November 9, 2008

'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.

1 comment:

Amateur Reader said...

Hey, thanks, same here. I mostly blog for selfish reasons - discipline, collecting scattered thoughts, working on my writing - but connections with other bloggers has been the greatest reward.

I wouldn't be so bold as to say that I am trying to write a different kind of criticism, but I probably am trying, at least, to do something that I want more of, or don't feel I see enough of, even though I can't say what that actually is. I think lots of bloggers are groping at this.

I mean, there's more good professional common reader-oriented criticism out there than anyone needs to read, mostly in magazines. But that doesn't seem to assuage the anxiety - "what should I read", or "what is it that I just read"? Perhaps this is an existential condition, though, beyond "solution".