THE COST OF DOING RESEARCH: A FEW FIGURES

Happily for me, I’ve been commissioned a short book on heterosexuality for the collection ‘Los textos del cuerpo’ (EDIUOC) that the research group I belong to (‘Body and Textuality’, coordinated by Dr. Meri Torras) has been publishing since 2009. I’m now at the stage of putting together a bibliography… and making decisions about how much the book is going to cost me. I’ve already written about paying to read myself (17-11-10) but I neglected to mention the investment of money needed to publish, so here it is.

There is more bibliography on heterosexuality than I expected (basically in English), though hardly any in the Spanish university libraries, not even of the very few relevant Spanish texts –Oscar Guasch’s La crisis de la heterosexualidad, published in BCN, can only be found in distant La Laguna, Oviedo and Castilla-La Mancha. I could use the interlibrary loan system but, even though the project would pay for the cost, I would not be allowed to take home the books in question. Yes, I told my recalcitrant student she should spend more time at the library, but I didn’t mean to read complete volumes. How many people can really do that? If I order through the project the minimum list of books I should read (I’ve reduced it down to 6), they might take months to arrive and I’m in a hurry (deadlines, deadlines…). Here at UAB, by the way, teachers/researchers can buy books for the library but not for individual use (yes, we do pay for the books we teach, inspection copies apart). If you like underlining and annotating the texts that you study, as I do, the only option is purchasing whatever you think you really, really need.

I’ve finally decided to invest on my little book part of the generous 300 euros I made at UB lecturing for 3 hours on, precisely, heterosexuality: 140 were gone this morning, spent on the 6 short-listed books, which still leaves me with half my earnings. Well, not quite, as I’d already bought 3 more books to prepare my UB seminar (which, incidentally, I was VERY happy to teach and would have taught for nothing, this is how committed –or impractical– we are). Whatever I make out of writing the little book will go, of course, into more research or other seminars. No Manolos for me, definitively… I’ve drawn the line, however, at buying a slim volume of just 176 pages, published by a famous British publisher only in hardback and sold at 125 euros (well, 106.88 at BookDepository). This is 0.71 euros a page, much more than I’ll make or than anyone makes, Ken Follett included. I can do without the volume, as there is anyway so much to quote from that I’d run out of space for my own writing. Or I can be appallingly dishonest, and check the coveted volume …ummm… at Google Books, an option towards which the greedy publishers are mercilessly pushing everyone (em, I won’t mention them in case I ever want to publish with them).

Who, except very rich libraries, can afford books like this one, I wonder? I’ve never ordered for our own library a book above 60/70 euros, and even that is an absurd waste of public money. In the future, when I finally buy an eBook reader, I’ll commit countless acts of piracy with no qualms whatsoever. I can’t even begin to imagine what it is like for university teachers in developing or undeveloped countries (that’s a euphemism for you). And to think that our research is judged by standards that only privileged Harvard professors can meet…

One last thought: I understand that other professions also require a high degree of self-investment: I don’t have to wear make up, designer clothing or high heels (oomph, the Manolos). Yet, it is my suspicion that scientists do not pay for their lab rats out of their pockets, whereas we, Literature teachers, bookworms that use no rats, must pay for our research. Curioser and curioser, as Alice said.

NOTHING ON YOUTUBE!! (PREPARING A BRITISH THEATRE CLASS)

I assume that what I’m going to complain about here is something that British Theatre specialists know very well. Yet, since I am not really a specialist and only teach theatre now and then, I must say that I’m surprised by the lack of good material on YouTube.

The last time I taught a drama subject (2006-7), my focus was Shakespeare on the screen, for which many DVD editions of the adaptations were available (Brannagh’s Hamlet took ages to be released, though, who knows why). Before that, I’d taught a course on British and Irish 20th century drama in 2002-3, when there was no internet connection in our classrooms. When the internet materialised, precisely in 2006-7, I discovered the pleasures of YouTube: interviews with writers, film scenes that needn’t be painfully extracted from DVDs, complete TV productions, music videos, and that memorable gag (for a Cultural Studies class on humour) in which with Chris Rock advices AfricanAmericans how not to “get your ass kicked by the police” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uj0mtxXEGE8).

Last week I spent a few hours browsing YouTube in the hopes that my students might see samples of good stage productions of the main British plays between the 1940s and today, from Terence Rattigan to Simon Stephens, so to speak. This was the result: I could add to my class notes YouTube links to a number of remarkable film and TV adaptations –Richard Burton can be seen in the complete TV version of Look back in Anger (1959)– and I discovered the genre of the theatre trailer; this is quite mystifying as, unlike film trailers, theatre trailers don’t really show scenes but just images suggested by the play (this was at least the case of Stephens’ Pornography.) There was practically nothing on such 1990s classics such as Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking and Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. ‘Practically’ means that I did come across scenes from amateur productions of many of the plays I checked, but these were poorly filmed and had usually bad sound, not to mention bad acting. I also discarded non-English-speaking productions, somewhat more generously offered.

I’m told that stage productions are not filmed in order to protect actors’ right to their image (what about actors in films?). I know, of course, that some theatres do film their own productions, but I also know that TNC here in Barcelona didn’t lend me their video of Brian Friel’s Translations, staged by The Abbey Theatre in 2001-2. I told them that having my class of 50 students see the video in their small facilities was not really an option but they never relented.

So, I’ll do without YouTube, except for writers’ interviews. Still, I don’t understand why the filmed recordings of theatre productions are not massively available on the internet. And I mean professional theatre, filmed professionally. Many would sign a pact with the Devil to see how Shakespeare was staged in his time, and I just don’t see why what is close at hand is not kept for posterity.

Maybe I have wrongly assumed YouTube has all the answers and there’s a wonderful resource just round the corner I know nothing about… Can anyone help? (Thanks)

FROM A TO X, HOPKINS, SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS

I read on the train –how/where else?– John Berger’s brief novel From A to X: A Story in Letters (2008) and I’m moved as I hadn’t been in a long time by what I can only describe as its exquisite prose. Some readers, as I see in Amazon, are annoyed by Berger’s vagueness about where and when exactly the story takes place but I am, unlike them, totally enticed by this. I don’t really enjoy love stories but I fall for this one maybe because I find it convincingly sad, coloured as it is by the palpable threat of the ugly politics that ruin so many lives anywhere in the world.

Being, as I am, a Literature teacher, I immediately feel sorry that there’s no room in our very few subjects to teach Berger’s novel. Why am I sorry? Well, because I feel that as a teacher I can provide an audience, limited in numbers as this may be, for books I love and that I think deserve more attention. It happens every time I read an interesting book, and I’m sure we all have the same feeling. In a few rare occasions, I’ve managed to get hold of a particular subject just to teach an author I admire –Alasdair Gray, Terry Pratchett, Tom Stoppard, Barbara Ehrenreich– but it’s not easy at all. This, by the way, seems to be the main function of elective subjects for teachers: provide breathing room.

I’m writing this entry, besides, the day after we discuss in a teachers’ meeting how we can possibly fit into just 7 compulsory semestral subjects the whole History of English and American Literature, a list of canonical texts of all genres and tutorials to teach academic writing. In a way, it’s great that we argue ourselves hoarse defending the merits of Oliver Twist over Great Expectations because this means we do care passionately about what is best for our students’ education. What is frustrating is how fast the number of possible set texts is diminishing as students cannot simply cope with as much reading as in the past (see my many complaints about the shortcomings of their secondary education). Where we could in the past teach 5 books, now the figure is down to 3. More or less.

We get actually entangled at a funny (as in peculiar) point, for I’ve been asked to introduce other genres than fiction in our Victorian Literature subject. Wilde is smoothly back onto the syllabus but when I try to explain that we only have four sessions to teach short fiction, poetry and the essay pandemonium erupts. A friendly one. A colleague thinks we MUST teach Victorian intellectual issues, by which he means not just mention Darwin or Ruskin but have students read something by them. Fine, indeed, but this ‘something’ will be just passages, maybe up to 20 pages in total. No more. Another colleague claims students MUST read Tennyson, Browning… and Gerald Manley Hopkins. Fine, I invite all my colleagues to see what happens in the classroom the day we teach Hopkins (have a look at “The Windhover” at http://www.bartleby.com/122/12.html). My guess is… pandemonium. An unfriendly one. We still don’t know whether this colleague was joking.

So, here I am, caught between Scylla and Charybdis, between what I MUST teach (but know that won’t work) and what I CANNOT teach (and might work but I’m very unlikely to teach). Why, in the end, Hopkins and not Berger? And what will students miss if/when we drop Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde?

Maybe we should supply a list of what in each teacher’s opinion is worth reading, apart from what we manage to teach in those meagre 7 subjects, once students get their degree. It’s an idea. After all, they have the rest of their lives to read.

A STRANGE BOAST

An angry student comes to my office to tell me how badly I do my job because, in her view, her paper has been unfairly awarded an appallingly low grade. Yes, a 2 is low indeed. I agree.

As the temperature in the room rises I try explain to her, not as calm as I would like to be, that the 2 corresponds to the fact that even though the exercise is designed to teach students to integrate proper academic secondary sources into their papers, in hers there’s not a single quotation (some from the primary sources, yes). She then points out that the paper does include a bibliography but when I answer back that her sources are all inadequate (SparkNotes and similar non-academic websites exclusively) and that she clearly has not used the library, as we expected, she argues defiantly that she’s a working student and has no time to use the library. When I point out that the library opens on Saturday and has extended opening hours during the exam period, she boasts to my face that in the four years she’s been a university student she’s never been there and has managed to pass all her subjects satisfactorily. I feebly point out that I don’t understand how she can show off about this but, clearly, she still thinks it an oddity that a university teacher expects university students to use the library.

If you’re curious to know, I volunteered to have the student’s exercise assessed by another Literature teacher, who concurs with my own assessment. Yet, this is not my point today. My point is that I’m appalled that a student defending his or her work from a teacher’s criticism can actually boast about not using the library, when this is the whole point of the exercise she had submitted. How this can help generate a good mood for reviewing the paper is beyond me. Also, and most importantly, this student’s attitude tells volumes about what many students understand by a university education: just passing subjects, not at all learning. My other point is that there are shortcuts for those who can’t find their way into the library: a judicious use of the academic online resources that we do show how to use in class yields plenty of useful bibliography. There are many good journal articles out there for free and even complete books, but, to my surprise most students seem unable to find them despite the alleged internet proficiency of the younger generations.

So, here’s my message: it’s not so difficult to trick a Literature teacher into believing that a paper has been wholly researched at the library. What would irk any of my colleagues, I want to believe, is this strange, ugly boast that a university library has no place in a university education.

PS If you’re following the saga, I finally got a fully equipped classroom for my theatre subject!! Sadly, I had to waste time and energy and pester a vice-dean…

DID I SAY GREAT EXPECTATIONS?

Remember my last post? Now, this is what happens on my first day of the second semester this year 2010-11, third of the global financial crisis.

I find that I must teach my first year 20th Century Literature class in a gigantic classroom which holds about 40 more seats than required (88 students registered, actual attendance might be around 70, it might be lower as the course progresses). It’s so dark that I ask one of the students to raise the blinds and I end up demonstrating how to do it because she claims they’re not working –three blinds later, it’s still dark… in sunny Spain at 8:45. I’m on a high platform (two steps up) and, typically, students leave the first row empty, choosing to sit at the back, as far away from me as possible. One of them, sitting on row ten, I think, squints at me all the time, I’m not sure whether this is because she can’t see me perched up there (should I wear high heels?) or hear me (I’ve never used a microphone and hate the idea of using one). I have a computer, projector, internet, the whole caboodle but… not a monitor on the table. I have used this classroom before and I know that this means a crick in my neck by the time the lecture is over. I decide to use the blackboard for the first time in years and save the screen for when I really, really, need it. All considered, the lecture goes well but I’m quite hoarse today. Deep breath. More blackboard tomorrow and we’ll see how the students react when I tell them that the last 6 rows are off limits…

Disaster strikes with my second class. I’ve been working on a new Contemporary British Drama subject for about one year. I swear that I started planning this subject last Spring and I have plenty of witnesses for that. I had asked, as usual, for a fully equipped classroom thinking of using all kinds of media resources but as soon as I entered 302 I knew I’d been had. I can only describe this classroom as the most appalling place in the whole Facultat de Lletres, possibly including all the broom closets. 302 has no equipment whatsoever, which means that my careful preparation of internet resources to be shared with my students went down the drain. Two hours of my life wasted. It’s dark, it’s smelly (!), it has no platform where I can stand to be seen (I’m very small even in high heels), and my 30 odd students sit at pseudo-lab tables (this used to be the computer room) so large that I can hardly see them. There’s worse to come. There’s a whiteboard where someone scribbled something maybe three hours or maybe three months ago, I don’t know –what I know is that I can’t erase the writing. No computer, no board, black or white. Students burst out laughing when I show them that the board rubber and marker are… on a plate, yes, what you use for holding food. I email at once the corresponding vice-dean and brace myself for a whole disastrous semester.

Thank you very much indeed for guaranteeing the quality of my teaching. And sorry students, it’s not my fault.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (NO, IT’S NOT ABOUT DICKENS)

My second semester subjects begin tomorrow and I’m nervous in anticipation. Yes, I’ve been a university teacher for almost twenty years but I still have trouble sleeping the night before a new semester begins. The first lecture is always important to set the tone for the whole subject and my nervousness springs from this need to hit it right from the beginning. To this, which is common to all my semesters at UAB, I must add two novelties, one a problem, the other a challenge.

First, the problem. I’m used to teaching smallish groups of 50 students at the most, which is already too big for a second language Literature class which has to learn a language as they learn the content of a particular subject. My 20th century English Literature was last year already too big at 68 students, which is funny considering this time I’ll have 87. Since my usual teaching practice is not based on lecturing but on interacting with students, my main worry this time is my possible lack of methodological tools to give such a substantial class the quality teaching they surely expect. I don’t think I can, at least, not at the same level I usually work. Why the sudden increase? Well, easy: the Facultat has offered new degrees without hiring new staff; the degrees, combining two languages, have doubled the demand for English and, as you can see, increased my workload to absurd limits. Will the students learn as much as promised by the new degrees? No, of course not. I’ll do what I can and explain this to them.

Second, the challenge. I’ll be teaching a subject on Contemporary British Theatre and I have decided to make dramatised reading the main activity in the classroom. This means that students will be asked to prepare particular scenes from a selection of plays for classroom performance (within reasonable limits… we’re reading Sarah Kane’s Blasted among others…) and discussion. With 33 students last time I counted, this seems feasible enough though it turns out only 5 of them are men. The 28 women should be ready, therefore, for plenty of ‘cross-dressing’ I hadn’t anticipated –not to this extent. This might be fun, as it’ll give us a excuse to produce some truly radical versions of the scenes selected. I can’t wait to see Freud in Hysteria, played as a woman…

My great expectations are now at its highest and after months of planning I’m ready to see the faces of my new and old students. I do hope all goes well and that the mood is not spoiled.

A SENTIMENTAL MOMENT (A STUDENT SAYS THANKS)

One of my UOC students has the kindness of emailing me a message of thanks for my patience and efficiency –I hope this doesn’t sound too smug– and I feel a knot in my throat. The message comes at the right time, for I have spent a good two hours over lunch commiserating with a colleague about how we’re not working for the university we dreamt of when we made the choice of becoming teachers. And I don’t mean we’d rather be elsewhere (um, what are things like at Harvard?), I mean that we’re disappointed with the whole institution in Spain.

I should think that human beings need encouragement to progress and fulfil their aims in life and we, university teachers, are no exception. However, in my experience the pat on the back hardly ever comes, which is why this student’s generous message almost upset me, unexpected as it was. There have been others, as I guess all teachers get now and then, but always from just a handful of students, hardly ever from colleagues or the institution, the one actually employing us or the whole Spanish university. Do we do it so badly?

The colleagues I have discussed this with –the constant lack of encouragement– often point out that we are being punished by the institution, the Government (national and local) and Spanish society at large for what is perceived to be a privileged situation. Our irregular work schedules, the incomprehension regarding what we actually do apart from what happens in the classroom, the apparent long holidays, the rumoured high salaries… all these factors play against us. Not against sportspeople, that’s funny…

In addition, we must put up regularly with a stream of abuse from those who complain about the endogamic nature of the Spanish university, forgetting that jobs are few, badly paid and that the Spanish university thrives, if it does, on our collectively giving for free energies that have indeed improved it much since the 1980s. We have also been abroad to learn and train, by the way. If things go on like this, the best in the younger generation will take a good note of this and leave, to be replaced by others who won’t be any better, despite the widespread assumption that foreign is always best.

Thanks, my UOC student, for your thanks. It’s the breath of fresh air I just needed to face my new classes next week, the breath of fresh air that will carry me till July, that’s how little it takes.

THEATRE FOR KIDDIES, NO KIDDING!!

When preparing a new subject what is usually a free-time activity for fun suddenly becomes work. I’m now reading non-stop for a subject on Contemporary British Drama (1980s-2000s), which I haven’t taught in a long time and truly look forward to teaching this second semester, and, so, now attending any play means work, yes, even a play for kids.

The one I attended recently, a danced version of Pinotxo by Cía. Roseland at Teatre Poliorama in Barcelona, left me open-mouthed with its daring, clever multi-media approach (have a look at https://il.youtube.com/watch?v=xLx5yzKM3bA&feature=related). Many adults shouted ‘Bravo’ at the end and this has been an habitual reaction in the about 10 plays for kids I’ve seen in the last year and a half. I haven’t found really anything so fully satisfactory in the theatre for adults (I’ll make two exceptions: El Ball and Agost, both at TNC).

I was, like many people I’m sure, prejudiced, thinking that kiddies’ theatre could by no means compare to adult theatre. I was SO wrong I don’t know where to begin to apologise to all those companies that work SO hard not just at entertaining children but at making them sophisticated theatre spectators: Roseland, Ego Petits, Comediants, la Joventut de la Faràndula, La Trepa, Més Tumàquet… Hey, the only thing I can say is, check if there’s any kid in your family or circle of friends willing to give theatre a try and go. (They’re not always up to it, no matter how enticing you may sound… by the way, it’s just a bit more expensive than cinema and can even be cheaper. It’s worth it!).

The kids take in their stride every experimental play they see -and, believe me, they are experimental to a degree you would never guess- as the most normal thing. Indeed, not all adults can be so open-minded, though I know that you can’t turn a child into a theatre spectator if s/he doesn’t have the inclination. The only thing that worries me is that it’s usually us, the adults, clapping wildly at the end while few kiddies show the same exact degree of enthusiasm. Of course, being so young they can’t know that what they’re being offered is truly special and it’s hard to explain this to them unless they’re subjected to a temporary diet of very bad theatre (um, where?).

Paradoxically, with all this exciting theatre the kids might grow up to be jaded, soon-bored spectators and abandon the theatre eventually, if you know what I mean. I also worry about how the gap is filled between the ages of, say, 10, when kids probably simply reject kiddies theatre as too childish and, 18 (16?), when they’re ready for adult theatre. Or maybe earlier? No idea, really… That’s how little I, as a Literature teacher, know about the wildly underrated theatre for children and about kids as theatre spectators. Time to learn more.

31.2%, THE LOWEST OF THE LOW

Second posting in a day, yes, I have the urge today.

Here’s Spain for you: there were two news items yesterday worth contrasting. On the one hand, a report by the European Commission revealed that in Spain 31.2% of the 18-24 age segment abandon their secondary education studies. The European average is just 14%, high enough for the Commission to launch a plan to curb it down urgently (see http://ec.europa.eu/education/news/news2768_en.htm). An article in El Público blames the Spanish horror on the easy money that young people could make in Spain until the real state bubble burst out (see http://www.publico.es/espana/359168/el-auge-del-ladrillo-disparo-el-fracaso-escolar-en-espana). This is funny because the picture my students offered of jobs for the young was quite bleak also at the time of supposed bonanza, courtesy of Aznar’s labour reform. Anyway, youth unemployment is today 51%, the highest in the European Union. Wonder why…

Connect this to the other news item: retirement age has been increased to 67 (university teacher retire at 70, by the way). The main trade unions were yesterday celebrating, as they claimed that the agreement with the Government regulated retirement at an earlier age, provided the worker had been paying his/her retirement fee or contribution to the Social Security for 37,5 years. Now: my dad started working aged 14, so he could have retired aged 51,5 (he pre-retired, like too many workers made redundant at the state’s expense, at 61). The joke is that with that 51% unemployment and all the lousy contracts few young people start contributing to their pensions in earnest before they’re 30. Check this: 30 + 37,5 = 67,5. Nice, huh?

Here’s what missing: unless young people go back to school to finish their secondary education (and let’s hope the standards go up), we, the oldies, won’t get a pension. Much less if the unemployment figures stay so high and if the few lucky ones who get a job are as ill-treated by employers as they are now. Check this: I have a very nice student employed as a waiter by a very famous luxury hotel here in BCN –he’s sub-employed through a temp agency and recently his 10 euros an hour went down to 8. He has been unable to attend classes regularly because even though he explained he needed a regular schedule when he signed up, he’s been given a different one every week. And he is, remember, trying to complete his university education to give all of us a better future, with pensions.

In Trainspotting Renton famously says that Scots are “the lowest of the low.” Now, they’re not: we are. So, back to teaching, see if I can secure my own pension…

GROWING PARANOIA AND FRUSTRATION (MORE ON MARKING ESSAYS)

Marking papers is exhausting because it has become a sad game of suspicion and also because I can’t help being appalled at how shallow secondary education has become –yes, I said secondary. First part: my second year students plagiarise from sources I can easily find and, then, they claim they’re actually quoting ‘indirectly.’ Others plagiarise from sources I can’t find and it’s a case of their word against mine. Second part: students who have produced very weak papers in which apparently no guidelines have been followed claim they have indeed followed them and are frustrated that what they thought were good papers are actually failures. I’m tired, very tired, which is not the mood a teacher needs to prepare for the oncoming semester.

So, dear students: when suddenly perfect sentences appear in the middle of your papers, written in a vocabulary and with a syntax that only a native speaker with a PhD would use, I grow paranoid. There should be a name for those sentences that somehow jump out of the text to stare at me and challenge me to find where they come from. I HATE wasting my time checking the internet for ‘evidence.’ All teachers do. It’s absolutely necessary to learn the difference between quoting (using “quotation marks” and a reference for the author, book, page…) and simply copying; it’s also necessary to understand that paraphrasis means repeating ‘in your own words’ what the author means, not copying without quotation marks. How come you don’t know this? And how do we distinguish the cheeky, cheating students from the confused ones?

In the tutorials with second-year students who had failed their papers I feel increasingly sorry for them, as, one by one, they reveal the limitations of their secondary education: this is the first time they write a paper (just 1000 words long), use bibliography, are asked to quote. Many present papers with a nice bibliography they claim to have read but simply don’t see that if it is not quoted I can’t know how they have used it. Quotations are often dropped into the text, rather than use to support an argument they’re developing. They have checked the guidelines, they tell me, read the sample essay. What can I tell them, I wonder? Read articles, there’s no more guidance I can offer. Of course, we have lost 6 credits, a whole semester, in the first year with the transition to the new degree, 6 valuable credits which might have helped us teach our students writing techniques. Instead, they’re taking who knows what.

Then, there’s this other matter: the furry ball in the stomach. This is what I feel I have when I must see a student who hasn’t played by the rules but who doesn’t understand why I’m so annoyed at this. It’s tense, it’s ugly and I simply don’t like it. And, typically, it always happens when it’s too late, and the wretched paper in question has been marked, not during the semester, when I may spend my office hours doing something else for lack of visits… Wasted resources, as I said in a previous post.