September 30, 2009

"Yale Called Me On the Phone"

Dan Green pointed me to William Chace's recent article on "The Decline of the English Department" (on which more eventually), which in turn led me to look up Chace's memoir, 100 Semesters, which turns out to be quite interesting reading, not least for its matter-of-fact portrayal of what must seem, to anyone who graduated with a Ph.D. in the last 20 years, like a complete fantasy of the academic job search. Here's Chace's experience as an 'ABD' at Berkeley in 1968:
But before I did [finish my dissertation], I knew that I had to find a job teaching English at a college or university. In those halcyon days, a few years before the iron gates clanged shut and the job market for the humanities became the hugely depressing spectacle it is today, many departments were looking to enlarge their rosters of assistant professors. Colleges and universities had money, and the arts and humanities still enjoyed the considerable prestige that today they have seen ebb away. The reasons for this good news had to do with large national patterns. In the 1960s alone college and university enrollments more than doubled, from more than three million to eight million. Those getting Ph.D.s each year tripled; and more faculty were appointed than had been appointed in the earlier three centuries of American higher education. Places like the State University of New York at Buffalo, Indiana University, and even exclusive and insular Yale, were hiring. I wrote to them all and was happy to receive the warm encouragement of the professors— Tom Flanagan, Ralph Rader, Alex Zwerdling, and John Traugott—who had taught me. They wrote recommendations for me and thought my prospects good. Owing to such support and to the fact that many jobs seemed available in those days, my return mail brought happy tidings. One institution—the University of Virginia—used a string of Edgar Allan Poe stamps on the envelope mailed to me, hoping that I would make the connection between his one-time presence there and the university’s devotion to poetry. Yale, in the person of the illustrious scholar and Sterling Professor Maynard Mack, called me on the phone. Few people at the time had a greater reputation in English literary scholarship than Mack. He was an expert on Shakespeare, and had overseen the Twickenham edition of the poems of Alexander Pope. From New Haven, he announced that a job awaited me at Yale. This appeared to be great news indeed, but I was bold enough to ask, given what I already knew of Yale’s pattern of only rarely giving tenure to assistant professors, what my chances of a permanent position there would be. With practiced disingenuousness, he quickly replied: “Oh, Bill, we will always have a place for you.” I thanked him but knew better than to believe him. Many years later, Yale would approach me with another kind of job in mind.

Two institutions with offers for me—MIT and Stanford—seemed more attractive than the others. The first had the advantage of being in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had established a wide-ranging department of the “Humanities” rather than just an English department, and had powerful intellectuals like Noam Chomsky on the faculty. The second had a singularly attractive attribute in its favor: it was in the Bay Area, where JoAn and I wanted to remain. But I knew little about the place and, almost to a person, my Berkeley teachers spoke of it with enormous condescension. It was, they said, “the Farm,” a school for rich and lazy Californians, a place where nothing political ever happened, an “unreal” university. But I turned aside all this advice and chose Stanford. The person who interviewed me there, Ian Watt, the distinguished scholar of the novel, the eighteenth century, and Joseph Conrad, had earlier taught at Berkeley. JoAn had been one of his students, and he thought highly of her. He told us that we would be happy at Stanford. He was right. Stanford turned out, over the years, to be good to me and to JoAn. It had no nepotism rule, and she also was given a position as a lecturer in the English department.
I think we all have heard stories about "those halcyon days," but it's still astonishing to contemplate someone who has not yet even finished writing his dissertation fielding calls from Yale, Stanford, and MIT.

September 28, 2009

This Week in My Classes: September 28, 2009

My recent venture into list-making brought something into focus for me about my reading habits: left to myself, I incline towards the kind of fiction defended by Wilkie Collins in one of his Prefaces to The Woman in White:
I have always held the old-fashioned opinion that the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story; and I have never believed that the novelist who properly performed this first condition of his art, was in danger, on that account, of neglecting the delineation of character -- for this plain reason, that the effect produced by any narrative of events is essentially dependent, not on the events themselves, but on the human interest which is directly connected with them. It may be possible, in novel-writing, to present characters successfully without telling a story ; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters : their existence, as recognisable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told. The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers, is a narrative which interests them about men and women -- for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves. (see here for the rest)
Of course I recognize that there are, in fact, other ideas of fiction that have produced great results, many of which I have enjoyed. And of course I would not want my larger conception of (or my work in) literature to be framed or limited by this admittedly quite conventional theory...though I suppose it's worth pointing out that telling a story can be done in many different ways, as can presenting characters, and even the idea of characters as 'recognisable realities' is surely amenable to the kind of recognition we get from, say, a character in Dickens whose outrageous exaggerations nonetheless strike us as somehow fundamentally truthful about how people live in the world. Even the ways in which we can be interested 'about men and women' are manifold. So it's not, I think, as narrow an idea of the novel as it might initially seem. But its commitment to some kind of human interest at the heart of the novel is one I share, and I falter and sometimes stall reading novels that don't offer the forward momentum of a well-constructed plot. Of course in the best of all possible worlds, and the best of all possible books, plot and character are used in support of deeply considered philosophies and the whole is composed in well-crafted prose (though just try defining that in a way that makes room for both Dickens and McEwan, Austen and Rushdie!). But if I had to choose, I'd take the novel with story and heart over the novel with beautiful words or experimental form. If I wanted to pause a lot and think, "how deft and original!" or "what a striking image!"--well, I'd be reading poetry.

Now, again, this is what I do left to myself; this is what I like best, which is really a reflection of who I am as a person as much as who I am as a critic or a scholar or a teacher. At the same time, this reading personality of mine inevitably affects these aspects of my life and work, though cause and effect may be hard to distinguish. Am I a Victorianist because these are my reading preferences, or have my reading preferences been shaped by many years of rereading a certain group of Victorian novels and working out how best to explain them so as to engage the attention, the interest, and finally (I always hope) the hearts of undergraduates?

In any case, for someone like me, this is a good week, because I've been reading The Woman in White with one class and I'm heading into Great Expectations with another. Now, there are passages of great expressiveness and even beauty in Great Expectations: Dickens is a writer who knows how to turn a phrase, who can go from blunt force to arresting image without slowing down. The Woman in White, too, has some marvellous description: the moonlit quiet of Hartright's Hampstead walk, for instance, on which he has his first thrilling encounter with the mysterious woman in white. But in neither case is it really appropriate, or even possible, to linger over these aesthetic effects. These guys are masters of plotting, and their people! Once you've read them, they become part of your mental life--Fosco and Marian and Pesca, and even tediously insipid Laura, and Jaggers and Joe and Wemmick, who teaches us all the invaluable lesson not to grow up to be a mailbox. And though both novels deal, at bottom, with serious questions about values, social relations, power, prejudice, love, hate, and death (!), they also both communicate a great sense of fun. Pleasure in reading can come from many things, many effects and styles and devices and voices. For sheer imaginative exuberance, these novels would have to rank right up near the top.

September 26, 2009

My Best of the Decade: An Idiosyncratic List

The Millions has just finished its countdown of the "Best of the Millenium." Through their polling processes, they've ended up with two lists, one representing the top picks of their panel of "pros," the other representing the results of a Facebook poll of their readers. There are lots of potentially interesting aspects of both lists, including which books were favored by readers but not by the 'pros' and vice versa. I was interested that of the thirty unique titles listed, I have read only nine: The Corrections, The Known World, Never Let Me Go, Atonement, Middlesex, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, White Teeth, and The Known World, plus half each of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Austerlitz. A lot of the other books on the lists seem tilted towards a somewhat different readerly sensibility than my own (the kind that finishes Austerlitz, for instance). And that's fine, of course...but the sense that even those on the lists that I had read weren't all really among my 'best of the millenium' (Middlesex and White Teeth, for instance, neither of which I thought really deserved quite the hype it got) prompted me to browse my bookshelves to see what my own list would be. Here's what I came up with--but because one of my very favourite recent reads was published in 1999 and so just missed the millenial cut-off, here's My Best of the Decade, 1999-2009. The list is in alphabetical, not ranked, order, and I've linked to any corresponding reviews, though several of these I read before I started blogging. I've cheated a little and included one work of non-fiction, only because if I had to rank the new books I've read in the past decade, it would be at or very near the top.
  1. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil
  2. Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White
  3. Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  4. Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
  5. Yann Martel, The Life of Pi
  6. Ian McEwan, Atonement
  7. Ian McEwan, Saturday
  8. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost
  9. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
  10. Vikram Seth, An Equal Music
  11. Carol Shields, Unless
  12. Sarah Waters, Fingersmith
It's an odd exercise, doing this. For one thing, it reminds me just how many of the books I've loved recently were not in fact recently published (The Enchanted April, for instance, or The Balkan Trilogy).

So? Which recent favourites of yours are missing, both from my list and from the lists at The Millions, or which listed titles would you heartily endorse--or dispute?

September 22, 2009

This Week in My Classes (September 22, 2009)

Nearly two weeks in, we've moved past the throat-clearing stage in both of my classes and are deep into our first novels.

In The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy I'm leading off with Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South this year. Last time I taught it I opened with Trollope's The Warden, which I thoroughly enjoy, but I like to give Gaskell a turn too. Like her first novel, Mary Barton, North and South is a 'condition of England' novel, addressing the tensions between "masters and men" in the industrial north (yes, there are always a couple of students who are surprised that it is not a novel about the American civil war). Mary Barton is a passionate, sometimes gripping, deeply sincere but rather melodramatic novel. I quite enjoy it, especially the climactic boat chase (!), but I think North and South is both artistically and intellectually a better book. Its structure is more deliberate, its treatment of the central class conflicts more sophisticated, and its characters more complicated. Its protagonist, Margaret Hale, is a particularly interesting figure. Gaskell sets her up from the very first scenes as a woman not quite at home or at ease with the conventional feminine values of her time. It's not until she is torn away from her idyllic country home to the rough environment of Milton-Northern (a.k.a. Manchester), however, that she begins to see what kind of work there is to be done in the world, and then to puzzle out her own role in it. The charismatic Milton mill owner John Thornton of course plays an important part in Margaret's changing perspective, though in the tradition of Pride and Prejudice, it turns out that he has a lot to learn from her as well (ah, the courtship of the mind, truly the most seductive kind). Yesterday we wound up at the dramatic scene between Thornton and his striking workers. Goaded by Margaret into going down to speak with them "like a man," Thornton confronts the mob:
Again she took her place by the farthest window. He was on the steps below; she saw that by the direction of a thousand angry eyes; but she could neither see nor hear any-thing save the savage satisfaction of the rolling angry murmur. She threw the window wide open. Many in the crowd were mere boys; cruel and thoughtless,--cruel because they were thoughtless; some were men, gaunt as wolves, and mad for prey. She knew how it was; they were like Boucher, with starving children at home--relying on ultimate success in their efforts to get higher wages, and enraged beyond measure at discovering that Irishmen were to be brought in to rob their little ones of bread. Margaret knew it all; she read it in Boucher's face, forlornly desperate and livid with rage. If Mr. Thornton would but say something to them--let them hear his voice only--it seemed as if it would be better than this wild beating and raging against the stony silence that vouchsafed them. no word, even of anger or reproach. But perhaps he was speaking now; there was a momentary hush of their noise, inarticulate as that of a troop of animals. She tore her bonnet off; and bent forwards to hear. She could only see; for if Mr. Thornton had indeed made the attempt to speak, the momentary instinct to listen to him was past and gone, and the people were raging worse than ever. He stood with his arms folded; still as a statue; his face pale with repressed excitement. They were trying to intimidate him--to make him flinch; each was urging the other on to some immediate act of personal violence. Margaret felt intuitively, that in an instant all would be uproar; the first touch would cause an explosion, in which, among such hundreds of infuriated men and reckless boys, even Mr. Thornton's life would be unsafe,--that in another instant the stormy passions would have passed their bounds, and swept away all barriers of reason, or apprehension of consequence. Even while she looked, she saw lads in the back-ground stooping to take off their heavy wooden clogs--the readiest missile they could find; she saw it was the spark to the gunpowder, and, with a cry, which no one heard, she rushed out of the room, down stairs,--she had lifted the great iron bar of the door with an imperious force--had thrown the door open wide--and was there, in face of that angry sea of men, her eyes smiting them with flaming arrows of reproach. The clogs were arrested in the hands that held them--the countenances, so fell not a moment before, now looked irresolute, and as if asking what this meant. For she stood between them and their enemy. She could not speak, but held out her arms towards them till she could recover breath.

'Oh, do not use violence! He is one man, and you are many; but her words died away, for there was no tone in her voice; it was but a hoarse whisper. Mr. Thornton stood a little on one side; he had moved away from behind her, as if jealous of anything that should come between him and danger.

'Go!' said she, once more (and now her voice was like a cry). 'The soldiers are sent for--are coming. Go peaceably. Go away. You shall have relief from your complaints, whatever they are.'

'Shall them Irish blackguards be packed back again?' asked one from out the crowd, with fierce threatening in his voice.

'Never, for your bidding!' exclaimed Mr. Thornton. And instantly the storm broke. The hootings rose and filled the air,--but Margaret did not hear them. Her eye was on the group of lads who had armed themselves with their clogs some time before. She saw their gesture--she knew its meaning,--she read their aim. Another moment, and Mr. Thornton might be smitten down,--he whom she had urged and goaded to come to this perilous place. She only thought how she could save him. She threw her arms around him; she made her body into a shield from the fierce people beyond. Still, with his arms folded, he shook her off.

'Go away,' said he, in his deep voice. 'This is no place for you.'

'It is!' said she. 'You did not see what I saw.' If she thought her sex would be a protection,--if, with shrinking eyes she had turned away from the terrible anger of these men, in any hope that ere she looked again they would have paused and reflected, and slunk away, and vanished,--she was wrong. Their reckless passion had carried them too far to stop--at least had carried some of them too far; for it is always the savage lads, with their love of cruel excitement, who head the riot--reckless to what bloodshed it may lead. A clog whizzed through the air. Margaret's fascinated eyes watched its progress; it missed its aim, and she turned sick with affright, but changed not her position, only hid her face on Mr. Thornton s arm. Then she turned and spoke again:'

'For God's sake! do not damage your cause by this violence. You do not know what you are doing.' She strove to make her words distinct.

A sharp pebble flew by her, grazing forehead and cheek, and drawing a blinding sheet of light before her eyes. She lay like one dead on Mr. Thornton's shoulder.
Exciting stuff! In the reiterated imagery of storms and surging seas, and also in the emphasis on men driven beyond reason by hunger, ignorance, and powerlessness, you can hear echoes of Carlyle's French Revolution. Margaret's passionate and breathtakingly public intervention is charged with political and erotic energy, much of which is beyond her control--it seems nearly impossible for her to express her individual agency, to control the meaning of her own actions, so entangled do they inevitably become in other people's assumptions (or what we might, if you'll forgive a little jargon, call systems of signification). Of course everyone watching, not to mention Thornton himself, assumes that she is in love with him. As Dorothea Brooke will say about her own efforts to change the world, "How can one ever do anything nobly Christian, living among people with such petty thoughts?" (We will be reading Middlemarch later this term, and I hope we will make many such connections between these two women intensely struggling to answer the ultimate question of vocation--"What could she do, what ought she to do?"--in terms beyond those usually set for their sex, but without denying their own sexuality.)

In Victorian Sensations, we have begun with Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. This novel is enormous fun: intricately plotted, with Collins's special trick of multiple narrators stringing us along as we puzzle our way through its various mysteries. Each time I read it I am surprised all over again at how subversive it is: its noblemen are ignoble bastards (sometimes literally); its women have moustaches (OK, just one of them) and its men lounge around on sofas (again, just one of them, but another wears flowered waistcoats and embroidered trousers while fondling his pet mice); characters aren't who they say they are, or who they look like, to the point that they aren't always sure who they actually are. Dickens famously called the first encounter with the 'woman in white' one of the two best moments in 19th-century literature, and it is a great moment, but surely just as thrilling is the reappearance of **** (sorry, no spoilers allowed) from literally beyond the grave. Why just be suspenseful if you can be funny about it at the same time? For this course we are reading four of the most (in)famous examples of Victorian 'sensation' fiction and then considering a range of critical questions about them, from their contemporary reception to current critical approaches, to the meta-question of how far (and for what purposes) they can be distinguished from their canonical cousins. Inevitably, the question of their literary merit will come up, which will give us an opportunity to discuss how we measure "literary merit" anyway. I think The Woman in White is awesome by pretty much any standard except philosophical--but who says intellectual or theoretical substance is any kind of necessity in a novel? Henry James thought George Eliot's philosophical tendencies interfered with the quality of her novels. East Lynne raises, well, different issues, about which, more when we get there!

September 21, 2009

"Sir Rohan Left Literature"

First of all, don't get your hopes up.

A proper new post is due soon (things have been a bit busy over at The Valve), but just in passing: why did I not know until this week (when someone mentioned it in passing on the VICTORIA listserv) that such a book as this existed? Here I thought I'd run into every possible permutation on and alleged source for my given name over the years, and all the while there's a whole book about "Sir Rohan" just sitting in the Harvard library. OK, it's another case in which it's a man's name, but I've pretty much accepted that I will deal my whole life with mail addressed to "Mr Rohan Maitzen." Given that, I think "Sir Rohan" would be an acceptable alternative.*

Here's an excerpt, then, from Harriet Prescott Spofford's Sir Rohan's Ghost (1860). I'm not sure if I'll have the fortitude to read the whole thing.

In determined attempts to lay this Ghost, Sir Rohan threw himself into the heat of foray and battle. Braver knight there was not in the kingdom; but he left the army, for the shape glided perpetually between his sword and his foe, breathless and with glistening eyes beside him, rode with the same glitter as earnestly in retreat, covered him with its oppressive vacancy when he fell, till sense ebbed away with his blood. Then Sir Rohan essayed oratory and statesmanship; but the shape, so distinct that it seemed as if others too must see it, swayed its long arm beside him as he spoke, and sobbed Banshee-like, with a rustling inspiration, in his pauses. Sir Rohan left the bench and bar. Dissipation opened its arms to receive him, midnight drawing rooms were proud to hold him, gay dances wreathed themselves to his motions, rosy cheeks flushed at his approach. But a pale cheek was beside the rosy ones, an airier form glided through the dancers and did not disturb the set, and with the red wine before him a long white finger plunged down the glass and brought up the glittering trophy of a golden ring. Sir Rohan reformed. Yet perhaps in the dry recesses of old libraries he might be alone, and so he delved deep among musty tomes, striving to bury his heart with the dust of ages that he found there; but another hand shifted the leaves as he read, and eyes devoid of speculation met his as he unconsciously turned for sympathy in the page. When on some rude map he traced the route of conquerors, another finger followed his pointing out spots at which he did not glance, and resting wearily on places he would gladly have blotted from existence; and as his eye wandered in quest of some desired volume on higher shelves, the Ghost fluttered up and down below it. Sir Rohan left literature.

*And, of course, the proper pronunciation remains "Rowan." None of that aspirated 'h' stuff, please.

September 15, 2009

This Week in My Classes Revisited, with Some Thoughts on J. C. Hallman

Another year, another edition of the ongoing saga "This Week in My Classes." I began this series of posts two years ago as a response to what seemed to me exaggerated and unwarranted claims that English professors routinely wage war on literature, destroying (or indoctrinating) young minds in the process. Here, for example, is a comment from a thread on Footnoted (apparently now defunct, this site at the Chronicle of Higher Education once rounded up interesting posts from academic blogs):
Lit crit should finally die the death it so much deserves. Lit departments have floundered for decades because they have forgotten the text. Instead, they have pandered to the politically correct idiots who can neither read with sense nor write with style. May they ALL be flushed down the toilet where they belong.
The folks at Footnoted had linked to a post of mine in which I wondered why professional literary critics were either ignored or villified in some very public discussions going on at the time about the state of reading, literature, and criticism. I had been reading, for instance, Cynthia Ozick's piece "Literary Entrails," which appeared in Harper's in 2007 and included the following aside (or "asnide," a great neologism I just learned):
(Academic theorists equipped with advanced degrees, who make up yet another species of limited reviewers, are worthy only of a parenthesis. Their confining ideologies, heavily politicized and rendered in a kind of multi-syllabic pidgin, have for decades marinated literature in dogma. Of these inflated dons and doctors it is futile to speak, since, unlike the hardier customer reviewers, they are destined to vanish like the fog they evoke.)
Here's part of what I wrote at the time:
I too find much recent published criticism pretty unappealing, and many aspects of professional academic discourse alienating, for a range of reasons. But I don't think what goes on in my classroom, or in the classrooms of a great many "dons and doctors," deserves to be so sweepingly ignored or distorted. Here's a similar bit from the "statement of purpose" with which Green launched his blog: "the academy, once entrusted with the job of engaging with works of literature, has mostly abandoned it altogether in favor of 'cultural studies' and other forms of political posturing." Again, however accurate this may be as a description of academic criticism (and that's surely arguable), "the academy" (not, of course, monolithic in the way Green implies) does a lot of other things too, much of which involves exposing students to a variety of writers and styles, thinking about literary history and the history of genres, learning a vocabulary to talk about how writers get different kinds of things done and to what ends--aesthetically, ethically, and yes, also (but not exclusively) politically. One thing those of us in "the academy" do is send at least some of our students out into the "real" world excited and inquring and serious about literature, and equipped with some knowledge and some expertise as readers. I like to point out to my students that they will be assigned "required" reading for only a small fraction of their reading lives--after that, the choices will be theirs, the engagement and the satisfaction only as deep as they choose to make it. It's my goal to give them some tools and strategies to go deeper if they want to, as well as to broaden their textual horizons. Ozick (rightly, I think) laments that "Amazon encourages naive and unqualified expose their insipidities to a mass audience." You don't need an English degree to be insightful about books--but some education as a reader is surely one way to become the kind of reader novelists such as Ozick (or, for that matter, critics such as Green) hope to have.
As I brooded about these sweeping condemnations of my life's work, I found I was most troubled and perplexed by the enormous gap between what I (and most if not all of my colleagues, mentors, and friends) are doing, or trying to do, or aspiring to, in our classrooms and the way that work was being characterized. In my own 23 years in the academy, I've had only one experience in a classroom that seemed anything like what these people are describing, and I write as someone who was a student through some of the most intense years of the so-called "culture wars." Only ignorance--some of it surely willful--and prejudice (some of it based, I thought, on the kinds of things Tim Burke had written about as "Anger at Academe," including both personal experiences and what he calls "social antagonisms") could sustain such hostile misrepresentations. And so the best--really, the only--response I could think of that might do a little good was to shine some light on what really happens in at least one English professor's classroom on a regular basis. Not, as I wrote then, that I assume "my own classroom is either wholly typical or exemplary," but it's the one I know best.

I've kept up the series for two years. While I don't think I reached any of the skeptics who motivated it originally, it has turned out to be, intrinsically, a useful and interesting exercise for me. Here's an excerpt from the "Reflections on Blogging My Teaching" that I wrote up after the first year:
As the weeks went by, though, I more or less stopped thinking about these lost souls. So who was I writing for? Well, as other bloggers often remark, your only certain audience is yourself, so you have to find the effort intrinsically valuable and interesting, which I almost always did. Teaching is, necessarily, something you do in a state of rapid and constant motion (and I mean not just mental but physical, as the Little Professor has recently proven). Classes follow on classes, and on meetings and graduate conferences and administrative tasks and attempts to meet proposal deadlines, in what becomes a blur of activity as the term heats up...and though a great deal of planning and preparation typically goes into each individual classroom hour, I hadn't usually taken any time to reflect further on what just happened, or what's about to happen. I found that taking this extra step each week not only helped me identify the purpose, or, if writing retrospectively, the result of each class, but it made each week more interesting by giving me an opportunity to make connections or articulate puzzles or just express pleasure and appreciation in ways that went beyond what I had time for in class. I pursued links between my teaching and my research projects, for example, as well as between my teaching and my other 'non-professional' interests and activities. I articulated ideas suggested by class discussions that otherwise would have sunk again below the surface of my distracted mind. Blogging my teaching enhanced my own experience of teaching. That in itself is a worthwhile goal.
I felt the same after the second year of posting. Though I am doing some repeat teaching this year, there's enough new material--and there are always different connections, ideas, and challenges--to make me look forward to another round, more of the same but perhaps, as I go along, with some differences in format, just to keep things lively.

Also, though I no longer really expect to make a dent in people's prejudices against my profession, it turns out that there's still plenty of hostility out there that deserves to be countered. Just this week, for instance, DorothyW tipped me off to this discussion of a forthcoming anthology by J. C. Hallman, whose statements about academic critics are very much in same spirit as Ozick's, whose "Literary Entrails" he cites in his Introduction. His parting shot is at the "the dry, tenure-desperate prose of critics, who already have far too much say over how literature is perceived in the world." "Writers," he says, "set out to celebrate the work rather than exhaust it." Hallman admits to not being a scholar, but he offers up a breezy two-paragraph account of the history of literary criticism since 1910 that is apparently meant to justify his eventual conclusion (after his own apparently unrewarding venture into critical debates about Henry James's The Turn of the Screw) that "maybe the whole business of criticism ought to be chucked"--or better yet, he decides, reinvented according to his own idea of "creative criticism."

I stand by the position I originally took against Ozick. Thanks to the passionate, diligent, rigorous work of highly-trained professional critics in thousands of classrooms every day, many, many students read and appreciate many more "good books" than they would otherwise; rather than being, as Hallman says, "inoculated against the effects of good books," they learn to enhance, expand, or challenge their personal responses with attention to craft, genre, literary history and influences, social, historical, and political contexts and implications, aesthetic theories and effects, language, rhetoric, and much more. It's true that "celebrating" the work is not the usual tactic, but enthusiasm for it is a necessary--just not a sufficient--condition for successful teaching. Yes, a lot of published academic prose is pretty dry, even alienating, especially when read by those never intended to be its audience (the same is true of technical writing in other fields, as is often pointed out in these debates). I worry about the quantitive pressure created by our systems of tenure and promotion, the log-jammed peer review process, the disincentives for taking a long view, or a long time, in a project. I've spent a fair amount of time myself wondering how to do critical writing that is lively and accessible but still responsible and well-informed. I've reviewed a lot of books that show how non-academics, including creative writers, "write about reading." It's not that I'm complacent about the state or style of academic literary criticism. Even so, I resent having this dismissive remark from James Wood stand as a fair assessment of our situation and efforts:
Having been caught out, the poem is triumphantly led off in golden chains; the detective writes up his report in hideous prose, making sure to flatter himself a bit, and then goes home to a well-deserved drink.
James Wood is an excellent reader and critic; I'm sure he enjoys a "well-deserved drink" after a day at the Harvard job he got without having to serve the usual soul-crushing academic apprenticeship, or after publishing a book for which he was not required to support and complicate his arguments with extensive research outside his personal library.

Anyway, it's another term, and I still think it's worth keeping up this series. Next time, some specifics about my Fall 2009 courses.

September 13, 2009

Julie & Julia: The Reading Group Guide; or, Why English Professors Aren't Welcome in Book Clubs

More and more books are published now with appendices aimed at book clubs. Typical features are interviews with the author, questions for discussion, and suggestions for further reading ("if you liked this book, you'll also like...") . I'm always struck by how different the discussion questions are from the kinds of questions I would ask of, or prepare for, my classes. I just finished Julie & Julia, which comes with a set of "Questions and Topics for Discussion" which epitomize what I think of as the book club approach. Here they are, with my answers, and then some reflections on where or why things fall apart for me.

1. Julie has such a remarkable relationship with Julia Child, despite never having met her. What did you think of the relationship that Julie built in her mind? And why does it not matter, in some sense, when Julie finds out that Julia wasn't an admirer of hers or the Project?
I thought there was something artificial about the way Julie presented her "relationship" with Julia Child. Although allusions to and references from Child's memoir and letters are included in Powell's book, the narrative does not indicate that she knew anything much about Julia Child when the project began. She suggests that she learns about JC's personality from the text of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and sometimes her examples illustrate this well. Otherwise, though, she does seem to be largely imagining someone without her own weaknesses and failings. I guess that's why it doesn't ultimately matter much to Julie that the real JC dismisses her project.
2. Throughout the book, various people become involved with the Project: Julie's husband, her friends, and several of her family members. Discuss the different roles each played in the Project. Which people were most helpful and supportive? Who was occasionally obstructionist?
Julie's husband and brother and friend Isabel are the most supportive. Julie's mother is occasionally obstructionist. Are you checking to see if I read the whole book?
3. Did you find Julie to be a likable character? Did you relate to her insecurities, anxieties, and initial discontent? Why do you think it is that she was able to finish the Project despite various setbacks?
No, I didn't find Julie that likable (I liked the Amy Adams version of her better, actually). I did not particularly "relate to" her anxieties and so on, except in the general way that everyone sometimes finds their day job tedious. She struck me as self-indulgent and self-involved; she is histrionic and something of an exhibitionist. But why does it matter whether I liked her or not?

I think she was able to finish the Project because she was persistent.
4. The Julie/Julia Project is obsessive and chaotic, yet it manages to bring a sort of order to Julie's life. Have you ever gone to obsessive lengths in an attempt to, ironically, make things more manageable? Why do you think Julie does (or doesn't) succeed in this?
No I haven't.

Because she's persistent? Because she got lucky?
5. If someone were to ask you about this book, how would you describe it? Is it a memoir of reinvention? An homage to Julia Child? A rags-to-riches story? A reflection on cooking and the centrality of food in our lives? Or is it all (or none) of these?
It's "life writing," isn't it? I'd say it is a bit of all of these specific things, in a mash-up sort of way.
6. Did Julie's exploits in her tiny kitchen make you want to cook? Or did they make you thankful that you don't have to debone a duck or saute a liver? Even if your tastes may not coincide with Julia Child's recipes, did the book give you a greater appreciation of food and cooking?
Want to cook? No, not really, at least not more than usual. I certainly have no desire to debone a duck or saute a liver. I have never particularly enjoyed cooking (and I hate planning and shoppping for meals). On the other hand, I grew up in a house where good food was much appreciated and always a big part of family and festive occasions. Some of the scenes in which Julie's friends gathered to share her latest experiments, then, did make me wistful that for various reasons food in my own house is often a difficulty rather than a pleasure, and that the rest of my family is too far away to share in the few special meals we do put together. But why are we talking about me? Isn't this "reading" group supposed to talk about the book?
7. At various points in the book, Julie finds that cooking makes her question her own actions and values. What did you make of her lobster guilt, for example, or her thoughts on extracting bone marrow? Have you ever encountered these issues while cooking, or while going through other everyday motions of life? Have you come to conclusions similar to or different from Julie's?
Well, I've eaten lobster, and I can't say I was ever terribly guilt-ridden about it. But every thoughtful person has presumably wondered about the ethics of eating meat, even if they haven't personally extracted bone marrow. But why are we talking about me again?
8. When Julie began the Project, she knew little to nothing about blogging. What do you think blogging about her experiences offered her? Does writing about events in your life help you understand and appreciate them more? Do you think the project would have gone differently if the blog hadn't gained so much attention? Who was the blog mainly for, Julie or her readers?
I think blogging offered her a platform, an audience, and eventually a community. I'm not sure if writing about events in my life helps me understand them. It helps me give form and voice to my own point of view, but that's not necessarily the same as achieving understanding. Yes, of course the project would have gone differently if the blog hadn't gained so much attention. She might have given up on the project; she certainly would not have gotten the book deal or the movie. The blog was mainly for Julie in the beginning; it became something she was also doing for, and with the reinforcement of, her readers. (On the other hand, her term "bleaders" captures the rather dismissive tone she often takes towards the people who cared enough to send her money and goodies.) But the book isn't just a transcription of the blog. Actually, I wish it were: maybe then there would have been more cooking and less solipsistic meandering.
It's not that there aren't some potentially interesting topics here--and of course this particular set is skewed in a particular direction because the book is a memoir (of sorts) and so tempts us towards analysis of, and commentary on, its protagonist as a real person. Still, there's very little sense here of the book as a literary construction, or of the book as offering not just personal revelations but revelations about particular cultures and problems at particular moments in time. What about the gender politics of cooking in the two different eras, something I thought the film actually handled much more directly? (Surely it is no coincidence that the one editor who "gets" the brilliance of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the film, for instance, is a woman who takes it home and actually cooks from it?) How does Julie's gleeful self-presentation as a foul-mouthed slattern (maggots under the dish rack?) complicate the conventional association of cooking with domesticity? How are Julie's gynecological problems relevant to the book's interrogation of femininity and identity? What's the function of the Isabel sub-plot? How are love, sex, and marriage configured in the parallel Julie / Julia stories? For that matter, what about sex and food, Julie's rival sources of pleasure? What about the structure of the book, or its language? What about the profanity, which Julie seems rather proud of? There seems to me plenty to be said and done about Julie & Julia without dragging me into it: it's not about me, and I learn nothing (and explain nothing) about the book by falling into personal anecdote.

I think #5 and #8 are the best of this question set: #5 could open up a range of issues about genre, especially life writing: what we expect from it, what the models and conventions are, how autobiographical voices are gendered, how social networking has affected our ideas of privacy and friendship, and so on; #8, if it kept away from speculation about how things might have gone (now there's a fruitless direction for discussion!), points towards what is probably the most novel feature of this entire phenomenon (its roots in blogging) and raises important questions about voice (again) and audience. Otherwise, many of these questions are exactly the kind of thing I steer my classes away from. In particular, it's not relevant whether you like the character: literature is not a popularity contest or a beauty pageant, and characters you hate may be the most important to understanding what a book is doing. "Relatable" characters are usually ones that don't make us think, that we're perfectly comfortable, and thus mentally passive, with. And there's no merit in sympathizing with someone you can "relate to," after all--no possibility for moral growth. While your personal experience (with food, say, in this case) inevitably affects your initial response, sharing anecdotes is also at best a warm-up exercise for literary analysis. At the end of the day, the characters in the book are not you, their experience is not your experience, and the point of the exercise is not personal enlightenment or self-revelation, but something far more other-directed, something that respects the book as offering you something rather than reflecting you back at yourself.

September 10, 2009

Back to School Round-Up

My first classes meet tomorrow. Then things get progressively busier and busier and busier...until they stop after December exams are marked and grades submitted. I have done everything I need to prepare for tomorrow except download my class lists, which I have learned to leave to the last minute because of all the adding and dropping going on. (Pet Peeve #873: Dalhousie's long add-drop period, which is designed for the convenience of the customers students, with no regard for the pedagogical chaos it creates as students appear and disappear quite at will for the first two weeks of a term that's barely twelve weeks long anyway. Just how far backwards is one supposed to bend for a student who has missed the first six or eight class meetings and so has no idea about the books, the assignments, or the attendance policies?) (Oh, and there's also Pet Peeve #781: students who register for your class but don't show up for several days, or maybe ever, but don't drop the class so that you know there's a spot available for someone on your waiting list. If only we were empowered by Customer Service the Registrar's Office to remove students from the course if they missed, say, the first two class meetings. Imagine how attendance, and thus engagement, would improve!)

Anyway, it's the time of year when academic work becomes a lot less academic (in that other sense of the word) and practical concerns press heavily on us all. Herewith, therefore, an idiosyncratic round-up of relevant tips or sites for students and professors alike.
How to E-Mail Your Professors. The guidelines in this post seem entirely sensible to me. Even if (like some of the commenters) you quibble with the details, I think everyone would agree that you should approach any communication with your professors (indeed, with anyone you hope will take you seriously) responsibly and professionally. Above all, never forget the First Law of Electronic Communication: once you click "send," you can't get it back. (The same goes for posts on your blog and status updates on Facebook, just btw.)

Dear Students... There are my own somewhat snarky (but still well-founded!) suggestions from this season last year.

I Worked So Hard! In her inimitable style, The Little Professor considers the relationship between effort, ambition, and success. See also her piece on Dealing with Professors. I especially like the reassurance that "most of us ... are not necessarily evil." True: in my own case, it's a lifestyle choice. He he.

On Teaching Evaluations. Professors: remember, it's impossible to please all of your students all of the time. Students: remember, not everyone is just like you, so perhaps what the professor should do instead of whatever you don't like is not as obvious as you think.

Did I Miss Anything? This poem by Tom Wayman remains the best response I know to a professors' most hated question, though this year I think I'll go with "you'll never know, will you?"

ProfHacker. This newly launched site, established by Jason B. Jones of The Salt-Box and collaborators, is already a goldmine full of nuggets of advice about pedagogy, technology (yay, help with wikis!), and academic business (for instance, ideas for reforming bad meetings)

Confessions of a Community College Dean
. This blog always has thoughtful, and thought-provoking, discussions of administrative and pedagogical issues. Dalhousie faculty wondering how the university's policies on "Academic Continuity" in the event that the campus is hard hit by the H1N1 virus will affect their plans and policies may want to look at this post and its comment thread.

OWL. Purdue's Online Writing Lab remains one of the best online writing resources I know.

Teaching Writing Across the Curriculum. I like a lot of things about this book; I've adapted the letter-writing assignment described on pages 30-34 for my 19th-century fiction classes and will be using my version of it again this year, after reverting last year to more traditional papers.
More as occasions warrant. In the meantime, time to go test the PowerPoint slides and double-check that all the links on Blackboard are working as planned.

September 7, 2009

Summer Reading

My daughter signed up for the summer reading club at our local public library. She pledged to read at least 20 new books between the beginning of July and the end of the summer. I pledged to match her. Because it was summer, 'light' reading was fine. Here's how we did:


1. Kate Atkinson, When Will There Be Good News?
2. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
3. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
4. Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip
5. Dick (and Felix) Francis, Silks
6. Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript
7. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil
8. Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
9. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
10. Sarah Dunant, In the Company of the Courtesan
11. Penelope Lively, Consequences
12. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
13. Ian Colford, Evidence
14. Louise Penny, Dead Cold
15. David Lodge, Deaf Sentence
16. K. Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism
17. Penelope Lively, Cleopatra's Sister
18. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million
19. Deborah Crombie, Where Memories Lie
20. Joseph O'Neill, Netherland (whew, I'm just squeaking this one in under the wire!)


1. Puppy Place: Princess
2. Princess Power: The Charmingly Clever Cousin
3. Puppy Place: Pugsly
4. Alice Finkle's Rules for Girls: Moving Day
5. What Every Girl (Except Me) Knows
6. Happily Every After
7. Ivy and Bean Break the Fossil Record
8. Clementine's Letter
9. Princess Power: The Awfully Angry Ogre
10. Junie B. Jones, Boss of Lunch
11. Judy Moody M.D., The Doctor is In
12. Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket
13. Ready Freddie, King of Show and Tell
14. Mercy Watson: Something Wonky This Way Comes
15. Ready Freddie: The Pumpkin Elf Mystery
16. Junie B. Jones, Dumb Bunny
17. Canadian Flyer Adventures: Pioneer Kids
18. The Magic Tree House: Night of the New Magicians

She didn't quite make 20, but as she pointed out, she spent a lot of weeks in summer camps that didn't allow any time at all for reading--which strikes me as interesting and unfortunate, in retrospect. Two weeks were in a science camp, so she learned a lot, and two in a "mini-university" camp, also a good mix of education and fun. The YMCA camp was all outings and swimming; these are both good things, and I know we are all obsessing about keeping kids physically active, but aren't books important too? I'm sure Maddie would also want me to point out that we are pretty inflexible about bedtimes. But you see, that's important so that I can get some reading done! And she and I are both proud of all the reading she did.

I enjoyed most of the books I read, but the highlights for me were certainly The Wasted Vigil, Mrs Dalloway, and The Lost. In the Company of the Courtesans and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were the low points, the first because it was all show and no substance, the second because it somehow managed to be at once prurient and dull. I'm still thinking about Netherland, which I just finished. I have never thought so much about cricket, before, that's for sure; until I read it, the only other literary cricket scene I knew was the awesome match in Dorothy L. Sayers's Murder Must Advertise (I love that scene!).

September 4, 2009

Summer 2009: Taking Stock

September's here, the kids are back in school, there's a buzz of expectation and activity around campus...time to review what I've been doing since classes ended in April and think about how to focus the limited time I'm going to have for anything outside of teaching and administration for the next eight months.

My main ambition for this summer was to make some measurable progress on my Ahdaf Soueif project. This is actually an interesting example of the difficulty in defining boundaries between reading I do "for myself" and reading I do professionally. I first encountered Soueif in 2007, when I picked up The Map of Love at Duthie's on a trip to Vancouver. Later that year I read In the Eye of the Sun and got increasingly intrigued by the idea that Soueif is the "Egyptian George Eliot" (as she has been called by some reviewers). I began to develop a research project in the spring of 2008, when I sent a conference paper proposal in to NAVSA (it was rejected, without any feedback, which frankly I found not just discouraging but a tad unprofessional). I kept puttering away and eventually a somewhat revised version of the proposal was accepted for presentation at ACCUTE this May. A large part of the work I was doing along the way was familiarizing myself with central terms and issues in post-colonial theory, not because that was the research I wanted to do, or wanted Soueif to be part of, but because I felt (perhaps wrongly) that it was going to be an inevitable part of any critical conversation I had about Soueif. After exams ended in April, I worked hard on the paper and finally wrestled it into shape for the conference. Of course, I wasn't entirely satisfied with it, but the purpose of a conference paper is to put your ideas into circulation and get input from your peers, so that you can take your work to the next level, namely publication in a "real" (i.e. established, peer-reviewed) academic journal. I didn't get any useful input from the ACCUTE audience: though they seemed interested in the novel, for instance, nobody asked any probing questions about my attempts to generalize about and critique some aspects of post-colonial theory. I did get some good comments when I posted the material here and at The Valve, though--which, FWIW, I think confirms the value of academic blogging.

How far have I taken this project since then? Well, not as far as I would have if I had concentrated on it and nothing else, but I did make a mental breakthrough that I think is going to be very helpful as I move forward, which is to see, finally, that all that work on post-colonialism, though important, was in some sense a mistake. I'm interested in other things--and that's OK! The post-colonial material I have been reading will not go to waste, and as it brought me to a somewhat different understanding of Said and also brought me around eventually to Anthony Appiah, I think some of it will be part of the paper that I hope eventually to write (and publish). But it won't be the kind of paper I was trying to write and gave a version of at ACCUTE.

Now that I am thinking differently--more clearly, I think--about what I'm doing, I have begun compiling notes and references with a different angle: more about humanism, cosmopolitanism, and ethics, for instance, and less about imperialism, hybridity, and hegemony. I'm re-reading The Map of Love, because in the version of the paper I now imagine, it provides a useful contrast in several key ways (form, for one thing) to In the Eye of the Sun. I'll be trying to add to my notes over the teaching year, and hoping to write and submit the revised paper ("George Eliot Goes to Egypt"?) by the end of next summer.

I would probably be further along in this work if I hadn't also spent a fair amount of time this summer puttering away at teaching-related tasks, some quite concrete (planning course readings and outlines, gradually building up the Blackboard sites for my five 2009-10 courses), others more speculative (thinking about and then learning how to use PBWorks, for instance, for a Wiki assignment I think I'm going to use in the winter term). Just choosing books for new classes can be very time-consuming, and is also another area in which "personal" reading can turn out to have professional consequences. I'm teaching a new Brit Lit Since 1800 course, and one of my preoccupations this summer was choosing "the" 20th-century novel to assign for it. I've settled on Atonement, which I read as leisure reading several years ago. I liked it so much that I picked up Saturday as soon as the paperback was available and ended up assigning that novel in my first-year class in 2006. Other novels I considered for this year's course included White Teeth, Waterland, Mister Pip, and Midnight's Children--all books I picked up to read out of personal interest. I guess the point is that in my own small way, I'm a professional intellectual, so reading is never "just" a hobby for me. Everything I read becomes part of what I know, as well as part of who I am, and so part of what I can, at least potentially, teach. Really, the university should give us all book buying budgets! (Ironically, perversely, books are the one thing you can't usually get money for in a research grant--your university library is supposed to do the job--but try persisting in a reading or research project when books are in heavy demand by other users.)

The rest of my time went to the usual sorts of things: until July, I was still Graduate Coordinator, and there was still some work to do for admissions; I supervised another MA thesis to completion (congratulations, Alexandra!) and there's one more almost done (bring it home, James!); my Ph.D. students (I'm supervising four right now) are all in various stages of reading and writing, always a pleasure to keep up with; I started on a couple of new committees that turned out to have some important things to get done over the summer; I just chaired an appeals committee. Lots to do, but the nice thing about May-August is that the pressure is so much lighter. During the teaching term I have "must-do" work every night and every weekend. Over the summer, I can read or watch TV (In Treatment and Mad Men were, predictably, the highlights!) without feeling guilty. That is all about to end, so I should probably spend this long weekend quite irresponsibly.

There have definitely been some reading highlights this summer, but I'll save those reflections for another post.