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…


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).

Continue reading

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.”

‘Tis Aw a Muddle…or Is It?

I’ve been trying for a while to find a conceptual framework that will unify the various reading and writing activities I’ve been doing. The immediate, pragmatic motivation for bringing things into some kind of order is that it’s about time I applied for some research grant money to support those activities (and by “support,” I mean pretty basic stuff, like buying ink cartridges for my office printer or paying for research-related xeroxing, not to mention buying books, renewing memberships in professional associations, or upgrading my take-home computer equipment–all expenses that are not covered by my department or faculty). There is money to be had, internally and externally, but of course to get any of it you need to have a research project defined clearly enough to justify your demands. I have a couple of objections to this system. One of them is just to the principle of the thing: doing research is part of my job, so I’ve never understood why I have to scrounge up the money necessary to get it done. Another is to the inflationary effect of the grant application process. Except for the occasional conference trip, I don’t actually need much money–what I really need is time to think and read. In terms of funding, what I’d like is enough to cover the basics (cartridges, xeroxing, books) on an ongoing basis. I’d like to feel I can keep reading and thinking and looking things up and writing things until I reach a point at which I can’t express my ideas and findings adequately in short form but need the time and resources to produce a book that will do them justice. Instead, I have to start the process assuming I’m writing a book, because that’s the kind of project that gets grants. So I have to inflate the significance and scope of what I’m currently doing, and what I plan to do next, so that I can ask for enough money to get taken seriously. (SSHRC standard grants, for instance, now require a minimum budget of $7000, but we’re generally advised to ask for a lot more). Our main internal source of research funding clearly spells out in its terms that it is seed money for SSHRC-fundable projects, so it is also not hospitable to exploratory work, and it also rules out what it calls “basic research overhead,” which it declares is the responsibility of our departments and faculties. It doesn’t say exactly what counts as “basic research overhead,” but I’m thinking that category probably includes things like printing and xeroxing, and maybe books (which I know SSHRC used to refuse to pay for)–and it specifically excludes computer equipment. So some fancy footwork is required to explain one’s research needs in a way that will at once meet the approved criteria and actually provide the things one needs for one’s research. And, to get back to my main point, the whole thing has to be framed as an attempt to accomplish some clearly defined research endeavor…ideally, one that builds in some coherent way on past research accomplishments.

Of course, I have applied for research funding before, and I have used the resources I obtained responsibly and gotten things done–published, even. I haven’t made a successful SSHRC application yet; my one attempt (which, in retrospect, I admit was enthusiastic but naive in its presentation) was slapped down hard enough that I wasn’t very motivated to try again, though it’s interesting to me that I have, after all, gone on to do some key parts of the ‘program of research’ described in it, so it can’t have been altogether wrongheaded. The most recent internal money I got was to help me get the Broadview anthology taken care of. But now that’s all gone, and so is my last print cartridge and any remaining credits on my copy cards. So it’s time to go back and ask for some more. But for what?

My problem is (and I realize that I have brought it on myself by the choices I’ve been making about how to use my time) my attention has been increasingly diffused over the past couple of years. Instead of picking one critical problem and pursuing it consistently, I’ve been looking around at a lot of different things. Why have I been doing this? Well, for one thing, I can’t seem to bring into focus any one critical problem that feels urgent to me: I can’t find something to work on that seems truly necessary and exciting, and I’ve chosen to indulge–or respect–my weariness with the flood of academic microcontributions that has resulted from the incessant pressure to publish as soon as possible and as often as possible. I felt that academic scholarship tended too far away from the liveliness and urgency of literature and I wanted to look outside to see how non-academics talked about books, or how academics talked about books outside of ‘work’ that maybe had more mobility and potency. And the first thing to really hit me once I started looking around in this way was just how ignorant my own specialized research had made me. Behold, I knew not anything! Or at least not anything that anybody else was likely to take an interest in–or so it seemed.

This was the point at which I began a relatively systematic exploration of books about books, as well as books about the relationship between academic criticism and what we might call ‘public’ criticism. This was also the point at which I began taking more time writing blog posts and tentatively looking for a place for myself (small, no frills, just a corner of my own) in the wider world of book talk. It took me almost no time to realize that I am very poorly equipped to be a public intellectual: graduate training does not produce generalists, and life pre-tenure, not to mention life post-babies, does not make it any easier to broaden your reach. Still, my professional work has given me some equipment for analyzing books that aren’t Victorian novels, and it was both educational and fun to see how that might work. I have also written about academic issues and about my teaching, both exercises in mobilizing what I know in new ways. Along the way, I think I’ve done some decent thinking and writing. (I’ve written before about the intrinsic benefits of blogging; making connections with other readers and writers, academic and not, has been the very best part of this experiment so far.) I’ve also completed the Broadview anthology and puttered along with my inquiry into Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun as an engagement with Middlemarch, so it isn’t as if I’ve been doing nothing but playing online. However, I do feel that I have fallen behind in my supposed area of specialization, because while I was looking the other way, the flood of new publications continued. Now I feel inadequate in two directions!

Overall, though, I’ve been doing so much reading and writing that it seems as if it must add up to something. So far, however, I just can’t see what. I can see a strong convergence between my metacritical inquiry into the nature of academic criticism and its alienation from the wider reading public, on the one hand, and my attempt (primarily through blogging) to find a different kind of criticism, though so far that attempt is not systematic or particularly ambitious. I can see links, too, between those issues and my work on 19th-century criticism (very much an activity of the public sphere). But I don’t really want to do a project about criticism so much as I want to do criticism differently…but it’s hard to see how to do writing about the literature I’m best prepared to write about (Victorian literature) in a non-academic way, because non-academic book talk seems (reasonably enough) preoccupied with contemporary writers about whom, and about whose contexts, I discover I am in many respects an amateur. So perhaps the Soueif project stands as a way of bringing 19th-century literature into a modern discussion because that is what Soueif herself does by taking Middlemarch as in some way her starting point?

Well, I’m not going to arrive at any answers tonight, and there may in fact be no answer that draws these different threads together. Maybe what I need to do for the grant application is articulate fully the interests and goals of the Soueif essay and never mind the rest. But I’d like to think there’s a point to the rest of it too. I’m also aware that exploring without a shaping purpose eventually becomes dilettantism, and I’m convinced of the importance of being earnest even without a research grant to strive for, so any time I can clear some mental space, I’ll think about it some more.