YET ANOTHER STRIKE…

Exactly a year ago tomorrow I published a post called ‘A Striking Strike’ as we, students and teachers, were also on strike, like today. I wrote then and I repeat now that I’m not joining the strike as (I’m quoting myself): “a) my not teaching students for one day does not bother anyone, [much less Minister Wert] 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.” I’m not at all against protests, quite the other way round: I’m complaining here about the lack of imagination of the strike organisers, as they will not take alternative suggestions that might result in a wider media coverage and might also do away with the tiring feeling that taking to the streets leads to nothing (except, maybe, beatings and arrests by the also underpaid police –that might explain a little of their violence).

Nothing much has changed in the last 12 months because of last Spring’s violent strikes both here at UAB and downtown. We’re stuck with the same problem: lack of money. The 84-page long report on the sorry state of the Spanish public university system by a committee of experts working for Minister Wert to improve it, offers the same tired suggestions, it is unbelievably undemocratic and, basically, expresses the self-defeating hope that foreign academic and administrators drop from the sky to change a system that needs to be saved from the inside –by the very same persons wasting money on that report.

Since the increased fees have not resulted in a significant decrease in the number of registered students (logically, there are no jobs to compete with university education), the local Catalan government is satisfied that they have been accepted (not true). The surplus money generated by the new fees has not resulted, however, in a better financial situation for the Catalan universities; the money has gone elsewhere, possibly to paying for the interests of our mounting national debt (so much for our future independence). A tiny part will be soon returned to us as additional grants for doctoral students already enjoying a scholarship –the idea is that they will become as well teaching assistants, which is absurd as this will have a negative impact on their research. We get at UAB only 36 of these appeasing grants, no new jobs at all. This is something, by the way, I already commented on one year ago.

I work for a university founded in 1968, a historic date that makes discussing the effectiveness of teacher/student strikes quite difficult. It even feels disloyal. What I fail to understand again and again is the logic of the strike –if a factory worker goes on strike, nothing is produced, the factory owner loses money, hence pressure can be applied. However, if a student goes on strike s/he is the only loser as the boss (the corresponding Minister for Education) does not care, as we can see, whether students get an education or not. Precisely, that’s the whole reason for the protest!!

I’d say that the only sensible in-your-face attitude against these irresponsible Education Ministers would be staging protests that benefit the students’ education. A colleague suggested a lecture marathon, 24 hours non-stop, with different teachers and students, or a 24-hour reading marathon in Plaça Sant Jaume. All to show that teachers want to educate and students want to be educated. She was booed down. Instead, we stop all academic activity and, I can’t remember how many times I’ve advanced the same argument, we look to the rest of society as the lazy, privileged bunch they all assume us to be.

For the last two weeks I’ve seen hanging in the hall of my Facultat a banner announcing an indefinite strike. For whose benefit I have no idea.

PS I’m adding this 2 days after the strike – it was a real shame to see that band of vandals destroying all they could on our campus. Were they students at all? They filled the classrooms with garbage… This makes me really sick.

WHAT LIBRARY READERS DO READ IN THE UK

My colleague David Owen emails us, UAB’s English Literature Teachers, a juicy article from a Guardian blog: “Library lending figures: which books are most popular?” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2013/feb/08/library-lending-figures-books-most-popular). The subheading cheerfully announces that “James Patterson leads the list of the UK’s most borrowed authors in 2011/12” –I had to think twice and end up using Wikipedia to recall who Patterson is (a US author of thrillers), but that’s my own ignorance.

Mr. Patterson’s books have been borrowed in UK libraries (2011/12) a grand total of 2.4m times. Since the Fifty Shades trilogy, we are told is “not at the top, it’s nowhere”, this means that the library loan list should be contrasted with the best-selling list as there are glaring differences. By the way: “overall, 65 of the authors of the 100 most-borrowed books are men” (I don’t know how this compares with the number of women readers). The article also includes a revealing section about the whole decade 2002-12 and, yes, Patterson is “the UK’s most borrowed author of the decade”, Danielle Steele the British most borrowed author (chart-topper every year between 1992-2012). Predictably, Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare are “the most borrowed pre-20th century classic authors”.

I can’t comment here on the complete table of the top 100 most borrowed books and authors in the UK, so I’ll just copy the top ten:

10th Anniversary, James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Worth Dying for, Lee Child
Miracle Cure, Harlan Coben
Private London, by James Patterson
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
Gruffalo (children’s book), Julia Donaldson; illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Caught, Harlan Coben
The Reversal, Michael Connelly
Minding Frankie, Maeve Binchy

+2,000,000: James Patterson
+1,000,000: Daisy Meadows, Julia Donaldson, Nora Roberts, Francesca Simon, Jacqueline Wilson, MC Beaton
+ 500,000 Danielle Steel, Mick Inkpen, Adam Blade

I might read from this list just The Help by Kathryn Stockett, the novel on which the truly great eponymous film was based. I’m not, obviously, a user of UK libraries and I should not criticise the tastes of those who are. The best thing I can do is to infer from this list some trends: a) UK library users are, manifestly, middlebrow readers; b) that an author is borrowed very often does not mean s/he is well liked –it might be even a sign that readers do not like him/her enough to buy his/her books (readers have bought, not borrowed Fifty Shades of Grey); c) English Literature university teachers are very poorly equipped to understand today’s common reader; d) future historians of English Literature will have to make a serious decision about what to do with these data.

These days I’m teaching the Modernist short story to my first year students and I’m making a point of explaining to them that Modernism is just one small corner of the complex map of all reading between 1900-1940. Most educated people read the very authors Woolf attacked (Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy); many less educated readers loved middlebrow authors like Stella Gibbons, Dodie Smith or Nancy Mitford (see, for instance, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism by Nicola Humble); the market for popular fiction, pulp included, was flourishing.

We should not be surprised then that today we also have a multilayered reading territory which the avalanche of data makes, simply, more difficult to ignore. Or not. After all, I can still programme an elective on ‘Contemporary British Fiction’ based on a tiny selection of 6 authors at the most, and safely ignore the rest. Let students fend for themselves. English Literature Teachers (or students), you might object, needn’t know who James Patterson is, much less read Danielle Steele. Nonetheless, I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that we should at least tell students about the multilayered map or territory, for they are themselves (see my previous post) middlebrow readers.

I know that many will reply that this is, rather, ‘Sociology of Reading’, part of, perhaps, Cultural Anthropology or Cultural Studies. Whatever. In the end the question is whether one can make sense of, say, Virginia Woolf, without Arnold Bennett, Agatha Christie or even Sax Rohmer. Perhaps, but only in a limited way. This does not I’ll read James Patterson as soon as I can, for the truth is that I can’t even keep up with the list of Booker Prize winners; it means that, whatever I read and teach I’ll have to bear in mind that common readers do exist and might feel oddly out of place in an English Literature classroom. Whether this is as it should be or not it’s up to you to decide.

GROUP PORTRAIT: A SURVEY OF FIRST YEAR STUDENTS’ PREFERENCES

In order to break the ice and to get to know my new first year students I ask them to answer on the first day a brief questionnaire, which I’ll also answer here as if this were 1984, my first year at university:

1. Have you read a complete volume in English yet? (If so, which one?): Wuthering Heights and The Go Between (chosen by my English language teacher… I had already read Wuthering Heights at least twice in translation)
2. How many books do you read every year?: 50 (I swear, I still keep the notebook where I wrote them down; now it’s 100 on average, which I believe is a minimum for university teachers)
3. Which is your favourite book (in any language)?: Wuthering Heights (still… can’t get rid of Heathcliff)
4. What book(s) you would like to read in English? Why?: Ulysses (I have read it!!)
5. Do you have a favourite fiction genre?: No, but I like fantasy very much, particularly gothic and science fiction (I still do…)
6. Which is your favourite film and TV series? Film: Blade Runner (still); series: Brideshead Revisited (well, no, now it’s The X-Files)

Now I’d like to comment on my students’ answers, which you can find complete in the .pdf document attached here. There is not a particular novelty I want to highlight, I just want to make them public for anyone interested to consider.

My first concern are numbers: 82 students registered, yes, but only 57/60 attended the first week sessions, of which just 42 bothered to answer my survey. So, message for the remaining 15/18: why didn’t you bother?? Second concern: 6 students claim to have never read a book in English… and this is the SECOND, not the first semester they spend with us. It’s true that mine is the first English Literature class they take but, why wait for the teacher to tell you when to begin? Third concern: As regards how many books they read per year, 5 confess they simply don’t read at all… 6 read five books at the most. Most students (16) read eleven/fifteen books a year – not enough, clearly. I’m sorry to say that only the 7 students who claim to read more than sixteen books a year are well equipped to face the degree’s demands with a certain ease. The rest need to make a serious effort, in some cases a very serious one. A baffling aspect is how often students claim not to have time to read… Too many classes, perhaps?

About the favourite fiction genre, this turns out to be romance (12 students), followed by fantasy (9) and detective fiction (7), though 10 students claim to read omnivorously. Their reading tastes are, obviously, much closer to those of average or common readers than to university teachers of Literature… which is why it is difficult for me to comment on them without sounding prejudiced (arghhh… Fifty Shades of Grey?). At any rate, I must say that mainstream fiction and not the classics dominate students’ readings, whereas for the next three years this should be the other way round, complemented by a good selection of contemporary literary fiction. No more Nicholas Sparks…

The list of books read in English, of favourite books, TV and films are quite eclectic, with no clear generational favourites (well, curiosuly, The Big Bang Theory is named by 5 students). Predictably, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde and William Shakespeare are the most often mentioned classics. Yet, as I’m thinking these days of the Harry Potter elective I’ll teach next year –yes, it’s official– I can’t help noticing that Rowling’s name crops up quite often in all categories; also The Lord of the Rings, which turns out to be book most students would like to read (it’s only 5 nonetheless). Something you might notice is that even though students claim to have read in English great novels like The Grapes of Wrath or The Great Gatsby, these are not among their favourites, a list which, as usual, is a strange mixture of the popular among younger readers and what teachers order to read in secondary school (still Galdós’s Tormento?)

I’ll close with a list of safe recommendations, thinking in particular of those who have never tried reading in English, and those who read too little –all the books are mentioned in the survey:

1984
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Animal Farm
Brave New World
Catcher in the Rye, The
Christmas Carol, A
Dracula
Frankenstein
Game of Thrones, A
Gone with the Wind
Grapes of Wrath, The
Great Gatsby, The
Harry Potter Saga, The
Homage to Catalonia
Less than Zero
Life of Pi, The
Line of Beauty, The
Lolita
Lord of the Flies, The
Picture of Dorian Gray, The
Pride and Prejudice
Rebecca
Romeo and Juliet
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The
Talented Mr. Ripley, The
Wuthering Heights

Enjoy!!
Here are the full results:

SURVEY RESULTS

GOODBYE, SEE YOU LATER?: THE END OF THE SEMESTER

Yesterday I signed the document that makes my students’ final marks official. I very much wanted to put an end to the semester before classes begin again next week –this soon!! – even though we have two extra weeks to do so. It’s a kind of mental hygiene for me: something has to end before something new begins, I don’t like overlappings. Still, I have this bittersweet feeling because there’s no proper sense of closure: we never get to see our classes once the final marks are in and I do miss, more and more, some kind of meeting to see how the whole thing went. For me and for them.

Just think: students that require much of our attention for more than fourth very intensive months lapse into complete silence by the end. Some because they have done so badly that they decide not to see us at all –I was waiting for the visit of a student to whom I suggested that she should consider continuing the degree but she never came (I’m not just her teacher in a subject, I’m the degree Coordinator…). Others who failed haven’t even bothered to pick up their exams, as I request, which means they’re satisfied with not knowing why they failed (do they blame me? did they know they would fail?). In my other university, UOC, I did all I could to help a student finish his continuous assessment and finally pass the subject – I emailed him to say I was glad he’d managed to finish and, well, I hinted (heavily!) that I was waiting for him to thank me, however perfunctorily. He never did. The good ones also vanish. A student who got an A+ emailed me to comment on something on relation to one book we’d read; I congratulated her on her A+ stressing that it had made me personally very happy to award it to her, but she never replied to that. Um…

The fashion is for feedback to come to us through surveys answered online and preferably anonymously. Students are not too keen on that, at least their participation is very low. Alternatively, we can ask them directly, email them a questionnaire (there’s no time to do that in class and, anyway, when?. We never meet, as I say, once assessment if over). That’s not, however, what nags me today. What I mean is that I miss a final face-to-face meeting with the classes I teach. I’ve had one with a student, just by chance, and I found it very enjoyable to be able to contrast our different views on the subject and its assessment (thanks Fran!). Also, there’s always this nagging worry that the marks I award are not at least 95% fair –are my students happy and this is why they don’t complain (with just very few exceptions), or am I the kind of teacher whose grading is accepted with a groan because everyone knows I’m inflexible (am I?)? I don’t know…

Students’ surveys, which my university runs systematically every semester, are not a tool I value particularly. I have seen how all my colleagues rank (I’m Coordinator, remember?) and although I tend to agree with the bottom rankings I tend to disagree with some of the top rankings, which usually depend on the students’ appreciation of how easy it is to pass a subject with particular teachers. And, anyway, this is not what I’m writing about here –I’m writing about how I miss a post-assessment tutorial review, there! Maybe if I had 15 students instead of the 57 I have assessed I might set up this kind of tutorial, but then if we only had 15 students for compulsory subjects, I’d be out of a job… In contrast, our Fulbright visitor, who comes from illustrious Carnegie Mellon, tells me his undergrad groups are always under 12 students. When I told him that my first year ‘20th century English Literature’ subject that starts next week has 80 students and he asked me whether I had to do all the grading (who else?), I took one my more and more frequent deep sighs…

So, ‘Victorian Literature’ students: congratulations, you did very well and I’m happy that the intensive effort I put you and myself through had paid off. See you sometime in the fourth year!! Don’t forget what I’ve taught you about how to read and how to write, and good luck!

SOUTH OF FINLAND (AND WHY WE’LL NEVER BE LIKE THEM)

Yesterday I watched on La Sexta Jordi Évole’s Salvados, this time a monographic on the Spanish schools in comparison to the best schools in the world: those of Finland (you can watch the whole programme, “Cuestión de educación”, at http://www.lasexta.com/programas/salvados/sobre-el-programa/). One of my doctoral students spent last year working there as a teacher and, so, apart from the frequent news about Finland’s very high position in all educational rankings, I have his word to rely on for a truthful view of their system. Jaume worked both with children and teenagers and he stressed the respect he had received all the time from all of them (also how well paid he was…) Évole’s programme insisted, above all, on the very selective process by which only 10% of all applicants can become teachers –a most respectful profession indeed.

Let’s sum up the main points that make the Finnish system work and you supply the corresponding equivalent for the Spanish school:

– 98% of all schools in Finland are public; there are no elite private schools
– they have a drop-out rate below 1%
– parents are deeply involved in their children’s education and frequently meet the teachers
– only students with the best grades can train to become teachers
– headmasters are free to choose their teams, teachers are free to apply to whatever school they wish to work for
– children are assumed to be quite autonomous learners and they get very few hours of schooling, with short teaching periods and frequent breaks
– the succeeding Governments do not interfere in the running of the public schools, nor do they set up any reform without the teachers’ collaboration (essentially the same system has been on for decades)
– public schools are completely free of cost to parents, and this includes school materials and also the meals children take there
– schools are very similar all over the country in terms of the mixture of minority students with the native children; those with special needs receive help from a second teacher or assistant
– teachers are usually in charge of 20 students or less
– most importantly: the whole society supports the teachers’ work

An interviewee spoke of the disastrous situation that happened in the 1990s when the post-Communist world started. Finland was then hit by a terrible economic crises as its main client, the USSR, ceased existing. The Finnish Government decided then to apply severe cuts to education and this resulted in what this man called a ‘lost generation’. Since then, the Finns have learned to implement educational policies aimed at bringing out the best features of their children, no matter what their social class may be; they see this strategy as the only way to guarantee the success of their (small) community.

I’m sure you get the reverse picture.

Évole and his team concluded that, inescapably, each culture generates a particular educational model, which means that we cannot copy the Finns. Or rather, that modeling our education on Finland would require a radical change of all Spanish society. I agree with that – but here’s the funny thing: what felt alien as I watched the programme was not the Finnish style in education, but the Spanish one.

I agreed 100% with the Finnish system and disagreed 100% with the Spanish system. Does this mean I’m secretly a Finn?? No, of course. It means that Spain is split between a rational minority struggling to educate children well, and an irrational majority doing all they can to prevent that from happening because they themselves are stupid. Not stupid in the sense of uneducated (well, that too) but stupid in the sense of not seeing into the future of the whole community beyond their individual (or class) noses.

As a person educated in the Spanish public school and working for the Spanish public university, what I most missed in Évole’s programme was a more overt reflexion about why the Finns have embraced what can only be called a socialist programme of education while here we’re trapped in a classist system which is doing all it can to stop people (like me) from declassing themselves. I’m not saying here that we need the PSOE back in power, not at all –I can very well see their own share in the sorry state of the Spanish school. What I’m saying is that we need to see our children as our main collective resource, for, as things are now, the little ones are our only hope in this hopeless, failing society.

Let’s stop all that hysterical reforming and let’s get down to working on how to build a truly egalitarian, efficient school and university (well, I can dream, can’t I?).