Fifty Special Books at UVic

[This post was first published on the Fifty Special Books blog created by the Department of English to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Victoria. Contributors were asked to name a book that had special significance to them, provide a photo of the book or a photo of themselves reading the book, quote a passage from the book, and explain why it was meaningful to them.]

Image from Amazon.ca

Janelle Jenstad

Associate Professor, English

Affiliation with UVic English: Faculty; Alumni, B.A. Hons. 1992

Special Book: Possession, A. S. Byatt

When did you first read this book: July 1993

Which sentence from this book has special significance for you?

“There are things which happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.”

What does the sentence mean to you?

I first read Possession in the summer between my M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Queen’s University. I loved the way this literary detective story unfolded through archival discoveries, semi-autobiographical Victorian poetry, transcriptions of letters and journals, and historical fiction. I became an early modernist, not a Victorianist, but, in retrospect, I can see that the story of a number of modern-day scholars competing and collaborating to discover the truth about nineteenth-century literary figures had a profound influence on my research practices. My training did not cover archival research or paleography … but I was determined to study records and letters. Eventually, I set off for England armed with a basic knowledge of Elizabethan Secretary and a romantic notion that I would change literary history by digging in the archives, just as Roland Michell and Maud Bailey did in Possession. Of course, I discovered very quickly that the records of early modern England are richer than I’d ever dreamed, and partial in ways that are both fascinating and frustrating. Finding out why people and institutions record certain things in certain ways became an obsession. It was the very partiality of literary history that ultimately interested me. Every record seemed haunted by “the things which happen and leave no discernible trace.” I wondered constantly about the unrecorded lives and events that changed the course of history, the books that have disappeared from our cultural history, the irretrievable responses of readers and playgoers, the complex lives of individuals whose dreams and desperation survive only in a line recorded by a clerk. These lines from _Possession_ came back to me as I worked; they reminded me that the past humbles the scholar, but they also legitimated a certain conjecture and imagination. Without an omniscient narrator to tell us of that profound encounter, we have to dream it ourselves even if we can never prove it. And perhaps it’s that desire for an omniscient narrator that makes me a literary critic rather than a historian.

A Day in the Life of One Academic

Time to stop tinkering with fonts and templates and WRITE something.  I was going to launch this blog with an explanation of the multiple meanings of “Occasional Drama” (consider it “forthcoming”) but “The Day of Higher Ed” calls me to a different reckoning.  Lee Bessette has challenged us to “record, in minutia, what we do as professors from the moment we wake up to the minute we fall asleep.  All the work we do that contributes to our job as educators.”  And maybe a blow-by-blow summary of Monday, April 2, is as good an introduction to “Occasional Drama” as any other.

04h00.  Today, my occasional pre-dawn research and writing time was wholly given over to the creation of the final examination for English 147:  Literary Traditions and Transformations.   The exam has to be done today so that I can head off to the Shakespeare Association of America conference in Boston at 5:45 a.m. on Wednesday with a clear conscience.  I remind myself of the course objectives and learning outcomes, look through my own notes and slides, pick passages, write essay topics, and finally try to imagine being a student writing this exam.  Student assessment is a tricky business; after fifteen years of setting exams, I still worry and second-guess throughout the process.

06h30.  The Bookworms awake early, cranky and incapable of effective communication.  The next two hours are a blur:  make nutritious breakfasts, negotiate the complexities of dressing rituals and the morning melodrama of favourite shirts being mired in the laundry system, admire Lego structures, rescue aforesaid Lego structures from dinosaur attacks, resolve several disputes, and look for Waldo with a magnifying glass while teaching the G-Worm about alliteration (Waldo, Wenda, Wizard, Wag).  While drinking tea, I brush up on Jungian Psychology 101 in preparation for my lecture later in the day.  I owe my morning shower to Miss Frizzle and The Magic School Bus.  Gathering boots, coats, hats, knapsacks, security blankets, and raingear makes me grateful that I teach adults and doubly appreciative of childcare providers and elementary school teachers.  Every venture outside our door is a variation on Thomas’ Snowsuit.  Once in the car, we listen to stories on CD or deal with the usual questions about the Big Bang, where babies come from, how electricity stays inside the wires, or why the digger/truck/car/bike/machine/tree/dog/stoplight/pedestrian is doing whatever it’s doing.  True inter-disciplinarity happens in the preschool years.  I’m grateful for all those courses in Physics, Chemistry, and Math in my B.Sc. days.  By the time I drop the Bookworms at daycare, I’ve already done a day’s worth of problem-solving.

09h00. Daycare drop-off accomplished, I can turn my thoughts to my work.    On Friday afternoon, I mapped out the month of April in yellow flags stuck to the  portrait of Elizabeth I on my office wall.  Like me, Elizabeth is up to her ears in tasks.  I begin Monday by gazing at Elizabeth and contemplating the tasks she has for me.

09h30.  Weekly check-in with my research and writing buddy.  These meetings get shorter and shorter as the term progresses.  Come summer, we’ll start reading and discussing each other’s work again.  Meanwhile, we remind each other that research really is 40% of our job, even if 100% of today is devoted to Service and Teaching.

09h45.  I take my laptop over to Special Collections Reading Room in the Library.  I’m co-curating an exhibit of rare books donated to the McPherson Library by the late Dr. Patricia Koster (more about this in a later post) and we (doctoral candidate Sandra Friesen, a team of students, and I) are at the stage of placing books in the display cases and writing up the bibliographical descriptions for the 180 books we’ve selected.  It’s a peaceful place to work, even though we’re rushing to finish up the analytical work.  Handling the tooled leather bindings, turning old linen-rag pages, looking for watermarks, reading the marginal inscriptions of past readers, transcribing the title pages:  these activities have a meditative quality for the bibliographer.  I even get to do an exciting bit of bibliographical forensic work:  a signature collation to determine that we do indeed have first editions of Dryden’s Fables (1700) and Pope’s Works (1717).  I’ve been typing so much lately that I have shooting pains in my right hand, wrist, and forearm.  When the pain gets unbearable, I stop to read some of these wonderful old books.  The lack of critical apparatus and editorial footnotes lets me read guiltlessly.  I soak up rhyming couplets, Restoration playtexts, gossipy prose, hilarious dedications “To the best judge of this book, Myself.”  It’s a rare reminder of what first excited me about literary study.

12h45.  Lunch.  The line-up is too long at the upscale Bibliocafe, so I walk across the heart of campus to the University Centre for a sandwich, where I bump into a colleague in History whom I haven’t seen all year.  We talk for five minutes on our way back to our offices, the only collegial interaction I’ll have this afternoon.  We talk campus politics, which revolve around workload and pay at the moment.

12h55.  I eat at my desk while reading the 37 emails delivered to my inbox while I was shielded from the internet down in Special Collections.  Only two can be dispatched with a simple “thank you.”  The rest require more thought, but I have to turn my attention to the last lecture of the term.

13h05.  My classes never go well if I reuse an old set of notes.  I have to reread the primary text, rework my notes, and tinker with my powerpoint slides every single time.  Reworking the notes is how I think through an argument and figure out how I want to approach the text or problem.  Once made, the notes have served their purpose; I often don’t need to look at them at all while teaching.  I’m teaching the final lecture on Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) — and the final lecture of the course — at 3:30.  I copy part of an old set of notes into a new file, rework them, and then add a new section on how MacDonald traces a Jungian path of individuation for the main character, Constance Ledbelly.  I plan a 5-minute introduction to Jung’s conception of the Self, Shadow, Archeyptes, and Individuation, just enough to make sense of MacDonald’s use of these concepts and maybe to whet the students’ appetite for more information.

15h15.  Off to the classroom, a cavernous room with no windows.  Set up laptop, Clicker base station, slide show, video data projectors, wireless microphone.  There’s good energy in the room today, students are taking notes, and, when I thank them at the end of the lecture for their attention over the term, they are generous enough to applaud.  For a huge course (two lecture sections of 180 students each, with twenty tutorials and twenty TAs), it’s gone remarkably well.   I’ll repeat the same lecture tomorrow to the other section … but I’ll probably tweak it again before I do.

16h20.  Field a couple of questions from exiting students, unhook all the cables, shut down computer, and pack up.  Meet briefly with the TA Coordinator and discuss strategies for managing any problems that might arise while I’m away in Boston.

17h00.  I’ve gone home early today.  The Bookworms will be picked up by their dad while I put some time into the family finances.  All UVic employees had their banking information compromised by a break-in.  Many of us are still sorting out new accounts, transfers of automatic debits, and credit monitoring.  Somehow I feel I ought to be able to do this business on my employer’s time, but then I’d just end up prepping a lecture or marking in the evening on “my time.”  The concept of “my time” and “the employer’s time” is nearly absurd in academia.

17h40.  The Bookworms return, chattering of beach adventures, books read, plans for the evening.  In the blur of hand-washing, table-setting, discussing the importance of vegetables, bathing, and tooth-brushing, reading stories is always a highlight.  Like every English professor who is also a parent, I’m fascinated by the structure and style of children’s books, but even more fascinated by the opportunity to study reader response, or at least the responses of two small readers who are learning the narrative ropes, so to speak.  In an hour, we range across old favourites that we own, new library books, fiction, science books,  picture books, and chapter books.  Our new book for tonight is Henry and the Kite Dragon (Bruce Edward Hall; illustrated by William Low).  There’s a dark moment right in the middle of the book where the Chinese-American children and the Italian-American children are “ready to start swinging” at each other.  The Bookworms are on the edge of the couch, absolutely still (for once), waiting for violence to erupt.  Then the story shifts abruptly, and the two warring neighbourhood groups unite in a shared bid to protect a pet pigeon from the frightening titular dragon kite.  “Ah,” I think, “That was the augenblick.”  Only a few hours earlier, I was talking about the augenblick in Othello and Romeo and Juliet.  And in this moment, the two halves of my life click neatly together.  I’m a better teacher because I’m a parent, and a better parent because I’m a teacher.

23h00.  The Bookworms are asleep, their dad is out in the garage building sections of a new fence, and I have just put the finishing touches on the final exam.  I’ve worked a normal workday (9-4:45), spent a good five hours with my children, and given an extra 3 1/2 hours to my job at the beginning and end of the day.