Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Yesterday I had the unusual pleasure of basing my lecture on a collective volume just issued, in which I participate: Àngels Carabí & Josep Maria Armengol’s (eds.) Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). Serendipity dictated the coincidence of publication and lecture, and I very much enjoyed this happy accident. The topic of the lecture was how to define manliness and how to find alternatives to its patriarchal version. I used Harvey Mansfield’s very provocative but cogent volume Manliness to stir my students into the mood I need to introduce the idea of the ‘alternative.’

‘Alternative’ is a complicated word, as we know in the research team ‘Building New Masculinities’ ( When we started working on the volume, we decided to use ‘alternative’ in the sense of ‘counter-hegemonic,’ which opened up new difficulties as ‘hegemonic masculinity’ is far from being clearly defined (it seems synonymous with ‘core patriarchal masculinity’ but many object to this basic description). The idea, however, is that ‘alternative’ should mean anti-patriarchal, pro-feminist, non-homophobic, non-racist… a version of masculinity with a positive potential for imitation.

The focus of the research team is American Literature. This is what the Ministerio funds us to explore but I have doubts myself that Literature has today much influence in publicising and disseminating gendered role models, positive or otherwise. The main focus seems to me to be elsewhere: in music, video-games, comics, film, TV, popular fictions… My team mates and I have made an effort to locate these alternative masculinities, then, in current US novels and plays, with a result which I find both hopeful and discouraging. Hopeful because we have managed to fill in a 244-page book but discouraging because the texts where these counter-hegemonic masculinities are found seem (to me) a little bit too marginal.

This might not be the case for the novels by Toni Morrison or Paul Auster discussed, but the variety of ethnic productions analyzed and my own inroad into Orson Scott Card’s SF (in his saga on Ender Wiggins) suggest that we’re not analysing texts with a high impact on masculinity but calling attention to texts that might have a moderate impact in their most immediate surroundings. This is not intended to discredit the work of my colleagues (which I find excellent) nor my own, of course, but to highlight a simple truth: you may find tons of feminist fiction but there is not a single male author out there with the project of working in favour of liberating men from patriarchal strictures. Actually, the volume suggests that women writers are carrying out this task more intensively (as part of their feminist agenda). It’s urgent, then, to invite men of all ages to generate the ‘missing’ texts.

The first part of Alternative Masculinities for a Changing World has been written by a selection of distinguished names in disciplines that, according to the editors, should engage in a dialogue with Literary Studies. I think this is a very good idea: yes, by all means, let’s learn more from anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc.

My class, however, were much dismayed by Michael Flood’s discussion of men’s anti-violence activism, as his chapter paints a very bleak portrait of widespread misogynistic violence and only a mildly positive portrait of the men engaged in fighting it. Instead of feeling inspired, a young man told me he felt appalled by the idea that his peers on American campuses, as Flood explains, needed to be educated in not raping their co-eds. Then, Bob Pease, another illustrious name, with a very long experience in raising anti-patriarchal consciousness among Australian men, writes his chapter: “The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to exercise power without oppressing anyone. For men to change for the better, power must be redefined so that men can feel powerful when doing the tasks that are not traditional for men.” Students were quick to see that power always entails oppression, as it is power over someone. A new vocabulary is, then urgently needed –we agreed that the right sentence should be “The challenge that confronts men is to find ways to feel self-confident without oppressing anyone.” The idea of a man feeling powerful as, for instance, he bathes a baby makes simply no sense to me.

Don’t get me wrong: I find the volume very, very interesting precisely because it is an index of the limitations under which the search for alternative, counter-hegemonic masculinities operates. The research results are, I feel, good and solid. What is not so good, much less solid, is the anti-patriarchal resistance described by all the authors. Hopefully, this is a first step in our own effort to raise consciousness. It might well be that we need fifteen to twenty years for young male and female writers to write the texts we’ve been looking for.

I need to add to all this two more comments. One is that teaching Gender Studies within the Humanities is a frustrating affair… as regards the male students. My degree has only 15% male students, which is roughly the proportion in my own class. The problem is that, in addition to being few they are silent. I have simply no idea what they were thinking as I lectured on masculinity, no matter how much I insisted that all big names in Masculinities Studies agree that it is crucial to listen to men. It would be naïve of me to overlook the simple fact that possibly my male students feel insecure and intimidated among so many outspoken young women. Yet I think the girls would be also grateful for their participation in debate.

Second: I asked my students to think of positive, alternative male role models in films and TV as I lectured and to name them at the end of the session. The boys said mostly nothing… The girls were clearly unimpressed by men’s efforts to combine manliness with an up-dated attitude towards gender issues and chose young male characters mostly defined as ‘nice’: caring and sensitive. I have no idea how this matches their real-life practice of choosing boyfriends but, then, I’m no sociologist. My impression, if you ask me, is that we know nothing and that little fiction accurately reflects the real state of gender issues today.

What a challenge for young writers…

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

This morning I was helping my 9-year-old niece to do her homework: a set of terminally boring exercises on how to use punctuation, designed to make any child hate commas and semi-colons for life. The cynical author had the gall of writing an exercise with the wording “Write an exclamatory sentence expressing how you feel right now.” My niece and I burst out laughing, we just could not stop. She came up with all kinds of nasty little sentences, as I wondered what kind of moron thought that generating frustration is educational at all.

Then I thought of my own frustration, produced by a meeting this week in which my university gave us, heads of Department and degree Coordinators, the basic set of instructions to produce yet another reform of our BAs (‘grados’). Basically, the idea is that the decision made back in 2007 to implement 240 ECTS, four-year BAs, is plain wrong. We need to go back to the drafting board and produce 180 ECTS, three-year BAs followed by 120 ECTS, two-year MAs. This way, we’re told, we’ll fit better the European system of higher education and facilitate mobility. Deep sigh. Abysmal sigh.

It seems that seven years ago the smaller universities pushed as mightily as they could to have a 4+1 system, on the grounds that students would leave them to take MAs elsewhere after only three years. My own university, very keen on the idea of the internationally attractive MA, wanted the 3+2 system we need to impose now (and which is apparently based on the British model). From what I hear, though, the universities now taking the lead and forcing the rest to follow are the private universities and, closer home, a public university behaving as a private one. As happened seven years ago, we’ve been told at the same time that we need not hurry and that we must hurry like Formula 1 racers: take the chance to consider in depth what’s been achieved with the new degrees, but prepare the reformed version in less than six months.

The Spanish Government has not issued the decree yet, which circulates just as a draft. This is enough, however, to set anyone’s teeth on edge. The whole key to this mess is that nobody seems to have considered how students will react to the very likely possibility that fees are raised once more. From what I gather, students are to be sold the idea that the three-year BA will not guarantee their professional insertion and will be ‘invited’ to take an MA, so that a) their education will be prolonged for up to five years (like the old ‘Licenciatura’), b) the fourth year will be more expensive –no longer part of the BA but of the MA. Surely, this will push many students out of the more serious part of the university –or is this the plan, that only middle-class students can get MAs and get the best jobs?

I personally have very serious misgivings about the three-year BA in the context of Spanish education, with a notoriously weakened secondary school. In the particular case of the degree I coordinate, ‘English Studies’, I see no way at all we can send into the market graduates with a competent level of English in just three years, particularly taking into account the plans to make the first year common to several degrees. We’ve been told not to approach the BAs as something specific to a speciality, as if they were to be just a glorified follow-up to secondary school. The real specialisation should be that of the MA. But, then, how can we train professionals in a second language? Add to this the last straw: the new law actually allows universities to offer degrees between 180 and 240 ECTS so, technically, we might decide at UAB to defend our current 4+1 system. Now, suppose our neighbours UB opt for the 3+2 system –who, then, would take our degree? And how can you put in the market-place graduates with this diverse education? I shudder to think of future doctors…

The person who gave us all this ‘good’ news, one of us, acknowledged that this is a very bad moment to ask our professional collective to make yet another massive effort: our salaries have been frozen for years, part of them simply stolen by the diverse Governments, we’re overwhelmed by the bureaucratization of education, and, most important, most degrees only started six years ago… But we have to go for it, and brave it with a smile. I am personally depressed and desperate, as I was in the front line during the preparation of the new degrees and endured a great deal of psychological anguish only last year, modifying the whole paperwork for purposes I’m not sure I understand. My successor as Coordinator (I’ll be done by the end of January) is a much more stoical woman and she has decided to take things as they come. Fair enough. She does not have, though, the experience of wasting precious hours in filling in 400-page documents with newspeak that puts Orwell to shame…

I’m very much aware that many European countries have this 3+2 system we need to introduce now but, if I’m not mistaken, these are the countries that back in 2007 changed nothing, as they already had short BAs followed by MAs. We saw our old ‘Licenciaturas’ destroyed, then the new degrees imposed with no time to consider their impact on us and now, once more, we need to imitate educational systems very alien to our own to please… the international students we want to attract to our MAs? That was my impression…

In the meantime, few are thinking of the enormous frustration that the students in our classrooms, engaged in four-year BAs with no future, will feel the moment they learn about this. And as I said, generating frustration is no way to educate anyone –nor to encourage those in charge of educating.

And, here the worst nightmare: if each reform is increasingly short-lived, for how long is the new system going to survive? Sisyphus comes to mind (without his original sin).

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

You may have heard that millions of I-Phone users were very much annoyed with Apple when they discovered that the new U2 album had been downloaded onto their smartphones without their permission. What you might not know is that the youngest I-Phone-addicts flooded Twitter with complaints beginning ‘who the f*** are U2?’ I wonder whether the 100$ million Apple paid U2 were enough to comfort the ultra-vain Bono… What a downer for his ego…

My subject today is not Bono, however, but (partly) how fast cultural memory fades, as the I-Phone blunder has revealed. We teachers often complaint that our students live in a limited version of the present with little or no insight into the past. Evidently, we are much older and what for them is history is for us living memory (I recall very clearly the huge queues back in 1987 to buy U2’s smash hit album The Joshua Tree). I say a ‘limited version’ of the present, nonetheless, because both U2 and Madonna, whom I mentioned in the last post, are very much alive and adding regularly new work to a very long career already. I wonder, then, what other icons, already deceased, mean to young students.

The particular icon I have in mind is Steve McQueen –no, not the British black film director responsible for Twelve Years a Slave, but the legendary American star of the 1960s and 1970s who died of cancer, aged only 50. Last Tuesday 7 Discovery Max showed the new documentary I am Steve McQueen (June 2014), directed by Jeff Renfro, written by David Ray and produced by Chad McQueen, a loving son as you can see in the film ( It’s not my intention to review the documentary (you can see a good review at ) but to discuss a few points it raises. This connects with my most recent article (available in 2015), on Manuel Huerga’s documentary Son and Moon (Diario de un astronauta) about Michael Lopez-Alegria. There I argue that documentaries are neglected as key primary sources in the study of masculinities –they show which kind of men we find interesting and from which point of view and this is indeed the case with I am Steve McQueen.

I was 14 when McQueen died which means that for me he was what I’ll call a ‘retrospective icon,’ someone you discover through other persons’ enthusiastic opinions and mainly an actor I have admired on TV, never on a cinema screen. I recall gossip, unlikely as this may sound as I was just a child, about his rocky marriage to pretty actress Aly McGraw (Hola! and similar magazines were a usual presence in my grandma’s home). I’ve caught up with McQueen’s legend later, seeing his films again on DVD, rediscovering above all The Great Escape, The Getaway and the absolutely thrilling Bullitt.

For me, McQueen has a kind of feline attractive: he looked sleek and cool (his nickname was ‘the king of cool’ for a good reason). He had always something boyish about him, the traces of the bad boy he could have been if luck had not placed him on the path of acting. I’ve never found him, though, as evidently good-looking as the stunning Paul Newman, a fellow actor McQueen seems to have admired and envied in equal measure (as shown by his jealous bouts during the making of blockbuster The Towering Inferno). McQueen simply had the most amazing blue eyes (‘piercing’ everyone calls them in the documentary) but he had this funny flat-top head, a longish face with that pointy chin, the deep cheek creases that aged badly, the fit but not really muscular body… The actor whom I thought the most likely candidate to be his heir, the late Paul Walker of Fast and Furious fame, was far more beautiful than McQueen. Yet, he did not have what McQueen had: charisma.

I am Steve McQueen contributes with its elegiac tone to the legend around the star precisely by focusing on his charisma, both on the screen and on the race track, as he possessed a heady cocktail of major acting and driving skills. At one point a male interviewee (I can’t remember who) describes him as a “guys’ guy” and you can bet this is a perfect label. The two ex-wives (Broadway star Neile Adams, the mother of her two children, and Aly McGraw) and the widow (ex-model Barbara Minty) share their memories on camera teary-eyed; Minty even presents herself as a kind of female version of McQueen in her pleasure for speed. As happened in the case of Michael Lopez-Alegria in Son and Moon, I was bowled over by this all-round praise of wholesome manliness. To put it simply: if thoroughly admirable men like this existed, women would be much, much happier. And so would men.

I was concerned by a comment in the memoirs published by Anoushe Ansari, a rich business woman who bought herself a ticket to travel to the ISS in Lopez-Alegria’s very reluctant company: he never smiled, she says, a bit wary. This is a very tiny stain in comparison to what the documentary glosses over in McQueen’s life: his constant infidelities, his rough temper, his short fuse. Neile Adams mumbles something about leaving him because she feared him. Also, the documentary attributes McQueen’s mortal lung cancer to the asbestos he was in contact with during his stint in the military. Well, fair enough, though I recalled from my childhood plenty of gossip about his being a very heavy smoker (and habitual drug user).

I am Steve McQueen has been produced, as I noted, by a loving son, Chad (the daughter, Terry, died in 1998) and it is very palpably a portrait of a father very much admired privately and, what is more, to be proud of publicly. Something, however, is missing: something which, if you ask me, Brad Pitt possesses right now, that perfect mix: the physical beauty, the personal charisma, the serene manliness and the firm commitment to his big family and to his wife (Paul Newman comes to mind again). Not that Pitt is my favourite male icon (I’m not sure I have one, except Atticus Finch…) but he comes closest than anyone else to what McQueen embodies in his son’s documentary. If Pitt’s not a “guys’ guy,” and I don’t think he is, then one thing I can say for sure is that he is a “gals’ guy” much more than (too) cool McQueen.

This may sound strange coming from a confirmed feminist as I am but I wish that, one day, the “guys’ guy” and the “gals’ guy” become the same person. If only we could have the (cool) manliness without the selfishness and the mysoginy lurking beneath all portraits of manly legends things would be so perfect.

Now go and enjoy Bullitt…

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

This post summarises debates in two sessions with my students in which they offered presentations on: Session 1) Madonna, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Adele, Lana del Rey; Session 2) Katie Perry, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez, and Selena Gomez.

During these sessions, we raised the following issues for debate:

Pop seems to be currently dominated by female performers, with individual male performers occupying a marginal position, except in boy bands (like One Direction). It was hard for us to name male first-rank pop stars beyond Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars.

The pop divas belong to at least two generations, with the oldest being well past fifty (Annie Lennox is 59, Madonna 56) and the youngest in their twenties (Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez were both born in 1992), having started their careers as teenagers.

The older divas are less well-known by younger audiences, for whom Madonna is not the indisputable referent she is for the generations born before the 1990s.

Madonna crucially contributed to the making of the contemporary pop diva the key idea that female performers should control their careers. Before she became a star in the 1980s that was not the case, with most female stars being manipulated by men close to them: managers, producers, partners (a classic example would be Tina Turner).

What is most controversial in Madonna’s case and her legacy is that she chose to empower the pop diva by flaunting her body and her sexuality, turning the object into subject.

This strategy worked fine for her but has resulted in a) an obsession with avoiding the effects of ageing, b) the diva’s own bodily objectification. This, while empowering for other women aware of feminist ideals, can be simply read by sexist audiences as an incitement to reading and consuming the diva as pure sexual object. It is very hard, then, to establish whether the diva’s self-presentation as a sexy, powerful woman is actually empowering.

The case of Adele, who does not present herself as sexualised, suggests that the sexualisation of many pop divas might actually serve to conceal moderate singing abilities (think Britney Spears). Adele’s voice seems an instrument solid enough for her empowerment as a pop diva. Those who have gossiped about her being fat (Karl Lagerfeld) have been harshly criticised, though this seems to be in contradiction with the prejudiced treatment met by fat (or plus-sized) women in ordinary life.

In most cases, the pop diva shows a contrast between her self-assured public presentation and the lyrics in her songs, which display much vulnerability. The diva’s successful career often seems at odds with the feelings expressed in the songs, suggesting she might not want to alienate audiences who believe in an essentialist idea of gender and romance.

The pop diva is an object of intense public scrutiny, particularly as regards her private life: marriage (Beyoncé), dating younger men (Madonna, Jennifer Lopez), being with abusive partners (Rihanna), being with partners who are themselves a celebrity (Selena Gomez). A peculiar case is that of Taylor Swift, who, sadly, has earned a reputation as a (promiscuous?) woman unable to commit because of the many relationships she has been involved in.

Regarding the pop diva and feminism, we have seen varied attitudes with a common denominator: either the pop diva rejects feminism but practices it notwithstanding, or the pop diva publicly embraces feminism after rejecting prejudiced definitions of this word. Beyoncé seems to be using a didactic approach which might be beneficial (though Annie Lennox has questioned her feminism as just tokenism).

Of all the divas explored, Beyoncé is no doubt the most successful and powerful one: her career is very solid, and she is in a stable relationship, married to the most powerful male musician right now (Jay-Z) and the mother of a daughter. She is rich, beautiful and well-liked, perhaps because she seems to be more ‘respectable’ than the other divas (she’s been involved in no scandals).

In contrast, the most controversial pop diva seems to be Miley Cyrus as her extremely sexualised self-presentation can be alternatively read as an expression of (feminist) freedom or an unwise choice which degrades her as an artist. A crucial issue in this sense, as she used to be a teen idol playing Hannah Montana, is which effect this may be having on younger women who used to follow her as a role model. This would also refer to ex-Disney stars like Britney Spears or Selena Gomez.

Ethnic and racial issues are hard to pinpoint: the white divas are not perceived as such, yet for the non-white divas race does not seem to be a major issue, possibly because non-white performers have always been a prominent part of pop. The fact that Madonna is white and Beyoncé African-American seems irrelevant as regards their success, since they reach all kinds of audiences (Beyoncé, though, possibly has a high value as role model for other African-American women performers). Other, like Jennifer Lopez, seem to be exploiting an ethnic identity (Latino) of which they do not really participate.

Most importantly, it’s difficult to determine whether anyone has the right to criticise these divas or curtail in any way their self-presentation. This has always been a problem with feminism, as it usually appears to be unfairly censorious and fixed on rigid rules.

My own point of view is that as women we need positive role models that contribute to our empowerment. The pop divas are, arguably, the most visible face of women’s empowerment, much above politicians, business women or scientists. The problem is that their intensive sexualisation may actually undermine the possibilities for women to be empowered, particularly for those who choose not to present themselves in this way, or for whom this might be a serious obstacle (who would take a sexualised scientist seriously, whether man or woman?).

Their individual right to choose how to run their careers (and lives) clashes then with our collective need for role models which carefully avoid confusing self-empowerment with self-exploitation. A misogynist or a male chauvinist contemplating Rihanna’s half-naked body will not see an empowered woman but a confirmation of his own views that women are nothing but sexual objects.

Finally, the standards of beauty set by these attractive pop divas may even have a negative impact on the world of music itself, in the sense that less attractive women of great talent might feel inhibited from pursuing a career. Adele may be an exception, but if we consider the case of Spanish singer Rosa we see how, instead of adapting audiences to the diva’s original physical appearance, she has undergone a drastic process of transformation to suit audience’s preferences for slimmer women. In contrast, what is needed for women in careers with a great public projection is the same acceptance for variety that benefits men (think, for instance, how differently the body shapes of opera singers Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé have been read).

Just a little comment: as I noted, there are individual academic studies of some of these divas (Madonna and Beyoncé in particular) but no publication addressing the issue of what is a pop diva and how this figure is constituted today.

Fascinating, really…

PS: See my own articles about
*(with Gerardo Rodríguez) Kylie Minogue,
*The Scottish diva (Annie Lennox, Sharleen Spitteri, Shirley Manson),

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Sorry, this one is very long…

I’ve given hints here that I could a tale unfold if I wrote about my au-pair days back in 1985-6. I have just signed a reference letter for a girl student to be an au-pair in Britain and this brings back many complicated memories. I had a very hard time being an au-pair but, as I told this girl, this is an experience I would never erase from my life.

In these days of Erasmus grants, I guess that being an au-pair is not as popular as it was among girl students of English in my time. I decided to take a gap year between my second and my third in the five-year ‘Llicenciatura’ (BA) in ‘Filologia Anglesa’ because I was not making progress in English as fast as I wanted. Also, to be honest, I needed a change of air, as I could put up no longer with my father’s demands that I worked full-time (the money I made by teaching part-time went into books and fees). Once I decided to be an au-pair, I also decided to take the Proficiency examination, as that would provide a clear focus to my stay abroad and would help, as it did, in finding teaching jobs once back.

Just when I returned they started offering the first Erasmus grants. I never applied, fancy asking my father to send me abroad… I’ve often wondered how many poor students are by-passed as I had to be.

I worked for a grand total of five families in one year: one in Lincolnshire, one in Humberside, three in London. What went wrong? I applied too late and was sent, they told me, to the only family who would have me in October (most au-pairs started in September). This family was too poor to keep an au-pair so they soon chucked me out. My Spanish agency washed their hands of me, I was found another family by a local agency. I was given a big house to clean, owned by a couple formed by an older man… and a previous au-pair. It took me much tact to navigate her jealousy. I hated, anyway, being alone all day long in the middle of nowhere and decided to head south to London.

There, I was placed with a Greek family from Cyprus in Mill Hill, about one hour by tube from central London. I learned to dislike intensely suburban life, as I felt stranded all the time. Finally, I started attending school in preparation to taking the Proficiency exam. My lady employer, who’d placed entirely in my hands her huge house and also two little children for many hours, told me she did not care for my studies. Also, she had me working Saturday mornings, which left me with no time to go sightseeing with the other au-pairs… I decided to leave and found a family in Hampstead with two teen boys.

I loved Hampstead. Also, the couple who employed me were cultured persons and would point out to me interesting places in London, as they noted my eagerness to learn. I read non-stop as I was given free use of their library. Only later did I join a public library, something I should have done much earlier. This would be my first recommendation to would-be au-pairs: join a library, ideally a reading club –or any other club where you can make friends. Back to my tale: things grew stale between this unpredictable lady employer and myself; I grew awfully nervous around her and had all kinds of little domestic accidents to the point that she threw me out one early morning. Luckily, I had already met an elderly lady who promised to take me in if necessary and she honoured her word.

I was employed by this lady and her husband, both retired and living on their own, for the last five months of my stay. I was happy with them. My tasks were simple and clearly defined. They did talk to me and held actual conversations beyond giving me orders. Not all was perfect but I just wished I had found them at the beginning. The funny thing is how I found them: thanks to an ad on the window display of a local newsagent. Perhaps the most intelligent thing to do is to travel where you want to work as an au-pair and find an employer this way: face-to-face, in their own home.

I had a very romantic notion of what being an au-pair was about of which I was quickly disabused. It took me a while to understand that my diverse employers did not see a university student in me but just cheap foreign domestic help. Many hired me because they could not afford proper live-in help. I was never employed just to babysit, much less so in the house where they had the two little children. At that time Spain had a military service for young men and I used to joke that I had passed mine in Britain…

My best memories are of my free time roaming the streets of London (how I loved Hampstead, really!). I made friends but they were all au-pairs like me, which was not ideal to improve my English. The natives, of course, had no need to meet au-pairs (mere servants) at all. I never felt part of any family, none of my employers bothered to show me around or asked me questions about who I was and why I was in Britain. Other au-pair girls were much luckier than I, other faced a much worse deal.

I did pass the Proficiency examination, which comforted my poor, suffering mother. In those days my family had so little money I was not even back for Christmas, Dickensian as this may sound today. Cell phones did not exist and I wrote many, many letters. I returned a completely different person, much more confident, having proven that, if necessary, I could support myself by the sweat of my brow. I was a working-class servant for one year, and this I will never forget. Also, I read so much that I taught myself possibly the equivalent of two university years.

Yes, I often think of my employers, gossiping about that terrible Spanish au-pair they had back in 1985-6 and her itchy feet…

Beatriz (and all the other au-pairs in the world): my very best wishes, I hope you enjoy the experience.

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

This intense Harry Potter period of my life seems never to end… I’m currently teaching Oliver Twist to my Victorian Literature class on the usual pretence that they have all read the book and can follow my analysis. Well. Since they need to learn how to write a paper, I explained to them what a conference is and why papers are written, taking the chance to publicise an oncoming event at my own university: a conference on monstrosity (December 2014, Las mil caras del monstruo, to which I have submitted a paper on Voldemort. Now, that caught their attention… and mine to their alertness. Three students actually waylaid me at the end of my lecture to demand that I teach again the Harry Potter elective… a tall order!

This is why I decided to use the last 15 minutes of my lecture yesterday to a) present the connections between Oliver Twist and the Harry Potter series, b) introduce students to the concept of intertextuality (first coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966). In the process I learned that the majority of students in class have read Rowling’s saga (and enough Dickens to follow me, good…). Also, that there must be something uncanny in the links between the two authors and the two characters because a girl student got goosebumps several times as I lectured (her physical reaction was certainly intense).

So here we go. Intertextuality, a notoriously wide-ranging term, replaces the old-fashioned idea of ‘influence’. It is, despite the looselessness of its meaning, very useful to discuss how texts keep a dialogue with each other, which can be more or less willed, more or less direct. Some intertextuality is explicit (James Joyce’s Ulysses), some implicit. We can see this for Oliver Twist as well: Terry Pratchett wants us to see at first sight that his novel Dodger connects with Dickens’s work, Rowling is not particularly interested in establishing a connection but this is visible enough and very strong at some points. Uncannily so.

Of course, as a student pointed out yesterday, the list which follows might simply be pure coincidence. Or have just dubious value, I’ll add. Precisely, it was my intention to alert students to the fact that intertextuality tends to be extremely subjective, hard to prove persuasively, and always open to criticism.

Now, consider (sorry about the spoilers):

*Harry and Oliver are orphans. They both spend a miserable childhood, which includes a stay with unsympathetic pseudo-parents (the Dursleys, the Sowerberrys) with a particularly nasty foster mother. They’re both bullied in this foster home by an older boy (Dudley, Noah).
*The trope of the mother’s death is displaced in Harry Potter to Tom Riddle’s birth, the difference being that Merope Gaunt lets herself die after giving birth. Both Agnes (Oliver’s mother) and Merope become pregnant by men who keep with them a relationship beset by problems (Oliver’s father actually seduces the poor woman and tricks her into a false wedding, no matter how much he loves her; Merope bewitches Tom Riddle Sr. with a love potion).
*Both Oliver and Harry are protected by their dead mother’s blood: Harry literally and also in the person of his unkind aunt Petunia; Oliver by his much kinder aunt Rose Maylie, who saves him from his life of crime and the persecution of the main villains.
*Harry and Oliver are roughly the same age (11) when they leave behind their known environment for a new world of which they know nothing: the world of wizarding and the world of crime, respectively. I might argue that Fagin is a wicked version of Dumbledore but I’ll let that be…
*Both James Potter (Harry’s father) and Oliver’s father, Edward Leeford Sr., are characters with moral flaws: James used to be a bully at school, as his victim, Snape, reveals; Leeford was quite dishonest about his marital situation with Agnes.

Here comes my favourite bit: Mr. John Brownlow. This is a rich bachelor gentleman, with a London establishment of his own, and the closest friend of Oliver’s dead father. When after many incidents Rose puts Oliver again in touch with him, Mr. Brownlow ends up offering Oliver a happy home and adopting the boy. The moment I named Sirius Black my students understood that he is Brownlow’s equivalent in the Harry Potter saga, with a difference: he dies too soon, too cruelly. Essentially, once he is rescued from Fagin and Sykes’s hands (thanks to Nancy, another Lily Potter sacrificial figure), Oliver has no role in his own story, except that of offering forgiveness. In contrast, Rowling forces his boy to face his arch-enemy alone, once he’s lost his protectors (Sirius but also Dumbledore, Snape). Dickens, always a sentimental man regarding children, would have been horrified at her cruelty. I am.

Finally, both Oliver and Harry make me wonder about their goodness. Dickens defended himself from criticisms against Oliver’s idealisation claiming that the boy represented a ‘principle of good’ beset by evil. There is a wonderful scene in which Nancy throws a tantrum, full of rage against Fagin’s physical ill-treatment of the boy; her point is that Oliver will soon become a degraded criminal, there’s no need to add abuse to this. Shortly after this explosion, however, Fagin tells Monks, Oliver’s arch-enemy, that the boy is impossible to train for a life of crime as he has nothing to scare him with. Harry seems, likewise, impervious to the attraction of the dark side, no matter how often Voldemort insists that they’re quite similar. In both cases the reward for this triumphant inner goodness is a happy (middle-class) family life with the difference, as I have noted, that the child Oliver is rescued by others from evil (imagine a nice aunt Petunia helping a stable Sirius raise Harry), whereas Harry must grow up and rescue himself.

The goosebumps of the girl student and the wand watching my back as I write (Sirius’s of course) suggest to me that other operations apart from rational intertextuality are at stake in this kind of connection. Most likely, I need Jung’s collective unconscious and not Freud’s idea of the uncanny to explain them, though there’s something truly uncanny at work. Brownlow, based on a well-known Victorian philanthropist of the same name (secretary to the Foundlings Hospital Dickens knew so well) suggests that something resonates in us when we read about unprotected children. I firmly believe Freud was too focused on the little and big dramas of the patriarchal nuclear family to note other figures we set much store by, and which, somehow, Brownlow (adoptive father) and Sirius (godfather) embody. Dickens understood this, by the way, much better than Rowling, which is why he paid homage with his fictional character to the man employed in real life to protect abandoned babies.

I’ll keep on thinking about that. You, too.

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Just by sheer coincidence my first and my last post this month have to do with time and how we employ it in consuming fictions. I wrote on 1st September about whether investing so many hours on watching one of those US TV series so popular today is worth it. I argued that this is not the case (for me), and came to the conclusion that I won’t invest more than 20 hours in any given narration.

Then, two colleagues called my attention to a couple of related questions. On the one hand, Laura told me about a piece in about “How Long it Takes to Read the Most Popular Books” ( On the other, David emailed us to comment on Ian McEwan’s recent boutade, arguing that most novels are too long. I don’t have an exact link for this, but it seems McEwan offered this critique on Radio Four’s Today programme.

“My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil,” he claimed, when he reads books above the 800-page mark (think Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch). McEwan added that “The Americans especially love a really huge novel, they still pursue the notion of a great American novel and it has to be a real brick of an object. Very few really long novels earn their length.” ( McEwan’s most recent volume (224 pages) is a novella, he says, The Children Act, just 55,000 words long. McEwan’s statement has not really impressed readers: a poll run by The Guardian showed that 52% disagreed with him. One can always make the obvious claim that this depends on the novel in question, although I would agree that not all novels “earn their length.” Also, with McEwan’s hint that novelists need more than ever the good offices of competent editors.

If we take a look at the piece, we’ll see that McEwan’s novella is, rather, a novel, similar in length to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (53,234 words, the paperback is 256 pages long). I do not understand the calculations in that page as the logical thing to do would be to note the hours and minutes it takes to read a text, instead of which they use a decimal notation (2.96 hours for Esquivel’s book). If my mathematics work correctly, this is 2 hours and 57 minutes at a rate of 300 words per minute. 3 hours and 3 minutes for McEwan’s book (which he wants us to read in one sitting). I have checked and this is more or less how fast I (a very experienced reader) read, but it might not be feasible at all for, say, one of our first year students painfully reading in a second language. Or many native speakers of English, depending on their education.

Then, I doubt anyone can manage Sophocles’ Antigone in 0’61 hours (that’s 36 minutes, isn’t it?), reading at the same pace one would read a Tom Clancy thriller. Length is not all that matters, as my students, currently reading Oliver Twist must now be thinking. Just to comment on a few titles: the whole Harry Potter saga amounts to 60 hours (the time I spent watching The Wire!). War and Peace, the longest volume I have ever read at 1,800 pages requires 32.63 hours (with volumes that long, I tend to count days, not hours –it took me a long August to read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, same with Tolkien’s trilogy of The Lord of the Rings). And I don’t think that readers willing to read George Martin’s massive A Song of Ice and Fire care about the hours, days, months, or even years this will take.

I do not know whether this is a consequence of that Kindle function which enables you to see how long you need to read a volume (the machine establishes your speed once you read a few pages). Yet, something tells me that in this overcrowded fiction panorama of today time is beginning to matter (will writers also count the hours invested in particular novels?).

This came the same week my 13-year-old nephew and I had this crazy conversation about the new game Destiny, at 550 million dollars the costliest piece of fiction ever. We got into quite a tangle trying to work out how many hours (minimum) a player would expect from the game and how this related to its high price (55 to 75 euros depending on the retailer, though he had seen a special edition at 150 euros). Perhaps Mr. McEwan is missing the point that readers are happy to read thick volumes because (like gamers) they get value for money, that is, many reading hours. With his slim novellas one is done on any rainy afternoon (like today’s); that might be simply too expensive for someone used to paying what his little book costs for a thick paperback.

I puzzle, anyway, every time I take my Kindle to see that duration has replaced length for me as a reader. The first thing we do, Virginia Woolf said, when we pick up a new volume is to see how many pages it has. Not any more, it seems, or not always.

(I’m told games do not have a specific duration, as this depends on how we play them. I read though that the first player to reach level 30 in Destiny has consumed 107 hours, which seems to be an absolute record. Also, that other gamers are complaining that the game runs out too fast. So much to learn…)

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Back on May 12 I published a post commenting on my students collective volume, Addictive and Wonderful: Reading the Harry Potter Series ( Today, I’m announcing the publication of our second collective volume, Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series (

The elective I taught last Spring, ‘Cultural Studies in English: The Case of Harry Potter’ has given me many satisfactions but also much work, as I decided to turn it as well into an experiment on teaching. I’m writing this post today with the aim of describing this experiment, in case it is useful for any colleague out there. I am repeating many of these innovations in my current elective subject (also fourth year), ‘Gender Studies (in English)’.

To begin with, I choose a handbook, on which I based my initial lectures: David Walton’s excellent Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice. I soon realised that there was no way I could write one or several exam questions to test my students’ reading of this ultra-rich volume. I asked them instead to produce their own exam question: read the book, select a topic, find a text related to it (not Harry Potter), e-mail me the question. On the day of the exam, they brought from home a printed page with the question, and if they wished so, a quotation to comment on. Then they wrote in class the 500-word argumentative essay planned at home. It worked beautifully, not just because, obviously, everyone passed, but most importantly because they learned to ask questions rather than simply answer them.

The short essays published in Addictive and Wonderful were not part of assessment for two reasons: a) I hadn’t planned to publish this before the course started; 2) I want students to learn that assessment is not everything and that it’s fine to produce ideas for free (I’m doing this here all the time). When I started reading the essays, the idea of the volume came to me as a sudden inspiration. I have just checked and, as happens, 492 persons have downloaded already this volume from its location at my university’s digital repository. I had no idea we could reach this kind of readership at all. Something else I have learned, then. This semester I’m repeating the experience, with a volume by my students on gender issues (currently at its very early stages).

The second volume Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series, was clearer in my mind when I started teaching the subject but I think I miscalculated the effort it would entail from me. Not that I regret it, quite the opposite –once more, I’m trying the experiment again.

I offered my students a list of 50 topics, a wide-ranging panorama of Rowling’s series. I had no clear idea of the coherence the final volume might have but hoped for the best. My reasoning was that since I had to mark the papers anyway, I could turn my marking into preliminary editorial work, then use the corrected texts as the basis for a second round of editorial revisions before publication. I was quite sure from the beginning that I would not teach Harry Potter again, a decision I am going to maintain because there is no way I can reproduce the atmosphere generated by the happy convergence of a particular group of students and a particular group of guests. The volume would be a trace left for ever by that happy experience.

The papers were part of assessment and I awarded the corresponding marks. As it is my habitual practice, I asked for revisions in a handful of cases. Only one student among those who followed continuous assessment failed the subject, the rest passed but I decided to discard 5 of the 38 essays because they demanded a too extensive revision before publication. I was on the whole happy with the papers and awarded high marks.

The course was over by the end of June but I could not lay my hands onto the projected volume again until late August. This was good because texts need to cool down, if you know what I mean. When I took a second look, however, I almost gave up.

Even though I had provided my students with a template for their paper, thinking this would diminish my workload as an editor, and they had mostly used it well, I had to make the 33 final essays as homogeneous as possible in terms of editing. Luckily, I learned a few new tricks from Word which saved me plenty of time (like how to accept all revisions in the text). I spent anyway a whole week, Monday to Friday, working on the text. This included all aspects of text layout, including the cover, for which I had a wonderful illustration by the talented Genzoman.

In the preface I wrote that 85% of the text was my students, 15% mine. This is correct, I believe. Call me silly but I had not realised that the impression a student’s paper produces for the purposes of awarding it a grade has nothing to do with the impression it produces when you’re thinking of publication. I have by no means changed the nature of the papers but I have worked hard on the language, careful not too make it sound artificial for an undergrad. This has been a challenge: let it be as it is, but make it nicer. A little, yes, like applying a discrete layer of make-up.

What puzzled me enormously is that, once I saw the complete volume, it turned out to have much coherence. The essays are organised by students’ surname but –this must be yet another example of the magic haunting my Harry Potter course– they connect this way much better than in any other way I could have planned. I really think the volume is quite decent, a strange word, I know. I suppose other teachers have published similar volumes but the word that sums up how I feel is ‘proud’, very proud indeed. Whether this is a pioneering initiative or not, it doesn’t really matter.

Finally, without my university’s repository I may not have thought of publishing the volumes. I have my own professional website and I have published there plenty, yet I am convinced by now that the repository seems to work better. I wonder that people are downloading the volumes at all but it’s nice to see the count grow. I’ll be very happy if both Addictive and Wonderful and Charming and Bewitching reach 500 downloads.

I forget: this is as low-cost as it can be, and it is still a book. I have spent no money at all, just my own personal work and my students’. This, I believe, is how knowledge should flow: we have the instruments to generate content for the internet, and we must use them.

I hope this experience encourages and inspires other colleagues to do the same, in whatever courses they teach. And students as well.

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

It is always thrilling to witness a key historical moment, and today it is one. The results of the Scottish referendum on independence mark, as many political commentators have noted, a decisive turning point in the History of the United Kingdom, which will have to revise urgently the conditions of the union (including, most likely, the establishment of an English local Parliament and Government –how intriguing!).

I am personally fascinated by the political savoir faire with which this delicate process has unfolded during the last fifteen years on both sides of the border. A friend who’s now a Glasgow resident emailed me a couple of days ago to explain that watching the debates was absolutely exciting. The very existence of these debates and the chance the Scots have had to manifest their opinion attest to the high degree of maturity and stability that democracy has in the UK.

My own reading of the 55/45 result, which I am offering here both as a Cultural Studies specialist very much interest in Scotland and as a Catalan, is that this is neither a vote in favour of the union, nor against independence. It is a vote that expresses uncertainty about the future. Perhaps this is my own interested personal reading but what I am trying to argue here is best summarised by the opinion of a Scottish gentleman I heard yesterday on TV: “I cannot vote ‘yes’ to a matter politicians disagree so much on”. He defined himself as an independentist.

Both sides stand to gain in the end: Cameron will be a hero for keeping the union alive, Salmond another hero for doing his best to grant Scots the right to choose. In my view, though, they have both lost: Cameron had to use a fear campaign to increase the ‘no’ vote, Salmond could not convincingly explain what the future of an independent Scotland would be like. Neither was persuasive enough about the benefits of staying on or of leaving. The anxiety about the future, rather than patriotism of either kind, has ultimately carried the day.

How do I know? Because even Cameron himself has realised that the union can only survive with less, rather than more, centralism. If the Scottish vote really meant a wish for a stronger union, there would be no need to grant the Scottish Government and Parliament greater powers as Cameron promised to do during his campaign. There might be even good grounds to withdraw some of the powers already devolved in order to strengthen the union. I heard talk today of a future ‘federal’ United Kingdom. Logically, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, who were holding their breath waiting for the results to materialise, are now also demanding more powers. Soon the English will also wake up from their lethargy and assume once and for all that England is one nation in the union, not the union itself.

The message behind all this is, in my view, very clear: people want matters closest home to be decided locally, and think of unions as fulfilling a role only for large scale issues and institutions (Scotland will not go to war against the Islamic State, but NATO will). Also, this is the second message, even though the small Scandinavian countries seem to be the most desirable model in many senses (Norway is the referent for Scotland), the republican federal model of the United States and Germany seem to work best for economic development. Most likely, a federal British monarchy (if they persist on supporting the Windsors, God knows why) is the solution best suited to that particular corner of west Europe.

In this particular corner of south Europe, the media are focusing today not on the result (which might very well reflect a similar division here, too) but on the fact that the Scots have had the chance to vote. Today the Catalan Parliament is passing a law to secure Catalan citizens’ right to be consulted in major decisions, a law than will be immediately annulled by the Spanish Government, for fear that the projected 9 November referendum might result in a pro-independence vote. I wonder why Rajoy has never considered, like Cameron, the possibility that the ‘no’ might win. His own permanent ‘no’ is fast undermining unionism and increasing the independentist ‘yes’. And, something else he cannot see, leaving Catalan unionists completely desauthorised.

I am personally worried sick about what might happen in an independent Catalonia as I believe we would all be impoverished and, anyway, we don’t have enough information to make a reasoned decision (what’s the rush, I wonder?). I do, however, firmly support the right of citizens to decide, not only on this crucial matter but on many other equally crucial matters like what kind of education, justice, welfare services, etc. we want. I actually would like the Spanish Parliament to pass that kind of law and, thus, prevent certain Ministers from implementing laws nobody wants.

The matter of Scotland might not be over. If I recall correctly, in Quebec they have voted on independence several times. I’m sure, however, that Salmond will take a reasonable break before he or someone else in the SNP tries again (perhaps one generation?). The funniest thing about the whole process is that an independent Scotland with her own monarch would see our dear Cayetana de Alba, the last of the Stuarts, crowned Queen Cayetana I. Alba, of course, is the Gaelic name for Scotland. Here we don’t even know whether we’d be a Republic, or, this is a nice joke, still part of King Felipe VI dominions –a joke since he’s a Borbón as much as the independentists arch-villain Felipe V, his direct ancestor.

Congratulations, once more, United Kingdom, on facing a major crisis with an admirable democratic spirit. I hope citizens in Scotland continue the debate and work for what really matters: a transparent political system, accountable to all voters, and as close to them as possible.

[By the way: I’m celebrating today the fourth anniversary of this blog. Thanks for reading me!!]

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I am very fond of timelines. I find that one of the problems of the post-traditional model of education is that it has condemned memorizing as a useless nuisance. This leads to a great deal of imprecision regarding exact historical dates, which in its turn produces a hazy impression of historical periods. Without learning particular dates one may think that the whole 20th century is an undifferentiated mass of events with just a few major highlights. Thus, it is not rare in Spain for young persons to name incorrectly the years when the disgraceful Civil War took place (1936-9) and to suppose that Franco’s brutal regime ended much earlier than 1975.

The problem with timelines is that they are actually of little use for study. You may check a detail or two, take a general look –but who can read a timeline in detail and absorb all that information? This is why I find that timelines only help us to memorise dates if you produce them yourself. Hence, I am always producing new ones in my own study time. It is not easy.

I am currently working on a timeline which, here’s the contradiction, I might eventually publish in my website. I realised that I know more about British and American women’s history than about Spanish and Catalan women. This is why I decided to start a local timeline and later on add to it the key dates in US and UK feminism. My timeline is currently 45 pages long, I can say I have already learned very much but I do not know yet where to stop.

In principle, I decided to include key general political events (my grasp of Spanish History is not that good…), and dates connected with women’s advances (mainly legislation, education, labour). I decided not to include literature, only books connected with the ‘woman question.’ The problem came when I realized that, as Isaías Lafuente hints, domestic innovations –like the mop, invented by Manuel Jalón and first commercialised in 1958– and others, like sanitary pads (no reliable date so far) may have changed women’s lives much more deeply than certain pieces of legislation.

Then, I came across a website on the evolution of the women’s liberation movement in Spain during the 1960s and 1970s, and it was so dense with dates that my using them would automatically require the same for all periods. Finally, guess what? The hardest periods to reconstruct are the most recent ones. I don’t know the date when gay marriage was introduced in Spain. Um. It’s 3 July 2005 (just checked).

One thing that is quite clear, reading Geraldine Scanlon’s impressive pioneering study La Polémica Feminista en la España Contemporánea 1868-1974, published in 1976, and Pilar Folguera’s slim but very information collective volume, Feminismo en España: Dos Siglos de Historia (1988), is that Spain is also different when it comes to how our feminism compares with the rest of the Western world.

Both volumes make it very clear that there was no feminism movement as such until, properly speaking, the 1970s. We had formidable individual figures (Concepción Arenal, Emilia Pardo Bazán, Clara Campoamor…), many associations of different signs but no all-encompassing movement. When the chance came for that, after Franco’s death, the ‘Transición’ took much of he necessary political energy away from the movement. At any rate, believe it or not, this is the best historical moment ever for women in Spain. Hopefully, the women living in the 22nd century will find ours still an obscure time.

If anyone cares, this is a rough division into main periods of women’s history and feminism in Spain:

*1724-1868: Enlightenment ideas enter Spain (with the French Bourbon dynasty). Men who believe in them, and a few women, start a very timid reform of public education for women (primary and professional levels, schools for teachers).
*1868-1939 Individual women feminists fight for the rights of women (access to secondary and higher education, and the professions); also, with much division, the vote. Many feminist associations are formed in the 1920s, none major. Brief period of fast advances under the Republic (vote and divorce 1931) and the Civil War.
*1939-1965 Franco’s military regime imposes traditional ideals of womanhood. Women are split into meekly following these ideals, or struggling to end the dictatorship (clandestine resistance organised by left-wing political parties and women’s illegal associations)
*1965-1982 Full emergence of the feminist liberation movement, particularly after 1975. Women are split mainly on class lines between the need to consolidate left-wing policies and the need to work specifically for women’s gains.
*1983-2014… Institutionalised feminism (after PSOE wins 1982 election). Legislation becomes the main tool for equality, together with education, supported by widespread social acceptance of the main feminist tenets (feminist activism remains fragmented in a myriad organizations).

Um… 2014-2044… Full equality of rights and opportunities is reached for women of all classes, mysogyny is considered a relic as intolerable as cannibalism. Gender divisions become irrelevant as all, men and women, face life from the same position.

Now back to the timeline…

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Last year a lecturer from a Scottish university, where I’d been a doctoral student, emailed me after more than a decade without contact. She explained to me that she was retiring (to Mallorca) and looking for a home for her collection of books on Gothic. Would the UAB be interested? Oh, my!, I thought, but this is wonderful news. The library kindly accepted to pay for shipping expenses and soon enough they even staged an exhibition to publicise the donation –more than 100 books. I got to keep a few which we already had. Anyone thinking of working on Gothic in Spain or nearby… come to us!!

There are a few things that puzzle me about this case, like why did this lady bring all her books to Spain rather than leave them in Scotland. But what puzzles me above all is what the gesture of giving her professional books away means in relation to our profession.

I recall a colleague who retired a few years ago dismantling his bookshelves in his Department office, even throwing in the bin some old paperbacks but, somehow, I assumed this was the tip of the iceberg and he had the main collection at home. I myself have half my books at home and half in my office, and I regularly take the ones I no longer find uses for to the library. I cannot, however, imagine myself dismantling my library for good, though I also wonder who would want all these, mostly, cheap paperbacks.

The library receives, now and then, immense book collections as bequests. Professor Francisco Rico, who retired in 2012, donated 5,237 documents… which makes me wonder about the size of his home. Professor Xavier Úcar, of the Department of Systematic and Social Pedagogy here at UAB, donated more than 700 SF works a while ago (*cat/a?SEARCH=(col•lecci de ciència-ficció de xavier úcar), as he happens to be an avid reader and simply cannot keep at home all he reads. The pity is that the collection remains housed in the basement… so unless you know it exists you don’t see it.

There are, then, circumstances that justify massive donations: retirement, home size and, of course, death. One of my colleagues has often told me that when she is gone she wants me to make the suitable arrangements for the library to keep her books as a special collection. Fair enough.

What puzzles me about the Scottish lady professor I mentioned at the beginning, and a couple of other cases I’ve heard about recently (also in Britain) is the firm severing of the ties with our profession. A while ago I opened a space in the Department for book crossing and it is always empty (except when I leave books there!). The few books that turn up now and then are either extremely specialised studies the owner clearly does not want, or best-selling novels mostly of a trashy kind (best given out anonymously). University teachers, it seems, are, like Prospero, very fond of their books.

Perhaps, though, I simply misunderstand retirement, possibly because I look forward to my own as a time when I will be finally able to write non-stop if I want. My main hobby is reading and, somehow, I imagine retirement as something quite similar to my current holiday time: lots of books, time to think. I keep on forgetting that research as we do it today, with all the accountability mechanisms thrown upon us by Ministries and sundry agencies, can be psychologically oppressive. And that the gesture of giving the books away may have to do with finding relief for that oppression. Yes, indeed, I can think of a few books I’d rather never see again.

Anyway, I must say that all considered I’m very happy that this lady, whom I’m not mentioning because she was not particularly interested in the library naming the collection after her, thought of me. At a time when the crisis has reduced our book-buying sprees to practically nothing, this was a gift from heaven.

Now, please, students and colleagues, enjoy these books… (tip: search the UAB catalogue, by ‘paraula clau’, type in ‘gothic’ and voilà…)

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I have chosen a very tricky topic for this, my 300th post, inspired by an article in El País, entitled “La Universidad expulsa a 30.000 alumnos al año por rendir poco” ( I don’t know what to make of the word ‘expels’ in this headline, as I connect it with inadmissible behaviour. I would have use instead ‘no permite seguir (sus estudios)’, which is not quite the same.

Some raw data: the Spanish public university has about 1,000,000 students, which means that 3% (= 30,000) are barred from following a particular degree, though not from attending university altogether. The article explains that after two failed attempts to complete a degree third opportunities are hard to get by.

In the old Licenciatura times (before 2008), students might attempt to pass a subject 6 times (this included the September exams, now gone); the trick was that ‘no presentado’ did not count, which in practice meant that students might take years, even a decade, to obtain the corresponding credits. The new ‘regimen de permanencia’ in my university (each has its own) has regulated this, establishing a minimum of credits to continue in the degree and also determining that 3 ‘matrículas’, that is, three chances to register in about there years, is the maximum time for a student to pass a subject.

The regulations to remain in a particular degree are not very harsh. My university, for instance, establishes that first year students must pass 12 ECTS credits (out of 60) as a requirement to enrol in second-year subjects. They have two years to complete a minimum of 30 first-year credits. As I’ve been frequently told, one thing is how you design a Syllabus for a degree and a very different one is how students follow it… The regulations are intended, then, to draw a line beyond which a student can be told to give up. Or must be told.

Last Spring we at UAB counted for the first time how our students are doing in the new European-style degrees. I actually got into a panic (I’m BA degree Coordinator) because a good student warned me that he had used up the three chances in two of his subjects and, now in his fourth year, he might not be able to finish the degree. Holy cow, I though, how many more must there be? Well, it turns out that 45 students are facing the same problem –though what really scared me was that a handful, about 5, had exhausted their chances for between 4 and 5 subjects.

Then a Coordinators’ meeting was called and I discovered that this was not so bad, as some students in other degrees were in trouble in 10 subjects, and a particular degree had one third of all its students at risk of being ‘expelled’ (in too many cases because of transversal subjects irrelevant to their studies). We were told that new instructions would soon follow and that, most likely, the 3-chances rule would become a 4-chance rule, as it has (I think). I hope I am not disclosing any sensitive details here…

What do I think of all this? The old Licenciatura system was simply bizarre. It perpetuated the presence of students in our classrooms unnecessarily, and did not encourage them to make an effort. I firmly believe that the new system, with its three chances to register for a subject, is far more reasonable. What I did not expect, and do not quite understand, is that so many students would be in trouble. Somehow, I imagined that the problems would be concentrated in the first and second year but I never imagined that students about to graduate might fail to do so because of just 1 subject, even a first-year one.

I don’t know whether this will have been taken into account but for me there is a clear difference between the student in trouble because of 1 subject, and the student in trouble because of 5 (or 10). The regulations clearly require some leeway to solve individual circumstances, and in a way they already cover that. On the other hand, my very personal impression is that students have not really paid heed to the sword dangling over their heads; many have proceeded with a certain cavalier attitude, perhaps hoping that the university would not really dare ‘expel them’.

The article in El País actually dealt with an unfair situation in the Universidad de Oviedo by which misinformation about registration requirements had put many students on the brink of expulsion. I agree that the regulations must be clear, transparent and sufficiently publicised. I also understand that working students have more difficulties than others to pass their subjects (I sympathise, I was myself a working student).

Yet, there must be a limit: public universities cannot waste resources on educating students whose talents lie elsewhere, it is as simple as that. Besides, I’m sorry but I’d rather be a patient in the hands of a doctor who passed his degree according to plan, and not after 4 attempts for each subject. In our case, with many students stuck in certain subjects because their command of English is not strong enough, I’d recommend a stay abroad –working if they cannot afford anything else. As I did myself.

I know this can raise much controversy but being barred from continuing a particular degree does not mean a student is branded as ‘inept’. They may have simple made a wrong choice in opting for a university degree, instead of professional training, or in choosing a particular degree. It’s not a tragedy.

What I cannot understand is the attitude of the students who must clearly see that they are not doing well but insist on torturing themselves, perhaps to please their parents, or to fulfil an unrealistic personal goal. Why not try something else? Before they tell you to go.

Find how to employ your natural talents best…

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

In 2006 I published a monographic volume on The X-Files, entitled Expediente X: En honor a la verdad. I am practically certain that I was the first person in Spain to attempt to cover a whole TV series in a book with the intention of offering an in-depth analysis (accessible to the general readership) rather than just a guide with episode summaries (I did include that, too). If you’re curious the volume is here: <a href=" The X-Files is still today my favourite TV series, and I still consider it much superior to others who are now much better known. Actually, I find that Chris Carter’s brainchild, which lasted from 1993 to 2002 does not even exist for my own students, born around the time it was launched. A pity.

The X-Files was 200 episodes long and amounted to 150 viewing hours. Others ‘x-philes’ like me can verify for you what a torture seeing the complete series was, as Tele5 cancelled it with no warning, and the final two seasons could only be seen on private channel Fox TV, or on the then new, extremely expensive DVDs. Flat-rate internet access was beginning as the series reached its end and I’m totally sure that The X-Files was a key factor in the popularisation of piratical downloading among us using ADSL services. This, as we know, is a practice that has totally altered the way we see TV series, which is no longer dependent on their being shown on TV at all.

Anyway, a lo que iba: the long struggle to see the end of The X-Files put me off watching any other TV series for a couple of years. Then Lost came, in 2004, and like millions around the world I bit the hook and followed it with a crazy passion until its horrendously disappointing ending in 2010. That’s enough, I vowed to myself: no more TV series for me, unless they’re done and over. Then, last academic year, an MA student handed in an excellent paper on the hero-villain Omar from The Wire (2002-8) swearing to me this was the one series I could not miss. The IMDB rating is 9.4, in the range of Game of Thrones (9.5), Breaking Bad (9.6) or The Sopranos (9.3). 60 viewing hours later I can say now that Omar is the only thing I truly enjoyed from the series.

It is not my aim to review here The Wire, nor to question the taste of those 133,284 IMDB users who have awarded it that impressive 9.4. No. I aim at questioning, rather, the current vogue for TV American series that, more often than not, turn out to be not that good after all. Arguably, the new wave quality TV series started with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1), which, in its turn, inspired The X-Files (Fox TV). The current boom, however, is usually connected with HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007). Indeed, HBO has produced many other successful series: from Sex and the City to current hits Game of Thrones and True Detective. It also produced everyone’s favourite, best-valued ever mini-TV series, Band of Brothers (2001). But is it all, really, really, as good as so many claim? Hasn’t HBO contributed to inflating this impression?

I have read many opinions in praise of The Wire (also HBO) claiming that it works like a novel. My own consumption of this series corroborates this, even though it’s been a bit accidented (I saw seasons one and two in Spring, not continuously, and then have binged on seasons three to five this August, at a rate of three episodes an evening). The question is that at the (fast) rate I read The Wire would be the equivalent of a 3,600 page novel, more or less. Band of Brothers, which I loved, was 11-hours long, the approximate equivalent of reading a 660-page novel. If you ask me, in the end what we consume with each TV series is one story, no matter how many subplots this has. And my watching The Wire has left me with the clear impression that for one story I’m not willing to use more than twenty hours any more in my life. Whether this is TV or print fiction (sorry George R.R.R. Martin).

At one point in which we were desperately bored (no Omar in that episode), my husband and I worked out that 60 hours amounted to about 30 films, that is 30 stories. Supposing we only enjoyed half of these, we would still have 15 stories to remember with pleasure. Life is short, there’s so much to see and read, why use 60 hours in one story if many more pleasurable ones could be accessed in less time?

When I give friends, students and colleagues my line about why watching overhyped (American) TV is wasting precious time they usually tell me that I don’t understand the pleasures of seeing these new-wave HBO(-inspired) series: the pleasure, they tell me, is in the process not in the end result. You don’t watch to reach a sense of closure but, simply, to watch. Fair enough. My answer is, then, that I’d rather watch comedy (say Big Bang Theory) as in that case I need not worry about narrative arcs extended among many seasons and years. Sit-coms have that: you can plunge in and out, never mind about who Ted Mosby finally met in How I Met your Mother (2005-14).

Conclusions? It seems I am going to stick to mini-series. I am actually yearning to see again the British trilogy based on Michael Dobbs’s novels House of Cards (1990), To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995), currently being remade (or plundered) by Netflix (yes, not even a TV channel but an internet streaming service). As for Breaking Bad, which I have not followed, and seemed next on the list after The Wire, well, I don’t know… Add to this that I have just given up on BBC’s Sherlock after the awfully embarrassing episode about Watson’s wedding (3×3).

It’s that kind of week in which I just want to read…

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Next semester I’ll be teaching for the first time a new BA elective, ‘Gender Studies (in English.’ This might be my only chance since, if Minister Wert’s reform of the BA degrees proceeds, we might lose altogether the fourth year and with it the electives. Anyway, I’m paying even more attention than usual to gender issues, which is why I came across the Tumblr space opened in 2013, ‘Women Against Feminism’ (

Rightly, this should be called ‘Young Women Against Feminism’ for a classic problem of feminism is its generational split. I recall a round table on SF and feminism a few years ago in Madrid. My three colleagues and myself were protesting against the ghettoisation of SF women writers, using by no means a radical feminist discourse. To my horror and consternation, a twenty-something girl in the audience told me ‘I don’t know what your problem may be, but in my generation we have solved them all.’ Well, if that were the case I would be happy but it is not –something you learn as you age. “I don’t need feminism because equality of opportunity already exists,” a young girl writes on Tumblr, and my question is “where?” Because if it is only in your own personal life and you don’t see beyond it, then this is a very callous attitude that disregards the reality of many women’s lives around the world.

I went myself through an acute anti-feminist phase twenty years ago, as a doctoral student. I rationalize it thus today: when a woman is young, starting her career and has not come across crude discrimination yet, feminism’s insistence on women’s victimization is annoying and frustrating. It feels disempowering. Besides, radical feminism can be deeply androphobic. This is something that young women going through the process of establishing long-lasting romantic relationships often find incompatible with their being in love. At the end of an angry androphobic conference panel I asked the leading androphobe, a married woman, how she managed to communicate with her husband at all. She was stunned. So was I at my own question… That was a turning point for me. The misogyny that feminism exposes makes me very angry, and this is hard to cope with. Sometimes it is mild anger that my partner sees no dirty dishes to wash, sometimes it is wholesale anger against men because one has killed his wife or raped a little girl. So, yes, there is that.

From what I read in Tumblr many young women think that feminism can be best defined as ‘androphobia’ (i.e. hatred of men). This, however, is just radical feminism, much less abundant anyway than misogyny. For me feminism is best defined as ‘the search of justice for women,’ that is to say, the struggle to ensure that nobody is discriminated against or hurt just for being a woman. If you’re one of the happy few women who have never met any obstacle or aggression in life because of your gender, then congratulations. What you need to do next, as a feminist, is to make sure that all the other women in the world enjoy the same beautiful life.

I have set for myself a target here, which is finding ten reasons why the happy young women writing in Tumblr might want to join the feminist fight for justice and equality in education, job opportunities and personal development. I’ll refer only to Spain, a Western country and a European Union member –paradise, in short. The figures are for 2013:

*women killed by ex-partners or current partners: 54, and this is the lowest figure in 10 years. Current figures for August 2014: 39.
*women who denounced psychological and physical abuse by partners and ex-partners: 124,894. More than 63,000 remain under police surveillance for fear they might be attacked. None really knows how much abuse goes unreported.
*number of rapes reported to the police in 2013: 1,298 (at least 60% are not reported out of the victim’s fear and shame).
*average salary difference for men and women doing the same job: around 20% (16’4% for the whole European Union).
*(un)employment: rates are slightly higher for women than for men and bad for all. 52’3% of women under 25 are unemployed, 23’6% of women above 25. Yet note: 75% of part-time contracts correspond to female workers. Only 75’5% of all employed women have full-time contracts, the figure is 93’4% for men.
*paternity leave: 13 days, as opposed to 16 weeks for the mother. Up to 40% new fathers only take the mandatory 2-day leave. 90% Norwegian fathers take paternity leave (which is months long).
*excess hours women spend per week doing household chores (in relation to their male partners): 6 (which the partners enjoy as free time)
*percentage of women members of Parliament and Senators: 37% (same as the European Parliament). But remember that women are 52% of the population and this was achieved because PSOE introduced a quota system. We have seen so far no woman President of the Government (yes, I remember Maggie Thatcher…).
*percentage of women members in Boards of Directors (for the 35 top Spanish companies): 10’9%. This is where business power lies…
*percentage of women professors (‘catedráticas’): 20% (but percentage of women graduates 54%). So… what happens to women when they start an academic career?

I need only compare myself to my mother to see how privileged I am on the professional and the personal fronts, often thanks to the efforts of feminist women in the 1970s and 1980s, whose names I don’t even know. And men, for let’s not forget that all-male Parliaments and Governments have often legislated in favour of women. Now think of women in less fortunate countries.

If you want to rename ‘feminism’ and call it ‘gender equality’ that’s fine by me. Whatever you call it, we certainly need it.

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Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Isaías Lafuente’s non-academic essay Agrupémonos todas: La lucha de las españolas por la igualdad (2004) has been, as I explained in my previous post, a book I have devoured with great pleasure. And shame… that I didn’t know many of the women and events he mentions.

In the effort of trying to grasp the basics of US and UK feminism and women’s history as a specialist in English Studies, I have had no time to do the same for the Spanish and Catalan contexts. My secondary education should have filled in that gap, as it did for many other matters of local History. Yet, apart from the women writers (and not that many), and the queens, no other relevant Spanish (or Catalan) women were made visible to me. Lafuente is dismayed to see that the woman who brought the vote to Spanish women, Clara Campoamor, is not mentioned in the major Spanish biographical dictionary. I’m dismayed to realise that I only understood who she was when I saw Laura Mañá’s excellent TV movie entitled, of course, Clara Campoamor: La mujer olvidada (2011).

One thing I have learned from reading about women’s history is that it is hard to say whether the impact of pro-feminist legislation and social changes is, in the end, what matters most. It should be so, yet reading Lafuentes’ book I’m struck by how truly important are in the struggle to free women from our bonds things we take for granted: such as diapers, sanitary pads or even the mop. It is also peculiar to see how details I recall from my childhood, seeing my mother perform her household chores or worry about ‘adult’ matters, fit a much larger pattern than I assumed (perhaps because Spain has been quite a homogeneous country until recently). This ranges from her washing by hand all our clothes before the first washing machine was purchased to anxious conversations about the mysterious ‘pill.’

The hardest part of understanding recent women’s history in Spain is the realisation that we almost got it right. During the (chaotic) Republic of 1931 to 1939, when the Civil War was lost, Spanish women embarked in an often very fast process of equality with men. It is painful to see how all their achievements were brutally erased in 1939: often the distance between the first and the second woman pioneer in a particular field amounts to forty years. Also, even though the little conquests under Franco’s regime were often made by right-wing women, like Mercedes Fórmica, it is heartbreaking to see how much cruelty was poured on the bodies and lives of the ‘rojas,’ the women of the losing side. The split is so deep that we can say there are two histories of women under Franco, still to be fully written out.

I want to make a note here, then, of the unsung heroes who did the hard work for us, to remind those women who think we don’t need feminism that, if that is the case, which I very much doubt, it is thanks to their spirit and efforts. There are many others, it is just a small selection:

*María Elena Maseras, first woman to enrol for a university degree (1872, Medicine, Universitat de Barcelona) realising there was no formal prohibition against women.
*Dolores Aleu, first woman with a doctoral degree (1882, Medicine)
*Teresa Claramunt, textile factory worker and union activist, co-founder of the Societat Autònoma de Dones (1892)
*Carmen de Burgos (Colombine), journalist and first war correspondent. Published the first surveys on divorce and women’s suffrage (1900s-1910s)
*Emilia Pardo Bazán, major writer, denied three times a place in the Real Academia. In 1916 she was the first female full professor in Spain (by appointment): she never taught, as all (male) students rejected her. (Mª Ángeles Galino, was the second woman professor, in 1953).
*María Espinosa de los Monteros, co-founder of the Asociación Nacional de Mujeres Españolas (1920)
*Victoria Kent, first professional woman lawyer (1924), ‘Directora General de Prisiones’ under the new Republic (1931). She was the first woman MP together with Clara Campoamor, and Margarita Nelken. They were elected in June 1931 when women could not vote yet.
*Matilde Ucelay, first Spanish female architect, graduated 1936.
*Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria, communist politician, Vice-president of the Republican Parliament.
*Federica Montseny, first woman Minister in Europe (1936).
*María Telo, lawyer, founder of the Unión de Mujeres Juristas, helped get back for women the full civil rights lost under Franco in the 1970s.

I’ll end with a reminder of the terrifying forty year gap:
*Vote for women: 1 October 1931. Re-instated in 1975.
*Divorce and Civil Marriage: 28 June 1932 (made illegal retroactively by Franco in 1939). Civil marriage was re-instated in 1978, divorce in 1981.
*Abortion: December 1936, legalised by the Catalan Generalitat. Made illegal in 1941, legalised again with strong limitations in 1985.
*Legal equality with men: 1937. Lost in 1938, re-instated fully only in 1981.
*Birth control: All methods made illegal between 1944 and 1978.

Until the 1975 legislation reform, women were regarded as minors to the age of 25 (21 for men). Married women were subjected to the ‘licencia marital’: they had to obey their husbands, who were entitled to their professional earnings (until 1981), and had to obtain their permission to sign contracts, open bank accounts, get a passport…

This, I’m sorry to say, is not History way back in the past but within living memory. Ask your grandmothers, if your mothers are too young.

Learn and remember… and thank those who fought for you.

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