sabbatical project reading

If books are brilliant because they are full of wonder, consider how wonderful the bookshelf is. More than a tool—akin to how the book is more than a technology—the bookshelf organises reading, knowledge, and knowledge-making. It’s physically solid and has a comforting fixity. It’s movable, expandable, and contractable. It can be multiplied, encased, left to float on walls, become a room, be the base building block of a building. And still, a single shelf can be a library in its own right; and any horizontal surface can be a shelf, provided that it holds books.

That’s a minimal definition; I’d add that a bookshelf should be usable by its reader(s), who should be able to add, remove, and move around its books. Because reading isn’t a singular simple linear event where you start, you do the thing, you finish, it’s done; it’s rereading and recontextualisation, and potentially infinite. It’s essential to seeing how books talk to each other and how these bookish interactions change when you help books to talk to other, new books. It affects your next conversations with the books, and your next rereadings when you return to books that you read earlier in a different juxtaposition. We’re in a symbiotic relationship, in a shared ecosystem. Does it go further than that? Are books and bookshelves posthuman transhuman extensions of human readers? Or are we their cyberbookish extensions?

Whenever I’ve been doing any kind of research work, it’s meant reading and it’s meant moving books around. Over the last decade that’s mostly been course and curriculum design and the books have been textbooks, pedagogy, official Common European Framework of Reference for Languages documentation, policy, practice, language acquisition; and mostly text online. From time to time I also teach undergraduate literature courses. In previous years, as you might imagine, the readings have been books which students obtain from the official university bookstore, or elsewhere, or in rare cases borrowed from the university or public library; and designing such a course means moving books around in physical space, to see how they sit together and talk to each other, and how that selection and juxtaposition might prove inviting to students.

But I’ve long been uncomfortable with the cost of course materials for students in what is after all a public university. When I was an undergraduate, our libraries had multiple copies of everything, and using library copies was the conventional expectation. Strict short-term loans helped to ensure free access for a large number of users, and books in closed non-circulating areas; these restrictions on access also helped us to learn how to make good usable notes fast, and how to cooperate with other students: each making notes on part of a book (and, depending, sometimes transcription and other copying too) then sharing in the group. Not unlike some older student cooperative practices, before the internet, or photocopying, or indeed printing. Alas, our library doesn’t (and can’t) provide such a service to its users; ebooks are a compromise. They’re better than nothing, they’re free, but the access that they provide is to mutilated books, excised from their shelf context and the home environment that is bookshelves in open stacks. Or, a “library.” (There are many kinds of library, and many more might be possible. I think that we can—we should, we must—keep imagining future virtual libraries, wild dreams of a multimedia and multidimensional that transcend what is materially feasible right now.)

Meanwhile, books increase in price; meanwhile, over the last two years, a pandemic has moved courses online (off and on, and back off again, etc.), and supply changes have been affected, not least by workers’ own illness. So for a literature course last term, I decided that all the set readings should be free for students and available online; and all supplementary readings should be too, between the library and what I’d selected from my own books, a selection that overlapped with previous iterations of a related course. That’s books talking to books at another remove: a course’s readings talking to other course readings. This course ended up being what I like to call ”hybrid” in several ways: the first was its readings. Here’s the bookshelf of supplementary readings in my office, a free movie online (Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) at the Internet Archive), and the virtual bookshelf via the library (to whom, again and as ever, thanks):

(The course was RMST 201. Official title: ”Introduction to Literatures and Cultures of the Romance World I: Medieval to Early Modern.” Official description: “An introduction to the main themes that shaped the Romance World as its different national identities emerged in the Mediterranean sphere.” More about navigating these parameters, that course, and its multiple hybridities in a future post.)

I’d been thinking (and reading and writing) about and around what would become the sabbatical project for a while—definitely back to 2016, there are traces earlier back to 2011—and then in a more concerted way when completing the sabbatical application form in September 2020. The 2020-21 academic year, our first full pandemic year, was online; I didn’t really think about the sabbatical project, or read or think about very much at all outside of immediate work, redesigning courses and participating in a team’s work on a whole eight-course sequence, committees and meetings, learning about the theory and practice of teaching and learning online, and translating that to live active practice in our specific situation while inventing new things along the way (and making it up on the fly).

In the summer of 2021 I played around with zoomscapes: backgrounds for teaching, changes in background for different kinds of interaction or mood, for meetings with colleagues, for office hours, sometimes for specific classes.

Mostly in online classes what was on the screen was live work with an online textbook (language classes, March 2020-December 2021) or talking, usually with no background or sometimes online text extract or other media (literature class, September-December 2021: to concentrate on words). That was because my teaching was resolutely *live*: not bullet-point reductive powerpoints; and not lectures of a form that could be scripted, potted and recorded, eventually transcribed and turned into textbook or article or other traditional academic form. Sure, I could have done that; I’ve done that kind of teaching too. But I’d seen, in teaching online since March 2020, that what was missing and at risk was all that was live, lively, unpredictable, impromptu, human, improvisational, pratfalls and all. Especially the pratfalls. They’re pedagogically and cognitively vital. And I taught all last term in the way that our institution likes to officially call ”hybrid”: students could be there and participate in physical or virtual person, and were free to move from one to the other, from one day to another, or indeed in that class, as they wished. The idea was that a class might be live and lively for all of us wherever and however we were, and why shouldn’t it be that way when you’re online too? Thanks be to Zoom, online chat, and breakout rooms.

The main image at the top of this post is what became the default main zoomscape for a year. It started out as what was behind me when I was filming live from home, where like I guess most people I “staged” my surroundings. The plant has been with me through the pandemic, life and growth and slow movement on days suspended outside time. It’s a lively creature, curious about its surroundings, investigating and curling affectionately around them. A cuddly plant-spider with soft furry leaves. It brings books and bookshelves together. We talk, in our way, when I’m in this comfortable room reading on the sofa or working standing at the desk or on its bouncy ball-chair. It took a while to get it right, comfortable for both of us, but eventually we’d settle into the plant being behind me when I was teaching, poking and tickling me as appropriate. That plant’s got my back.

The plant at work in pre-zoomscaped Spring 2021

Finding a place to teach was tricky: standing, enough room to wave hands and flail around, not too much room so you move out of camera range, without disturbing plants (there are many in this room, and one is a vicious giant aloe), in the right light during the day, next to lights at night, things behind you that were visually interesting but not too distracting. There was a time when I moved books and small objects around as very slow stop-motion narrative—here’s an example from March 2020—but no-one noticed and then I forgot due to distraction by work, so that was the end of that experiment, fun while it lasted.

My biggest struggle over the last two years was that the best place for filming in the home office is where I usually dry laundry. Laundry and teaching schedules mean that there would be at least one day every week when we would have to share the space. That’s fine—we’re intimate—but while I’ve a generous ”too personal / too much information” threshold on feminist humanist principle, I’m not sharing my underwear with students and colleagues. That would be over-sharing. So, after class one day when the lighting was particularly good and my favourite pandemic plant was looking particularly exuberant, I moved some books around that plant until it all made sense, and took some photos. And lo, in early July 2021, the universally-appropriate zoomscape was born.

Shortly after, of course, I moved everything around again when moving books to and from my office in the department. We’d been away from that building for some time, by late July 2021 it was over two years when you include the move to temporary offices while our department was renovated. Unpacking books meant their usual consequent new rearrangement. Extra joy, last summer, of reconnecting with old friends, coming out of stasis and burial, back into each others’ lives, back to life.

The project books in Spring 2021, not at work and grumpy

The core shelf and a half of project books had sat still patiently for months, years, as they were when I last attended to them after my excited invigorated return from a conference in January 2020, just before COVID-19 arrived here. Divided strictly into (1) Old Occitan poetry; and (2) not, being mostly 20th-21st c. criticism and theory. Kept apart from ”work-work” teaching books and from the plant, in isolation, when March 2020 happened. Books and shelves led simpler lives in The Before Times, and untouched by pandemic vegetation.

Our return to campus in July 2021 was my first work on the sabbatical project as such: moving its stuff home that summer. By September more home-shelf-space was freed up: modern-language-teaching books moved from home-office to department-office as I was planning to do most teaching there and on campus. I had time and head-space to rearrange the sabbatical project books a couple of times over the last few months, as I started surreptitiously reading them, assisted by the plant.

Side-reading started to move into the project shelves too, leisure post-medieval speculative fiction. I stopped separating books by any category other than approximately alphabetical, mixed them up, mixed Old Occitan poetry in with other times and languages and genres. I learned to stay with the trouble, to leave them all be, doing their own thing. Making their own kin in the Chthulhucene, in sym-poiesis with the plant. There’s more that’s out of sight: cloud folders of electronic texts, browser-bookmarked readings, and four physical reference shelves of further Old Occitan and philology (inc. language and theory stuff) and photocopies of articles. One is a top shelf that I’m not tall enough to reach where I’m pretty sure there are things lurking behind the books. I’m not sure if I’m curious or dread to think what sleeps there in the deep high dark.

The shelves are now full but stable. Here, then, is the main project reading. Most of it is rereading, but rereading is reading and reading is rereading. Items vary in size: some are place-holders, reminders to read everything in the volcano under that superficial island: Marcabru, Simon Gaunt, the electronic Concordance of Medieval Occitan.

The pandemic plant continues to grow. It was 4 inches tall when it came from a hardware store in September 2020, and has been ever more helpful in pointing out possible new book connections in and across shelves.

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