I was delighted to be invited to give the keynote at this year’s Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature at the beautiful University of Portland. You can read about the conference here, on their English Department blog, and here’s an excerpt from the remarks.
Scenes from a Life Loving Books; Or, Everything I Think I Know about Stories I Learned from Barry Manilow
I actually do think that reading literature makes you a better person, which sounds positively 19th century — maybe even 18th or 17th century — but also kind of 21st century, as cognitive science, the emerging field of “literary neuroscience” proves irrefutably that Jane Austen makes you smarter. Literature does make you a better person by engaging people in big questions of humanity and civilization, or at least it gives you the equipment to recognize when those questions are being asked, and maybe even to grapple with their answers, myriad and various though they are. But more and more I think that literature is important because it allows us to give in to our impulse for play as well. AND, perhaps an even more important point, and an even weirder thing to say, is that literary criticism is important because it allows us to give in to our impulse for play.
We don’t necessarily think of literary critics as the types to go in for fun. But that’s sort of why I began with a kind of “autobiography of the reader,” writing the life of the critic, in order to model just one version of how a reader gets to be who she is, and in the telling of my story I’m offering an instance of play. Such a story provides an opportunity to think about how we develop a sense of who we are as readers, and how we begin to understand the questions and ideas that are most important to us. You all have a story like this, and while I’m talking you might even think a bit about what it is. In the time remaining to me, I’d like to focus on what I’ve done with these origins and this still-emergent critical stance, and how I think criticism works — how the incredibly important empathic and affective function literature serves exists in what is to me a very exciting and productive dynamic with play — and how the job, the use, the delight, the necessity of literary criticism is to illuminate that dynamic — and, finally, how literary criticism does this by performing and enacting both the incredibly important empathic function and the play. Literary criticism explains by doing, it doesn’t just tell, it shows, and this is why we need it. It shows us how to play, how to care, how to have an intelligent conversation — indeed, how to fulfill what Lionel Trilling called “the moral obligation to be intelligent.” Who would ever say, in our world today, that we don’t need more empathy and more play?
Winding down a semester that saw a lot of excitement: the inaugural semester of our First-Year Common Experience (featuring a lecture by Ta-Nehisi Coates), an exhibition of the work of Norman Rubington, writing, teaching — all culminating in great thesis presentations by our senior English majors…and a departmental assessment report. I know that last one sounds less than thrilling, but it’s prompted some really productive conversations in our department around teaching and learning.
Speaking of — looking forward to debuting a new course on Graphic Narrative this spring. I’m trying a few new things, involving students earlier in the design, planning a Google Hangout panel chat (hopefully with Comics Grid colleagues), and some reflective journaling.
Lots of traveling, too — a sample:
- The pre-meeting symposium at the AAC&U Annual Meeting: “New Designs for Integrative Learning,” January in DC
- A paper on Leann Shapton at the 2014 Narrative conference, March at MIT
- Keynoting at the Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature, April at University of Portland
As always, you can find me over at Inside Higher Ed/University of Venus.
This semester there will be an additional place to find me online: Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 9-10pm I’ll be holding online office hours. Visit on Google Chat and Skype.
You can also find me in Cincinnati in November for the annual National Women’s Studies Association Conference. I’ll be joining Brenda Bethman, Liana Silva, and Mary Churchill for a roundtable on our Twitter chat for women in higher ed, #femlead. As always, I can be found at the University of Venus blog over on Inside Higher Ed.
Check out the Widener University Art Gallery, where I’ve curated an exhibition on the American expatriate artist Norman Rubington, who also wrote for the Olympia Press under the pseudonym Akbar del Piombo; visit the website here.
And finally, I’m delighted to spend a few evenings this fall talking Jane Austen as part of the Lantern Theater Company‘s production of an adaptation of Emma.
One of the projects I got to work on this spring was an introduction to a new US edition of John Braine’s 1957 novel Room at the Top. The edition is coming from Valancourt Books, a specialty micropress focusing on new editions of rare 18th, 19th, and 20th century literature, especially Gothic, weird, supernatural, mystery, and queer literature. Braine’s novel is a classic of mid-century British fiction, part of a moment loosely called the Angry Young Men. It was also made into an equally significant film of the British New Wave.
image from the Valancourt Books website
The novel tells the story of Joe Lampton; at the start of the novel, set in the present, he is successful but complacent, looking back at his ambitious youthful self ten years earlier with a mixture of admiration and scorn. The narrative unfolds in a tracing of his rise to affluence and the women he loved, lost, and used to get there. Room at the Top is a compelling look at the moral implications of a society defined by increasing affluence and the stark gap between haves and have-nots. It asks whether material success and comfort is worth the loss of your soul.
While this is a little outside my usual areas of research, I do teach the Angry Young Men and British New Wave, and it was a real pleasure to delve into Braine’s career and think about this novel. I’m happy to see it back in print and available from Valancourt–with the original cover art from the first edition.
Thanks to a brief Twitter exchange a week or so ago, I’ve decided to make past course evaluations available here. The syllabi are included in order to give the comments some context and to fill out the picture one might get of my teaching. I’ve chosen to keep it fairly recent (Fall 2011-Fall 2012), since I imagine my style and method has changed somewhat over the years I’ve been offering these courses. (I’m not holding back bad ones!)
The point of this exercise is to give current and future students (and anyone else) a sense of my expectations and practices, a sense of what they might expect from me, and an idea of what they might get out of the course. And to get helpful feedback/constructive criticism from anyone interested enough to offer it. Plus I do think that if I’m going to advocate for teaching and learning in the humanities, I should demonstrate what I do in a more public way.
I’ll be filling out the collection as I go, and replacing old evaluations (and syllabi) with new ones when more recent iterations come up — and I’ll post the evals from the courses I’m teaching right now once the semester wraps up. As always, comments welcome.
In addition to finding me in the classroom, you’ll be able to find me in assessment meetings as we revise our first-year writing program and our departmental goals and objectives — and hopefully you’ll find me in my office making some long-awaited progress on Erotic Biography.
Online and off, I’ll be:
- Attending the Annual Meeting for the National Humanities Alliance/Humanities Advocacy Day in March once again;
- Working on an introduction for the Valancourt Books edition of John Braine’s Room at the Top;
- And, of course, blogging at Inside Higher Ed/University of Venus
Also: watch the Widener English blog this January for writing from my fall semester students on why we read — and need — fiction.
Looking forward to the return of THATCamp Philly on September 29th. I’ve proposed an idea for a session on using digital archives in research and teaching: check it out.