Intellectual Curiosity: True Confessions Edition

wordpressEven as I wrote my previous post about how disengagement from online discussions strikes me as evidence of a lack of intellectual curiosity, I was nervously aware that in my own ways I too am disengaged and incurious. For example, I almost never attend my department’s weekly colloquium. I used to go faithfully every Friday. My initial falling off coincided more or less with the arrival of my children and the attendant complications of having to get to the daycare before it closed — that, and not liking the poor kids to have longer days than I did, since of course you have to drop them off before work as well as pick them up after. And for a tired working parent, 3:45-5:00 Friday afternoons is a particularly difficult time to do one more work-related thing that’s not strictly required. It was still possible to go, of course, and sometimes I did, while other times my husband went to the corresponding event in the philosophy department.

But the truth is, I didn’t really miss it, and I have not gone back to anything like regular attendance. I don’t doubt — and don’t mean to impute anything about — the quality of presentations. Every talk I’ve been to (and, I’m sure, every one I’ve skipped) has been erudite, polished, and professionally delivered. Nonetheless, the experience of attending such academic talks is one I don’t usually enjoy very much or feel I benefit very much from, and so when I miss them, I don’t usually feel I’m missing out,  any more than I feel I’m missing out when I play hooky for a while from a conference I’m attending to go to a museum. The honest if shameful truth (and I really am kind of ashamed of it) is that I have real trouble staying interested at a lot of academic talks, just as I have trouble getting or staying interested in a lot of academic criticism. I used to feel a lot more angst about this than I now do: I was sure (especially when the first symptoms of this disengagement came over me in graduate school) that the problems all lay with me. It didn’t help that some of my peers in graduate school, and at least one of my professors, pretty clearly thought so too (it takes a while, I can tell you, to recover your confidence after a professor has declared you “intellectually calcified”). I struggled very hard to care about critical debates that seemed so urgent to others  (if, to me, so obscure and often incomprehensible); now I believe that, though I was and am, no doubt, dull in some ways, I might have been sharper if I’d been working on different material.

Anyway, theoretical obstructions have been one cause of (or excuse for) my disengagement. Now that I don’t have to worry about certain kinds of academic discourse, I don’t even try. I even gave away my volumes of Foucault and Derrida, my Judith Butler and my New Historicism reader. They may be interesting to other people, but to me they were neither interesting nor, as far as I could ever tell, useful for the kind of critic I have turned out to be.

It’s not just abstraction (or abstruseness) that is an impediment for me, though (and I don’t think actually that most of the talks I don’t attend are particularly theory-headed). I think it’s the combination of their specialization (really, hyper- or micro-specialization) and their format that turns me off. The pressure to specialize leads, among other things, to quite a lot of what I think of as “pickle” criticism (see the long footnote to this post; see also this thought-provoking post from D. G. Myers about “an end to readings”). It also reduces the portability of the ideas in most papers: rarely does such a narrowly focused reading give me something I can take away and use. I might still find it intrinsically interesting, informative, or just entertaining, but the odds of that are reduced by the standard presentation style, which is to read a very carefully constructed paper full of rhetorically deft bits all intricately related to each other. I’ve seen reasonable arguments made for this format, particularly for literary interpretations (which do, indeed, turn on precise turns of phrase both in the original text and in the analysis). I’ve seen it used very well, and that’s exactly the kind of paper I’ve typically given myself (though I do try to write it for speaking, as a lecture, rather than a document). It can be a very alienating experience, though, at least for me, to hear someone read a very dense text aloud on a very narrow topic. Though I am committed in principle to the value of open-ended inquiry, and I would never want my own interests to determine what projects are or aren’t pursued, that doesn’t mean I always want to sit for 90 minutes and listen to all the gory details. My notes and doodles often begin hopefully and responsibly enough, but too often they deteriorate. Recently I flipped through the little notebook I bring along to talks and saw, in big block letters across the page, “WHY???” I don’t know what exactly prompted that particular silent outburst, but clearly, at some point, I had let go of the rope.

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So why should my colleagues spend their time in the blogosphere if I can’t show up regularly for our colloquium or manage an entire conference day without some time out? What right do I have to chastise other academics for their lack of intellectual curiosity, given how far I now indulge my own failure to find things interesting? I think that’s a fair question because it reminds me that in both cases we are making cost-benefit analyses: we’re asking what we will get out of a given activity. Many of my colleagues (though certainly not all!) do go every Friday, and they seem able to engage with almost any paper they hear. I admire them — and I’m entirely sincere in saying so. I also envy them. My own career path would have been much more straightforward, and my general level of anxiety lower,  if I felt the same.  But I don’t!  Maybe I should, or should keep trying (trying harder). But why? I have been in this profession for 23 years — longer, if you count my undergraduate years. Though I can’t predict what any specific paper will be like, I have a good general idea of how this whole process works. I make informed guesses, not about which papers will be good ones of their kind, but about which ones I want to attend as well as which ones (for one reason or another) I ought to attend. I don’t scorn people for continuing to present formal papers; I don’t shrug off the value conferences have for other people despite my own indifferent experiences of them; I don’t call for an end to our colloquium because on the whole I don’t find it professionally valuable, however much I might enjoy individual papers. I guess all I’d like is for people not to take for granted that this way of doing things is the only (or even the best) way to share our work with each other.

I feel as if I should say, for the record (though the presenters themselves are not blog readers, as far as I know) that the last two colloquium papers I heard were super — engaging, original, and thought-provoking! One was my fellow-Victorianist Marjorie Stone on “Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ on YouTube:  Contemporary Popular Culture, Erotomania, and Psychology in the Dramatic Monologue”; the other was the brilliant and funny Len Diepeveen on “Smudges and Shiny Things.” (Speaking of Len’s paper, if any of you know of any paintings of shiny things with smudges on them, he’d like to hear from you.) There’s another talk coming up quite soon that I really wish I could go to but can’t because of a scheduling conflict. My not showing up is not a judgment of anyone in particular! Sometimes I’d rather hear from you about your work in some other way, though. In fact, I bet I’d rather read about it on your blog, if you had one.

Blogging and Intellectual Curiosity

birds to fishInger Mewburn, a.k.a. the Thesis Whisperer, has an interesting post up at PhD2Published about academics and social media in which she asks a question that I have often wondered about too:

While I can understand not writing a blog (sort of) I really can’t understand people who don’t read blogs, take part in Twitter or otherwise take part in the scholarly dialogue which is happening online.

She addresses the “how do you have time for social media?” question that I expect every academic blogger (or tweeter) has encountered. (Mewburn links to this post on that specific issue.  I agree that this question always seems to express “some kind of unspoken criticism.” Like the other question I often get about “how do you have time to read so much?” it also assumes a strict distinction between “real” work and other things I do that Pat Thompson notes is hard to make for her own newspaper reading.) The bottom line is that we all have time, or make time, for the things we believe to be valuable. So the harder question is why many academics still don’t consider spending time reading blogs (or being on Twitter) to be valuable:

I don’t have to point out the benefits to the converted. The question I have for you is, how many of your colleagues are doing the same? And more importantly – why don’t they? It’s a question that is beginning to fascinate me and one which I don’t have a ready answer for.

She has a theory about the source of the resistance: “have I become the cool kid?” I don’t really have an opinion on whether that theory is plausible! I find it hard to think of myself as “cool,” that’s for sure. But I share her general puzzlement, because I am so excited and fascinated by the voices and perspectives and information I encounter day after day thanks to the time I spend reading the blogs in my RSS feed or following up on links from – or eavesdropping on, or exchanging ideas with – the diverse people I follow on Twitter. Now that I know how much of intellectual value is out there, I can’t imagine shutting myself away from it. Sure, there are risks: the only thing worse, after all, than having nothing good to read is having far, far too much good material to read than you’ll ever have time for and having to make, again and again, the conscious effort to turn away from “that tempting range of relevancies called the universe” to the one “particular web” I’m supposed to be spinning myself.

Maybe it’s just a pragmatic fear of being overwhelmed in that way that holds some academics back. That’s not the general impression I get from the derisive way some of my colleagues still talk about Twitter or blogs, though: for them, the lack of engagement does seem to bespeak contempt, disbelief that there could be any merit in spending one’s time with such frivolity. (How they don’t realize the implicit insult to me when they say such things baffles me! Do they think I’m an idiot, then, to bother with all this?) Then there are those who overestimate the technical effort involved, or who don’t know about basic tools like Google Reader that simplify the process of sorting through multiple sources. There’s also simple inertia: people have a certain way of doing things, a certain workflow, a certain relationship to their reading and their computers.

Whatever the inhibitions or prejudices involved, I think they all hint at an unfortunate lack of intellectual curiosity. Like Mewburn, “I can understand not writing a blog” (in fact, I’m on record saying I really don’t think every academic should blog), but I can’t understand not exploring the world of blogs (academic or otherwise) if only to find out if one’s skepticism is justified, or not signing up for Twitter for a while to find out how a well-curated community  there might complement or even enhance one’s other professional (or personal, or intellectual) exchanges.

Some support for my conviction that there’s plenty (indeed, too much) worth reading online comes from something else I read online today (thanks to a link I followed from Twitter), an essay by Robert Cottrell, editor of The Browser. Here’s how he describes his job:

I read all day. Were it not for the demands of sleep and family life, I would read all night. My aim is to find all the writing worth reading on the internet, and to recommend the five or six best pieces each day on my website, the Browser.

 Here’s Cottrell’s general conclusion:

The amount of good writing freely available online far exceeds what even the most dedicated consumer might have hoped to encounter a generation ago within the limits of printed media.

Cottrell estimates that only 1% of what he finds is really great stuff, material of real value to the serious general reader. Since I read only a tiny fraction of what he does, I’m not in a position to argue. I would say that of the material I read, the proportion of good stuff is (happily) much more than 1%, but that’s probably because a lot of the links I get are already filtered, either by my own curation efforts or by sources including The Browser. About that 1%, he is eloquent: “the 1 per cent of writing by and for the elite is an embarrassment of riches, a horn of plenty, a garden of delights.” And where are the “scores” of worthwhile pieces coming from?

Some of it comes from professional journalists, writing for the websites of established publications or on their own blogs. But much of it – the great new addition to our writing and reading culture – comes from professionals in other fields who find the time, the motivation and the opportunity to write for anyone who cares to read. I am sorry that the internet gifted this practice with such an ugly name, “blogging”, but it is too late to change that now.

As a gross generalisation, academics make excellent bloggers, within and beyond their specialist fields. So, too, do aid workers, lawyers, musicians, doctors, economists, poets, financiers, engineers, publishers and computer scientists. They blog for pleasure; they blog for visibility within their field; they blog to raise their value and build their markets as authors and public speakers; they blog because their peers do.

Given the skepticism with which blogging is still met within the academy (and, for that matter, outside it as well), it was gratifying to see its value acknowledged like this. Yes, “blogging” is an ugly name, and the form itself is no more a guarantee of high quality than any other. But blogs have enormously enriched our intellectual and cultural conversations as well as our academic ones.  I think Mewburn is right that it’s time to stop being defensive. She suggests asking “What do you have to give? How can you make a difference?” I would add, “What do you want to know about? What conversation would you like to have? What are you curious about?” Maybe that will help my skeptical colleagues feel excited, rather than dubious, about what they’re missing.

Do your academic colleagues read blogs? Are they on Twitter? Do you think that skepticism towards new media or social media has subsided now that blogging has been around for a while? I don’t notice much of a shift here since I started blogging in 2007. Maybe there’s a smidgen more respect for what I’ve been doing, if only because I’m still doing it.

This Week In My Classes: Meetings, Deadlines, Poems, Mysteries, and Nymphs

This past week was very busy, which is why I didn’t manage to post this during the week. For one thing, one of the committees that I’m on had to do a series of consultations, which involves both the actual meeting times and a fair amount of correspondence and negotiation getting things set up. Another committee I’m on got an announcement that had extremely worrying implications for our department’s MA program, and until the details got sorted out and corrected, that generated a fair amount of worried conversation and debate. These are important things, even if sometimes they seem, or turn out to really be, tempests in tea pots: one of the things most academics value highly about their work environment is self-governance, and that takes both time and concern to do well.

Then, it’s getting to be reference letter season, for grad school applications and for academic jobs, and I came up on my first few deadlines this week. Just as one example, it took me about two hours to complete a satisfactory draft of one of these letters and then print, scan, and email it according to the directions. Because every single place has a different process , some of them including forms to be downloaded and/or filled in, others requiring hard copies, and still others scanned versions, it’s very hard to create efficiencies: ten letters for the same candidate may all need to be done differently. Also, students have started taking me up on my urging to come and see me in my office to talk about their assignments. I believe very strongly in the value of such one-on-one meetings, but it’s a good thing that so far only about 10% of my 140 students this term have set them up, only because I couldn’t possibly take care of my routine class prep, not to mention my marking, if they all did. I also did some graduate advising work, responding to a revised thesis chapter while also thinking hard about and then trying to address appropriately some really important questions my student is struggling with about her degree program. These are not the kinds of things people outside the academy think about, in my experience, when they talk about our workload: everyone focuses on hours spent in the classroom, and specifically the undergraduate classroom. But taking care of our students (at all levels) involves a lot more than just showing up for class.

Last but not least, I have been working on a review for the November issue of Open Letters Monthly, and although editors get a little leeway in our usual submission deadlines, I really wanted to get it to my colleagues before the end of the week so that I would be sure to have time for revisions. I sent it off late Wednesday night: hooray! And I already have their thoughtful comments back and can tidy it up easily enough in time for the new issue. It’s mostly because I was using all my spare time to do that reading and writing project that there hasn’t been any blogging going on: for the last couple of weeks I really haven’t read anything of substance besides the book for the review (Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s newest, Two-Part Inventions) and the books for my classes. What did I think of Two-Part Inventions? You’ll have to wait for November 1 to find out!

And speaking of the books for my classes, what were they, you ask? In my first-year class we’re moving through our ‘introduction to poetry’ unit, gearing up for the first essay assignment. We read ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ and ‘God’s Grandeur’ for Monday, which gave me some reference points for a later discussion of how to develop a comparative thesis for a close reading poetry essay. For Wednesday, we read Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish.’ I’m not sure I’d read that poem before this year! I really enjoyed it, both as a poem to read and as a poem to work on in class; there are a lot of striking word choices that were good for provoking discussion–one of my major ‘talking points’ for them so far is “Don’t take the words on the page for granted,” and that’s just easier to do when the words are really unexpected ones! And then on Friday we worked explicitly on how to write essays about poetry. I’m trying to demystify the critical process by focusing on straightforward tasks like note-taking and pre-writing strategies. I have ended up talking a few times about my own writing strategies, including the things I find difficult and some of the ways I try to get past them. As I had a deadline of my own to meet, how to get the writing done was very much on my mind! I hope it’s useful to them to realize that writing is something I do, and struggle with, too.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we’ve just finished The Maltese Falcon and started An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I really have nothing new to report about these books or the experience of teaching them, except that I think that this time I’m finally done with The Maltese Falcon, at least for a while. I’m starting to tune out when re-reading it for class, which is not good.

In the Somerville seminar, we’ve finished with South Riding, which generated lots of very lively and interesting discussion right to the end. I’ve been so encouraged by the response to it, and also so engaged by the novel myself, that I’m feeling frustrated that I can’t quite think of another course in which I could reasonably assign it. We used to offer a year-long class called ‘The Novel to 1900,’ which was fun, if challenging to those of us not altogether at home in the 18th century, but even if that was still on the books, which I don’t think it is, 1936 is even more of a stretch than 1908, the date of A Room with a View, which was the novel I used to close the course with. We now have a class called ‘Fiction of the Earlier 20th-Century,’ but it’s not specific to British fiction, and a class called ‘British Literature of the Earlier 20th-Century’ which is, obviously, not just novels. Both of these would be a real stretch for me! And also they are usually offered by the people in our department who do specialize more or less in these fields…though technically I think we do not currently have anyone whose research area is ‘earlier’ 20th-century British literature. The easiest thing to do with anomalous interests such as mine in this cluster of ‘Somerville’ texts is to offer a special topics seminar at the upper level, which is what I’m doing now: to some extent that relieves you from the burden of really wide or deep knowledge. Maybe I’ll put in for one of the more general courses one day, though, just to shake things up.

After South Riding, we started Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph. It doesn’t seem quite as odd to me this time as it did when I first read it, which I hope is a consequence, at least in part, of the work I’ve been doing for this class. But even in the context of my seminar, it’s an anomalous book, not obviously related in theme, style, or structure to our other readings. We have come up with some ideas about ways it relates to them, including its interest in women’s roles and women’s education, and also its attention to the potentially destructive force of sexuality. Each of our other novels, though, at least arrives in front of us with some obvious critical frameworks; each of them belongs to a critical conversation that’s more or less familiar, even if our specific examples are not the most canonical ones. The Constant Nymph does not. Scrounging around for explicit commentary on the novel, I have come up with a few ideas: there’s a lengthy discussion of it in one book on literature of the 1920s as a “sex novel,” for instance, meaning (in the context that book establishes) a novel focusing on a young female protagonist and on female sexuality. That does fit with our general impression that the book is a bit like Lolita–the “nymph” of the title is fourteen when the novel begins and the love interest of a much older man, though he doesn’t exactly act on, or even quite acknowledge, his feelings for her at first. Kennedy herself said the book was meant to explore the conflict between “art” and “culture,” so we’ve been kicking that around a bit. It is unnerving in some ways not to know where I want our discussions to go, what patterns or priorities to pursue. But the class is full of smart, curious people and I think we are doing well trying out ideas and seeing where they take us.

One thing we talked about right away is how obscure this novel is now compared to how famous and popular it was in its early days. One sign of its popularity is that there were three different movie adaptations of it, including one in 1943 starring Joan Fontaine. I was amazed that the trailer for this version turned up on YouTube. Watch it and see if you don’t suddenly want to read The Constant Nymph for yourself! Except that you might end up surprised at just how little the book resembles what you get here.

I hope to get some good extracurricular reading done in the next week or two. I have to, in fact, as both of my reading groups have meetings coming up! For Slaves of Golconda we are reading Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train (remember, you can join in if you want!) while for my F2F group we are reading Wide Sargasso Sea, which is one I really should have read before now. I also have to read a PhD thesis for a defense on November 16, and keep up with the books for my classes … should be another couple of busy weeks.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Academic Blogging

Logistics and institutional issues: how do you find time for it, where (if anywhere) should it go on your c.v., and how should tenure and promotion committees evaluate it?

At least, this is what the audience questions were almost exclusively about when I spoke about blogging at my faculty’s “research retreat” on Friday. Here’s a link to the Prezi I used, which is basically a condensed version of the one I prepared for the British Association of Victorian Studies conference in August. I was supposed to speak for only 8-10 minutes, so I just highlighted the arguments for and against blogging as I see them and quickly pointed out what the illustrative quotations were, on the principle that interested parties can easily find the Prezi and read them (and follow the links) themselves. What I really tried to emphasize in my own remarks is that if we think about why we do research and publish it in the first place–to advance or improve a conversation–then writing online makes perfect sense. I also stressed that for me, the real benefits are intellectual. I specifically invited follow-up questions about ways my blogging had affected my teaching, my research, my writing, and/or my intellectual life. I didn’t get any questions about that at all, leading me to think that the single most important quotation in the presentation is the one from Jo VanEvery: “Scholars lose sight of the fact that academic publishing is about communication. Or, perhaps more accurately, communication appears disconnected from the validation process.” What people wanted to talk about was “validation.” As I said at the close of the discussion, I think that preoccupation in itself is worth reflecting on. It’s inevitable, perhaps, because we are professionals trying to get and keep jobs and build careers, but I think concern about bureaucratic processes should follow on reaching a better understanding of the value of the activity, to the individual scholar, to the university, and to the broader community. Maybe people were taking for granted that blogging could be beneficial in the ways I was describing and so didn’t need to ask about it, but the impression I got (perhaps unfairly) was that they couldn’t quite imagine those benefits trumping the low likelihood of professional rewards for the time spent. The one specific positive benefit someone raised from the floor was that blogging might help lay the groundwork for a grant application–but as I noted, that assumes that getting grants is itself a priority. What if we don’t need them to do the work we think is important? (You certainly don’t need a grant to keep a blog.)

And my responses to the questions that were asked? Well, the “how do you find time” question is not one that gets asked about activities that we do not perceive as “extra” to our “real” work, so the answer to that would depend on how you find time for anything you think should be among your priorities. I don’t have a strong opinion about what heading the blog should be under on a c.v. except that I think it should in some way be treated as a research, writing, and publishing project, not as “service.” And I think tenure and promotion committees should evaluate it by reading it — not one post, or even a few posts at once, but ideally by following it for a while as well as exploring the archives. I think bloggers (and academics involved in any non-traditional kinds of work) need to help by explaining clearly what they are up to and contextualizing it so that people who have never read a blog before (and there are still many of these people in academia) have some appropriate frameworks for what they are looking at, and they should also help by thinking about how to curate their blogs so that newcomers can easily grasp their range as well as follow key examples. In my own case, I think (I hope!) the index pages I’ve built are useful in this way. As indicated in the new MLA guidelines for evaluating digital scholarship, I also think that tenure and promotion committees need to include people who understand new forms of scholarly communication, including as external reviewers. Someone who is also a blogger, for instance, is more likely to appreciate and fairly assess the quality and contribution of another blogger’s site than someone who reads only conventional scholarship.

The other panelists  were talking primarily about newspaper op-eds and letters to the editors. It was interesting to me that in general, they expressed more discomfort or dislike for the experience of being exposed to the unfiltered world of the internet. Being social scientists and historians, though, they were talking about writing on political topics, so they are engaging in conversations where stupid virulent attacks are more likely, not just because a national newspaper is much higher profile than my own quiet corner here, but also because politics rile people up more than whatever someone happens to think about The Good Soldier or Lightning Rods.* I can understand why one piece of advice they had, then, was simply not to read the comment threads that follow but to wait for the wave of attention to pass and hope to have made a small difference to the public conversation and perhaps to create further networking or writing opportunities for yourself by the exposure. I felt lucky, really, that though I am not Utopian or idealistic about the openness of the internet, my own experience of it has been, by and large, really positive and rewarding.

*Though it is possible to rile people up a bit on these topics, if you have the right audience!

The Unbearable Lightness of the Digital

I had an interesting chat with a colleague the other day about academic writing and publishing that shifting over, inevitably, into the changing ways we do our writing and publishing now. My colleague said, basically, that he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something particularly ephemeral about online publishing: when it’s not in front of you, after all, where is it? Or, when its original home has expired in some way–whether it has been taken down or the site is no longer maintained or updated (as is the current status of The Valve, where I did a lot of writing for a while) or the content has migrated–where is it then? With hard copies, they are always somewhere. I have offprints of my articles and reviews, for instance, as well as copies of my books. No matter how old they are (and how unlikely it is that anyone might want to pick them up and take a look) I know where they are and the medium they are in will not be outdated. Just the other night I was actually working on a piece and trying to remember something that, it occurred to me, could be easily found in my U.B. C. honours thesis c. 1990, which exists now only in a cerlox-bound copy on my shelf.

Even though I know digital content is (or at least can be) archived and stored and in many ways is actually more accessible and durable than some kinds of paper archives, I have sometimes had the same feeling as my colleague about online writing, especially blogging. I know that all my posts are still “there” and can be searched for and viewed easily enough. (I also make back-ups by way of preserving the content against unforeseen catastrophes. What if WordPress just shut down one day?!) But there’s something relentless about the way the posts scroll off the bottom of the page. That makes them seem to lose currency, even though, with book reviews at least, there’s no reason why they should. I have tried to counter that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ effect by building the blog index, which groups and lists posts in what I hope are useful ways and gives a little form to the range of topics I write about. But there’s something about not having anything tangible to show for all these years of writing. It’s one thing to pull a book off the shelf and put it in someone’s hand: here, look what I made! It’s more complicated to do that with a blog.

I thought of this recently when my faculty held its annual “Book Launch,” which (as journals and articles are also displayed) is really more of a research showcase than a book launch. There was no provision made this year for displaying digital projects, so as not one of my 2011 publications was in print, I had nothing to contribute. Well, I could have printed out copies of my book reviews and essays–but you don’t end up with something that looks quite right when you do that unless you can figure out some way to recreate banners, not to mention links. And how do you display a blog without a computer, if you did decide to insist that it deserved, literally, a place at the table?

I know that the kind of publishing I’ve been doing doesn’t really count as research by academic standards. It’s not just that I’m publishing in digital-only forms but that I’m writing for a non-academic audience, and while I do often draw on original research, I’m putting it to slightly unconventional purposes. Because I’m well aware of this and have decided to live with the professional consequences, I’m not really upset about the book launch, though I will suggest that next time they make sure to have computers set up, as I know I’m not the only one whose research is being disseminated electronically, while other people in the faculty are at work on archival or other digital projects that really deserve to be shown off even though they aren’t books. The MLA has been advising us for years now to “decenter” the monograph, after all: here’s an opportunity to think through how we can do that.

But I do feel odd–bereft, even–that I’ve done all this writing and from a certain perspective it’s invisible. It’s not any less “there” than the offprints of articles I have filed away, but why does it feel as if it is more transient, more ephemeral? Am I just still, in spite of everything, in thrall to print? Is it a sentimental thing? Do those of you who also keep blogs ever find yourself fretting that for all your hours of writing, you have created something that seems oddly insubstantial?

Research That Matters: Knowledge and Novelty

OK, I admit it. My previous post about reading and research is also disingenuous. In a university context, research is not just “purposeful reading” or “reading in pursuit of knowledge” or “reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question.” University-level research, research that is publishable in professional venues, research that is eligible for funding, is research that produces new knowledge.  The research mission of a university is to move the frontier of knowledge, to add to the world’s sum of knowledge, to be at the cutting edge of knowledge… I know that! I’m only sort of pretending not to know it when I ask why research that serves other academic purposes, including teaching and individual intellectual development, does not earn a researcher the same support or the same professional credit.

But I’m pretending not to know it because “the pursuit of new knowledge” is not as obvious, or as easily applied, a principle as it sounds. One possible line of questioning begins with “new to whom?” The degree of hyper-specialization that characterizes the contemporary university is the result of the standard answer: new to other specialists in the field. This is obviously the right standard, isn’t it? It doesn’t advance knowledge to repeat what has been done before, to redo what has been tested. You can’t discover what is already known; you can’t have progress in a field unless you are constantly finding out something new.

This makes perfect sense, right? And yet it isn’t 100% obvious that what I’ve just said applies as well to literary research as it does to, say, research in genetics. What counts as a “discovery” in literary scholarship? Turning up a lost manuscript? OK, that’s an easy one. Explicating and contextualizing the work of a previously unknown or little-known author? Yes, good. Overturning a longstanding theoretical paradigm? Yup, I think so. Proposing a new reading of a novel based on paying attention to a detail nobody has ever paid attention to before? Well, OK. Contradicting a proposed new reading of a novel based on an alternative interpretation of a detail nobody has ever paid attention to before? Constructing a large theoretical claim based on readings of novels that pay attention to details usually disregarded? Yes, fine. Applying a theoretical framework from another discipline to a novel in order to read it in a way that it has never been read before? Yes! Of course! These are exactly the kinds of things literary scholars do (not all the things they do, but how long did you want this paragraph to get?). I wouldn’t argue that understanding texts in new ways doesn’t produce something reasonably called “knowledge.” At any rate, all of these activities affect the way we think about things. If our activity leads us and others to think in a new way, to see something in a new light, that moves some kind of frontier, surely.

But it seems to me there’s a difference that is at least worth thinking about between the importance of doing something new in genetics (or whatever) and pursuing novelty in literary studies. In some kinds of research, work that isn’t new and that doesn’t take into account every other recent discovery will be useless and irrelevant to anyone. But the drive towards novelty and hyper-specialization in literary studies is itself generating a great deal of work that is relevant only to other specialists, and even then, not so much. There is no large project or inquiry, after all, towards which incremental additions are being made; there’s just a proliferation of pieces often with little connection to each other. Even to other specialists, the work of keeping up is not only nearly impossible now, but also (and relatedly) of diminishing importance.

I’ve written about some aspects of this situation before, here in this post on Mark Bauerlein’s “The Research Bust.” I don’t think this kind of observation has to lead into an argument for the cessation of literary research, or for insisting that literary scholars return to doing only certain kinds of research that are more measurably productive of new information (for the case against literary “readings” and in favor of “a more traditionally scholarly conception of literary study”, see this post by D. G. Myers, also triggered by Bauerlein). One reason that I would support people continuing to do new readings is that we can’t be sure where inquiry will take us, and our sense of what “more traditionally scholarly” research is a priority might well be affected by ideas arising from rethinking texts we thought we already knew. If these new readings are truly driven by intellectual curiosity, by attempts to puzzle through problems, however abstract, then there’s value in them, for the researcher as well as for the audience of other people also interested. “Who can say,” as George Eliot remarks in Middlemarch, “what will be the effect of writing?” And I think we ought to have the same open-minded assumption about thinking. (If the research is not truly curiosity-driven, on the other hand, then we might remark, with Dorothea, “what could be sadder than so much ardent labour all in vain?”)

But I don’t think that the only paradigm for valuable work in literary studies should be one derived from a scientific model, as if a similar cumulative advance of information is ongoing, or one that disregards the other kinds of audiences there are for literary understanding. The reason the umpteenth interpretation of Middlemarch is important to at least some specialists is that they already know a whole lot about Middlemarch — but lots of people don’t, people who would be interested in knowing more. Our focus on novelty underestimates the value of what we already know, even though unlike old theories of the atom, old ideas about books have not lost their real-life significance; it also undervalues the skills we have at making what we know accessible to people who don’t know it yet, and reduces our audience to each other instead of trying to imagine how we could be part of the broader literary culture. The ‘cutting edge’ is actually a much less important place to be in literary studies (as well as a much more shifting territory).

 

Reading and Research Redux: The Somerville Novelists Project

I admit, my earlier question “When is reading research?” was a bit disingenuous: obviously, research is purposeful reading. Of course, this definition can get batted around a bit too, depending on how you define your purpose: the pursuit of pleasure? aesthetic enrichment? familiarity with current best-sellers? Perhaps it’s better to say that, at least in a university context, research is reading in pursuit of knowledge, or reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question or accomplishing a task. As Jo VanEvery also points out in her recent post on this topic, though, we have become preoccupied with the results of that reading, so that oddly, the process of exploration fundamental to defining a question in the first place has become devalued. And in universities we have also become preoccupied with research funding as a measure of productivity and success. If you don’t have a grant, you aren’t doing it right. Here, for instance, (with specifics expunged) is what the Assistant Dean of Research for my Faculty reported at the last Faculty meeting:

X has been awarded a —- Grant; X and Y have received a —- Grant for a conference… —- Grant applications this year are numerous and promising; X’s project on Y received a very positive mid-term review [from its funding agency].

At a recent presentation from one of our VP’s for research, at which he tracked our “success” and goals exclusively in terms of granting dollars, he made the point that money is measurable and thus is the easiest aspect of research to track and evaluate. The same is true, of course, of publications. But (as I and others pointed out to him emphatically in the Q&A that followed) that’s only true if the rubric you want to use is a pie chart or bar graph. If you really understand (as he claimed to) that research funding does not tell the whole story about research productivity, much less about the value of any given research project (especially in the arts and humanities), why continue using such inadequate tools? Perhaps there are fields of research in which research is better explained in a narrative, rather than a PowerPoint slide. Would it be too much, I wonder, to try to change our habits so that we acknowledge other dimensions of research activity–and stopped sending the incessant message that the best research is the most expensive? What about research that culminates in new classes, also? Isn’t that work valuable to the university? Isn’t that a purpose to which universities are fundamentally committed? You wouldn’t think so, by the way the term “research” is typically used on campus.

In any case, I can tell when my own reading has crossed into research of that more recognizable kind because I start to think about it in terms of obligations–things I should look up, things I need to know in order to achieve my purpose. I start to think in terms of depth and definition: more about this and this and this, but not that. Still, it’s always hard to draw the lines: there are no external rules about relevance, so you have to keep reading somewhat open-endedly as you figure out just how it is that you are going to define your project. There’s not a question “out there” waiting for me to turn my attention (and my students’ attention) to it: I have to mess around in all kinds of material until I see what I could do with it that is interesting and new. This conceptual work is, for me, among the most interesting and creative phase: there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.

I’m in that happy stage right now with my Somerville novelists reading. I have defined a purpose for it–my fall seminar–and the reading I had been doing out of personal interest, which had included all of Brittain’s Testament volumes as well as the volume of Brittain and Holtby’s journalism, some of their fiction (as well as Margaret Kennedy’s), and some biographical materials, is now the first phase of a more deliberate investigation. I think this phase is happy for me because it involves focus but not the kind of micro-specialization that would be required to say or do anything research-like on Middlemarch now. Instead of having to read abstruse ruminations on theoretical or other kinds of topics that have less and less to do with the things that excite me about Middlemarch, reading I would be doing only out of a weary sense of professional duty (must keep up with the latest!), I’m doing reading I’m genuinely interested in–maybe because this material has simply not attracted the degree of scholarly attention Middlemarch has, it’s still possible to talk about it quite directly and with a real sense of discovery.

Here are some of the books I’ve collected so far for this research:

Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. Ed. Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge (I’ll be posting a bit about this soon, as I’m over half way through – the stories are familiar from Testament of Youth but the letters in full have a remarkable immediacy and personality)

Winifred Holtby, Women and A Changing Civilization (I have a sad feeling that this 1934 book may have more relevance today than we’d like – “Wherever a civilisation deliberately courts its old memories, its secret fears and revulsions and unacknowledged magic, it destroys that candour of co-operation upon which real equality only can be based,” Holtby observes near the end – and flipping another page, I find “we must have effective and accessible knowledge of birth control.” Yes, I thought we’d had some of these fights before!)

Vera Brittain, The Women at Oxford

Vera Brittain, Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II (I’m curious to see what this reads like in comparison to the many volumes of women’s historical biography I worked with for my Ph.D. thesis, later my book)

Susan Leonardi, Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists (as far as I know, this is the only critical work specifically dedicated to my seminar topic, and so far it is my main source for other relevant titles)

Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. (This collection includes an essay Lynne Layton specifically on “Vera Brittain’s Testament(s)” as well as some useful-looking contextual ones.)

Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman.

This list shows the some of the frameworks that I expect will be important to talking about the core readings for the seminar in a rich and informed way: the stories of the writers; their works (our “primary” sources); the history of women at Oxford and in WWI (which means making sure I am reasonably well-prepared about general contexts); and theories and contexts on women and education, particularly university education. Each of the writers we’ll look at in detail will also raise more particular questions: with Sayers, for instance, the history of detective fiction will be of some relevance.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? That I’m excited about it makes me think it isn’t really research after all: research is work, right? Reading for pleasure isn’t work. And yet it can be, of course, and that’s the ideal of this kind of career–that it lets you do what you love, as well as you can, to make your living. That love itself can’t be the sole purpose of your reading makes sense in a professional context, but I’ve read an awful lot of scholarly writing that seems motivated by nothing more than the need to make certain moves in order to pass professional hurdles. In a previous post I quoted C. Q. Drummond saying “policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” Too much of the apparatus and discourse of research in the university seems to me to emphasize and reward everything but love of learning: it favors, as I said in that earlier post, “a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible.” This project so far has been supported only by me, with some help from my university library. So it won’t ever get me mentioned in the Assistant Dean’s report (just as my publications in Open Letters had no place, literally, at the display of recent books and articles put on in my Faculty)–especially if its only output is a class, not an academic article or book. I haven’t ruled out that kind of result down the road, but I haven’t defined it as a plan yet either. In the meantime, I’m going to keep calling what I’m doing “research.”