This Month in My Sabbatical: It’s Over!

Six months ago, I posted the first in a series of updates on my progress (if that’s what it was) through my winter-term sabbatical. As of July 1, I’m back on regular duties. Though in some ways, unless you’re doing summer teaching (which I am not, this year), July and August have a lot in common with sabbaticals, the several hours I have already spent preparing for, attending, and following up on committee meetings are clear signs that times have changed.

Looking back at my original goals and plans for this “teaching-free” interval is sort of disorienting. As the subsequent posts in the series show, my actual accomplishments differ  somewhat from those on the list I made in January! I would not say, exactly, or only, that I did not get them done, but that the plans mutated or evolved. For instance, my top priority then was to finish my essay on Ahdaf Soueif and submit it to an academic journal. I did finish an essay on Ahdaf Soueif, but it was this one at Open Letters; I have yet to decide if I want to do more with the academic one.

My next stated priority was a series of essays on Virago Modern Classics, specifically Margaret Kennedy’s novels. I did read both The Constant Nymph and The Ladies of Lyndon, but Kennedy disappointed (or puzzled and stymied) me. Spurred on in part by what I read on other blogs during Virago Reading Week, I did look into other writers of this period: a great highlight was reading Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship. I still aim to read more of the Viragos I have gathered, starting soon (I hope) with Rosamond Lehmann’s The Weather in the Street. I also read a biography of Dorothy Sayers, and this plus what I’ve read by and about Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain and my general interest in the period has made me quite thoughtful about proposing an honours seminar on the Somerville novelists for 2012-13. I don’t think I could work up to the level of expertise necessary for a graduate seminar, but I think I’d be spurred on to read with more focus with such a course in mind, and an honours seminar can be a great venue for exploring material you are somewhat but not completely knowledgeable about. Branching out like this, provided it is done with due humility, seems to me a good thing on all fronts: students get exposed to something we wouldn’t cover otherwise, and I get the fun of feeling a bit like a student again as I learn my way into the material. Imagine: the reading list could include Testament of Youth, Gaudy Night, and South Riding, plus something by Margaret Kennedy so I’d finally have to figure it out.  I’m nearly through Testament of a Generation now–a proper post on that should follow before too long.

I did do a lot of the things described in my paragraph about refreshing my teaching. I reviewed and, to an extent, revamped my reading list for Mystery and Detective Fiction. The amount of time this took, especially surveying options for the anthology, reminded me why so often–especially as ordering deadlines for fall books creep further and further back into the spring–I just stick with what I’ve done before. This is a good example of bureaucratic processes hampering pedagogical innovation–that, and the absence of any kind of book-buying budget for course development, since I find “trade” publishers more stingy with exam copies than, say, the very helpful Oxford University Press, and popular titles are hard to get at the public library. I also did some extensive re-organization of my electronic files: instead of being filed by course and then year, now my syllabi, handouts, lecture notes, worksheets, essay topics, and exams are now mostly sorted by teaching area, and then by author or function. In theory, it should be quick to find lecture notes on Wilkie Collins or all the versions I’ve done of final exams for English 3031, without having to remember which year I taught which book or which course, or which year I did or did not give a final exam. We’ll see how this works out!

With an eye to my Victorian classes as well as my own edification, I looked at a number of new books in my field, mostly without much excitement, and I read, or at least skimmed, dozens of articles and reviews. What I realized, going through this material, is that most of it makes no difference to me at all. I don’t mean that there aren’t interesting individual insights or original readings, but most of it operates on a very small scale or turns on a very particular interest or angle. None of it is paradigm-changing; nothing I saw made me feel I needed to re-think (rather than, say, re-tool a little) the approach I take when I teach Victorian fiction. Much of it is filed away for me to come back to when or if I need to take my critical attention to the next level–in a graduate seminar, for instance, or in more specialized work of my own. I’m glad to know it’s there. But I’m also, truth be told, glad to discover that I don’t need to feel so anxious about “keeping up.” What’s the benefit to it, in general, if I can read so much after such a long gap and still be satisfied that what I have to say about Jane Eyre or Middlemarch to my undergraduate fiction class remains what I want to say, has not been undermined or rendered inadequate or outdated? A year or so ago I read two good overview texts on Victorian fiction (George Levine’s How to Read the Victorian Novel and Harry E. Shaw and Alison Case’s Reading the Nineteenth-Century Novel) and they were similarly reassuring. Note that I don’t conclude from the minimal significance of this published scholarship to my immediate pedagogical goals that it is insignificant in a more general way: its purposes are different, for one thing. But also, as I have written about here before (but where? I can’t find it!), the cumulative effect of specialized critical inquiries can be dramatic–the undergraduate Victorian novels courses I teach have little in common with the one I took at UBC, and sensation fiction (on which I teach an entire seminar) had no place in either my undergraduate or my graduate coursework.

One thing that went just as expected was the steady stream of thesis material from the four Ph.D. students I’m working with. It is a very good thing that they are all writing steadily, and they are all working on interesting and substantial projects–but I admit, I wasn’t always glad to see another installment appear, especially when it often seemed I had barely turned around the last batch. Speaking of which, there’s one waiting for me now…

I had a general plan to read a lot, because, I proposed,

the more you read the richer your sense is of what literature can do, of how it can be beautiful or interesting or problematic or mediocre. I am convinced that I talk better about Victorian literature because of the contemporary literature I read, and that I teach with more commitment, and more hope of making connections with my students and their interests, because I read around and talk to them about books as things of pressing and immediate significance

I think my reading this term definitely added to my intellectual life and resources in the ways I’d hoped. Besides Testament of Youth, I’d point to the Martin Beck books as a great “discovery” for me (thanks very much to Dorian for the prompt). I’ll be teaching one in my mystery class, and I’ve written an essay on them which will be appearing elsewhere later this summer. Among the other books that really made an impression are  Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day, May Sarton’s The Education of Harriet Hatfield, Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne,  Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, and Carolyn Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time. Less successful reading experiences included Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Terry Castle’s The Professor, along with Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, which is the first book in a very long time I have deliberately decided not to keep reading.  I have my two book clubs to thank for steering me towards titles I might otherwise not have chosen, or not have stuck with. The Transit of Venus is one I’m especially interested in teaching, but it seems a risky choice, so I’d have to pick the right course.

While there are things on that original list that I did not exactly get done, I also accomplished some things on sabbatical that I didn’t specifically anticipate. I wrote three more pieces for Open Letters, including the Ahdaf Soueif piece already mentioned but also two book reviews, one of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work, the other of Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature. Though not, strictly speaking, academic publications, both of these (like the Soueif essay) are based on my professional expertise. I wrote a number of posts on academic issues, including one on “The Ph.D. Conundrum” and two on aspects of academic publishing (“Reality Check: ‘The Applicant’s Publication Record is Spotty’” and the recent one on Leonard Cassuto and blogs). I got feisty about Rebecca Mead’s high-profile, low-substance New Yorker essay on George Eliot, and went on and on about Sex and the City. I kept on soliciting and editing pieces from other writers for Open Letters, a process that is always satisfying. Finally, I accepted an invitation to participate in a conference panel, submitted a proposal and then the funding applications. Now I’m beginning to organize my miscellaneous notes and links into what will eventually be my lively, coherent (!) presentation. Along with my next essay project for Open Letters (on gender, genre, and novels about Richard III–no, really!), preparing this presentation will be my priority for the next few weeks–that, and getting things in order for my return to teaching, by which I mean preparing Blackboard sites, updating syllabi, keeping on top of waiting lists, and psyching myself up for the return to the classroom. I’m actually happy to be heading back: I have missed teaching a lot (remind me in October that I said this, will you?)

And so, onward! If I’m counting correctly, I am eligible for another half-year leave in 2014/15, provided the powers that be are convinced that I used the time wisely this year. Here’s hoping. I know that I feel pretty good about it. I have indulged my intellectual curiosity, expanded my horizons as a reader and a writer, and contributed in a variety of ways to discussions I think are very important to my profession and my discipline. I have advanced projects I’m excited about and discovered literary interests I didn’t know I had. I am eager to get back to teaching. To me, that adds up to a pretty productive sabbatical.

Cassuto On Blogs: “I have nothing against them, but I don’t read them, either.”

The quotation is from a comment by Leonard Cassuto in a recent Guardian “live chat” on academic publishing. Here it is in full (he’s responding to an inquiry from Melonie Fullick about “how academic blogging might fit in with a kind of publishing ‘portfolio'”):

Another thing about blogging: lots of people with certain reading habits don’t read blogs. I have nothing against them, but I don’t read them, either. This is as much a function of available time as anything else. By restricting myself to published writing (whether digital or print), I am in effect ascribing value to the gatekeeping function of editors. I don’t do this because I’m a snob, but rather because there are only so many hours in a day.

Especially in the context of a discussion explicitly intended to address how academic publishing is changing in the digital age, this remark strikes me as both disingenuous and disappointingly narrow-minded. To begin with, he does have something against blogs: he does not consider them “published” (huh?), and they haven’t been seen by an editor, and thus he doesn’t consider them worth reading. At all. The first objection is incoherent, especially as he later goes on to say that blogs lack prestige because of “the absence of intermediaries between writing and publication”–in other words, they are published, but without (to use his vocabulary) gatekeepers. He doesn’t read them because they are self-published. The second objection is understandable from a pragmatic point of view: there is a lot of writing out there, on and off the web, and as he says, “there are only so many hours a day.” It’s not as hard as all that, though, to do a little filtering yourself, and to me it bespeaks an astonishing lack of intellectual curiosity not to look around to see which blogs might be of professional and/or personal interest and value.  (It turns out he is able to name at least two bloggers with “street cred,” Brad DeLong and Michael Bérubé–which dates his info a bit, as Bérubé has, at least temporarily, stopped blogging–so he knows where he might start looking for others, or he does if he understands the function of the “blogroll.”)

There’s also some lurking hypocrisy here: the Guardian feature opens with a link to a “blog post” by Cassuto himself, at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Now, I don’t know the mechanics of publishing in the CHE. Perhaps there’s a careful gatekeeping process there, determining which pieces deserve to appear under that illustrious banner, or perhaps there’s at least an editor who mediates between Cassuto’s unfiltered thoughts and his posts–which he calls “columns.” (I hope so, else by his own logic, why should we read them?) Perhaps the gatekeeping process begins and ends with the invitation to write for the Chronicle, which gives you a general stamp of approval. In that case I’m sure Cassuto scrupulously edits his posts columns himself, after writing them and before posting publishing them: he’s an experienced professional writer, after all, and well-qualified to do so. If so, it might occur to him that there are others who can do so as well and get good results, even without the Chronicle‘s sheltering umbrella of authority.

Here’s the exchange that followed (in the original thread, of course, it’s interspersed with the rest of the ongoing discussion):

RM: I know this is common (I have many colleagues who say the same thing), but this attitude implies, even assumes, “blogs” as a category have nothing in them worth competing for that time with other forms of writing/publishing–which is odd, since we would never trust in such wide generalizations about “magazines” or “books” or “articles”–the content should matter, not the form. It’s an odd, and inherently conservative, form of complacency, I think.

LC: You’re missing my point about teh [sic] value of the gatekeeping function. In general, I like to invest my time in writing that an editor has seen first.

RM: I agree that editors can provide a valuable service, and that it is helpful given the array of reading options out there to let someone else provide a filter, but in 20 years as an academic I’ve also read plenty of poor stuff that somehow passed through that gate! But my main point is just that people should be wary of generalizing about (or making decisions about) blogs if they don’t read any. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence has some really good discussion of the ways peer review (as one kind of gatekeeping) can hold back innovation and new ways of thinking.

LC: I don’t want to overwork this, but part of my point has to do with the credibility of blogs in the larger world of publishing, which is what we’re talking about. Some blogs (Brad DeLong’s and Michael Berube’s come to mind) have huge street cred that has been built up not only through years of steady and high-quality output, but also (and this is significant to me) by the work that these prolific and influential scholars do outside of their blogs: in other words, lots of people read the blog because they already respect the writer’s scholarship. Of course there are good and bad blogs, just as there is good and bad refereed scholarship and good and bad articles in the TLS, but the relative lack of prestige of blogs as an outlet has at least partly to do with the absence of intermediaries between writing and publication. You might think that prestige deficit a bad thing and I might disagree, but it’s a fact that bloggers need to consider as part of their decision to devote their time and energy in that direction.

So again we have a veil of pragmatism thrown over an argument for accepting (even reinforcing) the status quo–pragmatism, at least, from a careerist perspective (see digiwonk‘s comment on that post column). Yes, it’s true: there is a “prestige deficit.” But I would have expected a discussion about ways the digital age is changing academic publishing to at least evaluate, if not actually challenge, that normative thinking. Once you acknowledge the imperfections of the gatekeeping system (“of course … there is good and bad refereed scholarship” [emphasis added]), you should be open to more imaginative ways of conceptualizing the processes or forms of scholarly discussion and knowledge dissemination. Based on Cassuto’s own admission, the presence of “intermediaries between writing and publication” is no guarantee of quality in communicating the results of specialized research. We might also consider whether there are other goals in academic publishing (particularly related to work in progress or collaboration) or other values (such as open access) that are better served by non-traditional forms including blogging. Nobody that I know of is trying to argue that blogging in general, or even particular highly scholarly blogs, should replace traditional publications. But surely it’s time people stopped saying “I don’t read blogs” as if there’s nothing questionable or retrograde about that.  At the very least, if you don’t read any of them, there’s absolutely no way you can know what their value is, which means you aren’t really qualified to speak about the place they should have in academic publishing–only to pass along the news (which is no news to bloggers) that most academics are prejudiced against them.

Cassuto is actually inconsistent about all this, though. In the comments I’ve quoted so far, he sounds resolutely against the professional utility of blogging–again, narrowly construing ‘utility’ to mean ‘useful in building a professional resume.’ Upthread, however, he makes what I thought was a very encouraging statement about avoiding preemptive assumptions based on the form of someone’s writing:

For me personally, I now judge everything case by case. if I were reviewing the work of a job candidate who writes a blog, I’d want to see if it were a good, substantial blog, and evaluate accordingly. But there are plenty of people in my discipline who would simply say that blogging is not scholarship, however broadly conceived.

Here, then, he differentiates himself from  his stodgy colleagues. Here’s my pleased reply to that earlier remark:

It is good to see you say you would actually *read* the blog to evaluate it. This seems crucial: those who simply dismiss blogging as “not [being] scholarship, however broadly conceived,” at least in my experience are usually people who don’t read blogs and make assumptions about their content and their value (and their potential role in scholarship and scholarly communication) based on what they think they know about the form of blogging.

Later on, he sets himself up as the champion of a “new world of possibilities.” A participant in the discussion proposed that it would be good if graduate programs encouraged

digital writing as part of a research portfolio. Academia will still push for “traditional” publishing outlets[;] however blogging, video and other media formats help students collect, archive and curate knowledge – which helps with research and publishing goals.

“Yes, it would,” Cassuto says:

I’ve been writing about this in my own columns in hortatory tones. But most of my peers don’t know how to teach “digital humanities.” I’ve just started to take my own advice and encourage it, but there’s an entrenched population who has to be educated about the new world of possibilities.

Perhaps it’s not really an inconsistency but rather a slippage between the broader category of “digital writing” in the first comment and Cassuto’s use of the term “digital humanities,” which (to me, at least) means something rather different. Though there are digital humanists who blog, there are many bloggers (myself included) with no particular affiliation to digital humanities as an area of specialization. At any rate, his comments specifically about blogging do not suggest he is quite as different from his “entrenched” colleagues as he believes. Blogging is a part of that “new world”; the way to be educated about it is to actually read some blogs. He has some catching up to do. One place to start, if only for its historical interest, might be here (on the internet, 2005 is pretty ancient history!).

Like Cassuto (who, to be fair, is rather taking the fall here for the many other people who have said similar things to me about their “reading habits”), I don’t want to overwork this, particularly as I understand the main purpose of the Guardian chat was to give advice on how to be a successful academic, and all practising academics know that the safest strategy is to do the most familiar (and prestigious) things.  But even so, there are no guarantees, and I do find it discouraging that, a few years after the MLA issued its own recommendations on rethinking how we approach academic publishing for tenure and promotion (PDF) (see also Stephen Greenblatt’s 2002 letter) , the conversation here unfolds in a way that ultimately reinforces not just traditional but constraining and conservative ideas about how to “get ahead.” Despite gestures towards “portfolios” and nontraditional forms of scholarly writing (both of which the MLA encourages), the emphasis is on placing articles in journals and book manuscripts with publishers–the more prestigious, the better. Even in these forms, priority is given to print over online or electronic forms. From one press rep: “most authors and academics have a preference or taste for printed books”; Andrew Winnard of Cambridge UP also  comments that:

Digital developments continue apace but print has a suprising [sic] resilience. In terms of academic career progression in the humanities, there is still, it seems, nothing that quite replaces a physical book when presenting evidence to one’s Head of Department. Compared to 300 pages in a weighty binding and an attractive cover, a ‘click’ struggles to compete.

Again, they all seem to be strangely deferential to people’s habits, which I can see if your business is marketing, but not so much if your interest is (as Aimee says at the Chronicle) “to disseminate good ideas and advance our collective understanding of the world.” (The recurrent assumption that form determines the value of content–or its prestige, if that’s any different–is increasingly bizarre to me. How many of these folks go get the print journal if they can download the PDF of the article they want? Why should this be different for another source just because it’s book length?) Blogging is approved of as a “marketing tool,” with a couple of arguments floated about the way it proves interest in (and perhaps facility for) communicating with wider audiences. When/if a blog has any “street cred,” it’s because of its author’s previous success in traditional forms of scholarship and publishing–which  creates something like an ‘argument from authority’–these must be good blogs (because “of course” there are both good and bad blogs) because they are written by people whose other work was good. And so now they don’t need editors to come between us and them! Hooray! We can read them happily–even though they’re online!–not because they are good in themselves (though they may well be) but because they come trailing the clouds of their authors’ reputations–never mind what problems there might be with the system of peer review on which conventional academic publishing (and thus prestige, and reputation) depends. No need to go looking for the little people. They’re out there, though, and in fact one great thing about blogging is that while the attention is often hierarchical, the form is not–and the results can be surprising. Even lowly graduate students can sometimes use it to clamber out of obscurity! There are more kinds of prestige, perhaps, than are dreamt of in our conventional philosophy.

In some of the recent discussions among bloggers about hostility towards academic blogging (some good links are helpfully rounded up here), some raised the point that to some (non-blogging) academics, blogs are seen as self-aggrandizing. I should be clear that I don’t defend blogging in these discussions because I think of my own blog as exemplary as an “academic” or scholarly blog. It would be a mistake, that is, to look here and draw general conclusions about whether blogging “counts” as a kind of academic publication. My particular style of blog makes that issue harder to puzzle through than blogs like, say, Timothy Morton‘s that are more (if not exclusively) oriented around specialized research interests and projects. Though I do find writing my blog helpful as I think through ideas for my academic work, I don’t use it primarily as an outlet for that academic work. Instead, particularly in the past year or so, I have been using it to different ends (see here). I don’t think those ends are irrelevant to my work as a teacher and scholar, but I think my interest in redefining that work–getting away from specialization, writing more for a broader audience, and so on–is somewhat different. Somewhat–not entirely! Given the traditional parameters of academic publishing, I could not practice (or share with readers) the kind of writing I want to do without an outlet of this kind. From that perspective, then, my blog is exemplary of the kinds of things that are shut out by the preoccupation with prestige and gatekeeping reflected in Cassuto’s comments. I have my own recent experience with the consequences of my decision to “devote [my] time and energy in that direction.” So I agree that bloggers need to be realistic about the place of blogging in their overall professional development, including about the widespread assumption “that blogging is not scholarship, however broadly conceived.” But I think it does both bloggers and the profession a disservice to let “realism” be an excuse for leaving people’s (or our own) habits and prejudices unchallenged.

And with that, I’ll edit and proofread this post, hit ‘publish,’ and welcome (as always) your comments.

Reality Check: ‘The applicant’s publication record is spotty’

To those of you who are also my  Twitter friends, I apologize: I said I was finished with this issue and moving on, but it turns out it is still going around in my head and needs a bit more sorting out–not because I feel aggrieved (that, I’m basically over), but because I think it is symptomatic in ways that are worth further disucssion.

My immediate situation is this: I was invited to participate in a panel  on ‘knowledge dissemination in Victorian Studies in Canada’ at the upcoming British Association of Victorian Studies conference. Specifically, I was asked to present a paper about my experience as a blogger and how it connects to broader issues about research, writing, and ‘knowledge dissemination.’ I was also invited to propose a workshop for graduate students on academic blogging (or, as I like to think of it, blogging as an academic). Naturally, I think this is all good. For one thing, it is encouraging to find that my blogging seems interesting and significant enough to other academics for them to want to hear more about it. Also, it seems like evidence that this activity of mine, which is not by any conventional definition “scholarship,” can nonetheless open a door for me into an event like this–at least to the organizers, that I have been blogging was a reason to include me in this gathering of scholars, not a strike against me. The panel was duly accepted by the conference organizers, and I spent some substantial time last month putting together the materials required to apply for funding to cover travel expenses and the conference registration (which in this case is quite a substantial sum, as it includes on-campus accommodation as well as a registration fee). Times are hard and budgets are tight, but participation in conferences is a recognized professional activity, the kind of thing we are supposed to do, to share our ideas and learn about other people’s. I do it rarely, because my experience is often disappointing, but BAVS is just the kind of conference that promises to be really worthwhile. Our attendance at international conferences also does a little to raise the profile of our home institutions–though in this particular context, I think it’s worth pointing out that my blog, where my name and institutional affiliation are clearly displayed, also does this. (I think it’s safe to say that many people who read my blog had never heard of Dalhousie University before they came here–though perhaps I underestimate the successes of our PR team in getting the word out. I’d actually be interested to know from readers if I’m right about this.)

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that the institution I sort of work for that I don’t regularly name here, the University of King’s College (please don’t ask me to explain the Dal-King’s relationship–nobody can do it–let’s leave it at saying that I’m a member of the “Joint Faculty”) promptly coughed up the money I asked them for. Since they are a small institution and in particularly challenging financial circumstances right now, their commitment to supporting faculty research and conference travel is particularly appreciated. Thanks, King’s! But they have a cap on these grants, and just getting to the UK is very expensive these days, even though it’s a modest 5-hour direct flight from here to Heathrow. Luckily, there’s a special fund available through Dalhousie for international conference travel, specifically intended to help with the likely shortfall between a standard-sized travel grant and the real cost of even a short trip. I applied for a modest additional sum from this fund, to make up the difference between the King’s grant and what I anticipated the whole trip would cost. This application was turned down.

This is perhaps an unnecessarily long preamble, especially since the real point of this post is not to complain about this outcome–or at least, not exactly. I understand that universities do not have enough money to pay for everything, and I’m actually readier than most of my colleagues to point to conference travel as something that ought to be more rare than it is, given the multitude of ways we can communicate with each other for free, or at least for no more than the already budgeted overhead costs for internet access. I myself last attended a conference in 2009. (That doesn’t mean that there is nothing valuable about bringing a community of scholars together, though, and providing the occasion and support for focused and also serendipitous face-to-face engagement.) Given the shortage of funds, I also see that applications have to be ranked and there will be some that aren’t ranked as high as others. I do think the rationale for these decisions should be explicit and transparent,  so that we put in the best applications we can and can realistically assess our chances of success before going to the trouble of applying again. So on getting the bad news that I wasn’t getting any more money from my university towards this trip, I fired off a request for the reviewers’ assessments of the application, and here’s where I got my knickers in a bit of a twist, because the single negative comment in the two otherwise perfectly positive evaluations was, under Quality of Applicant,”The applicant’s publications record is spotty.” Given that neither reviewer objected to my budget or to anything about the conference or to my proposed participation in it (“the conference and the applicant’s contributions seem noteworthy,” remarked the same person), it doesn’t seem far-fetched to conclude that the “spotty” publication record accounts for the relatively low rating assigned the application by Reviewer #2 (of course they are anonymous, though my application wasn’t) and its mediocre overall final rating. Did that perception “cost” me the grant? I’m not sure, since I don’t know precisely where the cut-off point was for the fund/don’t fund decision, but something did, and that’s the only clue I have about what it might have been.

But here’s the thing. Yes, absolutely, my publication record over the last 5 years (which is what they asked about) is “spotty” if by that you mean that I haven’t published a peer-reviewed academic article since 2007. My anthology of Victorian writing on the novel did come out in 2009: I’m not sure where editorial projects rate on the whole academic prestige scale, but I can tell you it was a pretty big undertaking and included a fair amount of original scholarship, particularly of the “reading things from old periodicals and figuring out if they are somehow significant, based on research into secondary materials about Victorian theories of the novel” kind. During that 5-year period, though, I have also published 5 essays and 4 book reviews in Open Letters Monthly. Actually, those are all since October 2009–so in the past 18 months or so, I have been more active as a published writer than during any previous time in my life. Because the application asked us to highlight publications especially relevant to the proposed conference, I listed my essay on Ahdaf Soueif as well as my review of Brenda Maddox’s George Eliot in Love and my pieces on Felix Holt and Vanity Fair (remember, the panel is on ‘knowledge dissemination in Victorian Studies’).  Though the blog is discussed in the description of my paper I submitted for the panel (included in the application file), I did not attempt to declare it a “publication” on the application form, even though it is in fact the writing most relevant to a paper about my experience as an academic blogging in Canada. As a blogger, there’s nothing “spotty” about my record at all: I have posted 2-3 pieces (sometimes more) every week on my blog since 2007, for a grand total of 600 posts (601, counting this one!). Some of them are incidental, some of them are substantial. Some reflect original (if sometimes incomplete) thinking about scholarly problems, many of them address critical and interpretive questions. I think I could make the case that on this occasion, I have every right to identify this material as in an important sense a relevant “publication”–but I didn’t. There’s no place on the form, after all, to justify doing so, and the package overall is pretty clear about the relevance of blogging because that’s what I was invited to the conference to talk about. Maybe I made a tactical error in trying to avoid directly confronting the whole “a blog is just meaningless self-publishing” thing, but you’d think a careful reviewer might have thought a little outside the box provided and seen that in this case, that “spotty” comment was kind of missing the point.

I did, however, present my Open Letters pieces as publications, though I did not put the little asterisks next to them to indicate “peer-reviewed.” I think this is  where the “spotty” comment really comes from, and here’s where I think our reliance on (or our faith in) peer review does a disservice, not just to those of us doing other kinds of publishing, but to the principle that what matters is the quality of the work, not the system that grants it (or doesn’t grant it) an extrinsic stamp of approval. Nobody is going to actually read any publication I list on something like this, starred or not. The task of deciding whether I’m doing good work or not has been outsourced to the readers of academic journals. I’m sure I don’t have to tell an audience of bloggers that there are serious flaws with peer review (see here for lots more about it). There’s no good reason (except efficiency and habit–and I don’t underestimate the weight of these) to assume that the little asterisk means “job well done” while its absence means “not a real contribution to the academic enterprise.” Or, we shouldn’t assume that if we understand “the academic enterprise” a little more broadly than perhaps many people do. Consider the panel topic again: “knowledge dissemination.” That’s an ugly coinage, but basically doesn’t it mean getting the word out about what we know? Who says that the only important thing is getting the word out to other academics? (Indeed, who says that other academics get their information exclusively from academic sources?) In fact, though probably the humanities were not at the forefront of anybody’s mind when worrying about this, there’s been a national discussion in recent years about the importance of communicating scholarly research beyond the traditional frameworks (for example).  My review of Brenda Maddox’s book has been viewed 561 times since it went live. As academic blogger Alex Reid has reported, statistics show that 93% of humanities articles go uncited. That doesn’t mean they aren’t read, but if they were serving the purpose they are supposed to, e.g. furthering academic understanding and debate, their citation rate would surely be close to their viewing rate. I can’t know what the results were of those 561 “hits,” but it seems fair to say I disseminated something there. My essay on Gone with the Wind has been viewed more than 9700 times since it went live, and though you would have to read it to know, it offers an extensive ‘expert’ reading that is enmeshed in my work on fiction and ethics, as well as on historiography: it just presents that expertise in an accessible, jargon-free (well, nearly!) way. The Ahdaf  Soueif essay has been viewed a modest 282 times–but reading it over, I am convinced it makes an original contribution to our understanding of Soueif’s novels, and 282 is not bad if Alex Reid and his respondents are right that the average readership for a humanities article is somewhere between 2 and 7. Why would it be better if I had padded it around with footnotes and laid it to rest in the Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures? Of course, I realize it might have been rejected if I had sent it to the Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures. The whole thing would have been a much slower process, certainly: not just writing the kind of paper that can compete for space in such a publication, but waiting to see how I did. Heck, I waited 5 months for a reply to a preliminary inquiry about submitting it to another journal, one that claims to ‘welcome’ such inquiries and even to recommend them prior to our undergoing the full submission process.  By writing it on my own terms, subjecting it not to academic peer review but to the scarily rigorous review of my co-editors at OLM, and then publishing it there, I seized an important moment and, yes, disseminated my knowledge. The only way in which I think it would be preferable to be in, say, JMEL, would be that an essay there would be found and cited by other scholars working on related topics in a way that probably the Open Letters piece won’t be–it won’t show up in the MLA bibliography, right? That said, any scholar with anything on the go these days will do a range of searches including a web search, so someone writing on Soueif is surely bound to find my essay if they are doing a half-decent job of research.

I can’t help but be aware, though, that to some extent I am rationalizing my own recent choices, the way I have prioritized my time. It has turned out that for me, it is not possible to do everything. One rationale often heard for academic blogging is that it can further a ‘proper’ research and publication agenda. This has happened for me to some extent, especially in the early days of my writing about Soueif and while I was contributing at The Valve, but that’s not really how I have been using my blog for some time. Instead of writing posts about Victorian literature, or Victorian studies, I have been writing about Vera Brittain and Elizabeth Bowen and Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo–and Salley Vickers and Jennifer Egan and Morley  Callaghan and Brian Moore. I have chosen to do this, as I have chosen to write essays and reviews for Open Letters on both Victorian and non-Victorian topics, in the full knowledge that I have only so much time for reading and writing and that these are not the kinds of reading and writing that will serve me best professionally. I know perfectly well that the kind of writing I’ve been doing doesn’t “count”;  I feel guilty and inadequate and defensive about not having been equally productive at the kind that does, and I can hardly pretend to be surprised that there are consequences to this.I have thought often about how my decision to use the security of tenure to experiment with the parameters of my work as a critic will affect my chances of any further promotion: it’s ‘research and publications’ (that is, research that leads to academic peer-reviewed publications) that will count for that, no matter how enriched my teaching is as a result of my other intellectual explorations, or how good and even well-respected my non-academic essays might become.

A couple of my “tweeps” have kindly suggested that it’s not easy being “in the vanguard” or being an innovator in a system that is as rule-bound as academia (I’m extrapolating a bit from their 140-character replies to my venting!). I think that without making exaggerated claims for the value of the writing I’ve been doing, it’s safe to see the reviewer’s response to my profile as symptomatic of something like this. The categories and labels in use are no longer sufficient; the boxes we are given to fill in do not fit what all of us are doing; the patterns we are expected to follow need to be altered. A productive, respected (if I may?) blogger presenting a paper on blogging at a panel on knowledge dissemination should not need a string of unrelated peer-reviewed publications to prove herself.

And that really is my  last word on this incident! (Well, except for any responses I might have to comments. And any follow-up tweets …. )

This Month in My Sabbatical: Not a Bad Start

I’m sort of missing the routine of my weekly teaching posts–not just writing them, but the act of taking stock that they represent. So I thought I would have a go at a similar exercise reflecting on my  progress (if that’s what it is!) through my sabbatical term. It may be even more useful, in a way, to make sure I am self-conscious about the passage of time, because my days are much less structured and my goals are in some ways more diffuse! So here goes.

Ongoing Business: Despite what non-academics often think, being on sabbatical does not mean not being at work–it means shifting the focus of your work, particularly by re-allocating the time usually spent in class prep, teaching, marking, and administration to research and writing tasks. Most of that time, that is, because there are always teaching and administrative tasks that still need to get done. For instance, this month we were asked to turn in our course descriptions for next year, which means I have already spent some time thinking about reading lists. Book orders will be due later this spring, so at this point my choices are only tentative, but I did brood about how things went with specific books or courses the last time and make some changes accordingly; I also researched and then wrote away for exam copies of some alternative texts, particularly for the Mystery and Detective Fiction class. I set up and marked a make-up exam for a student who had a family crisis right before our December final. I worked through 100 pages of a draft thesis chapter from one of my Ph.D. students and about 40 pages from another (and I attended a colloquium paper presented by yet another whose committee I am on). I wrote a lot of reference letters (and have three more I plan to finish up today or tomorrow).

Housekeeping: During teaching terms, though I stay on top of the day-to-day business pretty well, I find there’s not a lot of time to spend thinking about how I organize things, or sorting through old materials to see what needs to stay and what can go. After 15 years in this job (and 10, now, in this particular office) stuff does rather pile up. One of the first things I did in the new year, then, was to begin going through my filing cabinets: so far I have three bags of paper ready for recycling, and much less duplicate or unnecessary material taking up space. I’ve also donated (or at least put out on our “help yourselves” shelf in the department lounge) an array of unwanted books. Equally important now that we do more and more of our work electronically, though, is electronic filing, and here I have begun a big project of reorganizing my files of course materials. Long ago I decided to keep my paper notes and handouts in files by author and text, rather than course, which has worked very well for me: if I’m teaching, say, Great Expectations, I pull out the DICKENS GREAT EXPECTATIONS folder and in it I find old lecture notes, discussion questions, overheads, essay topics, etc. But my computer files have always been by course and then by year. This worked well for a few years, but now I often find myself puzzling over which year it was that I taught The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or where the latest version of the exam questions on Jude the Obscure are filed. Of course, you can simply search for key terms, but inefficiencies still emerge if you’re trying to browse your materials for a particular text or topic–plus there’s redundancy here too, as I end up with many files of lecture notes revised, expanded, or improved on over the years but still stored in multiple versions. So I’m re-sorting all this stuff into the kinds of groupings that I think will help me quickly gather what I need when I’m prepping for class and deleting outdated or duplicate files. Once the teaching ones are better organized, I’d like to do the same for my research materials. Many of these files I might copy into OneNote, which is where I now organize my new notes and draft materials.

Research: My main research project for this sabbatical is getting a version of my essay on Ahdaf Soeuif ready for submission to a peer-reviewed journal–at least, I think that’s what I want to do with it, though I admit, the revolution still unfolding in Egypt has made me feel dissatisfied, somewhat, with what I’ve been doing. More about that later, perhaps. In any case, I have finished taking my fresh set of notes on The Map of Love (on January 25th, as it happens, I was just working through a scene of intense political discussion in the novel, a debate about the future of Egypt and the possibility of change). One of the challenges of academic writing is figuring out, not just what you want to say, but when you’re ready–or allowed–to say it, given the array of contextual and critical material that already exists. When can you stop reading, in other words, and feel entitled to contribute to the discussion? There is no right way to answer this, of course, and it is easy (at least for me) to get so overwhelmed by the vastness of the existing scholarship and the difficulty of drawing lines between what’s relevant and what’s peripheral that I can’t put two words of my own together. I find what helps me most, in this situation, is to go back to my primary text, allowing whatever else I’ve been reading to buzz around in the back of my mind and help me notice things and generate questions as I go. I make detailed notes, going page by page through the novel, and along the way I usually begin to see where the main questions are for me, and how I might begin to answer them. Then I am better able to see what I don’t have to read, and to position myself in the discussion I want to be a part of. In this case, because I am starting from my analysis of In the Eye of the Sun, I wanted to stay in roughly the same territory, thinking about the relationship between Soueif’s work and the English literary tradition she repeatedly invokes. But The Map of Love is a very different book, particularly in its form, and it seems much less confident about the idea of common ground (or ‘mezza terra’) that I argued is central to the earlier novel. Towards the end of last week I started roughing out the new section of the essay.

Other Reading and Writing: I’ve done quite a bit of reading this month. I began looking at some recent books in Victorian studies, in keeping with my goal of refreshing my own expertise for both teaching and criticism in “my” field. One was Patrick Brantlinger’s Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies, but it ended up not being of great interest, as it recapitulates texts and debates that I had already become reasonably familiar with. He’s a good writer and it’s a good overview, to be sure. I’ve begin Rachel Ablow’s The Marriage of Minds: Reading, Sympathy, and the Victorian Marriage Plot, and I have James Eli Adams’s A History of Victorian Literature out from the library–another overview, but given how specialized critical work has become, I thought I’d start big and zoom in. But, speaking of specialized, I saw Julie Fromer’s A Necessary Luxury: Tea in Victorian England in the library while I was browsing around and couldn’t resist checking it out as well. Necessary indeed! I’ve documented most of my other reading on this blog already, including the beginnings of my Margaret Kennedy project–I’m two books in and feeling, frankly, underwhelmed, but I will persist! And if the essay that results is along the lines of “Margaret Kennedy: As Well Known as She Deserves, Actually,” well, that will be as interesting in its own way as “Margaret Kennedy: Underappreciated!” Among the other books I’ve read and written up are Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, for the book clubs I now participate in, and I’m now reading Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, not really for fun (how could it be? too grim!) but with an eye to my mystery class in the fall.  In addition to the ‘other writing’ that I have done here on Novel Readings (including a long piece on Sex and the City 2), I also wrote a review of Sara Paretsky’s Body Work for Open Letters Monthly–though this is not an academic publication, it certainly draws on the work I’ve done preparing for my courses on detective fiction.

Overall, then, though I’d like to be a bit further along in the rough draft of the Soueif essay, and though I feel I have not, actually, done as much reading as I’d like, or (with the academic reading) as much as I probably should have, I think I have made a reasonable start on accomplishing my goals for this sabbatical. A lot of time I might have spent working on other things, I spent reading and watching coverage of events in Egypt–I’m not inclined, actually, to see that as in any way irresponsible. I’ve also been going fairly regularly to the gym, where I run around the dreary concrete track, and I’ve made good progress on my cross-stitch “Bookshelf” sampler, including changing the pattern to include more of the books and authors I like best! Maybe next weekend I’ll get the binding on the quilt that has been sitting unfinished on my sewing table for months, and then I’ll really feel I’m getting things done…

Sabbatical!

Today is the first day of the rest of my sabbatical! Much as I love being in the classroom (usually, anyway), it’s a good feeling to confront a term in which my time will not be overwhelmed with teaching tasks and I can concentrate on the other parts of my job description–particularly, of course, research and writing–that tend to get crowded out the rest of the time. The sabbatical system is a wonderful and very valuable feature of academic life. It’s impossible to imagine sustaining the commitment, creativity, and intellectual integrity that’s necessary to do this job well without these intermittent opportunities to update my own knowledge and exercise my own skills as a researcher, scholar, and writer. We bring our whole selves to the classroom; the richer, more energetic, and more imaginative our own intellectual lives, the more worthwhile that teaching time will be for everyone involved, but especially for our students.

Not that my teaching life screeches to a halt, of course. For one thing, class descriptions and book orders for the fall term will be due before too long, which means I’ll have to make a number of important decisions about how to approach the three classes I’m slated for. It will be nice to make those decisions a bit more reflectively, and in fact one of my sabbatical projects is to refresh my ideas and knowledge about the course topics by reviewing recent critical work as well as work on effective assignments and teaching strategies. All three are courses I have taught repeatedly in recent years, so it would be easy just to do basically the same readings and course structures as before, and to some extent I am likely to rely on the materials I’ve already developed (it’s not as if I have any reason to think they are no good at all!). But it’s important not to fall into a rut, or to assume I don’t have anything more to learn myself about the texts and topics I teach. Yesterday I began compiling a list of recent books in my field that look interesting, and I even picked up a few of them from the library, so I’m ready to get started on them. Also continuing is my work with four Ph.D. students, all of whom are in the thesis-writing stage of their degrees. At this moment I have about 140 pages of their draft material waiting for my input, and I expect more to come in pretty steadily over the next few months, as at least a couple of them hope to wrap the whole thing up this year. This is another task that will be much more pleasant–not to mention efficient–without the pressing distractions of a regular teaching term, and without competition for my time from M.A. students (my most recent one successfully submitted her thesis just before the break–hooray!). Requests for reference letters continue to come in pretty steadily. Otherwise, however, this term is clear of a number of the usual ongoing chores and commitments. Least missed will be marking undergraduate essays, with attending committee meetings a close second!

So, in addition to refreshing my stock of information and ideas for teaching, what are my sabbatical plans?

First of all, I’m committed to finishing the full version of the essay I’ve been working on for a couple of years on Ahdaf  Souief and George Eliot. I had worked through a lot of what I wanted to do with In the Eye of the Sun, but I want to cover The Map of Love also and have not come to terms yet with how it complements or complicates the arguments I made about the earlier novel. And then I stalled as I tried to figure out how to balance all of the potentially relevant aspects of this project, which include theoretical issues in postcolonial criticism,  postcolonial critiques of Victorian literature including George Eliot’s novels, historical and theoretical questions about Arabic literature and the novel tradition in Egyptian literature, work on neo-Victorian novels and on travel writing and on imperialism and on women travellers, specific interpretive questions about both In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love… Well, clearly one essay can’t do everything, and I don’t need to know everything about all of these topics before I can write my essay. But I need to regroup, review the work I’ve already done, and then go back to the novels themselves and focus on explaining what interests me so much about them, how they work both formally and thematically to get us somewhere new in our understanding. In order to write the essay I also need a target publication venue or two in mind; the decisions I make about where, finally, to place the emphasis of the essay (particularly its theoretical framing) will determine (or be determined by) the kind of journal I hope might accept it. I have been thinking about Edebiyat, but the Journal of Postcolonial Writing seems like another possibility. (Other suggestions?)

My second research and writing commitment is to a series of review essays I want to do for Open Letters Monthly on some titles from the Virago Modern Classics back catalogue. Looking at these early 20th-century titles will take me outside my usual Victorian beat, but I’ve spent more time in the modern period since working up my British Literature survey lectures, and I’m very interested in learning more about these texts and writers. I have been dithering about where to start, and yesterday I finally decided that absent any overwhelming reason to do anyone in particular, I’d just have to choose, so I’ve chosen Margaret Kennedy as my first subject, because Together and Apart was the title in the very enticing pile of VMC’s Steve Donoghue recently sent me that for whatever reason piqued my curiosity the most. I don’t intend to do a complete survey of all of her work, but I got The Constant Nymph from the library yesterday (it seems, also, to be the only one still in print at Virago), and I hope to read that, Troy Chimneys, Together and Apart, and The Ladies of Lyndon. My second pick, I think, is Barbara Comyns, for the excellent reason thatI loved the first line of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. But Antonia White (whose Frost in May was the first VMC published) is another possibility. The key here, though, is committing to whatever I’ve chosen, so Margaret Kennedy it is, a writer I’ve never read and indeed had never heard of until Steve’s parcel arrived in the fall. Though I will do some light research, into both Kennedy and Virago (I’ve already read a very interesting interview with Virago’s founder, Carmen Callil), I want to focus more on the reading experience here than on contextualizing or theorizing–all part of my project to gain confidence in my own critical voice and perspective. Happily, there isn’t nearly the weight of critical opinion on Kennedy as there is on George Eliot or Virginia Woolf anyway, so the whole anxiety of authority is somewhat allayed from the start.

I have a third writing project on the go, of at once narrower scope and grander ambition, based on my years of reading and loving George Eliot’s novels. But at this point I think it’s too soon to make pronouncements or declarations about how or when this will get done. And I’m also wondering if I can or should make anything more solid out of the fairly substantial archives here at Novel Readings. I was struck by the opening line of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind–that she didn’t realize she had written a book. Blog posts aren’t ‘literary essays,’ but they can be revised into them. But then, I’m not Zadie Smith (or James Wood or Michael Dirda or whoever) and who would want to read a collection of my reviews and essays? But it’s something to think about, anyway.  I’ve been writing this blog since January 2007: I started it at the outset of my last sabbatical, and in fact my very first post was a short one on none other than Zadie Smith! When I look back at just how much I’ve written, I’m not altogether happy to let it just fade into the distance, as blog posts inevitably do.

In addition to writing projects, I have many reading plans–too many to list, and more flexible, not so much commitments as ambitions and interests. For an English professor, time to read widely and curiously is enormously valuable. You never know what books you read ‘just’ for yourself will end up infiltrating your research and teaching life (many of the books I now teach regularly, such as Atonement or Fingersmith, I first read purely out of interest). But also, the more you read the richer your sense is of what literature can do, of how it can be beautiful or interesting or problematic or mediocre. I am convinced that I talk better about Victorian literature because of the contemporary literature I read, and that I teach with more commitment, and more hope of making connections with my students and their interests, because I read around and talk to them about books as things of pressing and immediate significance. So I’ll read a lot, I hope–and write about it here! Up soon are two books for reading groups: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory for the local in-person group, and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book for the Slaves of Golconda.

And with that, I’d better get going–apparently it’s going to be a very busy term for me!

Finding My Voice: Posts on Criticism

I’ve been doing some housekeeping here on Novel Readings, setting up some index pages to make my archive of old posts accessible. I’m organizing them according to the categories you see on the tabs above: Academia, Criticism, Fiction, and Teaching. That’s not everything, but it turns out to be quite a lot! The process has been interesting and invigorating, because as I review and update the links I realize not just how many posts there are but how they reflect the evolution of my thinking about literature and criticism, as well as of my habits and practices as a critic. Most of the posts on criticism show me wrestling with my desire to reconcile the values inculcated over many years of academic training with a strong wish to write in a different way, with a different sense of purpose and for a different audience. In early 2008, for instance, I wrote a post for The Valve on “Literary Criticism in/and the Public Sphere”  that drew on my reading of scholars including Brian McRae, Morris Dickstein, and Ronan McDonald. When I wrote it, I wasn’t sure what criticism that lived up to some of its closing suggestions might look like. Now, however, I can point to my recent essay on Gone with the Wind at Open Letters as an example of the kind of thing I had in mind, what I called a “renewed and theoretically updated Victorianism”: a close reading with an emphasis on ethics but supported by an engagement with form. The Gone with the Wind essay also represents a step towards the goals I expressed in a more recent post about metacriticism and my sense that the conversation in academic blogging was going in circles:  “I just want to get on with it: trying to find a critical voice, and to hone and articulate perceptions that reflect both rigorous reading and a more personal, affective, and engaged vision of criticism.” I know I haven’t finished developing as a critic or a reader, but it is exciting to realize that I have moved forward and begun actually practising criticism differently, including speaking more as myself. Working on the index pages has really brought home to me how important blogging has been to this process.

The old post from The Valve is linked to from the ‘On Criticism’ page, but I thought I’d re-post it here (with updated links) as well in case anyone would like to comment on it (I don’t post at The Valve any more). It’s a bit long so if you want to read the whole thing be sure to click on the ‘read more’ link!

Literary Criticism and/as the Public Sphere

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. (Walt Whitman)

It is a commonplace of the history of literary criticism that the character of criticism changed when and because criticism entered the academy and became professionalized, somewhere around the turn of the 20th century (and ever after). The nature and consequences of this change have been examined and re-examined often over the years, in books such as John Gross’s The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), Morris Dickstein’s Double Agent: The Critic and Society (1992), Geoffrey Hartman’s Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars (1991), Christopher Knight’s Uncommon Readers: Denis Donoghue, Frank Kermode, George Steiner, and the Tradition of the Common Reader (2003), or the essay collection Grub Street and the Ivory Tower: Literary Journalism and Literary Scholarship from Fielding to the Internet (1998)–to name just a few.

Brian McRae’s Addison and Steele Are Dead: The English Department, Its Canon, and the Professionalization of Literary Criticism (1990) is certainly among the more lively and provocative books I’ve read on this topic. As his title suggests, McRae frames his consideration of English departments as professional and institutional spaces with arguments about what features in the work of Addison and Steele “render it useless to critics housed in English departments”–not, as he is quick to add, that “their works are without value, but rather, that they are not amenable to certain procedures that English professors must perform” (11). The short version of his story is that professional critics require difficult, complex, ambiguous texts to do their jobs (e.g. 146); the “techniques of simplicity” that characterize Addison and Steele propel them, as a result, out of the canon. As he develops his argument, McRae offers an interesting overview of the 19th-century and then 20th-century critical reception of Addison and Steele. He explains the Victorians’ admiration for these 18th-century predecessors largely in terms of the different understanding that prevailed about the relationship of literature, and thus of the literary critic, to life. Rightly, I’d say (based on my own work on 19th-century literary criticism), he sees as a central Victorian critical premise that literature and criticism are public activities, that their worth is to be discussed in terms of their effects on readers; hence the significance attached, he argues, to sincerity as well as affect. Especially key to McRae’s larger argument is his observation that the 19th-century writers were not “academicians” or “specialists in a field” (89):

For Thackeray and his contemporaries, literature is a public matter, a matter to be lectured upon before large audiences, a matter to be given importance because of its impact upon morals and emotions. For the present-day academic critic, literature no longer is a public matter but rather is a professional matter, even more narrowly, a departmental matter. The study of literature has become a special and separate discipline–housed in colleges of arts and sciences along with other special and separate disciplines. The public has narrowed to a group of frequently recalcitrant students whose need for instruction in English composition–not in English literature–justifies the existence of the English department. (92)

As McRae tells the story (which in its basic outlines is pretty similar to that told in other histories of criticism), this decline in the critic’s public role has had both significant costs (among them, the critical ‘death’ of Addison and Steele) and significant benefits. At times the book has a nostalgic, even elegaic sound:

People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors. (147)

Not that McRae thinks they should–and indeed we can all share a shudder at the very idea. But to me one strength of McRae’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McRae says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public” (164-5). In Democracy’s Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics (2002), John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself” [65]. In A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (2005), Dickstein too remarks that “Since the modernist period and especially in the last thirty years, a tremendous gap has opened up between how most readers read if they still read at all, and how critics read, or how they theorize about reading” (1).

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The Impact of the Humanities

At the TLS, Stefan Collini has a trenchant critique of the British government’s “Research Excellence Framework” for research funding in the universities. A key factor will the assessment of “impact”:

approximately 25 per cent of the rating (the exact proportion is yet to be confirmed) will be allocated for “impact”. The premiss is that research must “achieve demonstrable benefits to the wider economy and society”. The guidelines make clear that “impact” does not include “intellectual influence” on the work of other scholars and does not include influence on the “content” of teaching. It has to be impact which is “outside” academia, on other “research users” (and assessment panels will now include, alongside senior academics, “a wider range of users”). Moreover, this impact must be the outcome of a university department’s own “efforts to exploit or apply the research findings”: it cannot claim credit for the ways other people may happen to have made use of those “findings”.

Collini’s main interest is in the “potentially disastrous impact of the ‘impact’ requirement on the humanities”:

the guidelines explicitly exclude the kinds of impact generally considered of most immediate relevance to work in the humanities – namely, influence on the work of other scholars and influence on the content of teaching

Collini points out a number of profound “conceptual flaws” in the proposed process, among them the assumption that all disciplines across the university can and should be assessed in the same way, and the pressure on researchers to devote their time not to the “impact”-free zones of writing and teaching in their areas of specialization (because influence on work in your field, for instance, does not count as “impact”) but on marketing. His concluding peroration:

Instead of letting this drivel become the only vocabulary for public discussion of these matters, it is worth insisting that what we call “the humanities” are a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity. To attempt to deepen our understanding of this or that aspect of that activity is a purposeful expression of human curiosity and is – insofar as the expression makes any sense in this context – an end in itself. Unless these guidelines are modified, scholars in British universities will devote less time and energy to this attempt, and more to becoming door-to-door salesmen for vulgarized versions of their increasingly market-oriented “products”. It may not be too late to try to prevent this outcome.

Though I agree it is essential to make the argument about the intrinsic value of “the humanities,” it seems at least as important to challenge (as he does) the mechanisms for measuring impact, because the “end in itself” argument risks perpetuating popular misconceptions about the insularity of humanities research, when in fact it is quite possible to argue that our impact on the wider world (particularly, but not by any means exclusively, the cultural world) is already substantial, but probably too diffuse to be measured even by the “thirty-seven bullet points” comprising the “menu” of “impact indicators.” Two academic articles I read recently provide some supporting evidence for this claim.

Here’s Cora Kaplan, for instance, in a recent essay in The Journal of Victorian Culture:

Sarah Waters has a PhD in literature . . . ; she has said that her research on lesbian historical fiction suggested to her the potential of an underdeveloped genre. In its citation and imitation of their work, Fingersmith paid generous tribute to Victorian novelists; it also has a considerable indebtedness to feminist, gay, lesbian and queer critics and social and cultural historians of Victorian Britain. It would not be too frivolous to see Fingersmith – together with other examples of fictional Victoriana – in their synthesis of the detail and insights of several decades of new research on the Victorian world and its culture as one measure of the ways in which Victorian Studies has developed over the last half century. (JVC 13:1, 42)

And here are Patricia Badir and Sandra Tomc responding, in English Studies in Canada, to calls to take the humanities “beyond academia.” Offering a polemical summary of “what the humanities in general, fueled by highly esoteric post-structural theory, have accomplished in the way of widespread social and cultural contributions over the last twenty years,” they begin with the premise that poststructuralism began as a “theory propounded by a tiny priesthood of high intellectuals”:

But this priesthood had acolytes–graduate students at first, then, by the mid-1980s as “theory” inevitably made its way into the classrooms of ivy league professors, undergraduates. The undergraduates . . . did not uniformly move into Ph.D. programs, thereby assuring theory’s continued enclosure in a specialized community. They moved into a variety of illustrious professions and industries, including, most significantly, America’s powerful and ubiquitous culture industries. . . . [T]he Hollywood of today is ruled by ivy league degrees, most of them earned in the 1980s or 1990s, and most of them . . . heavily larded with humanities courses–courses in English, film studies, American studies, gender studies, history. These people were taught by their professors to value certain kinds of aesthetic objects. As they assumed positions of authority in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they began to patronize films and filmmakers that meshed with what they had been taught was cutting-edge culture. The signature films of the early 1990s . . . featured the “politically correct” identity issues and self-referential formal experimentation lauded in the postmodern classroom: Thelma and Louise; Philadelphia; The Crying Game; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; The Piano; Pulp Fiction; The English Patient. In television, . . . the transformation to postmodern forms has been even more radical: Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; The X-Files; Alias. . .

“One could make the same argument,” they go on, “for the field of journalism,” and they go on to do so, and to the “massive industry” in “‘literary’ objects” including not just books but adaptations. To calls that the humanities address the interests of “civil society,” they reply that “the humanities have, in a large measure, already shaped contemporary civil society”: “the fashions we are being asked to follow are our own.” (ESC 29:1-2, 13-15). I’m sure it’s easy to argue about which are the “signature films” of the 1990s, but the general case that specialist research in the humanities makes its way into the wider world by way of our classrooms seems presumptively strong–but that is just the kind of “impact” apparently discounted by the Research Excellence Framework.

I’m sure more (and perhaps more concrete) examples could be provided by most academics looking at intersections between their own fields of specialization and the world “outside” the academy. A concerted campaign to demonstrate the “impact” of humanities research might do as much good as insisting also that, whatever its “impact,” the work is valuable in itself. And it should probably be carried on not (just), as with my two examples, in the pages of academic journals, but as publicly as possible–in the TLS, but also through blogs, letters to the editor, talking to our neighbours–you name it. Many thousands of our students are out there somewhere, too, who could surely testify to the “impact” of our work, not just on their cinematic tastes, but on their thinking, reading, and voting lives. After all, the REF may be specific to the UK, but the narrow version of utilitarianism it represents is not.*


*Narrower than J. S. Mill’s, certainly: “Next to selfishness, the principal cause which makes life unsatisfactory is want of mental cultivation. A cultivated mind – I do not mean that of a philosopher, but any mind to which the fountains of knowledge have been opened, and which has been taught, in any tolerable degree, to exercise its faculties- finds sources of inexhaustible interest in all that surrounds it; in the objects of nature, the achievements of art, the imaginations of poetry, the incidents of history, the ways of mankind, past and present, and their prospects in the future. It is possible, indeed, to become indifferent to all this, and that too without having exhausted a thousandth part of it; but only when one has had from the beginning no moral or human interest in these things, and has sought in them only the gratification of curiosity.”