Academic Enclaves

I was reminded yesterday that SSHRC has awarded a large sum to help start up a Canadian version of The Conversation. I have followed links to the other national iterations of this site before and thought it seemed like a good idea. “Academic rigor, journalistic flair”: what’s not to like?

Well, actually, I don’t altogether like the tone that tagline sets — as if there isn’t journalistic rigor, as if academics can’t have flair, as if the twain otherwise don’t meet. Okay, folks, you’re different, but maybe not that different: people with “deep expertise” do write for other outlets, after all, and once in a while “facts and evidence” actually do get into the public arena from other directions. It’s a great idea to make the kind of expertise academics have more widely available, but that good impulse is somewhat offset, for me, by the site’s faint air of condescension. Am I being uncharitable or oversensitive? Does it strike anyone else this way?

Thinking about The Conversation got me thinking, in turn, about some other academic “crossover” sites I’m familiar with. Almost all of these have occasionally (again, despite their manifest good intentions and the often very high quality of their content) irritated me in the same way: Stanford’s Arcade site, for instance, or the Public Books site (which has another tagline that I don’t like, implying as it does that the “curious public” is passively awaiting delivery of “cutting-edge” ideas); or, in a more niche category, the Branch Collective. Obviously, these sites aren’t all trying to do the same thing, and they have quite different personalities of their own, but they have in common that they are deliberate attempts to bridge the divide between the ivory tower and the rest of the world. Also, they all seem very keen to differentiate themselves, implicitly or explicitly, from the masses of other sites offering analogous content, playing up the scholarly qualifications of their contributors or their replication of key academic processes (notably, in the case of the Branch Collective, peer review).*

I think what rubs me the wrong way is exactly what these sites (with some justification) play up as their strengths — that they may be out in public, but at heart they are still academic. They are careful to explain and assert their own authority, in (mostly) implicit contrast to the many other sites that are equally public but not created or curated by academics. To me, this all has a whiff of the all-too-familiar academic mistrust of the actual “public arena,” in which credentials are neither necessary nor sufficient for authority and peer review neither filters nor stifles contributions to the conversation. It’s not that there aren’t good reasons to get frustrated with the resulting chaos of information and opinion, but to me there’s something a bit precious about setting up special academic enclaves and calling them “public” instead of just joining in. (If you don’t think Wikipedia is good enough, why not make it better?) It also seems to me in some cases as if, alongside the desire (genuine, I’m sure) to offer something of value to people outside the academy, there’s some concern about ensuring that the form that offering takes will pass muster inside the academy — because for all the big talk these days about “knowledge mobilization,” in practice universities are profoundly conservative institutions, and the more familiar an “innovation” looks, or the more it is “branded” as a ground-breaking institutional or disciplinary project, the more likely it is to be praised and given professional credit.

Again, I’m not disdaining the quality of the sites I’ve mentioned. There is just something about their tone or atmosphere that I sometimes find off-putting. I have also been frustrated at having them held out by other academics as exemplary in ways I do not believe they actually are. In my own promotion case, for instance, one of my external reviewers praised the editorial process she (or he, I don’t actually know) had experienced at Public Books, suggesting more or less directly that it was more rigorous than that at Open Letters Monthly because she had found some of my reviews there “repetitive” (which ones, she didn’t say). Well, of course, equally rigorous readers can still disagree about judgments like that — and it’s a hard claim to assess or dispute anyway, without specifics. (I didn’t appreciate the slur on my co-editors, however, even setting aside the criticism of my own writing!) However, in my turn, I’ve read a few things at Public Books that I found ponderous, pretentious, or just too long for me to care enough about to finish, so I don’t see any reason to assume that either venue can claim a uniquely effective process. (I certainly feel confident that contributors to Open Letters get pretty arduous treatment in what we fondly call the “shark tank” of general edits.) I also have academic colleagues who are keen to write essays for Branch but cannot bring themselves to contribute to Open Letters — it’s pretty clear that the academic imprimatur motivates them in a way that our masthead does not. (Or perhaps, as has been suggested to me a couple of times, the prospect of going public quite so openly, even on the modest scale Open Letters offers, is intimidating. As Alex Reid has observed, “the Journal of narrowly-focused humanities studies is a good place to hide,” and I admit it takes a while to get used to just saying what you think without the protective shelter created by peer review and obscurity. Or perhaps they just don’t think very highly of Open Letters but are too tactful to tell me: my speculation should not be too partial!)

Obviously this issue is personal to me, especially at this particular moment in my career, which is why I freely acknowledge that my inverse snobbery about these erudite and high-minded projects may well be symptomatic of my own anxieties about the choices I’ve made, rather than an accurate reflection of anything they’re actually doing or saying. Clearly, I have approached working in public in a different way — not as part of an institutional or specifically professional enterprise (not that we have anything like, say, the Public Humanities program at Western — but even if we did, that’s not what I want to be doing), not in a special space that privileges academics. I have just tried to find a place for myself in the ongoing public conversation about literature, to figure out what I could bring to it and how. In this conversation, unlike at The Conversation, we share and create authority for each other; mine, such as it is, doesn’t inhere in my credentials. I am not saying this is the right or best model for all public academics (it almost certainly would not work for nuclear physicists), and I’m also not saying that the enclave model is wrong — though I do think it should not be insisted on or valued more highly just because it preserves, even relies on, distinctions between the university and the world. I think that for me personally, the problem with the enclaves is that they represent, or resemble too closely, what I came out here to get away from, is all.**

*I can’t decide where The Valve fits in here. I think it always had more of a hybrid quality, and certainly while I was writing for it its boundaries seemed fairly porous. But maybe it struck other people as insular in this same way.

**My way has the advantage of not requiring a SSHRC grant to get on with it — though actually to some people that it’s free (except, of course, for the investment of time) apparently counts against it, because getting grants is a thing we’re supposed to do.

Given to Murder: Amanda Cross, Honest Doubt


“I know you said most professors aren’t given to murder, but are English departments more given to murder than most?”

“Not as far as I know,” Kate said.

Over the years I have read all of the Kate Fansler mysteries by Amanda Cross (who was really Columbia English professor and renowned feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun). Honest Doubt, published in 2000, is the penultimate of these; the last, Edge of Doom, came out just a year before her 2003 suicide.

I remember not liking Honest Doubt very much when I read it the first time, and rereading it over the last couple of days I could see why. At least for someone with preexisting knowledge of academia and its discontents, Honest Doubt is fairly heavy-handed, with a lot of tendentious explanations of the kind of theoretical and disciplinary infighting that was characteristic of English departments in the 1990s  and also of the territorialism, defensiveness, and self-importance that remain pretty typical. If you live it, there’s not necessarily a lot of charm in reading about it, particularly when the telling offers no new insights or revelations. Often in a mystery the solution to the individual crime points towards a solution to the broader ill it is a symptom of — Honest Doubt, however, does not offer any glimmer of a way forward except the general hope that eventually the worst, with all their passionate retrograde intensity, will die off.

That said, I did appreciate that Heilbrun devised a good formal justification for her expose of academic foibles by approaching her story, not through Kate, as usual, but through a private investigator, Woody, who consults with Kate to make up for her own ignorance of academic ways and means. Woody is an engaging narrator, and her outsider status gives Kate (and many of the other characters) an excuse for explaining how things work as well as how they go awry — with details about all things academic, from adjunct labor to tenure requirements to the hazards of prioritizing teaching over research. It also lets Heilbrun (and thus her readers) have some fun with Woody’s fish-out-of-water experiences on the college campus, and with the hyper-articulate name-dropping poetry-quoting professors she has to interview. There’s no doubt that a lot about how we carry on is kind of absurd if you step back and think about it, and though there are some ways in which Heilbrun’s cynical take seems a bit outdated, she’s not wrong that the extent to which our work often seems inconsequential to outsiders is exactly why the stakes get so high internally. She also does well capturing the ways academics’ identities get bound up in their objects of study, so that it becomes near impossible to avoid taking changes in their field personally. Kate sagely acknowledges the corrupting potential of this over-identification, especially as it converges with academic ambition: she quotes Auden saying that when Tennyson “decided to be the Victorian bard . . . he ceased to be a poet,” and propose that the victim, a curmudgeonly Tennyson expert, experienced a similar fall from grace: “He was a real academic when he began with Tennyson. Then he tried to become the academic and the Tennysonian, and ceased to be even a decent professor.”

heilbrunThe case itself is cleverly contrived but not, I think, particularly meaningful. On a completely personal and thus mostly irrelevant note, I enjoyed that it turned on the victim’s fondness for retsina: retsina is actually the first wine I ever drank, back when I was a regular in a Greek dance performing group, so for some time I didn’t realize just how distinctive (many would say, just how disgusting) it actually is. I haven’t had any in years, but now I’m tempted to see if our local wine store carries any. As I recall, it certainly goes well with the robust flavors of Greek cooking — garlic, lemon, and lamb especially. It isn’t really key to the crime, though, except that because nobody likes it but the victim, it proves a useful vehicle for delivering the fatal poison. (This is not a spoiler, as the method of the murder is one of the first things we find out!)

Otherwise, the only thing that really interested me in the novel was its gesture towards another of Heilbrun’s own recurring interests: solitude. She sees, rightly, I think, that a fondness for solitude is a particularly vexed issue for women, and in Honest Doubt she gives us a character who has managed to achieve the remarkable state of being unapologetic about her need for it. “I don’t want to offer you an extended disquisition on a woman’s life,” she tells Woody (the phrase itself reminiscent of Heilbrun’s slim but mighty book Writing A Woman’s Life)

and how it is made to seem that she really wants what she has, how she believes she has what she wants, and, if she has any secret desires, which are against all the forces of her culture, she hardly dares to face them.

Kate herself also in her own way resists the pressure to want what she’s supposed to – she is happily childless, for one thing – and in other Amanda Cross novels Heilbrun offers a number of characters who try to write their own stories according to their own needs and desires rather than haplessly following cultural norms. In Death in a Tenured Position, for instance, which is the one in the series that I know the best (I’ve assigned it several times in my ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ seminar), a happily married couple struggles with the dubious reactions of friends who realize they sleep in separate rooms — a small private decision that provokes simply because it doesn’t conform to people’s assumptions about marital togetherness. “You’d think they’d decided to be tattooed, or run guns to Cuba,” remarks one of their friends.

tenuredpositionI finished Honest Doubt thinking that, though I didn’t love it this time either, I should reread more of the series. Even 2000 was a long time ago in my own academic career, and for all that aspects of Honest Doubt seemed faintly archaic already, some of its truths hit home in a way they didn’t before. Even its title, in fact, has new resonance to me, taken as it is from Tennyson’s lines (from In Memoriam) “There lives more faith in honest doubt / Believe me, than in half the creeds.” My own doubts about a range of academic values and practices have made me seem to some, I think, like a negative force, maybe even a threat (or, and I’m not sure if this is better or worse, like an irrelevance). I’ve described myself as feeling sometimes like “a nonbeliever in church”: to me, though, my doubts have always been indications of my faith that what we do not only is valuable but can be even more so.

The Myth and Mystery of Scholarly “Value”

bookI mentioned in my last post that I had recently read a new academic book that I ultimately decided not to review, partly because I didn’t want to scapegoat the author for my alienation from the genre it belongs to. I’m still not going to name it (and that’s my own book pictured at left, just so there’s no confusion), not just because I’ve made that ungenerous mistake before but because I have had the same question about a lot of academic books lately. This is just the most recent one to leave me wondering: what is this book worth?

That’s the kind of question that clearly requires better, more precise, framing to answer. Worth in what sense, and to whom? Forget financial considerations: I could look up its list price, but even to the author (perhaps especially to the author) a book of this kind is not a money-making venture, except indirectly in that it is almost certainly crucial to the author’s professional success. My guess is, in fact, that it is the author’s “tenure book,” so obviously that has significant economic implications, as well as a crucial payoff for the author’s career. For the author, this is a very valuable book, even if it generates no royalties at all.

For me, on the other hand, the book has no particular value. I don’t mean that unkindly: it’s just that it doesn’t change anything for me, even though it is a work of scholarship in my area of specialization. I suppose I could keep working with it until it does make a difference to me: I could wrestle with its fairly abstract vocabulary and arguments and then with its readings of its examples until my own account of the Victorian novels it addresses incorporates its insights. But there really is no need for me to do that: it’s not as if my own readings of those books have been rendered incorrect or even incomplete by the work done in this book. The book gives me something else I could think about while reading (some) 19th-century novels, but there’s no obligation for me to do so — there really can’t be, unless I’m obligated to do the same with the many, many other scholarly books coming out all the time, and the surfeit of material makes selectivity a principled, not just pragmatic, choice. If I decided to write a specialized paper on a topic that’s over in the author’s corner, I’d be remiss not to notice the book — but I mostly work in other corners, where other books are more pertinent, and that’s how we all get by, consulting other people’s scholarship on an occasional basis — that is, as the occasion arises, and even then with no expectation that our pool of references will be exhaustive.

victorianstudiesIf there were such an expectation and people routinely met it or else paid a professional price, my own monograph would be cited more often than it is! And yet I’ve peered in the bibliographies of enough books and articles on related topics to know that sometimes it comes up, and sometimes it doesn’t. The essay in Victorian Studies that became a chapter of that book gets more consistent attention, no doubt because of its greater discoverability, its online availability, and the tendency of things that get cited once to get cited again. It’s quite possible that, as a contribution to my discipline, the article is genuinely more valuable than the book — that it informed more people, generated more ideas, supported or contradicted more arguments. I wouldn’t actually argue very hard against the notion that the book’s value lies almost entirely in what it did for my career (first as a dissertation, then, revised and expanded, as my “tenure book”). I’m not saying it’s a bad or uninteresting book, and it certainly contains a lot more material than the article does, but on the whole it mostly wasn’t (isn’t) really necessary, except professionally. I wish more people would cite my chapter on needlework and Victorian historiography — or, for that matter, my concluding discussion about the contemporary resonance of some of the Victorian themes I studied — but that’s mostly my ego talking. I’m honestly not sure if that reflects badly on me, on the profession — or just on my book! But the truth is, if only pragmatically, that what is supposedly the real value of either my book or this other book — that it is a contribution to scholarship, that it advances our knowledge and understanding — is not self-evidently present, if it’s not much needed and won’t be much noticed.

In his inaugural post for The Valve, back in 2005, John Holbo raised some related questions about why we do what we do in the way that we do it:

How many members of the MLA? 30,000? That a nation can support a standing army of literary critics is a wondrous fact, and quite explicable with reference to the volume of freshman papers, etc. that must be marked. The number is inexplicable with reference to any critical project. Yes, we need new scholarship (don’t bother me with more false dichotomies, please.) The point is: no one has a clear (or even unclear) sense of what work in the humanities presently needs approximately 30,000 hands to complete. I don’t mean we should therefore hang our heads in shame, although being a member of a standing army of literary critics must be a semi-comic fate, at least on occasion. But the utter lack of any justification for 30,000 literary critics assiduously beavering away explicating, interpreting, erecting new frameworks, interrogating the boundaries, etc., has consequences. Notably, when a book or article is up for publication and the hurdle is set, ‘if it has real scholarly value’, we discover this condition is just not as intelligible as we would like, conditions being what they are. It isn’t true that literary scholars value the output of 30,000 other literary scholars. They just don’t, and that is quite sensible of them, really.

“If ‘scholarly value’ output can’t be optimally pegged to some sense of how much will be truly valued,” he continues,

(since patently the output of 30,000 is going to be on the heavy side), the level will be de facto set as some awkward equilibrium point between forces of economic and administrative necessity (budgeting and tenure). But this is no way to run the life of the mind. Neither economic nor administrative considerations should dictate the diameter of the sphere of scholarship.

Holbo is talking about all forms of scholarship, but the problems he’s thinking about are most conspicuous with books because they represent the largest investment of our time and resources. I’ve written before here about reasons to resist the assumption that books are always our best option, even for disseminating specialized scholarship to other scholars. Certainly “a book” should not be the default demand for any professional step: surely it would be better for all of us if we wrote books when the project demanded investigation and explanation on that scale, not because we “need a book to get tenure” or because “a second monograph is the usual standard” for promotion to Professor. The MLA has urged us to decenter the monograph and accept “multiple pathways” to tenure and promotion. This is right, because for pragmatic reasons scholars can’t publish books on demand, and for principled ones, they shouldn’t. But it also makes sense because there are so many other valuable — maybe more valuable — things we can do with our expertise. I actually applaud my own department, and my own Faculty, for developing tenure and promotion guidelines that recognize a wide range of legitimate “contributions to a discipline” as worthy of professional advancement. (Whether, in practice, our institutional culture has caught up with those forward-thinking guidelines is another question. Ahem.)

I would never dismiss the book I just read, never argue that it is not a legitimate scholarly contribution, just because I personally didn’t find any value in it. Who knows how many other scholars (or just other readers — though given the nature and style of the book, I can’t imagine it would engage very many of those) might find in it something truly exciting, paradigm-changing, or just useful? And as I’ve said before, though I often look at individual trees with puzzlement, I am a big believer in the overall value of the scholarly forest — precisely because things like value are so hard to measure, and because the kinds of transformations that we all eventually feel and react to in our work accumulate incrementally at first. Also, that we have trouble getting the most value out of our work is at least in part a systemic and logistical problem — not a reason to stop doing the work itself. But I do wish we would stop conflating value with form (as in “you need a book,” or “only peer-reviewed scholarly articles are valuable”), or pretending that it’s self-evident why some kinds of work are worth more than others, professionally or otherwise.

Innovation and the Eye of the Beholder

Untitled-1On university campuses we hear a lot about innovation these days, from hype about the latest ed-tech fad to proclamations by institutions like my own about fostering a “culture of innovation.” This has got me reflecting on how we define or recognize innovation — something that is not as obvious, I think, as its champions, or as those who insist on it as a measure of academic success, typically seem to assume. In some fields, of course, it’s easy enough to tell when something is new, if it shifts or breaks a paradigm. But in others, context makes all the difference, as my own chequered career as a “thought leader” demonstrates.

Exhibit A: my undergraduate degree. When I first started at UBC in 1986, I intended to major in history. I was an avid reader, but it had never occurred to me to study reading. I changed my mind, obviously, thanks in large part to my first-year English professor, Don Stephens. (This is one reason I try never to underestimate the importance of our own first-year classes. They can literally change lives.) I didn’t want to give up history, though, and so I asked if it would be possible for me to do my Honors degree in both departments. It turned out that until then, nobody had done a combined English-History Honors degree, so the logistics all had to be specially worked out. (This was ultimately done by the simple method of adding up the key requirements, so that, for instance, instead of the 3-credit English Honors essay or the 6-credit History Honors essay, I did a 9-credit essay, with double the usual number of supervisors, readers, and examiners. I ultimately defended it to a panel of 7 professors.) Administratively, this was innovative, then — but intellectually, the work I did was very much in line with current trends in both disciplines.

UBClogoToday, of course, an interdisciplinary degree is wholly unremarkable; Dalhousie even has an entire Interdisciplinary Ph.D. program (for which I have done one supervision myself). Even by the time I got to Cornell to pursue my own Ph.D. in English, though, nobody raised an eyebrow at my interest in historiography. In retrospect, I think my role as an innovator actually reflected less on me than on the somewhat fusty assumptions governing UBC’s degree requirements at the time — particularly in History, where I met the most skepticism about my proposal, but also in English, where the Honors program still required one course each in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.

Exhibit B: my feminism. In my undergraduate history seminars, I was something of a feminist agitator. I particularly remember the efforts my friend Helen and I made to get some scholarship about gender onto the reading lists. We were unsuccessful in our mandatory historiography seminar — I remember one male student pushing his chair back from the table and exclaiming in disgust “But you’re trying to change something in your culture!!” Well, yes, we were: in our wider culture and in our immediate academic culture, in which the male students thought it was pretty funny to see if they could get us (“the feminists”!) riled up. But we were successful in our Renaissance history seminar: I still recall with admiration (and some self-satisfaction) the professor’s comments to the class at the end of the term that he was glad we had pushed for readings like Joan Kelly’s “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” because they had prompted him to reconsider some of his own working assumptions. That’s integrity! And our interventions were clearly innovative: we were very cutting edge!

06-vintage_cornell_souvenir_penantBut when I got to Cornell, I discovered that far from being a radical, I was actually a conservative! It turned out that there were some kinds of questions you couldn’t safely ask there, arguments you couldn’t seriously entertain, without undermining your feminist credentials. My first big mistake was giving a seminar paper called “The Madwoman in the Closet”: it queried some then-dominant trends in feminist criticism, particularly in 19th-century studies, and tried (perhaps crudely, but I was a beginner at all of this — and frankly, my somewhat old-fashioned training at UBC had not prepared me well for it) to figure out how politics and aesthetics were getting balanced (unbalanced, I thought, maybe, possibly) in the debates. My professor was keen to have these discussions, but said to me quite frankly that he felt that as a male professor, he couldn’t raise these questions. So I blundered in, and paid the price. I also wrote a more or less positive review of Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism — I strongly doubt I would write the same review today, but I distinctly remember how scrupulous I tried to be, looking up the statistics and studies she cited and trying to think my way through the arguments she made. As I recall, this review (the first one I ever published!) was far from a cheerleading piece — it was more in the spirit of “these seem like questions worth asking” — but it can’t have done my developing reputation as an ideological throwback any good.

Yet at Dalhousie, gender issues have always been central to my teaching (as they have been to my scholarship) — I’ve even had at least one student complain that I was “pushing feminism down our throats.” More positively, I have had many appreciative comments from students, including one this year who said mine was the first class she’d taken in which “social justice” issues including feminism were simply integrated into the curriculum, even though the course itself wasn’t labelled as a class in “women’s studies.” It’s impossible not to wonder how much I have actually changed, and how much it’s just the shifting contexts around me that make me look different.

TLS-soganExhibit C: my critical writing. There are many possible angles to consider here, but I’ll focus on my recent work outside of academic publishing, because its status has been much on my mind lately. In a way, the kind of criticism I’ve been doing recently — from book reviews to literary essays — is not innovative at all: it’s the same kind of work everyone else is doing who also writes for newspapers and magazines and literary journals. But from an academic perspective, to be writing for those venues instead of for academic journals is itself innovative: it’s the kind of thing that gets called “knowledge mobilization” or “knowledge dissemination” or “public humanities.” Except that some of these publishing ventures resemble (in style, not necessarily in content) an older kind of literary criticism — a kind some might call belles lettres — which is now considered passé in academic circles. So my recent work could be considered retrograde, not innovative. Except that to break from the conventions of academic writing and try to replicate the best qualities of belles lettres (fine, smart, accessible writing, with its own literary elegance) while still doing criticism informed by decades of academic scholarship … couldn’t that combination of new insights and old forms itself be innovative? Then, what about the content of the reviews and essays? Every new interpretation of a literary text is a critical innovation, isn’t it? So every review of a new book, representing a new intellectual encounter, is intrinsically ground-breaking, even if book reviewing as a form is the oldest kind of literary criticism. What if you make a new critical argument, based on original research, but in an essay outside the norms of academic publishing — if that argument falls in the forest, can anybody hear the innovation? Or what if the argument of an essay is new to one audience but not to another? What is going on then?? Am I doing original work or not???

Oops. That last part possibly got away from me a little! But I think you get my point: determining whether something — an interpretation, an argument, a curriculum, a research project, a work of criticism — is innovative, new, original is not always straightforward. It depends on definitions, expectations, and above all, on contexts. The “flipped classroom” is nothing new to English professors who for years have been assigning texts to be read outside of class and using class time for discussion. “Student-centered learning” is no great revelation in disciplines that have always been based on Socratic exchanges, held seminar classes, and taught students to develop their own essay ideas into original arguments based on their own research. But that these are old practices in some contexts does not mean they aren’t valuable ones, or that people shouldn’t try them in other contexts, if they seem promising there. What matters should not be innovation for its own sake: we should stop fetishizing it as an end in itself, as if either its definition or its importance is self-evident. I’m not against innovation — of course not! And we should certainly encourage and support people who risk doing something outside their immediate limiting norms because they think it will serve the university’s mission — because we shouldn’t want what is now to be mistaken for what should  always be, or always was, in any context. It’s just strange to me how absolutely the term “innovation” is used, how confidently it gets invoked — and how, ironically, it can actually be used to reinforce orthodoxies if we never double-check our assumptions about it.

Sowing Seeds: On the Duties of Professors

Arcimbolo LibrarianFrom the Novel Readings archives, a post that addresses issues still very much on my mind: what we mean by the terms “research” and “scholarship,” and what we take to be the duties of professors and the work of the humanities.

A friend and colleague who read and sympathized with my previous post passed along to me an essay by the late C. Q. Drummond, a long-time member of the Department of English at the University of Alberta. The essay is called “On the Duties of Professors,” and it addresses many of the same issues as my post, particularly the competition for attention, resources, and rewards between research and teaching. As competitions go, all academics know, this is a distinctly unequal one these days: officially, university policies may stress the equal importance of both duties, but inadequacy or irresponsibility in teaching will never hold back someone’s tenure or promotion if they have a “strong” publication record, and while the administrative infrastructure for research is large and powerful, topping out at the Vice Presidential level, if the two factors are really equally important, where, Drummond rightly asks, is the “Vice President (Teaching)”? (Here at Dalhousie, our office of Research Services has 22 staff, including a VP and an Associate VP. Our Center for Learning and Teaching has 10, with a Director and Associate Director at the top.) Not that Drummond wants to see an expansion of teaching-related bureaucracy–though I quite like his idea for how a VP (Teaching) would go about his or her business: this VP “would move through all the Faculties, visiting classes, hearing lectures, attending seminars, drinking coffee, joining oral examinations, talking into the night.” Through qualitative engagement with teachers and students, this VP would become “another source of evidence, besides tabulated student assessments, for who teaches well and who poorly.”

Drummond’s remarks are directed specifically at his own situation: at the time of writing (around 1984), he had recently been “penalize[d] for insufficient publication during a year in which [his Faculty] received extraordinary evidence of his merit as a teacher.” There’s a polemical thrust to them, as a result, but Drummond uses the occasion to place his own professional experience into its larger context: the increasing dominance of precisely the kind of quantitative measures of research “output” about which I was complaining yesterday. Actually, there is one difference that signals the 30-year gap between us: I didn’t notice any mention of research grants in his piece. I expect he would have objected still more strenuously to measuring scholarly success by level of external funding. He directs his criticism at “forced publication,” and at the reductive equation of publication with research or scholarship:

The Salaries and Promotions Committee certainly does not ask for wisdom; it does not ask for erudition or for scholarship; it does not ask for learning, or even for research; it asks for output, something to be measured or counted. . . . What good does such output do anyone? If research in an Arts Faculty means humane learning, then we all hope our teachers are as much involved in research as they possibly can be. We want them to know better and better what they are talking about, so that they will have, and will continue to have, something intelligent and important to profess to their students. But if research means output or publication, as it so often does today, how do the students profit? And how does the scholarly world profit from the forced production of ephemera? Most professors in Arts Faculties would be better off reading more and publishing less, and their students would be better off too, and so would the world of scholarship.

The very term “research” is, he argues, part of the problem.  He quotes George Whalley, who argued in an essay of his own that “research” suggests a goal-oriented activity, work carried out in pursuit of something in particular. “The functions of research,” Whalley writes, “are specialized and limited; … the word research is not a suitable term for referring to the central initiative and purpose of sustained inquiry in “the humanities” . . . “The humanities” is what “humanists” do; not only what they study, but how they study, and why . . . .”

BPL EntranceDrawing on the Handbook published by the CAUT (invoked by his Dean in response to Drummond’s appeal of the Committee’s decision), Drummond himself brings in the vocabulary of knowledge “dissemination” which is once again very current in discussions of our aims:

Research should result in teaching, and might result in publication, teaching and publication being the most important means of dissemination of knowledge. We may teach those near at hand in our lectures, discussions, tutorials, apprenticeships, and supervised practical training, or we may teach those distant through our published papers, articles, essays, and books. But in either case we will have to have found out and shown something worth lecturing about, discussing, or writing down. And where will we have our greatest effect in disseminating what we have found out and know? . . . Dissemination has to do with sowing seed; what we hope when we disseminate is that the seed will take root and grow. . . . So much of the seed one sows in publication falls by the wayside and is devoured by birds, or falls on stony ground, or among thorns and yields no fruit. What the good teacher sows in his class or tutorial is far more likely to find the good ground, spring up, increase, and itself bring forth.

 He reiterates at intervals throughout the piece that he is not opposed to either research or publication, only to a mechanistic understanding of both, especially when it “drives out teaching”–which almost inevitably follows: institutional systems of measurement and incentives are set up not “to encourage the combination of knowing and teaching,” but to “encourage the production of printed pages,” and “because we live in a world in which time itself is scarce, the time taken for one must be taken from the other.” Again, it’s not that he wishes teaching, in its turn, to drive out research–teaching depends on research, broadly understood as inquiry.

It’s not, in my turn, that I wish to drive out either research or publication, both of which are essential (as Drummond too acknowledges) to learning, teaching, and knowledge dissemination. What bothers me is the  incessant identification of “productive” scholarly activity with a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible. It’s a shame that the faux-scientific model Drummond objects to is now so firmly entrenched–so deeply entangled in the values, practices, and especially the finances of our universities–that it seems unimaginable that we could ever undo it. Some might argue that we have won more by it than we have lost–that without playing the game that way, we would have forfeited any place in the contemporary academy. Others might reply that, yes, we are playing the game, but on terms by which we can only, ultimately, lose: however vast our research output, will we ever win either the public or the institutional respect enjoyed by the sciences? Hasn’t our preoccupation with research actually isolated us and cost us public support? And in our effort to insist on the goal-oriented practicality of our fields, we may have flagged in our defense of their intrinsic value.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)Again, it’s not that I think we should not do research, or publish what it teaches us–but it’s a shame that the system is so rigged in favor of hurrying it along and rushing it into print–not to mention aiming it at a specific (and very narrow) audience. “I know for a fact,” Drummond observes, “that policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” That’s certainly true of my reading as well. The narrow concept of research and the pressure to publish also, when made the primary measures of professional success, marginalize undergraduate teaching. (The emphasis in grantsmanship on teaching and funding graduate students, or “HQP” [Highly Qualifed Personnel] is another whole area of trouble.) Finally, it seems to me paradoxically retrograde to be urging or following a model that measures productivity by grant size or output of peer-reviewed publications at a time when the entire landscape of scholarly communication is changing. We can circulate our ideas, enhance our and others’ understanding, pursue our inquiries and disseminate our knowledge in more, and often cheaper, ways than ever before. As long as we are all using our time in service of the university’s central mission–the advancement of knowledge, including through teaching–by the means best suited to the problems we think are most important and interesting to pursue, aren’t we doing our duty as professors?

But as the Associate Vice President who spoke to my Faculty on Thursday said repeatedly, there aren’t “metrics” for those other ways of doing (or discussing) research or measuring its impact: they do not yield data that can be counted, measured, and easily compared across departments, faculties, and campuses. Apparently, that means we have to set them aside–or, at any rate, that the VP (Research) will do so, when reporting to us on our “performance.”

The essay I discuss here is in the volume In Defence of Adam: Essays on Bunyan, Milton, and Others by C. Q. Drummond, edited by John Baxter and Gordon Harvey (Edgeways Books, 2004).

Originally posted January 29, 2012.

What We’re (Really) Talking About When We Talk About “Time to Read”

cassatt the teaRecently I went out for a very pleasant lunch with a group of local Victorianists. One of the topics of discussion was retirement, and particularly how demoralizing it has been for people we know who have given literally decades of their lives to their universities only to be urged to consider retirement before they themselves feel ready for it. Nobody that we know wants to work past the point where they can’t do their job well, but for many professors 60-ish can actually be a peak time for creative productivity. Academic careers start slowly anyway, given the years it takes to earn qualifications, to land a permanent position (for the increasingly small number privileged enough to do so), then to meet the demands for tenure. Women with children, in particular, may have waited a long time to really flex their intellectual muscles: researchers have shown that motherhood has different professional costs for academic women than for men.

For these reasons and more, many academics approaching what used to be the mandatory retirement age have in fact enjoyed only a relatively short phase of being free to do the work they really think is most important, building on their long apprenticeships and painstakingly acquired expertise. By that time they usually also have extensive experience in the many facets of academic self-governance. They are enormously valuable resources for their departments and institutions — and, nowadays, they are unlikely to be replaced. In the circumstances, they should be cherished, not dismissed. It is borderline illegal to push them towards the door, and it is also insulting and discouraging.

quartetAnyway! Retirement is not the main subject of this post (though it’s related to it, in ways I’ll come back to): it’s just the context for how, at our nice lunch, I ended up mentioning Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, which I had discussed with my book club the night before, and in which retirement and its existential discontents is a central theme. No sooner had the words “This reminds me of Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn, which I just read with my book club” left my lips then, nearly in unison (and I don’t exaggerate), the rest of the table erupted with “I don’t know how you find time to read!”

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me when I’m talking with my colleagues. There are a handful of them who are also “readers,” and with whom, instead of talking time management, I can talk books. What a pleasure that always is! But the “how do you find time?” response is by far the most common one, and the tone is always a mixture of incredulity and envy, often with just a hint of judgment, as if I’m doing something pleasurably illicit, something just a bit daring and also a bit suspect.

This is not necessarily what you’d expect. Don’t English professors read for a living, after all? Didn’t they become English professors because at some point they were bookworms? Isn’t reading what we do? And of course the answer is yes — English professors read incessantly: literary works they have assigned or are considering for classes, scholarly books and articles for class preparation and for research, student writing from introductory-level papers to graduate theses, manuscripts for peer review, their own writing. When my colleagues exclaim over my mysterious ability to find time to read, they clearly don’t mean that kind of reading: they mean other kinds of reading — reading I do not because I have to, but because I want to, reading that might be considered “pleasure” reading or “leisure” reading.

Bookworm's Table (Hirst)This is not to say that there are not pleasures to be had in the kinds of professional reading I’ve mentioned, or that English professors don’t ever want to do that reading. Of course they — we — do. But it’s still reading for work, and it’s pretty clear that “how do you find time to read?” really means “how do you find time for reading that isn’t for work?” Again, this is a question that can be tinged with envy, as if to say the person would also like to do that, but it’s also implicitly, inevitably, judgmental: “why aren’t you as busy with work as I am — why aren’t you too busy to read?”

For as long as I have been asked this question, I have struggled with how to respond. Usually I say something tediously self-deprecating, like “I have no social life” (true), or “I don’t really read that much” (also true, compared to most of the bloggers and critics and book lovers I know online). I try not to get defensive, or to ask, in return, how they find time for things that I don’t do (extensive gardening, say, or running marathons, or going to the theater) — my  point would not be that they should not do these other things, of course, but that we all have at least some things that we choose to do, and my thing is reading. It always has been, since childhood.

My suspicion, though, is that the people who ask me about reading aren’t thinking about their own leisure activities as the problem. They accept these things as welcome breaks from what they’re usually doing, which is working. What I suspect they have trouble with is giving themselves permission to do reading that isn’t for work, because if they are settling down to read, surely they should be using that reading time to work. Reading is always already too much like work, because it is our work, and so the zero-sum game they imagine is not between time to read and time to go to yoga or binge-watch Breaking Bad, but between time to read Barbara Pym and time to beaver away on that next peer-reviewed article.

Academics are prone to working all the time, or at least to thinking they should be working all the time — or, some have more cynically proposed, to taking pride in saying they are working all the time: there is a kind of perverse prestige in proclaiming “I’m terribly busy!” in response to every casual “how are you?” This is not necessarily a good thing. It’s also not necessarily a nice thing, because in this context, asking me “how do you find time to read?” kind of sounds like an assertion of superiority: “you are not as busy as I am!”

macke woman readingBut the truth is, I’m probably not, if by “busy” you mean spending every available minute doing academic work — though that depends, of course, on how you define “working” (not to mention “academic”). I have argued before that, for me anyway, the line between leisure reading and reading for research is not as clear as all that. A good current example would be that for several years now I have been reading romance novels just for fun — but in January 2017 I’m teaching my first incarnation of our “Pulp Fiction” class, in which I expect to assign a romance novel (probably Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels). Though a crucial part of my preparation will be turning from reading romance fiction to reading criticism and scholarship about romance fiction, there’s no doubt that the time I’ve spent reading novels and getting a preliminary sense of the general terrain (including by reading tweets, blogs, and essays by better-informed romance readers) has made taking on this pedagogical challenge feasible for me.

Similarly, I read mystery novels for decades before offering my first class in that field, and  every mystery I read now contributes to my understanding of what is possible in and interesting about that genre. I have incorporated many books into my classes that I initially read “only” for myself; some of my leisure reading — such as Ahdaf Soueif’s novels — has led to specifically academic as well as non-academic publications. My teaching has been generally enriched by my awareness of what is going  on in the wider literary world. (Surely it’s not only English professors who explicitly specialize in contemporary literature who have any stake in its directions and debates.) Then there’s the reading I do for reviews, which are not exactly my “job,” or at least which prove difficult to get acknowledged (counted) as “academic work” but which are certainly some kind of work — sometimes, now, even paid work! And, last but not least, there’s this blog, in which I turn my reading into something — something not clearly academic, but at any rate less ephemeral than personal experience.

So one way of justifying the time I spend reading is to explain its hybridity: it is both personal and professional time. When I read, I am not (just) relaxing, I am being productive! I am busy … busy reading! But why do I even feel the need to justify it?  What is wrong with making time for reading that isn’t for work? I have acknowledged that I have not been able to sustain a standard program of academic publication at the same time as the range of other things I’ve been doing — but it’s not reading that’s to blame, as I have always been a reader. A whole array of contexts and choices has led to that situation, one of which is the choice not to let all my waking hours be devoted to academic work. In this, I suppose, I have anticipated the “slow professor” movement — although I am “slow” only by narrow academic standards, and only in strictly academic contexts. (I actually consider the past 5 years of my life as the most busy and productive years I’ve ever had as a critic.) I recognize that I can do this because I enjoy the privilege of tenure (which I earned, mind you, by meeting all the requisite academic standards) — but so too do almost all of the people I’ve had these exchanges with over the years. If they want to slow down and read, they absolutely can, and they can do so without compromising on their actual professional obligations (though they may diminish their chances of professional advancement). They just have to change their habits and separate their sense of self-worth from an academic lifestyle of constant work that can actually be as destructive as it is productive.

Ironically, maybe they’ll finally have that chance when they retire. Or will the internalized norms of university life mean that even when they unequivocally have the time for it, they will still struggle to let themselves just read? In any case, when we talk about having time to read, we’re really talking about a lot more than how we allocate hours in the day.

Responding to Srigley, Over and Over and Over

Lady (Waterhouse)I have been very glad to see eloquent and well-informed responses to Ron Srigley’s screed “Pass, Fail” in The Walrus (which largely reiterates his screed in the Los Angeles Review of Books). I was disappointed in both venues, frankly: it seems to me to show poor editorial judgment to publish rants of this kind without checking their intemperate anecdata and wild generalizations against at least a broader sampling of facts and opinions about the very complex business that is higher education. I would have expected both journals to think better of themselves and their readers. Both Aimée Morrison and Melonie Fullick have offered valuable critiques — but because these writers don’t go to extremes, either rhetorically or ideologically, their thoughtful pieces almost certainly won’t get as much attention, and because Srigley is preaching to a nasty choir of higher ed haters, rather than actually trying to engage people interested in meaningful dialogue, critique, or reform, the people who are gleefully linking to his article are unlikely to step back and reconsider the nature or value of his arguments.

I thought about writing a detailed response as well — not because I have done the kind of research that makes Melonie so well-qualified to speak up, but because I found Srigley’s sweeping denunciations of “contentless” classrooms, the replacement of what he considers important topics by “narcissistic and transparently self-promoting twaddle,” and professors who “pandered to [students’] basest inclinations while leaving their real intellectual and moral needs unmet” profoundly insulting — to me and my colleagues and to the generations of students we have taught. Further, the claim that “most degrees involve no real content” is not just a lie but, in our current economic and political climate, a damaging lie. Yes, there are grains of truth in his criticisms of the way universities are run and in his descriptions of the sometimes incompatible priorities of students, staff, and faculty. But most of us who are dealing with these problems every day on the job (and evenings and weekends too, much of the time) do not need “friends” like Srigley, who is actually an enemy of the enterprise we are all, collectively, engaged in, in good faith if sometimes with flagging spirits.

By the time I finished his LARB piece I was seething, and I was seething again, and also profoundly discouraged, when I saw it resurrected in The Walrus. Is this really the story about higher education that people want to read? It must be, or relatively sober publications that could certainly afford to turn it down wouldn’t run it: they must have figured that it would generate traffic, and I’m sure they were right. (You’ll notice I have not linked directly to either iteration here, because I hate that the internet incessantly rewards the worst over the best.) I fervently believe that my work, and the work of thousands of others like me, is not a “retail scam”: maybe, I thought, I should try to explain why not.

WP_20140827_005But then I realized that I have said so, that I have made my argument — over and over, for almost 10 years. Here at Novel Readings I have posted regularly about my teaching, for instance, since 2007, when I began my series on “This Week In My Classes” because of other equally vitriolic and unbalanced public criticisms of my life’s work. I have shared details about what my classes are studying, I have raised questions about pedagogy, I have fretted about students who don’t seem engaged and celebrated the much more numerous ones who care a lot, I have explored new subjects and developed new material, I have sought advice and sometimes comfort. In other words, I have tried to do the opposite of Srigley’s grand dismissive gestures: I’ve invited anyone who’s interested to come inside the academy and see for themselves what I’m up to.

I can’t rule out the possibility that someone would read through my archive of teaching posts and still reach Srigley’s dire conclusions about the state of higher education. I know, too, that I’m just one professor, so my first-person experience is also, in its own way, anecdotal rather than conclusive. But I honestly think my efforts to meet my students every time with the best that I can come up with are more representative than Srigley’s dystopian exaggerations. I’m surrounded every day with colleagues who similarly strive, with all their intelligence, creativity, and fortitude, to bring their students with them to intellectual places they think are both interesting and vitally important. Every day, we are all surrounded with students who meet us at least half way, and some who take us further than we would have gone on our own. Sure, some don’t, or won’t, for both good and bad reasons, some of them individual and some of them structural. But an imperfect process is a sign of a work in progress, which is always what education is.

Novel Readings is still a pretty quiet corner of the internet; whatever hope I had, back in 2007, that my teaching posts would make even a slight difference to the larger public narrative about higher education has long subsided. But the archive is there for those who want a different perspective: rather than grand statements, they provide a steady record of particulars. I’m not going to attempt any further response to Srigley, because in these posts I have, implicitly, responded already, over and over and over: instead, I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing, both here and, especially, in the classroom, where it really matters.