FORCED ENTERTAINMENT (THE THEATRE COMPANY, NOT A UNIVERSITY LECTURE…)

Yesterday I had the good fortune of seeing the British theatre company Forced Entertainment http://www.forcedentertainment.com here in Barcelona’s CCCB… and for just 7 euros!!! What a luxury, and what a beautiful way to close the great experience that teaching contemporary British theatre has been this semester. In case you’ve never heard of them, Tim Etchell’s company specialises in post-dramatic theatre, which is a trendy, vague way of calling shows which refuse to follow rules regarding plot or characterisation (perhaps ‘anti-drama’ would be a better label?). The one I saw, Spectacular, had two actors on stage: a very nice man wearing a skeleton mask and disguise, which suggest he is death one way or another, and a woman. She ‘dies’ in absolute agony for most of the show as he softly tells the audience how the performance is not at all progressing as usual. This lasted for about 80 minutes, more or less like a university lecture, and this is why I thought that ‘forced entertainment’ is an ironic label that applies to performing as fitly as to teaching. Who is forced? I’m not so sure…

To my surprise about 10 members of the audience (150 in total?) left in the middle of the show (in two separate groups, I mean). They were not entertained, forcefully or otherwise. I was glad then that students don’t do that (but I also wondered how long will it be before they catch the habit… now they go to the bathroom at least once). I myself managed not to look at my watch, always a good sign that I’m having a good time at the theatre, though I saw others doing it. One of my students, by the way, was there, earning extra points, but she left too fast for me to chat with her about the show. I did chat with my companions, two doctoral students who specialise in contemporary British drama, and we agreed that some forms of entertainment entail hard work –not as you’re entertained but in preparation for the kind of entertainment you’re being offered. We found the show funny, witty and deep and apparently so did many in the audience who cheered, clapped and even bravoed the actors (poor Claire, dying hard for so long…) As I walked out of CCCB, however, I heard a young man complain to his mates that a friend had conned him by promising that Forced Entertainment were the best company in the world. “Fancy what the worst must be like,” he quipped. At least he had stayed the whole show through.

Again: why put up with something not meant for you? I am not saying you should enjoy Forced Entertainment. I believe their name is an open, ironic acknowledgement that audiences sometimes put themselves through very odd experiences in their search for entertainment and/or enlightenment. What I’m saying is that none should force themselves to take up something they don’t enjoy, whether this is postdramatic theatre or a degree in English, with plenty of Literature.

So: find whatever you enjoy, do enjoy it and don’t spoil other people’s pleasure in what they love. There you are: today’s message.

RAISING MY QUIZZICAL EYEBROW (ABOUT A LITERATURE QUIZ)

Yes, I’m always complaining, I know. I wish I could say that all the first-year students that took the English Literature quiz last Thursday passed it with flying colours. The truth is, mark this, that only 16 out of 59 managed to score at least 50 points (out of 100).

What was the quiz about? Based on our handbook, Introduction to English Literature, it required students to identify the author for each entry in a list of 50 titles and also to assign to him/her to a period or school that had to be chosen from a closed list. It was devised as an excuse for students to read the handbook, produce a basic chronological scheme for all of Modern English Literature and learn to identify as many authors as possible, all of this in preparation for the rest of the Literature subjects in the degree. Instead, I very much fear that many students assumed that the quiz was a simple, terribly old-fashioned memoristic exercise. Perhaps, some just highlighted authors and titles on the page and never read the rest of the handbook?

I know that the quiz was not too easy but the case is that most students did very poorly despite our making the period list available in advance, and despite warnings from the first day of the course that students should revise for it little by little (at least 16 were listening…). 10 students scored less than 20 points and to me this amounts to openly declaring they hadn’t bothered to study at all (or had they studied with the wrongest possible method? What could this be?). Beyond these cases what truly puzzles me is how two poems read and commented on in class a few days before the quiz remained unidentified in most cases. And get this: Shakespeare was identified as the author of Ulysses at least twice, whereas King Lear remained authorless also at least twice. In one case the student did identify Shakespeare as this play’s author but placed good old Will squarely in the early 20th century. Gloriously, a student named Jules Verne as the author of The War of the Worlds not even realising this was an English Literature quiz (or did she think Verne was English?). Another managed to fill in the complete exam but scored only 7 points out of 100, practically a statistical impossibility.

These are students who have chosen to take a degree in English Studies, whether combined with another language or not. My guess is that for many the fact that they need to take Literature subjects comes as a nasty surprise. For some very odd reason, many of our students claim to be interested in the language but appear not to be interested in the culture that generates it. The quiz results show that they lack the capacity to soak up information, which is not just the only way to accumulate cultural capital but also to progress in all professions. Fancy a doctor scoring low in a quiz about the location of bones, muscles and organs in the body! Aaaahhhh, how scary!

My own memory is beginning to fail me and I catch myself making mistakes and forgetting names or titles. I blame Google (or, rather my bad habit of relying on it to check forgotten things) and I try to compensate by keeping lists of what I read and see (I mean films and plays). It’s funny: first I made lists to learn, now I make them to remember. The point is, however, that I have spent my whole academic life since the age of 18 making lists, and I am sure they will stay with me until the day I die. Sometimes I only manage to retain absolute garbage (who cares if Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven or cut her wrists?) but without the sedimentation left by all those lists I don’t think I would be able to teach. Or read, or understand the world I live in. I don’t know any other shortcut to feed my brain. No input, no output.

You might think that knowing that Charles Dickens wrote The Old Curiosity Shop has no use except perhaps winning in a TV quiz show (not many of them are that sophisticated any more…). Yet knowing which 50 authors wrote certain 50 titles means you do know something substantial about English Literature: this is your basic map to guide you in a journey which is exciting and rewarding.

The question for me in the end is whether you really want to be here, at the starting point and with me as your guide. Refusing to learn where we’re going is, for me, like travelling to Egypt ignoring all about the pyramids – it can be done, but what’s the point?

THE HANDBOOK OF THE PHD DISSERTATION SUPERVISOR: IS THERE ONE?

This cruel month of May is turning out to be quite peculiar in my academic life as regards doctoral dissertations. Today is 23, and in the three weeks of May I’ve gone through: an examining board for a dissertation supervised by someone else, the defence (or viva) of the second PhD dissertation I’ve supervised, the thorough editing of the my third supervised dissertation. Yes, that’s plenty.

Just check this: it’s taken me 20 hours to read/correct/comment on this third doctoral dissertation (380 pages), now on its final stage. Yet, my university supposes that the total amount of hours spent on a doctoral student is only 30 (computed when the dissertation is submitted, nothing along the 3 or 4 years we’ve been working together). This means that supposedly I’ve helped my student only 10 hours along the rough path he’s chosen. Well… (MA dissertations count as 5 hours – the one I’m supervising now, 55 pages long, has gone through 5 complete rewritings so far).

So here’s my question: where’s the limit? How much energy should one invest on someone else’s dissertation? Of course, we supervise PhD students for the glory of our CVs, since we get no economic reward whatsoever for them and those paltry 30 hours do nothing except engross the amount of hours I already give my university for free. If one is lucky and the student writes and thinks well, the whole process is logically easier and reading the final version amounts to making a note, say, once every 10 pages. Now, if the student has problems thinking and writing well the process of reading his/her intermediate and final texts may be agony (say 10 notes for every page…). But, where do we draw the line? As I’ve been explaining in diverse entries, in Spain it is assumed that both the student and the supervisor have done their best; furthermore, the supervisor is supposed to prevent dissertations deserving less than an A from being submitted (to a board of tired, overworked colleagues). Ergo: faced with a problematic dissertation, which might never get an A, the supervisor is placed in practice in a very tight corner. Every typo, every wobbly section subtitle, every neglected secondary source will count against him/ her. The only solution seems editing the candidate’s dissertation to one’s thorough satisfaction, as if we were his or her examiner or even the candidate him/herself.

Yet, I wonder whether editing is part of the supervisor’s job description. I’ll remind my readers that I work in a second-language department mainly with PhD students for whom English is not their native language. It’s practically impossible to discuss ideas without discussing the kind of English in which they’re couched. I don’t know how this will work with the two native speakers of English I’m supervising, but whether you ask for a sample of writing in advance or not, there’s no guarantee that the PhD dissertation will be immaculate. In this, possibly our worst enemy is that we must always rush. PhD students are all exhausted at the end of three or four years and want to get rid of their baby as soon as possible, often before it reaches full term. We, as the midwives, face the difficult task of risking a still birth… or finish the pregnancy ourselves!!

A friend told me recently that his own PhD supervisor warned him that he’d only accept supervising his dissertation on condition that he was never bothered with it. Yes, you heard me. When my friend called him to ask for help he needed badly, his supervisor (who never ever met him) reminded him of his initial warning. As my friend is brilliant, his supervisor got for free, as we say in Spain, another medal for the collection.

Cheeky, awful, yes, but maybe a system that thinks that supervising a PhD dissertation along 3 or 4 years and helping to make it outstanding takes ONLY 30 hours deserves this, I don’t know.

PIERRE BAYARD’S HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOUR’VE NEVER READ: IS IT REALLY TONGUE-IN-CHEEK?

(A brief note to say that this week-long absence from this blog feels much longer. May and not April is the cruellest month, if we judge by the overwhelming –or underwhelming– feeling that Spring is here, classes soon to end but pressure on our shoulders is higher than ever. Every conversation with a colleague ends in depression and commiseration. Blame our politicians. Deep breath).

Perhaps, you’re already familiar with Pierre Bayard’s deliciously wicked best-seller How to Talk about Books We’ve Never Read (2007). If you aren’t, go and buy it or check it out of your local library. This is a book in which, as its title indicates, the author –a well-known French professor of Literature– makes the most of the fact that teaching and criticism function without students and teachers really reading the books they discuss. He presents his argumentation in favour of non-reading in a witty way, which, however, I’m not sure how to read. I understand that Bayard is writing tongue-in-cheek but I’m too worried by what goes on in class to relax and enjoy the fun.

Bayard lives in another galaxy, as far as I’m concerned, in which people have conversations about books (apparently in parties…), the chattering classes are important enough in the social landscape and, get this, students WANT to discuss books even though they haven’t read them. His main point is that SHAME prevents academics and other intellectuals, or simply educated people, from acknowledging they haven’t read a book (in students’ case, it’s pure cheekiness). This might be like that in sophisticated France but in plain Spain literary conversation is rare even among Literature colleagues (we discuss paperwork), TV programmes on reading are buried in a corner (as they deserve, since they are embarrassingly… bookish), and Literature students simply don’t open their mouths in class most of the time. Except to yawn. In my face.

Bayard’s idea of shame doesn’t seem to play a significant role. Every Literature teacher I know will simply declare without embarrassment they don’t know a particular book they haven’t read. Ulysses is widely unread, though I understand that not having read Hamlet is a bit too extreme for an English Literature teacher. Students used to claim they had read everything in the syllabus not to lose face but what disarms us is how readily they accept today that they don’t read and don’t even like it. OUR students, here, in English Studies, not the students in, say, Medicine or Law (probably they read more, I don’t know).

Recently a colleague scared the bejeesus out of us, Literature teachers, by saying that perhaps students’ autonomy includes their autonomous decision not to read. No, it doesn’t –Literature students simply DO NOT have the right not to read. They have the DUTY to read. If they don’t want to accept it, they can go elsewhere with they’re right not to read. I admit, as Bayard points out, that many teachers lecture or write about books they may not have read (hopefully, he means the books one mentions in passing, not the set texts!!) but we know ABOUT LITERATURE, that is to say, as he says, about how books connect with each other. And if we know, this is because we’ve read plenty, including histories of Literature.

The problem Bayard can’t discuss, of course, is that even when students read, many don’t read, that is to say, don’t understand. Lying on my table are 63 exams based on a question which had to be answered in reference to a passage. Strictly speaking, only 2 have READ the passage well (= have developed critical thinking about it). The rest offer a mish-mash of plot summary, badly digested class notes and observations about personal life, often twisting the passage out of its meaning to fit a few lines in their essay. Sorry to be so hard but this is it.

Maybe we need another book called How to Speak about the Books We Haven’t Read and Offer Interesting Ideas about Them… But, then, since people don’t read…

DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS: THE STRANGEST GENRE

Doctoral dissertations are the strangest genre because they’re both the record of a process of learning and its final product. PhD candidates are so overwhelmed by the effort made throughout the years that they don’t seem to notice this particularity until, precisely, the time of the ‘viva’ (or ‘defence,’ as we call it in Spain echoing old Inquisitional tribunals…). Once the questions from the examining board pour down on the poor candidate, s/he realises that it would be perfect if only s/he could start again all over, now that the main mistakes are highlighted. But, then, part of the game is that you can’t start all over and correct those mistakes you see in hindsight with all clarity.
This leads to a peculiar situation: if an examining board has enough ill-will against the candidate (or his/her supervisor…) any PhD dissertation can be failed, which seldom happens, if ever, in Spain –quite the opposite. I’m aware that in Britain PhD candidates can be sent back home to reform their dissertations and are allowed to re-submit them a few months later. This is unthinkable here, as it would be an appalling embarrassment for the supervisor. A peculiar idea of honour, then, turns defences into very strange exercises, as a dissertation can be awarded the highest mark regardless of the intensity and even aggressiveness of the criticisms it may receive. No wonder foreign members of examining boards are puzzled by our grading scale (remember the French diva?).
As a member of a few tribunals so far, I do worry about our very typical ‘cum laude’ hyperinflation. I’ve fought hard to keep up standards on examining boards that intended to reward candidates in excess of their merits, as I think that the all-too common automatic ‘cum laude’ diminishes the merits of real ‘cum laudes.’ This, ironically, might make me unwelcome to other examining boards, for I may gain the wrong reputation… We need to understand that if universities allow for a wider range of marks, these should be used, included ‘Aprobado’ (C) and ‘Notable’ (B). I do realise that the supervisor is a key element in the ‘cum laude’ hyperinflation, as his/her colleagues would not want to question their professionalism by awarding one of his/her dissertations a low mark. Yet, it’s funny how we never think this way of plain exams, which the best university teachers can fail with no qualms about his/her own reputation (again, quite the opposite). In the same way, although a doctorate is our own honours program, we need to understand that the impact of falling standards will soon be felt and we’ll have indeed dissertations that only merit a simple ‘pass,’ regardless of the efforts of the supervisor.
Knowing that this blog is, somehow, autobiographical, I’m sure readers will suspect that I’m referring here to a particular dissertation. Well, yes, last Friday I was part of a PhD examining board and, yes, criticism was quite thorough, despite which the candidate got a ‘cum laude’ (A+). I awarded this mark with all my heart for I did see that the candidate, a hard-working person whose academic capacities I know well, understood our criticisms and would make most of them in order to publish a better version of his dissertation. Also because his failings were connected to his ambition to do innovative research in his field, which is, after all, the point of a dissertation. Well done!!
I just hope my own doctoral students do so well and that if they receive a ‘cum laude’ it is justified on the same grounds. I’m ready to help but I’m also ready for the time one of mine might deserve just a ‘pass’ despite my efforts. Sooner or later, it’ll happen to any of us.