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

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 FUTURE OF THE HUMANITIES? I HOPE NOT: READING ROSI BRAIDOTTI’S THE POSTHUMAN (2013)

febrer 3rd, 2016

Readers: you’re in for a rough ride today, as I’ll be dealing with an essay on philosophy by Rosi Braidotti. No, I don’t usually read philosophy but I simply had to read her volume The Posthuman, given my own interest in how posthumanism functions in science fiction (see “Posthumanismo y diplomacia: La serie de John Scalzi La vieja guardia” (2015), http://www.revistahelice.com/revista/Helice_5_vol_II.pdf). Braidotti’s posthuman is not, nonetheless, my posthuman, so I’ll start by clarifying the differences.

In her words: “I see three major strands in contemporary posthuman thought: the first comes from moral philosophy and develops a reactive form of the posthuman; the second, from science and technology studies, enforces an analytic form of the posthuman; and the third, from my own tradition of anti-humanist philosophies of subjectivity, proposes a critical post-humanism” (38). Translated into plain English this means that, very confusingly, posthuman refers both to the current state of Humanism and of the human species. Braidotti is mainly interested in how to overcome traditional Humanism (currents 1 and 3), whereas I’m more interested in how and when science and technology will bring the human species into a post-human state (current 2). She never mentions science-fiction (a glaring oversight if you ask me) and holds the strange opinion that the data-mining that Facebook is carrying out is “banal” (61) in comparison to the “data banks of bio-genetic, neural and mediatic information about individuals” which “are the true capital today” (61). Yet, our interests intersect as regards the fate of Humanities. So here we go…

Yes, you read well: she calls herself a critical post-humanist (I’m not sure when and where the hyphen should be used), rooted in an anti-humanist tradition. I got truly dizzy trying to navigate all the different concepts in which the prefix post- appears in Braidotti’s volume but I think I have got it: sounding a bit hippy, Braidotti is calling for a post-anthropocentric future in which we, humans, very humbly see ourselves not as ‘Man the measure of all things’ (= traditional Humanism) but as one among a myriad animal many species linked by what she calls Zoe (=Life). Readers of SF are 100% familiar with this concept… I have already discussed here the beautiful Memoirs of a Space Woman (1962) by Scots writer Naomi Mitchison, a masterpiece. You may also have come across this idea in the writings by Donna Haraway. She wanted initially everyone to become a cyborg in a constructive anti-patriarchal way but has now ended up praising the same Zoe-dominated view of interspecies relations. Can both views be combined? Um, no… the more cyborgian humans become, the less natural, therefore fewer chances for Zoe to dominate techno-science. As for animals, one thing is respecting their rights and another believing in a natural harmony which often sounds frankly patronizing and forgets how recent our, em, post-predator days are.

Back to the Humanities and to Braidotti’s posthumanism (dizzy yet?). Posthumanism, she explains “is the historical moment that marks the end of the opposition between Humanism and anti-humanism and traces a different discursive framework, looking more affirmatively towards new alternatives” (37). Nothing to do, then, with choosing to apply to your body “the four horsemen of the posthuman apocalypse: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science” (59), which is exactly what keeps us on our toes in Science Fiction Studies (we’re trying to see how this will destroy or enhance the human in us). Waxing hippy again, Braidotti enthuses that “Posthuman subjectivity expresses an embodied and embedded and hence partial form of accountability, based on a strong sense of collectivity, relationality and hence community building” (49). In contrast, old-fashioned Humanism is selfish, based on total individualism and subjectivity, and placed above all types of accountability. Also male/white/class-privileged in the worst possible sense.

Thinking of Braidotti’s impeccable feminist credentials and her insistence that her anti-humanism springs from her realization that for traditional Humanism women are not full human beings–for Man/man is the measure of everything–I must protest sternly against her not mentioning the obvious: Humanism has been so far the liberal intellectual branch of patriarchy. In this sense, we women and any anti-patriarchal man are right to call for a new post-humanism (with a hyphen) to replace traditional Humanism. However, I hate the labels chosen: I am a woman, I am a human being, therefore I can never be anti-humanist. I am willing to participate in the rebuilding of Humanism from a feminist position, as I think I have been doing for two decades and a half, but I refuse to call it posthumanism and myself posthumanist. If you want a label, then I’ll call myself neo-Humanist. There. We really need to get urgently rid of this post- nomenclature (or nonsense): post-structuralist, post-modern, post-patriarchal, post-gender, post-feminist, post-human, post-humanist, post-anthropocentric… it is simply ridiculous. Our inability to find labels is truly pathetic… Even neo-Humanist sounds silly, I know… (but, well, ‘neo’ at least reminds me of Keanu Reeves in Matrix, what can I do?).

Second point: the Humanities (fancy a whole area of research re-named Post-Humanities…). Braidotti narrates the frontal attack carried out against us by the scientists in the 1990s; they, basically, accused us of having no universally valid research method. Braidotti protests against this, for, obviously, we need to take into account the “multi-lingual structure of research and thinking in the Humanities” and how “research practice differs considerably in terms of not only geo-graphical but also temporal locations across Europe and beyond”. She asks, then, “Is it then fair to ask this rich and internally differentiated field to conform to a different research paradigm?” (157). The obvious answer is no: we are not and we’ll never be scientists in the sense of producing research following just one model (though the pressure of Anglo-American academia on us is almost succeeding in making us abandon any attempt to keep local traditions afloat). Braidotti worries, naturally, that “Considered more of a personal hobby than a professional research field, I believe that the Humanities are in serious danger of disappearing from the twenty-first-century European university curriculum” (10). And in other places–remember the Japanese Government’s attempt to do away with local Humanists? That would have made Japan the first truly posthuman/post-Humanist nation on Earth…

Now you’ll see why I am so annoyed with Braidotti, as it must be obvious by now. Here’s her solution to save our chosen field of research: “In a new outpour of intellectual creativity, posthuman Humanities in the global multiversity will include: Humanistic Informatics, or Digital Humanities; Cognitive or Neural humanities; Environmental or Sustainable Humanities; Bio-genetic and Global Humanities” (184). I am simply furious. To begin with, what kind of concept is ‘posthuman Humanities’?? No wonder the scientists despise us. Imagine them doing ‘postscience Sciences’.

If Braidotti means that we need to bring the Humanities closer to science and technology, I cannot agree more: this is why I am shouting to the four winds that we need to read SF. Now, closer does NOT mean subordinated. And I plainly refuse to abandon my post-Romantic (damn!) subjectivity. I don’t want, thank you very much, cognitive science telling me that when I read Pride and Prejudice Austen’s words activate my amygdala, if this is what they do. Yes, I want to wallow in my ignorance of that kind of applied science. This is no obstacle at all for telling everyone who can hear that if you’re not aware of the current state of research in robotics, then you have no idea about the kind of world you live in. Up to you.

Also, Prof. Braidotti, I’m willing to teach any of this crazy combined subjects only if my scientific peers reciprocate. I am currently writing an essay on SF in the Spanish university and I can tell you that this genre is widely used by scientists to illustrate their teachings–but just as that, as an illustration and usually with the purpose of criticising its mistakes. I’ll be very, very happy to teach Literature and Cultural Studies in a science school, which is not the same as abandoning the Humanities to make room for science. And, yes, by all means, let’s have the scientists come and visit. They might understand better that if what we do is a personal hobby then what they do is only became an institutional pursuit in the late 19th century–previously it used to be in the hands of idle gentlemen with odd hobbies. And, well literary and cultural criticism kills no one, at least directly, whereas not all science is about finding a cure for cancer. I dare any scientist working on building genetically modified foodstuff and weapons of mass destruction to tell me that the Humanities are useless. Wouldn’t it be convenient for them that we disappeared taking all our nagging cultural critique with us?…

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll suggest that we start a contest to find new labels for our time. Urgently. I have this feeling that if you start doubting what to call the Humanities, this is when we become not posthuman but posthumous…

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THE LITERATURE OF THE ‘ROBOTIC MOMENT’: READING SHERRY TURKLE’S ALONE TOGETHER

gener 30th, 2016

Sherry Turkle, trained as a psychologist and an anthropologist, is developing her career at MIT as an observer of how technology impacts our daily lives. In her 2011 volume Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less form Each Other, she condenses the work of fifteen years, based on thousands of interviews particularly with young and old persons. Turkle considers two main aspects: how we relate to robots and how the social networks shape socializing. These two aspects might seem unrelated but she makes the point that in our time–the ‘robotic moment’–we seek warmth and companionship from machines that cannot provide either because, despite being connected with more people than ever, we are alone and craving for real contact with people. What we call a paradox.

As I have written here often, my friend Carme Torras, a top robotic engineer at UPC, works not only building the robots of our near future but also warning us about the excessive emotional attachment we develop for machines that cannot correspond–particularly, as Turkle shows, the pet robots and the nursing robots already massively present in the environment of the most vulnerable: children and the elderly. I’ll leave robots aside, though this is a topic I am passionate about, to focus on a few passages from the second part of the book, dealing with teen life and technology. As a teacher working with young people I feel progressively alienated from the world my students inhabit, particularly as regards the social networks. This is why I tend to read whatever can help me to get a picture of the daily lives of my students. In this sense Turkle’s book is very useful, though I wonder how her conservative stance goes with the teens she studies (she ends up defending letter writing as an alternative to Skype). If they read her at all, for, well, can you really target the persons massively involved in the social networks by publishing a book, I wonder?

One thing that surprises me very much because I do not know how this fits my immediate national reality is that Turkle describes a situation affecting already two generations: American teenagers have been brought up by parents “who talked on their cell phones and scrolled through messages as they walked to the playground”, picked their children from school, shared meals with them or watched films in their company. They are, then, in no position to curb down their children’s use of the social networks. Actually, Turkle notes that teenagers resents their parent’s inattention and that some have started demanding that the adults disconnect their cell phones at least during meals. If you get my drift, she is arguing that a turning point is already looming in the horizon by which the younger generation, the millennials, will soon start considering if so much connectivity is worth it. Either that, or she has biased her book to suggest that this is the case.

I recently shared a meal with some of my post-grad students and they gave me a similar picture. One explained that she and her mates, tired of meeting for drinks only to see that everyone round the table was texting someone else, decided to pile their cell phone together: the first one to pick up his or hers, would pay for all the drinks. It seems to work. Another complained that her whatsapp family circle was nice and fulfilling but also time-consuming; all noted that whatsapp has very much complicated their lives, for it demands instant availability and response. If you refuse to join a whatsapp group or do not participate much, then you risk becoming a social pariah. The picture I got was of a certain reluctance to complying with all these demands and a wish that these trends soon peak out. This agrees with the panorama that Turkle offers. As a teacher, I was particularly concerned by her claim that many of the teens she has interviewed “send and receive six to eight thousand texts a month, spend hours a day on Facebook, and interleave instant messaging and Google searches”. This passage is part of a segment on how impossible it is to keep your teen life private and, what’s more important, without leaving potentially embarrassing traces for the future in a life “that generates its own electronic shadow”.

Yet, this colossal investment of time in just staying connected is not the sole province of the very young. Turkle presents the case of a fellow scholar who decides to leave his cell phone in the trunk of his car so that he can concentrate on writing a book, only to find himself going to his car many times a day to check if he’s got any messages. “Connectivity becomes a craving,” Turkle explains; “when we receive a text or an e-mail, our nervous system responds by giving us a shot of dopamine. We are stimulated by connectivity itself. We learn to require it, even as it depletes us. A new generation already suspects this is the case.”

Thinking as a Literature teacher, I am particularly astonished by Turkle’s announcement of the end of conversation. Remember those American 1980s movies in which teen girls spend hours glued to phones with very long cord extensions? Well, this is over: it seems that texting and IM has made conversation an embarrassment, for teens have got used to the idea of having time, if only a few seconds, before texting their thoughts. That might explain why you see in public places so many people texting rather than talking at each other. Perhaps Turkle exaggerates, but just think what a daunting task it’ll be for novelists, playwrights and screen writers, to represent human interaction in the near future… I grant that Shakespearean dialogue was never a reflection of daily practice, but fancy writing a story in which most communication happens through cell phones and computers. At the same time, how can you exclude this intensive craving for techno-mediated contact from the representation of our times?

I’m also struck by this passage: “One young man in his twenties says that the Internet is our new literature. It is an account of our times, not necessarily calling for each individual’s truth to be told.” She confuses here (or he, I’m not sure) all literature with fiction, which need not be literary. Yet the point is valid all the same: who would want to read/see made-up stories if you are busy writing your own life story through the social networks? Turkle gives the impression that many, if not most, teens are adapting their lives to a script that is, besides, closely monitored by everyone else. If you can do the mental experiment, please, think what Darcy and Elizabeth would do today and how impossible it would be not to include their Facebook accounts in their story. They would probably tweet about each other. And thousands would follow their quarrels online.

If you remember, a crucial moment in Pride and Prejudice happens when Elizabeth receives a long letter from Darcy. The English novel, let’s recall this, depends very much on the letter (Pamela is, of course, an epistolary novel) and, in general, on the characters’ ability to sustain a continuous stream of introspection (which later becomes, yes, stream of consciousness). Now introspection is suspect–there is an add on TV for one of those comprehensive internet services, in which you see a young woman embarking on a long bus journey. The voiceover explains that she has now time to be alone with her thoughts but just after a few minutes, she decides to stop thinking and watch a TV series. And that’s the main message: that time spent in thinking is boring, and so you need to fill it in with another stream, provided by the internet service. How, in view of this, can fiction be written in the future? Not to mention essays…

Let me go back to the letter. Turkle mentions a young man who has never sent or received a letter, even though he loves the idea. For him letters are part of a quaint past: “I miss those days even though I wasn’t alive”. He, however, cannot bring letter-writing back for fear of feeling “like a throwback to something you really didn’t grow up with”. Turkle, as I have noted, ends her book trying to establish a correspondence based on letters with her daughter, studying abroad in Ireland, which mirrors her own correspondence with her mother back in her student days. This shows that the past that the young man admires is just two decades away–it ended with the internet, and it is hard to imagine how letters can make a comeback in the reign of the text and the tweet.

Apart from all the difficulties that the current trends in interpersonal communication will soon bring to the representation of our times, I’d like to stress a point which is only implicit in Turkle’s fascinating insight into the ‘robotic moment’. This refers to numbers. Back in pre-internet times, a person would stay in touch with a much more limited number of persons, connecting through a) direct verbal interaction, b) phone calls, c) letters. The new media demand not only that we interact constantly but also that we interact with many more people than we can cope with. Of course I am happy that people read my blog but I could not spend a couple of hours every few days thinking here if I had to interact with all of you. We are expected to keep in touch in our professional and private lives with literally hundreds if not thousands of people, and this is just exhausting and even a mathematical impossibility. If you have, say, three very close friends, and a smallish family, you can find time for conversation. With three hundred friends, conversation is impossible and ends up being replaced with impersonal general tweets, Facebook posts and so on. A young man complains in Turkle’s book that he learnt of his sister’s wedding through Facebook, which she chose to announce the event rather than call him…

To conclude, how our lives change conditions how their representation evolves. We already have plenty of fiction about the interaction between humans and robots–indeed, since the 1950s when Isaac Asimov first imagined what is now our near future. In contrast, it is very hard to imagine what kind of fiction the social networks will generate. There is, of course, already fiction about the men who are building them (Zuckerberg, Jobs), but still very little fiction that narrates life taking them fully into account. If, as Turkle argues, people are writing their lives rather than just live them (she mentions a scientist who is documenting every single moment of his life), then other forms of writing might be pushed out of the way.

Food for thought…

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WHEN (SPANISH) WRITERS RETIRE: PENSIONS AND CREATIVITY

gener 26th, 2016

These days the Spanish press is abuzz with news of the harsh treatment which Spanish writers are receiving from Hacienda, our local tax revenue agency. I have already signed the corresponding Change.org campaign asking the Government to reconsider the regulations implemented back in 2013. I agree 100% that this yet another attack against the persons who work for the benefit of Spanish culture–in a wide-ranging sense. It is important to note that the situation affects not only writers but any artist in any field.

Let me summarise the changes. The legislation affecting retirement was modified by the right-wing PP Government back in 2013. Most of us paid attention, above all, to the fact that the retirement age has been raised from 65 to 67, following the directives of the European Union–they think we are too poor and our life expectancy too prolonged to balance numbers in our welfare system. What we missed was the article stating that retired workers risk losing their state pension if they engage in professional activities generating an amount above the yearly minimum wage, that is to say, 9172,80 euros for 2016.

Recently, we were all surprised by news that the retired persons who worked as extras in the film Ocho apellidos catalanes, earning 240 euros in four days, had been ordered by the Ministerio de Empleo y Seguridad Social to refund 126,39 euros from their pensions–which seems to contradict the legislation I am describing (see http://www.lavanguardia.com/cine/20151207/30653878749/jubilados-pension-ocho-apellidos-vascos.html). They had not been warned in advance. A retired woman teacher, who did check her situation with Hacienda, has been fined nonetheless 23000 euros for teaching a few weekly classes at 90 euros an hour (see: http://www.laverdad.es/gente-estilo/201601/21/hacienda-multa-jubilada-clases-20160121110128.html). That’s all her savings.

Writers, then, are not quite an exception for Hacienda although their case, of course, has attracted more attention given their public exposure. One has been fined 100000 euros, another has lost his 30000 yearly pension after earning 15000 in royalties (http://cultura.elpais.com/cultura/2016/01/21/actualidad/1453404951_724842.html). And here is the main problem: Spanish legislation considers royalties for books published before retirement income from work, hence incompatible with the pensions. Royalties, Hacienda claims, are not the real question: they’re after the contracts signed after retirement for publishing but also for other activities like lectures. Writers, let’s clarify this, are usually divided into two categories: those who pay for their own pensions by declaring themselves ‘autonomous’ or self-employed workers and those who write while employed in other professions. Their enormously varied cases are hard to reduce to just one situation.

The writers themselves, organized in the Asociación Colegial de Escritores de España launched a manifesto on November 6 to protect their rights to remain creative after retirement. One of the strongest points of their protest is that in European countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Austria, France, the United Kingdom, Sweden or Poland, state retirement pensions are compatible with any other activity with no income limits: you just need to pay the corresponding taxes (see http://acescritores.com/pension-creacion-artistica-derechos-compatibles-la-union-europea/). Other countries, such as Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Slovenia, Greece, Island, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Romania, however, have legislation similar to ours.

If you read the readers’ comments to all the newspaper articles I am quoting from here, another picture emerges. Most readers defend the right of the producers of culture to go on making the most of their talent, invoking the argument that since eventually their work–at least in the case of writers–reverts to public ownership they contribute to society always in excess of the money they earn from a pension. Indeed. Just note, please, that the work of, say, painters is not subjected to similar legislation which is why certain pictures by dead authors are sold for obscene amounts of money. In contrast, the writers’ heirs lose their rights 70 years after the death of the author.

Others readers, however, stress that writers want to be treated unfairly as a special, privileged category. After all, these readers claim, legislation should apply to all. They also point out that you may go on working after retirement by arranging to earn 50% of the pension and continuing to pay your ‘autonomous’ worker fees. Above all, and here is the main criticism, a handful of frankly annoyed readers clarify that writers are not being asked to stop writing, just to stop charging money for their work. If we all pay a writer a pension collectively, then s/he is freed from market demands and can actually publish whatever they want. Any other position, an angry reader declares, is just mercenary, proving that what is at stake is not culture per se but the writers’ participation in the cultural marketplace.

To be honest, I’m terribly confused by all this. To begin with, a retirement pension is no obstacle to earn rent from property, investments or savings. If we apply the law’s rule of thumb taking into account these factors then many upper-middle-class persons retired from liberal professions would (should?) lose their pensions. In Spain pensions are not personal, in the sense that you do not receive at the end of your working life money coming from your personal account (as happens in private funds). You receive a quantity dependent on the years you have worked and the taxes generated by the younger workers. In the future it might well be that if these younger workers are too few to sustain the system nobody will get a pension. This is why it is very important to consider how the scant resources are being distributed, hence Hacienda’s tough stance. Yet, I insist, the law punishes specifically work, allowing retired persons to enjoy other sources of income.

As a civil servant who earns a state-funded public salary any extra income I may generate is also tightly limited by legislation. In my case, as an A-class civil servant I am allowed to generate income up to 30% of my salary (from ‘compatible’ activities). I do not know whether a writer/university teacher faces then a problem is his/her books generate royalties surpassing that quantity but it seems to me that the situation is comparable to that of retired writers. The top retirement pension in Spain is 2567 euros and guess what?, 30% amounts to 9241 euros, just a bit above the 9172,80 euros limit.

As you can see, I cannot make up my mind. I certainly don’t want anyone to stop producing culture when they retire–as I intend to go on writing when I retire. I very much disagree with the discrimination of income from work in relation to other types of income. And I am appalled by Hacienda’s sneaky tactics. Yet, my socialist heart tells me that there is very little money to go by for pensions and that if you are active and generating income, then you are not retired, hence you have no right to a pension. If your pension is so low that you need the income from your books to make ends meet, then the problem is the pension, not the books. My rational head tells me that the obvious solution is taxing all extra income, just as property, investment and savings are taxed, and as the civilized countries are doing.

One thing I am sure of is that producing culture has nothing to do with receiving money for doing so. It is simply not the case that individuals only produce culture for gain now or in the past. This is, plainly, a capitalist idea.

It all boils down to this huge question: what kind of worker is a writer? You tell me…

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/

PRESENTISM: WHY THE PAST DOES NOT EXIST FOR YOUNG READERS

gener 16th, 2016

Marking the essays on Victorian Literature by my second-year students I’m puzzled by three which read the corresponding literary texts they analyze in terms of whether they are adequate for the present. One, in particular, focuses the paper almost entirely on why a recent film adaptation of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is more apt for our times than the ‘faulty’ original text. I explain in a lengthy note why this approach is biased, noting that adaptations are particular readings of texts and not intended to be their replacements. Somehow or other, I recall the word ‘presentism’ which, I’m sure, I have read in some newspaper article I now forget about the current generation of students.

To my further puzzlement, Wikipedia informs me that ‘presentism’ is not just a feature of our undergrads’ worldview but, attention, a philosophical current. According to its proponents, “events and entities that are wholly past or wholly future do not exist at all”; presentism “contrasts with eternalism and the growing block theory of time”, currents which do defend the existence of past events and entities. I’m flabbergasted. Or possibly very poorly informed, for the consequence of this aberration is the denial of History and, hence, of tragedies like the Holocaust and any dictatorship you can thinks of.

When Hayden White argued back in 1973 that History is an agreed upon fiction (or a consensual hallucination, borrowing Willian Gibson’s definition of hyperspace), he didn’t mean that certain horrific events could be denied or were not ‘true’. He meant that the way we narrate History is subjective and interested. Hence, in a second, more rational sense, in literary and historical analysis, “presentism is the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”. It seems that this word, first cited “in its historiographic sense” in 1916 according to the OED, may be dated back to the 1870s. This concept or label is behind the kind of trick by which historians with certain political interests read the past according to a supposed teleological drive that culminates in the present. You may think of Hitler’s dream of building a Third Reich as one of the most disastrous applications of this type of presentism.

In the papers that so puzzled me, however, presentism was not “the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past”, not even in the historiographic version. It was, rather, a belief that the past can be discarded because it does not measure up to the present in any sense. Of course, I am exaggerating the presence of this trend among my students’ papers because I want to insist here on a point I have been struggling to make throughout the course: We all belong in a certain historical time and this is like any other time–everyone, therefore, needs to understand not only the nature of other historical periods but also that our own period will sooner or later be the past. A quaint one.

We may gaze at our navels thinking that all that came before us, Victorian Literature included, was a) important only because it led to us or b) irrelevant because we are all that matters on Earth. In this way, however, we limit very much our vision. And our empathy. I think you can only read well the Literature of the past if you do the mental exercise of imagining what life would be like for you if you lived at that time. This always reminds me of actors’ saying that they only understand characters alive in other periods when they wear the right costumes. I am always joking, hence, that I need to teach Victorian Literature wearing the appropriate corset and crinoline–actually changing fashions as I move from the 1830s to the 1890s. I have proposed to my colleagues that once a year we celebrate the periods we teach in this way. So far the proposal has met with great theoretical acceptance which has not translated into practice… Since my colleague Joan Curbet seems certainly very keen on donning Medieval cloak, tunic, trousers, and leggings I have not lost hope…

I don’t know what this is like for other people, as it not a subject I have ever discussed with anyone, but although I had excellent History teachers in secondary school, it was only when I became an undergrad that I became fully aware of my historical placement. To be honest, my young self was a bit disappointed to understand that the 1980s were not the culmination of world History, perhaps an impression enhanced by Spanish Transition and the death throes of the then still raging Cold War. Even Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of History had arrived in 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed.

So, imagine my disorientation when I finally did see that my generation is just one among many in the History of the world, perhaps only particularly gifted at complicating matters for everyone else, from the way we cannot stop the destruction of Earth to the way we have generalized the use of the digital technologies. The realisation of one’s very modest place in the universe is, however, extremely liberating because it enables you to finally open up to other times and places, as I say. I’m not thinking here of the idiotic fantasy of imagining yourself alive in other times: people always imagine being in Pharaoh’s court as a courtier but not being an abused Egyptian slave. Also, being a woman, only the future is preferable for me. I mean the kind of liberation that allows you to read the Literature of the past without being judgemental and finding fault with it all the time because it is old-fashioned.

The author of the paper worrying me is a very sweet young man now on the verge of losing the presentism which, as I’m arguing, affects anyone young of any generation. He is in this sense like anyone else, as I could see when I tried to rationalize in class what I am explaining here. The students looked at me very much at a loss about what I was talking about, or perhaps it was beginning to dawn on them that growing up entails precisely this, the process of abandoning the presentist cocoon to see yourself as just an individual among many others in the History of the world.

This humility, however, is increasingly harder to grasp in view of the narcissistic attitude encouraged by those who run the social media and to which the digital natives have taken with such gusto. The Sillicon Valley white male patriarchs growing rich at the expense of the general loss of privacy of the post 1990 generations have pounced on the natural narcissism of teenagers. They want to convince everyone young that they need to be different and special and, thus, that they must invest much effort in keeping their personal accounts lively and interesting. Encouraged to think that they are the centre of the world, at least to themselves, young people face a harder time accepting that they’re not and thus shedding their presentism. Said like the Facebook-less, Twitter-incompetent, middle-aged woman I am…

Back to Victorian Literature, I wonder whether presentism of the kind I have described here is the root of the problem in relation to how little students read. Logically, if you believe that the past is totally irrelevant or just a prelude to your own time, it’s much harder to engage with its Literature. If I think about it, perhaps I am guilty myself of an extended form of presentism by which I’m interested in anything from 1800 onwards because unconsciously I have decided that my own historical time are the last 200 odd years. I certainly find it much harder to feel attracted by pre-1800 texts, Shakespeare excluded. Yet, I felt great pleasure when reading 16th, 17th and 18th century texts at my teachers’ request (or invitation). The same pleasure that, I hope, my own students feel when reading the Victorian texts–at least, those students who do read them.

I’ll think again of the dress-in-the-costume-of-your-period teaching day… students included!

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/

100 YEARS, 100 FILMS: AN EDUCATION IN CINEMA HISTORY

gener 10th, 2016

A while ago a colleague told me it would be nice to have a list of films for our students and for any interested colleague to educate themselves in cinema History. More than 100 years after the brothers Lumière set the foundations for the birth of a new art, cinema is not yet an integral part of everyone’s education, as Literature is supposed to be. This means that in practice any cinema lover–every ‘cinéfilo’–is self-taught.

Even so, as I have confirmed to myself by checking the fabulous Filmsite web, edited by Tim Dirks, there is an enormous difference between the generations born before and after the 1980s in Spain. Those of us whose childhood and youth were spent in the Spain of the then monopolistic Televisión Española were given a wonderful education in cinema History which those of you growing up in the 1990s and later have totally missed.

The emergence of private television, beginning with the infamous TeleCinco of its early stages, totally destroyed a way of enjoying cinema on tv. Gone were the films more than ten years old, anything filmed in black and white and whatever came from places other than Hollywood. Gone were the film cycles devoted to a period, genre or director. The film critics we were used to seeing on TV, gentlemen as intelligent but as little telegenic as Alfonso Sánchez, were replaced by idiotic announcers who clearly had no idea what they were presenting at all; one can still see them now and then. La2 continues the good practice of offering a more serious approach with a weekly hour devoted to good cinema, the programme Días de Cine. The rest just offer advertising for the new releases.

One of my projects for this Christmas break has been going through the list of films I remember seeing (I keep it at www.imdb.com) to find the most glaring gaps in my own cinema education. I must clarify that I’m not a film buff in the sense that I will not go out of my way to praise an obscure Iranian film instead of a reasonably good American production. I will see any new Iranian film that fits my interests and the same applies to any other nationality but I just don’t feel the urge to give myself an education in their film History. Having exposed my philistinism and having warned my reader that I was looking for gaps in my Anglo-American filmography (I don’t really like Spanish cinema much…), I’ll praise again Dirks’ Filmsite.

I found there a list of ‘greatest films’ for each year since 1902 (http://www.filmsite.org/greatestfilms-byyear.html) and went through it with much enjoyment. This was increased as I recalled having seen most films on Spanish television. I mean the films released up to the early 1980s, when I started going to the cinema with my friends and often on my own (as an undergrad student). Since then, and for the reasons concerning the private channels, television is by no means an important film source for me, with the only occasional exception of La2.

I want, however, to thank here publicly the film programmers of Televisión Española for having been such wonderful teachers to all kinds of audiences–both the audiences that preferred the more popular genres and the audiences that enjoyed the art-house orientation of the film cycles on what is now on La2. I happened to be a mixture of both and I’m sure I have these anonymous benefactors for this, something that private television will never be able to match.

Back to the list I never managed to made: you can make your own on the basis of Tim Dirks’ selection (which goes beyond Anglo-American, I must say) or use my own selection of his selection. I have chosen the magic figure of 100 years, 100 films (check IMDB for any further information on them) and here’s the list. There may be films in it I personally don’t like but it is my intention to highlight a certain oblique canon, not even of the best but of the most often remembered or discussed by film aficionados. All films are American, except where the contrary is noted:

1915 The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith
1916 Intolerance, D. W. Griffith
1917 The Unfortunate Marriage, Ernest C. Warde [Dirk includes no film for 1917, I have chosen this one based on IMDB ratings]
1918 Shifting Sands, Albert Parker [ditto…]
1919 Broken Blossoms, D.W. Griffith
1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (original German title: Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari), Robert Wiene
1921 The Kid, Charles Chaplin
1922 Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror/Horror (original German title: Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens), F.W. Murnau
1923 Safety Last, Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor
1924 Greed, Erich von Stroheim
1925 Battleship Potemkin (original Russian title: Bronenosets Potyomkin), Sergei Eisenstein
1926 The Son of the Sheik, George Fitzmaurice
1927 Metropolis, Fritz Lang [the sound period starts here in 1927 with The Jazz Singer]
1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc (original title: La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc), Carl Theodor Dreyer; silent film
1929 Pandora’s Box (original German title: Die Büchse der Pandora), Georg W. Pabst
1930 All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone
1931 Frankenstein, James Whale
1932 Freaks, Tod Browning
1933 King Kong, Merian C. Cooper
1934 It Happened One Night, Frank Capra
1935 A Night at the Opera, Sam Wood
1936 Modern Times, Charles Chaplin
1937 Grand Illusion (original French title: La Grande Illusion), Jean Renoir
1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, Michael Curtiz, William Keighley
1939 Gone With the Wind, Victor Fleming, George Cukor, and Sam Wood
1940 The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford
1941 Citizen Kane, Orson Welles
1942 Casablanca, Michael Curtiz
1943 The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK), Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger
1944 Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder
1945 The Children of Paradise (original French title: Les Enfants Du Paradis), Marcel Carne
1946 The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler
1947 Miracle on 34th Street, George Seaton
1948 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston
1949 The Third Man (UK), Carol Reed
1950 All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz
1951 A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan
1952 Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
1953 From Here to Eternity, Fred Zinnemann
1954 On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan
1955 Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray
1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Don Siegel
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean
1958 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Richard Brooks
1959 Ben-Hur, William Wyler
1960 Psycho, Alfred Hithcock
1961 West Side Story, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
1962 Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean
1963 The Leopard (original Italian title: Il Gattopardo), Luchino Visconti
1964 My Fair Lady, George Cukor
1965 The Sound of Music, Robert Wise
1966 Blow-Up (UK), Michelangelo Antonioni
1967 The Graduate, Mike Nichols
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK), Stanley Kubrick
1969 Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper
1970 M*A*S*H, Robert Altman
1971 A Clockwork Orange (UK), Stanley Kubrick
1972 The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola
1973 The Exorcist, William Friedkin
1974 Chinatown, Roman Polanski
1975 The Rocky Horror Picture Show (UK), Jim Sharman
1976 Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese
1977 Star Wars: Episode IV, A New Hope, George Lucas
1978 The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino
1979 Alien, Ridley Scott
1980 The Elephant Man, David Lynch
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg
1982 Blade Runner, Ridley Scott
1983 Local Hero (UK), Bill Forsyth
1984 Amadeus, Milos Forman
1985 Brazil (UK), Terry Gilliam
1986 Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen
1987 The Last Emperor (UK/It./China/HK), Bernardo Bertolucci
1988 Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Original Spanish title: Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios), Pedro Almodóvar
1989 Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone
1990 Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton
1991 Beauty and the Beast, Kirk Wise
1992 Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven
1993 Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg
1994 Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino
1995 The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer
1996 Trainspotting (UK), Danny Boyle
1997 Titanic, James Cameron
1998 Shakespeare in Love (US/UK), John Madden
1999 The Matrix, Andy and Larry Wachowski
2000 Billy Elliot (UK), Stephen Daldry
2001 Amelie (original French title: Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain), Jean-Pierre Jeunet
2002 Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore
2003 Lost in Translation (US/Japan), Sofia Coppola
2004 Downfall (original German title: Der Untergang), Oliver Hirschbiegel
2005 Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee
2006 The Lives of Others (original German title: Das Leben der Anderen), Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
2007 Into the Wilde, Sean Penn
2008 The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan
2009 Up, Pete Docter
2010 The Social Network, David Fincher
2011 Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn
2012 Amour (France), Michael Haneke
2013 Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón
2014 Boyhood, Richard Linklater
2015 Carol (UK/US), Todd Haynes

This list, I insist, is not meant to be anything but a starting point: it’s not a list of the best, not even within the same year–how can one choose between Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill a Mockingbirg, both 1962 films, or between Schindler’s List and Groundhog Day, both released in 1993? Navigate it as you wish, but do give yourself an education in film History…

Enjoy!!

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/

MAY THE FORCE (NOT) BE WITH YOU: WHY WE CARE ABOUT STAR WARS

gener 5th, 2016

Yes, I finally saw yesterday Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It has been very hard to avoid the spoilers for a couple of weeks (yet I must also marvel at the conspiracy of silence to conceal some major plot turns!). Harder to miss were the tepid reactions of most professional reviewers. Given their warnings, I cannot say I am disappointed in the film. I am disappointed, rather, by a Hollywood system that has simply abandoned innovative storytelling for mindless plot-driven action and that is currently in love with the ugly notion of the ‘reboot’ (for this is what this ‘new’ film amounts to, with the addition of a competent girl hero and her male sidekick).

Despite this, I’m not offering here a review, for there are already thousands which readers can check and also because fans will see the film no matter what others think of it and non-fans (?) will not see it no matter how persuasive positive opinions may be. I am not myself quite a Star Wars fan but I belong to the generation that was mesmerized in their childhood (age 11 for me) by the absolutely mind-blowing image of the colossal Imperial cruiser crossing the screen at the very beginning of Episode IV: A New Hope back in 1977. Nothing will ever surpass the cinematic wonder of that moment. Ever.

I have contributed my bit to the surprisingly scant academic work on George Lucas’ brainchild with an article on Anakin Skywalker, no doubt the most complete–and hateful–character even despite Hayden Christensen’s appalling performance (See: “Shades of Evil: The Construction of White Patriarchal Villainy in the Star Wars Saga” in Josep M. Armengol (ed.), Men in Color, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011, 143-167). This new film arguably confirms my hunch that the main topic of the whole saga are the difficulties of raising teenage boys. As I age, I appreciate the good job that the overlooked Owen and Beru Lars did in raising their foster child Luke Skywalker, the quintessential good boy. No doubt Star Wars is a story about men’s problems to control their own potential violence. I don’t quite see a woman facing the same issue in the saga… hopefully.

Why do we care about Star Wars? I assume that the many millions in the world who do not care find the story silly and the space opera trappings just escapist fiction junk. Even those of us who care bemoan the many gaps and errors in the script–beginning with the erratic ways in which the Force operates. As for space opera, there’s plenty of much higher quality in print. Please, don’t say that the success of the Star Wars franchise is just due to Hollywood business acumen and its greedy marketing ploys, for these emerged only after the unexpected planetary success of the first film. Obviously, the money-grabbing, in-your-face strategies are easy to spot in the brief appearances of characters who are only in the movies to sell the corresponding figurine. There is, however, something that surpasses all the gadgetry, whether this is the elementary pleasure in the soap opera of the Skywalkers’ depressing family saga, the need to explore the roots of male violence as I say, or the urge to renew the basic myth of the struggle between good and evil.

I am not familiar with the Expanded Universe, which extends to all the licensed products connected with the saga in a variety of media and which is itself complemented with the countless derivative products generated by the fans. You may be horrified to learn that back in 2014, after George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Walt Disney (in 2012), this EU was re-named ‘Star Wars Legends’ and declared non-canon, which is Disney’s dubious attempt to keep a tighter grip on the links between the forthcoming films and the new secondary products. As the Harry Potter case proves, however, the struggle to keep under wraps the collective impulse to add new strands to key stories in the style of traditional folk tales and mythmaking cannot simply be won by capitalist corporations. So, here is for me a reason why we care: Star Wars has provided its audience with a vast canvas on which to add detail to a growing web of stories. We miss the old collective art of folk story-telling and the saga satisfies our nostalgia for it (as other cultural manifestations do).

Then, there’s the Force. The possession of mystical powers by certain select individuals is a very old fantasy and Lucas borrowed from, among his most immediate predecessors, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. Actually, he took it away from the women to place it in the hands of the Jedi, a circle of so-called ‘knights’ that only recalled there were females among them in the 1990s (‘lady’ Jedis?). The saga’s most glaring sexist turn is Yoda’s decision not to train Princess Leia even though he acknowledges that the Force is strong in her (as it should be given her family connections). Before I ramble onto a feminist bypath, let me recap: a great deal of the appeal of the saga is based on the possibility that any humble individual can be in possession of the Force–this is what Luke embodies. It is not so different, as you can see, from magic in Harry Potter. Both sagas have this in common: they do have an individual hero but he belongs to a community of good-doers facing a community of evil-doers. Many others can join in, hence the appeal for the fans. Get the wand or the light-sabre and you’re in.

The saga deals also with a major problem: the patriarchal lust for power. Ask yourself: if you were in possession of the Force how would you use it? The saga argues that you should have to overcome the temptation of falling into the Dark Side (capitalized, yes), for having ‘powers’ leads to craving ‘power’, and having excessive ‘powers’ and ‘power’ only leads to villainy. This is a patriarchal attitude best exemplified by Anakin Skywalker’s supposition that he is entitled to a great deal of power just because he has powers. Luke, in contrast, and the Jedis in general, embody the difficulties of being good in a universe in which this position does not pay.

And this is our own struggle: since the 1970s, when the saga started, the villain is our hero but because we are secretly ashamed of wanting to be Darth Vader we pretend we are on the side of the Jedi. Yet, we enjoy following a story in which they fail again and again, for, being good guys, they are easily hoodwinked by the patriarchal monsters, call them Sith, Empire, or First Order. Luke Skywalker has never been a strong hero and we tend to prefer Han Solo, that rascal who cannot really commit. Let me recap the argument: Lucas’ saga, in which there are neither gods nor God, places the burden of moral decision with the individual by focusing on the problem of avoiding the temptation of abusing our power/s. The Dark Side is just this: the individual’s awakening to the advantages of doing evil (a concept that Lucas borrowed from Heart of Darkness–he was supposed to direct the film adaptation that later became Apocalypse Now!).

The key issue of why some individuals want to accrue power in order to do evil, and thus accrue even more power to do even more evil, can be discussed by an abstract philosophical treatise or by space opera with a silly melodramatic plotline. Like all the other stories about heroes and villains, Star Wars is, however, unable to imagine what the Jedi can do with their own power to do good. What I most missed in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a political discussion of the kind of Republic the rebels had managed to build once the Empire had been destroyed in Episode VI. Instead, we are given the story of how a new bunch of evil guys have already built a fascist regime, thus actually becoming the resistance to the Jedi’s Republican new order. Surely, the new trilogy will tell the story of how the Jedis rebuild their lost strength and once again defeat their opponents–yet the debate, as you can easily see on the internet, is already focused on whether the new villain Kylo Ren is charismatic enough. Not on Luke’s efforts. As for the new hero the debates are focused, rather, on her being too perfect, a Mary Sue none can identify with…

To sum up, the Star Wars saga deals with our increasing collective inability to root for the good heroes and our secret wish to be evil–if only we had Force enough. May the Force not be with you, then, unless you can imagine ways to do good with it.

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/

A CALL TO MAKE ROOM FOR GENDER IN THE SPANISH UNIVERSITY: THE ‘MANIFIESTO POR LA INCLUSIÓN DE LOS ESTUDIOS FEMINISTAS, DE MUJERES Y DE GÉNERO EN LA UNIVERSIDAD’

desembre 30th, 2015

Yesterday, I got via email news of the publication of a new manifesto, the ‘Manifiesto por la inclusión de los Estudios Feministas, de Mujeres y de Género en la Universidad’. I signed it at once, wondering whether it is a good idea to launch this kind of initiative when most academics are off email because of the Christmas break. The whole text of the manifesto is available at http://portal.uc3m.es/portal/page/portal/inst_estudios_genero/manifiesto%20universidad.pdf; you can judge it for yourself and decide whether to sign it (here: http://portal.uc3m.es/portal/page/portal/inst_estudios_genero). As happens the text seems to have been published on 5 June and I cannot explain why it has taken so long to circulate, unless this is a matter of how different academic circuits work. The promoters are academics from all over Spain specializing above all in constitutional law, among them my UAB colleague Encarna Bodelón. The group is composed of 14 women and only 1 man. No comments required.

Apparently, the manifesto is the result of a second meeting in the Basque town of Oñati (the first one took place in 2005) to assess the evolution of gender-related issues in Spanish higher education. The first problem noted is that most degrees fail to meet the standards and obligations set by Spanish legislation, in particular L.O.1/2004 of 28 December, ‘Medidas de Protección Integral contra la Violencia de Género’. This law decrees that Spanish universities have the duty to promote in all their areas training and research in gender equality (article 4.7). This is further supported by L.O.3/2007 of 22 March for the ‘Igualdad efectiva de Mujeres y Hombres’.

In 2005 the same group agreed in their first meeting to demand that the new degrees included a BA (‘grado’) in Gender Studies to train ‘equality agents’, specific MAs specialised in this area, and a variety of courses within the diverse BA degrees to raise awareness on gender issues within each discipline. Also, the modification of already existing courses or subjects as necessary. Ten years later, they say, nothing much has changed and few universities if any in Spain have fulfilled the 2005 legal mandate.

This failure to comply, the manifesto claims, or, rather, denounces has resulted in, at least, two very serious problems: there have been no significant advances on equality in Spain in the last decade and official research assessment clearly punishes those who practice Gender Studies. What follows is a call for all political parties to sign a pact that supports a pro-feminist academic policy by which the dismal situation can be corrected. The manifesto urges universities to include compulsory training in ‘gender perspectives’ in all areas, the firm establishment of Gender Studies as a respectable academic area and that the persons interested in becoming ‘equality agents’ receive university training, not just professional preparation (‘formación profesional’).

My own university has an active ‘Observatori per la igualtat’ (https://www.uab.cat/observatori-igualtat/) and offers a Minor in Gender Studies open to all degrees (http://www.uab.cat/web/estudiar/minor-d-estudis-de-genere-1340778453143.html). I myself took advantage of the establishment of this transversal Minor back in 2005 to establish an elective course, ‘Gender Studies (in English)’, which is also part of our degree in ‘English Studies’. The pity is that since then I have only managed to teach it once, last year 2014-15. We also included in our MA Advanced English Studies a Gender Studies course very confusingly called ‘Postmodernity: New Sexualities/New Textualities’, a name chosen without asking for my opinion in order to complete the historically-oriented list of subjects. I have been trying to have the name changed for the last two years with no success as the MA coordinator–a woman–does not see this as a priority.

I have written a paper on the frustration I feel as a Gender Studies specialist, “Teaching gender studies as feminist activism: still struggling for recognition”, which you may read at https://ddd.uab.cat/record/126586. This frustration branches out in many directions but three stand out: the patronizing attitude used by the persons (men and women) who think that doing Gender Studies and calling yourself a feminist is a gal’s thing and not proper academic work, as noted by the manifesto; also, the difficulties to be critical of certain aspects of feminism as this creates unwanted divisions and, finally, the limitations to which one is subjected by declaring an interest in Gender Studies–by which I mean that I can lecture and write on many other things beyond feminism and gender but this is what people mainly associate with me…

I can see many people baulking at the idea of making Gender Studies compulsory in all university degrees. In my view, students should reach us already trained in gender equality, for this type of education in citizenship should be offered in primary and secondary school (and at home). This, of course, is not the case and despite some apparent advances everyone realizes that equality is not increasing in Spain–or just very, very slowly. In practical terms I’d rather students take in the first year ‘Gender Studies’ than ‘Grans temes de la Història’, yet I would defend the idea that the corresponding course operates with an even wider perspective than the manifesto proposes–the authors make no mention, for instance, of Masculinity Studies. This sub-discipline of Gender Studies, which I have been practising for years, seems to be indispensable to reach young male students, as I can see whenever I get the chance to read with them a text from this angle (say Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). As all my students know, I hope, my approach is always anti-patriarchal and gender-inclusive, as I have been preaching for years that equality can only be reached if men liberate themselves from the weight of patriarchy on masculinity.

Apart from teaching specific subjects, one very simple thing can be done within the specific area of Literature: combining men and women authors in the reading list. My oncoming course on SF includes 5 novels, 3 by men and 2 by women, and a list of 50 short stories, 25 by men and 25 by women. I am not saying that all reading lists should include men and women in the same exact proportion, for then courses on women’s Literature would be impossible. Yet, courses covering a genre, a period, a geographical area can easily attain some kind of gender balance. And one caveat: a course focused exclusively on male authors is only justified if what is to be explored is masculinity. This semester a new teacher in my Department has taught a course on contemporary American Literature with no women writers on his list, despite addressing himself to a class almost entirely of girl students. This simply makes no sense, as the list of authors does not reflect at all the nature of the Literature he has taught. And please consider that I am not taking into account the thorny matter of how minorities should be dealt with. In the case of my own Gender Studies elective, I decided to go for variety rather than focus on the binary men/women and explore other identities conditioned by gender and sexuality: gay, lesbian but also bisexual, transgender, intergender, you name it…

Now, brace yourself. I am writing this a couple of days after it was revealed that a male carer in a nursing home near Barcelona attacked on Christmas Eve nine elderly women, beating some and raping at least four of them, including a woman above 100 years of age. This 30-year-old man, a good professional with a university degree, unleashed his inner Mr. Hyde by using a combination of drugs and alcohol. All the news articles I have read stress how he preyed on the most defenceless victims but none discusses the obvious fact that his brutal conduct is an expression of pure misogyny and, indeed, part of the widespread violence against women. And this is one of the main problems: that we need to educate people to recognize what the real problems are. As for this monster’s victims I can only say that the terror they have endured is proof that we women are not safe from violence ever in our lives, no matter how long they are.

Now, please, sign the manifesto…

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/

BARCELONA, CITY OF LITERATURE (ACCORDING TO UNESCO): A MANIFESTO FOR READING

desembre 22nd, 2015

Last 11 December, UNESCO officially designated Barcelona new City of Literature within the Creative Cities Network (http://cat.elpais.com/cat/2015/12/11/cultura/1449842212_437362.html). The first City of Literature was Edinburgh, awarded the title in 2004 (see their handsome website, http://www.cityofliterature.com/). 11 years later, the list extends to 20 Cities of Literature, some a bit surprising given their complicated political background: Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin, Reykjavik, Norwich, Krakow, Dunedin (New Zealand), Prague, Heidelberg, Granada, Ulyanovsk (Russia), Baghdad, Tartu (Estonia), L’viv (Ukraine), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Barcelona, Nottingham, Óbidos (Portugal) and Montevideo. The idea, as you may guess, is to encourage international networking by promoting culture. Also, putting your own city on the world-wide map of culture.

Cities bid for the designation, as they bid for the Olympic Games and other titles and events. I have before me the dossier submitted by Barcelona’s Town Council, in particular by its Institut de Cultura (ICUB) (see http://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/ciutatdelaliteratura/sites/default/files/dossier_de_candidatura_es.pdf). Our first female mayor, Ada Colau, declares in her preface that “Barcelona is a city that lives literature and literature has always been part of its essence”, a statement that surely should make any teacher of literature very happy to live here…

Some of the strongest points highlighted by Barcelona’s application are that we are a city where two languages co-exist (indeed, the city is “the world’s largest centre of publishing in the Spanish language, and the capital of the Catalan language”); we celebrate yearly Sant Jordi or “the day of books and roses”; we have a variety of literary festivals (among them Kosmopolis and BCN Negra, or the crime fiction week) and book fairs; we offer plenty of courses on creative writing; we are home to a long list of writers; we boast an excellent network of 40 public libraries (half my fellow citizens have a public library card); publishing is a major economic sector…

The plan is to turn Barcelona into an even more active city as regards Literature, with a variety of new activities, including the establishment of a new literary centre for dissemination and research, housed at Vil•la Joana, the former residence of Catalan local hero writer, Jacint Verdaguer. I’m very happy to see that the dossier even mentions Eurocon (http://www.eurocon2016.org), which I’m doing my bit to help organize, as a major event on the horizon. And, yes, I aim at furthering contacts with the council in charge of implementing the City of Literature programme to see what we can do from the university.

If you’re an habitual reader of this blog, you know what’s coming next: how does the distinction conferred on my city for its active literary life agree with the lack of enthusiasm for reading I perceive in my Literature classes? I myself and all my literary colleagues, mind you, possibly all over the (Western?) world. As I read the dossier yesterday a few of my students came in for tutorials, and I asked one of them–who had followed my course with, I think, interest–what the problem is. Can you confirm my impression that most students in your class have not read the books and do not generally read? Yes, she said, no doubt. Next question: why? Her answer was that her generation has a great reluctance to doing anything out of obligation and that our reading lists feel exactly like that, like an obligation.

Obviously, we both agreed that this is a very hard problem to solve for, unless students are given the chance to choose what they want to read for class, there is no way around the practice of having the teachers impose a reading list. I did explain that we consider very carefully what students may enjoy but it just happens that some authors need to be read, otherwise you cannot claim that your literary education is complete. I don’t see Mathematics students avoiding certain class of equations because they just don’t like them. Also, and this is confirmed, my language colleagues complain that students don’t read the texts they select for them, which suggests that the problem is not Literature per se, but reading generally.

All this clashes, as you can see, very negatively with the celebration of Barcelona as a City of Literature, unless I follow the student’s argument to the end and conclude that, generally speaking, people love reading what they want, and hate reading what they need to read as students. My own solution to the problem, as a student, was to read what I had to read and then keep at hand something else to read for pleasure, yet those were other times.

The corridor conversations with my Literature colleagues always turn around the same topic: some students read plenty and enjoy it, but the majority avoid reading as much as they can. Teaching a text is fast becoming an absurdist exercise as you find yourself boring students who simply cannot follow you and, as I have already noted here, you also lose the incentive to improve your teaching methods. So, what can we do? I’m thinking of launching a manifesto and calling all my UAB literary colleagues to join me in doing something more active than simply complain among ourselves about why students don’t read. So, here’s the first draft.

A MANIFESTO FOR READING

As a student it is your duty to collaborate in your own education. No teacher can teach you anything unless you want to learn. The path to learning passes through plenty of autonomous study, for class time is limited. This means that whatever discipline you are studying, you need to read. Generally speaking, all university degrees require that students read as much as they can, no matter whether they study Sciences or Humanities. An attitude by which reading is perceived as an imposition is simply immature and in total contradiction with your own decision to give yourself a university education–it is the equivalent of an athlete refusing to train, and whoever has heard of a lazy athlete?
This need to read is even more evident in the degrees in which Literature plays a major role: Catalan, Spanish, English, French, Classical Languages and all their combinations, including minors in other languages, or in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, as we offer you in the Facultat de Filosofia i Lletres at UAB. You cannot really claim that you know a language well unless you are familiar with its artistic expression, which is what we call Literature. There is at the same time, little sense in choosing a language and Literature degree if you do not enjoy reading. This applies to literary texts but also to texts on all aspects of language.
As Literature teachers we are asking you to bear in mind that we cannot work at the required university standard unless you read the texts we lecture on. We are well aware that few students fulfil this basic requirement, which is why Literature courses are increasingly harder to teach. We base all our methodology on teacher/student classroom interaction and on close reading and this simply cannot work if students do not read. It is boring for you and frustrating for us.

As your Literature teachers, we remind you, therefore that:

*you should buy a good edition of the books you need to read. Good does not necessarily mean expensive; many respectable editions of the classics and also of contemporary texts are available for little money. If you cannot afford new books, buy them second-hand but read on paper so that you can underline and make notes. Online editions can be a useful complement but none is up to the standard of paper editions, which usually contain an introduction by the editor and explanatory notes. Spending money on books is not only a logical thing to do for students but also an investment in your own education. This is, besides, the period in your life when you should start your own personal library.

*you should read the texts we discuss in class well in advance, making notes as you do so for class discussion. Take advantage of the syllabi or ‘Guies Docents’ (published in July) and read the set books in summer. Naturally, you should take part in class discussion, and make notes of what the teacher and your classmates say for further reflection at home.

*you should check any doubts and problems with your teacher; Literature teachers are always willing to discuss books, and will give you any help you may need. We also enjoy making suggestions for further reading, so do not hesitate to ask–this is what we are here for. You are always welcome.

*you should also read literary criticism for its content and as a model for your own writing. We do not simply ask you to read Literature but to be able to produce informed criticism on it. This is why it is important that you train yourself from the first year into understanding how academic literary criticism functions. Start by reading academic articles, then books (monographs, collective volumes).

*you should visit the Humanities library regularly, and borrow books. Our library is very well stocked both as regards literary texts and literary criticism. Take advantage of its excellent collection. And make suggestions if you think certain books are missing.

*you should train yourself into finding time for reading every day. If you are an habitual reader, you know that there is always time for reading. If you are not an habitual reader, then you need to avoid wasting time at other occupations that contribute nothing to your education. As long as you are a university student, your studies are your priority and your leisure time, although very necessary, should be reduced down to a minimum. We know that many of you work but, precisely, if you work to pay for your studies, then work should not be a major obstacle to study. If it is, you need to reconsider your situation.

To sum up: students must study, and study is based on reading. Above all, we teachers need you to contribute to your own education for we cannot educate you against your will.

Merry Christmas! And congratulations to all of us, Barcelona citizens, on our designation as City of Literature.

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/

SUPERVISING DOCTORAL STUDENTS: A COMPLICATED TASK

desembre 17th, 2015

I have so far supervised 4 doctoral dissertations, I am currently supervising 4 more and have been asked in the last month to supervise other 4 dissertations. This nice symmetry is completed by the fact that 4 students who started writing their doctoral dissertation under my supervision have eventually abandoned it. The 16 cases teach me a variety of lessons, all more or less connected with a basic situation: gone are the times when Departments were full of young persons combining full-time teaching with writing their PhD dissertations.

I wrote my own PhD dissertation between 1993 and 1996, in three academic years. The first year I taught 24 credits (12 each semester) as a full-time teacher in my third year as an ‘ayudante’, a contractual figure now extinct. The second year, I was in Scotland as a visiting PhD student with a grant from ‘La Caixa’ and so I had all the time in my hands for my research (I didn’t teach for fifteen months!). The third year, I taught my 24 credits in the first semester just by chance, not because I asked, and then I spent from February to July writing non-stop. This means that half the time of my three years I was a full-time PhD student. It also explains why my dissertation is so long.

In those years, I was by no means an exception. I cannot tell you exactly how many of us, junior members of the Department, were both full-time teachers and PhD students but I’m sure it was a handful, perhaps close to eight persons (in a Department of about 35?). Then the Government suppressed the figure of the ‘ayudante’ and the moment we lost the possibility of employing young persons full time, earning a doctoral degree became a very complicated affair. Either you got a scholarship by joining a research group (FI, FPU) or by being awarded one of our only two Department fellowships (which carry the funny name of PIF), or you hanged by the skin of your teeth onto the Department as a part-time associate teacher doings two jobs apart from your research. I don’t know about FI and FPU but PIF and are woefully underfunded, with a salary actually lower in relative terms than what I used to make as an ‘ayudante’ 20 years ago. Associates, of course, are supposed not to do research but what else can one do? How one can balance eating and researching for a PhD is itself the object of a potential PhD dissertation. (You realize, I’m sure, that the implicit Government strategy is to stop people from wanting to earn doctoral degrees…).

I had two supervisors, one in the Department and one in Scotland. Contact with them was no problem: I simply dropped in my Department supervisor’s office whenever we agreed on an appointment (or just chatted in the corridor) and I saw my Scottish supervisor regularly every two weeks for a long two-hour session. I don’t recall at all being anxious about the regularity of these meetings though my Department supervisor used to make me quite nervous by demanding that I submit written work when I was in the early stages of my research and had no clear idea where I was going. My Scottish supervisor was happy enough to see notes, and to discuss with me ideas, my reading list for the previous two weeks, passages from the secondary sources… anything I needed. He would also offer many suggestions for further reading. My third year was, in contrast, quite lonely because my Department supervisor was himself away in Scotland and those were the times before email. I was by that stage, anyway, very busy writing and needed less supervision.

All this has very little to do with my own experience of tutoring doctoral students. To begin with, making appointments is always complicated because they work full-time outside the university. I have ended up using a downtown cafeteria in Barcelona as my second office, since reaching my university often adds many complications. The meetings are never regular, nor is email communication. I have lost count of how often I have asked my doctoral students to email me once a month, no matter what they’re doing, even if it’s only to tell me ‘I have read nothing’. No way, they’re too busy. Add to this that some are not even nearby, either because originally they lived in Barcelona but then moved elsewhere or because they have never been able to move to Barcelona. That’s a lesson I have learned and I have vowed to myself not to accept students who cannot meet me regularly.

Since most doctoral students work elsewhere full-time and they need to go wherever their jobs take them this means that embarking on supervising a doctoral dissertation is now quite an adventure. With BA and MA dissertations the time limit plays in our favour: we start in November, we finish in July. Telling PhD students you are only available for three years, however, makes no sense at all as you never know when they’re going to finish. My most recent supervised PhD student took five years to complete her dissertation simply because she is overworked and had no time to do research. This would be a relative problem only if we could take in as many doctoral students as we wanted. My university, however, limits the number to six which means that you can easily miss the chance to tutor a good student because your oldest tutorees cannot make progress despite their efforts. This is why I am going to try to accept as many students as I can: because I never know when they will finish, if at all.

The 4 students who have abandoned dissertations while under my supervision have done so for different reasons. One started but soon saw she could not combine work and study. A second one started working with me while in Italy thinking he would immediately move to Barcelona but this never happened and he eventually saw no point in continuing with his work (in the fourth year…). A third one simply could not cope with the linguistic demands of writing the dissertation though this only became apparent in her third year. The fourth one came to me after not finishing her dissertation with another supervisor in four years and, as I feared, soon gave up because she needed a job. Now, here’s the other issue: we supervisors get a paltry 52 hours in our teaching account for supervising a PhD dissertation (that’s 3 ECTS or half a semestral subject) and only when the candidate passes his viva. If a candidate abandons half way through, whether this is in the first or the fourth year, we get nothing at all for our pains…

Supervising a PhD dissertation then has become a matter of trust and good faith: you try to do your best to set the student rolling, giving him/her the required conceptual and technical tools and then you meet very sporadically and do the bulk of the job when actually reading the final dissertation. This in my experience is usually very hard work, which needs plenty of editing and revision.

They once told me about a gentleman in Oviedo who was supervising 13 PhD students at the same time–in the Humanities, each with their own topic. I have heard stories of a famous supervisor in English Studies who would accept students only to order them not to bother him for three years and then contact him only with the finished dissertation. Perhaps the Oviedo gentleman uses this method, I don’t know. In my infinite stupidity I thought I could work very smoothly by accepting one student per year as the oldest of my tutorees submitted their final work. I dreamed of a regular turnover, if you get my drift, which would constantly keep me supplied with my maximum of six students. No such luck! I can easily decide how many BA and MA dissertations I want to supervise each year but with PhD dissertations, as you can see, irregularity is the rule.

On the other hand, perhaps using two hours every two weeks for each of my current three doctoral students would be right now an excessive demand on my time. Of course, if they worked in the Department we could meet as frequently as we liked and do what tutors and tutorees should do: keep the conversation going… for three years. And then move on.

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/

HACKING DOWN THE HUMANITIES: THE JAPANESE WARNING

desembre 11th, 2015

This piece of news has taken a long time to reach my ears, which since then are ringing. The very fact that it did not make front lines in Spain (which I do check more or less daily) is proof enough of the insidious ways in which the Humanities are under attack.

To cut to the chase: on 8 June the Japanese Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura sent a letter to all national, state-sponsored universities requesting that Social Sciences and Humanities faculties were closed down. This request was accompanied with a direct threat to withdraw funding if the measure was not implemented in the academic year 2016. Even though recently the Minister declared that his instructions have been misunderstood, nonetheless 26 universities (out of 60) have already announced plans to close their corresponding faculties or to convert them, as the letter ordered, “to serve areas that better meet society’s needs”. The Minister, needless to say, was simply applying the liberal economic doctrine defended by President Shinzō Abe, popularly known as “Abenomics”.

Among many other articles, “Humanities under attack”, an opinion piece by Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University, published by the Japan Times on August 23 (quite late…), informed the rest of the world about the catastrophe threatening the survival of the Humanities in what had so far appeared to be an extremely civilized society (see http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/08/23/commentary/japan-commentary/humanities-attack/#.VmmQrl7W1Bp). Sawa complained against the long-lived interference of business interests in Japanese higher education, explaining how during World War II, “students of the natural sciences and engineering at high schools and universities were exempt from conscription and only those who were studying the humanities and social sciences were drafted into military service”. In 1960 there was a first attempt by the Government to abolish the same faculties now under attack or, alternatively, push them onto private universities. Sawa makes the far-fetched claim that only Social Sciences and Humanities students have the “superior faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, which are required of political, bureaucratic and business leaders”, which seems to be a faux pas. I agree though that we teach students to cultivate a “robust critical spirit”, indispensable in democratic societies.

A more recent article, of 6 November, by German correspondent Julian Ryall (http://www.dw.com/en/backlash-prompts-japan-to-rethink-controversial-university-policy/a-18831857), informs that the controversial policy is being reconsidered because of the vast protest coming not only from Humanities and Social Sciences academia but also even from its alleged enemies: industry (represented by the business federation Keidanren) and science (with organizations such as The Science Council of Japan). In a further document of 1 October, the Japanese Government clarified its position, or, rather, backpedalled, stressing that “The importance of versatility cultivated by liberal arts education is indeed growing in an era that calls for the autonomous ability to seek out solutions to problems without definite answers”. Unsurprisingly, Japanese academics remain wary and distrustful. With exceptions. Ryall reports the treacherous words of one Yoichi Shimada, professor of International Relations at Fukui Prefectural University. According to this gentleman, the Ministry’s main concern is “to secure jobs for graduates” since, he adds, “People who study philosophy or French literature do not easily find jobs and don’t contribute much to society. This would be beneficial to them”.

I don’t know how many Japanese university teachers will see their careers destroyed by the decisions made in these 26 universities loyal to the Ministry, but I assume this will be a considerable number. I can only sympathize and think of that popular Spanish refrain, “cuando las barbas de tu vecino veas pelar pon las tuyas a remojar” which translates more or less as “when you see mischief done to your neighbour prepare for mischief to be done to you”. So there we are. If the Japanese Government can do it, then any other Government will do it. By the way, the same person who told me about the news in Japan, an Anglo-Indian senior lecturer in London, also told me that according to new anti-Jihadist British Government policies (see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/6/contents/enacted) teachers should be monitoring students for signs of radicalization. One of her students recently asked her whether watching Edward Said on video could be taken as one of these signs. And, yes, if you Google the word ‘Jihad’ in a school computer to learn what it is about and how to be in a better position to maintain a critical stance against it, this will trigger an alarm. There are, then, many ways of killing the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

I am in this context fascinated by the contrast between the two main meanings of the word ‘liberal’: a) a believer in the freedom of the market, b) a believer in the freedom of thought. I’m vastly simplifying here a very complex issue but, essentially, the ideology started in the Enlightenment in defence of the individual has eventually lead to quite a bizarre situation by which the doctrines of economic liberalism are trying as hard as they can to eliminate intellectual liberalism for the very simply reason that liberal intellectuals are the main critics of liberal business.

So far, we, liberal thinkers, depend on the delicate balance of prestige, by which societies have willingly accepted that part of public funding pays for our jobs. As it can be seen, the point that Minister Shimomura is making on behalf of the Japanese Government is not at all that the Social Sciences and the Humanities should disappear but that they should receive no public funding. Of course, all liberal thinkers understand that they offer a public service (I certainly do) and that placing us in private universities makes absolutely no sense at all. Many liberal intellectuals have certainly developed their careers in private contexts, above all in the United States, but there is always something suspicious about a critic who makes a living off who knows what private-company interests. And needless to say, barring the access of working-class and low-middle-class students to the Humanities and the Social Sciences is simply a social crime, for they are the ones best equipped to understand the inequalities brought on by economic liberalism.

Having staked my claim in defence of my own field (and job), I will now declare that the Japanese and international protests against Shimomura’s famous letter (not even a decree by law!) ring hollow. They feel completely patronizing. Two main arguments are advanced, both built on shaky foundations: business also needs persons trained in the Humanities and the Social Sciences because business requires skills not always taught in the corresponding schools; or, society needs persons willing to put intellectual commitment before spurious business interests. Both ways we are told we don’t have a role of our own: either we become part of business or we accept that we’ll never be successful persons in society. If both business and society believed in the Humanities and in the Social Sciences then it would never be the case that “People who study philosophy or French literature do not easily find jobs”. Notice that the public university is in most countries the one and only institution willing to offer us jobs. If our university departments close, this is the end.

There was a time when I believed the university was a safe haven for us, Humanities and Social Sciences scholars, mostly (though by no means always) liberal thinkers–not any more. Little by little we are becoming like any other worker, a person whose rights are never secure and whose job can be always eliminated. Just because a Minister sends a letter. In a way this is only fair, for who are we to demand a special treatment from the appalling liberal economy that is causing so much suffering? Yet, at the same time, what’s the point of our jobs and our task if we are not encouraged and respected by the very persons who fund these? No point at all…

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 GOOD STUDENT (AND WHY HAVING ONE IS SO EMBARRASSING)

desembre 5th, 2015

I have an exceptional student in class. This is when you know that someone might pursue an academic career and quite possibly do much better than any teacher s/he’s met at university, including yourself. I have gone through that a few times and it’s beautiful, pure enjoyment. I am, however, concerned that this kind of students are now painting themselves into a corner, as the whole system seems geared towards suppressing excellence.

This good student is not the only one in class. Judging by the marks in their last exercise, I have 6 very good students in a group of 43–and his is not the best exercise. As happens, the number of students who have done very poorly in the same exercise is 7, which seems quite balanced. This, however, puzzles me very much for, essentially in this case the exercise consisted of following my instructions to produce an abstract, accompanied by a bibliography and a selection of quotations in preparation for writing their first academic paper. Naturally, all my students have received the same instructions so what makes the difference is their ability to follow them; also, their keenness (or lack thereof). The best 6 have fulfilled all the requirements, the 7 worst ones have failed to do so… twice (I allowed them to re-submit).

This makes me wonder whether the exercise itself is beginning to show signs of its unsuitability, for if only the top students can complete it, then it’s clearly above the abilities of most students. Yet, I cannot lower standards for, as I explained to my class, with the new 3+2 BA and MA degrees it is even more urgent that they learn basic academic skills in the second year–this process simply cannot be delayed. On the other hand, I’m concerned that the papers I used to mark in my first years as a teacher, so more than 20 years ago, in the same second-year course, would now do as BA dissertations. I did not have to teach my students then to search for secondary sources, they knew where to find them; now I need to explain what valid academic work is constantly. I’m also very worried by what a colleague told me: her students recently mounted a rebellion against her teaching and plainly refused to do the exercises she demanded for assessment, as they found them too difficult. As it turns out, my colleague had been using the same exercises for years with no complaints.

Back to the good student. The other good students follow my lectures with interest (mostly); they look at me as I speak, something which not all students do, nod their heads in agreement, make notes now and then and even smile in encouragement. The bad students, by the way, keep that glassy stare that makes no bones of politeness and clearly announces they’re bored, sit either rigidly or slumping, never make a note, sigh when I go on for more than five minutes in one of my usual tirades. Their attendance is spotty (I check it). The very good student attends quite regularly, takes notes (perhaps not of my lectures) but is constantly switching on and off. I don’t mean he is distracted. What I mean is that he sort of skims as I speak but lights up almost visibly when I go into deeper waters. The problem is that he tends not to acknowledge the allusions I make to names only he recognizes and possibly knows well, since being the centre of attention as a pedantic student (which he is not at all) must be a drag.

I do not connect particularly well with him. I’m used to establishing a sense of complicity with my better students, which often leads to my being later their tutor in one way or another. I have tried with this young gentleman but I simply feel too embarrassed: I know he sees through our collective mediocrity. And this is the problem I really want to discuss here.

Perhaps I am wrong to attribute this to the language barrier but I’m frustrated that we (I’m speaking of the Literature teachers, though I assume this also applies to language) cannot give our best. In a sense, this student is displaced in time, as he seems to belong in one of my 1990s classes, when my being very junior mattered less because my students were better read. Now when I am a senior teacher, when I know more than ever, my students reach me with the lowest training in culture and literature I have seen in 24 years. The result is an uncomfortable mismatch: instead of raising the level of my lectures I find myself simplifying my teaching to levels that often want to make me cry. Particularly when I notice my very good student disconnecting, which is his polite way (for he is very polite) of telling me ‘you’re not doing well’.

I’m not paranoid, believe me–I have discussed this student with another colleague and it’s funny how relieved we felt to share the same anxieties. I have had students look at me with critical eyes often but I’m very self-assertive, despite my many insecurities, and usually enjoy the challenge. With this young man, though, there is no challenge, for he puts up a mirror and I see myself as what I don’t want to be: a mediocre teacher. To compensate for that I have a very sweet student, another young man, who spends my lectures looking raptly at me, taking in every point I make, even the silly ones, as the voice of wisdom. I could do with more like him, certainly… but I wish I had many more of the other kind.

The language barrier is a problem, as I say, because it makes it hard for students to follow the texts they need to read, leaving aside their increasing displeasure with reading. The other problem, however, what makes me so self-conscious with my very good student is the diminishing understanding of what academic work is, as I have hinted. Students seem to think generally that we’re teachers, not active researchers; I make a point of telling them what I’m up to in that sense but they see us primarily as their teachers. In my first year as a student when, together with the rest of the class, I was frightened by the loud-voiced Prof. Luis Izquierdo into going at once to the library or else be branded an idiot for the rest of my studies, we got the message. Either you wise up or you’re out of the game. Now, the game is invisible for the students–except that one.

I don’t think he reads my blog, but if he does, my other concern is that he needs to be a bit more humble. I’m not saying that his constant scrutiny is not welcome, for it keeps me on my toes and this is refreshing. What I mean is that it can be self-defeating, as lacking the stimulus to do his very best, he’s just doing well–probably with more ease than effort. The difference between his exercise and the other good students’ exercises was precisely that: the other were trying harder. Also, sooner or later, a mentor is useful-whoever that is.

Message sent…

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/

RAMBLING THOUGHTS ON EMPATHY: TOWARDS A BETTER WORLD

novembre 29th, 2015

There are many things that are disappointing about the 21st century. Surely we can do without the flying cars so often fantasized, and even prophesized, by SF writers. Yet, it is both tragic and absurd that religious wars and racism persist. A time will come, hopefully, when the need to kill people on behalf of a totally imaginary deity will cease and also when the need to classify people according to their skin colour will be regarded as a barbaric practice (seeing the hatred against certain racial and ethnic minorities, I always wonder how other human species would fare if they shared Earth with us). These thoughts are prompted not only by the aftermath of the horrific terrorist attacks of Paris two weeks ago but by more academic matters, such as reading Thomas Huxley with my Victorian students and attending a conference on post-colonialism at my own university.

Huxley is famous for being the grandfather of a far more famous Huxley, Aldous–who penned, of course, Brave New World–and for defending Charles Darwin’s theories in a famous debate in 1860 with Samuel Wilberforce; his staunch, early defence of evolution earned Huxley, as it is well known, the nickname of ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. The point that interests me more about Huxley, however, is that he has legated to us the very handy word ‘agnosticism’, which he invented about 1869. He conceived of believers as persons who had reached some kind of ‘gnosis’ or knowledge about divinity and so he came up with ‘agnostic’ to define those who, like himself, had not been enlightened by belief. In Huxley’s own words, “It simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe” (“Agnosticism: A Symposium”, 1884). I consider myself an atheist even though I do believe in the supernatural and would be happy to be offered scientific proof of its existence, which technically makes me an agnostic. My atheism is what makes so impatient with religious belief, which I find a very shallow way of coming to grips with the scary thought that we humans are alive in the universe and do not know why. Sorry, I philosophize.

In the text by Huxley which I shared with my students, “The Interpreters of Genesis and the Interpreters of Nature” (1885), he makes a totally reasonable point: religious fanaticism is the root of bad science, and therefore religion should leave science alone, as much as science should not interfere with personal belief. He also hints that knowing about how monotheism recycles paganism helps to understand the root of contemporary religion and to make informed decisions about what to believe. Reading this I suddenly thought, and so I told my students, that for all its bad press, paganism doesn’t seem to be less civilized than monotheism and is, on the whole, possibly a much better alternative if you must adore something. Greeks and Romans were pagan, remember?, and look how much they contributed to civilization… No, I am not going to call for a return to worshipping gods and goddesses but I wish the Isis I hear discussed all day long was the Egyptian goddess and not the Islamic State. We’d be better off.

The conference was the ‘International Conference Relations and Networks in Indian Ocean Writing’, organized with her habitual efficiency and savoir faire by my good friend and colleague Felicity Hand. There was a paper in this conference on the now forgotten terrorist outrage in 1982 against an India Airlines flight, in which 329 persons died when a bomb detonated off the Irish coast (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_India_Flight_182)–the largest casualty count before 9/11. The presenter called our attention to the specific Indian Canadian identity of many of the 268 Canadian citizens killed and she speculated (or rather defended) the idea that grief and mourning are culturally conditioned. Although I see her point, and I agree with the need to specify how this particular community was hit by the attack, apparently perpetrated by the Sikh terrorist group Babbar Khalsa, it deeply worries me that grief is not perceived as something universal for I believe that empathy is undermined this way. And we need it so much…

Terrorism connects with my musings on Huxley because it has been mostly caused in the 20th century and is being still caused in the 21st century by religious fanatics (IRA and ETA also count as fanatics, but of a political persuasion). Terrorism also connects with ethnicity and race because as you can see who is killed and how they’re mourned matters very much, whether they are Indian Canadians or French. In the Paris attacks, the novelty is that what is eliciting most anxiety is not the identity of the victims–a cross section of today’s multi-ethnic France plus her visitors–but that of the also French (and Belgian it seems) terrorists. They invoke Allah to justify their crimes but you don’t need a PhD in sociology to understand that the barriers that north-African, Arab migrants find in France regarding upward social mobility are the breeding ground for their atrocious way to seek empowerment. Daesh, Isis or whatever you want to call it, offers the dispossessed literally a social network to meet and vent their anger.

Let me go back to empathy. It seems to me that this should be the main project of post-colonialism as an academic field, I mean building empathy. My own environment is 95% white, with still very few students of non-white backgrounds, and it is then for me exceptional to meet people of so many different ethnic and racial backgrounds. My colleagues Felicity Hand and Esther Pujolràs have been working lately on ‘life writing’ and I attended at least two presentations at the conference that connect with this idea of narrating your life as a way to make sense of your own positioning and, thus, work towards increasing empathy with others. In one presentation, Neville Choonoo, a scholar born to Indian and Tamil parents in South Africa and now living in the USA, explained to us, with a great deal of emotion, how it feels to be him after the crises he has endured connected with the racial issues in his background. Another scholar, Flora Veit-Wild, a white German woman whose work has had a great impact on the academic and literary world of Zimbabwe, discussed, or rather narrated, the links with India of her family: two uncles and her grandparents, German Jews who had to flee there when Hitler came to power.

I must confess that I wondered whether an academic gathering is the right place for this kind of presentation, as we’re supposed to be able to theorize even our own life. Yet, on second thoughts if even academics feel the need to cross oceans to narrate how our lives are conditioned, then something is going on–perhaps a certain weariness with the limits of the (impersonal) academic discourse, to begin with. I’m wondering, going back to the idea of ‘life writing’ whether the young French terrorists would have used words rather than guns to explain themselves if given the chance to be heard. Violence, it seems to me, is after all the opposite of discourse, hence discourse might do away with violence. But I daydream of course.

Let me finish this rambling post written on a sluggish Sunday afternoon by attempting to link the dots: (monotheistic) religion and racism are two of the most formidable weapons to prevent empathy from connecting human beings among themselves; do away with either or both and a great deal of the suffering in the world will disappear. I have no patience, as I say, with believers not only because, as I said, I’m an atheist but also because they insist on inflicting organized, hierarchical churches on the rest of us–can you not believe on your own if you absolutely must?? Racism scares me on two counts: one, because it seems to be an almost universal principle of human life; two, because it is based on plain absurdity. Imagine a world in which people were classed and discriminated depending on their foot size and you get the idea…

If only we could explain who we are to ourselves to each other…

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/

A FAMILY SNAPSHOT: LITERATURE IN THE 39TH AEDEAN CONFERENCE

novembre 22nd, 2015

Last week I attended the beautifully organized 39th AEDEAN (Asociación Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos) conference at the University of Deusto, in Bilbao. The association has about 1,100 members–quite a substantial number–of whom about 200/250, depending on the year, present work at the conference. I always say that the conference’s strong point is networking and PR: it functions very well as a meeting point for colleagues who joined the ranks of the field long ago and for newcomers to get a first taste of academic life. This year I have indeed enjoyed excellent work by doctoral candidates, and have approached them to offer congratulations (after being told by one of them, an ex-student, that younger researchers feel shy to approach senior researchers, which I certainly am after 24 years).

My post today aims at offering a (family) snapshot of what AEDEAN offered as regards Literature. My initial hypothesis concerns not just this conference but what I believe to be a general trend in research in the field of literary studies: while contemporary literary authors remain a stable object of interest (whether canonical ones or new names), the so-called popular or commercial novelists are being abandoned in favour of TV and cinema. Paradoxically, this is a side effect of the liberation from canonical constrictions that Cultural Studies started introducing 20 years ago in English Studies in Spain, a trend in which I myself was a pioneer. Younger generations read fewer novels and watch more series, with the result that in some fields (perhaps particularly SF), the so-called ‘popular’ novels are practically unknown and the audio-visual version of the genre is assumed to be the ‘real thing’. Of course, the AEDEAN conference is just a sample of the whole field and, as you will see, it turns out I’m not quite right–but let this post act as a call for young scholars to re-integrate the ‘popular’ novel into their field of research. And also to get an overview of what our colleagues are reading.

Briefly, this is a map of the authors dealt with (for full details, you may refer to the book of abstract, still available at http://aedean2015.deusto.es/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Book-of-abstracts-39th-AEDEAN-Conference.pdf)

PLENARY CONFERENCE (by David Río), “Renovating Western American Literature from an Urban Perspective: Contemporary Reno Writing”, dealing with Raymond Carver, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ishmael Reed and local authors Willy Vlautin, Tupelo Hassman, Claire Vaye Watkins, etc. Note this deals with the representation of Western America, not with the genre of the ‘western’.

COMPARATIVE LITERATURE: authors studied include James Joyce, Graham Greene and José Luis Castillo-Puche; T.S.Eliot and Anna Akhmatova; Robert Bringhurst; Charlotte Brontë; Eugène Labiche and Sydney Grundy; Wallace Stevens and Harold Rosenberg; Charles Sedley (17th C) and a selection of other 17th C theatre.

CRITICAL THEORY: authors and titles dealt with, leaving aside the papers raising theoretical issues, include disability memoirs by Christina Middlebrook, (Seeing the Crab: A Memoir of Dying Before I Do) and Harriet McBryde Johnson (Too Late to Die Young); fiction: Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, Michèle Roberts’s Mud: Stories of Sex and Love, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta, Linda Grant’s Still Here… and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

CULTURAL STUDIES, yes, also offers its good share of fiction studies including Fifty Shades of Grey, Marita Colon’s The Magdalen, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace; SF authors Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Leguin were also dealt with in a paper considering women’s art.

The FILM STUDIES panel included two papers on dystopian films, some of them adapted from novel series such as YA SF Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent but the focus, of course, was on the films. I believe neither paper was actually presented.

GENDER AND FEMINIST STUDIES offered papers on literary novels (Camila Gibb’s Mouthing the Words, Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Frederic Manning’s Her Privates We (1930) and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, Mary O’Donnell’s The Elysium Testament), short stories (Alice Munro’s short story “Bardon Bus”, Téa Obreth’s short story “The Tiger’s Wife”, Angela Carter’s revision of Cinderella) and drama (Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room, Or the Vibrator Play). Here some popular fiction could be found (crime fiction): Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive.

MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE: with papers on A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book, Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February, Imogen Robertson’s The Paris Winter, Kate Mosse’s The Taxidermist’s Daughter, Sara Stockbridge’s Cross my Palm, Joyce Carol Oates’s We Were the Mulvaneys, J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, Charles Yu’s short story “Standard Loneliness Package”; also authors Walter Scott and Irish playwright Marina Carr. A paper dealt with the intersection in popular fiction of two favourite topics: vampires and the Salem witches (Her Dear and Loving Husband by Meredith Allard, Jonathan Alden: The First American Vampire and Salem Lost by Frank R. Godbey, Jr.). The round tables mentioned Niall Griffiths’s Grits, Louise Kehoe’s In this Dark House, Lisa Appignanesi’s Losing the Dead and Linda Grant’s The People on the Street, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming-pool Library and The Line of Beauty, among others.

In POSTCOLONIAL STUDIES authors and novels dealt with included Arthur Phillips’s Prague, John Beckman’s The Winter Zoo, Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Ama Ata Aidoo’s short stories “Nutty” and “About the Wedding Feast”, Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa. I need to highlight, of course, the round table on postcolonial crime fiction chaired by Bill Phillips.

SHORT STORY panel: authors dealt with include Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, Elizabeth Gaskell, Angela Carter, Helen Simpson, Janice Galloway, A.S. Byatt, and Jeanette Winterson.

Finally, US STUDIES offered work on drama (Edward Albee’s The Goat; or, Who is Sylvia?, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart); the novel: Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Quiñonez’s Bodega Dreams, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘hybrid’ novels, Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (really!?) and 10:04, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Toni Morrison; short fiction: Poe, Annie Proulx’s Wyoming in Fine Just the Way It Is, George Saunders’ “The Semplica Girl Diaries’ (Tenth of December 2013)” and non-fiction (Perry Miyake’s 21st Century Manzanar). Saunders’ story is SF, as is the novel by Frederik Pohl, The Space Merchants, also dealt with in this panel.

The surprise came for me from the PRAGMATICS AND DISCOURSE ANALYSIS panel, which included work on the most neglected popular genre, romance – the paper “Discourse types and functions in a corpus of popular romance fiction novels (work in progress)”.

What does the snapshot show? First, that TV has not found yet its way into the AEDEAN conference… despite the round table on The Wire (in Film[?] Studies). Second, that there is a refreshing, up-to-date awareness of current trends, with many novels published in the 21st century and many new authors. Some classic authors remain (Carter, Morrison) but the field of research is fast expanding, specially as regards American authors of non-white ethnic backgrounds. Third, that only two popular genres (detective fiction, SF) are present in the panels, the former more consistently than the later but neither quite a strongly visible genre (both use the umbrella provided by other labels). Fourth: you may use this list as a very attractive reading list for 2016…

Is this representative or accidental? Yes and no. Take my own case: I’ve been devoted mostly to SF this past year but have presented a paper on two films with gay protagonists, Brokeback Mountain and Gods and Monsters, both adaptations of American authors. This is part of the research on masculinities produced with the group I’m currently working with and typical of what I tend to do, yet at the same time not what I am doing mainly now.

So, please, take the map with a pinch of salt… and enjoy!!

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