Well, my time is up: tomorrow I leave for my nation’s capital to attend the yearly conference-formerly-known-as-‘The Learneds’. (I actually sort of wish that was still its name.) I have completed a version of my paper, which I will read to the 2 other members of the panel and the 4 or 5 other people foolish or obsessive (or kind) enough to attend a 9:00 session on Sunday morning. I had the same time slot the last time I gave a paper at ACCUTE and there were about 9 people there–a bit anticlimactic, given the amount of stress I experience in the lead-up to these events. But 9 interested people is better than 50 inattentive ones, as any teacher knows, and I appreciated the comments and questions. I did make 25 copies of my handout. I’m a Victorianist: optimism is my thing. I’ve flagged a number of other sessions I hope to attend, mostly on 19th-century topics. I’m also holding an informal lunch-hour session on academic blogging (this is the downsized version of my failed blogging panel). Lurkers: please come! You don’t have to reveal your mysterious blog-world identities. As this will be my first visit to Ottawa, I’m also planning to look around off-campus a bit; my hotel is not far from Parliament Hill, and also, if I read Google Maps correctly, not far from the Byward Market. Maybe I can get one of those Obama pastries! I’m also looking forward to dinner and lots of good book chat with Ottawa’s own Nigel Beale, and an evening with a dear friend who recently relocated to Ottawa from Vancouver.

I’ll probably post a version of my paper at The Valve, either while I’m in Ottawa or after I get back. I’m a bit nervous about putting it up over there because I know there are some people who really know a lot more than I do about some of the things I try to talk about in it. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I’m the only Valve-er who has read In the Eye of the Sun, so I have an edge in that respect. It would be interesting, I think, to see if I get more useful feedback from the in-person discussion or the bloggers.

Summer Reading Plans?

Even in Halifax, spring comes eventually, so I’ve been thinking about my reading plans for the summer. One result is that over at The Valve I have raised the possibility of another group reading, organized along the lines of last year’s Adam Bede event. The novel I have proposed is Charlotte Bronte’s Villette; I give a few more details and ask some questions about procedure in my post at The Valve. If you’re interested,or have any response to my questions about format, let me know, here or at The Valve.

Workload Comparisons

I’ve been grading exams. I have 65 of them. I also have a stack of 21 essays in progress. As these are not the only things I am trying to get done, occasionally I feel a bit overwhelmed. However, here’s some information to keep my workload in perspective:

It has been estimated that in the Faculty of Letters in Cairo 180,000 examination papers have to be marked by 100 teachers.*

*Derek Hopwood, Egypt: Politics and Society 1945-90 (Harper Collins, 1991).

Happy New Year!

It has been quiet here at Novel Readings due to the combination of the holidays and the pressure to get my winter term courses ready for (gulp) Monday morning. As part of my class preparation, I have been working again on Tennyson’s In Memoriam, that beautiful, melancholy sequence described best by lines from the poem itself: “Short swallow-flights of song, that dip / their wings in tears, and skim away.” By way of a New Year’s offering, here’s section 106:

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night:
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

I haven’t taught much poetry at all lately; my ‘Victorian Faith and Doubt’ seminar is going to make up for that, not only with In Memoriam but also poems by Matthew Arnold, Emily Bronte, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, and Christina Rossetti–including, of course, “Goblin Market.” Novel Readings should include some forays into poetry reading in 2009, then. I’m looking forward to it.

How Not to Talk to Your Professor

On the stairs of an academic building, 3 minutes before class time:

Student: Professor!

Professor (thinking is this one of mine?): Yes?

Student: I’m in your English 1010 class.

Professor (at least this one knows which English class): What is it?

Student: I just wanted you to know that I’m in sciences and I’m just taking your class because I need my writing requirement.

Professor: (here it comes) . . .

Student: The thing is I really don’t get English.

Professor: (Oh no, she’s heard about our secret code! I can’t just hand that out to someone in the sciences!) Well, you can meet your writing requirement in lots of subjects besides English.

Student: Honestly, I have to take this course because it’s the only writing class I can take and still fit in all the science classes I need.

Professor: Hmmm. Well, that’s unfortunate.

Student: Yes, it’s really awful.

Professor: . . .

The Murmuring of Innumerable Bees

NAVSA has posted the preliminary program for this year’s conference, to be held in November at Yale University. Am I the only academic who gets overwhelmed and depressed when reading through such listings? It’s not that I object to any (or most, at any rate) of the specific papers on the program. I can at least imagine finding them individually interesting; I’m sure they are all being prepared with due diligence and will make the requisite microcontributions to our insight into Victorian literature and culture. But a conference program on this scale (and the MLA program is much, much worse, in this respect) represents the roar on the other side of silence, doesn’t it? Pause for a minute and just think about all those people out there working on all those highly specialized topics, beavering away partly for the love of it but mostly because their professional lives depend on it. I count over 75 panels, each with 3 or 4 speakers, which means, well, a lot of papers–and this is just one meeting of just one subfield of our “discipline.” OK, probably I’d find this scenario less demoralizing if my own submission had been accepted (wow, if there was room for over 200 papers on the program, my proposal must really have stunk! but I don’t know how or why, because I didn’t get any feedback on it). But if my other recent conference experience is anything to go on, participating doesn’t do much to make it all seem more worthwhile or necessary (except, again, professionally–which isn’t nothing, it just sometimes seems backwards, that is, shouldn’t the research be the reason for the profession and not the other way around?).

He had a bad day!

Turns out, before Daniel Powter, there was…Herbert Spencer!? Over at Acephalous, Spencer scholar Scott Eric Kaufman has convincingly documented the importance of his research subject with evidence straight from the ‘paper of record’: “Herbert Spencer, who has been ill for some time, passed a bad day today.” As SEK says, “He was the Britney Spears of his time! Except instead of being a useless pop singer, he was an Intellectual Titan!” Read the whole story here. George Eliot enthusiasts may feel little sympathy for the man, who gave our heroine many bad days by refusing to love her (in his own words, “the lack of physical attraction was fatal”).

The 50 Greatest Books?

Announced in this weekend’s Globe and Mail: a new project to discuss the “50 Greatest Books”:

So many issues, so many books, so few of them great. Watch for our first choice in this space next week. And be prepared to argue. (read the whole column here)

As one of the top-secret ‘jurors’ points out, a venture like this raises all kinds of questions, mostly of the “great in what way, or for what?” variety that I mentioned in my reply to Nigel’s question about evaluation in literary criticism. It would be a more sensible project to set some parameters–even focusing on “50 Greatest Novels” or “50 Greatest Poems” would alleviate the inevitable apples and oranges kind of conversation that is about to ensue. While in some ways I think this is a pointless exercise, because it artificially tries to reduce literary analysis to something like a Billboard chart, I think the process it could initiate for readers is valuable. We ought to think about why we love or value the books we do, not just insist that it’s all a question of arbitrary taste. “Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are,” as Ruskin said. If pressed, we always have a reason, and clinging to our preferences without acknowledging our reasons is just prejudice, in reading as in the rest of life. Further, when thoughtful people articulate, exchange, and argue about their judgments, we can learn a great deal, and our own tastes can evolve; this is the process the critic Wayne Booth called “coduction.” So bring it on! I’m curious, though, about why the panel is being kept so strictly anonymous. Does this have anything to do with mistrust of authority where literary judgments are involved? But we’re told that “each entry will be written by someone with knowledge, usually extensive knowledge, of the book in question,” so unlike “Canada Reads” (which seems to have a deliberate policy of keeping out the scholars and critics), it seems that here expertise, and not just enthusiasm, is being sought. I suppose anonymity keeps us focused on the argument they make for their chosen text–and saves them, at least temporarily, from hate mail of the kind that does, actually, get generated whenever someone waves the red flag of “literary merit” in front of enough readers (“I can’t believe you think Ulysses is a great book when it is clearly incomprehensible drivel!” etc.). Well, let the games begin: any bets on which will book will launch the series? (My money’s on the Bible or the Odyssey.)