RESPONDING TO ‘THE ACADEMIC MANIFESTO’ (BY HALFFMAN AND RADDER): SHOCK AND AWE

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

My colleague David Owen has circulated among us, Literature teachers, a juicy article by Dutch professors Willem Halffman and Hans Radder, “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University” (Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 3 April 2015, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9/fulltext.html). This is a very bitter indictment of the intrusion of what they call ‘management’ and I call ‘bureaucracy’ into the university, clearly far more advanced in the Netherlands as regards the occupation of our professional world by private corporate interests than in Spain. They call for the counter-occupation of the university and its transformation into a real ‘public university,’ by which they don’t simply mean ‘state-sponsored’ but working to benefit the citizens. I’ll refer here extensively, then, to the article and try to answer back in some way, from a different yet similar (Spanish) university context.

Halffman and Radder offer a very through dissection of the negative effects that the “regime obsessed with ‘accountability’ through measurement, increased competition, efficiency, ‘excellence’, and misconceived economic salvation” has forced into what should be an institution geared at the production and dissemination of knowledge for the common good. The saddest part of this catastrophe is that, as they show, we all contributed to letting the Wolf in about 25 years ago when the younger generation decided to do away with the sluggish ivory-tower university and show to society what we are capable of. Since, basically, society still thinks we live in that old-fashioned ivory-tower, we have allowed their delegates, the bureaucrats (who hate us for the supposed ‘privileged’ nature of our jobs) to control our production and, frankly, to limit our capacity for thinking. How? Well, by turning us, as Halffman and Radder explain, into sheep who meekly obey all the absurd regulations imposed on us for the sake of hanging by the skin of our teeth onto the possibility, more and more remote, of producing knowledge, as it is our vocation.

From their comments, I understand that the Dutch university is far more privatised than the Spanish university, as we still run, basically, ourselves our own institutions, despite the growing control by external forces, like the ‘Social Councils’ (not to mention the companies funding research). Anyway, here are six “excesses” they identify, quite familiar too (mostly) here in Spain, followed by my comments paraphrasing their words:

1. “Measurability for accountability”: we need to produce, produce, produce to keep up with changing indicators that only result in an “illusion of excellence”; so much over-production leaves with no time to actually read and think.
2. “Permanent competition (for ‘quality’)”: this is a mechanism devised to keep everyone on their toes, for it is easy to see that knowledge is generated by collaboration and networking.
3. “The promise of greater ‘efficiency’”: Competition increases (rather than decrease) the cost of running the universities as we waste time and resources vying with each other for students and funding.
4. “The adoration of excellence: Everybody at the top!”: rather than help many to do research, top researchers get more and more resources, leaving nothing for the rest (nor for discredited, cheaply-funded science)
5. “Contentless process management”: the bureaucratization of the university means much more work for teachers/researchers, who become admin servants
6. “The promise of economic salvation”: the universities lose their autonomy in research by following the orders of the private companies that fund projects; non-profit-oriented fields, from philosophy to mathematics, are dismissed as a financial burden.

We, Halffman and Radder write, have internalised the Wolf and feed it by, I’ll add, living to fill in our C.V.s rather than to transmit knowledge. Yet, since we lost long ago the support of society, to a great extent because of the many indolent ivory tower inhabitants, there’s very little we can do to explain our plea and gain sympathy. Nobody cares. How, then, do we change matters? The authors of the “Academic Manifesto” suggest up to 20 measures, actually 21 as they also support Pels’ (2003) call to replace “the publication rat-race with more meaningful, slower-paced and more considerate research.” Publish, in short, only when you have something to say and after carefully thought out research. Anyway, the 20 measures are (quotation marks for verbatim citation, otherwise my paraphrasis):

1. An administration style open to academic staff, students and supporting staff (we do have that at UAB, yet the impression is that most decisions are made by higher instances…)
2. The administration supports the staff, and not the other way round (we justify the work done by the bureaucrats); also, point 9. the university administration must be accountable to the academic community and not vice versa
3. “Limiting wasteful control systems” (self-explanatory–consider all the resources wasted on checking what we do, and how they punish those who work harder)
4. “A ban on mergers”: currently happening in Spain at Department and ‘Facultat’ levels, though not yet at a university level; we have the opposite problem–too many universities.
5. A less intensive focus on our own institution, a more open vision encompassing all local universities; this is complemented with 6. “No wasteful competition between universities”
7. “A ban on university marketing” to attract students, followed by 8. using the university media to transfer knowledge to society, not for our own marketing
10. “No real estate speculation”, think of the universities in Barcelona occupying areas in central locations and gentrifying them…
11. No top researchers allowed not to teach (fine by me, but also limit teaching so that whoever wants to do research can do it); accompanied by 15. Rejecting ‘productivity’ as the main “research assessment criterion” and, this is a good one, 16. “Introducing the Sabbatical Year” so that once every 7 years we can stop, read and think.
12. “Free education” but also 13. a limitation of student population so as not strain public resources and 14. promoting “vocational training” as a professionally attractive alternative to the university.
17. Freeing research from its bondage to content-oriented interests, both in production and assessment (18), which also translates as giving researchers time to follow long-term lines and not only projects with immediately applicable results.
19. Make society both a partner and the target of our activities, by 20. establishing an open access system to distribute knowledge.

Now, here’s the problem–what do you do if the managers/bureaucrats and society do not care for any of the above? Halffman and Radder call for “resistance” and “shaking off our fear”, yet what they offer sounds often like desperate measures: 1. leaving the university, 2. legal action, 3. “Muddling through” and even “work-to-rule,” 4. sabotage, 5. collective refusal, 6. trade unions, 7. mass demonstration, 8. establish contra-indictors as counter-measures (and disseminate knowledge about our real working conditions), 9. striking, 10. occupying the university, 11. parliamentary and political action. Working, as I do, in a ‘Facultat’ (or school) were 9 and 10 are recurrent but totally useless events, I can only proclaim my scepticism. Also, in view of the fact that more than 50% of our staff are temporary workers and those of us who are tenured are gripped by our… throats by a system that has frozen our salaries and only offers tiny inducements by passing assessment exercises (or the very unlikely chance of promotion to full professor). Actually, it occurs to me that the full professors, the ‘catedráticos’, are the only ones in a position to lead the resistance that the “Academic Manifesto” calls for. So, if any of them is reading me…

In the meantime, here’s reality: one of my most brilliant students announced to me today his intention of moving to Denmark, where the Government funds post-grad students, including the foreign ones with a nice student’s record. When I showed my sadness that his leaving would only contribute to enhancing the current Spanish brain drain, he could only answer to me that he sees no future in Spain. So–why don’t we ask the Danes?

Resistance may not be totally futile but when have the sheep ever banded to eat the Wolf? I think of Naomi Wolf’s (oops!) description of the ‘shock and awe’ doctrine to keep whole populations subjected to the current appalling political and economic regime, and I think this is it–we’re too shocked by and in awe of the Wolf.

Anyway, thanks Willem Halffman and Hans Radder for the effort and, above all, the call to amass and use courage.

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A PECULIAR CHALLENGE: MAKING SENSE OF LOCAL MASCULINITY…

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I was approached a while ago by a Danish colleague who explained to me that she would bring to Barcelona a group of undergrad American students, as part of their Study Abroad programme. She asked me for help regarding gender issues in Spain, as her students will be dealing with these during their stay in Barcelona (she contacted me as a member of the research group in Masculinities Studies I belong to).

To my horror and consternation, though, the Danish website describing my city and the tour intended for these students was full of appalling clichés, running from Hemingway (in Barcelona??) to bull fighting (forbidden by Catalan law…), the whole stereotypical rigmarole. Quite indignant, I volunteered to lecture the students on condition that the offensive text be replaced. I’m meeting them next week–and I’m using the post today to start drafting my presentation… (the clichés are still online… I wonder whether their rephrasing depends on what I’ll say).

I need to teach these young American students in which precise way Spanish masculinity differs from old-style ‘machismo,’ whether Catalan masculinity is different in any way from that of other areas of Spain, the role that men play in current debates on gender equality all over Spain and, finally, whether our reputation for being a women-friendly state (remember Zapatero’s Government?) is still extant. A tall order indeed… It is very difficult, believe me, to know where to begin. I have asked the American students to come to my lecture having previously made a list of features defining American masculinity. A challenge, I know!, for both of us.

I’ll start with possibly the easiest part: clearly, Zapatero’s Government was more favourable to women than the current Rajoy Government. It’s not just a matter of how many women Ministers Zapatero appointed (50%, which prompted male chauvinist Berlusconi to joke this was a ‘pink’ Government), but of a general attitude towards women’s rights. Just this week, several prominent members of Partido Popular, some in the Government, including the current Health Minister, have insisted that abortion is not a right and have announced that they intend to remove any references to that word in the new legislation on this issue, so crucial to women.

Soraya Sáez de Santamaría and María Teresa Fernández de la Vega may have both occupied the position of Vice-Prime Minister, but I cannot imagine two more different women. This does not mean that we need to get suddenly nostalgic of Zapatero’s Government as not that much was done for women, and much more could have been done for gender equality in general. Some of the steps taken, for instance the legislation to diminish the burden of caring for dependants in the home by women, were not solid enough and have been swept under the carpet with the excuse of the 2008 crisis. We all certainly have much to do in that sense.

I do not know how to translate Miguel Lorente’s wonderful slogan to encourage men to fight patriarchal violence: “No basta con arrimar el hombro, hay que arrimar a los hombres.” Lorente, a forensics specialist familiar with the bodily harm endured by women in the hands of patriarchal abusers, is the author of Mi marido me pega lo normal (2001). He has also been the Government’s Delegate (2008-11) in charge of running the anti-violence programmes devised by the Socialist Ministry for Equality. The title of his volume defines, I believe, the enormous change in the matter of couple-related violence seen in recent decades in Spain. This kind of violence, as the shocking title expresses, was assumed to be a normal part of marriage, both by men and women. The fact that it is no longer so is what, paradoxically, gives us the impression that there is more violence, when, actually, this is decreasing. Its relatively new visibility is, I believe, a sign of the diminishing tolerance. Again, this does not mean that all men are doing their bit explicitly against anti-patriarchal violence. And, yes, yes, we need to deal with the matter of men’s victimization by their female and male partners, even if this is only 10% of the total couple-related abuse.

I think that in order to understand how deeply Spanish masculinity has changed one only needs to see the grandfathers pushing baby prams in the parks or picking up young children from school (they’re not as many as the grandmothers, I know, but they are many, nonetheless). My own father, who is not quite that kind of grandfather, tried to justify men’s avoidance of children both in private and public when he was himself a young father (mid-1960s to late 1970s) on the grounds that “we were not allowed” to behave as fathers do today. I was puzzled by how his words suggest the existence of a repressive external authority, when actually it was, rather, a matter of personal choice (he could have for instance picked up my younger brother, born in the mid-1970s, from school without facing patronising looks but he chose never to bother). Spanish men, who took a gigantic step towards their own patriarchal liberation when they fought together to end compulsory military service (1996), have often discovered in their personal lives that it is in their own hands to change things. For their own benefit but also for women’s.

I am thinking of accompanying my talk with iconic Spanish male figures, both in fiction and the media, yet it is complicated who to choose. Is there a man who represents Spanish masculinity best today? What does Pablo Iglesias’ famous ponytail say about men in Spain today? Is our most successful actor, Antonio Banderas, the ideal Spanish man? I wonder… As for Catalunya, I need to explain that the process for independence is now stalled by the squabbling for prominence between alpha males Oriol Junqueras (a man who does not care what he looks like) and Artur Mas (a man of carefully styled looks). Their confrontation says much about our local masculinity, torn between the need to play victim of the patriarchal Spanish other and, thus, unable to build a serious Catalan leadership. In Polònia, the political satirical show that always gets it right, Catalan men are represented by a new hero, Super Seny (Super Sensible), characterized by his inability to make any decision as he is always torn between the possible consequences… And I keep thinking of Joel Joan, who in his delicious TV series El crac (2015) chose to poke fun at his own iconic value as the poster boy for Catalan independentism by presenting the character also named ‘Joel Joan’ as the worst bundle of lies and cowardice you can imagine… I think the word I am looking for is self-deprecating.

Of course, if I tell my American visitors and Danish colleague that, as a recent survey suggests, bull-fighter Francisco Rivera is the most desired man in Spain (it’s hard to imagine a similar category in Catalonia right now), then I’m lost… as this will only reinforce the clichés I’m trying to fight. Happy were the 1980s when Miguel Bosé, then young and handsome, was the most desired man in Spain–and because of his ambiguity and not despite it. The fact that his own coming out of the closet and his, relatively recent, paternity of four children have not diminished his acceptance as an artist is perhaps a clear sign of how far Spain has progressed. I wonder, though, on what common grounds a man like him and, say, former President José María Aznar, could meet… and what this says about men in Spain today.

I’ll keep on thinking…

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BETWEEN LIFE AND FICTION: MALE SUICIDE

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

British cinemas are warning sensitive spectators about the first ‘conte cruel’ in Damián Szifrón’s highly acclaimed film Relatos Salvajes (2014). The story certainly has eerie coincidences with Andreas Lubitz’s tragic murder-suicide of last week. Yet, Szifrón’s very Argentinean take on the matter of a pilot’s terminal depression is humorous rather than tragic. The tale is dominated by improbability (the pilot’s method to select his passage) and by Szifrón’s mockery of the psychiatrist’s efforts to stop the pilot. As he bangs on a door also firmly blocked against intruders, he manages to increase rather than decrease the pilot’s destructive determination. The final oedipal image is an indictment both against family life and against the failure of psychology and psychiatry to contain a man’s pain. As it happened in Lubitz’s case, with nothing at all to laugh about.

I am writing these days an article about a novel dealing with the real-life suicide of a man, British director James Whale. The novel is Father of Frankenstein (1995) by Christopher Bram, adapted for the screen by Richard Condon as Gods and Monsters (1998). I argued in the abstract submitted that this ageing man’s decision to kill himself is an act of masculine empowerment: Whale, 68, suffered a series on minor strokes which were diagnosed as the onset of an immediate psychological and physical decay. Rather than face this, Whale decided to drown himself in the pool of his wealthy California home (he could not swim, the pool was built for a young lover). The whole novel is addressed to proving that gay men like Whale are also manly; this is why Bram fancies that Whale befriends in the last two weeks of his life a prejudiced, homophobic young man, Clayton, who little by little realises the ‘old fruit’ is a man in full. I was asked on what grounds I claimed that Whale’s suicide was a specifically masculine act of empowerment and not an act any human being could commit; also, how his being gay connected with my claims. The Alps tragedy happened in the middle of my considering all this for the article.

Statistics indicate that, roughly speaking, in most countries more men than women commit suicide: of all suicides 70% to 80% correspond to men (the only exception? Afghanistan, where women lead this sad rating). Some specialists claim that the same number of men as of women consider committing suicide; among those who do try killing themselves, however, women are far less effective than men. There are no clear reasons for this, though I’ll speculate that women are worse at using violence, even against themselves. Also, that men connect suicide with courage and possibly feel ashamed at the possibility of appearing to have acted in a cowardly way if they fail to do themselves in.

In support of my argument, I’ll cite Iain Bank’s last novel, The Quarry (2013). Banks was writing the story of cantankerous Guy, a man terminally ill with cancer, when he was himself diagnosed with the same disease. One early morning Guy suddenly disappears; his son Kit and friend Hol find him on a bridge above the motorway: “(…)‘I still couldn’t jump, in the end (…) More of a coward than I thought. (…) Thought I could at least control something, take fucking charge of something, impose my own fucking schedule on what was happening to me, rather than just being… prey to it’” (368). Banks himself did not commit suicide, nor did Terry Pratchett, who passed recently. Pratchett’s family had to twit that he had died of natural causes, given the very vocal attitude he had kept in favour of assisted voluntary suicide; Pratchett had even collaborated in the documentary Choosing to Die (2012), which shows the suicide of Peter Smedley, a 71-year-old man suffering from motor neurone disease (aided by Swiss pro-choice Dignitas).

Men, most research suggests, tend to commit suicide because they bottle up their feelings are unable to ask for help when depressed. The case of the German pilot, who did ask for help and was technically on medical leave, possibly even under medication prescribed by his psychiatrist, shows that this claim needs to be disputed. I agree that men tend to keep their feelings to themselves more than women do, and that acknowledging that they feel depressed may in many cases be incompatible with their own sense of self-confident masculinity. In Bram’s novel, and in real life, James Whale did not tell anyone about why he wanted to die; Father of Frankenstein actually shows the very narrow limits of the friendship he establishes with this other man, Clayton, whom he sees just as a tool. Whale fancies that this man is his Frankenstein’s monster returned; his violence will kill him and there will be no need for Whale to commit suicide. This is not, though, what happens. Yet, just suppose that Whale had asked for help: he would have been told that degenerative illness must be endured and told to bear it with anti-depressants.

Carmen Tejedor, a Spanish psychiatrist who implemented a very successful anti-suicide programme at Barcelona’s Hospital Clinic, claims that there is not such thing as a ‘rational suicide,’ as Whale’s appears to have been, since “95% of all suicidal individuals present clear symptoms of being mentally disturbed.” The other 5%, those diagnosed with a terminal bodily illness as Whale was, are “balance suicides;” these appear to be rational but the individuals involved actually suffer from “more or less covert depression” (http://lescontres.blogspot.com/2009/06/carmen-tejedor-psiquiatra-dirige-el.html). This, of course, is totally at odds with the philosophy behind SOARS, the British Society for Old Age Rational Suicide established, by Michael Irwin in 2009, with the intention that rational suicide might become one day a human right.

I realise that I chose to write about Father of Frankenstein because I am totally in favour of assisted voluntary suicide, that is to say, of the individual’s right to choose how to die. I also think we need to carefully distinguish depression induced by a biochemical imbalance, which is an illness, from sadness and unhappiness caused by events in one’s life, which is a condition. Take Lubitz again: if he suffered from the first kind of depression, he should not have been allowed to fly a plane ever; if, however, he was suffering from a physical complaint that would make him lose his flying licence, and thus his dream job as a pilot, then he needed help to understand that he could still lead a fulfilling life rather than anti-depressants. As for Whale and anyone else like him, male or female, the only dignified solution is helping them to commit suicide in better circumstances than doing yourself violent bodily harm.

And men, listen: feeling sad and unhappy is part of being human. Do ask for help, do help each other, share feelings, share problems, share stories… If male suicide, as the British say, is the ‘silent plague’ killing too many of you, then speak out about what is troubling you. There is dignity in doing this, even in dying if that’s your choice. There is no dignity at all in victimizing yourself pointlessly and, indeed, in victimizing others even more pointlessly.

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BODIES: BROKEN, MISSING…

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

It is hard to come up this week with an idea which does not connect one way or another with the crash of GermanWings flight 4U9525, apparently caused by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. It all points to a textbook situation: a frustrated individual who cannot achieve a goal in life (becoming a Lufthansa captain, it seems) commits suicide claiming in the process the lives of other persons, who simply had the bad luck of standing in the way of an unstoppable death wish.

I do not intend to analyze this person and his motivations: I’ll simply note that, for me, the most baffling aspect is how and why his suicidal cravings overcame the necessary empathy which a person responsible for the lives of 149 human beings, many of them children, is supposed to feel in similar circumstances. I am familiar with the processes of dehumanization to which the victims of monstrous abusers are subjected, from pimps exploiting prostitutes to the Nazi personnel running the death camps. What is particularly bewildering in the case is the lack of utter motivation or benefit. In comparison, the 9/11 murderers seem much easier to explain as deeply damaged human beings.

The bodies. For quite a number of years I have been a member of the research group ‘Body and Textuality,’ and I’ll try to process my think here using the Cultural Studies tools I learned with them. I wrote for one of our collective volumes a very grim article, explaining how the techno-warfare unleashed on the frail human body during WWI, when so many disappeared, was a sort of general dress rehearsal for the Nazi final solution. This applied to the systematic extermination of the Jewish all kinds of technology designed to make bodies disappear, so successfully that many denied the Holocaust ever happened. Then the Americans dropped nuclear bombs on the Japanese that reduced many of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to mere shadows on the wall. Between 1914 and 1945, in short, we learned the sad craft of viciously breaking bodies and disappearing persons as it had never happened before in human History.

I had to think about these matters recently as a) I have written an article criticizing J.K. Rowling for cruelly disappearing Sirius Black, most readers’ favourite character and, b) because I visited last Saturday Federico García Lorca’s museum in Fuente Vaqueros (Granada). I have actually come to the conclusion that the many dead of the Spanish Civil War whose bodies are still missing have probably taken a subconscious hold on all of us in Spain, which is, most likely, why I could not stomach Sirius’ death (he is also, let’s recall, a political prisoner wrongfully condemned to a life sentence at Azkaban for crimes he did not commit). The friends who took me to see Lorca’s house explained to me that his family’s tepid attitude towards the efforts made to find his body (he was executed for no reason at all, except that he was gay and a progressive man, by Franco supporters) can only be explained by his having been buried elsewhere, in a secret location only his closest relatives know. This would make sense, but, still, the appalling fact that he and many others are missing after so many years makes my heart flinch. In Alfredo Sanzol’s marvellous play, En la Luna (2011), a couple searching for another missing victim despair of ever giving him a proper burial. It’s the early 1990s and the optimistic man tells the depressed woman that there is no way the Olympic Games will be celebrated in Barcelona with all the dead still buried anonymously in dirty ditches by village roads. My hair stood on end… for this is where so many still are.

Reading about WWI, the Nazi death camps, Sirius Black, García Lorca… you learn that you can only properly overcome the terrible process of mourning if you celebrate funeral rites. 9/11 is fresh in our memories as a tragic event whose grief can never be truly conquered since many of the bodies simply vanished swallowed by the extreme violence of the events. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote a poignant novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), narrating how nine-year-old Oskar tries to make sense of his father’s disappearance on that day. The 9/11 missing crop up again and again in fiction, ghostly presences signalling our perplexity before the onslaught of ferocious death.

Sinister planes connect those 3,000 deaths with the 150 this week (and with the other plane, lost in the Indian Ocean one year ago, possibly in the same circumstances). We learned with 9/11 that the images of the broken bodies should not be shown, as a sign of respect for the dead. Tabloids used to show them; I still shudder at what I saw on the pages of Interview after Los Rodeos’ crash, as a too curious 10-year-old. We also learned with 9/11 that DNA positive identification is crucial to allow relatives and friends to close their process of mourning if only on the basis of minimal human remains. This very intense week, we have seen again and again on TV the families travelling to the Alps village close to the site of the tragedy, mourning around a memorial stone their dead ones–as we all hope in Spain that DNA processing will not result in the disaster that it was in the case of the military personnel lost in the accident of the fated Yak 42 flight in 2003. All this coming in the week after the local Madrid authorities gleefully announced that the mortal remains of writer Miguel de Cervantes had been disturbed from their place of eternal rest and will soon be the object of morbid curiosity for any fee-paying tourist.

Ironically, trying not to think of the broken bodies and the broken families, and of the bad luck that trapped the poor people destroyed by a frustrated person’s moment of fury, I decided to watch the most trivial of movies: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last action flick, Sabotage. Now, this is a man whose whole acting career (yes, I know this is an oxymoron) has been based on the display of his muscular body, still in possession of spectacular biceps at 67. Action films thrive, precisely, on celebration of what Yvonne Tasker once called ‘musculinity’ and I just wanted some pop-corn movie in that style. No such luck… Sabotage was, rather, a celebration of the broken body; each of Arnie’s badass team died in terrifying ways, closer to the kind of body horror I have learned to avoid than to your typical action film. The first man to be dispatched is mowed down in his Winnebago by a freight train. When Arnie gets to the site, a local police officer asks him to stick little flags to the dead man’s scattered remains… shown in all gruesome detail.

I think we, human beings, are a mad civilization. We take pains to avoid certain images from reaching us on the screen, on any screen. And, then, as you can see, we generate fake images of what we do not want to see, for enjoyment. All the many series about forensic specialists, the pleasure in zombies, all the graphic, gory detail of the fictional representation of the broken body is telling something quite ugly about who we are. This spectre first reared its head, as I say, during WWI, when the impossibility of bringing home whole bodies led to the gigantic cemeteries in France and all the war memorials. Since then, we have been growing something rotten in our souls, a psychopathic yearning to break human bodies in the worst possible ways–precisely the sick craving that filled the lost soul who destroyed so many human lives a few days ago. May they all rest in peace. May we all learn to prevent horrors like this one.

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ALTMETRICS AND THE MAJOR OF JUN: QUESTIONING (MY) EXISTENCE…

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

There are days when I think that I live in a kind of time warp, causing me to catch up with crucial matters for research with unavoidable delay. Thus, I have only learned about ‘altmetrics’ last week, via an email I received from their organization, when this seems to have materialized five years ago. What is ‘altmetrics’? Citing from their own web, http://altmetrics.org/about/, ‘altmetrics’ is “the creation and study of new metrics based on the Social Web for analyzing, and informing scholarship.” Oh dear…

If you read the “Altmetrics Manifesto” (http://altmetrics.org/manifesto/) of 2010, you’ll learn that the ‘alt’ in ‘altmetrics’ stands for ‘alternative.’ The manifesto explains that, as we all know in academia, peer reviewing, citation counting measures and instruments like JCR (Journal Citations Report), are failing to fulfil their purpose of helping to transmit sound knowledge and measuring its impact accurately. Peer reviewing is excruciatingly slow (it seems that also in science) and citations impact is open to manipulation.

Dr. Roger A. Brumback narrates in his article “Impact Factor Wars: Episode V–The Empire Strikes Back” (Journal of Child Neurology, 2009, http://jcn.sagepub.com/content/24/3/260.long) an interesting case. Two “clever scientists,” Harm K. Schutte and Jan G. Svec, members of the International Association of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (IALP) published an editorial in Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica (2007) citing “all 66 articles published in that journal” in the two previous years. Self-citation, Brumback explains, more than doubled the journal’s impact factor and helped the journal climb “9 places in the subject category of ‘Rehabilitation’ (which only contains27 journals).” I love it, by the way, that Brumback validates the impact of popular fictions (and its research) by basing his argumentation on Star Wars. Thomson Reuters plays the part of Darth Vader, we are all rebels against the Empire. I always knew Princess Leia is my girl!

The matters of altmetrics also includes what they call peer-review crowd sourcing: “Instead of waiting months for two opinions, an article’s impact might be assessed by thousands of conversations and bookmarks in a week.” There was indeed something called CrowdoMeter for a while (http://blogs.plos.org/mfenner/2011/12/20/crowdometer-or-trying-to-understand-tweets-about-journal-papers/) based on the idea that measuring tweets about journal papers gives a reliable indication of their impact. I have serious doubts that Twitter is the place to react to academic papers and there is, besides, always the risk that, as the manifesto acknowledges, altmetrics might reflect “just empty buzz.”

I understand, then, that so far this is a closed avenue and that the strategies to measure impact are still going in the current official direction. As an example, see the announcement I have just received today for the “Quartes Jornades sobre Gestió de la Informació Científica (JGIC-2015)” (http://blogs.iec.cat/observatori/jgic/jgic-2015/). The programme includes plenty on bibliometrics and institutional information systems but nothing directly on social networks, which is, well, odd, CrowdoMeter or not.

As a researcher, as I have been complaining here, I feel overwhelmed by the need to prove not so much my impact but my very existence. Although I have published plenty, not all databases acknowledge that I am alive and working as nobody, except myself, is providing information about what I do. And the task is never-ending. Recently, my university informed me, to my horror and consternation, that I don’t belong to any research group–I had not entered the corresponding information in our user-unfriendly computer application. Deep sigh because, as happens, I do spend much time keeping that updated. Also, as I have been narrating here, I’m using Academia.edu, my web, this blog and a Twitter account to publicise my work. I think it is working, more or less, but I feel daunted by the task of being my own community manager, as I don’t have the training. There are days, then, when I seriously doubt I can carry on the task of proving that I exist. The task of proving that I matter, if I do at all, is just too much…

This weekend I have met someone who has indeed no doubts that he exists and that what he does matters: José Antonio Rodríguez Salas, the Mayor of Jun. This is a town of about 3,500 souls next to the city of Granada, which is now famous for its Mayor’s indefatigable work in pursuit of visibility in the social networks. The Mayor’s project is to turn Jun into not just a smart town but one of the smartest on Earth, by making it as forward-thinking as possible in terms of current trends in communications and networking. His very popular Twitter account (@JoseantonioJun) has indeed placed Jun on the world map and you can even see a little blue bird on the façade of the Town Hall. When he announced that Jun would welcome any gay and lesbian couples wishing to marry, this caused an Australian minister to stage his wedding there… Just yesterday, he broadcast live on Twitter the counting of the votes for the Andalusian elections in Jun, a pioneering initiative for the sake of transparent democracy. So here is someone who fully understands social media (and a politician who knows what he’s doing). I just don’t have his energy…

The impact of computers in our lives is so immense that even though I spent my first years as a university teacher with no internet I cannot remember how on Earth I managed to work then. Internet must have been introduced in my university in 1995-6, for while in Scotland in 1994-5 I didn’t have an email account. I had been using pre-internet BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) for forums and chats pre-online since 1993, but the internet came later. The funny thing is that although I acknowledge the need to adapt to the new times and I try to catch up as best as I can, at heart altmetrics irritates me as much as bibliometrics and the attached citation systems. One thing is counting the downloads of my papers on Academia.edu or the digital repository of my university for my own reference; quite another matter reducing me to these figures, to the number of my followers on Twitter and to that of my blog readers. I never check that myself, as I don’t want to know. I don’t want to be, as I say, reducible to a set of figures and much less for what I do precisely to open up academic work to general readers beyond the official ways of measuring me up. Just let me be…

So my conclusion is a very existential one: I exist a little, and I matter (hopefully) a little. And I don’t want anyone to give the exact quantities of that ‘little’ something. I know full well, thank you very much, that other individuals matter much more. Yet, I think of the many millions whose lives will pass unnoticed by the social networks and whose lives will leave no trace and I conclude that, in the end, Twitter or not, altmetrics or bibliometrics, this is our most common destiny.

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SCHOLARSHIP, CRITICISM, REVIEWING: FINE DISTINCTIONS, DIFFERENT JOBS

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Today I’m quoting from an essay by Gary K. Wolfe, “Pilgrims of the Fall: Critics and Criticism” from his highly stimulating volume Evaporating Genres (2001, p. 205) He discusses the differences between ‘reviewer,’ ‘critic,’ ‘scholar’ and ‘academic,’ explaining that for “ a great many practicing writers” reviewer and critic mean the same, that is to say, the persons assessing their work in periodical publications for a general readership. Yet, in academia, he adds, “the distinction can be crucial” for we call ourselves ‘critics’ but we are not reviewers “working under ‘journalistic’ constraints.” We may do review work for academic publications but it usually involves academic texts and not literature.

Criticism, Wolfe adds, remains, however, within academia a “much vaguer term” than ‘scholarship,’ meaning “the uncovering of new or newly combined knowledge by means of formally described and peer-reviewed processes” with a view to obtaining a “degree, a job, or promotion and tenure” (p. 206). Wolfe then proceeds to praise the work within SF and fantasy of John Clute, known for his indefatigable task as a reviewer and encyclopaedia writer outside the circuit of academia, though actually straddling this and fandom (he’s, em, an independent scholar). Wolfe also proceeds to chastise scholars and academics for using too little time to read literature and too much energy to read theory; we are also guilty of patronising the reviewers who, like Clute, may lack a theoretical framework, as once Rob Latham famously complained, but who do much to map a particular genre on a regular basis and thus, I would add, pave the way for scholarship.

The key problem worrying Wolfe is how to tie “literary criticism directly to the actual world of readers” (p. 213) which chimes in directly with the complaint by the only Amazon.es reviewer of Historia y antología de la ciencia ficción española, edited by Julián Díez and Fernando Ángel Moreno (Cátedra, 2014). This lonely voice complains that although the anthology is “impeccable” the study is a bit marred for being “too elitist, neglecting the task of fandom within the genre.” Indeed. Certainly, SF and fantasy, secondarily horror, detective fiction and romance, are very different fields from literary and mainstream narrative (middlebrow?), and other genres like poetry, since the emergence of scholarship is posterior to the emergence of fandom. As Wolfe explains this created a strange situation for academics within SF and fantasy who had to adapt to a pre-existent vocabulary or risk excluding themselves completely from communication with the readers in this genre.

Yet, this is not where I was going (if I’m going anywhere today!). The internet, forums like Amazon and Good Reads, give us the chance, as I have already noted here, to contrast the opinions of academic critics and scholars with the opinions of common readers, to which, of course, we need to add those of professional reviewers. Although academic work must include a certain measure of reviewing in the case of works relatively unknown, few academics ever work on a text untouched by reviewers, whether professional or amateur.

I might even say that a complete lack of professional reviews for certain contemporary texts bothers me far less than a lack of reviews by common readers, a void which seems to me a clearer indication of the indifferent quality of a particular text. Whenever I start a paper on a contemporary novel, I read the reviews first, with appreciation, and try to quote them. Although it might seem that expressing an opinion is easy enough, I find reviewing a very difficult art, as a reviewer must be knowledgeable without being pedantic, and communicative without being arrogant and, above all, s/he must be fair.

Proving his point that an academic critic/scholar must also be a well-informed reader, Wolfe uses in his volume an encyclopaedic approach–the one I also miss in theory-oriented scholarly work. He inserts mini-reviews of a few lines as he theorizes, using an almost jargon-free, elegant prose which keeps you reading as if his academic book were a novel. This, let me stress, is bold and surprising for, as he complains (and I complain), if you want to publish within the habitual academic circuits you need to accept restrictive style rules. When I let myself go a little bit in my own academic work, I kick myself hard: girl, this is academic work, not a blog post! Yet I know that I’m possibly doing my most significant scholarly work here, writing informally in my blog, if by scholarly we understand as Wolfe does, the dissemination of knowledge.

Wolfe recalls interviewing a candidate for a college teaching position who declared that she had no time to read fiction as she had to read so much theory; he adds that this is what this woman thought she needed to say, though it might not be true at all. In my own case, I seem to have developed a strange sort of guilt about reading fiction. It seems that academics do not work unless they’re using a computer so, somehow, I started pushing my reading to the evenings and weekends. Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 16:30, except for the time I spend in class, I sit at my table trying to produce something publishable, preparing classes, answering emails, etc, etc. I haven’t spent a weekday reading for a long, long time and now that I have the chance, as I need not teach this semester, I feel, well, guilty of enjoying a very strange kind of privilege. The sense of guilt increases if I do my reading in glorious sunshine, on my terrace… but decreases a little if I read theory, pen and paper at hand. Spending my day reading a novel is not really working, is it?? I know it is, but this guilt must be a remnant of the time when reading was what I did for a hobby after school was over…

So, funnily, reading theory feels like more real work than reading fiction even though the criticism of fiction is, in the end, my main aim. Or is it? Wolfe says it’s the other way round: theorizing is the real aim of contemporary scholarly work, and the fiction is there just to pepper the theory. Could it be, I’m wondering, a kind of puritanical attitude against the idea of reading fiction? Is this also why we, academics, do not review fiction (unless it is properly literary and in the proper newspapers)? Waste of time, read serious work…

Although I am a doctor in English Philology, I don’t call myself a philologist. To be honest, I don’t call myself much of anything, as I find that, generally speaking, we refer to our task by speciality (‘I do Masculinities Studies’, for instance) rather than by name (‘I’m a scholar’). When I try to define what I do to myself, I prefer the label ‘cultural critic’, though perhaps ‘academic cultural critic’ comes closest. I use ‘cultural’ because I work with a variety of texts, literary and audio-visual. When I think of ‘scholars’ I tend to envision colleagues working in archives or libraries, unearthing the secrets of the past. As I work on contemporary texts, and tend to produce knowledge by making connections rather than discoveries, I’m not sure whether I am a scholar, though it seems I am indeed an academic.

Wolf, as I have noted, claims that scholarship is produced to obtain a “degree, a job, or promotion and tenure” (p. 206). I see it the other way round: one aims at obtaining tenure in order to be able to produce scholarship (or academic criticism, whatever you want to call it). Wolfe seems a bit jaundiced here for I believe that genuine scholars are as vocational as, say, literary writers. I see many people around me producing fine academic work with little hope of achieving tenure because they feel, shall we say?, naturally inclined to do so. A strange vocation calls us to try to disseminate knowledge though in the end we may produce very obscure knowledge that only a handful ever read. No wonder there is a little of bad blood between academic and journalistic critics for, in the end, they have a higher impact, not to mention the millions of amateur reviewers crowding Amazon, GoodReads…

So, thank you, Gary Wolfe for the salutary reminder that as academic critics/scholars we need to read fiction and not only theory. Sunshine on my terrace is calling, as is this alluring novel on my table… yet it only 10:45 and there are papers to write…

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GOODBYE AND THANKS, TERRY PRATCHETT

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, in 2007. We, author and readers, have been saying goodbye for almost 8 years, then, yet for all our readiness this is a death that catches us unawares. Couldn’t we have had more time? This is it? Sir Terry, just 66, is no longer with us and although we were lucky that he kept on writing to the very end (dictating in the last stages), it is still too little time.

His death comes, besides, not even two years after losing Iain M. Banks also too early and too unfairly. It is hard to lose them both, it feels as if very dear personal friends are gone. I think also of my doctoral student, Rosa María Moreno, currently writing her dissertation on the narrator’s voice in the Discworld series and how sad she must be feeling now. As I told her, the best possible homage is finishing the work and making sure Pratchett’s novels are preserved for posterity.

I have already written here that I started reading Pratchett 20 years ago, when my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter, gently mocked my snobbish prejudice against the colourful covers of Pratchett’s novels. I have read since then 39 novels by Pratchett and 3 other volumes he has co-authored, missing just 1 Discworld novel. Since then, I have taught novels by Pratchett twice: my favourite, The Truth (number 25 within the Discworld series) and his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens.

When I finished teaching last year my course on Harry Potter, I asked my students to please, please, please thank me, if they wished to do so, by reading one Pratchett, any novel, and see how it worked for them. I don’t know if I have made any new fans this way but I hardly see the way to teach a monographic course on his work, if only one based on a selection of 5 or 6 novels. My personal homage, by the way, is an article I was already preparing for a volume dealing with neo-Victorian fictions, on his novel Dodger, which I’ll praise for his clever recycling of Oliver Twist.

For me, Pratchett and Dickens are very close: as I have insisted here again and again they are writers one reads for the pleasure of their company, no matter what they narrate. Both have potent narrative voices, suggesting that the man behind the telling, the author, is, yes, a wise and witty man. As my student Rosa María is arguing, Pratchett had a unique way of satirizing the real world by transforming it into the blend of comedy and fantasy on which his Discworld lies. Also, as she claims, the satire works not by direct allusion but by winking an eye to the reader and making us feel part of the circle of initiates who is in on the joke.

The cast of Pratchett’s characters is very extensive, also very Dickensian in their way of appearing on the page very much alive from the first sentence introducing them. They’re all quirky in a way that would even disconcert Miss Havisham, yet they are all recognisable human beings, even the ones who/which are not human at all. I have, for instance, a silly soft spot for Otto von Chriek, a vampire iconographer (= photographer) who, being destroyed every time he uses flashlight for his photos, has the precaution of carrying a tiny flask of blood tied to his wrist. He collapses in cinders, the flask breaks, the blood remakes him. My other soft spot is for Corporal/Captain Carrot, a most decent man who would be simply overwhelmed if he only knew who he really is.

Pratchett has legions of fans and in the same many other popular classics have survived without the aid of academia, I am sure they will keep his memory fresh for generations to come. I would say, besides, that an ability to read Sir Terry in English should be a great enticement to learn the language; I have never read any translation into Spanish or Catalan but one thing I can say is that it is impossible that the humour translates well. Perhaps the same applies to the cultural references, I don’t know, though my guess is that Pratchett’s books are multi-layered, so that the older and more sophisticated the readers is the more meaning s/he grasp in his satirical voice. This does not mean, quite the opposite, that the novels are inaccessible to young or foreign readers, just that they possibly grasp only the more basic layers.

The MLA database only names 48 items dealing with Terry Pratchett works, of which only 1 is a book: Discworld and the Disciplines: Critical Approaches to the Terry Pratchett Works, a collective volume edited by Anne Hiebert and William C. Spruiell (McFarland, 2014). There is actually a second volume, the monograph Accused of Literature by Andrew M. Butler, which MLA ignores, perhaps for being that kind of work which straddles fandom and academia. Interestingly, the first item named by MLA appeared in 1992, a very brief essay by Liz Holliday for the Science Fiction Chronicle. This is 8 years after Pratchett started publishing his Discworld series, 21 since his first book. The new collective volume is, hopefully, a good sign that the academic world has finally caught on and realised that Pratchett is someone worth studying and not only worth reading. My own first attempt to explain Pratchett to local Spanish audiences, by the way, dates back to 2002: “Ídolos del fantástico popular: el gótico cotidiano de Stephen King y la sátira pseudo-histórica de Terry Pratchett” (see: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/other-publications).

If you’re reading this and are wondering where you should start reading Pratchett and why you should read him at all, my answer is that you can either start at the beginning, with The Colour of Magic, or just anywhere you like. I started with Guards, Guards! (1989), the 8th Discworld novel, I don’t even know why, read a few more published later and then decided to start again, back at the beginning. Why read Pratchett, then? Because he was a wordsmith, as the definition goes “a skilled user of words.” Was he, then, a literary writer? Yes, he was that rare breed: the popular literary writer, the ones who used to abound in the 19th century until Modernism decided that either you told a story or you wrote Literature. Fortunately, Sir Terry could do both.

A typical experience of reading one of her novels consists for me of reading non-stop and then braking hard in the last 50 pages, realizing that the pleasure of a new Pratchett will not be repeated for one year at least (now never again…). I admire the way Pratchett comments obliquely on the absurdity and stupidity of our world by using an even crazier parallel in the Discworld; I love how the narrator’s voice is full of barbs and yet so kind, so humane; I enjoy the variety of eccentric characters and how one gets to know little by little the varied geography and societies of the Discworld; I value Sir Terry’s defence of integration despite difference and how his humans, trolls, dwarves, zombies, vampires… find a place in the accommodating city of Ank-Morpork. I marvel at the inventiveness. He has always made it smile, and has often made me laugh, sometimes really loud. No easy feat for a writer.

Queen Elizabeth II knighted Terry Pratchett for services to literature in 2009 (he had been appointed ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire’ or OBE in 1998). He declared himself “flabbergasted,” and I declare myself won over by a state capable of honouring this way not only him but also Arthur C. Clarke or Arthur Conan Doyle, even Barbara Cartland. That Pratchett ended his days ‘Sir Terry’ is one of those very nice British quirks we wonder about from abroad… very civilized.

Sir Terry, knight of the Discworld, servant of Literature: I’ll miss you very, very much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for 20 years of the most wonderful company. I’m really sorry you’re gone; your books will be here, by my side, for as long as I live. And I’ll do my best, this is a promise, to find you as many new readers as I can. Long live Sir Terry!

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INTERNATIONAL WOMAN’S DAY: A REMINDER OF OUR SUBORDINATION

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Today, 8 of March, International Woman’s Day, I only feel irritation. I’m irritated because we still need a special day to complain that more than half of humankind is subordinated to men, who are actually the minority. I’m irritated because I wish we did not need days like today in 2015 and because even if I live to be 100 (2066…) there is still going to be an urgent need for an 8 of March like today. Google has decorated its opening page with a logo reminding us of women’s achievements in a variety of fields but the Spanish media are full, rather, of the miseries we women endure and I feel really downbeat.

El País explains that since the Spanish Government started counting the victims of couple-related violence, back in 2001, the list extends to more than 800 already… The son of one of them writes about the tragic void left by his mother’s absence and this is as it should be: the men must shoulder half the burden of the fight against patriarchal misogynistic terrorism, which must become a collective fight. Miguel Lorente, the man who, together with Luis Bonino, has spoken with the greatest clarity against male violence in Spain, makes the same claim and I could not agree more with him: my main hope for violence against women to end are the loving sons, brothers, fathers, partners, friends… and, above all, the fathers of daughters who will not want to see their little girls grow into abused women, whether this is in the hands of men claiming to love them or men in positions to employ them.

Many of the news items this week have to do, precisely with the gender pay gap, which in Spain is officially 17.5% in contrast to 19% for the whole European Union. This means that if a man and a woman are hired to do a job he will get higher wages by that percentage just for having a penis (it seems that a common strategy to justify this kind of illegal discrimination is giving the man’s job a title within a higher category). Catalan TV3 interviews today a few female students indignant that they have to face a worse future than their male peers although the statistics indicate not only that women are a majority in college but also that they do better. Then, the newscast moves onto a report of a political act in which President Artur Mas has promised women will have full equality in a future independent Catalan nation. His own Government has withdrawn all aids to kindergarten for children from 0 to 3 years-old, the very pre-school establishments on which young mothers depend in order to be able to work full time. So why delay to a hypothetical future Catalonia what can be done today? And not only to help young mothers but also young fathers…

As regards violence, I’m left with two potent images: one from the new film Refugiado directed by Diego Lerman, who was inspired to write it when he saw a woman attacked in the street by her husband before his very eyes. The little boy Matías, age 8, and on the run with his pregnant mother from his murderous dad, has a conversation on the phone with him: “If you love her so much”, he asks really distressed, “why do you hurt her?” The other image comes from an Italian campaign, in which some boys, ages 6 to 12, are introduced to Martina, a girl about 10. They’re asked to caress and kiss her face, which they all do very sweetly–and then to hit her. Taken aback, all the boys refuse to use violence against the girl: as one sentences, this is not what a man does. I only wish all the men who do use violence could be shamed by other men into understanding that they do not deserve the honour of being called a man, much less a human being.

I have not joined the local demonstration in Barcelona today, though I have crossed paths with it as I walked to La Virreina to see an exhibition by the renowned French woman photographer Sophie Calle, ‘Modus Vivendi’. What better way to celebrate women’s work, right? I have been distressed by some of Calle’s autobiographical works, presenting her as vulnerable because of her body (she has even worked as a stripper) or her relationships with men. The main segment of the exhibition had to do with one of her peculiar projects: she passed to a variety of women an email which her lover had sent her announcing that he was ending their relationship. Each of these women analyzed the lover’s pathetic, whiny letter from her own vantage point, determined by age and occupation. The result is a frankly hilarious deconstruction of romance, right now one of the worst vampires sucking energy off women, together with fashion and the cult of youth.

Then, to complete my peculiar homage to women I have read La guerra secreta de los sexos, a fascinating volume that María Lafitte, the Countess of Campo Alange, had the temerity to publish in 1948, under Franco’s regime and one year before de Beauvoir published The Second Sex. I marvel not only at her bravery but at how profoundly feminist her book is, and how valid her view of women’s subordination is still today. If you’ve never heard of Lafitte, she founded in 1960 the Seminario de Estudios sobre la Mujer, the first one in Spain. Like the editors of her text, re-published in 2008, I had serious misgivings that she would offer a right-wing version of women’s mission in support of the fatherland, closest to Pilar Primo de Rivera, the regime’s main female spokesperson. This is not at all the case; Lafitte is no left-wing, radical feminist like the ones that would appear in the 1960s but she is quite outspoken in her own mission to highlight the strategies used by patriarchy to diminish women physically and mentally. Her view is that patriarchy of the traditional kind ended in the 19th century when legislation took much power away from patriarchal family men; we are, then, immersed in the long process of building a new system which she thinks will take very long to accomplish, perhaps centuries. I see myself like her in 1948, just one of the few free enough to hurry the process along, surrounded by many more freer women than Lafitte but also by millions of other women stuck in the mud of what I can only call enslavement.

Over lunch I hear on TV the news about that young Moroccan woman, resident in Rubí, just a few kilometres from my university, who has been arrested for inducing women to join the Islamic State. She herself abandoned her husband, kidnapping their three-year-old boy, and moved to Syria. A Spanish woman lawyer specializing in cases like this one explains that women are lured into joining this barbaric kind of patriarchy (as seen by this week’s destruction of the Assyrian city of Nimrud) by the promising of finding the man of their dreams: a handsome warrior that will protect them. My appalled husband complains loudly that the authorities should launch a campaign against that kind of gendered brainwashing but I find myself telling him that, then, another campaign needs to be launched against other forms of enslavement. Like Fifty Shades of Gray, the film so many Western women are freely choosing to see (with their girl friends) and which is giving men the excuse to say that all we want is a master to enslave us –whether he is Christian (Grey) or Muslim…

Only 364 International Patriarchal Men’s Day left for the next International Woman’s Day, then…

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AND NOW FOR THE ASEXUALS…: CEASELESS LABELLING IN GENDER STUDIES

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

In the process of reviewing an ongoing PhD dissertation, I learn about the recent scholarly interest on asexuality. Apparently, some of the key volumes are Anthony Bogaert’s Understanding Asexuality (2012), Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks’ edited collection Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives (2014) and The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality (2014) by Julie Sondra Decker (which has a five-star rating on Amazon.com!).

Asexuality, it seems, is being vindicated as a legitimate sexual identity and/or orientation in yet another attempt at de-stigmatizing what others treat as a disease, whether physical or psychological. Also, to question and challenge the widespread sexualisation of human life in the 21st century. The dissertation also teaches me that there are many asexual communities, the largest being the Asexual Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), founded in 2001 by David Jay. The main novel dealing with asexuality seems to be Keri Hulme’s 1984 Booker-Prize winner The Bone People.

If I understand matters correctly, asexuality is by no means the same as celibacy, which is the lack of sexual activity some persons vow to comply with for religious (or other) reasons. Asexuals are not frigid, either. Now called ‘hypoactive sexual desire disorder’ or HSDD, colloquially-named frigidity is regarded officially by psychiatrists as a sexual dysfunction causing distress, hence in need of a cure (HSDD was labelled a disorder as recently as 1977). There is plenty of criticism against this intervention of medical science into sexual normativity and against the pathologizing of desire, which, obviously self-defined asexuals resist. As we all should.

I learn all this one day after discussing with an MA tutoree working on a dissertation about the slow visibilization of bisexuality whether we, in Gender Studies, are making any sense at all (I should extend this to activism and the lives of individual persons). Now, the problem with bisexuality is that it appears to be disruptive of LGTB labelling as, famously, it is not clear whether bisexuality is an inborn identity/orientation like the others, heterosexuality included, or the complete denial that sexuality can be determined. I engaged in a peculiar conversation with my student as a) I have no idea whether bisexual people feel an inclination towards males an females from a very early age, b) I often wonder how many people would turn out to be bisexual if only the accidents of their biography led them this way. I recall very distinctly the words of a male student I once had, who claimed he was not gay: he just had fallen in love with a man.

Committing the sin of ageism, I tended to believe that asexuality is a phase of life, or even, phases which may alternate with bouts of sexual activity. It seems I’m awfully wrong. Asexuals simply do not feel an interest in sex, which puts them, understandably, in a very awkward position regarding both hetero-normativists and LGTB activists, all of them defining human beings according to their sexual activity. I am personally sick and tired of the supposition that sex is so central to our lives which is why I welcome the emergence of the asexual position, as it is a true challenge to the way we have understood personal identity in the last 100 years. I can imagine what coming out as an asexual entails and it cannot be easy: you’re just frigid/abnormal/a freak, you haven’t found the right person(s), I’ll teach you what sexual arousal is about., etc., etc. As long as anyone who feels normal to themselves suffer the prejudice others heap on them, we, in Gender Studies, must struggle to defend them and make room for the free expression of their identities.

Having said that, I must confess I am puzzled indeed. Not by the existence of men and women unconcerned about sex, as everyday experience indicates they are around indeed, but by their need to form communities, develop new labels, stand out. I have never been particularly fond of the LGTB label as I find it anti-heterosexual in quite a prejudiced, even gross way (it seems to respond to the need of having a common enemy and denies us, heterosexuals, the chance of opposing patriarchal hetero-normativity). I’d much rather we all used ‘queer’ in the sense of ‘anti-normative’ and let people be, avoiding the essentialisms that plague the gender-related labels.

Bisexual and asexual are not really free, either, from this essentialism as they seem to override other possibilities, namely, that the individual’s biography passes through sexual phases in a much more fluctuating way. I don’t find it very hard to imagine someone who engages in heterosexual sex during a certain period of his/her life, then combines this with homosexual sex or goes through a strict homosexual period, and then lives off sex for a while, perhaps to start all over again. Why, then, this need to attach labels to what we do in bed and with whom? Not to raise the obvious politically incorrect matter of where we put the limits to what is acceptable in human sexuality.

I do not know how and when this ceaseless process of labelling will end, if ever. Asexuality, in any case, opens up onto an unmapped territory. Let me explain. What is usually condemned by the bigoted is engaging in a particular activity which appears to be abnormal but which is not really so. The, if you allow me, originality of the asexual position is that it is not even about refraining from doing something, as asexuals are not, like celibate individuals, actively rejecting or avoiding sex. Asexuality questions the very idea that having sex is central to human life and, thus, their lack of sexual activity becomes not a lack at all. It is even quite in-your-face: why would it bother anyone that someone does not do something? (=have sex).

What is found to be annoying about asexuality and the reason why the label is criticised so harshly, I believe, is that it highlights the absurd importance that sex has gained in our lives. I’ll try to draw an analogy with sports (in a way, sex is a kind of sport today): people who practice sports believe that life without exercising is empty, but people who are not keen on sports do not feel this is the case. Now, imagine a situation in which you would have to silence the fact that you don’t like sports for fear of being labelled a freak…

What a strange world we live in, really.

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ON NOT TEACHING AS A REWARD: SOME SCATTERED THOUGHTS

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I came across a UAB colleague a few days ago, who had a good piece of news to announce: he’s been awarded a prestigious Catalan grant (ICREA Acadèmia), which will allow him to focus more intensely on his research for the next 5 years. I’m really impressed, for I am sure he must have faced huge competition…

I knew vaguely about this grant because another illustrious colleague from UB received it a few years ago and a dear friend filled in her position during the long absence. My UAB colleague has also been allocated financial resources to free him from teaching, if he wishes so. And he does. When I asked him whether he’s concerned that after 5 years he might not enjoy returning to the classroom at all, he replied that he is indeed worried. Also that, perhaps, depending on the results, there might be other grants to apply for and thus delay his final return to teaching.

I sympathise with my colleague as the teaching he’s been assigned is not particularly attractive, consisting mainly of one of those first-year transversal subjects that nobody enjoys (whether teachers or students) but that has the unconditional support of our Dean’s team. I am wondering, rather, at this odd idea of rewarding excellence in research with no teaching at all.

This is paradoxical as this semester I’m not teaching, either, with the exception of a one-month seminar and my undergrad and post-grad tutorees. My university has finally applied the so-called ‘Wert decree’ which rewards senior lecturers who have passed three assessment exercises (= 18 years) with a 8 ECTS discount over the usual workload (24 – 8 = 16). I have already taught most of these credits and so I need not step into a classroom, just supervise my tutorees to complete the rest. After the hassle of combining teaching, research and my task as the BA degree Coordinator, I can only say that I’m very happy with what I feel to be a long-deserved break. Still, I wonder about (missing) teaching.

I have so far enjoyed two long breaks in 23 years as a teacher. One 20 years ago, when a grant took me to Scotland to work on my PhD dissertation and I found on my return that I had to teach all my 24 credits in the second semester. I had this way 15 months to myself which, ironically, resulted in my producing a far too long dissertation. Then, in 2008-9, I had an admin sabbatical, a year off granted to recover from the exertion of being Head of Department for 3 years. I used that time to read for a book still lying unwritten in my PC’s hard drive. I have high hopes that I will be able to write some chapters this time around before September looms in the horizon. I also have high hopes that in the next few years this pattern will repeat itself and I have less teaching and more time for research. And writing.

When I took the 2008-9 sabbatical, I also spent 15 months away from a classroom (31 May 2008 to 15 September 2009) and I recall my return as something quite dreadful. I have not managed yet to sleep soundly the night before a new course begins; I always feel jittery before facing a new class even if it is a class I’m teaching just for one day. Believe it or not, I’m shy. Students do not seem to grasp well that teaching takes plenty of courage, as you need to leave aside all your insecurities, and mine are many. I remember starting my first lecture after that long break by frankly telling my students that I was awfully nervous and please bear with me, as I felt like an absolute novice, butterflies in the stomach and all. They all smiled, and were lovely to me. Now fancy five years…

I am not, as you can see, too keen on long absences from teaching. Instead, I’m looking forward to not doing any admin work for at least 3 years. In these first 3 weeks of freedom, without the weight of the BA Coordination on my shoulders, I have felt relieved, even bodily… The flow of urgent emails has dropped dramatically, and I can use the spare time to concentrate on my teaching (an MA seminar) and on my research. If such a grant existed, I would pay to have someone do the boring, frustrating admin work which reduces us teachers to glorified clerks. If I went back to teaching 24 ECTS, then I would be happy to shed some courses but I know I would not be happy with no teaching at all.

This might be because I am fortunate since I enjoy what I teach (don’t mind my ranting here, I really love teaching, I just wish it worked better!). I’m not going to give you, however, the rap that I value above all the contribution to society that my teaching generates. I mean, I do, and very much so, as I believe that my job consists above all of teaching young persons to think for themselves. I like teaching, to be frank and honest, also for very selfish, even vampirical or parasitical, reasons…

The truth of academic life, as I have been narrating here for almost four years and a half, is that as regards the exchange of ideas it is quite a barren landscape. We need to invest much time in sorting out bureaucratic matters and in navigating the time-consuming tasks associated with getting teaching organized. The result is that we do not really have spare time to socialize, shoot the breeze, as the American idiom goes, over coffee or tea (or a beer) and let talk flow. We are, as I explained a while ago, ‘talk-starved.’ This is why I personally need to teach: my students are my bouncing wall (do I mean ‘sounding board’? I’m not sure). I throw ideas at them, and when they bounce back they come in a better shape. Alone, at home, there is no bouncing wall. Yes, I have my blog, but it’s an odd bouncing wall, as the ideas (mostly) go through it.

I cannot really separate my teaching from my research, not quite because I teach courses based on what I do research on (I wish!) but because whatever I teach demands that I focus and explain myself–and this essential practice for my writing. With no students for 5 years I think I would whither like an unwatered plant…

So, to conclude, if I were the colleague with the grant I would use the money to get rid of the less rewarding courses and to pick and choose my way into what I really wanted to teach, even if it was down to one course in one semester. For, you know, without students to keep us on our toes, we just lose touch with reality and end up being pent up in our bizarre ivory towers. Also, I wonder, why the authorities think that an outstanding researcher should have no impact on five cohorts (em, the technical terms for classes) and vice versa, that five consecutive cohorts should be deprived of the best researchers in their Department. Odd, isn’t it?

Perhaps things would be better if, as they do in more civilized countries, the academic year lasted until 1 May and then we could all enjoy a few months every year for research. Keep on dreaming…

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TEACHING GENDER STUDIES IN THE 21ST CENTURY: A PREFACE TO GENDER AND FEMINISM: THE STUDENTS’ VIEW (2015)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

[I’m recycling here the Preface to the volume I have just edited, Gender and Feminism: The Students’ View, available from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/129180. Please, publicise it in your Twitter and Facebook, thanks]

An awareness of gender differences begins very early in life as does little girls’ demand for equal treatment, even when the concept of ‘equal rights’ is only imperfectly known, if at all. The essays gathered here, written by undergrad students born in the early 1990s, further show that there is much to be learned and taught about gender issues today as seen by people under 30.

As I finished the edition of this volume, I came across a worrying piece of news in El País which further justifies the publication of these pages. In June 2014 the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) published the results of a survey, according to which one third of Spaniards tolerates couple-related psychological abuse: 92% reject physical violence, but not verbal ill-treatment, which they have serious difficulties to see as abuse. A second survey published this week declares that one third of the young persons, aged 15 to 29, regards as “inevitable or acceptable in some circumstances” (1) controlling their partners’ schedules, preventing them from seeing family or friends, not allowing them to work or study, and telling them what they can or cannot do. Among this age group, the tolerance of male chauvinist attitudes is on the increase, and not only among boys: 32% of the girls “tolerate” masculinist behaviours as opposed to 29% of all Spanish women, 34% of the boys in comparison to 28% among all Spanish men. It is, then, more urgent that ever to give voice to the members of these young generations who are completely opposed to any form of abuse, and who demand loudly that gender equality is finally reached.

The 32 essays in the hands of the reader were written in answer to two questions: “Why do we need Feminism today?” and “What worries me most about gender is…”. I gave my students (enrolled in my new elective subject ‘Gender Students (in English)’ 2014-15), no guidance whatsoever so as not to curtail their personal approach to my questions. I did ask them, though, to speak to the older persons in their family, and to other similarly aged acquaintances. As you can see, many followed my advice, composing thus not only a candid generational portrait but, quite often, a simultaneous view of three generations. I am sure they learned as much from talking to their elders as I have learned from reading their sincere, moving essays.

I believe that the main collective contribution we are making here is a vindication of the words ‘feminist’ and ‘Feminism’. In my own youth I was very much reluctant to identifying myself as a feminist for, as I understand now in hindsight, a young woman starting her career will naturally reject women’s disempowerment. Now, when I am only two years away from hitting 50, I see things very differently, not so much because I feel personally disempowered but because so many young girls not only reject feminism but are actively supporting patriarchy. It takes much commitment to sustain a sense of your own autonomy and to build your biography on the basis of your own total independence, which is, no doubt, why so many are slipping back into male dependence (romantic and/or economic). You’ll see here that young girls and myself face together the same problem: the meaning of Feminism is poorly understood–the aim is not replacing misogynistic patriarchy with an androphobic matriarchy, but fighting for equal rights for all. I have been calling this struggle ‘anti-patriarchal’ for years and this is what it should be: a common front where men and women join forces to face patriarchy and build a new genderless world.

I am not particularly happy to be teaching Gender Studies, as I am very sorry that they are still needed. I want to go the way of the abolitionists who needed not raise their voices after the end of formal slavery (racist abuse and exploitation, unfortunately, are still here). Teaching Gender Studies involves many problems: it is hard to get the recognition you may earn in less confrontational fields, (2) it often feels like painting yourself into a debased feminine corner and, finally, it too often appears to be an exercise in preaching to the converted (though you’ll see one essay here by someone who is by no means convinced by my discourse). Teaching Gender Studies is, however, also immensely rewarding since it has a very direct impact on young persons’ lives, as you will see, and on my own, as I need to rationalize an anti-patriarchal discourse which is often too emotional for words, too grounded on rage and fear. I am just sorry that I am not reaching more men. The proportion you will find here (7 men, 25 women) may seem low at about 25% for the men but it is actually higher than the 15% they occupy in the BA degree I teach, ‘English Studies’. Ideally, the proportion should have been closer to 50%, but, well, the Humanities are by no means a favourite choice for male undergrads.

I believe there is a similar proportion of non-heterosexuals writing in these pages, about 25%, including here both boys and girls. There is also a transgender man, whose discreet presence in my class has, nonetheless, provoked me into rethinking my whole approach to gender. The syllabus of my course, which can be seen here: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/121835, intended to cover gender in all its manifestations. One day, when I complained that the class was very quiet, a girl told me privately that the silence often manifested shock at the radically new ideas from Gender Studies researchers I exposed my students to. Yet, for me, the presence of my new student was a constant reminder that I am not (yet) radical enough. I may have chosen for my students to see femininity, masculinity, gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual, intersexual and transgender texts but this was not enough. The real challenge, in which I think I partly failed, was altering the order of this list and making my teaching far more queer than it is–even though I think it is very queer indeed, heteroqueer but firmly queer all the same.

I’ll finish by thanking my wonderful students from the bottom of my heart for the personal confidences they pour here. And for their boldness, as I am not sure I could have written what some of them offer here. I am very, very proud to have elicited all this valuable insight into gender and Feminism from them.

1. Vidales, Raquel. “Una de cada tres jóvenes considera aceptable que su pareja la controle.” El País, 27 January 2015, http://politica.elpais.com/politica/2015/01/27/actualidad/1422363044_535263.html
2. See: “Teaching gender studies as feminist activism : still struggling for recognition” (paper presented at the international Gender Spring Conference, Setting a New Agenda for Equality Policies, Centre Francesca Bonnemaison, Barcelona, Spain; 25-27 June 2014.) https://ddd.uab.cat/record/126586

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INCREASINGLY RARE BOOKS OF THE RECENT PAST: READING NAOMI MITCHISON’S MEMOIRS OF A SPACEWOMAN (1962)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Today I’m going simultaneously in two directions: I am demanding that Open Access policies be extended to the literary works of deceased authors, and I am praising a rare book (which has caused me to consider the matter of literary legacy). Let’s see if I can be minimally coherent.

Books have this way of deciding when you are ready for them. Suddenly, you notice that references to them in other books glow as if highlighted by a fluorescent felt pen, and then you know the time has come to read them. This has happened to me recently with Norbert Wiener’s essay The Human Use of Human Beings (1950, 1954) and with Naomi Mitchison’s novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962). In the first case, a Google search and two mouse clicks led me to an online free .pdf. In the second, I got trapped by BookDepository, which now has 15 of my hard-earned euros (for a mere 176 pages of a poorly printed book).

Wiener, the father of cybernetics, died in 1964, and, so, his copyright extends to 2034, following US legislation (life + 70 years). Accordingly, Amazon.com offers The Human Use of Human Beings in 27 different formats, divided among first-hand print, second-hand print, and .mobi for Kindle. Someone, however, the self-styled ‘conspirators’ of www.asaunder.org, have released a .pdf which promptly found a way into my own Kindle (via www.calibre-ebook.com). I have already read Wiener’s fascinating warning against the subordination of human beings to machines, the very instruments his cybernetics revolutionized in the Second Industrial Revolution. I have learned this way that technophobia is rooted in the least expected minds; also that scientists like Wiener despaired about how the need to win World War II against Hitler had led to the (nuclear) horrors of the Cold War against the U.S.S.R. (not yet gone, think Ukraine).

Have I hurt Wiener’s heirs? In legal terms, I may have. Yet I feel that too restrictive legislation is hurting me and anyone else who wants to learn by withholding knowledge from public access. I respect the rights of the living authors, being one myself; yet, I totally support the implementation of Open Access policies, which are making research available in the shortest possible time lapse, particularly research paid with public funds. You may be thinking that I should draw a line, in any case, between the un-paid articles we produce, with costs covered by grants and our salaries, and books which, by definition, depend on a separate contract. Perhaps. The point I am making here, though, is that copyright should cease with the author’s death, whether the author is a researcher like Wiener or a literary author like Naomi Mitchison.

Mitchison died much more recently, in 1999, at the very ripe age of 101. I had stumbled upon her name often when reading about Scottish Literature and was more or less aware that she was an important figure. I am, however, just beginning to grasp her importance. Mitchison published more than 90 books, had 7 children, was a social and political activist in several fronts… read the Wikipedia entry and judge for yourself whether this was a woman or several, living a kind of multiple quantum life.

At least 2 of her novels, Solution Three (1975) and Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), which I have just finished reading, were science-fiction. Now, the edition of Memoirs here by my side is part of the Naomi Mitchison Library by publishers Kennedy & Boyd of Glasgow, who aim at “offering twenty-first century readers the opportunity to discover her”. I should think that 21st-century readers would rather the Scottish Government or some Scottish university uploaded all her works for the whole world to read, but, of course, (British) copyright legislation is preventing this from happening. It’s complicated, isn’t it? You have a prolific, first-rate author whose books are mostly out of print, and you do have the means to make them universally available (think Project Guttenberg) yet the choice made (by whom?) is the traditional one: reprint the books. Make readers pay.

SF readers are used to finding gems like Memoirs of a Spacewoman no matter how invisible they may be and, indeed, the Internet Speculative Database (isfdb) carries notice of the diverse utopian and SF novels in the Mitchison Library re-published by Kennedy and Boyd. The additional problem is that, unfortunately, the preface for Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Isobel Murray, the emeritus professor in charge of editing Mitchison’s volumes, is totally unsympathetic towards SF. Mitchison’s novel, she tells us, “begins not with space ships or amazing rays, but with a list of people.” She is at pains to deny that, look at the title, Memoirs of a Spacewoman is SF because, as the back cover blurb reads, the protagonist Mary “is also a very credible human.” I am used to finding very credible humans in SF novels and I wonder what kind of literary snobbishness is blinding Murray into thinking that SF is all about “amazing rays”. Her preface then, does nothing to help place this amazing novel where it deserves, actually distancing it from its true potential audience.

I was bowled over by Mitchison’s tale of Mary, the spacewoman who acknowledges with total candour that she loves being an inter-planetary explorer as much as she loves making babies. In Mary’s post-gender society, men and women are equally engaged in space exploration (at one point she becomes part of an all-woman expedition); the relativistic passage of time allows Mary, besides, to enter a variety of romantic relationships with complete freedom on both sides. Her babies become then the centre of her life for a year (until they are ‘stabilised’) and she moves on. Her job consists of establishing communication with alien species within a strict protocol of non-interference (I’m sure Iain Banks knew the Memoirs well…). In Mary’s civilization respect for the environment is fundamental, and communication with Terran animal species habitual. There are only a couple of academic pieces on this novel and one deals indeed, with this aspect. Oh, yes, and there is an Indian female scientist, and other non-white space explorers.

Mitchison penned this in 1962, only three years after Heinlein’s classic militaristic SF novel Starship Troopers and, what is far more relevant possibly, before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) started second-wave feminism. Indeed, years before Ursula K. Le Guin opened up the way for feminism to enter SF in the late 1960s. I always say that what I love about SF is the possibility of imagining a post-gender civilization in which women can choose to live as they please but until now I thought we were moving towards that kind of novel. Now I know we already had it in Memoirs of a Spacewoman, 53 years ago!!, but somehow missed it.

As we’ll miss it again, for who, in the age of the internet, will notice a book by a dead Scotswoman, published by a small Glasgow printing press? I don’t think either the printers nor he heirs will make all that money, after all… How many readers lost for this and for many other rare books!

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‘ATTENDING’ AN ONLINE CONFERENCE: A SATISFYING NEW EXPERIENCE

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

My belief in the need to generate low-cost academic activity and improve networking is not always easy to implement. Possibly already 3 years ago I came up with the idea of organizing a virtual conference (on SF) but I got totally stuck because a) I had never participated in one and b) the two mathematicians I contacted could find no accurate formula to calculate the number of questions/messages a participant should have to write (really, I’m serious about this). So I let that be.

Funnily, everyone with whom I commented my idea for the conference always assumed that a virtual conference requires some kind of actual interaction in real time using video. This may be the case in the more sophisticated version, perhaps, though I have no idea how people all over the world can agree to sit before their computer screen at a certain time to listen to someone speak online–what a strange thought!

I had in mind something much simpler, based on uploading papers, reading them and then opening up online forum discussion. I got to the point of setting up a blog for the conference, having a logo designed… and no further. Then I came across a call for papers sent for a juicy event: “Narrativas en clave de género: Cine y literatura, II Congreso Internacional Online del Instituto Universitario de Estudios Feministas y de Género Purificación Escribano, Universitat Jaume I”. This is it, I told myself: I need to join in and learn. To my infinite amusement and pleasure when I first contacted the organizers, one of them turned out to be my dear friend Dora Sales. Lucky me, now I have someone to guide me, too.

The conference, which finished yesterday, has run for 12 days. The principle is very simple: open a Moodle classroom, upload the papers a few days in advance, open a forum for each paper, let people interact (we have been using guest access to this virtual room). The delegates (25) get a certificate for submitting their papers but are also expected, of course, to interact with the public. In its turn, the public is expected to address questions to 50% of the delegates (=12) in order to obtain their own certificate of attendance.

There were 125 participants, 25 delegates and 100 persons in the (very active) audience. Here are the numbers: the most popular paper generated 75 comments, 41 from the audience, 33 in answer by the author. My own paper, among the least popular ones (um, perhaps Shakespeare is not as popular as X-Men or Hunger Games, who knows?) got 10 questions. This is much, much more than you get in any presential conference, where you’re lucky if you get 2 or 3 comments (plenary speakers may get 10/12 at the most). I am very, very pleased. The questions and comments were in all the forums I participated in better articulated, more sophisticated and complete than the questions I hear in conventional conferences. I assume that writing involves a greater deal of thinking than just speaking out. Also, the absence of time limits helps participants ask any questions they want, in contrast with the few minutes you get in a presential conference (5 usually, 15 if you’re very lucky).

Other advantages? You don’t miss any paper you may be interested in, unlike what happens when two exciting panels overlap in presential conferences. You can read ALL the papers if you wish, ask everyone questions. Since I was new to this, I opted for having a combined experience as delegate and audience, which means I also read 12 papers and sent questions to the authors. Yes, I gave myself a lot of work, pestered everyone else, but it was very, very enjoyable. Reading a paper takes less time than listening to the same paper, so it’s quite feasible to read all those you choose in a few hours and then use the rest of the time for online interaction. I have used time every day to check on the progress of debates for, obviously, an online conference demands discipline from participants. I can only see advantages… Also, in this way, papers are ready for publication before the conference starts.

I know what you’re thinking: I’d rather travel, see new places and meet people. Sure. Virtual or online conferences are not supposed to replace presential interaction, only to complement it.

Think, though, of the disadvantages attached to the traditional academic meetings: a) high expenses, as I mentioned, impossible to meet particularly by young, untenured academics, or even by tenured teachers if the conference takes place half the world away from your home; b) the need to interrupt your routine to attend a conference (you may have to make up for missed lectures, over-crowding your schedule; your family situation may prevent you from leaving even if only for a few days…); c) the torture that conferences are for shy people who dread not only speaking in public but also socializing over coffee breaks or dinner time…; d) the enormous stress for the organizers forced to balance impossible budgets with no grants to help them…

So, with my thanks to Dora Sales and Dori Valero for the experience, I’ll certainly go ahead and see if I can turn my own online conference into a reality. I’ll keep you posted…

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3+2 DOES NOT EQUAL 5: ON THE NEW DEGREE REFORM

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

The Spanish Government has finally approved the ‘Real Decreto’ by which universities may choose to offer BAs of 3 or 4 years, accompanied by MAs of 2 or 1 year, respectively. Just yesterday, the CRUE (the organization gathering together the principals or ‘rectores’ of all Spanish universities), agreed to delay the revision of the degree to the 2017-18 academic year. Students are furious at the Government while they claim this new reform is for the sake of finally bringing Spanish degrees into the European system.

I myself have a ‘Licenciatura’ corresponding to the 1977 Ministry-approved syllabus. ‘Licenciaturas’, if you recall, consisted of 2 cycles: a first cycle, lasting for 3 years, in which students took a list of compulsory subjects; and a second cycle, lasting for 2 years, in which you specialised taking a considerable number of elective courses in your area. You might obtain a title at the end of the first cycle, called ‘diplomatura’, and there were actually independent ‘diplomatura’ degrees. Yes, we already had a 3+2 system, with the whole 5 years costing the same fee. Funnily, we were told that the ‘Licenciatura’ was extravagantly long in relation to other European countries which already had a 3+2 system. Then the fashion started for the very rich to pursue MA degrees abroad…

The ‘Licenciatura’ was reformulated for the new 1992 Ministry-approved syllabus, and reduced down to 4 years, still with no MA degrees. If you wanted to pursue further studies then the next step was a doctoral programme. The one I started back in 1991-2, consisted of 2 years tuition on the basis of elective subjects, followed by 1 year to write the ‘tesina’ or small dissertation, followed by 3 years for the ‘tesis’ or main dissertation. When I started teaching in this programme, we all referred to the first two years plus ‘tesina’ as the ‘master’s equivalent’, though I’m not sure you could obtain a title. Yes, anyone my age had to spend 8 years in university before writing the first line of a doctoral dissertation, now it’s down to 5.

The 4-year ‘Licenciatura’ was remodelled again in 2000 before the European Union decided to implement the Bologna agreements for convergence into the European space of education. In 2006, then, the ‘Licenciatura’ was transformed into the current 4-year BA degree, the doctoral programme lost its courses and the new MAs were implemented. I was there in the front line and I very clearly recall the chaos as we were given very lax instructions about what kind of MAs we should devise and how many to offer. At one point, my Department thought of offering 3, this was reduced to 2 and after trying to stay afloat independently, we finally merged 2 years ago our 2 MAs into 1. In 9 years, then, the MA I teach in has been reformed 3 times–not a good sign.

I am glad, then, that CRUE has decided to take some time to organize the new reform as, to begin with, we still haven’t tested the performance of the 2007-8 degrees. It seemed as if we would be running the tests at the same time that we did the paperwork for the new option. My own personal view is that English Studies should keep its current 4+1 scheme, as students need time to learn the language apart from the contents. We cannot put anyone at C1 level at the end of only 3 years, much more so if the first year, as rumoured, is entirely transversal (= not in English). I also believe that students would chose 4+1 English Studies degrees rather than a 3+2 version for the same reason and also, here’s the crux of the problem, because whereas in the old 5-year Licenciatura fees were the same for all years, this is NOT the case in the new 3+2 system.

Here are the maths: 60 ECTS (=one year) of the BA in English Studies cost 1657.12 euros, hence, the complete degree costs 9536 euros. The MA’s fees are 2907’52. Students can complete a 4+1 education investing a total 9536 euros. With the 3+2 formula, using the current fees, the BA would be down to 4971.36, but the MA would amount to 5815.04, and the total cost would be 10786.4, that is to say, 1250 euros above the current 4+1 system. This might not seem a lot to English students paying up to 9,000 pounds a year for BA degrees (and leaving university heavily indebted) but it is very high considering the post-crisis catastrophic situation of most working-class families (in Scotland, a referent for the, ehem, future Catalan state, local students pay no BA fees).

The Government claims quite cynically that families will save 150 million euros with the new system, as young persons will be able to enter the job market in a shorter time and at a lower cost. Then, they can save money and decide whether to take an MA. What job market, I wonder? The only jobs available are badly-paid subsistence-level jobs that make being a ‘mileurista’ seem a dream. Anyone but the Government can see that these extra 1250 euros (far more in other specialities) will tip the scales against the economy of most working-class students. They will fail then to compete in the top rank of the tiny job market with middle-class persons in possession of an MA degree (the upper classes really compete with nobody).

In short: while the simple transformation of the old Licenciatura into a formal 3+2 system maintaining the same fees would have been quite smooth, the Government has chosen the worst possible moment to implement the new system. 2006, when the chance was missed, would also have been preferable, as the crisis had not started yet and the current resistance to the MA programmes’ inflated fees had not materialized.

Supposing the fees problem were solved, we still need to tackle the pedagogical problem. In my 23 years as a teacher I have seen university degrees progressively lose much of their conceptual density (their ability to train people seriously). This is partly due to the lowered standards of secondary education and partly to the increasingly widespread idea that having a degree matters more than accruing real knowledge in a field. From what I hear, there is more concern about the matter that oh, poor Erasmus students have so many problems because of our 4+1 system than about what exactly we teach students. I heard a top-ranking person at UAB speak of MAs as a key tool to internationalize our university and of BAs as general courses in which the process of accumulating knowledge, which so dramatically varies from the first to the third year, was totally ignored.

So: yes, why not? Let’s have 3+2 but let’s retrieve the best we lost with the 5-year Licenciatura and, please, prioritize equal-opportunity, non-classist education over the needs of foreign international students. I see the despair of the working-class students seeing the Government callously pushing them out of a serious university education and I can only sympathise, as I was one of them, and I have never ever forgotten what it was like.

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‘QUEDAR BIEN’: HOW TO BE POLITE (AND MAKE FRIENDS) IN ACADEMIC LIFE

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

The Spanish idiom ‘quedar bien’ (or Catalan ‘quedar bé’) doesn’t translate well into English. WordReference offers as basic suggestions “to make somebody happy”, “to make/cause a good impression”, “to look good to someone”. Elsewhere I have come across this: “to stay in good terms”, “to get in good with someone”, “to please someone”, none of these 100% accurate. I mean here, of course, “quedar bien” in the sense of following certain rules of politeness and not the “quedar bien” used for clothing (“that dress looks good on you”, “you look great in that dress”) or cooking (“me queda muy bien la tortilla de patata” = “my Spanish omelette tastes delicious”).

There must be much anxiety about the impossibility of finding a perfect fit in English for this idiom, for a Google search throws up mainly links to translations, not definitions. The RAE Dictionary seemingly does not gather idioms, for it offers no definition of this one, nor do its lexicographers include it in the entry for the verb ‘quedar’. Another bout of unfruitful googling leaves me wondering about this strange lexical blank: everyone knows what “quedar bien/quedar bé” means but nobody is offering a reliable definition of this expression; fancy how hard it must be to master by foreign learners of Spanish!

The point of my post today is actually wondering whether everyone does know what “quedar bien” means. I’ll offer my own version, to begin with, then offers examples of the opposite behaviour. “Quedar bien” means performing actions addressed to showing one’s own good will to please others, for the sake of making the relationship with them work well. I think this is it. This varies in degree: you may ‘quedar bien’ with your couple by organizing a candlelit dinner to show your love, or simply greet a neighbour every morning to be in nice, neighbourly terms. Funnily, I do not know whether the ‘quedar’ in the idiom is self-reflexive (“this makes me feel good”, that is, “me quedo bien”) or transitive (“I make/cause a good impression”). Probably a mixture of both. No doubt, “quedar bien” can be quite hypocritical, as it may even cover an intense dislike: I actually hate my neighbour and I use my daily greeting to avoid real conversation.

In, specifically, academic life “quedar bien” earns you many contacts (and indeed friends). This is a situation in which it is absolutely imperative to behave impeccably, as you never know who might be assessing you for publication, a research project, a tenured position… you name it! The worst possible situation, doubtless, is one in which your academic peers whisper behind your back that you are impolite, nasty or, God help me!, an arrogant bastard/bitch.

We are in need of maintaining our reputations beyond strict academic achievement, and it hurts nobody, as far as I gather, to have the reputation of being a real gentleman or lady. Yes, old-fashioned as this may sound (remember I teach Victorian Literature?). I do my best to apply this rule though, of course, it is for the others to say whether I am successful. I also do my best to incorporate to my academic life what others teach me, like emailing a thank you message to conference organizers once you return home, which I learned to do from a very polite English colleague.

“Quedar bien”, in short, entails a big or small personal sacrifice to do something you NEED NOT DO. Generally speaking, though, it only brings benefits–yes, it can be an extremely selfish attitude or even hypocritical, as I said. Now, for the examples of how NOT to “quedar bien” in academic life, this time including students:

*the by now increasing tendency, as I noted in my last post, to tell your Literature teacher that you don’t like reading (you don’t want to signify yourself this way)

*emails sent with no opening greetings and no closing words (how hard is it to write “Dear Professor, Here’s my essay. Thanks. Yours, Mary”?)

*not thanking people who have thanked you for something (“Thank you for being a good student” means, yes, that your teacher is fishing for a compliment)

*pretending you don’t see a teacher in the corridor: yesterday an ex-student made a point of NOT seeing me by… whistling as I passed by her side

*pretending you don’t see a colleague you don’t like that much in a conference you’re both attending (just say “hi, nice to see you” and move on)

*disrespecting in any way people in positions enabling them to a) grade your work, b) offer a reference letter or recommendation, c) hire you (this is the equivalent of shooting your own academic foot)

*being arrogant at conferences when asking questions to colleagues, both your own level or superior–coming across as if you know better than anyone else will make you no friends. If you want to be nasty and cannot help it, make sure you will not cross paths with this person ever again.

*express negative opinions about the work of people who have a say in your academic future, for instance by publishing a negative review of their work (oops!)

I could go on and on, I hope you get the idea. If you think I exaggerate, I know of an individual who is guilty simultaneously of the three last offences… my inspiration for this post.

You may be thinking at this point that “quedar bien” is all about being a complete hypocrite/sycophant/brown nose/ars licker… playing a hypocritical game. There is just a little bit of this but, believe me, it is not that difficult to distinguish between the genuine article and the phony one. A person who inclines towards “quedar bien” sets clear limits: “I’m greeting you in the corridor for politeness’ sake but this does not mean I admire you”. The sycophant knows no limits and will probably tell you in the middle of the corridor, for no good reason, how much s/he admires you. Yes, they overdo it.

Academic life is, I grant this, a delicate game based in many occasions on nuanced personal impressions. I find myself frequently discussing these days how big a hindrance personal differences are for teamwork to progress. Yet, happily for me, I work in a Department in which most colleagues believe in “quedar bien”, sometimes with an effort, more commonly making no effort. Teachers may spend decades with the same colleagues and this calls for subtle policies regarding how to make coexistence as nice as possible. Blunders happen, inevitably, but, needless to say, they must be avoided, particularly, let me be crass, to protect your own interests.

To finish: “quedar bien”, as I acknowledge, is a fragile mixture of selfishness and generosity which only brings benefits, whether professional or personal. Behaving like a “señor” or a “señora” must always be the rule, in any environment. In academic life there are inevitable power dynamics that, openly or covertly, rule our life and the worst anyone can do is ignore them.

I feel like one of those Victorian ladies who used to publish conduct books, but, well, one doesn’t teach Victorian Literature for a couple of decades with no effect whatsoever in one’s mentality. I’m even using the impersonal ‘one’ like Queen Victoria. Better stop now…

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