Janine Utell is the editor of “Teaching Modernist Women’s Writing in English,” a new volume under development for consideration in the MLA series Options for Teaching that she has chosen to develop on the Commons. Her site has generated considerable interest, and the conversations it has inspired have in turn inspired her to refine her vision of the project to make it “a better book than I might have otherwise, one that is responsive to readers’ interests and teachers’ needs.” We talked to her about why she chose to develop the book prospectus in public and how her openness is resulting in a collaborative community of interest in the volume.
What made you want to pursue the topic of modernist women’s writing with the MLA?
Teaching modernist women’s writing has been part of my repertoire since I began teaching in 1998; since finishing my PhD in 2003, I’ve turned more toward developing a teaching and research focus on gender and sexuality in modernist narrative. I’m always looking for new ideas and approaches as an instructor, and I thought I would learn a great deal from a lot of very smart and experienced colleagues if I took on this project. But it also seems to me that the field of modernist women’s writing and feminist modernist studies is sort of on fire right now; several exciting developments have converged over the last few years that make me think that this is a volume that would find a wide and enthusiastic readership. Roundtables on feminist modernist studies, journals featuring special issues on modernist women’s writing, the launching of a new journal devoted to feminist modernist studies, and a general interrogation by feminist scholars of the directions taken by the new modernist studies and the place of women’s writing within that field—all of these are evidence, to me, that there is a need for this book and that perhaps its time has come.
I wanted to pursue this topic with the MLA because, as a teacher, I have found the Approaches and Options series to be incredibly valuable. (I recommend them to my students pursuing certification in secondary education and doing their own student teaching, too.) These volumes reach a wide audience, they feature pedagogical strategies and scholarship of high quality grounded in important and innovative developments in the given area of interest, and the editorial team is committed to collaboration with scholars from the query stage all the way to the prospectus in fulfilling the goal of creating the best books possible.
Did you always envisage it as a somewhat digital project, or is that a more recent development?
I probably would have used the digital tools and platforms I generally use in my work: posting material on my own blog, tweeting out the CFP and interesting developments, collaborating with fellow contributors to craft the prospectus in a Google Doc or something like that—all of which I am doing and will continue to do.
But I think I can safely say that the MLA Commons has transformed my thinking about this project. From the beginning, I was invited to work closely with the editorial team and the members of the office of scholarly communication to build the project’s site; I was able to provide feedback about the digital platform and help shape it into a space where we could develop the volume in public. This is an incredibly appealing idea to me, because it cultivates the content of the volume, but it also cultivates a readership. We can more effectively meet the needs of our potential audience, we can solicit feedback on the work we’re doing at every stage, and we can be responsive in terms of the resources we provide now and over the course of the project. As a self-described digital academic and writer, and as a teacher with training in writing pedagogy, I also really like the idea of working in public. MLA Commons gives me the tools to be intentional about developing the volume, about crafting a prospectus that will meet the needs of readers and contributors, and to engage with peers. In fact, the network feature of the platform signals to me that I am participating in a culture not only of transparent and engaged scholarly communication but also of collaboration—and it gives me the tools I need to be able to participate fully.
Why did you decide to make the process of developing a volume such as this more apparent? What do you hope to achieve?
What I hope to achieve is a better book than I might have otherwise, one that is responsive to readers’ interests and teachers’ needs. I hope to build not only an audience but a network of teacher-scholars with similar interests who can use the opportunity of working on this book in this space as a way to grow relationships with each other: imagine if by participating in this project on the Commons, contributors to the volume found each other and were able to come up with interesting projects and collaborations as outgrowths of this work!
Do you see an eventual (or existing) relation between your site and other digital modernist projects? Is there a digital modernist community?
There is definitely a digital modernist community—this community has emerged around the work of the Modernist Versions Project at the University of Victoria, the Modernist Journals Project and other work in periodical studies, the project Editing Modernism in Canada. Most recently, the ModNets initiative has been created to help support the digital modernism community by curating and aggregating projects, creating a mechanism for peer review, and offering technical support for digital humanities scholarship in modernist studies. As I’m using the volume’s site to share resources for teachers of modernism, especially modernist women writers, I’m trying to highlight those resources that speak directly to digital humanities methodology and pedagogy. Long term, I already have a number of potential contributors interested in proposing essays that use DH in teaching modernist women’s writing. Eventually, I would like to feature the work of those contributors prominently on the site, having them serve as resources and facilitating conversations with other digital modernist scholars. I can see that being a big part of this project as we move into the next phase of accepting proposals and crafting the prospectus.
Have you received any feedback about the proposal itself? If so, has it made you reconsider or reframe your project in any way?
The feedback I have received has been in the form of conversations with potential contributors about how they see their work fitting into the overall project. These conversations, happening even before potential contributors have begun drafting, have helped me refine the vision for the volume and clarify the goals for the project, as well as keep lines of communication open with possible future authors. In addition, the comments that have been appearing on posts on the Commons site’s blog have given me a good sense of the kinds of essays we need to make sure to include and have helped me see some gaps in the original proposal that I can start thinking about filling. The public nature of the process at this early stage—the willingness of members of the field to make their voices heard about what they hope to get out of this book—has helped me see how I can meet my obligations to both contributors and readers.
What kind of blog posts and submissions do you hope to receive? What kind of pedagogical resources do you think are lacking in digital modernist studies?
I hope to receive submissions that address a wide variety of teaching contexts, that engage the global nature of modernist women’s writing in English, and that evince the potential to (re)shape the teaching of modernist studies in the coming years. I’d be very interested in learning more about pedagogical resources related to teaching digital modernist studies and having submissions that directly address how we can use digital modernist scholarship in the classroom. I would like to see more work along the lines of the Teaching Woolf Online project featured on the ModNets site, for instance, or more explicit engagement with communities of scholars and students as exemplified by the Year of Ulysses initiative out of the Modernist Versions Project. In the Year of Ulysses, members of the digital modernism community were given a variety of resources to complement the new digital edition of Ulysses produced by the MVP: video lectures, Twitter chats, lots of ways to engage as a community, lots of ways to innovate pedagogically.
What kind of response have you received about the site so far? Have you had many submissions?
I have seen quite a lot of enthusiasm from teacher-scholars of modernist women’s writing and have gotten a number of really interesting queries. I look forward to a full in-box on or about 1 December!
How do you think other scholars might benefit from a process such as this, either for their own work or as commenters on someone else’s project?
I think exposing the process behind our work doesn’t always come naturally, but the benefits of doing so can be really profound. If you are hoping your book might make an impact on someone else’s work—his or her teaching, let’s say—then learning more about what your readers need or want, learning more about what would get them and their students excited, seems like a natural thing to do. If you are working on a collaborative project, like an edited collection, then giving all the participants a chance to join in the process from start to finish lets everyone involved feel a kind of investment and helps shape a cohesive vision for the volume. As an editor, I’m committed to giving contributors the opportunity to fully realize their work and to providing the kind of open and hospitable community the Commons offers, should they choose to take advantage of it. As a writer, I value readers at any stage of the process and would like to give my fellow writers the kind of constructive feedback I myself have benefited from more times than I can count. Being willing to expose your process means being open to feedback and benefiting from it—and maybe others can learn from your process in helpful ways, too, as they follow along. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson says, “[c]hance favors the connected mind,” and I guess I agree with that. The more open you are, the more likely it might be that good ideas, good collaborators, and good opportunities come your way. Another way to think of it might be the famous rule of improv: don’t think “no but,” think “yes and.” Doing this project on the Commons is my way of saying “yes and” to potential contributors, collaborators, and readers.
Janine Utell is professor and chair of English at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in narrative theory, modernist literature, and writing. Her research focuses on the study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century narratives of couplehood and intimate life, with a broader interest in the application of narrative theory and ethics to literary, visual, and digital texts. She is the author of James Joyce and the Revolt of Love: Marriage, Adultery, Desire (2010) and Engagements with Narrative (2015). She has also published or has articles forthcoming on film, life writing, and modernist studies in Journal of Modern Literature, College Literature, Life Writing, Literature/Film Quarterly and James Joyce Quarterly. Utell is also the editor for the journal The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945.