Back Again — With Books!


Why is book shopping part of any vacation I take? It’s not as if we don’t have bookstores in Halifax. I think it’s something to do with the feeling of freedom from constraints that holidays bring. If I’m not responsible for work, regular meals, or housecleaning, surely I can be irresponsible in other ways too! Not that buying books is necessarily irresponsible. As my wise sister once pointed out to me (and she’s a person who has bought a book or two in her day…) a new book costs about the same as a decent (not even a really good) bottle of wine — and it lasts a lot longer and can be shared more widely! Besides, I’m an English professor, a critic, and a book blogger: books are necessities, not luxuries, right? (I feel pretty safe asking this rhetorical question here, since people who disagree are unlikely to be reading.)

My book haul this time is actually quite modest, especially considering some were gifts and one is a loan from my mother. I could actually go “book shopping” just on her shelves and make out better than in most bookstores, as there is a lot of overlap between our interests and tastes. Her Bloomsbury section alone is a treasure trove! And if you want to read about the history of the Balkans, she’s there for you. But I restrained myself and took only Carol Shields’s Small Ceremonies. I’m teaching Unless again this fall and this is one of Shields’s that I have never read. It has a great opening line — understated but immediately engaging in a way that reminds me of Anne Tyler: “Sunday night. And the thought strikes me that I ought to be happier than I am.”

olafsdottirMy mother and I made our traditional trip to Hager Books in Kerrisdale, which has a relatively small but carefully curated selection that always provides many tempting options. Here too I was restrained, though! I chose Penelope Lively’s Dancing Fish and Ammonites, which I had eyed there last year in hardcover but which is now available in a neat paperback. I liked Oleander, Jacaranda a lot; this later memoir looks as if it will focus more on Lively’s writing life. My other choice was more impulsive. In general my book browsing this trip was influenced by my frustration with the highly-touted The Goldfinch, and as a result I was drawn to books I had heard little or nothing about — which has its own risks, of course! (Serendipity isn’t always the worst guide, though, as I found when against all precedent I chose Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden a few years back.) I don’t know exactly what made me pluck Audur Ava Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November off the shelf, but once I had, everything about it appealed to me, from the cover design to the description of it as “a charming story of a free-spirited woman who reaches a life-changing juncture and embarks on a whimsical Icelandic road trip that sets her on a new course.” Who could resist? (I’m not sure if I mean the book or “a whimsical Icelandic road trip,” which actually sounds pretty inviting to me. If you come calling in a month or two and I’m nowhere to be found, I may be in Reykjavik.)

Small-Blessings_tpWords like “charming” can be warning signs for me, and yet I was also drawn to Martha Woodroof’s Small Blessings, which has a blurb from calling it “a charmer.” Oh dear, right? But it’s about a college professor and a book store manager, and (like Small Ceremonies) it looked like it would have an Anne-Tyleresque vibe. I looked at it in Hager Books but decided against it. When I stopped in at Indigo a couple of days later, though, there it was again, and this time I bought it. I read most of it during my long travel day home and finished it up this morning. It is charming. It’s not as good as the best of Anne Tyler, but it has the same interest in fairly ordinary people figuring out how to be happy, which is nowhere near as small a topic as it sounds. I appreciated how unpretentious the novel was: it never seemed to be straining after something the novelist couldn’t do. Usually I admire ambition: once again, I blame The Goldfinch — which, while not exactly a failure, seemed arrogantly inflated — for my seeking modesty for a while. Small Blessings does a lot less than The Goldfinch, and it doesn’t even aspire to be a novel of ideas (as far as I could tell). But what it does, it does nicely, with (yes) charm.

My other Indigo purchase is similarly small-scale, though not necessarily unambitious: I chose a volume of Alice Munro stories to add to the too-few I already have. I’m always vowing to read more short fiction in general and more Munro in particular. I chose Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage because it includes “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which I have read and found thrilling and deeply moving. (It’s the basis for the film Away from Her, which I thought was very good.)

The only other book I bought on the trip was a slim book about Emily Carr, from the Vancouver Art Gallery. I have always loved Carr’s paintings, particularly the ones that are almost entirely trees: they so wonderfully capture the mystery and majesty of the coastal forests I grew up beside. Perhaps because her work was so casually familiar to me, I have never tried to actually learn about Carr as an artist, though I have owned her autobiography Klee Wyck since I was a child. There’s something poignant about looking at Carr’s rich, dark woods now, when fires are burning along the coast and this kind of dire forecasting is in the news:

Over the next century, climate scientists predict that Vancouver Island’s iconic trees—such as the cedar redwoods, western hemlocks and Douglas Firs—could die off in large numbers, completely transforming the island from a rainforest ecosystem to something else entirely.

The other books in my photo are also artsy. One is a collection of Arts & Crafts postcards, a souvenir from my parents’ recent trip to England. (My problem with this sort of thing is that the cards are always so lovely that I hesitate to use them as they are intended! Maybe I should buy one of those photo frames with a whole bunch of spaces and create something decorative out of them.) And finally, we visited a wonderful woman who is a dear friend of my parents and who recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Knowing my love of 19th-century literature, she very kindly gave me a beautiful Jane Austen “daybook” from the British Library. It is full of elegant illustrations and choice quotations from Austen’s novels. I hate to sully it with my not-so-elegant handwriting, but it would be very useful for me to enter the birthdays of everyone in my family: maybe if I did that I wouldn’t be late with gifts for anyone again!


My trip was about a lot more than books, of course: that’s just the part it seems appropriate to write much about here. Most important was the chance to spend time with my parents, and with my brother and sister and their families, and to catch up with some of my cherished friends. I was very happy to be able to do all that, even in the middle of a heat wave (and even when the city was blanketed in smoke from the fires). It’s good for my soul to reconnect with them all, and it’s also always restorative to soak in the beauty of the mountains and the sea.



Summer 2014: A Reading and Writing Retrospective

IMG_1315We may have been basking in some gorgeous summer-like weather lately, but classes have begun and that means we are well and truly into fall. It had been very quiet around campus — though I find the hush kind of dreary sometimes, I’d gotten used to it, and I’ve been feeling kind of cranky at the return of loud, cheerful voices in the hallway, doors opening and closing all the time, and other people impeding my progress on the narrow stairs! But the renewed energy is welcome, as is (mostly) the return to a more active, immediately demanding routine.

It’s generally a bit quiet online over the summer too, so I thought I’d repeat last year’s idea and do a quick review of my summer activities, partly to bring people up to date who haven’t been around very much and partly to take stock myself.

Summer Reading

There were only a few real standouts in this summer’s reading. Chief among them is Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter, which was a slow burn but became that most precious of reading experiences:  something satisfying and immersive on every level. I know Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles so well that it was hard for me at first to adapt to the very different tone and pace of King Hereafter, but I can see why it is often referred to as her masterpiece. Reading it also prompted me to give Niccolo Rising another chance, and now I’m ready and eager to make my way through the rest of that series — though I doubt I’ll ever love it the way I love the Lymond books.

kinghereafterAnother highlight was Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a book ready-made for someone with my longstanding interest in women’s history and in intersections between fiction and historiography. A low point was Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. And another that I enjoyed reading but appreciated especially for the discussion my blog post prompted was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (I’m currently tracking down the Celine Dion book Tom recommended to help me think more about why we like or don’t like what we do or don’t.)

Some of the other rewarding reading I did was rereading with an eye to writing: Daniel Deronda, for instance, which I want to be the basis of an essay on George Eliot and marriage, and the Pennington novels by K. M. Peyton. But it seems as if many of this summer’s new books were in the OK-to-pretty good range (Finding Nouf or Burial Rites, for instance) or were fun enough without being much more than that (My Cousin Rachel or Friday’s Child).


I kept up my usual blogging over the summer, of course, with posts on my reading but also some reflections on teaching, including this reflection on facing my 20th academic year at Dalhousie. In as-yet-unpublished writing, I completed a prospectus of sorts for my George Eliot book — a conceptual sample, I would call it, something to clarify, if only for me, what kind of thinking and writing I want the book to represent. I also wrote a short piece that I submitted, experimentally, to a publication that has yet to get back to me about it (it has been 4 months and 10 days since I sent it in, but who’s counting?). At this point I’m mulling ideas about how to repurpose it, since rejection has always seemed the most likely outcome.

PenningtonI wrote three stand-alone pieces for Open Letters this summer. One was my version of our ongoing “Title Menu” feature (our attempt to take the popular form of the “listicle” and make it something more substantial and interesting than link-bait); my offering was “8 more George Eliot novels,” from Soueif’s The Map of Love to Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers. Then I wrote an essay about K. M. Peyton’s Pennington series, for no better reason (and really, is there a better reason?) than that they are longstanding cherished favorites of mine. I had started making notes for it before the bookish internet went berserk over a piece decrying the popularity of “Young Adult” fiction among old adult readers, and my thinking about that whole kerfuffle influenced the way I ended up framing my essay, which I thought might be received as a thoughtful contribution to the debate. I guess I should not have been surprised it didn’t get picked up at all by the people who were raging away about YA fiction just a short while before: everyone had moved on to the next thing, and also the essay is long, thoughtful (I hope) and avoids extreme declarations and hyperbole in favor of careful reading. That is not what you do if you want to play Internet Outrage! Which I don’t, really — imagine the collateral damage to one’s peace of mind! But it would be nice to be recognized a bit more widely as having something interesting and relevant to say.

My most recent piece is also for one of our ongoing regular features, “Peer Review,” in which we survey and comment on a book’s critical reception. Mine looks at the criticism to date of Elena Ferrante, whose Neapolitan novels in particular have attracted a lot of very positive (and, as I discovered, very uniform) attention. I found it a very interesting essay to work on, and now I’m watching the expected flood of coverage for her latest, Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave with much curiosity to see if anyone breaks the mould. The Wall Street Journal’s review calls it “startlingly frank,” which is right out of the usual playbook. Here too I found myself exploring territory — specifically, debates about women’s writing, anger, likable characters, and “chick lit” — that have been the subject of high profile, high stakes online exchanges. We’ll see if it sparks any discussion. It amused me to find myself doing a version of metacriticism again!

On a much smaller scale, I pitched in for our annual Summer Reading feature, and again for a Title Menu round-up of lesser-known works by major writers.

Other Projects

Two other projects provided some excitement in my summer. One was the Twitter Q&A I did in June with Stephen Burt as part of the Atlantic’s 1 Book 140 reading of Middlemarch. I was very gratified that my Middlemarch for Book Clubs site was highlighted as a resource for this, and Stephen and I had a lot of fun going back and forth about the novel. Indeed, we had so much to say to each other that we didn’t end up entertaining very many outside questions! But any time anyone wants to talk Middlemarch with me on Twitter, you know where to find me.

Then in July I worked with Matt Jakubowski on an interview for a series he’s beginning on critics and criticism. He sent me very thoughtful but also generously open-ended questions to answer by email and then patiently cut my long replies down into something manageable. I don’t usually think of myself as someone who has much visible presence as a critic (so many people review so many more books, so much faster, in much more prominent venues) — so I was flattered at Matt’s interest. I also found it useful, as well as motivating, to think about myself as a critic in the ways his questions presupposed: I do have a small but growing body of non-academic critical work to reflect on, now, and I think it is in fact underwritten by ideas about what criticism is or can be, as well as what kind of critic I want to be — or, what kind of critic I can be that might make my work distinctive.


My personal accomplishments for the summer include two trips, one to Boston for an editorial summit (and, of course, some book shopping) — the other to Vancouver, for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary festivities (and, of course, some book shopping!). I also got a tooth capped that has been broken since third grade, solved (I hope) an eye / contact lens problem that had had me looking weepy for about a year, and developed what turns out to be a “tendinosis” that put a stop to my plans to step up my running routine — that, too, I hope will be resolved soon, as I have been to see a physiotherapist at last and begun a healing regimen of exercises. None of this is exactly the kind of stuff that counts as being productive, but the store of books means more reading and writing to come, and self-care has its own value as well.

And now, it’s time to look forward! I’ll be keeping up my regular teaching posts: it will be the 8th year for “This Week in My Classes,” and while there’s bound to be some repetition in the themes and problems that come up, there’s always something new going on — this term, starting with teaching Villette in my 19th-century fiction class. I also have a sabbatical to look forward to in the winter term: my goal for this term is to keep up enough momentum on my writing that I can make the absolute most of that precious time. This may mean not writing as many smaller pieces — book reviews, for instance — that don’t serve my larger goals: I’m not someone who can crank out prose in a hurry, and “even” a review typically takes up a lot of mental space for me. On the other hand, sometimes being busier makes me more efficient, something I’m often aware of as I look back, as I have done here, at the results of my summer and find that I got as much if not more writing done in the midst of teaching!

Next Week in My Classes: Beginning My 20th Year

WP_20140827_005I started teaching at Dalhousie in 1995-96, which means that 2014-15 will be my twentieth academic year at the university. What with maternity leaves and sabbaticals, that doesn’t mean 40 consecutive terms (though for many years I did also do summer teaching), but that’s still a long time to be in one place doing the same thing.

Or, at any rate, that’s how it felt to me when I did this calculation a few days ago. In fact, I was suddenly and unexpectedly swept with gloom as I walked across campus with the phrase “twenty years” echoing in my head. It was a beautiful sunny day, with just a hint of fall freshness in the air, but the buildings looked all too familiar, the coming routines felt all too predictable, the inevitable administrative hassles of the new term seemed almost too much to go through yet one more time. Even the prospect of teaching Middlemarch again after a two or three year hiatus wasn’t enough to cheer me up. It’s not that I don’t know how lucky I was to get this job (even in the mid-90s the market was tough, though not as devastatingly so as it has become) and it’s not that I haven’t liked — loved, even — a lot of things about it. I just couldn’t muster much pride or sense of accomplishment. What did I have to show for those 20 years?

You’ll be glad to know that this fit of depression has mostly passed, though not entirely. I think feelings like this are a hazard of what is otherwise a great blessing and comfort, namely the stability and security of my position. If it sometimes feels like a mixed blessing, because the down side to it is a high degree of immobility, it’s obviously still, overall, something to be appreciated and (not incidentally) made the most of, as with the kinds of experimenting I have been able to do with my writing and teaching. A lot of the changes that I have brought about in my working life are not immediately visible, after all. “You know where to find me,” I tell departing students, sometimes a bit ruefully or even wistfully, as they move on to the next stage of their own adventures, and it’s true I do still spend my time in the same literal spaces. But my mental life has moved on quite a bit, to the extent that sometimes I feel strangely detached from some of the preoccupations of my departmental colleagues. (Some of that detachment grew, self-protectively, out of the lack of interest in or support some of them — not, happily, all of them — have shown for my new projects, from blogging to writing for Open Letters: being defensive is not a good long-term strategy, I found, and being an advocate also gets tiring in its own way, so I have had to stop caring so much and measuring myself by their standards.) I’m much more aware than I was in 1995 that there’s life — literary life, even! — outside the academy, and that makes some of what we worry about seem much less interesting and important. Anyway, for better or worse, that’s one way in which I do feel I have not been stagnating but changing and even growing.IMG_1276

And it’s not as if I don’t have anything to show in other ways for my 20 year investment in Dalhousie. My academic research and publications certainly count as accomplishments, but when I am having a “save Tinkerbell moment” and need my belief restored, my surest remedy is a browse through the fat file folder I have of thank-you cards and messages from students. It’s enormously uplifting to know that the part I played in their lives mattered to them. Teachers at all levels can have this incalculably diffusive effect — I know my own life would be very different without the influence of my own teachers. I hope I told them how much difference they had made; I am certainly very grateful to the students who tell me, because knowing they cared helps me keep trying to bring my best self into the classroom every time. Even at a conservative estimate, twenty years’ worth is a lot of students: even if the majority move on and don’t remember my name, much less what we studied together, there are still plenty who carry something of me away with them — as I am cheeringly reminded every so often when one of them gets back in touch. “I saw someone reading Middlemarch in a restaurant awhile back and thought of how pleased you’d have been,” one former student recently emailed me, and I was pleased, not just that someone was reading Middlemarch (always a good thing!) but that she associated the book with me.

WP_20140827_003The other thing I have to show for my twenty years — something I benefit from every day I’m at work — is experience! It’s easy to forget, now, how new to all this I was in 1995-96. I was hired while still “ABD” (all but dissertation), and my hands-on teaching experience was limited to two of Cornell’s Freshman Writing Seminars (both capped — ah, luxury — at 17 students) and one stint as a TA (in a 19thC fiction class, too, because there were no first year writing classes big enough to use teaching assistants). The class on Browning’s “My Last Duchess” that I taught as part of my on-campus interview here was quite literally the first time I’d ever stood up in front of a room full of students (not to mention a back row of professors there to see how I did). So my first full-time term was really jumping into the deep end for me. I don’t recall any massive screw-ups beyond assigning way too much reading in my first section of Introduction to Literature and way too much writing in almost every class, because I had no idea how much time it would take to mark multiple papers for a class of 50 or 60. I had the time at first: I was keen to throw myself into a job I was excited about and knew I was lucky to have, and at first I had no children, either. But the hours and hours of marking … on top of having no files of teaching notes or materials to draw on, so absolutely every part of absolutely every class had to be prepared entirely from scratch. Good thing I was so young and energetic! (I was 28 when I came here, which means I was barely older than the first crop of graduate students I taught — in fact, now that I think back, I was actually younger than some of them.)

Now, on the other hand, I have a drawer full of notes, handouts, transparencies, and other materials, as well as acres of virtual storage devoted to more of the same. I don’t have everything covered, of course: every year I work in a new book or two somewhere, and I rarely use exactly the same notes or handouts twice. It is reassuring, though, to know that for a lot of texts I teach on a regular basis I have an archive to draw on for information and inspiration. I’m glad, too, that I haven’t recycled even the oldest paper materials, because I pull out treasures sometimes — such as, most recently, a cache of old student discussion questions for Villette including a set by Dorian Stuber, who was in one of the first Victorian novels classes I ever taught. Good questions about interesting books don’t go stale!

I also have found logistical systems that work well for me. I don’t think they are particularly original (when I mentioned them on Twitter, a number of people said they have similar strategies), but those of us who started teaching long before ProfHacker existed had to fumble our way into them. Since the second-most frequent comment on my student evaluations is “she’s really organized” (first is “she’s very enthusiastic”) I think they must be pretty good ones. One is very dull and basic: setting up spreadsheets to track all administrative aspects of every class, from attendance to essay submission to test scores. I don’t enjoy Excel, but  learning to use it reasonably well has shored up my record-keeping in important ways. A more fun thing I do to keep order is use color-coded folders for each course so that I can be sure I have the right ones when I’m gathering up my materials and heading out the door to teach. Red has become standard for detective fiction, and it’s usually green for 19th-century fiction, though this year I’m using some elegant William Morris folders (thanks, EB!). Other courses vary, but the key thing is that once I internalize a term’s colors I do a lot less scrambling at the last minute.

WP_20140827_004Another very simple thing I do is designate one shelf space for each course. Often coming back from class is a distracting time, with students tagging along for conferences or somewhere else to get to in a hurry, so I don’t have time to do fine sorting. Instead, I dump all the class material onto its shelf and organize it when I get my next chance — but in the meantime if I need to find a book or paper from it, my search is neatly delimited. Again, less scrambling! I have a pretty low tolerance for stress and confusion, so for me it’s well worth the little bit of forethought required. When I see offices with indistinguishable brown folders piled in heaps all over the place, I know that — while it must work for the office’s own occupant — I would be a nervous wreck by the end of a single day in there.

My only other crucial trick is using post-it notes — many hundreds of them, cumulatively — to mark important passages in the (yes, I admit it) very long books I teach so often. One of the treats of re-using a well-worn edition is taking advantage of the existing post-it notes, which often help me regain my footing in key interpretations and patterns as I go along; one of the treats of a brand-new copy (such as this year’s handsome Oxford World’s Classics Villette) is putting in a whole new set. (Yikes, how book-nerdy is that. But it is fun!) On Twitter, people mentioned colored pens, certain kinds of notebooks, and colored printer paper as other things that make their teaching days easier, more efficient, and also brighter. However much we use and now take for granted our electronic devices, there’s clearly still a special charm and a lot of use in old-fashioned school supplies.

So far I haven’t even mentioned the 20 years’ worth of increased knowledge I presumably have: when I consider how little I had read in 1995, and how much of that was not really very useful — well, I’m almost surprised they even let me teach! But they did, and here I still am. I’ve probably got another 20 years until I retire: just think how much more I will have read and learned and filed by then. I just have to keep my spirits up — so I don’t lose that third thing I’m often thanked for in my course evaluations: my sense of humor.

Vancouver Vacation: Sun, Fun, and Family

I’m back from another trip to Vancouver, this one organized mostly around the festivities for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was glorious weather the entire week, which was an especially good thing for the big party — a great event featuring family, old friends, lots of food and wine, and four musical performances from Bulgarian dance music to Bartok violin sonatas.

This was a shorter trip than my last one and involved quite a few family events, so I didn’t get around the city quite as much or see as many of my own old or newer friends (sadly, including Liz, with whom I had such a delightful lunch last year). Next time! But the city was as breathtakingly, unbelievably beautiful as ever:




And my parents’ garden was as tranquil as ever, with its colorful pots, shady trees, and soothing “gurglers”:



And Granville Island (my happy place!) was as bustling and tempting as always:




And, of course, there’s always time to do a little book shopping:


My mother and I went on our traditional outing to Hager Books, which is small but nicely ‘curated’ and so always has particularly tempting options. I bought something old (Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence), something new (Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland) and something that’s a bit of a gamble (Zoë Ferraris’s Finding Nouf, a mystery set in Saudi Arabia which, if it turns out to be well-written and smart, is a possible contender for my detective fiction class — I’m always on the hunt for books that offer a different perspective or use the form for different kinds of inquiries — we’ll see how it goes).

I picked up Heyer’s Friday’s Child at Carson Books, a used book store in my parents’ neighborhood. It’s a fun place to rummage around, though overall the prices strike me as a bit high for second-hand. This is a pristine copy of a Heyer I’ve never read, though, so I snapped it up. I also bought an Inspector Morse novel there, because something about being around my folks always reminds me that I haven’t read any of these (they are big Morse fans), but I started it and wasn’t grabbed, so I left it behind for them to enjoy. (I’m sure my Morse days will come: for my sins, I’m unmoved by the TV show as well. In the meantime, though, I may try the prequel show Endeavor, which they all highly recommended.)

And then at the big Chapters downtown (which, once you get up to the third floor, past all the frou-frou stuff that comes first, has a pretty big selection of actual books) I found two books from my standing wish-list: E. F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia (because you can never have too much British social satire in your collection) and Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters — contemporary Canadian, so a bit of a rarity and a risk for me, but recommended to me by Steven Beattie, who knows a thing or two about Can Lit. I gave it a good look in the store before deciding to actually buy it, and I like his instincts: it looks meta-historical and original, but not so quirky I either won’t get it or won’t like it.

Now I have to get myself re-organized and on track for what remains of the summer!

This Winter Term: Some Small Good Things

1005017_10152126924015803_2115018870_nI may have been in Nova Scotia almost 20 years, but it’s no secret that I have not adapted well to east coast winters. I complain about them a lot! It’s not even the cold and damp I hate so much as the stress of driving in snow and ice. If I could hibernate, or just opt out of work, school, appointments, and grocery shopping whenever the roads are bad, I might shut up about winter!

However, this particular winter (though the weather so far has been dreadful) I’m feeling grateful for a number of small things that are making my term easier. If I write them up here that will make it harder for me to forget them the next time there’s freezing drizzle on top of a foot of snow and everything starts looking bleak.

1. This is my first full term with a reserved parking spot. What a relief! Not only can I drop my kids at school without either forcing them to be uncomfortably early or fretting that I’ll arrive on campus too late and be stranded, but I can even leave and come back during the day if I want. Or make a morning appointment off campus and still come in to my office after. This flexibility would have been even nicer when the kids were smaller, but even now it sure feels liberating not to be worrying about this logistical issue every day.

2. This is my first term in many years without a 9:30 class. Happily, I have long managed to avoid 8:30 classes (by nature I’m a night owl, not a morning person), but even a 9:30 class means having very little prep time in the morning, which means knowing you have to arrive on campus basically ready to go, which means often doing prep in the evenings. I’m sure I’ll still do some reading or marking or making up handouts after dinner, but not as often, and at the very least I’ll know I have plenty of time to do things like finalize notes or print and copy materials on campus before I have to head into my first class.

3. And speaking of classrooms, for the first time that I can remember my classes are all meeting in the same building that my office is in. This is a huge break during the winter term! Not only will I save all kinds of time putting on winter gear and trekking across campus and back (and, of course, also miss the unpleasantness of going outside repeatedly in cold, wet, blustery weather), but I don’t have to teach in my winter boots in my usually overheated classrooms. Plus if I forget something, it’s literally right upstairs, so I don’t have to check and re-check the contents of my folders and bags quite so obsessively. Win! This is possible because …

4. I have a very modest number of students this term: only 2 classes, with 30 in one and 22 in the other. Classrooms in this building officially hold 36 students; my classes capped at 40 used to get scheduled in here regularly anyway but apparently the fire marshal has gotten serious and as a result (because they are pretty much always full) I’ve been exiled for them – and classes capped at 60 or 90 (like Mystery and Detective Fiction) of course always have to be elsewhere. So: more intimate groups, less marking, more discussion instead of lecturing, and all in one building. Hooray!

5. Finally, and not specifically teaching or work related, I just discovered Sun Butter. It really does taste just like peanut butter! I used to love peanut butter, but since my daughter was diagnosed with a severe peanut (and tree nut) allergy over a decade ago, we haven’t had any nut products in the house. Sun Butter is completely nut free! (It’s made of sesame seeds.) I always doubted the nut-free alternatives but a friend assured me she even preferred this to the real thing so I finally risked it … and it’s good! I’ve never resented going without nuts at home (it’s actually easier, too, than worrying about cross-contamination — we can all just relax and eat), but it’s nice to have an old favorite so nearly restored to me. And if I get more protein in the morning and that gives me extra energy, that may indeed be a plus for my teaching term.

You see? I said these were small good things*, but they add up! I’ve been surprised, actually, what a difference the first three especially are making to my frame of mind during what is usually such a stressful time. Do you have any small (or big!) changes this term that make your days a little better? Or any that you wish you could make?

*A small bad thing is that the fiction anthology I’m using doesn’t include “A Small, Good Thing,” which is one of my favorite short stories. But you can’t have everything!

Holiday Traditions

Tree 2013

On Sunday, while the snow and sleet and freezing rain made a mess of things outside, we stayed cheerful inside as we carried on one of our favorite holiday traditions: decorating our Christmas tree while listening to Michael Bawtree’s recording of A Christmas Carol. There aren’t a lot of activities, holiday-related or otherwise, that all four of us are equally enthusiastic about, so one reason this is such a special time is that we really feel together during it — even though we all  participate in different ways (Maddie and I do the actual decorating, while the other two get cozy and just listen).

Rituals of one kind or another are of course fundamental to a sense of belonging, whether to a family or to a community, and one feature of academic life that I’ve written about here before is that because you rarely get to choose where you settle, you’re likely to be transplanted, and thus to be disconnected from the traditions that helped shape your identity. That’s not always a bad thing, I realize: when you are separated from your family it’s perfectly possible to idealize proximity! But rituals are something my own family was (is!) always very good at. Things weren’t absolutely the same every year (we used to joke about coming up with “brand new traditions”) but when I think back on my childhood I remember fondly (to give just one example) how we would “always” play charades until midnight on New Year’s Eve and then wait on the front porch until we heard the ships in the harbor before banging wildly on pots and pans to welcome in the new year. (We weren’t the only ones in the neighborhood who did this, so it didn’t make us pariahs…I don’t think!)

When my husband and I were first married, we usually traveled to stay with one or the other of our families at Christmas, but winter is not a good time for trips, especially if you’re teaching on both sides of the break. Then after we had children, the increasing costs and complications made our decision to stay home overdetermined. We’ve had the occasional visitor out here, if not for Christmas itself, at least for the lead-up to it (and one memorable year, because my brother was also living in Halifax, all the rest of my family came out!), but now by and large the four of us are on our own through the holidays, and we’ve gradually figured out what traditions work for us. The tree decorating is one. Another is an adaptation from my past: one of our traditions was “Advent Brunch,” a festive occasion usually on the first Sunday in December which marked (for our wholly secular family) the launch of the Christmas season. We broke out the holly-patterned china and the Santa decorations and the Christmas mugs and all the other paraphernalia that of course can’t have been, but seemed, eternal. We unpacked the Christmas records, too, and the books, and we got tiny presents (I especially remember, because I still have most of them, the new holiday pin tradition!).

Advent Treats

Something like this (though with a more modest menu and not quite so many trappings) has also become part of the Maitzen Family Christmas. We try to stick to the rule that there’s no (or very little) Christmas activity before then: though local stores had their Christmas stuff up before the Hallowe’en decorations had quite come down, there were no carols or decorations in our house before December 1!  (I’m with Monica: “Rules help control the fun!”) The kids mock me about this rigidity sometimes, but I think they actually appreciate that special occasions stay special because they aren’t every day.

One ritual we came up with ourselves is our unusual strategy for gifts: we dole them out one per day once school gets out, keeping things relaxed and allowing time for appreciation and gratitude. We used to go on a Christmas lights drive around town on a suitably ice-free night; this tradition was cut short by a tragic car-sickness episode a couple of years ago … but we used to really enjoy it, so we are weighing the risks of trying again. Or maybe bundling up for a Christmas lights walk around our quiet neighborhood: that might make an excellent brand new tradition! Then there are the Christmas movies: we all love The Muppet Christmas Carol, so that’s another good time for togetherness, and then different combinations of us can be counted on to watch ScroogedWhite ChristmasA Miracle on 34th Street, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and It’s a Wonderful Life at least once over the school break. All through December, we also enjoy our Advent calendar routine: we have one that has an (abridged) installment of A Christmas Carol for each day, so the kids take turns reading it — and, lately, acting it out (as of today we’re up to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come). This year we got another beautiful calendar that has an ornament in every window that then gets hung on the tree you can see as the centerpiece in the picture of our Advent Brunch table.

Holidays 2010 028

Because of our one-a-day present opening, Christmas Day itself is not the hyped-up occasion it is in many households, but we do keep up the tradition of putting out and filling Christmas stockings. I find it’s an excellent way to restock the kids with socks! I have a lot of fun picking out other little goodies for them too, and I keep up another of my family’s traditions by always topping the stockings off with a book. We have a traditional Christmas breakfast (pancakes) and dinner (roast pork with fixings), and dessert (apple crumble). The predictability adds to the pleasure: for one thing, it makes the preparation easier, and we all know we will enjoy the results. (Last year I actually made the radical decision to serve lamb instead. It turned out well, but it also turned out that Maddie doesn’t like lamb and we don’t like it a lot, or not as much as we like the pork — so this year we’re going back to the usual, though I have flirted with doing roast beef, which is what my grandmother “always” served us when we went over to her house for Christmas dinner.)

We’ve arrived at our family traditions through some trial and error. It was important to realize that we needed to find rituals that worked for us, with all our quirks and idiosyncrasies, rather than trying to relive our childhoods (or at least not entirely!) or live up to some imaginary ideal of what families should do on holidays. It turns out that we like things quiet: we’d rather see a few friends than have a big party (or go to one); we have no urge to stand outside in a crowd to cheer in the new year but prefer to watch a movie and turn in when we’re tired;  a holiday for us means time with fewer obligations and stresses, not more. Every so often it seems a bit too quiet to me, especially when I get reports from back home about everyone going to and fro and having all kinds of sociable fun. But we rush around a lot as it is, and so now, really, my favorite tradition of all is just taking my book and my Baileys and sitting to read where I can bask in the calming beauty of the tree.

Do you have holiday traditions you particularly enjoy? I know I’m not the only one who’s far from the people and places, and thus rituals, that I grew up with: what brand new traditions have you developed that work for you where you are now in your life? Do you embrace the quiet or relish the social whirl?

Previous holiday posts:

Christmas Music

Christmas Books

Santa Claus is People!

Holiday Concerts

This Week in My Classes: Processes and Products

The second full week of term has gone by already: it’s amazing how time seems to accelerate when things get busier. In both my classes we have moved from throat-clearing and context-setting to richer discussions about our readings: in The 19th-Century Novel from Austen to Dickens, we’ve wrapped up our work on Persuasion, and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we’ve got only one more class on The Moonstone. Starting the term with these two novels eases the transition from summer’s languors to fall’s stresses because both are so delightful. At least, I think so — and it seems as if a lot of students are enjoying them as well. Discussion in the Mystery class has been particularly good so far this term, especially considering it’s a big class (capped at 90), which can sometimes be inhibiting. I hope they keep putting their hands up!

academicselfOne thing I’ve been thinking about as our work gets underway, and as I contemplate my own non-teaching ambitions for this term, is trying to make the process as meaningful and rewarding as possible, shifting some emphasis away from the product — which for students is often the course credit or the grade, and for me is the finished piece of writing. I’ve been reading Donald Hall’s The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual (thanks to @MsEMentor for the recommendation!) and while I have some doubts about whether I want to be an ‘academic self’ of the kind he describes (more about that, perhaps, in another post), I have been struck by the wisdom of his emphasis on this process / product distinction, partly because I have found myself caught up in just the kind of results-oriented moping he describes (if not for exactly the same causes):

We all know (or should know by now) that we may complete professional tasks to the best of our abilities, “play by all of the rules,” so to speak, even overachieve and push ourselves to extremes, and still be denied the book contract we have been working for, the position we have applied for, or the raise that we feel we deserve. If we tie our sense of professional payoff only to a desired reception of the end product of a process, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, perhaps even a state of bitterness or burnout.

As he discusses, there are lots of reasons, some of them good ones, to be fixated on achieving particular goals, but “we simply do not have to have a specific reaction to the products of our processes for those processes to have been worthwhile.”

I think there is actually a close relationship here between my students’ situation, as they strive for grades and credits, and my own difficulty dissociating the worth of my work from the reactions or results it gets. After all, I spent a great deal of my own life as a student, and in many ways academics carry forward the mental habit of waiting for affirmation from other people’s evaluation. How different, too, is the hiring process, the tenure process, or the promotion process from being graded? Or, for that matter, the grant application process or the article submission process? Well, OK, of course there are differences, including the presumption that for most of these professional matters we are being evaluated by our peers, and the not-insignificant point that our success in some of them (hiring in particular) really shouldn’t be understood as measures of our merit so much as of our great good fortune. But these things all feel a lot like handing in an essay used to, and I’m someone who once locked herself in a bathroom in Buchanan Tower to weep over an A- from a professor whose approval I really wanted — which is to say, I’m someone who (like a lot of academics) has a hard time believing in my own judgments of my work, and a hard time separating judgments of my work from judgments of me personally. I am making progress on this front, I’m glad to say, but I still find myself waiting anxiously for external validation when, for instance, something of mine is published online. There’s still that part of me that is waiting for my grade, for the internet equivalent of an ‘A,’ whatever exactly that is.

I know, I know: there are so many things wrong with this, and I don’t just mean that it’s kind of pathetic in a grown woman more than two decades along in her professional career (though that is certainly true). Having become self-conscious about it, I do at least now work consciously against it, and one way I do this is simply by rereading my own work, which (I am learning to assert, on my own behalf!) I think is pretty good! Why shouldn’t I be able to tell or say that, after all, considering it’s actually a big part of my job to evaluate writing? But the other thing I want to do is give more weight to, or feel more positive about, the process of doing the work. As Hall says,

I cannot know if the words that I am writing at this moment will ever appear in any form of print other than that which comes out of my computer. . . . But I can decide that this act of creation, this thinking through of ideas as they move from conscious and subconscious thought through my fingers and onto the screen is enough to satisfy and sustain me, even if the unfortunate were to occur.

He isn’t advocating that “we dispense with highly concrete goals” (as he points out, that would be “to court disaster” professionally, as well as to shirk other dimensions of our research and writing lives by not aiming to get our thoughts “disseminated”). But he’s right that “those processes . . . . must be more explicitly valued, must be recognized as professional ‘goods’ in and of themselves.”

To bring this discussion back to my teaching, I have realized that some of the greatest frustrations I’ve run into as a teacher have come from student priorities and behaviors that are results-oriented without due attention to the intrinsic value of the processes we go through (as well as to the benefits that careful attention to process can bring to achieving desired results). A simple example: papers that are clearly (or on the student’s own admission) started and finished the night before the deadline — I’m sure many other professors have had those dispiriting conversations that begin “I’m going to work on my essay tonight” and you cringe, knowing that means they won’t have time to rethink or revise, just as they very nearly have run out of time to consult. The essay-writing process matters less to that student than getting the credit for the finished essay. Or there are students who don’t finish the readings until they are studying for the final exam, or who never read them at all (I’ve had students note on their evaluations, almost as a point of pride, which books they never did actually read) — they too are circumventing the process (which is where a lot of the real learning can take place) and focusing only on the final product. I’m trying, increasingly, to disrupt these habits by building incentives to good process into the course requirements (reading journals, paper proposals, short tests). I’m also taking more time to discuss the relationship between our processes in class and the overall goals of the course, in terms of learning and practicing skills as well as in terms of getting good grades. Yes, students should aspire to earn good grades, and I should enable and support those aspirations. But the learning doesn’t take place at the moment I return the essay or exam: it takes place while we’re doing everything else, and especially while they are doing everything else. They should try to take a lot of satisfaction from those processes — from their own “thinking through of ideas.” Then even if they don’t get the grade they hoped for, they’ll be able to dry their eyes and come out of the bathroom a little bit sooner and a lot more confident.