Reading is not one thing but many. Most of all, reading is not passive. “In reality,” writes Michel de Certeau in the opening of The Practice of Everyday Life, “the activity of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of a silent production.” But what are we producing? And what does the scholarly practice of reading do to this production?
As graduate students we often expect ourselves somehow to swallow texts whole—to get them. We try mightily to read texts simultaneously in terms of their own coherence, elisions, and indeterminacies as textual systems, of their unconscious procedural expression of determinant historical conditions of possibility, of their own stated and unstated relations to their intellectual precursors, and in the light of their reception by scholars or later links in the canonical chain; we strive to keep in mind texts’ political ramifications, how their formal-generic elements engage with other morphologically-related texts, and their relative sympathy or antipathy to various major philosophical concerns or strands of ideological critique; we read texts to find out whether we can instrumentalize our readings for the purposes of conference papers, dissertation chapters, or course syllabi—and maybe to determine whether we like them. More often than not, while reading I am also planning on passing along certain passages to colleagues or photocopying them for friends outside of the academy; wondering whether I could get a pirated PDF instead of waiting the several days for Interlibrary Loan or maybe shelling out the cash for a nice sixties paperback copy of my own, speculating about the biography of the author or the business-end realities of the academic press in question, and so on. Continue reading Objective Reading→
In my first post for this blog, I wrote about how my background in archeology influences my perception of texts as physical objects, and how I’d like to move towards an “archeological hermeneutics” that takes into account a text’s material conditions as contributing to its contents and their significance. Moving forward, I’d like to complicate our understanding of text-as-object by introducing what I’ve so far learned in my “Media Archeology” seminar taught by Lori Emerson. It came as a surprise to my family and friends that I enrolled in this course, because I tend to take classes that focus on the study of 18th and 19th century literatures. Although I won’t be reading any texts “in my period” for this class, I’ve found it has in fact supplied me with a variety of alternative methodologies for my Romantic-era research.
Although those who work in the field tend to resist a concrete definition, Jussi Parikka calls media archeology “a way to investigate the new media cultures through insights from past new media, often with an emphasis on the forgotten, the quirky, the non-obvious apparatuses, practices and inventions” (Parikka loc 189). We’re encouraged to take apart machines in order to understand how they operate, and in turn expose the conditions and limits of our technologically mediated world. Relying on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, among other texts, media archeologists expose structures of power embedded within the hardware of modern technology, revealing the ways in which media exert control over communication and provide the limits of what can be said and thought.
I find this way of thinking about the structures and limitations imposed by media particularly useful for the study of 18th and 19th century texts. Instead of thinking about how printing and publication practices give rise to individual texts, as I have in the past, I’ve started to consider texts from the inside out: what do books tell us about the cultural conditions and constraints imposed by the media in which they were (and are) written, manufactured, and consumed? Like the ASU Colloquium’s post, I wonder what three volume novels, for example, might tell us about communal reading practices and circulation of texts and, importantly, our modern reading practices in comparison. I’d hypothesize that circulating texts and libraries would contribute to communities of readers in which reading was, perhaps, a shared experience. In contrast, modern reading tends to be solitary experience which involves owning texts (especially when the library has only one copy of the book you need).
I’ve also found media archeology’s rethinking of linear time and notions of progress particularly useful and interesting. Collapsing “human time” allows us to bring together seemingly unrelated technologies for comparison and analysis. I’m thinking here of the Amazon Kindle and 18th century circulating libraries, which both create spaces for communal reading. In contrast to the private reading practices I described above, I think the Kindle – and specifically the “popular highlight” feature – presents an opportunity for readers to become aware of their participation in collective readerships. When you click on a pre-underlined sentence, it shows how many other people have also highlighted it. While at first I found this feature annoying – perhaps evidence of the private relationship I tend to have with books – I’ve begun to enjoy the way it makes me aware that I’m one of many readers who’s enjoying this particular text. Furthermore, I wonder if my newfound sense of collective readership would also give me a better understanding of Romantic-era reading practices that were likewise characterized by shared texts and mutual engagement. The ASU Colloquium posed an important question about whether we should attempt to read texts as their original readers would have; since many of us no longer have access to the original 3 volume novels and their circulating libraries, maybe we can gain insight into these texts and reading practices from the vantage point of our own collaborative technologies.
To close this post, I want to introduce one more concept from my media archeology reading that I’ve also found particularly applicable to the study of Romanticism: glitch aesthetics. Typically understood as accidents and hick ups within games, videos, and other digital media, glitch artists exploit them in order to “draw out some of [that technology’s] essential properties; properties which either weren’t reckoned with by its makers or were purposefully hidden” (McCormack 15). Again, media archeologists are concerned with exposing the power structures embedded in technologies, this time by giving us a peek of what lies beneath. While looking at glitch art, I couldn’t help but think of an experience I’d had in the British Library reading Keats’s manuscripts. I remember finding an additional verse to “Isabella: Or, the Pot of Basil” in George Keats’s notebook in what I think was Keats’s hand etched nearly invisible on the opposite page. Of course, this mysterious stanza threw a wrench in the carefully constructed argument I’d planned, and I had no idea what to make of it. Now that I look back on it, I’d like to think of that stanza as a textual glitch – it’s possible that Keats never intended for it to be read. Perhaps it had even been erased from the page. For me, this “glitch” reveals the textual instability of the poem and disrupts the sense of solidity and permanence with which I’ve come to regard Keats’s oeuvre.
I still have much to learn about media archeology and its methodologies (which I’ve certainly oversimplified), but I think this field could lead our work in Romanticism in new and exciting directions.
In response to Deven’s post regarding her journey toward archaeology via the pursuit of reality, I wanted to use the resonance I felt in her story as a jumping off point for my own post about the nature of reality. While I am compelled by approaches to understanding defined by logic and reason, I find myself sometimes working against both in my role as an artist. I make work in a system that allows for the full creation of possibility and ideas – a world that ascribes to sets and grouping but also readily casts them off in order to make great leaps and bounds of the imagination. Contemporary artists, unfettered by traditional labels that have served much of western art history (though still enriched by that history), move about from media to media, always seeking the best solution to visual questions. Art of the mind is valued as well as art of the hand, and at that juncture, pragmatic fixes need not be applied. As a printmaker interested in geology and compelled by the scientific method, I was searching for artistic solutions that had practical, empirical answers. I wanted to find the place where art and science met. Perhaps after one too many philosophy papers, I decided to close the book on abstract ideas and go out into the field.
Much of my work deals with narrative and the quest for the truth in that space. Truth, for me, was about getting to the heart of what really happened on a cold day in December that has long since passed and can now only be accessed through memories. I have no observable data or evidence. The reality of each moment is a driving concern, and if I can create output of those moments, perhaps they will be easier to analyze and interpret.The prints that I create deal with specific times and places, and I can correlate that nicely with rocks in the field that I learned about through geological field exploration. For instance, pick a memory from your childhood, say, around fourth grade. Were there other people there?
What kind of day was it?
Can you recall what you were wearing?
In the epochs of the history of this earth, that blink in your existence could be akin to a river flooding in the Late Cretaceous. Perhaps some plant matter is trapped in with the sediments rushing over the banks, a picture of that day in the memory of the earth, now lithified. Literally, set in stone.
People will remember things differently, and focus on separate parts of events. Humans get details wrong and let their emotions dictate how they feel about certain memories. The earth, however, could only ever tell you the truth. It records events as they happen, and if you wanted to find out the story – “the reality” – all you need to know is how to read the rocks.
Going forward with this proposition, in late 2012 I set about making an installation titled Wonders of the Rocks: Passages I – IV. It is a collection of various hand-collected granites, gypsum, shale and limestones, placed onto shelves of varying widths. Each shelf contains a set of rocks meant to signify some narrative or implied story amongst the grouping. Some of the rocks used in the piece were covered with my own interpretation, or memory, of that rock so that you could no longer see its real story underneath. The piece is hung low on the wall and arranged in a linear format, meant to be “read,” as one literally reads rocks in the field, looking ever downward.I wanted the viewer to come to this piece and kneel down or bend over as one does when searching for samples. If the meaning of some small passage was lost to the passerby who did not fully engage with the piece, to me this is symbolic of the geologist who loses sight of the details and fumbles even the smallest of notes. A misinterpreted strike and dip of strata could change how one reads a formation entirely, much the same with small intonations in the translation of a foreign text.
I am still working on the idea here between what is meant by the signs and signified, but now I am incorporating cues from language. Maps still play a role to me as guides in making meaning for geological work, but the idea that these rocks can transcend that and become a new language interested me. I’d attempted to construct a meaning, a language, and a truth from reality – actual pieces of the geological record of the earth. I specifically thought of the work One and Three Chairs, executed by Joseph Kosuth in 1965.He gives us an artifact, documentation, and an explanation, but wherein lies the truth? At one point, a member of my committee had to tell me, “You need to let go of this idea of the truth.” I had become stubbornly attached to the idea that each rock was telling me a true story. It is okay to walk away from a set of rocks and misunderstand them, as their language is multifunctional, in a constant state of change (literally from sedimentary to metamorphic to igneous), and open to vast interpretation. There is no one set of passages that can equal one meaning, much the same in language.
But the question persisted: What do we hold the most important? The thing or the idea of the thing?
Along the way I began to think of reality and truth as the same. I could hold a rock physically in my hand, inspect it under a microscope, classify it, and make a very good estimation about how it was formed. Touching a rock was, to me, like picking up a page from the history book of the world. Each rock was a true statement, and if I collected enough of them, I would start to have an alphabet from which to begin a new language.
If these minerals and rocks are important to me as signs, so is what is signified. When I look back at Kosuth’s Chairs, I am reminded of a print that brings this entire endeavor back around again for me. Blue Print, 1992, by Abigail Lane is one of a series of inked chairs that has a felted inkpad in the seat. The placement of the chair so near the wall, the print of the bodily mark hung nearby, almost as evidence but more as connection, calls forth the Kosuth as an artistic antecedent. The print in this artwork acts on several levels: as a record of an action, as a tie-in to the sculpture, and as an image for visual consumption. There is a language beginning to take shape in the print, which is made directly from the body. Almost like a trace fossil found near an outcrop, you can safely guess that one came from the other.
I wanted to tell the story of place and of memory with 100% accuracy, but here’s the rub – even in geology you cannot do that. You can make very educated statements and qualified guesses, but there will always be some unknown factor. In the sciences, they warn of “observational bias” tainting your results, but in the art world, observational bias is the most important thing you’ve got.
I have a confession to make: I’m not getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature. An avid reader since childhood, books were something I enjoyed, but not necessarily found interesting enough to study. Sure, Pride and Prejudice was a great read, but I’d never thought it more than that. My early thinking went like this: “Fiction is entertaining, but it’s not real. What’s the value in studying something that isn’t real? If it isn’t real, what’s there to study?” This line of thought must abhor many of you, but I confess that I struggled (and still struggle) to convince myself that studying literature was a worthwhile, productive endeavor. It didn’t help that I went to a college where most students viewed education as a means to a well-paying job—a degree worthwhile for the job at Goldman it could score you. I was certainly influenced by this environment, and haven’t entirely discarded its thinking. I was, for better or worse, interested in the real, the tangible.
My quest to study something “real” (quite literally) led me to declare a major in Archeology, a field where I got to touch things and feel their realness. Literature was about ideas, archeology was about objects. A poem didn’t have the same tangible meaning for me that, say, a clay pot did. The pot was created for a purpose: to hold liquid, cook food, decorate a home. I liked that I could touch the artifacts I studied; they had real meanings behind them, not the “imaginary” meanings that people superimposed over novels and poems. You could find an object’s meaning within its material form—it had been shaped a certain way for a reason.
Yet a few months later, I found myself missing literature. I started to crave the “humanness” of books from which artifacts, although made by humans, felt detached. I started taking more English classes, mainly for fun, when an idea struck me: what if books could be read, not as abstractions upon which readers inserted meaning, but as objects? This watershed moment transformed the way I thought about literature, and led me to switch my major. I stumbled across a new kind of reading that I want to call an “archeological hermeneutics.”
How this works: I read a book as a material object, not only significant because it’s the product of a distinct cultural moment, but because it has a relationship to all other objects of the same type. In archeology, we think about a decorated Tlingit mask as it exists alongside hundreds of undecorated masks. The mask is both an independent object with a unique history, and a type working within a tradition of objects. Likewise, books are interesting, as opposed to entertaining, when I can read even the smallest moment in a text as related to the book’s position in its unique cultural moment, and as a product within a history of moments. So, when Keats writes Hyperion in unrhymed heroic verse, it’s significant on a local level—revising the verse form after the critical failure of Endymion—but also engages within a tradition of verse that hearkens to Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope, and others. Books are both local and transhistorical artifacts.
In archeology, material constraints dictate what kind of objects people create. The indigenous peoples of the Great Basin make baskets out of yucca, a material which obviously constrains their shapes and colors. Applying this to my studies in Romanticism, the material conditions of a book’s creation, publication, and dissemination are important to my understanding of its content. As I’ve learned in my current course on Romantic Drama with Jeffrey Cox, the material conditions of Regency theatre culture—there were only 2 theatres in London allowed to perform spoken drama—led to the development of musical forms like melodrama, pantomime, and other forms of Jane Moody’s “illegitimate theatre.” And then there are the constraints of publication: Why does Equiano choose to publish by subscription, and why does he include a list of subscribers on the first page of his Narrative? Does it affect our reading of the narrative that follows? These are the questions, inspired by Romanticism’s material conditions, that I find worth discussing. To me, they are real, almost tangible.
Yes, there are benefits to reading books as closed systems. It’s useful to understand how a text functions within itself, how it teaches the reader to read. But often with this approach, the meaning I find within texts is one I’ve placed there myself. Nietzsche (and Paul Youngquist, from whom I first heard it paraphrased) explained it thus: “If someone hides something behind a bush, looks for it in the same place and then finds it there, his seeking and finding is nothing much to boast about.” In my burgeoning career as a Romantic scholar, I want to discover truths that emanate from texts without having to place them there myself.
Perhaps I ought to rephrase my opening statement: I’m not getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature; I’m getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature’s interaction with the material world and the truth that emerges from it.
I first want to thank the NASSR Grad Caucus Board for such a warm welcome to this blog and, also, to the NASSR community. I am thrilled about the many ways in which my role as an active artist can contribute to conversations about, and in response to, issues in Romanticism, illuminating both historical frameworks and existing political or ideological currents. I’ve been provided such energetic feedback to all of my initial questions that I now feel I am ready to tackle an initial post. To do so, I’ll introduce myself more thoroughly. I recently graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Printmaking from the University of South Dakota and I am currently living and working in San Antonio, Texas. I teach printmaking, make prints and sculpture, and also involve a good deal of geological and art-historical research in my practice.
To more fully explain my work, I need to talk about where I’m from and what I’ve studied. I’m going to take some latitude to go into a little selected personal history and write at some length about what drives me to make work.
I grew up in North-Central Florida for most of my life, born and raised in a swampy and green part of the state that informed most of my understanding about nature and animals. The idea of mountains, snow, desert, or indeed of other spaces, is foreign to me. I am captivated by the idea of travel while at the same time am imbued with a sense of desire for “home.” In many ways, the work that I make is about exploring the feeling of longing for two places. As a young artstudent, Jean Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra” always resonated with me, perhaps because I grew up in Florida, and he most briskly takes Disney down to a mere order of infantile fantasies. [It should be noted that Baudrillard is referencing the Disney Land in Los Angeles, but I hold that the same is true for its own iteration in Orlando, again the simulation of itself.] I believe Baudrillard’s writing on simulacra also held sway with me. I felt that a place could hold a fantasy, a wonder, significance – and be in reality nothing more than a swampland.
By the time I reached graduate school, I’d found that my attention to land and the impression that certain areas had upon me were developing into a research-based artistic practice focused on maps and geology. I was interested in understanding more thoroughly, on a scientific and rational basis, why land was so important to me. I specifically wanted to take emotion out of the equation. It was my point of conjecture that my feelings of homesickness, anger, pain, or regret were, to put it logically, contaminating my results. In an attempt to dissolve those feelings into a solution of metaphor, charts and graphs balanced sensitive marks. It was tricky at first, because old anger and severe homesickness didn’t want to be dealt with. I looked for ways in which I could talk around these feelings without being too blatant. The more I read about maps, the more I realized that signs and signifiers wouldn’t work for me anymore. Replacing emotion with a symbol was too simple an answer; the reality of emotion goes deeper and is felt more thoroughly than any pocket-size road atlas could contain. To go forward and really grapple with emotion I must nod to the oft-referenced Jorge Luis Borges fable and say , “the map is not the territory.”
Geology seemed to have all of the answers. As a printmaker, I work in layers and stages naturally, and the process of observation and investigation is something of a peek into history. I had been slowly growing more aware that to know what my work was about in the present, I needed to know where it came from. I desired to be able to read the strata of my own history. Geologists can do a wonderful thing: they can walk out into the world and, using careful observation, tell you what kind of environment used to exist there thousands or millions of years before. They see the world as it is now and as it was then, peeling back the layers of time before them like the blankets on a press bed to slowly reveal the surprise beneath. Geologists and printmakers both work in strata.
My prints are often akin to a journal page or even a field note, a place for working out internal thoughts or recording events: poetry of inner questioning and curiosity. Formally I tend to be drawn to the work of artists that utilize their own handwriting or found items into prints or drawings, like the pages of a well-loved diary or sketchbook. To me, this is part of the process of knowing. Scientific diagrams are beautiful and clean, as they are meant to be effective teaching tools. What tends to be forgotten is the disarray that went into the collection of data to get to that well-prepared and perfect outcome. I’ve become more interested in the mess that came before.
I welcome any comments in response to this evolution and to these thoughts as I’ve outlined them. As this is my first post, I’d like to share more as I go along, diving into more diverse realms of pedagogy, practice, and specific areas of research.
At the beginning of summer, my husband, our two basset hounds, the cat and I moved into a little white rental house with a backyard. And once we had unpacked all our books, installed a makeshift closet in the back room (in the whole house, we have one tiny little 2×3 feet closet in the bedroom), and felt sufficiently settled to have company, we threw a housewarming party.
Naturally, ninety-percent of our guests were English grad students, and, as we were sitting around the fire-pit in our new backyard, someone suggested we play a literary version of the party classic “Never Have I Ever.” In the original game, the players take turns admitting to something they have never done (never have I ever been skiing–a sad truth!), and each person who has done the event loses a point until only one person is left with points, or something of the sort. In our version, we shamefully admitted works we had never read, and the other players were to put down a finger of the full ten with which they started. Of course, we awarded a slight handicap of negative five points to the only three non-bookish types (my husband the mathematician, a former history major, and a physicist) to make the game somewhat fair.
We were never quite clear on the goal of the game, since in our circle there seemed more pride in “losing” the game than surviving to the end with fingers still raised. In fact, one of our friends “lost” twice by the time we called the game. And we were all envious. But we went round and round, enjoying ourselves immensely.
“Never have I ever read Moby Dick.”
“Never have I ever read Huck Finn.”
“Never have I ever read Beloved.”
I have been studying for comprehensive exams for the past five months, and while I have read a significant number of the works on my lists in past graduate seminars, I feel like the whole process is a long game of “Never have I ever read…”
At the University of Kansas, where I am in my third year of doctoral studies, you compose three lists with your committee–two of which are time period lists (your area and an adjacent time period) and the third is a list of your own choosing (often an author, literary theory, a genre, etc). As a Romanticist with a fairly extensive background in Victorianism, I have chosen my period lists to form the full nineteenth century in British literature, and my final list is geared toward the Leigh Hunt Circle as I prepare for a dissertation focusing on Keats, the Cockney School, and how this context shaped his conception of “work.”
After reading criticism and biographies for the last two months as I try to whittle away at the dissertation list, I have switched to fiction for a much needed breather. I find it heartening to zip through a couple of novels in a week, when I have been slogging through nonfiction for what seems like a lifetime (and I will say I have read several “lifetimes” in that list, and highest praise must go to Nicholas Roe’s 2012 Keats biography. I have added it to the ever-growing list of books I wish I had written). In anticipation of the Halloween season, I scheduled myself several gothic novels in a row. And last week, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time.
Perhaps I just permanently altered your opinion of my clout as a nineteenth-century scholar. Well, so be it. I certainly admit the sad fact with a touch of shame. But now I have checked it off my list of never-have-I-ever-reads, and I have moved on to the next novel that somehow fell through the gaps in my long tenure as a literature student.
I feel this game “Never Have I Ever Read” haunts literature scholars. It certainly helps us flesh out syllabi–how else will we force ourselves to finally pick up Dombey and Son if we do not assign our students (and ourselves!) to read it?–and the game even fuels our research, it seems.
Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland and presenting on a Romanticism panel at the Rocky Mountain MLA. This conference has become a tradition for a couple colleagues and me, who would likely never travel and present together otherwise since our areas are so diverse. I presented on the connection between architectural structures and female bodies in Keats’s romances. I looked at the way in which the lived experience of female bodies, specifically in rape narratives, becomes abstracted into a symbol (the first step of which is the equation of the female body to the house or palace that protects her–i.e. Madeline is endangered because her house is penetrated in “The Eve of St. Agnes”). This cultural phenomenon is allegorical in so far as the female body comes to represent social bodies (structures) in various forms through literature and even political propaganda. The specific and material become crystallized into a generic trope that can be circulated, translated, and exchanged, depending upon the terms of its use, its ability to anger, inspire, manipulate.
In the Q&A portion of the panel, another presenter asked if I had read Cymbeline. I shook my head and shyly admitted I had not. Despite taking two courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, never had I ever read, seen, or even heard a plot summary of the play. Nor is the classic John Middleton Murry volume Keats and Shakespeare listed among my secondary texts for comprehensive exams.
Nevertheless, I did my research that evening in my hotel room, and discovered much speculation on the play’s influence in Keats’s portrayal of Madeline’s boudoir. Indeed, Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “I saw [Keats’s] eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered,” as the poet read aloud from the play in summer 1816 (qtd. on page 56 of Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats). In addition to speculation on the scenery, importantly, Imogen has been reading the story of Tereus and Philomela before falling asleep. According to Greek mythology, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the assault. Jove later transforms Philomela into a nightingale, and her song becomes an echo of sexual violence throughout literature, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” in The Wasteland (a piece I have read many times since first crossing it off my never-have-I-ever list in high school).
Scholars speculate on what the literary greats have read (or not read) as an everyday practice. My fellow-scholar who asked if I had read Cymbeline was presenting truly stellar archival research that sought to uncover whether Keats had read various seventeenth-century ballads on nightingales. She lamented that we do not know to what volumes he had access while staying with Benjamin Bailey at Oxford in the summer of 1817. And as she had not yet read Roe’s recent Keats biography, she did not know the conflict between Bailey and Keats’s London friends, and why Charles Brown and other early biographers would not have contacted him to inquire about Keats’s reading that summer. Even in their lifetimes, Keats and Leigh Hunt gained the label “Cockney” as a class slur partially due to the fact that they never had ever read mythology in the original Greek, and instead got their knowledge of the classics through translations.
Next up on my reading schedule is Northanger Abbey, and I will be reading it for the first time. This will be my last novel for a while, and, as I want to preserve my reputation with you at least beyond my first blog post, I will not admit the Romantic poetry I will be reading next week–for the first time.
If you happened to be at the NGSC-sponsored roundtable at the NASSR conference in Boston two weeks ago, you know that it was one of the best events we have organized so far! Truly, it was probably the highlight of the whole conference for me, and that’s saying something. Fun, Interesting, and amazingly useful, the panel brought together five incredibly accomplished (and let’s just say it: frickin’ cool) scholars in our field for a mini-course in archival research. I’ll do my best in this post to translate my notes (along with Kirstyn’s, thanks, KL!) into an efficient reference for anyone preparing to spend quality time in some alluring repository of old books, papers, and objects. If you’re like me, then even if you don’t have a research trip in the works right now, you might just find yourself itching to plan one. Anybody want to meet up at the British Library?
How to integrate archival research into your studies (Michelle Levy)
Before you embark upon archival research, take some time to approach it thoughtfully and deliberately.
Consider what types of research actually requires the use of archival materials—that is, stuff that has not been republished in other more readily-available formats, or that contains vital information in its original material makeup. Book History and Material Studies projects require this, as do many kinds of academic side-projects such as critical editions, biographies, or edited collections of letters. Though these types of publications will not qualify a person for tenure, they become very useful resources; you might ask an advisor if they have such a pet-project in the works that you could help with—or eventually, you could do one of your own. (Also, think about where/how you might publish such a project, including in digital formats—check out PMLA’s “Little-known Documents” as an example).
Be sure to build in TIME; archival research cannot be done at the last minute. You need time to sift through materials before you find the gems that matter. You need time to write applications for research fellowships, including the lead-time for letters of recommendation. You need time to learn the research techniques that reveal the documents’ secrets (see next item).
Build research skills before you go. Take a course in book history or bibliography if you possibly can. Use the Special Collections of your home institution to get a sense of how they work, how often they contain non-catalogued materials, and how vital it is that you form a good relationship with the librarians.
Take time to figure out WHERE you will need to go in order to look at the documents you need, and whether that institution provides any research fellowships. Some large institutions in the US do (like the Huntington, the Pforzheimer, and the Harry Ransom Center); most institutions in the UK do not (in which case, you might apply for a fellowship from your own university or some other funding body).
How to apply for research fellowships (Devoney Looser — see full text of her very useful handout HERE).
Remember, the surest way to not get funding is to submit a shoddy application. You are in competition with lots of other smart people.
Give your advisors plenty of lead-time to write you letters of recommendation (a month is polite).
Show that you have specifically researched the holdings of the institution you plan to visit. Use their online catalogues and finding aids, talk to others who have researched there, and even consider calling and talking to the librarians and curators (as long as you’ll be asking them smart questions, and not ones you could have answered yourself if you had just looked at their website).
The Project Narrative is the most crucial part. Don’t let another critic’s voice take center stage. Explain WHY your research is exciting and important. It is not enough to “fill a gap”—you must explain WHY the gap needs to be filled. And never begin your narrative with a quote from someone else!
Remember that you’re writing to a committee that comes from several disciplines, not necessarily including Romanticism. Be sure that an educated non-romanticist could understand the importance of your project.
Don’t give up if you don’t get the fellowship! Seek feedback, improve your application, and keep trying.
Tips for planning your research trip, including some packing essentials (Michelle Levy et al)
When planning your research trip, travel off-season if you can; it will be cheaper and libraries will be less crowded, which means you will get your books faster and librarians will be more available to help you.
Learn the archive’s rules and procedures before you go, so you don’t waste valuable time when you’re there. You can usually order your books in advance, and occasionally you have to do so.
Read as much as you can before you go, including electronic forms of your primary documents, so that you can focus your precious time on the info you can’t get otherwise. Software like Adobe Professional is useful for taking notes on PDFs.
Use a number of resources to plan the trip. Contact the archivists (with smart questions, of course); they are really helpful.
ALWAYS get a letter of endorsement from your advisor, printed on university letterhead and signed in BLUE ink. Some institutions will not allow you access to their archives without this. Also, be sure to check whether they have other requirements, such as more than one form of ID, or a passport, or proof of current address.
Every institution will have its own rules and restrictions on what you can bring into the archives, (be sure you understand their policies involving photography and reproduction) but pack yourself a basic “research baggie”—it will probably include pencils, a ruler, some paper, a magnifying glass, your laptop, a camera, and a jacket or sweater—libraries are CHILLY!
How to get the most out of your time in the archive itself (Andrew Burkett and Dan White; check out the full text of Andrew Burkett’s talk HERE)
Have a plan, but be open to discovery! Let the archive drive you, but have a clear sense of your research questions (start with the broadest one, which is “I want to learn everything about _____.”)
Expect to be overwhelmed completely by the avalanche of information you might uncover.
MAKE FRIENDS with the archivists and curators. They can help give you a roadmap through those materials and focus your search. Some archivists will be very helpful, others markedly frosty; kill them all with kindness! They hold a lot of power, and if they decide they like you, their input can radically impact your work.
Allow yourself to enjoy your time while searching through the materials. Talk to other people working there. These work sites are dynamic and alive and exciting.
Embrace the fellowship in your fellowship! Think of time at the archive as professionalization through sociability. Learn how to talk about your work in a way that excites other people who are not necessarily in your field.
How to manage the notes and pictures you gather (Dan White)
Approach your note-taking systematically; essentially what you’re doing is amassing a body of notes from which, at a later point, you are going to produce scholarship. The more clearly and obviously you can organize and tag what you gather, the more you’ll thank yourself later. You’ll likely develop a system that’s unique to you, but as you do, imagine how your future self will be using your notes. You want your notes to help you create ideas for scholarship.
ALWAYS record full bibliographic information for every item you look at!!
Have a system of naming your electronic files; long names are useful and perfectly acceptable; include key info such as author surname, keywords from title, date, other keywords.
Include cross-references for yourself, as you think about linkages you’re finding. Within the file of notes on a given item you can include items like “See ‘full name of file’ and ‘full name of file.'”
In your file for each item, clearly differentiate your transcriptions from your meditations (perhaps with different-colored text?), but definitely include BOTH! Your epiphanies will be easily forgotten in the deluge of information you gather, so cherish each fleeting thought and keep a running narrative for yourself.
Don’t forget that there are different kinds of notes; if an electronic copy of a given text is available, you can download it and (with proper software) take notes on the PDF. i
On a shorter visit (one month or so), it’s probably best just to spend your time gathering as much info as you can. If you have a longer research period, you’ll probably want to work in some more formal writing/processing sessions for drafting the chapters or articles you’re working on. Keep in mind, though, that the research narrative you produce in your notes is part of that drafting process.
How to go about locating and working in private, lesser-known, and otherwise unconventional archives (Jill Heydt-Stevenson)
Occasionally you might find yourself searching for texts or objects that don’t end up in academic institutions. (Professor Heydt-Stevenson spent her summer researching collections of Paul and Virginia memorabilia, everything from handkerchiefs to cuckoo clocks, things that have mostly ended up in the hands of private enthusiasts who have all sorts of different reasons for collecting, and house their collections in their homes). So, how do you go about finding such repositories, and how can you prepare to use them?
Search for clues about these kinds of collections on the internet, and definitely ask anyone you can think of who might know about anything useful. If you have friends locally, they can give you a spring board for people who won’t be on the internet. When trying to set up a visit don’t be afraid to use the phone! Keep in mind that some private collectors are older, and may hail from an era before email was so prevalent, or may live in the countryside with spotty internet access.
Be prepared for the personalness of the research, and of your interactions with the collectors and their space. Keep in mind that you may be in someone’s home, going through their prized possessions, and your people skills will be very important.
Be prepared for a huge difference between what the private collector does, versus an institution. What matters to them may not be what matters to you, and you must respect this. There will likely be no catalog, and little recorded information or analysis for each object. You will also likely not have a lot of time with the collection. These are huge challenges for a scholar.
Bring notepaper as well as a computer to take notes in this house. There may be no wifi.
Have a really good camera on you – not an iPhone camera. Take lots of photos!
Be sure to ask the curator and owner if they want to be cited. Some do, and others feel intensely protective of their collections and do NOT want publicity.
Be prepared to see one thing, or 300 things, depending on the situation.
Be prepared to do a ton of socializing and talking, like a job interview. The curators will likely be thrilled that someone is interested in their collections, and will want to know all about what you’re planning to say about them. All this talking will take up some of your research time, but be gracious and keep in mind that it will likely enable you to do more research with the collection in the future.
Happy researching, everyone! And if you want more information, be sure to check out our collection of posts on Libraries & Archives. (You can access this from the drop-down menu for “Categories” on the right side of the page).
Just a couple weeks ago, I gave a talk at MLA13 on graduate student blogging in which I call for graduate students, like us and in our example, to blog more about what we do over the course of the years we spend training for our jobs and for publishing. Rather than just reblogging my talk, this post is an effort to share my process of writing this talk, since it was highly dialogic and a new process for me. Feedback from other bloggers was critical to my learning how different users read, write, and connect through communities of graduate students studying Romanticism and other topics in the Humanities and to thinking through two very different kinds of group blogging forums: our nassrgrads blog and HASTAC.
Twitter and Storify: While writing my talk, and especially during MLA, I Tweeted a bunch and was on the lookout for Tweets on topic that pointed to relevant scholarly discussions. I made a Storify of these tweets, which you can find here.
To get to the final version of this talk I needed a lot of feedback from nassrgrads.com bloggers — thank you very much for your email replies! I also sought feedback from HASTAC (another group blog forum I wrote about and that I participate in). To think things through, I blogged on HASTAC and through those blogs generated two sets of very useful conversations.
Blog 2: “How Do You Use HASTAC” and its conversation (again, on HASTAC’s platform). All I can say is: wow! It is incredibly satisfying and exciting to have real-time discussions with scholars, like Cathy Davidson, and to have those conversations inflect my work so directly and meaningfully. More, please!
Here is a loose compendium of the sources I consulted while writing this talk, pub’d in Google Docs. One source I just thought of that is not on the list, and that includes blogs as scholarship, is Debates in the Digital Humanities (ed. Matthew K. Gold, U of Minnesota P, 2012).
On the “shoulder” of the MLA talk project, I was simultaneously thinking a lot about how we can make our nassrgrads.com blog a better, more fruitful, rewarding, rich, fun, and useful collection of posts and conversations. I’m looking forward to working on these improvements as a group!
All of this is to share a process that was extremely nontraditional for me in terms of scholarship production. It was true for this paper that thinking editorially about our blog and group on nassrgrads, blogging questions and comments in multiple fora, Tweeting and making a Storify, researching in The Chronicle and other pubs that focus on the relationship between scholars, modes of scholarship, and the profession helped me recognized the lack of serial scholarship produced by graduate students (on the whole) and ways in which we can increase our value as working Humanists who produce great quantities of useful work over the course of our training. It was a highly dialogic writing process in which comments from people I only know through HASTAC or nassrgrads — by professional connection in an online research community — contributed to critically thinking through the issues and identifying what I wanted most to say. After all, Mark Sample was adamant that each speaker only had 6 minutes and 40 seconds at the podium. I sweated this one and a lot of discussing and reading went into those few minutes.
Now that most of it is collected here, in this blog post, I am turning to my first spring semester projects: dissertation fellowship applications, revisions for my entries in the Johns Hopkins Guide to New Media and Textuality, and revising a diss chapter into an essay-length piece.
What are you working on right now? Looking forward to hearing from you — tally-ho, Spring semester projects!
Image of raw cookie dough: By Nick Ares (originally posted to Flickr as Cookie Dough) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Back in early August 2011 I wrote a piece on using the “Yale Center for British Art.” For the first time ever, I finally understood why book and art historians talk about how enjoyable “working with the object” is. There’s something exhilarating about being in close proximity with the cultural documents we study–whatever the medium. This term, I dropped by the Art Institute of Chicago to conduct research. The institution’s collection presents phenomenal opportunities for visual studies scholars (Art History, English, or otherwise) of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries to engage in direct object study. While this post will be followed by a sequel this spring–when I’ll be looking at some paintings in the collection for a seminar on the interior in art–this autumn’s primary course research falls on animals. Since the Art Institute has a wonderful impression of George Stubbs’s “Horse Frightened by a Lion” (fig. 1),
I found myself in the Art Institute’s Prints and Drawings Department. In what follows, I’ll describe how to best access the Prints and Drawings Department at the Art Institute, what information to assemble beforehand to use this resource effectively, and describe how the Art Institute structures visiting scholars’ interaction with their prints and drawings collection. From there, I’ll close with some remarks on what I got out of visiting the Art Institute for my own research this first time and by sharing some advice based on what I’ve gleaned from direct object study. In the end, what I hope you get from reading this blog post is an impetus visit Chicago and the Institute and, for some readers, a new way to think about how to approach visual art objects in your research.
Getting There: What’s the best part about the Art Institute of Chicago? Its central location in the Midwest. With Southwest Airlines’s third-largest hub positioned at Chicago-Midway and with United Airlines’s headquarters at Chicago-O’Hare International, getting to Chicago is easy given the number of inexpensive non-stop flights between these two airlines’ route networks. Both airports are directly linked to the Art Institute by the CTA “L” line (the paradigmatic Chicagoan mode of public transportation). What this all means is that one can catch a direct flight that leaves for Chicago early in the morning, arrive for the only appointments that the Prints and Drawings Department offers in the afternoon, spend about three and a half hours viewing artworks, and then still have time for dinner downtown before heading back to the airport for an evening flight home. Traveling to the Art Institute can be incredibly cost efficient.
Amassing Information Beforehand: In my experience doing direct object research it’s best to have a primary object of interest in mind, and then subsequently stage other objects in a given collection next to it to create meaningful avenues of comparison to bounce ideas off. I knew I wanted to look at this particular Stubbs work, and knew it was in the collection. So in building my trip I spent some time researching what other prints were in the Institute’s collection that matched up to a project on “horse art” (I chose two: Eugène Delacroix’s Cheval Sauvage and Albrecht Dürer’s The Small Horse, but you can view up to ten works on a single visit). Upon selecting the prints to look at, I used Zotero to sketch my preliminary ideas on why I was looking at what, and to make note of the accession numbers which match the object with their location in museum storage (these typically take the form of the year the work was acquired, followed by another number—for location purposes). I returned to these numbers when I emailed the Prints and Drawings Department to make an appointment, since this is the data the curatorial staff will use to pull the art you want to look at (as opposed to title/artist).
Arriving at The Art Institute & The Experience of Viewing: Upon arrival, you’ll want to check in at the front desk, as opposed to purchasing a ticket to view the museum exhibitions. A fellow from Prints and Drawings will escort you to the department. You’ll first receive a brief introduction to working with objects, after which you’ll enter the study room. Here, the works you and your colleagues of the day are set to study will already be put up on easels around the room’s periphery. There are tables in the center of the room were you can leave your laptop and/or pad of paper and pencil while you look closely at your chosen selections. In my experience, at this point, I grabbed my magnifying glass and was off to the races. While I was used to having the works I’ve looked at presented right in front of me, I ended up appreciating the time it took to walk back and forth—from the art to my laptop on the center table—between taking notes, since it forced me to meditate a bit more on the ideas the objects were generating for me. It was a different structure of interaction, but I liked it.
Conclusion: Even with the fabulous facsimiles and reproductions we’re privy to as 21st-century emerging scholars, I still always end up finding things in person I don’t see under any other circumstances. In this case, it was the sense of facture in terms of the organization of the print according to diagonals that lead the viewer’s eye in certain ways across the pictorial surface. But, in the end, what can I say? As much as I love to read theory, there’s just something about reveling in objects that moves me in a way that nothing quite else does–even when it comes to reproducible media, like prints. So while I recognize that most of the NASSRgrads readership has engaged in some form of direct object study in England, or elsewhere on the continent, I’d encourage everyone—who hasn’t, already—to visit some visual art objects. Indeed, one might even be surprised by what’s accessible at your own institution’s library special collections and university art museum (I was astonished at how many Blake holdings there are at Deering Library here in Evanston, for instance). In the end, seeing prints that weren’t on show at the Art Institute was a valuable experience for me—and I can’t wait to do the same with some nineteenth-century paintings in the spring.
And (last): looking forward to seeing many of you and hearing your papers in Tempe next month!
This summer’s been a contemplative one for me. Packing up and moving to a new city to start my second program in two years has been cause for self-reflection. Such is the nature of moving right on from the M.A. to the Ph.D. (now ‘repping Northwestern, exchanging the #B1GCats for the Oregon #GoDucks). Recently, a thought provoking listen to NPR’s All Songs Considered–in line with some work I’m doing on music for my ICR paper–catalyzed a key moment of self-realization. I began to think back to how my trajectory into Romantic studies was, in fact, launched through music. It’s a great episode, so I highly recommend checking it out (http://www.npr.org/2012/09/04/160431581/the-most-important-band-of-your-college-years).
Broadly, in this post, I look to sort through some issues of scholarly development in dialogue with a close reading of the alternative artist Brand New’s song “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows.” Importantly, though, I hope to generate some comments that look to different points of departure into the field. It was music for me. Was it music for you? Or was it something visual, literary, or a different medium or some other circumstance entirely?
As already mentioned, the discussion on this episode of All Songs Considered reminded me of how my own intellectual interests were formed. It also alerted me to a function of contemporary music in line with Romantic poetics. Notably, the last person featured in the program discusses the way the group Fun. speaks to her in a language that she simultaneously knows while opening her up to new experiences in fresh ways. The music, for her, is a means to think through and habitually fall “blissfully in love with her life”–as she I think so profoundly puts it. At the core of it, for this person, listening to Fun. generates a headspace that forges a comforting emotional connection between band and listener that parallels what Coleridge famously describes as the defamiliarizing functionality of poetry in Chapter 14 of the Biographia. Poetry shatters what he describes as “the film of familiarity” whereby “we have eyes yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.” Music, like poetry and art, can manifest a medium through which to clarify a sense of self-identity and perception of one’s relation to the world. Granted, this is always historically situated, but nevertheless potentially purposeful.
I can’t help but think. Isn’t this precisely what is operative in Romantic art, both literary and visual? For me, in this respect, it was coming of age in the early- to mid-2000s that engendered a sense of the satisfaction of exploring emotionality in an intellectually charged way. The group Brand New, who’ve been charged by various critics and listeners as “the American Radiohead,” did this for me. Music in the period, generally, but Brand New, specifically, captured a deeply felt affective intensity. To my mind, Brand New’s sophomore effort Deja Entendu (2003) expanded artistic vocabularies of musical expression in especially important ways. It brought new influences into play that went beyond mere musical predecessors. I recall being particularly struck by the allusion to Picasso’s painting Guernica in the title of one of the songs–thereby connecting the psychological tumult of the track to the chaotic aesthetic underpinning the famous Picasso canvas. Deja was a record that directed the listener beyond itself in extraordinary ways.
Centrally, to explore a concrete example, the artistic self-consciousness of singer/songwriter Jesse Lacey’s lyricism is what catapults Brand New’s art into a rich interspace between music and textuality (See: “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” from Brand New’s VEVO page on YouTube). Now, as when I heard the song for the very first time, the opening verse strikes me: “We saw the western coast / I saw the hospital / Nurse the shoreline like a wound / Reports of lovers tryst / Were neither clear nor descript / We kept it safe and slow / The quiet things that no one ever knows.” Initially, I was immediately drawn to my sense of Lacey’s unusual diction. The rhyme between “tryst” and “descript” elevated lyrical content beyond what I knew to be everyday language. The “western coast” signifies melancholy emotions, intersecting the direction in which the sun sets. The speaker’s woundedness is underscored both by seeing “the hospital” and the metaphorical turn towards “nurs[ing] the shoreline like a wound.” What I found to be Lacey’s brilliant poetry sparked an ember of interest in me for the literary.
Now, “deconstructionist me” can quite clearly see the intersections between all of this and the forms of Romantic literary and visual culture we’ve all come to know and love. In Lacey’s song, the “reports” the speaker alludes to are positioned in an impossible breach, being “neither clear nor descript.” The song therefore confronts the impossibility of resolution in the face of an intense set of emotions: specifically, an emotional knot between loss and a projected wedding day wrought with boredom. In doing so, it generates a polarity between description and clarity that’s impossible to resolve. Such an aporiaic play in Lacey’s lyrics accords well with tropes in Romantic art and literature, as I’ve realized in my graduate studies in both Art History and English at Oregon.
In any event, in looking at the present, I may have seen too much in the past. There may even be some over-intellectualizing going on. I’m not sure. Also, and perhaps mercifully, my tastes have certainly since evolved. However, it’s been interesting to see how past engagements inform present interests. In closing, I’d definitely love to hear from you all what experiences from the past connect to the work you’re doing in the present.