Friday, May 30, 2008

Outside of a dog...

Flavia's recent post about the consolation provided by books (which is itself a response to a thoughtful post by MeanSomething) has gotten me thinking about how my attitude toward reading has changed over time. In a comment on her post, I listed a few books that I consider consolatory in some way. To be honest, though, I've never thought about these books (or any others) in this way. Maybe the term New Kid has used in her posts on the subject, "comfort reading" comes closer, since it evokes the idea of "comfort food," that is, not necessarily the food that comforts us, but the food that makes us feel comfortable. The books I listed in my comment, books like Brideshead Revisited, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and John Crowley's Little, Big, are books that I've read many times. I used to wonder what it was that drew me to these books and then drew me back again. It wasn't the plot of the books or even for the characters, and it certainly wasn't some kind of abstract academic appreciation of literary skill, though I do believe that all of these books are excellent examples of 20th-century literature. If I had to put a specific label on it, I guess I'd say that it's the tone of these books that is so appealing to me, the feeling that permeates them and that they convey to me when I read them. In fact, now that I think about it, tone and feeling may be what attract me to reading in general. And by reading here, I'm talking, of course, about reading for pleasure and for leisure. One of the greatest joys in life, am I right?

At least that's how I remember leisure reading. The truth is that I don't get much chance to read for pleasure anymore. The combination of my teaching job and two small children has made it very difficult to spend those hours on the sofa lost in a book, hours that I only knew had passed after I looked up at the clock. That's not to say that I don't read for pleasure at all, of course. Some of my favorite days each year, in fact, are those first days after a semester ends, when I agonize over the choice a book to read. And I do read those books. Right now, for example, I'm reading Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. I read The Name of the Rose last year and liked (not loved) it, so I thought I'd give Eco another try. I'm about 250 pages in so far, and it's not bad. But here's the thing: it's taken me more than two weeks to read those 250 pages. Two weeks! I can remember times when I was younger, when I'd read an entire book in a day. I once read a trilogy of novels over a 3-day weekend. Age and children can change all of that.

But to some degree, that's a copout. Sure, I have less time to read than I used to, but I have more than the 20 minutes or so each day that I allot to pleasure reading. I spend a lot more time than that reading blogs each day, or checking for the nineteenth time before lunch. I could get up early and read for an hour or so before the kids wake up. I could read after they go to bed (instead of watching Californication online with Miss Goddess). And, of course, I could read instead of writing long posts on why I don't have time to read. But I usually don't.

Why don't I read more? Maybe it's an inevitable by-product of a career that relies almost entirely on reading. Saying I don't read for pleasure is not the same thing as saying I don't read at all. Like all other English professors, I read almost all the time. Literary works for survey classes, articles for Freshman Comp, loads and loads of student essays. My professional life is full of reading, and much of it is fairly pleasurable. Well, not the student essays so much, but I do enjoy the reading I do for my Lit classes. In the past year, I've read The Good Soldier, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all for class and all for the first time (not to mention the scores of shorter works and criticism). So maybe I'm just burned out on reading by the time the end of the semester rolls around.

There may be other reasons, too. Trying to remain active in scholarship while teaching five or six classes per semester means that the bulk of my scholarly work gets done in the summer. Time spent on research is time not spent in leisure reading, and since, as we've already established, I have a limited amount of time to begin with, that often means that pleasure reading simply doesn't make the cut. When I do decide to read for fun rather than for work, that monastic guilt often kicks in, telling me that I'm wasting valuable time that could be spent more profitably. Re-engaging in scholarship after a few months absence (due to grading, etc.) makes that guilt worse. Furthermore, when I'm working on my own research, I'm often reminded of how little I actually know about my field, convincing me that I should spend any extra time boning up on my Latin, on my German, on Anglo-Saxon history, on the exciting new scholarship that I didn't have time to read during the school year, etc.. I rarely follow through on these goals, of course, but that doesn't stop my from feeling guilty when I'm doing other things.

And who knows, maybe it's just the books that I choose to read. Like many academics, I've gotten to the point where even my pleasure reading has to meet a fairly high literary and intellectual standard. That trilogy I read over a 3-day weekend? I was twelve, and the books were the first three in Piers Anthony's Xanth series. Today, I couldn't make it past the first page of those books. I don't mean to sound like a snob, and I don't mean to suggest that I sit around reading Ulysses every summer, but the fact of the matter is that I only enjoy books if they are reasonably well-written. The problem is that some reasonably well-written books are less, well, engaging than trashy genre fiction. So while I'm enjoying Foucault's Pendulum, which is complex and moderately intellectual, I'm not loving it. More to the point, I'm not getting lost in it in the way I used to get lost in fiction. I don't find myself thinking about it when I'm not reading it. I don't steal away to a hidden corner just to squeeze in an extra chapter. I doubt I'll experience that strange mixture of joy and melancholy when I finish it. Accomplishment, maybe, but not sadness that it's over.

So is it the books I now choose to read, or is it me? Have I reached an age where the mermaids of fiction no longer sing to me the way they did in my youth? I have a friend, a former literature grad student, who hasn't read any fiction for more than a decade. He claims to have outgrown fiction, that it just seems silly to him now to read all those made-up stories. I'm not to that point. I still love fiction, at least the idea of it. And occasionally, I still find a novel that engrosses me completely, a novel like Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (but, I have to admit, I read that book almost a decade ago). They just don't crop up quite as often as they used to.

What do you think, loyal readers? Have you experienced similar shifts in the role reading plays in your life? Alternatively, if your summer reading is still transformational (or at least transportational), what are you reading? Maybe in the items on your current reading lists, I'll find a little bit of reading salvation.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A clarification

In my last post, I said that I don't really "get" postmodern approaches to medieval literature. After reading this tired and, at times, insulting (even to me) critique of the "po-mo desert" of this year's Kalamazoo, however, I'm sorry I said anything of the sort.

Let me be as clear as I can: sometimes I find the excesses of postmodernism to be silly. Twenty years ago, I found the excesses of New Criticism to be silly. And, like all normal people who spend any time at all with medieval thought, I find the excesses of scholasticism to be a downright hoot. It's the excess that I object to, in other words, not the postmodernism. I have no doubt that some of the papers that Allen pokes fun at in her article were as ridiculous as she thinks they are; in a conference of more than 1500 papers, some are going to be pretty bad. But I have a feeling that Allen is taking cheap shots here, finding titles that more traditional scholars (and, especially, non-scholars) would laugh at easily. The paragraphs on "waste studies" are good examples. Allen seems to be saying, "Can you believe that these crazy scholars spend their valuable time talking about shit?" But though I'm not particularly interested in the medieval attitude toward waste, I can think of no good reason to--pardon the pun--dispose of it a priori as a topic of study.

And I was borderline offended by some of the insinuations in the article. It's fine to point out that the "superstars" of medieval studies don't come to Kalamazoo (though I question the accuracy of the statement; I've seen many scholars I consider to be superstars at Kalamazoo). But Allen seems also to be saying that what she sees as the poor quality of the papers at Kalamazoo is a reflection of the mediocrity of the scholars who present there, people she refers to at one point as "bottom-feeding assistant professors and at-sea graduate students." Nice. She also argues that the proliferation of papers in the area of medieval literature (as opposed to medieval history, apparently) is a big part of the problem. As a scholar of medieval literature working at a (shudder) community college, I can only imagine what Allen thinks of me. [NOTE: as others have pointed out, Allen, as a Ph.D. student at Catholic Univeristy, is hardly one of the "superstars" she seems to be miss at Kalamazoo].

The most interesting thing about Allen's article, however, is the effect it had on me. Granted, I'm not part of her target audience (which consists, I suppose, largely of casual, non-medievalist intellectuals of a conservative bent), but I found that the article had exactly the opposite effect to the one she intended: it made me wish I was there. Much of Allen's characterization is dead on, of course. The number of papers at the conference is ludicrous. The dorm rooms are torturous. The dance is absurd. But these are the things that make Kalamazoo what it is. It's unlike any other conference in the world. And it's ours.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


First, let me apologize for the radio silence around here recently. Suffice it to say that the end of the semester absolutely ate my lunch, as it tends to do. Grading end-of-semester papers and exams for six classes can really wipe you out. I actually tried to write a post after turning in my grades last week concerning my feelings about not attending Kalamazoo. By the time I got around to finishing it, however, everybody had been back from K'zoo for several days and the post felt very much like yesterday's news. If I don't go again next year, maybe I'll recycle the post.

I've been busily avoiding work since finishing the semester. I have ambitious goals for the summer--at least one article, maybe two; start planning out a possible book project; lots of catch-up reading; etc.. Working at a CC means that scholarship is relegated largely to the summer months, so you have to use that time as fully as possible. To be fair, I know that many who work at four-year schools face much the same schedule. If anything, my situation is easier than most, since I don't have to produce any scholarship at all, if I don't want to. But I do want to, so I need to get to work.

Originally, I had planned to start my summer work by cranking out a quick conference proposal. I try to attend SEMA whenever possible, and this year's conference in St. Louis sounded like fun, so I thought I'd piece together something from my ongoing work (which focuses on a specific genre of Old English prose) to send in. I like writing conference papers, and I can usually throw together a proposal in a couple of hours. This one has been stumping me, though. A couple of reasons, really. First of all, the stuff I've been working with most recently is very textual, if you know what I mean. It's the kind of stuff that works fine in an article, where you can lay out passages in parallel for comparison, but it's not particularly well suited for a conference paper (at least not one that stands much chance of holding an audience's interest). It's interesting how some research works much better in either oral or written form. I've written a few conference papers that could never really be expanded into articles, just because of what I chose to discuss and how I chose to discuss it. Now, I'm working with the opposite kind of research.

The second reason this proposal has been difficult has to do with me. In an attempt to make the presentation less strictly textual, I've been trying to work up a specific angle for this paper which, while certainly not postmodern in the strictest sense, would definitely tread into an area usually traveled by "theory people." My use of quotation marks in the previous sentence undoubtedly makes the problem all too clear: I don't really get Theory.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a crusty New Critic railing against the nonsense of postmodern criticism. I admire those who work in Theory (well, some of them; scholarship informed by literary theory is like all scholarship--a mixed bag, in terms of quality). I just...well, I just don't really understand it. And it's not like I haven't tried. My undergrad curriculum was extremely traditional (more than one class I took used textbooks written by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren). So when I got to grad school, I knew that I needed work in theory. I signed up for a Cultural Studies course, taught by a brand-new Assistant Professor hired in from Yale, in my second semester. I bought all the books, did all the readings, and attended all the classes. Inevitably, though, by the time the class was fifteen minutes old, I was lost. I received an Honors grade in the course, but I'm fairly sure it was an act of mercy on the professor's part. He had to know, after reading my paper on Althusserian ideological apparatuses in Beowulf, that I had no idea what I was doing. Ironically, I parlayed that paper into my Master's Thesis, but the theory was gradually whittled away from each successive draft until all that remained was one mention of Althusser in a footnote. I tried to blame my thesis advisor (a very traditional scholar) for the change, but the truth is that he simply recognized that I was out my depth when discussing Marxism. He was right.

I still try to understand postmodern theory. I recently read through (well, most of the way through) The Postmodern Beowulf and enjoyed much of it. In fact, one of the articles in that collection inspired a conference paper I presented last fall on compositional techniques in an Old English homily. But when working on that paper, I studiously avoided drawing on theoretical concepts or, god help me, terminology. I just knew that some eager young grad student in the audience would ask me a question about the Levi-Strauss quotation I considered including, and I would be screwed, to put it lightly [NOTE: as it turned out, there were precisely two people in the audience, and one was a good friend of mine, so it didn't really matter]. I've resigned myself to the fact that my mind doesn't work the way it needs to in order to get theory, and certainly not the way it needs to in order to produce theory-based scholarship. I'm just a philologist, and not a particularly New one.

I'm glad I got that off my chest, but Confession was not the intended purpose of this post. I'm stuck with a quandary. Should I continue to work on this proposal, finding a way to ease it out of the borderlands of postmodern theory while still trying to have Something To Say, or should I cut my losses and just focus on one of my other pending projects? Remember: I have no tenure-track expectations to meet, so I can do whatever I want. Obviously, articles trump conference papers in the academic world, so reason says I should work on finishing one of the two articles I have in mind, but I was really looking forward to SEMA. Conferences are the best remedy for the isolation that I (like many others) experience as a result of working at a place where virtually nobody else is engaged in scholarship, so I try to go to at least one per year. I suppose I could just attend the conference without presenting a paper, but I don't much like doing that. Makes me feel a little like a stowaway, and since some people already look askance at the institutional affiliation on my conference namebadge, I don't need any further reminder of my outsider status.

So I put it to my friends and blogleagues: how should I spend my research time for the next couple of months?

Friday, May 2, 2008

Into the lion's mouth

Earlier today, I was elected President of the Faculty Council at HHCC for the 2008-2009 school year. We have no union and no Faculty Senate, so the Council serves as the representative body for the faculty at large. As President of the Council, then, I am now the primary spokesperson for the faculty. I'll be meeting weekly (at least) with the Senior Vice-President for Academic Affairs and monthly (at least) with the college President. I'll also be attending all Board of Trustees meetings, as well as meetings of a couple of college committees on which the Council President serves in an ex officio capacity. And the part I'm most looking forward to is the inevitable regular drop-ins to my office by disgruntled faculty members [read "cranks"], of which there is no shortage at HHCC.

So all in all, I'd say it was a good day. Sigh.

Oh, by the way: my guess is that the content of this blog may, from time to time, reflect the, shall we say, concerns of my new office. I'll try to keep the rants to a minimum, but I can't promise anything.