Reading and Research Redux: The Somerville Novelists Project

I admit, my earlier question “When is reading research?” was a bit disingenuous: obviously, research is purposeful reading. Of course, this definition can get batted around a bit too, depending on how you define your purpose: the pursuit of pleasure? aesthetic enrichment? familiarity with current best-sellers? Perhaps it’s better to say that, at least in a university context, research is reading in pursuit of knowledge, or reading directed towards solving a problem or answering a question or accomplishing a task. As Jo VanEvery also points out in her recent post on this topic, though, we have become preoccupied with the results of that reading, so that oddly, the process of exploration fundamental to defining a question in the first place has become devalued. And in universities we have also become preoccupied with research funding as a measure of productivity and success. If you don’t have a grant, you aren’t doing it right. Here, for instance, (with specifics expunged) is what the Assistant Dean of Research for my Faculty reported at the last Faculty meeting:

X has been awarded a —- Grant; X and Y have received a —- Grant for a conference… —- Grant applications this year are numerous and promising; X’s project on Y received a very positive mid-term review [from its funding agency].

At a recent presentation from one of our VP’s for research, at which he tracked our “success” and goals exclusively in terms of granting dollars, he made the point that money is measurable and thus is the easiest aspect of research to track and evaluate. The same is true, of course, of publications. But (as I and others pointed out to him emphatically in the Q&A that followed) that’s only true if the rubric you want to use is a pie chart or bar graph. If you really understand (as he claimed to) that research funding does not tell the whole story about research productivity, much less about the value of any given research project (especially in the arts and humanities), why continue using such inadequate tools? Perhaps there are fields of research in which research is better explained in a narrative, rather than a PowerPoint slide. Would it be too much, I wonder, to try to change our habits so that we acknowledge other dimensions of research activity–and stopped sending the incessant message that the best research is the most expensive? What about research that culminates in new classes, also? Isn’t that work valuable to the university? Isn’t that a purpose to which universities are fundamentally committed? You wouldn’t think so, by the way the term “research” is typically used on campus.

In any case, I can tell when my own reading has crossed into research of that more recognizable kind because I start to think about it in terms of obligations–things I should look up, things I need to know in order to achieve my purpose. I start to think in terms of depth and definition: more about this and this and this, but not that. Still, it’s always hard to draw the lines: there are no external rules about relevance, so you have to keep reading somewhat open-endedly as you figure out just how it is that you are going to define your project. There’s not a question “out there” waiting for me to turn my attention (and my students’ attention) to it: I have to mess around in all kinds of material until I see what I could do with it that is interesting and new. This conceptual work is, for me, among the most interesting and creative phase: there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.

I’m in that happy stage right now with my Somerville novelists reading. I have defined a purpose for it–my fall seminar–and the reading I had been doing out of personal interest, which had included all of Brittain’s Testament volumes as well as the volume of Brittain and Holtby’s journalism, some of their fiction (as well as Margaret Kennedy’s), and some biographical materials, is now the first phase of a more deliberate investigation. I think this phase is happy for me because it involves focus but not the kind of micro-specialization that would be required to say or do anything research-like on Middlemarch now. Instead of having to read abstruse ruminations on theoretical or other kinds of topics that have less and less to do with the things that excite me about Middlemarch, reading I would be doing only out of a weary sense of professional duty (must keep up with the latest!), I’m doing reading I’m genuinely interested in–maybe because this material has simply not attracted the degree of scholarly attention Middlemarch has, it’s still possible to talk about it quite directly and with a real sense of discovery.

Here are some of the books I’ve collected so far for this research:

Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. Ed. Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge (I’ll be posting a bit about this soon, as I’m over half way through – the stories are familiar from Testament of Youth but the letters in full have a remarkable immediacy and personality)

Winifred Holtby, Women and A Changing Civilization (I have a sad feeling that this 1934 book may have more relevance today than we’d like – “Wherever a civilisation deliberately courts its old memories, its secret fears and revulsions and unacknowledged magic, it destroys that candour of co-operation upon which real equality only can be based,” Holtby observes near the end – and flipping another page, I find “we must have effective and accessible knowledge of birth control.” Yes, I thought we’d had some of these fights before!)

Vera Brittain, The Women at Oxford

Vera Brittain, Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II (I’m curious to see what this reads like in comparison to the many volumes of women’s historical biography I worked with for my Ph.D. thesis, later my book)

Susan Leonardi, Dangerous By Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists (as far as I know, this is the only critical work specifically dedicated to my seminar topic, and so far it is my main source for other relevant titles)

Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. (This collection includes an essay Lynne Layton specifically on “Vera Brittain’s Testament(s)” as well as some useful-looking contextual ones.)

Jane Roland Martin, Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman.

This list shows the some of the frameworks that I expect will be important to talking about the core readings for the seminar in a rich and informed way: the stories of the writers; their works (our “primary” sources); the history of women at Oxford and in WWI (which means making sure I am reasonably well-prepared about general contexts); and theories and contexts on women and education, particularly university education. Each of the writers we’ll look at in detail will also raise more particular questions: with Sayers, for instance, the history of detective fiction will be of some relevance.

Doesn’t this sound like fun? That I’m excited about it makes me think it isn’t really research after all: research is work, right? Reading for pleasure isn’t work. And yet it can be, of course, and that’s the ideal of this kind of career–that it lets you do what you love, as well as you can, to make your living. That love itself can’t be the sole purpose of your reading makes sense in a professional context, but I’ve read an awful lot of scholarly writing that seems motivated by nothing more than the need to make certain moves in order to pass professional hurdles. In a previous post I quoted C. Q. Drummond saying “policies of forced publication never brought into being–nor could ever have brought into being–those critical books that have been to me most valuable.” Too much of the apparatus and discourse of research in the university seems to me to emphasize and reward everything but love of learning: it favors, as I said in that earlier post, “a narrow model of  output, a cloistered, specialized, self-referential kind of publishing supported, ideally, by as large an external grant as possible.” This project so far has been supported only by me, with some help from my university library. So it won’t ever get me mentioned in the Assistant Dean’s report (just as my publications in Open Letters had no place, literally, at the display of recent books and articles put on in my Faculty)–especially if its only output is a class, not an academic article or book. I haven’t ruled out that kind of result down the road, but I haven’t defined it as a plan yet either. In the meantime, I’m going to keep calling what I’m doing “research.”

5 Comments to Reading and Research Redux: The Somerville Novelists Project

  1. JoVE's Gravatar JoVE
    March 11, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

    That does sound exciting and seems to have the potential for several articles or blog posts or something as well as the class. I am reminded of all those acknowledgements pages that thank students for helping the author refine her ideas and think that the gestation period is probably years rather than months, and the better for it.

    One of the primary motivations for doing the work I do is a sadness about the idea of research out of obligation and external demands rather than research based in love/passion for the subject. I truly believe that it is possible to meet those demands while still focused on the love. It involves thinking about the value it offers to others, but as your post illustrates the fact that you love the subject does not mean it has no such value.

  2. jane murray's Gravatar jane murray
    March 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    March 19, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this link, Jane: not only is the piece interesting in itself but I had no idea a film version of Testament of Youth was on its way.

  4. August 26, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    I am really enjoying reading all your posts on Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby after recently reading A Testament of Youth. I found myself wanting to know more of Winifred’s story and writing and perceptions thereof and I seem to have found the perfect resting place here for considering them all.

    I had no idea until reviewing the book that a film is due out next year and a trailer already made, it will be interesting to see how it fares, no doubt it was planned to time in with the centenary of WW1.

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