“The Doctor Drinks His Tea”: Taking a Time Out with Trollope

doctor-thorne-adaptation2When I visited my parents in Vancouver last May, one of the many nice things we did was watch the recent adaptation of Doctor Thorne. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Trollope (like Austen) adapts very well–much better, in my opinion, than Dickens or George Eliot, the brilliance of whose fiction lies so much in the narrator’s voice and in the other very written qualities of their novels that (for me) adaptations almost always seem inadequate.

It has been many years since I read Doctor Thorne: I think it was in 2002 or thereabouts that I read straight through both the complete Barsetshire series and all of the Palliser novels. What I remember most about that experience is how after a while you just accept the pace of Trollope’s fiction, and how complete and engrossing his world becomes–as Nathaniel Hawthorne said, it  seems “as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were made a show of.”

the-wardenThe very qualities that make Trollope such a pleasure to read, though, also make him a bit challenging to teach. The thing about people just “going about their daily business” is that often not much is really happening–there’s not much action, or at least not much dramatic action. To put it another way, the action and the drama in Trollope are often internal, and usually subtle: the characters puzzle through personal and moral problems in infinite shades of grey, rather than the more “glaring colours” of a writer like Dickens (that’s Trollope’s own characterization of Dickens’s method, from the parody of him as “Mr. Popular Sentiment” in The Warden). Given that Trollope’s novels are mostly also quite long, there’s a significant risk that students’ reaction will be boredom: pressed for time as they are, and unaccustomed to fiction that rolls out quite so slowly, they can struggle to find pleasure or interest in the process.

barchester-towersThat, at least, has been my experience with Barchester Towers, which I have tried in my standard 19th-century fiction class a couple of times. I’ve had somewhat better reactions to The Warden, which is delightful (if odd) and also short. He Knew He Was Right was a surprise hit in my undergraduate seminar on the ‘Woman Question,’ though I’ve never dared try to replicate that success; The Eustace Diamonds went just okay (as I recall) when I assigned it in a graduate seminar.

I bring up teaching because by and large I only reread 19th-century fiction these days for work. Much as I liked the Doctor Thorne adaptation, I didn’t rush back to that or any other Trollope novel. One reason is that my non-work reading is a zero sum game and when there are so many other novels (including other classic novels) I want to read for the first time, rereading seems (perhaps oddly) kind of wasteful. Another is that when I’m reading “just” for pleasure there’s always, in the back of my mind, the distracting hum of other things I need to get to, and so I too can get restless taking a leisurely stroll in Trollope’s world: I start looking around and lose the rhythm.

new-oxford-doctor-thorneIt was the longing to get away from just those humming distractions that sent me back to Doctor Thorne last week: not just my own to-do list, but the overwhelming clatter and clutter of the rest of the world. Especially on the news and on social media, what a constant clamor of catastrophes there is, big and small, near and far away, with everything from Can Lit to the CDC in crisis, all demanding attention, all generating takes and counter-takes in an unceasing cascade of anger, fear, and weaponized self-righteousness–much of it wholly justified, but all of it eventually exhausting. It’s all very well to advise simply “unplugging,” but even setting aside the obligation we might have to be informed citizens of both our personal and our political worlds, for me there’s a lot of good mixed in with the bad–a lot of people and issues I don’t want to lose contact with or miss insight into.

What I needed was an alternative reality to visit for a while, a place where there’s room for nuance and indecision and confusion over competing and seemingly incompatible goods; where not knowing exactly what to do is a strength, not a weakness; where, above all, there’s time to spend thinking things through. Trollope’s Barsetshire is just such a place. Most of its people are decent, kind, and loving, but they’re often imperfect, as are their circumstances. There are villains in Barsetshire, but usually they aren’t so bad; even when they do irreparable harm, it’s more often out of flawed humanity than real malevolence.


There’s a chapter in Doctor Thorne called “The Doctor Drinks His Tea.” The chapter title alone epitomizes the small scale of Trollopian drama! But of course it’s not just about the doctor’s tea, though he does knock back a fair amount of it (six “jorums” by the end). It’s actually about his struggle to decide what to do about the possibility that his beloved niece will inherit a fortune. How could that be a bad thing? Well, for lots of reasons, from Doctor Thorne’s uneasy knowledge that the relevant will was made without knowing Mary’s true identity to his longstanding view “that of all the vile objects of a man’s ambition, wealth, wealth merely for its own sake, was the vilest.” But what about wealth for Mary’s sake? Would he be right to “fling away the golden chance which might accrue to his niece”? “After all,” he remarks to Mary, apropos (as far as she knows) of nothing in particular,

“money is a fine thing.”

“Very fine, when it is well come by,” she answered; “that is, without detriment to the heart or soul.”

Mary, it seems, is immune to the lure of “wealth merely for its own sake,” but what else might be the consequences of such an upset to her life, and their life together, the doctor can hardly imagine. And so for the moment he does nothing in particular, not because he doesn’t care but because he cares too much to risk doing the wrong thing. Virtue, in Trollope’s world, is a process as  much as a product; what makes Doctor Thorne the hero of his novel is less any specific action that he takes than his determination to act with integrity. Then there’s Mary herself–smart, proud, and loving–and Frank Gresham, who grows from being “an arrant puppy, and an egregious ass” (“but then, it must be remembered in his favour that he was only twenty-one”) into a resolute, principled man who not only loves her but deserves her. There is not a moment of doubt from the beginning to the end of the novel about how things will turn out–but that certainty makes the twists and turns of the journey all the more enjoyable.

I’ve been thinking since I finished rereading Doctor Thorne that right now the real world seems to be dominated by those “glaring” and surreal Dickensian colors–certainly by a glaringly Dickensian villain. I think that’s one reason it gets so exhausting. Of course, Dickens offers us salvation, too, or rather he reminds us that it lies within our own hearts (“Dear readers,” he concludes Hard Times, “it rests with you and me…”). Trollope’s world offers some welcome respite from the noise and the glare, but in his quiet way he makes the same point: the real world is what we make it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make it a little more like Barsetshire! In the meantime, at least we can take a time out there and come back soothed by its charm, moderation, and fundamental optimism.

In the Gallery: A Study in Contrasts

Maud Lewis WindowWe are enjoying a nice snow-free interlude in Halifax this weekend so I thought I should make the most of it and actually go do something today (besides the grocery shopping, which is my standard Saturday chore). I settled on a trip to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, where I haven’t been in many years.

The AGNS is probably best known (especially since the release of Maudie) for its Maud Lewis collection, which includes her improbably tiny and delightfully colorful house–yes, the entire house:

Charming and joyful as the house is, with all its vibrant colours and free-spirited florals, it is hard to imagine two people actually living in it: it looks like a playhouse when you first see it, and at about 12′ x 12′ it is about the size of a single room in most contemporary homes.

Lewis was a folk artist and her work is bright and simple and unsophisticated. I find it cheering but also fairly uninteresting:

It has a childlike quality to it that is particularly endearing, for me anyway, in her cartoon-like animals:

While these creatures amuse me and the landscapes charm me, nothing about Lewis’s work engages me deeply: I have no urge to linger over it. I suppose that’s consistent with its naive or primitive style–it’s not supposed to be layered or sophisticated. Still, just as a matter of personal taste, I prefer art that’s more complex and less cute. The Maud Lewis gallery has a lot of personality, but its interest for me is not really aesthetic.

Also in the AGNS (but only until January 28, so I am very glad I went when I did) is an exhibit called “Centuries of Silence: the Discovery of the Salzinnes Antiphonal.” This is a completely different experience: intellectually and historically fascinating, and aesthetically thrilling.

The Salzinnes Antiphonal is a 16th-century manuscript that was discovered in the library of Saint Mary’s University here in Halifax. It has been painstakingly restored and is displayed along with a fine and thoughtful collection of related materials, including portraits of some of the abbesses who presided over the Abbey of Salzinnes in Belgium at the time of its creation:

The volume itself has stunning full-page illustrations:

The music has been recreated in modern notation and recorded; as you explore the exhibit its ethereal, otherworldly beauty surrounds, calms, and inspires you.

The exhibit includes other works of art collected by the Archbishop who was most likely responsible for bringing the Antiphonal to Halifax; paintings of and records from the Abbey that was its source and original home (including three 16th-century papal bulls); a video demonstrating the process of creating an object so beautiful and lasting, from preparing the vellum to layering in the gold leaf; and these hand-sewn recreations of the nuns’ habits, a project by a student in Dalhousie’s Costume Studies program:

I found it all fascinating, as you can probably tell! Though the Antiphonal is in some ways quite an imposing object, and though of course the original volume, though on display, is inaccessible behind its protective glass, still in its own way it felt every bit as intimate as Maud Lewis’s house. The illustrations, reproductions of which are displayed on the walls, have many details that personalize them, reminding us that this work too was done by very human hands.

It was a nice afternoon, especially rounded off with tea and a browse at the Halifax Central Library. I should get out more–and weather permitting, I will!

A New (and Final) Open Letters Monthly

Final-issue-1I have often but not always marked the occasion of a new issue of Open Letters Monthly here. The thing about publishing on the first of every month, regular as clockwork, is that it seemed predictable enough that people who cared shouldn’t have any trouble remembering the schedule and finding the new issues on their own! I feel as if I should not let the December 2017 issue go by without acknowledging it, however, because as some of you already know from our announcements on Facebook and Twitter, it will be the last one.

We’ve made our official statement about this on the site itself, and I’m not going to say more here about the collective discussion that brought us to this point. Speaking just personally, I feel a potent mixture of regret and relief. Open Letters Monthly is pretty venerable in internet years–it was founded in 2007–and has had a very good run. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that at its best Open Letters Monthly was as good as any literary journal you’ll ever read, and I will always be very proud to have been part of it. It has also always been a lot of work, all of it challenging and most but not all of it rewarding. Though I feel ready to move on from it, I also know that I have OLM to thank for where I am now as a writer and critic, and thus for the new opportunities I hope to keep reaching for. I learned an enormous amount from my co-editors and from our contributors–about writing and editing above all, from the intense hands-on experience, but also about books and criticism, and about literary culture more generally and how I would like to participate in it.

For our final issue, we opted to highlight some of our favorites of the many essays and reviews we have both written and edited over the past decade. The result is a sampling that I think truly epitomizes what we always hoped Open Letters would be: a place that showcases smart, engaged writing on a wide range of topics, writing that is detailed and probing but also has plenty of personality. It is our plan to keep Open Letters available in its entirety so that people can still browse and enjoy its rich archive. We will all also still be reading, writing, and talking about books in a range of venues, so keep your eyes open for us!

On that note, I should add that I have no plans to give up Novel Readings, which actually predates my own association with Open Letters Monthly by a couple of years. I moved the blog from its original location to the OLM site in 2010. I always find change difficult, and I remember very clearly how anxious I felt when I made that decision. I feel a bit anxious now too, but as we all know, change is the only real constant! So as OLM winds down, so too will new posting at the OLM address, and this will become the only current home for Novel Readings.

Nevertheless, I Persisted: One Year Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

Education and Failure: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers

“To understand the stories of the seven lost students who are the subjects of this book,” Tanya Talaga begins her devastating, angry, and thought-provoking book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City,

you must understand Thunder Bay’s past, how the seeds of division, of acrimony and distaste, of a lack of cultural awareness and understanding were planted in those early days, and how they were watered and nourished with misunderstanding and ambivalence. And you must understand how the government of Canada has historically underfunded education and health services for Indigenous children, providing consistently lower levels of support than for non-Indigenous kids, and how it continues to do so to this day.

Seven Fallen Feathers provides a lot of that necessary context, beginning with a summary of the history of the area on the norther shores of Lake Superior that was once a meeting place for the Indigenous people of the area, then became “the hub of the fur trade,” and then saw the development of the modern city with its “two faces”: “the Port Arthur side is the white face and the Fort William side is the red face.”

Throughout the book, more general historical background is interwoven with the stories of the seven students. Their deaths eventually prompted an inquest intended both to probe what happened and to issue recommendations to improve conditions for and better protect other students who, like them, traveled to Thunder Bay to attend high school. By addressing each student’s case separately, Talaga is able to emphasize their individuality: their personalities, their family situations, the specific conditions of their lives, hopes, struggles, and premature deaths. By presenting them collectively, as the inquest also finally did, she is also able to highlight the common systemic factors that contributed to their deaths: the devastation wrought on their families and communities by the residential school system; the restricted opportunities that forced them to travel far from home to a hostile city to continue their educations; the abuse and racism they faced in Thunder Bay both from residents and from the police, who were slow to investigate when they disappeared and then quick to blame the victims.

Talaga is a good storyteller; her anger and grief are often obvious, but the emotional undercurrents reinforce the book’s purpose, which is not just to inform but to motivate. “Can the settlers and the Indigenous people come together as one and move forward in harmony?” she asks in the Epilogue. This is clearly one of the most important questions currently being raised in “the country that we call Canada”; her book offers, as the subtitle says, “hard truths,” ones that are necessary to face before the next stage, reconciliation, can really be contemplated.

Seven Fallen Feathers left me with a lot to think about. Some of my lingering questions are historical or sociological; more reading, presumably, is the next step there. On a more personal level, the book prompted me to reflect uncomfortably on my own education in the B.C. public schools in the 1970s and early 1980s. If you’d asked me then, I would probably have said that we did pay attention to Indigenous history. Mostly, as far as I recall, this took the form of visiting museums with exhibits that included First Nations art, clothing, and tools — the kind of things always on display at the Museum of Vancouver, for example. We made regular trips to the Museum of Anthropology, too, where we saw the art and artifacts, looked with awe at the vast carvings in the great hall, and wandered through the Haida houses on the grounds. I was used to seeing totem poles on display, in parks as well as in museums, and I always found them impressive but didn’t really inquire into their meaning or how they were being used.

Back then, I would probably have explained all of this as a benign part of Canada’s larger commitment to multiculturalism: to me it was positive and interesting, but also remote from my own life in present-day Canada. I don’t recall ever hearing the terms “residential school” or “sixties scoop,” or learning anything specific about treaties, land claims, or anything else related to the current political or social situation of Canada’s Indigenous population. We took trips to Fort Langley and took away square nails as souvenirs — but the idea that we are still in some sense settlers, that colonialism is an ongoing process, not just something to be reenacted by guides in “period” costumes, would have been wholly unfamiliar to me.

In retrospect, I still think some of this early experience was benign: it’s good that I took for granted the interest and value of Indigenous art and culture, for instance, seeing them as as part of my own national habitus. It’s thought-provoking, however, to consider how the whole idea of multiculturalism, with its celebratory overtones, might have contributed to a certain kind of complacency: for me, as far as I even thought about it self-consciously, looking at Haida carvings and going to Greek Day were about on a par as ways of appreciating “other” cultures.

Though to some extent I do blame public schools that surely should have made the history and politics of my own country seem more urgent to me, my comfortable oblivion to grimmer contexts was certainly, as I got older, partly my own fault. I was never particularly interested in politics, or in Canadian history, so when I got old enough to look outside the school curriculum, I was going in different directions. I almost never read the newspaper as a teenager–though if I had, I wonder if I would have seen anything, in those years, that would have shown me the part of Canada’s history that Talaga’s book addresses, or shown it in the light she does. That I am learning more about it only so belatedly is itself a symptom of educational failures, some of them my own but some of them also systemic, part of the same large and uneven patterns of race and privilege, knowledge and power, that Talaga’s book indicts. Now at least I can see something my childhood self couldn’t: that my ignorance was a luxury her seven subjects never had.

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving today. If you aren’t Canadian (or even if you are) and you’ve never understood why we celebrate Thanksgiving (“isn’t that an American thing?”), here’s a really informative post by Andrea Eidinger at “Unwritten Histories” on just that topic.

I was industrious last week and returned two sets of assignments, plus with today off, I don’t have to fret (much) about class prep until tomorrow. My weekend has thus been unusually free of the typical haunting sense of guilt. I took advantage of that to spend a nice couple of hours in the Public Gardens on Saturday: the fall colors are only just coming in, so the park had a lovely muted green and gold ambience:

The planters are still overflowing with glorious abundance:

In the formal flower beds you can see the last roses of summer, beautiful yet inevitably poignant:

It’s my favorite spot in the city, and it won’t be open that much longer (it shuts completely during the winter), so I was happy to wander around soaking in its orderly loveliness. It’s also dangerously close to Bookmark, one of our remaining independent bookstores, where I stopped and picked up Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. It’s sad and often harrowing reading, and it seemed like an appropriate choice for a weekend when we spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be “Canadian”; I expect I’ll have more to say about it here when I’ve finished it.

Our traditional holiday meal is roast pork with various fixings–cranberry sauce (homemade, of course!), mashed sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, apple crumble–so I have a lot of cooking to do! Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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