THE BIOLOGY OF CREATIVITY: A FIRST APPROACH

abril 26th, 2016

I keep on telling my students that nobody is doing research on what I call fabulation–the writer’s ability to string together an imaginary story–but it turns out I am partly wrong. My mistake lies in having supposed that this research should be a branch of psychology when it is actually also a branch of biology and, to be more specific, of neuroscience. If this is the case, then I am not surprised that I have missed its existence because I feel a certain mistrust for neuroscience. This is grounded on my totally bigoted belief that neuroscience is trying a bit too hard to explain human emotion as a set of biochemical reactions. Call me Romantic, but I do not look forward to the day when human nature (I was going to write ‘soul’ but then I recalled I am an atheist) is fully explained by rational science–a point I have already made here. But I digress, as usual.

I have been given a wonderful little book for Sant Jordi (book’s day here in Catalonia), a classic of American journalism: Joseph Mitchell’s The Secret of Joe Gould (1964). The book actually contains two pieces by Mitchell on Gould, a.k.a. Professor Seagull, written at two different moments of the relationship between the two men. Gould, a bohemian gentleman, very popular in New York’s Greenwich Village, managed to eke out a precarious living by convincing his sponsors that they were contributing as patrons to his writing of an American masterpiece: An Oral History of Our Time. Mitchell discovered the secret mentioned in the book’s title, which I am not going to reveal, and this rounds off a unique portrait of a unique personage. If you’re curious, read the book, or see the film adaptation with Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Ian Holm as Gould. Furthermore: see for an alternative version which questions Mitchell’s conclusions the article by Jill Lepore (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/27/joe-goulds-teeth).

Sorry about my ignorance of topics which, I’m sure, must be very well-known by my Americanist colleagues but it turns out that the book on Gould was Mitchell’s final volume: he suffered from one of the worst cases of writer’s block ever, and could not manage to write anything between 1964 and his death in 1996, even though he spent many hours every day in his New Yorker office. The words ‘writer’s block’ send chills down my spine because this is a mysterious condition which does affect all types of authors for reasons ultimately unknown (and we, academics, are also authors). In some situations, writer’s block is to be expected such as when a novelist who has published an immensely successful first novel simply cannot produce a second one. In other cases, such as Mitchell’s, there is no clear reason why writer’s block happens. My personal belief is that his case, as I am sure many other people have theorized, may have had to do with the impact of Gould’s work on An Oral History of Our Time, which perhaps unleashed deep-seated fears in Mitchell that he could not write at all. I simply do not know whether Mitchell tried to be cured but the point is that his case is mentioned in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain a book by neurologist Alice W. Flaherty, which back in 2004 was a controversial pioneer in a new field. Funny how, despite the many volumes on Literary Theory which I have read in the last 10 years, none mentioned Flaherty nor any other volume remotely similar to hers.

I have not read Flaherty yet but I have learned from her a new word I had no idea existed until yesterday: hypergraphia, the opposite of writer’s block. In a promotional interview (http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/booksellers/press_release/flaherty/), Flaherty explains that hypergraphia is “driven, compulsive writing” triggered by “known brain conditions” involving “the temporal lobes”; also, and this is a puzzling sentence, “hypergraphia seems to reflect a component of literary creativity, namely creative drive”. Ironically, one of the most hypergraphic authors, Stephen King, also became a most famous sufferer of writer’s block after being hit by a truck. You’ll see now why I distrust neuroscience: after diagnosing 70% of all poets as “manic depressive” individuals, Flaherty makes the classic claim that “in women, there’s evidence that creative ability varies with the menstrual cycle. Plath illustrates this very vividly”. This, as we know, cuts both ways: some feminists will see the ebbs and flows of women’s body as part or source of our creativity, others (like myself) will be horrified by yet another attempt at picturing us as poor things (animals?) tied to our menstruation. Really… Flaherty stresses that while the treatments for writer’s block seem to work well and are much in demand from those afflicted with it–unsurprisingly… –those affected with hypergraphia do not seek professional medical help. “What right”, does Flaherty wonders, “do I have to give a medical name to a character trait that people value in themselves?” Indeed. By the way, Flaherty stresses that “talking about creative drive in neurological terms does not have to degrade the experience or value of creativity” and that “the medical terminology can coexist with the equally important, more subjective language that we are more comfortable with”. I’ll stick to the ‘subjective’ language for the time being, being a Humanist and not a scientist.

The field beyond Flaherty is so big I do not know how to start wandering into it, for there is, of course, a whole discipline called ‘Creativity Studies’. To begin with, you may check the Tennenbaum Centre for the Biology of Creativity at UCLA (https://www.semel.ucla.edu/creativity/references), founded by the kind of eccentric tycoon that I had thought extinct since Orson Wells’ Kane (Michael E. Tennenbaum even has a glass castle). As I should expect, many psychologists devote their research and practice to creativity. Division 10 of the American Psychology Association, which gathers them together, deals with “interdisciplinary scholarship, both theoretical and empirical, encompassing the visual arts, poetry, literature, music and dance” (see http://www.apa.org/about/division/div10.aspx). There is even a journal, Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts (http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/aca/index.aspx). Many articles seemed informed by affect theory and deal with reception, but none, as far as I can see, with fabulation in the sense I am using it. Most likely, I need to search further.

I am particularly interested in the writer’s fabulation in the field of the fantastic, in particular science-fiction, although I would certainly agree that realistic fabulation is equally important. So far, however, we, literary scholars, have failed to explain where Madame Bovary comes from in the same way we have failed to explain the origins of Dracula. We speculate endlessly on whether a certain biographical event or the impact of a text read by the author is connected with particular plots points or characters but the method thus far followed is full of errors. Biographical research often degenerates into mere gossip and intertextual connections are frequently vehemently denied by authors. The formalist rejection of the personal to focus on the textual seems in this context quite convenient but, of course, it is ultimately unsatisfactory as texts happen to emerge from people’s brains.

There must be, however, a middle ground between the claim that Rose Maylie’s near death in Oliver Twist was inspired by the real death of Dickens’ young sister-in-law, and the claim that Rose Maylie emanates from a neurochemical reaction in Dickens’ frontal lobe triggered by God knows what… This is where I would like to go and explore… If I found a writer patient enough, I would beg him or her to examine at the end of the day the process of fabulation they have followed. Writers love to talk about their technique even when they claim that it is all a bit nebulous and characters seem to follow their own paths (I’ve never read an article about this often repeated claim). I would end up this way with something similar to the ongoing director’s comments in the Blue Ray or DVD edition of films. But, then, no writer, I’m sure, would want to have an academic looking over their shoulder as they write… Pity… If you know of any, let me know!

One day some scientist will discover that the predisposition to read and the predisposition to write and/or fabulate are genetic, perhaps a mutation, and we will finally understand why those of us who love Literature feel increasingly like freaks.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SO YOU WANT TO PUBLISH A BOOK…: AUTHORS AND PUBLISHERS

abril 21st, 2016

The post today refers to three situations connected with publishing books. The first one is the presentation that two independent editors gave recently, to an audience mainly composed of my students, explaining how a small press works. The second is the publication of a collective book to which I have contributed an article. The third are my attempts to get an academic book in Spanish published. Actually, I’ll add a fourth point having to do with desktop publishing programmes. It all connects, you’ll see.

I have recently met Hugo Camacho, a young man with a degree in ‘Filologia Inglesa’, who runs single-handedly Orciny Press (http://www.orcinypress.com/). A week ago he offered a presentation at the bookshop Gigamesh in Barcelona together with his colleague Ricard Millán, who runs another small press, Sven Jorgensen (http://www.svenbooks.com/). I had agreed with Hugo that I could ask as many questions as I wanted on behalf of my students and so I did. The result can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pS_Nnp6vqQ, an hour full of very interesting information about how the business of publishing books looks from the side of the (small) publisher.

I could comment on what Hugo and Ricard explained point by point and never be done, which is why I’ll highlight just one issue: the mathematics. An independent publisher, they explained, self-distributes by selecting sympathetic booksellers. Small presses like theirs tend to be one-men (or one-woman) shows in which most of the tasks that occupy ten-person teams in middle-sized presses are done by just one person. The maths: they publish, generally speaking, from 7 to 10 books a year, perhaps 12 at the most. A typical print run is 150/250 books, though volumes are also offered through print-on-demand services, and as e-books. The habitual distribution of benefits works like this: 10% for the author, 30% for the distributor, 30% for the publisher, 30% for the bookseller. You need to deduce from all this taxes and costs (in the case of the publisher these include items such as translation, book design, text composition, style correction and proof reading). Small presses tend to cut the middleman off, that is to say the distributor, but even so if your 10 books sell 200 copies each at 20 euros–and that’s supposing a lot–we’re speaking about 40000 euros, of which 24000 would go to the small press. It’s not much… By the way, the author of each of the books would get 400 euros (before taxes).

At least, authors are paid by small presses but (and this covers points two and three) for reasons I have never quite understood when you publish an article in a collective volume you never get paid; I’m now finding out, besides, that when you try to publish an academic book in Spain you’re expected to pay in more and more cases.

I have recently published, as I say, an article in a collective book. I’m very pleased with the volume and with the work of the editors, particularly because they commissioned me to write a piece which has pushed my research in interesting directions which I had only half-considered before. I don’t wish to name the title of the volume, nor the publishing house because this is irrelevant for the point I’m trying to make, namely, that the volume (hardback, 250 pages) is on sale at the price of €99,00 ($128.00). This is not exceptional at all. Xavier Aldana’s excellent Body Gothic, which I have already mentioned here, is sold at £95.00 or $160.00 (both hardback and e-book!). I ended up asking for a copy to write a review and that’s how my institution’s library got it (I won’t say a word about the book being in the basement depot, out of sight).

If I, with my Senior Lecturer privileged salary, need to blink hard and think twice before spending €99,00 on a book, imagine what it’s like for undergrad students. Or is the other way round? Are publishing houses demanding these fantastic prices because students (and teachers) have stopped buying academic paperbacks? More questions: how do young researchers writing their PhDs manage? And how many people will read our exciting collective volume? Can a €99,00 book make an impact? How many copies can be sold all together? 400 world-wide at the most? Can we really ask our Departments and university libraries to spend so much public money on high-priced books? Is this all part of the general trend to re-directed academic publishing in the Humanities towards journals? At least, we’re not paying to be published in journals–or are we? A look at the Spanish market for university-produced books reveals that here the prices for volumes in the Humanities are not that high. Check http://www.unebook.es/, the bookshop of the Unión de Editoriales Universitarias Españolas, and you will see that our national university presses are still selling available paperbacks (most for under €25), some of them truly cheap in their e-book version.

I must at this point declare my incompetence, for I see colleagues announce on our AEDEAN list volumes published with major Anglo-american academic presses and I wonder why the impossible fifteen years ago has now become, if not exactly common, at least feasible. I’m mystified. We, Spanish English Studies specialists, tend to publish less in Spanish, which is why I decided to try to publish in this language a selection of works I have already published elsewhere in English. The first lesson I have learned is that when you ask for permission to reproduce articles published abroad in collective books, the publishers drag their feet. I’ve been given permision to translate myself and upload the resulting translation onto the digital repository of my university but not to use my own translated work in a Spanish book. Odd. Journals seem more flexible. The second lesson I’m learning is that publishers expect to be paid, in principle with money from research projects. I don’t know how this works in other projects, but I’ve always been in large groups with limited funding, which has gone to a great extent into the collective books published by Spanish houses but not into books by individual researchers. When I asked my previous group whether they could help me to publish my projected volume they said no, on the grounds that if everyone else made the same petition that would quickly exhaust our scant funding. I’m talking about a figure between 2500 and 6000 euros per book.

I have a bad experience of not being paid royalties for two of my books by a commercial publisher so it’s not the case that I expect to get money from any volume. I’m not, however, willing to pay for publication out of my own pocket if I can help it, not only because I already invest a good deal of my salary in my career but because if you pay, then this is a vanity publication, which should not count for our CV. Funnily, Hugo and Ricard, the small press owners, were very proud to stress that they do not charge authors. I think that the book I’m working on is attractive enough to justify that a university press publishes it but I was told by the publishers I visited yesterday that my potential audience is actually limited to just a few hundred, with luck. Naturally, they are reluctant to invest money on my book and prefer that I finance it, or co-finance it. Now, my question is whether most of the many books I see on the UNE bookshop have been published in this way. I’m mystified, more and more so.

I told my potential publishers in what was, believe me, a very friendly conversation, that if there is no market for my product then I would be very happy to self-edit my volume and upload it as a .pdf onto UAB’s repository. I already have more than 50 documents there, not including syllabi and the dissertations by my tutorees, with more than 15,000 downloads in total (talk about impact…). I was asked what my documents looked like and when I showed one example (an article) edited using Word, it was hinted to me that I would need professional services to publish an e-book. I felt so mortified that about five minutes later I was asking Hugo Camacho what do professional publishers use (Adobe InDesign) and my university whether we have a licence for that (no, too expensive, we don’t even have one for Acrobat beyond Reader). A colleague has suggested Scribus, a free desktop publishing programme; I’ll give it a try. So, there you are: now I intend to train myself in pseudo-professional desktop publishing to make my own e-books. The things we university teachers do…

So, here’s my conundrum–and, yes, I think that I’m asking my readers a direct question. What should I do?

A. Try to find a (hopefully prestige) commercial publisher outside the academic circuit and aim at a general readership (target: 800 copies?)
B. Convince my potential academic publisher that my book is worth publishing, perhaps in co-edition with another university press (target: 400 copies?)
C. Pay to be published by said academic publisher or another (target: 400 copies?)
D. Produce my own professional-looking e-book and make it available for free on DDD (target: 1500/2000 copies, judging by previous volumes)
E. Produce my own professional-looking e-book and make it available for money on Amazon.es (really?), or a specialized platform (is there one for academic work? Hugo and Ricard use Lektu and I could do so, but it’s not academic)
F. Persuade AEDEAN that we fund our own e-book platform for English Studies and that we give the books away for free as we do with the journal Atlantis
G. Fund my own online academic small press and invite colleagues to publish with me for free, provided they produce their own e-books

You tell me… (and guess which options do not count as valid academic publications for the Ministry).

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

PRESIDENT RAJOY AND THE STARSHIP THAT FAILED TO LAND ON NOU CAMP: ‘ESPERPENTO’, LOW SELF-ESTEEM AND CERVANTES

abril 12th, 2016

My doctoral student Josie Swarbrick, who is working on the representation of monstrous masculinity in SF cinema, visited last week my SF class to offer a presentation based on one of her dissertation’s chapters, the one on District 9. In that film a massive alien starship reaches Johannesburg carrying thousands of refugees who have nowhere else to go. Their unenthusiastic South African hosts decide to lock them in an insalubrious township placed in, precisely, District 9, as they decide how to cope with these unwelcome, unsightly visitors. If you have seen the film you know that the central plot concerns the accidental transformation of a pathetic white man into one of the frankly disgusting ‘prawns’, a metamorphosis usually read in the context of post-Apartheid policies but that Josie is reading taking into account this man’s strange fall out of the human species.

District 9 is exceptional, as any SF fan knows, because it changed the trope of the alien invasion in cinema by turning the extraterrestrial visitors into refugees and by setting the action outside the habitual US context. Its closest precedent is possibly Alien Nation (1988, TV series 1989-1990), in which the aliens are not invaders, either, but runaway slaves seeking refuge from their masters in the Los Angeles area. Men in Black (1997) included a scene showing the MIBs patrolling the Mexican border, trying to make sure that no illegal aliens would cross it. In the more recent Monsters (2010) the metaphorical link between the extraterrestrial alien and the illegal human migrant is emphasized: the monsters of the title have invaded most of Earth and only the USA remains a safe haven for humans–or so Americans think. Like real Americans today, the fictional Americans of Monsters seem to believe that migration can be stopped, which is never the case.

I started a conversation about the aliens in these films and I asked my students what kind of stories we could tell, taking into account the shameful humanitarian crisis affecting the poor refugees stranded in Turkey, Greece and Eastern Europe. Imagine, I said, that a spaceship similar to the one in District 9 lands on Nou Camp, here in the middle of Barcelona… How does the story continue? And the students laughed. As Laia explained, one can easily imagine President Obama addressing visitors from outer space, but the idea of President Rajoy doing the same is simply hilarious (President Puigdemont seems to be slightly less hilarious, but still…). Laia herself added that if a spaceship landed in Spain this would result in another episode of Aquí no hay quien viva, the popular TV sitcom about a group of raucous neighbours.

At the end of the 1960s, Carlo Fruttero, editor of the SF publication series Urania, the most important one in Italy of its kind, was asked why he never published Italian SF. Famously, he replied that it “was impossible to imagine a flying saucer landing in Lucca”, a controversial statement that, of course, only spurred the imagination of Italian SF authors. I’m not familiar with Italian SF, and not even that much with Spanish SF, and I don’t know whether a starship has ever landed in Lucca. I know that Spanish writer Tomás Salvador produced an absolute masterpiece, even translated into English, with his tale of a generation ship, La nave (1959). Of course, this ship never lands in Franco’s Spain, it has been already travelling in space for many years when the story begins.

The aliens, curiously, have trodden Catalan land in at least two very well-known novels. One is Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (one alien at least is stranded after her companions manage to massacre practically all humans before abandoning their intended colonization project). The other is, there we go again, the hilarious Sin noticias de Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (serialized 1990 in El País, published as a volume in 1991).

In this novel the eponymous Gurb, a metamorphic alien, takes the physical appearance of singer Marta Sánchez (!) and decides to explore Barcelona, going awol. Another alien, a shy fellow quite disturbed by his mate’s French leave, follows his tracks also using a variety of human disguises, each more outrageous than the previous one. My fellow citizens respond with total dead-pan indifference to the absurd situations in which the poor alien finds himself in the midst of the chaotic upheaval of the city which preceded the Olympic Games of 1992. This is the funniest book of any kind I have ever read, more than Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, more than Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I remember re-reading it once on the train and having to give up because I could not suppress my laughter. And, to be honest, I would have been very happy to have written Gurb.

Mendoza practices in Gurb the very Spanish literary genre of the ‘esperpento’; Aquí no hay quien viva is its television version. ‘Esperpento’, usually associated with writer Ramón María del Valle-Inclán is, supposedly, a deformed mirror of Spanish society which emphasizes with great irony its worst traits, among them its vulgarity, widespread ignorance, excessive pride, lazy habits and so on. It connects closely with the older genre of the picaresque novel but goes much further in highlighting the grotesque in local Spanish reality. Any Spanish literary critic will tell you that there is no consensus on whether ‘esperpento’ is a deformed or an exact mirror image of Spain (by the way, in Catalonia we also have ‘esperpento’ as seen in the popular TV political satire Polònia).

I believe that ‘esperpento’ is the reason why Laia and my other students laugh at the idea of President Rajoy welcoming the aliens. Unlike what is often believed, the inability to imagine the aliens landing on Nou Camp or in Lucca has nothing to do with the alleged low technological level of Spanish and Italian societies, as both societies are like any other in the West in that sense. It’s not, either, a matter of occupying secondary positions in the world order for District 9 and Monsters show that being a world leader is no longer a requirement to the object of the aliens’ attention in SF movies. I don’t know how things work in Italy, but Spain is dominated by a terrifying low self-esteem which ‘esperpento’ tries to mask with humour. That might explain the lack of alien visitors.

I’m sure that many others have given far more satisfactory explanations of why Spaniards have generated ‘esperpento’ as a strategy to cope with Spanish reality. Also stuck in a similar post-Imperial decadence, England has reacted very differently–unless, that is, we come to the conclusion that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and certainly Monty Python are also ‘esperpento’, and perhaps they are. Americans have also generated plenty of humour around the idea of the visiting alien. I’m thinking of some TV series: Mork and Mindy (1978-82) the sitcom that made Robin Williams a star, Alf (1986-1990) with its furry alien visitor or Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001). In US culture, however, the humour at the expense of alien contact is perfectly compatible with the countless examples of fictional American Presidents facing alien visitors or invaders in far more dramatic circumstances. It must be, as I say, a matter of self-esteem. Theirs is so high that American cannot conceive of aliens visiting first other countries on Earth–I’m sure they would be flabbergasted if the aliens chose China.

One of the saddest films I have seen on the topic of alien contact is Óscar Aíbar’s bitter-sweet Platillos volantes (2003). This movie tells the pathetic real-life story of José Félix Rodríguez Montero (47), a textile worker, and Juan Turu Vallés (21), an accountant in the same Terrassa factory, near Barcelona, who committed suicide on 20 June 1972. Following the supposed call of the aliens and believing that they had somehow mutated, the two men lay down their heads on the tracks of the Barcelona-Zaragoza railway line convinced that dying was a one-way ticket to Jupiter.

I’m not the only spectator to have seen in these two poor deluded men the shadow of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, although they seem to have been both Quijotes. Aíbar’s film is a singular portrait of a naïve, poorly educated Spain easily misled by fantasies of alien contact, as I remember from my own childhood (yes, I did believe in aliens then… now I want to believe). If this were an American film, of course, José Félix and Juan would have eventually met the aliens, proven everyone wrong, and been carried away by an breath-taking starship to Jupiter and beyond. Being Spanish, the film is dominated by Cervantes’s legacy and, so, must punish those who dare fantasize–or, rather, since this is a real-life story, the director is conditioned by Cervantes’ legacy to choose this sad tale, rather than a more uplifting fantasy, for his film. True, he made amends with El bosc (2012), but the damage is done.

To sum up, then, Cervantes + ‘esperpento’ + Spanish post-Imperial low self-esteem = no alien contact. And just in case you were thinking of this, yes, Rajoy with his inexistent English and his frequent gaffes seems to embody much of this inconvenient mixture. It is certainly easier to imagine Pedro Sánchez, Albert Rivera, Pablo Iglesias or Alberto Garzón, perhaps even Soraya Saéz de Santamaría (?), engaging in elegant alien contact on behalf of Spain.

Perhaps a clear sign of the decadence of American world leadership is that soon we may have to imagine Donald Trump welcoming the aliens–now, that’s ‘esperpento’…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

HOW TV IS IMPLODING: SERIES, RATINGS AND NEW CONSUMER HABITS

abril 8th, 2016

This post is inspired by two sources: one, the article “The 2015–16 TV Season in One Really Depressing Chart” by Josef Adalian and Leslie Shapiro published online in Vulture (http://www.vulture.com/2016/03/2015-2016-tv-season-in-one-depressing-chart.html#); the other the collective non-academic volume Yo soy más de series (2015, http://www.esdrujula.es/libro/yo-soy-mas-de-series/) in which I have participated with, once more, an article on The X-Files. What these very diverse sources show implicitly is that the current boom around US TV series may well result soon in the destruction of television as we know it.

The article, quite brief, comments on the declining ratings for the “old-school broadcast networks” in the United States, or “Big Four”, regarding their current star product, namely, fiction series. They have lost “about 7 percent” viewers for “first-run programming” since the 2014-15 season, “continuing a pattern of substantial decline” in the last few years. The problem is attributed mainly to “a paucity of breakout hits” even though what seems more worrying is that “audiences appear to be abandoning established shows”, usually in the second or third season. You may next check the chart accompanying the article, which shows the ratings for a long list of series or, as they call them in the USA, ‘shows’. The authors claim that audiences have stopped being loyal to their favourite shows: “Now, in the era of viewing on demand, it seems audiences are increasingly having sordid affairs with new shows and then quickly moving on”. Of course, the problem for the broadcasters is that Nielsen rates connect directly to revenue for, remember, TV is basically one long ad interrupted by programmes. Streaming services have started competing for what the writers call “eyeballs” (the part for the whole, you know?) seemingly forgetting that the money business companies can spend on advertising is not unlimited.

Now let’s turn to the really juicy part of the article. Yes, you guessed right: the readers’ comments–far more relevant and informative than the article itself. Here are some highlights (see with how many opinions you identify):

*(…) there is such an over saturation of shows that it is forcing people to really pick and choose what they want to watch and thus people are ditching poorer quality shows that don’t work for them anymore. Or ditching long running favourites that have run out of steam.
* [the lengths of US network seasons] 21-25 episodes is just ridiculous, it’s not conducive to making a good product.
*(…) ad-based business models result in content that puts audiences into a soporific state conducive to being influenced by ads, while subscription-based models favour content that locks in passionate fan bases.
*Networks need to cultivate small, passionate audiences for their shows and recognize that the audience is now so splintered that huge audiences will be rare one-offs for special events.
*Cable and streaming services are investing in creativity, giving writers and creators more freedom to make interesting things. The Networks are sticking to the old formula, and seeing fewer and fewer returns. It’s a loosing game. They’ll be gone in a few more years.
*By the time Nielsen’s gets with the times, broadcast will be defunct anyway and all the shows will be on streaming services, which know exactly who is watching what and when, but has no motive to share that info with anyone else.
*Not only are networks competing with cool streaming shows that are new (…) but there’s entire runs of old series to discover.
*I will never again watch a new network show. Why bother getting invested in a show that is likely going to get cancelled? I vastly prefer the Netflix way.
*Loyal viewers are going to be more important than massive numbers in the future.
*I have a lot of shows I love and a lot of shows I like. I don’t care if they are on networks or not. I’m not depressed by this. Sorry.

And my favourite comment: “Thank God for books”.

Look at the paradox: the networks have always broadcast series but something changed about 25 years ago (arguably) with ABC’s Twin Peaks (1990-91), which proved that audiences were willing to enjoy new kinds of TV fiction series. Then the TV model changed radically with the introduction of new local and national channels (think Fox), satellite and cable TV. The current model also includes internet streaming services of which, obviously, Netflix is the most popular one right now. What all these diverse ways of watching fiction on a smaller screen (TV, computer, tablet, cell phone…) have in common is their trusting series to keep them afloat–logically, since series have that strange quality: they may last for years and keep an audience loyal to a channel/service (or so it was assumed). What broadcasters of any type don’t seem to realize is that the personal viewing time of each spectator (eyeballs, argh!) cannot increase at the same pace, hence the new ‘disloyalty’. Spectators feel that the market is indeed oversaturated and, so, navigate it as well as they can: some give up TV for good, others give up certain series. All tend towards the same goal: controlling their viewing time regardless of network interests and desperately old-fashioned Nielsen ratings. What is at risk, in short, is not the fiction created to fill our smaller screens but any TV business based on advertising, even TV consumption itself.

Now to the book, Yo soy más de series, coordinated by Fernando Ángel Moreno. You will find in it articles dealing with 60 series, all of them American with a few British and Japanese exceptions (Spanish TV is represented by El Ministerio del Tiempo). The articles are very different, some are 100% academic, others 100% personal and informal, some (like mine) a combination. Having read its extremely appealing 472 pages, the impression I get is of a gigantic collective failure by American TV series’ creators to produce truly solid work. Actually, this is my personal point of view and, of course, I have sought confirmation in the volume.

I have often voiced my post-Lost opinion that a narration that begins with no firm plans about its ending is not to be trusted, which is why I very much prefer mini-series. When you try to stretch a series beyond its natural run, when the series ‘jumps the shark’, then the series is doomed and what started as an exciting tale ends up as flat as a bottle of champagne left uncorked for a week. And this is what I see again and again in the articles of Yo soy más de series: with the exception of the mini-series (I, Claudius) or of the series planned for a limited number of seasons (Babylon 5) and a few honourable exceptions, most series outstay their welcome. The reasons may be that, as one of the comments I have reproduced notes, the number of episodes per season is too high, but whatever the reason is very few series can maintain the same level of interest and creativity for long. After the second season, which is when ‘eyeballs’ start looking elsewhere, the plot lines get more and more twisted as writers and producers run out of ideas struggling desperately to go on. The shows enter then a sort of entropic process of decadence that leads to their final, eventual implosion.

Funnily, I’m writing this at a time when The Big Bang Theory is keeping me glued to my sofa for hours at a stretch at least once a week. Typically, we decide to watch a couple of episodes and may end up watching eight in a row (they’re 20 minute long). I am not following any other series and, frankly, after reading Yo soy más de series the only one truly tempting me is Breaking Bad; we’ll see… An advantage of sit-coms like Big Bang, I find, is that it’s somehow harder to feel disappointed for they do not make such high claims as drama series do to being avant-garde narrative, even better than novels… If there is an opinion I hate about TV series is that one. I feel, in short, refreshed by Big Bang but oversaturated by soap-opera products masquerading as great TV–like Game of Thrones or Homeland.

I’ll finish with the story I tell in my own article for Yo soy más de series, a story I have already told many times: TV is paying in Spain a high price for having despised spectators in the past. If TeleCinco had not cancelled arbitrarily The X-Files just when the internet was entering Spain, we would not have rushed to become TV pirates. Once learned, the habit will not be unlearned. Illegal downloading is, simply, a central aspect of TV consumption in Spain, which does not seem to be the case in the USA. Here satellite, cable and streaming are, I’m 100% sure, second to piracy, while this no doubt as popular as actual TV broadcasting if not more. I wonder how Nielsen is dealing with this when it counts Spanish ‘eyeballs’ for we all wear a pirate’s eye patch.

Soon, if not tomorrow, ‘TV’ series will drop the ‘TV’ part of their name to be called something else, perhaps just ‘series’, for they will no longer be connected with watching television at all. Nielsen be warned.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

REMEMBERING KURT COBAIN (MUSIC AND ENGLISH STUDIES)

abril 3rd, 2016

Channel-hopping a couple of Saturdays ago, I came across the documentary Classic Albums: Nirvana – Nevermind (2005) on BTV, the excellent local Barcelona TV channel (you may see the film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2lu48P8dZTk&list=RD2lu48P8dZTk). BTV is, as far as I know, the only public channel I have access to which bothers to broadcast a weekly series on popular music, simply called Música Moderna. Amazing how music has disappeared from public TV in Spain… I think back to all the variety I could get as a young girl and I’m truly mystified (thank you, by the way, Paloma Chamorro, wherever you are, for La edad de oro!). Anyway, I digress (or not, as you’ll see). The documentary stirred in me plenty of feelings, memories and impressions I had almost forgotten and I’m trying to make sense of them here.

Two years ago I attended the ‘16th International Culture & Power Conference’ at the Universidad de Murcia and I had the great pleasure of listening to my colleague Rubén Valdés (U. Oviedo) deliver a paper on Joy Division. Finally!, I told everyone present, we start dealing with the aspects of anglophone culture that matter so much but that we dare not acknowledged in our academic work. After the ensuing exciting conversation, I came up with an idea for an article on the role of popular music in the awakening of English Studies scholarly vocations in Spain, thinking in particular of my generation, the ones born in the 1960s for whom Joy Division’s music had been an undeniable inspiration. I even drafted a questionnaire which Juan Antonio Suárez kindly reviewed for me but I haven’t been able to find the right moment to get down to work. Maybe after this post… My thesis, as you can see, is that popular music played a major role in leading many young aspiring scholars in the 1980s to choose ‘Filología Inglesa’, in combination with Literature and cinema (also TV). Many of us learned about Britain and the United States through their popular music: translating lyrics from English was, I’m sure, a favourite activity, as was attending concerts both in Spain and, with luck, in the UK and the US. We knew that this would never be the subject of our ‘proper’ research but the music never stopped playing.

Or did it? In my own case ageing has brought an increasing intolerance of background sound, which means that I have progressively lost the ability to work as I listen to music–now I need total silence. My otolaryngologist has given me very strict instructions not to use earphones and to attend very loud pop and rock concerts only sparingly… And so I have little by little disconnected from that indie avant-garde I used to know all about, also because now I easily lose my way in the endless lists of new bands, emerging one day and gone the following week. Students have also changed. Years ago I could rely on their suggestions but the last time I used music in my classes (‘Literatura anglesa del s. XX’, 2012-13), I found that they didn’t know who Kasabian are… Now I myself don’t know what Kasabian are up to, if they’re still together at all.

Back in, I think, 1999 I visited Professor Simon Frith in Glasgow, no doubt the main anglophone academic specialist in pop and rock (http://www.eca.ed.ac.uk/reid-school-of-music/simon-frith). My students have heard about this visit countless times… I asked him how he had managed to develop his amazing career in this field and he gave me a golden recipe: use an impeccable scholarly methodology and nobody will be able to object. I soon wrote a piece on US 1990s Goth star Marilyn Manson (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Marilyn%20Manson%20Limits%20Challenge%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf), and I have subsequently written on gender in music videos (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn%20El_Cuerpo_en_el_Videoclip_Musical.pdf), Scottish female singers (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/112359), Linkin Park (http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Linkin%20Park%20AEDEAN%202010%20Sara%20Mart%C3%ADn.pdf) and, my favourite piece, on Kylie Minogue (with Gerardo Rodríguez, http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/sites/gent.uab.cat.saramartinalegre/files/Forget%20Madonna%20Rodriguez%20Mart%C3%ADn%20AEDEAN%20Cadiz.pdf).

Year in, year out I promise myself that I will teach an elective on pop and rock but I don’t seem to find the moment, feeling a bit hampered too by not being sure about which methodology to use in order to assess students. Like many other teachers, I assume, I have used lyrics in introductory survey courses to complement poetry. I used to ask students to choose their own lyrics and it was funny to see how they offered quite conservative proposals thinking they would please me (Bon Jovi???). There was a girl absolutely surprised that I chose Linkin Park’s “Somewhere I belong” for class analysis… but that was so long ago. One of my fondest memories is a really hilarious first-year session in which we tried to make sense of Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit”–just give it a try, worse than The Waste Land

The other fond memory connected with Nirvana –also a bitter-sweet one–belongs to 6th April 1994, the day after Kurt Cobain (b. 1967) shot himself dead. I was 28, still a doctoral student, and teaching somebody else’s syllabus for ‘Literatura Anglesa Moderna i Contemporània II’, the 19th century. I had to teach Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), a novel for which I have not yet managed to feel any enthusiasm. When I heard on the radio first thing in the morning that Cobain was dead this brought me back to the day when Ian Curtis, Joy Division’s singer, killed himself (18th May 1980). I told myself, ‘If that day was crucial for my generation, then today is crucial for my students’ generation’ and, so, I spent the whole 90 minutes talking about all the iconic pop and rock figures that had died too early and how this connected with the Romantic idea of suicide (poor things, my students!!). No mention of Waverley… except to say ‘Who can care about Scott today? Not me…’

I did not intend then and do not intend now to support the idiotic cult around early suicide (or youth suicidal lifestyles). I soon became a New Order fan, which I remain to this day, and I can only say that I have a great deal of admiration for how the members of Joy Division decided to move on and become a new band, full of energy and preaching a radiant, hedonistic pleasure in life. The same applies to Dave Grohl’s career after Nirvana. Courtney Love, Cobain’s widow, called him many names, none of them nice, during the funeral; unlike her, I believe that suicides deserve compassion but I’d rather not turn them into cult figures. What the documentary on Nirvana’s hit album Nevermind brought back (and perhaps Amy, this year’s Oscar winner, also does that for the late Amy Winehouse) was the explosion of talent before the regrettable early death. Cobain’s case is crystal clear: he simply could not cope with the sudden, massive success of his band. I know that there is a deep contradiction in choosing a career as a rock musician and not thinking of the consequences of success but if you read, as I have done, Bernard Sumner’s recent memoirs Chapter and Verse: New Order, Joy Division and Me, you will see that this is a quite common contradiction.

Back to Nevermind (1991), what I most appreciated about the documentary was the insight into how inexplicable creativity of this very high quality is. The focus of the film is producer Butch Vig’s narration of how the album was made, accompanied by interviews with Nirvana band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Vig gives many technical details about how he came up with the now classic Nirvana sound (the double voice tracks, and so on) and recalls beautiful accidents; the final version of “Lithium”, a song that gave band and producer countless problems, came from Cobain singing softly to Vig to demonstrate what he was after. Yet nothing and nobody can explain how everything cohered into the making of that landmark in rock history.

I love the album with a fan’s irrational passion and completely lack the musicological training to explain in scholarly terms why it is so potent–I can go on and on about male voices that transmit Romantic intensity (Curtis, Cobain, Chester Bennington…) but this is still an impressionistic approach based on a very personal preference. One thing the documentary seemed to highlight is that, as Michael Forsythe comments in the YouTube segment for the documentary, “The music scene today could sure use another Nirvana. I know there will never be another Nirvana but something to regenerate rock again and take it by storm before it dies”.

This might be basic generational nostalgia though I think I’m not alone in feeling, like this person, that in the last 25 years since Nevermind no other main event has changed the course of pop and rock with the same power. New high-impact artists have emerged (think Beyoncé) but they seem to be more about image-packaging than about the music. Kurt Cobain’s dishevelled, grungy look couldn’t be further from that… I could joke in very bad taste that if he started his career today, Cobain would anyway end up shooting himself rather than submit to the image manipulation that music artists routinely accept today. I have never seen a man with such a beautiful face make himself so ugly as a way to protect his music.

I’m thinking of the equivalent of BTV’s Música Moderna in 25 years’ time and wondering which classic albums will be revisited… By the way: has any PhD dissertation on popular music been submitted yet within English Studies in Spain? I had one in my hands but, you know what it’s like these days, the author had a full time job, a family life… and abandoned it rather than, as he said,’lose coherence’. You don’t know how sorry I am…

Now enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vabnZ9-ex7o

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

…AND SUPERMEN: READING GRANT MORRISON’S SUPERGODS

març 29th, 2016

[This is my 400th post and I want to thank all of you, readers. I feel very embarrassed when someone sends me a message or approaches me with a kind word but it is also a great pleasure. I do hope you also get a little bit of that from reading my raving and ranting. Thanks!!]

One of the most exciting perks of being a teacher is how much one learns from students. Until last January I had no idea who Grant Morrison was and then, suddenly, my doctoral students Angélica and Matteo decided to enlighten me from very different fronts and without even having met. You won’t believe me but I heard the words ‘Grant Morrison’ from their lips on the very same day–serendipity! If you are a comic book lover, I’m sure you must be thinking that my ignorance of Morrison’s oeuvre is simply appalling… and I would agree now that I know that he is one of the greatest new voices in the recent renewal of the superhero universe caused by the ‘British invasion’ (Morrison is a Glaswegian). The Brits, he explains, “dragged superhero comics out of the hands of archivists and sweaty fan boys and into the salons of hipsters. In our hands, the arrogant scientific champions of the Silver Age would be brought to account in a world of shifting realpolitik and imperial expansionist aggression.”

I don’t wish to comment here on Morrison’s long career (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grant_Morrison) but on his essay Supergods (2011). This is an irregular volume both because there are more accomplished introductions to the superhero but also because Morrison’s self-portrait of the artist is too sketchy. The insights into his own career range from down-to-earth financial aspects to his candid report of an out-of-earth crucial paranormal experience. All this, coming from the horse’s mouth is fascinating but, as I say, not fulfilling enough. Guided by Matteo’s interest in the mythopoesis of the superhero and Angélica’s curiosity about Morrison’s approach to scientific notions of the multiverse, I have, nonetheless, quite enjoyed Supergods.

This is the opening week for Zack Snyder’s blockbuster Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice, a box-office hit despite dismal reviews venting the same twin complaints: why do we take superheroes so seriously?, and why is Snyder’s bleak film not fun? I have not seen the film yet (I find the idea of Ben Affleck as Batman quite repellent) but I should say that we have been taking superheroes seriously at least since Frank Miller published The Dark Knight Returns back in 1986, thirty years ago… Here Morrison can help: “By offering role models whose heroism and transcendent qualities would once have been haloed and clothed in floaty robes, [superheroes] nurtured in me a sense of the cosmic and ineffable that the turgid, dogmatically stupid ‘dad’ religions could never match. I had no need for faith. My gods were real, made of paper and light, and they rolled up into my pocket like a superstring dimension.” As ‘supergods’.

As I have explained to Matteo, I believe that we are still missing a much needed explanation about why Western mythology (including Greek, Roman, Germanic, Nordic, etc.) has resurfaced of all places in the United States. As Morrison writes, “Like jazz and rock ’n’ roll, the superhero is a uniquely American creation. This glorification of strength, health, and simple morality seems born of a corn-fed, plain-talking, fair-minded midwestern sensibility.” Morrison points out that other countries have superheroes (the UK, France, Italy, Japan…) and offers the habitual explanation that Superman appeared as a fantasy aimed to compensate Americans for the ugly daily reality of the Depression Era and the horrors emerging in Nazi Germany. Still, I’m not convinced.

My husband, an habitual reader of comic books, suggests that I should explore the idea that, lacking the medieval tradition of the knight, America invented superheroes (Batman, remember, is the ‘dark knight’). I quite like his thesis but it cannot explain why superpowers were added to the figure of the hero/knight. If you recall, classic heroes were the hybrid sons of couples formed by an ordinary human and a divine individual, hence technically they were demi-gods. I would agree than when the alien Superman lands on the cover of Action Comics in 1938 America generates a new version of the demi-god, though perhaps Morrison exaggerates by claiming that “Superman was Christ, an unkillable champion sent down by his heavenly father (Jor-El) to redeem us by example and teach us how to solve our problems without killing one another.” In view of the dark night of the soul that many superheroes have been going through since Miller re-drew the campy Batman as a brooding Gothic icon, Morrison sounds certainly overoptimistic when he wonders whether the superhero could be “the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project”. I wish!

Perhaps because of my own atheism I feel far more intrigued by Morrison’s declaration that the superheroes “may have their greatest value in a future where real superhuman beings are searching for role models.” It had never occurred to me that superheroes are a prefiguration of what we call now ‘post-human’ and even ‘transhuman’ yet this is indeed what they are. Think X-Men, above all. Nonetheless, as you can see, my student Matteo will have plenty to do in order to explain why myth has resurfaced specifically in the early 20th century comics published in America and how exactly the mythopoesis of the superhero genre has evolved in the past 80 years. The connection with the post-human scientific paradigm might be the missing element…

This brings me to Angélica’s focus on how Morrison’s awareness of current theoretical physics shapes his narrative style (in case I forgot to say, Morrison is a writer, not an artist/draftsman). Here we face two different questions: one commercial, the other personal, as you will see.

In Morrison’s words: “in place of time, comic-book universes offer something called ‘continuity’”. The many storylines owned by American comic book publisher DC “were slowly bolted together to create a mega-continuity involving multiple parallel worlds” aimed at integrating past periods in the life of re-booted superheroes (as we would say today) and new acquisitions. A singularity of superhero comics–possibly their main defining trait–is that DC and Marvel series have become “eternally recurring soap operas—where everything changed but always wound up in the same place”. The problem of how to prolong ad infinitum a successful character or series was solved, in short, by appealing to the idea of multiple narrative universes. This happened just when “string theory, with its talk of enclosed infinite vaults, its hyperdimensional panoramas of baby universes budding in hyperspace” started theorizing the existence of a multiverse (or our ‘multiversal’ existence). In this way, a plain commercial strategy was given an unexpected philosophical depth (I’m really serious about this–just in case…).

Morrison embodies better than any other current writer in any genre the confluence of the mythical, the mystical and the scientific, with an added in-your-face flaunting of his dabbing in the occult. A turning point in his career happened, he claims, one night in Kathmandu when he had an intense vision, courtesy of what he described as “chrome angels”. This experience introduced him to a new sense of time apprehended not as a linear event but as a total simultaneity “with every single detail having its own part to play in the life cycle of a slowly complexifying, increasingly self-aware super-organism”. Morrison decided to explore this epiphany in his comic books as he tried to find an explanation for his own new superpower, an ability to see a 5-D perspective of objects and of life “as it wormed back from the present moment and forward into the future: a tendril, a branch on this immense, intricately writhing life tree”.

What is most original about Morrison’s neo-Blakean visionary capacity is that, without doubting its reality one iota, he grants that it could be due to a temporal lobe seizure (“would it not be in our own best interests to start pressing this button immediately and as often as we can?”, he proposes), a lung infection that almost killed him, or his massive consumption of a variety of drugs for a long time. Never wavering for an instant, he concludes that “Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. (…) The real doorway to the fifth dimension was always right here. Inside. That infinite interior space contains all the divine, the alien, and the unworldly we’ll ever need”. Myth, mysticism and science coalesce, then, in the superhero mystique, at least according to Grant Morrison. And if you’re willing to accept that writing fiction is opening the door to beings coming straight out of the universes in our skulls it all fits. After all, even the gods and God are creations of the human imagination.

I envy Morrison his happy, gleeful fusion of the rational and the irrational and his ability to have turned this exercise in tightrope walking into the very productive foundation of his career. I just simply do not know enough about comic books to test his claim that superheroes are channelling our simultaneous need to a) bring the old gods into a world increasingly sceptical about God, b) maintain our falling ethical standards, c) supply a template for future post-human behaviour, d) connect us with the multiverse and e) inspire us to connect with our inner superhero. A very tall order indeed! I’ll trust Morrison, however, as he seems to know best.

After all, a world with no superheroes sounds, definitely, boring. And I don’t mean that they’re here to simply entertain us (this is just part of their truth) but also to re-connect us with parts of the ‘infinite interior space’ that our trivial daily lives are obscuring. Long live myth!

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

OF MEN… : MASCULINITIES STUDIES AND THE GRASSROOTS REALITY

març 28th, 2016

I’ll refer here to an article by Alejandra Agudo published in El País on March 18th: “Hablan los ‘nuevos’ hombres. Son feministas, igualitarios, cuidadores. Paco Abril, Octavio Salazar y José Ángel Lozoya defienden una sociedad más justa en la que ellos pierden poder” (http://elpais.com/elpais/2016/03/18/planeta_futuro/1458333179_184806.html). These three men were participants in the conference celebrated at the Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Paternidades que transforman (http://aitak.deusto.es/), hence their joint interview. I know Paco Abril from the seminars held by the research group I have worked with in the last four years, ‘Constructing New Masculinities’ (http://www.ub.edu/masculinities/), and I have a great deal of respect for him. He is a sociologist and a teacher at the Universitat de Girona and, above all, a pro-feminist activist for equality, the president of the Catalan branch of AHIGE (Asociación de Hombres por la Igualdad de Género, http://www.ahige.org/). I had never heard of José Ángel Lozoya, a member of the Red de Hombres por la Igualdad (http://www.redhombresigualdad.org/web/) who defines himself as “househusband, sexologist and gender specialist”. The name of Octavio Salazar, who teaches law at the Universidad de Córdoba, is more familiar, perhaps because he also writes for El País.

I find nothing particularly controversial in the article, which essentially confirms the impression that while the number of men who defend equality in their private lives is (slowly) increasing, men’s public activism is extremely limited. Men like Abril, Lozoya and Salazar do not represent, then, a recognizable movement but appear to be, rather, inhabitants of tiny islands of equality in a vast sea of inequality (excuse the corny metaphor). The sad, sad thing is that you needn’t go very far to see the enormous resistance they face: you just have to read the readers’ comments added to the article at the bottom of the webpage. Remember this is El País, supposedly a progressive newspaper read by liberal-minded persons.

There are very few positive comments, perhaps about 5 in a discussion amounting to 178 comments, and I must note that the most virulent opinions have been erased by whoever in El País monitors this kind of exchange. I have highlighted a few sentences, all by men, except where indicated; if you allow me, I’ll leave them in the original Spanish version, for the ‘castizo’, ‘machista’ nuances not to be lost in translation:

*Teniendo en cuenta lo que significa hoy en día el término ‘feminista’, un hombre que se defina como ‘feminista’… no es un hombre. (original ellipsis)
*Esos hombres no representan a los hombres ni a la igualdad. Son un instrumento al servicio del feminismo más radical. (…) En realidad, quienes defienden la igualdad de los hombres y los derechos de estos son los activistas por los derechos de los hombres o masculinistas.
*(…) Los retos de los nuevos tiempos nos deben de hacer reaccionar para no perder nuestro estatus y nuestra posición de privilegio en la sociedad. (…) ¿Nuevos hombres? no es mas que otra patraña de las que quieren desplazarnos de la esfera de poder para ser ocupada por ellas. (…)
*Y digo yo, ¿a Lozoya, las mujeres le endurecen la …..????
*[by a woman] (…) como mujer me gustan los varones hombres, sin cortapisas, ni melandros(sic)… la masculinidad es un valor en baja… Creo en la igualdad, no en la estupidez y lo digo como mujer que cada día lucha por ello, pero seriamente. (original ellipses)
*Lo que llegan a hacer algunos para ligar …
*(…) si estos tíos quieren luchar por la igualdad de derechos, que se pongan a a luchar por una ley de divorcio justa para los hombres (…) no veo a los colectivos feministas protestar por esto, ni por las denuncias falsas de maltrato, más del 80% de los casos, ¡¡es increíble!! (…)
*Señores, déjense de feminismos y de odiarse a sí mismos. No necesitan expiar sus pecados de varón, ya son buenos hombres porque sí, no por la luz salvadora del feminismo.
*¿Están siendo los hombres lo que de verdad desean ser o es el feminismo el que decide lo que debe ser un hombre? Parece haber un sentimiento de culpa derivado de una reducción de los hombres a machistas, maltratadores, violadores… que no deja libertad de elección. Me parece igualmente triste esa representación de una masculinidad obediente, bondadosa y dulce, que vive más pendiente del reconocimiento de su buena conducta que de su verdad. (original ellipsis)
*La masculinidad nunca ha abusado ni de la mujer ni de nadie. La paternidad comprometida ha sido lo único que ha movido a los hombres de todas las generaciones. (…)
*¿Y éstos marcianos de que país vienen?
*Me parece muy respetable que estos señores sigan un ‘modelo’ de vida acorde a sus ideas. Yo defenderé el derecho que tienen a seguir ese modelo. También supongo, y espero, que estos señores y los medios de comunicación desde donde se expande este ideario actuen con el mismo rasero y defiendan el derecho de los que no quieran seguir ese ideal.

These readers–and, please note that each passage corresponds to a different reader– might not represent all the Spanish defenders of patriarchy out there. It might well be, besides, that their in-your-face tone is deterrent enough for other men and women to express their anti-patriarchal views. I myself see no point in attracting plenty of negative energy by sending comments to this type of forum–yes, a bit cowardly of me. Yet I have come across the same or similar points in so many comments in different newspapers that I firmly believe they do represent our local reality too well. What is most disarming is the recalcitrance, by which I mean the impossibility of addressing these men in rational dialogue. I still have hopes that men like Abril, Lozoya and Salazar–and others like Luis Bonino and Miguel Lorente–can reach men in a way that feminist women cannot but I had not realized how much courage their task requires.

Recently, I tried to explain over a long coffee to a (male) colleague just arrived in the field of Masculinities Studies what these aim at and how little we have progressed. He was a bit alarmed, I must say, at my bleak panorama but I want nonetheless to reaffirm the (utopian?) ideas I am defending from my position. Unlike many other women who simply misunderstand what feminism is about–the struggle for equal rights–I have no problem to declare myself a feminist. I do not believe, however, that women can reach equality without men’s participation in a wide-ranging anti-patriarchal struggle. I preach to whomever listens that the common enemy is not masculinity but patriarchy, a social organization based on hierarchy conditioned by the individual’s degree of power and so insidious that its biggest triumph is making us believe there is no alternative to it. Yet, there is: a society based on equality among all citizens in which the will to help and not the will to power is the main aim. Sorry to sound so hippy.

I believe that we women have been thinking and doing for decades plenty to try to enjoy a better life but that we are facing enormous obstacles which have to do with women’s own complicity with patriarchy but, above all, with men’s lack of a clear anti-patriarchal agenda. In times when the patriarchal agenda is crystal clear and gaining adepts all over the world–think DAESH–the lack of a well-defined anti-patriarchal front is our worse enemy, both in the private and the public front. In the private front, it seems obvious to me that legislation is far from helping to stop the daily terrorist attacks committed against women and children by patriarchal abusers (I’m horrified to see that right here in my city the Maristas have chosen to defend rather than accuse the teachers who abused so many very young students in their schools). In the public front, it is simply not very clear on behalf of what we are fighting DAESH, for, if it’s human rights, then the refugee crisis sweeping Europe from East to West shows that nobody really cares to defend these rights. For all these I am using a good deal of my academic energy to insist that men have to become not (just) feminists but anti-patriarchal activists. It is my belief that if men are made aware of how evil patriarchy is and they embrace an anti-patriarchal stance then, automatically, they also become defenders of equality (pro-feminist) and the bane of any abuser.

It’s not, then, not only for me as a feminist to criticize and attack the men (and women) who have written the appalling comments I have reproduced here, nor for other women: men are the ones who should say ‘enough is enough’, patriarchy cannot and should not define masculinity for there are much better ways of being a man. Gentlemen: you are all invited to join the anti-patriarchal fight. Begin by freeing yourselves from the monster holding you down.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

“RINGIL ESKIATH. FAGGOT DRAGONSLAYER”: READY FOR A QUEER HERO? (RICHARD MORGAN’S A LAND FIT FOR HEROES)

març 13th, 2016

I don’t particularly enjoy reading fantasy of the type set in pseudo-medieval settings because of its more or less covert patriarchal inclinations. I have to interview, however, British author Richard Morgan at Eurocon and, hence, I’ve gone through his fantasy trilogy of tongue-in-cheek title A Land Fit for Heroes. This comprises The Steel Remains (2008), The Cold Commands (2011) and The Dark Defiles (2014) and it is clear from the misadventures of the heroic trio of protagonists that their land is anything but fit for heroes.

Morgan’s trilogy is part of so-called ‘grimdark’, the currently popular trend in fantasy which aims at presenting readers with plots in which terrible things happen on the philosophical grounds that existence is a burden with or without a cool sword and magical powers. Generally speaking, Morgan’s fans (like myself) prefer his science-fiction to his fantasy though I believe that his diverse imaginary worlds are not so distant, linked as they are by the angst of his male protagonists, always at odds with their environment. In this particular case, what disgusts Ringil Eskiath are the homophobic laws of Trelayne, the land where he holds a privileged position as a nobleman but which makes an outcast of him as a gay man.

Yes, Morgan does this: he challenges readers to accept oxymoronic characterizations for his male heroes that go beyond the very obvious. Ringil is an extremely original character not just because he is, for all I know, the first (or one of the first) gay heroes in sword-and-sorcery fantasy but also because, despite his victimization, he is also an extremely violent man and, hence, an amazingly effective warrior. Perhaps because of his victimization. Whether they enjoy or not the convoluted plot, beset by too many deus ex-machina turns, many readers claim to admire Ringil for his rebelliousness and defiance of rules. This is another peculiarity of Morgan’s writing, as I know very well having devoted a long article to Carl Marsalis in Black Man: he charms readers with male characters who are extremely brutal and do unspeakable things but who are also burning with anger against the unfair systems of power that bind them. And you fall for them.

[Warning: spoilers ahead!]

In Ringil’s case his rage combines his horror at the execution of a former lover decreed by his own father, following the rules of the realm (the method is impalement), and his abhorrence of slavery, resurrected and legalized after a devastating war that seemed to announce a better future. Morgan, however, may have gone a bit too far in the violence which Ringil inflicts on others. Not only is his ‘hero’ guilty of killing children (never mind that these children are far from innocent cherubs), he also allows his men to gang-rape a female slaver. Brit Mandelo suggests in a review of The Cold Commands (http://www.tor.com/2011/10/12/a-hard-but-worthy-read-the-cold-commands-by-richard-k-morgan/) that Ringil does feels guilt at this atrocity and that Morgan “makes it clear” that his “sanction of her rape (…) is not acceptable.” There is something of that but, arguably, had he been heterosexual Ringil would have joined the other rapists–an ugly proposition for a so-called hero. Moving on, I found something else which gave me that icy punch in the guts you feel in the presence of evil. At one point in The Dark Defiles Ringil commits a horrifying act of violence against the man responsible for the brutal homophobic executions in his father’s domain. Morgan again uses this moment to teach Ringil a lesson, making him feel jealous of the deep bond this man enjoys with his son–but I was too aghast to pay attention. Both at Ringil for commiting that outrage and at Morgan for imagining it.

Other readers have been disturbed, or even disgusted, instead by the many gay sex scenes in the trilogy–you may read Morgan’s fuming answer to one such complaint in his own website (http://www.richardkmorgan.com/2010/10/i-got-another-one/comment-page-1/). Nobody, by the way, seems to have rejected Ringil as a homophobic representation of a gay man. I have no problem with the scenes, I just wonder where Morgan got his information from (and how his wife reacted to reading her husband’s books…). What bothered me was how the scenes highlight, essentially, Ringil’s inability to love any man he has sex with and a sexual behaviour that is not truly new in relation to your classic patriarchal hero. Gil’s hard-boiled cynicism may be a novelty regarding the representation of gay characters, which might explain why The Steel Remains won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award, intended to “honor outstanding works of science fiction, fantasy and horror which include significant positive explorations of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters, themes, or issues” (http://www.spectrumawards.org/whatis.htm). I feel, nonetheless, trapped by the classic dilemma: have we reached a point in which a gay hero can also be a nasty man? Morgan says yes, for we need to accept all kinds of (gay) men; I have my doubts for I don’t wish to glamorise any barbaric man. No matter how attractive (same problem in Black Man).

I think that Morgan is making the point that the evil patriarchal systems which his heroes fight are destructive even of heroism, which is why his men are as monstrous as they are rebellious. I feel, however, the same unease I felt when I finished Black Man: I would have loved to see Ringil take one step further and claim justice for gays and end slavery–in short, to become politically effective. Morgan, however, does not want to go in this direction. Fair enough. The irony is that this task falls eventually into the hands of his female protagonist–a story suggested by the end but that remains eventually untold.

As happens, A Land Fit for Heroes is also a tale of deep friendship among a peculiar trio brought together by the war (against the Scaled People, a dragon species): Ringil himself, his berserker male friend Egar and their common female friend, Archeth. You seldom see the three together but the point is that they share a solid camaraderie and loyalty despite their differences. The bond between the macho warrior Egar and Ringil is supposed to show that male friendship needn’t be contaminated by homophobia, whereas the respect that the two men show for Archeth suggests that women can also bond with men… provided they are lesbians?

In a patriarchal land in which women only appear as either prostitutes (I lost count of how many times the word ‘whore’ is used) or slaves, whether within actual slavery or within marriage, Archeth manages to find a more or less secure political position as the main advisor of Yhelteh’s obnoxious Emperor. Just look at what this requires: Archeth is an immortal half-breed born of the union of a human woman and an alien Kiriath man. Her Kiriath genes have given Archeth her ebony skin but do not make the mistake of thinking that she is respected for being a black lesbian–no, what saves Archeth from rape and slavery is her literally unique paternal heritage. Other readers have complained that Archeth behaves like a man, which I find to be totally wrong. She is a profoundly feminine character, always concerned not to make herself too prominent and–something I don’t get–also extremely reluctant to assume any type of leadership. By the way, while Ringil enjoys encounters with many lovers, she agonizes about whether to have sex or not with a more than willing slave girl… When the long-awaited lesbian scene happens this is not as enthusiastically described as Ringil’s romps.

Since I am not a native speaker, the hero’s jokey, in-your-face self-presentation at one point of the trilogy as “Ringil Eskiath. Faggot dragonslayer” is more confusing than challenging. I was under the impression that ‘faggot’ was old-fashioned British slang when all the sources I have checked confirm that this is a US term currently used to abuse gay men–similar in offensive potential to ‘nigger’ (check if you wish the wonderful Wikipedia list of slang terms for gay men at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LGBT_slang_terms#Male). I do not know why an English writer would use an American term in a pseudo-medieval fantasy novel but, well, this is how limited my philological skills are. Perhaps Morgan is very specifically targeting American homophobia, which seems to be much more profound and widespread than British homophobia.

I have found myself, in conclusion, ready enough for a gay hero but, if you ask me, I’d chose Archeth over Ringil to protect me (Egar is the best choice in case dragons attack!). After all, Archeth appears to be the real queer hero in Morgan’s trilogy–in all senses.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AFTER INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY: PROGRAMMING WOMEN WRITERS IN OUR SYLLABI

març 9th, 2016

Once more we have ‘celebrated’ on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day, and like last year (see my post) I only feel irritation. A main downside of ageing is that one accumulates a memory of past events long enough to understand that although many things change at the speed of light, others seem to take for ever. One of these is achieving gender equality (actually, dismantling patriarchy should be the real target).

What I am specially resenting today is the hypocrisy and the cant: you no longer hear anyone in the media openly declaring that women are inferior and should be discriminated on the basis of our possessing a vagina but it seems to me that the misogynists excluded from public view for reasons of political correctness are doing their best to do their job–you see plenty of them lurking, by the way, in the readers’ comments sections of online newspapers or behind the masks of the many trolls aggressively policing women in the social networks. Even in courts of justice and I do not mean male judges. At a time when Spain already has more female than male judges, which should call for celebration, we have female judges harassing abuse victims with questions that come straight of pure sexism. I am simply appalled that the question ‘did you try hard enough to close your legs?’ addressed to a rape victim has been heard on a Spanish court and from a woman’s lips in 2016.

I’ll try to avoid the rant that I published here one year ago and strike a more positive note. I’ll start by recommending 25 excellent science-fiction short stories by women that I have chosen for my elective course. This is part of a project to produce with my students a guide to reading short stories (which will also include 25 tales by men). Here they are (enjoy!); all authors are US-born, unless specified:

Bear, Elizabeth. “Tideline” (2007).
Brackett, Leigh. “No Man’s Land in Space” (1941).
Cadigan, Pat. “Is There Life After Rehab?” (2005).
Cherry, C.J. “Cassandra” (1978).
Due, Tananarive. “Patient Zero” (2010).
Ermshwiller, Carol. “Creature” (2002).
Fowler, Karen Joy. “Standing Room Only” (1997).
Goldstein, Lisa. “The Narcissus Plague” (1995).
Goonan, Kathleen Ann. “A Short History of the Twentieth Century” (2014).
Griffith, Nicola. “It Takes Two” (2010). British author (naturalized US citizen)
Gunn, Eileen. “Coming to Terms” (2004).
Hoffman, Nina Kiriki. “Futures in the Memory Market” (2010).
Hopkinson, Nalo. “The Easthound” (2013). Canadian author.
Johnson, Kij. “26 Monkeys also the Abyss” (2008).
Jones, Gwyneth. “The Tomb Wife” (2008). British author.
Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Evil Robot Monkey” (2012).
Kress, Nancy. “Out of all them Bright Stars” (1985).
Lee, Yoon Ha. “A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” (2011).
McCaffrey, Anne. “The Ship Who Sang” (1961)
Moore, C.L. “Shambleau” (1948).
Norton, André. “All Cats Are Grey” (1953).
Russ, Joanna. “When It Changed” (1972).
Tiptree jr., James. “The Women the Men Don’t See” (1972).
Wilhelm, Kate. “Mrs. Bagley Goes to Mars” (1978).
Willis, Connie. “Daisy in the Sun” (1982).

Next, I’ll refer to my title. An implicit rule in my Department is that syllabi must be balanced and contain an equal representation of men and women. This is not always easy to accomplish, not because women have not produced excellent work but because much of that work is not as canonical as that of men. I have been reading with my class a very good piece by Adam Roberts (in The Science Fiction Handbook edited by Nick Hubble & Aris Mousoutzanis) on how canons are formed. In it he explains that Dale Spender changed back in 1986 the conditions for the upkeep of the canon for the English novel by claiming with her book Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Novelists Before Jane Austen not only that at least 100 women novelists had been so far ignored but that they were good. The 18th century canon has, therefore, expanded to include many more women and it is quite possible to teach a course including a mixed selection of men and women. Whoever does this is, in practice, altering the old-fashioned canon for good if only for the benefit of a handful of students. Roberts presents the gender-inclusive transformation of the canon as a solid, generally accepted process and simply dismisses as ‘not-the-done-thing’ all-male reading lists in any university course. (He should have visited my Department last semester…).

The real challenge, however, does not lie just in finding a new balance in our classroom for the canon of the past but applying new strategies to the formation of the canon of the future. And this is done mainly in contemporary fiction courses.

This is why I want to praise here what a colleague in my Department has done for, precisely, our course on current British fiction. This teacher has selected six novels by six women novelists: Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely beside Ourselves (2013), Poppy Adams’ The Behaviour of Moths (2008), Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine (2010), Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (2014), Zadie Smith’s NW (2012) and Marina Lewycka’s Two Caravans (2007). The course objectives are, as described in the official syllabus, “to come to a fuller understanding of particular aspects of post-modern Britain (…) attempting to comprehend those concerns and leitmotifs that may be generally applicable in these novels to the culture as a whole, with the aim of attaining a closer conception of the cultural parameters currently at work in contemporary British society.” Now, here is the best thing: my colleague is a man, David Owen.

And, yes, I’m extra happy that the course objectives do not refer at all to gender for this means that for David the writers chosen are, above all, high-quality writers and not principally women writers. When David confirmed this approach to me I joked whether the problem is that male British novelists are not up to the task of producing good fiction and he said that certainly the diverse new currents started back in the 1980s by Martin Amis and company have run their courses and now, I paraphrase, the novelists offering the more interesting proposals are women.

If one of my women colleagues had produced a similar syllabus I’m sure this would have been read as yet another feminist attempt as displacing the men, mere ‘women’s literature for women’. The idea of a woman teaching a reading list composed only of women writers faces inevitably this problem. This is why we need the men as allies, for with this list David is sending students the message that a) men do read and enjoy fiction written by women, b) men can certainly value women’s work above the fiction men are currently writing and c) it is about time that the inclusion of women writers in any syllabus stops being an act of feminist defiance to become the most habitual thing in the world… So, please, let’s have more men teaching work written by women because they are good writers.

I asked nonetheless one of my women colleagues whether David’s list is not a bit too much, an excessive reversal of the too often habitual exclusion of women. This colleague told that me she personally prefers mixing her writers (remember I am not mentioning other identities markers like race, ethnicity, etc) but she welcomed the idea of teaching only women. After all, she said, we have had only-men Literature courses for too long. And been told, besides, that the only principle of selection was their high quality, not, as it was always the case, their gender.

I am also particularly happy that there is no international writing women’s day, for this means that women writers have no specific grievances to vent regarding their profession (or am I wrong and women writers are also paid less for their work than their male peers?). I am myself privileged in relation to most women in my country, the sixth one in Europe in the black list of nations where women are exploited for basic gender reasons (women are paid 20% less here than their male peers). This does not mean I forget the simple fact that women are still woefully under-represented in the ranks of the Spanish full professors (15% to 53% of female students).

I’ll end as I started by wondering in irritation who International Women’s Day addresses. The media were full yesterday of items celebrating women’s achievements but also of many reports on the appalling conditions which women endure all over the world. We women already know about all these achievements and horrors and, seemingly, so do the anti-patriarchal men. The others, the patriarchal bastards that keep us tied to their sexism and misogyny were, I’m sure, mocking all the protests while enjoying the snug positions of power they occupy.

The European Commissioner responsible for gender equality, Vera Jurova, has declared that the European Union might reach equality in rights for all persons in 70 years. Two more generations?? I should say we have a serious problem if this is the best the EU can offer… Now think of the rest of the world. (And include more women in your Literature syllabi!!)

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SOME ARCHEOLOGY: THE OLD ‘LICENCIATURA’ IN ENGLISH PHILOLOGY (THINKING OF THE 3+2 REFORM)

març 2nd, 2016

The student assembly at the Facultat de Filosofia i Lletres where I work have decided that the national student strike announced for tomorrow is not enough and so have extended it to yesterday, today and tomorrow. I have lost count of all the strikes I have witnessed in my 30 years at UAB, as student and teacher–one thing I know is that none of them have bothered the diverse Ministries of Education at all… I certainly am in favour of people struggling to defend their rights but I wonder why the methods have not adapted to the 21st century. Also, I fail to understand why suspending one’s education for a few days may send the Ministry any message, as there is no way a students’ strike can reproduce the effect which a workers’ strike is supposed to have. Anyway… the same arguments all over again every few years if not every year.

I have already written here about the reasons for the protest: the new degree reform announced in 2014 (see my post for 19 October) and legislated in 2015 (see my post for 4 February). Although we have not yet started drafting the new syllabus and we are actually going through our first process of BA degree accreditation, it seems that the Catalan universities will go ahead with the plan to transform our degrees into the 3+2 model beginning in 2017-18 (some new degrees are starting in September). I was reminded yesterday that the Generalitat has not yet appointed a Secretary for the Universities; besides, there is currently only a provisional Spanish Government, with a most likely chance of new elections in June. How wise it is for any reform to begin at this point is for the reader to decide.

My own view, already expressed here again and again is that the 3+2 model might be acceptable for English Studies provided a) the 3-year BA is taught only in English, including possible common courses shared with other language and Literature degrees; b) the fees for the 2-year MA are the same as for the BA, so that all newly graduated students can have the option to complete the 3+2 model. This is pretty much the official position of my Department. I have observed also again and again that this apparently new 3+2 model reproduces that of the old ‘Licenciatura’, which consisted of a first cycle after which you could be granted a ‘Diplomatura’ degree and a second cycle, followed by a doctoral programme. Actually, the Spanish Parliament has recently determined that in legal terms possessing a ‘Licenciatura’ is the equivalent of possessing a ‘Grado’ and a Master’s degree. So, why, many of us are wondering, not go back to the ‘Licenciatura’.

I’ve done my digging at the website of the Boletín Oficial del Estado to find the syllabus (Plan de Estudios) implemented back in 1977, the first one after Franco’s death, that is, the first university reform of our then young democracy. The ‘Orden por la que se aprueba el Plan de estudios de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras de la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona’ can be found at https://www.boe.es/buscar/doc.php?id=BOE-A-1977-27200 (16 November 1977, BOE 274). I had forgotten that the Facultat offered then 1 single degree in ‘Filosofía y Letras’ with specialities, but it is interesting to note that the decree speaks of students tailoring their degrees to suit their needs with the help of a tutor… (which I never had).

Credits were counted by classroom time, i.e., 1 hour = 2 credits. The first cycle amounted to 90 credits (15 annual subjects), of which only 18 credits had to be from another speciality; 60 had to be taken within the speciality. The decree gives the Facultat the choice not to organize a common first year syllabus. This sounds quite open in relation to what we have now, though my suspicion is that the freedom granted by the decree was actually diminished by internal regulations. Second cycle: 60 credits, 42 belonging to the speciality chosen, 18 to any other speciality (the word ‘minor’ was not part of the vocabulary). Now, this does contrast with the current limitations, as students’ need to stick to a much more limited choice. Interestingly, the BOE speaks of ‘transversal specialities’ taught by different Departments–we could have had, for instance, a second cycle on Literature in different languages… never happened!!

Thus, until the ‘Licenciatura’ became a 4-year degree in 1992 (see http://www.boe.es/boe/dias/1993/01/28/pdfs/A02385-02388.pdf), students of ‘Filología Inglesa’ at UAB took the following yearly courses: ‘English language’ (I, II and III), ‘English Literature’ (I and II), ‘Anglo-Saxon Civilization’, ‘History of Language’ (with the pompous name of ‘Filología Germánica), and ‘German language’ (I, II and III). Students also had to take ‘Lengua Española’ (I and II), and ‘Introduction to Literary Studies’ (taught by the Spanish Department). In the second cycle, if I remember correctly, you could choose to specialize in English language or Literature, provided you chose a minimum of 5 semestral electives from the other branch. I haven’t been able to find a list of subjects, though.

Seeing this information, I realize that little by little the ‘Licenciatura’ descendants have pushed German out of the syllabus, to make room for more English language courses beyond the instrumental; Literature has also expanded to include more American Literature. The number of courses outside the Department was back in 1977 the equivalent of 6 semesters, in comparison to the current 4, but still so, these 4 semesters are a bone of contention, for we feel they should be taught in English. Needless to say, this is going to be the main obstacle for our Department in the new reform. All in all, however, the impression that ‘Licenciados’ (pre-1992) had a better exit level than later students may have to do with their taking a five-year course of studies than with the actual training they received. Following this line of thought, the students receiving the worst training were the ones in the period 1992-2009, as they took a 4-year ‘Licenciatura’ with no option to take an MA (except abroad).

Beyond the crucial question of the fees (they were relatively lower for the ‘Licenciatura’ and the same for the five years), our specific problem–and I refer here to all English Studies in Spain–is our students’ low command of the language we teach in. This is something we all know: the 1977 ‘Licenciatura’ attracted mostly students who understood that their English had to be solid enough to face the demands of the degree; since 1992, however, and particularly since the implementation of LOGSE in 1994, we are attracting students who, mostly, want to learn English. I’m perhaps exaggerating and back in 1977 (or 1984 when I started the ‘Licenciatura’) there were also many students with an inadequate command of English. I recall, however, from my students’ days a high rate of competitiveness among students to test who had the best accent, the largest vocabulary. This has been gradually vanishing from our classrooms. It makes for a certainly more relaxed atmosphere but the absence of peer pressure and the decreasing standards have also increased the time we need for pure instrumental language training. Hence the need to turn absolutely all subjects into English language practice.

That this is seen with a great deal of hostility became evident to me recently. I explained the idea that the common courses should also be taught in English, even when they are taught by teachers outside the Department, to a colleague in the Comparative Literature section (they teach the first year core course) and he was absolutely furious. Two things were striking in his overreaction: a) the idea that, we, English philologists, are not qualified to teach Linguistics and Literary Theory and b) a total incomprehension regarding the role that English plays in our classrooms. I understand the territorialism though, obviously, I disagree with it. What baffles me is the other matter. I tried to explain that if my students’ English is too weak, there is no way I can teach them Dickens (for example) but I totally failed. Now, my students’ English has been too weak for Dickens since, at least, I insist, 1994 and may never again be strong enough. Whether we limit the BA degrees to 3 years might make no difference at all, as I’ll probably still be teaching Dickens in the second year but, surely, if we could use more time for English in the first year, that would make at least some difference. Why this is so hard to understand is beyond me…

I’ll stop here. My master’s students have democratically decided not to be on strike this afternoon so I’m off to the UAB, hoping the habitual picket lines and barricades will be no obstacle… But that’s a topic for another post.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHY RESISTING EXCELLENCE IS (PARTLY) WRONG: RESPONDING TO AN INTERVIEW WITH INDOCENTIA

febrer 26th, 2016

Have a look at this interview published in the online El Diario.es. The title is long but self-explanatory: “Disciplinar la investigación, devaluar la docencia: cuando la Universidad se vuelve empresa. Entrevista al colectivo de profesores y estudiantes Indocentia sobre la transformación neoliberal de la Universidad” (Amador Fernández-Savater, 19/02/2016, http://www.eldiario.es/interferencias/Disciplinar-investigacion-devaluar-docencia-Universidad_6_486161402.html).

Indocentia groups a number of Social Sciences professors and students at the Universitat de València (contact them at indocentia@gmail.com). Its name alludes to ANECA’S programme ‘Docentia’ (http://www.aneca.es/Programas/DOCENTIA), aimed at monitoring the excellence in teaching of the Spanish Universities. UAB’s reference is DOC14UAB/07, and we have signed up to obtain a certificate for the period 15/10/2014 to 15/10/2019. I didn’t know this–check the list at ANECA for your own university. I gather from the interview, though this is just implicit, that the application of Docentia at the UV appears to be quite unwelcome among the teachers there, hence Indocentia.

I feel an itch to play devil’s advocate, you’ll see why later on, so here we go.

Indocentia point out that the media critique of the Spanish university is outdated as it fails to understand how the traditional feudal system based on client networks has adapted to the new requirements of the (American-inspired) liberal university. We need, hence, they claim a “real-time critique” which surveys and questions new key issues such as, I translate, the demand of hyperactivity, the subjection of knowledge to the market, the devaluation of teaching, the frailty of the precarious jobs. They criticize the complicity with the liberal programme of many researchers who, they say, appear to be selfishly obedient and who only care for their own CVs.

Whatever knowledge is generated ends up, Indocentia claim, locked up in closed circuits and measured with standards set up by ANECA and CNEAI following the directives of, they point out, “two private companies, Thomsom Reuters and Elsevier (owners respectively of databases WoS and Scopus)”. Indocentia strongly criticise the bias which this generates in favour of English-language publication, which they connect with a “colonial logic”. They strenuously complain, in addition, against the Government decree (or ‘ley Wert’) which has turned the ‘sexenio’ (or personal assessment exercise) into an instrument to discipline both research and teaching, to the detriment of the latter. Docentia is in particular criticized for trying to measure teaching using ruthless computer applications that simply are not adequate to the task (at UAB we are not using this… yet).

I am sure we all agree with the diagnosis. We must also be grateful to Indocentia for pointing out what we suffer in silence (or over coffee with other depressed colleagues): the constant anguish that we do not measure up, the psychosomatic complaints associated with the need to keep personal energies constantly available, the fear of mediocrity: “La excelencia mata, la competitividad enferma, decimos desde Indocentia”. Also the incomprehension–the look on my doctor’s face during my last visit a month ago regarding a scary, persistent headache. ‘So what do you do?’, the dialogue goes. ‘I’m a university teacher’. The raised eyebrow and the classic question: ‘And that’s stressful?’

The Indocentia interview, by the way, refers constantly to texts produced by the collective but they do not seem to be centralized in a single platform. You may want to read Carmen Montalba’s “El sueño de la excelencia: desvelarlo, desvelar-nos” (http://roderic.uv.es/handle/10550/49036) or Lucía Gómez and Francisco Jódar’s “Ética y política en la universidad española: la evaluación de la investigación como tecnología de la subjetividad” (http://atheneadigital.net/article/view/1169-Gomez).

Now, here’s my problem. The article ends with a bland declaration that, I translate, “Therefore, we cannot renounce the possibility of collectively producing new rules, new constituent praxis”. Check, if your wish, my own post of 18 April 2015 commenting on “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University” published by Dutch professors Willem Halffman and Hans Radder (Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 3 April 2015, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9/fulltext.html). I should say that this manifesto is much closer to what we need here in Spain in terms of including a programme of anti-liberal activities. Perhaps, as usual, even as regards the complaints against the liberal university we are lagging behind our European peers…

I do not want to go into the list of grievances and the list of proposals which our Dutch colleagues offer, for one year later I feel quite tired of going in circles and advancing nothing. A few days ago, for instance, I found myself helping the Head of my Department to prepare the meeting she is to have with our Vice-Rector of Personnel. Here’s the impossible situation: like everyone else, we have got no new full-time permanent positions for about eight years, not even to replace the many full-time positions we have lost to retirement and even early death. How you can run a Department of fast ageing teachers, with too many seniors past 60 and with associates past 40 who might have to wait 10 years for tenure…, is beyond anyone’s understanding. The secret masterplan of neo-liberal policies is, clearly, the complete elimination of the public university.

What bothers me about the Indocentia interview is this: by throwing the idea of excellence away as the trademark of the liberal university we’re throwing away the baby with the bathwater. I do aim at being an excellent researcher and teacher, hopefully a much better one than some of the personnel I had the misfortune to come across as a student in the 1980s Spanish university. I do not want this aim denied or criticized just because the instruments to measure it are downright wrong. I am entitled to being acknowledged as a researcher because I am doing my best–like many other of my peers. Also as a teacher.

I think we are missing one significant part of the History of the Spanish university–the time when my own generation (I was born in 1966) understood that we had to pull ourselves by our boot strings and do much better than our predecessors. ‘Sexenios’ were introduced back in 1983 and, please, remember, they were initially an incentive to pull out of their lethargy the many university teachers who simply published nothing–including full professors. Even with the ‘sexenios’ as an incentive many university teachers have managed to generate no publications at all, which means zero knowledge transfer (whether to open or closed circuits). The supposition that this is because they are devoted 100% to good teaching is simply a lie. I am also very tired of the assumption that a committed researcher can only succeed at the cost of being a poor teacher. Actually, among my colleagues the best researchers are also the best teachers. This does not mean that I know of no excellent teachers uninterested in research but, then, perhaps what we need in the university, and nobody is considering, are separate categories for teachers who wish to do no research and for teachers/researchers.

I can only agree with Indocentia’s diagnosis of all the faults of the monstrously demanding system used to measure our activity and bemoan, like them, its consequences, for I suffer them first hand. What worries me is whether the resistance to being accountable for our task by the current dubious methods might conceal a certain backlash to the time when university teachers were not accountable at all. I remember that time very clearly, for I suffered it as a student–the arbitrary teaching methods, the unavailability of always absent teachers who did not keep office hours, the nepotism, the appalling textbooks forced on us, the provincial lack of international connections, the general backwardness…

I’ll end, then, by repeating my warning: no matter how much you hate the methods to measure it, do not reject excellence itself–just fight to take it away from the hands of our liberal oppressors back into our hands. We had the chance to construct a functional version of ‘excellence’ briefly there, perhaps for a few years in the 1990s, before we lost it. Consider also who is complicit with that loss, and name them. I have a suspicion that many of them are the people we proudly sent abroad to be trained in American universities and improve the state of our own university. Generally naming ‘the liberal university’ as the arch-villain does not seem to be helping us…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

NAVIGATING LITERATURE: A FEW POINTERS

febrer 21st, 2016

The students in my new elective on SF have turned out to be mainly absolute beginners in this genre. I am, therefore, using the first weeks in the course to examine how we become familiarised with authors’ names, titles, periods and even whole canons. Here are a few ideas that have come up for discussion and which extend beyond the particularities of SF to any other genre and, certainly, to (English) Literature.

Nothing seems to have changed much from the year I graduated (1991) to last year when a student attending the course as an auditor graduated, as we both agreed that the task of making sense of authors and titles begins after graduation. As I studied for my ‘Licenciatura’, I read the then very popular The New Pelican Guide to English Literature (1982-1991) by Boris Ford–yes, the whole nine paperback volumes, still to be seen on my office shelves. I certainly was not the only student to go through so many study hours under Prof. Ford’s tutelage, though I just cannot see current undergrads reading the bulky collection. I used Ford’s elegant books to get a better hold on a History of English Literature which I was not being taught in chronological fashion (in my Department we start with the more accessible 20th century English and reach the Middle Ages in the third year). Even so, I recall reading quite a few introductions to English Literature in the year when I started teaching, right after graduation, for I needed a less detailed, more schematic, reliable mapping of the whole field of (canonical) English Literature. And making lists…

I started keeping a list of what I read and a list of what I should read around age 14. I still keep with strict discipline a record of all I read, a consequence of being unable to recall having read certain books… memory cannot be trusted. I have no idea what good this can be but the list seems to work well as an aid to fix names and titles in my scattered brain. I abandoned, however, long ago the list of what I should read (to fill in the endless gaps, you know…) because it made me feel terribly anxious that I was not reading enough. Self-defeating is the word.

Nevertheless, I know for certain that list-making is an indispensable tool in the process of learning Literature, whether the list in question is based on the general canon, or whether it explores the canon of a particular genre. Yes, the first thing I taught my students is that whereas a degree in English tends to focus on a certain literary canon, there are all types of canons in all genres, and sub-genres–some surprisingly specific. For instance: I was going with my students through the long list of SF sub-genres in the website BestScienceFiction.com and one of them was amazed that there is something called ‘Christian SF’. Thinking we might find weird Christian fundamentalist stuff in it, we took a peek and soon saw this was a quite solid sub-sub-canon, with names such as C.S. Lewis at the forefront. This is always my point: you may think that by reading, for example, ‘feminist utopian fiction’ you are shattering the old-fashioned canon focused on dead, white, male, Western authors but you are actually participating in the formation of a sub-canon with Pamela Sargent and company as unavoidable top names.

To recap my argument here: there is no way around to making lists of names and authors to help you memorize and, yes, memorizing, old-fashioned as this may seem, is indispensable in Literary/Cultural Studies. Actually, in most disciplines (think Medicine). You may have noticed, by the way, that I refer to ‘making’ lists, not to ‘reading’ lists; my own experience suggests that while you may borrow someone else’s list this will only work for you if a) you make the effort of copying or editing it, b) you modify in your own way.

Of course, my students and I agreed that the best way to learn a national Literature, canon, sub-canon or sub-sub-canon is… reading. This is why we teachers focus courses on a selection of books supposed to be significant, introductory works, whether they are five plays by Shakespeare or five South-African novels. Time, alas, is always too short and not even keen readers can manage the feat of reading all they see named as worth reading. This is why, here we go again, you need some kind of list–if only to abandon it. I do this all the time: I start lists to teach myself a particular canon and then once I have read a few titles, I file them away. I need, so to speak, the lists as mental scaffolding for reading in a particular genre. Guides, like the one right now on my table, Miquel Barceló’s Ciencia ficción: Nueva guía de lectura, are no doubt useful–mostly as instruments to expand my lists.

As I explained to my students, there is no way, at any rate, you can fix a canon, no matter how marginal to that of general English Literature, precisely because all genres evolve. In the case of general English Literature what evolves, of course, is the perception of what merits being included in the canon–Aphra Behn’s plays, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the case of a genre like SF, the problem is not so much the disputes that affect the erosion of the white, male, dead, Western A-list (though there is also some of that) but the proliferation of interesting texts. I have just gone through the canon/chronology of SF that Sawyer and Wright offer in their volume Teaching Science Fiction and you can quickly see how biased our choices are towards the more immediate decades. This causes works that were regarded as the ‘best’ in the 1930s, 40s or 50s (even 80s) to sink without a trace. One can always joyfully ‘rediscover’ them and wonder why on Earth they are not better known… (I’m thinking of all the post-apocalyptic 1940s and 1950s dystopias I read last summer). To recap my argument here: lists, guides and canons are always a testimonial documenting a particular stage in the history of Literature in any of its sub-genres. Always transient, never final.

Finally, a third problem I have considered with my students is how much is enough. I gave them a list of 100 SF films (95% in English), concocted using different sources, and a list of 50 great SF novels in English (borrowed from Forbidden Planet’s website). I started with the films, as I assumed my students would be familiar with many of them since SF is currently one of the most popular Hollywood genres. Not at all!! Two of my students had seen only 4 of the 100 films and the ones who scored highest had seen at most around 40, if I recall correctly. This may have to do with other factors unaccounted for, such as a) my students’ young age, b) the decreasing popularity of cinema among them (they prefer TV series), c) their habit of not seeing films other than the ones currently released (students tend not to watch films on TV, either).

Whatever the case, I spent the whole 90 minutes going through the list, to extrapolate from it the main topics in SF. I ended making a much shorter 15-film selection for them to give themselves the most basic education in film SF. The 50 novels were simply totally unknown for most of them… What a challenge for me! As I joked, I can give them whatever version I want to sell them of SF–just as, well, I was given the version of English Literature which my own teachers preferred (one strongly biased in favour of Modernism…).

The basic question I am asking here boils down simply to: how do we acquire an education in Literature? The obvious answer is that by reading but, as we know, it just cannot work that way. With just 7 semestral core courses, and a maximum of 6 more electives in the third/fourth years, the numbers of texts a UAB graduate student interested in Literature is asked to read amounts to about 65 volumes (and I am assuming quite optimistically an average of 5 volumes per course). Compare this to the hundreds, even thousands, which Harold Bloom has listed in his Western Canon and you begin to see the problem. If for each of these 65 (ideal) volumes a student learned in addition, say, 5 titles, this would give us a nice figure of 365 authors who should ring a bell at the end of four years. Maybe we should ask them to take a graduation quiz… Just kidding!

I’m beginning to realize that for an elective course, a teacher should be extremely happy if, in addition to the 5 set books, students can name 25 other authors. 50 best novels? 100 best films?… I wonder.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AN INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR: CELEBRATING MARIANO MARTIN RODRIGUEZ

febrer 16th, 2016

A couple of weeks ago I met a truly accomplished independent scholar: Mariano Martín Rodríguez. What is an independent scholar, you may ask? Wikipedia explains that “An independent scholar is anyone who conducts scholarly research outside universities and traditional academia”. I find that this not 100% accurate, as an independent scholar, while not employed by a university, must accept the rules of ‘traditional academia’ or risk remaining unpublished. I’ll rephrase, then, the definition: an independent scholar is a person who, though not working for a university, chooses to pursue an academic career based on doing research but excluding teaching.

I believe that there are two kinds of independent scholars: those who wish they could have a university job and those who do not care for one. By the way, the reason why they are (euphemistically) called ‘independent’ is that universities do not allow scholars to present themselves as affiliated researchers unless they are a) employees, b) students up to doctoral level. This, excuse me, is idiotic and counterproductive–I really fail to see the reason why a person with a doctoral degree from an institution cannot be affiliated for life, particularly when this person produces valid research that can even benefit the prestige of his or her alma mater.

I have met Mariano in relation to my current involvement in the organization of Barcelona’s 2016 Eurocon though I had previously contacted him concerning an article I sent to Hélice. This is a quality online periodical publication (neither academic journal nor magazine), devoted to speculative fiction (their preferred label) and the fantastic, which Mariano edits together with Mikel Peregrina. As the section ‘Nosotros’ (see http://www.revistahelice.com/) announces Hélice intends to offer “serious, rigorous criticism” which, I’ll add, bridges the gap between the scholar and the common reader–now that many of us with university degrees have the training to produce informed essays on the popular genres we love. Mariano asked me to publicize Hélice, by the way, hence this paragraph… If you wish to send a piece, please do so (in Spanish or English).

If you recall, my post on Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman included some comments on her concern that the Humanities might be negatively seen by our scientist colleagues as a ‘hobby’ (to which I replied that just as recently as the 19th century science was in the hands of gentlemen scientists). Mariano actually proves that the Humanities can be both a hobby–no matter how embarrassed Braidotti and other humanists may feel–and a serious pursuit. Indeed, whereas independent scholars make little sense for the sciences (unless they can afford building their own labs!!), the Humanities still offer some room for independent research. Here’s the recipe, as embodied by Mariano: first, find a reasonably well paid bureaucratic job which does not occupy your mental energies beyond the end of your working day; second, be willing to invest a good deal of your monthly wages in your research, as access to university-funded resources will be either limited or impossible; third, use your free time productively. Mariano is a translator at the European Commission, a job, as he explained to me, which fulfils the conditions named here. He is by the way, single, but I see no reason why a person with family obligations cannot be an independent scholar–it’s a matter of time limits not of personal will.

I can imagine many of you, dear readers, raising your sceptical eyebrows… Does this work? Oh, yes, it does: you may check Mariano’s CV at Academia.edu (https://ubbcluj.academia.edu/MarianoMartinRodriguez) and marvel at the long list of solid publications to his name… I am positive that many tenured teachers in many countries all over the world are by no means this accomplished… Seeing this impressive list, I need to scream: ‘Shame on you, tenured teachers who waste your time and produce nothing!’ And, please, do not give me the excuse that you have to teach and he does not, blah, blah, blah. These publications have been produced during busy evenings and weekends for, remember, Mariano has a full-time job. He is certainly much closer to our own overworked associates than to a tenured teacher. (By the way, I forgot: if he does not appear as an independent scholar at Academia.edu this is because the Rumanian university where he has done part of his research has kindly allowed him to become an associate member of one of its institutes… an example to follow).

I must say that Mariano has totally shocked me out of my assumption that independent scholars only put up with the many difficulties of maintaining an academic career for a few post-doctoral years until they give up in frustration. He has been active now for about 20 years and shows no signs of relenting… Actually he strikes me as the happiest scholar I have ever met, hence this post: to celebrate his career as an example that many others could follow.

A funny point in our long conversation–for Mariano is truly enthusiastic and a great talker–came when I asked Mariano whether he wished he was employed by a university. ‘Not at all’ was his reply. I think it’s the first time in my life that I meet someone with a doctoral degree who does not care for the university. Mariano elaborated: he is not interested in teaching (but, then, how many university teachers really like teaching?); above all, he will not waste his time with bureaucratic matters. Yes, the bane of our academic lives… I also found Mariano gleefully free from the obsession to calculate each step of his academic career with an eye on official research assessment, promotion, etc. If you think about it, his career is a singular example of total and absolute motivational purity, which is an elegant way of saying that he simply does as he wishes–an attitude hard to maintain within the university. I wish my career had the coherence that Mariano’s own has.

This does not mean, mind you, that I would gladly abandon my current post for a routine job in combination with being an independent scholar on the side. Not at all, and much less so considering how hard getting tenure has been. The point I am trying to make is that Mariano’s case proves that a successful academic career need not be tied to the university. Since I am a vocational teacher, I find it hard to separate research from teaching but I understand that not all scholars feel the need to deal with students. Also, there must be different kinds of academic careers, so why not choose one focused on research and publishing (with total freedom)? My celebration of Mariano’s career is not intended to suggest, either, that since good research in the Humanities can be carried out outside the university, there is no reason for this institution to offer new jobs in this area. Not at all… Remember that he has made a choice. It would be unfair to force the same choice on others, though at the rate we are going our associates are in an even worse situation, for they have all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of working in a university.

The only downside, as this is something I am guessing, not something that Mariano has shown in any way to me, must be the personal insecurity. Very often I find myself emailing people I need to pester for one reason or another and, well, I know that the name of my university below my signature guarantees at least some form of attention. In contrast, I can very well imagine the patronizing sneers that independent scholars surely receive from our most snobbish colleagues. I wonder whether Mariano has ever been called an ‘amateur’ (in any of the six languages he speaks correctly…) or whether he has ever been treated without the respect he deserves. Personally, I prefer disrespecting the privileged tenured teachers who misuse their time and who fail to be both good researchers and good teachers.

Mariano: this one is for you–may the project we are now sharing becomes the first of many collaborations in the future. Please, receive all my admiration and respect.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE ROAD TO LEGITIMATION (II): TEACHING SF WITHIN ENGLISH STUDIES IN SPAIN

febrer 11th, 2016

As part of the work I’m doing to write my current work-in-progress, the article “Science Fiction in the Spanish University: The Boundaries that Need to be Broken”, I have sent a message to the very active e-mail list of AEDEAN (the Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos, www.aedean.org). In this message I have asked my colleagues in the field of English Studies in Spain who has taught SF and who has published on this genre.

I think that building a consistent bibliography is something I will have to postpone to another moment but, in the meantime, I’ll comment here on the answers received regarding the teaching of SF in the English Departments of Spain. I have also asked a number of Spanish colleagues working in Departments of Spanish, Literary Theory and Humanities about their activities concerning SF, with the added problem that there is not a comprehensive list similar to the one that we, AEDEAN members, use (and enjoy!).

AEDEAN is quite a big association, with more than 1,000 members. Yet, I have received messages only from 9 (there are at least a dozen other members, as I know, who have produced doctoral dissertations and publications on SF but they have not contacted me, surely for lack of time). Of these 9 specialists, only 6 offer details of their teaching. I’m summarising these details here, as these colleagues have also emailed me syllabi which I have decided not to attach to this post for the sake of brevity.

Juanjo Bermudez de Castro, a part-time associate teacher at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Department of English) and the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (Linguistics), teaches at UPM an SF course addressed to students of Engineering (Electronics, Chemistry, Electricity, Mechanics, Industrial Design). If I understand Juanjo correctly, he actually teaches English language but uses the course as an excuse to teach SF which, he tells me, students love. He uses El Hombre Ilustrado by Ray Bradbury, the films Moon, Blade Runner, and I Robot, the TV series Black Mirror, etc.

Pere Gallardo, now of Universitat Rovira i Virgili, formerly of the Universitat de Lleida is, no doubt the most experienced teacher of SF within English Studies in Spain. He taught ‘Narrativa Utòpica’ within ‘Filologia Anglesa’ between 1995-1996 and 2000-1, and is now teaching ‘Literatura i Societat’ (since 2013-14) within the new degree in ‘English’. Pere has also taught a long list of seminars and tutored a long list of TFGs. However, he no longer teaches SF at MA level nor does he supervise any doctoral dissertations because the programmes at URV within which he used to do so have been suppressed. I had the chance to share with him back in 2009-2010 the course “Science Fiction and the Concept of Change” within the MA ‘Cultural Studies in English: Texts and Contexts’, for which I am infinitely grateful. Pere names no particular authors or texts because, as he tells me, the list is too extensive…

Alberto Lázaro, of the Universidad de Alcalá, tells me that he has used texts by the SF author he knows best as a researcher, H.G. Wells, in the third year survey course ‘British Fiction’. The module on the Victorian novel includes segments from The Time Machine. The syllabus also includes in the contemporary fiction module a section called ‘Trends towards fantasy: science fiction, the heroic fantasy and the horror story’.

Ángel Mateos Aparicio, of the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha in Ciudad Real, is currently teaching a fourth-year elective, ‘Literatura Anglonorteamericana y Canon’. The course is divided in two parts: detective fiction and SF. Ángel tells me that this is so in case students don’t like SF or have no experience of the genre, as it is common. His reading list includes: Isaac Asimov’s On Science Fiction (extracts), Brian Aldiss’s “Out of the Gothic” from Trillion Year Spree, John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, Byron Haskin’s film The War of the Worlds, Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian”, Philip K. Dick’s “Impostor” and “Adjustment Team”, William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum” and “Red Star, Winter Orbit” and, finally, Andy and Larry Wachowsky’s Matrix.

Bill Phillips of the Universitat de Barcelona tells me that his course ‘Literatura i Conflicte’ (2011-14) included Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. He claims that (I translate) “Considering the interest the students showed and the debates inspired by the novel, this is the most productive text I have ever taught”. Apparently, students were also interested in Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (taught 2012-13) but found Ursula K. Leguin’s The Dispossessed (taught 2014) boring… Bill mentions that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein used to be part of the syllabus for ‘Literatures en anglès del ss XVIII i XIX’. Bill’s colleague Prof. Jackie Hurtley seems to have taught perhaps as early as the 1980s a course on utopia.

Juan Antonio Prieto of the Universidad de Sevilla has emailed me the syllabus corresponding to the courses he used to teach, in English: “Héroes y monstruos en la literatura y en el cine de ciencia-ficción norteamericanos” (doctoral course 2007-8, 2008-9, with a second renewed edition in 2009-10), and “Narrativas apocalípticas en la ciencia-ficción norteamericana” (MA course, 2012-13). Regrettably a recent reform has eliminated this course.

Juan Antonio Suárez, of the Universidad de Murcia, pioneered the introduction of cyberpunk with the doctoral course “Postmodern Aesthetics and Society: Cyberpunk Fiction” (1996-7). His ‘Licenciatura‘ survey course on contemporary American Literature included William Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemmonic”. He tells me that after years of not including SF in his teaching he has re-introduced the genre in his syllabus as a “symptom of the progression of the digital” (my translation). He uses one week to lecture on literature and computers: computer-generated literature, computer-mediated literature and literature about the digital environment.

Finally, myself. My ‘Licenciatura’ elective on short fiction, ‘Narrativa Curta’ 2005-6, was divided between Gothic and SF–I included in it Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man” and tales from I, Robot, also Dick’s “Minority Report”. In the same academic year I taught the doctoral seminar “Enemy Alien, Alien Enemy: Wars in Science Fiction and Film” which included Wells’s War of the Worlds, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. I’m now teaching (2015-16) a third/fourth year elective, ‘Prosa Anglesa: Considering SF as a Genre’ with an ambitious reading list composed of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Octavia Butler’s Dawn and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Perhaps for the first and the last time, depending how the transformation of the four-year BAs into three-year BAs progresses.

What conclusions can we draw? Obviously, the position of SF is extremely fragile within English Studies in Spain despite the enormous importance of this genre for anglophone culture. If my information is correct and complete, I can safely say that only Pere Gallardo seems in a position to teach SF regularly, albeit limited to BA courses and not even using a label that clearly announces the contents of his course. This is typical. Ángel Mateos Aparicio’s decision to split his course into detective fiction and SF, and my own decision to split ‘Narrativa curta’ between Gothic and SF is also symptomatic of a peculiar situation: our students, as I have found out first hand, are not SF readers. This is a classic paradox of the English Departments in Spain: what is very popular among Anglophone individuals is often totally unknown for teachers and students. The name ‘Terry Pratchett’ for instance rings hardly any bells.

I believe that we will eventually find an audience though perhaps this will require using still for a long time to come other labels under which to teach SF. This will never be a case of students demanding to be taught SF (as they ask me to be taught Harry Potter). Perhaps, paradoxically, the teacher best positioned to reach a wide readership interested in SF is Juanjo Bermúdez, the colleague who teaches the future Engineers at UPM.

I hope this post is not read as a lament for what is not happening but as a call to do more for SF in English Studies within Spain… Why? Very simple: because this is a genre that matters enormously in the culture we teach and do research on. And because no other literary genre is as well-equipped to understand not just our future, but, mainly, our present.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE ROAD TO LEGITIMATION: SF PhD DISSERTATIONS IN SPAIN (1979-2015)

febrer 7th, 2016

I’m using my blog here to publish material that I need to add as an appendix to an article I’m working on. This is a piece on SF in the Spanish university, dealing with our difficulties to overcome what Brian Baker has called SF’s ‘crisis of legitimation’. Starting with Ángel Merelo’s 2009 overview, “Ciencia ficción en la Universidad” (http://librodenotas.com/cuadernosdecienciaficcion/15675/ciencia-ficcion-en-la-universidad), I have added to his list of 17 dissertations others which I have found using the databases TESEO and TDX and the keyword ‘ciencia ficción’. The list amounts to 45 dissertations and it is my intention to update it yearly.

Even if you’re not interested in SF, the list is worth considering for what it says about the Spanish university. To begin with, the number of dissertations per decade indicates an opening up of the research fields in the Humanities, in particular in language and Literature departments. Even so, you can see that English Studies (with 12 dissertations, 5 of them is English) is leading the way ahead of Spanish Literature and Literary Theory (6 dissertations). Actually, texts originally in English are the object of a high number of dissertations outside departments of English: I find particularly confusing the situation by which a department of ‘Filología Hispánica y Clásica’ generates a dissertation called La evolución del supervillano en el “comic book” norteamericano. De Superman a Watchmen… The biggest surprise, however, is not that one but the fact that 6 dissertations come from architecture departments. There are more surprises, which I invite you to find.

Please, do let me know if I have missed any PhD dissertation I should have mentioned.

1980s (5)

Realismo y ciencia-ficcion en la obra de John Wyndham, Ángel Luis Pujante Álvarez Castellanos, 1980. [Filosofía y Letras], Universidad de Salamanca. Supervisor: Javier Coy.

La actividad física y el deporte en la literatura de ciencia ficción. Abel Belenguer Garulo, 1981. Facultad de Ciencias de la Actividad Física y del Deporte (INEF), Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. Supervisor: Santiago Coca. http://oa.upm.es/14313/

La arquitectura en la literatura de ciencia ficción. Margarita Luxan García de Diego 1986. Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. Supervisor Javier Seguí de la Riva. http://oa.upm.es/20499/

El concepto ‘genero cinematográfico’. Caracteres y evolución del cine de ciencia ficción. Casilda de Miguel Martínez, 1987. Departamento de Comunicación Audiovisual y Publicidad, Universidad del País Vasco Supervisor César Hernández Alonso.

La ciencia ficción como fenómeno de comunicación y cultura de masas en España. Carlos Saiz Cidoncha, 1987. Ciencias de la Comunicación, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Supervisor: ?

1990s (5)

Realidad y fantasía en las novelas de Kurt Vonnegut. Jesús Lerate de Castro, 1992. Facultad de Filología, Departamento de Literatura Inglesa y Norteamericana, Universidad de Sevilla. Supervisor: Pilar Marín Madrazo.

New Images, Old Concepts: Robots in Anglo-American Science Fiction Literature. Pere Gallardo Torrano, 1995. Departament de Filologia Anglesa, Universitat de Barcelona. Supervisor: Rosa González.

El cine de Ridley Scott. Alien (1979) y Blade runner (1982), aportaciones al genero. de la ciencia ficción. Enrique Carrasco Molina, 1995. Departamento de Ciencias de la Información, Universidad de La Laguna. Supervisor: Olga Álvarez de Armas.

‘More Human than Human’: Aspects of Monstrosity in the Films and Novels in English of the 1980s and 1990s. Sara Martín Alegre, 1996. Departament de Filologia Anglesa i de Germanística, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Supervisor: Andrew Monnickendam. http://ddd.uab.cat/record/55045

La configuración del espacio en la ciudad del futuro. Arquitectura y ciencia ficción, cine y cómic a partir de los años 70. Spyridon Papadopoulos, 1998. Departamento de Proyectos Arquitectónicos, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. Supervisor: Mª Teresa Muñoz Jiménez.

2000s (15)

La construccion social del futuro. Escenarios nucleares en el cine de ciencia ficción. Luis Pablo Francescutti Pérez, 2000. Departamento de Sociología I, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Supervisor: ? http://hdl.handle.net/10115/3107

El platonismo en la fantasía de Clive Staples Lewis. Concepción Hernández Guerra, 2001. Departamento de Filología Moderna, Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Supervisor: Carmen Martín Santana. http://acceda.ulpgc.es/bitstream/10553/1947/1/1204.pdf

El mundo de H. R. Giger. Javier Arenas Orient, 2004. Departamento de Historia del Arte, Universidad de Valencia. Supervisor: Pilar Pedraza Martínez & Carlos Plasencia Climent. http://www.tdx.cat/bitstream/10803/9969/2/arenas.pdf

Elementos de ciencia-ficción en la narrativa norteamericana y británica de posguerra: W. Golding, K. Vonnegut, R. Bradbury y J.G. Ballard. Ángel Mateos-Aparicio Martín-Albo, 2004. Departamento de Filología Moderna, Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha. Supervisor: Jesús Benito Sánchez. http://hdl.handle.net/10578/943

El lector en el ciberespacio. Una etnografía literaria de la cibercultura. María Goicoechea de Jorge, 2004. Departamento de Filología Inglesa II, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Supervisor: Isabel Durán Giménez-Rico. http://eprints.ucm.es/32979/

Interpretación y apertura de una obra española de ciencia ficción. La Nave de Tomás Salvador. Óscar Casado Díaz, 2005. Departamento de Lingüística, Lógica, e Historia y Filosofía de la Ciencia (programa en Teoría de la Literatura y Crítica Literaria), Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Supervisor: Francisco Javier Rodríguez Pequeño.

La ciencia ficción en España (1950-2000). Fernando Ángel Moreno Serrano, 2005. Departamento de Lengua Española, Teoría de la Literatura y Literatura Comparada, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Supervisor: Juan Felipe Villar Dégano.

El dialecto de Frankenstein. Imaginarios sociales de la ciencia y literatura de ciencia ficción. Pablo Santero Domingo, 2005. Departamento de Sociología V (Teoría Sociológica), Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Supervisor: Emilio Lamo de Espinosa.

La literatura checa de ciencia ficción durante el periodo de entreguerras. Daniel Saiz Lorca, 2005. Departamento de Filología Románica, Filología Eslava y Lingüística, Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Supervisor: Alejandro Hermida de Blas. http://eprints.ucm.es/7377/

La narrativa de Angelica Gorodischer. Graciella Aletta de Sylvas, 2006. Departamento de Filología Española. Universidad de Valencia. Supervisor: Sonia Mattalia Alonso.

Espías y ciencia ficción. Represión y explotación de las construcciones de superpoderes en la arquitectura moderna. Angel Borrego Cubero, 2006. Escuela Técnica Superiot de Arquitectura, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. Supervisor: Juan Herreros Guerra. http://oa.upm.es/661/

Literatura y cine de ciencia ficción. Perspectivas teóricas. Noemí Novell Monroy, 2008. Departament de Filologia Espanyola (programa Teoría de la literatura y literatura comparada), Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. Supervisor: Meri Torras. www.tdx.cat/bitstream/handle/10803/4892/nnm1de1.pdf

Morfologías híbridas. El organismo cibernético en el cine de ciencia ficción contemporáneo (1979-2004). Lydia García-Merás Fernández, 2009. Departamento de Lingüística, Lógica, e Historia y Filosofía de la Ciencia /Teoría de la Literatura, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Supervisor: Valeria Camporesi. https://repositorio.uam.es/handle/10486/12989

Representaciones de la modernidad en el cine futurista. El caso de Blade Runner. Juan Fernando Vizcarra Schumm, 2009. Departamento de Psicología y Sociología, Universidad de Zaragoza, 2009. Supervisor: José Ángel Bergua Amores. https://zaguan.unizar.es/record/3381

Vivir conectados. El fin de la utopía liberal. Iván Gómez García, 2009. Departamento de Filología Española/ Teoría de la literatura y literatura comparada. Supervisor: Antonio Penedo Picos.

2010-2015 (21)

Hombres de Steven Spielberg: Un análisis de la representación de masculinidades en los textos fílmicos “Duel”, “Jaws”, “Jurassic Park”, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” y “War of the Worlds”. José Díaz-Cuesta Galián, 2010. Departamento de Filologías Modernas, Universidad de La Rioja. Supervisor: María del Mar Asensio Aróstegui, Bernardo Sánchez Salas & Jaime Carmelo Cunchillos. https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/tesis?codigo=20851

Of Men and Cyborgs: The Construction of Masculinity in Contemporary U.S. Science Fiction Cinema. Rocío Carrasco Carrasco, 2010. Departamento de Filología Inglesa, Universidad de Huelva. Supervisor: Sonia Villegas. http://rabida.uhu.es/dspace/handle/10272/4129

La filosofía de la mente del cine de ciencia ficción norteamericano (1985-2010). Sergio Jiménez Cruz, 2010. Departamento de Filosofía, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia. Supervisor: ??

The Evolution of Cyberpunk into Postcyberpunk: The Role of Cognitive Cyberpsaces, Wetware Networks and Nanotechnology in Science Fiction. Rafael Miranda Huereca, 2011. Departament de Filologia Anglesa i de Germanística, Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. Supervisor: Sara Martín Alegre. http://www.patchworkman.com/uploads/Tesis_toda_final.pdf

H. P. Lovecraft y la ficción científica. Género, poética y sus relaciones con la literatura oral tradicional. Fernando Darío González Grueso, 2011. Departamento de Lingüística, Lenguas Modernas, Lógica y Filosofía de la Ciencia, Teoría de la Literatura y Literatura Comparada, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. Supervisor: Francisco Javier Rodríguez Pequeño. https://repositorio.uam.es/handle/10486/10329

Patologías de la realidad virtual en La invención de Morel de Adolfo Bioy Casares. Teresa López Pellisa, 2011. Departamento de Humanidades, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. Supervisor: Antonio Rodríguez de las Heras y Jenaro Talens.

Arquitectura, ciencia-ficción y comic-books. Vanguardias, evolución y lenguaje. Fernando Cristian Ayala Zapata, 2012. Departamento de Proyectos Arquitectónicos, Universidad Politécnica de Catalunya. Supervisor: Eduardo Bru Bistuer.

Fantasía y realidad en la literatura de ciencia ficción de Edgar Allan Poe. María Isabel Jiménez González. Departamento de Filología moderna, Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 2013. Supervisor: Ricardo Miguel Alfonso. https://ruidera.uclm.es/xmlui/handle/10578/3392

El viaje en el tiempo en la literatura de ciencia ficción española. Germán J. Hesles Sánchez, 2013. Departamento de Filología Española III (Lengua y Literatura), Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Supervisor: Pilar Vega Rodríguez. http://eprints.ucm.es/21401/

En los límites de la humanidad. Proyecciones del fin de una era a través de la narrativa de ciencia ficción. Jimena Escudero Pérez, 2013. Departamento de Filología Anglogermánica y Francesa, Universidad de Oviedo. Supervisor: Socorro Suárez Lafuente & Alejandra Moreno Álvarez. http://digibuo.uniovi.es/dspace/handle/10651/20276

La arquitectura en el cine de ciencia ficción. Juan Antonio Cabezas Garrido, 2014. Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura, Departamento de Proyectos Arquitectónicos, Universidad de Sevilla. Supervisor: Francisco Javier Montero Fernández. http://fundacion.arquia.es/files/public/download/04Zo7AM3un3fxTFnb1aK3CUv0w4/NTY1NDc/Mw/TESIS-JACABEZAS-ARQUIA-V2.pdf?profile=

Redefining Humanity in Science Fiction: The Alien from an Ecofeminist Perspective. Irene Sanz Alonso, 2014. Instituto Franklin, Universidad de Alcalá. Supervisor: Carmen Flys Junquera. http://dspace.uah.es/dspace/handle/10017/20962

El cine de ciencia ficción en la enseñanzas de las ciencias en secundaria. Maria Francisca Petit Pérez, 2014. Departament de Didàctica de les Ciències Experimentals i Socials, Universitat de València. Supervisor: Jordi Solbes Matarredona. http://roderic.uv.es/handle/10550/37283

El cuento español de ciencia ficción (1968-1983). Los años de “Nueva Dimensión”. Mikel Peregrina Castaños, 2014. Departamento de Filología Española II (Literatura Española), Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Supervisor: Epicteto José Díaz Navarro. http://eprints.ucm.es/29976/

Ciberpunk y arte de los nuevos medios. Performance y arte digital. Afroditi Psarra, 2014. Departamento de Dibujo II (Diseño e Imagen), Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2014. Supervisor: Jaime Munárriz Ortiz. http://eprints.ucm.es/29364/

Arquitectura cinematográficas en los espacios de la ciencia ficción. De la Luna a las Galaxias. 1902-2005. Sara Pérez Barreiro, 2015. Departamento de Teoría de la Arquitectura y Proyectos arquitectónicos, Universidad de Valladolid. Supervisor: Ramón Rodríguez Llera. http://www.udllibros.com/libro-star_wars-U640070007

Estética, técnica y dialéctica. La representación de la ingeniería civil en el cómic europeo de ciencia ficción de los siglos XX y XXI: Aplicación a los sistemas de transporte en general y al ferrocarril en particular. Yves Manuel Díaz de Villegas Le Bouffant, 2015. Departamento de Transportes y Tecnología de Proyectos y Procesos, Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros de Caminos, Canales y Puertos, Universidad de Cantabria. Supervisor: Luigi Dell´Olio & Jordi Ojeda Rodríguez
http://repositorio.unican.es/xmlui/handle/10902/6763?show=full

La ciencia ficción en Cádiz. Marco Antonio Marcos Fernández, 2015. Departamento de Filología Española, Universidad de Cádiz. Supervisor: Fernando Durán López & José Jurado Morales. http://www.edalya.com/index.php/tienda/product/24-la-ciencia-ficcion-en-cadiz

En el peor lugar posible. Teoría de lo distópico y su presencia en la narrativa tardofranquista española (1965–1975). Gabriel Alejandro Saldías Rossel, 2015. Departament de Filologia Espanyola/ Teoria de la Literatura i Literatura Comparada, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Supervisor: David Roas & Ana Casas Janices. http://ddd.uab.cat/record/132858

La evolución del supervillano en el “comic book” norteamericano. De Superman a Watchmen. Miguel Ángel Morán González, 2015. Departamento de Filología Hispánica y Clásica, Universidad de León, 2015. Supervisor: José Manuel Trabado Cabado. http://buleria.unileon.es/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10612/4615/2015moranlaevo.pdf?sequence=3

La tercera edad dorada de la televisión. Battlestar Galactica y las nuevas formas de pensar, hacer y consumir el drama televisivo norteamericano. Noor Yasmina Benchichah López, 2015. Departamento de Comunicación, Universidad Ramón Llull. Supervisor: Fernando de Felipe Allué & Iván Gómez García. http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/285053

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