SEEING BOOKS

Yes, more about Wuthering Heights.

I’ve been reading with my students today, among others, the scene when Nelly Dean tries to persuade an upset, teenage Heathcliff that he has nothing to envy his rival in love, blond, blue-eyed Edgar Linton. “Come to the glass,” she says, “and I’ll let you see what you should wish”: a good-natured temper that would give his handsome face an attractive expression. An unusually nice Nelly tries, besides, to build the boy’s self-confidence by telling him that “You’re fit for a prince in disguise. Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen…?”

As she administers this ad-hoc therapy Nelly is actually engaged in washing up Heathcliff’s very dirty face and combing his unkempt hair so that his paramour Cathy, just transformed into a refined, pert young lady, will no longer make fun of him. One of the students, a girl trained as an actress at the Institut del Teatre, later told me (typically in the corridor) that she found this scene quite enticing as, precisely, a scene in the dramatic sense of the word. She marvelled at the good dramaturgy of this novel. I do, too.

I also marvel at how we miss this aspect of reading novels, caught up as we are in considering character, narrative technique, plot construction and a myriad other factors. It is plain that novels –even Ulysses– are a collection of scenes yet we very rarely consider the dramatic talent of novelists, perhaps except when we pay attention to adaptations as they force us to consider what can be transferred onto the screen (the scenes) and what cannot (the rest).

Maybe because I am indeed interested in adaptations I find it increasingly difficult to read without mulling over the visuals of what I am reading. I have already written an essay on what Heathcliff looks like based on a comparative analysis of diverse film versions of Brontë’s novel but I am not talking now about this kind of visualisation. I mean: what exactly happens in our brains as we read? How do we imagine? In our media-saturated world, reading seems more and more unsatisfactory: scenes, even when they are as good in their dramaturgy as the mirror scene I have described, are strangely hazy, diffuse, vague… particularly those set in a foreign past we know so little about.

I wonder what we’d see if we could take the mental images that Brontë’s excellent mirror scene (wow, doesn’t this sound Lacanian?) generated in each of my students, in each of the million readers of the book. Have they grown dimmer as the years go by? Do we imagine Brontë’s world in 2010 in a radically different way from 1847? Surely, but still the question remains: how do we do it?

BOOKS, LOVE AND LIFE

Yes, I made a mistake with the last slide of my PowerPoint presentation introducing Wuthering Heights. I inserted an image of the edition of Emily Brontë’s masterpiece publicised as ‘Bella and Edwards’s favourite book.’ What? You don’t know who Bella and Edward are? Been hiding with Bin Laden in the last few years?? Perhaps even he knows who they are…

Well, so there I was, ranting and raving about how unfair and parasitical this appropriation of Brontë’s work is, particularly because I happen to believe that Brontë portrays romantic love as an unhealthy form of madness (not so for the younger Cathy and Hareton, ok, fine).

I find, as I told my class, Stephanie Meyer’s immensely popular saga extremely dangerous as, once more, it preaches an extreme form of romantic love based on the girl’s total emotional dependence on a guy (who happens to be vampire, gosh!).

For me, Edward’s ‘heroic’ fight to control his predator instincts (quite unlike what Heathcliff does, he lashes out…) contributes to spreading the idea that we must accept men’s violence, as this is part of their nature, and praise them as heroes for controlling it. Just consider this: Bella initially doubts between Edward the vampire and Jacob the werewolf!! Whatever happened to nice guys??? Doesn’t she have a problem choosing boyfriends?

Anyway, as I was leaving after my session, one of the girl students approached me – a bright one, who had made the point that she didn’t admire Wuthering Heights as a romantic story (good!!). She needed to tell me, though, that she didn’t quite understand my deep mistrust of Meyer’s saga as she enjoyed a beautiful, intense relationship with her boyfriend and, in her view, this is what the saga was about: a defence of fulfilling, profound, romantic love.

So here we are, in the middle of the corridor discussing really intimate matters, myself telling her that romantic love should be all about complicity not dependence and that, no matter how much you love your partner, one cannot do a Heathcliff and spoil your own life and everyone else’s when the loved one is gone. I didn’t even tell her whether I have a relationship or not.

But, then: what do I know? I was moved by the girl’s sincerity, and if she’s reading this, I’ll insist that it was a beautiful moment. Yet, I always get very nervous at confessional times like this because suddenly the mission of teaching 19th century fiction transforms into something else, maybe a mission to protect young people from the unstoppable influence of some kinds of appalling heteronormative fiction.

Yes, I love that in a way and I wouldn’t know how to teach novels without relating them to real life (in the aseptic way of my own Spanish Literature teachers, who used to discuss just textual precedents and philological features). I wonder, though, where is the boundary. I’ll blame (I mean praise) feminism for tearing down the barriers between the political and the personal, the literary and life, yet, if any student is reading this, let me say this: literature teachers are as lost as anyone else, we just happen to have read much more…

ABOUT THE NEW MA DISSERTATIONS

This post was lost during the updating of the UAB’s blog software, somebody may have read a longer version. Here I go again…

This week I’m done assessing MA dissertations for three different MA degrees and now’s the time to consider what the new European convergence plans for higher education, which we know as plain ‘Bolonia,’ have brought about. Not much that is good.

In my time as a student, ehem, mid 1980s to mid 1990s, it took 11 years for someone to complete a PhD in Spain: 5 for the ‘Licenciatura,’ 2 for doctoral courses, 1 for the equivalent of the MA dissertation (100 pages), 3 for the PhD dissertation (around 500). That was too much, no doubt. The 2002 reform reduced the ‘Licenciatura’ to 4 years and the doctoral courses to 1, so that the total amount of years to get a PhD went down to 9. Now it’s down to 8 years: 4 for the ‘Grado,’ 1 for the MA including the dissertation (35-50 pages) and 3 for the PhD dissertation (350). This, of course, includes learning English in our case to a level high enough for international conferences and publication.

It’s easy to see that time has been dramatically compressed at the MA level, which means in practice that in our UAB MA, Advanced English Studies: Literature and Culture, students have a maximum of 15 months to complete assignments for 8 different teachers and to write the dissertation. Yes, they may submit the dissertation in September rather than June, and yes, it’s short, but this hardly helps.

We start the process of tutoring the dissertations as soon as possible with a research seminar given by all members of staff between November-December leading to a proposal submitted after Christmas. There is a constant follow-up with intermediate submissions of work in progress. Yet, this cannot make up for a new problem that we didn’t have with the doctoral courses.

In the old system, students who enrolled in these courses aimed at completing a doctoral dissertation. Many gave up after writing the shorter dissertation, which was, anyway, twice as long as the current MA affair and researched over at least 1 year. Only students graduating with average Bs and As attempted the feat of getting a PhD. Now our public is different: they may just want the MA and never considered writing a PhD dissertation at all. The MA dissertation is hard enough for them but, then, ours is a research MA.

Why not filter the students and be more demanding, you may be wondering? Well, let’s be frank: we need as many students as possible to guarantee the survival of our MAs all over Catalonia, just in case Generalitat considers that they’re too expensive in terms of teaching resources. The result? Frustrated students and, at best, with a few honourable exceptions, half-baked pieces or nothing at all.

Delaying the submission of the MA dissertation to a second year means that students pay a staggering 900 euros for re-registration (600 plus a 40% surcharge). I’m beginning to believe universities are banking on this unlikelihood to complete the MA dissertation in time to get some extra money. Our suggestion that students may submit their work either in September or in February, counting as part of the same academic year, has been discounted with the excuse that our computers cannot do it.

Bureaucratic matters apart, the fact is that you in the same way you can’t hurry love, as the song claims, you can’t hurry learning (much less thinking, that undervalued activity). The production of good Literature dissertations takes time, as it takes plenty of reading and that is time-consuming. We have, of course, the additional problem that some ‘clever’ politician decided to implement first the introduction of the MAs and then that of the new BAs (the four-year ‘grados’). Also, that many of the most committed students are taking the new MA in teacher training for secondary schools which has been made compulsory for those who wish to teach in Generalitat schools. Thank you very much!!

If anyone knows of a fool-proof method to write excellent dissertations within a 15 month MA (in a foreign language, remember), do let me know…

The real first post – teaching Wuthering Heights

This week I have started teaching ‘Victorian Literature,’ a second-year subject within the new ‘Estudis Anglesos’ degree. Fun started when I mentioned ‘the three famous Brontë sisters.’ You should have seen my students’ blank faces!! Those who did know what I was talking about explained to me that the sisters were… Emily, Charlotte and the other one (Anne, yes).

I try never to be appalled by what my students don’t know, which is hard. Yet, thinking with my colleague Esther Pujolràs about students’ lack of acquantaince with the canonical Brontës, we both remembered that by the time we entered ‘Filologia Anglesa’ we were already familiar with plenty of English Literature.

As happens, we both had read Bruguera’s translation of Wuthering Heights (more or less aged 15), seen the 1978 TV adaptation and developed an interest in other authors in English, following a similar pattern: translation, adaptation, original version.

This may have been exceptional, as not everyone grows to be an English ‘filólogo,’ but my impression is that it wasn’t and that in a cultural environment with little to offer, one makes the best of available possibilities.

My students simply live in another world, with so much on offer that they are overwhelmed. To them the ‘famous’ Brontë sisters matter very little, they may be even feel like relics of a strange world we (re)construct in class and that may never catch on. I hope it does… but… And, yes, I’ll be using a colourful PowerPoint next week to try to interest them in reading Wuthering Heights, thinking how none bothered when I was a student to make reading more palatable for me: it was my problem whether I enjoyed it or not, never the teacher’s. But, yes, that was another world.

More next week…

The Joys of Teaching Literature Begins Today

19 September 2010, beginning of the academic year, which is like New Year for us, teachers. A good moment to start a new blog. I believe blogs should focus on a single theme, so here’s mine: the joys of teaching literature. Those who know me will quickly realise this is both an ironic and a straightforward title, as I love teaching literature (and cultural studies) but suffer for that, teaching as we do under less than ideal conditions. It is my aim to add once a week a short comment on what goes on in class, as I try to instill my students with a love for what I know is a hopelessly old-fashioned cultural practice: reading! If none reads me, this will help me at least to think about what I do and why I do it. Best, Sara.