AND THE GENERAL STRIKE, AND WAYS OF PROTESTING THROUGH LITERATURE…

I have a list of themes waiting to be addressed, as the series of protests culminating in today’s general strike demand more attention than what might seem today just trivial Literature matters. How I long to get back to normality, if this can ever happen in this abnormal, subnormal, paranormal culture of ours. Let me just repeat what I’ve been saying: the situation is simply appalling but a strike will not change it, as 21st century Governments have learned not to be impressed by 19th century protest methods. Also, on principle, I will not take part in any form of compulsory protest which is imposed on me with threats, insults and coercion (you should have read the email sent by UGT to all UAB workers). I’d much rather unions used their time and our public resources in thinking of alternatives to the crisis and in organising truly effective forms of protest, one of which should always be educating people in their real rights. And duties –like the duty to work hard for the present and future of our country.

Having made my point, let me record here my contribution to our university strike, which is teaching to my first year students how John Osborne’s Look back in Anger (UK, 1956) connects with our current worries. It’s easy, a standard reading of the play: Jimmy Porter is working-class, remember?, and he gets a university education funded by the post-WWII Labour party in one of the new white-tile universities. Although we all agree he is one of the most obnoxious characters ever, Hamlet included, anyone with his same credentials (working-class family, public university education… a majority at UAB) can sympathise with his plea: his education brings just an upsetting sense of declassing but no better job prospects. He clings onto the hemline of the middle classes by the skin of his teeth, yet his wife Alison’s makes sure the intruder stays there, as bitter as gall.

Granted that Jimmy’s is an extreme case in that he chooses to run a sweet stall rather than do something else with his education (like writing a play…), we need to examine why he’s ‘looking back in anger’ and not ‘looking forward in hope’, as would correspond to a 25-year-old. Well, I guess that many Spanish 25-year-olds packing today their suitcases to migrate to more civilised countries are indeed looking back in anger onto the apparently golden age that was the longish decade 1995-2007. I was there and didn’t notice it much, having actually spent my post-doc years between 1996-2002 waiting for the supposedly affluent state to materialise tenure for me. So, you see?, it was never good. However, as happens to Jimmy when he rants and raves against the Edwardian brigade embodied by his military father-in-law, I’m sure many young people today rant and rave against the useless 40, 50 and 60-years-olds in command of this sad country and pushing them hard out of it. Yes, the ‘los-de-siempre’ brigade that the 1980s Socialists replaced briefly for a while, dashing all our hopes when they decide to try to become middle-class each and one of them, instead of helping the whole country progress. I was there, as one of the Jimmy-Porter-style students allowed entrance to the university by state grants. (Sorry about using myself as an example (of anything)).

I hope one of our students, as they are the right age, writes the play (film, novel, comic…) we need so badly today to capture our sorry times. Please, don’t use the words ‘back’ or ‘anger’, as you can see from Jimmy’s case they only lead to emotional paralysis and social inaction. Express your disappointment with your elders in creative ways –use comedy, perhaps farce and be witty, intelligent and, above all, forward-looking. Work hard and show those bastards how much you deserve being made the centre of our efforts, for our future depends on you –literally. Don’t stay, like Jimmy, pent up in your garret, playing bears and squirrels with an equally desperate partner. But, although the world is big and too many places waiting for you to give them for free your mind, body and soul, demand as loudly as possible your right to stay on, here, with us. And just educate yourself as thoroughly and profoundly as you can, and all the rest around you. It seems to be the only solution… and the best form of protest.

UNHINGED (MORE ON THE PROTEST)

More of the same yesterday to begin our day: the Facultat uglified by barricades in each corridor (wo)manned by humourless, verbally aggressive students defending the ‘consensus’ reached by the assembly to stop all lecturing. We do whatever we can to defend our right to teach/learn: go on-line, go elsewhere… Our own English Studies students have signed a manifesto against the budget cuts and the ‘okupació’, which has earned them for ever a reputation as traitors (we’re very proud of them). Their votes will not be considered in the next assembly. By the way, the UAB student, teacher and admin personnel assembly that met yesterday claims we ALL back the protest. This is simply not true.

Here’s the oddest, scariest thing that happened yesterday. One of our female teachers –a sweet, fragile-looking one– tried to teach but, typically, access to her classroom was impossible. She and five or six students took refuge in her office; a picket member followed her –he called in a few more. These barbarians entered her office and when she protested, THEY UNHINGED HER DOOR, took it off. She called Campus Security, who were able to identify at least one of the perpetrators (an habitual offender) but claimed they had no authority to mandhandle them. They left the office in the company of the security men, we don’t know why everything considered, after putting the door back on its hinges. We duly reported the incident –a serious breach of the implicit norm that Department corridors are off limits to strikers. These, remember, were students in a public university we all pay for.

As I reported this aggression to the Dean I was thinking about its meaning and intention. Well, sorry, the intention needs no thinking about: you take off a door, the person inside can’t close it in your face, intimidation is absolute. The meaning lies partly in this, but there must be something else. It could well be that this is an action defined by the aggressors’ knowledge that it can’t be easily typified, hence punished. Is unhinging doors a crime or an offence?? Of course, it works perfectly as a terrorising strategy, since a) the victim feels unprotected, b) we all do, thinking that …

The antidote to all this is humour. This is no laughing matter, of course, but for you to see how little the protest has to do with protecting our collective right to learn, consider what goes on in this very witty sketch by the always perceptive José Mota (thanks, Ruben, for the link): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0q6NwqGl4ZQ. Here the humour comes from the contrast between what we know about youth’s lifestyle in inner city areas (they don’t read) and how the ones in the video have chosen reading as a most pernicious anti-social activity.

I just wish that the unhinged protesters that unhinged that door would unhinge us all in that way…

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD: YET ANOTHER STUDENT PROTEST…

Yesterday you and me found ourselves unable to access our classrooms and teach, which is what we love doing and are (under)paid for. The corridors were blocked by the usual assembly students announcing that the Facultat had been occupied and that it was in everyone’s interest not to do any teaching or learning… to guarantee the survival of the public university. Deep sigh. This caught me totally by surprise, I assume you knew nothing, either.

As you are quite a rhetorician, I found you –after getting away from quite an ugly situation in the corridor leading to my inaccessible classroom– trying to convince a girl student to let you pass. I joined you and this is when the girl told us that, ‘The problem is that you teachers do not support the public university’. Ouch. I protested that my salary has been cut for the benefit of the public university. When, exasperated, I asked her how her preventing us from teaching protected the public university at all, she answered that without the current occupation of the Facultat there would be no teaching at all next year. Deep sigh, deep sigh, deep sigh…

There’s much, much, much to protest against in the current situation as I’m sure you’re well aware of since you’ve been following what you call my ‘journal of the crisis’. What tires me, and you as I saw, is the lack of imagination of these particular protesters who think that occupying the Facultat and annoying teachers and students who disagree has any effect whatsoever on the ‘Rectora’ and the Generalitat. What kills me in particular is how old-fashioned this method of protest is, so nostalgic of the good old hippy days of 1968.

So, here are some alternatives, dear occupying students:

*write a blog, or open a website, to keep your fellow students informed day-by-day of how their rights are being destroyed – a serious one, not a pamphlet
*organise a gigantic flashmob in downtown Barcelona, as they did a few days ago in Plaça Catalunya for the defence of independence
*perform a play about the public university in the middle of Plaça Catalunya, in the style of the Medieval morality plays, or as 1990s in-yer-face theatre (we both can help with that)
*film a witty, clever lipdub music video with your own protest lyrics to upload on YouTube
*flood the Generalitat’s Counsellor (maybe the Secretary for Universities and Research) with a zillion email protest messages
*write an essay about the ills of the public university and go en masse to register it as intellectual property
*organise marathon lectures – I propose one to break the record establish by Pepe Rubianes in the longest interview ever: 24 hours. My colleague Laura Gimeno can indeed lecture about civil disobedience, as she was asked to do by the same students who wouldn’t let her teach, I volunteer to lecture on neo-liberalism as a sophisticated form of upper-class villainy.
*take each of you a book and organise a sit-down that covers all of UAB – this is to show the authorities how much you love learning

I could go on. Take your pick.

In the meantime, you and I, ‘like a patient etherised upon a table’, await for news of our fate, with, as usual, our resources as educators dilapidated by those who think they are protecting everyone’s right to learn.

WE’RE ALIVE, WE’RE ALIVE!: THE FIRST ENGLISH STUDIES SF CONFERENCE IN SPAIN

My good friend Pere Gallardo from Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona has just organised the first English Studies SF conference in Spain. 18 of us, SF academic fans and shcolars, met last Friday 16 (see the list at http://www.sciencefictionppab.blogspot.com.es/) and promised to stay in touch to meet again in one year’s time at my home university, UAB.

The format used was having 15-minute presentations in one single room so that everyone could listen to everyone else, with Q&A sessions replaced by breaks after every four presentations, and lunch together. The day was closed with time for comments and general feedback. The guest speaker was, by the way, the novelist Montse de Paz, Pere’s ex-student and the most recent winner of the fantasy and SF Minotauro award with her novel Ciudad sin estrellas (see http://www.scyla.com/libros/1026/ciencia_ficcion/ninguna/ciudad_sin_estrellas_premio_minotauro_2011).

I found the presentations much in line with what is going on in the field of SF. Most dealt with identitity issues, such as race/ethnicity and gender; others with current issues such as family, religion, utopia/dystopia, the post-human body, etc. currently at the front line of research in SF. I myself presented a paper on Manuel Huerga’s fascinating documentary about US-Spanish astronaut Michael López-Alegría, Son & Moon, focused on the construction of post-patriarchal masculinity in it, if, indeed, it is post-patriarchal at all. I don’t know if that’s cutting edge, but I do hope it is. My favourite presentation was the one by Bill Philips, who spoke about what he calls the ‘SF Renaissance’ in Britain –and also about the suprising presence of Hell as a virtual world in one my favourite SF novels, Iain M. Banks’s Surface Detail (see my blog entry for 14 August 2011). He gave us all a long list of thrilling novels by UK novelists to read, which is what any SF fan hopes to get out of meeting others of his or her ilk.

The downside of all this excitement is a composite BEM (bug-eyed monster, for non SF fans). To begin with, 18 scholars interested in SF for a population of 47 millions in Spain is not that much. I realise we deal in particular with English Studies but, just think: the SEDERI conference –Spanish and Portuguese Society for English Renaissance Studies– overlapping our own conference (actually lasting for 3 days…) has been around for 23 years now. In this edition there were 46 papers and 3 plenary speakers. Ummmm… Some of the 18 were actually supporting friends, colleagues who work on adjacent popular fiction areas, such as detective fiction. Others were doctoral students just beginning, and although this is brilliant and a hope for the future, it also means that in that room at Rovira i Virgili there were very few of us with at least a 10-year-experience in the field, much less 23. Pere Gallardo is the absolute dean: his PhD dissertation on the robot in short fiction of the Golden Age dates from 1995 (my own, from 1996, about monsters mixes SF and gothic).

Two more factors must be mentioned. One is that the current crisis and its appalling impact on the consolidation of tenured positions in English Departments is seriously affecting the development of SF within English Studies. The scholarly commitees in charge of accreditation for tenure do not welcome research in this field and those with temporary contracts who try to pursue it are warned that this might not in their best interests by bigoted peers, who call themselves kind. Even without them, it’s hard to concentrate on a field when one must have another job to supplement the one as associate. The other factor has to do with the senior doctors supervising PhD dissertations. From what I gathered, some are advising their students to pursue much downtrodden paths which might be (relatively) new in Spain but that elsewhere are not at all what might be called cutting edge. There’s a feeling that in SF garlic soup is being constanly discovered, as not enough critical mass has been assembled to give the field a firm foundation from which progress may come. Too soon, perhaps.

Thank you Pere for making the effort to organise this first promising event!! It’ll be my turn next time and I’ll do my very best to correspond.

TEACHING EARLY IN THE MORNING: AN OPEN LETTER TO THE DEAN

[I pretty much doubt that our busy Dean, Teresa Cabré –just re-elected– reads my blog, yet here’s my open letter for her (just in case, you never know).]

Dear Dean,
As I’m sure you know very well from personal experience, the ‘Facultat’ decided in time immemorial (before my time as a student) to start lectures at 8:30. Considering the UAB Campus is in the middle of nowhere, unless you’re one of the few teachers who find it convenient to live in expensive Sant Cugat this means getting up around 6:30 to be at UAB around 8:00. Yes, it’s possible to adjust the personal schedule a bit and reach UAB later but, as a teacher, I need my good 20 minutes pre-lecture for a last review of the class materials, drinking coffee, applying lipstick, etc.
That’s fine by me, at least in the Winter-Spring semester, when the sun rises as I travel by train to UAB. I’m fresh enough in the morning and I enjoy having a long day ahead. This is not, however, the case with many of my students (not all).
Even though we started the semester with a much needed introduction to class etiquette, including instructions about how to stifle yawns, students do yawn all the time in my face –no hands covering nicely their mouth, no deep intake of breath to, well, stifle a yawn. I had a male student close his eyes and practically fall asleep on me today, even though I have quite a strong voice and speak as loud as I can. I realise that can have a paradoxical lulling effect. Also, it’s much easier for me to keep awake as I do most of the talking and, poor things, they must listen to my ranting and raving –I mean teaching.
Using PowerPoint or anything that requires projecting computer documents onto our big screen requires enormous dexterity as to what exact degree of light will prevent students from falling asleep. I think I have almost managed that… The electricians never realised that by placing the fluorescent lights in rows across the benches front to back instead of parallel to them, teachers need to darken THE WHOLE classroom… By the way, one of the blinds that compensates for this oversight is not working; I lodged a complain 5 weeks ago.
Then, there’s the problem of punctuality. I’m in class at 8:30, maybe 8:33 some days. I give my students 10 extra minutes, which means that classes begin by 8:40. Despite my constant warnings and complaints, many students are late. A girl came last Tuesday at 9:15. One of my colleagues had a student turn up at 9:45. The stream of students coming in between 8:40 and 9:00 is simply inacceptable. Yes, we’re quite surprised and wonder what will happen when the late-comers have a regular job.
I’ll leave for some other day matters such as why some students never take notes, why others think I’m so blind I don’t see them texting their friends with their cell phones… All in all, today we had a great session, including a bravura performance by three students of the first 11 pages of Look back in Anger, which was really excellent. I don’t want to spoil the mood.
So, dear Dean, why 8:30? Either we build a town on campus and give many more people the chance to move in, or we reconsider our schedule. Particularly considering that most students’ attention time-span tends towards 60 minutes, not 75, much less 90 (the last time I heard someone speak for 90 minutes I ended up exhausted –and he was wonderful, and I didn’t have to attend 4 more lectures). It’s either that, or have UAB bring us all nice coffee in the morning, as my lectures begin. Milk and sugar –one lump– for me, thanks. On the other hand, if we must adapt, then you need to train early-morning teachers like me on how to keep students awake. I don’t seem to be doing that well.
Yours,
Sara Martín (Senior Lecturer)

THE PULP MAGAZINES PROJECT: WHAT A FEAST!!

One of the wonders of teaching is that one never stops learning. Here’s proof.

I’ve been teaching my first year students an introduction to the short story, based on Mansfield (“Bliss”), Joyce (“The Sisters”) and Woolf (“Kew Gardens”). I insisted that the Modernist short story is only one branch of the modern short story and that to really understand the first decades of the 20th century one should never forget about pulp fiction in all its variety. I didn’t know, though, how to prove that as succinctly as possible.

Reading (for a completely unrelated matter, a paper) Justine Larbalestier’s excellent essay The Battle of the Sexes in Science-fiction, I came across an image of Hugo Gernsback’s first editorial for Amazing Stories, the pulp magazine that invented modern science-fiction (post Wells’s scientific romance). Doubting whether to scan the image for class use, as Gernsback explains beautifully the function of the story-based pulp, or check the internet, I chanced upon a real treasure trove: The Pulp Magazines Project (www.pulpmags.org). My digital generation students absolutely loved the idea… and its gorgeous look. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have the chance to thumb my digital way into so much mythical, thrilling stuff…

This is a huge depository, started in 2011, an “archive of all-fiction pulpwood magazines from 1896-1946”, but also a digital archives hub of many other projects connected with the short story in the first half of the 20th century. Ironically, this website proves the point I was trying to teach my students much more effectively than any book on the short story I have read, namely, that the Modernist short story coexisted with a true avalanche of popular short fiction. In both cases –literary Modernist, popular– the short story reveals itself as a genre essential to understand 20th century Literature in English. Indeed, although I came across this web in search of Amazing Stories, you’ll find there as much as you wish to know about the magazines in which Modernist short fiction originally appeared in the USA and the UK.

Larbalestier speaks of her luck at having access to the very rich Science Fiction Collection of the University of Sydney for her essay. One thing that caught my attention was that she speaks of crumbling pulps which must be handled with all the care in the world. The scanned versions of The Pulp Magazines Project might thus be eventually the only proof that these magazines ever existed, which makes me think inevitably of how in literary research we are fortune’s fools, as we depend on the vagaries of the materials’ survival. Funnily, it turns out that this applies to Medieval manuscripts as much as to early 20th century pulpwood short fiction.

So… for next year, if I teach 20th century English Literature again, as I guess I will, it’s back to drawing board for me, to reconsider how to put much better in context my Modernist trio, now that I know that this website exists. How absolutely tempting to teach an elective subject based on the astonishing richness (and variety) of its resources!!

READING OUT OF ENVY: MARÍA DUEÑAS’S EL TIEMPO ENTRE COSTURAS

They say that envy is the national Spanish sin (avarice would be the Catalan one). This week I’ve used my evenings to read, out of envy, María Dueñas’s best-selling novel El tiempo entre costuras (2009). Why the envy? Well, Dueñas is one of us: a teacher at the English Department of the Universidad de Murcia. [I haven’t been able to understand, though, from the Department’s website what she teaches and does research on. Most news reports refer to her as a teacher of ‘Filología Inglesa.’ Peculiar.] Yes, most teachers of (English) Literature are frustrated writers who end up acknowledging that it’s always much better to teach good books than to write trashy ones, particularly for readers. There are many exceptions, of course. David Lodge used to be an outstanding academic and now he’s a very successful novelist. One of my neighbours on the floor above –Spanish Department– is the illustrious Carme Riera, professor, poet and novelist. She’s the kind who writes excellent academic work and gets invited to attend conferences celebrated on her honour as a writer. One of its kind, really.

I myself do not write fiction and hardly ever have, feeling always inclined to writing essays, even as a little girl. What kills me about Dueñas’s case, at any rate, are two overlapping matters: how she found the time to write 640 pages (this also applies to writing essays), and why isn’t her quite average novel much better. El tiempo entre costuras is an immense popular phenomenon that has made Dueñas only second to Ken Follett in the Spanish middlebrow territory with this, her first novel. She’s already sold more than one million copies, enough to consider, as a friend from the University of Murcia told me, retiring from teaching at 47 (that’s slightly older than myself, and possibly the source of my deep envy!!). The TV series by Antena 3 with –of course!– Adriana Ugarte (La Señora) as the spy-cum-seamstress heroine will be soon released and, I’m sure, will dramatically increase the sales of the book. Its appeal, to be frank, is quite easy to understand: this is a novel about a likeable, pretty heroine who moves from Madrid to Tetuán and back to Madrid, between the Republic, the Civil War and its aftermath. Sira Quiroga undergoes quite a personal and professional transformation, which includes not just her work as a couturier but also as an improvised spy for the Brits during WWII.

This is the kind of book that, because it’s easy to read, seems easy to manufacture. Well, if it were there would be 1,000 María Dueñas, and that’s not the case –in which I find some comfort. Or not. A colleague who teaches creative writing informs me that a novel like this one –cliché-ridden, with the seams showing particularly where historical information and characters are introduced and with an unlikely first person narrator– can be managed in two months (research apart). Maybe she’s stretching the point but my own point is that I don’t know any university teacher who has two solid months for writing a year, not even counting August. Unless you cut yourself off email and escape from all teaching duties in July, which used to be the case, not anymore. A friend and novelist, Carme Torras, explained to me that she puts aside one day a week for her writing, plus the holidays. I have no idea what method Dueñas follows and no journalist has asked her.

The other matter is the quality. A friend who specialises in detective fiction, Isabel Santaulària, tells me that given the window of opportunity (the two famous months) we might put thread to the needle and write a publishable novel. Publishable, perhaps, to be proud of I doubt it. Happy, lucky Dueñas seems very proud indeed of her work and suitably baffled by its success, and I understand that very well –how could I not? Yet, I would not have put my name on the cover of that novel or a similar one for I would not want others to think of me what I think of Dueñas: that her novel will not do.

This is envy for you.

A STRIKING STRIKE (AND SERRA HUNTING…)

Yesterday the public Catalan universities went on strike against the too many budget cuts that we’re suffering. I didn’t join the strike as a) my not teaching students for one day does not bother anyone, b) I’m sick and tired of giving back more and more money every month to the Government(s) between the pay cuts and the rising taxes.

The students, logically, do not see things my way and yesterday there was a huge demonstration with motorways and main streets taken in Barcelona. The attempt to annoy as much as possible the gigantic mobile phone fair that has occupied Plaça Espanya only worked partly. I realise that the most violent protesters were not really university students but, though I absolutely hate any type of violence, this kind of street guerrilla will soon grow, given the violence of the Government(s) measures.

As regards hiring teachers, I have a strong sense of déjà vù, of the time when I was Head of Department (2005-8). Generalitat’s Secretary for Universities, Antoni Castellà, appeared yesterday on TV3 claiming he didn’t understand the meaning of the strike, as the Catalan Government, rather than make teachers redundant (associates do not count for him as teachers, it seems), has offered a new programme to hire quality talent. Yes, the second phase of the famous Serra Húnter, a programme designed to bring in OUTSIDE talent with contracts rather than tenure as civil servants (what I ‘enjoy’).

Today’s blog entry is an exercise in media literacy, see how you do. I’m using the Generalitat’s own press note (http://premsa.gencat.cat/pres_fsvp/AppJava/notapremsavw/detall.do?id=139443&idioma=0). This claims that in the next 10 years, Catalan universities will incorporate 1,000 new teachers. A few lines later, this is corrected to 8 years, until 2020. The Serra Húnter programme was implanted in 2003 with the Llei d’Universitats de Catalunya (LUC). The idea, the brainchild of current Finance Counsellor Andreu Mas Colell, was to create “un cos docent universitari propi, més flexible i de major excel•lència, per superar la cotilla imposada pel model funcionarial espanyol.” Part of LUC was also the creation of the ‘Lector’ (4-5 years contract) and ‘Agregat’ (indefinite) figures for the same purpose: to have a firmer hold on Catalan universities and avoid the (political) dependence on the Spanish tenure system. Ask ‘Lectors’ and ‘Agregats’ what’s happening to them: the former are being told their contracts might not be renewed even when they have an ‘Agregat’ accreditation, and the ‘Agregats’ are often being invited to get an accreditation as ‘Profesor Titular’ from ANECA (the Spanish agency) and pass a state examination to become Spanish civil servants. End of part one.

Serra Húnter aims at incorporating international talent and there’s no way I can be against it… as an additional or reinforcement programme, and not as the one and only way to hire new teachers (or rather, to give tenure to those who have already been working for Catalan universities for more than 10 years). Have a look at the same piece of news, this time from the UAB website (http://www.uab.es/servlet/Satellite/noticies/detall-d-una-noticia-1090226434100.html?noticiaid=1330414961772). Here we learn that in the next 10 years 2,000 (tenured) university teachers will retire, HALF of whom will be replaced with permanent contracts, of which 50% will be Serra Húnter appointees (by the way, that’s 500 teachers, not 1,000 as Generalitat claims). So, first: we won’t be getting 1,000 MORE tenured teachers in total, but 1,000 FEWER. 500 of the lost 1,000 tenured teaching positions will be covered with temporary contracts (= associates, who are NOT teachers, remember?, and can be fired at will). If you do the maths, in the next 10 years the Catalan universities will lose 500 tenured teachers; 500 more will be replaced with associates; 500 will be Serra Húnter positions with terminable contracts and only 500 MIGHT be tenured, most likely by the Spanish Government.

UAB also informs that additional figures will be created for teaching and research support, that is to say, that pre-doctoral and post-doctoral scholarship holders will be given some extra money for doing these jobs. Always, of course, less money than even the worst-paid associate would get (and how many scholars does the Catalan Government think we have?). To cap this, UAB informs that with all these measures implemented we’ll ‘keep’ the current 1/10 teacher-student ratio that ensures the ‘quality levels of personalised attention required by the development of the EEES plans’.

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