Today is the first day of the rest of my sabbatical! Much as I love being in the classroom (usually, anyway), it’s a good feeling to confront a term in which my time will not be overwhelmed with teaching tasks and I can concentrate on the other parts of my job description–particularly, of course, research and writing–that tend to get crowded out the rest of the time. The sabbatical system is a wonderful and very valuable feature of academic life. It’s impossible to imagine sustaining the commitment, creativity, and intellectual integrity that’s necessary to do this job well without these intermittent opportunities to update my own knowledge and exercise my own skills as a researcher, scholar, and writer. We bring our whole selves to the classroom; the richer, more energetic, and more imaginative our own intellectual lives, the more worthwhile that teaching time will be for everyone involved, but especially for our students.
Not that my teaching life screeches to a halt, of course. For one thing, class descriptions and book orders for the fall term will be due before too long, which means I’ll have to make a number of important decisions about how to approach the three classes I’m slated for. It will be nice to make those decisions a bit more reflectively, and in fact one of my sabbatical projects is to refresh my ideas and knowledge about the course topics by reviewing recent critical work as well as work on effective assignments and teaching strategies. All three are courses I have taught repeatedly in recent years, so it would be easy just to do basically the same readings and course structures as before, and to some extent I am likely to rely on the materials I’ve already developed (it’s not as if I have any reason to think they are no good at all!). But it’s important not to fall into a rut, or to assume I don’t have anything more to learn myself about the texts and topics I teach. Yesterday I began compiling a list of recent books in my field that look interesting, and I even picked up a few of them from the library, so I’m ready to get started on them. Also continuing is my work with four Ph.D. students, all of whom are in the thesis-writing stage of their degrees. At this moment I have about 140 pages of their draft material waiting for my input, and I expect more to come in pretty steadily over the next few months, as at least a couple of them hope to wrap the whole thing up this year. This is another task that will be much more pleasant–not to mention efficient–without the pressing distractions of a regular teaching term, and without competition for my time from M.A. students (my most recent one successfully submitted her thesis just before the break–hooray!). Requests for reference letters continue to come in pretty steadily. Otherwise, however, this term is clear of a number of the usual ongoing chores and commitments. Least missed will be marking undergraduate essays, with attending committee meetings a close second!
So, in addition to refreshing my stock of information and ideas for teaching, what are my sabbatical plans?
First of all, I’m committed to finishing the full version of the essay I’ve been working on for a couple of years on Ahdaf Souief and George Eliot. I had worked through a lot of what I wanted to do with In the Eye of the Sun, but I want to cover The Map of Love also and have not come to terms yet with how it complements or complicates the arguments I made about the earlier novel. And then I stalled as I tried to figure out how to balance all of the potentially relevant aspects of this project, which include theoretical issues in postcolonial criticism, postcolonial critiques of Victorian literature including George Eliot’s novels, historical and theoretical questions about Arabic literature and the novel tradition in Egyptian literature, work on neo-Victorian novels and on travel writing and on imperialism and on women travellers, specific interpretive questions about both In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love… Well, clearly one essay can’t do everything, and I don’t need to know everything about all of these topics before I can write my essay. But I need to regroup, review the work I’ve already done, and then go back to the novels themselves and focus on explaining what interests me so much about them, how they work both formally and thematically to get us somewhere new in our understanding. In order to write the essay I also need a target publication venue or two in mind; the decisions I make about where, finally, to place the emphasis of the essay (particularly its theoretical framing) will determine (or be determined by) the kind of journal I hope might accept it. I have been thinking about Edebiyat, but the Journal of Postcolonial Writing seems like another possibility. (Other suggestions?)
My second research and writing commitment is to a series of review essays I want to do for Open Letters Monthly on some titles from the Virago Modern Classics back catalogue. Looking at these early 20th-century titles will take me outside my usual Victorian beat, but I’ve spent more time in the modern period since working up my British Literature survey lectures, and I’m very interested in learning more about these texts and writers. I have been dithering about where to start, and yesterday I finally decided that absent any overwhelming reason to do anyone in particular, I’d just have to choose, so I’ve chosen Margaret Kennedy as my first subject, because Together and Apart was the title in the very enticing pile of VMC’s Steve Donoghue recently sent me that for whatever reason piqued my curiosity the most. I don’t intend to do a complete survey of all of her work, but I got The Constant Nymph from the library yesterday (it seems, also, to be the only one still in print at Virago), and I hope to read that, Troy Chimneys, Together and Apart, and The Ladies of Lyndon. My second pick, I think, is Barbara Comyns, for the excellent reason thatI loved the first line of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. But Antonia White (whose Frost in May was the first VMC published) is another possibility. The key here, though, is committing to whatever I’ve chosen, so Margaret Kennedy it is, a writer I’ve never read and indeed had never heard of until Steve’s parcel arrived in the fall. Though I will do some light research, into both Kennedy and Virago (I’ve already read a very interesting interview with Virago’s founder, Carmen Callil), I want to focus more on the reading experience here than on contextualizing or theorizing–all part of my project to gain confidence in my own critical voice and perspective. Happily, there isn’t nearly the weight of critical opinion on Kennedy as there is on George Eliot or Virginia Woolf anyway, so the whole anxiety of authority is somewhat allayed from the start.
I have a third writing project on the go, of at once narrower scope and grander ambition, based on my years of reading and loving George Eliot’s novels. But at this point I think it’s too soon to make pronouncements or declarations about how or when this will get done. And I’m also wondering if I can or should make anything more solid out of the fairly substantial archives here at Novel Readings. I was struck by the opening line of Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind–that she didn’t realize she had written a book. Blog posts aren’t ‘literary essays,’ but they can be revised into them. But then, I’m not Zadie Smith (or James Wood or Michael Dirda or whoever) and who would want to read a collection of my reviews and essays? But it’s something to think about, anyway. I’ve been writing this blog since January 2007: I started it at the outset of my last sabbatical, and in fact my very first post was a short one on none other than Zadie Smith! When I look back at just how much I’ve written, I’m not altogether happy to let it just fade into the distance, as blog posts inevitably do.
In addition to writing projects, I have many reading plans–too many to list, and more flexible, not so much commitments as ambitions and interests. For an English professor, time to read widely and curiously is enormously valuable. You never know what books you read ‘just’ for yourself will end up infiltrating your research and teaching life (many of the books I now teach regularly, such as Atonement or Fingersmith, I first read purely out of interest). But also, the more you read the richer your sense is of what literature can do, of how it can be beautiful or interesting or problematic or mediocre. I am convinced that I talk better about Victorian literature because of the contemporary literature I read, and that I teach with more commitment, and more hope of making connections with my students and their interests, because I read around and talk to them about books as things of pressing and immediate significance. So I’ll read a lot, I hope–and write about it here! Up soon are two books for reading groups: Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory for the local in-person group, and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book for the Slaves of Golconda.
And with that, I’d better get going–apparently it’s going to be a very busy term for me!