TERRY AND CHARLIE: THE (VICTORIAN) CONNECTION SURFACES

I must thank my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter, for inviting me to overcome my prejudice against the colourful covers of Terry Pratchett’s novels and kicking me head first into the Discworld. 17 years and 39 novels later I can only say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you…’ for so much literary pleasure. As happens, I have just started supervising a PhD dissertation on Pratchett (by Rosa María Moreno), thus breaking the rule that treasured authors must be kept just for pleasure.

Rosa María’s focus are five of the best novels and, in particular, how humour is constructed in them. Pratchett is a superb writer of comic fantasy and one of the best-kept secrets of English Literature, in view of the little academic attention he has received (talk about prejudice…). All his novels reach systematically the top of the best-selling list in the UK but I know very few academic readers of his work, if any, and just a handful of fans (Rosa María among them). There’s a book-length monograph about him called Accused of Literature and that seems to be the problem: that calling Pratchett a literary author sounds pretty much like an accusation. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching the 25th Discworld novel, The Truth (still my favourite) and his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, though I must acknowledge that Pratchett’s dense web of allusions (he’s a very sharp satirist) make reading his novels a hard task for many students. This is one of the paradoxes of popular fiction in the university classroom –Joyce ends up seeming more accessible… (right, Rosa María?)

The reason why I’m writing this posting is sheer serendipity. I have just gone through Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, with the usual immense pleasure I find in reading his work. One of my colleagues, Néstor, saw the copy on my table and he launched into enthusiastic praise of Dickens. We both agreed that a) a non-native learner of English can only fully appreciate Dickens after reaching 40 (sorry, students!) and b) there’s none like him to portray eccentricity and absurdity (Becket is just a would-be-Dickens…).

Then I read Pratchett’s latest paperback, Snuff, and something clicked: hang on, this is Dickens, passed, yes, through Tolkien and Monty Python. I have never doubted that Pratchett’s chaotic Ankh-Morpork is Victorian London and I have always found something endearingly Victorian in the Discworld’s reluctant yet wide-eyed embrace of new technology. Yet, as Pratchett is otherwise very up-to-date in his social criticism, I had missed the Dickens in him (silly me, all that talk of justice and injustice!).

To my immense surprise (and, yes, pleasure) Pratchett himself has pointed out the obvious: his next hardback, due September, is called… Dodger!, and yes, it has Charlie Dickens in it, together with all those other Victorian eccentrics. I’m teaching Oliver Twist again starting next September and I do know it’s going to be a long summer, waiting for the master to see what he’s done with the master in Dodger. I’m sure indeed that Dickens would have enjoyed reading any of Pratchett’s books.

Two more things. The Discworld series has been narrating over the years the progressive inclusion of ‘ethnic’ minorities other than human in Ankh-Morpork’s society. The police force, its most symptomatic example of integration, already boasts among its ranks a werewolf, a troll, dwarves and, indeed, Igors and vampires in its ‘CSI’ team. Snuff is all about Commander Vimes’s heroic fight to have goblins acknowledged as full citizens. And, yes, also by sheer serendipity I have just read George MacDonald’s Victorian classic for children, The Princess and the Goblin (1872). I do know that goblins are much older creatures, possibly our guilty memory of the Neanderthal we exterminated. Yet, reading MacDonald’s callous presentation of the goblins as pure monsters, I realised even with more clarity how Pratchett is following Dickens’s wake in undoing Victorian (and indeed post- or neo-Victorian) prejudice. Perhaps the telling difference is that sentimentalism is (almost) gone. Um, well, instead of Little Nell you get a goblin girl move Ankh-Morpork’s high society to tears… with a harp.

To finish: Pratchett has Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages, which is why, I’m sure, his last eight novels or so, are much darker (or maybe the world is to blame for that). Also, why each new book is so precious to us, fans. Let’s then, look forward to Dodger.

ON PLAGIARISING, AGAIN, WITH SOME RECENT ANECDOTES (AND A PAIR OF LOUBOUTINS)

Possibly, each anecdote deserves a separate entry but since they seem to be interconnected somehow, here they are together.

I show a student where the plagiarised sentence she’s used comes from (a website) and she claims not to be aware of having copied –her defence is that the complete sentence stayed in her mind like that and hence appeared in her essay. I point out to one of my mature students that a whole paragraph in his essay comes from an unacknowledged source and he claims he didn’t know that this particular source could not be used (Yahoo. Answers) –he doesn’t quite defend himself but still demands to pass the subject. He tells me he sympathises with my worries about plagiarising as he’s a secondary school teacher. Third, a student explains to a colleague that he doesn’t understand why she considers that his exercise is plagiarised, as the suspect text comes a from a book (quoted in a website, I think) and not from a website. The same colleague has her students sign a document stating that the whole content of their essays is in their own words, and still finds plagiarised text. Finally, a student demands his right to be re-assessed and when I catch him plagiarising he answers that since I hadn’t noticed the plagiarism the first time around I should not fail him.

Recently I came across a website with a banner warning students not to plagiarise its contents and explaining, once more, what plagiarising consists of. The concept is very simple and we’re truly puzzled as to why students have so many difficulties to grasp it: you plagiarise when you pass off as your own text copied from another source, which remains unacknowledged. This source can be from the internet or printed, that is irrelevant; what matters is that work you submit as 100% yours actually includes paragraphs, complete sentences or fragments of long sentences that you have not written. One thing is a quotation, which is a borrowing properly identified between quotation marks and accompanied by a bibliographical reference to the source text, and quite another plagiarism, which is an intellectual offence, as you steal from others words and ideas that you present as your own.

The difficulties to see plagiarising as a serious offence have much to do, of course, with the weakening of the sense of authority that the internet is responsible for. The main source of information we use today, Wikipedia, is anonymous and, as such, often copied by other websites. This might give the wrong idea that anything on the net can be freely used, no matter whether it has an author or not. The author is not quite as dead as Barthes supposed but the idea of authorship (and the rights it entails) is being questioned. ‘Copyleft’ discourse even supposes that this is at it should be, as ideas and knowledge should circulate freely regardless of copyright regulated by law. The problem with this approach is that it can’t apply to texts on which merit is assessed, such as students’ exercises. We assess on an individual basis, checking the originality and the effort put into each assignment. If a student borrows text produced by someone else’s efforts, then s/he is cheating in his personal assessment. Students who plagiarise just don’t make the effort of making themselves responsible for their own work.

I’m not sure what example to quote, as we’re surrounded by blatant examples of ‘legal’ plagiarism. Just this week a judge has declared that Zara has a right to use red soles in its high-heeled shoes, even though this is a gimmick plagiarised from French designer Christian Louboutin. Some fashion ignoramus might indeed think that Zara have great original ideas, without realising that the credit is due to Louboutin. And that is the whole point of plagiarism: that you arrogate to yourself merits that others deserve (Zara could have used green or asked Louboutin for permission, instead). Here, of course, the judge is establishing a dangerous precedent by allowing Zara to plagiarise for quite unclear reasons (it seems Louboutin didn’t copyright the specific Pantone red). The universities, in contrast, have very different ideas about plagiarism because we teachers, as producers of ideas, are all Louboutins (or aspiring Louboutins). We know how hard it is to think and this is why we don’t welcome Zaras in our midst. They do exist, but we ‘don’t buy them’… (I hope you get the analogy and don’t go telling everyone that teachers are snobs who don’t shop in Zara and that we earn enough money to buy red-soled Louboutins!!).

I hope this explains to you, students, why you should not plagiarise and to you, teachers, why it’s so hard to prove that plagiarising is a crime.

IN MEMORIAM FÉLIX ERNESTO CHÁVEZ: AT A LOSS FOR WORDS

Today we have learned that our dear colleague Félix Ernesto Chávez, a member of our research group ‘Body and Textuality,’ was brutally murdered last Monday in the course of a burglary in México DC. Félix had arrived just two weeks ago to teach a course at UNAM and was staying with relatives. A man who had been doing repairs to their house assaulted it, together with two accomplices. Félix resisted their vicious attack and died defending his uncle, aunt and cousin, who were also murdered.

Born in Cuba in 1977, Félix was both an outstanding researcher and a brilliant poet (as Félix Hangelini). He earned his doctoral degree in ‘Comparative Literature and Theory of Literature’ here at UAB in 2010, under Meri Torras co-supervision, and was currently a post-doc researcher at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid. He had been the President of the Asociación de Jóvenes Investigadores de la Literatura Hispánica, ALEPH (2009-2011), and had taught in places as varied as the Universidad de La Habana, the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3, and the University of Miami. He was one of the still too few men who write about women, particularly women poets in Spanish; at the time of his death he was working on the Romantic women poets of both Spain and Cuba, as he felt they had been unfairly neglected. As a writer, he had published the essay on Walt Whitman La construcción de las olas (2003), and the poetry collections La Devastación (La imaginación de la Bestia) (2006), and Restauración de la luz (2007).

When first reading the message notifying Félix’s death, I just thought it could not be true. Horrifying violence of this kind happens to others, not to our friends. As the hours pass, the monstrosity of his untimely death slowly sinks in and it feels like sheer nightmare. I won’t enter here into a discussion of the uncontrolled violence that México DC suffers from, for we might as well read Félix’s murder as one of those appalling jokes destiny seems fond of cracking (yes, I am thinking all the time of our dear Mia Victori, who also died far from home). Whatever the case, I wouldn’t like Félix to be remembered for his grisly end but for his gentleness, sweet good temper and intelligence.

It’s simply impossible to understand why things like this must happen. Some human beings are indeed vermin beyond redemption and I rebel at the idea that others like our gentle Félix must pay for their greed, stupidity and violence. I’ll leave you with the final lines of Félix’s last entry in his blog, El bosque escrito, and I’ll ask you to always bear in mind how utterly absurd, ironic, cold-hearted destiny can be:

“Estoy en la Ciudad de México y tengo gastritis mientras veo caer grandes chaparrones del cielo, y se mojan las sillas de madera de la terraza, la mesa llena de queso traído de Zacatecas, los enormes cristales impolutos. El cielo más cercano que nunca, antojadizo, volátil. Nada, sin embargo, me resulta familiar. Y me pregunto qué habría sido de mi vida hace más de diez años si hubiera empezado por aquí.”

Rest in peace, Félix Ernesto Chávez.

THE TEACHING GUIDE (OR SYLLABUS BOLOGNA-STYLE): OBJECTIONS AND BENEFITS

I do know that the correct word to name the document that describes a subject is “syllabus” but I’m using “teaching guide” here on purpose to discuss the new kind of syllabus we’ve been using since the beginning of our degree, three academic years ago. As degree Coordinator I’m facing now the daunting prospect of checking ALL the Teaching Guides of my colleagues in English Studies to make sure that they are indeed available and properly filled in. I’m not sure how many I’ll receive punctually but I’m satisfied that things work reasonably on this account in my Department, where, yes, we have this tendency to out-Pope the Pope, as we day in Spanish.

How do I know? Well, I attended a Coordinators’ meeting this week and I was truly appalled to hear that many Humanities teachers are not just dragging their feet but resisting with all their might the very idea of having to write a Teaching Guide. Not just because spelling out the competences for each subject is mind-boggling and time-consuming but rather because they do not want to commit themselves to a reading list and a programme –um, I’m not sure whether they mean right now or never. A Coordinator passed on her Department’s complaint that now we’re too busy marking essays so as to think of what students need to read from 12 September onwards. Considering that students will register on 16 July, I wonder when these teachers will find it convenient to publish their syllabus.

Yes, we’re terribly pressed for time but this is how we do our job. I don’t want to put myself as an example of anything but those of you following this blog will recall a recent posting about the plays I’m reading at full speed for my next year subject. Yes, I was tempted to leave the play list open but a) it’s a bad example for the students, who think we improvise all the time; b) all the work I’m doing now is time I’ll gain when teaching the subject, as I know from experience. As for the Teaching Guide, I do profoundly agree with my colleague from Zaragoza, Paco Collado, who complains that it stresses abilities at the cost of downplaying knowledge. In a Teaching Guide you CAN’T say that on completion of the subject the student will have a sound knowledge of, say, British Drama; you MUST claim that s/he will be ABLE TO SHOW his/her understanding of the main lines of British Drama, as teaching has become now training TO DO SOMETHING, not to KNOW SOMETHING. However, I have always supported the idea of the Teaching Guide as a very convenient teaching tool to which you can refer at any time, and indeed as a contract with the students. I was taught to see it that way in 1998, when I started working for UOC, a virtual university for which the Teaching Guide is almost sacred. It’s taken UAB a long time to catch up…

A Teaching Guide is not, however, and should never be a straightjacket. This semester, for instance, with all the disruptions caused by the strikes, we’ve had to improvise much syllabus-wise. The Guide is, precisely, a Guide to guide both teachers and students and also a healthy reminder that we teachers need to get used to specifying how we teach and how we assess students in a public document. I won’t go now into that other problem, which is some teachers’ absolute reluctance to sharing a Teaching Guide with their colleagues. Or I will, as that’s simple for me: I’m happy to say that I work for a Department in which teachers understand that a subject taught by different teachers must offer to all the groups involved the same contents and assessment methods –your ‘libertad de cátedra’ or academic freedom should apply to how you teach not to what you teach when you share a subject (quite another matter is an elective). I can, though, imagine very well the tensions that these anti-Teaching Guide teachers are suffering and I’m sorry for them.

Having said all this, I must now answer the question everyone is asking me: do students read the Teaching Guide for each subject? I wonder!! I do know that we’re writing the TGs for a future degree assessment by the corresponding authorities, bent on using the scissors on us, yet I do hope the TGs are also useful as what they should be: good teaching tools for all.

A LITERATURE QUIZ (HERE WE GO AGAIN)

I’m tempted to cut’n’paste my entry for 28 May 2011, written after marking a disastrous Literature quiz based on studying our handbook Introduction to English Literature. Yet, re-reading it, I notice that things are even worse this time around as, instead of 50 titles, the quiz covered only 20 –presumably those any self-respecting student of English should be able to identify by author and period. A colleague tells me that I should not write this entry as students might feel offended that I reproduce their mistakes here. Sorry, but in that case I must be cruel: these are not mistakes, they are something else that must be addressed urgently. Judge for yourself:

David Copperfield, by Charles Darwin (see also Sense and Sensibility)
Heart of Darkness, by John Connor (the hero of the Terminator series?)
Lord of the Rings, by, Lord Byron/ JK Tolkien (JRR Rowling?)
Middlemarch, by (literal): Brontë, the first one not Charlotte
Robinson Crusoe, by Oscar Twain from the Jacobean period
Sense and Sensibility, by Charles Darwin/ by Pope Alexander / by John Austen
The Time Machine, by Julio Verne (again??)
To the Lighthouse, by George Tenis
Wuthering Heights, by (literal) The Roberts: Charlotte, Anne, etc./ by Chatterine Brotën/ by Charlotte Wrontë / by The Brontës (in collaboration??)

For some strange reason, Thomas Hardy was named in possibly 70% of the exams as the author of A Passage to India. Some glorious misspellings include: Sheckespeare (no first name…) and Launance Stready… And what’s worse, much too often authors were named correctly but placed in VERY wrong periods. I could have dinner today, if I wanted to, with Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens.

Most students passed the quiz thanks to the second part, a multiple choice exam in which, I’m sure, luck had a share, big or small (as it is always the case with these exercises). In one extreme case a student passed with a 5 by scoring only 2/40 for the quiz and 48/60 from the multiple choice. Perhaps we need to correct that.

What worries me TERRIBLY is that the students’ imaginative quiz answers –and the many blank ones– reveal a WORRYING inability to study in a systematic way. The quiz is not what interests us but the process of preparing for it: we expected our students to draw their own charts, with periods and main authors. I know from the comments one of them made that they have problems discriminating between major and minor writers yet this one of the skills (or competences) they should be learning. As I wrote a year ago, the other worrying, not to say, SCARY factor is how the quiz results show that those approaching us lack the basic cultural capital a student of English should possess (and indeed acquire in the first year). Many of the quiz answers seemed to be shouting at us: ‘I don’t care, and you won’t make me care!!’ Or maybe, simply, I can’t make sense of so much raw data.
Food for thought…

A VIVA IN BRITAIN: COMPARING EXPERIENCES

I was quite surprised when a UAB doctoral student in the ‘Arts Escèniques’ programme run by the Catalan Department asked me to be the second internal examiner of a board that should meet at Warwick University. Surprised because a) I didn’t know her, b) I do not specialise in Theatre Studies (though I teach Theatre now and then), c) I didn’t know you could –as she has done– get simultaneously a British and a Spanish doctoral degree with the same dissertation.

Cleverly, she got Warwick and UAB to sign an agreement and I became technically UAB’s envoy to check that the proceedings met our regulations. I said yes considering I would never have again the chance to experience in person how a British viva works (why I never stopped to consider the hassle of reaching Coventry from Barcelona and viceversa is another matter). I realise now that I was a desperate choice as examiner, as more alert UAB doctors claimed not to know enough English. I, in contrast, took the bait hook, line and sinker. Silly me!

It’s been a peculiar experience. We –the 3 examiners and the chair or advisor– met two hours before the viva to agree on the list of questions we’d ask (7 for a 90 minute conversation, a long list I’m told). Forget, then, about the notes I’d prepared for my intervention, Spanish-style. This meeting took 1 hour, followed by a modest lunch with these 3 persons, plus the 2 co-supervisors (one Spanish, one British). Then came the viva itself.

The PhD candidate offers no presentation and I almost jump out of my chair when I heard the external examiner (who leads the viva) wonder where the candidate could sit so that she felt most at ease. There were finally 6 of us in a tiny room, a very high number as usually vivas, which are not public, involve just the candidate, the internal and the external. The supervisors attended because I explained that in Spain not attending the defensa of your own student is an offence. No audience, no families, though –which I did miss. The tone has been throughout kind and friendly and the conversation, for that’s what it is, rich and productive. The candidate was nervous but she soon relaxed (and so did I).

Spanish ‘defensas’ make me quite edgy as even when my intervention is short this lasts for at least 15 long minutes in which I feel exposed, as if I also were under examination. At UAB we have 3-member boards and the session lasts around 3 hours (plus paperwork) but one of my poor doctoral students had to endure a few years ago a 5-hour session with a 5-member board! In Britain, as I saw, the viva did take almost 5 hours, paperwork included, but time was allocated differently and the tension was much lower. I’m told this was a placid viva –it ended by the way with a pass with minor revisions, which means the new doctor will be awarded her degree once we’re satisfied that the typos, grammar mistakes and bibliography incorrections are gone. In worse cases, candidates may be asked to rewrite substantially and resubmit 6 months later, though I’m told this is not at all a dishonour.

Yet… I have missed our own ritual. In Britain candidates are not expected to invite the board to lunch, as we do here. This may seem a bit feudal but since a doctoral degree is the highest degree a human being can get anywhere in the world, I see the point of senior doctors celebrating the occassion with the new doctor. Also, since board members are not paid, this is a courtesy that the candidate extends to them for their efforts.

In my case, I did make the effort not only of reading a dense dissertation outside my field but also of taking quite a long journey to do both universities a favour. Yet, here I am: it’s 4 p.m., the viva is over, I can’t get back to Barcelona this evening and, except for a brief thanks from the candidate and her supervisors, no other courtesies have been extended to me. Nobody bothered to check if I arrived safely yesterday, nobody has bothered to ask me how I’m to spend the long evening nor how I’m going home tomorrow. From my university I expect no thanks, either –just a swift return of the 300 euros in expenses that I have advanced. Yes, silly me as I said.

In contrast, I have the fondest memories of the last tribunal I took part in, a year ago in Zaragoza, which ended with the most fabulous lunch I’ve ever had in my life… and, what matters most, with a fulfilling sense of having shared very good academic company and of having accomplished an important academic task. Different cultures, different views, of course…