THE LIMITS OF THE COSMOPOLITAN NOVEL: MISSPELLING BARÇA…

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

The cosmopolitan novel, according to Berthold Schoene’s eponymous volume (2009), opposes both the novel limited by the national territory (whether it is nationalist or not), and the post-colonial novel, which questions the very essence of the territorial from a critical position. The cosmopolitan writer has been freed by globalization to write about any theme located in any place s/he fancies, albeit it’s important not to confuse the cosmopolitan with the global. The novel of globalization is still imperialistic and colonialist whereas the true cosmopolitan novel supposes that cross-cultural representation is open to all. We should expect in the near future Russian novelists to deal with Spain, or Indian authors to write about Japan, if you get the drift. As citizens of the world truly interested in other cultures. Fair enough.

The actual examples I’ve come across, though, have a good share of problems. Perhaps the classic case by now is Albert Sánchez Piñol’s novel La pell freda (2002), a peculiar tale which mixes Conrad and Lovecraft in a South Pole location, and with an Irish protagonist. The novel is written in Catalan but, as you can see, neither the setting nor the characters are connected at all with Catalonia. The impression the reader gets is that the book is a translation of a missing original in English, not because the Catalan language is misused (far from it) but because the plot is culturally alien to the language. I know this is an odd statement.

The cosmopolitan novel seems to be a growing trend in SF, or at least this is my impression after reading a while ago Paolo Bacigalupi’s thrilling biopunk novel The Windup Girl (2009, set in 23rd century Thailand), and more recently Ian McDonald’s ambitious nanotech novel The Dervish House (2010, set in 2027 Istanbul). McDonald might well be the cosmopolitan writer of the current SF wave, considering other works like River of Gods (set in India), or Brasyl. Bacigalupi, by the way, is American; McDonald, born in Manchester, lives in Belfast.

The Dervish House opens with a prologue in which McDonald explains how to pronounce the many Turkish names in his volume. I didn’t bother with this, as I would have needed, anyway, an audio file to understand the sounds. I braced myself for the necessary immersion in a doubly unfamiliar world for me: that of the city of Istanbul, and that of a near future saturated with nanotechnology. As I struggled with both the Turkish names and the SF neologisms, I wondered whether the author spends a few months on location before writing his novels or whether this was a Google kind of novel (the current equivalent of Bram Stoker writing about Transylvania in the British Library). I decided to trust McDonald on the accuracy of the Istanbul settings and the Turkish names, and let myself be impressed by his research. I was, however, thrown off this path by his mentioning, in the context of a remark on a football match to be played in Istanbul, my local football team, Barça, as Barca. Oh, oh, I thought…

As usual, I turned next to Amazon and, sure indeed, there was a reader, claiming to have been an Istanbul resident, bitterly protesting against McDonald’s bizarre handling of the local names and language particularities. He complained particularly about how a) mistakes could have been avoided with more careful editing, b) having Turkish characters speak English heavily distorted their cultural singularities. I understand what he means as, once more, I felt that the dialogues were translated (or ‘dubbed’). Another reader had started an angry discussion by arguing that since few local Istanbul readers or Turkish speakers would read McDonald’s book, the complaints were besides the point. So much for the didactic potential of cosmopolitanism.

There are, I think, diverse comments to be made here. One is that perhaps The Dervish House and similar novels are not really cosmopolitan but examples of globalization’s top heavy view of the world, still privileging English-speaking authors to ‘use’ the world as they please. Another is that the idea of the ‘exotic’ is not dying at all, despite the efforts of post-colonial scholars to show that it smacks too much of the colonial and the imperialist. Some would argue here that, simply, the cosmopolitan novel cannot really surface without globalization being completed, which would mean positioning all cultures at the same level regarding the ability to produce cross-cultural narratives. Either we’re all exotic to each other and say so, or we abandon exoticism for good on the basis that all human experience is, basically, the same all over the planet.

My conclusion, after reading The Dervish House, though, is that true cosmopolitanism should consist of making all local writing, in whatever language, available to all other cultures. It would be great to read a Turkish SF novel in Catalan. And invite McDonald to write an SF masterpiece set in his home town, Belfast. For, as Alasdair Gray claimed in Lanark, places are only made real, even for their own inhabitants, if imagined in books by those who live there.

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THE ANOMALY OF COPYRIGHT: THINKING OF FAN FICTION

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I’m congratulating myself for having given my students the chance to teach me –about fan fiction. I know about this phenomenon academically, meaning that I’ve read academic work on it. I’m not, however, a reader or a writer and, so, I delegated the task of instructing my Harry Potter class on the subject to those who know: eight wonderful girls students who gave us an exciting collection of presentations.

They covered plenty of ground: defining fan fiction as legitimate literary practice; discussing the thorny matter of copyright infringement; exploring its sub-genres, main themes and canons in general and in relation to Harry Potter; going into the murky depths of slash fiction; presenting other forms of fan production (musicals, vids, songs…) and even teaching the basics of fan fiction criticism –for, yes, fan fiction contains the abysmally bad but also the properly literary. All genres, as I always maintain, tend to form their own canons, as they confirmed. I contributed the word ‘acafan’, Henry Jenkins’s label to name the academic who has a fandom background, whether in community or in a more isolated situation.

So many ideas came up that it’s hard to select a few. I’ll start with the notion that fan fiction goes back to the beginning of the commercialization of culture and ties in with the later idea of copyright. As a student argued, Shakespeare was a fan fiction writer since his sources were never original and he did what fan writers do today: take someone else’s material and elaborate on it. Also, the same student pointed out that, on the completely opposite side, Cervantes was motivated to write the second part of El Quijote by the publication of the anonymous sequel, known as El Quijote de Avellaneda, which he loathed. Recently I published a post here about Pratchett’s Dodger which, technically, is also fan fiction.

Charles Dickens cannot voice an opinion about Dodger but living authors have much to say about what others do with their characters and ideas. Their reactions to fan fiction are mixed: some tolerate it (Rowling), others hate it (Anne Rice). This is because of the Romantic worship of originality and the ensuing Victorian capitalist idea of copyright. In the oral tradition that the Industrial Revolution killed off, anonymity was the rule and, in a way, it’s tempting to argue that the current flood, for it is a flood, of fan fiction is a backlash against these three factors I’ve named.

The rule that legal authors impose is always that fan fiction must not generate any money. Those who eschew fan fiction usually argue that they are annoyed (and even disgusted) by the idea that someone else may freely manipulate what they have so painstakingly created and so painfully published. I wonder, though, whether what is really at stake is the fear that someone else does it better: think again of Shakespeare outdoing any of his sources, and imagine him reborn rewriting any of our current authors. Well, he would not be able to do that and make a living as he did in copyright-free Elizabethan theatre –though, I know, he never published his plays worrying others might make an illicit use.

I’m not against copyright (though I find the idea of copyright inherited by the author’s heirs monstrous). I do want to keep the copyright of my own texts and limit other persons’ use of them to legitimate quotations. Yet, I’m beginning to consider whether the very idea of copyright is not in itself an anomaly, particularly when, at the beginning of the 21st century the generalised impression is that few things are truly original, most culture is recycled. I even heard reputed Catalan designer Claret Serrahima recently declare on TV that art is spent and the avant-garde dead.

In this context, the author’s wrangle with his/her own fans for only authorship and ownership may even seem fantastically narcissistic and even mercenary. After all, if I infringe Rowling’s copyright, I would not even be sued by her but by omnipotent Warner Brothers to whom she has sold her rights (or part thereof).

The strangest anecdote that came up was the case of Marion Bradley Zimmer, who was sued by a fan for plagiarising the fan’s own Zimmer-inspired fiction for a novel. The fan wanted no money, just that Zimmer acknowledged the plagiarism (she never did, claiming it was a coincidence that both had thought of basically the same plot). He also wanted to be credited as co-author on the cover of the novel when it was eventually published. The author decided instead to leave the novel unpublished, in limbo. And this is just one of the stranger, and stranger struggles we’ll see between authors and fans.

Finally, I enjoyed very much the manifest energy that fans put into theorising their chosen field. It is simply what we, academics do, with the difference that they receive no reward and are even mocked for their efforts (by those who fear to be called fans of Jane Austen or James Joyce).

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A CALCULATING WOMAN: PLANNING NEXT YEAR’S SCHEDULE

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

One of the main tasks I must fulfil as BA Coordinator is planning the schedule for next year. Calculations used to be simple: 1 credit was the equivalent of 10 teaching hours and, so, a full time, tenured teacher was supposed to teach 24 credits, 240 hours. My contract specifies that I work 37,5 hours per week, so if I multiply by 48 weeks a year (minus a 4-week holiday) the total is 1,800 hours. Deduct the 240 hours and I was left with 1,560 hours to prepare classes, do research and contribute to the Department’s management.

Then several things happened a few years ago. The new ECTS system was introduced. This means that for 1 credit students work a total of 25 hours, of which one third (5) is classroom time. Teaching 6 ECTS no longer meant for us, teachers, 60 hours but, oddly enough 50. Suddenly, those of us teaching 24 credits were teaching 200 and not 240 hours. Odd. My university decided then to add an extra ratio for each taught hour that would account for preparation, correction, etc, and, don’t ask me how, we ended up with a strange figure: 560 hours of teaching. For the first time, the size of groups was taken into account, so that teaching a compulsory subject to 70 students would count for many more hours than teaching an elective subject to 15. Fair enough (though I’ve never understood the mathematical formula that was applied).

This year my university has finally approved a formal scale to calculate our teaching hours which takes into account the Wert Decree of two years ago. The decree famously decreed that tenured teachers with Ministry-certified research should teach less, those with no certificates (I mean ‘tramos’) should teach more. My university has dragged its feet about this as, I assume, there must have been much pressure from teachers who didn’t to want teach more than 24 ECTS. I don’t know.

The question is that if you have three ‘tramos’ you are entitled to teaching only 16 ECTS, if your last ‘tramo’ has not expired yet you teach 24, but if it did expire you teach 28 for the next three years, hoping you’ll get it back. If you do no research then it’s 32. Now consider that the 28ers and 32ers are not supposed to teach, anyway, more than 240 classroom hours, the same as the 24ers.

Still with me?

Our Vice-Rector for Faculty is a mathematician. He has determined that in order to know how many hours we should teach we need to multiply our ECTS by 17.5. So, if you teach 16 ECTS, that’s 280 hours; 24 ECTS, then 420; 28 ECTS, that’s 490 and, finally, 32 ECTS amount to 560 hours. That’s the total teaching time, remember, including the famous 240 maximum presential hours, plus supervising BA, MA and PhD dissertations. Now add to this a second mysterious ratio which calculates teaching hours according to the size of the group. Your group is less than 20, then multiply your teaching hours (6ECTS = 50) by 1.5. Between 20 and 29, then by 1.7. Etc, etc.

So far, I have spent two gruelling mornings, calculator in hand, trying to work out a) how many hours each member of our staff is supposed to teach (we’ve been given a figure for the reductions each person is entitled to, but not the actual hours); b) the sum total of the teaching hours per person taking into account the figure for each group/subject. We have a computer application which simply shows the results of someone else’s calculations for the groups but not an application we, poor Coordinators, can use to calculate variations on the official figures.

The results? Well, same as without all the formulas, for we need to teach what we need to teach and without more staff there’s nothing much we can change. I forgot to say that MA teaching time is treated as if were BA teaching time…

Actually, with all those numbers in our hands, we can prove that most faculty members will have to tutor BA and MA dissertations for free. PhD dissertations are always tutored for free, as although the hours are eventually added, this does alter our dedication in a particular year. Take my own case: I must teach 210 hours (I’m a 16er and get a reduction as Coordinator), but my two subjects next year amount to 220 hours. I need to supervise at least two BA dissertations and 1 MA dissertation since both degree programmes simply need my help. That’s 35 extra hours…

All this si quite confusing but at least at UAB we’re still lucky that we have no computer programme clocking in our research and management time (well, for management that might be good). In other Catalan universities some bureaucrat has quantified in hours activities as impossible to calculate as writing an article. Or, if you care to know, preparing a lecture: one day it may be three or four hours, the next one 1 minutes (if you just check what you did last year).

We’re civil servants and should be accountable to the public for the hours we work, I know that. I also know that, somehow, my frantic use of the calculator is preferable to the computer doing the calculations for me –at least, there’s a human touch there. In the end, though, I’m not sure who all these numbers benefit.

Nor whether they do reflect at all our real activity, whether we do more or less than we should. That’s my main concern.

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THE WAND CHOOSES THE WITCH: A STORY FOR POTTERHEADS

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

If you’re not a Potterhead and if you find the idea of buying movie-related merchandise absurd, you will find what I’m going to narrate here simply silly. If you are a Potterhead, I’m sure you will love it…

When I started teaching the Harry Potter elective and about two thirds of my class declared they owned each a personal wand, I realized I should have to get my own sooner or later. My students explained they had purchased (for 40 euros!) the ‘official’ wand ‘belonging’ to their favourite character. In my case, as they all know by now, this is Sirius Black. However, as I told them, I found it impossible to choose his wand as I don’t understand myself my strong emotional attachment to this very tragic figure (I’m working on it). I decided to buy instead Luna Lovegood’s, a character I like very much, or, perhaps even commission a tailor-made one from a sculptor that sells his wares on the internet. I never checked what each wand looked like, just how much they cost and who sells them (the Noble Collection, “the world’s premiere designer and manufacturer of high end movie prop replicas and collectibles”). And I insisted to everyone who asked me that I would never buy Sirius’ wand, that was totally out of the question.

On Saturday afternoon my husband and I went for a totally improvised walk in Barcelona’s ‘friki’ triangle (Passeig de Sant Joan/Bailén/Ali Bey). We first visited the new Gigamesh shop on Bailén street. Next we wandered into Norma Comics and the first thing we saw was this display, with fifty Harry Potter wands. About half had the name of character ‘owners’ on them, not the rest. I checked Luna’s but didn’t like it much, and I spent about 15 minutes going through the whole collection, not seeing ‘the one.’

My husband eventually pointed one to me, “that’s the one for you”, and I feel in love with it at once. I didn’t care whose it was –that was my wand. What a beauty. After procrastinating for as long as I could, for I sensed what was coming, we asked a shop assistant whose wand that was. He said either Snape’s or Hermione’s. Good, I said, either is fine for me. He asked a second shop assistant, though, and in the minutes that went by I knew it: “It’s Sirius Black’s wand,” he said. I promise I got what I can only describe as an electric shock. My husband blanched. The kind assistant smiled a smile which said “we get this here in this shop every day.” I purchased the wand, the assistant congratulated me when I explained it was not a present but for myself. Here it is now, in a place of honour among my books, below the Harry Potter set.

I felt weird for hours, enjoying very much this magical moment (and I must thank my husband for sharing it with me to the full). This really is, he said, a case of the wand choosing the witch –we laughed much. When we managed to rationalize a little this odd ocurrence, he theorised that perhaps I had seen the wand before and my subconcious recalled it (I don’t think so). Or that, I like this better, the wand designer had perfectly captured the nature of the character and I related to that again subconsciously, which was why I chose the wand (or the wand chose me…). I really don’t know what happened in that shop. Can an object represent a character this well?

You may call it a simple coincidence and dismiss the anecdote as a very silly accident that only shows how childish an adult (me) can be. Fair enough. After all, here I am, investing much emotional energy in possessing an outrageously overpriced piece of high-quality plastic, which is, in addition, mass manufactured. Yet if you go down that road, the world is a dreary place and I prefer going up the other road: the one suggesting that last Saturday afternoon I enjoyed the most magical moment in my forty years of reading. I’m sure all my Potterhead students understand me. Also, if you own a light-sabre you will understand me.

I don’t want to miss the little irrational moments –for this are the ones which, happening very often back in childhood or in our teenage years, finally led us to become adult literature teachers. That they were elicited by Don Quijote or Hamlet, and not by Sirius Black, is to me just a slight difference, though it may be immense to others. It’s all about the magic of reading (and seeing films, of course).

The wand I share with Sirius does have magical powers indeed: whenever I look at it in the future I’ll recall the happy time when I taught ‘Cultural Studies: The Harry Potter Series’… and the wand chose the witch.

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THE MANY LIVES OF THE ARTFUL DODGER

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I have finally read Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012), a novel oddly marketed as young adult fiction and, yes, closely related to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I was going to write a post specifically on it but, when checking Wikipedia for more information (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodger_(novel)), I’ve come across a strange literary phenomenon: the recent resurrection of Jack Dawkins, a.k.a the Artful Dodger.

Dodger has appeared, according to IMDB, on 28 occasions on the big and the small screen, the earliest in 1912. As Wikipedia claims, the first volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), placed the Dodger in 1898 London, as Fagin’s successor in the business of running a gang of boy thieves. He must have been in his late 70s…

There is, though, a considerable time lapse between that glimpse of the Dodger and The Further Adventures and Life of Jack Dawkins, Also Known as the Artful Dodger by Alan Montgomery (2010). This has left no trace among Amazon readers, a sure sign of its low impact. Tony Lee published next Dodge & Twist: A Sequel To Oliver Twist (2011), which, despite being also little noticed is now, as IMDB confirms, in development as a film. In Lee’s story, a ruined Oliver and his former pal Dodger conspire together to steal the Crown Jewels (?). Then came Pratchett’s Dodger (2012) and Jack Dawkins (2013) by Charlton Daines, with a handful of positive comments on Amazon. Also in 2013 James Benmore published another Dodger, which, like Daines’s, imagines an adult Jack returned from Australia. Benmore’s novel has 22 five star reviews on Amazon.uk: either it is truly attractive or the author has 22 very good friends.

Both US and UK Amazon readers award Pratchett’s Dodger a 4,5 star rating (out of 5). The very negative opinions are about one dozen in total and include a terribly cruel voice. Pratchett is suffering from the worst possible form of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes any new book a little miracle. A displeased reader, however, has the bad taste of attributing the novel’s faults (in his view) to the muddled thinking caused by the disease. He even has the gall to call for the author’s retirement…

Dodger is a quite competent piece of ‘historical fantasy’ (the author’s own label). He stretches historical chronology quite a bit by having Queen Victoria already on the throne although Oliver Twist started publication in 1836 when her predecessor William IV still lived. Charlie Dickens, the street-wise journalist, could hardly have got his inspiration for his Dodger from the Dodger he meets in Pratchett’s London. Still, this doesn’t matter. Pratchett concocts a heady, delicious brew which I truly enjoyed. There is a scene when Dodger is measured for a suit by tailor Izzy when I had the funny feeling of believing I was reading a Dickens novel.

Also present in Dodger are Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Mayhew, Mr. Tenniel and even Sweeny Todd (in a very attractive character rewrite). And two discoveries: philanthropist Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts and Joseph Bazalgette, the civil engineer that tidied up London’s sewers. For Dodger, you see?, is a tosher here –a sewer rat, or scavenger. Pratchett explains that he actually got his inspiration from reading Mayhew’s massive London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2, four volumes), where toshers appear. Dickens himself was well-acquainted with Mayhew, both the gentleman and his work.

Even though Pratchett is undoubtedly Dickens’s disciple, if not living reincarnation, he corrects the master’s appalling anti-semitic bias by totally recycling Fagin. His Solomon Cohen is not a criminal but a refugee who has fled not one but many pogroms in Eastern Europe. He makes a living by repairing delicate mechanisms, the clockwork fancies of the very rich. He has good sense and good connections, from which Dodger benefits. Cohen is a more than a heavy hint that Dickens’ needn’t have linked Jewishness and criminality though, of course, if Fagin had been as generous as Cohen, Oliver’s story would have no point.

This leads me back to my own point: why Dodger? Sweet Oliver Twist is found to be too self-righteous, his story too sentimental. We prefer instead the Dodger’s in-your-face cool –who can forget his speech to the judge that condemns him to be transported for life (which Dickens seems to have borrowed from a real-life boy)? In Pratchett’s version there is not even an Oliver and the only focus is the picaresque adventure that Dodger’s life is. Or struggle for survival, probably the same. No rich Mr. Brownlow for him, though Pratchett does rescue, after all, the Dodger, by means of much more powerful gentlemen –maybe this is what has irritated a few readers. And maybe what won my heart is that Pratchett supposes Dodger deserves being rescued from extreme poverty because, practically out of instinct, he does the decent thing: rescue a battered wife from an appalling marriage. Poor Nancy, if only she’d been so lucky.

Sir Terry asks his readers to read Mayhew’s oeuvre –now waiting in my Kindle. What a challenge for a teacher of Victorian Literature.

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THE CLAPTRAP, I MEAN THE MOUSETRAP: IS THIS THE ULTIMATE POST-MODERN JOKE?

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Last evening I saw ‘La ratonera’ at Teatre Apolo, here in Barcelona, the Spanish translation of Agatha Christie’s very famous The Mousetrap. I am really mystified that this absolutely mediocre play, to call it something polite, is still on 62 years after its opening night. That is the real mystery and not what the plot narrates…

The Mousetrap, presented as a “comedy-thriller,” was judged a “middling” play in which “coincidence is stretched unreasonably” when it first opened at the Ambassadors’ Theatre (I’m reading the original Guardian review of November 1952). In 1974 it transferred to St Martin’s Theatre, where it remains –a tourist trap, as denounced by the 11 brave souls who dare say so on TripAdvisor (of a total 321 opinions: 142 excellent, 117 very good…). The author herself, Wikipedia claims, declared in her autobiography that she only expected the play to last for eight months at the most. Christie, by the way, presented her grandson Matthew Prichard with the rights to the play for his 9th birthday. He must be quite rich by now as the play reached its 25,000 performance in 2012, the longest uninterrupted run of any play anywhere in history.

Wikipedia informs that the play, originally a short radio play, was inspired by the real-life case of poor Dennis O’Neill, an orphan who died while fostered by a couple of farmers. Technically, The Mousetrap is a revenge play as the murders hinge on the efforts of the murderer to make those responsible for a child’s death pay for their cruelty and sadism. This is, from my contemporary perspective, possibly the only plot point worth commenting on (there is also a gay man, much laughed at, and a lesbian, less laughed at). However, not much is made of the sad issue of child abuse –for the simple reason that everything is as shallow as it can be.

I’ve never been a fan of Mrs. Christie, whom I find to be a clever but fairly mechanical writer. Here her plotting is not just mechanical but truly amateurish. Forget about the improbable coincidences, the glaring gaps and the utter failure to explain what the characters are doing in the small rural hotel where events take place. Let’s just say that someone who could and should have prevented a crime does nothing to stop the murderer, and that someone who should have declared their identity at once to the said murderer (and thus prevent not one but two crimes) remains silent. Appalling, really. (All plot details available from the published edition of the play… or Wikipedia, I wonder why they ask audiences to keep the murderer’s identity secret).

My admired Tom Stoppard wrote in 1968 The Real Inspector Hound, a parody of The Mousetrap. I read it long ago and have forgotten the details but I recall that the action progresses as two critics discuss the events onstage and are themselves trapped into the plot. It might not be the first case of the spoof being much better that the spoofed but I do wonder how come The Mousetrap has ever reached the status it has. John Thaxter has called it “a beautifully preserved example of a country house murder mystery, a throwback to theatregoing in the thirties (minus the matinee tea-trays)” (2004, http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/2406/the-mousetrap). In the usually very witty blog A West End Whinger, we are told that criticising is like “going to Madame Tussauds and being surprised to find that it’s crap.” (http://westendwhingers.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/review-the-mousetrap-st-martins-theatre/). Fair enough, it’s the same category of trash. Crap. Whatever. The odd thing is how abundant the positive criticism is and scant the negative voices.

Three years ago I saw an excellent Spanish production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with Josep Maria Pou in the title role. I wrote on it here, comparing it to Shaw’s Pygmalion, odd as this may sound. As I endured Christie’s trash yesterday I could not help thinking (very fondly) of Priestley’s 1946 masterpiece, wondering why it hadn’t been so lucky. In the end, as I said as the beginning, the real mystery is the very endurance of the play. A jealous Noël Coward congratulated Christie on her success but I wonder what Samuel Beckett and company thought all along (Waiting for Godot was first seen in France in 1953, in England in 1954).

There’s a joke I’m missing here, but it’s so ultra post-modern we might need Derrida to decode it… None seems interested, though.

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THE WARRIOR AND THE CIVIL/CIVIC NARRATIVES OF MASCULINITY AND WHY HARRY POTTER’S SUCH AN UNCOMMON HERO

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

One doesn’t read doctoral dissertations for pleasure, I’m sorry to say, but I have very much enjoyed reading Linda Wight’s Talking about Men: Conversations about Masculinities in Recent ‘Gender-bending’ Science Fiction (2009, http://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/11566/1/02whole.pdf). She had the very good idea of taking a selection of winners and nominees to the James Tiptree Jr., a prize awarded to SF with a progressive gender issues stance, and consider to what extent these texts were actually forward-thinking. The results are mixed.

At any rate, what interested me very much is that Linda Wight based her thesis on the idea that plenty of SF (and fantasy) is still focused on the ‘warrior narrative’ for masculinity, whereas in real-life the avant-garde, anti-patriarchal narrative is the one she called ‘civil’ and I have started calling ‘civic.’

I emailed Linda to check whether the label ‘civil narrative’ was hers. It seems it is. She kindly explained to me that she drew extensively from Ellen Jordan and Angela Cowan’s “Warrior Narratives in the Kindergarten Classroom: Renegotiating the Social Contract?” (Men’s Lives, Michael S. Kimmel & Michael A. Messner, eds. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998. 127-40). Paraphrasing her own explanation, it seems that the authors described how in kindergarten the ‘warrior ideal’ all little boys enjoy in games and fiction, is being replaced by a “masculinity of rationality and responsibility.” Linda mixed this with Carol Pateman’s ideas regarding fratriarchy as the actual basis of patriarchy and she came up with the ‘civil narrative of masculinity.’

Last week I discussed with my class the nature of Harry Potter’s heroism and why they dislike so much the final duel with Voldemort as (SPOILERS AHEAD!!) Harry does not use ‘Avada Kedrava’ to kill his arch-villain but very cleverly uses ‘Expelliarmus’ to have Voldemort, essentially, terminate himself. I argued, persuasively I hope!!, that although Harry is naturally inclined towards the ‘civil narrative,’ Voldemort’s rabid emergence and Dumbledore’s interested grooming (argh!) force him to take up the ‘warrior narrative’ if only until the threat is over.

He, thus, becomes proficient at duelling (I had to explain how important this pathetic practice had been in the past for men), the rules of which he happens to understand much better than the quite stupid Voldemort. Once the duel to end all duels takes place, Harry, as the epilogue shows, is happy to return for good to the ‘civil narrative’ and become the kind of hero Rowling loves best: a loving, caring family man. ‘Petty bourgeois’, yes, indeed, but thank god for that in a world of Hitlers, Stalins… and Putins.

I’m sure the ‘warrior types’ our there are disappointed –an Austrian student kindly explained to me that in his homeland many young men regard Harry a bit of a ‘douchebag’. Even my students (men and women) are a bit disappointed that Harry did NOT kill Voldemort. I am myself, however, quite happy that the ‘civil narrative’ dominated.

I don’t like quoting dictionaries very much, but I do need the Oxford Dictionary to show how ‘civil’ and ‘civic’ overlap and intersect. ‘Civil’ refers to citizens, as opposed to ‘military’ or ‘ecclesiastic’ (you get the oxymoron ‘civil war’ from that, also ‘civil law’). ‘Civil’, interestingly, also means ‘courteous and polite’, which goes very well with my pet idea that gentlemanliness should be brought back. ‘Civic’ connects more closely with the ‘city or town’, both its administration and the citizens’ duties and activities. ‘Civil’ and ‘civic’ refer, then, jointly, to active, non-warriorlike citizenship.

Back to Harry. I’ll argue that Rowling is to be praised for defending ‘civil’ over ‘warring’ masculinity. Yet, she falls short of defending ‘civic’ masculinity. Harry, poor thing, is too young to carry this immense weight on his shoulders. Yet a truly ‘civic’ man would have arrested Voldemort and demanded from the Ministry of Magic a complete upheaval of its very dubious justice system to guarantee just punishment for Voldemort. My students told me that a living Voldemort would escape Azkaban, start the Death Eaters again, etc, etc. Fair enough.

I just think we need that story in which the hero (and now I understand why Rowling thought of a boy, not a girl) undermines the patriarchal warrior narrative from the inside to replace it with a masculine narrative based on civic duty, that is to say, on the defence of justice on behalf of the community. That Harry has to accept becoming a killer (even though technically he’s never one) is a sad comment on his (and ours) society’s inability to trust justice –acknowledging here that justice in the world of wizards and witches is only marginally better than Voldemort’s injustice.

Thanks Linda!

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HIGH-FLYING PLAGIARISM: NO PUNISHMENTS, NO LIMITS

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

A friend explains to me that a tenured senior lecturer from another university has ‘borrowed’ her PhD dissertation –acknowledgements included– and submitted it as his own research for an award. How was he found out? Just by chance: someone in the judges panel had read my friend’s dissertation… This started a very paranoiac conversation about how many articles and books must be out there published twice or more. She added to her astonishing revelation that someone told her she was a high-risk researcher for potential plagiarism, as she has published plenty and her work is easy to find.

A quick Google search reveals that a) Germany is the country where plagiarism is taken most seriously (the minister of Education lost her doctorate for that and had to resign), b) in Spain the most common case of high-flying plagiarism seems to be committed by full professors unduly benefiting from their doctoral students’ work. I’ve come across information on two similar cases with a very diverse resolution. And it’s funny that I hesitate to name the culprits even though they should be shamed for all eternity.

In one case, the Spanish Supreme Tribunal fined a full professor (‘catedrático’) 5,000 euros for plagiarising his student’s PhD dissertation twice: for an article in a collective volume, and for a booklet. He also had to pay the judicial fees and, wow, the cost of publishing the sentence in a national newspaper. To my horror, he had been previously condemned for sexually abusing the same female student –but absolved. The fine in that case was 9,000 euros. The victim was told she had not made it clear to her supervisor that his advances were not welcome and that the actual offence was minor. He is still teaching. Fortunately, so is she.

In a second case, a male student denounced his PhD supervisor for having plagiarised in four occasions research produced during the postgraduate courses he took with this person. A problem in this case is although the student could prove that this teacher (another full professor) had been plagiarising his work since the mid 1990s, the university concluded that the four offences had legally expired (they did so after only two years…). The plagiarist, by the way, argued that the student’s work had been produced following his own teaching, therefore, the contents were also his. A sad conclusion to this case is that the student never found another supervisor and never finished his doctorate.

I’ve also come across many comments on the booming internet market for BA, MA and PhD dissertations –I remember reading once that this started in Harvard about 100 years ago, as soon as typewriters started being used commonly. In the case of bought research, technically nobody is committing plagiarism as the real author, the ghost writer, has agreed to charge a fee for his or her work. This practice might explain how politicians I will not name suddenly become doctors overnight, when, as everyone knows, a PhD dissertation takes about three full-time years, usually more.

Technically speaking, the person who has presented my friend’s PhD thesis as his own research has not committed plagiarism, as this consists of inserting text from unacknowledged sources in your own work. He has committed the cheekiest theft, of a kind I thought simply nobody dreamed of committing. Even though I know of a famous case in which a candidate for tenure submitted as his own the very report written by his board’s president for her state examination. In that case, the offender got hold of a text that had been circulating, it seems, anonymously, and he simply didn’t know who he had stolen it from…

When I hear of cases like the ones I’ve summarised here I wonder with what authority we can demand that our student refrain from plagiarising. In my Department we take this problem very seriously and we’re failing students for plagiarising parts of sentences, provided, of course, we can prove the offence. Now think of someone stealing a complete dissertation… Do I need to say more?

A last comment: we, researchers, have been told that an ‘open access’ policy guaranteeing the maximum visibility and availability of our work is the only way to go in our internet-ruled times. I’m going that way myself, with the web, Academia.edu, etc. Now it turns out this increases the risk of being plagiarised… Catch 22…

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THE TWELVE STEPS: HARRY THE HERO, A COMMON MISTAKE ABOUT WRITING ON HEROES AND A SCARY MONSTER

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

This week my friend Bela Clúa has visited to introduce my students in the Harry Potter class to the basics of writing about heroes. She spoke to them about how heroic narratives have been famously studied by psychoanalysis (Carl Jung, Otto Rank) and by scholars interested in myth (Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye).

Next she mentioned Christopher Vogler’s twelve-step break-down of the widespread hero narrative in his well-known The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (1992, see http://www.thewritersjourney.com/), inspired by Campbell and a must for any aspiring screen writer. She took Vogler’s twelve steps and contrasted them with the plot of Rowling’s series (I was thinking all the time of how Alcoholic Anonymous also uses twelve steps in their own heroic narrative…). They matched reasonably well.

Vogler’s own website offers a presentation of the twelve steps, accompanied by another list of in this case 10 steps for The Heroine’s Journey (adapted from the 1990 eponymous book by Maureen Murdock, a Jungian psychotherapist). The rationale behind Vogler’s steps is that since they appear so frequently in our myths and favourite hero narratives, a good knowledge of them will guarantee successful screen writing. After all, I’ll add, George Lucas knew his Joseph Campbell fine and look at Star Wars

This is a very common mistake. Jung, Rank, Campbell and company took an immense corpus of extant myths and stories (mostly Western) and extrapolated from them a series of (dubious…) universal features that seemed common to most. Something in the human psyche, they argued, makes us retell a similar ur-story in many different variants. Vogler applied this to Hollywood scripts and the sad result is that what used to be part of the mystery of being human is now reduced down to trite formula. Even worse is the mistake that stories that match the formula are derived from the formula, when actually they’re new blood added with great pains to the hero’s journey: see The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Star Wars, Terminator, The Matrix and Harry Potter.

Rowling is, then, telling us the ur-story that we know from so many other instances in a new way: Bela Clúa stressed how much the hero’s search for his own identity matters and the post-modern insistence on textuality in the construction of the characters. Rowling’s claim that Harry materialised in her mind all of a sudden on a delayed train has been resisted by my students who quickly saw that no 20th or 21st century writer can claim an absolute ignorance of the other heroic narratives. I joked that perhaps she had had a direct insight into Jung’s collective subconscious and maybe I’m not that wide off the mark. I proposed to my class as homework that they took Vogler’s twelve steps and wrote a story –they all saw this might most likely lead nowhere… without that insight.

So, suppose the insight theory is valid and, somehow, Jung help us, each new hero narrative taps directly into that mystical source. What the theory should also clarify is that, as Bela Clúa noted, the hero narrative is far from universal and has its own cultural markers. The clearest one is patriarchy for, as you can see, the heroine’s journey is narrated differently (by the way, it should be the female hero’s journey in current American-inspired parlance, for which a ‘heroine’ is just a female protagonist).

Many years ago as I did research for my doctoral dissertation on monstrosity (http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/4915) I learned about the oldest hero story: The Enuma Elish (ca. 1100 BC, perhaps earlier, Bronze Age), or Babylonian creation myth, discovered in the 19th century. In its thousand lines, we witness how the hero Marduk slays the ferocious sea female serpent Tiamat, from which later dragons descend. This combat has received metaphorical and allegorical interpretations but it’s clear to me that it is part of the Aryan and Semitic patriarchal religions onslaught against femininity, as Jules Cashford and Anne Baring argue in The Myth of the Goddess.

Still, the Bronze Age seemed not old enough. Thanks to Bruce Chatwin’s beautiful travel book The Songlines, about the myths assembled by the Australian aboriginals, I first read about the theories defended by palaeontologist C.K. Brain regarding how we stepped out of the predatory chain to become the hunters. In The Hunters or the Hunted?: An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy, Brain (1981: 266-274) concludes that the fossils found in the Sternfontein caves in South Africa hint at a correlation between the appearance of the first men and the extinction of a carnivore which preyed almost exclusively on hominids: ‘Dinofelis’, a big feline similar to the sabre-toothed tiger, which lived in dark caves and hunted at night.

There is no definitive evidence as to why and how Dinofelis disappeared; however, Brain’s hypothesis is that its prey learned somehow to repel its attacks, at first possibly with fire until a more aggressive defence brought the first death of the beast. This supposition opens the way for Chatwin’s speculations (1988: 252): “Could it be, one is tempted to ask, that Dinofelis was Our Beast? A Beast set aside from all the other Avatars of Hell? The Arch-Enemy who stalked us, stealthily and cunningly, wherever we went? But whom, in the end, we got the better of?” Or not…

Could it be, I’ll add, that the first death was brought about by a young prehistoric man of unknown origins who appeared one day to free the tribe from its night horrors? Could it be that this was Harry Potter’s original ancestor and that Dinofelis became somehow humanised once gone, first as female goddess Tiamat, later as the arch-villain –from Sauron to Voldemort?

Perhaps, just perhaps and speculating wildly, wildly, wildly if the hand that slayed Dinofelis had been female, the world would be a matriarchy (unfair or not, I don’t know).

But then, that’s another story.

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A WOMAN HERO WHO DESERVES MORE HONOURS: EMMELINE PANKHURST (AND MERYL STREEP…)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I’ve read back to back Frederick Douglass’ autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised 1892) and Emmeline Pankhurst’s memoirs My Own Story (1914), just by chance. The first page of her volume already shows how closely connected both books are, for Pankhurst (1858-1928) was the daughter of British activists and she writes that “Young as I was—I could not have been older than five years—I knew perfectly well the meaning of the words slavery and emancipation.” The American Civil War was her childhood school in civic values and she learned from the cause of the slaves what the cause of women needed.

Pankhurst (née Goulden, in Manchester) not only enjoyed the good luck of having illustrated parents that educated her in the struggle to achieve justice for women, but also the good luck of marrying a staunch feminist man, barrister Richard Pankhurst (24 years her senior). He was himself very active in the fight for women’s suffrage. A widow and a mother of five children –two of whom, Christabel and Sylvia became famous suffragettes on her own– Emmeline founded in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Led by Emmeline, suffragettes ran a ten-year campaign in favour of votes for women that today would be described as ‘low intensity terrorism’ (or kale borroka…) and which took many of them to prison (including men). Their hunger strikes were broken by methods that can plainly be described as torture. When WWI broke out, the WSPU stopped its guerrilla warfare (against property, never persons) to support the Government. Women were rewarded in 1918 for their efforts with the vote for those over 30. Those over 21 should have to wait until 1928, the year Pankhurst died, when women finally enjoyed equal franchise rights with men.

Pankhurst was included by Time Magazine in their list Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century (1999). She has been honoured in many other ways. However, as I read My Own Story and found myself appalled by the intensity of the misogynistic policies of the Liberal Party in power and of so many men during the suffragettes’ campaign, I wondered why Pankhurst’s political activism does not have a more prominent public profile. The word ‘suffragette’ does not bring the word ‘heroism’ to mind, but quaint photos of ladies in 1900s hour-glass dresses arrested by moustachioed policemen. In contrast, the IRA hunger strikes, not so different from what Pankhurst’s women endured and perhaps even milder, are regarded as the stuff heroes are made of (see Steve McQueen’s film on Bobby Sands, Hunger [2008]).

Ironically, as I wondered when someone would think of making a biopic of Pankhurst’s life, one had already started filming. According to Screen (February 19), Meryl Streep is to play Mrs. Pankhurst in a film scripted by Abi Morgan, who also wrote The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011, with Streep as Thatcher). Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) directs. The film is called Suffragette and it is not quite a biopic but a story focused on a young woman in the movement, played by Carey Mulligan.

I was going to write that, happily, Streep did not win an Oscar this year for playing the bitter matriarch of August: Osage Country, as she has better chances for next year. Yet, I’m not quite sure at all that a film with that title and written by someone who simply could not deal adequately with Margaret Thatcher is good news. I read elsewhere, I cannot find where…, that Streep is quite worried about what kind of accent Pankhurst, a Mancunian partly educated in France, spoke with. In the end, Suffragette runs the risk of reducing Pankhurst down to a challenge for brilliant Meryl Streep, which is by no means what Pankhurst deserves.

Also, though I’ll sound quite a misogynistic note here, the film is in the hands of a woman director and a woman screen writer, which means that it will be seen as a woman’s film and will fail, as usual, to attract a large male audience. I still haven’t seen Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta and written by herself and Pam Katz, and I don’t want to be unfair really. Yet, how come that already in the 21st century women heroes are still deemed to be women’s concerns?

One of the aspects that I have enjoyed when reading My Own Story is the evidence that many men, beginning with Richard Pankhurst, were active in the women’s suffrage cause. Emmeline describes brutal misogyny resulting in actual verbal and physical assault but she also names many acts of resistance to these shameful policies coming from men. In the end, men also fought their own struggle to give women the vote against other men (the recalcitrant patriarchs). I do hope that Suffragette does not forget to address the descendants of the pro-suffrage men in the audience for we need them (more than Streep needs another Oscar).

As for Emmeline, the best homage you can pay is reading My Own Story (614 downloads from Gutenberg, in contrast to the 15,690 for the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave).

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‘LET THEM INVENT!’: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF CSIC?

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

We live in the darkest times. As I wait for Putin to start WW III in Crimea, an article in El País catches my attention: “La caída de personal y financiación hace regresar al CSIC una década atrás” (http://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2014/02/24/actualidad/1393271163_538095.html). CSIC, the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, the sub-heading announces, has lost already 2,200 workers and will offer neither contracts nor grants (pre- or post-doctoral) until at least 2016. The article claims that having lost 32% of its state funds since 2009 and 49% of private contributions since 2011, CSIC will soon revert to 2007 levels. Only 2007?? 1997 seems more accurate, if not 1987.

More figures: total staff (end of 2012) 12,795 employees of which 3,034 full-time researchers (my university, UAB has 3,262 researchers, who also teach). 50,7% women researchers, 1,583 research groups. Average age: 53!!! No young blood, clearly. Budget: currently 453 million euros (731 in 2007…), as opposed to 3,415 (German Max Planck) and 1,530 (French CNRS). Publications 2007-2011: 49,873 (up 6% since 2012 in range A journals), not so bad in comparison with CNRS (54,200) but in embarrassing contrast to Max Planck’s 215,261. The Germans have 18 Nobel winners, the French 17, CSIC none. Principal problem apart from funding: researchers are tenured, too little hiring flexibility, too much centralization. Apparently, the scientific programmes run by the regional governments work better: CERCA (Catalan), Ikerbasque or Imdea (Madrid).

Unamuno’s famous boutade, “Let them invent!”, comes, according to Spanish Wikipedia from a long-lived debate (1906-1912) with pro-European José Ortega y Gasset. Unamuno wrote an essay for La España Moderna titled “Lo europeo moderno o lo africano antiguo… ¿por qué no ser africano como lo fue San Agustín?” in which the argument, I gather, is that some fuzzy kind of religious mysticism makes Spain essentially anti-scientific… The famous sentence comes, it seems, from a letter to Ortega (1906) in which Unamuno declares his anti-Europeanism. The idea is that rich Europeans invent and that we passively benefit from their inventions.

This idiotic stance has conditioned since then the work of poor Spanish scientists and, generally speaking, researchers, as we need to justify at each step why we do what we do. Ramón y Cajal, after whom the major research fellowships are named in Spain, obtained his Nobel prize for Medicine in 1906, the same year when Unamuno’s mysticism was razing to the ground the shallow foundations on which Spanish science lay. There’s some irony there. And tragedy as, unfortunately, Unamuno and not Cajal seems to have been since then the main inspiration for the successive Spanish governments. Perhaps with the exception of the few years back in the early 2000s when Spain even started to lead research worldwide (I’m thinking of Mariano Barbacid and María Blasco’s research on cancer at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas).

I do not know CSIC first hand and it might well be that its structure is in dire need of reorganization, that it is a house of Usher showing serious cracks. Rumours abound about its being a clumsy, slow dinosaur in our international world of fastest science (if my friend Carme Torras is reading me, maybe she can offer her own insider’s opinion…). What I know is that no institution, scientific or otherwise, can progress with reduced funding and the constant threat of annihilation.

Perhaps, in view of how things are, CSIC researchers should work on a single common project: bulding the time machine to fly back to the few pre-crisis years when their house seemed on the way to be, one day, another Max Planck. And when Spain seemed to be a European country capable of inventing and …of thinking.

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BEYOND COFFEE: WHAT IF…?

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

As I assumed it would happen, someone asks me what happens if during coffee with the teacher something else comes up. Actually she tells me her own story with an ex-teacher, now her romantic partner. This is my answer… the public one, the private is for her eyes only.

I was once a member of a very short-lived research project, Pedagogías alternativas en la enseñanza de la literatura y el arte, directed by Prof. Manuel Asensi, of the Universitat de València. We read René Schérer’s controversial La pedagogía pervertida (published in Spain in 1983) with the aim of responding to it in a collective volume. I ended up writing “Leyendo a René Schérer desde la óptica de la educación superior: Ambigüedades y silencios en la perversión de la pedagogía universitaria española” (http://ddd.uab.cat/record/113503?ln=ca). This remained unpublished after the group’s sudden ending and I never got around to choosing an academic journal to publish it. Pedagogy is not my field and I decided the article would not be welcome by the experts. Hence self-publication. Have a look, if you please.

Schérer defends the idea that pedagogy has been perverted by the politically correct readings that demonise as sexual all emotional contact between teachers and students. I extrapolated this to the Spanish university, a context which, in general, keeps silent about these matters. I argued in the article that I agree with Schérer as regards the need to find and maintain an emotional connection between teachers and students, beset as this inevitably is by power issues (I grade you, I have power over you).

However, as I wrote in my previous post, I totally detest the idea that teachers (usually male) may take advantage of that power to coerce students (usually female) into having sex with them. The additional problem with consensual sex in the university, the typical case of the 20-year-old pretty girl and the 45-year-old ageing male teacher, is that it may well turn out to be exploitative, without the girl (who’s no longer a minor) being really aware of the man’s serial abuse of his position for purposes which are purely sexual. Of course, the opposite case, the young girl who is a serial seducer of male teachers, is also well known though, to be honest, I couldn’t name one. And I’m thinking of a particular male colleague of mine, very popular among the ladies, who, poor thing, simply cannot ask any student for coffee as gossip would be impossible to manage –no matter how clear he made his position as a devoted family man.

But what if romance blossoms and it is in earnest? Let me begin with sex: adults should face the consequences of their acts and also be honest about them. If it happens, it happens but if there is any reason for it to happen beyond pleasure (say higher grades), then it is corrupt –not in the sexual but in the academic sense of the word. I insist that if a teacher realises he (em, she?) likes a student and this student requites, then the academic bond must be severed at once. As publicly as possible, for in these cases there is nothing worse than secrecy.

Let me continue with romance. At one point there were in my Department four male teachers married to female ex-students. First lesson: serious, long-lasting romance does happen but mostly on the basis of the clichéd May-December age gap, with no female teachers that I know of marrying (or living with) male ex students. And, mind you, the age gap needn’t be that big. Think Shakira (35), 10 years older than Piqué. But, then, she’s a very pretty, famous singer which is fine by younger men, it seems, a taste not extended to female teachers apparently. Or, perhaps one thing I’ll discover after writing this post is that there are indeed some Shakira-Piqué pairings in the Spanish university, though my impression is that the Flavio Briatore-Elisabetta Gregoraci model is more common (without the tons of money, I must say, but with the intellectual cachet).

I understand that every case is singular and that relationships that may seem perverse from the outside may be truthful and committed from the inside, no matter the age gap and the original setting of the first encounter. I’m not vindicated here, either, for God’s sake, female teachers’ ‘right’ to bed or marry their male students, for this can never be a ‘right’. I’m just wondering why both inside and outside the university the age/gender pattern of couples still remains so unchanged.

And, a final piece of advice, teachers don’t ask students for coffee if you smell trouble. Students: don’t accept coffee if unsure of the consequences. Or do it… for what is life if not trouble? Just please, please, please separate your new friendship or romance from your academic bonds and obligations as quickly as you can. Honesty, as in all, is the best policy.

Hey, this was fun to write. Now for the gossip…

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JO ROWLING: SOMETHING’S MISSING… (CALL IT THE BUBBLE EFFECT)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I’m preparing my lecture/seminar on J.K. Rowling, the author, for tomorrow and I have finally decided to turn to my blog, see if writing a post clarifies my confused thoughts.

The idea is to discuss with my students what kind of writer Rowling is from a Cultural Studies point of view, taking into account her personal identity, the material conditions of production of the Harry Potter series, the issues highlighted in her public presentation (website, Wikipedia entry), the rags-to-riches legend accompanying her fantastic success, the awards she’s collected… I have done this for many other writers but in her case something seems to be missing and I find myself in doubt as to what exactly.

I’m going to call this for the time being ‘the bubble effect’. See if I can explain myself.

To begin with, the comments by Rowling’s teachers I’ve come across portray her as rather average. She was rejected by Oxford University, which in itself might mean nothing but is beginning to make me see why she made Harry also an indifferent student. Also why, despite Rowling’s claims that Hermione is like her own girly self, you can see in the series how hard study is patronised and even despised.

Next, although Rowling claims she first wrote a story by the age of 6, the inspiration for Harry materialised in that famous train ride to Manchester when she was already 25, having tried to publish nothing in the meantime. The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out in 1997, when Jo was 32 already. She names among the writers that inspired her Jane Austen but nobody in the canon of children’s literature, which is the genre she chose to practice first. Odd, very odd.

With this I’m getting closer to what nags me: her lack of commitment to a genre. After Harry Potter, remember, she’s published only books for adults: a tragicomedy (her definition) and detective fiction (as Robert Galbraith). Writers do mix genres but usually with a greater commitment: my adored Iain M. Banks used to produce creative literary fiction and science fiction in turns; others produce parallel outputs in fantasy and the historical novel, or science fiction and fantasy, etc.

What I find odd is Rowling’s production of children’s fiction, then tragicomedy (?), now detective fiction… On the positive side, she appears to be a writer open to experimenting with different popular or middlebrow genres; on the negative side, she seems to be in serious trouble to find her real territory. I just find it very strange that after Harry Potter she has no more stories to tell children, except those derived from the series itself. Of course, the future will tell… I also find it very odd that after cultivating an intense relationship with a readership that, essentially, grew up with Harry she decided next to abandon them for the sort of adult that might enjoy her novel The Casual Vacancy. I myself haven’t read it, have no interest at all in reading it and would never in my life consider teaching it.

That’s what I mean by the ‘bubble effect’ precisely: Harry Potter seems isolated in the author’s career and in the reader’s experience. And this is hard to explain because there are not really similar cases. JRR Tolkien did not write The Lord of the Rings and next something totally unrelated. Even in the case of authors trapped by their creations, like Conan Doyle and his failed attempt to murder Sherlock Holmes, their inroads into other genres seem much more consistent than in Rowling’s case.

I think I’m trying to say that I find her career surprisingly inconsistent. After a phenomenon as gigantic as the Harry Potter series, perhaps it would have been best for Rowling never to publish again (as Arundhati Roy decided following the overwhelming success of The God of Small Things). Strangely, Rowling insists on publishing and even came up with the suspicious use of a male penname to start afresh without the pressure of public opinion. I say suspicious because I very much suspect she wanted to be found out.

I know that many writers in the circles of fantasy and children’s fiction were surprised by Rowling’s success, as others seemed much better writers. These voices may have been silenced by the very long list of literary awards she has received, though I have a nagging suspicion that these acknowledge her creating a phenomenon rather than her quality as a writer. Remember: she was awarded the ‘Príncipe de Asturias de la Concordia’ but not ‘de las Letras’. Just think how odd it would have been to award Tolkien the same distinction and perhaps you’ll begin to understand what I mean by ‘bubble effect’.

Now we’ll see what my class says…

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COFFEE WITH STUDENTS: THE IDEA OF MENTORSHIP

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I was having coffee with an American visiting scholar and a local colleague from UB, and, I’m not sure in what exact moment of the conversation, he asked whether we had the habit of taking coffee with students, meaning the teachers in each Department. My colleague quickly replied “no, we don’t” and I answered almost on top of her words, “yes, I do.” I didn’t get a chance to ask the visitor why he’d asked, but I assume he wanted to be given the ‘rules’. ‘Rules’ we don’t have, which is why the whole process is complicated.

I believe that there is room for friendship between teachers and students, and this often starts with a coffee. My own experience is that this first coffee can lead to personal, long-lasting friendship although there is always a little bit of mentorship in it. If only because of the obvious age difference and life experience.

This means that the teacher must always keep a little distance and, this is very important, never appear to ‘need’ the friendship with the student –this even sounds scary to me. We, however, are also human beings and, well, we do have emotional needs which may not always be under control. Let me clarify for the dirty-minded that I absolutely abhor the idea of sex between teachers and students as it involves too many power issues. If the attraction is there, and it is genuine, then it’ll have to wait until the pair in question no longer share a classroom. There, I’ve said it. Now, let the gossip flow…

My Department takes office hours very seriously and we’re always available for students. Mostly they come because they have a problem but I simply love it when the resolution of the problem ends in friendly conversation and, indeed, when they simply drop in for a chat. I like very much talking with my students and I must also say that I have to talk to them, because without a minimum communication with them the intergenerational connection would be lost. I really hate it when I have to rush or finish a good conversation because I have other things to do, usually far more boring.

The next step is obvious: whether a student is in my class or not, if there’s a chance of a more relaxed conversation over coffee I take it. At the university cafeteria for, as a rule, coffee elsewhere is best once the teacher is no longer assessing the student –in individual cases, I mean. I see no problem in meeting groups of students for socialising outside the university, though I realise that coffee or, even better, dinner with a whole MA class is much easier and comfortable than organising something with a handful of under-grads. Likewise, coffee outside the university with a doctoral student is a common matter, whereas meeting an undergrad needs, somehow, justification.

Here’s the tricky matter: who takes the first step. I think it should be the teacher. If a student in my class asks me to meet for coffee, this might be misconstructed as a form of undue flattery (or, em, sucking up to the teacher). This is also why I tend to ask individual students once I’m no longer they’re teacher. It’s not easy. Or I should say it’s particularly difficult with heterosexual boys –let me be honest. Girls and male gay students usually accept coffee with no second thoughts (sorry, I don’t know about lesbian girl students as I don’t know who they might be…). Boys, even when they positively know that the teacher, that old thing, cannot, surely, be after them, always hesitate a little bit… Unless they are post-grads with a good grasp of how mentorship works and quickly see the purely friendly reasons for the invitation.

You may believe me or not, but my habit is to invite to my office or to coffee students for whom I think I can do something positive. This is what mentorship is about. This is not about picking up the cleverest ones but those with whom good personal rapport may lead to enjoyable conversation and whatever I can do for them. I’m happy to receive in exchange a little room for communication, as the simple truth is that with my colleagues most talk is about bureaucratic matters –hardly at all books, films or things that matter outside the university. And, yes, in the end it’s for the student’s benefit as we teachers are very often asked to provide references for other universities, jobs, etc. Also part of mentorship.

I have no idea why the university is often so uptight and has so little room for socialising among teachers and students. Whenever I have seen the chance, I have asked my students to celebrate all together the end of the semester. We don’t have a place for that in my school and I use the classroom for partying, for which I’m frowned upon by the caretakers. So sorry… (not really!)

I’m SO looking forward to the final party in June with my Potterheads!! And, yes, also to the many coffees I intend to share along the semester…

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FIRST WEEK WITH HARRY: GLEE (AND WANDS)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I have started teaching my elective subject ‘Cultural Studies in English: The Harry Potter Series’ this week… and it’s been a very good beginning. I have around 50 students, of which 8 (I think) are auditors (non-registered students who get no credits); they come from BA degrees such as Translation or Anthropology and three are my own MA students. The Erasmus and exchange students have started arriving on the second day and all in all, this looks very good so far.

I’ve also added a new guest to my list of three so far: 1) a doctoral student of mine, Auba Llompart, writing her dissertation on childhood in gothic fiction for young readers; 2) a learned (Goth) colleague, Bela Clúa, who gave me the motivation I lacked to read Rowling; 3) Kika Pol, an MA student writing under my supervision her dissertation on the construction of secondary characters with a focus on Snape and, finally, 4) Jaime Oliveros, an MA student working on curses and hexes in Shakespeare –who has turned out to be a Potterhead!!

Here are a few funny moments. It felt very, very odd to announce that I’d devote a lecture to discussing house elves, with an emphasis of course on Dobby and Kreacher. I don’t know why but it’s the first time I’ve thought ‘my, this is weird’ –I need to think further about this. Just consider that I have already declared in public my infatuation with Sirius Black, as understanding it is a major motivation for me to teach the subject.

Then, trying to teach my students how to control their fan passion for the saga, I asked them to which of the four houses they belonged: Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Gryffindor. The idea was to teach them that a critical reader would question the very presence of the houses in the text, their imbalanced presentation, how Rowling encourages absurd rivalries, etc. To my surprise, they all knew which house they ‘belong’ to (yes, some Slytherins included). I, the supposed guiding critical reader, ended up taking not one but four online tests to confirm what I knew intuitively: I’m Ravenclaw (like Luna Lovegood). No surprises there, as I have Mulder’s ‘I want to believe’ poster in my office, Quibbler-style, and I’m known for studying hard…

Next came the wands… I had already checked where you can buy and how much they are with a view of getting myself one as a memento of the course (Luna’s, I think), but was put off in the end by the 35 euros they cost (I mean the copies of the wands in the films). I asked my students whether they owned a wand and I think 85 to 90% said yes… of course. I need to think on which day they can bring them… I told a colleague who’s not at all into Harry Potter or popular fiction about this and she was quite unsympathetic about students spending that much money on the silly wands and not on books. I realised it would be simply impossible to explain to her the attraction of owning a wand or, for that matter, a lightsaber (or my little Pikachu!).

I’m giving the students a two-week preliminary introduction to Cultural Studies before we plunge into the text. I can already see, however, what the main challenge is going to be: understanding the sheer glee which any comment on the series brings on. We had a moment of pure enjoyment when they named their houses, a moment that I’ve never enjoyed in connection with any of the literary texts I’ve taught. Uninformed onlookers might have mistaken that for childishness but, then, we’re all past childhood, I more than anyone else. It’s something else.

This glee does not incapacitate anyone to produce good critical work, as I know first hand but has to be repressed, so I need to walk a fine line between giving students the necessary academic training and giving them room to enjoy themselves. And I’m highlighting this because I thought that my main challenge would be dealing with the sentimental attachment to the text (which I do share).

Last year in my English Theatre class there were many intense moments and a certain ongoing impression that we were doing something transgressive, and fun, instead of boring ourselves silly with lectures. This year, and this is just the first week, I get a clear impression that, finally, students are dealing with a text that matters to them as part of their own private reading experience (the ‘finally’ is more theirs than mine). The Harry Potter series is, evidently, a text they do want to learn more about and I can see they trust me as a guide. This is thrilling, very, very exciting.

I will ask them towards the end whether other texts would have the same effect, for future subjects (Star Wars has been mentioned). Perhaps I’m the luckiest teacher in my university and, for once in my career, students agree 100% with my choices. I’m well aware, though, that it may never happen again.

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