DON’T TOUCH MY HARRY!!: THE WRITER’S BATTLE WITH THE FANS

I’m reading the Harry Potter saga again –for the third time around– in preparation for my elective subject next semester. Also the academic materials that I’m going to use as background reading, and which include the Casebook recently edited (2012) by Hallett and Huey. In this volume there’s a very interesting piece by Pamela Ingleton, “‘Neither Can Live while the Other Survives’: Harry Potter and the Extratextual (After)life of J.K. Rowling,” in which the author examines very critically Rowling’s multiple attempts at limiting the use by other persons of any element of her saga. Rowling is, indeed, resisting the death of the author with all her might, just as –Ingleton argues– Voldemort resists his own demise.

No author can today totally restrain the use of their characters in websites for reference, or in fan fiction of any type (slash fiction included), unless they assume a certainly hostile stance against their own fandom. Authors can, however, do very scary things.

I’m not quite sure I fully understand the legality of the matter but the question is that Rowling sued in 2007 RDR Books when they tried to publish a print version of Steve Vander Ark’s website ‘The Harry Potter Lexicon’ (http://www.hp-lexicon.org/). Her argument was that the volume took too much material from her own books and that, anyway, she wanted to publish her own companion (which she never did). The judge agreed with Rowling but granted RDR Books the right to publish a modified version, arguing that “the Lexicon’s purpose of aiding readers of literature generally should be encouraged rather than stifled” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Harry_Potter_Lexicon). The book was published in 2009 as The Lexicon: An Unauthorized Guide to Harry Potter Fiction.

Now, the Lexicon webpage warns, sounding like one of Rowling’s Howlers, that “NO PART OF THIS PAGE MAY BE REPRODUCED IN ANY MANNER WITHOUT PERMISSION. HARRY POTTER, characters, names, and all related indicia are trademarks of Warner Bros. ©2001-2012.” Yes, Warner Bros., not JK Rowling –something Ingleton does not comment on. I do not know why Rowling gave rights to Warner Bros. over her work and I’ll have to assume this is part of their (lucrative) deal regarding the films. No matter how well-paid she is, the fact is that Rowling is no longer sole owner of Harry and company. This is very worrying, as corporations, whether in publishing or in film, have no real sympathy for the free circulation of culture –academic work included. Wikipedia’s entry for “Legal disputes over the Harry Potter series” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legal_disputes_over_the_Harry_Potter_series) is a much better horror story than Harry’s persecution by Lord Voldemort, believe me.

Although in principle, researchers and students should not worry about asking for permission to deal with any literary subject they wish to pursue, I’m beginning to wonder whether Warner Bros. (or other big brothers) will ever knock on our door. Some form of tolerance from authors and corporations applies to non-commercial websites but anything generating income is suspect –which leaves academic publications stranded in a (very dark) grey area. The Casebook I’m using has its own copyright notice and no warning about the contents being subjected to copyright by Rowling or Warner Bros. Technically, it is as ‘unauthorised’ as the book-form Lexicon (it’s fascinating to see how ‘author’ connects with ‘authorization’ in this context). If you ask me, I’m not sure whether unauthorised work can be restricted, though I grant that I do not see Rowling suing Palgrave Macmillan (even though they are making money out of her talent, not the Casebook authors).

Nor do I see either Palgrave Macmillan or RDR publishing something called The Lexicon: An Unauthorized Guide to Philip Roth Fiction. Clearly, the most popular fiction generates the more commercial spin-offs. Yet, then, I wonder why always those who already make so much money are the ones that most insist on defending their copyright. Even against admirers who only want to further publicise what they do. I understand the author’s protectiveness of her own work and I certainly believe that making money out of other people’s creativity is wrong. Yet, derivative or secondary work produced for non-commercial reasons by fans and academic seems quite another matter. And I very much doubt that RDR’s book has made millions.

So far, Rowling is giving his lawyers (and Warner Bros.’) plenty to work on but there’ll come a time, 75 years after her death, when Harry Potter will be out of copyright. Unless she has already hidden her horcruxes, Rowling won’t be able to control her hero’s fate. I cannot be sure that this is 100% positive, seeing the horrors produced on the basis of Jane Austen’s novels, but it’s the way culture works –much more so today, when younger audiences are used to sharing anything and everything on the net with little sense of property.

Food for thought…

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TEN TIMES MORE MONEY: WHY BERKELEY IS BETTER THAN MY UNIVERSITY (BUT WE’RE NOT WORSE)

Last week, during the opening of the current academic year, our Rector, Ferran Sancho, explained that the University of California at Berkeley, roughly the same size as UAB in students and staff, has a budget of 300 million euros –ours is 30 (and fast diminishing). Since then the sing-song ‘ten times more money’ has taken up residence in my brain, colouring all I do, so here are a few examples of what having 30 instead of 300 millions means.

First, though, I’ll note that, according to the ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’ (http://www.shanghairanking.com/ARWU2013.html), UC at Berkeley occupies position number 3, UAB position 201. The top ten positions for 2013 are: Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, Cambridge, Cal Tech, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago and Oxford. Rector Sancho mentioned Berkeley because, let’s remember this, it’s a public, state-funded university –actually, the best one in the world according to this ranking.

The criteria used to assess universities considers (I’m citing from http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2013/08/19/berkeley-moves-up-to-third-in-arwus-2013-global-rankings/): quality of education (10%), quality of faculty (40%), research output (40%), and per capita academic performance (10%). These factors include: “Nobel Prize and Fields Medal winners among faculty and alumni weighted by decade received, highly cited researchers from 21 subject areas, the number of papers in Nature and Science published between 2008 and 2012, the number of papers indexed in Science Citation and Social Science Citation in 2012.” Harvard scored 100/100, Berkeley just a modest 71.3. There are no scores for universities below number one hundred (University of Freiburg, 24.3). If Berkeley is a B, then UAB is an E, or less. Nice…

Please, note: The ranking does not take into account funding under the heading ‘per capita academic performance.’

If funding were taken into account the ranking would reveal that totally underfunded universities have amazing productivity ratios (the best ones might well be in Africa!). If, say, Berkeley has 2,000 staff (I have no idea, really) and so does UAB, it turns out that each of its members of staff has access to resources worth 150,000 euros, whereas in UAB’s case that would be down to 15,000. I have no idea, either, how many articles a year a Berkeley researcher publishes, but suppose the number is 6 and suppose that a UAB colleague manages this astonishing feat. The cost of the UAB colleague article would be 2,500; the cost of the Berkeley article 25,000. Do you follow me? And I’m only speaking of research.

Now, if my school and Department had ten times more money, then:
1. I wouldn’t have 68 students in my second year class
2. I wouldn’t have to teach four subjects every academic year, two of them with that number of students
3. the supervision of BA, MA and PhD dissertations could be an actual part of our teaching load, as we’d have more teachers (including teaching assistants)
4. we wouldn’t have to put up with the appalling heat in the classrooms, nor share offices
5. we’d have money for scholarships, for students at all levels, and so promote excellence
6. we would be able to buy ten times more books for the library and subscribe to ten times more journals
7. we wouldn’t have to waste our research time in so much admin work (this is what more admin personal would do for us)
8. we’d have teaching and research assistants for each senior researcher
9. we’d travel to two or three conferences anywhere in the world a year
10. we’d have more time to THINK and produce the quality work that is quoted all over the world and appears in the famous impact indexes

I’m stopping at 10, just to continue the game around the ‘ten times more’ concept. I don’t think that at any Berkeley Department they’re checking which phones numbers might be disconnected to save money, as we’re doing. Etcetera.

If a Berkeley colleague is reading me I’m sure s/he’ll be annoyed: they do work hard there, and money is not just enough to win Nobel prizes, publish in Nature, make it to the top of the impact indexes. Yes, I know: but money makes talent flourish, whether local or imported. And this is it.

Now, ladies and gentlemen of the future independent Government of Catalonia: why don’t you send a delegation to California and see how they have managed to put Berkeley at the top of the world universities with PUBLIC money? Then you’d have my vote…

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LOVING LOVE STORIES: CATFISH, LAUREN AND DEREK (AND NEW-STYLE PLATONIC LOVE)

I simply love MTV’s series Catfish (Tuesdays 22:00). This is a series inspired by the eponymous 2010 documentary directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The film focused on the romantic disappointment of Ariel’s brother, Yaniv (Niv), when he finds out that the pretty twenty-something woman he’s fallen in love with on the internet does not actually have that age or physical appearance. Niv was soon flooded with messages from other Americans claiming to have gone through similar experiences or suspecting they were, hence the MTV show, which Niv hosts. Each week he and his buddy Max play amateur detective trying to unmask the often sad reality behind the lies people feed each other on the net. By the way, the title comes from a comment by a man in the documentary who explains that catfish were used to keep cod alert on long export trips; otherwise they faded away and died. Ariel and Niv borrowed the concept, calling ‘catfish’ whoever keeps you on your toes by doing fishy things on the net.

Last week I saw the memorable episode 4 of season 2: “Lauren and Derek.” Memorable because it has a happy ending. Let me explain that usually Niv and Max discover that the partner in the online couple reluctant to making face-to-face contact is lying. The reasons are diverse but usually have to do with having a physical appearance they don’t feel comfortable with. The tricked partner has to deal with the mismatch between the photos they assumed to be authentic and reality, which often results in heart-breaking disappointment. Lauren, who had never met the man she had been in touch with for 8 long years, asked Niv and Max for help. They, seeing how pretty Lauren is, were, logically suspicious that the handsome guy (Derek) in her photos did not exist as such. When it turned out that he did and that the love story was genuine enough, the surprise was, well, colossal.

Derek’s reluctance to meeting Lauren was so extreme that although they were clearly in love all the time (they met online when she was 14, he 16), he allowed her to go through a broken engagement and even a pregnancy. When a totally flabbergasted Max asked him why, Derek answered that his online communication with Lauren was so fulfilling and perfect that he was afraid of spoiling it with real contact. Her son added yet another worry to Derek’s many worries that sharing real physical space might spoil their virtual love. When they did meet, thanks to Max and Niv, however, all was perfect between them and between Derek and young Mason. Many tears of happiness were shed in America on the evening the episode aired (check Twitter!).

I’ll put my Cultural Studies thinking cap on to try to explain the attraction of the show and, in particular, of this story. Yes, we all love gossip but that’s not the (whole) point. This is rather the impact of the internet, and particularly Facebook, on dating. The USA are a territory big enough for actual contact to be potentially difficult, which makes long online relationships a possibility. Amazingly, Niv and Max use very basic detective skills that the persons concerned could also use –yet there is in most cases a reluctance to spoiling the dream of a perfect match. Inevitably, though, someone feels the need to touch and hug, and the dream collapses.

The show reveals, on the whole, two main difficulties in modern love. Although the protagonists often have a very solid connection which they call love, this often depends on believing in the physical attractive of the online partner –the real meeting mostly destroys this love, though it turns it into a more honest friendship in a few cases. Second, although the importance attached to physical attractive seems to dominate our notions of love, actually the show proves that contact based on conversation (written, spoken) matters even more than sex. Lauren and Derek’s case is happy and perfect, in any case, because there were no lies on Derek’s side, just fear. And both are equally attractive.

This fear is in itself fascinating –you might simply call it a typical male fear of commitment (or immaturity), but I believe it is not. On the same day I saw the episode I explained to my students the love story of JS Mills and Harriet Taylor who were bosom friends for 21 years, as long as her husband stayed alive, for fear of scandal. The class agreed that this platonic love (=asexual love) didn’t make sense anymore as conventions have changed; today JS and Harriet would simply move in together as soon as she divorced. Derek’s post-post modern brand of platonic love, however, has nothing to do with fear of scandal but rather with the fear that daily contact kills off true romantic love, as often happens. Time will show whether Lauren was right to force a meeting (perhaps leading to marriage… and divorce) or Derek to prevent it, paradoxically, for the sake of their romantic relationship.

Quite possibly, Catfish doctors the stories to put a more interesting spin on them –after all, this is a TV show. Still, they are very good stories as each episode ends up discovering yet another motivation for the ‘catfish’ to lie. The show has built its own generic conventions and is, thus, forced to offer a new twist at the end –besides, now it’s so popular I doubt many ‘catfish’ feel at ease any more. Its focus on love and not, for instance, business (this could also be a possibility) makes Catfish, at any rate, a very singular approach to the very open conventions that now determine the most important relationships in our life.

Lauren and Derek: good luck!!

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SELF-PUBLICATION AND THE ‘NO CUENTA’ MANTRA

Since I managed to open my website –despite the little technical help we get and the odd quirks of the DRUPAL programme– I’ve been wondering about its possibilities for self-publication. My institution insists that self-published work should go to its digital depository, yet where the actual file is placed is ultimately quite irrelevant. What matters is that I finally have the instrument to self-publish (I’m not sure this can be used as a verb…).

I have already set up a space for self-publication in the web, so far empty, though not for long. I’ve taken out of my digital drawer about a dozen documents that were there doing nothing except occupy space in my computer. What are these documents? Essentially unpublished academic stuff: conference papers presented at events generating no subsequent publication, rejected articles (ouch!), pieces accepted for publication in projects that never materialised. Why not simply update them and try publishing them in academic journals, books, etc? Because I know from experience that revising an article, given the enormous amount of bibliography published every year, is often more taxing than writing a new one. Also, because, typically, an article written for a specific conference, journal, or book will not easily fit a different kind of publication. Or just plain laziness (not really…).

I have now finished the process of editing with a certain homogeneity these dozen pieces and it’s been a very strange trip down memory lane, as some of these articles go back to the late 1990s. It’s been funny. I have gone again through the frustration of the rejection of some of the pieces, sometimes for reasons I totally disagree with, sometimes with good reasons. Also, although I fancy that one grows intellectually as time passes, I realise that the same bees have been in residence in my bonnet for quite a long time, albeit the amount of theoretical background I now surround them with is much larger. As requested today, since we seem to have got a collective high fever for massive numbers of quotations in each piece.

Why publish these documents? The answer is: why not? They’re neither better nor worse than most of my legitimately published academic work and if someone finds in them an idea worth considering, then I’ll be satisfied. They may simply gather digital (or virtual) dust, as one of my student says, but, then, I’m afraid that so do most of our publications anyway. It hurts really nobody to have the stuff online. Only perhaps my own reputation (if I have one).

By the way, most of these articles, not to say all, are peer reviewed, even though some may have been negatively so. My publishing them online is not, mind you, a little revenge against my less sympathetic reviewers. It cannot be, since –I know what you, my academic colleague, are thinking– self-publication does not count for official research assessment. Not even if I found five colleagues who would put their signature to my articles as peer-reviewed would they count since, as we all know, only work published in certain periodical publications and collective volumes really ‘counts.’ Ah, the famous ‘no cuenta’ mantra.

Now, to my surprise, this blog counts as a legitimate instrument for ‘knowledge transfer’ for the corresponding assessment which my Department passes regularly (these are the activities in which we academics take part to publicise what we do but which are not academic –in Spanish it used to be known as ‘divulgación’). Well, I’m happy to contribute to the Department’s kudos but also a bit annoyed at the arbitrary criteria by which some things count and others do not and for what.

Some other day I’ll tell you the story of why among the documents I’ll soon upload you can also find my book Monstruos al final del milenio (which I’ll be giving away for free) but not any of the others I have published so far.

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THE PIAAC RESULTS: NO SURPRISES… (ON THE UNVEILING OF SPAIN’S GENERAL ILLITERACY)

A couple of days ago the PIAAC results were published. This is a test designed to measure the educational competences of adults (16-65) in the 23 countries that are members of OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). The Spanish Government’s webpage summarises the catastrophe (see http://www.lamoncloa.gob.es/ServiciosdePrensa/NotasPrensa/MinisteriorEducacionCulturayDeporte/2013/081013InformePIAAC). Spanish adults occupy the second last position in reading comprehension (Italy has the honour of being number 23). My fellow Spanish citizens can read only at level 2 out of 5, with great difficulties to extrapolate conclusions from a text and to follow the content in those of a certain depth, like El Quijote (this must be a joke as in order to be able to read Cervantes’ book level 5 skills are required). The best readers are the Japanese, the Finns and the Dutch. An added humiliation is the fact that secondary school students of Japan, Holland and Australia are better readers than Spanish university students.

If anyone in Spain finds these results surprising then s/he has indeed very poor reading comprehension skills as regards the lamentable situation of the country and its so-called culture. Now try to tell kids below 16 that they should be better students.

Although PIAAC covers adults educated between 1956 and 2000, the Spanish Government blames their Socialist predecessors for the fiasco. They implemented LOGSE in 1990, the legislation that reformed the old Ley General de Educación 1970 act (under which I was myself educated –with many deficiencies). I’ll remind you that we used to take primary education up to the age of 14 and then opt for secondary school or professional training, whereas now kids take primary education until the age of 12, then ESO (or junior secondary school) to 16; next comes the choice between higher secondary school (Bachillerato) or professional training. In both cases, 18 is the university entrance age.

I have a clear recollection of how things changed back in 1994, when the first LOGSE students reached university. My slightly older students (I started teaching in 1991) also quickly saw that the new generations lacked their commitment to studying and the preparation that the old COU year gave before university. Since then things have gone downhill, I’m very sorry to say. One example? Well, a French Erasmus student informed my Victorian Literature colleague that since she had already chosen to work on Anne Brontë for her paper, she would not read Oliver Twist. Fancy telling a university Literature teacher this. Now, to my consternation, when I told the anecdote (twice) to my class, hoping they’d be scandalised (or would pretend to be), they were not. I coolly reminded them that their education was not my concern and the sooner they understood they should educate themselves the better. These are students paying very high fees to be educated and I have no idea why they will not make the best of the resources we have to offer.

I think LOGSE was necessary to update the educational system (surely you don’t want 14-year-old workers) but coincided with the beginning of a widespread trend in Spain: the rejection of education. I don’t mean that Spanish people do not want an education, I mean that they prefer instead titles, degrees, certificates. Education is, for me, a much deeper, wider, larger concept which translates into an eagerness to know beyond what is provided in the classroom. Just for the sake of it and also to understand the world we live in. Being learned, though, has no prestige whatsoever in Spain, whether among 16-year-old kids or 65-year-old grandparents, for there is an assumption that an education leads nowhere. This possibly comes from the realisation that a university degree no longer guarantees a job, much less a good job. Also, from something else that is cultural: a distrust, disregard and mockery of anything that leads to thinking (I’m told Philosophy is to be taken out of higher secondary education). I’m sure that in Japan, Finland, Holland this is not the case.

So, the truth is out: we assumed that Spanish adults were all highly literate, young kids the (functional) illiterate ones. Yet it turns out that the whole country is illiterate for actual purposes. What a happy day for a Literature teacher. The solution is obvious: making a collective effort and not just at school. Yet, for that you need to feel the shame which comes out of having your pride hurt and since right now we have no pride left at all because of the crisis, I doubt anyone feels shame. This is what we’ll be stuck in the bottom positions of OECD, as we congratulate ourselves on not being Italian instead of wondering what makes the Japanese such superb readers despite the obvious difficulties of their written language.

Deep, deep sigh…

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BACK FROM A CONFERENCE (AND WONDERING)

I have already written a few posts connected with conferences and if I am repeating the same ideas, this must be because things are not changing. I am back from a three-day conference, which makes number 57 in the long list of academic events I have attended since 1994 (not that many, really). As usual at this stage, once it’s over, I have mixed feelings about the whole procedure. My arguments will sound familiar to everyone who’s been in the circuit for a similar number of years but might give an introduction to problems unknown to junior researchers.

To begin with, attending conferences is very expensive. This last event, at a Spanish university, has cost me 500 euros, despite making considerable economies in terms of travel expenses. The 500 euros come integrally out of my pocket and although I know that it’s not that much in comparison to international conferences, it’s still a lot of money for a small item in my CV which will count nothing towards assessment. 350 euros, in contrast, would have gone a much longer way towards buying books that might help me produce better research. Yet, I’ve never spent that much in a few days on books.

Why have I attended? For social/academic reasons. First: loyalty towards the organisers, as this is was the 16th Culture & Power seminar, an event to which I have been attached from the very beginning in 1995 at my own university. Second: an interest in the potentiality of the topic –spaces– in relation to its application to SF, hence to increasing the academic visibility of this genre (there were six papers in two monographic sessions). Third: networking. I agreed to meet some colleagues for the purpose of furthering our common objectives, aside from the conference, and ended up coming across others unexpectedly, meetings from which other plans came out. Fourth: the need to take a break from admin duties (I’m degree Coordinator, or Head of Studies), which means having a good excuse not to check email.

As usual, question time, coffee breaks and mealtimes have been much more productive than listening to the presentations (well, to be fair, the best debates came logically out of the best papers). The colleague who organised the conference proposed that the next one be an extensive coffee break, with delegates discussing with each other papers forwarded in advance. I love the idea but remain a bit sceptical about it, as researchers often behave like bad students and might turn up with no homework done. At any rate, it is clear to me that the real exchange of ideas happens in conversation.

A worrying, seemingly unstoppable phenomenon is erratic attendance, by which I mean not only that many delegates attended just for one day (in one case, just to deliver a paper) but also that many dropped off the programme the day before or even without warning. This way, although this was a 50-delegate conference, plenary lectures were attended at the most by 15 persons –a shame. I am myself guilty of not attending a couple of morning sessions, as, frankly, I could not face the 10-hour day.

I know that erratic attendance is mostly due to the ongoing crisis as impoverished tenured researchers and severely exploited untenured researchers are cutting corners to make ends meet. Certificates of attendance were granted to all, which might not be a good practice, I’m afraid. Yet it’s difficult to find an alternative as having delegates sign for each session sounds too controlling (I’m paying, I choose what to attend…), and might completely alienate the poorest researchers. One-day conferences work, of course, much better in that sense, but, obviously, this is not a format for all kinds of conferences (I wonder what it is like to attend one of those medical conferences in my city, with up to 30,000 delegates…).

The worst part, for me, is that after many hours preparing the paper and the PowerPoint presentation I finally spoke to an audience of 10, including my two co-presenters. The session went very well and we had a very lively debate but, still, are 10 people worth so much effort? (with all my respect, of course, for those who attended my presentation). The best part, as with all the conferences I have attended, was the time spent with those special colleagues, who are actually personal friends. Perhaps we do need conferences that are just long coffee breaks. Or the academic equivalent of team building.

The last worry: age. Suddenly, I notice there’s a whole new generation in the circuit and that in conferences people connect along age lines which, somehow, makes networking less effective (or more complicated). Joining a colleague of a similar age for, say, lunch, is easy but asking a younger colleague makes me feel quite awkward (silly me!). Dinner is even more complicated. It might be just shyness and, of course, it would not apply to my own doctoral students or younger Department staff. Yet, it is there.

Now to enter the conference in my CV…

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