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.

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.

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.

“Your Greater Misery”: Rereading Wuthering Heights

wuthering-oup“I know he has a bad nature,” said Catherine; “he’s your son. But I’m glad I’ve a better, to forgive it; and I know he loves me and for that reason I love him. Mr. Heathcliff, you have nobody to love you; and, however miserable you make us, we shall still have the revenge of thinking that your cruelty rises from your greater misery! You are miserable, aren’t you? Lonely, like the devil, and envious like him? Nobody loves you–nobody will cry for you, when you die! I wouldn’t be you!”

I said that Wuthering Heights was near the top of my list of books to reread on my sabbatical, with my eye on refreshing the titles in regular rotation in my 19th-Century Fiction classes. Because I have never enjoyed reading it, I started it this time a bit reluctantly, and for the most part it gave me no more pleasure than it has before. I still don’t like it. But while liking or not liking a book may be, as Henry James put it, “that primitive, that ultimate, test” for us as readers, it really can’t be the ultimate test for those of us who are also scholars, teachers, or students! So as I reread the novel, I tried not just to keep an open mind about it but to imagine as actively as I could what it would be like to teach it, including both its individual features and how it might shake up discussions of other books on the reading list. And guess what: I think I’m going to try it!

One reason is that it is impossible to deny the novel’s emotional power. Its unrelenting, highly compressed intensity really does make it qualitatively unlike any of the other books I assign, and that difference alone is thought-provoking. Not only, as the introduction to my edition rightly notes, does “Emily Brontë [have] no interest in the moral response as a reason to soften her narrative,” but the effects she is interested in are discomfiting, even disturbing. Passion, hatred, violence, revenge: these are the novel’s animating forces, and while they are repellent, they are also grimly fascinating, with thematic (and, yes, moral) implications that are well worth discussing.

penguin-wutheringAnother is that while Emily Brontë may have had no “interest in shaping her story morally,” Wuthering Heights is a very complexly structured novel, with its multiple nested and embedded narratives. The many hours I’ve spent on other novels with multiple or unreliable narrators, such as The Moonstone or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, have shown me what fun the interpretive work can be as you sort through who is saying what in particular, to whom and why and with what consequences for our reading of their words. I hadn’t paid that much attention to this aspect of Wuthering Heights before, though I knew it was the subject of a lot of the critical discussion. This time I was more attuned to it and felt some genuine enthusiasm at the prospect of working on it with my students, even if most of the voices we’ll be attending to are as unpleasant as young Catherine’s spiteful words to Heathcliff in my epigraph to this post.

Yet another reason: the mental exercise will be good for me! Yes, I still don’t like the novel: as I said on Twitter, it may be a masterpiece, but I can’t imagine it becoming a personal favorite. That’s exactly why I should work on it: learning to appreciate it will stretch and challenge me, intellectually and aesthetically. I will have to consider why it does the things I don’t like, for instance, and how that instinctive dislike might be inhibiting my critical sensibility–what my taste keeps me from appreciating. I will also, quite simply, have to learn new things, and that is always beneficial to me as a teacher: it keeps me both alert and humble. What do I need to know to teach Wuthering Heights effectively? I am sure that I will enjoy figuring that out more than I enjoyed rereading the novel. At the end of the process, I will probably like Wuthering Heights better, too, but if I don’t, that’s OK.

OUPTenantThe one reason I’m still hesitating: Perhaps wrongly, I’ve been assuming that the Brontë portion of my reading list is a zero sum game, that if I assign Wuthering Heights I can’t also assign Jane Eyre or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and that makes me sad, because those are known pleasures. But the only person making up this rule is me, so maybe I can break it! Would it be so bad if two out of five novels were Brontë novels, especially given how different they are from each other? As I was finishing up Wuthering Heights I kept thinking how great it would be to read Tenant right after: then Heathcliff and Hindley and Hareton could face off against Huntingdon, Hattersley, and Hargrave. What if Wuthering Heights were crowding out Scott or Thackeray instead of Charlotte or Anne? Would that be so bad? (I mean, yes, it would, in a way, because I also love teaching Waverley and Vanity Fair, but you can’t do everything, at least not all at once.)

Another possibility that occurred to me is that Wuthering Heights might be a good option for the 19th-century novel I assign in my Brit Lit survey, rather than (or as well as) a good selection for 19th-Century Fiction. One theme I’ve been kicking around for the survey course is “belonging,” which seems like a concept that could work at the level of the course itself (for discussions about what’s included and what isn’t and what story you tell by deciding what belongs and what’s excluded) as well as at the level of particular texts (who do they implicitly or explicitly include or invite or leave out? what idea of community or nation or fellowship is at stake? etc.). I was having a hard time identifying a Victorian novel that really fit this theme, but clearly Wuthering Heights would, especially but not only because Heathcliff is the ultimate outsider. “But where did he come from,” wonders Nelly, “the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?”

“Literature Nowadays”: Rereading New Grub Street

new-grub-street“Literature nowadays is a trade. Putting aside men of genius, who may succeed by mere cosmic force, your successful man of letters is your skilful tradesman. He thinks first and foremost of the markets; when one kind of goods begins to go off slackly, he is ready with something new and appetising. He knows perfectly all the possible sources of income.”

I enjoyed rereading New Grub Street–although “enjoyed” might be the wrong word given how relentlessly dispiriting the novel is. It’s a well-told story and its satirical commentary on the literary world, in which artists, intellectuals, and idealists suffer while glib, market-savvy opportunists prosper, seems at time uncannily contemporary. “The evil of the time,” says one of the novel’s many ultimately unsuccessful literary men, “is the multiplication of ephemerides”:

Hence a demand for essays, descriptive articles, fragments of criticism, listicles,* out of all proportion to the supply of even tolerable work. The men who have an aptitude for turning out this kind of thing in vast quantities are enlisted by every new periodical, with the result that their productions are ultimately watered down into worthlessness.

As for literary criticism, then as now “such work is indifferently paid and in very small demand.” (Plus ça change, eh?)

new-grub-oupThere is a lot to admire about the novel. Its characters are effectively, if somewhat schematically, established; their salient traits and values are distinct and the turns their stories take as they play their parts in Gissing’s depressing story of jockeying and dreaming and ailing and failing are always consistent with the strengths and weaknesses we know them to have. The intersecting plots play out with what in a more stylish writer I might call elegance, and Reardon’s story in particular reaches heights–or is it depths?–of pathos that are very nearly tragic, though Gissing’s tonal register is too prosaic for that label to sit comfortably. The novel is also very good about the way personal feelings are inextricably entangled with people’s money (or the lack of it) and ambition (or the lack of it): its marriages (actual, imagined, sought, and abandoned) play out in nice counterpart to, and sometimes illustrations of, the novel’s literary commentary.

I’m not persuaded, however, that I would like to teach New Grub Street, at least not as a replacement for any of the novels currently in my Dickens-to-Hardy rotation. For one thing, it is in many respects dully documentary–not to the same extreme as Biffen’s über-realist Mr. Bailey, Grocer, but enough to make summary seem more suitable than interpretation. As I read it, I wondered what we would talk about in class–or, more to the point, what we could discover in class discussion, given how straightforwardly expository the novel seemed. What is at stake in the novel that the novel then helps us to understand? The Odd Women–to show I’m not just biased against Gissing–seems to me to give us a lot more to work with in this respect, and it is also faster moving and more dramatic.

new-grub-broadviewThis underwhelmed reaction is, of course, very likely due to some analytical near-sightedness of my own, or to New Grub Street just not being the kind of novel that I like best to look harder at, while my preference for The Odd Women may just be because I know it better and have spent more time thinking, writing, and teaching about its central themes. But overall what I felt by the end of New Grub Street was that for a novel so self-consciously about fiction, it is surprisingly, disappointingly, not particularly metafictional: I couldn’t see a way in which Gissing was offering up a novel that is itself (in structure, form, style, or theme) more than the sum of the literary parts it includes. That lack of transcendence may be the point: if it is a novel about anything, it is about literary failure, including both the kind that presents itself as success and the kind that might actually be success but doesn’t seem like it, and so if New Grub Street was a brilliant, stylish, provocative, or formally innovative novel, its whole premise might implode. I don’t really think, though, that something so artistically self-conscious and deliberate is going on: Gissing is just describing a close possible world to his own, showing it to us in all its meticulous, dreary, disheartening detail. Adam Roberts is absolutely right that New Grub Street “works superbly as a detailed evocation of a particular social and cultural milieu,” but once you’ve acknowledged that, then what? (Adam, characteristically, does much better addressing that question than I have here: read his post for more, including the interesting suggestion that in parts of New Grub Street Gissing “cathects the spirit of Samuel Beckett into a more conventionally upholstered nineteenth-century novel,” an idea that couldn’t occur to me because I haven’t read any Beckett.)

*Of course he doesn’t actually include listicles – but surely they belong.

This Week in Reading for My Classes: Starts and Stumbles

new-grub-streetThe next step after drawing up my plans for refreshing my reading lists was to get my hands on the books I’m interested in. This is easier for some courses than others. For instance, I already own copies of several of the Victorian novels I want to reread, and because I’m a regular customer, both Oxford University Press and Broadview Press are always very helpful about providing exam copies. As a result, I now have a nice TBR shelf of 19th-century titles, and I’m over half way through my reread of New Grub Street–which at this point I think will probably not end up displacing any of my usual titles, though more on that when I finish it.

It is always harder getting hold of books from “trade” publishers, who are stingy about exam copies: Penguin Random House, for example, charges for them–not full cover price, but still the costs could add up, and (oddly, I’ve always thought) there is no standard budget allocation for expenses of this kind. The obvious route is to get them from the library, but this is harder than you might think. I went through the list of writers I’d generated for my Women and Detective Fiction seminar and almost none of their books are held by any local library, public or university. The next step is submitting interlibrary loan requests (or “document delivery,” as it’s now called for some reason), which I will do, but this is slower and needs to be done thoughtfully so that I don’t get a dump of books all at once that have (as is often the case) brief lending periods with no option for renewal. This is one reason why this exercise is hard to do during a teaching term!

cutting-seasonA small handful of titles are more easily available, including Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, so I started with that because it had sounded like a promising option. It’s a decent enough novel but it sparked no excitement in me: it is slow moving and detailed in a way that made it seem drawn out rather than rich or textured, and in terms of innovations in or provocations about the genre, it didn’t seem to me to offer much. Next up, because it too is available locally, will be Rachel Howzell Hall’s Land of Shadows; among other things, it’s a police procedural, which is actually a genre not well represented on my standard reading list for this course.

I thought the question of how to approach the standard British literature survey course would generate more discussion, either here or on Twitter, but nobody seems particularly interested in it! Maybe I’m missing something obvious, or maybe it’s such an intractable problem that nobody thinks they have a genuinely good solution to it. In any case, I was pretty happy with my bright idea of assigning Small Island as one of the longer texts, because I thought that novel would help me redefine the questions the course addresses. However, it turns out the novel does not have distribution in Canada, so unless my bookstore is willing and able to use a US distributor (something that, as I recall, they have balked at in the past because of the expense and difficulty of returning unsold copies), I can’t use it. This kind of thing has happened before and it is always very frustrating to have pedagogical aspirations constrained for logistical reasons. I’ll be talking with our bookstore buyer this week, just to be sure what the options are, but it seems likely I’ll have to come up with another idea.

truegritI didn’t write a separate post about this because it’s a smaller scale project, but I’m teaching Pulp Fiction again this fall and with regret, I think I’m going to give up on Valdez Is Coming. I thought it was eminently “teachable” (that indefinable quality!) but both times I taught it most of the students in the class did not seem to agree! I took True Grit out of the library this week to review it and was quickly reminded why I had enjoyed it so much before. So I think I’ll just swap it in–an easy enough choice (provided, again, I can order it, which I guess I should not assume) but one that has spin-off implications for the way I had conceived of the course as organized around interrogations of masculinity. The sequence Valdez Is ComingThe Maltese Falcon, and then Lord of Scoundrels made for some really good discussion (and assignment) threads about different ways to define “being a man,” from tough masculinity as heroic, to the damage that kind of identity can do, to Chase’s joyful demolition of it. Leading with True Grit would start us down a different, if related, thematic path–less directly about men and more about women who challenge them and their patriarchal assumptions. Lord of Scoundrels still seems like a good place to go, but this would be one more reason to replace The Maltese Falcon with something else, such as In a Lonely Place, which I also have on my shelf to reread.

It didn’t feel like a very productive week, given the setbacks and slowdowns I encountered, but writing this up I see that I did get a lot of necessary work done. Even a negative result such as “you can’t use this book because it’s not available” is a result, after all.

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.)