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!

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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.

Re-Learning Patience

piggy puddle pictureI wrote a post a while back about being in the “muddy, muddy middle” of a project and learning to accept that feeling of muddle as both an inevitable and a necessary stage of the (or at least my) writing process. “I’m learning,” I said then, “to trust my own process more,” and I do, these days–more or less. I still feel stress during that phase, but I recognize it for what it is rather than falling into a panic or succumbing to imposter syndrome just because I don’t at the moment know exactly what I have to say or what form it will take.

It has been a longer while, though, since I was in the middle of a longer project: for some time now I have been writing exclusively essays and book reviews maxing out around 5000 words and sometimes constrained to as few as 300. Working within these narrower parameters is sometimes frustrating–at this point, as I have mentioned here before, I am eager for a chance to stretch, to prove (to myself as much as to current or prospective editors) that I can say and do more. There are some things I like a lot, though, about writing shorter pieces with imminent deadlines, and one of them is that time spent in the muddy middle is, almost by definition, also short.

holtby-woolfSince my recent “but why always Dorothea?” moment about my research, however, as I have begun to look again at the writers and questions that interested me during my previous work on the “Somerville novelists,” I have realized that I am out of practice at coping with the larger-scale muddle that you enter into when you don’t have such narrow goals and limited time frames established at the outset and in fact aren’t even sure what you are trying to do. It’s not that I’m completely aimless right now: I know the territory I want to be in, and I have a sense of the conversations that I want to listen to and then join, albeit in some as-yet uncertain way. I said only half jokingly on Twitter that so far what I’ve done is put all the books I think are relevant into a pile: that’s not all I’ve done, but it is actually part of what I’m doing, not literally but mentally, and it is helpful because the juxtapositions in themselves start to raise questions that interest me. I’m also gathering references, trying to get oriented in the relevant critical landscape(s), which means trying to figure out what those are! I’m doing what I would call “reading around,” not chasing answers to a particular question but trying to learn enough that I can frame a good question.

These are all reasonable things to be doing in the early stages of research–and I do think that I am doing research, even though I haven’t yet defined its scope or specific objectives. So far, though, it all feels quite diffuse, amorphous, and potentially overwhelming. I have been struggling to remind myself that this happened before when I changed research directions, and that it is okay to take time to learn–and there’s a lot to learn! Patience, not panic, is what’s required, but it’s one thing to know that and another to actually be calm and confident about it, and that’s where I have been struggling. I need to keep in mind that this is the same process, just on a larger scale.

3guineas

Anxiety aside, I do like what I am have been doing over the last few weeks. I am excited by the things I’ve been reading and the questions and connections they have prompted me to think about, and that’s a really good feeling. One specific example would be my recent reading of The Years. In my post about it, I emphasized my inability to grasp what is going on in the novel, but I didn’t mention why I chose to read The Years right now. It’s because when I started going back through my Somerville notes and posts, I was reminded how stimulating I had found Winifred Holtby’s book on Virginia Woolf and Woolf’s Three Guineas. Since I needed what Eliot in Daniel Deronda calls “the make-believe of a beginning” for whatever this new project is, I decided that I would start (again) there, with what (to me) is Holtby’s fascinating exercise of sympathetically studying a writer whose fiction she found entirely “alien,” and with my own preference for Woolf’s “tracts” over her novels. Holtby’s book was finished (and Holtby herself had died) before The Years was published, but I was intrigued by descriptions of it as Woolf’s most overtly social or political novel, and also by knowing that it and Three Guineas were initially going to be part of one hybrid essay-novel.

Penguin YearsI struggled with The Years, but I was also very interested in it, at least conceptually. I’ve been reading about it since then, especially about the splitting of the original project into two separate books. I’ve also been thinking about Holtby’s own fiction, especially South Riding, and her self-deprecating description of herself as a “publicist” (rather than an artist / aesthete), and about other novels that are like The Years in giving fictional form to social and political commentary but in very different ways, such as (surprise!) Middlemarch, but also North and South. I hadn’t planned to put any Victorian novels into my pile of relevant books this time, but there they are now, and that has got me thinking about things like periodization and genre and the ways we group or differentiate writers, especially women writers, which brings me back to Holtby’s critical approach, and I’m also interested in Holtby’s political journalism, which reminds me both of the anti-fascist arguments in Three Guineas and of the links between gender politics and fascism in Gaudy Night, which also includes reflections on fictional form and genre . . .

As you can tell, this is not an orderly process! It’s chaos, it’s a mess, it’s a muddle, and I’m in the middle of it. Actually, I’m not even in the middle: I’m just at the beginning of it, and that’s why I need to be patient, with the work and with myself. I have the luxury of time that I am supposed to use for reading and thinking; I should not squander it by fretting or rushing. Even now, after just a couple of weeks, I think I have made some preliminary decisions, not about what to write, yet, but about what’s a priority to read next: more about and from Woolf during the time she was writing The Years and Three Guineas, more about and from Holtby related to her ideas about fiction and (as) politics, more scholarship about women writers and the ‘social novel’ across the Victorian-Modern divide. Before too long, I will also reread The Years, better equipped to see what Woolf is doing–and, in some ways more interesting to me, what she is not doing there that she does in Three Guineas. That seems like progress: it’s almost a plan! Now I just need to take some deep breaths, stop fretting, and get on with it. Slowly.

Fruitless or Fallow: On Being ‘Unproductive’

success-measures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research That Matters: Knowledge and Novelty

OK, I admit it. My previous post about reading and research is also disingenuous. In a university context, research is not just “purposeful reading” or “reading in pursuit of knowledge” or “reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question.” University-level research, research that is publishable in professional venues, research that is eligible for funding, is research that produces new knowledge.  The research mission of a university is to move the frontier of knowledge, to add to the world’s sum of knowledge, to be at the cutting edge of knowledge… I know that! I’m only sort of pretending not to know it when I ask why research that serves other academic purposes, including teaching and individual intellectual development, does not earn a researcher the same support or the same professional credit.

But I’m pretending not to know it because “the pursuit of new knowledge” is not as obvious, or as easily applied, a principle as it sounds. One possible line of questioning begins with “new to whom?” The degree of hyper-specialization that characterizes the contemporary university is the result of the standard answer: new to other specialists in the field. This is obviously the right standard, isn’t it? It doesn’t advance knowledge to repeat what has been done before, to redo what has been tested. You can’t discover what is already known; you can’t have progress in a field unless you are constantly finding out something new.

This makes perfect sense, right? And yet it isn’t 100% obvious that what I’ve just said applies as well to literary research as it does to, say, research in genetics. What counts as a “discovery” in literary scholarship? Turning up a lost manuscript? OK, that’s an easy one. Explicating and contextualizing the work of a previously unknown or little-known author? Yes, good. Overturning a longstanding theoretical paradigm? Yup, I think so. Proposing a new reading of a novel based on paying attention to a detail nobody has ever paid attention to before? Well, OK. Contradicting a proposed new reading of a novel based on an alternative interpretation of a detail nobody has ever paid attention to before? Constructing a large theoretical claim based on readings of novels that pay attention to details usually disregarded? Yes, fine. Applying a theoretical framework from another discipline to a novel in order to read it in a way that it has never been read before? Yes! Of course! These are exactly the kinds of things literary scholars do (not all the things they do, but how long did you want this paragraph to get?). I wouldn’t argue that understanding texts in new ways doesn’t produce something reasonably called “knowledge.” At any rate, all of these activities affect the way we think about things. If our activity leads us and others to think in a new way, to see something in a new light, that moves some kind of frontier, surely.

But it seems to me there’s a difference that is at least worth thinking about between the importance of doing something new in genetics (or whatever) and pursuing novelty in literary studies. In some kinds of research, work that isn’t new and that doesn’t take into account every other recent discovery will be useless and irrelevant to anyone. But the drive towards novelty and hyper-specialization in literary studies is itself generating a great deal of work that is relevant only to other specialists, and even then, not so much. There is no large project or inquiry, after all, towards which incremental additions are being made; there’s just a proliferation of pieces often with little connection to each other. Even to other specialists, the work of keeping up is not only nearly impossible now, but also (and relatedly) of diminishing importance.

I’ve written about some aspects of this situation before, here in this post on Mark Bauerlein’s “The Research Bust.” I don’t think this kind of observation has to lead into an argument for the cessation of literary research, or for insisting that literary scholars return to doing only certain kinds of research that are more measurably productive of new information (for the case against literary “readings” and in favor of “a more traditionally scholarly conception of literary study”, see this post by D. G. Myers, also triggered by Bauerlein). One reason that I would support people continuing to do new readings is that we can’t be sure where inquiry will take us, and our sense of what “more traditionally scholarly” research is a priority might well be affected by ideas arising from rethinking texts we thought we already knew. If these new readings are truly driven by intellectual curiosity, by attempts to puzzle through problems, however abstract, then there’s value in them, for the researcher as well as for the audience of other people also interested. “Who can say,” as George Eliot remarks in Middlemarch, “what will be the effect of writing?” And I think we ought to have the same open-minded assumption about thinking. (If the research is not truly curiosity-driven, on the other hand, then we might remark, with Dorothea, “what could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain?”)

But I don’t think that the only paradigm for valuable work in literary studies should be one derived from a scientific model, as if a similar cumulative advance of information is ongoing, or one that disregards the other kinds of audiences there are for literary understanding. The reason the umpteenth interpretation of Middlemarch is important to at least some specialists is that they already know a whole lot about Middlemarch — but lots of people don’t, people who would be interested in knowing more. Our focus on novelty underestimates the value of what we already know, even though unlike old theories of the atom, old ideas about books have not lost their real-life significance; it also undervalues the skills we have at making what we know accessible to people who don’t know it yet, and reduces our audience to each other instead of trying to imagine how we could be part of the broader literary culture. The ‘cutting edge’ is actually a much less important place to be in literary studies (as well as a much more shifting territory).

 

Reading and Research Redux: The Somerville Novelists Project

I admit, my earlier question “When is reading research?” was a bit disingenuous: obviously, research is purposeful reading. Of course, this definition can get batted around a bit too, depending on how you define your purpose: the pursuit of pleasure? aesthetic enrichment? familiarity with current best-sellers? Perhaps it’s better to say that, at least in a university context, research is reading in pursuit of knowledge, or reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question or accomplishing a task. As Jo VanEvery also points out in her recent post on this topic, though, we have become preoccupied with the results of that reading, so that oddly, the process of exploration fundamental to defining a question in the first place has become devalued. And in universities we have also become preoccupied with research funding as a measure of productivity and success. If you don’t have a grant, you aren’t doing it right. Here, for instance, (with specifics expunged) is what the Assistant Dean of Research for my Faculty reported at the last Faculty meeting:

X has been awarded a —- Grant; X and Y have received a —- Grant for a conference… —- Grant applications this year are numerous and promising; X’s project on Y received a very positive mid-term review [from its funding agency].

At a recent presentation from one of our VP’s for research, at which he tracked our “success” and goals exclusively in terms of granting dollars, he made the point that money is measurable and thus is the easiest aspect of research to track and evaluate. The same is true, of course, of publications. But (as I and others pointed out to him emphatically in the Q&A that followed) that’s only true if the rubric you want to use is a pie chart or bar graph. If you really understand (as he claimed to) that research funding does not tell the whole story about research productivity, much less about the value of any given research project (especially in the arts and humanities), why continue using such inadequate tools? Perhaps there are fields of research in which research is better explained in a narrative, rather than a PowerPoint slide. Would it be too much, I wonder, to try to change our habits so that we acknowledge other dimensions of research activity–and stopped sending the incessant message that the best research is the most expensive? What about research that culminates in new classes, also? Isn’t that work valuable to the university? Isn’t that a purpose to which universities are fundamentally committed? You wouldn’t think so, by the way the term “research” is typically used on campus.

In any case, I can tell when my own reading has crossed into research of that more recognizable kind because I start to think about it in terms of obligations–things I should look up, things I need to know in order to achieve my purpose. I start to think in terms of depth and definition: more about this and this and this, but not that. Still, it’s always hard to draw the lines: there are no external rules about relevance, so you have to keep reading somewhat open-endedly as you figure out just how it is that you are going to define your project. There’s not a question “out there” waiting for me to turn my attention (and my students’ attention) to it: I have to mess around in all kinds of material until I see what I could do with it that is interesting and new. This conceptual work is, for me, among the most interesting and creative phase: there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.

I’m in that happy stage right now with my Somerville novelists reading. I have defined a purpose for it–my fall seminar–and the reading I had been doing out of personal interest, which had included all of Brittain’s Testament volumes as well as the volume of Brittain and Holtby’s journalism, some of their fiction (as well as Margaret Kennedy’s), and some biographical materials, is now the first phase of a more deliberate investigation. I think this phase is happy for me because it involves focus but not the kind of micro-specialization that would be required to say or do anything research-like on Middlemarch now. Instead of having to read abstruse ruminations on theoretical or other kinds of topics that have less and less to do with the things that excite me about Middlemarch, reading I would be doing only out of a weary sense of professional duty (must keep up with the latest!), I’m doing reading I’m genuinely interested in–maybe because this material has simply not attracted the degree of scholarly attention Middlemarch has, it’s still possible to talk about it quite directly and with a real sense of discovery.

Here are some of the books I’ve collected so far for this research:

Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. Ed. Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge (I’ll be posting a bit about this soon, as I’m over half way through – the stories are familiar from Testament of Youth but the letters in full have a remarkable immediacy and personality)

Winifred Holtby, Women and A Changing Civilization (I have a sad feeling that this 1934 book may have more relevance today than we’d like – “Wherever a civilisation deliberately courts its old memories, its secret fears and revulsions and unacknowledged magic, it destroys that candour of co-operation upon which real equality only can be based,” Holtby observes near the end – and flipping another page, I find “we must have effective and accessible knowledge of birth control.” Yes, I thought we’d had some of these fights before!)

Vera Brittain, The Women at Oxford

Vera Brittain, Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II (I’m curious to see what this reads like in comparison to the many volumes of women’s historical biography I worked with for my Ph.D. thesis, later my book)

Susan Leonardi, Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists (as far as I know, this is the only critical work specifically dedicated to my seminar topic, and so far it is my main source for other relevant titles)

Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. (This collection includes an essay Lynne Layton specifically on “Vera Brittain’s Testament(s)” as well as some useful-looking contextual ones.)

Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman.

This list shows the some of the frameworks that I expect will be important to talking about the core readings for the seminar in a rich and informed way: the stories of the writers; their works (our “primary” sources); the history of women at Oxford and in WWI (which means making sure I am reasonably well-prepared about general contexts); and theories and contexts on women and education, particularly university education. Each of the writers we’ll look at in detail will also raise more particular questions: with Sayers, for instance, the history of detective fiction will be of some relevance.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? That I’m excited about it makes me think it isn’t really research after all: research is work, right? Reading for pleasure isn’t work. And yet it can be, of course, and that’s the ideal of this kind of career–that it lets you do what you love, as well as you can, to make your living. That love itself can’t be the sole purpose of your reading makes sense in a professional context, but I’ve read an awful lot of scholarly writing that seems motivated by nothing more than the need to make certain moves in order to pass professional hurdles. In a previous post I quoted C. Q. Drummond saying “policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” Too much of the apparatus and discourse of research in the university seems to me to emphasize and reward everything but love of learning: it favors, as I said in that earlier post, “a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible.” This project so far has been supported only by me, with some help from my university library. So it won’t ever get me mentioned in the Assistant Dean’s report (just as my publications in Open Letters had no place, literally, at the display of recent books and articles put on in my Faculty)–especially if its only output is a class, not an academic article or book. I haven’t ruled out that kind of result down the road, but I haven’t defined it as a plan yet either. In the meantime, I’m going to keep calling what I’m doing “research.”

When is Reading Research?

I’ve been thinking more about what we mean when we say “research.” In my post on the ‘duties of professors,’ I quote C. Q. Drummond’s remark,

If research in an Arts Faculty means humane learning, then we all hope our teachers are as much involved in research as they possibly can be. We want them to know better and better what they are talking about, so that they will have, and will continue to have, something intelligent and important to profess to their students. But if research means output or publication, as it so often does today, how do the students profit?

In his turn, Drummond quotes George Whalley, who suggests that the word “research” is altogether misleading or inappropriate when applied to humanistic inquiry: ““The functions of research are specialized and limited; … the word research is not a suitable term for referring to the central initiative and purpose of sustained inquiry in ‘the humanities.'” “Most professors in Arts Faculties,” Drummond proposes, “would be better off reading more and publishing less.” Of course, reading is research for most humanists–that is, it’s the research process. But not all reading is research–or it it?

When we talk about “doing research,” I think we conventionally mean reading in service of a particular research project, that is, reading in pursuit of a foreseen research product, a published essay or book. Does that mean that reading for which we cannot already identify such an outcome is not research, then? Certainly it’s reading for which we can get no particular institutional support. For instance, if I want to get a research grant, it does me no good to justify my budget on the grounds that I am gathering materials on subjects about which I would simply like to know more than I do, or in which I have a developing interest but, as yet, no idea what, if any, payoff there will be in terms of publications. I also can’t get research support to develop new classes. I might be able to get a grant from our Center for Teaching and Learning–although peering at their page, the only grants I see them offering are for “faculty members who are seeking new and innovative ways to incorporate technology into their teaching practice” and “high impact initiatives that address student engagement activities/projects in the first year of their studies.” Too bad if I just want to follow my curiosity, acquire new expertise, and then gather students up to share it through reading and discussion.

My own new class on the ‘Somerville Novelists’ may, in fact, incorporate technology (brace yourselves, students–I’m thinking wikis again!), but it will have been developed from reading I did initially purely out of interest–and of books I bought with my own money. I don’t mind about the money–though it’s sometimes frustrating to realize how much the university relies on our willingness to do things “on our own” without which the institution would be a much poorer place, and by that I don’t mean poorer financially. (I bought the laptop I’m using with my own money too–the university doesn’t provide “home” or portable computers, or at least our faculty doesn’t, but imagine how academic work would grind to a halt if we could not work evenings and weekends, or not without coming in to campus. But that’s another issue…sort of.) I don’t really draw strict lines between what I do for work and what I do for myself, precisely because being a professor is not just having a job but having a certain identity–filling (or aspiring to fill) a certain kind of role in the world. But especially since reading Drummond’s essay I’ve been thinking about the way our particular understanding of “research,” one that yokes together the process and the product, undervalues other kinds of reading. I do mind about that, because I think it artificially narrows both that job and that identity.

Is there really only one professionally worthwhile kind of reading? I’ve recently bought Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I bought it out of interest: I’ve been exhilarated by learning about other early 20th-century women writers, and West is a major figure. I’m not sure where to place her: she’s not specifically in the Somerville crowd I’ve been looking into, and she’s not really a Modernist (I don’t think). I’m curious to figure out more about her. Reading The Return of the Soldier made me more curious. She is not–and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is not–obviously continuous with any issues or genres I have an explicit “research” interest in. There are plenty of books in “my field” of Victorian literature that I haven’t read, and there are also plenty of books about Victorian literature that I haven’t read. I have some declared “research” projects that have not reached the official finishing point of publication in an academic journal (much less an academic monograph). Clearly, if I read (when I read) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon I am doing it only for myself: it’s not research. And yet reading it will almost certainly  help me have “something intelligent and important to profess to [my] students,” and that I don’t know exactly what else will come of it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t even necessarily a bad thing that nothing concrete (beyond some blog posts) may ever come of it. But by some measures–the only ones that mean much, professionally, these days–it would be more productive for me to read the umpteenth specialized analysis of Middlemarch. Now that would be research.

This Week at Work: Reflections on Our Research Culture

Yesterday I received a reminder from the Mellon Foundation about a follow-up survey they are doing of people who did Ph.D.s supported by Mellon Fellowships.  I remember how exciting it was when I learned I had won one of these fellowships, which was both generous and prestigious. I had mixed success with my actual Ph.D. applications–indeed, I was rejected by many more schools than accepted me–and I’ve often thought that the crucial factor in my winning the Mellon was the interview. I was (am?) more charming in person than on paper–it’s something about my sense of humor, I think, which apparently doesn’t carry over much into my writing! In any case, winning a Mellon Fellowship made me a more attractive target for the schools that had offered me places: I ended up with the luxury of comparing complete five-year funding packages from a couple of excellent schools, and the even greater luxury of comparing these North American alternatives to using a Commonwealth Scholarship to go to the UK. In the end, I chose Cornell, starting in 1990 and finishing in 1995 with job offer in hand–job offers, in fact: while my job market success was also mixed and I got a lot of rejections, when I got close, I did pretty well (speaking of rejection, though, I’ll never forget the message telling me I was not offered the job I wanted most of all, which hit me like an emotional bomb when I read it in the dank basement computer lab where, in those olden days, I had to go to check my email–would it have been so hard to give me a phone call so I could have absorbed the blow in private?). Anyway, I chose Dalhousie, and (though I have made a few attempts over the years to move on) here I still am today.

The Mellon survey focused primarily on career paths and job satisfaction. Most of it was pretty easy stuff (how many peer-reviewed articles did you publish before tenure? what kind of pre-tenure mentoring did you get? were there explicit expectations about the kind or quantity of publications you’d need for tenure?), but towards the end there were some more open-ended ones, and the very final one proved a real poser: If you had to do it all over again, they asked, would you do the same? Same degree, same school? Same degree, different school? Different degree? Or no Ph.D. at all?

Maybe this would not have been such a stumper of a question if they’d asked it on a different day, but yesterday was kind of a tough day for me at work. It’s not that I was busier than usual or overwhelmed with new tasks or dealing with confrontational students upset with their grades, or dead-ended on a writing project or behind in my class preparation. Rather, it was a day (one of many recent days) in which different priorities clashed in the department and I ended up feeling that more and more, we are steering by (or allowing ourselves to be steered by) the wrong values. There are a lot of moving parts behind the motions we have voted on recently, but the net effect is that a majority of the department has carried through an agenda by which we will reduce class offerings at all levels and increase class sizes at the undergraduate level, in order to bring our nominal teaching load down and thus clear more time for research during the academic term. I emphasize that last clause because we have dedicated research time already (the spring and summer terms, when we do not regularly teach undergraduate classes, as well as our sabbaticals); the argument was being made for the importance of making more time for research while teaching, and thus the new plan deliberately favors reducing our contact hours and prep time. We’ll remain individually responsible for the same number of students, so any time savings won’t come from reducing our grading. Now, I find marking assignments as tedious as the next prof. What I don’t find tedious or want less of is face time with my students. My hours in the classroom are almost the only hours during which I have no doubts about my answer to the Mellon Foundation’s question. It’s true that class prep can be relentless, and in the middle of my heavier teaching term, I’m too busy with it–too overwhelmed by it, in combination with the marking–to do anything ambitious regarding other research or writing projects. Not nothing at all, but nothing much. But class prep can also be  intellectually stimulating, and often is itself research, or feeds into ongoing research interests: I didn’t like the presumed opposition between teaching and research that dominated the arguments for the latest motion.

The problem is that this pitting of two of our essential tasks against each other is in large part a consequence of the pervasive research culture promulgated especially by administrators who talk about “productivity” and “output” in terms of grant dollars pursued and won, and of quantity (rather than quality and significance) of (conventionally peer-reviewed) publications. Tomorrow, for instance, we are invited to a “presentation” on “trends in FASS [Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences] research performance.” Let’s just say I will be pleasantly surprised if the emphasis is not squarely on those kinds of quantifiable measures. Everyone I’ve spoken to about it fully anticipates that the event has been set up as an occasion to chastise us for our failure to measure up, both to other faculties on campus and perhaps also to comparable faculties at other universities. But the conversation we should be having is about the adequacy of the measures, about the damage they do and the absurdities they create. We should be talking about whether it’s really a good use of time for a humanities scholar to spend weeks, months even, on a grant proposal for a program with a success rate of below 25%; we should be talking about the culture of greed and hypocrisy and cynicism that has been created by the pressure to ask for more and more money whether you need it or not, because big grants bring prestige (and support graduate students–and that’s another can of worms right there); about the flawed logic of trying to get grants because the university relies on its share of them to cover ‘indirect costs.’ We should be resisting the pressure to increase our research productivity according to such ill-fitting measures, and we should especially resist chipping away at our curriculum and at our undergraduate students’ educational experience because we want to look like the kind of “productive researchers” the university seems exclusively to recognize and reward. I don’t measure my “performance” as a scholar exclusively on my output of specialized peer-reviewed publications, or on my success at competing for external funding, and I don’t think my university should either. Here too, there are a lot of moving parts, and the funding challenges universities faced are not something I take lightly (or understand completely, given their intricacies). But that doesn’t change the oddity of trying to twist and bend humanistic inquiry into something that looks like scientific research, and of treating us as failures precisely because we don’t do expensive projects.

Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s no point in our doing our research. I don’t think it’s a waste of time; I do think that there are both intellectual and social pay-offs from our efforts to understand the world better by way of understanding its literature. But I do think we produce enough of it already. I don’t think Mark Bauerlein makes a particularly fair or coherent argument about its excesses, but I also don’t think we need to “protect” more time to produce more of it faster. I actually think we should slow down and produce less of it, especially in conventional forms. How much “output” is enough? It’s not the quantity that should matter. How much research time is enough? If we let go of the artificial urgency fueled by the kind of presentation I’m looking forward to tomorrow, I think we’d find we already have enough time.

Now, to be fair, we haven’t exactly decimated our program, and we still have plenty of classes on the small side. But the pressure is undoubtedly upward. Big classes are routine elsewhere, I’m told, and a lower teaching load for full-time faculty is also the norm at other “research institutions.” But is this a good thing? Is this the way we want our resources distributed? Well, judging by yesterday’s voting, the answer for a lot of us is ‘yes.’   I understand why, but I feel that we’re in pursuit of a model of success or excellence that I just don’t believe in anymore. Sometimes sitting with my colleagues I feel like a nonbeliever in church! And it’s a church in which two things are sacrosant: our research, and our graduate program–in the interests of which we have made all of the recent changes to our overall curriculum.

And this is why the Mellon survey question was so hard to answer. How can I be sorry that I’ve been able to pursue this career, which in many ways suits me so well? How can I regret that I can dedicate my time to things I not only think are really important, but love? In what other job can you be paid to spend hours and hours a week concentrating on literature, and working with bright, eager students to nurture their love of reading and their interest in the kinds of questions it opens up? But the other values of the profession have troubled me from the start of my Ph.D. work, and the systems of incentives and rewards, and of prestige and reputation too, skew very far in one direction. How can I not feel I’m out of step and perhaps unsuited for the career I chose when I can’t commit myself wholeheartedly to two of its central pursuits?

If I had the choice, would I do the same again? Today, I’m not sure. But ask me again  after my small group discussion of Great Expectations on Friday. I bet my answer then will be “of course!”