ON NOT TEACHING AS A REWARD: SOME SCATTERED THOUGHTS

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘ATTENDING’ AN ONLINE CONFERENCE: A SATISFYING NEW EXPERIENCE

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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READING TV: THE END OF THE NOVEL?

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Literature students do not read. To be precise, just as, obviously, Austen’s man of good fortune is not really in want of a wife, many Literature students do read. Experience tells me, however, that this does not necessarily mean that student readers do read what we ask them to read but what they please to read. The non-readers simply don’t read.

This tongue-twister recaps worries occupying some of my time in recent days. Last Monday we had a Literature teachers’ meeting to discuss, once more, what we can do to have more students read more. My personal impression is that only a minority (say 20%) read all the set texts, a majority read some (say 50% to be on the generous side) and the rest get by using internet summaries and class notes (30%).

What is worrying, as I have noted here several times already, is the growing number among the non-reading students who have adopted an in-your-face attitude and do not hesitate to tell us as rudely as they can that they don’t and they won’t read. Recently, we even had a girl who demanded our praise for her honesty (and passing the exam). Now, the consequences of not reading are serious: undergrads can be expelled after registering for a fourth time in a subject–even so, some are beginning to express their, so to speak, ‘right’ not to read.

As usual, the problem is that the recalcitrant students do not approach any Literature teacher for a chat on why they don’t read. So, I have to make do with the ones who do read.

The less dutiful have clearly explained to me that there is a principle of selection at work: you want me to read so and so, fine, I’ll choose what interests me and fool you about having read the rest. A few weeks ago, I found at my door one of my most brilliant students: he was finally reading, after taking my Victorian Literature class four years ago, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights… and loving it! He is famous for having publicly declared that he got an A for my subject without having read any of the (four) books. When I called him to my office to justify this boast, I had him explain his method to me rather than fail him. He had worked quite hard reading summaries and essays and, anyway, the paperwork to fail him retrospectively was so messy I let him be (also, well, he is a compulsive reader). Still, we had other students demand their right to pass the subject as he did, students who based their claim on their not having read the books, either… nor even the summaries.

Anyway, two of the brilliant, dutiful students who do read plenty told me more or less the same story when I asked them this week: the 1990s generation may not be readers but they certainly are consumers of TV series. Both girl students, committed readers since childhood, explained to me that they are quite capable of consuming TV in very long bouts. When I say TV, I should be cautious, for they actually meant series made for TV but watched on the computer independently from broadcast schedules. Everyone, they told me, is watching at least two or three series at the same time, sometimes combining ongoing with already finished products.

As I have noted here, I don’t like watching series. I prefer movies and tend to see one every evening, instead of watching TV (my only ‘appointment shows’ are Polònia and APM Extra on TV3). Also, as I have noted here, this is because I prefer variety to following long narrations; I learned to control the time I use for a particular story after the fiasco of Lost. Yes, I did write that pioneering book about The X-Files (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437) but the experience also taught me that consuming a very long series is, for me, too taxing, too little relaxing.

My students tell me the opposite: for them, reading requires concentration and is, thus, increasingly subjected to a shorter attention span. As one of my colleagues hypothesised, the reason why students don’t read too much is because their reading practice was not sufficiently strong before they reached us; lacking practice, they find reading time-consuming and unrewarding. The more complex the texts we ask them to read are, the less they enjoy reading as, naturally, they need greater concentration. These students, of course, still enjoy storytelling, which they get from TV. Now, fancy this: it might well be that both the non-readers and the readers are consuming plenty of TV series because they are easier to follow than a printed text. For different reasons in each case.

Back to my two students, one quite surprised me by declaring that when she completed her MA dissertation she let off steam by watching The Gilmore Girls over a few days. This series is 7 seasons long with 22 episodes per season (seemingly 60’ each), more than 140 hours?? She clarified to me that her record, watching 10 episodes on one day, has to do with her ability to multitask–she does not sit in front of the TV but takes her laptop all over the place as she does different things. The other girl, who also uses TV series to relax, gave me a similar account of her habits, stressing that you need not follow all the episodes in detail, ergo, there is no need to concentrate unlike what happens when you read. Sadly, when I observed that, at least, our students’ oral and verbal skills must be improving with so much audio-visual input she told me that not all enjoy the original English-language version.

I told a colleague about all this and he wondered how this generational portrait as, mainly, TV consumers fits their other portrait as readers of Rowling’s Harry Potter. Supposing the overlap is large, of which I am by no means sure, I’ll argue that it is perfectly possible. Rowling only turned a fraction of her readers into readers for life and, anyway, a passion for reading is not incompatible, as we can see, with a passion for TV series. Perhaps the real testing ground should be provided by A Game of Thrones. Before the TV series started back in 2011, this story was known as A Song of Ice and Fire; A Game of Thrones (1996) is actually just the first novel in Martin’s ongoing series. Ask the 1990s generation and you will see that most refer to it by their TV series’ title, as this and not the books is what is mostly consumed. The TV series is surely getting more readers for Martin but I am sure most viewers are satisfied enough and feel no inclination to read the books.

I do wonder, then, whether the 15 years mediating between 1996 and 2011 will be seen retrospectively as the years that killed the novel, and whether we will ever come to the conclusion that the construction of reading fiction as a (cultural) habit has more to do with the availability of technology than with anything else (if Shakespeare or Dickens had had a camera then…). I am well aware that cinema has not killed the novel and that novel sales are still very high, yet this massive TV series consumption might be indicating something else: the final victory of middle-brow, easy-to-follow storytelling over all other forms of fiction.

I’ll leave the matter of whether TV series can be avant-garde for another post…

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ENCYCLOPAEDIC VERSUS ARGUMENTATIVE KNOWLEDGE: CULTURAL TENSIONS IN ACADEMIC WORK

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

As happens when I’m on holiday, I embarked last Christmas on a project I can hardly complete now: I’m re-editing my PhD dissertation (1996) as a user-friendly volume for my website, as, for reasons I fail to understand, the Catalan repository TDX has it split up into a variety of .pdf documents. Going through its more than 300,000 words (that’s about 2’5 current thesis… most likely the reason for its dismemberment), and its primary source list, including 75 novels and 125 films, I cannot help noticing the tension between my clashing encyclopaedic and argumentative methodologies. That is to say, between my native Spanish academic tradition and my adoptive Anglophone tradition.

When I chose to work on how monstrosity was articulated in the Anglophone texts of the 1980s and 1990s (novels and films), it was clear to me that my main task would consist of mapping a vast territory. There was no way I would be satisfied with just a handful of examples. The list of primary sources grew and grew, and I recall trips to libraries, bookshops, and video rental outlets which brought home a half-dozen new sources at a sitting. Things were also complicated, as I recall, by David Punter, one of my two supervisors, who demanded that I included a chapter on children –to a dissertation already 7 chapters long…

It was certainly very, very difficult to integrate so many sources into my discourse, without the thesis sounding as a collection of independent comments on each. I marvel at how hard I worked… really without needing to do so much. Yet, those were the times when a thesis 1,000 pages long was not really very exceptional (mine was about half). At any rate, I learned very, very much and I guess that was the point. I am still mining my dissertation for articles I’m writing today.

Dissertations, however, are currently much shorter and fulfil a different mission, apparently. A couple of years ago a student asked me for help to organize his PhD dissertation on zombies. To my surprise, he brought to my office, not a list but a gigantic spreadsheet (A1-size) on which he had traced a myriad intertextual connections among texts with zombies. I was impressed (my Spanish encyclopaedic tradition responding to this) and dismayed (the Anglophone side), and tried to explain to him that the argumentative demonstration of his thesis statement should dominate the impulse to make lists. Or should it?

There are indeed a number of problems with the encyclopaedic approach, particularly in our internet times. Typically, a Spanish book on, say, 1980s horror cinema, would present as many films as possible, with individual comment and little general argumentation linking them. The worst possible version of this is the volume aimed at a general readership, which usually consists plainly of file cards barely transformed into printable matter. This type of book is now a very obsolete artefact as, properly, its domain should be the internet. A website based on file cards on 1980s horror cinema makes sense, as it needs no argumentation; not a book, as it does.

Then, recently, I saw a woman academic embarrass herself beyond measure when she presented at a conference a so-called paper on vampire films. Her ‘paper’ consisted of mentioning a list of, well, vampire films. When someone in the audience, surely as aghast as I was, asked her (with a pinch of salt she totally missed) why Blacula was not included, she explained that hers was a random selection from a much longer list. Random? A key speaker in the same conference ‘delighted’ us with a lecture on monster films. Since this was in chronological order, a friend and I entertained ourselves with playing the game of whether we would guess the next item on the list. I must say that perhaps the boring list had a point, judging from the notes made by a student sitting in the next row–she consistently misspelled names I would have thought absolutely familiar to any film audience.

The Anglophone academic approach, in contrast, is based on the argumentative essay and relies very heavily on theorisation. What matters is not so much what you know about a field but which point you are making about it. This is, logically, a better strategy for the kind of fast production that the shorter BA, MA and PhD Anglophone programmes have aimed at. Although theory is also extended across many volumes and articles, mastering the basics is more feasible than, say, reading all the novels of the 18th century dealing with femininity. I am myself applying a very pragmatic version of this approach to my students’ own dissertations which, unlike mine, focus on a closed set of primary sources texts from the beginning, additions to be incorporated only if absolutely necessary.

Nevertheless, I’m missing something.

I have found myself very much annoyed during recent readings of volumes on post-humanism, the topic that currently absorbs me, by the, well, random selection of the primary sources. I am not saying the researchers have not done their homework, what I am saying is that the urge to theorise is so compelling that the primary sources are decontextualised, often isolated from intertexts they closely connect with.

Take the figure of the cyborg, which appears in fiction in 1972 with Martin Caidin’s novel, simply called Cyborg, the basis of the later very popular TV show The Six-Million Dollar Man. Now, take the cyborg as presented in Johnny Depp’s most recent film, Transcendence, or in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War saga and you can see there’s been a noticeable evolution marked by the discoveries in technoscience. However, when you read academic work on post-humanism the arguments revolve again and again around Donna Haraway’s 1991 “Cyborg Manifesto” (usually overlooking the primary sources she does mention).

This refusal to make lists, historicize tropes and see how they have evolved is, for me, bad scholarship–as bad as the vampire film woman’s argument-free method. How can ‘cyborg’ mean in 2015 the same this word used to mean back in 1991? You might say that mapping a representational territory in fiction is not as important today because anyone can do it using the internet. Wikipedia does offer lists, if you want them, which I have often used as the starting point for my own maps–but, notice this: someone has made the effort to make the lists and make sense of a vast territory… beyond theory.

I remember being overwhelmed by my monsters twenty years ago: I despaired every day, thinking I could never finish a coherent list. And I never did, I simply stopped at a date. It is quite possible that theory-based academic work is a silent acknowledgement of the impossibility of commanding a minimum knowledge of any fictional field. Name any, and soon you have 200 texts to read and see, whether this is post-colonial detective fiction or recent British theatre.

The Anglophone solution, it seems, is using samples for the whole, regardless of the significance of the sample, and pruning it from complications (if I discuss Batman, I focus on Nolan’s films rather than the comic series and graphic novels). It’s a solution but it makes for that kind of book that reduces the representation of, say, monstrous children, to five texts. How representative can this really be? On the other hand, the Spanish leaning towards an encyclopaedic name-dropping sounds hollow without a proper theoretical foundation and a solid argument.

Ah… the pleasures of academic bi-culturalism…

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ONCE MORE RETHINKING GENDER (AND HOPING FOR POST-GENDER)

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I have spent an intense week marking the 33 essays produced by the students enrolled in my BA elective on Gender Studies. Together they amount to a complete volume of about 80000 words, perhaps worth publishing online (though I hesitate to embark again on the arduous task of editing undergrad work). The list of paper titles is, simply, exciting, with plenty of TV series and the first paper on video-games I have ever marked! I feel I have been reading cutting-edge research even though the researchers themselves are not quite ready yet to produce it. Some paradox.

The students’ papers cover a wide range of approaches to gender: femininity and feminism, alternative masculinities, queer and gay, lesbianism and the mainstream, transgender and intersexuality and a miscellaneous group of ‘gender-speculative’ work. This is why it has been such a … queer experience to combine marking them with reading Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms (2009). This is a highly accomplished piece of scholarship on gender studies which has passed quite unnoticed, as usually happens with anything connected with SF. Yet it is also an acknowledgement that feminism and even gender are concepts in urgent need of revision within cultural criticism.

I have read Merrick’s volume because I am currently preparing a talk on women and SF, from Mary Shelley onwards, invited by CSIC (11 March, 19:00, Biblioteca Sagrada Familia). This is quite contradictory, for, though I am often connected with SF feminism, I have actually been writing against its unwise gender-based separatism (see “Cracks in the Feminist Nirvana: Reading David Brin’s Anti-Patriarchal SF Novel Glory Days as a ‘Feminist’ Woman,” in Yesterday’s Tomorrows: On Utopia and Dystopia. Pere Gallardo & Elizabeth Russell, eds.). I am a totally convinced feminist in demand of equal rights and opportunities for women and men; yet as a scholar and reader I have always criticised feminism for considering women’s work apart from men’s, and for ignoring how (and why) men are since the 1980s contributing positive representations of women, particularly in SF.

Merrick’s final chapter deals with the James Tiptree jr. award for SF fiction which contributes to offering alternative gender representation. She wonders, though, whether an award should highlight gender, even puzzling over whether an interest in gender is always feminist. Noting that explorations of masculinity are gaining ground in Tiptree submissions, she observes next that there is much pressure from “women of color”, post-colonialism, critical race theory, queer theory and even feminist science studies to “de-prioritize gender (…) as the primary tool of feminist theory” (281). Gwyneth Jones, a British SF writer, is quoted bemoaning how feminist SF has become just a ‘niche market, a minority interest’ while most women prefer thrilling ‘fem-SF’ and its strong female characters. My reaction?: “well, serves you right for insisting on the separatist line”. Then I’m sorry I’m so nasty.

Let me recap my views:

a) gender MUST be used as a crucial analytical tool as long as patriarchy exists; the main mission of Gender Studies is raising everyone’s consciousness, men and women, about patriarchy–this elephant in the room of feminism so few women and men call by its name.

b) once more: I prefer calling myself ‘anti-patriarchal’ if by calling myself ‘feminist’ I confuse men and women into thinking that I am interested in limiting myself to women (their rights, history, cultural production… as Merrick and her ‘cabal’ do)

c) SF is a gigantic lab for imagining post-gender, post-race, post-class… utopia, which is why I read it. Most young girls, most men and I myself are not very much interested in feminist stories by women (set in patriarchy) but in post-gender stories by women and by men (set in post-patriarchy).

d) I don’t understand why gender should be abandoned, since it is not only perfectly compatible with other identity markers (race, class, age, ability, nationality…) but also intertwined with them. White feminists and black feminists are separated by race, but why should this mean that gender is irrelevant to read their work or life?

Let me mention two more texts. Yesterday I saw The Expendables 3, part of the series bringing back to the screen the ageing actors who played the main roles in action films from the 1980s onwards. It is very peculiar to see these men (actually two generations, born between the 1940s and the 1960s) parade with pride faces that look terribly aged (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Gibson). Harrison Ford (b. 1942!) looks positively ancient… In the case of Dolph Lundgren (b. 1957) what is most striking is the clash between his devastated face and his still very muscular arms.

The film, from a story by Stallone himself, deals with his character Barney’s misguided attempt to recruit a younger band of mercenaries to safeguard his habitual team from danger. His strategy backfires when his new young team makes a silly mistake, which results in their being held captive and in need of rescue by Stallone’s fogies. I entertained myself, between noisy shoot-outs and fights, with pondering how impossible the same story would be with ageing women actresses in similar roles (Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver and who else?).

Yet among the post-racial rainbow assembly of testosterone-fuelled men (5 US white, 2 US black, 2 UK white, 1 Latino, 1 Spaniard, 1 Swede, 1 Asian, multiple ‘azmanistanies’…), a woman could be found. Luna, very credibly played by a mixed martial arts specialist, the handsome Ronda Rousey, is first presented as a bouncer in high heels, yet, arguably!, not really sexualised. She is just part of the team, full stop, and efficient at doing her job. When at the end she makes eyes at Stallone and tells him ‘if you were 30 years younger…’ he quips, ‘if I were 30 years younger I would be afraid of you’. Is this feminism? Of course not! It is mere tokenism (just one white woman and she’s secondary). Yet, I find it refreshing, for Stallone’s macho audience is the one needing to be taught respect for women. (I was going to comment on AfricanAmerican Zoe Saldana, kicking ass hard in Guardians of the Galaxy but I’m still processing her green skin, after her blue skin in Avatar).

The other text: N. Katherine Hayles’ ultra-dense How We Became Posthuman (1999). This is a fascinating account (if you’re up to coping with her unfriendly prose) of the current technoscientific craze by which Hans Moravec and company expect us to become disembodied and reach immortality as pure consciousness on the net or some digital device. Helen Merrick reads Hayles’ protest against this wacky discourse, which seemingly forgets that minds belong in bodies, as a feminist challenge against aberrant patriarchal dreams. I see this myself: the persons who have caused computers to shape our world are (privileged white) men who see themselves as primarily minds encased in messy, incidental bodily matter. Hayles’ horror of their ignorance of actual bodies is in essence feminist. Yet, funnily, she carefully avoids using a gendered discourse. My guess is that, ironically, speaking as a female person whose body conditions her daily life would diminish her authority against those who, believing themselves entitled to manipulating the whole human species, do not realise that their privileged position comes, precisely, from their possessing white, male, middle-class Western bodies.

Gender, as you can see, is not only not at all obsolete as a tool for understanding life but in dire need of being better understood. Of course, other factors matter but my view is that they’re all part of this evil patriarchal system that needs to be destroyed as soon as possible. Ignore it at your own risk.

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MAN OF TODAY?: (UN)COOL MASCULINITIES AND MOVIE STARS

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

It is not my intention to write today exclusively about the Hugo Boss ‘Man of Today’ campaign with Gerard Butler, aimed at boosting sales of its star perfume Boss Bottled. However, it is a useful starting point. You may have seen the TV add, first aired in November 2014. Butler looks his habitual handsome self as he sprays his manly chest with the perfume, dons a trim Hugo Boss suit and considers how great San Francisco looks in the distance.

He delivers off screen in his original Scottish accent the Boss Bottle manifesto. Brace yourselves, boys and girls: “I don’t believe in less, I go all the way. And you can see it in my stride. If good conduct makes a man, it makes me the man of today. A man will never run. Stay noble I say. I am a man. More than the grip of good handshake and a job well done. Diligence and dedication is what I live from day to day. And you can see it in my deeds, be true to yourself, I say. It makes me a man of success. I am a man of today.” Um, you mean ‘not of yesterday’? Really? Why’s that necessary? Now this sentence about ‘diligence and dedication’, doesn’t this also apply to women?

This modern man, Butler enthuses, is “a pretty cool guy” supposed to be, attention!!, smart, self-confident, masculine but not macho, aware of the demands of feminism but not passive, motivated, passionate, successful but discreet. Please, do read the whole article, part of the campaign, and do wonder about the claims made there about contemporary masculinity: http://www.msn.com/en-my/lifestyle/runningtheshow/the-man-of-today-who-exactly-is-he/ar-BBa6Jj3. GC editor Dylan Jones, the brain behind the ad’s copy, stresses that “I think the interesting thing about Gerard as an ambassador is that he’s unapologetically a real man”. I have no idea to whom he should apologize for being a man nor do I understand what a ‘fake’ or ‘unreal’ man is. And consider the effect of someone claiming that (insert here an actress) is ‘unapologetically a real woman’. Why and what for? Yes, I’m being obnoxious here.

Jones finds that Butler’s advantage as a “brand ambassador” is that he’s not “fleetingly cool or too young” perhaps thinking of former ‘ambassadors’ Jared Leto and Ryan Reynolds. Butler, a mature 44-year-old and not exactly a first-rank star, was honoured and humbled that he was chosen for the job of embodying the man of today; as he notes, “There are many other actors and celebrities they could have asked”. I couldn’t agree more, particularly considering he is famous thanks to his barbaric Leonidas in 300 (and if that’s the subtext he brings to the man of today, well, then let me be scared). Yet, if I ask myself who else could have taken up the job and with better credentials and more popular assent, I confess I find no easy answer.

Just humour me and follow me in this peculiar exercise. Using IMBD’s Advanced Search feature and its STARmeter, I find that the main male actors by generation are (20 top names excluding some not that popular outside the US):

*born in the 1960s: Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Downey jr., Nicholas Cage, Will Smith, Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, Jason Statham, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carey, Vin Diesel, Josh Brolin, Russell Crowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Clooney, Colin Firth, Woody Harrelson [also Gerard Butler].

*born in the 1970s: Tom Hardy, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, James Franco, Leonardo di Caprio, Christian Bale, Orlando Bloom, Bradley Cooper, Idris Elba, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, Jared Leto, Ryan Reynolds, Matt Damon, Joel Edgerton, Joaquin Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, Ewan McGregor.

*born in the 1980s: Chris Pine, Charlie Hunnam, Chris Hemsworth, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Evans, Ryan Gosling, Jamie Dornan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hiddleston, Henry Cavill, Andrew Garfield, Kit Harington, Robert Pattinson, Ben Wishaw, Emil Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Michael Cera.

Who’s your man of today? If Hugo Boss means, as I think they do, that this must be a steadily ‘cool’ man and supposing that cool means ‘self-possessed’ and ‘self-assured’, is Butler the best possible candidate? Who fits the bill best?

As I’m sure you have guessed by now, I find the whole Hugo Boss campaign quite ridiculous for, here’s the rub, a truly cool man never proclaims his coolness. Actually, part of being cool is the ability to radiate this coolness in a subdued, subtle way. The spectator, the onlooker, must feel when facing a certain male icon that he is the man of today, and not be told who embodies him. If looking at Butler you go ‘wow! he’s cool’ then he’s succeeding in being the ideal which Hugo Boss claims he personifies. If you need to be told what a cool, real man he is then I can only say that cool, real masculinity is in deep… trouble.

In Masculinities Studies the most frequently invoked mantra is that there is not one single way of being masculine but many, hence, there is no ‘man of today’ but ‘men of today’. If you look at my lists, you might perhaps see not only this variety (and remember that actors are just one profession, not all men) but also a manifest disregard for embodying the ‘manly man’ in the younger generations (which often baffles me… but then, I’m getting old). Whether a man can be cool and not necessarily manly (or vice versa) is quite a vexing question; it might even well be that cool and manly are categories of the past that no longer apply to the ‘man of today’ (surely younger men find the Butler ad old-fashioned and would name as man of today… fun-loving James Franco?). Also consider whether family man Chris Hemsworth (born 1983), recently proclaimed by People magazine the sexiest man in the world, is a likely ‘man of today’.

I always have the impression that Butler brings a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to all his roles, Leonidas included. Perhaps this is what I miss in the Hugo Boss campaign, and in the current approach to what being a ‘real’ man is about…

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PEETA AND KATNISS (AND GALE): STUCK WITH STEREOTYPES

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

One of my undergrad students is writing a paper for my Gender Studies course on Peeta Mellark’s alternative masculinity and this led me to reading recently the complete Hunger Games trilogy. As I wrote two posts ago, the final volume even gave me nightmares as I found the whole concept of having children kill other children on camera, reality-show style, quite sick.

J.K. Rowling’s flirting with the dark side in Harry Potter is intense enough but at least it has a certain sense of decorum and clear-cut ethic lines. What I found most disturbing about Collins’ dystopian fantasy, in contrast, is how often the same line would contain words as opposite as ‘death’ and ‘stylist’. I understand that she intends to represent Panem as the kind of rotten civilization that generates these grotesque matches between the serious and the banal (and the gory spectacle of mutual juvenile killing). Yet I could not help thinking that her own imagination is tinged with the dark colours of America’s unacknowledged sense of its own decadence (as much as Rowling’s is pure British stiff-upper-lip).

The Hunger Games has already generated an immense list of bibliography. I’m going to refer here specifically to two articles discussing gender issues in the trilogy: Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel’s “‘Killer’ Katniss and ‘Lover’ Boy Peeta: Suzanne Collins’s Defiance of Gender-Genred Reading” in Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins and “Katniss and Her Boys: Male Readers, the Love Triangle and Identity Formation” by Whitney Elaine Jones, included in Space and Place in The Hunger Games: New Readings of the Novels. In case you don’t know this young adult trilogy, Collins narrates how Katniss Everdeen alters for ever the appalling dictatorship that, among other methods of brutal coercion, celebrates yearly games in which children tributes from the districts are forced to kill each other until only one is left. Her terrifying experience as a tribute runs parallel to an adolescent love triangle: Katniss must choose between her hunting partner, macho Gale, and her games partner, gentle Peeta. I’ll try to avoid spoilers…

The two articles on this triangle make the claim that Collins resists the binary gender system in the name of utopian feminism by having Katniss reconcile masculine and feminine traits in her own person, and by offering her a romantic choice between two very different types of male character, rather than two versions of the same stereotypically masculine hero. However, I find in the articles many worrying arguments.

One is the idea that Katniss’ ‘masculine’ traits respond to the need to entice male readers into reading the trilogy–let me rephrase this: whereas Harry Potter’s ‘feminine’ traits respond to Rowling’s wish to make male heroism less aggressive rather than to attract female readers (this is Hermione’s function), Collins had to worry, above all, about making Katniss attractive to her prospective male readers: less girly, more tomboyish. No, I haven’t forgotten that Joanne Rowling published her series as J.K. to mask her own gendered identity and thus reduce male readers’ resistance to reading women’s fiction. Always trying to please the boys… Deep sigh here.

About the ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits discussed in the articles, my confusion is superlative. Peeta, we are told “participates in a traditionally feminine occupation: baking”, or he represents “the beautiful, gentle part of nature”. The idea is that Peeta embodies Katniss’s feminine side whereas traditionally male Gale stands for her masculine side, and that she is herself torn between her masculinised identity as a hunter/survivor and the conventional (physical) femininity that her bizarre team of stylists manage so competently to highlight. Jones makes the claim that the three characters can be placed on an imaginary line representing the continuum of masculinity with Katniss veering towards one or the other as her own masculinity requires, for “Though biologically female, Katniss is essentially masculine” (my italics). Yet she also claims that Collins is offering a utopian feminist synthesis of gender traits aimed at overcoming the current need for them, particularly useful to teach, here we go again, male readers to overcome masculinist restrictions. In contrast, Lem and Hassel believe that Katniss is “neither overtly masculine, nor feminine” but a mixture (though the feminine side is just skin-deep). Another deep sigh…

I simply get dizzy, and quite annoyed, to be honest. It’s almost 25 years since the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) but little has changed in the fight against gender binarism: essentialist categories remain, both in the readers’ perception of their own identity (all this concern about male readers) and in the vocabulary to describe characters who are supposedly alternative gender-benders. The inability to transcend the adjectives ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ even leads to truly weird statements: baking is a feminine occupation??? How funny: take a look at the mixed team baking cakes in TV show Ace of Cakes, and re-think ‘feminine’ (or baking). As for Katniss’ masculinity, well, she’s just one more typical strong female character too busy relating to her male companions to connect with other women. She is supposed to be motivated throughout her harrowing experience by the need to protect her younger sister Prim but I noticed that the girls hardly ever speak–so much for sisterhood and feminism…

About the boys in the triangle, um. Gale is such a huge stereotype he’s not even worth commenting on: he’s the kind who claims to like strong girls but finally marries a pretty non-entity whom he probably ends up abusing. Heathcliff, in short, once more, only marginally less villainous. Peeta is also a huge stereotype, the protective gentleman, perhaps less manly than Darcy and certainly manlier than Edgar Linton, but all the same a figure that dates back 200 years in time. He went through the 1990s ‘new man’ fantasy and is now seemingly resurfacing here as a man quite comfortable with the idea of the girl being on top. Yet the principle is the same Jane Austen invented with Darcy: Peeta is a gentle man (if not a gentleman) unswervingly in love with a girl whose glaring shortcomings he is willing to overcome unconditionally. He never gets angry, he never loses patience, though it’s funny to see how Collins has him literally brainwashed into hating Katniss for a while, perhaps once more to please those recalcitrant male readers. Read as you wish, by the way, his mutilation (sorry about the spoiler).

Once more, then, young girls are offered with Katniss the complete romantic package and no real positive role model: I was actually very much surprised to see that she is actually a very passive person, except for a crucial scene in the last book. This passivity seems contradicted by her ability to kill animals and, if necessary, human beings. However, it is most spectacularly manifested not so much in her difficulties to choose between Gale and Peeta but in her complete inability to express desire for either of them.

When I expressed to a friend my puzzlement at the frigidity of a text aimed at teenagers which contains at the same time so much horrific bodily violence, he reminded me that American fiction has always preferred violence to sex. Katniss constantly claims that there is no place for sensuality beyond kisses in her dangerous life yet, as any war narrative reader knows, there is no better aphrodisiac than a constant death threat… Poor Gale and Peeta with their love for this new chaste Diana of the bow and arrow!

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BEST OF 2014?: LOSING TRACK…

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Around New Year’s Day seems the best time to take a look at the list of the volumes I have read in the previous 365 days and see what I have been up to. I keep, as I have noted here several times already, a list of all I read, as a very necessary memory aid. My habit of, in addition, rating the volumes throws this time a very unexpected, odd, selection of top readings for 2014. In chronological order, as I read them along this now past year:

1.Lois McMaster Bujold, Paladin of Souls (2003), fantasy.
2.Fanny Kemble, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 (1883), memoirs.
3.Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892), autobiography.
4.Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story (1914), autobiography.
5.Roberto Saviano, CeroCeroCero (2014), journalistic essay.
6.Richard Morgan, Broken Angels (2003), SF.
7.Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2000), literary fiction.
8.Isaías Lafuente, Agrupémonos todas: La lucha de las españolas por la igualdad (2003), journalistic essay.
9.Geraldine Scanlon, La polémica feminista en la España contemporánea 1868-1974 (1976), academic essay.
10.Xavier Aldana Reyes, Body Gothic: Corporeal Transgression in Contemporary Literature and Horror Film (2004), academic essay.
11.Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy (2005-2010), juvenile dystopian fiction.

My first surprise is that even though 50% of my readings this year were novels, as usual, I have been impressed by very few and I’m not sure I would recommend them: Eugenides’ Middlesex, a re-reading, is excellent but Bujold’s Paladin of Souls and Morgan’s Broken Angels are, rather, signs of very personal preferences which are hard to pass on. What is Suzanne Collins’ trilogy doing here at this peculiar place 11, you may wonder? Well, her books upset me profoundly to the point of giving me intense nightmares; I know this is not a criteria to call her a ‘good writer’ and I rather think she’s a disturbed and disturbing author–yet, I have found myself caught in Katniss’ story with an intensity missing from all the other many novels I have read in 2014. The memoirs, autobiographies and essays I would not hesitate to recommend, as you can see by my having written about most of them here. I do not hesitate, either, to name Saviano’s CeroCeroCero, a bold, desperate dissection of the cocaine business, as the best volume that has passed through my hands recently.

It is also the only volume in the list published in 2014, together with Xavi Aldana’s study, which leads me to the second point today: I’ve completely lost track. I have been checking the ‘best of 2014’ lists published by newspapers like El País or The Guardian, and also the selections voted by members of GoodReads. Since I do not check these regularly for lack of time there was there plenty of authors and titles I didn’t know. Fair enough. What threw me off was that quite often they were said to be ‘world famous’ or a ‘smashing hit’. Can I be really this disconnected? And who’s the one so well connected with the media so as to keep pace with all that is new?

I shared these worries with a group of friends over coffee and we came to the conclusion that the ignorance I am acknowledging here is habitual. From what I gather, readers follow a thread of their own choice, whether this is young adult or post-colonial fiction, without excessively caring about the ceaseless flow of novelties. If you look at my list, I’m doing that: follow a few threads that interest me and see where they will lead–no need to limit myself to the immediate present. A friend noted not only that so much is published every year that it is impossible to keep up but also that reliable indicators of quality, like, say, the Man Booker Prize, have lost a great deal of their influence and reliability: the books highlighted by awards don’t last for as long as they used to last, she said. Indeed, it is harder and harder for me to recall the names of new writers hailed with exorbitant claims about their quality as they, simply, don’t seem to be around with the same force as their 1980s predecessors. A matter of numbers perhaps?

The same friend, currently reading African fiction in English, also told me that there is much of quality to be found in that area of the world–this was in answer to my pointing out that, judging by GoodReads, the middlebrow has replaced for good the literary in the top volumes selected by readers (or the literary writers, if any are left, are failing to connect with the public, I don’t know). I have no reasons to doubt that Africa is producing very fine novels, but how could I know unless she tells me?

I am even lost in my own preferred SF corner, seemingly finding by accident rather than good sense what is worth reading. Here is an example. My friend is co-organizing a conference on the Literature of the Indian Ocean and I proposed to contribute something about African SF. I googled my way into this unknown field yesterday, and here we go: I should have known that it is fast-progressing, spear-headed by white South-African author Lauren Beaukes who is, guess what?, very popular and the recipient of I don’t know how many awards… Yet, I didn’t know she existed at all until yesterday.

As long as readers come across good writers it is really irrelevant whether we keep up with the novelties or not, though obviously it is relevant for the publishing industry. I had no idea when 2014 started that I would be so pleased by books written one hundred or even almost two hundreds years ago, but here they are to last in my memory. We’ll see who my top ten are at the end of the following 365 days.

Happy New Year! May it brings you plenty of good books.

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THE (IM)POSSIBLE HENRIETTA JEKYLL: RECONSIDERING GENDER MATTERS IN STEVENSON’S MASTERPIECE

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

I have lost count of how often I have taught R.L. Stevenson’s masterpiece The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, on which I have published here several posts, as this seems to be an inexhaustible text. I return once more to it after having marked the most recent batch of students’ exams to focus on their answer to our question: is this text specifically about men? Can we imagine the same type of moral duplicity in women?

Four years ago I wrote a post in which I mulled about the possibility of a contemporary female version of Jekyll, a Prof. Henrietta Jekyll who, like Jekyll’s successor Dr. Hannibal Lecter, had a secret life in which perhaps she had her own students home regularly for dinner. I took the chance then to reject Elaine Showalter’s famous reading of Jekyll’s male circle as a closeted gay ring, with Hyde being the incarnation of the ‘evil’ pleasures by which Oscar Wilde was sentenced to hard labour a decade later. Despite Wilde, I find the idea that Stevenson is covertly dealing with homosexuality uncomfortably homophobic, and particularly distasteful when defended by contemporary feminists.

Back to my students answers, then. The matter is very simple: is Stevenson claiming that duplicity is a necessary condition of masculinity in late Victorian times? Or is he taking a man as a representative of all Victorian individuals? Could we, in short, place a woman in the centre of his story and if we did so, how would it change?

This is not, as you can see, a simple question to answer as it is necessary to take into account whether gender or class matters predominate in Stevenson’s text. In class, we followed the argument suggesting that Stevenson’s target is the hypocrisy of, specifically, Victorian gentlemanliness of the upper middle-class professional (not aristocratic) variety. This lead my students to write exams split among three options to explain why Stevenson’s text dealt exclusively with masculinity: a) for Victorians it was impossible to imagine ladies leading double lives, and so it was for the author; b) the author was a misogynist and this is why he practically excluded women from the text; c) since women were excluded from the professions and Jekyll led his double life to protect his professional reputation, no woman could replace him as a protagonist.

Let’s see… To begin with, we had read together Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which made it very clear that ladies like Helen Graham faced daily, like gentlemen of their class, the challenge of having to keep up appearances or see their reputation destroyed. Now, Helen creates a false identity for herself to protect her son and not to indulge in secret pleasures, yet Victorian fiction is full of femme fatales, from the vampire Carmilla to the scheming Lady Audley–it is simply not true that Victorians were incapable of imagining perverse women. Rather, as Bram Dijsktra very well explained in his classic Idols of Perversity (1988) the problem is that they imagined too many… by which I do not mean that all Victorian ladies were angelic. I’m sure Henrietta Jekyll could have been imagined as a committed adulteress, for instance; fancying her a nymphomaniac would have been harder indeed. What puzzles me is the students’ denunciations of Stevenson as an anti-feminist for as I insisted again and again in class, Stevenson offers a very negative image of masculinity in his text, and, well, paradoxically, making a woman the centre of his tale would just have resulted in just one more case of the kind Dijkstra describes, by no means in a feminist story.

Some re-writings of The Strange Case.., like Hammer’s quirky movie Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) or the idiotic American comedy Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995), have fantasised about Jekyll’s dark side being a woman (in the 1971 film, she commits, in addition, Jack the Ripper’s crimes!). Others, have enhanced women’s participation in the story, producing totally unnecessary melodrama: just recall Julia Roberts as the maid falling in love with her master Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich) in Mary Reilly (1996), based on Valerie Martin’s silly romance (1990). I have been unable to locate, whether in fan fiction or in film, however, a retelling with a female Jekyll, with the only exception of the seemingly pathetic horror comedy Jacqueline Hyde (2005), in which shy Jackie discovers she’s the granddaughter of the original Dr. Jekyll. The rest, it seems, is porn.

I have awarded the highest mark to a girl student who simply argued that Stevenson could have equally focused on a woman but once he decided to focus on a man he made the suitable decisions to make his tale as solid as possible. Of course. It makes perfect sense for Jekyll to be a gentleman scientist as it would make perfect sense for a Henrietta Jekyll to be, for example, his widow (even a former lab assistant as many scientists’ wives were). If you don’t want to go the SF way, then stick to fantasy and provide Miss or Mrs. Jekyll with a dark fairy godmother and a magic potion (Wilde, remember?, used magic for Dorian Gray’s picture). Henrietta Jekyll surely must be a lady, for ladies rather than low-class girls risked it all by losing their reputation as fallen women. If you still have problems visualizing her unspeakable pleasures, just read Dracula (1897) where you’ll find a lovely lady, Lucy, attacking every evening poor children to drink their blood.

Here’s a challenge for anyone interested, as I don’t have the time to do this myself: take Stevenson’s text and just alter the gender of the main characters, and see what happens. It will definitely not work if you insist on presenting Henrietta as a newly-minted pro-feminist Dr. Jekyll (unless you want to produce a misogynistic tale against the few women doctors practising in the 1880s). But think of all those angelic, repressed Victorian ladies and imagine what kind of secret life they would lead if in possession of a magic potion. Perhaps, here’s my conclusion, Stevenson knew very well how to do this… but refrained himself from writing what could only have been an outrageously scandalous text. Yet not impossible.

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ON BOREDOM: DIFFERENT GENERATIONAL STRATEGIES

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

Who or what is to blame for the idea that whoever dares speak in public must, above all, entertain? The adjective ‘boring’ has become absolutely pervasive in the classroom and, no doubt, a major enemy of learning. In recent days I have gone through so many situations connected with this that it is hard to choose where to begin… One thing I have noticed is that, although boredom may have a long-lived presence in the history of education, each generation seems to cope differently with it.

Since I don’t recall being bored in primary school I’ll argue that classroom boredom begins in adolescence, when the augmented narcissism of the students results in their belief that teaching should focus on them. Respect for the teacher is eroded if not lost for good then: ‘you bore me; I could do better; who cares about what you teach?’ As I teen secondary school student in the early 1980s, I coped with my own boredom mostly by daydreaming, and only occasionally by skipping class (severely frowned upon, then). My daydreaming strategy has not changed since then: it consists of looking at the speaker with all due attention, signalling with my body language that I care while my mind wanders off. I often complete this with making notes, actually about my daydreaming, though the speaker may be totally fooled into thinking it’s about the talk.

As a university student I found that my threshold of tolerance for bad lecturing decreased sharply, which resulted in my skipping many lectures–often to go to the library or stay home to study. Other classmates famously chose the bar, always crowded. If we did choose to attend a lecture, however, we mostly kept up appearances: we took (pretend) notes and I don’t recall anyone yawning (only discreetly), eating or drinking, slumping on the chair, much less sleeping. We may have looked at the speaker with glassy eyes but a certain degree of politeness was maintained. Perhaps we just took it for granted that teachers were boring or, rather, that learning was not about being entertained. If a teacher happened to be entertaining that was a bonus, though I distinctly recall that the highest valued university teachers were the ones with the most interesting personality, which does not mean they cared for students at all… Admiring students just hoped their idols noticed them. Really.

In recent days, however, I have seen this in my class: a) an MA student just laying her head on the table and falling asleep (I stopped my lecture to wake her up and invite her to take coffee, or leave), b) an undergrad leaving the classroom five minutes into my lecture. In this case I stopped to manifest my delight at having broken a new record in my career… boring a student in the shortest possible time. He never emailed me to say he was indisposed, so I assumed it was boredom. Students think we don’t notice this but from our vantage point we see everyone: the ones staring at the floor or the wall rather than look at us, the ones never making notes, the ones using twitter and Facebook, the ones eating… The body language says it all: I wish I were elsewhere… Perhaps we were just as bored but the etiquette code dictated that we had to, as I say, keep up appearances, beginning with sitting up decorously. This, I find, is gone. If students are bored, they plainly show it, perhaps feeling that honesty is the best policy. For the caring teacher this is unnerving for the only solution is to a) close your eyes to what it going on in class and drone on, b) throw a hysterical tantrum.

In the last three days I have attended a conference and I have had the chance to see these diverse generational strategies at work simultaneously, as the public ranged from post-grads in their early twenties to seasoned academics in their sixties. It’s not the first time I write here that conferences have grown into truly boring experiences as few speakers succeed in making the 20-minute paper or the 50-minute plenary lecture… engaging. No, I’m not using the adjective ‘entertaining’ for in conferences what matters, in my view, is the ability to communicate new ideas based on solid research using an adequate delivery style. Just let me tell you just about one panel session.

I was sitting in the front row, daydreaming and making notes, as I wondered what the speaker was talking about since she had hidden herself behind her paper and was delivering it in an amazingly monotonous voice (a friend told me this is called ‘lectura parapetada’ or ‘walled-in delivery’). If the speaker had, however, raised her head and looked at the audience she would inevitably have seen the young man sitting to my left, madly twitting as she spoke. Not about her talk, as I noticed. Then came an appalling young man who used his 20 minutes to bore us to death about his journey to Japan, where he had interviewed old glories of Japanese cinema for his documentary on Godzilla. I grew so furious at his impudence I could not even daydream. The guy next to me twitted on–this time the factoids in the speaker’s self-advertising campaign. To my consternation (and delight) a senior academic in the audience told off the Godzilla guy very rudely for his total cheek. This same academic, however, had slept through the previous speaker’s paper… so who was being rude to whom, I wonder?

Is this all, I wonder, the effect of the remote control and channel hopping, the idea that something more exciting is going on elsewhere? Or is it something else, the replacement of an ethics of endurance by the demand for constant excitement for other reasons? The older academics I saw fall asleep in the conference as the younger delegates twitted on confirm my thesis that different generations react differently to boredom.

Yet the older ones’ sleep suggests that 1980s sense of etiquette is gone for all… for aren’t we all becoming great narcissists? Entertain us or else. Easy to say, hard to do. And why should it be done at all?

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ELSA’S DRESS AND GIRL POWER: WHAT I MISSED ABOUT FROZEN

Enviat per Sara Martín Alegre

On 5 January this year I published here a post on a new Swedish system to rate films according to their feminist interest. In this post I mentioned in passing Frozen, noting that, although this Disney film exalts sisterly love, after seeing it my two Madrid nieces didn’t hug each other but remained “mesmerised,” poor things, “by the stupid glamorisation of a pathetic fairy-tale lifestyle.” I totally missed the point. Stupid me.

An MA student, Camila Rojas, asked me subsequently to supervise her dissertation on how the concept of ‘true love’ has changed from Beauty and the Beast to Frozen. Thrilling! (She’s almost done). I interviewed then my two Barcelona nieces (same ages as the ones from Madrid: 9 and 5) and this is what I learned: Frozen is unrealistic in its depiction of sisterly love because actual sisters quarrel all the time. Still, older girls, though less interested in the princess theme, appreciate the fact that heterosexual romance is not central. They find the film warm and funny, in particular the quirky snowman Olaf. Younger girls simply love Elsa. Why? She’s pretty and smart and, attention!, she’s powerful. And a queen who needs no prince, take that! When I stressed that Elsa’s power to turn all she touches into ice is dangerous, I was explained that this is irrelevant–what matters is that it’s cool: look at her castle, her ice monster and her dress… My Madrid nieces corroborated these views, perplexed that they had to clarify for my benefit what was so obvious to them.

Elsa, as Camila has seen, has clearly become a figure of empowerment for very young girls who don’t even know such word exists. For them ‘power’ means Elsa’s special power, presented as a sickly condition by the script but re-written as a super-power by the young female spectators (more Superman than X-Men, if you know what I mean). This is the real reason why the film has become so strong, even a cult film, among little girls, a phenomenon which, in its turn, explains the superlative boom in merchandising-related sales. Particularly of Elsa’s dress, without forgetting that the doll based on this character will outsell Barbie herself this oncoming Christmas.

Let me digress about the dress, now that I’m the middle of the nightmarish process of commissioning the Three Wise Men with bringing one home. Think Snowhite, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle or Rapunzel, and you see a typical princess dress: a long, flouncy skirt accompanied by a bodice with puffy sleeves, ribbons… right? Now, picture Elsa (or check Google) and see what she’s wearing: a tight-fitting sequined gown with a long cut up her skirt. This suggestive dress is aimed at showing off her sexiness, which in the script accompanies her decision to, as she sings, “let it go” and enjoy her unique, toxic power. Her younger sister Anna, in contrast, wears girly dresses of a more conventional cut, actually very pretty. But, then, she has no power, right? Except the power to love Elsa (almost) to death.

I’m sure Disney never anticipated little girls would want Elsa’s dress (I’m told that even some little boys want it!!). The house designers have actually solved quite poorly the problem of how to adapt a sexy gown made for a curvy twenty-year-old girl into something wearable by girls aged 3 to 10 (without a major scandal). This is why you can currently find at least four official versions of Elsa’s dress–well, ‘find’ is a relative word, as they’re sold out in official online stores, whereas in the physical shops they disappear as soon as they arrive. All these ‘official’ versions are quite ugly, made with low-quality, wrinkled, rough cloth… and totally overpriced (40 to 80 euros, plus shoes, tiara, and other accessories). One wonders about the Asian workers making them probably for next to nothing, unable to afford them for their own little girls. Yet, you should have seen the anxious parents and other relatives asking Disney Store employees to please, please, please, let Santa Claus and the Three Wise Kings keep one for their little girl. Other sweeter and prettier princess dresses elicit much less interest–and, by the way, Merida’s unfussy outfit (from Brave) is gone for good. I also missed Maleficent-related merchandising items, um, perhaps for good reason, though, my!, I loved those wings (not the horns…). And Aurora is simply lovely.

Back to Elsa: the home-made solution, having the Three Wise Men make the dress thus improving on the wretched Disney materials, is not really easier as the required cloth has been sold out from the main stores (at least in Barcelona). Holy cow… A chirpy sales clerk familiar with the Frozen situation explained to me that mums came to his cloth shop accompanied by demanding five-year-olds, absolutely adamant that they wanted the ‘right’ dress. He was scandalised that mums allowed little girls to behave in this tyrannical way, curtailing, besides, all possible creativity. I wonder whether the choice of Elsa as a favourite reflects this trend… get me that dress, or else, I’ll use my power to freeze you!

As films with a very similar focus, I very much prefer Maleficent to Frozen, though I understand that Maleficent is too dark for very young girls–I found the fairy’s mutilation almost unbearable to watch. As for the princess dress, though Elsa’s is beautiful, I find it out of place in a fairy tale: it’s closer to Gilda and Jessica Rabbit than to Scarlett O’Hara. Why do little girls have, in any case, this fantasy of being empowered by wearing a princess (or queen’s) dress? And, in our Catholic culture, how does this connect with the first communion dress and the wedding dress, both patriarchal concoctions? Well, I’d answer that very obviously. Disney films for girls suggest that power only comes either by inheriting it from dad or by marrying a prince, and just in fairy tales, not in real-life contexts. In contrast, little boys are offered a much wider choice and may dress up as super-heroes or as more ordinary heroes (firemen, spies, astronauts and such). No prince outfits required for them…

My feminist self would rather see my nieces become real heroines than fake princesses or queens. But, then, what little girl would accept an astronaut dress as a Christmas present with the same glee as an Elsa dress? Even I would go for that blue beauty–though I’d rather warm than freeze hearts…

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