This Week in My Sabbatical: Puttering and Sputtering

The_YearsIt has not felt like a very productive week, though it is hard for me to be sure right now as I am still in the “muddy middle” of the research I have been puttering away on since April. I am definitely out of practice at working without a narrowly defined goal and a specific deadline! While sometimes it still feels luxurious just to be reading and thinking, and while I am well aware that time to do that is literally a luxury, at other times it feels aimless or, worse, pointless. What will come of this effort? Will anything come of it? It isn’t nothing to learn new things, of course, but the other part of this job is to add to them in some way myself.

I’m trying to have faith that I will figure out what I’ve got to say eventually, and (at least as important) to what audience. I don’t think I want to write a strictly academic paper: I think I want to keep working in that interstitial space between academic criticism and literary journalism. I’m feeling a bit discouraged about doing that right now, though, because that will mean pitching my idea (whatever it turns out to be) and not only am I not very good at that but I am also a bit turned off at the moment about the kind of literary writing that seems marketable–the intensely personal (which, with rare exceptions, is the least interesting kind to me), the immediately relevant (which I have at least tried my hand at, though I felt a tad squeamish about it), or the “rescued from obscurity”. (One good recent essay about the pressure to generate a certain kind of story is this one by Joanna Scutts; another is this one by B. D. McClay.) Since I do not have to literally sell whatever essay I write, I have the luxury (another one!) of writing whatever kind of essay I actually want, but I would like it to be of interest and to be read by other people too, so I have to at least consider where it might fit. holtby-woolf

But I need to know what it’s about first — beyond what I know so far, which is that it will in some way be about Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf, especially The Years and Three Guineas, and maybe also Middlemarch and North and South, because what I’ve been thinking and reading about is the “novel of purpose” (one of the books I was recently taking notes on is Amanda Claybaugh’s The Novel of Purpose) and how Woolf does and doesn’t fit in to that 19th-century tradition. One sign that I’m not just spinning my wheels is that I am better able now to narrow the scope of my searches, and also some of the discussions in my sources are getting familiar: I know not just a lot of the basic context around the composition of The Years (starting with The Pargiters and ending with the two books we now have) but at least some of the main lines of critical discussion around both Holtby and Woolf. Not Woolf scholarship as a whole, of course: I have had to fight off discouragement brought on by its vastness, which a crude search on the MLA Bibliography suggests now overwhelms the scholarship on George Eliot–6784 entries vs. 3972. (What was I thinking, fleeing what seemed to me like an overpopulated field for one even more crowded?)

book sale haulMy other reading has also felt relatively unproductive, though I suppose productivity is not really an appropriate measure for it (though I have long struggled with how or whether to make distinctions between reading and research). I have not actually finished a book since Iza’s Ballad. I have started a couple, and one of them, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, I nearly finished, but though I liked the concept (it tells a kind of history of the newspaper business across decades through a linked series of character sketches) and I can’t point to anything wrong with the execution (each sketch is briskly vivid), I just felt less and less motivated to go back to it and finally gave it up. Sometimes reluctant persistence just backfires: in this case, because I felt guilty about not reading The Imperfectionists I kept watching TV instead of picking up another book. As a result I have made great progress on rewatching The Wire (I’m nearly finished Season 4, which is as heartbreaking and infuriating as I remembered it). This morning I picked Anita Brookner’s Dolly off the shelf–like The Imperfectionists, it’s a recent acquisition from the ‘Women for Music’ book sale. I like it already, so here’s hoping it breaks the slump.

May Day: Sabbatical Update

Arcimbolo LibrarianThe start of a new month seems like a good time to take stock, once again, of how my plans and projects for this sabbatical term are progressing. May is actually the point in a winter term sabbatical when being on leave stops meaning that much, as the regular teaching term is now over for everyone anyway. May is often very busy with meetings, though (including our department’s traditional ‘May Marks Meeting’), so my time is still more my own than it would be otherwise.

Looking back over the past four months, it does seem to me that I have been making pretty good use of that protected time. Since I placed my book orders for September, my early project to refresh my reading lists has been less of a priority, but it has definitely had results. The biggest change so far is to the approach and book list for Women and Detective Fiction, which I wrote about in my March update. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my postscript to that post, I ran into problems with my revised book list for Pulp Fiction (specifically, True Grit turned out not to be available from a Canadian supplier), so I decided to go with Valdez Is Coming again and accept that the onus is on me to teach it differently to make it more accessible. Because I wanted at least something to change for this iteration of the course but had rather run out of enthusiasm for novelty, I switched out The Maltese Falcon for The Big Sleep, which I know reasonably well from teaching it in Mystery and Detective Fiction. My overall enthusiasm for Pulp Fiction is actually flagging right now; I hope that in 2020-21 I can offer a different first-year course, perhaps ‘Literature: How It Works,’ which would let me go back to the broader range of texts and topics I used to cover in our (now retired) courses ‘Introduction to Literature’ and ‘Introduction to Prose and Fiction.’

greatexpectationsI have until the fall to settle on the book lists for my winter term courses, which are British Literature After 1800 and 19th-century British Fiction (the Austen to Dickens variation). I’ve spent quite a bit of time examining anthologies for the survey course and concluded that the most reasonable way to go is a slim custom text assembled from Broadview’s wide-ranging options. (Who is actually assigning these behemoth volumes? And how do they assign enough in one term to make it worth their students’ expense?) The down side is that for copyright reasons I can’t include much material past Joyce, but I think I can fill in a small number of contemporary poems and a story or two by other means. I have been playing around with a lot of different options for longer texts that I think would work well in combination, because the assignment sequence I am planning to use includes a final essay for which students would compare our last book with either of our previous ones. (One reason for this is that it means one way or another everyone has a stake in our final reading.) Right now the front runners are Great ExpectationsThree Guineas, and The Remains of the Day: I can imagine a lot of interesting ways to connect Remains with the other two, including first-person narration, questions of class, dignity, money, and morality, and connections between personal and public politics. The 19th-century fiction book list is still uncertain: one of the big questions for me is whether Wuthering Heights will make it in or whether I’ll lose my nerve and fall back on old favorites. wuthering-oup

Since fall book orders went in, I have been dedicating most of my time to the more open-ended research I discussed in my earlier posts about the value of ‘uproductive’ time and re-learning patience. Although it still makes me intermittently anxious that I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with all this, I am relaxing more into the process of reading and inquiry–and I am also starting to get a sense of how the different things that interest me might eventually coalesce, though I am a long way from being sure about how to frame the central question, much less how to answer it. I am genuinely enjoying the luxury of just being interested: “curiosity-driven research” is supposedly fundamental to our work, but as I discussed in my post on ‘fallow time’ there are lots of professional disincentives to following your interests in new directions.

bookHaving said that, the more I read about Holtby and Woolf, and especially the harder I try to understand what’s going on with The Years, the more I’ve been identifying continuities between this material and longstanding interests of mine, including genre (my monograph was about history and fiction as means of telling particular kinds of stories about women’s lives) and the relationship between literary form and ethics (something I’ve addressed both explicitly and implicitly in a lot of my essays and academic articles). I had long casually accepted the image of Woolf as (to quote Janis Paul) “a kind of patron saint of inner vision and consciousness”; the books I’ve been reading on Woolf’s politics and cultural criticism have helped me see her differently, and especially as perhaps not so entirely unlike Victorian novelists in her interest in using fiction to make a difference in the “real world” (as Alex Zwerdling’s Virginia Woolf and the Real World has it). This week I’ve also been reading scholarship on Woolf’s connections to her Victorian predecessors, including Janis Paul’s The Victorian Heritage of Virginia Woolf and Emily Blair’s Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel, neither of which (though both are very interesting on their own terms) turned out to address quite the things I was looking for–but of course in some ways that’s encouraging, as it shows where there might be room for me in the conversation.

rooney.jpgSo that’s where I am now, at the two-thirds point in this six-month sabbatical. I have checked off a number of the concrete tasks I set myself, and I have made progress on the more amorphous but no less important task of refreshing my own intellectual engagement. There have been other things going on too, of course (including Maddie’s performance in Jesus Christ Superstar and, exciting in a different way, her acceptance of a place in Dalhousie’s Fountain School of Performing Arts for next year), and as always I’ve been doing other reading, most recently Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage and a reread of The Break for my book club (where it was a big success). My leisure reading right now is Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, which I am not liking at all (my goodness, her sentences are dull!)–but that’s a subject for another post!

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.

Reading Lists: Refreshed!

stack-of-booksBook orders for our fall classes are due by April 1. It’s not a hard and fast deadline, but earlier orders make things easier for the bookstore staff and also enable them to organize book buybacks from students for texts that will be assigned again next year. In theory (though things have not always worked out this way) it also means that if there is some kind of supply problem with a fall book selection, they and thus we find out in plenty of time to choose an alternative. So I do always try to meet the deadline! The problem is that it comes up right when the current term is at its most hectic, which is one reason it is tempting to default to the same reading lists (or very close to them) that I used last time around–and that, in turn, is why I have made it one of my priorities this term, while I’m on sabbatical, to see what else I might assign.

This is an ongoing process for my Winter 2020 courses (British Literature After 1800 and 19th-Century British Fiction from Austen to Dickens): I have some ideas, but I’m still thinking, including about just how much change I can realistically handle all at once! For my Fall 2019 courses, though, the die is now cast.

laura-feminist-pressFor Pulp Fiction, I have changed two of the three novels on the list (I’m keeping the short readings the same, so as not to overwhelm myself with new prep!). The first two times I taught it, we read Valdez Is ComingThe Maltese Falcon, and Lord of Scoundrels. I was actually very happy with this list for my purposes: they are all terrific novels, exemplary of their genres but also thought-provoking in their particulars, and the sequence was unified by their engagement with problematic models of masculinity. In practice, however, things did not go as well as I would like. For one thing, Valdez Is Coming was not popular, and it also proved difficult to use for exercises in close reading: there’s a lot going on but it’s subtle, more below the surface than on it, which fits the book well but gave students a lot of trouble. The Maltese Falcon raised different problems: I had more plagiarism cases involving students’ writing on it than I’ve had (to my knowledge, of course) for any text I’ve ever assigned in first year. As a result, I have replaced both of these books: this time our representative Western will be True Grit* and for noir we will read Vera Caspary’s Laura. I have a lot more work to do before I’m ready to teach either of these, but I know already that there will be ripple effects across all of our discussions and assignments because they are both written so differently from the books they are replacing. There is still an underlying thematic link, but it too is different: the new sequence highlights women who break the rules, or upset their prescribed roles.

Blanche on the Lam.2My other fall term course is an upper-level seminar on Women and Detective Fiction. I have put three new books on the syllabus for this iteration, replacing Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only (which many of the students will have studied with me already in the detective fiction survey), Katherine Forrest’s Death at the Nightwood Bar, and Prime Suspect with Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam, and Katherena Vermette’s The Break. The result is a more diverse list of authors and also (and relatedly) a change in the underlying conceptual apparatus of the course, away from a narrow focus on women as detectives and towards an exploration of how women writers also interrogate or subvert other aspects and tropes of the genre, from point of view to women’s conventional roles as victims or femme fatales. Neely and Vermette in particular also complicate the classic detective story’s commitment to closure, going further than the other readings to challenge the possibility of a real or meaningful “solution” to the crimes they address.

hughes2I feel good about these decisions, but I also have some concerns about taking on so much new material. More specifically, I’m worried that the new books for Pulp Fiction will actually prove more difficult for first-year students, not least because of their idiosyncratic first-person narrators–one of my tasks now is to think through their challenging aspects and provide my students with the right tools and approaches to have a productive discussion about them. I was very comfortable with my old reading list for Women & Detective Fiction–too comfortable, of course, as I realized. Now, however, I am anxious about how to handle the difficult scenarios presented in both In A Lonely Place and The Break and about equipping myself to address the appropriate historical and critical contexts for Neely and Vermette responsibly. But there’s plenty of time between now and September to do this work, and at least now that the book orders are placed my attention will no longer be “dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” but focused on these particular books.

*No sooner had I pressed ‘publish’ on this post then I got an email from our bookstore saying they aren’t sure True Grit will be available! The best laid plans etc. etc. but we’ll see.

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”).

Gone_with_the_Wind_cover

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.

February Already? A Sabbatical Update

wuthering-oupLast Friday was Munro Day and I almost didn’t notice: usually it’s a highlight of the winter term, a day off right when things are starting to get real and so everyone’s starting to get tired. It’s true that I’ve been tired lately myself, but at least I haven’t had to show up for class! I’m mostly on my usual schedule, because I’m still dropping Maddie off at school, but it has definitely been nice not having to be ready for the day in quite the same way: evenings and weekends aren’t haunted by what’s yet to be done or taken up with prep and grading.

I have been trying to be diligent about my sabbatical projects, however, and though it didn’t always feel that way, I think January ended up being pretty productive. I got right to work following up on ideas for refreshing my reading lists, for example. It really does take time: it’s inevitably kind of haphazard, as not every idea you come up with pans out but at the same time every book you look at or look up can send you off in new directions. Already at times I have felt the urge to never mind and just stick with the tried and true! But persisting has paid off: I’m reasonably certain that I’m going to assign Wuthering Heights as the one 19th-century novel for my Brit Lit survey, though I’m still not sure about whether I’ll put it on the roster for Austen to Dickens.

The_Lost_Child_resize3_USThe survey course isn’t until next winter term so I have plenty of time to keep considering options for which contemporary novel to use. I want something that will play along with the theme of ‘belonging’ and/or be an interesting complement to Wuthering Heights, and with that in mind I’m currently reading Caryl Phillips’s The Lost Child. I’m not liking it very much, though, and having decided (I think) against White Teeth and found Small Island to be unavailable in Canada, I’m feeling discouraged. Is it reasonable or lazy to be thinking that maybe everything doesn’t have to change at once in the course? I didn’t specifically pair up the novels I assigned the last time, so maybe as I’ll be shaking up the short readings as well, I can stick with a 20th-century novel I’m already comfortable with.

I have less time to make final decisions about Women & Detective Fiction, so I’m glad to say I think I am making good progress there. One helpful thing is that I’ve shifted the way I’m thinking about the readings: instead of focusing exclusively (as I have in the past) on a fairly narrow range of subgenres, and even more narrowly, on books with woman detectives. Instead I’m approaching it as if it were called “Women Write Crime” – which seems a fair way to interpret the title and makes room for books that, to put it mildly, go a different way with the genre, such as Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (which does some surprising things with women’s frequent roles as victims or femmes fatales) and Katherena Vermette’s The Break, which is (arguably) not a crime novel but a novel about crime, and especially about indigenous women’s experience of crime and (in)justice. I’m still not 100% sure about The Break (not because I don’t think it’s a very good novel, but because approaching it as crime fiction is not obviously the right thing to do), but I am pretty sure that we’ll read Blanche on the Lam, which will help us focus on both race and class–not just when discussing Neely’s book, but across our readings.

laura-feminist-pressFinally, after trying and not liking a few other hard-boiled / noir options for Pulp Fiction, I think I have settled on Vera Caspary’s Laura to replace The Maltese Falcon. If, as I currently plan to, I also replace Valdez Is Coming with True Grit, that course too will shift its conceptual focus, away from toxic masculinity (which was, I thought, a pretty good unifying theme across the three main texts, culminating in Lord of Scoundrels which both critiques it and offers a fix for it) to something like “women who disrupt expectations” — for which Lord of Scoundrels will also work well. Issues of masculine identity will still come up, of course!

I still have leads I’m following up, including a stack of 19th-century novels any one of which just might change everything! I actually just started Dombey and Son–but I have to say, it is really long and so it would have to be better (IMHO) than Bleak House to earn a spot on my syllabus. I’m not afraid of working through Really Long NovelsTM with my classes, but I have to believe myself that the effort is more than worth it, or I can hardly expect to carry any of them along with me! I’ve browsed Ivanhoe and The Heart of Midlothian and both made my heart sink at the prospect of convincing students to engage with them: yes, Waverley is a hard sell too, but it’s so influential and so funny (OK, not at first, but once you get it), and when it is good, it is so very, very good (the trial scene, just for example) that I’m willing to do the work. In fact, what looking at the other Scott novels has done for me so far is tempt me to put Waverley on the reading list for Austen to Dickens this time around!

Cover2Another sabbatical project of a different kind was to come to terms with the essays I’ve written over the past few years about George Eliot, mostly for Open Letters Monthly but also for the Los Angeles Review of Books and Berfrois. What I mean by “come to terms with” is really “decide what to do about,” but the first phrase captures a bit more of the emotional baggage the essays have come to carry. I loved writing them, and on my 2015 sabbatical I worked mostly on more writing of the same kind, some of which I ultimately pitched unsuccessfully to a couple of publications that run similar pieces, such as The Hudson Review. I naively thought this was the kind of cross-over writing that would bolster my application for promotion–distilling, as it did, decades of academic expertise into publicly accessible forms. But it actually made no positive difference to my case at all (not peer reviewed, you see), as it turns out. Since then, the idea of a revised and expanded collection has also proved completely umarketable: the essays themselves don’t do anything with mass appeal and also–and this is something I honestly hadn’t thought enough about–their standing as previously published material works against them. Yes, there are plenty of essay collections out there that are mostly or even wholly republished material (some of them with not much more popular appeal, in subject and approach, than mine) but in those cases the authors’ famous names make the sale.

Anyway, I have had multiple conversations with people in the publishing industry that all led me to the same conclusion: these essays (however transformed) aren’t going anywhere. Still, it made me sad to think that they would simply languish forever on the margins of the great wilderness of content that is the internet, so I decided I could at least give them a more organized form by collecting and publishing them myself, which I have now done. I edited them all one more time and expanded a couple of them, and I added an introduction. I didn’t add any wholly new essays, though I do have a couple more in the early stages, because the point was to free myself from this material–and, not incidentally, not to create yet more work that would be ineligible for publication elsewhere. I’m not sure if self-publishing this ebook really answers my ongoing question about book projects, but it should help me think about different book projects instead of what I once hoped this material would turn into. I won’t say that self-publishing doesn’t feel in some ways like a failure, and though publishing experts insist the stigma against it has lifted, perhaps it looks to some people like a vanity project. I have fretted over both of these things (I am still fretting!) but clearly I decided to press on, and the essays are now available at both Kobo and Amazon – or directly from me, if anyone asks. (It is not, apparently, possible to upload ePub files to WordPress, so at this point I can’t simply offer a download link here.)

Shawl-First-TrySo, six weeks into my sabbatical, that’s what I’ve done so far. Well, that and make most of a shawl that, over the past few days, I have had to completely unravel because I realized I had been doing one part of the pattern wrong almost since the beginning. As I ready myself to start re-doing it, it’s hard not to think of the process as a metaphor for my other work. Undoing crochet still leaves you with all the yarn, after all: you just have to make something else out of it. It’s very pretty yarn; that seems like grounds for optimism.

Refreshing My Reading Lists III: Brit Lit Survey

babl-volumebThe third course I plan to spend time rethinking during this sabbatical is British Literature After 1800, one of a suite of 2nd-year survey classes we originally established to orient students in the big picture (nationally and historically) as context and preparation for our more specialized upper-level courses. These curricular intentions are compromised (some might say, rendered inoperable) by the way our program actually works now: the surveys are no longer specific program requirements but are simply part of suites of classes from which students make their own selections. We do not have the option, either, to make specific surveys prerequisites for specific upper-level courses. I wish it were otherwise, and we did at one time have a more structured (and thus, IMHO, more coherent) curriculum. But here we are, and here these courses still are, and in Winter 2020, for the first time since 2010, I will be teaching this particular one again.

mla-handbook

In 2010, not only was it clearer how this course fit into our overall offerings but it also was supposed to do specific kinds of work for our majors and honours students, focusing not just on literary content but also on research and writing skills at a a step up from what we typically cover in our first-year classes. Now that the surveys are no longer program requirements at all, much less part of a deliberate skills-based sequence, that is no longer (as far as I know!) a necessary part of them, any more than it is in any of our other 2000-level offerings. This alone would mean reconsidering the structure and assignments I set up for it when I offered it before, when students did (among other things) an elaborate annotated bibliography. Even if the place of the course in our program had not changed, however, I would want to rethink the reading list.

When I drew up the syllabus in 2010, I followed a very conventional — by which I mean, quite canonical —  model. This was not (or not just) a failure of imagination on my part: given the very wide range of our other course offerings, it seemed like a priority to address the “standard” classics that (in my experience) students have often had surprisingly little chance to read at the outset of an English major, ones that are often touchstones or pushing-off points for later authors or movements or specific texts. While in some ways this might seem like a conservative approach, in other ways I consider it essential for understanding our field: it is hard, for instance, to discuss the significance of challenges to the canon, or exclusions from the canon, or problems with the whole notion of canonicity to begin with, without some sense of the traditional canon as a starting point. Or so I thought, anyway: this course, as I conceived of it, set out a preliminary version of literary history that would be complicated (as I repeatedly discussed in class) by other approaches and other courses.

norton-vol-2So I assigned the “major authors” edition of the Norton Anthology and we read Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, Tennyson and Browning and Hopkins, Wilde and Joyce and Woolf, Yeats and T. S. Eliot and Auden, Heaney and Rushdie. A bit less predictably, we also read Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, and Katherine Mansfield, and while the first time around I assigned Great Expectations as our representative Victorian novel, the second time we read Mary Barton. Both times, our 20th-century novel was Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which worked really well because it directly–metafictionally and thematically–addresses changing ideas about fiction from Modernism to modernity. The course was a lot of work for me, both because I had to teach a lot of material outside my usual area and because of the challenge of conceptualizing it so that there was some coherence–some patterns and themes to follow across the term–while still doing my best to keep the whole problem of canonicity in view. As part of this effort, I set up one of the most elaborate course requirements I’ve ever done: a collaborative wiki-building project for which the students (working in teams) built study guides for the course based on the lectures and readings as well as their own research and also incorporated some information about readings not included in our syllabus.

atonement_(novel)Looking over my notes, I actually think it was quite a good course of its kind. (You can read some blow-by-blow accounts of it while it was in progress if you’re interested; just scroll down this page until you get to 2010!) Now that this course is not specifically meant as a prelude to other courses, however, I am rethinking the kind of course it should be on its own terms. I would still like to provide something of a canonical overview–because, again, I think some sense of what that looks like is really helpful for other critical, even subversive, conversations–but I would also like to build more of the critiques and revisions and alternatives into the course itself, rather than assuming they will come up later. This assumption just doesn’t seem reasonable any more given the extreme flexibility of our current program (which is a response to scarce resources more than a principled shift away from requirements or sequences), and I also think we will have more interesting conversations in the moment if I shape the reading list to include more contestation and urgency.

How to do that, though, without losing the basic chronological survey structure that distinguishes this course from ones organized by genre, theme, or just narrower parameters? I have been thinking about organizing the readings into clusters, such as gender or nation and identity, but I don’t like to abstract topics or themes as if it doesn’t matter when they took on a particular literary form or voice or what IRL they might have been responding to.  In every course I teach, in fact, including introductory classes, the mystery class, and the 19th-century novel classes, I tend to teach things in chronological order because it makes the most sense to me pedagogically: it allows us to work through any relevant historical contexts in order, and to talk about ways writers respond to each other. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to compare earlier and later treatments of related ideas or forms; it just means that this possibility gets more robust as the course progresses. (This is one reason I often focus the first assignment(s) on a single text and then make later assignments comparative.)

marybarton

One thing I could do, as a compromise, is choose all of the texts for the course with an overarching theme in mind. This is probably quite feasible, especially if that theme is itself somewhat flexible. In fact, having some reason to choose one thing over another is going to be essential, as canon (re)formation in the past couple of decades has been almost entirely additive: anthologies have only gotten bigger, and some of them, vast already in print, also have associated websites with still more potential material! The thing about letting go of the “old standards” approach is that it leaves you quite overwhelmed with possibilities. Thinking in terms of “how to have the best conversation about X” rather than about coverage (which was impossible, of course, even in the old model) will be not just helpful but essential. I just (just!) need to settle, in that case, on which conversation(s) I want the course to highlight and then figure out how best to include a variety of voices–which is something that I should have done better at in the previous versions.

small-islandI actually already have one specific idea, which is to substitute Andrea Levy’s Small Island for Atonement. It too is a book that crosses literary generations and that tells a story about telling stories, but it starts from a very different place and has very different concerns. I think it’s a very readable book, less subtle, perhaps, than Atonement but also less insular. Atonement is very much a novel about novels, which is one reason I admire it and enjoyed teaching it; this time around, though, for this course, I think I want less literary self-consciousness and more social and political engagement in the reading list. That might make Mary Barton still a good option, but I’m also wondering about Kipling’s Kim, which is one of the 19th-century novels I’ll be getting to know this term–because like Small Island, it’s (as I understand it, anyway) about how we think about who we are in relation to where we come from and where we live. Is that the overarching theme I want to go with? I don’t know yet, but at least it’s a place to start thinking about how to conceptualize this survey course in a new (for me) and possibly more relevant way.

I’d be very interested in knowing how other people approach survey courses of this kind. I have always thought that they are, or should be, the backbone of a good English curriculum. Obviously that view no longer prevails, in practice, in my own department, where we once had a mandatory survey (“Literary Landmarks”) for all majors and honours students. I am sensitive to the objection that we don’t want to perpetuate narrow ideas about the canon or literary history. Within the scope of any such course, though, these issues can always be confronted directly–as I know they were by my colleagues who taught “Literary Landmarks” back in the day. If you have taught — or taken — a survey course, what principles organized it? How did you approach the impossible task of coverage and the essential task of subverting your own generalizations as you went along? What readings worked really well? And, not incidentally, if you assigned an anthology, which one? (At the moment, I am inclined towards making up a custom anthology using Broadview’s excellent tool for this.)