The Past Couple of Weeks In My Sabbatical: Various!

How’s that for a vague title for a blog post? But it is accurate, really: for the past couple of weeks my attention and energy have been focused on a range of different things. I  haven’t felt inspired to write a sabbatical update for a while precisely because my activities seemed so miscellaneous, and not that variable, either, from week to week. But it seems like time to round things up.

First, some good news! One of the questions Jo asks us at each ‘Meeting With Your Writing‘ session is how we’d like to feel while we’re working. At the top of each new entry in my MWYW notebook is my answer, which has become a kind of mantra for me this term: “engaged, optimistic, productive.” It’s optimism that has given me the most trouble, what with winter and all, but sometimes it has also been hard to tell if I’m being productive because I haven’t been quite clear on my goals. The past week has been a particularly good one in all these respects, though, because I decided on a concrete task I wanted to accomplish that turned out to be really fun to work on. Imagine that: I have been enjoying writing! In fact, it came so (relatively) easily and has caused, so far, so little hair-tearing and second-guessing that I’m starting to think I must have gone horribly astray. It’s a subset of the larger plans I have been following for the George Eliot book project, something I thought would work well at essay-length. It’s now in a reasonably clean draft awaiting a final round of editing and revision. We’ll see what becomes of it, but right now I’m just happy and energized by the experience of pulling it together.

In other good news, the May issue of Open Letters Monthly went up on schedule; if you haven’t already checked it out, I hope you will! As always, the pieces range very widely — more widely, we think, than in most other literary journals. Books reviewed include Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and Helen Vendler’s The Ocean, The Bird, and the Scholar; John Cotter contributed a thought-provoking essay on the possibility that the gigantic glass atrium at Boston’s MFA is a symptom of our changing relationship with art; Steve Donoghue tests (as only he can) the claims of a new translation of the Iliad to be “declaimable”; and I offer a “Second Glance” at Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. I thought about Open Letters today when I read this piece on the effects of Britain’s REF: “Taking on a journal editorship? That means you’ll be helping other scholars publish their REF research, but what about yours? Can you spare that kind of time?” I realize that Open Letters is not necessarily the kind of journal editorship she has in mind (though I have had British scholars tell me that writing for it is something that they think works in their favor), but I have often felt particularly pleased that one thing I’ve been able to do there is show off how smart and interesting my academic colleagues and connections are. I don’t know if that kind of editorial role will count in my favor if I ever go up for promotion, but I think (I hope) that we are still clinging to more generous and collegial models of scholarship on our side of the pond — for now, and maybe just barely, as that piece emphasizes.

unbrokenThe other writing I’ve done has already shown up here, in my posts on my recent reading. I’m currently completing my “war in the Pacific” unit with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, which I gave my husband for Christmas. I rarely risk buying him books, but he likes good nonfiction, and this one seemed ready-made for him, as he’s a long-time track and field enthusiast and his father piloted a B-24 during WWII. He really enjoyed it, and I’m enjoying it too — though “enjoy” probably isn’t quite the right word for either of us, since it’s rather a grim story! A lot of it is, naturally, very reminiscent of elements of both The Narrow Road to the Deep North (particularly the treatment of the Allied POWs in the Japanese camps) and Shame and the Captives (especially the context and commentary Hillenbrand provides on the aspects of Japanese culture that contributed to the extreme brutality of the camps). I find Hillenbrand’s narrative a bit clunky or heavy-handed at times: it has that “one damn thing after another” rhythm that is perhaps inevitable when you’re putting together a lot of material into a fairly straightforward chronological account. I suspect that images from the novels will stick with me longer than anything from her book except the outline of Zamperini’s undeniably astonishing story.

Once I’m done with Unbroken I think I’ll be happy to read something that doesn’t involve beatings, excrement, or hungry sharks. I picked out Nicola Griffith’s Hild and Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy with my birthday gift card to Bookmark, so one of them will likely be next, though I also got Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us from the library today because a friend highly recommended it. I’m starting to be more aware of the luxury it is to be choosing my reading material this freely: it won’t be long before my sabbatical is officially over (June 30 suddenly doesn’t seem so far away!), and I’ve already started thinking a bit about fall classes, as book orders were already due. I’m second reader on an MA thesis that should get to me in early June, and I’m also participating in a PhD comprehensive exam coming up in just a couple of weeks, for which I’ve been having semi-regular meetings with the student. A sabbatical is not, in fact, ever a period of complete isolation or exemption from one’s regular duties! But come September I’ll be doing required reading again.

This Week in My Sabbatical: Out of Sync

thedanceToday is the last day of classes in Dal’s winter term. Usually, that would mean I am feeling elated, relieved, deflated — and a bit panicked at the looming prospect of grading final papers and exams. But because I’m on sabbatical, it’s just another day, which brings on its own feelings, including some disorientation. The thing about academic life is that it has such strong rhythms, such intense recurring cycles of highs and lows, from the optimistic frazzle of the first day of classes through the mid-term slump and slog to the year-end celebration. Everyone goes through these phases, teachers and students alike, and the result is a strong, if occasionally fraught, camaraderie as we go up and down together.

I’m not sorry, of course, to be out of that rhythm for a while, though as my sabbatical goes along one of its beneficent effects is that I’m thinking positively about teaching again (which was not so much the case late last December) and I’m almost (almost) ready to enter wholeheartedly back into conversations about graduate student funding, curriculum reform, class scheduling, and all the other topics that draw us together even as they drive us apart (academics are nothing if not fractious!). It’s nice not to be on that erratic hamster wheel and to pace myself according to my own priorities, and also to follow my own energy as it rises and falls instead of forcing myself to meet a steady stream of external demands. When you’ve been “in school” one way or another as long as I have, though, it is odd to have time passing in this steadier, more self-reflective way, especially when you are working on campus and everyone around you is caught up in the familiar pattern.

WP_20150409_002My own sabbatical rhythm — which has never quite settled into a regular beat thanks to the nightmarish winter we’ve had — has been more disrupted than usual this week, first by the Easter weekend and then yet another snowstorm Tuesday morning, and then by the beginning of a long-anticipated kitchen make-over. We are finally saying goodbye to our aging laminate cupboards and vintage 80’s appliances, which were failing bit by bit and thus ultimately forced our hand: there comes a point where it seems like throwing good money after bad to keep them running. We aren’t doing anything structural — just taking the old stuff out and replacing it with new stuff — but even so there’s a lot of domestic disruption (something they rather downplay in those TV shows where a top-to-bottom renovation appears to happen in 60 minutes less commercials). To my surprise, the thing I find most frustrating is not having a proper sink. Even filling a kettle becomes a logistical challenge in a shallow bathroom sink, and you know how important my morning tea is to me!

I did manage a Meeting With Your Writing session on Thursday, and I’m puttering away at my George Eliot stuff. I think I have reached some tentative conclusions about the book vs. essay question, but I’m still turning things around in my head. While it’s true I don’t have to decide now, I think I will work better if I have a better understanding of my goals (short term and long term), so it’s useful brooding provided I can keep the neuroses under control. I haven’t gotten much concentrated reading done since I finished The Good Terrorist (which we discussed energetically at my book club meeting last night): inspired by Oleander, JacarandaI have begun rereading Moon Tiger, and I’m dipping into Ellis Peters‘s One Corpse Too Many in the interstices of the day. I also read, or really skimmed, Nora Roberts’s The Next Always. I kind of liked the ones I read from her Bride Quartet, because I liked the insider look at the different expertise each heroine had. But they were like literary jello: smooth, sweet, but nothing at all to sink your teeth into! The Next Always is about the same except it has a ghost and a stalker plot that seemed like a cheap way to provide the crisis and resolution required to come to the HEA.

And that’s where I am as this week in my sabbatical wraps up! Work on the kitchen continues next week and then there’s a lull before the final stages can be done; now that the planning and packing and reorganizing is done and the project is actually underway, it should be easier (in between specific events) to get back into a writing rhythm. I hope so! One thing about witnessing the end-of-term rush is that it reminds me that this time to work on my own terms is both precious and fleeting.

This Week In My Sabbatical: Writing and Brooding

OxfordIt has been kind of a stuttering week for me. My “Meeting With Your Writing” session on Monday helped me work up some positive energy about the next part of the George Eliot project I want to work on — this was good, as I had been getting kind of fed up with the other piece I’ve been working on since January. That piece is at about 18,000 words right now and it’s definitely still a messy early draft, which is one reason I’d become frustrated with it. But I realized that trying to “finish” it, or even polish it, when I’m not quite sure about my overall direction would be unproductive, so starting the next section made both practical and psychological sense.

Soon after, though, I found myself in the writing doldrums, mostly because the new bit seemed so disconnected from the first part and that started a whole mental chain reaction of questions about what exactly I was trying to do. This kind of metacriticism of my own work-in-progress is something I’ve been deliberately avoiding this term: my plan was just to write as much as I could while I have the time to dedicate to it, and then contemplate the results in July, when my sabbatical is officially over. Who knows, by that point, I might have accidentally provided myself with answers about what exactly I was trying to do! And I wouldn’t any longer be trying to answer questions about it in the abstract — what kind of thing might this be? what would it look like? what would it say? — but would know, and could revise and reconsider and repackage from there.

Because I am prone to both brooding and self-doubt (they go together so awfully well, don’t they?), this plan was basically a good one. It has proved harder to follow than I’d hoped, though. I am steeped in self-consciousness by both nature and training, after all; falling off the wagon as I did this week was probably an inevitability. I got myself back together by Thursday, partly by doing an extra session of MWYW during which (in service of the writing, I promise!) I got to spend a lot of time surfing around in Middlemarch choosing examples to discuss. That was truly restorative! Jo always advises us to start, if we can, with an aspect of the writing project that we really want to do — something that we think will be fun. I’ve made a note to remind myself that when I feel stuck, I should go back — if only for a little while — to one of the novels and just read for a bit. After all, they are the reason I’m doing any of this in the first place!

I’m back on track now, ready for a better, steadier time next week. I don’t think the time I spent in the doldrums was necessarily wasted, though. Though Jo rightly pointed out to me on Twitter that I don’t need to decide this question now, what I found myself mostly brooding about was whether I was wrong to be thinking about this project as a book (recall the trigger, that the two sections didn’t seem connected, except by method) — or, to approach it from the other direction, why I wasn’t satisfied thinking about it as related but distinct essay projects. I’ve honestly never been sure I had a sufficiently motivating and unifying book-sized idea, so in fact the book plan (as far as it has gotten at this point) has always been for a carefully framed and integrated series of essay-like chapters that remain primarily exercises in expansive close reading — I know, I know, not a marketable idea, at least for a literary nobody — don’t knock me off the wagon again! But any book is a struggle to get published, and Tom isn’t the only person who has pointed me to venues like the Hudson Review that already do publish literary pieces of the sort I have been writing (and of which my current material is really just a larger and messier version).

Obviously, I can’t simply assume my work would be accepted at places like that, but what if essay-writing actually suited me and my work best — what would be wrong with making that kind of publishing my ambition? After all, even the critical books I’ve liked best in recent years have in fact been made up of … you guessed it, essays (I’m thinking of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind, for instance, or James Wood’s The Broken Estate). Why, then, have I become fixated on somehow producing a book?

During my brooding period, I finally admitted to myself that, in part at least, it’s for the wrong reasons, that is, it’s not because I have something to say that can’t be said properly in any other format but because I imagine it would bring me (in addition to what I hope would be some genuine personal and intellectual satisfactions) some professional validation. “Look!” I could say (to the kind of person, for example, who waved a dismissive hand at my list of essays and reviews and said they didn’t “add up to anything in particular”). “It’s not quite your kind of book, but it is at least a book, the kind of thing you can display at your book fairs!” That’s not the only reason, but recognizing that it was definitely one reason was at first depressing, and then strangely liberating. I routinely give presentations in which I bring up the MLA’s proposal that we “decenter” the monograph: I strongly believe that books (as I also discuss here) aren’t always the best form, though they have become the professionally essential form. Loving books as I do, it’s not surprising that I love the idea of producing (another) one, and I’m not 100% sure that what I’m working on now won’t eventually prove to be a book. But the next time I get fretful, I’m going to remind myself that (by principles I myself have argued for repeatedly), it’s okay if it doesn’t.

So that’s where I end up another week of my sabbatical! In the moment, it didn’t feel like a very productive week, but in retrospect I think both the writing and the brooding I’ve done actually were productive in their own ways.

Last Week In My Classes: Exams and What’s Next

The final exams for my classes were last Friday and Saturday, both at 8:30 a.m., both in Dalplex, our main athletics facility, which is converted during the exam period into, well, this:

desks

Looks depressing, doesn’t it? And it is, but it is also efficient: a cadre of assistant invigilators patrols the aisles, helping to bring extra exam booklets or escort students to the washroom, while an appointed Chief Invigilator works out the seating plan, makes announcements, and keeps track of the time. Though in some ways I prefer being in a smaller room alone with “my” students, the impersonality of this set-up is not all bad. And I always put out candy (toffees, this year), which I hope is at least very mildly cheering. (I was always too nervous to eat before exams, which meant my blood sugar would crash in the first half hour or so: a toffee or two would have really helped me out, which is why I do this. That, and because despite any rumors to the contrary, I’m a friendly person!)

Anyway, the consequence of having both exams back to back like this and quite late in the exam period is that I went from being completely caught up on work the previous Thursday night to having approximately 120 exams to mark. I decided not to start on them until Monday — I’m trying to reclaim my weekends, which is rarely possible during the term when you have a Monday morning class, but it seems like a good principle as far as work-life balance goes. So Monday morning I settled in, and Friday around mid-day I filed the second set of final grades.

It was not a pleasant week, and as usual it raised all kinds of questions for me about final exams. This is such familiar territory on this blog now that I’m reluctant to rehash the arguments for and against them. I wish I could do without them altogether, but experience teaches me that I can’t, at least not in classes that aren’t as self-selecting as 4th-year seminars (where I have never given exams). I’m almost as tired of fretting about exams as I am of marking them! The solution that seems most reasonable to me at this point — since the chief purpose of them in lower-level classes is to motivate work and attention during the term — is to change the kind of exams I give to make them less laborious for me to mark. I’ll be thinking more about that when I work out the assignment sequences for my next classes … which won’t be for months, because I’m on sabbatical as of the end of December!

Yes, that’s right, I have made it through to another teaching-free term. I was on sabbatical when I first started this blog, in 2007, then again in 2011. I got a lot done both times, but in somewhat miscellaneous ways. This time I am determined to be more deliberate about how I use my time, to get less distracted by small projects (essays and reviews that aren’t really part of anything, even if individually I’m proud of them). It has been very intellectually stimulating paying more attention to “that tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” but this sabbatical is about my “particular web” — which, yes, means that George Eliot book I keep talking about but not actually writing.

Actually, that’s not quite fair, since in the summer I wrote a kind of prospectus for the book — and since the five essays I’ve written on George Eliot (for Open Letters and the Los Angeles Review of Books) are all, in a way, trial runs at the kind of criticism I want the book to represent. That’s a long way from producing something longer and more unified, though, and I have been realizing how long it has been since I really thought on a larger scale than “essay” or “article.” I haven’t really worked at anything book-length since I turned my thesis into my first book; my second book was an edited collection, for which I did a great deal of work and wrote an introduction, but that’s not at all the same thing! The first challenges for me, then, are both conceptual and logistical. The prospectus really helped me with the former; now I have to face up to the latter by breaking down a large and still fairly vague plan into manageable first steps. And I have to make sure that I don’t let myself get too tempted away from this still frighteningly open-ended project to more concrete things I can finish up now. The short-term sense of accomplishment is like psychological toffee, really: you get a useful little sugar rush from it, but it won’t serve you well in the long term.

And that’s one reason I’m going to block off further thoughts, meditations, plans, and preparations for next fall’s classes. I love drafting syllabi! Choosing reading lists is fun! Even building Blackboard sites has its satisfactions, because it involves many discrete tasks that can be neatly itemized and checked off — but they really do not need to be done now. If you catch me working on them before July 1, when my sabbatical ends, rap my virtual knuckles, please! (Well, I will have to submit course descriptions and book orders in March or April, I think, but anything beyond that is not allowed!) I think this blog shows how seriously I take my teaching and how much time I put into it, but the point of a sabbatical is that you focus on the other things you’re supposed to be doing as a scholar.

Something I think may help me maintain a different kind of focus next term is spending less time in my office. We’ll see: it can be a very quiet, productive space for me. But it has been an emotionally very up-and-down term for me, especially where thinking about work is concerned, and there have also been a lot of specific work-related stresses. As a result, I’ve been feeling a strong desire to put a little distance between myself and the campus. I had been imagining I might take my laptop to our new library, which has finally opened to the public. But although it does seem to be a very exciting, vibrant space, my two visits so far have been discouraging about it as a potential workplace for me. We live close to the Atlantic School of Theology, which has a library with a pretty nice view; my guess is that it’s pretty quiet, so I might give it a try. Even just fixing on a different campus location for writing might be enough to break the mental cycle of weariness and discouragement.

The other thing I’m committed to is signing up for Jo VanEvery’s “Meeting With Your Writing” — for which, it occurs to me, I’d best be in my campus office, so I have a landline, but that’ll be fine for such a specific purpose.

So! That’s this term put to bed and next term planned out — in theory, at least. But now I’m taking a break to read, bake, and generally unwind and enjoy our quiet holiday traditions.Inspired by Howards End, I’m rereading A Room with a View, which I love as much as always; I’ve got a mental TBR list yards long; and I see several book-shaped parcels under the tree, which is always exciting. I’ll also be putting up a couple of year-end round-up posts here soon (here are last year’s).

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.

This Month in My Sabbatical: Reading and Writing

Though nothing especially momentous marks this month in my sabbatical, I am pleased that I have continued to move fairly steadily through the various projects I set for myself back in January. Though I appreciate having the time to read, reflect and reconsider, though, I have to say that this month I have felt particularly isolated, because it’s the two aspects of this job that you are relieved of on sabbatical (administration and teaching) that actually bring you into regular contact with other people. Without classes and meetings, much of what we do is strictly solitary, and during a regular term that quiet can be very welcome, precisely because teaching and committee work are hectic, demanding, and often as annoying as they are stimulating. At first, it was just a relief to be free of the incessant demands on my time and attention. But after a while, it’s lonely, even a bit depressing, puttering away by myself. That’s one reason this post on academic blogging (thanks to Jo VanEvery for the link) resonated with me, especially this bit:

a college of one’s own is essential to scholarship. Sometimes we get lucky and our collaborators are able to participate in that world, but more often they need us for narrower purposes: our technique, students, or grants. Who then to bump ideas off of? Who to share our latest little discovery or epiphany? How to communicate the interest of an article or book? Where to find a reader? Who will forgive us our latest and dumbest ideas? How to feel that slight flare of getting the last word in a debate among learned colleagues?

It’s true, as the author continues, that “a blog can provide those things, and more besides,” and I’ve been grateful for the interest and input I receive from so many of you on my posts here. (The post I link to also gives a thoughtful account of changes in the culture of academic life that have made that collegial interaction more difficult to achieve–if anything, I think he underestimates the role played by sheer day to day busy-ness.) I was thinking that it’s no accident I first began blogging on my previous sabbatical: without really knowing much about it, I was looking for more ways to communicate with other people, and it was exhilirating to discover the conversations going on online and then to become part of them myself. I wonder sometimes why I feel this lack, even when I’m not on sabbatical, and (as far as I can tell) most of my colleagues don’t. It’s true I’ve always been a chatty type (if my parents are reading this, they are muttering “no kidding” and recalling their coinage “talkit” … ) so there’s that; some of my colleagues are just more reclusive or scholarly by instinct, happy to burrow away in their research; some, I think, for whatever reason have a better network of peers and collaborators that provide input, support and energy; others might enjoy blogging but haven’t tried it, or think it would be a distraction from their “real” reading and writing. In any case, the solitude of sabbatical work has made me appreciate my online network more than ever. And it has also made me realize how much of the return I get for my investment in this career comes from my students, from the challenge and the fun of getting them involved in our readings, from their curiosity and energy and enthusiasm. I miss students! (Remind me I said this when I’m whining about grading their assignments in the fall, would you?) I miss my colleagues, too, a little bit … but it’s not like we do spend much time on the kinds of conversations evoked above. When we do talk about work-related topics, it’s more often griping conferring about workload, curriculum, or policy issues, about pedagogical problems–or about each other! Well, it’s a workplace, after all. (Those colleagues who are also personal friends are another matter, of course.)

So: what have I done? I’ve read and commented on more thesis material–and another 120+ pages sit in my inbox at this minute. I’ve read, or scrolled through, a large number of the nearly 100 reviews and articles I downloaded, getting “caught up” on–or at least refreshing my sense of–recent work in Victorian studies. That has not been as disheartening as I frankly expected it to be. The sheer quantity of scholarship in this field is potentially overwhelming if the idea really is to internalize all of it. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that most of it is of peripheral signifiance: the accumulation of it, trends and directions, are more revealing than any particular arguments, and even at that level I haven’t seen anything that suggests a paradigm shift on the scale of, say, feminist criticism or post-colonial criticsm: I haven’t seen anything that makes me think I need to fundamentally change what I think about or say about the material I teach. It’s possible to acquire lots of little insights, or to file things away in case they become relevant to some future class or project, but most of what I’ve read has left me unmoved. This result, in turn, has me reflecting on the pleasures of learning new topics. I have one colleague whose list of teaching interests struck me, back when I was first interviewing for my job here, as astonishingly diverse–but there’s an intellectual buzz that comes from discovery, and it’s hard to get that feeling at the level of highly specialized research. On the other hand, it is easy to get it when you don’t already know the central problems and paradigms of a field you are just starting to explore for yourself, so I can see the appeal of turning to new things, like a kind of learning junkie who can’t be satisfied anymore with yet another way to read the economics of Bleak House or the poetics of Goblin Market!

I’ve read more books that I thought might be appropriate for my classes, including Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and more of the Martin Beck mysteries–and in the last week or so I’ve drafted up a schedule for the course that actually includes Devil in a Blue Dress and The Terrorists. Other course-related reading included most of Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower (which I ultimately decided not to assign),  a text book called Close Reading and the TOCs of numerous anthologies of crime fiction. I haven’t made the call yet about Close Reading but I did finally discover a Dover anthology of crime fiction that includes all the authors I wanted and is economical too–this is one more small testimony to the value of a sabbatical, because it took me ages to find and consider the alternatives here and if I had been in the midst of teaching, I would have given up and stuck with one of the books I’ve used before, even though for various reasons I wasn’t happy with them. (I have now ordered almost all the books for my fall classes and set up preliminary websites for them.)

I’ve also read a lot that wasn’t strictly for teaching or research, but then, as I say so often, in this job you never really know what reading will end up affecting your work, and I’ve been finding Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby so interesting I am now wondering if at some point I could put together a course on the “Somerville Novelists”–not least because we have no in-house specialist in 20th-century British literature (crazy, I know) so I’d actually be helping round out our curriculum a bit if I did so. Just think: another excuse to assign Gaudy Night! (There’s that lure of the new, again: this would involve a whole process of learning and discovery.) Coming up for my two reading groups I have Somerset Maugham and Elizabeth Bowen–so more 20thC British fiction there too.

As for writing, well, there’s the blogging that goes along with all that reading, and I also decided to review Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature after all. Following on my meditation about “giving myself permission,” I thought it might help overcome my writer’s block if I worked in a form I am very familiar with, so I did the review as a kind of feedback form. I thought it suited, because the book, though full of interesting and provocative threads, really read to me like something unfinished. I don’t understand why it got published without further revision, to be honest: what editor would be satisfied with something so amorphous? Despite my anxiety that it would seem unforgivably snarky to treat the book as I did, I did find it freeing to write it that way: for better or for worse, that is who I am, after all. And just as I do when responding to student work, I made sure to give credit for strengths as well as weaknesses, and to try to be constructive in my criticisms…

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…