On Writing What Needs to be Written

I was asked to write an essay for The Atlantic reflecting on Jane Austen’s bicentennial, and I was so glad to do it. I have a complicated relationship with Austen, but I’ve made my peace with it, primarily because I read her with such great students. So, I’m happy with her and about how she’s been celebrated. What I’ve not been so happy about is the trajectory of my research agenda. I started two book projects at once—a collection that turned out to be Written/Unwritten and a book on the history of the novel. Written/Unwritten found a publisher first, but it also felt more urgent. When I finished it, I planned to turn back to the book on the history of the novel, but that work felt perfunctory, like a performance of what I thought I should write back when I was a graduate school.   I gave it a year, but I kept saying I was writing the book on the history of the novel but then giving conference papers on British abolitionist lit. My thought was that I’d write the book I was supposed to write and then write the book I wanted to write, one about abolitionist literature, genre, sugar, motherhood, amelioration, and sugar some more. I wanted to write about sugar bowls and gender and kept looking longingly at these tantalizing books on the subject.

“You have to write the book that wants to be written…”
–Madeline L’Engle

There’s no one thing to point to that ended up with me in an administrator’s office explaining that I wanted to use a research grant to look in different archives for different stories about England in the nineteenth century.  Seeing my students ask more questions than I have answers for in my abolitionist literature class is part of the reason.  I also know the energy it takes to get a book done, and it just didn’t seem like a good idea to take that on without totally invested in the project. It also feels like I can do more to make my research matter if I take up the questions I’ll explore in this book. They haven’t gone anywhere in centuries, and now seems like the right time when more and more people are seeing what a lot of black folks have always known about race, racism, and racial violence.

It’s scary. I was sitting in an archive in April, feeling slightly nauseous about the work ahead of me.  And I don’t want to be a person who quits a project half way through. I’m trusting that what people who know me well say about me is true—I’m not quick but I am very persistent. I’m also trusting that I’m a clearer writer and thinker now than I was when I planned the other book.

Of course, the moment I started working on the book proposal, all of the research I’ve been doing was relevant to this project but in a new way. And at least one of those former book chapters is on its way to being transformed into a journal article—where I suspect it will actually have more impact. Somewhere between the conference-length essay and the 9,000-word chapter draft is a stunning, erudite consideration of Mary Shelley, Felicia Hemans, Genre, and Byron. I’ll find it. People have been interested in seeing me write more things like this Emma piece in the Toast, and I’m working on that too. It’s hard in a different way, but it’s a good struggle, and I feel lucky to have people waiting to help me get it done.

This means I write more than I used to. I’ve spent most of the summer writing (that and walking off two years of stress and anxiety), reading, and putting together a research agenda that makes sense. I’m this close to finishing what will be first big journal article on British abolitionist lit, co-editing a cluster issue on abolitionist lit with Manu Chander (it’s gonna be GOOD), and balancing two different kinds of book proposals. So we’ll see. If you’re a praying person, pray for me. If you’re not and you see me in a café or bar writing, buy me a drink.

Afro-Pedagogy: Reading Abolition, Then and Now

I’m trying to take the best parts of my Jane Austen Seminar from last fall into this new school year.

I loved that class.

It saved me from slipping into a dangerous ennui that was mucking up the vibe in my classes. I took advantage of the structure and the topic, and it worked beautifully. It wasn’t perfect (that was never the goal), but it was pretty damn good.

Given the nature of a seminar (a small group of highly motivated students) and the subject (the Jane Austen canon is perfect for a semester course), I was able to ask students to do four things before the semester started:

  • Imagine their own assignments based on what they wanted to learn about Austen and the skills they wanted to work on over the course of the semester
  • Think about the kind of readings they wanted to do with the texts (mostly theory or mostly context essays)
  • Develop course policies (because I am tired of keeping track of the comings and goings of grown-ass people)
  • Daydream about the kind of “culminating” project they wanted to complete at the end of the semester.

My only rule was that they had to come up with the kind of work I could defend should somebody who thought the could have an opinion about my teaching ask us what we were doing while we ate cookies and talked about Austen on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We spent the first day of class brainstorming about the semester, and I asked them to submit work proposals and then met with them individually to make sure they had what they needed from me to work independently.

The students really surprised me.* They came up with ambitious projects (all of which required more research than I would have asked of them), they challenged themselves (I will love forever the incredibly shy student who said she wanted to work on speaking and public and designed two presentations on Austen in adaptation, including discussion questions that she distributed to the class before her presentation so they could have a productive conversation when she was done), and they were more creative than I could ever have imagined (for his final project, the musician in the course played music Austen’s characters would have heard on a keyboard he dragged to class while giving us a lecture on how music composition shifted in Austen’s time). One student wanted to learn how to write book reviews, and he did. It was pretty remarkable to see the transition, a process he reflected on in essays and conferences with me during the semester. Another student wanted to write about Austen the readers of her blog while another put herself in charge of being our guide to the customs of Austen’s readers. We had a student auditing the course who would write these pithy responses to our class discussions, and students shared resources they found on Blackboard.

*The class voted unanimously that i could talk about our work.

It was the best teaching experience of my 15+ years in higher education. I actually looked forward to reading student writing. I wanted to mark and comment on their work.

Let’s all just sit with that for a minute.

In lieu of a syllabus, I sent the class regular memos. There were students who wanted traditional instruction and more direction, and, of course, I was happy to provide that. Everyone got “grades” but more than that I wrote them letters about their work. Sometimes they wrote back. Students who were transferring in from community colleges were especially good about seeing me for help understanding the kind of analytical writing expected of them.

They kept me on my toes, challenging notions about Austen I hadn’t reconsidered in a long time, and asking for more time if they felt I was rushing them through a novel. Best of all, they supported one another in and out of class. They cheered one another on, gave advice and feedback for those who were writing in public, and took on extra-curricular projects together. When things got too stressful, we took a break so everyone could catch up on the readings. And they did.


abolition lit art

I can’t replicate everything about that seminar, but for a class I’m teaching next semester called “Writing in the Major” I plan to take a similar approach by helping students design a series of assignments that feel interesting and meaningful to them. I don’t really know what the course is actually supposed to do, “Writing in the Major” means, but I’m using it as an opportunity to let students experiment with how to use the reading we do in class to focus on a modern political question. The class will focus on British abolitionist literature—primarily poems, novels, and essays published between 1789-1830—but I’m asking students to think of a policy or practice that has been abolished or one that they would like to see abolished and to start thinking of how writers shape and reflect those movements.

We’re forever telling students that being an English major means they can “do anything” and that literary study develops their “critical thinking skills” (I said this in a class a year or so ago and every single student groaned and/or rolled their eyes), so I want this class to be an experiment in what that means in real time.

My working theory is that the reason we so often hear politicians and other rhetorical beings claiming King’s “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is because movements tend to follow similar patterns, and I’m going to work with my students to help them recognize those patterns. They want so much to “relate” to what we’re reading and this class seems like a good place to let them do that in some sustained and nuanced way. What I hope some of them will do is find literature that reflects and/or contributes to a modern political movement and then discuss their readings in a series of writing assignments we’ll develop together.

More than wanting them to complete a concrete set of tasks, I’d like them to think about the kind of reading and writing they might want to do beyond the classroom. I’m even toying with not requiring them to read everything on the reading calendar but to see the readings as an introduction to the kinds of writing that shapes a social movement. Maybe a student will read the poetry on the syllabus and then do a comparative study of poems written by GLBT writers seeking equal rights in the twenty-first century. Or a student will read about sugar in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and learn about what modern commodities we take for granted rely on slave labor. White women in the early nineteenth century co-opted the issue of slavery for their own political goals (I’m looking at you Wollstonecraft), and I suspect that my students will notice this pattern in modern political movements.

I’m lucky to work closely with faculty who can help me point students down most any path they want to follow. I suspect I’ll be asking my academic twitter community for help.

I’m not sure how this will work, but I’m trusting that my students will be curious enough to work out what they want to do with me as guide and coach. And I’m trusting that whatever my reputation for being “hard” and “intimidating,” students who have worked with me know I’m open to all reasonable revisions to the syllabus. They’ll ask me enough questions to work out the details. I’ll also have the option of traditional assignments, but I really want students to leave class with a reading list for the future.

Like most tenured faculty, my classes tend to be a mix of students who have taken other classes with me and those who probably just took my classes because they are required and/or fit in with their schedule. I know from experience that some of them will jump at the chance to play with what we’re doing in this class while others will feel anxious with the “weight of too much liberty.”

I’ve taught graduate seminars and as a sophomore survey on British abolitionist literature (and published on the topic), so I’m conversant enough in it to let the class experiment with how to use the texts I’ve selected for us. I want us to be all over the place and want to create a space where students are rewarded for reading outside of the classroom and connecting that to the larger questions we’ll consider over the course of the semester.

We’ll write quite a bit, but I don’t know how much grading I’ll do. Instead, I think I’ll consult with students on writing projects and then let them submit work when they feel it’s ready for me to grade. What I found in the Austen seminar and in the Intro to Theory course I teach is that my English majors respond best to short writing assignments that require them to focus tightly on an argument. Longer essays just invite plot summaries and vague prose. Most students hate those longer essays and will never write in that form again, so I’d rather help students figure out how writing fits into their lives and then work with them to do that writing critically, with great care.

Productive chaos in the classroom is my very favorite thing (that and eating excellent cookies with my students), so I’d like to develop an atmosphere while still leaving room for students who actually want and need structure. My Austen seminar made clear how much I can trust students to seek out the most from their course work with a lighter guiding hand, leaving me more time to work with students who need more attention and who are trying to find their way into literary analysis.

In my Romanticism course, I make my students slog through A Defence of Poetry. They kind of hate it, but we linger over this moment:

But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion.

With this class, we’ll try to figure out how those who trade in language changed the world in their time and ours.


Writing Retreat: Day the Second

This morning I wished I were a person practiced in the arts of yoga or Pilates. The sundeck seems the ideal place to stretch and meditate in the morning sun. I certainly have the yoga costume: yoga pants and a tank top (both in black). But, alas, I’m a pajamas-and-bowl-of Crispix-with-cranberries kind of girl, though I do enjoy starting the day doing stretches with my hand weights while watching “The West Wing” and reveling in the knowledge that Josh Lyman is really Rahm Emmanuel no matter what Lawrence O’Donnell says (the author is dead, indeed!).

Yoga or Crispix. It really doesn’t matter: I’m here to write, and it’s working. With no domestic duties beyond washing my cereal bowl (and to be honest, Karen did that for me), I happily walked the two minutes to a nifty café, Peaceable Market, run by a group of young, cool women. I spent the morning eating toast and reading Felicia Hemans’s poetry. I’ve taken a bit of a risk trying to work with Hemans in this way as I’m not as familiar with her as I am with Shelley, but a morning with her poetry makes me think my argument holds more than just water.

It’s a great little café—hardwood floors, lots of natural light, generous portions of peanut butter for my toast, and a view of the harbor from my window.

But there’s something here I hadn’t counted on. Men. Lots of them. Most of them H.O.T.

Maybe it’s because it’s spring, but I’m finding the Men of Newport very distracting. Anyone who knows me would explain that my “type” tends towards effete metrosexuals with hands made for playing piano. I tend to like handsome men over homely ones, but wit and creativity are more appealing than many other qualities and can turn an Urkel into a Chiwetel Ejiofor. I also have a thing for nerdy academic types, though six years as a professor has all but cured me of this unfortunate ailment (male academics are so much sexier from a distance than they are up close and personal). These guys are not at all my type, so it’s surprising that they have me looking up from my Hemans all too often. They ooze a kind of ease that I usually am not attracted to. Perhaps it’s all in the packaging. They all look like prototypes for Ralph Lauren glossy ads but not in a pretty boy, airbrushed way. No way. These guys are the real thing. They all look so healthy, as if they really do spend their time working or playing on the boats in the harbor. They all have great hair, and they move with an appealing masculine grace, walking easily along the narrow sidewalks of Thames Street. Good lord, I sound like some twenty-first Danielle Steele.

When I call my mother to ask if she’d like a sweatshirt from this charming town, I tell her about the fact that I’m amongst these beautiful men and she replies, without missing a beat, “what are you wearing?” I don’t have the heart to tell her I have on sweatpants and a faded yellow hoodie. Poor woman just plunked down a chunk of cash to buy me a summer wardrobe fit for a modern-day, mocha-colored Holly Golightly, and I’m in sweat pants and a faded yellow hoodie. At least the sweat pants aren’t baggy and the hoodie shows that I have a waist.

In other news, I’ve forgotten my book weight and realized that I have a serious internet addiction.

My writing afternoon session was less productive than my morning of reading and note taking. But the day is not over yet. Perhaps after a walk with Sadie (Karen’s adorable pooch), I’ll write some more. Writing about poetry really does feel like trying to nail Jello to the wall.

A bit of poetry

I’ve started working on two big projects that I’ve been circling for way too long, a book about the academy and a study of the nineteenth-century novel and its connection to disease and healing. Every fear of writing I have hovers below the surface, causing (sometimes literally) my hands to shake as I take hold of pen and paper. The only thing for the fear of writing is to face it, so face it I do–mostly by fooling myself into the myth that I’m not actually writing. I tell myself that I’m just “jotting down” a few sentences. At other times, my friend Karen infuses me with her own intellectual fearlessness, and I find I’m drawn, almost against my will, to my desk.

When I get too scared, Lucille Clifton’s poetry pops into my head as an invitation and a scolding that if she, who had so much less than I do now, could find the courage to write (and to write poetry!) I can too. Here is the poem that came to me during one of my writing sessions today:

won’t you celebrate with me
by Lucille Clifton

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

When I can see my writing as a celebration of the writers who live on the edge of Jane Austen’s shadow or the academy’s struggle with what is written and unwritten, then it’s not so scary…and is even a little exciting.