BACK TO HARRY POTTER (AND WHY THE FILMS ARE SO DISAPPOINTING)

The Christmas break seems a particularly good time to enjoy those very long texts one has never time for. In this occasion we have chosen to see the complete Harry Potter film series, the whole eight movies in a row and in just five days. My partner had previously stopped at number four (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), finding details hard to remember from one film to the other, and I at number five (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), disappointed with the hurried pace and the low emotional intensity (particularly in relation to Sirius Black’s fate). I forget to mention my partner has not read the seven volumes. I have. Twice…

Seeing the films is for me work rather than just leisure, as I have always wanted to teach an elective subject about Rowling’s series (published between 1997 and 2007). Yet, this is already 2013 (tomorrow) and I wonder whether by the time I manage to programme that elective, say in two years time, there will be any student left who remembers Harry Potter. I hope so. I know that fantasy readers’ interest is now focused on George R. R. Martin’s exciting series A Song of Ice and Fire but, to be honest, I haven’t started reading it yet out of a concern that ageing Martin might die before the promised final volume materialises (I have seen season 1 of the TV adaptation, though, and enjoyed it very much).

The academic interest in Rowling’s series, by the way, has not yet peaked out. MLA mentions 442 sources, with 57 entries for 2003 in comparison with just 7 for 2012 (obviously, not yet completed; there are 32 publications for 2011). Um, this quite surprises me, as I assumed that interest would be ebbing by now; then, of course, academic publishing moves slowly and the original child readers are now becoming young academics. I myself, not in that category at all, have not yet written my Harry Potter essay, started a few years ago and still waiting to be finished, quite daunted by the massive bibliography.

Back to the films, I must say that the experience of seeing them one after another is much better than seeing them on their own (except that plot holes are more conspicuous). I think that this adaptation is quite a prodigy in terms of production design: I keep on telling myself ‘yes, that’s exactly so.’ Also in terms of casting, to the point that I’m beginning to wonder whether Rowling had particular British actors in mind when writing a character (yes, I know that Ian McKellen should have been Dumbledore instead of Richard Harris but he had already been chosen to play Gandalf; also, it’s obvious that Michael Gambon is not Harris, whom he replaced as Dumbledore when poor Harris died). It’s quite funny, of course, to see the younger members of the cast grow from one film to the next one but this adds to the charm of the series.

The pity is that it’s just a superficial charm. Non-readers, as I see from my partners’ reactions, remain quite untouched by it, as it operates on the basis of reader’s recognition of the books’ content. When I consider certain scenes from his point of view, even I wonder what all that fuss was about… This is, in the end, a reminder that literature (yes, I said literature) cannot be replaced by any other media. What makes Rowling’s series memorable is the gusto she tells her story with. The story is dark to a point few parents of young readers realise but also absolutely gripping in Rownling’s ability to mirror how a growing child like Harry feels. A child in great danger, persecuted by a truly hideous villain.

Yes, I know how this ends: with me returning to the print volumes a third time around. It might even become a regular habit. I very much doubt that Rowling’s first adult novel, An Unexpected Vacancy (2012) can generate so much pleasure.

DIZZY: DOING LITERARY RESEARCH IN THE WEB 2.0 WORLD

I have spent an unusually quiet day today (pre-storm: 57 exams and 30 exercises are hitting me tomorrow) to prepare a paper for a conference. I have the abstract, I’ve read the book pencil in hand, I thought I could start with the bibliography. I’m talking about a short paper, 2,500 words, for a 20-minute delivery, which might perhaps expand into 4,000/4,500 for publication. So far, the bibliography I need to check already extends to 35 items and might go on growing if I don’t stop myself. Now.

How’s that happened? Well, easy. The conference (SAAS, next March 2013) is called ‘TRANS-: The Poetics and Politics of Crossing in the US’ and calls for papers addressing one of these: the transnational, the transliterary, the transgender and the transhuman, each one a topic that could be discussed in a separate conference (or ten). My own paper, on John Scalzi’s SF novel Old Man’s War (2005), deals with how the transnational is taken for granted in military SF to justify the need for the transhuman particularly in relation to the (patriarchal/right-wing) soldier’s body. This means that my bibliography has to combine all the following ‘keywords’: transnationalism, transhumanism (general and in SF), post-humanism (general and in SF), John Scalzi and Old Man’s War. Ufff… Oh, I forgot ‘body’, ‘gender’, and ‘masculinity’.

A fast search in MLA, Wikipedia, Google and the UAB library’s catalogue quickly results in that monstrous bibliography list. I soon realise I won’t have room to consider the two other novels I have been re-reading for the paper, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, as the discussion of the differences between the post-human and the post-post-human soldiers in the text will take up the whole paper… Not to mention the fact that I need to decide whether to consider analysing the three other novels (and associated shorter texts) that Scalzi wrote later and that, according to him, should be taken into account. I finally decide that I can’t accommodate so many primary sources in the paper and that I’ll stick to Old Man’s War. This is a serious problem, as SF and fantasy often come in series. At one point I’m even seriously annoyed with Scalzi for resisting the common sense idea that books, although parts of series, are read as separate items. This ends with my putting in my Book Depository wish list the other books –though I know very well I don’t have the time to read them and finish the paper, due for 10th February.

There are still no academic articles for Old Man’s War and so, I check the internet for reviews, mostly in blogs. In one, by Nick Whyte, I find a very detailed critique of the book, elicited by the bloody death of a character in Scalzi’s novel, the only one who demands that humanity negotiates with the alien enemies. Whyte accuses Scalzi bitterly of supporting right-wing militaristic solutions, a charge which, to his surprise, is answered by Scalzi himself. There follows an interesting conversation with the novelist pointing out that “As I know the author’s politics better than you, I’m in the position of saying that your assumptions regarding what they might be are *wildly* inaccurate.” So much for the death of the author. Scalzi then explains, not without contradictions, that he wrote the book on purpose with a few ideological blanks so as to invite a variety of responses which have indeed materialised (see his blog…).

And I have stopped here because today in our web 2.0 the bulk of the debate around any book is just overwhelming. Any book, believe me. You have to consider the ‘legitimate’ media reviewers, the bloggers, the author in interviews, the author’s blog, the author’s Twitter, the author’s Facebook and the hundreds if not thousands of messages generated by all this –even before you start touching the academic work. Deep sigh. No wonder in the end papers and, generally any piece of academic writing, feels like patchwork. I wonder what writing literary biographies is going to be like in the future.

I can always, of course, ignore two thirds of all the resources, both 2.0 and traditional, but although nobody, surely, would notice, I would. Catch 22, if you ask me…

LEARNING FROM TEACHING ABOUT TEACHING, WITH STUDENTS’ HELP

It’s the third time I refer here to the MQD (‘Improving Teaching Quality’) project for Literature I’m a member of since 2010. Our strategy in the last two years has passed through focusing on the narrator when teaching fiction, a strategy which, I believe, has worked quite well for us, teachers and students. This focus allows us to lay the stress on the constructedness of the text; ideally, students can thus overcome their tendency to read for the plot and start appreciating the writing skills required to make the narrative choices that result in great works of Literature. One day, hopefully, they might even produce their own.

Last Friday, December 14, we had a one-day conference to present a variety of teaching experiences connected with the MQD project. We opened it to students and to our great surprise and pleasure, about 70, perhaps 80, of them turned up to listen to us (12 teachers).

It was a bit weird for me to address to students (many my own) a paper I had written for my colleagues precisely about how students had welcome my proposal to work on the narrator in Dickens’s Oliver Twist and in the essay by Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844. I apologised in advance and changed as I read ‘they’ for ‘you’. I was in the end very happy that students were my main audience as it’s unusual for teachers to have the chance to rationalise what we do in class and offer explanations about our methods and pedagogy. My colleagues later told me it was the same for them.

Two ideas come next: what I have learnt from writing the paper and what I have learnt from the conference.

What I learned from writing the paper, based on the exercises I devised and that 10 students did for me, is that I/we must find a way to balance guided work with autonomous work. So far, I/we have been offering guides to help students do their work and have relied mainly on intensive class discussion and practice. I have shunned exercises, finding them too close to secondary school methods and to Spark Notes-style guides. I had to devise the Dickens-Engels exercises or else find myself with nothing to say in the conference, as my students will only finish their papers in January, yet I did so with mixed feelings. To my surprise, the ones who did these exercises, students I would certainly call autonomous, found them very useful and agreed I should develop similar sets for the other books in the course, something I’ll do. I must, then, work, on new strategies for guided work that still emphasise students’ autonomy, by no means an easy thing to do.

Throughout the conference students listened attentively (I think) but didn’t ask questions, possibly out of shyness, given the big numbers. This leads me to think, a constant concern this semester, that we need to establish some kind of annual meeting with them in which they do ask us questions and offer comments on how we teach. We need to do this, funding or no funding, because we share the same worry: namely, that they’re not autonomous enough and that the guidance (and guides) we offer are not sufficient to make up for serious deficiencies in their secondary education. As I teacher I feel I’m reaching a limit in that I don’t think my pedagogy can improve without more collaboration with my students – I don’t mean just feedback, I mean working together in the original sense of the word collaborate.

So, to sum up, last Friday may turn out to be a turning point in my teaching career and even perhaps in the history of the Department I work for. Let’s see if we find the way to establish this annual meeting, hoping it’s as fruitful as I dream it can be.

PD: For an overview of the MQD project work see the article by some of its members, “Into the Engine Room: An Inter-University Literature-Teaching Project Focussing on Narrative” (David Owen, Carme Font, Laura Gimeno Pahissa, Cristina Pividori) at http://revistes.uab.cat/jtl3/article/view/485. Just published!!

THE VAGARIES OF JOURNAL RATINGS (AND HOW YOUR OWN WORK MAY CHANGE QUALITY WITHOUT YOU LIFTING A FINGER)

A colleague tells me that she’s very disappointed as a prestige journal where she published an article has now been demoted from the A list to the B list (in the ANECA check-lists, I think). She is really annoyed that when the time comes to pass her research assessment exercise this will affect her negatively. Her jewel in the crown is lost and this doesn’t make any sense to her (or myself), since her article remains unaltered. I tell about this to another friend, and he tells me that in his case it’s the opposite: a journal where he published recently an article has gone from B to A, which, of course, means also a gain for him although, logically, his article has not changed at all.

As a Literature teacher I’m well aware that the reputation of books changes throughout time, with very popular, even well respected authors meaning nothing to a later generation (I have just read, for instance, a blog review in which the author comments that since everyone has forgotten who Robert A. Heinlein was, he needs to point our he dominated SF between the 1960s and the 1980s – that’s how volatile fame is). Magazines of any kind are subject to the same vagaries. After all, everyone has forgotten where Edgar Allan Poe published his tales whereas the tales themselves stay in print. Something tells me, though, that academic journals should not suffer from the same kind of capricious fate since a change in their fortunes means, as you can see, a change in ours. This happens, as I have explained many times, because our articles are rated according to where we publish and not to what they do contribute to knowledge regardless of where they are published.

There’s really nothing much to add to this absurd state of matters and today’s post should perhaps end here. I’ll add, though, a few more comments.

The very efficient staff at the Humanities Library of my university have developed a very complete resource for those working on their accreditations: the website “Suport a l’acreditació i l’avaluació de la recerca” (http://www.bib.uab.cat/human/acreditacions/planes/publiques/index.php). If you have a rainy afternoon soon coming you might spend it comparing how the diverse Spanish agencies regard particular journals, citation databases and general resources (like Google Scholar). You’ll see this way the many incongruities we fight daily…

The other hot matter is the revision of ERIH’s criteria for the 2011 lists. Instead of the former A-B-C ratings, journals are now divided into two main categories, NATional (NAT), which refers to recognised “European publications… mostly linguistically circumscribed … occasionally cited outside the publishing country, though their main target group is the domestic academic community” and INTernational (INT), defined as “both European and non-European publications with an internationally recognised scholarly significance … regularly cited worldwide.” INT journals subdivide on the basis of “influence and scope” into INT1, influential “in the various research domains in different countries, regularly cited all over the world,” and INT2 “with significant visibility and influence in the various research domains in different countries.” I’m not sure I see much difference, as everyone knows that INT1 is A, INT2 is B and NAT is C even in their own countries. There is by the way, still no list for Cultural Studies. I’m happy to say there is one for Gender Studies, though much biased in favour of Feminist Studies.

An A-list journal accepts about 10% of the submissions it receives and, often, an article tailored to meet its requirements is very hard to recycle for another publication, as each has its specific rules and aims. Just imagine making it into the elite –ha, ha… – only to be told perhaps a couple of years later that your work is just run of the mill. How tempting, once more, to give in to temptation and self-publish…

‘BOLOGNA WELL APPLIED’: WHAT WAS NOT TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT YEARS BACK

One of our students is spending her Erasmus year abroad in Dublin. She visits me during her reading week break and when I ask her what’s it like there, she tells me it’s “Bologna well applied.” I smile at her candid verdict, cringing inwardly, and ask her what she means.

Well, this year she’s being educated in the usual British-style higher education method, which the Irish seem to have imported: lectures for 100 to 300 students, group seminars with up to 20 undergrads and tutorials for around 8. I ask her to consider how to apply this, for instance, to our first-year ‘20th Century English Literature’ class: 1 lecturer could cover the 210 students registered (plus 30 repeaters), but we’d need to split students, not counting repeaters, into 10 seminar groups, and 26 tutorial groups. Instead, we make do with 3 teachers (lecturers + TA, all combined), running classes of around 70 students, with perhaps up to 20% abandonment rate. No surprise, as we cannot give all undergrads the personalised attention they require.

The Bologna Declaration was signed, back in 1999, to back up the creation of a European Higher Education Area, based on the twin ideas of a common credit transfer system and a double-cycle system of education (ideally, a 3-year BA followed by a 2-year MA). 29 countries signed up, with 47 now on board. Absurdly, the MA degrees were first introduced in 2006, followed by the BA degrees in 2008. Things have been so badly organized that in this short time we have already have to reorganise the MAs. We used to have two: one for language, one for Literature; now we have a single one with two itineraries, constantly on the brink on being cancelled by the local Government for lack of students. This is no wonder in a system which first introduced the MA, as our first class of BA graduates, to whom the MA should have been addressed originally, is finishing this year.

Then, there’s the ‘little’ matter of local cultural traditions. In Spain we used to have a 5-year ‘Licenciatura’ system, split into a first cycle (3 years, based on compulsory subjects) and a second cycle (2 years, based on elective subjects). We dismantled this around 1999 to introduce shorter 4-year ‘Licenciaturas’ in 2002, I think, that, anyway, most students took 5 years to complete. Then came the 4-year ‘Grados’ which were the result of the pressures exerted by small provincial universities, afraid of losing all MA students to bigger universities after a 3-year BA. The result? It’s a mighty mess when it comes to Erasmus exchanges, and does not contribute at all to building a homogeneous European space. Now, I’m told, we’ll soon introduce, finally!, a 3-year BA followed by a 2-year MA: in short, the old ‘Licenciatura’ but with separate degrees and prices for each part. Well, not quite the old ‘Licenciatura’ as in the meantime secondary education has been, um, ‘destroyed’ would be the right word.

In contrast, though I’m not very well informed, my guess is that Britain (and Ireland) have done nothing to adapt themselves to Bologna, as, well, Bologna was based, quite patronisingly, on what they did. Bologna well applied, indeed, but not in the sense my student meant. It’s very frustrating to be told again and again by students spending their Erasmus year in Britain (and Ireland) that there they work very hard there, and read plenty. I do not doubt the capacity of my British (and Irish) colleagues but although I do support the good intentions of the Bologna declaration, either the accompanying practice of continuous assessment does not fit our university system or our university system does not fit the practice. For sheer lack of teaching resources.

I would not go back to the system of lectures in gigantic classes with no contact whatsoever with teachers, followed by impersonal final exams that we used to suffer in the ‘Licenciatura’ but, clearly, we are surviving on the teachers’ good will to make up for structural changes that never happened. It’s like, if you allow me, the change to winter time at the end of October, which shortens daylight for one hour in the evening. I guess this is fine for Northern countries which shut up shop at 5, but with long days running until 8 for many people, I don’t see what we’re saving at all here in the South.

This, I believe, has been overlooked just as local needs and problems were overlooked by this badly applied Bologna.