BY DECREE: THE NEW TEACHING WORKLOAD

Last Saturday, 21 April, the Spanish Government issued a new decree (see BOE http://www.boe.es/boe/dias/2012/04/21/pdfs/BOE-A-2012-5337.pdf), cheerfully called “de medidas urgentes de racionalización del gasto público en el ámbito educativo.” According to this decree, although university teachers are still supposed to teach 24 ECTS credits a year (= 4 semestral subjects), this workload may be increased or decreased, depending on the commitment to research of the said teachers.

This is measured in research assessment periods (the famous ‘tramos’): a senior lecturer (‘titular’) needs 3 to be honoured with an 8-ECTS credit reduction; a full professor (‘catedrático’) needs 4. If, no matter what rank you belong to, you have fewer ‘tramos’, then you can be asked to teach up to 32 ECTS credits. The UAB is debating these days how to apply the decree, as the schedule for next year is almost finished. Also, the figures fit badly our subjects, which are 6, 9 or 12 ECTS credits.

Here’s my personal view: I’m VERY worried, as this decree does not distinguish between teachers who simply do not do any kind of research and never have, and young/er teachers who have not had the time to accumulate 3 ‘tramos’ but who do struggle to do research and teach 24 ECTS credits (plus admin work). It’s easy to see that, if asked to teach more, our research –for I myself don’t have the magical 3 ‘tramos’– will suffer for it. In contrast, senior teachers with plenty of research to their names are privileged for that, but not really encouraged to gain a fourth or fifth ‘tramo,’ depending on the case.

I must say that I fully agree that teachers who don’t do research should have a greater workload. 30 or 32 ECTS credits seems right. To begin with, I’ve never understood why the university tolerates that some teachers –including professors who got tenure before ‘tramos’ were established back in 1982 (I think)– do no research whatsoever. Since, however, they are tolerated, then it is obvious that as these teachers have more time in their hands than us, researchers, they should either teach more or run all the admin in the Department. I know this might irk some colleagues but I’d really like to know on what they spend the time that we researchers use for, well, research. I know that my life would be relatively stress-free if I only taught my classes.

Using research assessment periods as the measuring rod is both clever and perverse. As they are notoriously hard to get, many (young/er) teachers will consider whether they’re worth the effort in comparison to teaching an extra subject; they might even decide to give up research altogether. This will indeed help the Government save money, as they’ll have to pay for fewer ‘tramos’ and there will be also fewer candidates, in the case of senior lecturers, to apply for tenure as full professors. Not to mention the savings in staff, as fewer teachers will suffice. In any case, with increased fees (also itemised in the decree), we’ll have fewer students –ironically, we might not need to teach 32 ECTS credits at all!

Finally, if the Department in question has enough resources (and students), there will be no need to force researchers to teach 32 ECTS credits, but if that’s not the case, the fight will be hard. If, suppose, I get my third ‘tramo’ and demand to teach 16 ECTS credits –it would be stupid of me not to do so– someone else will have to teach the 8-credit difference. That is to say: one of my colleagues will be ‘punished’ for my (supposed) efficiency even though s/he might be a better researcher than myself but just younger or less fortunate when applying for ‘tramos’. Tough luck…

I forgot to say that, with the new UAB regulations, credits are combined with the number of students in class, so that my 6 credits for the first-year subject Literatura del s. XX (92 students registered) amount actually to 10, whereas my 6 credits for the MA subject Postmodern Textualities and Sexualities (5 students) count as just 4’5 credits. Teachers working in the first and second year might end up, thus, teaching the equivalent of 50 ECTS; those in the fourth year and the MA less than 10.

How this rationalizes anything is beyond me. Deep sigh… multiplied by 32.

ON THE DAY I READ COROLIANUS…FEES WENT UP BY 66%

Last Sunday I went to see Alex Rigola’s production of Corolianus at Lliure. It was the first time I saw a Shakespeare without first reading the play but even so I could guess that something was very wrong as the performance only lasted for 75 minutes. The guy who appeared to be Corolianus’s main rival, Aufidius, was never seen on stage. Um, fishy! That sent me rushing to the library and I managed to squeeze the play within my crazy schedule this week (fancy reading Shakespeare on a noisy train full of schoolchildren, I must have seemed a complete nerd to the rest of the passage).

As I finished reading this marvellous play –thank you, Rigola, for the inspiration… – I thought that on that particular day the most important thing that had happened to me as a Literature teacher was getting acquainted with Coriolanus. Not my morning lecture, the later meeting with colleagues, the paperwork for the 2012-13 schedule. No. Reading that play, my 21st Shakespeare, had given my day the richness that I thought, when I was 18, all my days teaching Literature would have (or should have). Then I switched on the TV to watch the news, and the day changed completely. It was quite spoiled.

I had already heard that university tuition fees would go up next year but the increase announced on that day is quite outrageous. Our Humanities students pay now for a BA academic year 910 euros, 15% of the real cost of their public education (=6,000); this may be increased up to 66%, meaning that they might end up paying 1500/1660 euros, a 25% of the cost (depending on whether how many subjects they’re repeating they might pay the full amount per credit, 100 euros). If I think of England, where universities were allowed two years ago to charge up to 9,000 pounds, this is nothing (and, after all, 120-150 euros a month is still VERY cheap for a university education). Yet, I wonder at the insensivity of the politicians making a decision like this one at a point of deep, depressing crisis. Clearly, the idea is to expel as many working-class students as possible from our classrooms and, then, with the excuse of our having fewer students, terminate us, teachers, little by little. Here, in Catalonia, Generalitat has promised to turn 25% of the increased fees into scholarships but this is not enough.

I saw a minister of the current Spanish Government claim on TV that, despite being the product of a school with 40 children per class and of that overcrowded 1980s Spanish university in which you needed to rise up early to find a chair in 300-student classes, he was fine indeed. Well, he may be a minister but he’s NOT fine indeed if he thinks that going back 30 years in time is desirable. That other Minister claimed this week that with classes up to 25, children are insufficiently socialised, this is why they need 15 extra classmates… As a primary school teacher quipped, with 40 kids squeezed into classrooms meant for 25 they’ll have to socialise… or else.

In the end, that day will not make it to my personal history as a Literature teacher because I read Coriolanus, as it should, but because a further step has been taken in the demolition job that is fast destroying what has been achieved in the university by my generation and our elders in the last 30 years. I’m bracing myself for the many protests that I’m sure UAB students will soon stage and though I hate strikes I hate even more what’s been done to us collectively –I don’t mean the university, I mean Spain.

Someone please write a play about this soon, quick. How badly we need a Shakespeare! And how well Coriolanus still applies to our time (do read it, please…)

CHOOSING A BOOK (FOR A LITERATURE TEACHER): HERE COMES SANT JORDI…

Next Monday is every Literature teacher’s favourite holiday (it is, isn’t it?): Sant Jordi’s –book day here in Catalonia. Holiday not in the sense that we Catalans don’t work on that day, but in the sense that civil society takes the streets to celebrate reading –or so claim the authorities on popular Catalan festivities. For the uninitiated, all bookshops set up stalls outdoors and offer a 10% discount on their wares; in the major bookshops people queue to have their books signed by their favourite authors (I might pay a fetishistic visit to Chuck Palahniuk…).

This was all invented by the booksellers’ guild back in the 1920s, I think, though I have no idea how this got entangled with lovers’ day, which is also 23rd April here (um, yes, hero, princess, dragon…really?). Here’s the (changing) sexist tradition for you: men get books from their women, women get roses from their men (not necessarily boyfriends, though woe betide the boyfriend who does not spend an outrageous amount of money on a rose he could get much cheaper on any other day). This is changing in the sense that women are getting these days both roses and books, though I don’t know how many men get roses from their women, with or without books.

Anyway, I love the sight of so many men walking the streets roses in hand, though I tend to avoid the crowds buying books on that day. I do my Sant Jordi book shopping beforehand as, well, I hate buying book on Sant Jordi’s day. Not just because it’s crowded but mainly because it is crowded… No, I haven’t lost it. Picking a book in a crowd is quite uncomfortable under any circumstance (no peace, no quiet) but what I rather mean is that these crowds are only found on that day. Where are they the other 364 days, I wonder? Buying books online? Sant Jordi always reminds me of that awful celebration in which women rule a village for one day because they don’t the rest of the year. Same thing.

Well, here’s the problem: how do you choose books for your non-academic loved ones? It’s easy if you’re happy to get any of the novelties, for Sant Jordi is the biggest book-selling campaign in Spain (yes, not just in Catalonia). Sales amount to 25% of the yearly total… on a single day. Quite another matter is whether you want to pick up a particular book, which needs planning in advance, plenty of net surfing and trusting that delivery will be, as promised, on time (you tell me!!). Mostly, crowds and even Literature teachers end up buying whatever is at hand. This year –and this is really what I wanted to write about– I have given up the attempt to buy my mother a copy of the Spanish translation of Anne Brontë’s The Tennant of Wildfell Hall, a novel I’m teaching, as a) the cheaper paperback copy is very hard to find, b) the trade paperback copy is equally hard to find and pricey (above 25 euros for a classic out of copyright??). Call me Catalan, I mean tight-fisted, but my hard-earned money has been finally invested in this time of crisis on books more at hand (a Follett, a Steinbeck). My mum doesn’t read my blog, don’t worry (and she gets books from me and my family more often than just once a year…).

I forgot to say that though I do get a spectacular rose every Sant Jordi, I never get books, as my family is in a panic that I’ve read everything published under the sun –a good excuse, my cheeky ones! It seems I let this out last year –poor me, nobody buys me books– and my mum got so sorry for me that she decided to brave it out and buy me a novel. A non-English one, just in case. She got me Margaret Mazzantini’s La palabra más hermosa, which I did enjoy very much. Thank you, mum!

And, so, my mum got very happy that she had managed the hardest feat: giving a Literature teacher a book as a present and getting it right! Poor thing, I hope this Sant Jordi is less stressful for her… perhaps I should give her some hint?

HEADACHE: PLANNING NEXT YEAR

I have a spectacular headache and the problem is that I can’t take yet another painkiller. I know, I should not be writing. How did the headache come about? Planning the schedule for the next academic year, I mean for all the teachers in the English Studies BA. This is one of the duties of the degree Coordinator –remember the 200 euros a month? I’m writing this entry, by the way, not just with a pounding headache but with the greatest admiration and sympathy for my predecessors (and coordinating colleagues).

Check this: I’m planning a schedule involving 43 teachers, each with their personal demands. Some want to concentrate all their teaching in one semester, others MUST teach particular subjects. Some live far from UAB and drag their feet when it comes to teaching at 8:30 (or end at 19:00), others ask for teaching reductions that the Dean frowns on in this time of crises. Some complain even though they have a tenured position and the reductions, others take up anything because they have shitty contracts and dream of getting tenure one day for putting up with the low pay. The coordinator needs to juggle a ready-made schedule with the needs of real people, as she imagines how angry students will be at certain clashes between subjects. Meantime the Vice-Dean herself complains that UAB teachers should be available no matter what from 8:30 to 18:00, if required every day of the week. Deep sigh…

I do know that other Coordinators have worked harder and others juggle much bigger numbers (or both). Planning a yearly schedule must be done, there’s no way around it. And it must be done by the teachers themselves for we certainly don’t want to be pushed around by bureaucrats. What I’m wondering is why my brain is doing all the work and not a computer, it seems somehow old-fashioned. What’s Apple doing about this??? Mind you, planning can be even fun, for the schedule is like a big jigsaw and it’s a real pleasure to see the pieces falling into place. It just takes, judging from my headache, more brainpower than it is reasonable to apply, at least in such a short period.

So, if it’s so stressful, why didn’t I start planning beforehand? But I did… I started in February, then got stalled because, guess what?, it’s election time for a new Rector and the outgoing one has been procrastinating. Yes, usually by now we’d be in possession of a final staff list for next year. No such luck this time. Why? Well, they need to ‘reorganise costs’, which means teachers must be laid off. Which ones? Well, that’s what we’re still waiting for. My headache, you see?, it’s not because planning a schedule is something that only Deep Blue’s current descendant can possibly manage with no mistakes but also because, as I know from my predecessors, is has to be done over a number of months and many times over.

If you ask me, I think this is a waste of public money and resources, but, then, who am I to complain in comparison to the Department and UAB colleagues who might not be here next year?

‘TEACHER, HOW MUCH SHOULD I LEARN?’: ON SETTING LIMITS TO ONE’S OWN EDUCATION

This is one of the entries left in my inkpot because of the student strike last March. I realise now that it makes a good companion to my previous entry, so here it is.

Any Literature teacher knows that it’s never enough (“until your heart stops beating” – extra points if you catch which lyrics I’m quoting…), hence my trying to read Parade’s End no matter what: to fill in a gap. When checking on its fame as a masterpiece, I chanced upon “1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jan/23/bestbooks-fiction), a definitively not definite list that The Guardian had the guts to publish in 2009, when time apparently stopped. Curioser and curioser, I did check what I’d read already, and it turns out I’m 647 books short. How embarrassing! (I decided not to keep that list close by, fearing another Miau case –see the previous entry).

Picture now one of my most motivated first-year-students asking me a few weeks ago how much of the background reading to drama included in our handbook Introduction to English Literature she needed to learn: ‘Do I just read that or learn it?’ I pretended not to understand the difference between ‘reading’ and ‘learning’, but I feel I was not stressful enough when I told her that ‘the more you know, the better’ as I added ‘for the exam’. Silly me. The book in question includes 12 pages about 20th century British drama, by the way, it was never a question of her reading volumes to accompany our fitful teaching of Look back in anger (fitful because of the strike). I suspect that the other book we have included as compulsory background reading, The Edinburgh Introduction to English Literature is simply not read, as we don’t test students on it.

I would have stripped myself naked in class rather than ask one of my own university teachers how much I needed to read from a particular book –stripping being the less embarrassing option. The right question was (and should still be) ‘what else can I read?’, always. In my time, gosh what an oldie I’ve become, it was understood that students ought to read as much as possible, leaving no minute of their lives empty. Lectures were just the tiny tip of the iceberg. Of course, many approached this in a pragmatic way and regulated quite nicely, often at the bar, how much time the library deserved. They were the ones happy to get just a pass and move on. The others, us bookworms, knew that no library is small enough to gnaw your way into –consider how The Guardian speaks of reading 1000 novels just like that, when truly devoted readers read about 100 books a year, average readers (in Spain) less than 20…

The baffling exchange with this student shows me something I’ve been suspecting all along: our youth are pragmatic and candid (I thought they were cheeky). Candid, as you can see, because they don’t realise what a faux-pas is asking a Literature teacher about how little will do, instead of how much more. The same applies to the handful of English Studies students who tell us to our faces that they don’t like reading, without seemingly realising this is not the way to earn the sympathy of a Literature teacher.

What worries me much more is why the message that at university one ought to read non-stop, particularly in the Humanities, has been blurred or lost. I don’t know what my colleagues do, but I make a point of telling my students how recently I’ve learned this or that, or how much I still must read, for them to see that learning is a lifelong process. Ignorance is bliss for too many in our classrooms, whereas it should be a blessing spurring all of us to move on.

So… my dear student, if you read this, learn what those 12 pages have to say and use our reasonably rich library to learn much, much more, till you realise how little even the most learned know.

GIVING UP (ON A MASTERPIECE): FORD MADOX FORD’S PARADE’S END

I don’t feel much compunction when abandoning a book that fails to interest me. So many fish in the sea… why bother to stick to one chosen freely and that can be equally freely abandoned? (quite another matter are the books I must read, for teaching or research… and the many I read as a student but never enjoyed). Yet, one thing is giving up on a run-of-the-mill book whereas abandoning a masterpiece seems to be quite a different matter.

This Easter holiday I gave myself as literary homework reading Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End, all 836 pages. Why? Well, I just love his novel The Good Soldier (1915) –unfairly regarded as one of those second tier books that needn’t be taught– and I happen to be a sucker for anything on WWI (it’s a very rich field for anyone interested in masculinity.). And Parade’s End is a masterpiece, or so many readers and critics claim. Soooo…. about 70 pages into the first novel, Some Do not…, I realised that I had already tried reading the tetralogy years ago but had forgotten I’d given up mid-book. The problem? I couldn’t see the hero protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, and I mean in a very physical sense –he seemed to be both the manliest man ever and a fish-eyed, soft-bellied, bland slob. Above all, this being a Modernist novel, characters talk and act in the weirdest possible way (um… yes, they’re upper class!), something further complicated by Ford’s decision to narrate in odd time loops, with events being recalled in quite an oblique fashion rather than narrated in your regular dramatised scenes, Austen-style. Yet, I decided to plod on. Cultural capital and all that…

Since 20th century novelists don’t bother to describe their characters as the Victorians did, I’ve got the really awful habit of casting actors in my personal reading. This time I got lucky because by a strike of serendipity, it turns out that a TV mini-series based on Parade’s End and scripted by none other than Tom Stoppard, is being currently filmed, with Benedict Cumberbatch (of recent Sherlock Holmes fame) as Tietjens. This bit of information helped me go more smoothly through 240 of the 288 pages of Some Do not… until the moment came to make the decision to plod on for yet 548 pages (a bad sign, isn’t it?, counting pages).

I checked the Wikipedia for tips about the content of the three following books, as Tietjens, though shell-shocked, is not seen at the front in the first book, and that was what I was looking for. I checked Amazon.co.uk for readers’ opinions, and found a dismayed reader who had gone through the whole tetralogy but who, disliking the snobbish characters, felt “relief” when reaching the end. I discovered Good Reads (www.goodreads.com), excuse my monumental ignorance, where many, many readers praised to high heaven Ford’s ‘masterpiece’ while a handful despaired. After two hours of trying hard to find renewed motivation I decided to give up.

Seeing how Parade’s End is included in diverse list of the best fiction in English ever, and realising it must have been truly hard to write, I’m considering whether what we mean by ‘masterpiece’ needs to be revised to include books that are masterpieces but that are also unreadable without a great deal of perseverance. I’m not talking here about Ulysses, which I can claim to have read, ehem, or Gravity’s Rainbow, my most spectacular failure to date, but this other kind of contemporary novel which while being representative of a certain artistic, literary trend –whether Modernism or something else– no longer works and runs even the risk of becoming a relic.

I’m sure I’ll watch the TV adaptation of Parade’s End, in the hopes of returning to the tetralogy one day, but it’ll be rather for Stoppard and Cumberbatch (what a surname!) than for Madox Ford. Yet, it’s funny how instead of feeling that Madox Ford fails as a writer in his foursome I feel that I have failed as a reader. This is what trying to get a literary culture does to you. Luckily, my other Easter novel, Benito Pérez Galdós’s Miau (1888) has turned out to be as brilliant as promised by that Spanish Literature teacher who recommended it to us, students, more than thirty years ago. I’ll leave the problem of keeping reading lists for some other entry…