Looking back at 2017

2017 was a big year in many ways. My partner and I bought our first home, my new book was published, and I started on a new project.

So here’s a run-down of some of the things that made me happiest over the past year, divided roughly into categories:

Personal:

In addition to buying the house, I’m also proud of consistently making time for things that make me feel good (and keep me sane, frankly). I meditate daily (using this app), and consistently make time to take walks (I aim for 10k steps 5x a week and use a Fitbit to keep track).

Work & teaching:

My biggest achievement is explicitly setting clearer boundaries. I want to be someone that my colleagues can count on, and do good work. Over the past year I’ve worked on combining that with setting clearer boundaries and saying no. Since the beginning of the academic year I’ve been practicing letting things go and letting other people do some of the work. I’ve also worked on communicating my boundaries more clearly. I won’t let myself being pressured into doing things last minute, or quickly, or at a moment that doesn’t work for me. For instance, I know that after a day of meetings and teaching, supervision meetings at 16:30 don’t work for me.

Professional development:

I struggled for a while with finding ways to develop myself professionally within my job’s formal professional development structure. Last year I learned that I can also come up with my own professional development plan, and I have. My focus is on two areas: general didactics and the specific didactics of teaching literature, both in higher education where I work, and secondary education, where my students work. I work on these skills through podcasts (the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast is my favourite), by reading books (some of my recent favourites include Small Teaching and Minds Online) and then, by trying things out. My teaching continues to improve – I try out different activities, different strategies and different forms of assessments and I’ve been getting good and useful feedback from my students.

Coaching & career orientation:

Ever since being home from work with a burn-out in the Spring of 2016, I’ve been thinking more explicitly about myself in relation to my job. First mainly in terms of why I got ill in the first place, but since then also about finding different strategies to work in such a way that I feel happy (rather than overwhelmed). I’m fortunate enough to being able to see a coach through my job (although she doesn’t work for my institution) once every six weeks or so. Recently I’ve also starting on career orientation: not necessarily because I want to leave, but because I want to reflect a bit more on my skills and options.

Research:

  • I finally got an article accepted (on Graham Swift’s Waterland) that had been in the revise-and-resubmit stage for way too long;
  • I wrote a number of new articles: one on Jim Crace, one on ethics and climate crisis literature (due for revision in late Feb 2018) and am currently finishing one on Ian McEwan, science and ecology;
  • I attended one conference this year, the ASLE-UKI conference in Sheffield, where I presented a paper;
  • The book: this year I submitted the revised version (beginning of the year), made the index, checked the proofs and then it was published (yay!);
  • I really got started on my new project at the end of the year. It is on 21st-century climate crisis flood novels, and will result in a series of conference papers (like this one from 2016 and this one in 2017), articles and a monograph. This project will be my primary focus in terms of research in 2018.

Current research (Nov. 2017)

IMG_8835Currently:
My new book was published a few weeks ago. I’d last worked on it shortly before the summer, when I received the proofs and made the index.

During the summer, I worked on two book chapters that I’d been asked to contribute. I enjoyed working in the direction of what I have now decided will be my next book on floods narratives. One of the chapters I wrote explores the ethical dimension of climate crisis – as depicted in British flood novels – and especially how privilege, blame and narrative perspective tie into each other. The second chapter presented two ecocritical readings to the early work of Jim Crace. I hadn’t worked on this author before – getting into it was challenging, but I also got to try out some things in the article that I hadn’t done before, so that was good.

 

With a conference in early September – where I gave a paper based on the ethics and climate crisis paper – it wasn’t until the end of the month that I really felt enough space in my mind to start on research again. I’ll be spending much of my research time in the final months of this year on a chapter on IanMcEwan and science, ecology and climate crisis. I’ve written on McEwan before (in my dissertation, and in The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism), but it took me a while to find the angle that I thought would be most interesting.

 

Despite all of these projects I felt stalled, somehow. While I enjoy contributing to books, the way in which all of these chapters coincided in this year has perhaps also left little room for more creative thought.

 

But since figuring out what I want with the McEwan article, my mind has been bustling with ideas. I can’t pursue most of them in detail at the time, but I’ve been writing them down, and adding things to them as I go along. I’m currently spending most of my research time on the McEwan chapter, writing on my research day and finding little pockets here and there to read an article for that project, to chase down some references and to add notes to my structure. I had felt very tired over the past weeks, but finding my flow with this article has made me feel physically better.

 

Something that helped me think about my research process – and just how much I love doing research – is Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Space & Time. While it’s not a ‘how-to’-manual, just reading about the way in which other people approach research projects helped me to re-energize my own. It’s also made me want to try out new things when it comes to my research, which I’ll probably blog about in the future.

 

What also helped me is talking to two friends, and to reaching out to people to ask for advice. Both friends picked up on my pessimistic outlook in terms of where my research career is going and their responses helped me realise that things are going well (the book!), and that I have many more ideas to pursue.

A Short Intro to Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel

(This post is a repost of a guest blog post I wrote for Bloomsbury’s Literary Studies blog) 

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Photograph by Jaap Meijers

At some point early into my research on climate crisis, I began to get the feeling that climate crisis was everywhere. I saw it referenced in films, novels, in food advertising. This, of course, happens to anyone who immerses herself in a topic: suddenly, her new interest seems all over. I quickly discovered, however, that references to climate crisis really are everywhere. Especially in the years since the beginning of this century, climate crisis has moved from merely an ecological or political problem, to an issue that has become firmly entrenched in our cultural awareness.

In Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel I write about how the stories we tell about climate crisis are how we try to understand, imagine and come to terms with it. Novels, I argue, don’t only reflect awareness of climate crisis, but shape how we tell its story.

One of the dominant stories (or narratives) I write about in Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel is that of climate crisis collapse. This story is familiar from contemporary films as much as novels. What I found particularly interesting is that environmental collapse never comes alone: it always coincides with social, economic and political collapse. In Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, for example, the disappearance of the seasons is described in the same breath as the rise of a totalitarian regime in Britain.

Yet in writing my book I particularly wanted to show that climate crisis isn’t only IMG_6662depicted in the story of collapse, but that it influences all of the stories we tell about our natural environment, and quite a few we tell about ourselves.

Another story I explore is that of urban nature. In cities people engage in unique ways with nature and climate crisis, for example through the “real” or local food movement. In Zadie Smith’s N/W the farm-to-table spinach that Natalie serves illustrates both her rising social status and the extent to which purchasing local foods is believed to be environmentally beneficent.

Climate crisis, livestock-diseases and the decline of agriculture have changed the most quintessential of British stories about nature: the pastoral. Pastoral is usually associated with idealization, but critiquing that idealization is as much part of it as many contemporary novels show. In Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, for example, the Robinsons’ enjoyment of their new house as an idyllic part of the countryside is time and again interrupted by references to BSE, death and war.

IMG_5321The final story I write about in Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel is that of the North and South Pole as dominant depictions of climate crisis. Interestingly, a lot of literary fiction about the Arctic is historical fiction. I discuss how past explorations of the Arctic hold up a mirror to contemporary engagements with the region, from tourism to environmentalism. In The Collector of Lost Things (Page) and The Deep Water (McGuire), for example, the nineteenth-century hunt for whales and bears foreshadows the Arctic as a canary in the mine of climate crisis – as well as a popular ‘last chance to see’ tourist destination.

Climate crisis really is everywhere – not just literally, as it is unfolding in the physical world around us, but also culturally. Twenty-first-century novels provide a perfect space in which to explore these stories of climate crisis, as well as how crisis affects our ideas about ourselves and the world we live in.

 

The cocktail-party explanation of my book

IMG_8615Writing a book about books seems alien to many people outside of academia. Over the past years I’ve tried to explain to family and friends why I was writing a book about 21st-century British novels, and why that’s even interesting. This is the explanation that I came up with.

My new book (published November 2nd, 2017) is about climate crisis and the way it is portrayed in 21st-century British novels. I start the book by discussing a different medium: the 2015 film The Revenant. This film about fur traders in 19th-century North America manages to be both historical and very topical. As Leonardo DiCaprio explained when he accepted the Oscar for his part in the film, The Revenant shows that ‘climate crisis is real’. Because the bleak, snowy landscapes that the film depicts no longer exist in Northern America, the film crew ended up in Antarctica. At the same time, as the film’s success shows, the wilderness that The Revenant shows remains an important part of how we think about nature.

Films and novels are a way in which we tell stories about ourselves and our environment. Roughly since the year 2000 it’s become much more normal to talk about climate crisis, to write books about it that aren’t non-fiction or science fiction, and to make films about it that are mainstream. Climate crisis has become part of our cultural consciousness – we’re not puzzled when a star like Leonardo DiCaprio talks about climate crisis at the Oscars. The omnipresence of climate crisis also means that it has become much easier and more natural for authors to refer to climate crisis. Things such as rising sea levels, increasing number of hurricanes or floods have become a kind of shorthand for climate crisis. We don’t need the scientific explanation to understand these and other events as part of climate crisis.

In the book I discuss twelve British novels published since 2000 that all show that climate crisis has become part of 21st-century life. The books, including NW by Zadie SmithNWbookcover and The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall, aren’t explicitly ‘about’ climate crisis – rather, they show how the stories we tell about ourselves, the world and our place in it are increasingly influenced by awareness of climate crisis.

Novels – like films – create new stories. Urban nature is one of these newer stories. The city is no longer seen as the opposite of nature, but a place in which people can connect to nature, for example through parks and gardens, but also through farmers’ markets and local food. Another narrative that is relatively new is that of environmental collapse – stories in which societies collapse because of climate crisis. This story seems to become more popular every year, both in books such as Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and in films such as seemingly every disaster movie made in the past five years.

Novels and films also update old stories of nature. We can’t really disappear into idealization of the countryside (pastoral) anymore without having in the backs of our minds climate change, livestock diseases and industrialization. While the Arctic and Antarctic were long the last frontiers of wilderness and heroic exploration, they’ve now become destinations for last chance to see or extinction tourism.

This is what my book tries to explain. Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel is available from Bloomsbury Academic, and I also write about the book on this blog. My exploration of the way British novels depict climate crisis is part of my work on ecocriticism. More of my ecocritical research can be found here.

Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel – introductory remarks

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 19.50.42My book, Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel, is published on November 2nd. In it I discuss how a wide variety of literary fictions reflect contemporary awareness of climate crisis, and participate in the construction of the stories that we tell about climate crisis.

In the weeks leading up to and following the book’s publication, I’ll blog about the book in some more detail than I have done so far. In this post, I want to give some background to how I got started on the book’s topic. If you’re interested in reading more on the process of writing the book proposal and the book, you might find the posts I wrote for PhD2Published useful.

Last month, The New York Times ran an article on what they call “climate-themed Image result for ship breaker paolo bacigalupifiction”. Taking the links that people have drawn between recent hurricanes and Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2010 novel Ship Breaker as a starting point, they asked whether this and other novels could become reality. This question ties in with what inspired me to write Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel: the ubiquity of climate crisis in our cultural sphere, and the role that novels play in helping us think through the shape climate crisis might take.

My PhD was on ecocriticism and contemporary British fiction. I defined ‘contemporary’ broadly: the oldest novel I studied was John Fowles’ Daniel Martin (1977), the most recent Solar (2010), by Ian McEwan. When I’d finished my PhD, I realized that what I found most interesting were novels published since 2000, and especially the cultural climate in which they were produced. The years since 2000, many critics have suggested, have seen a growing awareness of climate crisis in Western culture. The ecocritic Terry Gifford pinpoints the spring of 2007 as a watershed moment in this respect. It was, he suggests,

‘a turning point in our perception of climate change and our engagement with global warming. It was a time when debates about our species’ effects upon the global environment moved from a weekly to a daily presence in the newspapers’

This awareness goes beyond the newspapers – it is reflected in the documentaries and films on climate crisis that have appeared since 2000, in magazines that published green issues and even on the high street, with the rise of ‘eco-conscious fashion’ and more local, organic food. As the editor of Vanity Fair put it in his editorial for the magazine’s first green issue:

‘Green is the new black.’

Novels, I think, are particularly good at capturing whatever humans face. They are especially good at imagining human relationships and immediate environments — two areas that are bound to change as a result of climate crisis. But novels are not just mirrors of contemporary culture – they also offer ways of thinking through situations. Like the novels in The New York Times article, they present future situations, but especially also how they affect human relationships. Novels, in short, don’t only reflect how we imagine climate crisis, they also actively shape these imaginations.

In Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel I write about the position of novels in a time of climate crisis, and especially the kinds of narratives they draw on. The bigger story of climate crisis is, I argue, reflected in different ways, in different types of narratives that resurface in novels, films, advertisements and other cultural expressions. The four narratives of climate crisis I focus on are collapse, pastoral, urban nature and polar environments, and over the coming weeks I’ll explore these four narratives some more.

 

Conference paper: the Ethics of the Anthropocene

A year or so ago I became interested in flood novels. One of the things I find so interesting about them, is that they provide very contained but apt spaces in which to think about climate crisis and its effects. Because of the floods, characters live in much closer proximity to each other than usual, and global issues of scarcity and privilege suddenly become very local and immediate.

In this paper (delivered at the ASLE-UKI 2017 conference), I discussed three 21st-century British novels that depict floods: Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship and Clare Morrall’s When the Floods Came. All three of these novels use characterization and first-person narrative perspective as a way of highlighting the ethical dilemmas of climate crisis. The novels present an essentially privileged perspective, narrating through the survivors. In the paper I develop how this neglects other perspectives on climate crisis, and even may provide the sense of a way out of climate crisis for the reader.

Read the full paper, including the list of sources, here

A defence of storytelling: John Burnside’s Ashland & Vine and the visual arts

ashlandvineThere are often references to the visual arts in John Burnside’s novels. In The Locust Room (2001) the photography of Raymond Moore stands for the kind of vision that the main character tries to achieve. In A Summer of Drowning (2011), the focus shifts to painting. The main character’s mother is a famous painter and she herself likes to draw maps. In Ashland & Vine, Burnside’s most recent novel, the visual arts – film, in particular – also play a big part. But here, there’s a different relationship between the visual and the textual than in the other novels. In the earlier novels, photography or painting would often be used to suggest that the important things can’t be captured in language. TIn Ashland & Vine (2017), that’s not the case.

The visual in a novel is more than just a reference to a painting, a photograph or a film. It creates a relationship between a purely textual medium – the novel – and a visual art form such as photography or painting. Sometimes the two might complement each other. A painting may be able to capture or depict things that a text can’t – and the other way around. Yet in our increasingly visual culture, the visual can also be a threat to the novel. Roland Barthes (in Camera Lucida) famously suggested that photographs offer a punctum, a ‘pricking’ or ‘wounding’ that happens whenever someone views a photograph. The punctum is so powerful, he suggested, that it cannot be captured by language – it exists beyond, or even outside of, language.

the-locust-roomIn much the similar way, Paul in The Locust Room believes that photography may help him access the beyond-the-social he craves so much. Photography, he suggests, is ‘the art that brought us back to the things themselves’ (175). The end product does not so much matter to Paul – it is the act of photographing that is important to him. In Burnside’s earlier novel The Mercy Boys (1999), one of the men – Alan – is also a photographer. During a school project he comes to realize that it’s not the photographs that matter to him. Rather, it was ‘being there that counted. Being cold and wet, letting the water soak him, letting the wind chill him to the bone – that was what mattered’ (263).

Indeed, from Burnside’s first novel – The Dumb House (1997) – to A Summer of Drowning, characters have tried to somehow go beyond language. Paradoxically, then, the novels are both highly textual – by default – but also undermine the power of the word by suggesting that what really matters cannot be captured by language. In A Summer of Drowning Liv says that it is the negative (in the photographic sense) space of the unseen, she argues, that is the only place where some things can be seen (323).

Up until Burnside’s most recent novel, a kind of tension was established between the textual and the visual. The visual is always given more importance – even though the characters rarely achieve the kind of transcendent space that they believe the visual might offer. This changes in Ashland & Vine, Burnside’s eighth novel, which was published in early February.

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Ashland & Vine

The novel is narrated by a young woman, Kate Lambert. She’s a film student, and lives with a filmmaker called Laurits. Laurits is in many ways a character typical of Burnside’s earlier fiction: male, troubled and looking for the world beyond or behind the social world. Filmmaking, for him, isn’t about stories, or relationships. In typically Burnsidean fashion, it’s about ‘the fabric of the world … about those moments and places where the fabric of the world was frayed or torn’ (47).

But the novel turns into a defence of storytelling, the textual kind, rather than film. Kate herself becomes a vehicle for a series of stories that an elderly woman, Jean Culver, tells her. Jean’s stories about her own life and that of her family become a corrective to Laurits’ influence on Kate, and to her study of film. While Laurits has more or less convinced Kate that it’s not the story that matters, Jean shows her that it does. Storytelling becomes a way in which more meaning is given to Kate’s life, although that sounds more sentimental than it is in the novel.

Roland Barthes suggested that language is by nature ‘fictional’ (Camera Lucida 86-7). Photography, on the other hand, is ‘a certificate of presence’ (Camera Lucida 87). Now that we’ve gotten so used to photographic manipulation that has changed somewhat, but the image still continues to hold more importance, or truth, than the text. In Ashland & Vine Jean becomes a much more important character than Laurits. The plot, then, and the importance accorded to the act of storytelling and narrative that Laurits had derided, suggests a change in Burnside’s oeuvre. The visual isn’t privileged over the textual anymore. It’s no longer a threat to it. Instead, it is the textual, the stories told by one character to another, that are important. Film, no matter its materiality, becomes ephemeral, and the stories we tell each other and ourselves are what count.

 ***

In 2014 I wrote an article in English Studies on Burnside’s fictional oeuvre, in which I also looked ahead to what we might expect of his next work.

Small Changes

Teaching is what I spend most of my time on — four days a week, compared to the one day a week that I reserve for research. This year, I want to challenge myself more to try out new things in the classroom. I’ll still update the research blog (Wild Things), but as a form of accountability to myself, I also want to share what I do in the classroom in this space.

***

At the beginning of the current academic year, I wanted to make a few changes. I’ve been teaching in higher education for 11 years and I feel like I’m on top of things. But I don’t want to be too fine with the way things are going. Particularly since I work at a teacher training college, I am very much aware of my own teaching practice. Last year also made me realize that I need to explicitly push myself to develop, even if no one else asks me to do, in order to prevent burn-out.

So, in September, I implemented three new things in my classes: I began to use Fliqlo to keep track of time; focused more on images, and less on text; and explicitly began to experiment with different activities in class.

1. Fliqlo

Fliqlo is an analog-looking clock for desktop computers, phones and tablets. For a while, I’d been using my phone as a clock in class. Every so often, I’d walk over to my phone, click the home-button to see what time it was, and try not to get too distracted by messages I’d received during class. It wasn’t ideal: the screen of my iPhone 5 is not big enough to see from a distance, and the occasional message popping up distracted me.

When I first began teaching, I wore a watch. When I’d asked a colleague to sit in on one of my classes at this time, it turned out I wasn’t very good at subtly checking the time. He told me, ‘You visibly looked at your watch four times while student X was speaking’. I hadn’t realized it, but that is something I want to avoid.

Many classrooms will have clocks mounted on the walls. However, that’s not the case in one of the buildings where I do most of my teaching and in the other building, I tend to have my back turned towards the clock that is visible primarily to the students. I want to avoid having to turn my back on the students in order to check the time.

So I downloaded Fliqlo on my iPad. It’s big enough for me to see the clock from different positions in class, whether I’m walking around, checking in on students working in groups, or lecturing. I turn it at different angles whenever I take up different positions in class, and rarely have to explicitly – and visibly – move to see the time. I don’t get any messages on my iPad, but those wouldn’t show up on top of the clock either.

2. More images, fewer words

I teach literature courses, including two survey courses that each span around 200 years. There’s a lot of historical background that’s important for students to understand the texts. While I try to avoid putting too much information on the slides, students have to process a lot, especially in the first class of the semester when I give an overview of the two centuries we’ll be concerned with.

My own education in this sense was very traditional: we’d attend lectures of 1 to 1 1/2 hours where a lecturer would talk for pretty much the entire time — without visual aids or PowerPoint presentations. And, I also very much believe in the value of taking good to notes. But I also realized that the classes were far from ideal.

So in September, for my MA survey course on British literature from 1800 to the present, I replaced my typical overview by an activity that uses images relating to historical events. Rather than lecturing for an hour, I prepared a stack of images for the students. I didn’t specify on the images themselves what the image referred to. Some of them were fairly straightforward: most students recognized Queen Victoria, for instance, though  many of them couldn’t identify the image of the Blitz (World War II).

In groups of about four students they first tried to identify the images and put them in a rough chronological order. When they were done, I handed out a piece of paper with important dates and events. They matched them to the images, and we discussed their answers.

Students loved this activity. It gave them the historical overview that I had wanted them to get, but they also got to try to ‘read’ these images and make sense of them. The images they recognized quickly formed a framework, while those that they couldn’t place provided basis for discussion. The list of important dates I handed out to them turned out to be much shorter than the dates I put on the slides in the previous years. I realized that there was a lot less info that I felt was necessary at this stage. At the same time, having this list enables students to know which dates are important for them to know.

 

Next month, I’ll write about active learning, or including more activities in my BA and MA classes. Since by then I will have marked the exams of the courses in which I tried out the activities, I will also be able to say something about the effect of the activities on student performance.

 

 

Talk on climate crisis narratives (OSL Ravenstein seminar on ecocriticism)

In January 2017 I gave a talk for the OSL Ravenstein Seminar on ecocriticism. It was based on a chapter in my forthcoming book, Climate Crisis and the Twenty-First-Century British Novel, about climate crisis narratives. I talked about the ways in which a sense of immediacy is created in Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell) and The Island at the End of the World (Sam Taylor) and how these novels undermine the faith we tend to have in narratives.

While I won’t be publishing the text of the talk here, I did put together list of sources that I used for the participants in the seminar.

On the absence of climate fiction in Dutch literature

For a long time I barely read Dutch literature. As a scholar of British literature, I read plenty of British novels, a bunch of American ones and books from other countries written in English. Occasionally I also read books in German.

I started to see parallels between American and British climate fiction on the one hand, and German climate fiction on the other. In both traditions climate crisis is explicitly img_3072addressed in literature. And in both, the north is an important space in which climate crisis is played out. When I started to look for similar Dutch books, I quickly drew a blank. I searched the internet and asked in bookstores. The booksellers were generally interested, but couldn’t really help. One ended up selling me a non-fiction book by a Flemish author — not quite the Dutch novel I was looking for.

Growing up on the coast has given me a lifelong longing for the sea, particularly now that I’ve moved away from it. At the same time, having been born and raised on an island devastated by the 1953 North Sea flood has made the sea for me not only a thing of beauty, but especially something potentially threatening.  Given the importance of the sea to Dutch history and culture it would make sense if Dutch authors would use that as a site of climate change. But I haven’t really found a Dutch novel yet that explores the sea in its own right and in relation to climate crisis.

I did start to think about the absence of climate fiction in Dutch literature and where that comes from. My search took me to seventeenth century Dutch landscape painting, European Romanticism that passed by the Netherlands and eventually into the present, into the norths of British and German fiction, and the flooded polder in a Dutch novel.

The result of my search is this paper I gave at the 2016 conference of the European Association for Studies of Literature, Culture and Environment in Brussels (27-30 October 2016). In the paper I refer to these slides.