Finding Ways to Be in the Work of Literary Criticism

I’ve never cross-posted a piece I’ve written for Inside Higher Ed here, but this recent one strikes me as needing a home on my own site.  It’s about turning (or returning) to the work of literary criticism to discover (or rediscover) ways of being.

A career in academia can take a number of twists and turns.  My University of Venus colleagues are a rich cross-section of the many ways we can pursue work in higher education.  My own path was pretty straightforward, for better or worse; most days I think better.

If there have been twists and turns, they have been mostly internal.  When I got tenure and became a department chair, I thought more about being an administrator.  Not necessarily whether to become one, but what the work means and how to do it best.  I considered the difference between managing and leading; I learned what it meant to be visioning, and (or?) to be thinking strategically.  But I also looked at my color-coded GCal and noticed that slots related to managing, rather than making, were more prevalent.  I didn’t relish the thought of many more years in this profession with a GCal that looked like that.

As I navigated what it means to be a digital academic (something I’m currently writing on elsewhere), I developed an identity through social media — someone connected, someone networked, and in the fluid position of continually learning and growing that such an identity confers.  There’s plenty of good writing out there on the role of social media in developing and fostering identity, but I’ll just direct readers to one of my favorite writers on the topic, Rey Junco.  While a lot of his work focuses on students, it seems to me that many of us might be in the same spot as our learners, learning ourselves.  

Looking at my GCal, thinking about presenting a face for the faces I meet (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot) online and off, and getting to a point in my career where I could turn a bit more of my attention to writing and research, I got to wondering where I might look for models, maybe new models.  When I teach, I have a probably annoying habit of saying “I want to be so-and-so when I grow up” to talk about writers I am especially enthusiastic about.  Because of what I teach, the two people who get this treatment fairly regularly are George Eliot and Virginia Woolf.  (Feel free to speculate on what this says about me.)  But whenever I finally have a chance to sit down and catch up on back issues of The New York Review of Books, or I’m delving into criticism and original research for my own writing, or I’m sent a book to review, I find others:  Zadie Smith, Stephen Gill, Seamus Perry, Maria DiBattista, Robert Spoo.

Teaching, coupled with thinking more about my writing and developing some new projects, has gotten me wondering about how, for a literary critic or scholar of literature or whathaveyou, criticism can be a site for identity development.  A new way to think about or manage those twists and turns.  When I’m teaching students about the work of literary criticism, I often talk about how the areas we’re interested in exploring more deeply through literature come from someplace personal — it’s not always explicit, but it’s part of the equation.  

I was recently researching and writing a conference paper on Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, a now sort of forgotten critic of the Victorian period whose take on the poet William Wordsworth says a lot more about Stephen than it does about Wordsworth.  I found myself writing a rather strange digression in the middle of my paper.  It went like this:

One of the ideas I hope this paper has illuminated is that critics learn ways of being from their subjects, even as the work of criticism and the performance of critic is but a reflection, and that whether we realize it or not, we are drawn to produce criticism on subjects that speak to who we are as humans and who we want to be.  We can envision versions of our own selves as we produce readings that are versions of our subjects.  Perhaps some of us would find more satisfaction in our jobs if we reclaimed at least a small portion of this sense of what it means to be a critic, as integrated and connected in some kind of holistic way to the rest of our lives.

Okay, I cut that last sentence in the actual presentation — but while I didn’t know at first how it was that this weird tangent popped out as I was writing about an obscure Victorian, I think I realize now that something about this critic going to a poet who spoke to him in a time of great grief, and then feeling compelled to write an essay about it, really resonated with me.  The essay on Wordsworth that emerged from Stephen’s reading is not especially personal unless you know something about the biographical origins (going back to Wordsworth in the months after his first wife’s sudden death).  But the need to write about a writer who hits some nerve, and then possibly imagine a version of yourself that connects to that writer through the very act of criticism — I think I was working through — in public —  some idea of the necessity of that move.

No matter what twists and turns my work or professional identity as an academic might take, I always return to the books, the writers, and the other critics who sustain me and continue to teach me.  I always come back to them looking for new ways to be.