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.

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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.

The Conference Convention

campusI’m back from Louisville, where Dan Green, David Winters, and I presented a panel of papers on criticism in the internet age at the 44th annual Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900. The panel itself was something of an anticlimax (more on that in a bit), but it was a genuine pleasure to meet both Dan and David in person and share stories and ideas about blogging, criticism, and working online. Another highlight was hearing Mat Johnson read from and discuss his latest novel Loving Day, and I also really enjoyed chatting with the amiable Woolf scholars I sat with at the conference dinner.

I built some slack into my travel schedule as I was quite anxious about being delayed by winter storms, if not here, then in one of the other wintry airports I had to pass through coming or going (Ottawa, Chicago, Montreal): miraculously, even the record-breaking snowfall in Ottawa that hit just as I was passing through did not hold up my flights, so I arrived a day before the conference began and had a little time to play tourist (on my own dime, don’t worry). I passed up the Louisville Slugger Museum in favor of the Frazier Museum, as I’m not a baseball fan and I like to get a sense of the local history; then, when that turned out not to be a particularly time-consuming expedition (it’s not the biggest or most fascinating museum in the world), I headed to the Kentucky Derby Museum where I paid tribute to the spirit of Dick Francis. After a lot of diligent conference-going, I took a bit more time near the end of my stay to walk in Waterfront Park, including trekking across the Big Four Bridge to the Indiana side and back. It’s probably a prettier park when it greens up, and the river itself seemed kind of a muddy mess, but (after a bitter cold start to my visit) it was 21 C that day and a treat to be outside coatless in the sunshine.

derbyEven taking these good things into account, though, I left Louisville feeling more than ever that, as a profession, we need to rethink how we do things. One of the main incentives for me to participate in this panel was that I have recently been given emphatic notice that I haven’t been going to the number of conferences expected of someone in my position. A significant number of academics apparently consider frequent conference-going a key measure of scholarly productivity and knowledge ‘dissemination.’ Frankly, I thought this was bollocks when it first came up as a criticism of my record, and my experience in Louisville only confirmed me in that view. Here’s why: Under pressure to show I am doing the “right” things professionally, I traveled a long distance at great expense (a significant amount borne by me personally, as the funding available did not cover nearly the full cost) to present a 20 minute paper to an audience of 8 people. All around me, hundreds of other academics were there doing the same, sometimes to even smaller audiences (the smallest I saw was 3 people plus the panelists, the largest, excluding keynotes, was about 16 — for a panel on Joyce — and one of the keynotes itself had an audience of maybe 15). Though there’s no doubt that some of the attendees were genuinely engaged with the papers they heard, most of them will take little concrete away besides a vague sense of the argument. One questioner at a panel I attended prefaced his remarks (as usual, questions were usually of the discursive rather than inquisitive variety) by saying that he’d heard a paper at another conference by someone whose name he couldn’t remember making an argument he dimly recalled had been somewhat similar to the one he’d just heard: though I’m sure there are some exceptions, that impressionistic result seems to me pretty typical, at least of a conference as diffuse as this one.

MLA-logoThe small audiences and inchoate overall experience is in part a function of the kind of conference this was: papers were collected under a very large umbrella, and (I suspect) accepted somewhat indiscriminately, perhaps with the admirable goal of being inclusive. But when there are 10 or more concurrent sessions in every time slot, there’s little chance of robust numbers at any given panel, and even less chance of a sizable cohort of conference-goers having much of a common experience and thus much deep, shared conversation. My experience of ACCUTE (not to mention the MLA) has been very similar: I’m not faulting the Louisville organizers in particular. Even the BAVS conference that I went to in 2011, though considerably more focused and thus more productively collegial, was fairly dispersed. At BAVS, though, I felt my own contribution got more attention and thus generated more valuable discussion for all concerned: remember, the purpose of these events is not supposed to be accumulating lines on one’s c.v. but having a face-to-face intellectual experience that matters so much it’s worth the time and money and environmental impact of all this gadding about.

twitterlogoOnce upon a time going to conferences really was our best option for letting a wider audience know what we are working on, for getting feedback on work in progress, and for networking with colleagues in our field. But while I think it is possible for a conference experience to be genuinely valuable, particularly if the conference has a narrower focus and a different format (a friend of mine speaks very highly, for instance, of the Shakespeare Association‘s annual meetings), we really do have other options today for many of the functions conferences used uniquely to serve. Just for instance, Novel Readings may be very small potatoes as blogs go, but I still reach more people with every post here than I have ever spoken to at a conference (sometimes more than all of my conference audiences combined), and the comments are every bit as engaged and engaging as any in-person sessions, and often more because they arise from a written text (not, as with most conference papers, a written text read aloud, with all the attendant disadvantages). Here I can link to things I’m talking about, creating a tangible network of related material, and my writing can be referred and linked to in turn. As I have often observed, my blog is not a particularly “academic” blog (setting aside for the moment the question of when reading, or writing about reading, counts as research) — but the form of a blog is perfectly suited to sharing just the kind of thing usually presented as a conference paper and getting feedback and suggestions for furthering “the larger project” (if I had a dime for every time I heard that phrase in Louisville, I think it would have covered the rest of my hotel bill!). Twitter is great for networking — admittedly, there’s a learning curve, but compared to the dreary 24 hours (literally) I spent traveling to and from Louisville, the time it takes to populate a useful Twitter feed and learn how to use a hashtag is nothing. And these are just the most obvious alternatives to flying half way across the continent to sit in a dingy room telling a few hardy souls (some of whom, it must be said, are actually editing their own papers or checking Facebook rather than listening intently to you) about your insight into Woolf’s aesthetics.

southridingI think I personally would have found the Louisville conference more intellectually stimulating if I were a modern literature scholar myself: I had a harder time even than usual latching on to the papers’ arguments because they were typically quite specialized contributions to scholarly inquiries I know little about. I went mostly to Woolf panels because at least there I knew the primary sources a bit! (I was interested to note that there were no papers, much less panels, on Winifred Holtby or Vera Brittain at all; there was one paper on Sayers, but I saw no sign of Rebecca West or Rosamond Lehmann or Mollie Panter-Downes or Elizabeth Taylor or Olivia Manning or any of those I think of as the ‘Virago’ set. Eliot, Pound, Woolf, Joyce, a bit of Lawrence and Forster — this was a pretty canonical outing. You 20thC people can tell me if that’s typical or just Louisville.) I’m not sorry I went: it was an adventure, it was a change of scenery (which I really needed), I spoke with a number of really interesting people and made a couple of new friends. But why anyone would insist I should do this kind of thing more often, while shrugging off the other ways I share my writing, network with other academics, and facilitate not just my own but other people’s ‘knowledge mobilization’ completely escapes me. Just because that’s how the profession has operated for a long time, or just because it is the kind of scholarly activity some academics are used to and perhaps even enjoy, simply does not mean it is the best use of my time or the university’s resources. We need to be open-minded about other options that serve the same purposes, often more efficiently and effectively. In this, as in scholarly publishing, it seems to me that the familiar form is too often valued over the real function of the work itself.