211%, OR THE MYSTERY OF HOW MANY HOURS I ACTUALLY TEACH

I have just checked my personal teaching account, wondering whether hours I’m owed had been finally counted. Yes, whoever does this has entered the hours corresponding to my supervision of a PhD dissertation (or is it for two dissertations? I’m confused). Not yet, however, the 21 hours corresponding to the three BA dissertations submitted in the current academic year. Whatever the case, UAB considers that the total count of hours I have taught this year amounts to 211% of my expected workload (plus the 21 hours…, etc.).

Technically, I have worked in class for 150 hours (I teach three subjects, as my Coordination duties allow me to drop one of the four I should teach –or not really, as UAB doesn’t apply to me last year’s Wert Decree, which they should). Add to this 21 for the BA dissertations, 60 for the PhD dissertation(s), 9 for an MA collaboration, 10 more for an MA dissertation soon to be submitted… UAB’s teaching accountants have determined that teachers’ workload should be worked out in part on the basis of the number of students we have in class, which is only fair. Thus, my biggish ‘Victorian Literature’ and ‘20th Century Literature’ classes (around 60 each) are actually enough to cover all my workload, and I seem to have taught ‘for free’ all the rest.

I must clarify that the acknowledged 211% dedication has no effect whatsoever on my teaching for 2013-14, that is to say, I cannot ask for a ‘reduction’ to compensate for this year’s excess. Why’s that, since common sense would dictate the opposite? Well, easy: we don’t have enough teaching resources to make up for what I’d drop. The English Literature section –11 teachers, only 5 of us tenured, the remaining 6 part time adjuncts–will be teaching next year only 7 electives (we must teach a minimum of 5 to guarantee the Literature and Culture itinerary). Since I’m not the only one in the section above the 100% mark (most of us are there), if we all ask that our teaching hours to be evened out next year, we’d be in very deep red numbers and the whole section would collapse at all levels.

Obviously, we need more teachers, that is as plain as daylight, for we 11 can no longer sustain the weight of teaching the BA and the MA and supervising BA, MA and PhD dissertations. We’re giving plenty away for free, whether we’re tenured or just adjuncts and this is, simply, a shame. This is, however, a no-win situation for if we complain, as I’m doing here, the authorities that be will find a quick solution: drop the BA, put an end to group-size below 60 (a luxury it seems, despite our intensive continuous assessment in English). Be a worse section and Department for nobody cares, and, anyway, people also got ‘Licenciaturas’ in the good old days of 200 students per class and lecturing with no student participation (some Departments are still stuck there).

This is particularly galling in the current situation in which so much part-time staff between the ages of 35 and 45 is waiting for much-deserved tenure. In September, for instance, our Professor of American Studies is retiring but she is to be replaced with an adjunct with the lowest possible contract (I’m told this is 600 euros a month, after taxes, for the same amount of hours our Professor has been teaching). If you consider that this Professor is the highest paid teacher in the Department, given her very long seniority, you will soon realise that much would be saved even by hiring full time one of our adjuncts (four have the corresponding accreditations).

Instead, the policy of saving the maximum amount of money is resulting in, well, my 211% (and that of many others, I know). The 211%, by the way, might also possibly explains why I feel so tired this summer and why it’s being so hard to focus on the research that I have left aside for too long. To think that I call myself a researcher is beginning to be a bit of a joke…

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WELCOMING OUR NEW STUDENTS: WHY MUM AND DAD SHOULD NOT BE THERE

As the BA Coordinator, one of my duties is to welcome our new ‘English Studies’ students in a joint session before registration. Apart from helping them regarding choices they need to make on their registration form, I give them a few pointers about how to become successful university students. I have gone as far as drawing a quite formal document, which I distribute and read with them, giving common-sense information about what we expect from them: be autonomous, check the syllabus, keep an up-to-date diary for the assessment activities, use the Library, participate in class, read the books in advance…

This is the second time I offer this welcome session and in both cases, I’m sorry to say, I have started by sending a few mums and dads out of the classroom.

I’m really appalled by the presence of so many mothers and fathers in our Facultat on registration days. I do not mean parents lending a hand to children who cant’ be at UAB because they work, or are elsewhere (well, if they’re on holiday, that’s another matter…). I mean parents that stick to their children throughout the whole process and who wrongly believe that their presence is indispensable. As I told the very surprised new students, their registration with us is a rite of passage into adult life they should undergo alone, and never under the wing of parents who, though caring, are often simply distrustful of their own children’s capacities. I’m told that actually some kids welcome parental help as they are happy enough not to bother about the often unnerving registration process. Yet, I hope this is a tiny minority. For their own sake.

Whatever the case, at the end of the session a girl approached me to clarify the matter that worried her: her English is B1 and not B2 as we require – so, what should she do? Suddenly, her mum appeared and when I told the girl it was her responsibility to make sure her English was good enough, the mother started a fantastically anxious tirade about how her daughter was too relaxed about the whole affair, didn’t do enough, etc, etc. I told this mother that she should let the girl make her own mistakes and trust her. When I asked her why she had accompanied her daughter at all, she told me the girl needed a ride, which the girl herself denied, as she had already been to UAB on her own. It was not easy to tell this mum, who was more or less my own age, that she should have total confidence in her daughter’s ability to do well on her own and that, anyway, she wouldn’t be able to come to class and check on her daily… It was very complicated not to be offensive, and I don’t know what the consequences of this conversation can have been for the girl.

In a way, I sympathise with the mother. Also with the other mother who called me last Friday at 9:00 asking for information about our degree, sounding very concerned because her absent daughter hadn’t chosen a BA yet. I have no children myself and I don’t know how I would react if a kid of my own behaved in this non-chalant way. Yet, the parents of my own generation, those between 40 and 50, seem to me too overprotective, which is not doing their kids, my students, any favour. This, of course, also makes me sympathise with the daughter(s).

Believe me, it was not easy to start the session by telling those mums and dads they were not welcome. I believe, though, it was necessary and that’s what I’ll do as long as I coordinate the BA. By the way, all my colleagues, mums and dads included, supported my decision –for them the ultimately sinners are the university teachers that, as I was told, also accompany their children on registration day. Wrong, wrong…

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ON THE NEW BA DISSERTATIONS (OR TFG): THE FIRST BATCH

Our ever expanding academic duties have included this year the novelty of participating on the examining boards for the new BA dissertations or TFG (‘Treball de Fi de Grau’). July has thus yet another day of very hard work that, as usual, must be deducted from research and that delays the official date for the end of teaching to 5 July –very, very late.

The TFG is a very confusing concept, beginning with its name, as it suggests it must be something that caps or crowns the whole BA degree. The word ‘dissertation’ is not, however, included in its official description, so we opted for giving students the chance to write simply an academic paper with at least 7 secondary sources. The particular topic must be agreed on with the tutor and must suit one of the three choices each teacher offers.

I was supposed to supervise two TFGs but ended up supervising three: on domestic abuse in Roddy Doyle’s moving The Woman Who Walked into Doors, homoeroticism in the thrilling BBC series Sherlock and the use of high culture in the demanding SF novels by Dan Simmons, Ilium and Olympus. In the three cases, both the process of tutoring my very intelligent tutorees and the end result have been extremely satisfactory, with clear possibilities in the three cases of doing further research within an MA and perhaps even a doctoral programme. It’s been also very hard work.

The TFG has become a personal elective subject, tailored to suit the needs of each student’s topic. In principle, my personal teaching account will receive seven hours for each completed TFG, which is far less than I have used (multiply by three at least). I don’t very much care because a) I have enjoyed the conversations with my tutorees, b) I have learnt from their projects, c) I consider these hours a kind of hybrid between teaching and research. Yet, it’s clear that spending so many hours on a teaching extra is a very hard to afford luxury.

All of us, teachers, are wondering besides what will happen when the less proficient students demand our help, as we’ll have to invest even more time on them. This means that soon there will be a fierce competition among students to choose the best tutors and among teachers to choose the best students. Tricky…

I attended 9 of the 10 Literature and Culture presentations (30 minutes each, 10 for the presentation and the rest for debate) and I must say it was a very positive experience. The topics seemed to me all very interesting, quite up-to-date as regards research. The students did generally very well, braving questions and comments that often seemed more apt for an MA viva. Perhaps the only problem is that as third year students did not attend these public oral examinations, we’ll have to repeat the effort of setting up a clear standard next year again. This is something we need to correct.

I can’t help, however, wondering why the whole process has been so stressful for both teachers and students, considering that, ultimately, they’re doing a kind of exercise they’re already familiar with, whether this is writing a paper or offering an oral presentation. My guess is that the label ‘TFG’ impresses them too much and that if we used, say, ‘Applied Academic Skills’ the whole concept would work much better. As usual, others decide for us and not always with the best pedagogic criteria.

To all our first TFG students: well done!!

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UNWRITING, EDITING, TAYLORING, PRUNING…: FITTING THE WORD COUNT

English is an infinitely flexible language and so, the word ‘unwrite’ does exist. Oxford Online ignores it but not Merriam-Webster: “to obliterate from writing: expunge, rescind”. I have also comes across an article by learned Laurence Lerner, “Unwriting Literature” (New Literary History, 22: 3, Summer 1991, 795-815) and an article in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal, by Karen Blumenthal. She is the one that uses the verb in the sense I mean –more or less.

I don’t mean by ‘unwrite’ the effort made at having to “rip out my work to fix mistakes” as she does in her embroidery and her young adult fiction, but rather the need to cut off from one’s work that for which there is no room. She means cases that have to do with expunging material that is not strictly needed for the internal coherence of the text; I mean rather, having to cut material that makes perfect sense but that can’t fit the pre-given word count I need to respect. In both cases, yes, “thanks to unwriting, days of work became a mere 10 lines of text.” Or less.

Here’s the particular case that has been driven me bananas in the last few months. The research group I belong to, ‘Constructing New Masculinities’ (http://www.ub.edu/masculinities/) is working on a volume on alternative masculinities, Moving Ahead, about which I am truly excited. I decided to contribute a chapter on Orson Scott Card’s hero Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggins, of whom you’ll hear plenty when Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of Ender’s Game hits the screen in November (if you’re an SF fan, of course you know Ender!).

Now, Ender appears in many, many texts since the Enderverse is a multimedia megatext in constant expansion –I focused on ‘just’ five novels: Ender’s Game, Ender in Exile, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind. The notes alone occupied thirty pages, the first draft 16,000 words. Here’s the corner I painted myself into very naively: I’m only allowed 4,800 words as there are many other contributors to the book (logically!). After gruelling pruning of the branches that needn’t be there, my article is now at 4,825 words, ready for a last thorough unwriting.

To be honest, it’s a better article than the 16,000 word version and, incredibly, I argue more or less the same points. I have sweated out, however, every single sentence, happy that English can accommodate so much meaning in its synthetic nature (no way you can do that in circumlocutious Spanish). I haven’t passed the article yet onto trusted readers, so I have no idea whether it works but I hope it does (I had to summarise five novels, remember, while I argued that patriarchal Card quashes Ender’s atypical masculinity to prevent it from becoming a real alternative).

In the good old times, you could write as much as you wanted for instance in your PhD dissertation –mine, on monstrosity, is itself a monster at almost 600 pages. Last week a doctoral student of mine was told that any manuscript over 250 pages runs the risk of remaining unpublished as, apparently, costs double past that mark. She is aiming for 400 pages at the last count, against my injunction not to write more than 350. Articles of 10,000 words are now a rarity and, let’s be honest about this, a trial for our patience. So, yes, 4,800 sounds about right, just as 2,500 is the perfect measure for conference papers. In our rushed times, our attention span is fast dwindling –Twitter will kill it off for good…

What kills me is that to reach the 2,500 or the 4,800, even in ‘simple’ cases which ‘just’ one text under analysis, I usually must write four times more and then spend weeks agonizing about how to reduce my big trees down to bonsai size. I unwrite, as you can see, much more than I write (except here, thankfully…). Now, English lacks the very colourful Spanish verb ‘jibarizar’, which I first heard philosopher Antonio Marina use, and which is exactly what I must do to my articles –this is why as I unwrite I think of bizarre mummified heads (and of bonsais, certainly).

What is the recipe? The first thing to go is the bibliography you only mention (see Smith 2009) but that, anyway, you spent time reading, underlining and assimilating. Use as few quotations as possible, which is hard in our times of sprawling bibliography, and as short as reasonable. Second, off with the footnotes –none will learn from my article that Card based the abusive relationship between Ender and his brother Peter on his own with elder brother Ray (this was a hard one to let go). Third, one can always be less loquacious and communicate the same ideas in fewer words, from 10% to 50% (less than that and you sound too hard-boiled!!).

Ironically, I agree with Laura Pallarés, an ex-student interested in writing the first PhD dissertation ever on Card (if she can afford UAB’s fees…), that Ender is enough to fill in not one but several dissertations, of 250 pages and even longer.

So, there we are: size matters after all.

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