for understanding our field: it is hard, for instance, to discuss the significance of challenges to the canon, or exclusions from the canon, or problems with the whole notion of canonicity to begin with, without some sense of the traditional canon as a starting point. Or so I thought, anyway: this course, as I conceived of it, set out a preliminary version of literary history that would be complicated (as I repeatedly discussed in class) by other approaches and other courses.

norton-vol-2So I assigned the “major authors” edition of the Norton Anthology and we read Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, Tennyson and Browning and Hopkins, Wilde and Joyce and Woolf, Yeats and T. S. Eliot and Auden, Heaney and Rushdie. A bit less predictably, we also read Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, and Katherine Mansfield, and while the first time around I assigned Great Expectations as our representative Victorian novel, the second time we read Mary Barton. Both times, our 20th-century novel was Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which worked really well because it directly–metafictionally and thematically–addresses changing ideas about fiction from Modernism to modernity. The course was a lot of work for me, both because I had to teach a lot of material outside my usual area and because of the challenge of conceptualizing it so that there was some coherence–some patterns and themes to follow across the term–while still doing my best to keep the whole problem of canonicity in view. As part of this effort, I set up one of the most elaborate course requirements I’ve ever done: a collaborative wiki-building project for which the students (working in teams) built study guides for the course based on the lectures and readings as well as their own research and also incorporated some information about readings not included in our syllabus.

atonement_(novel)Looking over my notes, I actually think it was quite a good course of its kind. (You can read some blow-by-blow accounts of it while it was in progress if you’re interested; just scroll down this page until you get to 2010!) Now that this course is not specifically meant as a prelude to other courses, however, I am rethinking the kind of course it should be on its own terms. I would still like to provide something of a canonical overview–because, again, I think some sense of what that looks like is really helpful for other critical, even subversive, conversations–but I would also like to build more of the critiques and revisions and alternatives into the course itself, rather than assuming they will come up later. This assumption just doesn’t seem reasonable any more given the extreme flexibility of our current program (which is a response to scarce resources more than a principled shift away from requirements or sequences), and I also think we will have more interesting conversations in the moment if I shape the reading list to include more contestation and urgency.

How to do that, though, without losing the basic chronological survey structure that distinguishes this course from ones organized by genre, theme, or just narrower parameters? I have been thinking about organizing the readings into clusters, such as gender or nation and identity, but I don’t like to abstract topics or themes as if it doesn’t matter when they took on a particular literary form or voice or what IRL they might have been responding to.  In every course I teach, in fact, including introductory classes, the mystery class, and the 19th-century novel classes, I tend to teach things in chronological order because it makes the most sense to me pedagogically: it allows us to work through any relevant historical contexts in order, and to talk about ways writers respond to each other. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to compare earlier and later treatments of related ideas or forms; it just means that this possibility gets more robust as the course progresses. (This is one reason I often focus the first assignment(s) on a single text and then make later assignments comparative.)

marybarton

One thing I could do, as a compromise, is choose all of the texts for the course with an overarching theme in mind. This is probably quite feasible, especially if that theme is itself somewhat flexible. In fact, having some reason to choose one thing over another is going to be essential, as canon (re)formation in the past couple of decades has been almost entirely additive: anthologies have only gotten bigger, and some of them, vast already in print, also have associated websites with still more potential material! The thing about letting go of the “old standards” approach is that it leaves you quite overwhelmed with possibilities. Thinking in terms of “how to have the best conversation about X” rather than about coverage (which was impossible, of course, even in the old model) will be not just helpful but essential. I just (just!) need to settle, in that case, on which conversation(s) I want the course to highlight and then figure out how best to include a variety of voices–which is something that I should have done better at in the previous versions.

small-islandI actually already have one specific idea, which is to substitute Andrea Levy’s Small Island for Atonement. It too is a book that crosses literary generations and that tells a story about telling stories, but it starts from a very different place and has very different concerns. I think it’s a very readable book, less subtle, perhaps, than Atonement but also less insular. Atonement is very much a novel about novels, which is one reason I admire it and enjoyed teaching it; this time around, though, for this course, I think I want less literary self-consciousness and more social and political engagement in the reading list. That might make Mary Barton still a good option, but I’m also wondering about Kipling’s Kim, which is one of the 19th-century novels I’ll be getting to know this term–because like Small Island, it’s (as I understand it, anyway) about how we think about who we are in relation to where we come from and where we live. Is that the overarching theme I want to go with? I don’t know yet, but at least it’s a place to start thinking about how to conceptualize this survey course in a new (for me) and possibly more relevant way.

I’d be very interested in knowing how other people approach survey courses of this kind. I have always thought that they are, or should be, the backbone of a good English curriculum. Obviously that view no longer prevails, in practice, in my own department, where we once had a mandatory survey (“Literary Landmarks”) for all majors and honours students. I am sensitive to the objection that we don’t want to perpetuate narrow ideas about the canon or literary history. Within the scope of any such course, though, these issues can always be confronted directly–as I know they were by my colleagues who taught “Literary Landmarks” back in the day. If you have taught — or taken — a survey course, what principles organized it? How did you approach the impossible task of coverage and the essential task of subverting your own generalizations as you went along? What readings worked really well? And, not incidentally, if you assigned an anthology, which one? (At the moment, I am inclined towards making up a custom anthology using Broadview’s excellent tool for this.)

Nevertheless, I Persisted: One Year Later

One year ago this week, the members of my promotion appeal panel wrote up their final decision: in their view, my file (“with its heavy reliance on non-peer-reviewed on-line venues”) had not met the requisite standard and therefore “promotion to full professor is not merited at this time.” Though they claimed to “see merit in reaching beyond the confines of the academy,” overall they confirmed what President Florizone’s earlier letter had told me: if I wanted professional advancement, I needed to “focus [my] efforts on seeking peer-review of [my] work.” In other words, as I wrote at the time, I needed to “get back in the box.”

Well, I have not taken their advice–not just because I still believe they and the others along the way who insisted on the primacy of peer review were at best misrepresenting and at worst disregarding explicit university policies, but also because, inadvertently, they, and the whole unpleasant process, helped clarify something for me. I don’t want professional advancement. Or at least I don’t want it more than I want to keep trying to succeed on the terms I have set for myself. I was (unfortunately) seeking validation, but I wasn’t asking permission–and the doubts about my abilities, accomplishments, and prospects that were sown in my mind over that grimly discouraging 18 months are finally being overcome by my growing confidence about and satisfaction with my work as a literary critic on my own terms.

It’s still a slow and incremental process: I have more than once, in conversation, compared my efforts to build up my portfolio of work and thus my credibility in that role (for which my academic credentials mean relatively little) as being on a hamster wheel. I am very fortunate in that I do not need to depend on the results financially–but at the same time that also means I am doing this work alongside the other demands of my job. I’m increasingly happy with the results, though, especially now that they include a couple of pieces that reflect me more personally–that came out of my own strong interests and let me show a bit more of my own style and personality as a writer.

One of these is coming out in the next issue of Tin House: for their regular “Lost & Found” feature, I wrote about Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic in the context of my experiences as a student at UBC and my interest in the gendered relationship between history and fiction. The other is my appreciation of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which was published in this week’s issue of the TLS. I’ve written a lot of things over the past decade that I am proud of, many of them in Open Letters Monthly but also here on my blog and in a range of other publications on and off-line. What’s especially gratifying about these two recent pieces is that they are essays, rather than reviews, that I successfully pitched them to these well-respected and widely-read venues, and that both I and my editors are very pleased with how they turned out. I realize that this doesn’t guarantee anything about what will come of the next idea I have for something to pitch, but it does give me courage to keep looking for ways and places to write that let me express myself more as a reader and critic.

In other words, a year after a fairly crushing blow to my career and (not incidentally) my self-esteem, I’m doing OK, even well. (Today was certainly an excellent day! There’s nothing like being included in the TLS’s podcast to make you feel like you really are participating in the “wider conversation about books.”) Soon after receiving the letter telling me that my appeal had been denied, I resolved to stay on the path I had chosen, even if it meant the end of any lingering academic ambition: as I said in my post last year, “an academic’s reach must exceed her grasp, after all, or what’s tenure for?” In the last 12 months I think I have actually done more to advance both the university’s profile and its central mission–“the increase of knowledge and understanding”–by doing what I have done than I would have by devoting myself to the kind of research and writing that would (eventually) lead to peer-reviewed publication. So I don’t feel that I am being unprofessional! I’m just not limiting myself to the rigid, narrow-minded, and insular definition of my profession that was advanced and enforced by the university’s gatekeepers. They can keep their “past practice”: as Aurora Leigh says, “I too have my vocation–work to do”–and books to read, and criticism to write, and also, most important of all, classes to teach.

And with that, I’d best get back to it: I’ve got another 1600 words due on two books about Golden Age crime fiction in a week or so, not to mention the rest of both Middlemarch and North and South to reread for next week.

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Must You Try Again?

I’m trying to move on from my promotion debacle–honest! But I recently went another round with someone about whether I will, or should, reapply, one consequence of which is that I want to sort out my response (literal and emotional) to that question.

Since my final appeal was denied in November, I have actually had a version of this conversation fairly frequently. Usually, it reflects a friendly spirit of boosterism: it is supposed to make me feel better that people think I did deserve the promotion–and of course that is a nice thing to hear, and I do quite genuinely appreciate the expressions of support. Even so, I find these conversations stressful, because of their unspoken and (I assume) unintended implications, as well as some of the tacit assumptions behind them.

One plausible implication of pressing me to try again, for instance, is that getting promoted counts as professional success, and so until and unless it happens, I’m a professional failure. By some measures, this conclusion is obviously true, though it relies on rather circular logic. One of the hardest things about the whole process for me was precisely that I began it feeling proud of my accomplishments and ended it feeling like a failure. Pressure (however encouraging) to reapply makes me feel that way all over again, and reflects, I think, the general feeling among academics that of course we all want to achieve these professional milestones, which of course are meaningful indicators of the worth of our work.

For me, however, the pressure to reapply undermines the hard mental work I’ve been doing since last summer to distinguish my own standards for success from the standards against which I was measured by so many people involved in my promotion case. Regardless of what our regulations actually say, only very specific kinds of work were ultimately treated as eligible contributions to my discipline. Repeatedly and with conviction, I made the case for a more expansive and flexible definition of “scholarship,” but I was told in so many words that if I want professional advancement my body of work must conform in both kind and quantity to “past practice.” More than once I was told (as if to soften the blow of rejection) that my application was “premature”: the message was not, however, that eventually the quantity of my non-academic writing and other projects would meet the necessary (though nowhere specified) requirements, or that if I reached some higher (again, nowhere specified) level of achievement in my public writing, then my file would ripen into eligibility. Very specifically, I was told that I would deserve promotion if and only if I met the “usual” standard for peer reviewed publications.

I feel very strongly, however, that I should not allocate my time and expertise based solely on how my institution will reward me for it. That, to me, would be a poor use of my tenure, and of the academic freedom it secures for me. (Indeed, I think a case could be made that by insisting that if I want professional advancement I must work in one way and not in another–despite the university’s own regulations and the positive judgments of peers in my discipline–several levels of review at Dalhousie compromised, perhaps even violated, my academic freedom.) If I get nothing else positive out of this whole dreary experience, I hope that at least I have finally made my peace with the consequences of choosing to do critical work of a kind I find valuable, intellectually stimulating, and challenging, and that I have learned (or am learning) to stop seeking external validation for it–at least, not from Dalhousie. Instead, I am thinking hard about what success looks like on my terms and how best to achieve it. In this respect, applying again would be a real step backwards.

Another way of looking at my situation, of course, (and the way I’m sure my friends and colleagues intend when they urge me to reapply) is not that I am a failure but that the system failed me–but in that case, what do I have to gain by having another run at it,  except possibly vindication? If I’m not in fact a failure, why do I need to be promoted in order to carry on  precisely as I have been doing? This is a question I have spent a lot of time thinking about. I actually started asking this question even before my final appeal, which for a while I wasn’t 100% sure I would go through with. Why had I applied in the first place? What was in it for me, really? The professional payoff (including financial) is actually not significant–it’s mostly about pride and prestige–and there are even some down sides to it. I did think I had earned the promotion, and it is the usual next step for professors of a certain seniority, so part of my initial decision was just thinking that my time had come. But I also, I admit, had wanted to prove something, to myself and to some of the people around me. I wanted validation for the decisions I’d been making. I wanted my work to get an A! That’s an awfully hard habit to break–but, to reiterate my previous point, that’s exactly what this process has finally (I hope) managed to do for me.

I think my friendly boosters also don’t quite realize the time and the toll the process has already taken. I began compiling materials for my file in June 2015; the decision on my appeal arrived in November 2016. For nearly a year and a half, that is, I was frequently (and mostly negatively) preoccupied with it, including many hours in meetings, many more hours writing responses, rebuttals, and appeals, and many, many, more hours brooding–many of those hours lying unhappily awake while arguments and counter-arguments and what seemed like willful misrepresentations of my work went round and round in my head. Because so much of my social life is bound up in my departmental life, there has been significant fall-out. Some of my relationships, including with formerly close colleagues, have been irreparably damaged. I’m only just recovering my individual equilibrium, something that, as Timothy Burke aptly observes, isn’t easy to do, given the peculiar nature of academic culture. (That post of his has given me a lot to think about.) There’s absolutely no guarantee of smooth sailing if I opt to do this all again–so blithely urging me to press on seems a bit callous! Besides, I’m 50 now. How many of my remaining full-time years should I put into seeking approval from other people instead of just doing the work that matters to me?

For myself personally, then, applying again just does not seem worth the effort and the risk. I might change my mind, but it’s hard right now to imagine why. Another frequent component of these discussions, though, is that I owe it to other people to try again. It is often pointed out to me, for instance, that women are underrepresented in the higher ranks of the academy. I’m not sure my particular case has much to do with this general situation, and I’m not so far convinced that I should feel any special obligation because of it either.

I’m somewhat more persuaded by the argument that the kind of change or challenge to academic norms that I represent won’t happen unless people like me fight for and then use the influence that comes with seniority to turn advocacy into policy. But we have already changed our policies here at Dalhousie: it’s attitudes that haven’t changed–at least, not much. A lot of us were pretty excited about blogging for a while, but our more recent discussions showed a significant (and understandable) decline in optimism about that. Also, while there’s a lot of talk about “knowledge dissemination” and “public engagement,” it looks to me as if the trend is towards shaping that work into something recognizably academic and institutional–incorporating peer review into blogging, for instance, and establishing university programs and centers for things like the “public humanities,” rather than cheering on people who just go out there into the public sphere and participate in forms and discussions of different kinds. In this context, I’m not sure how much good I can do, individually, to instigate or support change, or at least why I have to put myself through another grueling round of extreme academic vetting in order to do it. It seems to me that I am doing as much good by persisting on my own, just trying to exemplify one of many alternative models.

“Never say never” is perfectly reasonable advice, and who knows how differently I will feel in the future, or what else might have changed in the world around me. For now, though, being promoted to full professor is simply no longer one of my goals.

2016: My Year in Writing

2016 was an odd year for me as a writer. On the one hand, I wrote a lot of literary criticism, for a wider range of venues than ever before. This experience was challenging, educational, exhilarating, and occasionally frustrating: in some cases, I had to write shorter and faster than I ever had before, and in others I had to find an angle on books or writers that weren’t immediately congenial or intelligible to my critical sensibilities. I also had to work with new editors and adapt to their different styles and priorities. Overall, I’m very proud of the results.

On the other hand, I also got the clear message from my employer (and many colleagues) that this is not the kind of writing they value, and that if I hope to advance professionally, I’d be better off giving it up, scrambling back into the ivory tower and devoting myself to a very different model of literary criticism. I actually wrote thousands of words in 2016 trying to turn this judgment around — attempting to persuade people on campus (none of them, ironically, actually literary critics of any kind) to recognize my essays and reviews, and the other elements of my diverse portfolio of projects and publications, as worthwhile contributions to my academic discipline. Of all the writing I did this year, this was the least pleasant, and ultimately the least rewarding.

Where does this leave me? Well, mostly it leaves me wondering how much more writing about literature I could have done in 2016 if I hadn’t wasted so much time (and, perhaps even more relevant, so much angst and energy) on a futile quest to change academic priorities — even if it did initially seem as if I was just urging everyone to live up to their oft-stated commitment to outreach, public engagement, and innovation. It certainly hasn’t persuaded me to do as I was told: I’m not against academics doing specialized research leading to peer-reviewed publications in academic venues, but I strongly believe enough academics in my field are doing this already and that it is both right and imperative that universities loosen their grip and encourage, support, and even reward faculty who do other kinds of work as appropriate to their disciplines.

bonnard-young-woman-writing

Institutional issues aside, I feel as if I made a lot of progress as a writer this year. Book reviews are not the be-all and end-all of my writing ambitions: I would particularly like to write more, longer, better, wider-ranging essays. I wasn’t able to do much of that this year, but the reviewing I’m doing is both honing my skills and helping me build up my credibility (one interesting and humbling thing about writing outside the academy is that my formal credentials and my academic c.v. mean very little “out here,” where authority is something you have to earn in other ways). I hope that in 2017 I will keep moving forward — both as a reviewer and as an essayist. This includes hoping that I make more progress compiling my existing essays on George Eliot into a book: now that I’ve self-published one e-book, I feel emboldened about doing another.

There’s a complete list of my publications under the ‘Other Writing’ tab above. Here I’ll just mention a few from 2016 that stand out to me, for one reason or another.

At Open Letters, I was particularly pleased with “Our Editions, Our Selves,” which was ostensibly a review of the lovely new Penguin Deluxe Classics edition of Middlemarch but which also gave me a chance to ruminate about my personal history with my favorite novel. Writing this review of Mary Balogh’s Only Beloved brought me some comfort and joy, and it was also my first attempt to write something thoughtful about romance fiction.

At The Quarterly Conversation, I wrote about David Constantine’s The Life-Writer and In Another Country, which I already mentioned in my previous post as some of the best reading I did in 2016. Because Constantine was new to me, and because his fiction is so elegant, I was a bit intimidated when I started working on the review, but in the end I felt that I had found something interesting to say and said it pretty well.

I published four reviews in the Times Literary Supplement in 2016. My favorite was of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder — to me, anyway, this little piece reassured me that I am starting to be more at home in shorter reviews, that I can still sound like myself in a more compressed form. (I think my forthcoming review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First is actually better, though; it will be out in January, I expect.) I was proud of my only longer piece in the TLS (so far), which discussed three recent scholarly books on Victorian women’s writing: this was not as much fun to do, but (again, to me, anyway) it seemed like a good example of my academic expertise being used in the service of a wider public.

I was very happy to write about Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bastards of Pizzofalcone novels for 3:AM Magazine: these were two of many good examples of crime fiction I read and/or reviewed in 2016. And I also appreciated the reviewing opportunities I got from Quill and Quire, including two neo-Victorian novels (Smoke and By Gaslight) that, again, let me draw on my academic background a little while nudging me out of my comfort zone.

Overall, then, on my own terms 2016 was a productive year for me as a writer and a critic. A key goal for me in 2017 is to stop seeking validation on other people’s terms!

Policy and Prejudice: My Promotion Postmortem

ns-dalhousie-universityAfter well over a year, my application for promotion to Professor finally concluded last week, with the disappointing news that my appeal of President Florizone’s negative decision was unsuccessful.*

I am well aware that compared to the precarity of so many others working in academia, my troubles don’t amount to a hill of beans. But they are troubles, nonetheless, and when you’ve given over 20 years of your life to an institution — a commitment that has had significant and often negative consequences for every aspect of your life, especially your family life — and when you have always brought your best self to the job — then the conditions of that job, the return you get for that commitment, hardly feel trivial. Those of us with tenure, also, have the security to advocate for the academy to become the kind of place we think it should be, which in my case means a more open, flexible, and publicly engaged place. If we don’t use our privilege to instigate change, we are wasting it. That this process ended in failure for me is a personal defeat, but one that I think also says something about the hope I know many of us share that academia will evolve.

I have thought a lot about what I can and can’t (or, should and shouldn’t) say in this public space about this process. I haven’t been completely silent about it up to this point, but I pretty much kept to generalities while the case was ongoing. I’ve gone into a bit more detail on Twitter since I received the appeal committee’s judgment, but though tweeting is a good way to let off steam and lay out preliminary arguments (and also to be reminded that you have allies), it doesn’t allow much deeper reflection or provide any sense of closure. That is what I need, and that’s why I’m writing this post — that, and because for almost a decade this blog has been a site for reflecting on my academic as well as my reading life.

screamIt is tempting, of course, to use this opportunity to lay out my whole case, to rehearse the ups and downs as my application went through its nine (nine!) stages of review, and to air my specific grievances as well as parade my allies and advocates. Militating against that self-indulgent impulse, though, is the conviction that even if it were professionally appropriate to expose all the parties involved in that way, nobody really wants to read that 10,000 word screed. Besides, I’ve done a lot of relitigating of details in the past 16 months. It will do me more good to pull back a bit, to get out of the weeds and try instead to articulate what seems to have been the fundamental problem, which I now think can be aptly summed up as (to borrow a phrase from Middlemarch) “a total missing of each other’s mental track.” I won’t name names or quote at length from any submissions, and I’ll try to avoid special pleading — though I can hardly be expected to hide which side I’m on! It will help me to write about it in this way, I hope: it will exorcise some of the frustration and bitterness I still feel. And then I will be done with it — publicly, at least — and I will do my best to gather up all the energy that has been dispersed among these professional and psychological hindrances for so long and rededicate it to the ongoing task of becoming the kind of literary critic and semipublic intellectual I aspire to be.

I’ll put the rest below the fold, so that if you come here for something besides academic self-flagellation, or you don’t have much patience for the professional troubles of someone in my position when the world seems to be falling apart (a reasonable attitude!), you can move on more quickly.

Continue reading