This Week In My Classes: It’s November.

scare-careAsk anyone on campus — student, staff, or faculty — how they are doing and it’s likely you’ll get some version of “hanging in there.” It is ever thus, in November! The weather has turned grey and the unrelenting chill of winter has set in, deadlines that seemed far off loom, work piles up. It can be hard to keep one’s spirits up! One of the things I try to do is stay as positive as possible in the classroom, exuding as much enthusiasm as I can manage for our work in the hope that I can give a bit of a boost to my students’ understandably flagging energy. It’s sometimes a bit tricky, especially because for them I am one of the people settting the deadlines and demanding the work: I can’t really just play nice, at least not all the time. But at least I can try to show them that I scare because I care!

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The last time I posted a teaching update, we were just getting back to normal after the strange incident of the contaminated water in my building; in Women and Detective Fiction we were reading Sue Grafton and in Pulp Fiction we had just started our unit on romance. Today in Women and Detective Fiction we had our third session on Barbara Neely’s Blanche on the Lam — the seventh of our eight readings. I worried while I was planning the class that it might seem like too many books, but I think the pace has been pretty reasonable overall, as most of them are quite fast-paced. The benefit has definitely been variety: although of course we keep circling around related questions about crime and gender and genre, we have now read books that treat them in quite different voices and versions as well as books that explore intersections between gender and class as well as gender and race. Reading Agatha Christie’s “The Blue Geranium” is a very different experience from reading Dorothy Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, which in its turn has little in common, on the surface at least, with Neely’s book.

In A Lonely Place and Blanche on the Lam are both books I hadn’t taught before–The Break, which we start next week, is another. Although it is always a bit nerve-wracking leading discussion on books I don’t know as well, it is also somewhat freeing, especially with as good a group of students as I have this term. I may not always be able to find the right example or remember the exact details of some twist in the plot (though I do try hard to be ready!), but at the same time I’m not stuck on any previous interpretation or looking for any particular outcome. I come in with ideas about how things fit together, of course, but I enjoy the work of puzzling through questions with the students, who bring their own different experience and expertise to the table.

lonelyBoth of these books seem to have gone over well. Hughes in particular seems to have been a favorite, so much so that I am contemplating assigning In A Lonely Place in the Mystery & Detective Fiction survey class next year instead of my usual hard-boiled options (The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep). But Neely too has provoked really engaged conversations: I think we all appreciated the bluntness of Blanche’s critiques as well as Neely’s resistance to feel-good outcomes. Today, for example, we talked about Blanche’s decision not to accept the position she is offered after the case has wrapped up. It would have been sentimentally gratifying for her to stay on as Mumsfield’s caretaker, but throughout the novel she highlights how condescending as well as burdensome she finds the expectation that she’ll play the “Mammy” role, and fond as she is of Mumsfield (and generously as they promise to pay her) it makes sense that she can’t say yes. More broadly, too, an ending in which she stays on with the family after everything that has happened and everything she knows–not just about them but also about the world she lives in–would endorse an optimistic but facile vision of racial reconciliation that the rest of the novel has rejected as at best naive.

1995-lord-of-scoundrelsWe are well along in our romance unit now in Pulp Fiction, and about two-thirds through Lord of Scoundrels. I think it’s going OK. Today I got peevish towards the end of class because we were working collectively through some passages–it was going pretty well, from my perspective, with a reasonable number of students participating–and as the end of our time approached quite a few students started packing up and then sat poised on the edge of their seats, clearly impatient to get away. I try not to take this personally (it happens, to some extent, almost every time): I know they are busy and anxious and for all I know the ones who were most visibly disengaging had a big midterm in their next class or something. Still, I never go over our time, and not only is it rude to me and to the students who are talking to have all that rustling going on, but it’s demoralizing to see them visibly not caring about the work we’re doing. It undermines that positivity project I mentioned! It also frustrates me that they clearly see class discussion as expendable in a way that lecture time isn’t. From my perspective, that’s the most important thing we do! I’ve made this point to the class more than once, of course. See? Peevish.

But that’s the thing: it’s November. We’re all struggling a bit to be our best selves. It doesn’t really help knowing the term will be over soon, either, because that just reminds us how much we have to get done before then!

“Blind Terror”: Mary Stewart, Wildfire at Midnight

wildfireatmidnight

The foot of this buttress was lipped by the fog, which held the lower ground still invisible under its pale tide. The glen itself, the loch, the long Atlantic bay, all lay hidden, drowned under the mist which stretched like a still white lake from  Blaven to Sgurr na Stri, from Garsven to Marsco. And out of it, on every hand, the mountains rose, blue and purple and golden-green in the sunlight, swimming above the vaporous sea like fabulous islands. Below, blind terror might grope still in the choking grey here above, where I stood, was a new and golden world. I might have been alone in the dawn of time, watching the first mountains rear themselves out of the clouds of chaos. . . .

But I was not alone.

Mary Stewart’s Wildfire at Midnight is exactly what I expected from both the author and the genre: atmospheric, suspenseful, fast-paced, and predictable–not in the details of the murder plot but in the overall arc, which takes us from innocence through fear and suspicion to a pat romantic happy ending. I thoroughly enjoyed it, because Stewart performs all of the necessary maneuvers for romantic suspense so well and also so briskly (it’s just over 200 mass market paperback-sized pages) that it never feels overblown or self-important the way I sometimes feel more recent thrillers become. She isn’t trying to “transcend the genre”: she’s entirely at home in it and as a result, so was I.

Stewart is also a fine stylist–not as elegant or original as Daphne du Maurier, but in the same vein. Here, for instance, is one of many vivid evocations of the Isle of Skye, where the action takes place:

Above us towered the enormous cliffs of the south ridge, gleaming-black with rain, rearing steeply out of the precipitous scree like a roach-backed monster from the waves. The scree itself was terrifying enough. It fell away from the foot of the upper cliffs, hundreds of feet of fallen stone, slippery and overgrown and treacherous with hidden holes and loose rocks, which looked as if a false step  might bring half the mountain-side down in one murderous avalanche. . . .

I stopped and looked up. Streams of wind-torn mist raced and broke round the buttresses of the dreadful rock; against its sheer precipices the driven clouds wrecked themselves in swirls of smoke; and, black and terrible, above the movement of the storm, behind the racing riot of grey cloud, loomed and vanished and loomed again the great devil’s pinnacles that broke the sky and split the winds into streaming rack. Blaven flew its storms like a banner.

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The mountains are not just the setting for the malevolence that unfolds but (in a rather absurd but still chilling way) the motive for them–a nice touch, I thought. And they also set us up for a thrilling denouement played out against their crags and crevices:

I went up the end of that buttress like a cat, like a lizard, finding holds where no holds were, gripping the rough rock with stockinged feet and fingers which seemed endowed with miraculous, prehensile strength. . . .

The enormous wing of rock soared up in front of me up to the high crags. Its top was, perhaps, eight feet wide, and strode upwards at a dizzy angle, in giant steps and serrations, like an enormous ruined staircase. I had landed, somehow, on the lowest tread, and I flung myself frantically at the face of the next step, just as the ring of boots on rock told me that he had started after me.

The particular terrors of rock-climbing, hardly a safe or relaxing sport under ordinary circumstances (at least to a risk-averse person like me), give the necessary cliche of a chase scene some fresh excitement.

I picked this old copy off my shelf somewhat randomly and am glad I did: it was a perfect afternoon’s diversion, better, perhaps, than This Rough Magic, which I read a couple of years ago with my book group. I have a couple other vintage Stewart paperbacks on the same shelf and I also picked up some ebooks of hers when they were on sale a while ago: this is a good reminder to me to actually read them! I was also reminded on Twitter of her Arthurian novels, which I am fairly sure I read years ago and would like to revisit.

The Power of the Whodunnit: Anthony Horowitz, MagpieMurders

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I’ve always loved whodunnits. I’ve not just edited them. I’ve read them for pleasure throughout my life, gorging on them actually. You must know that feeling when it’s raining outside and the heating’s on and you lose yourself, utterly, in a book. You read and you read and you feel the pages slipping through your fingers until suddenly there are fewer in your right hand than there are in your left and you want to slow down but you still hurtle on towards a conclusion you can hardly bear to discover. That is the particular power of the whodunnit which has, I think, a special place within the general panoply of literary fiction because, of all characters, the detective enjoys a particular, indeed a unique relationship with the reader.

Unlike Susan Ryeland, the narrator of (much of) Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, I’m not actually a fan of whodunnits–at least, not if by the term you mean the kind Magpie Murders at once exemplifies and comments on, which is the Agatha-Christie-style cozy. I just don’t find curiosity a powerful enough incentive to keep reading: if all a book ultimately has to offer me is the solution to a puzzle, I would almost just as soon skip straight to the end and get the answer already. Almost .. because of course a good puzzle mystery can offer other pleasures along the way, and also if the story-telling is brisk and skillful enough then it distracts me from the temptation to flip to the last page.

Magpie Murders was not quite good enough to keep me patient. I got bored with the embedded mystery by the fictional Alan Conway about half way through its 200+ pages–not so bored I wanted to give up, just enough that I started intermittently skimming. That said, it seemed to me a pitch-perfect imitation of a Golden Age novel, so if you like that kind of thing more than I do, you’d probably enjoy it thoroughly. I quite liked the conceit of the mystery-within-a-mystery, and for a while I was pretty engaged with the framing story about Alan Conway’s own suspicious death, but then it seemed to go on too long, and while the parallels and connections to “his” book were presumably meant to make it more fun to puzzle out both murderers, the insistent cleverness of it all eventually made me irritable. I expected a bigger payoff, too, a most stunning twist of some kind, as a reward for the book being quite so long.

magpie-2On the other hand, I did appreciate the metafictional commentary on the genre scattered throughout Magpie Murders, though it was (as far as I could tell) somewhat gratuitous or incidental to the novel(s). If the stories Horowitz was telling subverted expectations more than they do, or if their resolutions turned in some way on critiquing the ubiquity of murders on page and screen or the idea that anything about crime is in any way “cozy,” then the whole novel would (for me) have taken on much greater significance. Still, he raises good points about the perverse gratifications of the form even as he unapologetically offers them up, twice over. “I don’t understand it,” says Detective Superintendent Locke when Susan meets with him to discuss her questions about Conway’s death. “All these murders on TV–”

you’d think people would have better things to do with their time. Every night. Every bloody channel. People have some sort of fixation. And what really annoys me is that it’s nothing like the truth. I’ve seen murder victims. I’ve investigated murder. … They don’t put on wigs and dress up like the do in Agatha Christie. All the murders I’ve ever been involved in have happened because the perpetrators were mad or angry or drunk. Sometimes all three. And they’re horrible. Disgusting.

Susan Ryeland (perhaps as a proxy for Horowitz) offers the standard explanation for that ‘fixation.” “In a world full of uncertainties,” she proposes,

is it not inherently satisfying to come to the last page with every i dotted and every t crossed? The stories mimic our experience in the world. We are surrounded by tensions and ambiguities, which we spend half our life trying to resolve, and we’ll probably be on our own deathbed when we reach that moment when everything makes sense. Just about every whodunnit provides that pleasure. It is the reason for their existence.

Image result for foyles war season 6"That, she concludes, is “why Magpie Murders was so bloody irritating”–unfinished as it is when she first reads it. For me, though, the end of Horowitz’s Magpie Murders did not provide much satisfaction. The dotting of the i‘s and the crossing of the t’s seemed to show up the whole elaborate exercise as artificial, an impressive display of plotting but little to feed any deeper curiosity. I prefer my crime fiction more character driven, and also more embroiled in social and political contexts. I know Horowitz can write that kind of mystery, because he wrote Foyle’s War, one of my favorite series. I’d watch it all again in a heartbeat if I could (stupid Netflix Canada dropped it years ago), because it has the kinds of layers that, for all its intricacies, Magpie Murders lacks.

This Week In My Classes: Desire and Disruption

mccain-buidlingI certainly did not desire the disruption that has characterized my last few days at work! My office building was evacuated Thursday morning–just as I was settling in to do, well, a whole bunch of things! It turned out that due to some kind of maintenance mix-up, some chemicals got mixed into the building’s main water supply. As a result, they had to flush the entire system multiple times and then retest it. All the classes usually held in the building had to be relocated–which, thanks to heroic efforts by the team at the Registrar’s Office, was done more or less successfully. And all of us who ordinarily work in the building were turned loose on campus, where we set up shop for office hours and whatever else we had to do wherever we could find a spot. We were allowed to go back in with an escort from Dal Security to get essentials from our offices, but that’s not the same as having access to all our books, papers, and other supplies, not to mention our computers! Happily the test results have been good and we are going to be back in the building and back to normal operations tomorrow.

I say the relocation was “more or less” successful because on both Friday and today my Women & Detective Fiction seminar was sent to a room that turned out not to be available, which meant last minute scrambling to find alternatives and then rushing to get to the new new room as fast as we could. I’ve got a great batch of students this term–very smart and engaged and talkative–and I really appreciated their persistence as we trekked around and then made the most of the time we had left. (This is not our first “crisis” either: the power went off during one of our class sessions on An Unsuitable Job for a Woman but we weren’t ordered out of the building right away so we kept going with the lights off. Fortunately our regular meeting room has big windows, so it was dim but workable!)

graftonWe have been working through Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi, which everyone seems to have enjoyed quite a bit. It is fast-moving and sassy in a way that (IMHO) Grafton’s later novels are not; she started taking the whole project too seriously, I think, but (again, YMMV) isn’t really a deep enough thinker or a smart enough writer to pull it off. In previous years I have assigned both A is for Alibi and Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only in this seminar, and I used to alternate between them in my survey course on detective fiction. In recent years I let Grafton slip out of the rotation because I think Paretsky’s novel is better, or at least its various parts cohere better. Paretsky is clearly using the form and conventions of detective fiction for a political purpose, but I think she does it deftly enough that it doesn’t feel overly didactic.

indemnityI was reminded this week, though, that besides being a bit more fun, Grafton’s novel has its own thought-provoking elements, particularly in its development of a male character who plays the part of the femme fatale and also (as other critics have noted) of an extreme form of the Byronic hero–mad, bad, and dangerously sexy to the female protagonist. In our discussion, we found it interesting that while the male hard-boiled PI rarely seems genuinely attracted to the femme fatale, whose allure (at least in the examples we could think of) is too transparently a decoy, Kinsey and Charlie do seem to have an actual spark, even an affinity. Desire is conventionally disruptive to the detective’s work, and it is to Kinsey’s too, but at the same time it almost feels as if it’s just bad luck he’s a murderer, because otherwise they’re pretty well suited! Kinsey’s resolute independence–her refusal to be domestic or to conform to gendered expectations–is refreshing, though I think some aspects of it (like the pride she takes in pumping her own gas) also feel a bit dated now.

secret weddingIn Pulp Fiction we have been wrapping up work on the second assignment, with drafts and peer editing on Friday and the final versions due Wednesday. Today I gave my opening lecture on romance fiction. Our initial readings are two somewhat polemical primers on the genre (Jennifer Crusie’s “Defeating the Critics” and Loretta Chase’s “Rules for Romance,” from Sarah Wendell’s Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels) along with Liz Fielding’s “Secret Wedding” . I chose “Secret Wedding” to lead off this unit because it is at once a very straightforward and fairly sweet story and a cleverly self-conscious introduction to romance tropes: the heroine is a romance novelist and each chapter opens with a bit of advice from the her “writing workshop notes.” Also, the hero writes thrillers and his publisher has sent him to one of the heroine’s workshops to learn how to put the “humanity” back into his books–so that’s a neat way to point out that romance has different priorities than the other genres we’ve been studying. Chase’s “rules” do this as well, and they also, unsurprisingly, set us up nicely to begin our study of Lord of Scoundrels–in which desire is definitely disruptive, but in a good way!

It is a busy time of term for everyone, so it was less than ideal to have our routines so disrupted. On the bright side, we have no classes next week, so while there will still be a lot to do (for instance, all those papers coming in Wednesday will need to be marked!) it will be a welcome respite from the daily grind of classes. It’s startling to be here already, though, especially knowing that when we get back from the break we will be hurtling towards the end.

“Ideological Ambiguity”: Qiu Xiaolong, Death of a Red Heroine

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The alliance between Chen and Yu put him in a disadvantageous position. But what really worried Zhang was Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. Chen appeared to be a bright young officer, Zhang admitted. Whether he would prove to be a reliable upholder of the cause the old cadres had fought for, however, Zhang was far from certain. He had attempted to read several of Chen’s poems. he did not understand a single line. He had heard people describing Chen as an avant-gardist–influenced by Western modernism.

I found Death of a Red Heroine pretty slow going at first. The prose is quite flat, almost plodding, and the slow pace was compounded by the amount of what seemed like a lot of extraneous detail. As I read on, though, I warmed to Chief Inspector Chen, who though a dedicated police officer also (like P. D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh) has the sensitive heart and whimsical eye of a poet. Then as his investigation began to quicken and complicate, other things got more interesting: the prime suspect is an HCC (“High Cadre Child”) and Chen’s inquiries become “politically incorrect,” his loyalty to the Party coming into question. As his career is threatened, he has to decide what is most important: justice, or what is good for the Party. He also has to come to terms with his own power, or at least his access to it: in the end, he figures out not how to stay out of politics but how to play them to win. Gradually, then, over the course of an otherwise fairly conventional murder mystery, the stakes go up, both politically and philosophically, as Chen and his little band of co-conspirators struggle to express their own freedom in a highly constricting society by holding one privileged perpetrator to account. The ending is not unequivocally triumphant, but the effort is very satisfying.

qui-xiaolongI didn’t start enjoying the novel more just because the plot became more engrossing, though it did–or because the prose became more pleasurable, because it really didn’t. The other thing that happened was I got used to the slow pace and came to appreciate all the cultural context I was getting through what initially seemed like digressions. It’s true that all the many (many!) descriptions of meals aren’t strictly necessary to the plot, but they certainly added to my sense of what life in Shanghai in the 1990s was like, as did the meticulous accounts of where and how people live:

They lived in an old-fashioned two storied shikumen house–an architectural style popular in the early thirties, when such a house had been built for one family. Now, sixty years later, it was inhabited by more than a dozen, with all the rooms subdivided to accommodate more and more people. Only the black-painted front door remained the same, opening into a small courtyard littered with odds and ends, a sort of common junk yard, which led to a high-ceilinged hall flaked by the eastern and western wings. This once spacious hall had long since been converted to a public kitchen and storage area. The two rows of coal stoves with piles of coal briquettes indicated that seven families lived on the first floor.

One of the more memorable bits of scene setting was this account of a woman prepping an eel for market:

Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately … Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too. The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes.

There are too many appreciative descriptions of noodles, soups, dumplings, and duck to keep track of: the book makes clear the importance of meals, not just for sustenance (though there is a lot of exuberance around eating for its own sake) but also as social and bonding rituals.

red-heroineI also really enjoyed the role of Chen’s poetry in his life and in his case–and in the case against him. The idea that his elusive (and allusive) verses harbor subversive messages at once works with the intense suspicion shown by loyal Party members towards anything suggestive of a “Western bourgeois decadent lifestyle” and seemed to me a sly play on the literary difficulty of modernist poetry and the challenge of figuring out what it means. Poring over Chen’s poem “Night Talk,” Zhang wonders if the phrase “mind’s square” is a reference to Tiananmen Square:

“Deserted” on a summer night of 1989, with no “pennant” left there. If so, the poem was politically incorrect. And the issue about “history,” too. Chairman Mao had said that people, people alone make the history. How could Chen talk about history as the result of a rubric?

Zhang was not sure of his interpretation. So he started to read all over again. Before long, however, his eyesight grew bleary. He had to give up. There was nothing else for him to do. So he took a shower before going to bed. Standing under the shower head, he still thought that Chen had gone too far.

Who hasn’t felt that sometimes, reading poetry that seems full of significance you can’t quite grasp? I liked Chen’s habit of quoting poetry as well, and the general sense that in his world it matters–being a poet gets him respect and admiration! He also translates English mystery novels, so there’s another nice self-referential strand woven into the novel. Coincidentally, he is translating Ruth Rendell, a writer I was already thinking about this week because she came up in my Women & Detective Fiction class and I realized how little of her I had read. I read Death of a Red Heroine for my book club; maybe I should suggest Rendell as our follow-up–though crime fiction is not a typical choice for us.

“Poisonous Influence”: Andrew Miller, Pure

pure-coverWine and unsuspected depths of loneliness have produced in him an effusiveness he would not, sober, trust or like in another. Nearly, very nearly, he tells Armand what he is in Paris to do, for surely Armand would be impressed, would see what he himself (in the ruby light of tavern wine) has come to see — that destroying the cemetery of les Innocents is to sweep away in fact, not in rhetoric, the poisonous influence of the past!

Andrew Miller’s Pure follows the work of engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte, tasked in 1785 by one of the French king’s ministers, with cleaning out the overflowing and corrupted site of the Parisian cemetery les Innocents. It is a true story but also, of course, as Miller’s author’s note says, “a work of the imagination–in other words, it is historical fiction, its plot steeped in research then rendered as human drama.

Like Now We Shall Be Entirely FreePure has rich in details that make its scenes–many of them grimly horrible, as you might expect from a novel about digging up an old cemetery–exceptionally clear and immersive. A sample, from the digging of the first of many pits from which the remains are removed and then carted away to what we now know as the Catacombs:

They dig for three hours before Jean-Baptiste asks Lecoeur to call the first break. There has not, in these first hours, been much to see. The dead appear to have been reduced to shards, fragments, as if the pit had churned them like dry bread in an old man’s mouth. Are they digging in the right place? Was the sexton mistaken? He and Jeanne have gone back to the house, but after the break, the pit starts to give up its treasures and every second thrust of the spade levers out some recognisable structure. A jaw with a row of teeth that look as if they might still have a bite to them. All the delicate apparatus of a foot, ribs like the staves of an old barrel. The bone mound becomes a low bone wall. There is no wood, not a splinter, nothing to suggest the men and women who went into the pit had anything more than the shelter of their own winding sheets.

Andrew_Miller_-_PureOver time the finds vary: the miners Jean-Baptiste has imported to do the excavation find well-preserved coffins (“inside is a skeleton, the residue of a man, his bones connected by patches of leathery sinew”); a school’s worth of children, laid head to toe; two young women, astonishingly preserved by “a form of mummification” (“skin, hair, lips, fingernails, eyelashes“). These last are of particular interest to the doctors consulting on the dig, using its finds for their own experiments. One is Dr Guillotin, not yet famous for his advocacy of the swift and relatively painless means of execution that came to bear his name. His presence is one of many reminders that this literal purification process is taking place on the cusp of a different kind of transformation, a purging of the past to make way for an as-yet unimagined future.

I liked a lot about Pure: Jean-Baptiste’s struggle to come to terms with the work he has been given and, in a more existential way, with his own identity; the tactility and pacing of Miller’s prose; the constant lurking sense of imminent danger. I felt a bit at sea, though, in terms of how the various pieces of the novel were meant to add up. When violence breaks out, which it does a few times, quite horribly, it felt random to me: unmotivated, unpatterned, like plot twists rather than clear manifestations of (for instance) the social and political impurities for which the stench of the cemetery seems to stand as a metaphor. The revolution is coming, but the signs of it are scattered, or perhaps a better term (consistent with all the digging!) would be subterranean, present but never quite seen or really accounted for. Quite a lot of things happen, but somehow the novel didn’t seem to have much plot, just events.

pure-3Maybe that’s what Miller wanted: to evoke a scene (which he does pretty brilliantly) and a moment, without attaching it to a larger narrative, whether personal or political. But it frustrated me that so many of the novel’s elements felt seeded with meaning that then didn’t bear fruit. I wanted something from the novel that it didn’t give me, some momentum or culmination. That is about my expectations as much as Miller’s accomplishment, I suppose. Still, when  the church they are demolishing breaks open to let the light in and Jean-Baptiste observes, “How filthy everything below now appears! How much the place had depended on its darkness!” it seemed to me that the moment was crying out to be read symbolically in a way that the novel more generally didn’t support. Miller writes wonderfully, though, and if you want a really vivid sense of what it would look, feel, and especially smell like to dig up thousands of old corpses, though, you won’t be disappointed!

This Week In My Classes: Social Media

SlideTechnically, actually, it was in someone else’s class: I was invited to come and talk about social media to our Honours Capstone Seminar, which (among other things) features a range of guest speakers talking about everything from digital humanities to graduate school to (non-academic) career paths.

Like many academics who blog and/or are keen Twitter users, I have found that these activities have become a sort of secondary expertise, one that felt exciting and envelope-pushing when I still had the feisty sense that through them we might be changing the academy for the better but which I have a much more equivocal relationship to now that it’s clear that by and large, my colleagues remain mostly either uninterested or openly skeptical about their value. There are exceptions, of course, including the colleague who not only invited me to the seminar but bravely left it up to me what to say, even knowing, as I am sure she does, that there was a chance my remarks might go somewhat against the grain.

twitterlogoAs I told the class, I really struggled with what to say. I have given quite a few talks on the subject by now, especially on blogging: these include relatively informal sessions at faculty “research retreats” and two conference papers, one of which I expanded into a more detailed and formal publication. I have also addressed it more than once in a similar seminar we run for our graduate students, with a narrower focus on the pleasures, perils, and possible profit of blogging as a graduate student. In all of these settings, my focus has been on the relationship between blogging and academic publishing, asking questions about the purpose of scholarly publishing and then how well our typical practices meet our goals–how successfully we are able to navigate between the need for professional validation and the desire to communicate widely, for instance, and the possibility that  “vigorously rubbing” scholarship with “intelligent, bloggy bookchat by scholars” (as John Holbo once memorably put it) might “get the blood of ideas moving.”

Owordpressnce upon a time I might have considered these topics equally relevant for our Honours students, many of whom (in those days) were likely heading on to graduate school. A lot has changed, though, and I no longer feel comfortable actively grooming students for an academic path that (as I said to them) now seems strewn with broken glass. (There’s more about how the dismal academic job market has affected academic blogging in these posts.) I couldn’t see the relevance, for this audience, of debating whether blogging is or is not a legitimate form of scholarly publishing or any of the “usual” professionally-inclined topics. What, then, should I talk to them about?

Well, I don’t know what I should have talked about. I think perhaps it would have been more in keeping with the general purpose of the seminar for me to talk about the value of a well-curated online presence for networking, perhaps with some comments about what I think of as best practices. Instead, though, I decided to speak (as I warned my colleague) from the heart about what, on reflection, I think social media has to offer them, which is, in brief, a way (multiple ways, really) to continue the kinds of conversations they have enjoyed as part of their English degrees. The university, I said, is not (despite what its denizens too often seem to believe) the only place you can have an intellectually stimulating life. In fact, it is not at all clear that “the life of the mind” is a reasonable way to describe the academic life anymore–even if you are lucky enough to join the vanishingly rare number of tenure-track faculty, which (and it is so hard to say this in a way that students can or will actually hear it) it is extremely unlikely you will be.

Grad-School-SlideIn my short talk, I did not go into more detail about the arguments pro and con about graduate school in the humanities (and I know there reasons, some of them pretty good ones, or at least not terrible ones, that other people still insist that encouraging students to head into Ph.D. programs is perfectly rational and ethical). I just highlighted some of the many articles they could read about it if they wanted, and urged them to talk to their professors if they were thinking about it. What I decided to use most of my own time for was making sure that they knew graduate school was not the only (and might be far from the best) way to keep talking about the literature they love in ways they find exhilarating. There are, I said, other places, other people, other opportunities, for people who love books, and I know that because of the time I spend on social media.

cassatI don’t know if they were very interested in what I had to say. If they were, they didn’t express it through a torrent of follow-up questions, that’s for sure, and I’m also pretty sure that I didn’t make a dent in anyone’s plans regarding graduate school applications. I said things I really believe in, though, which is consistent with what I would have said if I had talked about “best practices” instead, namely, be authentic. Further, and more important, as I worked up these remarks I realized that my own case for twitter and blogging is not really about their academic value anymore either. Whether the students needed or wanted to hear it or not, for me it was useful discovering that I still feel quite passionately about the positive value of reading, writing, and commenting on blog posts, and sharing ideas, tips, enthusiasms, and disagreements about reading via Twitter. Why should they care how much my life changed for the better because one day, without really knowing what I was doing or why, I pressed ‘publish’ on my first Novel Readings post? But I care, and really it has, in ways I could not possibly have predicted. So to the doubters and skeptics (if for some reason you happen to stop by), well, you do you, but I think you’re missing out. And to those of you who, like me, are out here living your best bookish life online and discovering friends and comrades along the way, cheers!