UNIVERSITY TEACHERS WHO DON’T DO RESEARCH (SO, WHAT DO THEY DO?)

A pleased colleague tells me he’s been awarded the fifth ‘sexenio’, which means that his last personal research assessment exercise was positive and that he has validated by now, before the corresponding Ministry’s agency, 30 years of research. He tells me that this fifth exercise is valid for the rest of his professional life and so he need not worry about the sixth ‘sexenio’ (which is also the maximum allowed).

He is particularly happy that under the current Ministry’s regulations he’ll only have to teach 16 ECTS until he retires. I understand his happiness. The little detail missing here is that he’s already 60. He still has 10 years ahead before retirement at 70 and, so, the chance to obtain that last ‘sexenio’. But, well, excuse me, 60 seems respectable enough anyway for active researchers like him to be awarded some kind of leeway after 30 years of service…

I think of myself trudging on, with at least 9 years ahead in the best case scenario, before capturing the golden snitch of that fifth ‘sexenio’, or else. Else meaning that instead of my current 16 ECTS I’ll be ‘punished’ if I fail to validate my research with 24, or at worst 32 ECTS. My colleague and I discuss after his happy news how little enticing the system is now. The perspective of my reaching the nice age of 60 burdened by 32 ECTS despite all my research sinks me. Just don’t think, as we all know, that doing research is the same as having research officially validated.

Deep sigh…

Searching for information about that fabled fifth ‘sexenio’, however, I come across a piece of news that both puzzles and irritates me. Angers me. The headline, from ABC (http://www.abc.es/sociedad/20140505/abci-educacion-universidades-rectores-201405041703.html 06/05/2014), claims that ‘Más de la mitad de los profesores de universidad apenas investiga’ which is a peculiar way of saying that ‘Less than half of the Spanish university teachers do research’. Empty bottle, full bottle. The sub-headline is a bit trickier, for it clarifies that ‘El 57% del personal docente tiene uno o ningún sexenio reconocido.’ I wonder whether this is misinformation… How many of those with one ‘sexenio’ are still active researchers? If not, why they did abandon research? Can you really compare someone who does have a ‘sexenio’ with someone who’s never cared or bothered to publish?

Let me gather some figures from the article. According to a 2010 report by the Conferencia de Rectores de las Universidades Españolas (CRUE), Spain occupies position 22 worlwide by scientific documents by million inhabitants, 16 by number of citations. Not that horrific. But now consider more figures, connected with that 57’6%: 37’6% of Spanish university teachers have no ‘sexenio’, 20% has one. Now for the remaining 42’4%: 18’4% has two. If my calculator is right 24% have three or more ‘sexenios’. My five-sexenio colleague must be in the top 5%… Yet… Only 70% of all full professors, 40% of all lecturers do research (how the rest got their tenure mystifies me; maybe it’s a matter of ‘when’).

If you follow me, this means that the minority, the 42’4% who has more than two ‘sexenios’, is producing the documents that result in that 22nd position. I know that my argumentation is quite murky but so is the reality of the Spanish university. Between 42’4% and 60’4% care or have care at some point for validating their research (that’s not compulsory, by the way, it’s voluntary). Let me wonder about the remaining 37’6%.

I know quite a few cases in which research is being done but the Ministry has not validated it for its own reasons (lack of money being one, surely). So, let’s suppose that the actual figure of university teachers who do no research at all is 20%. One in five. These are teachers who, let’s recall this, are employed the same number of hours I am and earn the same salary (minus the research complements, a grand total of 120 euros a month each). If all teachers are supposed to teach, do research and contribute to admin tasks, what do those who only teach do in their daily routine? I wonder.

By contract we’re supposed to work 37,5 hours a week, with a teaching workload of 6 to 8 hours for teachers employed to teach 24 ECTS. Teaching involves 15 weeks per semester. If I manage to do my teaching, my admin tasks and my research by working, say, a 45-hour-week (evening and weekend reading aside), what do the colleagues who only teach do? If, for me, say, teaching involves half my workload, 22 hours a week, what do they do with the spare 15’5 hours? Suppose they read though, of course, reading is not the same as doing research, not even in the Humanities, as we’re supposed to write and publish. But, here’s the creepy thought, suppose they do nothing professionally relevant in that time.

Now complete the sentences:
*if that 20% put their 15’5 hours a week to the service of research…
*if validating regularly your own research was compulsory and not voluntary, teachers who do no research…
*if the Ministry’s validation system was more supportive of researchers…
And:
*if ‘sexenios’ are used to punish rather than reward, the effect…

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ATTACKING ACADEMESE IN THE HUMANITIES: THE HARD SF VIEW (ON GREG EGAN’S TERANESIA)

Reading the SF novel Teranesia (1999) by Australian novelist Greg Egan, I’m surprised to find an anti-academese critique embedded in a key subplot.

The protagonist Prabir, a teenager, and his younger sister Madhusree lose their parents in the first segment of the book. The couple, Indian scientists doing research on a mysterious butterfly in a remote Indonesian island, are killed in terrible, war-related circumstances. The children survive to be eventually fostered by a cousin, Amita, who works as a ‘Diana Studies’ lecturer in Canada. Her ex-partner, Keith, whom she keeps around in case the children need a “male narrative” is also an academic specialising in ‘X-Files Theory’… Egan, whose domain is hard science-fiction, has a BA in Mathematics, according to Wikipedia, and used to make a living as a computer scientist before becoming an author. He has very little sympathy for the current theory-based Humanities discourse. Or maybe this is a case of seeing the Emperor’s clothes for what they are. Only he misses the point that there seems to be more than one Emperor.

Amita and Keith are good people, well meaning by the kids who are so unexpectedly dropped on their laps. It’s just that they speak academese all the time, the kind of jargon you do find in academic publications on Feminism, Literary Theory, Cultural Studies, etc. too often. Egan gets it right, to my great amusement, but quite humourlessly, forgetting that the liberal humanities crowd is doing much to get SF out of the ghetto. Including hard SF. I’m not going to defend that kind of molasses-thick prose whose meaning very often collapses the moment you attempt translation –not only into another language but into simpler terms. I’ll let you judge whether Egan goes too far.

One day brilliant Madushree returns from school, she’s just 9. What have you learned today?, Amita asks. Her lesson: since in the 1960s and 1970s people’s fight in the streets and the institutions for actual power –both in feminist and civil rights movements– was beginning to succeed, the concerned Government had to seek a solution to curb it down. In the 1980s the CIA, Madushree explains, “hired some really clever linguists to invent a secret weapon: an incredibly complicated way of talking about politics that didn’t actually make any sense, but which spread through all the universities in the world, because it sounded so impressive.”

The new babblers eventually hijacked street activism, and delegitimized its language, so that instead of shouting “‘How about upholding the universal principles you claim to believe in?’ the people in the social justice movements ended up saying things like ‘My truth narrative is in competition with your truth narrative!’” Logically, those in power could then dismiss their claims as unintelligible. “And the secret weapon,” Egan has his little puppet conclude, “lived on in the universities for years and years, because everyone who’d played a part in the conspiracy was too embarrassed to admit what they’d done.”

I agree with Egan that academic prose in the Humanities has been colonised by unnecessary, distorting jargon that seems designed to obscure rather than illuminate meaning. Obviously, there is no conspiracy, although I’m well aware that an inability to spout certain types of jargon is a serious obstacle to publication in many major journals. Whenever I hear someone confidently delivering a paper in a conference written in said jargon, I marvel at how it is done. It often feels like a foreign language embedded in English which I will never master. I do doubt that, apart from papers, though, people speak like this in real life, at least I’ve never heard anyone use the language Amita uses with the children in Teranesia. Language from which Prabir feels called to protect his sister to the point of claiming a very early emancipation from Amita, which even jeopardises his own education.

Madushree, who chooses to pursue an education as a scientist, plays in the late stages of Tiranesia a crucial role, though still an undergrad. Here’s the joke on Egan: these final chapters of his novel (too hurried, not that well written) reveal ultimately the inability of current scientific language to connect with the average reader. I trusted that the medical bio-babble his characters were spouting made sense in a scientific context, though some reviewers pointed that was not the case. The particular problem revealed by Egan’s dialogue, I’ll insist, is that hard SF highlights the enormous distance between scientists and non-scientists in our current culture. As everyone knows, of course, who is aware of the disputes in the field of SF between the hard and soft options.

Egan, of course, would tell you that unlike Amita and Keith he is using accurate language and that for him a spade is a spade. I can even hear Amita and Keith celebrating the complexity and richness of Egan’s scientific mentality, and even defending the idea that they’re contributing to creating a scientific vocabulary for the Humanities (as if criticism needs that). I just feel frustrated that while he sees that the Humanities’ Emperor may be naked, he does not see –quite stubbornly– that the Sciences’ Emperor is, if not naked, at least wearing very strange clothes.

I wonder how Egan and Amita would communicate if left alone for coffee. And if anyone listening in would understand a single word.

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GIVING ADVICE ON ACADEMIC CAREERS: AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK

In the last month I have given advice to three students who’d like to pursue an academic career and, to be honest, I didn’t know what to tell them. The easiest part is describing the mechanics of doctoral programmes and the accreditation system. The hardest part is assessing for them their chances to ever get a job as a university teacher. Slim, really slim.

I myself came up with this crazy idea that I wanted to be a university teacher of Literature at 17, in my last year in secondary school. My family are working class and I knew from a very early age that a) I didn’t want to work in a factory, b) I didn’t want to work in an office. Being a teenager myself, and not liking teenagers that much (nor younger children) but having a vocation to teach, I realised the university had to be my choice.

Also, the person I most admired then was my Spanish Literature teacher, Sara Freijido Fidalgo, a formidable woman. I was in such awe of her wisdom that I even failed an exam with her, the only time I’ve failed a Literature exercise in my life. Retrospectively, I wonder why someone as brilliant as Dr. Freijido (I think she was a doctor, I’m not sure) had not been kept by the University of Barcelona, where she’d been an associate teacher, rumours indicated. Add to this the mysterious words that my friend Eva Ceano pronounced when I announced to her my decision to be like this other Sara but in a university context (and teaching English, not Spanish Literature): ‘You know they’re a mafia, right?’ No, I didn’t (Eva had the middle-class background, not I) but her warning has helped to keep me on my toes. Since then.

Mafia, no, not quite. Feudal system (that’s another label often heard) no, not quite. What is true is that, as I discovered in my own case, university teachers are also talent scouts, always bearing in mind certain talented students for whenever a job comes up. In my own case (sorry to sound so smug), I did get a call, but then I had to compete hard for the position that had opened. I continued competing hard with others for the following 11 years, until I got tenure –endogamy, yeah, sure… Not for me.

When I responded enthusiastically to that early call, the person who made it poured a little cold water over my hot head by warning me that the pay was low, less than I was making as an English teacher in a language school. Who cared? I was in… Nobody warned about what was coming to my life, which often felt like the worst nightmare, but I would not have listened anyway. That’s the problem with vocations: you don’t listen.

So when I meet students as keen as I was on an academic career and I paint to them the whole black panorama, I still see that look of resistance in their eyes –I’m going to try, anyway, I don’t care what you say. When I tried myself, there were full time jobs for beginners without doctoral degrees because the Socialist Government was investing much money on public education and the university was soaking it up. Today, 23 years later, the full time jobs are gone and nobody knows how we’re supposed to train the new generation of teachers. According to a recent report by the Tribunal de Cuentas, a major problem is that the although the Spanish university has too many teachers, it keeps on hiring staff and even offering tenure. This totally mystifies me, as it is by no means what I have seen in more than two decades in my own Department. We have always had too few teachers.

Actually, the situation is getting worse all the time. Just last week, we were told that the vacancies left by retired or deceased teachers will simply disappear in a new ‘clean-slate’ policy. We counted on these vacancies (six in our Department) to consolidate the aspiring tenurees with accreditations who’ve been around for more than ten years, as no new positions (as mine was) are being created. I’m well aware that other Departments are overstaffed but I’m more and more certain that this is a case of ‘justos-por-pecadores.’

I’ll explain, then, in case someone else is interested, that whereas I could produce my doctoral dissertation in three years while I was employed full time as a teaching assistant by UAB, now aspiring academics are on their own. From the beginning of the MA to post-doc level universities offer practically no help. I’ve seen recently a very brilliant student, with close links to the research group I belong to, be denied all grants – he’s migrating to Holland. Clearly, they’re cropping us off at the bottom, and at the top. I very often feel I’m the last of the Mohicans.

I guess that those with the stamina which the challenge requires will find ways to train on their own for an academic career and then come knocking on our doors in ten years’ time. Necessarily, some position will then come up, unless the plan is to wipe out the entire Spanish university. A fast ageing teaching establishment makes very little sense in a fast changing world. When I mentioned there were plans to perhaps extend our retirement age to 75 (it’s 70 currently) one of my male colleagues expressed his hope that the authorities would take into account weakened prostates…

There are days when I feel not only privilege but also guilty when I think about the future of the younger academics, even though I’m trying to do my best to help them. The only thing I can say is good luck, don’t give up, fight the fight. We do need you.

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FANTASIZING ALTERNATIVE FATHER FIGURES: THE WAY, WAY BACK

Just three posts ago I wrote about reviewing in websites like Amazon or IMBD. Today I’m opening this post with my eyebrows raised because the IMDB reviews I’ve just been reading for a film I enjoyed last night (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash’s The Way, Way Back, 2013) seem to describe ten different films. The average rating for the film is 7’4. For me it’s an 8. For 7605 voters this is a 10, for 629 this is a 1 (IMDB does not allow 0s). How can I recommended it in view of this? How can anyone recommend anything, I wonder?

I’m taking then an oblique angle on the film to say: Potterheads, if you care to see a successful Muggle version of the Harry-Sirius relationship, this is it. For this a story about a teen boy, Duncan, who finds someone who cares, Owen. And what I love about Owen, and possibly what any Potterhead loves about Sirius, is that neither has the obligation to care. Yet they do.

Let me explain. Most teen pics focus on 16-year-olds discovering how to empower themselves in relation to their parents and peers. Duncan is, in contrast, totally disempowered. He’s just 14, that uncomfortable age in which he cannot yet refuse going on a summer holiday with his mum, her obnoxious new boyfriend and his odious teen daughter. Raised by a divorced mother too scared, as she confesses, to face life alone, and distant from a father who does not care for him, Duncan needs badly a reliable man in his life. Trent, the boyfriend, is simply hateful –a Dursley if I’ve seen one. At the film’s start he asks Duncan how he’d rate himself on a scale from 1 to 10. The boy, confused and upset, answers 6. Trent (based on a stepfather of one of the film directors) replies that for him Duncan’s just a 3. What kind of man, later Duncan wonders, would ask a boy a question like that?

As I’ve been arguing for years, the main topic of US cinema is not romantic love but the father-son bond. Fun or tragic, Leia and Han Solo, Amidala and Annakin are not the centre of the story –the centre is Darth Vader’s revelation to Luke Skywalker that he’s Luke’s father. Whether close or absent, fathers are mostly inadequate, as films written by men have been complaining for about three decades. Fight Club (both novel and film) has that devastating dialogue in which Tyler Durden and his alter ego (or viceversa) come to the conclusion, after discussing how useless their absent fathers are, that “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Indeed no. The answer is an (alternative) father figure.

As fantasy father figures go, Owen is great. He’s, I think, what Sirius could have been without the long years in prison, the bitterness. Even though Owen is the embodiment of irresponsibility when it comes to his own life and job (he manages a water park), he acts very responsibly by Duncan. He takes the boy under his wing, gives him a job and embarks him on a programme aimed at raising his self-esteem, dispelling his overwhelming shyness. It works reasonably well given the short span Duncan spends (secretly) under Owen’s tutelage. Harry would have been so happy to have Sirius help him this way.

Funnily, neither the film nor the reviewers note how complicated navigating the matter of sexuality is here. A spectator does complain that the film is sexually too sanitized, another one that Duncan’s mother is too careless about the company his son keeps. The boy simply does not tell his mother where he’s working and who for, and this seems right for, surely, relationships between boys and adult men are so contaminated by the sad reality of abuse that it’s hard to imagine how the fine friendship that develops in the film could happen in real life.

The Way, Way Back is a very simple tale in comparison to Harry Potter, and there’s absolutely no need for Owen to sacrifice himself at all as Sirius does. What the film highlights for me is how necessary the intervention of well-meaning adults is for young people (and I also include girls) beyond the family circle. Yet, if the intervention of adults entitled to help, such as teachers, is difficult enough, imagine how impossible to digest is the presence of someone like Owen –who helps Duncan just because he feels like doing it.

You may undermine all this by arguing that in reality Owen would seek some satisfaction, whether sexual or emotional, but, well, I’m not discussing reality, I’m discussing fantasy, for this is a fantasy no doubt. What the directors and screen playwrights are showing is wishful thinking, but as it always happens with wishful thinking what matters is the absence, the lack it is built on.

Food for thought, there in Hollywood and here.

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DUBBING: THE IGNORED ACTORS

When I included the film adaptation of Harry Potter as a topic for my course I intended to consider how the movies betray or enhance the text –yes, the old-fashioned fidelity criterion. Also, I wanted to examine the very British cast. However, I ended transforming the two planned lectures into far more active sessions on, first, translation (with the help of Ariadna García Turón, working Harry Potter for her BA dissertation) and, second, dubbing.

A friend suggested that I contact Masumi Mutsuda, the actor who dubbed Harry into Catalan. Although a bit disoriented by his name (his dad is Japanese, his mum Spanish) I did so and he, very generously, allowed himself to be interviewed not only on Harry-related matters but on the much wider issue of dubbing. It was, for all of us, a great lesson on how culture works. Also, the best possible ending for the course.

Masumi’s answers allowed us to understand not only how the whole process of dubbing a film works, starting with casting, but also how invisible this practice is. When I asked which scene I should show as a sample of his work, he chose one in Deathly Hallows, part 1, when Harry, Hermione and Ron –much stressed and on the run from Voldemort– quarrel. Ron then leaves. You should see the surprised faces of my American and British students, hearing the trio they know so well speak in a totally unknown language… We had to explain to them matters as peculiar such as the fact that several famous Hollywood actors share the same Spanish or Catalan voice. And this is odd. Yet, we take it for granted.

Dubbing was introduced by Hollywood studios as soon as sound made it into films (1927, The Jazz Singer). In the Babel tower that Europe is this resulted in a split in the 1930s between countries who opted for subtitling and those, like Spain, which chose dubbing. The high illiteracy rate of spectators made reading subtitles impractical. I refer to the times of the Spanish Republic (1931-6). Franco’s regime, imitating Hitler and Mussolini, passed a law in 1941 banning subtitles in any language spoken in Spain and making dubbing compulsory, albeit only in Spanish Castilian. Subtitles were gradually allowed from the 1950s onwards (in Castilian, for art-house films). Dubbing into the other languages, however, only re-emerged in the 1980s with the new regional media. Dallas made TV3 very popular.

Masumi Mutsuda argued that, for the spectator, the most reasonable practice should be to see in the original version the films whose original language the spectator understands and, then, consume dubbed versions for the rest. This sounds very sensible. Yet, I put a stop to this in my own practice when I saw a Korean thriller (I forget the title) in which a gang of Chinese criminals and a gang of Korean villains met to discuss business –they spoke English to each other but their native language among themselves. Now imagine all this dubbed into Spanish… Ironically, it seems Masumi dubbed the scene!!

Children, who cannot really read fast-moving subtitles proficiently until at least twelve (my guess), are quite another matter. I don’t know how they manage in, say, Finland, when they show Disney films to kids who don’t even know how to read, but in that context the matter of dubbing makes sense. Actually, Masumi and my own students were at the centre of a fascinating, still on-going war between the Generalitat and the Hollywood distributors for dubbing into Catalan.

I chronicled that in an article you can find in my web. Basically, Warner Bros. declined to dub the first Harry Potter film (Philosopher’s Stone, 2001) into Catalan, despite having obtained already a subsidy to do so from the Catalan Government, Generalitat. 50,000 angry parents of the 200,000 children who’d read the book in Catalan (as many as children who’d read it in Spanish in Catalonia) started a furious campaign… that led Warner Bros. to apologise and to offer a few subtitled copies (useless…). They agreed to dub all subsequent Harry Potter films into Catalan. Now: my students were among these 200,000 children, the campaigners were their own parents or their peers, and Masumi was cast to be Harry from the second film onwards –he did dub the first one, too, for its TV3 release. He knew about the conflict, my students did not or had forgotten.

My students moved onto the original version of the books and films as soon as they could, around age 13, and often with great difficulties. Considering that most started reading Harry Potter aged between 7 and 10, you can see how great their dependence was on the translations of the books (and how nonchalantly these were produced!!) and on dubbing –in the language of their choice. Dubbing even affected the translation in the Catalan case and it many others it seems. The (very questionable) translator Laura Escorihuela was replaced after book four when she refused to give Warner Bros. for free the right to use her translation as the basis of dubbing for the first film. What a story…

Masumi tells me that in Japan dubbing actors (or voice actors, the term he uses) are big stars with specialised magazines, fans, etc. Here, even though their contribution is so crucial for our access to foreign culture and their quality amazingly high, they’re anonymous. He himself, though a professional making a living off his trade, runs a small start-up company with some friends on the side. Just in case work turns slack.

I believe that film critics are very much to blame for this state of affairs. I hate it when they praise the work of a particular actor despite having seen a dubbed version of the film in question (when they even mispronounce the names of actors or characters that is obvious). If they got into the habit of seeing both versions and praising the talent of the voice actors, things would be quite different. The pretence that voice actors contribute nothing and are just a transparent medium for the original actor to shine should be dropped urgently.

Thanks Masumi!! I’ll do my best to teach this to anyone who’ll listen.

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