This Week In My Sabbatical: Winding Down and Waiting

  My sabbatical ends officially on June 30. I leave on June 29 for a week’s vacation in Vancouver, so that will mark the transition nicely. I already feel a shift, though, not just in how I’m using my time but in my attitude: the big push I was making to get new writing done has yielded to a period in which I have to wait and see what comes of it, and while I haven’t stopped writing (or planning more new writing), I’ve started doing some prep work for my fall classes, like setting up Blackboard sites. I could put that stuff off until later in the summer, but I don’t enjoy doing it, so picking away at it a bit at a time works best for me. I also like the sites to be up and running before term begins, so that students can check them out.

I suppose another approach would be to rush headlong at these last two weeks and see how much else I can get done. Also, the summer months are meant for research and writing as well, so it’s not as if June 30 is my last day! I will certainly try to do what Jo calls “laying down some breadcrumbs,” so that after my vacation I can keep going, both with the George Eliot material and with some other ideas I have about possibly “pitchable” pieces. I love writing for Open Letters (honestly, I don’t think you’ll get better edits anywhere you submit — I never have), and I don’t intend to stop, but I also want to branch out a bit if I can, for the experience and exposure, for my own self-confidence, and, just a little bit, for the health of my c.v., so that I can point to work I’ve had accepted at places where I’m not on the masthead…in case, just for instance, I decide it’s time I applied for a promotion or something like that.

But speaking of Open Letters, that’s where much of my attention has been this week, as I’ve been working on a review of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins for the July issue, wrangling contributors for our annual Summer Reading feature, and doing my share of editing on the other new pieces we’ve got.

I wish I had something more exciting to report!  But it has been a pretty uneventful week, really, at least where sabbatical stuff is concerned. It is also my son’s last week of high school, so that’s eventful in its own way: it has made me more sentimental than I expected, and very conscious of the passage of time. I’m kind of in between books, so I’m rereading Venetia just for fun; my book club meets in a week or so to discuss Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, so that’s probably my next serious read.

This Week In My Sabbatical: Bits and Pieces

escher12The most important bits and pieces at issue this week, sabbatical-wise, are those I’ve been breaking off from the large chunk of writing I worked on through January, February, and March. At 18,000+ words it was unwieldy for any purpose, including a potential book chapter, and it was always going to need pruning, but the more I stared at it the more it seemed to me that in putting everything I could think of into it, I had smothered rather than revealing its purpose. There were always some smaller parts that in my mind were the really key ones, so over the past week or so I experimentally cut them out and patched them together into something much smaller and more focused. Now I’m cautiously adding material to this new micro-version, trying to find the sweet spot at which the main idea is sufficiently amplified without being either tediously repetitive or blurry from extraneous details.

I have no idea if, strategically, it is right to be working on refining smaller pieces right now rather than churning out more messy rough material. It has certainly helped my day-to-day motivation and focus, but of course that might be relief at turning away from something more difficult (because more inchoate) rather than a sign that I’ve found my way. On the other hand, it is easier to build something larger out of good small pieces that (cross your fingers) have already been published than to go the other way. Also, as I’ve talked about here before, I’ve had ongoing doubts about whether my approach really lends itself to a book-length project, and this feeling had only been growing as I tried to work out my ideas in book-sized forms. I’m not abandoning a book as a possible outcome down the road, but right now it feels important that I just keep writing, and it turns out I feel much more comfortable doing that on a smaller scale. So I’ll keep doing that for a while and then take stock of the results.

todolistI’ve also been adding bits and pieces to my fall syllabi. I had vowed not to turn my attention to class prep until my sabbatical was over at the end of June (with the exception of book orders, which were due April 1). The temptation is very strong, though, because the tasks are so definite, and it’s a relief to do something so familiar. I also really enjoy preparing syllabi! It’s such an optimistic thing to do. My other justification for poking away a little at teaching stuff now is that neither of my fall classes exactly reiterates a previous offering. It’s true that I have taught them both before (I’m doing a section of one of our intro classes and a graduate seminar on George Eliot) — but the intro section is going to be the largest version I’ve ever done (it’s capped at 90), while I want to integrate some different ideas and materials into the graduate seminar. So both are going to take some careful planning, and, for the grad seminar, some advance reading. That’s a good excuse for drawing up some tentative schedules, at least, just to see what the options and challenges are going to be.

Untitled-2Finally, I’ve been reading in bits and pieces too. After I finished Station Eleven, I relaxed with some Julie James, whose romances usually amuse me — they are like reading romantic comedies. My favorite is Practice Makes Perfect (which should really be a movie already), but this time I picked up Just the Sexiest Man Alive, an early one that I hadn’t read before. It was just OK — I guess she got better with practice. Two things do bother me about her books, though, that were definitely problems in this case. One is that I think they are badly edited: there are recurrent errors, particularly confusing “lay” and “lie,” and there are also lots of examples of awkward exposition, as if nobody could think of a graceful way to give us relevant facts except to add “he said, referring to X” after a bit of dialogue. The other is that her people are just too good-looking: the men are always “tall, dark, and smoldering” (or, in a variation, “tall, dark, and glowering”) with great physiques, while her women are all stereotypically gorgeous, with long wavy hair, perfect skin, and dream bodies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Or, actually, yes there is, because people who aren’t beautiful do in fact fall in love, and there’s something boring about perfection.

Then I decided it was time I try some of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books, which (shockingly, I know) I haven’t read any of. This didn’t go well: I started at the beginning, as I usually do, with Last Bus to Woodstock, and I disliked Morse so intensely I had to stop. Is he always such a sexist pig, or does Dexter outgrow that?

HildNow I’m reading Nicola Griffith’s Hild and really enjoying it. It is giving me much the same trouble that King Hereafter did, as it is full of names I can’t pronounce* or remember, so I’m frequently confused about who is doing what to whom and why, but Hild herself is a brilliantly realized character, and the larger arc of the story is quite gripping. The prose, too, is really wonderful. The overall effect is kind of Dunnett-like, with the lavish details that sensually evoke a strange time and place, but the language is more poetic, with lighter exposition and more reliance on striking moments or images. At this point (about half way through) I’m particularly interested in the emphasis on reading as something that makes new kinds of communication possible, across distances but also between women, who are often separated from friends and family because of their roles as “peaceweavers,” used to create and sustain strategic alliances. The reading is going quite slowly, but now that I’m well into the book and have a sense of how it works, I think it will move faster for me. I’m looking forward to writing about it in more detail when I’m done.

*Updated: I have belatedly discovered a note on pronunciation at the end of the book — and a glossary! Very helpful. That will teach me not to read through the whole table of contents before starting the novel itself.

The Past Couple of Weeks In My Sabbatical: Various!

How’s that for a vague title for a blog post? But it is accurate, really: for the past couple of weeks my attention and energy have been focused on a range of different things. I  haven’t felt inspired to write a sabbatical update for a while precisely because my activities seemed so miscellaneous, and not that variable, either, from week to week. But it seems like time to round things up.

First, some good news! One of the questions Jo asks us at each ‘Meeting With Your Writing‘ session is how we’d like to feel while we’re working. At the top of each new entry in my MWYW notebook is my answer, which has become a kind of mantra for me this term: “engaged, optimistic, productive.” It’s optimism that has given me the most trouble, what with winter and all, but sometimes it has also been hard to tell if I’m being productive because I haven’t been quite clear on my goals. The past week has been a particularly good one in all these respects, though, because I decided on a concrete task I wanted to accomplish that turned out to be really fun to work on. Imagine that: I have been enjoying writing! In fact, it came so (relatively) easily and has caused, so far, so little hair-tearing and second-guessing that I’m starting to think I must have gone horribly astray. It’s a subset of the larger plans I have been following for the George Eliot book project, something I thought would work well at essay-length. It’s now in a reasonably clean draft awaiting a final round of editing and revision. We’ll see what becomes of it, but right now I’m just happy and energized by the experience of pulling it together.

In other good news, the May issue of Open Letters Monthly went up on schedule; if you haven’t already checked it out, I hope you will! As always, the pieces range very widely — more widely, we think, than in most other literary journals. Books reviewed include Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar; John Cotter contributed a thought-provoking essay on the possibility that the gigantic glass atrium at Boston’s MFA is a symptom of our changing relationship with art; Steve Donoghue tests (as only he can) the claims of a new translation of the Iliad to be “declaimable”; and I offer a “Second Glance” at Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. I thought about Open Letters today when I read this piece on the effects of Britain’s REF: “Taking on a journal editorship? That means you’ll be helping other scholars publish their REF research, but what about yours? Can you spare that kind of time?” I realize that Open Letters is not necessarily the kind of journal editorship she has in mind (though I have had British scholars tell me that writing for it is something that they think works in their favor), but I have often felt particularly pleased that one thing I’ve been able to do there is show off how smart and interesting my academic colleagues and connections are. I don’t know if that kind of editorial role will count in my favor if I ever go up for promotion, but I think (I hope) that we are still clinging to more generous and collegial models of scholarship on our side of the pond — for now, and maybe just barely, as that piece emphasizes.

unbrokenThe other writing I’ve done has already shown up here, in my posts on my recent reading. I’m currently completing my “war in the Pacific” unit with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which I gave my husband for Christmas. I rarely risk buying him books, but he likes good nonfiction, and this one seemed ready-made for him, as he’s a long-time track and field enthusiast and his father piloted a B-24 during WWII. He really enjoyed it, and I’m enjoying it too — though “enjoy” probably isn’t quite the right word for either of us, since it’s rather a grim story! A lot of it is, naturally, very reminiscent of elements of both The Narrow Road to the Deep North (particularly the treatment of the Allied POWs in the Japanese camps) and Shame and the Captives (especially the context and commentary Hillenbrand provides on the aspects of Japanese culture that contributed to the extreme brutality of the camps). I find Hillenbrand’s narrative a bit clunky or heavy-handed at times: it has that “one damn thing after another” rhythm that is perhaps inevitable when you’re putting together a lot of material into a fairly straightforward chronological account. I suspect that images from the novels will stick with me longer than anything from her book except the outline of Zamperini’s undeniably astonishing story.

Once I’m done with Unbroken I think I’ll be happy to read something that doesn’t involve beatings, excrement, or hungry sharks. I picked out Nicola Griffith’s Hild and Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy with my birthday gift card to Bookmark, so one of them will likely be next, though I also got Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us from the library today because a friend highly recommended it. I’m starting to be more aware of the luxury it is to be choosing my reading material this freely: it won’t be long before my sabbatical is officially over (June 30 suddenly doesn’t seem so far away!), and I’ve already started thinking a bit about fall classes, as book orders were already due. I’m second reader on an MA thesis that should get to me in early June, and I’m also participating in a PhD comprehensive exam coming up in just a couple of weeks, for which I’ve been having semi-regular meetings with the student. A sabbatical is not, in fact, ever a period of complete isolation or exemption from one’s regular duties! But come September I’ll be doing required reading again.

This Week in My Sabbatical: Out of Sync

thedanceToday is the last day of classes in Dal’s winter term. Usually, that would mean I am feeling elated, relieved, deflated — and a bit panicked at the looming prospect of grading final papers and exams. But because I’m on sabbatical, it’s just another day, which brings on its own feelings, including some disorientation. The thing about academic life is that it has such strong rhythms, such intense recurring cycles of highs and lows, from the optimistic frazzle of the first day of classes through the mid-term slump and slog to the year-end celebration. Everyone goes through these phases, teachers and students alike, and the result is a strong, if occasionally fraught, camaraderie as we go up and down together.

I’m not sorry, of course, to be out of that rhythm for a while, though as my sabbatical goes along one of its beneficent effects is that I’m thinking positively about teaching again (which was not so much the case late last December) and I’m almost (almost) ready to enter wholeheartedly back into conversations about graduate student funding, curriculum reform, class scheduling, and all the other topics that draw us together even as they drive us apart (academics are nothing if not fractious!). It’s nice not to be on that erratic hamster wheel and to pace myself according to my own priorities, and also to follow my own energy as it rises and falls instead of forcing myself to meet a steady stream of external demands. When you’ve been “in school” one way or another as long as I have, though, it is odd to have time passing in this steadier, more self-reflective way, especially when you are working on campus and everyone around you is caught up in the familiar pattern.

WP_20150409_002My own sabbatical rhythm — which has never quite settled into a regular beat thanks to the nightmarish winter we’ve had — has been more disrupted than usual this week, first by the Easter weekend and then yet another snowstorm Tuesday morning, and then by the beginning of a long-anticipated kitchen make-over. We are finally saying goodbye to our aging laminate cupboards and vintage 80’s appliances, which were failing bit by bit and thus ultimately forced our hand: there comes a point where it seems like throwing good money after bad to keep them running. We aren’t doing anything structural — just taking the old stuff out and replacing it with new stuff — but even so there’s a lot of domestic disruption (something they rather downplay in those TV shows where a top-to-bottom renovation appears to happen in 60 minutes less commercials). To my surprise, the thing I find most frustrating is not having a proper sink. Even filling a kettle becomes a logistical challenge in a shallow bathroom sink, and you know how important my morning tea is to me!

I did manage a Meeting With Your Writing session on Thursday, and I’m puttering away at my George Eliot stuff. I think I have reached some tentative conclusions about the book vs. essay question, but I’m still turning things around in my head. While it’s true I don’t have to decide now, I think I will work better if I have a better understanding of my goals (short term and long term), so it’s useful brooding provided I can keep the neuroses under control. I haven’t gotten much concentrated reading done since I finished The Good Terrorist (which we discussed energetically at my book club meeting last night): inspired by Oleander, JacarandaI have begun rereading Moon Tiger, and I’m dipping into Ellis Peters‘s One Corpse Too Many in the interstices of the day. I also read, or really skimmed, Nora Roberts’s The Next Always. I kind of liked the ones I read from her Bride Quartet, because I liked the insider look at the different expertise each heroine had. But they were like literary jello: smooth, sweet, but nothing at all to sink your teeth into! The Next Always is about the same except it has a ghost and a stalker plot that seemed like a cheap way to provide the crisis and resolution required to come to the HEA.

And that’s where I am as this week in my sabbatical wraps up! Work on the kitchen continues next week and then there’s a lull before the final stages can be done; now that the planning and packing and reorganizing is done and the project is actually underway, it should be easier (in between specific events) to get back into a writing rhythm. I hope so! One thing about witnessing the end-of-term rush is that it reminds me that this time to work on my own terms is both precious and fleeting.

This Week In My Sabbatical: Writing and Brooding

OxfordIt has been kind of a stuttering week for me. My “Meeting With Your Writing” session on Monday helped me work up some positive energy about the next part of the George Eliot project I want to work on — this was good, as I had been getting kind of fed up with the other piece I’ve been working on since January. That piece is at about 18,000 words right now and it’s definitely still a messy early draft, which is one reason I’d become frustrated with it. But I realized that trying to “finish” it, or even polish it, when I’m not quite sure about my overall direction would be unproductive, so starting the next section made both practical and psychological sense.

Soon after, though, I found myself in the writing doldrums, mostly because the new bit seemed so disconnected from the first part and that started a whole mental chain reaction of questions about what exactly I was trying to do. This kind of metacriticism of my own work-in-progress is something I’ve been deliberately avoiding this term: my plan was just to write as much as I could while I have the time to dedicate to it, and then contemplate the results in July, when my sabbatical is officially over. Who knows, by that point, I might have accidentally provided myself with answers about what exactly I was trying to do! And I wouldn’t any longer be trying to answer questions about it in the abstract — what kind of thing might this be? what would it look like? what would it say? — but would know, and could revise and reconsider and repackage from there.

Because I am prone to both brooding and self-doubt (they go together so awfully well, don’t they?), this plan was basically a good one. It has proved harder to follow than I’d hoped, though. I am steeped in self-consciousness by both nature and training, after all; falling off the wagon as I did this week was probably an inevitability. I got myself back together by Thursday, partly by doing an extra session of MWYW during which (in service of the writing, I promise!) I got to spend a lot of time surfing around in Middlemarch choosing examples to discuss. That was truly restorative! Jo always advises us to start, if we can, with an aspect of the writing project that we really want to do — something that we think will be fun. I’ve made a note to remind myself that when I feel stuck, I should go back — if only for a little while — to one of the novels and just read for a bit. After all, they are the reason I’m doing any of this in the first place!

I’m back on track now, ready for a better, steadier time next week. I don’t think the time I spent in the doldrums was necessarily wasted, though. Though Jo rightly pointed out to me on Twitter that I don’t need to decide this question now, what I found myself mostly brooding about was whether I was wrong to be thinking about this project as a book (recall the trigger, that the two sections didn’t seem connected, except by method) — or, to approach it from the other direction, why I wasn’t satisfied thinking about it as related but distinct essay projects. I’ve honestly never been sure I had a sufficiently motivating and unifying book-sized idea, so in fact the book plan (as far as it has gotten at this point) has always been for a carefully framed and integrated series of essay-like chapters that remain primarily exercises in expansive close reading — I know, I know, not a marketable idea, at least for a literary nobody — don’t knock me off the wagon again! But any book is a struggle to get published, and Tom isn’t the only person who has pointed me to venues like the Hudson Review that already do publish literary pieces of the sort I have been writing (and of which my current material is really just a larger and messier version).

Obviously, I can’t simply assume my work would be accepted at places like that, but what if essay-writing actually suited me and my work best — what would be wrong with making that kind of publishing my ambition? After all, even the critical books I’ve liked best in recent years have in fact been made up of … you guessed it, essays (I’m thinking of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, for instance, or James Wood’s The Broken Estate). Why, then, have I become fixated on somehow producing a book?

During my brooding period, I finally admitted to myself that, in part at least, it’s for the wrong reasons, that is, it’s not because I have something to say that can’t be said properly in any other format but because I imagine it would bring me (in addition to what I hope would be some genuine personal and intellectual satisfactions) some professional validation. “Look!” I could say (to the kind of person, for example, who waved a dismissive hand at my list of essays and reviews and said they didn’t “add up to anything in particular”). “It’s not quite your kind of book, but it is at least a book, the kind of thing you can display at your book fairs!” That’s not the only reason, but recognizing that it was definitely one reason was at first depressing, and then strangely liberating. I routinely give presentations in which I bring up the MLA’s proposal that we “decenter” the monograph: I strongly believe that books (as I also discuss here) aren’t always the best form, though they have become the professionally essential form. Loving books as I do, it’s not surprising that I love the idea of producing (another) one, and I’m not 100% sure that what I’m working on now won’t eventually prove to be a book. But the next time I get fretful, I’m going to remind myself that (by principles I myself have argued for repeatedly), it’s okay if it doesn’t.

So that’s where I end up another week of my sabbatical! In the moment, it didn’t feel like a very productive week, but in retrospect I think both the writing and the brooding I’ve done actually were productive in their own ways.

This Week In My Sabbatical: More of the Same

Sadly, that includes more winter: not only did we get another storm yesterday that dumped another foot or so of snow (it was hard to tell exactly, because it was very windy and so there were lots of big drifts), but apparently there’s yet another one looming. Whatever. It’s the kids’ March break; I’m not teaching; we don’t have anywhere we need to be before Friday: let it snow! But then, please, let it stop — because enough already.

In happier news, there has also been more reading and writing. If you’re reading this, you probably already saw my post on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act as well as the one on Rex Stout’s A Right to Die. Neither book was a great hit with me, but McEwan is a writer I’m never sorry to read — his worst recent books are still much better than most other books I read, at least in their scrupulous intelligence and their ambition to be about something interesting, and I always admire his prose. And I understand better now why Nero Wolfe is such a favorite for so many mystery lovers I know, even though I don’t think he’s going to become one of mine.

senseofanendingOver the weekend I also read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending and reread (most of) Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. I didn’t feel like writing a “proper” post on the Barnes novel. I didn’t like it much while I was reading it — it seemed really heavy-handed in its not-telling, and unduly portentous given what turned out to be the big revelation, which was a lot less revelatory than I expected. I’m sure there are all kinds of nuances in the novel’s treatment of memory and evidence, but I couldn’t motivate myself to go back and work up an appreciation of them. There’s lots of good writing on it: I recommend the typically thoughtful post at Tales from the Reading Room (which includes links to some extended discussions about the “what actually happened”) or this trenchant critique from Jessica at Read React ReviewMr. Impossible was a perfect storm-day diversion: it’s a perfect example of one of my own favorite romance tropes, namely “severe bluestocking discovers passion with a man who finds her intelligence alluring.” (I’m sure that says nothing about me at all! But seriously, as I said the first time I wrote here about reading romances, it’s interesting to me how personal romance preferences seem, compared to, say, detective fiction.) Now I’m reading Miral al-Tahawy’s Brooklyn Heights. I’m liking it a lot so far: it’s quiet and a bit melancholy.

Besides the blog posts, I’ve also written more of my George Eliot chapter. It’s still a long way from being finished, but I think it would be a mistake to keep at it until it seems perfect and complete: I still don’t quite know what the larger project should be, and the more I polish this piece the harder it will be to mess it up again later. So I’ve resolved to stick with it for another week, at which point all of its parts will be there in rough form. Then I’m going to start the process again on the topic I’ve chosen for the second chapter, work away at it until it too is in rough but full form, and then take off the blinkers and try to figure out what I’ve done, whether I should persist along similar lines, or reconsider altogether, or what. I have been feeling a bit grim about all this effort going into something that may be entirely quixotic — but I got a boost today reading Dan Green’s review of Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel“Ultimately,” Dan says,

[Gorra’s] goal is to enhance our appreciation of this novel (and indirectly of Henry James as a fiction writer), in the most old-fashioned sense to account for its greatness. What Gorra has really produced in Portrait of a Novel is a work of critical eclecticism. He borrows from a number of critical approaches, including some of those currently ascendant in academic criticism, as well as more traditional “scholarly” concerns, and in the process demonstrates how criticism can draw on a variety of ways of thinking about literature as a phenomenon of human expression and culture in order to satisfy the ultimate goal of providing a clarifying perspective on a morally and aesthetically complex work of literature.

gorra“Our current literary culture,” he concludes, “could certainly benefit from more books like Portrait of Novel, books that avoid both the intellectual trendiness and abstraction of academic criticism and the undisciplined impressionism of popular criticism.” I’m not (at the moment, anyway) including much biography, but I am trying to do “the sort of ‘in-between’ criticism” Gorra’s book apparently provides (I’ve put a hold on it at the library and will take a look for myself as soon as I can), and as Gorra’s book has been well received, maybe Dan isn’t the only one who likes to read that kind of thing. Gorra, of course, already had the right profile to make a book like this seem to a publisher like a plausible venture, but that’s an anxiety for another day. David Pierce’s Reading Joycewhich I have already looked at pretty carefully, is another example of “in-between” criticism — more than, say, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, which for all its good qualities, really does not offer a rigorous reading of its touchstone novel.

This Week In My Sabbatical: Reading, Writing, Winter

IceThe winter of our discontent continues: with sidewalks already impassable across most of the city and side roads treacherous tracks of rutted ice, there’s yet another storm bearing down on us that promises the same cycle of snow followed by rain (and thus flooding) followed by a deep freeze. Usually rain is helpful as it means things warm up and snow gets washed away, but this winter it has just been bad news every time. I think it’s really the terrible sidewalks that are breaking people’s spirits — and it’s hard to imagine what can be done about them now that the ice has got such a grip. The whole “if winter comes, can spring be far behind” line is not much help when the answer is “yes, very far”!

But life goes on, and I’m trying not to get too disheartened by the feeling that I’m losing a lot of one of my precious sabbatical months to the extra work and stress this kind of weather brings in its wake. In spite of everything, I haven’t missed a Monday session of “A Meeting With Your Writing” yet, and though sometimes that’s the only time I get much done on my George Eliot project, it’s always very productive time. I was up to almost 20,000 words of my “shitty first draft,” [PDF] and now I’ve started trying to wrestle that material into a slightly better second draft, one that’s more organized, more selective (I actually cut 2000 words this week!), but also more finished, as many parts of it are very sketchy. One of the big challenges for me at this point is that — having generated such a lot of very rough material — I’m struggling to manage it: it has been a long time since I worked with such a long document, but it’s still too messy for me to break it confidently into smaller separate ones. (Does anyone have a good strategy for managing long documents? I’ve used the outline feature to create a table of contents for navigating, but otherwise I’m just paging around.) The other thing that’s very hard for me at this point is believing in the project itself, but I’m making a deliberate effort not to think too hard about whether all this effort will come to anything (meaning, for instance, whether it will ever become a publishable book) and just write.

Speaking of writing, I wanted to spend less time working on campus this term, and that has certainly happened, partly because just getting to campus has seemed like too much of a hassle. I had hoped that the new Halifax Central Library might be a place I’d want to work, but it has proved to be far too bustling a space to suit me. (I’m actually quite crushingly disappointed in the new library overall, not least because I looked forward to it so much for so long … but that’s for another post.) I’m mostly working in my usual basement office at home, as result, but I’ve also been taking my laptop occasionally to the nearby Atlantic School of Theology, where the library is pretty much the polar opposite of the public one: old, musty, and sparsely populated. It also doesn’t allow food or drink in the stacks (so there’s no socializing) and I’m not allowed to use their wi-fi, which is reserved for their own faculty and students: while this annoyed and inconvenienced me at first, because I store so much of my work in the cloud and rely a lot on web resources, I’ve made a few adjustments (such as making sure I have e-books of Eliot’s novels available off-line), and now I think it’s actually a good thing. During the MWYW sessions (and at other times when I know I need to really focus) I cut myself off from the internet anyway, but the temptation is always there; at AST I know I can’t check email or twitter no matter what, so I just putter away. The other nice thing about the AST library is that it overlooks the Northwest Arm. So far the view hasn’t been particularly inspiring (because winter) but it’s nice to at least have a window.

souhamiI haven’t been working exclusively on the book chapter: over the past couple of weeks I was also working on my review of Diana Souhami’s Daniel Deronda spin-off, Gwendolen. It hasn’t been a pleasant task, because I really (really, really) disliked the novel, which means the time spent reading and rereading it was not at all rewarding, and the time spent writing about it triggered a lot of questions about what a review of it was really worth (and to whom). On Twitter a while ago Ron Charles sparked a conversation about the value of book reviews for readers compared to the time and effort they take. I wish I could manage to do a review in 21 hours! Maybe if I took out all the complaining and procrastination that is close to how much time this one literally took — but that kind of deferral itself represents a severe cost in terms of mental energy, and there’s all the agonizing over how to write a really negative review that isn’t gratuitously mean or just a gleeful hatchet job. In any case, however long they take, I’ve been wondering how good a use of my time book reviews are, because it seems like they just go out into the ether and don’t make any difference. The book is already published, readers will read it or they won’t, and my little opinions, over in an obscure corner of the internet, aren’t exactly going to shape any broader conversation about the book if there even is one. On the other hand (and I excel at offering myself counter-arguments!) I do think books and reading matter and that attentive, honest criticism is a crucial part of literary culture, so participating in it is the right thing to do. As for being mean, well, if I think a book is really bad, there’s no point in my writing the review if I’m not going to say so, but I also have a responsibility to explain my judgment as thoroughly and thoughtfully as I can. I hope I’ve done that in this case.

I’ve already written up the other recent reading I’ve done, including Arctic Summer for my book club. I can add that we met Monday night and had quite a vigorous discussion about the novel, which was not very popular with the group. In general, people found it dull and/or badly written — which I didn’t — while a number of us puzzled over the difference between the Forster it showed us and the Forster we thought could have written Howards End. I didn’t think of it quite this way at the time, but one way to reflect on this would have been to think about the biographical author vs. the implied author, except that there’s the added complication that Galgut’s Forster is himself a literary character. I was kind of surprised that the overall reaction to Arctic Summer was so negative, but one thing I enjoy about the group is that often it’s the books that aren’t favorites that end up provoking the best conversation. Rather than following up with another book about India (I had been thinking of pitching Kipling’s Kim as a possibility) or something else somehow Forster-related (for instance, we considered Maurice as a logical next step) we ended up following Galgut to South Africa, and then settling on Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist for our next meeting.

I have some other things lined up to read before then, though. I’ve just started Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead, which is actually a kind of teaching-related task: following up some links to it that went around on Twitter, I thought it sounded like a contender for my mystery class, both because of its interesting historical context and because its author is Canadian. I don’t like it much so far, though: the writing and the set-up of the plot both seem very labored. I plucked Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes off the shelf the other day because all the talk about The Buried Giant reminded me that, much as I adore The Remains of the Day, I haven’t read much of Ishiguro’s back catalog. Finally, just for pure fun I’m rereading Busman’s Honeymoon. I talk all the time about how much I love Gaudy Night; although I think it is generally regarded as a sappy disappointment, I’ve also always loved this sequel too. I haven’t read it closely, though, since I started teaching and writing more about detective fiction, so I’m curious to discover how it holds up. The first 30 pages have been just as delightful as always!

This Week In My Sabbatical: Reading and Writing

IMG_2676This is actually the third week of my winter term sabbatical — which is why you haven’t seen any recent posts in my series on ‘This Week In My Classes‘! Classroom time is hands-down my favorite part of my job, and yet I look forward to and cherish this teaching-free time. Paradoxical? Not really, because classroom time is only part of what goes along with a teaching term, and that time, too, is prepared for and paid for by a lot of work only some of which is as fun as taking an hour to talk about Villette or The Big Sleep with a keen (and captive!) audience. Sabbaticals also mean a reprieve from administrative duties and meetings, and as this aspect of work was particularly stressful last term, I feel particularly relieved to detach myself from the attendant anxiety and fretfulness. Sure, the problems remain, but my colleagues will do fine working on them without me for a little while.

I wrote already about some of my plans and hopes for this term. What can I report, this short distance in? Well, for one thing, I got off to a slow start because I had a really bad cold the first week of January. If I’d been teaching, I wouldn’t have been sick enough to take any time off, so it felt nicely self-indulgent to let myself be unwell for a few days and treat my symptoms with rest, tea, and books.

Sloniowski_v3.inddHowever, because I had signed up for A Meeting With Your Writing, I did go in to work that Monday, because I was determined to at least get started on my main sabbatical project — and I did, enough that I felt a rush of enthusiasm for it and set myself up so that I could pick it up again pretty smoothly last Monday, which was the start of a much more productive writing week overall. Besides doing more of the start-up work for the George Eliot book, I actually finished a review I have been thinking about since I got the book back in October: I had promised the review for early January at the latest, and it felt good to get it done. The book in question was Detecting Canada: Essays on Canadian Crime Fiction, Television, and Film, and the review will appear at some point in Belphégor. I learned a lot from the book, and it yielded a long list of potential texts for my Detective Fiction class, where I have always been a bit shamefacedly aware that I include no CanCon beyond one Peter Robinson short story that was in an anthology I used for a couple of years — and as Detecting Canada made me almost too aware, Robinson may or may not count as CanCon since he’s not from Canada and doesn’t set his books in Canada. (You’ll have to wait for my review to find out what I think about parsing his or anyone’s literary identity in that way!)

My work on the book project has so far been mostly of the collecting and contemplating sort: after choosing which chapter topic I wanted to start with, I began clipping relevant excerpts and commenting on them in a more or less open-ended, open-minded fashion, letting patterns and connections and ideas for arguments emerge without trying too hard to shape them into anything. I love doing this, because it’s an excuse to revisit so many wonderful moments in the novels. (Rereading “Janet’s Repentance” was part of this preliminary work.) I have a lot of material gathered up now, though, and I think I’m at the point where I have to do some organizing and then some more focused writing. I’m working to hold at bay two sources of anxiety and thus writer’s block: first, that this larger project feels a lot messier (so far) and more amorphous than the nice discrete tasks I’ve been doing (book reviews and single-title essays), and second, that I know perfectly well it’s a kind of Quixotic project, neither academic nor popular, in a genre with no market potential unless you bring a certain degree of celebrity to it. I know the former anxiety will abate as I keep working, but right now I do get a bit mentally dizzy if I look up from the specific thing I’ve chosen to do. I’m lucky that I don’t have to care about the latter issue, and I don’t want to care, but I follow too many authors, publishers, and reviewers not to be a bit sensitive about doing so much “ardent labor all in vain.” But you have to write what you have in you and what you care about, and when I shut up that particular gremlin (as Jo is teaching me to think of him!), I feel pretty happy, actually, to be able to give it a try.

The absence of mandatory course reading has also helped me get some good reading and blogging done; I’ve been doing editing for Open Letters; and I’ve done some reference letters and some make-up work from last term as well. I’m meeting regularly with one of our Ph.D. students who is reading for her comprehensive exams — that makes up a bit for the lack of classroom time, since it’s a nice opportunity to talk over a whole range of great 19th-century material. Later this week I am participating in a Twitter chat with Karen Bourrier‘s graduate seminar, and a bit further into the term I’m holding another session on blogging and social media for our own graduate students. In other words, I may not be teaching but I’m definitely keeping busy, in ways that feel like a refreshing change from what was feeling last term like a pretty tired and unsatisfying routine. That kind of renewal is a big part of what sabbaticals are for, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity. I definitely want to make the most of it.

Last Week In My Classes: Exams and What’s Next

The final exams for my classes were last Friday and Saturday, both at 8:30 a.m., both in Dalplex, our main athletics facility, which is converted during the exam period into, well, this:

desks

Looks depressing, doesn’t it? And it is, but it is also efficient: a cadre of assistant invigilators patrols the aisles, helping to bring extra exam booklets or escort students to the washroom, while an appointed Chief Invigilator works out the seating plan, makes announcements, and keeps track of the time. Though in some ways I prefer being in a smaller room alone with “my” students, the impersonality of this set-up is not all bad. And I always put out candy (toffees, this year), which I hope is at least very mildly cheering. (I was always too nervous to eat before exams, which meant my blood sugar would crash in the first half hour or so: a toffee or two would have really helped me out, which is why I do this. That, and because despite any rumors to the contrary, I’m a friendly person!)

Anyway, the consequence of having both exams back to back like this and quite late in the exam period is that I went from being completely caught up on work the previous Thursday night to having approximately 120 exams to mark. I decided not to start on them until Monday — I’m trying to reclaim my weekends, which is rarely possible during the term when you have a Monday morning class, but it seems like a good principle as far as work-life balance goes. So Monday morning I settled in, and Friday around mid-day I filed the second set of final grades.

It was not a pleasant week, and as usual it raised all kinds of questions for me about final exams. This is such familiar territory on this blog now that I’m reluctant to rehash the arguments for and against them. I wish I could do without them altogether, but experience teaches me that I can’t, at least not in classes that aren’t as self-selecting as 4th-year seminars (where I have never given exams). I’m almost as tired of fretting about exams as I am of marking them! The solution that seems most reasonable to me at this point — since the chief purpose of them in lower-level classes is to motivate work and attention during the term — is to change the kind of exams I give to make them less laborious for me to mark. I’ll be thinking more about that when I work out the assignment sequences for my next classes … which won’t be for months, because I’m on sabbatical as of the end of December!

Yes, that’s right, I have made it through to another teaching-free term. I was on sabbatical when I first started this blog, in 2007, then again in 2011. I got a lot done both times, but in somewhat miscellaneous ways. This time I am determined to be more deliberate about how I use my time, to get less distracted by small projects (essays and reviews that aren’t really part of anything, even if individually I’m proud of them). It has been very intellectually stimulating paying more attention to “that tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” but this sabbatical is about my “particular web” — which, yes, means that George Eliot book I keep talking about but not actually writing.

Actually, that’s not quite fair, since in the summer I wrote a kind of prospectus for the book — and since the five essays I’ve written on George Eliot (for Open Letters and the Los Angeles Review of Books) are all, in a way, trial runs at the kind of criticism I want the book to represent. That’s a long way from producing something longer and more unified, though, and I have been realizing how long it has been since I really thought on a larger scale than “essay” or “article.” I haven’t really worked at anything book-length since I turned my thesis into my first book; my second book was an edited collection, for which I did a great deal of work and wrote an introduction, but that’s not at all the same thing! The first challenges for me, then, are both conceptual and logistical. The prospectus really helped me with the former; now I have to face up to the latter by breaking down a large and still fairly vague plan into manageable first steps. And I have to make sure that I don’t let myself get too tempted away from this still frighteningly open-ended project to more concrete things I can finish up now. The short-term sense of accomplishment is like psychological toffee, really: you get a useful little sugar rush from it, but it won’t serve you well in the long term.

And that’s one reason I’m going to block off further thoughts, meditations, plans, and preparations for next fall’s classes. I love drafting syllabi! Choosing reading lists is fun! Even building Blackboard sites has its satisfactions, because it involves many discrete tasks that can be neatly itemized and checked off — but they really do not need to be done now. If you catch me working on them before July 1, when my sabbatical ends, rap my virtual knuckles, please! (Well, I will have to submit course descriptions and book orders in March or April, I think, but anything beyond that is not allowed!) I think this blog shows how seriously I take my teaching and how much time I put into it, but the point of a sabbatical is that you focus on the other things you’re supposed to be doing as a scholar.

Something I think may help me maintain a different kind of focus next term is spending less time in my office. We’ll see: it can be a very quiet, productive space for me. But it has been an emotionally very up-and-down term for me, especially where thinking about work is concerned, and there have also been a lot of specific work-related stresses. As a result, I’ve been feeling a strong desire to put a little distance between myself and the campus. I had been imagining I might take my laptop to our new library, which has finally opened to the public. But although it does seem to be a very exciting, vibrant space, my two visits so far have been discouraging about it as a potential workplace for me. We live close to the Atlantic School of Theology, which has a library with a pretty nice view; my guess is that it’s pretty quiet, so I might give it a try. Even just fixing on a different campus location for writing might be enough to break the mental cycle of weariness and discouragement.

The other thing I’m committed to is signing up for Jo VanEvery’s “Meeting With Your Writing” — for which, it occurs to me, I’d best be in my campus office, so I have a landline, but that’ll be fine for such a specific purpose.

So! That’s this term put to bed and next term planned out — in theory, at least. But now I’m taking a break to read, bake, and generally unwind and enjoy our quiet holiday traditions.Inspired by Howards End, I’m rereading A Room with a View, which I love as much as always; I’ve got a mental TBR list yards long; and I see several book-shaped parcels under the tree, which is always exciting. I’ll also be putting up a couple of year-end round-up posts here soon (here are last year’s).

This Month in My Sabbatical: It’s Over!

Six months ago, I posted the first in a series of updates on my progress (if that’s what it was) through my winter-term sabbatical. As of July 1, I’m back on regular duties. Though in some ways, unless you’re doing summer teaching (which I am not, this year), July and August have a lot in common with sabbaticals, the several hours I have already spent preparing for, attending, and following up on committee meetings are clear signs that times have changed.

Looking back at my original goals and plans for this “teaching-free” interval is sort of disorienting. As the subsequent posts in the series show, my actual accomplishments differ  somewhat from those on the list I made in January! I would not say, exactly, or only, that I did not get them done, but that the plans mutated or evolved. For instance, my top priority then was to finish my essay on Ahdaf Soueif and submit it to an academic journal. I did finish an essay on Ahdaf Soueif, but it was this one at Open Letters; I have yet to decide if I want to do more with the academic one.

My next stated priority was a series of essays on Virago Modern Classics, specifically Margaret Kennedy’s novels. I did read both The Constant Nymph and The Ladies of Lyndon, but Kennedy disappointed (or puzzled and stymied) me. Spurred on in part by what I read on other blogs during Virago Reading Week, I did look into other writers of this period: a great highlight was reading Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship. I still aim to read more of the Viragos I have gathered, starting soon (I hope) with Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Street. I also read a biography of Dorothy Sayers, and this plus what I’ve read by and about Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain and my general interest in the period has made me quite thoughtful about proposing an honours seminar on the Somerville novelists for 2012-13. I don’t think I could work up to the level of expertise necessary for a graduate seminar, but I think I’d be spurred on to read with more focus with such a course in mind, and an honours seminar can be a great venue for exploring material you are somewhat but not completely knowledgeable about. Branching out like this, provided it is done with due humility, seems to me a good thing on all fronts: students get exposed to something we wouldn’t cover otherwise, and I get the fun of feeling a bit like a student again as I learn my way into the material. Imagine: the reading list could include Testament of Youth, Gaudy Night, and South Riding, plus something by Margaret Kennedy so I’d finally have to figure it out.  I’m nearly through Testament of a Generation now–a proper post on that should follow before too long.

I did do a lot of the things described in my paragraph about refreshing my teaching. I reviewed and, to an extent, revamped my reading list for Mystery and Detective Fiction. The amount of time this took, especially surveying options for the anthology, reminded me why so often–especially as ordering deadlines for fall books creep further and further back into the spring–I just stick with what I’ve done before. This is a good example of bureaucratic processes hampering pedagogical innovation–that, and the absence of any kind of book-buying budget for course development, since I find “trade” publishers more stingy with exam copies than, say, the very helpful Oxford University Press, and popular titles are hard to get at the public library. I also did some extensive re-organization of my electronic files: instead of being filed by course and then year, now my syllabi, handouts, lecture notes, worksheets, essay topics, and exams are now mostly sorted by teaching area, and then by author or function. In theory, it should be quick to find lecture notes on Wilkie Collins or all the versions I’ve done of final exams for English 3031, without having to remember which year I taught which book or which course, or which year I did or did not give a final exam. We’ll see how this works out!

With an eye to my Victorian classes as well as my own edification, I looked at a number of new books in my field, mostly without much excitement, and I read, or at least skimmed, dozens of articles and reviews. What I realized, going through this material, is that most of it makes no difference to me at all. I don’t mean that there aren’t interesting individual insights or original readings, but most of it operates on a very small scale or turns on a very particular interest or angle. None of it is paradigm-changing; nothing I saw made me feel I needed to re-think (rather than, say, re-tool a little) the approach I take when I teach Victorian fiction. Much of it is filed away for me to come back to when or if I need to take my critical attention to the next level–in a graduate seminar, for instance, or in more specialized work of my own. I’m glad to know it’s there. But I’m also, truth be told, glad to discover that I don’t need to feel so anxious about “keeping up.” What’s the benefit to it, in general, if I can read so much after such a long gap and still be satisfied that what I have to say about Jane Eyre or Middlemarch to my undergraduate fiction class remains what I want to say, has not been undermined or rendered inadequate or outdated? A year or so ago I read two good overview texts on Victorian fiction (George Levine’s How to Read the Victorian Novel and Harry E. Shaw and Alison Case’s Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel) and they were similarly reassuring. Note that I don’t conclude from the minimal significance of this published scholarship to my immediate pedagogical goals that it is insignificant in a more general way: its purposes are different, for one thing. But also, as I have written about here before (but where? I can’t find it!), the cumulative effect of specialized critical inquiries can be dramatic–the undergraduate Victorian novels courses I teach have little in common with the one I took at UBC, and sensation fiction (on which I teach an entire seminar) had no place in either my undergraduate or my graduate coursework.

One thing that went just as expected was the steady stream of thesis material from the four Ph.D. students I’m working with. It is a very good thing that they are all writing steadily, and they are all working on interesting and substantial projects–but I admit, I wasn’t always glad to see another installment appear, especially when it often seemed I had barely turned around the last batch. Speaking of which, there’s one waiting for me now…

I had a general plan to read a lot, because, I proposed,

the more you read the richer your sense is of what literature can do, of how it can be beautiful or interesting or problematic or mediocre. I am convinced that I talk better about Victorian literature because of the contemporary literature I read, and that I teach with more commitment, and more hope of making connections with my students and their interests, because I read around and talk to them about books as things of pressing and immediate significance

I think my reading this term definitely added to my intellectual life and resources in the ways I’d hoped. Besides Testament of Youth, I’d point to the Martin Beck books as a great “discovery” for me (thanks very much to Dorian for the prompt). I’ll be teaching one in my mystery class, and I’ve written an essay on them which will be appearing elsewhere later this summer. Among the other books that really made an impression are  Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, May Sarton’s The Education of Harriet Hatfield, Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,  Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, and Carolyn Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time. Less successful reading experiences included Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Terry Castle’s The Professor, along with Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which is the first book in a very long time I have deliberately decided not to keep reading.  I have my two book clubs to thank for steering me towards titles I might otherwise not have chosen, or not have stuck with. The Transit of Venus is one I’m especially interested in teaching, but it seems a risky choice, so I’d have to pick the right course.

While there are things on that original list that I did not exactly get done, I also accomplished some things on sabbatical that I didn’t specifically anticipate. I wrote three more pieces for Open Letters, including the Ahdaf Soueif piece already mentioned but also two book reviews, one of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work, the other of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature. Though not, strictly speaking, academic publications, both of these (like the Soueif essay) are based on my professional expertise. I wrote a number of posts on academic issues, including one on “The Ph.D. Conundrum” and two on aspects of academic publishing (“Reality Check: ‘The Applicant’s Publication Record is Spotty’” and the recent one on Leonard Cassuto and blogs). I got feisty about Rebecca Mead’s high-profile, low-substance New Yorker essay on George Eliot, and went on and on about Sex and the City. I kept on soliciting and editing pieces from other writers for Open Letters, a process that is always satisfying. Finally, I accepted an invitation to participate in a conference panel, submitted a proposal and then the funding applications. Now I’m beginning to organize my miscellaneous notes and links into what will eventually be my lively, coherent (!) presentation. Along with my next essay project for Open Letters (on gender, genre, and novels about Richard III–no, really!), preparing this presentation will be my priority for the next few weeks–that, and getting things in order for my return to teaching, by which I mean preparing Blackboard sites, updating syllabi, keeping on top of waiting lists, and psyching myself up for the return to the classroom. I’m actually happy to be heading back: I have missed teaching a lot (remind me in October that I said this, will you?)

And so, onward! If I’m counting correctly, I am eligible for another half-year leave in 2014/15, provided the powers that be are convinced that I used the time wisely this year. Here’s hoping. I know that I feel pretty good about it. I have indulged my intellectual curiosity, expanded my horizons as a reader and a writer, and contributed in a variety of ways to discussions I think are very important to my profession and my discipline. I have advanced projects I’m excited about and discovered literary interests I didn’t know I had. I am eager to get back to teaching. To me, that adds up to a pretty productive sabbatical.