Summer Reading

As happens every summer, I’ve been trying to work out how to make the best use of my precious few weeks to get something tangible done. I have a handful of projects in various stages of completion, which is typical—after nine months of near-constant lesson planning, teaching, and grading, the scholar/writer part of my brain is a bit underfed, and I have a bad habit of doing an impression of the Ass of Balaam in the first weeks of summer as I try to choose what to focus my attention on. I’m leaning toward an idea for a teaching article on using film in medieval literature classes that I started two years ago, but then there’s a dissertation chapter I’ve been meaning to mine for an article, a book proposal that has a bunch of details to sort out, some translation work that needs doing, an idea for a new essay on Dame Siriþ…so many things I want to do, and no especially good reason to choose any particular one of them.

My typical solution is to throw myself into catching up on recent publications—“surveying the state of the field,” as the paramilitary jargon of academe sometimes styles it (incidentally, has anyone done an editorial for the Chronicle of Higher Ed on the magpie tendency of Humanities scholars to appropriate language from ostensibly “cooler” professions?). During the school year, I’m focused on my teaching, doing whatever primary research (a fancy way of saying “reading”) I can find time for, and keeping up with various non-specialist periodicals. I tend to lose track of recent publications. Summer, with its long days and disincentive to spend time on campus in my non-air-conditioned office, offers my best opportunity to find out what other living people are up to in my field. If I were the sort to do “beach reading,” I’d almost certainly get sand kicked in my face for cracking open The Yearbook of Langland Studies; as it stands, I’ll probably do most of this while sitting in my backyard while my dog lolls in the sun and occasionally barks at toads hopping by.

I’m starting to develop a stable of journals I revisit each summer, an evolving list that reflects my interests far more than any kind of responsible coverage of the discipline. A handful I’ll read more or less cover-to-cover (The Chaucer Review, JEGP, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies); some I’ll cherry-pick my way through (Speculum, Anglo-Saxon England, Studies in Philology, Journal of Early Christian Studies, Sagabook, Postmedieval, Notes & Queries). Then there’s the mop-up of the field, using the International Medieval Bibliography to track down material in my fields of interest…and then a handful of books I’ve either bought at the Medieval Congress in May or picked up due to overlapping interests (or because I know and want to support the author). I’ve got seven of these this summer, most of which I’m hoping to get through before the end of June…and a couple of which I’ll probably talk about on here at some point. I’m especially excited to read Karl Shoemaker’s Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages, a book I’ve been looking forward to for years now, having read the dissertation it descends from years ago; both the dissertation and its author were indispensable resources for me when I was writing my own diss on Anglo-Saxon hagiography and the sanctuary privilege.

All this busy-reading gives me a largely undeserved sense of accomplishment, since reading all the articles in the world doesn’t mean I’ve actually written anything yet…but it’s the best way I’ve found to plunge back into producing work of my own. There’s probably some pithy metaphor suitable for this process: gauntlets being thrown down, pots being stirred, pumps primed, fires kindled, et cetera. But really, this is just the best way I’ve found to get off my Balaam’s Ass and get to work.

In case anyone else wanders by this site: how do you gear up for a summer of (theoretical) productivity?

 

~jpsexton

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