Teaching, writing, learning

Teaching is a lot of fun. At the moment I’m leading a weekly essay writing workshop. It’s great fun on two levels: preparing for the class each week, and interacting with the students. On the weekend I got together two pages of dot-points of what I thought was most important about essay writing. They seemed to find that helpful, especially my idea of labeling paragraphs while you are revising them (a technique I still sometimes find essential). Thinking about the details of writing, and of how to communicate these details effectively, is proving to be useful for my own writing as well as my teaching.

I think English literature students are more concerned with marks here in England than they are in Australia. This could be an unfair generalization, but I think that the fact that your degree as a whole is graded here has quite an impact on students. In Australia an Arts degree is an Arts degree. The only time the marks matter is if you want to go on to further study, and even then, your Honours marks are more important than your Bachelors degree (correct me if I’m wrong).

Interacting with undergraduates makes me reflect on how I learned things in my undergraduate days. Sometimes I wish I could give my poor undergrad self a good talking to, and go back and do things differently. I never had a problem with marks, mostly because I already had a pretty fluid writing style, which many undergraduates lack. But I did find some of the ideas pretty challenging. And I found some friends who confirmed my fears, and proceeded to block myself off from a lot of things (like theory) I should have taken more seriously.

We were scared, in those days, of Cultural Studies ‘taking over’. I think there was a bit of tension in the department itself, and some of the old school lecturers felt a bit under siege. I was intimidated by the super-trendy students who tried to fit the word ‘Foucault’ as many times as they could into one sentence, whilst leaning provocatively back in their chairs. They treated postmodernism as a religion. My response was to duck out of the firing line. I sat through the compulsory theory course in my Honours year under duress. It was torture.

It’s not torture any more. At least, not all the time. What is literary criticism anyway, but theories about literature? I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching and research, and how they intersect. And exactly what are we teaching anyway? To write? To think? To situate yourself within an ever-changing field of ideas? Teaching, writing and research seem like linked adventures, raids on the inarticulate, to quote one of my favourite passages from Four Quartets:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

It’s fun to share this adventure.

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Happy Supervisors

make for a happy meli.

Quote: ‘This is by far the best first draft you’ve produced.’

I knew anyway, but it’s nice to hear them say it. If you’re wondering how I can produce multiple first drafts, it’s because I have multiple chapters, which need producing one by one. Four down, one to go.

hurrah!

Wombats and Medievalism

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Self Portrait of the Artist Weeping at the Wombat’s Tomb, 1869.

This made my day. I was flicking through Michael Alexander’s Medievalism: The Middle Ages in Modern England, and I thought – that’s a wombat. That has to be a wombat.

‘All beautiful women were “Stunners” with us’, wrote Van Pinsep, one of the band of Pre-Raphaelites who frescoed the Oxford Union in the Summer of 1987. ‘We copied his [Rossetti’s] way of speaking. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures. Medievalism was our beau ideal’ (Timothy Hilton, The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 164).

Apparently Rossetti liked Australian animals so much that he kept wombats, kangaroos and wallabies in the garden of his house in Chelsea. Alexander points out: ‘wombats, stunners, and medievalism make an engaging combination’ (p. 142). Indeed.

I like wombats. A lot. Here’s one we encountered near Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, two years ago. But are they the most beautiful of God’s creatures?

Of Disappearing Deposits

The company who rented us our problematic last house owes students over 200,000 pounds in unreturned deposits. Including ours. We plan to fight it.

While I was desperately and unsuccessfully looking for a copy of the contract among my, er, perfectly ordered important documents, I came across a copy of the letter informing me of my scholarships from the University of Leeds. I remember the strange and fierce joy when I first opened it, to find more than I dared hope for. It must have been a Saturday morning, and the lovie was vacuuming, and I ran up to him and said: stop, stop, look at this, look! And the house was spinning.

In the meantime, Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth century German mystic, says:

Now suppose a man has a hundred marks. He loses forty and keeps sixty. If this man thinks continually of the forty that he has lost, he will remain in despair and grief. How could he be comforted and free from sorrow if he turns to his loss and his pain and pictures it to himself and himself in it, and looks at it, and it looks at him again and talks to him? He speaks to his loss and the loss talks to him again, and they see each other face to face. But if he were to turn his attention to the sixty marks that he still has and if he turned his back on the forty that are lost, concentrating on the sixty and looking at them face to face and talking to them, he would certainly be comforted.

Sensible fellow.

Of Cathedrals and Bits of Paper

There are autumn leaves in England too. And rivers. And even sunshine. I made an abortive trip to Durham today to renew my British passport. Turns out it was unnecessary, because although the both the form and the woman on the helpline informed me that I need to give in my Australian passport too, I don’t. Which means it isn’t quite so urgent, and I can do it by post. Which I will do, because it’s cheaper. Aaaagh!

But Durham is lovely. The last time I was there, nearly four years ago, my cousin Richard and I built a snowman outside the cathedral. Today there was just sunshine. Durham cathedral is something special. York minster is wonderful too – enormous, pale, Gothic, intricate and grand, it was my first experience of a medieval cathedral, and I will never forget it. But Durham cathedral is friendly. Even as you approach it, it radiates quiet. Its Romanesque archways squat solidly and invite you in. Inside, it is something like a forest, and something like a cave. Its fat, round grey pillars are carved with zigzags and diamonds. It doesn’t have as much stained glass as York, but its rose window glitters magically in its heavy setting, and where the light from the windows touches the stone, it blossoms like a rainbow. Durham Cathedral is the resting place of St Cuthbert and the venerable Bede, which makes it a shrine for medievalists and pilgrims alike. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside, so here are the cloisters:

There is something quite wonderful about the way it is cared for, and opened up to the public. It has some wonderful modern sculptures which speak of death and resurrection, and the spiritual in the ordinary. The low-ceilinged, zigzag-roofed chapel at the back is cool and quiet and somehow replenishing – it gives me goosebumps just to step in there. At the moment it contains an exhibition called ‘The Museum of my Life’:

We all have them at home: significant objects stashed away in drawers, cupboards full of memories, photograph albums full of people closest to us. This project asked people to reflect on their own lives and to tell the stories and identify the objects which would make up the museum of their life.

The objects were displayed in what looked like ordinary chests of drawers, but when you opened the drawers they were topped with glass. It was heart-breaking seeing the objects displayed there: family photographs, paper packets of flower seeds, old postcards, pipes, dolls. All the ephemera which makes a life. Strangely, it seemed quite at home there, amongst the medieval paintings and the ancient stone, worn by the feet of ordinary people over centuries.

Goodbye for Now

Well, I’m back. That’s the last sentence of The Lord of the Rings. It reduced my poor twelve year old soul to a quivering mess when I first read those words on my parents’ fat, threadbare armchair. Whatever Sam might be satisfied with, I didn’t want to be back. I wanted to stay in the magical land with the elves and the enchanted rings. What was so great about reality?

Luckily Norway isn’t actually an imaginary land, and Leeds isn’t so bad. They are both as real as each other, but when I am in one place, the other begins to seem like a dream. Halden is a nice dream: crisp lines and golden light and autumn leaves like jewels. I think my love for the place has become entwined with my love for the person who lives there. I felt a bit sad, coming back, but have learned not to give in to this feeling. I let it fly and twist beside me, a pale Chinese dragon, and I know it will quieten enough to let me get on with things. This is the way things are.

The lovie left for America yesterday morning, so I had the day to myself. Last night I visited Wendy, whose husband had also left for the states. They’re American, and just in Norway for the year. We played lego, and ate brownies and chocolate icecream, and watched a very inventive puppet show by her son, with cameo appearances from her daughter and the princess puppet. We also gossiped about the men. Despite being very clever with psychology and computers and international conferences and lots of other things, they appear to have similar problems with laundry baskets. It was fun. I wish we’d got to know each other better earlier. I love Halden, but I can see how it’s been trying for her. Maybe there are some advantaged to being half time…

So. I’ve washed off the travel grime (buses and trains times two, a plane, a taxi, platforms and departure lounges). I’ve snuggled into bed. Tomorrow I throw myself headlong into niggling jobs that need sorting (passport renewals, retrieving elusive deposits), and then into my valiant twelve month plan to finish my thesis. But right now, I’ll have another cup of tea.

Do I look like a sailor?

Norwegian man: Excuse me, are you English?

Meli: More or less. (I’ve finally tired of my usual oh I live in two countries but I’m from another one.)

NM: That means no. Are you Australian?

M: Yes, that’s right.

NM: Is that your boat?

M: Er, no.

NM: I thought you were a sailor. I was going to ask how the voyage was.

M: Oh.

Maybe it was the hat.

Fire Creatures

My Mum used to tell me there were angels in the flames. I sometimes pretended that I saw them. More often, crouched around the campfire on long desert nights, I thought about jewels. How coals were the best jewels in the world, but you could never touch them. Angels and jewels aside, in our fire, there are definitely creatures. What do you think they are?

Writing Loops

Thought I’d better write something here if only to get my silly smiling face off the top of the blog! I’m writing a chapter about Kevin Hart at the moment. After two weeks reading some pretty heavy stuff, I figured if I didn’t start writing I’d forget why I was reading in the first place. I’m going to write like mad for the next four days, so that when I get back to Leeds I’ll have a better idea of exactly what extra material I need to get my hands on.

It’s going okay. I find chapters get written more slowly at the beginning, and then they warm up. I always find a million ways to distract myself. One of them is thinking about what it feels like to be writing. It’s easier to write about writing than to write about what you’re supposed to be writing about. For me, anyway. And I think this is partly because writing involves a temporary loss of self. You stop being who you are and become instead a kind of conductor for ideas and words and sentences. Which isn’t a bad thing, it can even be pleasurable, and of course you aren’t really losing yourself, it just feels like it. I guess it happens when you abandon yourself to any work, or art, or even physical activity. There’s a beauty in it, as Murray puts it in ‘Equanimity’:

Through the peace beneath effort
(or even within effort: quiet air between the bars of our attention)
comes unpurchased lifelong plenishment

But if you’re writing about yourself writing, you don’t have the same problem with loss or estrangement, because your topic is yourself, doing what you’re doing, a kind of loop.

Many different kinds of writing go into a thesis chapter. Writing an introduction is a different experience to writing a detailed exposition of some critical point. And that is different again to analyzing poetry. And yet again, it depends on the kind of poetry. It is easy to let your own style begin to echo the style of language you are writing about. This thesis is an exploration, not only of reading and thinking and ideas, but of writing itself. And I think you only learn by doing it. But here are some images of what writing has felt like, lately:

  • carefully building a web
  • sitting quietly with a shy creature until it relaxes
  • playing a harp, slowly – listening to the individual notes, the echoes, the harmonies

And as for the finished product? Frangipani left an amazing comment on Eglantine’s cake, that I just have to repeat:

in the words of kb:
A worthy thesis must take the form of a snake
It must be long and intricately coiled
Apparently unhurried and innocent of malice
With deep inside it an enemy recently swallowed
Its unblinking eye must follow the examiner
Who must be too intimidated to deliver the usual blow

I’ll have one of those, please.

Update: The poet responsible for this nugget of brilliance is Kevin Brophy, and you can read the whole poem here.

Six Months Today

My blog is six months old! How to celebrate? When I began this blog, I walked along the river and thought about light. The ice was cracking and melting on the lakes. These days the lakes glow a curious toothpaste blue, which I suppose means they’re thinking about freezing again. When I began, the trees were bare, and now they are brittle and golden. We lit the fire for the first time this week. When I ride my bike, the cold bites my hands and my throat. Even sitting at my desk, my nose is an ice block by the end of the day. Soon the nights will close in. These northern seasons never cease to fascinate me.

Wonderful news

If you’ve ever wondered what Australian medievalism entails, but have been too afraid to ask, the best you can do is take a look at Stephanie’s post. They’ve just been awarded lots of money to research it in more detail. Hurrah! (And her next post contains even better news.)

Happy Birthday Dad

My Dad wooed my Mum with poetry – a paperback copy of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s selected poems. He used to sing ‘Morning has broken’ in the mornings. He likes opera, especially Carmen, which he listens to turned up very loud (especially when he’s the only one in the house – this is not a shared passion). He’s a great cook. He takes black and white photographs of spider orchids. He has a red motorbike, and a red push-bike, and a red raincoat. He has a tiny statue of Moses with his arms upraised, standing on a square of slate, from Jerusalem. He taught me to love Elijah and David (but not Elisha). He also taught me to draw houses with perspective. His Lancashire accent has only been slightly tempered by more than thirty years in Australia. He quit his high-flying job to become a care-worker. His beard isn’t as red as it used to be. He loves planning and renovating houses. And more. Lots more. Happy birthday for tomorrow, Dad.

And while we’re on the topic of birthdays, it was my brother’s birthday ten days before Dad’s. So, er, a late happy birthday to you too. I didn’t mention it, because I don’t think he’s too keen on this whole self-exposure side of blogging. He’s rather lovely, that’s all I’ll say. But I don’t think he can complain about this one (he’s the little one, in the middle – thanks bethie for the picture):

And, now we’ve started, this one’s my favourite. I think we look like we could be in a band.

The phd chugs along

An update on the Phd, now that I’m exactly two years into it. I’ve found it really interesting looking back on the odd posts I’ve made about it along the way, so this is as much for me as for anything else. I finished my Randolph Stow chapter on Tuesday. The plan was to get it done before I left (ie Thursday last week), but I didn’t quite make it. The computer dying didn’t help. I worked on it pretty constantly for the three weeks I was in England, and wrote about 17,000 words. Which, when added to the 5000 words I already had, makes quite a long chapter. I’ll need to cut it down to under twenty thousand eventually, but it’s a pretty good start. It’s also (I’m pretty sure) the best first draft I’ve done so far. It will need tinkering, but not vast restructuring. It makes an argument. It flows. I’ve finally got the hang of this.

It took me a long time to get into this Phd. The first six months were great, but we have an upgrade procedure at nine months, which means submitting about 15,000 words, a title and a five page thesis outline. Torture, all of it. I started with Francis Webb, whose poems are beautiful but extremely difficult. And although I produced nuanced analysis of the poems, every time I gave my draft to my supervisors they’d say: no, that’s not it. Not yet. I was terrified I’d fail the upgrade. Actually there was no chance of that, and I sailed through. But I still hadn’t worked out what a thesis chapter was supposed to look like.

Next we decided I needed to do some contextualizing, and work on an introductory chapter (not the introduction, but a first chapter to put things in context). This was supposed to be written over the summer but didn’t get very far. In fact I tinkered at it till Christmas (alongside tutoring my first subject, which also took up lots of time). It felt like pulling teeth. That chapter will need some rewriting next year. But it’s made all the difference, having read some of the key texts in the field, and put some of the terms in context. Everything is easier now.

Then it was Les Murray. I gave a conference paper on him at the beginning of the year, and expected that to convert quite happily into a chapter. But I had the same problem. My supervisors explained to me carefully and thoroughly what was wrong with it (they are completely brilliant), and I had another bash. I was approaching it like a poem, not a chapter. I was putting images next to each other, not arguments. After banging my head against the brick wall of it for ages, I finally cracked it. It felt amazing. I could see all the parts glowing and talking to each other. It was making sense.

So Stow came together quite painlessly. When I was writing it I visualized it as map or a snakes and ladders board – covered in tracks and little ladders, connecting bits together. It was a lot of fun – some of the older criticism on him is pretty hilarious, and best of all I got to have a look at some of the twelfth-century chronicles he draws on. I remember this brimming pleasure as I carried up the thick black volumes from obscure corners of the library. Proper medieval stuff. I love it. I think that deserves a post of its own, at some point – why I love it so much. What drew me to the Middle Ages in the first place.

And now it’s on to Kevin Hart. I’m glad I’ve left this chapter till last, because I don’t think I could have managed it till now. The aim is to get it done before Christmas, which will leave me next year to rewrite the whole thing and get it together. I’m looking forward to that. I feel like I’m only just starting to understand it all, and it will be just amazing to see it come together as a coherent whole. So we are on track. Hurrah!