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.
Classes at Widener begin on August 27, but before then I’ll be participating in a few chairly-type retreats focusing on governance, leadershipping, etc., so very much around. Here’s what I’ll be teaching this fall, and when you can find me for office hours.
In and around town — and beyond:
- Continuing my work at the Swarthmore Public Library leading a book group on biography called “Women’s Lives”
- Joining a few Twitter colleagues for a roundtable on modernism and social media at MSA 14 in Las Vegas, October 18-21; I’ll also be chairing a panel I put together entitled “Modernist Necrophilia”
- Recent posts up at University of Venus/Inside Higher Ed as well as The Comics Grid
Finally — very pleased to be joining the editorial team at College Literature as an Associate Editor. They’ve undergone a redesign and a shift in focus with new editor Graham MacPhee, and I’m excited to be part of it.
This week has been bookended by two issues that have been shaping my work. Monday and Tuesday I was in Washington, DC for the annual meeting of the National Humanities Alliance and Humanities Advocacy Day. The Pennsylvania delegation had the opportunity to meet with staffers for Representatives Chaka Fattah, Glenn Thompson, and Mike Doyle, as well as for Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey. Our main focus was advocating for a restoration of NEH funding to FY 2010 levels–a request made by President Obama in his blueprint–giving the agency $154 million.
The “crisis in the humanities” narrative dominates the discourse for some of us, but I’m just as interested in setting the terms of the discussion in a constructive way–and getting to set them ourselves. The humanities enrich civic life, they foster a lifelong love of ideas, and they facilitate innovation. If I’m going to ask my students to take my classes in the humanities seriously (and spend an awful lot of money to be in them) for these reasons, then I’m going to go down to Washington to make the same case for the support we need to keep the humanities an integral part of the fabric of our lives.
I think making this case to my colleagues is important, too, and that’s something I’m pretty committed to as chair of my department. So I’m glad to be finishing up this week by talking about what we look for in higher education leadership as part of a Guardian live chat. Leadership, for me, is sharing this vision of how higher education can make our lives better, enrich the ways we live in our community, and think in innovative and creative ways. And I also think that as a faculty member, I have an obligation to advocate for this vision on my campus and beyond.
Plus: it’s kind of cool to finish the week in the Brit Lit II survey with some student presentations on the Modernist Journals Project, and teaching Waiting for Godot in 20th Century British Drama.
We start back at Widener next week — the courses I’m offering can be found here.
I’ll be traveling a bit, too:
- In February I’ll be co-facilitating a workshop at AAC&U in New Orleans with some colleagues on our recent work in general education at Widener, focusing on the assessment of writing.
- In March I’ll be traveling to Washington, DC for Humanities Advocacy Day: meeting with Hill staffers and learning more about the state of the humanities in the public square.
- Also in March: heading to Richmond for the College English Association’s annual conference. I’ll be speaking on Emmanuel Levinas’ Carnets de Captivité and the borders between life writing and theory.
- And in early summer…I’ll be on a panel at the Space Between conference at Brown University, speaking on Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland: “Love in the Archives.”
You can always find me over at University of Venus, too!
Posted in research, teaching, travel
Tagged AAC&U, archives, assessment, biography, humanities, life writing, teaching, The Space Between, women
Welcome to the new and improved website.
This fall I’ll be in Buffalo for the Modernist Studies Association annual conference: Thursday at the seminar “The Emotional Life of Modernism,” and Sunday speaking on the panel “Modernism and Ethics,” organized by Stephen Ross. I’ll be presenting on my current work, about which more here.
In the past few months I’ve also had blog posts up at The Comics Grid, ProfHacker, and University of Venus/Inside Higher Ed/Guardian UK.
Posted in blogging, travel
Tagged biography, James Joyce, leadership, modernism, Modernist Studies Association, ProfHacker, teaching, Ulysses, University of Venus, women