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Flourish: An Electronic Newsletter for Scholarly Writers February 2009

vol. 5, no. 2

In the north of Nigeria, hundreds of Muslim women are writing romance novels in their own language and publishing them through writers’ cooperatives. Although the books focus on the usual themes of romance novels—love and marriage—they also critique corruption and the restrictions of women’s lives. For instance, one centers on a Muslim woman who gets HIV through her husband and decides to separate from him after their daughter dies.

Local sharia authorities, claiming that they are concerned about how these novels may affect girls, have required all books to pass through the hands of censors before publication. This does not sit well with such writers as the twenty-five year old author of over forty books, Sa'adatu Baba, whose best-selling novel has sold tens of thousands of copies. She and others in women’s writing groups have contested that their books are chaste and an aid to women attempting to solve their own crises. Yet, the authors continue to struggle against censorship.

The moral of their story for scholars is not something simplistic. It is not: if you live in a free country, be grateful you do not have to hand your work over to censors. Why should we use the suffering of others to feel better about our own lot? Especially when more than one scholar has called graduate school and journal peer review merely sophisticated censorship? The moral is something more complex. What does it take to write and publish when no one attacks you? When those around you don’t think texts are dangerous, powerful enough to corrupt? When the stakes aren’t high, when your argument about Proust or DNA won’t land you in jail? It takes the ability to manufacture belief in your work through your own opinion of it. Manufacturing this belief is less dangerous, obviously, but perhaps no easier.

If you aren’t sure of your current writing project’s worth, maybe it’s time to debate its value with some friends. Their challenges can strengthen your argument and your commitment to it. If that doesn’t work, maybe it is time to develop adversaries. Traditionally, these are uncovered by trashing someone’s book in print or going on job market interviews. I recommend you pursue the former course. As the Hausa romance novelists will tell you, having enemies is overrated.

Buying the Workbook

To buy, just go to the Sage website. The Sage US site will not ship outside of North America, but you can buy from the Sage UK site to ship anywhere else. If you are in the United States, you can also buy the workbook over the phone at 1-800-818-7243 during business hours.

By the way, those who pre-ordered have started receiving their workbooks and folks can now write reviews of the workbook at Amazon

Using the Workbook to Teach Undergraduates

Jake Dorman, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas who participated in my writing workshop at UCLA, is embarking on an interesting experiment. This term he is using my writing workbook to teach undergraduates how to write research papers. He has posted the syllabus “History Thesis Writing Workshop” online (a model of a syllabus by the way) if you are interested. I am eager to see how it goes!

As I was writing the workbook, many kept recommending that I broaden it beyond the original audience: graduate students in the humanities and social sciences. Certainly, faculty regularly expressed interest in the book, as did graduate students in the sciences. But I always decided that broadening the book would make it too vague to help those whose struggles I knew best: graduate students and those faculty who still felt like graduate students because they had not published much. What’s been fascinating for me, however, is that this specificity actually seems to enable off-label uses, something I’ve known about ever since the graduate students in my workshop first started complained about their advisors “borrowing” my course materials and not returning them. So, I’m glad I stuck to what I knew and that those who know something else, like Jake, can extrapolate from it.

News from the Editor

It’s been snowing a lot here in New Jersey. Since I live on the edge of campus and don’t have to drive, I’ve been quite enjoying its sparkly brightening of the ubiquitous brown of winter. The term starts for us this week and I’m teaching Masterpieces of African Literature. Right now I’m feeling keenly the absence on my syllabus of all the wonderful novels and poems and plays I won’t have time to teach, but I suspect that feeling shall soon pass. Elaine Showalter’s wonderful book Teaching Literature keeps reminding me that the purpose of humanities teaching is not to transmit knowledge, but to enable students to make knowledge.