Summer Fog

Deck-SkyHere in Halifax we have been socked in with fog and cloud a lot lately, and the last two days in particular have been relentlessly overcast and muggy. The humidity alone is demoralizing, and the absence of sunlight just compounds the gloom. Happily we’re supposed to see at least some sun later today–but most of the rest of the week is forecast to be pretty grey. This kind of disappointing weather is typical of May and June here, but by July we’re usually enjoying a bit more brightness! As our long-awaited and always too-brief summer slips away, it’s hard not to feel a bit depressed, especially as constant construction noise in our usually tranquil neighborhood has made even the few really nice sunny days harder to enjoy. I have hardly spent any time reading on the deck, which is the one summer activity I really look forward to!

twitterlogoMy mopey mood has not been helped by the constant barrage of bad news, or by the ceaseless cascade of angry responses to one thing after another on social media. My twitter feed yesterday was heavily dominated, for example, by people being angry about a terrible “take” on libraries and an ill-conceived hit job on Wuthering Heights. I didn’t disagree with (most of) the complaints: I love libraries as much as the next person in my feed, and though Wuthering Heights is hardly my favorite novel either, if for some reason I felt like making a big public statement about that, I would at least try to explain myself without insulting either the book or those who admire it–and I would certainly make a good faith effort to know the novel better and acknowledge its strengths as part of the project. But eventually I had to wonder who these declarations were really aimed at, since the pieces’ authors are almost certainly not going to see or be persuaded by them. I know it feels good to vent, and we all (myself certainly included!) use Twitter for this some of the time, but after a while the anger seems largely performative, and I’m increasingly inclined to see the compulsion to join the chorus of outrage as a problem in itself, not any kind of solution–though, having said that, I do realize that there can be both comfort and political value in asserting solidarity with other like-minded people. My least favorite genre of tweet is “you’re doing Twitter wrong,” so what I need to do is keep working on managing my own experience of Twitter–which I still find a vital lifeline to relationships and conversations and ideas I value–so that it is on balance more engaging than stressful.

moss-namesOn the bright side, I just finished reading a pretty good book, Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea, which I will write a bit more about here soon. I also really liked Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn, which I just finished writing up for Quill & Quire, and now I’m focusing on a short essay on Carol Shields’ Unless, a novel that has come to be one of my very favorites. I also feel good about my piece on “Reading Trollope in the Age of Trump,” which ran last week on the TLS Online–it was a treat to be writing about a Victorian novel again, and it was an interesting challenge to see if I could highlight its contemporary relevance while still mostly focusing on its particulars, keeping it “more Trollope than Trump,” as my editor and I agreed. It was also nice not to be behind their paywall for once!

I’m sure I will perk up soon. The sun is already trying to burn its way through today’s fog, and in the meantime I have plenty to do. Days–and moods–like this, though, which are pretty common for me in the summer, are why I don’t 100% look forward to this season, and why I kind of hate the well-intentioned “how’s your summer going?” questions from the few people I run into, most of whom really only want or expect me to say “fine.”

Summer Vacation!

IMG-7983I’m just back from a great week visiting family and friends in Vancouver. It was mostly family this time, as Maddie came with me. She had not been to Vancouver since she was 7 and has not had very many opportunities to spend time with my parents or my brother and sister and their families–it seemed important to make them a priority, and I’m glad we did. The highest cost of my professional life has been the distance it put between me (and thus my children) and them.

It was a real treat for me having Maddie along: I loved showing her around the city as well as seeing her get to know everyone better. We walked a lot, ate a lot, and talked a lot! I did a better job than usual keeping work-related things at bay, and because we were out and about so much, I also wasn’t online enough to feel oppressed by the unceasing stream of bad news and petty conflicts. It was lovely, and I am not altogether happy to be back. #sigh

PainterFor once I didn’t buy any books (Maddie and I frugally shared a suitcase, which meant there wasn’t room for much besides the essentials), but I did make off with two books from my mother’s collection: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone and Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet. I didn’t steal them! My mother is trying to clear some space on her shelves, so really I was helping. My airplane reading was Nell Painter’s awkward but engaging memoir Old in Art School, which I have now finished and will write more about here soon–once my jet lag subsides and I can concentrate properly. In the meantime, here are a couple of pictures from the trip. Vancouver is such a breathtakingly beautiful place! The last photo is of my parents’ garden, a verdant oasis that always reminds me of Marvell’s nice line about “a green thought in a green shade.”

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Drawing Class: Lessons Learned

IMG_1351My drawing class met for the last time this week–it was just six sessions total. That’s obviously not enough time to get really good at anything (though I gather the “ten thousand hours of practice” theory has been more or less debunked). It’s not so much that I have to put in a lot more hours but that I need to figure out how to make the most of the hours I have.

Though I still think that in some ways this specific class simply wasn’t a great fit for me, things definitely improved (including my attitude) once I started copying pictures–not photographs of faces, which is no fun for me (it just takes too little to make it look “wrong”), but landscapes or other drawings, especially ones that are stylized enough that the copy doesn’t need to be exact to look pretty good. Copying George O’Keeffe and Emily Carr was still plenty challenging for me, but I enjoyed doing it, and though the resulting pictures are of course unoriginal, it’s a good way to practice important skills, including shading and also patience (which, yes, I consider a skill, or at least something you have to exercise deliberately). I learned that rulers are my friends! Also erasers.

OKeeffe

What else have I learned? For one thing, I have begun to look at things differently, with more attention to lines, shapes, lights, and shadows, though I still don’t find the instruction to “just draw what you see” very helpful. I regret having dutifully purchased the workbook for Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain; I eventually took a few other drawing books out of the library to see some different approaches (research is a hard habit to break) and I found this one much more informative about how to draw what I see. With its help, I drew the best eye I have done so far! I have also been exploring YouTube–which, after all, is where I learned to crochet–and I quite like this seriesEye

I think the most important lesson I learned is that if you wish you could do something, you have to actually go do it. I enjoyed the weekly classes–everyone was very friendly, and we had a good time chatting and drawing and sharing our efforts–and I know I picked up ideas, information, and strategies from my teacher. Most of all, though, the lessons focused my previously vague interest in drawing and gave me an explicit incentive to put pencil to paper, both of which I needed to overcome my longstanding inhibitions about drawing. I’m still a long way from creating original art that shows anything like “my own” style, but I’m a lot closer to being able to produce pictures I like–in fact, I’ve done a few already.

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In the process of figuring even this much out, I learned when I can let go of my need to do things “well” or “right” and when I can’t, and also I figured out more about what kind of both drawing (the action) and drawings (the art) appeal to me, which perhaps oddly I hadn’t thought much about before registering for this class. I had been thinking about drawing more in terms of creativity in the abstract, as something to do that was not reading or writing, and also something that I did not for anyone else or for any other purpose, but just for its own sake. You can’t just move your pencil around randomly any more than you can start writing without any sense of purpose at all, however (well, I guess someone could, but I can’t); now I know a lot more about what the options and possibilities are.

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Did I in fact “learn to draw”? Well, I’m certainly no longer assuming that I can’t draw: instead, I’m thinking about what I will draw next. I have a folder full of potential subjects to copy, and I am resolved also to try some sketching in the Public Gardens and at Point Pleasant Park. So far the only thing I’ve drawn “en plein air” is the trunk of the huge elm tree in our back yard, which is hardly the most scenic thing in the area!

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All in all, I consider the experiment a success; I’m glad I tried it, and I’m grateful to the folks (on Twitter especially, but also at home–“yay, Mom!”) who encouraged me!

Home and Away: Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief

I wonder if I would have liked No Great Mischief more if I’d never moved to Nova Scotia. Then its invocation of the landscape and culture of Cape Breton might have appealed to me as much as any other intensely local fiction does: I might have appreciated unreservedly its artfully crafted sentences offering a vicarious journey into an unfamiliar place, its tender but unsentimental portrait of the people who live there and love it, its artful and often touching intertwining of stories about the past and the present. No Great Mischief does offer these things, and I did understand, as I read it, why it is so admired.

The problem I had, though, is that No Great Mischief seemed too much part and parcel of the things I don’t like about Nova Scotia, things that from a distance might be engagingly quaint or exotic but that up close I have found wearing, even alienating: clannishness, insularity, a backwards-tugging resistance to change, hostility to outsiders. Soon after we bought our first house in Halifax, one of our watchful neighbors commented “you’re not from around here, are you?” That there’s even a common expression for people like us (“come-from-aways”) perhaps says enough. And there’s not just suspicion and resentment of new people who arrive: there’s also perpetual mourning and resentment about Maritimers who go away, whether they choose to or have to, and a reflexive and (in my experience, anyway) largely unjustified insistence that this is the best place on earth, with the best people. “We’re the salt of the earth!” declared one of those same neighbors–neighbors who watched thieves make off with the newly planted flowerpots from the front of our house and didn’t interfere, note the license plate, or knock on our door to give us a heads up. (We have since moved.) 

It’s not that there aren’t good things about life in Nova Scotia. Over time (and I’ve been here 23 years now, so nearly half my life) I’ve learned to appreciate and even cherish many aspects of it. We’ve also met many lovely people–though it’s interesting how many of the ones we are friendliest with have also come from away. But No Great Mischief is basically a paean (if a somewhat melancholy one) to Cape Breton and its way of life. That its narrator, one of several Alexander MacDonalds in the novel, has moved on (he is a successful orthodontist in Ontario) seems to him something faintly sorrowful, even a little bit shameful, as if his profession is somehow less authentic than fishing or mining, or his modern urban life, with its comforts and conveniences, is somehow a lesser life than his parents’ or grandparents’ back on the island. These attitudes are not unique to the Maritimes–somehow, city-dwellers and urban professionals never seem to count as “real” citizens the way farmers do–but they are certainly conspicuous here.

Unfortunately, then, in spite of its admirable literary qualities including its quietly powerful evocation of place, No Great Mischief grated on my nerves, precisely because it is so invested in the fixity of Maritime culture and its fixation on its roots. For a short novel about contemporary Canada, No Great Mischief sure dedicates a lot of space to Culloden and Glencoe and Killiecrankie, and everywhere our Alexander goes he runs into yet another member of clann Chalum Ruaidh (there’s a lot of Gaelic in the novel too). Not that there’s anything wrong with all of this! It’s just that in my experience it is a nicer world to visit as a tourist (fiddles and bagpipes and tall ships, oh my!) then to live in as an outsider. Sure, the cashiers at Tim Hortons call me “honey” and “sweetie”–but I’ve found people in New York or Vancouver or London just as helpful and friendly, and beneath the surface display of folksiness here there can be a deeper layer of suspicion. (In case it doesn’t go without saying, #notallMaritimers, your mileage may vary, etc.)

As I was reading No Great Mischief I found myself thinking a lot about my own upbringing, which was quite unlike Alexander’s. That difference might, I suppose, be another contributing factor in my resistance to the novel (and to this region). I don’t just mean the geographical differences, though there’s no question that to me the North Shore Mountains will always look more beautiful and lift my spirits higher than anything here. For one thing, my immediate family was (is) the opposite of sprawling. The only relative I knew well outside of my parents and two siblings was my paternal grandmother; although she came from a large family, we had very little contact with any of its other branches, and my mother’s relatively small family was far away. Our family life revolved almost exclusively around the five of us: we did a lot of activities together, and we developed an array of family traditions, especially around holidays, that gave us a strong but highly specific and idiosyncratic sense of continuity and identity. It is inconceivable to me that I would ever run into anyone else anywhere in Canada and feel an immediate bond, as happens to the novel’s many MacDonalds. We enjoyed a kind of self-sufficiency that in retrospect was quite empowering (my siblings and I are nothing if not self-directed) though it may also have allowed us a little too much freedom to cultivate our eccentricities. (Our significant others are banned from commenting on this point!)

At the same time, in other ways my upbringing was anything but insular, as the interests, activities, and friends we were engaged with were more global than local. One thing we were all involved in one way or another, for example (not always actively or voluntarily, as my brother would attest) was international folk dancing, which meant that we were very aware that different places in the world had rich and complex histories as well as their own traditional music, dances, and food. Many of the people we met through folk dancing were from these other countries, too, which made the cultural diversity of the world something real and embodied for us, not just an abstraction or a spectacle. I don’t mean to idealize this somewhat peculiar if often delightful subculture–just to observe that it arises from and cultivates people’s interests in how other people live in the world. My own most sustained form of involvement was my participation (along with my father’s) in a Greek performing group called the Philhellenic Dancers: the leader was Austrian, his wife was Irish, and the rest of us came from many places–some were even actually Greek! Here we are at Greek Day c. 1985, festive if blurry:

Besides folk dancing, there were other ways in which my childhood attention was drawn outwards: classical music, which brought us into contact with a lot of different musicians, again mostly from elsewhere; reading, which for me, for whatever reason, rarely meant reading Canadian literature; travel, which for us was limited and not glamorous, as we mostly went camping, but was as likely to take us south into Washington State and Oregon as north up the B.C. coast. The U.S. border crossing was familiar and easy in those days: we used to drive all the way to Bellingham, WA just to go to Baskin Robbins, before it opened in Canada. My mother was American (she hails from New Hampshire – live free or die!) and my sister and I were both born in the U.S., so although I knew it was a different country, I didn’t think that difference mattered very much. I still find eastern Canada more foreign than I ever did Seattle! Winter, hockey, Tim Hortons: out here these are assumed to define the Canadian experience, but I knew nothing of them. Vancouver itself I experienced as a place where people from all over came and went–again, I don’t want to idealize the city or gloss over its faults and complexities, which are naturally much more apparent to me now than they were then, but for better and for worse I was raised when multiculturalism was the buzzword and that’s what I thought I saw and what I thought was good. (For some reflections on ways the feel-good message of multiculturalism obscured lessons I should have learned about the history of my own country, see this post.) The cumulative effect of all of these factors is that while I love and miss Vancouver, I feel tied to it individually, not because I developed a strong sense of regional identity.

All of this is by way of saying, not that my own background is the “right” way, but that because of it the close-knit but wide-ranging family depicted in No Great Mischief and the constant pull they all feel back towards a specific history and a particular place both seemed somewhat claustrophobic to me, and that my personal experience has made me skeptical of the hold a certain idea(l) of the Maritimes still has. To be fair, MacLeod’s novel is not naively nostalgic and he doesn’t unreservedly romanticize the world or the people he depicts. The novel is structured, after all, around the consequences of an act of tragic violence that is itself the result of a clash between two strongly defined and irreconcilable group identities. There and in the historical allusions lurk powerful warnings against holding grudges or deciding people’s worth because of who you think they are, because of an inability to move on, or past. Still, those larger implications seemed to me not nearly as important to the novel’s affect and ethos as the idea that there is only ever one place where you really belong and it isn’t for everybody. 

I realize that I’ve given hardly any actual details about and no specific quotations from MacLeod’s novel. It turns out that’s not what I felt like writing about! If you’re interested in a proper review of No Great Mischief, here’s the New York Times review from 2000, which seems a judicious one to me, and here’s a pretty warm one from Quill and Quire.

It’s June Already? Taking Stock

Bluhm PergolaAs a member of Jo VanEvery’s Academic Writing Studio (which I highly recommend, by the way, if you need a bit of structure, encouragement, and/or advice), I receive her helpful weekly newsletter by email. Last week’s had the timely subject heading “It’s June! You Are Not Behind,” and included the calming observation that “you may not be where you thought you’d be or where you wanted to be on the 1st of June. But you are where you are.” I thought I’d use this post to follow her advice and take stock of where I am and where I should be going next.

Jo’s not wrong when she says “June may have snuck up on you.” One reason June’s arrival can feel sudden and thus disconcerting for me is that it follows immediately on May–which is obvious, of course, but here’s the thing: every year it seems as if May should be the real start of the summer writing season, but every year I realize, as if for the first time, that May is actually the end of the previous academic term, and the transition to the summer. Exams finished here in late April, and though my only exam was relatively early, the practical result was not that I could get my marking done sooner but that the 90 exams came in while I was also receiving final papers in both courses. April was nearly over by the time I had filed my grades. Then there is always a flurry of committee meetings. In the English Department, they usually culminate in our annual May Marks Meeting, which requires a lot of preparation from the Undergraduate Committee, which I am on. The work is mostly done by its chair (not me right now, happily), but in consultation with the other members.  Because our department underwent a review this year (an institutional requirement involving both internal and external reviewers), and because of the wave of retirements we are experiencing, we also held a full-day “retreat” to talk about the kinds of stress our program (and faculty) are under and how we might respond.

ScreamFor me personally, the “retreat” (how I hate that term, which falsely suggests there’s something soothing about being closeted for hours with my colleagues and having to talk about fraught topics about which in some cases we profoundly disagree) was extremely stressful and undid some of the progress I’d made, post-promotion-debacle, towards restoring my trust in our collective operations and feeling once more like I have some kind of intellectual home here. I know it was undertaken with the best of intentions, but my experience of the day was that the event, which was pitched as an opportunity for “open” discussion, ended up feeling uncomfortably like an occasion to push us in a pretty specific direction–one much more aligned with the “skills” argument than with the actual content (for want of a better word) of what most of us study and teach. We’ll see how this plays out, and I may also be reacting to the loudest and most persistent voices rather than to any genuine underlying consensus that this is how we should seek to define ourselves–but I certainly left in a hurry and in a funk at the end of the day, and it has taken a while for the bitter aftertaste to wear off.

oup-persuasionAnyway, Jo recommends taking stock of what we did accomplish in May, and dealing with meetings and administrative tasks was a big part of that. I also completed the final draft of a report: I was part of the Faculty of Graduate Studies’ internal review committee for the King’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction (spoiler: overall, it’s a great program). I returned comments on a Ph.D. thesis chapter. I’ve written a couple of reference letters. I submitted three writing assignments, all relatively short but each posing its own kinds of challenges: an “In Brief” review for the TLS, a review for Quill & Quire, and a guest post for Sarah Emsley’s series “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion” (it will be up on her blog later this month). My post for Sarah is pretty personal, which actually made it harder to write, for reasons that are explained, at least by implication, in the post itself.

82780-eliotdrawingOne of the things I’d intended to do in May is work out a definite plan for some larger writing projects to focus on over the summer. For some reason I have found this very difficult to do: I have sketched out and even done scraps of writing for a lot of possibilities but I have struggled to commit to any one of them. I have continued to explore places to pitch pieces that aren’t book reviews, and I have some ideas I like, as well as a firm commitment to doing a piece for The Reader, a publication I have long admired for its combination of sophistication and accessibility. I really want to get back to writing about George Eliot; I think what I may need is to stop focusing on venues for a while and just write, the way I could when I always had the option of running something in Open Letters Monthly. Trying to think of the pitch first becomes an exercise in self-defeating second-guessing. Getting going on this–whatever it turns out to be–is a top priority for me this month.

English-Bay-RocksThese are all work things, and of course that’s never everything that’s going on. Maddie had her wisdom teeth out on May 18th, for example, and that meant a week or so of disruption (and a lot of smoothies) while she recovered, but she is basically better now. As previously mentioned, I’ve been taking a drawing class; I’ve been feeling much better about it since I learned it was okay to copy pictures, which removes a lot of the frustration of trying to get proportion and perspective right on my own. I’ve been enjoying my practice sessions a lot more, as a result, and that in turn is building up my confidence–I even sat on our back deck on the one really hot day we’ve had so far and tried to draw the trunk of our big elm tree (not bad) and our small stone wall (not so good). After my initial discontent, I am now definitely glad I decided to try this. In addition to the intrinsic satisfaction of creating something (not that copying is that creative, but it’s a step towards it!), I often spend a lot of time alone, especially in the summer, and being able to bring along my sketch pad and pencils to someplace like Point Pleasant Park or the Public Gardens will be a nice substitute for company.

obrien-chairsLast but not least, Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs ended my reading slump; I picked up Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen on the weekend and feel excited to start both of them–though right now I’m actually reading Ann Cleeves’ Thin Air, to see if I like the books Shetland is based on as much as I liked the series. (So far, I don’t.) I’ve realized that getting out of the reading doldrums is not just important for me personally: I rely on my underlying enthusiasm about reading to keep me motivated about my writing projects, most of which now are done not because of any external demand but because I want to do them, because I think they matter in some way. When I feel myself getting bored or disillusioned or disconnected from the current literary conversation, it gets much harder to see why or how I should contribute to it.

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So: that was May. Jo is right: it’s useful to reflect. Though there were long spells last month when I felt extremely grim and unproductive, it turns out I still got quite a lot done, which is reassuring, but that there are also things I really want to do next, which is bracing.

Drawing, Frustration, and the Art of Pedagogy

I’m just over half way through the ‘Drawing for Beginners’ class I signed up for, and as some of you may have noticed on Twitter, I have been feeling quite frustrated about the way it is going so far. I am trying to learn lessons from my frustration, but despite how ready a few people have been to suggest this, I honestly don’t think a fair conclusion is that I am receiving some valuable schooling about my own teaching. Rather, my frustrations mostly reinforce my own pedagogical strategies and priorities. They may not be perfect, and I may not implement them perfectly, but as far as they–and I–go, I think I have the right idea. *

I’m not frustrated that, after just three weeks, I still can’t draw well. I was prepared for it to take a while, and plenty of practice, for me to get any better! I’m frustrated because so far, I don’t much sense of how to improve, except to keep drawing badly until eventually, somehow, I’m drawing better. Although we have done a bit of work on explicit techniques, such as shading, we’ve mostly just been told to draw things, either from life or by copying or finishing other drawings or pictures, and reassured (if that’s the right word) that we’ll get better with practice. To me, that seems more or less the pedagogical equivalent of my putting a poem in front of someone and saying “here, write about this,” without explaining at all what “this” is, or being more specific about what I mean by “write about,” or breaking the task down into its component steps.

Maybe there isn’t an equivalent way to break down the process for learning to draw. Or maybe the direction to “look closely and draw what you see” (including if it’s upside-down) is closer than it feels to my frequent instruction to “read carefully and comment on what you notice.” I recognize that there isn’t really a way to built up a collective sense of how to do the work, the way we do in my classes through discussion of our readings. Our instructor doesn’t demonstrate our tasks for us: I don’t know if it would help if she did. In any case, I do realize that just as ultimately there’s no substitute for actually putting some words in order and seeing what they say, there’s no alternative to making marks with your pencil and seeing what they look like. In a way, what counts as success in drawing is clearer: your picture either looks like its subject or it doesn’t! That sense that there is a “right” result is one of the things I’ve been finding stressful–ironically, perhaps, I know my own students sometimes feel annoyed that there isn’t one right interpretation, or one perfect way to write their essays.

I’m also frustrated because I haven’t really been enjoying myself. I thought (foolishly, perhaps) that there would be something freeing about this experience. In part, I blame Lynda Barry! You’d never know from Syllabus that drawing can be really hard work: she makes art seem so joyous and self-criticism seem counter-productive. The goal of getting the drawings exactly right has been one of the things stifling my joy. I know that we aren’t in fact expected to get them right yet, of course: we’re just learning. Still, when there’s the shoe right in front of me, and then there’s my deformed rendition of it in my sketchbook, it’s hard to hang on to Barry’s injunction that it’s fine to be bad at things. There was a bit of a mismatch, too, between what I thought I was signing up for and what we discovered on the first day was going to be the emphasis of the class: the flyer did not specify life drawing or portraiture, but that turns out to be what our instructor is focusing on. Faces are really hard! Asking a rank beginner to draw eyes just seems like a recipe for discouragement–especially if the originals belong to Julianna Margulies.

Last night, though, I actually had fun for very nearly the first time, because we worked for a while on landscapes. They seem much more forgiving subjects than people, at least if you aren’t trying to incorporate architectural structures or to get every feature precisely accurate. Though my trees look pretty spindly and my mountains are, shall we say, impressionistic, still, it is recognizably a picture of trees and mountains, and it didn’t feel wrong to improvise a bit when I found the original drawing I was copying hard to reproduce. My fantasy about being able to draw has a lot to do with sketching expeditions to picturesque locations in Victorian novels and very little to do with portraiture; working on this picture, for once I could imagine being happily ensconced somewhere picturesque myself, sketchbook and pencils at the ready.

It isn’t that I don’t want to be more skillful, but as a beginner, and an anxious perfectionist beginner at that, I found the experience of drawing more loosely very helpful. I do want to master (or at least improve at) the more technical aspects, and obviously I’ll never do good landscape drawings if I don’t. It was just a relief to do something besides trying and failing to draw perfectly realistic eyes, hands, or shoes–something that allowed for a bit more creativity. It restored my enthusiasm for this experiment!


*Update: It’s actually mystifying to me that anyone would think this is some kind of “gotcha” moment for me: I have written a lot here over the years about my strategies for helping students past their difficulties in my own classes, I’ve never imagined they don’t experience frustration, and I’ve reflected explicitly on the value for me, as a teacher, of being a beginner at something myself–including in the context of my decision to take this drawing class. And yet I have had just that response more than once, including moments after I shared the link to this post.

This Week In My Classes: Some Good News

daffodilsThe good news isn’t specifically about what’s happening in my classes this week (although I hope there is some connection): it’s good news about my teaching more generally. This week I learned that I am this year’s recipient of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Regular readers of Novel Readings will know that I put a lot of time, thought, and energy into my teaching. (Novel Readings itself includes an extensive archive of that process over the past decade.) Teaching is one of the most demanding parts of my job, and sometimes one of the most frustrating, but it is also the part that is most rewarding and that seems likely to make the biggest difference in the world–not in any big, cataclysmic way, but in the “incalculably diffusive” way so beautifully invoked in the Finale to Middlemarch. Precisely because its effects are so variable, so diffuse, and so intangible, teaching is a very difficult process to measure–and to measure the success of. The recognition by my peers and my students that this award represents is thus especially precious, a rare marker on a long, winding, and often foggy road.

cassatGiven the role that Novel Readings has played in my teaching life–as a vehicle for reflection and a place where I have both shared and received ideas and encouragement about teaching–it is gratifying to know that my blogging was part of the case made on my behalf, and that my success at generating “conversations both within the university and in wider circles” was cited by the committee that selected me to receive the award this year. I started blogging about pedagogy when this kind of outward-facing work was still relatively uncommon for academics and was (as it still largely remains) not entirely congruent with the university’s standard operating procedures. I have found it intrinsically valuable, for the process itself and for the conversations and communities it has brought me into. For that reason alone I would keep it up in any case, but I admit it is nice to have some institutional recognition that it contributes to our core mission.

On a more personal note, as most of you know the last couple of years have been a bit rocky for me professionally; as a result I have often found myself, both professionally and psychologically, in either a defensive or a defiant posture. I’ve been nominated for this teaching award before, and I didn’t have any particular reason to think that this time would be the charm. Still, I figured that if I wasn’t the one this time, at least I wouldn’t be any worse off than before. I underestimated, however, just how much better it would make me feel to actually win it. It feels great! It’s easy to tell yourself (again, defensively or defiantly) that you don’t need anyone’s approval to keep doing what you think is worth doing as well as you can do it, but that doesn’t mean approval isn’t nice to have.

peacockAnd it has felt even better sharing my good news and basking in people’s happiness on my behalf. I got a lot of help from my friends, both online and off, when things went badly for me; now everyone has been wonderfully supportive about this good news. Social media certainly has its down sides (as we are only too well aware at this point), but there’s also something magical about the way it creates a vast web of connections–intangible perhaps, but still very real–between so many people across such distances. I hesitated before putting my good news out there in case it seemed self-aggrandizing, but I’m so glad I did. Why should we be afraid to invite a bit of cheering for our accomplishments, after all?  I was reminded of one of my favorite points from Molly Peacock’s wonderful and inspiring book The Paper Garden. Peacock emphasizes how much her subject Mary Delany benefited from the “applause” of her friends, which spurred her to further artistic accomplishments. “Compliments,” Peacock observes, “aren’t superficial … They are the foundation of recognition of who we are in life.” She describes Delany as pinning her friend’s admiration “to some emotional equivalent of a ‘gown or apron'” so that in later life, when she needed it, she could “[dress] herself in its esteem.” I will certainly draw strength in the future from the praise of my friends, colleagues, and, especially, my students.

Thank you very much to everyone who wrote in support of my nomination, and to everyone who has celebrated this good news with me.