Category Archives: review

Review: Regionalism and the Reading Class

Regionalism and the Reading Class cover I got this book through recent sale held by the University of Chicago Press. While not a work of academic history (my usual term-time fare), I thought it relevant because of my graduate methods course teaching in which I’ve incorporated a history of media segment.

An accomplished interdisciplinary scholar (holding appointments at two universities in sociology, comparative literature, English and human geography), Wendy Griswold takes a synthetic, transnational approach to modern reading cultures. Refreshingly, this isn’t a work solely about the United States, although regionalism and reading cultures in the USA figures into her broader argument linking the local form of a reading class to the sense of regional identity. In Italy, Norway and the United States, Griswold tracks very different experiences of each of these elements: from Italy’s less-robust reading class coexisting with a celebrated and cosmopolitan literary culture to Norway’s effective use of state resources for promoting regional literature nationally to the way in which reader movements across

Griswold employs some fascinating models and arguments. I fell a little bit in love with her term for readers who’ve moved into new regions: cowbirds (due to that species’ ease in taking over the nests of other birds and settling right in). I also appreciated her approach to defining the reading class in which she’s clearly talking about not just literate people but those who both value the practice and dedicate time to it in their busy lives. Griswold challenges the accepted orthodoxy that more time on the internet means less time for reading, drawing on a range of research.

Griswold finishes her chapter on “The Reading Class” with three key points that form her prediction for the future of the reading class. First, that reading enjoys a long-standing prestige in almost every country. Second, that reading is intensely dependent upon social organization beginning with education and culminating in reader-driven interaction (in reading groups, which she studies closely as well as currently popular sites I’d throw into the mix such as Goodreads. Third, and for Griswold, one of the most interesting prospects, is a growing gap she documents between reading for practice and reading “as an esteemed, cultivated, supported practice of an educated elite.” [68]

Here’s where we differ. For this last part, Griswold limits herself dramatically. Those works that she deems particular to the reading practices of the reading class are literature, serious nonfiction, books “of the quality press”. And while those books are certainly important, is this enough to define the reading class? Elsewhere in the book she shows how genre fiction (mysteries, westerns, etc.) also are important works in regional reading classes – evoking a sense of place, community and shared experience that helps to build a strong regional culture. Yet, in this prediction we see those other literary genres excluded and this is a problem. As long as only ‘serious nonfiction, books of the quality press’ are going to define the reading class, much of the experience of devoted and socially-engaged readers will pass by researchers, even those as able as Griswold.
See also this lucid review by Tara Brabazon.

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Three Cleopatras

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes me hungry
Where most she satisfies. – Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, Scene 2

Roller's Cleopatra biography I’m working my way through three recent biographies of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. As a specialist in early modern history, I’m struggling to get past my reliance on superficial readings I’d done long ago or the considerable cultural legacy she’s evoked. Yes, I know Shakespeare and Taylor’s version, but for this project, I need to leave that kind of distant imagining behind and try to approach her story more directly.

The first biography I snagged was Tyldesley’s from 2008. Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt is, not unexpectedly, very “Egypt-focused”. Coming from a scholar who’s published noteworthy books on Hatshepsut and Egyptian women, that was exactly what I hoped to discover. Tyldesley does a great job of putting Cleopatra’s rule into the perspective of Ptolemaic Egypt’s relatively open avenues for women to exercise economic and political power. She also does the best job of evoking the urban history of Alexandria, the great city that was her primary residence. This isn’t to say that the biography doesn’t also give a good sense of the Hellenistic dynasty of which the queen was a part. It’s simply that Tyldesley does the best job of highlighting the Egyptian as well as the Greek elements in her queenship.

The second biography I read was Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life. Being as it’s marketed as a popular biography, I was a bit leery but Schiff has done a good job with her research in citing both classical and modern sources. Of course, she’s an accomplished biographer, so this was a flowing, easy read, full of dozens of pithy observations and commentaries from the author. That’s probably what struck me the most and not always for the best. As a historian, I remain just a bit suspect at her willingness to suggest motives for the various historical actors and come up with sweeping statements. But I have to admire her deft hand at taking the raw material (much of it out of Plutarch) and turning it into a compelling life story.

The last book, which I’m still halfway through, is Duane Roller’s Cleopatra: A Biography. Roller is a scholarly classicist and he uses his background in the Hellenistic period to paint a picture of a queen who’s part of this international, cutthroat politics. A few choices grate for anyone not steeped in the classics. For instance, his insistence on referring to Antonius instead of the more familiar modernization, Antony, will throw off some readers. (I know it’s classically correct, but so would be writing the work all in capital letters, with no spacing and so forth!) Despite my quibble, this thematically structured study of the queen is the most useful for my needs. It’s also, unmistakably, a work of a classicist who’s focused on the Hellenistic queen.

Am I done with Cleopatra? Not quite. I have a few other works on her life, reign and works still to consult for my project. But I’m amused that for all the sameness of key details, Shakespeare’s assertion about her infinite variety still holds true in the snapshot created by reading these three different studies. There’s as many Cleopatras, I suspect, as there are histories of her.

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The Ivory Tower’s Basement (A Female Perspective)

Professor X launched a tidal wave of commentary when he published an essay on his dispiriting adjunct experiences in The Atlantic in 2008.

I finally got around to reading the book this month and, for the most part, I found his sad story entirely comprehensible. There, but for the grace of a tenured position and a less hectic housing market, go I. I also experience shock at the sheer level of incomprehension my students display when asked to tackle basic concepts in the first year course (hint: not understanding what the words ‘Christian’ or “European’ signify is worrisome when you’re vaulting right out of the end of the Middle Ages in a Western Civ survey) but I freely admit that my work is never so challenging as that of an English instructor expected to remediate students who can’t write, period, in one or two college-credit courses.

It’s an interesting read, not just for academics. Caleb Crain’s NYT review suggests that this is, at its heart, a book about shame. I’d counter that almost every book about academia is, in one way or another.

My most visceral response to the book came Professor X related a story of a tenured professor who gave grades solely based on student improvement. This leads him to muse on the effect women have had on higher education:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 1975, 31 percent of college teachers were female; by 2009, the number had grown to 49.2 percent. There are more women teaching in college than ever, and it is quite possible that their presence, coupled with out discovery of the postmodern narrative, has had a feminizing effect on the collective unconscious of faculty thought. Strong winds of compassion blow across campus quads. Women are more empathetic than men, more giving, simply more bothered by anyone’s underdog status. Many of the female adjuncts I have spoken to seem blessed and cursed by feelings of maternity toward the students. Women think about their actions, and the consequences of their actions, in a deeper way than do men. Women may not be quite as inclined to sigh and, with a murmured “fuck it,” half-angry and half-miserable, possessed by the fatalism of someone throwing the first punch in a bar fight, mark an F in the grade book. (153)

Now, he doesn’t pursue this line of thought any further but, oh really? Did you see that? We have feminized the faculty and, oh no!, brought in with us the corrosive forces of empathy and maternalism. Professor X is hardly alone in this assumption, so I don’t want to tar him with a broad brush. He’s a symptom more than a cause (very much a symptom in his contingent faculty status stuck in impossible tasks of remediation). But it’s all part of the fear that female faculty lower standards at worst or simply subvert academia to warm, fuzzy and anti-intellectual ends at the best. (120 years on and we’re still dealing with the same damned fears as women academics did in the late Victorian era.)

I don’t feel like a mother to my students, but some treat me more like a mother, or a K-12 teacher, than tmy male colleagues. They speak of their personal problems to me. They empty my tissue box repeatedly over the course of the term in teary office visits. They address me as Miss or Ms. My male colleagues are Professor or Doctor. (This is hardly unusual. See Takiff, Sanchez & Stuart, “What’s In a Name? The Status Implications of Students’ Terms of Address for Male and Female Professors” Psychology of Women Quarterly 25:2 (2003), 134-145.)

Professor X earlier admitted that he inadvertently benefits from the assumption that a male instructor must be a professor, much as he protests the improper use of such a title by his students. Now, I don’t want to be petty enough to deny him that or to make much of an issue of forcing students to recognize the fine differentiation of faculty rank, but I think those of us who teach at university should all be mature enough to step back and see these assumptions and behaviours for what they are: a reflection of how deeply-rooted gender roles are in this culture.

Women faculty haven’t emasculated the academy but I think Professor X might be well-served to consider how much the concentration of women in adjunct positions has done to reduce the prestige of that position he and others once saw as more an admirable sideline for a non-university professional. And he might be surprised how many of us women faculty quite easily say “Fuck it” as we mark that F in the grade book if a student has failed to do the assigned work, even as we recognize that their failure might be part of a larger problem.

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Well-Behaved Women and History

Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History One of the books that I picked up at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women was Pulitzer Prize winner and Harvard faculty member Laurel Thatcher Ulrich‘s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Thanks to Random House for making that freely available to conference-goers who signed up for their mailing list. (See, this kind of stuff is why you want to go to academic conferences. Free or discounted books!)

This book reads more like a linked collection of essays than your conventional academic work. That makes it easy to pick up and, if you had to put it down as I did, making my way back across parts of two countries to come home, always a joy to pick back up. The title of the book comes from an academic article Ulrich published early in her career in which she noted of virtuous early American women “Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history.” That line launched a tidal wave of popular culture awareness, appearing on t-shirts, mugs, posters and other paraphernalia, as the author ruefully and gratefully recounts. This book, she writes, is her “gift to all of those who continue to make history–through action, through record-keeping and through remembering.”

What a gift it is: she opens by retelling the stories of three women writers: Christine de Pizan, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Virginia Woolf. While highlighting their differences (and there were many!), Professor Ulrich also highlights their similarities that link a fifteenth century continental courtier, a nineteenth century American suffragist and a twentieth century English avant-garde author: the burning need to recount women’s history. While their stories might well be familiar to you as they were to me, I had to love how beautifully the book laid out their lives and linked their experiences. Ulrich is wonderfully accomplished at drawing the reader into the stories of these women and then spinning those themes back out in the following chapters.

As the book progresses, we return time and again to these three women and many more as Ulrich tackles themes of women as warriors, artists, slaves, labourers and activists. You’ll learn how women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton both aided and overlooked the cause of abolition in her own single-minded focus on women’s rights, as well as how many women were celebrated in one era only to be forgotten in short term. Their rescuers, historians of women’s history, have restored these great women (such as Harriet Tubman and Christine de Pizan) to our historical awareness: they, too, earn praise from Ulrich.

As the author of A Midwife’s Tale, Ulrich is wonderfully prepared to tell stories of women’s overlooked lives. As a seasoned classroom teacher, she’s also honed a series of analytic vignettes that come to play in this book: you see why women’s history is important not from a lecture, but from experiencing it through the stories unfolding. Even women historians come in for some history here: a lovely series of vignettes explains how scholars like Joan Kelly and Renate Bridenthal came to embrace (and significantly shape) the nascent field of women’s history. Ulrich also weaves into her account the evolution of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians from the only informal option for professional women to a huge and hugely influential academic society.

All through, she hammers home why we need to care about women’s history. I’ll sum up with some words from her last chapter, “Making History”:

If history is to enlarge our understanding of human experience, it must include stories that dismay as well as inspire. It must also include the lives of those whose presumed good behavior prevents us from taking them seriously. If well-behaved women seldom make history, it is not only because gender norms have constrained the range of female activity but history hasn’t been very good at capturing the lives of those whose contributions have been local and domestic. . . .
Well-behaved women make history when they do the unexpected, when they create and preserve records, and when later generations care.

If you are curious about those generations of women who stretch back to Anon and forward to today, or you simply appreciate a well-written work of sweeping scholarship, you are sure to appreciate this book. Buy the book, buy the t-shirt, buy the bumper sticker, too, and think about making history while you’re at it!

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