THE HANDSOME ACADEMIC AND THE WOMAN WRITER

My good friend José Francisco Fernández Sánchez, from the University of Almería, emails me to announce good news: the volume gathering together the complete short stories by Margaret Drabble, A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, is just out (see http://www.amazon.com/Day-Life-Smiling-Woman-Complete/dp/0547550405). He’s the proud, happy editor. Congratulations!! José Francisco includes in his message a link to a radio interview with Drabble, in which the volume’s publication is discussed (http://www.npr.org/2011/04/24/135611071/stories-of-changing-english-life-in-smiling-woman). A delighted Drabble explains that “He wrote to me and he said, ‘I’ve assembled all your stories’ (…) and he edited the text, and he’d just done it out of pure love. (…). It was a bit like a fairy story, to find a handsome young man who really loved your work and wanted to see it in print.” I must smile, for he is handsome –and this is a fact, not an opinion. And yes, I can imagine how she must have felt, getting this marvellous token of admiration for her talent…
Here’s the funny thing: I dare not send the link with Drabble’s praise of José Francisco to our national AEDEAN email list for I’m not sure whether Drabble’s sweet comment will be welcomed by our academic peers. Will they sneer? Will José Francisco’s efforts be mocked by some envious academic, spurned by his or her idol? Ugly of me to suspect my own peers yes, I know, but I’ve seen worse… Still, I feel that he deserves much praise for what Drabble reads, correctly, as an act of ‘pure love.’ So, here’s my entry, to remind ourselves that what we do for academic reasons is often not so far from a fan’s passionate dedication. And it is often shared by other fans, as you can see from the rapturous reviews the volume has got from a handful of admiring readers at Amazon.com.
Of course, what I’m itching to say is that, inevitably, as a woman, I notice the gender issues raised by Drabble’s grateful praise of José Francisco’s homage. Fancy a male writer saying this of a female academic in our times… Yet, this is also the time when, finally, a male academic can kneel at the feet of a female writer and show truly felt admiration. This happens in the same week when, here in Spain, a fragile, 85-year-old Ana María Matute is finally awarded the third Cervantes prize received by a woman writer in 35 years. No wonder Nuria Amat complained that women writers working in Spanish are still ninguneadas (see http://www.uimp.es/blogs/prensa/2009/06/23/nuria-amat-critica-que-las-escritoras-hispanas-son-ocultadas-por-el-mercado-editor-la-academia-la-critica-y-los-lectores/ ).
So: handsome the man, yes, but even more handsome the gesture, the book. I just wish many other, male and female, academics would learn from the example and do more for the love of the women who write.

THE OTHER BOOKS: THE PROBLEM OF NON-FICTION

I seem to be developing an allergy to novels, for causes I find hard to diagnose. I have frequently heard that when compulsive readers reach a certain age (em, mid-forties) we get tired of novels and seek in other genres the literary and intellectual satisfaction we crave for. This may be happening to me, as for the first time in my reading life, I’m avoiding novels (except the ones I teach, of course…). What am I reading instead? Drama, poetry and everything else, that is to say, non-fiction.

I find the label ‘non-fiction’ lazy and silly; it sounds even worse in Spanish or Catalan, trust me. Yet, as often happens with lazy, silly labels (think: Romanticism) it has stuck and it is beginning to create a serious problem: how to define the genre (non-genre?) it names. Strictly speaking, the problem has been around for quite some time and what I really mean is that now that I’m itching to teach a course (sooner or later) I find myself concerned with it. That’s egotism for you.

Surfing the net, I’ve come across two interesting lists of non-fiction, both American as, somehow, the label seems to be more popular across the Ocean (Amazon.com includes the category in its best-sellers lists, Amazon.co.uk doesn’t). Check the list of 100 best non-fiction books at the Modern Library website (http://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-nonfiction/) and the counter-list at CounterPunch (http://www.counterpunch.org/top100nf.html), which also includes a twin list of non-fiction in non-English… Ualah!!, as kiddies say today. The horizon expands and suddenly I have almost 300 more interesting books to read. A miracle!

During surfing I also come across Lee Gutkind’s label ‘creative non-fiction’ (see the eponymous journal he founded at http://www.creativenonfiction.org/), which he uses to distinguish, with less than meridian clarity, non-fiction of a literary cast from the more utilitarian kind. ‘Non-fiction’ used to be called the ‘essay’ and even ‘belles-lettres’ but Gutkind seems to be guilty of persuading the National Endowment for the Arts to embrace ‘creative non-fiction’ as the comme-il-faut label in 1983. He mentions as examples of the best 20th century non-fiction classics like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, “books that communicate information (reportage) in a scenic, dramatic fashion.” Of course, the genre becomes fully established with Truman Capote’s intense In Cold Blood. That might be it, for my own more recent favourites respond to that description: Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, Deborah Cadbury’s The Dinosaur Hunters, Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm and even Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down (in Spanish, Ignacio Elguero’s Los niños de los Chiripitifláuticos).

However, this category of the ‘lively reportage’ is to narrow to encompass all of (creative) non-fiction. The lists I’ve mentioned include plenty of other kinds of valuable non-fiction: from The Education of Henry Adams to Aspects of the Novel, passing through James Watson’s The Double Helix and even Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (in non-English, some highlights are: Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, Barthers’ Mythologies, Rigoberta Menchu’s Autobiography and Hassan Fathy’s Architecture for the Poor: An Experiment in Rural Egypt).

I’m beginning to think that ‘non-fiction’ simply means an interesting book in prose which is not a novel (and not poetry and not drama)… This would be the equivalent of calling men ‘non-women,’ which might have a point but is hardly a useful, self-defining label. I do know there are narrower categories (the Wikipedia entry for ‘non-fiction’ gathers together 30 genres under this label!!), but I also know that when I visit the library I do not use them. I just want a non-novel, which, funnily enough includes drama (also fiction!!) and poetry (not quite, unless we’re talking Beowulf…).

More thinking to do… My, this never ends.

EUROPEAN DOCTORATE: SOME DOUBTS

This entry is prompted by a suggestion from one of my senior colleagues, recommending that we invite EU (= non-Spanish) researchers to the examining boards of our doctoral students. At UAB we do have something called ‘Doctorado con mención europea’ (European Doctorate), which entails quite a complicated system of validation for dissertations: a three-month stay abroad for the candidate (self-financed!) tutored by a local researcher; two reports once the dissertation is completed by two other non-Spanish researchers and a fourth EU specialist, invited to the board. The four non-Spanish EU specialists get nothing for their pains (well, one gets invited to Barcelona…), which makes finding them a matter of appealing to friendship or flattery. Although the internet suggests this scheme is active all over Europe, still today, after asking repeatedly the corresponding administrators, I can’t say whether this is a UAB, Spanish or European validation system. No one seems to know…

Here’s a sample of my experience with European doctorates. I tried to set up an exchange with a British university I won’t name. I send one of my doctoral students to study with a specialist, who is, indeed, very willing to help (because she knows me, not because she’d heard about the European Doctorate) and I get one of theirs to tutor. Sending my student is no problem at all, but the student I was supposed to tutor at UAB was told by this British university that a) they’re not aware that the European Doctorate exists and b) the stay at UAB would not be considered part of the study time for his dissertation. When he asked whether I could be an external examiner on his board (with the full support of his supervisor), the answer was that foreign specialists are only invited for linguistic reasons (i.e. if the dissertation deals with a foreign language). So much for reciprocity.

This might be unusual, or pure bad luck, but I witnessed recently yet another example of European miscommunication that left me reeling. A colleague invited to the examining board of a doctoral student who had fulfilled the expensive, demanding requirements for a European Doctorate two non-Spanish EU specialists (French, I think). I have no idea why but one of them decided it was the right time and place to teach a lesson in European assessment strategies and, after quite an ugly debate, awarded the candidate a lower mark than she deserved. Why? Because, in her own words, this is what the dissertation really deserved using a European grading scale. This clearly hinted that we, Spaniards, overvalue our PhD dissertations -which might be the case?- but also that we are NOT European. By the way: there’s no such thing as a European grading scale for PhD dissertations, although in view of this incident we might urgently need one, as national grading traditions clearly differ from each other.

My two examples might just be examples of very bad luck but I worry that by calling foreign specialists to our examining boards here in Spain we’re sending out the wrong message: that we need them to validate what we do, for we are not good enough. I have seen websites by other British universities with the same rules we use for European Doctorates but I wonder who is invited to their boards (German and French specialists?). Are we going to build yet another hierarchical system by which the aim of reciprocity results in having a jet set of top European specialists (German, British, French…) validating what their less efficient neighbours do? Am I simply too pessimistic, as usual?

PLATE-SPINNING (MY CIRCUS ACT, OR THE UNIVERSITY AS A CIRCUS)

I was head of department for a brief stint (2005-8), a hectic time that left me with the perfect metaphor for what we, academics, do: plate-spinning. Recall the stereotypical Chinese circus artist, keeping a dozen plates furiously spinning: that’s us. Preparing and marking exercises, writing paperwork, preparing and teaching and classes, answering email (lots of…), seeing visitors at office hours, making appointments, organising and attending conferences, reading dissertations… and that’s just a typical day. Today for instance has already had a little of all this, much of it through email – and it’s only 14:00. Writing this blog entry feels actually like a break.

I realise now that doctoral students writing their PhD dissertations are immensely privileged as they can claim priority for their research, which we, tenured teachers, cannot do. This week, for instance, I need to decide whether to spend Friday marking exams or working at the library on a conference paper. Whatever is not done on Friday will have to be done on Saturday, so my guess is that the exams will take part of my weekend (either that or work during my Easter… holidays?). Then, just yesterday, I got a 400 page dissertation by one of my doctoral students; I am already reading another one sitting on my table… The problem with the plates is not just that they must be kept spinning but that unexpected ones keep falling from the sky…

What about my writing, I wonder? I do write, of course, but almost always to a deadline (conference, collective volume…). What is fast disappearing from my life as a researcher is the free-choice article, the one you embark on just because you need to say something in particular that some journal might pick up. I don’t know how I managed to write one last autumn… The one I want to write this semester is not even at the stage of basic bibliographical research. As for books, I have no idea how I have managed to publish a few, for the one I’ve been working on for the last three years has been actually on stand-by for one and a half. Maybe I need an academic wife, that’s some thought for a feminist…

I blame Oxbridge novels and films, though I couldn’t name one in particular, for the very wrong view of academic life as a peaceful, sedate oasis of intellectual cultivation. I don’t seem to find the peace and as for the cultivation… Perhaps I’m just getting old and losing the capacity to sacrifice more of my so-called free time to my job, or maybe I just can’t cope with so many plates.

End of the break…

TESTING, TESTING, ONE, TWO, THREE: MAKING SURE LITERATURE STUDENTS READ LITERATURE

A student in our Department has bragged (in a classroom, before a teacher and classmates) that he has passed an English Literature subject (mine) with a high mark without having read any of the set texts. How? Quite possibly, he has attended classes regularly, seen film adaptations and downloaded guides to the set texts. Yes, it can be done. The result of his boast is that we, the English Literature teachers, have started a discussion about whether we should introduce compulsory, eliminatory reading tests: you don’t pass them, you’re not awarded a mark for the corresponding exercise.

There was a hilarious moment in our last meeting when a colleague with a degree in English from Edinburgh University explained that as a student there he had to pass a pre-semester eliminatory reading test. Yes, he was expected to read ALL the set texts BEFORE the subject started; students who failed the reading test were, simply, not allowed to register for this subject. I assume not even Edinburgh can hold today these high expectations about students’ willingness to read. I explained to him, though he knows this perfectly well, that it’s even difficult to test students before teaching each text, as they don’t buy the books with time enough to read them, if they buy them at all. We publish the complete syllabus for all subjects in July but not even second semester students buy all the texts in advance. I was told by one of them that they buy books about two weeks before we use them in class, as it’s too expensive to buy them all at once. Logically, they read the books, if we’re lucky, as we teach them. The only option is testing them after teaching is over, not quite a guarantee that classes will work better.

So: point one, students don’t read – will the tests encourage them to read? Maybe. My own resistance to testing has also much to do with the fact that we’ll have to use class time and mark even more exercises (not to mention preparing the tests themselves). I find it very depressing and disappointing that we need to check that university students do what they’re supposed to do, but they’re leaving us no other option. Now, again, how can a student pass an English Literature subject without reading the books? The answer is simple: what we test is their acquisition of the intellectual skills required to write literary criticism. In an exam, we don’t ask what happens in chapter 18 of Wuthering Heights but how the structure chosen by Emily Brontë conditions our understanding of the love story between Cathy and Heathcliff. We teach reading, but we test writing based on reading. A clever person can perfectly understand this and, well, cheat (see above).

What depresses me even more than having to introduce reading tests is that an intelligent student may boast about not having read a set of wonderful books: Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Heart of Darkness. It is sad to see how some people prefer flaunting their ignorance rather than learn. A sign of our times, no doubt. Some day, hopefully, the tide will turn and we’ll get eager, self-motivated students asking for more (and if you’re already here, do ask us, please, we love to teach those willing to learn). Meanwhile, I’ll sharpen my red pencils and get ready to mark those irritating reading tests… another waste of time.

FOUR IS COMPANY (WHAT SHAW IMAGINED FOR ELIZA)

As everyone who’s read or seen Pygmalion knows, Shaw failed to give his play a coherent ending, which is why audiences have always fantasised that, somehow, Eliza and Higgins find happiness together, in love. This is, of course, nonsense, as they make an impossible couple, something both realise but that Eliza, like the audience, resists. Our deep indoctrination in romantic fiction makes the happy ending inevitable, a point which Shaw stubbornly disputes in his absurd epilogue (absurd because it can’t possibly convince either reader or spectator).

The romantic option triumphs because not even today have we managed to imagine an alternative. Reading the play with my first year students, we came to the passage towards the end of Act V when Higgins, after calling Eliza “damned impudent slut” (!), congratulates her for having finally understood that releasing her pent up anger is far better “than snivelling; better than fetching slippers”. Happy to see that, since the girl is no longer afraid of him, she can finally stand on her own two feet, Higgins imagines a life in which “You and I and Pickering will be three old bachelors together instead of only two men and a silly girl.” Yes, a sexless threesome in which, besides, Eliza should be degendered –or, rather, treated as an honorary (celibate) man. Not quite what a woman would dream of, though I do see Higgins’ point. At least, he shows some imagination, we don’t.

I take it that Shaw was joking, or maybe so out of touch with his own society that he truly imagined that his singular threesome –the gentleman, the bully and the lady– could succeed. At any rate, Higgins’ proposal opens untold of possibilities beyond coupledom and the family. It’s close to current flat sharing, only it’s not conditioned by money. Nor by age, and this is what’s truly odd. Fancy a young woman living with two middle-aged men and enjoying it (or for that matter, a young man living with two middle-aged women). Couldn’t they have fun and live in perfect companionship if they chose to? (of course, there’s a Mrs. Pearce to pick up the dirty clothes…)

Funnily enough, the play’s epilogue leads to this final solution, the threesome, complemented with the addition of a fourth member, who seems to be there just to satisfy Eliza’s sexual cravings: pretty Freddy. Shaw gave Higgins a classic Oedipal backstory. Mrs Higgins, that formidable mamma, would, ironically, make a great mother-in-law but Higgins simply won’t have it. He chooses celibacy over young women (or men…), pretending he cannot understand either Pickering’s admiration or Eliza’s feelings. Pickering, surely, must be happy in Higgins’ particular household, as he’s a pliable man who loves the company of those he loves. Eliza, lucky girl, gets a gentle ‘father’, a gentle husband, and a most special friend. And Higgins gets to enjoy her company without the bother of being her husband.

I’m sure poor Cathy Earnshaw would have killed to get her brother Hindley, her husband Edgar and her ‘special friend’ Heathcliff together under the roof of Wuthering Heights, living in perfect domestic bliss. Instead, you see?, she must let herself die.

Eliza, yes, you lucky girl…

THE DAY I THREW A PAIR OF SLIPPERS AT A STUDENT IN CLASS (AND HE SEEMED TO ENJOY IT!)

Three of my first year students were supposed to offer a dramatised reading of Pygmalion’s Act IV. In it, after her successful impersonation of a lady at a posh party, Eliza quarrels bitterly with her teacher Higgins because she thinks he’s not considered in depth what’s to become of her once this odd experiment is over. I didn’t want the students to simply read, I aimed this time at a more properly theatrical performance, and, so I was carrying simple props, like a couple of plastic envelopes shaped as the slippers she throws at him at the start of the quarrel.

Now, the girl supposed to play Eliza never turned up, aghhhh, and, whether dismayed or inspired, I’m not sure, I volunteered to play the role. My, that was fun!! I got to throw the ‘slippers’ at the student playing Higgins and he had the pleasure of calling me names. I recommend this to any teacher, really!!! What amazing therapy!

Also, I think the point of the exercise was accomplished, indeed for my own benefit: we learned to see in the text what is usually missed in our fast, silent, private reading. And it turns out I myself had missed a key passage with Pickering’s comments on personal style, the very subject of my previous entry. This is what the student playing Pickering read, and I finally heard, when Higgins complains that the party was mortally boring and “The whole thing has been simple purgatory”:

PICKERING. You’ve never been broken in properly to the social routine. I rather enjoy dipping into it occasionally myself: it makes me feel young again. Anyhow, it was a great success: an immense success. I was quite frightened once or twice because Eliza was doing it so well. You see, lots of the real people can’t do it at all: they’re such fools that they think style comes by nature to people in their position; and so they never learn. There’s always something professional about doing a thing superlatively well. (my emphasis).

There you are!! Pickering, the party animal thirsting for glamour. He’s boasting that Eliza shone out almost professionally and I see here the pride of her other Pygmalion. Sorry, Shaw, I’d missed this but I’ll still insist that Pickering should be allowed to leave the closet…