Creative Scholarship, or Doubling Down
Volume 7, Cycle 3
I’m sometimes told by people who work outside of universities that being a teacher-writer-editor in an English Department sounds great, and occasionally it is. Yet lately everything “great” about academia sounds ominous: the Great Resignation, The Great Faculty Disengagement, The Great Pause after the Great Pivot. Resignation and disengagement are paradoxical side effects of the profession’s dependence on enthusiasm—employees so dedicated and diligent that they volunteer for unpaid labor. Women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and contingent faculty members have affective commitments to inclusion that make their hard work especially easy to exploit in Not Great times. A global pandemic heightening inequity, epidemic racial and gendered violence, and public contempt for what educators do, especially in the humanities—yet enthusiasm is supposed to keep us going?
I’ve been searching for ways to restore my enthusiasm anyway, and I’m finding it in spaces of intellectual and artistic intersection. One reason I’m looking so hard is practical: my academic job requires long hours, even when I keep the nonessential commitments to a minimum. I need the paychecks, but I also need my work to feel worthwhile or fun or both. Otherwise, daily life under the shadow of the abovementioned crises empties of meaning. A related factor: I’m trying to coax a few more undergraduates each year to major in English. Students choose majors partly out of interest and partly in belief that the major will be instrumental in reaching their career goals, so I’m always interlacing arguments for doing what you love now as well as planning for meaningful work later. Former students regularly tell me that being strong writers and critical thinkers sets them apart in their careers and helps them advance faster. I’m not seeking to peel students away from other disciplines they might love more; it’s just crucial to counter the disinformation they’re hearing everywhere, given how few people seem to agree on criteria for credibility these days. I want STEM disciplines to thrive, too, for instance, but they don’t offer the only path to a more just and livable future, despite current political rhetoric.
Humanities training itself—thinking about what makes literature powerful—helps me entertain multiple values at once, braided for strength rather than pried into separate strands for purity of purpose. Or maybe that’s too enthusiastic a metaphor. In advocating for rethinking what counts as scholarship in English studies, I’m working as much as anything from a gut sense that trying to compete with STEM dominance on the grounds of objectivity is futile. Instead, I’m doubling down on bringing my full idiosyncratic self to my research.
Interweaving literary obsessions in hybrid writing can’t be the only scholarly response to emergencies in the world, the profession, or in one person’s life—complicated problems need multiple solutions. In this case, strategies should include political and workplace activism and, for some people, resigning or quiet quitting. Enthusiasm is not the answer, nor is creative scholarship.
I’m nevertheless trying to rewire my relationship to literary study.
After my last promotion and a difficult stint as Department Head—for grisly detail, see this creative-critical piece in The Account—I tried to analyze what I felt most exhausted and demoralized by. I also considered the opposite question: what kinds of work nourished me, and to what extent was it possible to recenter my professional life around them? My answer, at least so far, lies in what some call “creative criticism”—although I have reservations about the term.
The future I began to envision for myself meant returning to the origins of my excitement about English studies. As an undergraduate in the late 1980s, I fell in love with Adrienne Rich’s essays, particularly those in Lies, Secrets, and Silence and Blood, Bread, and Poetry. Rich’s prose is argument-driven but interspersed with narrative, including memoir; her footnoted essays draw on wide reading and personal experience. They’re researched but not what I’d now call scholarly, and as an undergraduate I didn’t understand the difference—I just found her essays more moving and riveting than most articles published in scholarly journals. I don’t mean to devalue traditional scholarship: it often shifts my thinking, and occasionally my work’s direction. Its shapes and sentences, though, sometimes depress me. Many articles and books are boxy containers for good research, meaning transitions are clumsy, diction more elevated than it needs to be, and constituent parts predictable. Those qualities make for easy skimming and authoritative-sounding quotations, but not good reading.
I embarked on a PhD program thinking literary scholarship was capacious enough to include what Rich did. I was also reading The Pink Guitar by Rachel Blau DuPlessis, My Emily Dickinson by Susan Howe, many modernist poet-critics, and literary-theoretical hybrid books by Gloria Anzaldúa and Bell Hooks—mind-blowing work addressing my subfield of twentieth-century poetry. These writers explore the high personal stakes of their critiques in ways that grounded me, but in other ways their genre-bending work didn’t serve me well, either in graduate classes or later, as I revised my dissertation into a book. I was lucky in my revise-and-resubmit letters. I know people don’t often say that, but sometimes peer review really works, and even “Reader Two” is helpful. I learned a more mainstream definition of good scholarship, again from mentors I didn’t personally know, especially the reasons for citing research systematically, with respectful attention to everything said before you waltzed into the room. That advice seems so basic now. I’m embarrassed to admit my incomprehension until I was years along the tenure track. Maybe it seemed too fundamental for explanation to my teachers; probably some tried to explain, but I was too willful to hear them.
I finally understood how and why to produce the kind of scholarship any tenure and promotions committee would recognize. At the same time, publishing more of my own poetry, I made a research project of Creative Writing, a branch of English studies with its own canons and priorities—and its own critical methodologies. In the process, I consumed lots of research-based criticism by contemporary creative writers. It’s often as formulaic as traditional scholarship. Worse, without giving credit, it repeats arguments already in print. If you’re interested enough in a subject to spend weeks or months or years writing about it, why wouldn’t you want to learn from and credit existing scholarship and theory about closely related subjects? Paying attention to that stuff from our enemies in literary studies, some creative writers telegraph, is not our responsibility.
That mutual animosity between scholars and creative writers isn’t as destructive as the social, political, and economic forces besieging us all, but it does serious damage. I understand the frustration on both sides, yet it reminds me of a ridiculous antagonism in a long-ago version of my department: one faction was led by an Episcopalian professor who thought Presbyterians were stupid; the Presbyterian professor thought his Episcopalian nemesis was a snob. It all seems so parochial and small.
Neither creative writers nor scholars form unified blocs. Most criticism published according to the rules of either field is competent; occasionally it’s terrific. The best work bridging the disciplines—again, the term “creative criticism” doesn’t encompass it—is glorious.
The moves of creative criticism occur in traditional scholarship to a smaller degree. It's common for a university press book, for example, to begin with the story behind the argument. Personal narrative is a foundational move for some feminist and queer theory and criticism; Black Studies; Chicana Studies; Native American Studies; Oceania and Pacific Islander Studies; ecocriticism; and other fields. Sometimes personal details arrive at the close of a scholarly article or even in a “postscript,” as in Cynthia Hogue’s “On being ‘ill’-informed: H/D.’s late modernist poetics (of) d’espère.” Then there are venues like this one making room for intersections among research, teaching, and activism.
Yet there are wilder examples, especially the erudite and illuminating work of certain poet-scholars. Scholarship in the already-hybrid mode of the lyric essay attracts me particularly (more self-interrogation: I wonder why I’m not using it here?). Lyric essays proceed through associative leaps, although they often contain narrative and argument, too. The term “lyric essay” was proposed by John D’Agata in 1993, but as Joanna Eleftheriou writes, it gave writers and readers a name for work done much earlier by essayists including Virginia Woolf. Further, she says, the phrase empowered new experiments, “a proliferation of essays that behaved a little differently, asked more boldly that their readers fill in gaps, attend to subtle intimations of word choice and placement (as if the text were poetry), and wait until the essay’s end for meaning, because meaning arrives only when the fragments are considered as a whole.” In their interweaving of fragments, lyric essays can, in fact, feel modernist.
However, Eleftheriou also argues that lyric essays and literary criticism essentially work at cross-purposes—that lyric essays are not an “effective mode of literary criticism.” The word “effective” raises a key question: what should literary criticism be doing and for whom?
I’d call Wayne Koestenbaum’s “‘Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!’: Frank O’Hara’s Excitements” effective: it can lead to good class discussions and student imitations; it deepens my insight into O’Hara’s poetic affect and its consequences. Koestenbaum’s essay is personal, rooted in wide reading, conversant with theory (in a light-handed way, without a bibliography)—and, in structure, very much a lyric essay. So is Paisley Rekdal’s “Nightingale: A Gloss.” Rekdal, who does cite sources, braids her readings of Ovid—and a little T. S. Eliot—with a story in fragments about silence, trauma, and literary art.
Further, literary criticism can be hybrid without a lyric essay structure. A recent book by Jacquelyn Ardam from New York University Press’s Avidly series—according to the series page, “brief books about how culture makes us feel”—entwines literary history, analysis, and anecdotes about poetry’s power in personal and public life. Ardam sublimates research into colloquial, enthusiastic prose that sometimes conveys vulnerability, another quality I find in much creative scholarship. She describes how giving up her Visiting Assistant Professor position confers unexpected authority: “now that my ideas about poetry are no longer tied to the way I get health insurance, I find myself in a different position, able to ask different questions.”
I’m focusing on poetry studies, where I’ve read most deeply, but what’s sometimes called an autobiographical turn has infiltrated scholarly practice in many fields. Often it’s framed as “intimate,” as in Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls; Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands; and, further back, in a collection responding to reader response theory, The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, edited by Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. More recently, in Reading and Writing Innovative Texts: Critical Innovations, editors Robin Silbergleid and Kristina Quynn assert that “our focus remains centrally on the text discussed, not the production of original work.” For Silbergleid and Qyunn, critical intimacy comes from relinquishing claims to objectivity, but it isn’t necessarily autobiographical. In 21/19: Contemporary Poets in the Nineteenth-Century Archive, editors Kristen Case & Alexander Manglis echo the term “intimate critique”: “All the essays collected here are characterized by an affective openness, stylistic experimentation, engagement with complex temporal scapes, and practices of thinking with rather than thinking about the texts they engage.” They also invoke a postcritique sensibility: “Collectively, these essays propose we can more meaningfully engage the dirt of our history via study rather than critique.”
Is intimate critique the label I’m searching for? Lyric, hybrid, innovative, experimental criticism? Creative or weird scholarship? There is a metacritical playfulness in some of the books and essays I’ve cited, honoring reading and writing as ongoing processes, but the term “metacriticism” seems too distanced for research that foregrounds subjectivity. Perhaps I can’t name what I mean because the common ground is my taste rather than intrinsic similarity. And what’s in-between always resists definition.
More than autobiography or experimental shapes, what I’ve been searching for is a heightened sense of stakes, whether professional, personal, or both. Even the emphasis on process in so much creative scholarship undermines the usual pose of objectivity and could jeopardize professional authority. As Eve L. Ewing said about Ghosts in the Schoolyard, violating field norms is “scary”—“I truly didn’t know if academic colleagues would regard this book with disdain.” Contempt for how a professor practices scholarship can have serious consequences for pay, promotion, job mobility, and job security.
In autobiographical criticism, further, memoir elements can involve painful self-exposure. Writing scholarship with its own literary value is in many ways a win for criticism, widening its potential audience, but literary appeal in poetry and memoir is closely related to perceived vulnerability. There’s much to be said about vulnerability and sincerity as performances relying on culturally specific conventions, but nevertheless, “I can’t believe they admitted that” moments are riveting to readers. Self-exposure hugs the edges of so many powerful feelings: excitement, shame, disgust, surprise.
The high-stakes creative criticism I want to read resembles scholarly criticism in several ways:
- it demonstrates substantial and rigorous study and research, making arguments supported by evidence from primary and secondary sources;
- it advances knowledge, in conversation with previous scholarly and theoretical writings;
- it acknowledges sources and influences (although citation practices may be nonstandard).
Like creative writing:
- it uses literary craft powerfully at the sentence level, with attention to pacing;
- it adopts structures suited to the nature of the inquiry, perhaps by interweaving argument and narrative or employing the associative segues of lyric essays;
- while it has appeal for scholars, teachers, students, and practitioners, it prioritizes what might interest general readers.
“‘Crisis’ terminology surfaces over and over in twentieth-century critical movements,” Robin and Quynn observe (9). Crisis terminology is a way of elevating the importance of relatively narrow concerns, certainly, but social and institutional crises, historically and in the present moment, are also painfully real. Placing a higher value on scholarship that’s accessible to non-specialists and lively to read can be activism in itself, manifesting what’s great about literary study in the face of enrollment crashes and public contempt. I’m relying on my own experience rather than empirical study in making this claim, but that’s what literary scholars often do, whether or not they foreground close reading, for example, as a subjective enterprise. Putting creative scholarship on syllabi and inviting students to imitate it has made my class discussions more rewarding and, not insignificantly for my daily enthusiasm, student essays more interesting to grade.
I don’t teach graduate students, which probably eases my disinvestment in the norms of scholarly writing. Most of my students will never need to write the kind of essay that gets you into an English PhD program. The paper-writing conventions I had been teaching them remain valuable: apply this theory, trace a motif, begin with a clear statement of your interpretive thesis. I’m not about to stop requiring research-writing, either, or bringing literary scholarship and theory into my classrooms. Yet when intellectual, political, artistic, historical, or personal stakes broaden—when some kind of vulnerability enters an essay or conversation—the work becomes more powerful and satisfying.
These experiments also keep me engaged in scholarly work I might otherwise abandon. My writing time is split between creative writing and scholarship, and I’m always wondering when I’ll cease having energy for both. I would choose creative writing if I had to. Yet I’m still jazzed about scholarship. There are so many critical and theoretical subfields yet to learn from. I love puzzling through intricate poetic strategies and their consequences. I want to give poetry a scholar’s kind of service as well as delivering it to audiences as an editor and reviewer. I just don’t want to do massive amounts of time-intensive research for a product designed to be skimmed by a tiny audience.
Attempting new genres is revitalizing for anyone who loves learning, although I also find writing prose memoir far more difficult than I arrogantly expected. I knew less about suspense than I had imagined, and less about self-revelation. A poet can elide trauma in ways that don’t work well in prose. In short, the structures and rhythms of the hybrid essays making up my latest book, the hybrid venture Poetry’s Possible Worlds, took me years to hone. Yet in the few months since publication, I’ve received more intimate notes than any of my books have ever elicited. Some respond to the memoir elements, people who don’t read literary criticism telling me they couldn’t put it down. Other non-insiders say it demystifies contemporary verse, reminding them that poetry, too, is an art worth spending time with. At a moment when academic work seems invisible and undervalued, this makes me feel better about what I do.
I wish more university publishers were open to these experiments, because as strapped as they are, they have better resources than most small independent presses. An admission that feels risky: I did send the manuscript to university presses, all of which passed, although a few editors sent notes along the lines of “I like this project a lot, but if there’s a whiff of memoir I can’t sell it to the board.” Whether or not publication models alter—and even if universities keep becoming more and more corporate, exploitative, and dismissive of the arts and humanities—the intimacy, vulnerability, and innovation of creative scholarship has transformed my professional life. All change is provisional, but for now, this braiding of skills and approaches gives me a way to keep doing what I love.
 See Rebecca Colesworthy’s In These Times column “She Works Too Hard for the Money”: “so much of our love for what we do is routinely coopted to serve the same corporatized institutional norms to which we are often vociferously opposed.”
 Genelle Gertz, Lynny Chin, Elisabeth Gilbert, Shanna Kim, Kit Lombard, and Teresa Loughery, “How Do Our Students Choose Majors?” (Presentation, Washington and Lee University, August 26, 2022).
 Also see Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar: Writing As Feminist Practice (New York: Routledge, 1990), vii-viii: “I secretly appropriated for myself Woolf’s own statement of 1940 calling for ‘a new critical method,’ both ‘colloquial and yet intense,’ with the swiftness and lightness of a ‘sketch’ but really ‘a finished work’…a writer has to need what s/he writes, and to need it in ways that implicate other people.”
 Ardam, Jacquelyn, Avidly Reads Poetry (New York: New York University Press, 2022), 10.
 Robin Silbergleid and Kristina Quynn, editors, Reading and Writing Experimental Texts: Critical Innovations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 8.
 Kristen Case and Alexander Manglis, editors, 21/19: Contemporary Poets in the Nineteenth-Century Archive. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed, 2019), 6, 10.
 See Diane P. Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar, editors, The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1993), 13. In the introduction, Diane P. Freedman calls it “metadiscursivity” and uses border-crossing metaphors similar to those that permeate my own discussion.
 Rachel Toor, “Scholars Talk Writing: Eve L. Ewing,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 16, 2020): https://www.chronicle.com/article/scholars-talk-writing-eve-l-ewing.