THOSE BICEPS, OH MY GOD!: WHAT SOME STUDENTS VALUE IN TEACHERS (HOPEFULLY JUST A FEW)

A very good-looking male friend of mine from a Southern Spanish university tells me that, to his deep chagrin and mortification, a student (male or female he doesn’t know), mentioned his biceps –oh my God!– as the strongest point of the English Studies BA degree for which he teaches. (Yes, we teachers gossip all the time about what students say or do… just as you, students, gossip about us. Obviously…).

This comment on his biceps came up in a questionnaire run by the students themselves and was not made public, nor is it reflected in the questionnaire itself. However, rumours about this peculiar answer soon were rife among my friend’s colleagues and students leading to all those inevitable jokes. And worries, indeed. Under cover of anonymity some students may be enticed to write boutades they would never express publicly, yet this student’s opinion is worrying in that this person did not really respect the work of his/her own peers, much less the teacher himself.

In any English Studies BA degree the proportion of men to women is around 20%, or less. This means that, inevitably, male teachers are on the spotlight much more noticeably than female teachers as potential erotic objects (of the platonic kind or otherwise), particularly the attractive ones. I say particularly because I know very well that totally unattractive male teachers may become truly handsome in the eyes of some female (and male) students by virtue of their intellectual allure.

This doesn’t happen to us, women. No matter how sexy and intelligent a female teacher can be, I know of no case in which they have been the object of a male student’s interest. I am by no means saying that this would be desirable, rather the other way round: that male teachers should ideally be seen also with the neutral, detached eyes male students consider us with.

Why’s that? Well, think of my good-looking friend, still young enough to be a potential actual ‘romantic’ partner for a girl aged 18-23. Now think of what it is like to be on the platform addressing a class of mainly female students who are paying more attention to his biceps than to his lectures (I’m not excluding gay male students, of course). This is embarrassing and distracting for the male teacher, who only wants to be appreciated because of his academic qualities.

For me, this is what should count in how a teacher, male of female, is assessed: not the looks, nor the chances to get a pass mark easily. In every Department the top-ranking teacher should always be not the most popular for looks or charm, but the most solid one academically speaking.

As you can imagine, this is what bothers my good-looking friend: every time he comes top of his Department in students’ surveys, he worries himself sick that his good looks have done the trick again, while his efforts to offer good teaching pass unnoticed. He does not mean by ‘good teaching’ just ‘nice’ teaching, of the kind that makes the time in class pass by quickly. He means serious, demanding teaching of the kind that makes students be a little bit in awe of the teacher but finally appreciate the hard work done with him (or her).

So… ironically, he tells me, very few female teachers have ever made it to the top ranks of students’ preferences even though, as he stresses, 80% of these students are women. This is also something to consider. In an ideal world, gender issues should not apply to teacher-students relationships but I’m learning that they do in more ways that I had thought of.

I mean that although I am aware that serious romantic relationships have come out of many classrooms (and also quite a few more questionable liaisons), I had missed the problems that male teachers face as such. And I mean here teachers that stress the point that they’re not available at all but remain nonetheless the object of some students erotic musings (um, platonic or not).

I’m not jealous, not at all, in the sense that I would not like to be appreciated for … whatever stands out in my body (or not). I’m irrationally jealous, however, that as an ageing female teacher I cannot compete in popularity with good-looking male teachers like my friend, whether he wishes himself out of that absurd competition or not. Um, and there are some indeed in my Department!!

Well, there’s nothing either of us can do. My friend, I’m sure, will try to wear less revealing shirts and I’ll dress as nicely as I can considering my age, status and audience. Hopefully, we will all be judged fairly for how we teach not how we look. And no, I have never given high marks to a student just for being male of for looking good…

THE MATTER OF MONEY (AND THE WEATHER): MORE ON MOBILITY

My previous post (sorry it was so long) leads to this second post on teacher mobility, also connected with the Wert report. El Diario Montañés, published an article on 24 February with the title “Rector UAB: el sueldo de los docentes es poco competitivo para atraer talento” (http://www.eldiariomontanes.es/agencias/20130224/mas-actualidad/sociedad/rector-uab-sueldo-docentes-poco_201302241101.html). In this article, Ferran Sancho, interviewed by EFE, explains that “Sunshine and good weather” are not enough to attract major international talent to our universities, considering that the basic salary for a tenured teacher is only 33,000 euros a year (with no complements). Apparently, Dutch university teachers make twice more (though if you check the website http://www.prospects.ac.uk/higher_education_lecturer_salary.htm, you’ll see that in Britain, the salary for lecturers ranges from 35 to 46,0000 euros at junior level).

Sancho claims that a full professor may be making 80,000 a year (after taxes) by the time s/he retires at 70. I’ll add that this might be so after being tenured for 40 years at least and having completed all research assessments to satisfaction (5 or 6). I doubt that many full professors even reach 65,000 euros. Apparently, Sancho, just appointed president of the Asociación Catalana de Universidades Públicas (ACUP) plans to run a study comparing retributions for all Spanish universities. I’m not sure what for, as we already know that Catalan teachers get less money than anyone else and also that for those of us living in ultra-expensive Barcelona our salaries are a joke. We’re just glorified blue-collar workers.

I’ll complete the figures: 33,000 – 27% taxes = 24090 : 14 = 1720. Basically, a tenured junior university teacher makes less than 2,000 or around 2,000 euros a month, since soon we start getting complements for antiquity (they do not count for pensions). This after, on average, 10 years or more of gruelling preparation for tenure. The supposedly very-well paid full professor would make 4,200 at the most. This might seem a lot but please remember that very few tenured teachers ever become full professors and, so, most make around 2,500 or less even after 20 years (or more) teaching. Also remember that our salaries are not only frozen but also decimated by both the Catalan and the Spanish governments, who have decided to rob us of part of our wages (the June and December ‘extra wages’ are not a bonus but a deferred payment for our work each semester).

“Sunshine and good weather” are not enough for us, national ‘talent’, either. As happens with the medicine doctors, we are all vocational professionals only too happy to have the chance to work at something we love doing. This is why we accept salaries that do not compensate at all for the many years of preparation and the hard work we need to do every day. Having said that, I’ll finish by stressing what students often ignore: it’s much, much worse in the case of associates, now 50% of our staff, paid less than 800 euros a month for teaching 3 subjects –what many full professors do– and doing in addition much research that benefits all, as they patiently wait years and years for tenure that never materialises…

APPLYING CULTURAL STUDIES TO OUR LOCAL UNIVERSITIES: IT’S URGENT

APPLYING CULTURAL STUDIES TO OUR LOCAL UNIVERSITIES: IT’S URGENT

[In case you’re wondering, yes, two posts today – I haven’t been writing much recently and the ideas pile up…]

I’m going to refer here again to the 84-page report that a committee of professors submitted last 15 February to Minister Wert, for the reform of the public Spanish university system. It’s easy to find articles criticising the content of the report point by point, although the report itself is no longer available from the Ministry’s website. I don’t know whether this has to do with the news three days ago that a collective calling itself ‘La Uni en la Calle’, formed by seven universities from Madrid, has demanded that it be withdrawn because it is anti-constitutional (they’re planning to present a counter-report today, 9 March).

Many things, as I have already noted, are questionable in that report but I want to focus on an aspect that perplexes me: the lack of references to the local roots of the Spanish university. What I mean is this: both the very many international systems for rating universities and the national (Spanish and Catalan) committees, reports, etc. to try to improve them seem to work on the basis that universities form a kind of transnational network, or system, which remains untouched by local realities. Let see if I can explain myself better: they are assumed to function like, say, Catholic monasteries which can follow the same monastic rule no matter whether they are in France or in Perú. The comparison is not that far-fetched since universities are technically the descendants of monastic life, to the point that we are call ‘professors’, that is to say, ‘persons who profess’ … a faith. I could crack a few bad jokes about whether we behave like nuns or monks, but I’ll leave them aside, as I’m trying to make a serious point here.

Somehow monasteries can operate by ignoring the precise nation where they are (well, at their own risk, look at the excellent French movie Des hommes et des dieux (2010) for an extreme example of the horrors that can happen when you ignore the culture surrounding you). Universities, though, are not monasteries and do depend on their surrounding environment much more than the authorities running them want to assume. It is true that we work forming international networks of contacts, collaborations and conferences, but we do have roots, and I simply don’t see them in the report or anywhere else in university policies. I’ll be more specific by referring to the matter of teacher and student mobility (or lack thereof).

The report insists again and again that Spain has too many public universities: 50. It also insists that teachers’ and students’ mobility should increase and that Spain should be an only university district, with a gradual transformation of these 50 multi-department universities into centres specialising in certain areas and ranking hierarchically. This is the Anglo-American model: Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge are at the pinnacle of the whole university structure, which has an enormous degree of mobility because the United States and the United Kingdom are much richer (they can offer grants, there are more families that can afford their children’s studying away from home). Also, in these countries, unlike ours, family and local ties are much looser and people think nothing of leaving home at 18 never to return (or just to meet their family now and then).

This is not our case at all. Of course, students from rural areas have no option but leave home to attend university but I know that many in UAB stay on or close to campus from Monday to Thursday and spend the weekend at home. Also, many travel for hours every day because they cannot afford living away from home. The percentage of middle- and upper-class families who can send their children to a university elsewhere is smaller in Spain than in Anglo-American countries and this explains the high number of universities, too: someone made the decision that maintaining 50 local universities made more sense given our local reality than financing the mobility of so many working-class or low-middle-class students.

Teachers themselves are subject to local lifestyles. I know quite a few cases in which Spanish teachers have spent years in universities far from home doing all they could to return close to their families and friends, sometimes even splitting their working week between places hundreds of kilometres away. We also have, by the way, a private life: we marry, have children, have elderly parents to take care of, and that with little help from the state. If you’re a woman in the academic profession getting tenured and the matter of mobility are particularly hard to cope with: preparation for tenure usually takes up the crucial years in which a female teacher may decide to become a mother. Not quite the moment to leave your local roots, and much less grandparents whose help might be indispensable. Moving away when you hit fifty because of a promotion to full professor may well coincide with those grandparents’ needing care you cannot leave to others. Not to mention the fact that for both men and women combining their own mobility with that of their spouses and children is quite a nightmare today and much more so in Spain, given our poor social help system.

Quite absurdly, the report calls for a general sort of mobility that no other profession has in Spain, without ever wondering why this is so and how it connects with endogamy (obviously… people try to stay close home, small universities try to keep their local talent). Universities, I’ll insist, are not culturally transparent and I think it’s about time we look at our roots to understand who we are, what needs we service and how we can serve those needs even better and not some odd universalist notion of what a university should be. Just for you to understand the kind of ivory tower in which the report was written, their authors seem to care much more about the lack of Spanish Nobel Prizes in science since Ramón y Cajal than about how to guarantee the very survival of the Spanish university.

PD: See here an interesting interview about the mobility of highly skilled people in academic posirtions…: http://www.uoc.edu/portal/ca/sala-de-premsa/actualitat/entrevistes/2013/louise-ackers.html