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Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Becky Richardson

two hikers on a hill
Pictured above: Becky with her sister and her mom's dog

By Emily Polk

Becky Richardson teaches much beloved PWR classes on the Rhetoric of Empathy and the Rhetoric of the Confession. She also serves as the Art and Art History Writing Specialist and is well known for nurturing the PWR community with her warm and generous spirit, her participation in writing groups and her advocacy on behalf of our health and wellbeing. With a Stanford Ph.D. in English, Becky draws much of the inspiration for her work from nineteenth-century British literature, and all of it connects in compelling and sometimes surprising ways to current questions about gender, power and health today. In the following conversation, Becky talks about her current scholarly projects, and the relationship between her writing, research and teaching. 

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about any projects you are working on now?

Becky: The core project I’ve been working on -- from the dissertation proposal in 2009 to the much-revised book project now -- is on the representation of ambition in the Victorian era. While our wider culture, maybe especially in Silicon Valley, tends to think of ambition as a good thing, the Victorians were responding to earlier debates about the value and dangers of this drive. There’s a great history of ambition in the Anglo-American tradition by William Casey King, who tracks the drive’s progress from, as he puts it, “vice to virtue.” He traces the “vice” of ambition back to the sixteenth-century Geneva Bible, and especially to the annotations that accompanied the text, where ambition is associated with Satan’s rebellion as well as Adam and Eve’s fall. It’s not till Francis Bacon imagines how one might harness ambition for good ends that, King argues, the tide turns. But ambition is still a two-sided drive by the Victorian age -- even if for a newly emerging set of reasons. Like how exactly self-interest or ambition works in an economy: does everything work out to a positive-sum game via competition and the “Invisible Hand,” or is it a struggle over limited jobs and material goods? And what toll does ambition take on a person: is it what defines and makes the individual, or does the individual lose herself in an all-consuming pursuit? Zooming out, what do these individual ambitions mean in the larger context of British colonialism and empire?

In the project, I suggest that self-help books played a key role in regulating and directing these ambitions. Self-help books were immensely popular with Victorian readers. Samuel Smiles’s 1859 Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance Self-Help sold 20,000 copies in the first year and over a million in Smiles’s lifetime. (By comparison, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, also published in 1859 and by all accounts a critical success, sold 16,000 copies in its first year.) And Self-Help was widely adapted and translated, with editions coming out around the world, from Japan to India. These books are full of mini-biographies that hold up really unbelievable examples of hard work and perseverance in everything from business to the arts -- stories of (mostly) men working two jobs or studying half the night or generally sacrificing everything to a passion or pursuit. This is a very different vision of ambition than we get in the Victorian novel, where such all-consuming passions tend to be the stuff of villains and criminals, from Uriah Heep to Becky Sharp. So I’ve been interested in looking at how very different these visions of ambition are, but how both point to concerns with the limits to ambition – in an individual, in a society, and on a finite planet.

I’ve been working on this project for a long time, and with a lot of gaps! So I’ve also taken up some related, and some not so related, side projects. The biggest of these is around the rhetoric of health in thinking about human populations, environments, and economies. My hunch is that our ideas about “health” in the west must have developed with some overlaps in the nineteenth century, as medicine, science, and economics were emerging as disciplines and/or professionalizing.

My most recent side project, though, and so the one I’m most in love with, is on adaptations of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I’m interested in how adaptations have dealt with the character of Becky Sharp. In the novel, her character is the subject of a lot of scandal, with the narrator and other characters wondering if she committed adultery or not, or even if she murdered another character or not. In the novel she gets to occupy that line -- like Schrödinger’s cat, both dead and alive. But most adaptations veer toward making this character “likable.” After Mira Nair’s 2004 film, Robert Gottlieb complained  that “Playing a possible murderess was never in the cards for the eternally adorable Reese Witherspoon.” Roger Ebert proclaimed her version of Becky Sharp more -- perhaps even too -- “likeable.” Gwyneth Hughes’s 2018 miniseries (available with Amazon Prime, and featuring a very appropriate use of Madonna’s “Material Girl”!) has come in for similar critiques. One Guardian reviewer complained that Becky Sharp is made “warm and relatable.”  After 2016, all these discussions of an ambitious woman’s “likability” and “relatability” make me think of “electability.” Confronting such parallels head on, Kate Hamill’s 2017 theatrical adaptation has Becky Sharp declare “Everyone knows I am a nasty woman.”

Q: You’ve just given us a glimpse into a few extraordinary projects, all of which have roots in the past, but speak in really tangible ways to our current socio/political moment. What inspired you to pursue this current work?

Becky: I work on older texts, but I find everything I work on either starts with a contemporary question or finds it along the way. I’m interested in ambition and competition in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, in the midst of the “gig” economy, and in the context of Silicon Valley. I’m alarmed at how the health of the environment has been pitted against the health of the economy. And I’m interested in how we might use a Victorian story about an orphaned upstart to think about gender, power, and “likability” today.

Q: What are the biggest challenges and rewards you've faced so far? How have you navigated them?

Becky: Some of the most rewarding moments have come with sharing the work in conferences or work swaps. Especially with this long project, it’s been easy to fall in and out of love, depending on how the writing is going. So having the opportunity to see what others find interesting helps reignite that spark. Having a writing group that’s spanned the decade, and good friends (including in PWR!) who’ve read so much of this work, have made all the difference. As I’m always preaching to my students, writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum!

Q: Can you tell us how your research connects to or inform your teaching? 

Becky: I’m always sharing my own experiences of writing with my students – how hard it can feel to reformulate your approach when you discover someone else has written exactly the argument (or book) that you thought you were going to write. The way you can write pages and pages only to find a week (or years) later that none of them fit your core argument. The joy of writing and writing and finally figuring out what you want to say. And how we need the occasion of writing for an audience beyond ourselves to know ourselves. I’m always thinking of this quotation from Foucault’s “Self-Writing”: “To write is thus to ‘show oneself,’ to project oneself into view, to make one’s own face appear in the other’s presence.”

Q: That is a really powerful quote. I had never heard of that one before. I am interested in hearing more about how you negotiate your work-life balance—not that work is separate from life as you show us here. But do you have any tips, suggestions, best practices for those of us working full time, teaching full time, writing full time, trying to remain a little sane full time? 

Becky: Spending so much time with Victorian self-help books has really made me push back against a lot of their (and our own moment’s equivalent) messages about the need to constantly work toward something or hack our way into greater productivity. And yet, there’s something about those messages that are super sticky. After all, they’re responding to real problems in our culture and economy: the lack of work-life balance! As a sort of compromise, I want to think that we can adopt such advice critically and to our own ends.

Samuel Smiles in that 1859 Self-Help is big on taking advantage of “odd moments.” In the past, when I’ve had class meetings with an hour lunch break, I’d use half the time to do a “sneak attack” on whatever project I had going – whether reading an article or revising a page or two of a draft. I also really appreciated having an advisor once tell me that any work I did toward a project – even if I could only find fifteen minutes that day – was good work. And that it would add up to something. I find that, much like my students, I mythologize big blocks of time – if I only had a full afternoon, or a full week, or a full year to work on something, then it’d be amazing. But life, teaching, and conferences also have to happen! And really, I’m not sure where I’d get inspiration to write without all those.

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