AMINA IN DAMASCUS AND SARA IN BARCELONA: DO WE EXIST?

If you’ve been following the news this week you’ll soon catch which Amina I mean: yes, Amina Arraf, the ‘author’ of the now notorious blog A Gay Girl in Damascus (http://damascusgirl.blogspot.com). By now the whole world knows that hers was a fake identity, invented by a 40-year-old American heterosexual man, Tom MacMaster, an MA student living in Edinburgh (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amina_Abdallah_Arraf_al_Omari). By pretending to be a lesbian girl trapped by the horrors of the Syrian revolution, MacMaster certainly opened a window onto a harsh reality that had to be revealed. This was his justification. Yet I am personally quite scandalised by how his stupid narcissistic hoax may damage the credibility of any other testimonial blog. Just think of Yoani Sánchez in Cuba (Generación Y, http://www.desdecuba.com/generaciony/).

Yes, anyone who writes a blog uses a ‘fictional’ auto-biographical self and, yes, we might wonder why we crave so badly for other people’s personal experience. After all, whether Amina exists or not, MacMaster has transmitted to the world a clear, accurate image of the hardships suffered by too many citizens at the bloody hands of Bashar al-Assad. That should be enough. I am aware that blogs should be treated will all the caution of personal diaries and never mistaken for journalism, yet I still feel we need to draw the line somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. If MacMaster had presented his blog as a piece of fiction, at least as far as his protagonist was concerned, I wouldn’t be worried at all. What worries me is the intention to cheat on his readers. MacMaster may say he never intended his hoax to go so far, but I wonder what any ‘real’ lesbian girl in Damascus might think of his sense of humour. If ‘she’ decided to write a blog, how would her testimonial be received? (Yes, with mistrust)

I assume that anyone with the patience to read my own blog does it supposing that I exist (I do most days…) and that the professional issues I raise here do depend on my ‘real’ personal experience. If now I revealed I’m actually one of my students, or someone with no links at all with the university, I’m sure the whole blog would collapse. I do know that any blog is validated by its readers, who turn it into something beyond the pure personal diary, above all with their comments. This validation is based on either direct knowledge of the author or the supposition of a bona fide intention on her or his side. This is what MacMaster has dynamited. I do wonder how his readers will react and whether his Amina blog will survive at all.

When venting my obnoxious opinions in a debate, I was reminded of the case of Enric Marco (http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enric_Marco_Batlle). Enticed by the generous reception granted to concentration camp survivors in public forums, Marco decided to pass himself off as one of them. He lectured extensively until his deception was exposed. The colleague who reminded me of his case argued that he had done good in the end. Yes, he may have fulfilled the aim of attracting the attention of many who would not have listened otherwise but the way I see it he usurped an authority that didn’t belong to him. This irresponsible action casts a shadow on the real survivors whose testimony might even be discounted by negationists as a downright lie. This is what worried me too in the case of Amina’s blog.

There is something called ‘disclaimer,’ Tom MacMaster, and you should have used one calling your blog ‘fiction.’ Mine is not, at least to the extent that I give if not the truth, at least my own version of anecdotes, etc., I’ve witnessed. I don’t know, though, if in the end this makes me more real than Amina, for, after all, perhaps, just perhaps we’re each of us just an “agreed-upon fiction” (yes, Hayden White’s definition of history in his persuasive, mind-boggling Metahistory).

TWO STYLES OF DOCUMENTING THE CRISIS: CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY AND INSIDE JOB

In this unusual long weekend in June with no exercises to mark, and after a WHOLE lecture-less week in which I’ve managed to write non-stop I don’t know what trash (and thank God for that little time…!), I’ve finally managed to find some time to see two fine documentaries on the current crisis: Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) and Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job (2010). The pack was to be completed with Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2, but I’m afraid I fell asleep over that one… not focused enough on the crisis, except for Michael Douglas-Gordon Gekko’s spot-on speech about how greed seeped dwon from Wall Street and onto any of us who thought houses are to speculate and not to live in. Bubbles bursting, you should be thinking.

One thing I sure learned is the answer to the final question in my previous blog entry: what’s the situation in Mathematics? It turns out that because the American university system encourages less and less the development of pure science, the best young mathematical brains of the US (not necessarily US nationals) were hired in the early 2000s by Wall Street to dream up new investment products that would make money out of thin air. They did –call them derivatives, CDOs, etc.– with the disastrous results we all know, aided by everyone’s self-indulgent greed (the once fearsome villain Gekko said). If only those brains had been left to enjoy the beauties of pure science… or had been applied to other more apt dreams, like, the space race (yes, I read SF) or how to produce a reasonable amount of wealth for all… Now what’s vanished into thin air are the many personal dreams of millions around the world, if not their whole lives. Our lives.

Anyway, I’m getting carried away. I don’t want to discuss what Moore and Ferguson’s documentaries have to say (do see them!) but how they say it. My point today is that even though the argumentation they present is pretty much the same, Inside Job got an Oscar and Moore’s film was greeted by critics (not so much by spectators) as yet one more example of Moore’s dubious populism. Disregard this… Seeing them back-to-back is a very rewarding experience because, of course, you get a much rounder picture of the darned crisis than either can provide independently. Ferguson, clearly, aims at the educated segment of the audience, whereas Moore, also clearly, goes beyond that into the mind of the popular, less educated classes. He does succeed in making crystal-clear sense, for everyone to grasp, of the absurd behaviour of those in government who should have controlled money but failed to do so.

I’ve taught in a course on globalisation Moore’s moving Bowling for Columbine and his scary Farenheit 9/11 and in each edition we crashed against his populist sentimentalism. This, as we know, is manipulative and, essentially, anti-intellectual. I think, however, it is also, ultimately, very necessary. If only the patriarchal clique –Ferguson makes a point of stressing there were no women in it – had put, as Moore does, a human face on the blank images of those whom they mercilessly destroyed the world would be now a better place.

Think twice next time you reject Moore’s films or his working-class sentimentalism. They may not be to all tastes but have their uses. I should know, coming, as I do myself, from the working classes now everyone is pretending not to see.

PHILO-LOGOS, OR THE LOVE OF LANGUAGE: READING JAUME CABRÉ’S EL SENTIT DE LA FICCIÓ (AND THINKING OF ENTRY LEVEL EXAMS)

This is serendipity. I get from my excellent local library Jaume Cabré’s autobiographical essay on why and how he writes, El sentit de la ficció. As I read it on the train I find the perfect passage to close my first-year course on 20th C English Literature (pp. 24-25, in case you know the book). My last lecture is scheduled for just one hour later…

In this passage Cabré explains how pleased he was to discover that at university he would be given marks for reading books he would have read anyway for pleasure. This seems written for my students!! What is more important, he explains next how reading led him to writing and how our souls are trapped as we read by style, “sempre l’estil, sempre l’ús de la llengua, sempre la relació íntima de tu amb la llengua amb que t’has fet persona i que, mitjançant la intencionalitat artística, es converteix en llengua literària i deixa de ser vehicle per convertir-se en essència.” (p. 25) I rarely quote here this long, but I think this time it is worth it. As I read aloud in class, I realise we often forget that ‘philology,’ a word which has been dropped from the names of our degrees because students often didn’t know what it stood for, means that: the love of the language. How hard it is to instil it…

I realise that the main difficulty in a first year course in a second language degree is that although students’ love of languages may lead them to us, the way they love English is diffuse, based just on a superficial acquaintance. We possibly spend more time improving this acquaintance than teaching them to savour the beauties of Literature for the very basic reason that without a sound knowledge of the language these beauties pass unnoticed. And here’s the rub: the courses we teach are designed for students who already know English intimately; instead, students often approach us because they want to learn English, starting from that superficial acquaintance. And this is not enough, much less when they take combined language degrees, mixing two poorly known foreign languages.

Why don’t we introduce entry level qualifications? Well, for some strange reason we can’t. In contrast, they have them in the Translation Faculty or School, I have no idea why. I mean to say that it would make perfect sense for both to have entry level exams: ballet schools have harsh examinations for prospective students and I don’t see why future ‘philologists’ shouldn’t be tested on their command of language, both first and second. Instead, we admit everyone –many of them are those who didn’t pass the Translation test… And hope for the best.

I wonder if in Mathematics they have the same problem.

ONE MORE SLAP IN THE FACE: THE GENERALITAT ANNOUNCES THE DOWNSIZING OF THE TENURED STAFF IN CATALAN UNIVERSITIES

I grab a coffee to start my day, sit in front of the TV to watch the news for a few minutes and this hits me in the face: the Generalitat announces plans to cut from 70% down to 40% the percentage of tenured staff in Catalan universities (see http://www.3cat24.cat/noticia/1225786/barcelones/El-govern-vol-reduir-en-un-30-els-professors-universitaris-amb-placa-fixa).

First, I panic thinking they’ll dare fire tenured teachers like me. What is announced is, rather, that on retirement only half the tenured teachers will be replaced; if they are replaced at all it’ll be by hired teachers. But, hang on a minute: this is not news at all. It has been happening for the last few years, apparently the fat cow ones. And 70%, where would this figure come from? My own university, UAB, let it spill recently that the figure was 50%, which is what I see in my own Department, increasingly staffed with easy-to-fire associate teachers. The only thing that is news, therefore, is that this covert policy of reducing tenured staff down to a minimum is now overt. News, indeed…

Logically, the fewer tenured teachers are replaced, the bigger the workload for those of us trapped between happy retirees and unhappy young associates who might never be tenured. I guess this is why the UAB passed a rule stating that classes should be above 140 in order to be split into two groups. We haven’t seen these enormous classes in our Department but the way we’re going we’re bracing ourselves for the worst. Fancy applying continuous assessment to 140 students… we’ll have to go back for sure to cut and dry lecturing, with final exams. And I’ll insist again that while teaching standards might perhaps be maintained with fewer tenured teachers by switching back to passé methodologies, research will suffer the most for it. Of course, that might be part of the plan, for without time for research, fewer people will be qualified for tenured positions and fewer tenured teachers will apply for professorships.

We’ll go back to the 1980s, when we were routinely told that only foreign universities could offer quality teaching and research. We all made this gigantic effort to put Catalan universities on the map and start attracting foreign students and now, what? Will this absurd, mismanaged crisis sweep away 20 years of continued efforts?

I should grab my sleeping bag, and join the indignant crowds on Plaça Catalunya…