IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL WHEN IT WORKS…

There’s a little bit of irony in the title of my blog but also a little bit of despair, as you can see from many of my postings, about the sad fact that teaching is not always as joyful as it should be. Yet, this is exactly what it is when it works well, joyful indeed, so this time I’m celebrating.

I’ve just marked 26 longish papers (2,500 words, standard conference measure) on villainy and heroism for my segment of the Cultural Studies module within the MA in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory. It’s been tough, because as usual I had very little time (just two days, more papers and exams coming in next Monday…) but it’s also been a pleasure, which is rare. In the best cases, I’ve even learned, which is the highest praise a teacher can give a student. Well done!!

The problem is that I can’t apply any of the strategies that have worked well for this class to other classes, as the success of these strategies does not depend on my teaching but on the students’ willingness to learn. It is true that we, teachers, work at a higher standard when our teaching is received with interest but, if this is the key, then it’s not my merit at all but the students’. They’ve listened patiently and they’ve applied very well what I lectured on to their own papers, choosing to focus on a variety of very interesting texts. Again, all of it is their merit. I’m the same teacher, with my well-known limitations, in all my subjects but, then, some work beautifully (at least for me!) and some don’t. The difference, that’s the inevitable conclusion, are the students.

This particular class has no common denominator, which is peculiar, except that they’re all in the same MA. They come from very different BAs and from a variety of countries; only 5 have the UAB ‘Licenciatura’ taught by practically the same teachers that teach in the MA. I’d say they’re exceptional if it weren’t because it’s the fourth time I see this exceptionality. Perhaps the MA is exceptional in that it attracts plenty of intellectual energy focused on reading, though no teacher can say whether this will turn out to be the last flare of the dying pre-Bologna system or a constant stream that will survive the mounting ravages on education.

I feel, it’s odd to say, well used by this class. They’ve made the most of me, as a resource funded with public money and, of course, by their own money, and I think that this is what all students need: an awareness that we, teachers, are resources they should exploit for their own intellectual growth. Students who cheat, who don’t work, who don’t care are simply wasting the resources others could use better but also, and this is where they show that they don’t deserve a university education, they are not making enough of the possibilities offered to them.

Anyway, today I’m satisfied. Thanks, students!

ON BIBLIOGRAPHICAL SCHIZOPHRENIA (HOW COME I’D NEVER HEARD OF GILLES LIPOVETSKY?)

Yes, I’m still marking students’ exercises, no teaching to do, which means I’m reading for pleasure texts I needn’t prepare for class. This time it’s been the turn of Gilles Lipovetsky’s simply excellent La felicidad paradójica (2006), which I picked up because a colleague in my research group (‘Body and Textuality,’ beautifully coordinated by Meri Torras) happened to mention him in passing as a fundamental name, in the same way I’d name Michel Foucault.

I am awfully ignorant of too many things but it worried me particularly that I’d never heard of Lipovetsky (a French philosopher like Foucault, by the way –um, maybe you knew?), as this sounded like a really glaring omission. I think I understand the problem better now (I still acknowledge my bottomless ignorance!): the academic world is tightly divided into different language communities, one (to which I belong as an English Studies specialist) uses for theorising bibliography almost exclusively and originally in English, the other (i.e. Spanish academia, to which I belong only secondarily) depends on theory mainly translated from English and, yes, to the same extent from French. Um, theory originally written in Spanish occupies, this is my feeling, a secondary place in our own territory. Our fault?

Here it is: I know Foucault because he’s been translated into English and profusely quoted; I didn’t know about Lipovetsky because only two of his books have been translated, I assume that with little impact as I’ve never come across a quotation from them in English (have I??). In contrast, Anagrama has published practically all of Lipovetsky’s works in Spanish; some, like the one I’ve read, are even included in their popular ‘Compactos’ collection. See the paradox at work. Check the English-speaking Wikipedia page on Lipovetsky… and it sends you to the Spanish version for more info!! Amazing. Check www.worldcat.org and you’ll see that, again atypically, of the 98 items cited under his name only 6 are in English (26 in Spanish… and only 23 in French!).

This, of course, needn’t mean much but, to me, it is essential proof of how badly knowledge circulates across language barriers even in the 21st century. It’s not only that there’s a noticeable time lag because of translation needs but also that whole areas fail to permeate other areas. Dialogue doesn’t really happen. Thus, entering the multidisciplinary research group I belong has plunged me into an enriching but also bewildering bibliographical schizophrenia. I find myself using bibliography in English to write my papers in Spanish because there is no equivalent in Spanish, either translated or original, yet I wonder how many Lipovetskys I don’t know about (and I should, from a Spanish point of view). Quite a mess. Maybe I should start again all over and take a degree in ‘Teoría de la Literatura’ –I wish I could, as it’s vanished from the UAB.

You might think that access to English makes you properly cosmopolitan but I often believe it’s the opposite: it makes you provincial, as what happens in, say, France or Germany, doesn’t exist without translation into English and what happens in Spanish simply doesn’t exist. I won’t even mention Catalan – there we go again: I just did.

I can hear you groan… ‘What! you didn’t know about Lipovetksy? Shame on you…’ Yes, indeed.

MANUEL VÁZQUEZ MONTALBÁN, WHO COULD HAVE BEEN RAYMOND WILLIAMS

An unexpected blessing of commuting by train to the UAB is that I get one hour a day for reading what I please. As I always carry a heavy bag and I still don’t have an e-book reader, I’m becoming an expert at choosing the slimmest, juiciest possible books (mostly from my local library, the wonderful Jaume Fuster on Plaça Lesseps). This week I was truly fortunate to pick up Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Crónica sentimental de España, a volume published in 1971 but based on a series of articles originally issued by the weekly magazine Triunfo. I wish it were 400 pages long, instead of just 200…

Reading Montalbán’s recollection of popular culture in Spain between the 1940s and 1960s and his clever insights into the split between that and what was fashionable in elite circles I wonder why his book didn’t initiate a corresponding Cultural Studies tradition in Spain already in the 70s. Of course, I’m not so naive that I can’t myself answer: journalism is not the same as academic writing, the university under Franco was extremely backward, the theorisation of Cultural Studies per se was just beginning in the UK. You name it. There was no way a Raymond Williams could emerge here, though I’m sure he would have greatly appreciated Montalbán’s efforts to make sense of the popular in Spain.

The other feeling this marvellously written book produces is one of dismay at, precisely, the nature of culture in general and of the popular in particular in Franco’s Spain. As Montalbán was writing in 1969, already from the perspective of the generation born during the Civil War, the reader can see how his thinking is poised on the brink of the Transición, and, thus, sounds far less mouldy than anything an earlier generation could have produced. It’s also great to read what was going on at the time first hand, rather than from the (academic) perspective of, say, my own generation (born in the 1960s). Yet, it’s hard to admit that our roots are so narrow-minded, provincial, and unsophisticated. No wonder that so many of us interested in popular culture became ‘Filólogos Ingleses’ rather than Hispanists (anyway, they don’t study Spanish popular culture).

In a way we took a shortcut to access the foreign, English-speaking cultures that fascinated that older Spain through cinema since the 1940s (dubbed, yes) and through the popular novel, TV, pop and rock and fashions later on, particularly since Spain entered UN in the 1950s and the Americans started using us as a military outpost. We could safely ignore the Lolas Flores, and the Pacos Martínez Soria and contribute to the 1980s project of finally updating Spain. The problem is that we have no other past and, although I don’t identify at all with the culture(s) Montalbán describes, the funny thing is that I’m beginning to feel nostalgic.

Not of Franco’s time, for God’s sake!, but of the past we didn’t have because of his evil ways. What a pity.

PUZZLING OVER THE USE OF GUIDES AND GUIDELINES

Now that everyone is marking papers and exams, some colleagues and myself discuss over lunch the function of guides and guidelines (yes, you, students, occupy our thoughts a great deal of our time). I’m using these two words to distinguish the documents that offer information on a whole subject, and that we call Teaching Guides, from the documents written specifically to help students with particular tasks (like our Writing Guidelines for Literature Papers). We’re divided on the issue of whether guides and guidelines should be offered at all.

Those of us who think that they should, argue that it was about time there existed a unified document (the Teaching Guide) for the whole Facultat de Lletres here at UAB that was taken seriously as a contract between teacher and student (a very good Bologna-related innovation). As for the guidelines, we write them in the belief that they give clear instructions that help students and ourselves save time. In both cases, the intention is also giving students an impression of cohesion and coherence in our teaching practice, and improving indeed these two aspects. The detractors, like those at our lunch table, however, think that students are given too much help and point out that their exercises are proof that many, anyway, don’t even read the documents we pass on. Some of us, they say, coddle students too much and prevent them thus from developing their own autonomous skills (from ‘wising up,’ which, I think, is the closest verb to Spanish ‘espabilar’).

An important issue like this shows the difficulties in communication between students and teachers. When writing guides and guidelines, we think of helping, believe me, of simplifying students’ lives. But I feel, like many of us, awfully frustrated when the course begins and no student has bought the set books even though the Teaching Guide has been available for months. Or when I mark papers that haven’t been edited in the way the Writing Guidelines indicate. Where do we go wrong? If books are not bought sufficiently in advance, the Literature class degenerates into chaos. If guidelines are not followed, marking becomes exasperating and, you, students, should know that an exasperated teachers simply tends to award lower marks. We’re human, after all.

A student once told me that books are bought at the last minute because we, teachers, change our minds all the time. Well, check this with us. And, truly, the function of the Teaching Guide is to prevent that from happening – teachers publish their reading list and this is it: as binding as a legal contract. As for the Writing Guidelines, there are two points that we simply can’t understand: why they aren’t read and why they’re not applied. No small points… Maybe we sound as a bunch of quirky, capricious individuals – one wants footnotes, the other MLA parenthesis… Or we fail to impress students with the importance of obeying rules that we need to obey ourselves if we ever want to publish academic work.

The same applies to deadlines, which some students seem to think are another teachers’ whim and not a way to organise their workload and ours. By the way: the deadline marks the last possible time for handing in an exercise, not the moment when this SHOULD be done… My colleague in Victorian Literature was asked to extend her deadline from 14:30pm to midnight on the grounds that my students could email their papers until that moment. I agree we should have had the same deadline but a matter of hours should NOT make a difference, particularly for a paper that has been in development for at least three months.

I’ll be grateful for feedback on this one.

MARKING PAPERS… (IF YOU’RE A TEACHER, YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN!)

I’m taking a break from marking the 39 papers (minimum 1,000 words – maximum 2,500 words) I need to mark by Thursday, unless I want to spoil my weekend once more (my Friday is busy with other academic activities). I’m about to fulfil my 15 paper quota for today, which is not too bad, and I need to let steam off. If any teacher is reading me, I know s/he’ll sympathise but this is not for you. This is for the students, mine or anyone else’s.

Despite the constant, universal plagiarising, I still believe in papers and in the importance of teaching Literature students to write them well. I convince myself that students work hard and, so, deserve my whole attention when I mark their work. This is why I spend an unreasonable amount of time, taken off writing my own papers, making notes and comments -like most of us, I’m sure. I find that doing this on a Word file instead of a paper copy is less time-consuming but I’m not sure how it works for students (or other teachers). Anyway, my students, if you’re reading me: I understand that my duties include investing my time on marking your papers but how am I supposed to feel regarding those papers clearly showing that the student author doesn’t care and won’t bother? Marking those is, for me, a complete waste of my teaching time and, so, of the resources that should benefit those who do care and bother.

Well-written, well-researched papers are, of course, a pleasure to read. Marking becomes then less relevant than establishing a dialogue with the student author. Other papers may be not so perfect but work well, nonetheless, because the student has given his or her best: you can hear the brain wheels purr and spin, and sense the wish to do well, to impress. In these two cases, the papers striving for perfection and the papers born of making an effort beyond one’s limits, teaching is no burden at all. Quite the contrary.

The real killjoy are the papers that demand my attention even though their authors have paid no attention whatsoever to ‘minor’ problems such as: spelling (Dr. Kekyll?), layout, referencing, use of quotations, writing intelligible sentences, etc… you name it! The whole paper screams at me: I don’t care and I won’t bother. Not even to check the painstakingly written guidelines and samples available on Virtual Campus and, what is even more puzzling, the secondary sources that could have been so easily used… Why, oh why?? You lose by getting a lower mark, I only gain frustration, no one benefits. What a sad waste.

THE QUESTION OF AUTHORSHIP AND ‘THIRD-WORLD’ AUTOBIOGRAPHY (LE LY HAYSLIP’S MEMOIRS)

I’m preparing my notes to teach Le Ly Hayslip’s memoirs, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) and Child of War, Woman of Peace (1993), and I realise that defining authorship in them is quite complicated.

Hayslip, born in Vietnam in 1949, moved to the USA in 1970, when she married Ed Munro, a civilian contractor –her ticket out of the devastating war. She spoke little English and, indeed, not enough to write a book on her own even years later, by the time she decided to narrate her life. Her teenage son Jimmy, educated in America and computer-literate, helped by taking down what she dictated, presumably partly the stories she had been painfully writing alone for years. Once she sold her first book, this was completed with the help of Jay Wurts, a Californian writer who advertises himself on his own website as co-author, developmental writer and editor. Wurts is, thus, credited as co-author on the cover of Hayslip’s first book (“with Jay Wurts”) though not on the second, where an adult James Hayslip is named even though the copyright notice only cites ‘Charles Jay Wurts’ as co-author. Complicated…

Of course, this is nothing new, as many autobiographies and memoirs are co-authored by writers like Wurts or by plain ghost writers (yes, I’m thinking of Polanski’s adaptation of Robert Harris’s thriller…). The other Vietnam memoir I’ve taught, Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (1976), is not his alone, either, as he mentions in his acknowledgements that his friend and editor, Joyce Johnson, spent “countless hours… helping construct this book.” I’m well aware that editors play in American publishing a prominent role quite unwelcome in Spain, where both authors and readers prefer what could be called ‘purity in authorship.’ I wonder, though, why Johnson is not credited as co-author whereas Wurts is; it must be a matter of the actual writing done but, again, no idea how this is measured.

This ‘purity’ hadn’t bothered me much regarding Hayslip and Kovic until I came across Allen Carey-Webb’s article “Auto/Biography of the Oppressed: The Power of Testimonial” [The English Journal, 80: 4, Apr., 1991, 44-47]. In this essay Carey-Webb offers a list of Third World “testimonials” that might interest American students (college, I assume), ranging from Rigoberta Menchú’s to Hayslip’s. He, surprisingly, denies that testimonials are autobiographies (=texts worth literary studies attention) as “they are recorded and written down by a second person… Testimonials are a sort of Third World ‘auto/biography’ that brings to the center the experience of the unlettered, marginalized, and oppressed. They are ideal texts in which students and teachers alike attempt to hear the voice of the voiceless, investigate cultural and social differences, and raise questions about what it means to be ‘culturally literate.’”

Third World sounds to me here appallingly patronising precisely because Kovic is First World and he still needed, like many other of the “unlettered, marginalized, and oppressed” (or the simply untalented for writing) help from an editor. By placing Menchú’s or Hayslip’s co-authored written texts in a separate category on the grounds of their oral origins I think that Carey-Webb undermines their importance in increasing that ‘cultural literacy’ that we, teachers and students, so direly need –and as autobiographies, and what this implies for the genre. Actually, Hayslip, for all her pro-American bias, teaches an important lesson in how to acquire a mixed cultural literacy (under pressure from war). Her books, by the way, are very well written, in particular the first one. And, surely, many memoirs and autobiographies by First World persons are based on oral interviews, which is not quite Hayslip’s case.

Another essay, Killmeier and Kwok, “A People’s History of Empire, or the Imperial Recuperation of Vietnam? Countermyths and Myths in Heaven and Earth” [Journal of Communication Inquiry, July 2005, 29: 256-272] shows how Oliver Stone’s film version of Hayslip’s books, the underrated Heaven and Earth (1993), does something peculiar with language, having Le Ly use correct English in scenes where only the Vietnamese appear –though they miss that they’re played by an assortment of Asian actors– and pidgin English with Americans. This choice shows that Stone’s American audience was/is not ready for the required linguistic realism (have the Vietnamese speak their language with English subtitles). Yet, it also complicates the memoirs: they’re not translated, like Menchú’s, into English but thought directly in Hayslip’s migrant American English, polished by Wurts. Is this pidgin?

So, in my own pidgin, Third-World English, as, like Hayslip, I’m not a native English-speaker, let me say that I’m very glad her ‘testimonial’ has reached me through the First World bridge of American English, whether co-authored or not, oral or written, literary or not. It is the perfect companion for Kovic’s ‘First World’ ‘literary’ ‘autobiography.’

MARIO VARGAS LLOSA’S EL SUEÑO DEL CELTA: CONSIDERING WHAT THE NOBEL PRIZE MEANS

First posting of the new year: happy 2011!

I don’t wish to turn this blog into a space for reviewing but, as happens, I’ve been reading Vargas Llosa’s El sueño del celta (2010) and I do feel the need to vent my deep disappointment.

You may recall from a recent post that I recommended this book –I hesitate to call it novel– as it deals with the fascinating Roger Casement, an Irishman who became a fervent patriot only after witnessing the outrages of colonialism in Congo and Peru. Being Peruvian and, allegedly, an excellent literary writer, Vargas Llosa seemed highly qualified to recall Casement’s story for the benefit of the Spanish-speaking world, where this heroic Irishman is not known. The fact that Llosa is also a conservative, right-wing failed politician and a well-known opponent of nationalism should have warned me that he was a less than ideal choice. Yet, the problem with El sueño del celta is not just its wavering gender and political ideology but, mainly, its flat, insipid writing.

Of course, reading Vargas Llosa’s account of Casement’s sad life so soon after reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness highlights even more Llosa’s limitations as a writer –at least in this particular book, which is my first by him. The atrocities, yes, are more accurately described and the visual impact of what horrified both Conrad and Casement is higher; Conrad’s novella is irritatingly vague and too timid in comparison to what actually traumatised him and indeed a clear case of the limitations of literary representation (yes, he did know and this is what Heart is mainly about). Yet, the beauty of its nightmarish prose is unsurpassable and I suspect that knowing he could by no means match it, Llosa went for the simplest possible Spanish. So bad, believe me, that at points he seems to be translating from English and characters are said to be ‘perdiendo su sanidad’ instead of their ‘cordura.’ Repetitions of events abound as if Llosa felt too lazy to edit them out while characters come and go with little depth of characterisation, as Llosa seems more interested in pouring down all the details he’s learned in his (superficial) research than in building a proper novel. At points, yes, this feels like non-fiction but of the worst kind, nothing to do with Adam Hochschild’s excellent King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) that Llosa knew so well, as he wrote a prologue for the Spanish edition and was the inspiration for El sueño.

I am also wondering whether rather than celebrate Casement as a hero, Llosa is sending out a warning to all those poor misguided souls, queer or not, who fight for the independence of their nations. As you’ll recall, Casement was a former British consul that became involved with the Irish uprising of 1916 and, having conceived the mad plan of asking Germany for help in the middle of WWI, was executed as a traitor. It seems to me that the segments on Congo and Peru do reflect the abuses of colonialism whereas the segment on Ireland completely fails to do so, insisting instead on the poor planning of Irish independence and the ensuing bloodbath. As for Casement’s notorious Black Diaries, which portray in singular detail his many sexual encounters with young men and whose authorship is dubious, Llosa has decided that they are Casement’s but partly a fantasy, as if accepting a gay man as hero was subjected to limiting his promiscuity to tolerable numbers. You might argue that Llosa is here making an effort few conservative writers would make but I doubt this will please many LGTB activists.

All in all, I haven’t learned anything new about Casement that I hadn’t already learned in the afternoon I spent surfing websites about him. Llosa’s research contributes many trivial details regarding location and the characters’ appearance (and health, an obsession) but misses, for instance, the fact that Casement’s report was a British Government Blue Book, calling it the Blue Book, as if this were its title. I’m mystified, though, about the unavailability of this crucial Blue Book on the net, where only an extract can be found. I’d be thankful for tips on the e-text (I know of the print edition by Seamas O’Siochain and Michael O’Sullivan). My impression is that the Black Diaries are much easier to find.

To conclude, whereas in the case of Heart of Darkness I argued the need to bear in mind the ideology of the text and never judge it on its literary merits alone, in the case of El sueño del celta, which raises similar ideological issues, my point is that it fails miserably as a literary text, which is what it should be coming from the most recent Nobel Prize winner… if that means anything at all.