JO ROWLING: SOMETHING’S MISSING… (CALL IT THE BUBBLE EFFECT)

I’m preparing my lecture/seminar on J.K. Rowling, the author, for tomorrow and I have finally decided to turn to my blog, see if writing a post clarifies my confused thoughts.

The idea is to discuss with my students what kind of writer Rowling is from a Cultural Studies point of view, taking into account her personal identity, the material conditions of production of the Harry Potter series, the issues highlighted in her public presentation (website, Wikipedia entry), the rags-to-riches legend accompanying her fantastic success, the awards she’s collected… I have done this for many other writers but in her case something seems to be missing and I find myself in doubt as to what exactly.

I’m going to call this for the time being ‘the bubble effect’. See if I can explain myself.

To begin with, the comments by Rowling’s teachers I’ve come across portray her as rather average. She was rejected by Oxford University, which in itself might mean nothing but is beginning to make me see why she made Harry also an indifferent student. Also why, despite Rowling’s claims that Hermione is like her own girly self, you can see in the series how hard study is patronised and even despised.

Next, although Rowling claims she first wrote a story by the age of 6, the inspiration for Harry materialised in that famous train ride to Manchester when she was already 25, having tried to publish nothing in the meantime. The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out in 1997, when Jo was 32 already. She names among the writers that inspired her Jane Austen but nobody in the canon of children’s literature, which is the genre she chose to practice first. Odd, very odd.

With this I’m getting closer to what nags me: her lack of commitment to a genre. After Harry Potter, remember, she’s published only books for adults: a tragicomedy (her definition) and detective fiction (as Robert Galbraith). Writers do mix genres but usually with a greater commitment: my adored Iain M. Banks used to produce creative literary fiction and science fiction in turns; others produce parallel outputs in fantasy and the historical novel, or science fiction and fantasy, etc.

What I find odd is Rowling’s production of children’s fiction, then tragicomedy (?), now detective fiction… On the positive side, she appears to be a writer open to experimenting with different popular or middlebrow genres; on the negative side, she seems to be in serious trouble to find her real territory. I just find it very strange that after Harry Potter she has no more stories to tell children, except those derived from the series itself. Of course, the future will tell… I also find it very odd that after cultivating an intense relationship with a readership that, essentially, grew up with Harry she decided next to abandon them for the sort of adult that might enjoy her novel The Casual Vacancy. I myself haven’t read it, have no interest at all in reading it and would never in my life consider teaching it.

That’s what I mean by the ‘bubble effect’ precisely: Harry Potter seems isolated in the author’s career and in the reader’s experience. And this is hard to explain because there are not really similar cases. JRR Tolkien did not write The Lord of the Rings and next something totally unrelated. Even in the case of authors trapped by their creations, like Conan Doyle and his failed attempt to murder Sherlock Holmes, their inroads into other genres seem much more consistent than in Rowling’s case.

I think I’m trying to say that I find her career surprisingly inconsistent. After a phenomenon as gigantic as the Harry Potter series, perhaps it would have been best for Rowling never to publish again (as Arundhati Roy decided following the overwhelming success of The God of Small Things). Strangely, Rowling insists on publishing and even came up with the suspicious use of a male penname to start afresh without the pressure of public opinion. I say suspicious because I very much suspect she wanted to be found out.

I know that many writers in the circles of fantasy and children’s fiction were surprised by Rowling’s success, as others seemed much better writers. These voices may have been silenced by the very long list of literary awards she has received, though I have a nagging suspicion that these acknowledge her creating a phenomenon rather than her quality as a writer. Remember: she was awarded the ‘Príncipe de Asturias de la Concordia’ but not ‘de las Letras’. Just think how odd it would have been to award Tolkien the same distinction and perhaps you’ll begin to understand what I mean by ‘bubble effect’.

Now we’ll see what my class says…

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COFFEE WITH STUDENTS: THE IDEA OF MENTORSHIP

I was having coffee with an American visiting scholar and a local colleague from UB, and, I’m not sure in what exact moment of the conversation, he asked whether we had the habit of taking coffee with students, meaning the teachers in each Department. My colleague quickly replied “no, we don’t” and I answered almost on top of her words, “yes, I do.” I didn’t get a chance to ask the visitor why he’d asked, but I assume he wanted to be given the ‘rules’. ‘Rules’ we don’t have, which is why the whole process is complicated.

I believe that there is room for friendship between teachers and students, and this often starts with a coffee. My own experience is that this first coffee can lead to personal, long-lasting friendship although there is always a little bit of mentorship in it. If only because of the obvious age difference and life experience.

This means that the teacher must always keep a little distance and, this is very important, never appear to ‘need’ the friendship with the student –this even sounds scary to me. We, however, are also human beings and, well, we do have emotional needs which may not always be under control. Let me clarify for the dirty-minded that I absolutely abhor the idea of sex between teachers and students as it involves too many power issues. If the attraction is there, and it is genuine, then it’ll have to wait until the pair in question no longer share a classroom. There, I’ve said it. Now, let the gossip flow…

My Department takes office hours very seriously and we’re always available for students. Mostly they come because they have a problem but I simply love it when the resolution of the problem ends in friendly conversation and, indeed, when they simply drop in for a chat. I like very much talking with my students and I must also say that I have to talk to them, because without a minimum communication with them the intergenerational connection would be lost. I really hate it when I have to rush or finish a good conversation because I have other things to do, usually far more boring.

The next step is obvious: whether a student is in my class or not, if there’s a chance of a more relaxed conversation over coffee I take it. At the university cafeteria for, as a rule, coffee elsewhere is best once the teacher is no longer assessing the student –in individual cases, I mean. I see no problem in meeting groups of students for socialising outside the university, though I realise that coffee or, even better, dinner with a whole MA class is much easier and comfortable than organising something with a handful of under-grads. Likewise, coffee outside the university with a doctoral student is a common matter, whereas meeting an undergrad needs, somehow, justification.

Here’s the tricky matter: who takes the first step. I think it should be the teacher. If a student in my class asks me to meet for coffee, this might be misconstructed as a form of undue flattery (or, em, sucking up to the teacher). This is also why I tend to ask individual students once I’m no longer they’re teacher. It’s not easy. Or I should say it’s particularly difficult with heterosexual boys –let me be honest. Girls and male gay students usually accept coffee with no second thoughts (sorry, I don’t know about lesbian girl students as I don’t know who they might be…). Boys, even when they positively know that the teacher, that old thing, cannot, surely, be after them, always hesitate a little bit… Unless they are post-grads with a good grasp of how mentorship works and quickly see the purely friendly reasons for the invitation.

You may believe me or not, but my habit is to invite to my office or to coffee students for whom I think I can do something positive. This is what mentorship is about. This is not about picking up the cleverest ones but those with whom good personal rapport may lead to enjoyable conversation and whatever I can do for them. I’m happy to receive in exchange a little room for communication, as the simple truth is that with my colleagues most talk is about bureaucratic matters –hardly at all books, films or things that matter outside the university. And, yes, in the end it’s for the student’s benefit as we teachers are very often asked to provide references for other universities, jobs, etc. Also part of mentorship.

I have no idea why the university is often so uptight and has so little room for socialising among teachers and students. Whenever I have seen the chance, I have asked my students to celebrate all together the end of the semester. We don’t have a place for that in my school and I use the classroom for partying, for which I’m frowned upon by the caretakers. So sorry… (not really!)

I’m SO looking forward to the final party in June with my Potterheads!! And, yes, also to the many coffees I intend to share along the semester…

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FIRST WEEK WITH HARRY: GLEE (AND WANDS)

I have started teaching my elective subject ‘Cultural Studies in English: The Harry Potter Series’ this week… and it’s been a very good beginning. I have around 50 students, of which 8 (I think) are auditors (non-registered students who get no credits); they come from BA degrees such as Translation or Anthropology and three are my own MA students. The Erasmus and exchange students have started arriving on the second day and all in all, this looks very good so far.

I’ve also added a new guest to my list of three so far: 1) a doctoral student of mine, Auba Llompart, writing her dissertation on childhood in gothic fiction for young readers; 2) a learned (Goth) colleague, Bela Clúa, who gave me the motivation I lacked to read Rowling; 3) Kika Pol, an MA student writing under my supervision her dissertation on the construction of secondary characters with a focus on Snape and, finally, 4) Jaime Oliveros, an MA student working on curses and hexes in Shakespeare –who has turned out to be a Potterhead!!

Here are a few funny moments. It felt very, very odd to announce that I’d devote a lecture to discussing house elves, with an emphasis of course on Dobby and Kreacher. I don’t know why but it’s the first time I’ve thought ‘my, this is weird’ –I need to think further about this. Just consider that I have already declared in public my infatuation with Sirius Black, as understanding it is a major motivation for me to teach the subject.

Then, trying to teach my students how to control their fan passion for the saga, I asked them to which of the four houses they belonged: Slytherin, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw or Gryffindor. The idea was to teach them that a critical reader would question the very presence of the houses in the text, their imbalanced presentation, how Rowling encourages absurd rivalries, etc. To my surprise, they all knew which house they ‘belong’ to (yes, some Slytherins included). I, the supposed guiding critical reader, ended up taking not one but four online tests to confirm what I knew intuitively: I’m Ravenclaw (like Luna Lovegood). No surprises there, as I have Mulder’s ‘I want to believe’ poster in my office, Quibbler-style, and I’m known for studying hard…

Next came the wands… I had already checked where you can buy and how much they are with a view of getting myself one as a memento of the course (Luna’s, I think), but was put off in the end by the 35 euros they cost (I mean the copies of the wands in the films). I asked my students whether they owned a wand and I think 85 to 90% said yes… of course. I need to think on which day they can bring them… I told a colleague who’s not at all into Harry Potter or popular fiction about this and she was quite unsympathetic about students spending that much money on the silly wands and not on books. I realised it would be simply impossible to explain to her the attraction of owning a wand or, for that matter, a lightsaber (or my little Pikachu!).

I’m giving the students a two-week preliminary introduction to Cultural Studies before we plunge into the text. I can already see, however, what the main challenge is going to be: understanding the sheer glee which any comment on the series brings on. We had a moment of pure enjoyment when they named their houses, a moment that I’ve never enjoyed in connection with any of the literary texts I’ve taught. Uninformed onlookers might have mistaken that for childishness but, then, we’re all past childhood, I more than anyone else. It’s something else.

This glee does not incapacitate anyone to produce good critical work, as I know first hand but has to be repressed, so I need to walk a fine line between giving students the necessary academic training and giving them room to enjoy themselves. And I’m highlighting this because I thought that my main challenge would be dealing with the sentimental attachment to the text (which I do share).

Last year in my English Theatre class there were many intense moments and a certain ongoing impression that we were doing something transgressive, and fun, instead of boring ourselves silly with lectures. This year, and this is just the first week, I get a clear impression that, finally, students are dealing with a text that matters to them as part of their own private reading experience (the ‘finally’ is more theirs than mine). The Harry Potter series is, evidently, a text they do want to learn more about and I can see they trust me as a guide. This is thrilling, very, very exciting.

I will ask them towards the end whether other texts would have the same effect, for future subjects (Star Wars has been mentioned). Perhaps I’m the luckiest teacher in my university and, for once in my career, students agree 100% with my choices. I’m well aware, though, that it may never happen again.

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A DOCTORAL STUDENT ABANDONS: AT A LOSS ABOUT WHAT TO ADVICE…

A doctoral student who was supposed to defend (as we say) his PhD dissertation next September suddenly tells me he’s giving up –in his fifth year. I’m writing this aware that he might read it and after emailing him advice about what he needs to consider before quitting for good (if at all). With many doubts on my side about my training (or lack thereof) to give the best possible guidance at this point.

The colleagues to whom I have explained the situation have worried mainly about the hours I’ve already spent supervising that dissertation. This is not a main concern for me. Even if I get the 75 hours which a PhD dissertation successfully submitted would add to my personal teaching account, they make little difference. Nor am I concerned about my own CV: I have already supervised three dissertations and another student is more than certain to finish her dissertation this year. My main worry is that I’m quite at a loss about what to tell this student in this crisis. I worry about making a serious mistake.

The student is question is a very capable man. When I agreed to supervise his work, he was supposed to move to Barcelona (from Italy, where he lives) in just a few months. His plans, however, changed and eventually it became clear he was to remain in Italy. We have met no more than twice a year and, obviously email is no replacement for that; as for Skype, I simply don’t use it. First two hard lessons learned: a) circumstances may change radically in the life of doctoral students; b) avoid supervision at a distance if possible. Ironically, I’m supervising two more supervisions by students who don’t live in Barcelona –one has migrated to Finland in search of work, the other lives elsewhere in Spain and simply cannot move to Barcelona to work with me. I’m not too happy, but, then, even seeing regularly PhD students who live close by is complicated. Mainly for them, as they work. Full time…

The assumption is that doctoral supervisors know what they’re doing, having been themselves doctoral students. Yes and no. I believe that I’m giving my students better practical advice than I was given about length and structure of the dissertation, where to start publishing, which conferences to attend, how to network. However, my own assumption is that doctoral students know what they’re doing and my task is simply to help them to achieve their own goals. I contribute 20% at the most, 10% ideally, hopefully just 5%. This doesn’t mean I’m not committed –it means that a PhD dissertation needs, above all, full autonomy from the student as a researcher. If you don’t have it, this may be a problem. It’s your thesis, not mine.

I find, of course, that this much needed commitment is harder to maintain when the student is writing a PhD dissertation for reasons of personal fulfilment rather than as part of a budding academic career. I was myself already employed as a junior teacher as I took my doctoral courses and wrote my dissertation. I would have written a dissertation even if employed elsewhere but I understand that outside the university walls the need to invest so much energy in such a peculiar personal project may seem odd –if not downright absurd. Partners, family and friends may sense this and become stern spirit dampeners. A doctoral degree, after all, is worth next to nothing, particularly in the Humanities. Some paradox in a world in which nobody can have serious professional aspirations without a BA or an MA.

So, as I have written to my student, I’ll be very happy if he finishes his dissertation but never at a high personal cost to him: writing a thesis has to make the prospective doctor happy and satisfied, otherwise there’s no point. The road may be hard and paved with many potholes but if suddenly you start seeing no road and, what is worse, no destination, then stop. The problem is that, to be honest, I don’t know whether my student is facing the final crisis before the 350 blank pages he needs to fill in, or coming to the end of his road.

A few days ago a lovely, brilliant undergrad girl student visited me to tell me about her plans to get a doctoral degree. When I asked her what for she replied “to reach the highest possible level in my education.” I told her that this is not what a PhD dissertation does and tried to explain that writing one is a very lonely process in which you need to be ready to face your own limits, and in which you no longer have teachers as you’re actually training to leave them behind. You just have a guide, him or herself lacking the training required to deal with your doubts. This was before the situation I have described here came about.

So, please, any future doctoral student out there: your thesis is your project, we just set up the signs to keep you safely on the road. None better than yourself to assess whether the road is worth travelling, whether you’re fully equipped to do so, whether you have a supporting team of family and friends.

And I hope, Dave, you make the right decision. I’ll support you in it no matter what you choose. It’s always been a pleasure.

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THE GENTLEMAN PLANTER, AN OXIMORON: FANNY KEMBLE’S JOURNAL OF A RESIDENCE ON A GEORGIAN PLANTATION 1838-39

Following the thread started by my reading Solomon Northup’s memoir Twelve Years a Slave (1853), prompted by Steve McQueen’s film adaptation, I came across a list of films about slavery. This included Enslavement: The True Story of Fanny Kemble (2000), an apparently mediocre TV movie. I knew about Kemble as a famous Victorian English actress but had no idea she was also the author of a key text in the history of slavery in America, on which this film is based: Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-9.

Kemble (1809-93) married one of the richest American bachelors, Pierce Butler, who retired her from the stage. She probably knew about the origins of Butler’s immense fortune. Yet, whether this was the case or not, Kemble was certainly appalled by the slaves’ situation in her husband’s rice and cotton plantations in the Sea Islands of Georgia. As anyone interested in the history of slavery knows (but I did not), Fanny’s diary is quite unusual: it offers a unique testimony by a white mistress of the black slaves’ misery –a foreign, reluctant mistress who maintains throughout an adamant abolitionist stance, confirmed by her brief but intense experience of (moderately) sordid slave life.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the journal is Kemble’s sympathy for the enslaved women, in particular the mothers. She is specifically concerned that the regime of ruthless human exploitation by which her husband’s plantation was run required mothers to return to the fields only three weeks after giving birth. Fanny is appalled by how the care of the newborn babies was left in the inappropriate hands of barely older siblings, and, above all, by the harm done to the women’s bodies with this ill-treatment. For which none other than her husband was responsible.

There’s a particularly poignant passage in which “a gang of pregnant women” petition Butler for an extra week of rest. Kemble finds herself unable “to listen to the details (…) for I am unable to command myself on such occasions, and Mr.—— seemed positively degraded in my eyes, as he stood enforcing upon these women the necessity of their fulfilling their appointed tasks.” She claims that he’d be more “honourable” if covered in the dirt of the “the coarsest manual labour” than he is in his disgusting role as master. She expresses the “hope” that her stay among his slaves “may not lessen my respect for him, but I fear it; for the details of slave holding are so unmanly, letting alone every other consideration, that I know not how anyone, with the spirit of a man, can condescend to them.”

Fanny eventually lost her love and respect for Pierce, and they separated in 1845. She went back to the stage and the couple faced a very scandalous divorce process in 1849. By the time Fanny published her diary in 1863 –to aid the cause for emancipation, in the middle of the American Civil War– Butler, an extravagant spendthrift, was already a ruined man. The sale in 1859 of his 436 slaves made it to the books of American history as the largest sale of human beings in the United States.

I’m highlighting this passage out of all the striking passages in Kemble’s memoir because she expresses here a shocking truth about the American gentleman planter that, although widely known, is hard to read straight from his wife’s pen: that he was no gentleman but, like all slave holders, “unmanly.” Apparently, Butler did not rape his female slaves but Kemble is, nonetheless, horrified that the same (gentle)man who treats with respect white ladies in society has no qualms to mistreat black women so appallingly. That white ladies were, nonetheless, by no means free citizens is proven by how Butler deprived Fanny of the custody of their two daughters when they divorced.

Perhaps the only way I can express my renewed shock at the obvious duplicity of American gentlemanliness is by asking my reader to take Austen’s Darcy and imagine him a slaveholder –as many men of his class were indeed in his day. The Brontës, a few years younger than Kemble, were, of course, closer to this unappealing reality, as we can see by Rochester’s behaviour towards his wife Bertha and the suspicion that Heathcliff has, ironically, become a gentleman by employing himself in the Liverpool slave trade.

The difference between Fanny Kemble and the southern ladies –whose slave-inspired “inelegant pronunciation” and class-bound “extremely sickly” appearance she criticises– is that Kemble chose to end her complicity with the un(gentle)manly men running the plantation system at a high personal cost. The southern ladies, in contrast, were fully (or mostly) complicit. Fanny is dismayed by hearing the languid ladies describe their men as, in her words, “idle, arrogant, ignorant, dissolute, and ferocious as that mediaeval chivalry to which they are fond of comparing themselves.”

A chivalry which was taken as a very shaky foundation for the basis of gentlemanliness on both sides of the Atlantic but that, seeing what happened in the American south, hardly masked the monstrous patriarch beneath.

How terrifying… still today.

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MY GOOGLE SCHOLAR’S PROFILE: SOBERING UP (BUT WHAT ELSE CAN I DO?)

I recently came across some online form asking for my h-index. The same site explained about the need to open a Google Scholars account, so I opened one and found that my h-index was 0. I’m so stupid I didn’t realise I should have to enter my publications manually one by one for Google to calculate my actual h-index. I have done so this morning (pre-storm… the second semester begins next week), so now I know that after 89 publications (books, chapters in books, articles in journals) and 19 years my h-index is 5 (4 since 2009), and that two of my publications are i10-index (meaning they have been cited more than 10 times). I have been cited a grand total of 45 times (24 since 2009).

Jorge E. Hirsch, a physicist, came up in 2005 with the (insert adjective here…) formula to calculate the now ubiquitous h-index: “A scientist has index h if h of his/her Np papers have at least h citations each, and the other (Np − h) papers have no more than h citations each.” In other words: the scientist with the highest h-index (1983-2002), Solomon H. Snyder, had 191 papers cited at least 191 times each, ranking h-191. My 5, as you can see, is modest to the point of embarrassment. I have decided, nonetheless, to go ahead and make my profile public. My rationale is that I have nothing to hide and if my career is mediocrity itself, then this is it. I’m so happy not to be an h-0 scholar than the rest doesn’t matter. And I’ve read that Einstein’s career would have only amounted to an h-4…

I agree with critics of the h-index that a) it’s too closely related to the scholar’s age (the older you are, the higher it can/should be); b) it works poorly for the Humanities; c) it’s been given undue importance. I’ll take it, then, with a pinch of salt. I recommend you, in any case, to open a Google Scholars account, check on your h-index, keep a stiff upper lip and move on. I’m going to do that. Deep sigh…

Something that has made me very happy is that my two books, Monstruos al Final del Milenio (2002) and Expediente X: En Honor a la Verdad (2006) are among my most cited works (the former is one of my two i10-index). Happy indeed because when I decided to publish them with a non-academic press I made a complicated decision, based on the idea that I wanted to bridge the gap between academic and non-academic audiences. It seems I did so more or less well, so task accomplished!! What I never expected is that my other i10-index is “Gothic Scholars don’t Wear Black: Gothic Studies and Gothic Subcultures”, an article I published in Gothic Studies (2002) in which I considered the problematic fit between these two Gothic-related fields. This is quite a surprise, particularly as I considered it quite an eccentric piece.

The rest tells me that whoever has quoted me, has paid more attention to the international publications, whether online or not. If I go by my h-index, publishing in Spanish collective books is no use at all for the dissemination of your work, something that I’m trying to correct in my personal case by using my website and my university’s repository to upload all I am allowed to upload. Logically, this means that a great deal of what I regard as my best productions are buried in books and journals nobody will ever read (this includes international journals, too).

I’m turning next to Academia.edu, as one of my younger colleagues has convinced me that this is the way to go. I feel increasingly that I should hire a personal community manager… Just think about this, next time I publish something I’ll have to index that item in: my personal CV, the UAB’s CV application (Ein@), my web, Google Scholar, Academia.edu and whatever else I do next (I’ve just been told about Research Gate). No, I don’t have a Twitter account yet. No, I’m not on Facebook, nor LinkedIn.

We are producing a strange academic culture which combines a very narcissistic approach (what I do matters!!!) with a harsh bibliometric approach which seems designed to demoralise even very senior scholars. An approach, that, besides, does not take into account the actual conditions of humanistic production (I’m NOT a scientist!!!), and the particular geographical areas where this is produced. Reputation used to be measured exactly by that, by reputation. Those days are gone and I wonder what else will be introduced next in this huxleyan academic world of ours, increasingly divided into alphas, betas… and, us, deltas.

Some soma, please…

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