DOING GENDER STUDIES: FOR MY MALE STUDENTS

At the last count, the male students following actively my Victorian Literature subject are 9 in a class of 50 active students (by this I mean that about 10 more are registered but never show up). This is about 20%, slightly higher than in other courses I have taught, in which the proportion was usually around 15% or less. Last year, for instance, my English Theatre class had only 4 male students out of 35 in total.

I have often wondered when lecturing how this male minority was taking in the heavy-handed feminist/Gender Studies orientation we have given to the two novels we’ve taught, particularly Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I do wonder too how this novel can be taught indeed without addressing gender issues not only because it narrates a harrowing story of domestic abuse but also because Brontë chose to embed her heroine’s diary within the letters that her second husband, Gilbert, addresses to his best friend and brother-in-law, Halford. I believe that Brontë didn’t want to alienate the men of her England by throwing into their faces Helen’s gendered suffering. Gilbert was, hence, created to frame her tale and suggest that not all men are as selfish as Arthur, Helen’s pampered husband. However, this decision has also elicited plenty of criticism regarding how women’s voice is ultimately edited and silenced in this novel by men’s, as shown in Gilbert’s manipulation of Helen’s texts (diary and letters).

I made a point in class, though seemingly not often enough, that because I am a feminist who writes about masculinities I am very much interested in men’s developing their own gender-related consciousness. In short, I hinted (or so I thought) that paper proposals considering what kind of masculinity is constructed through Gilbert’s letters would be welcome. We often discussed how he seemed not to be quite a gentleman and I’ve already written here about his proximity to Emily Brontë’s problematic hero-villain Heathcliff. Other male characters in the text –Arthur, Walter, Hattersley, even little Arthur– are also worth exploring. Well, to my surprise none of the 7 (I think) paper proposals dealing with this novel coming from young men discuss masculinity at all. Instead, they focus on feminism, (Victorian) women’s rights and Helen’s particular plea as a married woman artist.

This makes me a bit wary, as I can’t help suspecting that these male students are addressing feminist issues simply to please me and, well, earn my sympathy. This is not quite right. Although I realise they may be really committed to feminism I wonder why none of these young men has offered comments in class on gender issues; also why my hints regarding masculinities have not been followed. Most of them have, accordingly, got back from me their own paper proposal with an open, firm invitation to reconsider their chosen topic and write about masculinity. If you’re reading me, believe, I am truly interested in what men have to say about this aspect of Brontë’s novel.

This is by no means an atypical circumstance. Everyone doing Gender Studies notes men’s resistance to doing Masculinities Studies. American sociologist Michael Kimmel, one of the founding fathers, teaches an introduction as a compulsory subject within an engineering degree because otherwise he’d might not get enough students!! Gender Studies courses are regularly attended all over the world mostly by women (heterosexual, lesbian), secondarily by gay men. Why? The usual answer is that, whereas women usually enjoy discussing gender issues to better understand their own socio-cultural constrictions (and freedoms), men tend to stay away out of insecurity regarding their own sense of masculinity and, crucially, regarding whether they’ll be turn into targets of anti-patriarchal critique. This is why I stress that masculinity is NOT the same as patriarchy and that, though I’m very much against patriarchy as a hierarchical, power-based system of abuse I want to know as much as possible about masculinities (if possible, from men).

So here’s my invitation once more: address gender issues if you wish, but do so out of a personal conviction that it’s worth doing and feel free to discuss masculinity. You can make an innovative, important contribution and I’d totally welcome it. If having read this, you still want to discuss feminism, that is fine too, but make sure you do it sincerely, please, and not out of a gentlemanly or interested standpoint. Thanks!!

EDITING CONVENTIONS: WHO CARES? (WE DO!)

I’m taking a break from my main task today: going through the 49 paper proposals that my second-year students have sent me (I’ve managed 37 so far… yupiii!!! And it’s only 16:00). This is the first time they write an abstract, which makes their difficulties to firmly state what they aim at doing quite understandable. Perhaps it’s my fault for describing abstracts as an announcement of intentions rather than what they are: a summary of something which still does not exist (I thought they would be mystified by this). So, I’m getting abstracts in which students write sentences such as ‘In this paper I will analyse the role of the narrator in Oliver Twist” instead of ‘In this paper I argue that the narrator in Oliver Twist matters more than the central character’ because… (add arguments here).

What I don’t quite understand are the difficulties with the bibliography. The choices made are quite good, generally, and the quotations submitted for my supervision quite apt, considering the subject matter of each paper. What 90% students disregard are the basic conventions of how to edit a bibliography: alphabetically by authors’ surname, obeying the rules about when to use italics (basically, volume titles) and quotation marks (the rest), and providing all the required information (such as in which journal an article has been published…). We do provide guidelines and, what’s more, in preparation for this year’s paper (the students’ first with secondary sources) we ask them to produce a bibliography in the first year. This bibliography is thoroughly inspected down to the last comma, students asked to resubmit if conventions are not followed. It doesn’t work, though. Many students complain that we teachers are a bunch of fusspots (um, nothing as savoury as ‘tiquismiquis’ in English) and seem really puzzled as to why this matters at all.

Having edited some journal issues and a collective volume, I know first hand that too many academics have exactly that very same attitude. This is why editors need to threaten authors with returning their work if not properly edited. A shame, really. Everyone knows that editing a paper or a book is a real pain in the neck, particularly when you have written it using MLA and for whatever strange reason your editor prefers Chicago. Yet, it must be done. Not only because there’s a crucial difference between referring to Oliver Twist (character) and Oliver Twist (book) but also because these conventions are universal and help us to keep knowledge neat and tidy. Just imagine the chaos if anyone used bibliography and referenced quotations as they pleased…

So, it does matter, my dear students. As much as giving your teacher a good impression of your ability to follow guidelines. I can’t say too often that when a teacher is going through piles and piles of exercises a neatly edited one is truly welcome as a rest for the eyes and the mind. It is, besides, sure to attract more interest and, hence, a greater willingness to help the student in question.

Message received?

MR CLOONEY AND MR GRANT: ALONE (AND LOVING IT)

This might be an example of intertextuality in the making. Or in hindsight. Also an example of how academics cannot really relax. For, I don’t know what nuclear physicists do for relaxation, but I tend to watch films, and, well, they make me think, an activity that often leads to writing papers. Or blog entries. So, here we go.

Late one night I was watching a rerun of About a Boy (2002), adapted from the novel by Nick Hornby, which is the kind of film you might call a Hugh Grant film, rather than a film directed by Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz (as it is). It’s quite charming. Grant plays himself, as usual, in a plot about a single man who happens to enjoy his idle loneliness but loves dating women. Dating leads into complications, this being a comedy, when the Grant character (Will) pretends to be a father in order to join a single mums’ support group. He intends to exploit these women’s vulnerability for his own sexual ends, but his ploy is soon exposed by the 11-year-old son of one of them. Misunderstandings follow from Will’s too many lies and he ends up, of course, paired up with a lovely single mum and surrounded by a kind of pseudo-family.

The running joke in this story is that Will needn’t work, as his dad wrote once a corny Christmas song whose rights bring in yearly enough money for Will to do nothing. In this he is diametrically opposed to workaholic Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney in Up in the Air (2009), directed by Jason Reitman from the novel by Walter Kirn. What’s the connection? Well, that’s what I noticed when I saw About a Boy the second time. Both Will and Ryan are happily minding their business, enjoying their chosen singlehood when destiny in the form of a novelist decides that this cannot be tolerated for the sake of social stability (it seems). Grant/Will is, fortunately for him, written into a romantic comedy whereas poor Clooney/Ryan is plunged into a sort of tragedy of humiliation, his lifestyle shattered by a sad affair.

Having taught many times High Fidelity, Hornby’s (lad lit) masterpiece, I had already wondered about the pressure he puts on his male characters to ‘settle down’ and be lonely no more. About a Boy does this too, as it is easy to see. Seeing again the film adaptation after seeing Up the Air, it strikes me that there is, if not exactly an inter-Atlantic conspiracy (Hornby is British, Kirn American), at least an emerging pattern to extend the fear of loneliness typical of women’s romance literature to the literature about men. Remember? Bridget Jones is scared stiff that she’ll end up her days a lonely, dotty old woman eaten by her own Alsatian (um, this always makes me think of J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, which begins with a man eating his own Alsatian). The same fear is being poured onto the men.

Here’s the funny thing: Will and Ryan, the unhappy single men who don’t even know they’re unhappy when their stories begin, are played by the two most recalcitrant single men in Hollywood. Grant (born 1960) and Clooney (born 1961) seem to enjoy to the hilt their chosen singlehood, bent as they are on collecting a string of ever younger and prettier girlfriends. It’s a tribute to their acting skills that these two playboys play so well these forlorn single men, yet I’m quite annoyed at the hypocrisy of the whole act.

I wonder when our contemporary stories will focus on the choices people do make and not on the choices they should make.

TEACHER’S PET: THE COST OF HELPING OUT

Two days before the beginning of the conference I have co-organised I got very concerned that we were short on student volunteers and, so, I asked my second-year class for help. There are 60 students in class, all of whom knew very well how important the conference was for me, as I had repeatedly explained. In the end one helped me pack the bags (another one volunteered but got ill) and only one became a proper conference volunteer for the three days the conference lasted. My thanks to her.

Just for you to see how important this conference was for the Department we included a three-day break in our teaching programmes so that everyone could attend it. Students were welcome indeed and needed, as I say. If students in my class had told me they were on strike on 16 and 17, I would have understood their lack of collaboration. Yet, none mentioned this so I can only assume they didn’t volunteer out of disinterest (the other possibility is that they were preparing the paper proposals they need to hand in tomorrow…). Whatever the case is, I was sorely disappointed.

I asked our student volunteers why this situation had come about and they patiently explained to me that students who help teachers or contact in any way with us more than it is strictly necessary become ostracised. Teacher’s pet they’re dubbed. This, of course, is as old as the hills but sycophants (if that’s the right translation for ‘pelotas’) need not be confused with team players. Stupidly, I thought that my students would take my call as an opportunity to get a glimpse of academic life that might be inspirational for their future (careers). I know that handing our bottles of water, making photocopies and directing delegates to the right classroom is not exactly glamorous but helping me would have been more clever than staying away. Why? Well, for one thing, everyone needs sooner or later a helping hand, maybe a job reference. And two, I don’t feel now inclined to mark with generosity the pile of proposals coming today from students who chose not to help.

Is this blackmail? Um, no, I think not. It goes by the old name of backscratching, or doing mutual favours. There is something else for which there is no exact translation: ‘quedar bien.’ WordReference tells me this translates as ‘making an impression’ but that’s not quite what it means in Spanish. ‘Quedar bien’ is about wanting to please for your own sake: not necessarily because you like the person you please but because you want that person to think well of you, of your politeness, willingness and readiness to work hard in this case. How this is mixed up with the obnoxious figure of the teacher’s pet is beyond me.

Luckily, I was wrong and we had enough student volunteers. No teacher’s pet in sight, though…

AMATEUR PROFESSIONALISM: AFTER A CONFERENCE

I used my right not to be on strike to protect a conference I have been co-organising for the last 18 months from the disaster that the university strike programmed for 16 and 17 brought in. I agree that the situation in the Catalan universities is terrible but I don’t believe that strikes are an effective weapon of protest and, anyway, we just could not cancel a conference just a few weeks before its beginning. Besides, only a handful of the participants came from the Catalan universities where the protest was being staged and they were practically on the way. We simply stayed away from our UAB campus, feeling a little clandestine much to my chagrin.

Finding an alternative place was nerve-racking. We did manage by a series of small miracles and the conference was, in the end, quite normal, which is exactly what we aimed at. Someone praised me for my professionalism as programme coordinator and that left me thinking hard about what we do and why. In this case, my main co-organiser and myself had decided to undertake the huge task of organising the event out of a sense of duty, as we had attended many other conferences in the same series and simply wished to reciprocate. I have felt since the beginning totally amateurish, since organising a conference with around 280 people is not something I have been trained for in my academic life. I don’t know to this day whether there’s a kit to organise conferences available somewhere on the internet but I have had to build my own by trial and error. I am pleased it has worked well for most delegates but I have been horrified most of the time by the many things that could go wrong and by the many poor choices I personally may have been responsible for.

So why do we do it? In short, because we’re poor. With more money I would have very gladly left the organising in the hands of conference professionals. And I don’t mean in this particular case or for this particular series. I mean that generally university teachers and Departments are expected, as a matter of fact, to be able to organise conferences. Many academics invest plenty of time on them with all the generosity we can afford considering our other many duties. This is done because the conference circuit must obviously exist for networking and for the circulation of ideas. Yet, whenever my day has started with tens of email messages to purveyors or guests, I have wondered what silly notion made me think I could handle all this.

My belated thanks, then, to all the organisers of all the conferences I have attended in the past and my heartfelt admiration for all those who’ll volunteer to organise the ones I’ll attend in the future.

TRASHY, TRASHED CAMPUS: THE UGLIEST SIGHT

Last Friday 11 as I got off the train at UAB a strong smell of garbage hit my nose. As I walked towards the Department using a back lane, I could soon see that the whole area from the station to the Faculties was covered in litter: crushed cans, plastic bags, rests of snacks… Another teacher was filming it all with his smartphone, I guess the images must be already available at some website or other. Hours later, on the way back home, walking to the station through our main square, I was simply dismayed to see the incredible amount of trash piling up all over the place. Clearly, the effort to dirty the campus had been systematic, a form of protest. Who’d done it? Our own UAB students, of course, who celebrated last Thursday what they call an ‘alternative’ holiday, that is to say, a wild party without the required authorisation.

The same UAB students called a 48-hour general strike a week later (16 and 17), together with some teachers and admin personnel, on the grounds that Catalan universities are at risk of total collapse if the budget cuts that the Catalan government is preparing are implemented. This is indeed the case: top research is in dire straits and many jobs on the line, not to mention the basics of daily teaching, such as having reasonably sized groups in order to offer personalised attention. In our university the figure is already out: we must ‘save’ 6,8 million euros from our already very tight 2012 budget. I don’t want to think how, I’ll see soon enough.

What baffles me is that basically the same students organising the massive wild party or ‘botellón’ are also in many cases the ones supporting the strike. Last year the party cost the UAB 300,000 euros including cleaning up and the many elements that had to be repaired or replaced. I assume the cost is going to be similar this year. What is the sense, then, in complaining that public money is being wasted if students themselves waste it in this way? There’s also something else: the dirt spread all over campus clearly indicates that many are getting an education paid with public money they obviously don’t deserve. They think they’re paying for it but registration fees only cover 10% of the real cost. The barbarians are not at the gate, they are within the gates and it is getting worse. The so-called ‘right’ to have fun can never be an excuse to behave as so many did.

I’ve been asked when telling other colleagues about this mess why these wild parties aren’t stopped by the authorities. Well: how do you close a huge campus? And how do you empty it of the thousands drinking there once they’re in? Maybe the army would do the trick, as I doubt the police could do that… But even Franco might have hesitated to call them. Actually our Rector is very reluctant to calling in the ‘mossos’ (the local Catalan police), as their necessary presence three years ago to stop the occupation of our Facultat de Filosofia i Lletres led to very nasty incidents. I sympathise with her plea, but the more lenient we are with these barbarians (I mean the students and non-students at the wild party, not the ‘mossos’) the more power they earn over the civilised members of our community which, of course, includes very many civilised students. Hopefully, they are the (invisible) majority and we need them to speak up now.

WHO’S TO BLAME, THEN?: ABOUT TELLING ‘THE TRUTH’ IN FICTION

Yesterday I taught an MA seminar at UB about Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as a film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, which it is indeed even though Austen’s novel is not credited at all. Inevitably, as I happen to dislike Austen very much, we eventually came to the point in which I criticised Emma (and Clueless) for being a quite conventional patriarchal story leading to the classic heteronormative marriage, or so-called happy ending.

The heroine may be rich and, thus, free not to marry, yet the hard lesson she learns thanks to her wrongheaded bout of matchmaking leads her to find Mr. Right (aka Mr. Knightley) and not to assume a happy singlehood. Someone said that Emma (1815) was a protest about how little freedom even rich women had in the early 19th century. That may have been the case as Henry James still made the same point many decades later with Portrait of Lady (1880-1). Yet, well, I am very sorry but, as a 21st century working woman, I simply cannot sympathise with these ladies’ plea. The joke in Emma’s case is that she is blind to Knightley’s charms, whereas the sick joke in Isabel Archer’s case is that she chooses the appalling Gilbert Osmond as a husband. What doesn’t amuse me at all is that both Emma and Isabel MUST marry for, according to their authors, a single man may be in want of a wife but remain single, whereas a single woman is always in dire need of finding a husband even when she’s rich. Or else. However, this is as false now as it was in the 19th century: do read the passage in the autobiography of Harriet Martineau (1802-76) in which she candidly explains how the timely death of her fiancée freed her from the need to marry and thus gave her infinite happiness. And consider.

So here I was, complaining with two of the female students that Austen is to blame for a dangerous romantic model in which the woman finds an ideal mate despite her behaving quite stupidly and making many mistakes that hurt others along the way. The fantasy is quite transparent and persists today in characters like Bridget Jones. I won’t discuss Sex and the City as I’ve never seen a single episode. The single girl is today a career woman rather than an idle upper class parasite but the principle is the same: they bumble their way and eventually stumble into Prince Charming. I would probably dislike Austen a bit less if she’d had the gall, in her famous ironic way, to make Knightley and, of course, Darcy, less perfect. To this a student replied that Austen is not to blame at all and that we, contemporary female readers, are the ones to blame for our addiction to these fantastic male characters. She also said that, after all, what Austen wrote was just fiction.

Yes, sure, but this is fiction that many women use it to script their biographies by, being hopelessly disappointed by the real men they come across and who can never measure up to the likes of Knightley. If you ask me, Jane Austen is guilty of tricking her readers into believing that ideal men do materialise sooner or later. She, who never married, must have had a good laugh at our expense. Mulling over this, I recalled how Anne Brontë declares in her preface to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that if her novel is not what anyone would call ‘pleasing’ this is because she aimed at telling “the truth.” Of course, the truth is not that ALL husbands are like the horrid Arthur Huntingdon but that the good men like Gilbert Markham are less than perfect. Even very imperfect. And so are women, even though Austen had already pointed that out. Brontë’s truth is still today far less palatable than Austen’s lie, which is probably why she’s regarded as a second-tier canonical writer, whereas Austen is now the untouchable queen (thanks to silly romantic misreaders like Emma Thompson perhaps?).

Another student told me, and I thank her for it, that Darcy and Knightley are like today’s teen idols: they fulfil impossible female romantic cravings that real boys and men simply cannot understand. I’m sure that sleepy-eyed Kristen Stewart must now and then throw that into Robert Pattinson’s pretty face to keep him in check. I wonder what it’s like to have a (teen) male pin-up as your boyfriend… and whether Austen was cynically manufacturing Knightley and Darcy as such.