HOW MUCH READING?: THE RECURRING QUESTION

One of our Erasmus students at Edinburgh emails us the reading list for one of her subjects, a crash course on ‘Scottish Fiction’ (third year, I guess):

Week 1. Introduction; extracts from Tobias Smollett, Humphrey Clinker (1771) and James Barker, The Wonder of All the Gay World (1749)
Week 2. Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian (1818)
Week 3. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)
Week 4. Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped (1886); Catriona (1893)
Week 5. Eric Linklater, Magnus Merriman (1935)
Week 6. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
Week 7. David Daiches, Two Worlds (1956); Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae (1992)
Week 9. Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (1993)
Week 10. Iain Banks, Complicity (1993)
Week 11. Ian Rankin, Set in Darkness (2000) and The Falls (2001)

12 volumes, passages from 2 more. Um!! Here is my own reading list for ‘Scottish Literature and Culture’ (2009-10), third/fourth year, with 3 books, 4 short stories, and 1 film, for a 13-week course:

1. Xavier Solano, El mirall escocés (this is a 212-page essay comparing Catalonia and Scotland)
2. Short stories by A.L. Kennedy, Jackie Kay, Janice Galloway and Ali Smith, about 50 pages in total
4. Alasdair Gray, Poor Things (1993), 336 pages
5. Ian Rankin, Let it Bleed (1995), 360 pages
6. Danny Boyle, Trainspotting (1996). Yes, the film. Irvine Welsh’s novel was recommended reading.

Of course, Edinburgh’s course is for native speakers of English, ours are all for second-language speakers. Yet, here’s the mystery: our students take courses like this one in Britain and when they return, worn out but happy, they throw at us these trying words: ‘Oh, my! They do make us read there!!’

As a second-year student I took an annual subject, ‘Introducción a la Literatura Española de los siglos XVIII y XIX’, for which I had to read more than 20 books, including long, long La regenta. The teacher lectured weekly on a different text –brilliantly– and I read non-stop even the Cartas eruditas y curiosas (1742-1760) by Padre Feijóo. Amazing, really. There was no time for close reading and no dialogue at all between her and us, a huge class maybe 150 students. Revising for the exam with no clue as to what would be asked was some chore!! Yet, I remember that course fondly. (As fondly, mind you, as the courses in English Literature in which I was asked to read only 5 books but would read 15 more out of curiosity to complete my personal syllabus.)

Now that I’m using 7 sessions to read Oliver Twist with my second-year students, working under the impression that we’ll only manage to scratch the surface, I wonder whether they’d hate me horribly if I used an Edinburgh-style syllabus. In the elective ‘English Theatre’ I have already used, and will use again, 10 plays with no complaints whatsoever, though, yes, I know, this amounts to roughly 1,200 pages.

I’m still perplexed, no matter how hard I push my brain, by why students sent to Edinburgh accept (and love) reading so much. Unless, that is, I come to the uncomfortable conclusion that students see us, non-native teachers (or even native teachers) working here in Spain, as, well, not quite the ‘real thing’ but a kind of second-hand version of our British colleagues. Once in Britain (or in other ‘serious’ countries like Germany), surrounded by competitive peers and in the hands of teachers who simply do not care whether students are native or not, things must look very different…

If it’s that, or something else (maybe we’re being too prudent?) I’d like to know so that I can finally teach 10 Victorian masterpieces instead of just 4.

THE SHORTEST AND THE LONGEST: CELEBRATING TWO YEARS (WITH AN INVITATION TO READ SF)

Two years ago, on September 19 2010, I started publishing my ranting and raving on teaching English Literature (and other academic matters) here. I am very much surprised myself by the frequency and regularity of my postings, which now amount to 100,000 words, a long book.

Writing this blog, my journal of the plague years of the crisis, feels often very, very lonely. Yet, it keeps me sane (or rather, it prevents me from going insane) and, well, from comments published here and others I get in person, my guess is that someone is reading me, if only a few (thanks José Ángel, I appreciate!!). I don’t think I have ever wasted my time writing here, quite the opposite.

Anyway, to celebrate I’m giving away here a Guide I’ve written for anyone who might be interested, like me, in doing research in the field of SF. Yes, I know, it’s an odd gift, but, I don’t know, it just feels right. I hope someone ‘out there’ enjoys it.

Thanks!!!

RESEARCHING SCIENCE FICTION

OLIVER’S BASTARDY: BEYOND THE WORKHOUSE AND INTO THE LAW

Typically, there comes a point when after reading a particular book six or seven times, a new angle opens up and I wonder how come I’d missed that. In the case of Dickens’s Oliver Twist perhaps this has much to do with having overlooked the details of the rocambolesque explanation of the connection between the poor orphan Oliver and his wicked stepbrother, Edward Leeford a.k.a. ‘Monks.’

As Mr Brownlow explains (SPOILERS AHEAD…), Leeford Sr. was married off by his greedy family at the tender age of 21 to what was indeed in Regency times an old maid: a 30-year-old rich heiress. The offspring of the ill-fated marriage was Edward, apparently born wicked because of his parents’ unhappiness. Edwin Leeford not only separated from his wife, but also disowned this elder son for his bad behaviour, at least nominally, not quite legally. The said Edwin then seduced pretty teen Agnes, befuddled her with the excuse that a big secret prevented him from marrying her, and made her pregnant with Oliver, never disclosing that he was already married. Then he fled to Rome, corroded by guilt, to elaborate a plan to, presumably, become a bigamist. Instead, he died and his evil first wife took the chance to destroy a second will in which he acknowledged the existence of Agnes and her bastard (not yet born). This revengeful harridan also told Agnes’s father what a bad girl his daughter was, which brought about her disgrace and her untimely death in childbirth at Mudfog’s workhouse. Monks, learning that the bastard had survived, concocted a strange plan with his buddy Fagin to turn him into a criminal and, if possible, do away with him. Strange, very strange.

The fact that Oliver is illegitimate is hardly concealed in the novel. He gives Noah Claypole a serious beating up for suggesting that Agnes was less than pure and it’s all through quite clear that Oliver can’t name his father. What I had missed is Mr Brownlow’s cornering of Monks until this very poor example of an elder brother accepts sharing what little is left of Edwin’s legacy with Oliver (6,000 pounds). I can’t check Susan Zlotnick’s article “’The Law’s a Bachelor’: Oliver Twist, Bastardy, and the New Poor Law” (Victorian Literature and Culture, 34:1, 2006), nor Laura Schattschneider’s “Mr Brownlow’s Interest in Oliver Twist” (Journal of Victorian Culture, 6.1, 2001) because that would cost me 60 euros –too much to prepare my seminar for tomorrow and satisfy my curiosity. The free access article by Dorothy L. Haller, “Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England” (http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/haller.htm), however, informs me that although previous to 1834 fathers of illegitimate children had to support them, fear that single women would commit perjury against ‘innocent’ men, led to the Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Law of that year. By this, “All illegitimate children (…) were to be the sole responsibility of their mothers until they were 16 years old.” If Agnes had survived, being unable to support her child, she would anyway have ended up in the workhouse with him. This blatant injustice was overturned in 1844 (see also for free, http://www.workhouses.org.uk/poorlaws/newpoorlaw.shtml#Bastardy)

Yet, this is not quite my point. The fact is that through Brownlow (who, remember, adopts Oliver once he’s proven to be a good boy), Dickens defends the right of illegitimate children to be granted equal rights as regards their father’s inheritance. A peculiar website on genealogy (http://www.british-genealogy.com/forums/showthread.php/72235-Illegitimacy-and-inheritance) explains that in 19th century England (not Scotland) “a child who was born illegitimate had no inheritance rights” unless a) the parents married after its birth (without committing bigamy, of course), b) or the illegitimate child would be “provided for in a legal settlement” or “bequeathed a legacy in a legally valid will.” The latter was indeed the case with Oliver, though as Edward’s mother destroys his father’s second will, Monks can very well keep the whole inheritance for himself, as I understand. Only Brownlow’s bullying and the threat of being reported as Fagin’s accomplice in Oliver’s abuse does the trick.

This defence of the bastard –together with that of Agnes as a fallen woman, and of Rose as the collateral damage of that fall– is, now that I think about it, as sensational as Anne Brontë’s defence of Helen as a runaway wife in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I might be totally mistaken in thinking this is not a central issue in Oliver Twist-related bibliography but I certainly had missed it. My apologies to my previous students… it just scares me to think that what other elephant in the room I’m missing.

WE ARE THE BEST!!!: ON HOW THAT FEELS… (SWEATY)

On Wednesday 12 I learned that according to ‘QS World University Rankings 2012-2013’, the university I work for, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, is the best in Spain, followed by the Universitat de Barcelona. It is also number 176 in the list of the top 200 in the world (QS considers 2,500 universities in total, 700 for the ‘long list’). The top 10 are, what a surprise: MIT, Cambridge, Harvard, University College London, Oxford, Imperial College London, Yale, University of Chicago, Princeton and California Institute of Technology. Yes, all English-speaking centres. Yes, the richest ones. Yes, private.

Apparently, this ranking is based on the academic reputation of each institution (40%), capacity to generate employment (10%), the ratio student/teacher (20%), citation volume (20%), internationalization (5%) and (number?) of foreign students (5%). UAB occupies place 105 by academic reputation, but, hei, it climbs up to 92 if we consider the Humanities, which rank above Social Sciences (95), Natural Sciences (106), Medicine and Life Sciences (144), and Technology and Engineering (203). Clearly, we need to start pulling rank… Barcelona, by the way, is the 11th favourite city of students around the world (no wonder, ask Erasmus students about our ‘academic’ reputation).

On the same day, 12, the course begins and I start my battle with the real conditions that QS does not reflect: a sweltering 30º in class at 15:00 and no air conditioning. This makes me go mad with anxiety about the possible sweat stains on my dark skirt and… the survival rate of my new students, desperately fanning themselves with their class notes. Poor things, they behave so nicely!! There are 64, more to come when the Erasmus enrol –also, I see some Chinese students not on my class list yet. This means that not all have access to my Moodle virtual classroom, and that many won’t have the books I’ll start discussing next week (and that were announced last July). I complain (as usual) to the corresponding Vice-Dean about the appalling heat (it was the appalling smell last year) and I’m told we need to put up with the building as it is, they’re doing what they can, implicitly in this time of crisis. And they measure the temperature now and then. Not all the official lists, by the way, are available because the computer system has decided of its own to boycott our Department.

If we’re 176, and I’ll believe that, the QS rating system is either not working properly or working perfectly and revealing much about universities around the world. I feel proud to contribute, if only modestly, to the UAB’s top Spanish ranking and, in particular, that of the Humanities section in the world (92!!??). Today, better than ever before, I can truly say that the effort takes much sweat of (and off) my brow (and other bodily parts I’d rather not mention). Our lovely Mediterranean shores can be an enticement for many Erasmus students but they have a clear downside.

This, surely, is not noticed at MIT not only because they’re further north but also because, my guess, they needn’t put up with the building… If despite all this, and much more I’m narrating in this blog, we’re number 176 in the world this is indeed cause for celebration!! Good for us!

IS TRASH ALWAYS TRASH?: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE FILM WARRIOR

It often happens that suddenly a particular actor starts appearing in a number of well-publicised films without being himself particularly famous (or at least, not here). After seeing English actor Tom Hardy in Inception; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and as the masked Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, and knowing he’d played Sikes and Heathcliff in recent TV adaptations, I got curious, checked his IMDB profile… and got to Warrior. Oh, my, that poster!! (see for yourself: www.imdb.com/name/nm0362766/). That did it, also the 8.3 rating, which means that this quite unknown film, not even released in Spain, is currently no. 155 in IMDB’s 250 top films (of all times). And, according to audiences, among the 5 best for 2011. Strange, very strange.

I watched the film enthralled, and I don’t know how to begin to explain myself. I’ll begin, perhaps, by calling it ‘male melodrama’ in its purest state (spoilers ahead). The plot concerns two Irish-American brothers, Brendan (the eldest, played by Australian Joel Edgerton –recently seen battling The Thing) and Tommy (our Tom). They were estranged when their sick mother had to run away from their abusive, alcoholic father; Brendan, around 16, stayed on for the girl he eventually married. Tom (14?) fled only to see his mom soon die a miserable death. Both brothers hate their father’s guts but owe the man, a former boxer, their professional vocation as fighters.

By the time the film begins, 15 to 20 years later, Tommy is back from a stint in Iraq (he did something heroic there but is actually a disgusted deserter). Brendan –recycled as committed high school teacher and family man– faces foreclosure, ruined after paying for his daughter’s heart surgery. Guess what? Both find the solution to their woes in fighting the MMA (‘Mixed Martial Arts’) Spartan Fighting Championship (this does exist –it has contenders fight inside a cage…). Tommy asks Dad (Paddy, played Nick Nolte, who got an Oscar Nomination!!) to train him for pragmatic reasons –no forgiveness at all. Guess who fights whom in the tournament’s final? And who wins…

Echoes of many other boxing films runs through Warrior, from Rocky to Raging Bull, passing through the unmissable Fight Club and even Cinderella Man. In this one, the key note for each fighting brother is clear as daylight: Tommy’s rage makes him fast and furious (and so bulky!!); Brendan’s despair makes him tenacious and, ultimately, impossible to defeat (also more slender!). His sweet wife, first horrified, cheers him on, as bloodthirsty as the crowd of marines supporting Tommy. Yet, and maybe here’s the key to the film’s unexpected popular success, Warrior is a film about reconciliation among brothers –the new men that must replace the damaged generation represented by the father. Both, by the way, make a stand against appalling conditions ultimately created by their own Government, whether they are the Iraq war (Tommy’s buddy was killed there by friendly fire), or the failure to provide medical insurance for the children of the middle class (there’s also a greedy banker involved in Brendan’s fall).

I’m not saying at all this is an 8.3 film and I sympathise with all the appalled IMDB users at a loss to explain this rating (it’s not hype this time, or paid voters…). Yet, this piece of trash, so cliché-ridden, so predictable, so downright brutal, is also strangely sincere and completely straightforward about what is valued in current American masculinity. Artistically it is aeons away from Fight Club, but not being pretentious, this is hardly relevant. It is indeed easy to spoof, as 300 was, but, and this is possibly Tom Hardy’s main contribution, Tommy is too scary to laugh at (and Brendan too close to the brink of disaster).

I saw Warrior while trying hard to find an American novel focused on an alternative, anti-patriarchal, pro-civil rights masculinity (for work related to the research group I belong to). And, well, I’m beginning to have the nagging suspicion that this is it: there’s no alternative in current US culture, although Brendan and Tommy are indeed the alternative to Paddy. ‘Harder to find women who let themselves be punched these days, right?’, Tommy sneers when Paddy explains that he’s alone. Or maybe I’m depressed and I’m wondering where the 8.3 rated US film (or novel) on the alternative is (but do see Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, a Danish film).

Any suggestions?

FREEING RESEARCH FROM THE MARKET: THE BRITISH CASE (AND CHINA MIÉVILLE)

A colleague emailed me back in July yet another article on this new phenomenon I’ve been discussing here in fits and starts: the demand that research be freed from the market. This time it was the turn of The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/21559317) to announce that “Academic journals face a radical shake-up.” The main arguments are the ones I do defend: research funded with public resources should be available for free; journal publication is slow and expensive and it hampers research rather than promote it; publishers make excessive profits by exploiting university budgets that should be used to fund more research.

The novelty that The Economist’s article highlights is the British Government’s announcement on July 16th “that, from 2013, the results of taxpayer-financed research would be available, free and online, for anyone to read and redistribute.” I haven’t seen this piece of news commented on at all in Spain although apparently “On July 17th the European Union followed suit.” I have already commented on Harvard University’s reluctance to paying overpriced bulk rates for journal subscriptions and it seems, again according to The Economist, that some private foundations are also demanding that the research they finance be made freely available.

The article also comments as solutions to the problem of how to replace the services provided by publishers (peer reviewing and so on) on the ‘gold model’ –by which authors pay a fee to have their research made available for free on specialised websites– and the ‘green model’ by which research is posted to a free “repository” by the journals themselves one year after publication. The craziest, most appealing idea is that of ‘arXiv’, where scientists send their manuscripts for a “ruthless process of open peer review.” Um, you need a thick skin for that!

All this requires a huge effort of reorganisation, both structural in terms of how exactly repositories can replace journals and also in mental terms. Journals, after all, have been a key piece of research since 1665, “when the French Journal des sçavans and the English Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society first began systematically publishing research results” (“Scientific journal”, Wikipedia). Still are indeed.

Let me stress that the whole point of this new ongoing revolution has to do not just with the fact that most research is publicly funded via research projects but also that we, university researchers, are per se funded through our salaries to write and publish. We are in the market for jobs but precisely the whole point of our tenured jobs is to give us time (less and less) for thinking, writing and publishing without market pressures.

Where am I going with all this? Well, the enfant terrible of British SF/fantasy, China Miéville –this is a guy–, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, recently caused quite a stir when he wondered at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference “What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/21/china-mieville-the-future-of-the-novel) For whereas the internet may free research, it may also destroy for good the market for literary writers. Miéville, of course, realises that the process of selection would be very complicated. “God knows we shouldn’t trust the state to make that kind of decision”, he said, though he realises the state would be involved, somehow.

He is asking, in short, for tenured positions –what I enjoy thanks to the Spanish state as a civil servant, precisely in order to write research on the English Literature that authors like Miéville produce (my UK colleagues no longer enjoy that privilege thanks to Maggie Thatcher, by the way).

This is what I call ironic…