AND THE SORTING HAT?: MORE PLANNING ON HARRY POTTER, WITH SOME WORRIES ABOUT THE BIBLIOGRAPHY…

My thanks to the prospective students of the Harry Potter elective for their positive feedback, it seems I’m on the right track regarding the issues they expect me to raise in class. Now, this post refers to a problem that I’m having regarding this subject in particular but that can be extended to any other university course: the bibliography.

You might think that the problem is the lack thereof considering that Rowling is not a literary author. Well, you’re dead wrong: the MLA carries more than 450 items though this list is by no means complete, as a quick check of WorldCat.org confirmed. I’m speaking about academic publications and not the type of book aimed at fans (pop encyclopaedias, reading guides, personal essays, etc.). The complete list must be truly staggering. (You would be surprised, by the way, at the very high number of academic and non-academic publications that address Harry Potter from a concerned or censorious Christian point of view… yes, mostly by American authors. Vade retro Voldemort!!)

With the usual patience these things require, I have managed to produce a ‘reasonable’ bibliography which, nonetheless, includes 13 monographs (2 in Spanish), 14 collective books and 23 articles in academic journals. Of all these, my guess is that maybe 30% of the articles are available from UAB (‘downloadable’); the rest is not available, at least not near home, that is to say, in the Catalan universities (I have checked CBUC, which to my surprise does carry some of those non-academic titles but just one decent academic monograph).

Thinking of buying some of the collective books, at least, for the UAB library I spent some time checking Amazon prizes. Now I honestly don’t know what to do.

Prices run from £15 to £45, with Scholarly Studies in Harry Potter: Applying Academic Methods to a Popular Text, which sounds perfect for my needs, reaching £200. At this point my Department has no money to pay for our phone bills (really) and I very much doubt we’ll have money for books. I think I should need to spend at least 150 euros on a minimally serious bibliography (I already bought Rowling’s series for my personal use –with my own money– and for the UAB library with public money). I will simply not invest that money on a subject I might teach just once in my lifetime and I am beginning to feel guilty that, if that’s the case, I should not ask the Departament to spend a single euro on it.

Then, there’s the option I won’t even mention considering that CEDRO has sued my incredibly impoverished university for thousands of euros on the grounds that we are damaging the rights of authors by uploading books or parts of them onto our Virtual Campus. I’m sure you understand why, though as a CEDRO member this is not a practice I should encourage (I don’t, but then I need to ask publishers why the price of academic books is so high).

I can always ask students to buy just one book for background reading, which might be, I think, Cynthia Hallett’s Casebook, J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter (2012) and which sounds at just £15 reasonable enough. The problem is that this choice puts the edition of the materials I need for my subject in her hands, not mine…

So, when I claim that this problem can be extrapolated to any other subject you can see what I mean: learning costs money and so does teaching. Students complain, rightly, that they cannot spend money on their education and we, the institution that educates them, are more and more constrained by lack of funding to provide what they can’t afford.

So… it’ll have to be the Casebook…??

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WHERE’S MY MAGIC WAND??: PLANNING HOW TO TEACH THE HARRY POTTER SERIES

As a consequence of a post I published here last Christmas I have finally embarked on the very difficult mission of teaching J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series next year. Yes, very difficult, believe me.

Since the subject is formally ‘Cultural Studies’ I have decided to use the first few weeks for an overview of this research methodology, which I’ll base on my colleague David Walton’s excellent academic best-seller Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice (London: Sage, 2007). Students will take an exam on this volume for me to make sure that they have grasped the essentials. The remaining 12 weeks of this (semestral) elective course will be focused on Harry Potter as a significant case (or cultural phenomenon) worth studying within Cultural Studies.

I have the same feeling now that I had when I wrote my book on The X-Files (Expediente X: En honor a la verdad, now out of print, hopefully soon to be available as e-book). The material is so huge that the main difficulty is how to organise its study. Logically, I cannot have students in class who are not already familiar with Rowling’s seven volumes, nor can I follow a chronological order to teach the books as the whole point is to be able to treat them as a single text, which is what they are: the Harry Potter series.

So, after making a list of the issues I would like to deal with, checking the bibliography (more than 450 entries in MLA…) and checking the syllabi for other courses (about 50 mainly in English-speaking countries), I have come up with a list of topics, quite obvious but also, I hope, quite solid. Here it is:

1. Is Harry Potter Literature?
2. The construction of the hero: Myths and stereoypes behind Harry Potter
3. Why not a heroine?: Gender dynamics in Harry Potter
4. Voldemort and blood purity: Racism in the world of magic
5. The construction of the secondary characters in Harry Potter
6. Hogwarts: Social prejudice in British ‘public schools’
7. Fandom and fan fiction on Harry Potter
8. Beasts, creatures and different humans in Harry Potter
9. At what age should we read Harry Potter?
10. Against Harry Potter: Religious readings and moral censorship
11. The film adaptations: lights and shadows

I am now ready to re-read the series this summer, pencil in hand, to find the passages and ideas I need for every topic (this is for 4, this for 10, etc.). Ideally, my students should also do the same BEFORE the course starts in February 2014 so that they come to class ready to discuss whatever topic is due with their own notes at hand. Difficult, I know…, but I will put my faith in them and hope for the best as, after all, I am teaching the subject on demand, that is, because they asked me to.

The other matter that worries me is the plain logistics of how to carry the text to class. Obviously, I can’t ask students to bring the whole seven volumes every day to class, so my own set will have to be always there. Yet, what nags me is how we’re going to find a particular passage if the need arises… Um, tricky.

As for students’ implication in classroom activities, I have had the crazy idea of not opening my mouth at all during these 11/12 weeks and leave all the teaching in their hands –now, that would be radical!! The problem I have right now is that I have no idea about what the real number of formally registered students will be (a few have already asked to attend as unregistered students or ‘oyentes’). Depending on how many finally enrol (anything between 25 and 70), I’d think of having as many oral presentations as it is feasible to have, with intense debate as a main target throughout the subject.

I have already spoken with some students regarding the subject as my main doubt is what exactly they expect from me. They tell me that the idea is using the subject to learn more about Harry Potter. Yes, of course, but this will not happen fandom-style in the sense that at the end of the course we will not have accumulated information to compete with the Wikipedia. My aim is quite different: to turn the students’ pleasure in the popular texts they love into proper academic material, as this is what I do academically most of the time. I did warn these students that they would have to take exams, write a paper, read bibliography and they were still enthusiastic, so that’s the challenge for me: to make the most academically of that enthusiasm and keep it alive to the end of the course. I don’t want Harry to become another boring chore…

As for myself, I have vowed to write, finally, that overdue essay on Sirius Black which I started long ago and abandoned overwhelmed by the enormous amount of bibliography on Rowling’s saga. My focus will be, of course, masculinity (as this is what I have been working on for the last ten years) but also what exactly appeals to us as readers in relation to Sirius – I won’t anticipate more here, but I’m considering the idea that Freud missed much by limiting relevant roles in childhood to the nuclear family.

Now, for feedback from you… (Thanks!)

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… AND FEAR OF THE TITLE FOR ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAYS: HOW TO OVERCOME IT

If I had a euro for every time a student has handed in an essay with no title, I’d be… in less fear of the current crisis. Not rich but possibly in possession of, say, a much better handbag. Actually, if I think about it, there are two variations to this problem: essays with no title at all, or essays that simply use the title of the text analysed. Yes, “Wuthering Heights” is a title that exists though it should not.

The resistance to using titles is hard to explain in view that nobody would read a newspaper article, or a piece of Literature, without one. Imagine going to the cinema and having to point to the ticket seller what you want to see because the film has no title (or do people ask anyway for ‘the new Leonardo Di Caprio?’). So, there’s not really an explanation for the absence of the title in many (most?) students’ essays, unless it is a bad habit caught from exams of the traditional kind in which, if I remember correctly, I was never asked to supply a title (apparently my examiners assumed that the question was title enough).

Any literary writer will tell you that choosing titles is very important and that a bad title can kill a good novel (a good title can, of course, make a bad novel an instant success –anybody will want to read something called The Da Vinci Code). Kazuo Ishiguro defines the process as “a bit like naming a child” as “a lot of debate goes on.” Sometimes, strange accidents happen and so he explains that the intriguing title for his masterpiece The Remains of the Day comes from “a semi-serious game of trying to find a title for my soon-to-be-completed novel” (Michael Ondatjee suggested Sirloin: A Juicy Tale…). Judith Hertzberg, a Dutch writer, mistranslated Freud’s phrase ‘tagesreste’ as ‘remains of the day’ (apparently it’s ‘debris of the day’) and Ishiguro borrowed it, as this “seemed to me right in terms of atmosphere.” Voilà. (This comes, by the way from the, um, juicy Paris Review interview with Ishiguro, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5829/the-art-of-fiction-no-196-kazuo-ishiguro).

Argumentative essays, which is what should concern students and academics, are very demanding in terms of finding a title as this title should reflect the thesis of the essay and still be attractive (not a long explanatory sentence, as some offer). Apparently, finding a title is so hard that I have already come across a couple of automatic essay title generators on the net –they produce hilarious results… also scary, as we teachers seem to be asking for very predictable essay topics.

As a general rule, an academic essay should have a title and a subtitle, which are open to different possibilities. Basically, though, the title should advance the thesis and the subtitle refer to the text/author analysed or add an explanation to the title. Producing witty titles is only possibly for very advanced students and for a handful of teachers. Aspiring to writing ‘clever’ titles is often a mistake, as this usually only results in embarrassing, silly titles. It’s hard to give advice beyond a) titles should be concise but also sufficiently informative of the contents, b) they should be attractive and invite the reader to read on and c) wait until you have completed your essay to find a suitable title (it may be one of your own sentences).

Since I expect the reader will be waiting for some example, I have checked the MLA for titles of published academic work on the novel I’m currently teaching – yes, The Remains of the Day. Here are five that seem to me if not perfect (what is perfection, after all?) certainly up to the task of transmitting a clear idea of the thesis and contents, and of sending an invitation to the (possible) reader:

“Escape from Responsibility: Ideology and Storytelling in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
“The End of (Anthony) Eden: Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day and Midcentury Anglo-American Tensions”
“Serving a New World Order: Postcolonial Politics in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
“The Butler in (the) Passage: The Liminal Narrative of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
“Being an Other to Oneself: First Person Narration in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day

To check whether they’re really good, you should now read the corresponding essay and see if the title truly fulfils its function… I’ll leave that to each reader.

And I truly hope that one day I will no longer think of buying an expensive handbag every time I mark an essay with no title or with an unsuitable one…

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FEAR OF POETRY AND OF THE ARGUMENTATIVE ESSAY: HOW TO OVERCOME THEM

In the last few weeks both my UAB and my UOC students have been learning (English) poetry. To my dismay and that of my teaching colleagues, even though we have insisted that they should NOT produce text commentaries and we have provided them with samples of the kind of argumentative essay we want to see applied to poetry, the ensuing essays have been mostly text commentaries –resulting in many fails. So here’s a tutorial for both.

A text commentary is the kind of exercise taught in secondary school for dealing with poetry (among other texts). It is DESCRIPTIVE and, basically, it is a paraphrasis (or repetition in the students’ own words) of the poem’s content. My colleagues and I think that this is too limited for university students and, so we decided to use the argumentative model for all literary genres, poetry included.

The problem is that students are very much afraid of poetry and feel much more confident counting lines, stanzas and rhyme schemes than arguing a point, idea or thesis about a poem. For you to understand the difference, the text commentaries we have been marking are the equivalent of discussing, for example, a play by simply mentioning how many acts, scenes, lines of dialogue, characters, and settings it has and then offering a plot summary. Can you see the sense in that?

An argumentative essay argues a thesis statement about a particular topic, offering arguments in favour and against this thesis. We prefer this to the text commentary because the argumentative essay forces the student to ask him/herself a relevant (research) question about a text. The answer (= the thesis) must be solid and coherent, and the process of developing arguments to accompany it forces the student to THINK, which is NOT the case of the text commentary (by the way, an ARGUMENT is an idea open to agreement or disagreement).

Obviously, the main difference with the basic argumentative essay (“Are you in favour of the death penalty?”) is that in the argumentative essays we teach the writer MUST defend his/her thesis as convincingly as possible. Counterarguments (ideas that might contradict or invalidate your thesis) must be taken into account but this is never a simple case of ‘on the one hand/on the other hand.’ If you’re arguing that “Hamlet is a hero” you need to take into account the possibility that others disagree and call him a coward, but you cannot agree with them –you need to DEFEND your thesis.

With a short story, a play or a novel students feel more confident and they find it easier to ask a (research) question (“Is Hamlet a coward or a hero?”) and a thesis in answer to that question (“Hamlet is a coward”). With poetry, students have an enormous difficult to ask questions. Jenny Joseph’s “Warning” expresses the speaker’s wish to find freedom in old age –yes, but is the imagine of old age that the poem offers realistic? Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum” is a superb war poem –yes, but is the strategy to scare the reader with such violent images the best one to offer a pacifist message? John Agard’s “Half-Caste” is an anti-racist poem –yes, but is the argumentation that the poet offers, with all those allusions to non-racial issues, effective? Dylan Thomas’s “Do not Go Gentle into the Night” deals with the death of the poet’s father –yes, but does it make sense to ask anyone to rage against death rather than wish that they die peacefully? And so on…

If you need to inform us that a poem has three stanzas, or a abc abc rhyming scheme, this should only be done if it helps your argumentation. Imagine an essay in which you’re arguing that Jimmy Porter’s anger in Look Back in Anger is caused by the loss of his father and suddenly you inform your reader that this is a play in three acts with four characters. This would be absurd. Quite another matter is mentioning the fact that Thomas Hardy’s “On the Departure Platform” is divided into two parts of four and two stanzas each if you’re arguing that the pessimistic message of the poem, found in the second part, is exaggerated in view that the first part simply narrates the woman’s temporary departure and not her leaving for ever.

So this is it: a measure of description is always necessary in an argumentative essay but it should never replace argumentation. A strategy to get rid of the text commentary would be to write it first and then, on its basis, write a second argumentative essay, which is what you should hand in. Use the text commentary, if necessary, as a kind of preliminary exercise useful for a close reading of the poem, then start again: ask yourself a question about the text, answer it and voilà, here’s your THESIS. The rest will follow.

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THE END OF LECTURING?: NEWS FROM BRITAIN

My colleague David Owen passes us, Literature teachers, two interesting links. Both refer to a recent critique of the usefulness of university lectures by Wikipedia’s founder: “Jimmy Wales: Boring university lectures ‘are doomed’” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22160988) and “Are university lectures doomed?” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/05/debate-university-lectures-doomed-philip-hensher-john-mullan).

The main gist of Wales’s argumentation is that increasingly popular online higher education will kill the traditional lecture, or rather, the students’ need to attend lectures delivered live. He claims that uploading pre-recorded lectures should work best, as one can choose when to stop and ‘rewind’ if necessary. Also, students could thus sidestep boring lecturers: “why wouldn’t you have the most entertaining professor, the one with the proven track record of getting knowledge into people’s heads?” (See how he rates the ability to teach well as an ability to entertain well…)

Philip Hensher and John Mullan consider Wales’s critique in the Guardian article. Hensher, a lecturer himself, is puzzled that there are “still institutions where academics stand at the podium and start to read out from dog-eared print-outs of last year’s lectures” like in the pre-internet 1980s. He declares, to my dismay, that “Since I took to lecturing myself, I generally approached it as cabaret”. Yet, as he himself observes, “realistically, if one wanted to teach anyone anything, I think one should make them participate, interrupt, ask questions, disagree, talk back, and that’s the alternative route I’ve taken.” John Mullan, a professor of English at University College London, rejects Hensher’s idea that the lecture is “inherently authoritarian and tedious” and stresses that student response should happen in seminars with small groups, not in lectures.

In Spain traditional university teaching consists of lectures (‘clases magistrales’) that students attend and then vomit back at lecturers in final exams. One advantage of this method for teachers is that, yes, you can recycle your notes the following year(s); second, you can be as dense as you wish (em, offer high standards) as you needn’t worry about whether students follow your lecture or not. In the English Department I work for the habitual practice is NOT to lecture, unless it is absolutely necessary, as we believe that classroom time should be used for what students cannot do alone, namely, practice English (for the equivalent of lectures we can upload texts for them to read, or send them to the library). We believe, in short, in teaching our students seminar-style, with all the limitations that this entails when your class is any number between 25 and 80, with most groups around 50. My own teaching practice is based on that methodology: minimal lecturing, as much close reading followed by dialogue as I can cram in 80 minutes.

I had this week a very interesting conversation with a brilliant first-year student taking a combined degree in Catalan and Spanish. Very candidly, he acknowledged that the Catalan side of the degree fulfilled better what he expected university to be, as teachers lecture (and students take notes, and cram for final exams). My own class, he said, works fine as far as the choice of reading matter is concerned but is quite light in comparison, as I depend on what students can contribute (we do continuous assessment, by the way). With most students below the required B2 entrance level, I agree that class dialogue suffers much. In the last class, I had to ask him not to answer when I asked a question, as he puts off less advanced students from participating. Which was not very nice of me… though he said he’s used to it.

I worry all the time that I should lecture ‘properly’, but, then, Jimmy Wales might not find me the kind of good entertainer that deserves to have his/her lectures uploaded. Yet, if I lectured, I would deprive my students of the chance to combine forces with me and, well, think (and, remember, Socrates invented interactive teaching…). But, again, if I base classes on interacting with students who are not motivated, or do not know enough English (or both), I end up losing the interest of the really good students, who think that I’m not, um, scholarly enough.

In my fourth-year elective, English Theatre, for which I needn’t worry about my students’ English (it’s good enough) and I have around 25 students I lecture half the session and speak with them the other half. It works, at least for me, so here is the solution: keep groups small for everyday teaching, offer lectures only when invited to do so… and online if you think your cabaret act will please Jimmy Wales and all those who think that lecturing should be a form of theatre.

If you think about it, Wales’s argument is plain silly, as uploading lectures on the net does not mean they will or must disappear in their live version –they can be complementary. There’s also something else: online learning requires a strict discipline regarding the student’s daily schedule, whereas live learning imposes a routine that most students need. By the way, even though I do mention the Wikipedia often in class as a wonderful resource I couldn’t enjoy as a student, and one should imagine that my students are all the time learning from it, this is not, Jimmy Wales, the case…

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WHAT WORRIES ME ABOUT THE UNIVERSITY (IN THIS WEEK OF PROTESTS)

The students’ Assembly of the Facultat asks us, teachers, to use some time this week in class to explain to students what worries us most about the current state of the university. I will do so tomorrow but I have also decided to leave here in my blog the snapshot of what things look like right now. Sad and depressive…

My current worries can perhaps be summarised in just ONE major worry: the Spanish university suffers from a chronic lack of funding, which is now, because of the bottomless crisis we’re going through, simply appalling. This lack of funding translates into the following:

*STAFF:
– we have more or less sufficient staff to cover our teaching but 50% of that are part-time associates with temporary contracts that can disappear overnight.
– the associate positions they occupy are ‘fake’ since they should have been by all rights full-time junior positions like the one I enjoyed (as ‘ayudante’) before I got tenure (a permanent contract).
– this also means that, since in our Department the admin jobs done by the teaching staff are not carried out by associates, we, full-time teachers, do an enormous share of that.
– many of these associates have accreditations to be hired as ‘lectors’ (a four-year contract), which is a tenure-track position. However, there no openings at all. This year a full professor will retire and she will be replaced with a part-time associate with the cheapest contract, instead of using these resources to offer at least one associate a full-time contract. I’m speaking of persons 35-50 years of age who have already worked with us for many years. And, yes, we have six former full-time positions underused in that way.
– the lack of resources for full-time staff or for, generally, new staff also means that the Departament’s teaching staff is ageing too much in relation to the students we teach. We need fresh blood…

*ADMIN(ISTRATION) WORK (‘GESTIÓ’):
– the principle that universities should be autonomous entities that run themselves with no outside interference has lead to a situation in which bureaucratic tasks have multiplied and fallen into the hands of teachers, who often feel just like glorified clerks. These tasks have particularly increased as regards the amount of paperwork needed for practically everything. For each hour devoted to admin tasks by senior teachers we miss one hour of productive research. This is bad for the Department and frustrating for the teachers who take their research seriously.

*RESEARCH:
– time: every committed researcher complains against the same problem –we use too much time for admin tasks and for marking, but too little for research (even for plain reading to keep up-to-date). Continuous assessment, which replaces the older final exams, demands plenty of time. At the same time, it’s hard to reduce it without crucially affecting the quality of teaching (we should reduce the size of the groups, with more teaching staff).
– funding for books and for conferences: This Department has always spent money, quite generously, on books (for the Library, never for individual teachers) and to attend conferences. This year it seems that we won’t be able to buy any books, without which our research cannot be up-dated, and the money for conferences could be as little as 200 euros each teacher. Considering that our wages have gone down quite sharply and that conferences seem to have less and less weight in our CVs, we might in some cases (particularly the associates) stop attending at all. This is very important, as conferences are essential to make and maintain academic contacts.

*WAGES:
– I assume that many of my fellow Spaniards would consider me a privileged worker with a big salary. This is, of course, relative to their own situation. What I must stress is that in the fat cow times of the recent past our salaries remained frozen for years, which means that we lost every year around 3% of our real income. Whatever increase I have got since then comes from complements I have earned on the basis of my (good) teaching and (good) research, and from seniority.
– however, for the last two years the Generalitat (which is NOT my employee, as I am a civil servant of the Spanish state) has been taking money from my wages –the full summer pay, which is not a bonus, but part of my salary. This month they have taken 338 euros and they will do so for 8 months (this is much more than the summer pay). Mariano Rajoy’s Government, my real employee, will deduct the winter pay…
– I myself can buy cheaper clothing, and do with fewer luxuries but other teachers with a mortgage and children are really going through a very rough patch. We often feel as we have to pay for the privilege of teaching, when what we actually offer is a high-quality public service, scandalously cheap in relation to how much work we do.

*PUBLIC IMAGE (AMONG STUDENTS AND SOCIETY): Finally, what also worries me very much is how little students and society know about what we do and how little sympathy we get for our troubles. Instead, everyone assumes us to be a bunch of lazy people who do nothing else but teach six or eight hours a week. All of us work at least the 37.5 hours of our contract and in most cases anything beyond that as there’s no real limit to what committed university teachers will do.

So now you know…

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AND ABOUT THE TERRORIST… IN ANSWER TO SIMON STEPHENS

A central scene in Simon Stephens’s Pornography is the monologue by a suicide bomber that I have mentioned in the previous post. As it is well known, the four terrorists who caused the 7/7 attacks were English men: non-white, like so many Britons, yet English all through. The point that Stephens wants to make with the monologue is that they were by no means the Other but ‘one of us.’ He stresses not only their full humanity (for him, they were not monsters) but also the idea that what caused the bombings is the state of decadence in England. That the bombs, in short, were the result of certain problems in national English life and not an odd import from foreign lands. Fair enough.

Accordingly, he refuses to characterise specifically the terrorist in his play, so that even though the character refers to ‘his wife’ it’s quite possible to play it as a woman (as I did). A white one. If I am correct, there was even a production in which the bomber was played by a white actor costumed as a businessman. The monologue itself is, actually, stream of consciousness spoken out loud and, as such, it contains plenty of trivial observations inspired by the journey to London that the bomber is taking (he craves for an almond croissant, comments on a passenger picking his nose…). There is no mention of religion, or race, and the ideological content (an attack against trashy food, trashy childhood and trashy media) could be put in the mouth of millions.

I myself find the monologue, as one of my students noted, bland. I applaud Stephens for being brave enough to let the terrorist speak, as this is not what we are used to in real life. I believe that we need to listen to these criminals in order to understand how the gap between discontent and delinquency is bridged; no, they are not monsters but they do commit monstrous acts and we need to learn why. Stephens, however, tries to be so politically correct that his terrorist ends up being anybody and, so, nobody. He trips himself up. Even though my students and I agreed that the monologue seems likely or realistic enough, we expected more: we get no insight into how this person is feeling about what he is about to do (and this is not just kill but also die).

In the ensuing debate with my students, we discussed how real life belies Stephens’s theory: few people actually become terrorists, so there must be indeed a distinct factor that makes particular individuals believe that killing and maiming strangers in horrific ways makes sense. The recent Boston bombings by the Tsarnaev brothers strongly suggest that terrorists actions are the product of individuals who feel rejected, or marginalised, and who feel, in the company of others like themselves or on their own, the need to strike back, take revenge. It’s a theory. Race and ethnicity, as a Norwegian Erasmus student reminded me, are secondary: their local horror, Anders Breivik, is white and so are/were ETA and IRA members. I’ll leave aside the fact that most terrorists are (disempowered) men…

There have been other attempts to deal with terrorism from another angle –of which, the weirdest one is no doubt the English comedy film Four Lions. There, the point raised is that the English terrorists who decide to attack the London marathon (yes…) are incompetent buffoons. Very ordinary guys, yes and quite stupid, yes, but still very dangerous… which the film cannot satisfactorily account for. The problem with Stephens’s monologue is different: his terrorist is neither an evil monster nor a moron, yet it’s hard to believe that someone carrying a backpack with that content would spare not a single thought for his own death and that of his victims. This has to be faced.

Stephens fails then (honourably) in his bold attempt to humanise the terrorist. He does succeed in making him ordinary; we may gain glimpses of his ordinary humanity, indeed, in the fact that wife and baby daughter wait for him at home. Yet, Stephens crashes against the inevitable moral barrier: either we admit that the need to kill people at random is as human as the need to eat an almond croissant (and think to what chaos this would lead), or we admit that there are monsters. Human but monsters, meaning by this not so much individuals that are evil all through their lives but who, given a certain set of circumstances, can perpetrate evil acts in cold blood.

Stephens gets this almost right but the sad mystery of what makes a human being decide to kill other human beings remains, unsolved beyond drama and beyond all our fictions.

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PERFORMING THEATRE IN CLASS: THE LITTLE MIRACLES

This week we have been working on Simon Stephens’s play Pornography (2007) in class, within my elective subject ‘English Theatre’ (well, it’s ‘British Theatre’ but you know what labels are like, and it’s not really ‘Theatre in English’).

The title can be quite misleading, as Pornography is actually a play dealing with the historic week in July 2005, which included Live 8, the G8 Gleneagles summit, the official announcement of the 2012 London Olympics and the 7/7 bombings causing almost 800 casualties (52 dead and 700 wounded…). Stephens’s title alludes to his view that we live in pornographic times as we treat each other as mere objects, from everyday occurrences to the extreme case of sociopathic terrorists.

The play, apparently inspired by Jacques’ speech in As You Like It (“All the world’s a stage…”), borrows from it the traditional idea of the seven ages of man. Stephens tells a series of overlapping stories each corresponding to one age. I chose for class performance two scenes, corresponding to the lovers and the soldier in Shakespeare: a dialogue between two incestuous siblings whose newly born sexual relationship is cut short by the shock of the terrorist outrages, and a monologue by one of the suicidal bombers, which I myself played.

The little miracle to which my title refers was this: the two students who had to play the siblings, a boy and a girl, were having serious problems to meet and rehearse, as both work. To add to their problems I realised only too late that the scene was too long and some cuts would be needed. Not to mention the fact that Stephens decided not to pre-determine who says what (the lines are not preceded by the name of the speaker) and this requires much hard work on the side of the actors. I exchanged a few frantic emails over the weekend with the girl –who referred mysteriously to a Facebook rehearsal… – and hoped for the best.

To my delight all the scenes performed by students in class (text in hand) had worked beautifully and it would have been a pity if this one had gone awry. Then the miracle happened: the moment Ernest and Melissa walked in and looked at each other, I believed them, and so did their classmates. Call that chemistry… By the time the brother gets home from work on the day of the attacks to announce that he can’t cope with the horror outside and the situation with his sister, my heart was breaking. Really.

The week before we had seen a video with Simon McBurney explaining that he called his marvellous theatre company Complicité in the double sense that spectators and actors are accomplices (partners in crime or sin) and work in complicity. We saw another video with Simon Stephens calling our attention to how strange the idea of the theatre actually is: you go to a room full of strangers to see other strangers play fictitious characters, often on the barest stage and looking practically the same as they do in their daily lives. Well, I saw that in my class, the complicity between the ‘actors’ and ours with them. And it was beautiful. I have no better word for it.

Even more so because the incestuous siblings came after a series of truly inspired performances by almost everyone in class. I have no idea whether I myself did well (a student told me I was very scary with my black backpack, so I guess it worked…), but, as happened two years ago, I was very, very nervous after seeing how brave my students were being in our improvised theatre. Whenever I go to the theatre I try to relish as long as I can that moment when the light changes, some people appear on the stage and suddenly they become characters you believe in. I see that every day I go to class, and I want to thank my students.

So: thanks!

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