University of Houston Associate Professor Margot Backus, a UT alumna, publishes second book
Posted: December 19, 2013
Dr. Margot Backus
In alumni news, Margot Backus, a graduate of the University of Texas M.A. and Ph.D. programs in English Literature, now a professor of English at the University of Houston, has published her second book, Scandal Work: James Joyce, the New Journalism, and the Home Rule Newspaper Wars, with the University of Notre Dame Press. Here, Dr. Backus answers some questions (edited slightly for publication) for us about her new book, her time at UT and its influence on her career, and her advice for current students.
How would you describe your main arguments and areas of focus in this book? How are James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and the journalism of Joyce’s day importantly connected?
My sense of the most important argument in my book changes from time to time, but at the moment it is that when British newspapers started to treat the sexual activities of people in influential positions in society as newsworthy, and especially when newspapers started to publish charges involving homosexual sexual activities, and to find their right to publish such charges upheld in court, a rapid shift began in how British readerships interpreted such scandalous, scabrous, or otherwise sensational charges. Prior to the 1880s, charges of sleazy sexual practices or simple lack of hygiene were widely understood as political allegory. When Parnell's Land League leveled accusations of homosexual activities at British officials headquartered in Dublin, I show that they were doing the same thing. And the big point is that this attempt to use sexual accusations to launch what was meant to be a transparently political and/or economic critique was, briefly, very successful, and it fueled the first surge of what is called "the New Journalism" in the British Isles, but the sex scandals in which the New Journalism often trafficked soon became ends in themselves, so that what had been meant to raise issues about power relations between social groups, cultures and classes got lost in the new morally sensational treatment of sex itself. I examine how James Joyce was shaped by having grown up right at the epicenter of the specific events that led to Irish nationalists starting to use sex scandal as a political weapon, and how he repeatedly alludes to the series of sex scandals that (mostly disastrously) affected Ireland's late-nineteenth century struggles for land reform and home rule. I also examine in much more detail than has been done how central Oscar Wilde is to Joyce's work, and how closely Joyce identified with Wilde, which I think is much more visible when one realizes that for Joyce, Wilde's trials and incarceration weren't the beginning of a new reign of terror regarding homosexual men in England, as they are often read within, say, British masculinity studies or critical sexuality studies, but rather as the culmination of earlier, specifically political sex scandals that became less and less about class, gender, and social relations, and more and more about sex scandal for its own sake, with particularly dire implications for homosexual men, and for women.
Did your graduate work at UT influence your fields of specialization? How?
My graduate work at UT has never ceased to influence my fields of specialization. I got plugged in to Irish studies, both in the US and in Ireland, while I was still in graduate school, and Irish studies has continued to be a nurturing base of operations for me throughout my entire career. I have also stayed closely connected to queer studies throughout my career, recently having the honor to give a plenary address at the first Irish queer studies conference to be held in Ireland. My work in ethnic and Third World theory has informed and energized my work, as well as broadening my sense of who I am in dialogue with, and who my readers might be, throughout my career, and recently it has continued to shape my work as, along with several of my colleagues at the University of Houston, including Hosam Aboul-Ela, another UT alum, I have been working to establish a certificate program in empire studies within the University of Houston department of English.
What form has your career path taken starting in your time at UT as a graduate student and after graduating?
My first job was at Saint John Fisher College, in Rochester, NY. I was at Saint John Fisher for seven years, and it was a fantastic first job where we all taught composition and worked very closely together as teachers and colleagues. I moved to the University of Houston so that my UT-alum partner, Steve Tennison, could be back in his home state, and so that I could teach in a graduate program. I landed the UH job for a British modernist on the strength of the work I was starting to do on James Joyce; the work I had done on Virginia Woolf at UT under the direction of Liz Cullingford, Jane Marcus, and Ann Cvetkovich; and my work on Radclyffe Hall, Elizabeth Bowen, Djuna Barnes, and Samuel Beckett.
What are you working on currently? What has been grabbing your interest lately?
I am currently, with Joe Valente, co-writing a book on Irish literary engagements with sex scandals as seen through the eyes of juvenile protagonists — there are surprisingly many of them. Joe and I started writing stuff on children in Joyce several years ago. The psychoanalytic model we adopted, drawing on the work of French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, has proven incredibly useful for accounting for how the individual subject's first encounters with the sexual — something incredibly powerful, yet frightening, shameful and unspeakable — are potentially translatable into public sentiment via scandal. And we are now very interested in ways that Irish authors seem to have been aware of the ways scandal, especially sex scandal, can shame and frighten whole populations into accepting social dynamics that, in retrospect, appear blatantly cruel, even evil, and how these authors have used literary representations of children to show readers familiar scandal scenarios from a defamiliarized, morally neutralized angle. We think that in addition to the enormously courageous work of the major social movements propelled by Irish feminists, LGBTQ-rights activists, trade unionists and republicans, socialists, immigration rights activists, environmentalists and others, Irish literature itself has been quietly but persistently pushing forward alternate views of sexual ethics that eventually helped to neutralize representations of children and women which had made the systematic abuse of them invisible and therefore inevitable.
Do you have any advice for current English graduate students whose goal is to attain an academic career at a college or university?
I still really like the advice I gave when I was asked this when I was leaving UT: "Squeal when stepped on." Also, reach out to others with similar passions — build a network, but build it based on desire, kinship, shared investments. Aim for interesting shared discovery. When I was completing my dissertation, I got to a place where I was so worried about whether my dissertation would be "the best," since I was convinced that only "the best" would get a job, that I had lost all joy in the process. Then one night two bluegrass musicians I revere were playing at a local club and they were absolutely mind-blowing. They both played numerous instruments, and they were both absolutely brilliant, enlivening artists, and I realized as I listened that it would be absolutely idiotic to ask which of them was "best." And I realized at the same time that to aim to be "the best" is deadening, but that instead I needed to aim to do work that is enlivening rather than deadening, which is both easier to do and also, truly, vastly better to do. So, make time to do things that put you in touch with joy, that remind you what you most value, and align your work with that. And if the job market continues to shift further and further toward adjunct jobs and away from tenure-track positions, know very clearly that it is not about you, and bear in mind that in a survey of literature/language PhDs, those who took jobs outside of the academy were, on average, considerably happier than those who got tenure-track jobs.