LITERATURE TEACHERS AND LITERARY PRODUCTION: WHEN A MERIT IS NOT A MERIT

Back when I was a doctoral student and computers where starting to be the sophisticated tools they are now, I asked my MA dissertation supervisor whether she would contemplate the idea of my submitting a novel for my PhD dissertation. I was thinking of producing something hypertextual because I had then read that William Faulkner wanted to have his masterpiece The Sound and the Fury (1929) printed in inks of different colours, depending on whose internal monologue we read. Fancy that, I thought, it would be wonderful to produce a text that benefitted from all the digital advances and that would go much, much further than the two-tone fantasy Faulkner entertained.

Understandably, Faulkner’s publisher talked him out of what would have been a high-cost operation and today we’re still stuck with boring black-on-white books; hypertexts have not really taken off, either, I’m not sure why. My own supervisor initially encouraged me, even though I had never written fiction at all, but finally decided no tribunal in Spain would be ready for the experiment. This was 1993, before anyone had heard of creative writing here, although the famous programme at the University of East Anglia had been established by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson back in 1970. “The UK’s first PhD in Creative and Critical Writing followed in 1987”, the website of UEA proudly claims, whereas “Creative Writing at undergraduate level has been taught informally since the 1960s and formally since 1995”.

No, I have never got around to writing either a publishable short story or a novel, which now and then (like today) worries me. The nagging question at the back of my head is whether a university Literature teacher should be able to produce Literature in the same way, say, a Chemistry teacher must be able to produce suitable experiments leadings to advances in his/her chosen field. The consensual answer is a rotund no, as we, Lit teachers, are in the business of producing literary criticism and not Literature.

This comforts me except on the days when I feel green with envy considering the pile of money our Murcia ex-colleague, María Dueñas, has made out of her very limited literary talent (she used to teach Language, I’m told). On other days, I feel completely floored down by the case of my neighbour in the Department upstairs (Spanish), Carme Riera, who is not only a prestige writer but also a full professor. (I wonder how it feels to sit as a guest through a conference about your work, as she has done–can you criticise the papers presented as an academic, too?). The question is that, as another well-published colleague from the upstairs Department, David Roas, tells me, publishing Literature is not regarded as a merit by the academic authorities that be. It is very odd. David confirmed to me he did not know whether his own CV should include his short story collections and his novels…

As happens, two of our new MA students have also tentatively asked whether they can submit fiction for their MA dissertation, a tricky question since we don’t run a Creative Writing programme. We have not really, then, progressed much from the days when I had the idea of shaping my PhD dissertation as a novel.

If I had never written fiction, where did the idea for the never-written thesis come from? I am thinking of John Scalzi, the rising US SF writer, who wrote his first novel, Agent to the Stars (2005), as he candidly explains in the acknowledgements, simply to learn how it was done. That’s it. It is not the best possible strategy but I find Scalzi’s modest approach quite refreshing and I wish many more writers followed his lead, instead of claiming they were possessed by the need to tell a story or make it into the history of Literature.

In my own case, I can always say that I simply don’t know whether I can write a novel, as I have never had the time to try and, besides, a novel requires investing precious time that I need for my academic career (for the proper items that count). Some days I think I will take one year and see what comes out, but I know it will not happen. Either you feel the urge to fabulate from the beginning of adulthood or you do not and, besides, Literature teachers tend to be too self-conscious about the possibility of writing a mediocre piece. I wonder nonetheless what my imaginary novel would be about, though one thing I do know: it would NOT deal with a university Literature teacher. No way.

Translation, by the way, doesn’t count either as an academic merit in this country, no matter whether what you produce is a fine translation of, say, Paradise Lost. We used to have a teacher in the Department, Prof. Josep Maria Jaumà, whose main academic task consisted of translating poetry and I’m sorry to say this was never acknowledged as a serious pursuit by either Ministry or university; translating poetry seemed to be classed, rather, as a highly eccentric hobby. I believe he never tried to apply for a personal research assessment exercise on the basis of his translated poems but I do know of someone else who did try and was flatly rebuked with a hint more or less covert that this was an attempt at cheating. Research is research and it consists in our case of producing literary criticism, as I said. Of course, if you are a writing scientist, as my good friend Carme Torras is, things are even worse as colleagues tend to think that Literature is a waste of time in a scientist’s career. Prizes or no prizes, as it is her case.

An infinite variety of writers are, of course, also teachers, and viceversa, at least in the Anglophone area. In civilized countries they even have this intriguing figure, the visiting writer, supposed to draw his/her inspiration from staying at a particular university (mine would surely inspire some Ballardian entropic tales…). I learned to distrust the idea a bit when Lucía Etxebarría was appointed visiting writer by the University of Aberdeen, but, well, I’ll take this as proof that all systems have imperfections. And, yes, Creative Writing abounds as a degree-awarding discipline at all levels (BA, MA, PhD), though I’ll quote Stephen King again when he says in On Writing that a programme of this kind can help if you’re talented but cannot supply deficiencies if the talent is missing. Also, I’m told that many of the students in Creative Writing programmes tend to be writers who do not read, which partly explains the limited impact they (the programmes) have on truly outstanding Literature. But I ramble…

I have no answer then to the question of why the production of literary texts is not considered a merit in the academic career of a Literature teacher, beyond the suspicion that at heart Literature is not taken to be a serious affair. At another level, when I complained that I was fed up with having to pay the texts I teach out of my own pocket, a Language teacher told me, quite bemused, that he did not see why the university should pay for novels. That’s a good one.

As for students’ demand that literary production can be part of an MA called Advanced English Studies, the truth is that, even recalling my own naïve wish to submit a novel as a PhD dissertation, I don’t quite see it. It is not just because we are not Creative Writing teachers but rather the impression that we should have to learn from scratch how to judge the work submitted. There is quite a tight consensus on what constitutes good academic work, but would we agree on the merits of a novelette or a novel? Not without important changes in our training.

And, yes, it would have been foolish of me to attempt to write a novel as a doctoral student. Or maybe I missed then the chance to be a writer/teacher? I wonder, to finish, who will be up to the task of supervising the proposed MA dissertations if we greenlight them…

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LOST IN TRANSLATION?: THE ODD EXPERIENCE OF TRANSLATING MYSELF

Last semester I decided that it would be a good idea to go over my many published articles and see if I could produce at least one volume, hopefully two, out of them. The idea, let me clarify, was that said volumes would be in Spanish and mostly depend on translations of articles originally in English. I proceeded next to contacting a couple of local publishers who, um, ignored me–story of my life. A bit sheepishly, I decided to read as critically as possible my material and start translating myself in order to offer these two publishers (or others) the finished product in Spanish. In the meantime, I contacted six of the Anglo-American publishing houses I had published my work with, the ones everyone knows about, not quite asking for permission but notifying that a) I intended to upload my translated work onto my university’s repository and b) possibly use it for a book in Spanish.

I’ll start with the publishers’ answers. One has not answered yet, after two months… Another one suggested that since the copyright over any translation was also theirs they would charge me a small fee for the re-use of my work in another language. I was mystified, not to say enraged. For some odd reason this publisher believed I intended to use my article only with MA students and not place it online and so, I was told, the fee would depend on how many students would have access to my translation. I decided to let the article be–we’re speaking about a 15-year-old piece… Oh, my. Other three publishers gave me permission (?) to translate and upload my work online but not to republish it in book form; ergo, whenever the possibility of benefits raises its head, I lose my right to do as I please with my work (for which, remember, I have never got a cent, always the case for articles in collective volumes). The sixth publisher, actually the editor of a journal, gave me his permission and his blessings. I have reached the conclusion that it’ll be simpler to start a new book from scratch, perhaps follow the research line in the journal article.

Now for the translations. I decided that since I had to read my work critically I could in the process start discarding what I didn’t want to be re-published in a book. What better way, I thought, to make sure that my work is still passable than translate it? I have always worried that if you publish in English abroad nobody knows you in Spain and so, occasionally, I have published the same piece in English and Spanish. Recently, I wrote a bilingual Catalan-English conference paper aided by Google Translate and finding it has improved vastly, I determined to give other translations a try. I have translated eight articles originally in English this summer (whose copyright is firmly in my hands) and have just finished today the translation of the journal article that may finally result in a book. I have about half a dozen more pieces awaiting translation and plan to go bilingual as often as I can in the future.

Yes, as everyone knows I’m a little bit crazy and use my time in ways that other scholars might think wasteful but, apart from the matter of the low impact that English Studies specialists who publish regularly in English have in our native Spain, I worry that I no longer know how to write in Spanish (or Catalan). I have written books and articles in my own two languages but I am so little in touch with them that I am beginning to be seriously concerned. I mean that although I do have conversations all the time in my dear native languages, I read very little in them; most films I watch are in English (or French, even Japanese), and I watch practically no local TV. Translation, then, seems like a good way to kill not two, but several birds with the same stone.

Google Translate works, as I say, much better than I expected, and than I recalled from previous exasperating experiences–to the point that I’m wondering whether professional translators ease their workload by using it. Please, don’t think it provides word-perfect translation; rather, I use Google’s version as a draft which then I adapt to my own style. I must say, though, that I have been often surprised when a whole paragraph has required no changes at all and when Google has provided a version that somehow improves the Spanish or Catalan I would have produced myself. So you see…

At one point I got totally paranoid that Google would demand a fee on all my translations (perhaps depending on downloads from my university’s repository?) and I contacted the legal services of CEDRO (I’m a member) and of my university. Both appeared to be quite baffled by my query. CEDRO answered back a bit mischievously that neither animals nor machines can be considered authors and that in their view Google Translate is a machine, hence not a person who can be legally considered author or translator. The UAB services surely thought I was mad and on the verge of considering my computer a favourite pet, for they truly could not understand what I was up to. They gave me eventually a similar answer and, so, I concluded that I owe Google Translate no fees, as I owe Microsoft no fees for using Word to write books. I hope. Having said that, and since I know that Google Translate keeps tabs of all you translate, I’m putting my work in it a paragraph at a time. Just to confuse the Google guys.

After nine self-translations, or ten if I count the conference paper, I feel that one linguistic aim has been accomplished, as I have had to think long and hard about how to express myself in Spanish correctly. I find my translated sentences too short, too choppy, syntactically very un-Spanish and I have tried again and again with little conviction to use subordination instead of a stop or a colon. Quite often Google’s bare version reads terrible, not because it is incorrect but because it underlines the weaknesses of my English, or simply because what sounds fine in one language is appalling in another (or cannot be expressed). I have found a little comfort in the translation of the quotations originally in English by native authors–many have given me a very hard time and have resulted in a few emperor-with-no-clothes revelations when translated. Translating, I find, works very well to test whether what you are writing is sheer nonsense, no matter how cool it sounds in the other language. In the end, then, the translations are much better works than the original texts and also a peculiar self-examination of how I write and think, painful at times.

Last year I had half a dozen Chinese students in an MA class who could not communicate with me in Spanish at all but handed in papers with a Spanish closer to Cervantes than to Pérez Reverte and indeed to what any local student usually manages. We, the teachers, soon realized the papers were not plagiarised but Google-translated (does this word exist?). This is a very tricky situation as the MA they had signed up for did not have specific language requirements of the kind an MA in Spanish (philology) has. My own students in English Studies should stand warned, then, that the use of Google Translate is not welcome–they need to write their exercises in English in their own words; automatic translation is, as I now know very well, easy to detect.

The doubt eating me up is whether you can truly say ‘this is my translation’ if you have used Google Translate. I think you can since you have the final word yet, oddly, I feel a bit uncomfortable. I have been thinking for a while of producing a companion to my book of translated short stories Siete relatos góticos (http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116808) but I suddenly see no point. Or, to be honest, I feel too lazy to undertake very hard work that can be done much more easily. I firmly believe that using Google Translate for this would be cheating, which is not the case for my own academic work. Yet, again, I wonder how many translations of literary works are being published using this extremely useful tool, or shortcut.

Any professional translator out there?

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

HEADACHE: BEGINNING A NEW ACADEMIC YEAR

My tension headache is back after the summer break and only one week into teaching. I feel as if someone is pulling my head into my neck as the typical head band pressure mounts on my forehead. Painkillers are no use, as I know, only trying to relax, something hard to do when one is, as I am, a control freak that needs tidiness and perfect order around. And right now, my teaching is a bit of a mess. Why? The usual reasons with some added twists.

Our semesters run for 18 weeks, of which 15 correspond to teaching. Someone decided to advance one week the end of the first semester to 31st January. Then they counted backwards and the beginning of week 1 materialized on 9 September. Until 6 years ago, semesters had 13 teaching weeks, and we would start the course between 25th September and October 1st. This year, our classes started earlier than primary and secondary school (14th September), with the added problem that the previous course had not even ended, as we have all those MA dissertations to judge until September 18th–an overlap, which, interestingly, does not show on the official calendar. And what baffles me is that the second semester seems to run for about 20 weeks, as we start teaching on 8th February (only one week between semesters) and assess the BA dissertations in early July. All in all, this leaves us with two weeks for research and preparing new courses in summer. For we do have a right to enjoying a four-week holiday like all other workers, don’t we?

Three sessions into my course, then, when I am about to start discussing the first book (the corresponding exam is on October 14) I find myself facing this situation:
*students don’t have said book, nor the handbook on which they need to take a quiz on the same day because even though the syllabi are published in early July they don’t check them nor order their books in advance
*I opened our virtual classroom on 10th August with a welcome message, the complete programme week-by-week and a warning to get the books; they checked this information 24 hours before the beginning of the course, and, as I could show them in class, some of them had not even entered our virtual classroom yesterday
*then, during the first weeks of teaching, we see a stream of Erasmus visiting students move from classroom to classroom deciding what to sign up for. Even supposing they make up their mind soon enough, they only have access to virtual classrooms once they register, which might be as late as the end of September. Logically, they start emailing teachers asking for the Syllabus–yes, the same one available online since July…
*Even more puzzlingly bureaucratic red tape prevents our returned Erasmus students from registering in July, as they should, because their official student records are not updated in time. Why? No idea–it seems that all European universities have very lazy admin workers, or at least, this is the impression I get.

So, basically, although officially there are 39 students in my Victorian Literature class, I may end with 55 (as usual), God knows when… Deep sigh… My class list shows different signatures for every of the three initial sessions.

Then, as usual, I have been given yet another terrible classroom. I teach at 15:00, it is still summer, our walls are made of concrete and keep all the heat in. A kind colleague worried last Monday that I was going to catch a cold seeing my light summer dress but the truth is that I ended up my lecture drenched in sweat. Both blinds were broken, one could not be raised, the other could not be lowered and, thus, let the sunshine stream into the middle of the classroom. This annoyed me royally, as I had asked the Facultat specifically to see to the blinds over the summer–a very kind, concerned janitor explained to me the blinds had been revised but had already broken down, on the very first day. Too old. Since the screen was also broken and I needed to use PowerPoint I sought refuge in another classroom which this embarrassed janitor found for me. I am, yes, occupying a classroom as a teacher-squatter. Yesterday my students, poor things, took pity on me when they saw that the projector was malfunctioning and cutting the left side of my PowerPoint presentation; also that there was no eraser for the whiteboard. By the way, I took a member of the Dean’s team to visit my official classroom (I have asked to be placed elsewhere) and she was appalled by the smell. Oh, yes, the smell.

All these minor disasters would be stuff for stand-up-comedy if it were not for the fact that my university boasts of being an international excellence campus. Of course, as you can imagine, I am very well-known in my Facultat for my constant complaining. I have been told that our institution is poor and this is why we cannot have better classrooms and equipment. I do know we are poor, but, then, how can we also be a campus of excellence? Is it, in short, too much for a teacher to ask that students come prepared to class on the first day, that registration is completed during the first week at the latest and that classrooms are nice and well-equipped?

Am I a nagging witch? I might be but, then, if I don’t upload my Syllabus in July, set up the virtual classroom at some point in summer, and get all ready before my course begins, then I am a bad teacher. This is what annoys me: I am fulfilling my side of the deal but I am the only one and there is no way one can produce good teaching without the collaboration of the students and the institution. Hey, I have just let go a very deep sigh… literally.

Please, don’t commiserate–this is not really about my personal situation but about the distance between reality and the ideal in my university and possibly in many other big, underfunded universities all over the world. I have been writing more or less the same post here at the beginning of each semester and not much has changed (or very little).

As far as I know, pedagogical treatises do not contemplate the factors I stress here, at least I have never come across advice on how to deal with an ugly space and the mysteries of registration. Somehow, the supposition is that teaching operates on an smooth basis and that you need not concern yourself about the state of the equipment or whether you’ll be too hot or too cold in class (will sweat stains show should not be part of a teacher’s worries). Yes, this is part of our teaching and I find that even the best-prepared lecture can collapse if the conditions are not what they should be.

Nagging witch…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AGGRESSIVE PEER REVIEWING: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

This morning I have sent the message you can read below to the editor of an A-list journal which has rejected an article I have submitted. This is an article on which I have put long hours, much effort and much personal commitment, not to say passion. I am aware, of course, that my article can be improved with good peer reviewing, which has always been the case whenever I have been asked to reconsider aspects of my work in the past. Mostly.

Now, when I finally received an answer from the editor, after five long months of waiting, I found attached to it two reviews (whatever happened to the three-review rule?): one very tepidly suggesting that perhaps if I change most of my article there is a tiny little chance that it might be published; the other a very negative review full of unspeakable bile against my work and my person. Both reviews, by the way, coincided in censoring my feminist approach and absolutely denied my right to produce literary criticism in which I judge a woman writer an androphobe (how many times have I seen a male writer called a misogynist???).

My mouth still dries and my heart skips a beat when I re-read the reviews, and this is three weeks after receiving them. I feel hurt, unfairly wounded, and depressed as now I have to go through the harrowing process of finding a new home for a piece written specifically to meet the demands of this journal. I think all you know what I am talking about.

I must clarify that, to my surprise, the editor wrote to me that although there were serious doubts that I could manage a proper rewrite, they were willing to see a second version of my article. Here follows my reply:

Dear Editor,

Sorry it has taken me a while to answer your message. It’s been hard for me to make a decision about how to answer.

I must say that I am mystified by your decision about my article, as I fail to see how you think I can be encouraged to proceed and write a second version in view of the aggressive, negative tone of the reviews, particularly the negative one recommending rejection of my article.

I am actually dismayed to see that a publication with such a good reputation encourages this kind of appalling reviewing in which a peer feels entitled to insulting authors. I have done my best and I know that the article I submitted is a good one–all work can be improved, and I have no doubt that mine can also benefit from good reviewing. I am by no means a novice and I have passed a number of peer reviews in my career but I am no longer willing to put up with patronizing attitudes and abuse.

I will certainly discourage any colleagues and doctoral students from submitting work to your publication, and I recommend that you never employ again the services of reviewer number 1. What a sad example of academic lack of empathy, and of sheer arrogance.

Yours,
Sara Martín

I am not naming the journal because the point I am making is that too many journals and editors are encouraging inacceptable peer reviewing. And this is growing because, ashamed of rejection, we do not discuss this growing trend with our colleagues. I have produced myself a good number of peer reviews and I have judged appallingly bad work: this is why I know that not needing to add your name to a blind peer review, you feel tempted to be nasty and cruel. I have vowed to myself, however, that I will always try to be at least courteous to the author for this person, despite what I believe, might be certainly doing his/her best.

As we all know, the problem with abusive peer review is that our egos are extremely fragile and in a work atmosphere which is geared towards constant competition, one failure signifies a general personal failure. If this article I produced, which I personally think is among my best, if not the best one, has been rejected in this harsh way, how have I managed to publish anything at all? Am I a fraud? Reading a novel by Neal Stephenson these days I came across a conversation between two women in very high work positions as scientists discussing the ‘impostor syndrome’, a phrase I didn’t know. This refers to the constant anxiety that you are not good enough at what you do and that sooner or later the cover will be blown and you will be exposed as an impostor, as a fraud. Each negative review feels like that: a blowing up of the carefully built cover.

Leaving my wounded pride aside, but with a still dry mouth, I want to make a call here for a better style in peer reviewing and, if possible, to put an end to the inquisitorial practice of blind peer reviewing. It is interesting to note that when we submit our CVs for assessment to ANECA (or similar agencies), we do know the names of the persons judging us and we can even access their CVs. I am well aware that ANECA has produced a high number of aggressive reviewing, and I have even heard of a lawsuit in this regard. Yet, at least, the principle of anonymity is questioned. I think we should sign our peer reviews and we should opt for more transparent systems. I have recently participated in a few peer reviewing exercises on Academia.edu in which some colleagues have submitted work in progress and asked for opinions. The tone was what it should be among peers who respect each other and the discussion enriching.

By the way, one of the articles discussed was an impressive piece by Rosalind Gill, a very well-known British scholar, “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia”. In it she discusses the same unprofessional conduct I am discussing here, noting that 20 years ago reviews were not as “hostile and dismissive”. When, she wonders, “did it become acceptable to write of a colleague’s work ‘this is self-indulgent crap’ or ‘put this manuscript in a drawer and don’t ever bother to come back to it’–both comments I have read in the last year on colleagues’ work. What are the psychosocial processes that produce this kind of practice?” In her view, all this negativity is the product of the “the peculiarly toxic conditions of neoliberal academia” (see my post about it). Instead of lashing out at our oppressors we lash out at each other under cover of blind peer reviewing, that’s her thesis. She might well be right.

I know that it is not the habitual practice to question negative peer reviewing and that messages like the one I have sent can make you a few enemies, particularly in local contexts (this was an international journal, by the way, published in the USA). Yet, a while ago a colleague whom I respect profoundly and who is extremely proficient as an academic, told me she had started emailing back in the tone I have used in my message whenever she got a negative review. No, it’s not a good idea to do that if you are a post-grad student still in the process of hardening your skin against rejection. Yet, there comes a time when enough is enough and after twenty years in the publishing circuit I am just not willing to put up with gratuitous abuse. I’ll insist: I am willing to accept constructive, positive criticism but never again abuse.

And if you must reject my work a ‘No, thank you’ will do.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

I (DON’T) REMEMBER WHEN…: FORGETTING THE PRE-INTERNET PAST

This week I took a guided tour of the Biblioteca Nacional de Catalunya (http://www.bnc.cat/), a superb example of Catalan civic gothic which houses a truly impressive collection of 4,000,000 documents (it is the Catalan copyright library). This was organized as part of a conference on science, fiction and science-fiction I have attended these days, which means I was surrounded during this visit mostly by scientists and engineers, colleagues very much aware of how the history of techno-science has evolved…

Eventually, we reached the area that houses the old card library catalogue, inactive since the mid-1990s when the catalogue was moved online. I realise that the phrase ‘card library catalogue’ possibly will bring no immediate image to the minds of the generations born in the 1990s–do Google it. A scientist colleague suddenly declared he could not recall at all having used the cards, even though he knew he must have done so, as he submitted his dissertation in pre-internet times. So did I. And yes, I recall using cards and navigating my way into the available bibliography at great pains and expense. In contrast, I don’t recall how we managed to communicate before e-mail. Odd.

So, here’s a little techno-academic chronology, hoping colleagues will help me to complete it. A key aspect is this: my generation (born 1960s) has gone through a dramatic technological change as applied to academic work which has no parallel for the current students’ generation, born in the 1990s. You’ll see…

Checking the few papers I keep from my secondary school days, I notice that they were handwritten up to my final year 1983-4. I inherited a clunky typewriter with which I produced my C.O.U. (pre-university) work, hating it all the way as I had to tippex out my many mistakes and even repeat whole pages. My mum, who had done secretarial work in her time as a paid employee, and could type with all the fingers in her hands–still today, I can only manage a two-finger typing style–helped me one stressful evening to meet a deadline I could not have managed on my own. Typewriters were, in a way, recycled into computers in the 1980s. I went on typing my papers until 1987-88 but I must have used afterwards a programme incompatible with early Microsoft’s Word (was it Corel’s WordPerfect?) because I do not have the files. Word files started materializing coinciding with the beginning of my doctoral studies in 1991.

There was no internet in Spain, then, throughout the years of my doctoral studies, except for small pockets of pioneering users in technological universities. I got my first laptop, an awesome Toshiba, back in 1994-5 when I spent a year in Scotland–the screen was black and white and I had no internet connection. I don’t recall anyone using it in Stirling University and we doctoral students, definitely, had no e-mail address. I still keep the letters that family and friends sent me. These, yes, are the last personal letters to have ever reached me and I cannot begin to say how sorry I am that letter-writing is dead. Facebook and Twitter can by no means replace that, though e-mail may have done so for a while.

I submitted my doctoral dissertation in 1996, which is also the year (I think) when I got my first official university e-mail address (it might be 1997, rather). No internet access yet. General talk about the internet started in Spain in 1994 but monopolistic Telefónica provided the first commercial services as late as 1996: Infovía, which lasted to 1999 and Infovía Plus (1998-9). These internet connection services, like expensive lawyers, billed clients (using modems!) by the hour. They were so costly that one of the main incentives for me to join the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya in 1998 (founded in 1994) was that the contract included free internet access (of course… but not for long).

Customer pressure mounted and by November 2000 the first flat rate ADSL service was commercialized (it was legislated by the Spanish Parliament in 1999), finally charging by month regardless of the amount of hours of actual connection rather than by time spent surfing the net. Still, the new flat rate was too expensive for most Spanish homes and further campaigning was needed to reduce it, which finally happened in 2002 (Telefónica was privatized in 1999, so this must have coincided with the liberalization of the communications market in Spain under José María Aznar’s Government).

Although I am not sure whether this is reliable data, I made a note here in another post saying that internet access was made available in classrooms only in 2006-7, not even 10 years ago. I really cannot recall when I started using databases like MLA or websites that now seem fundamental to me, like IMDB. The web 2.0 revolution launched in 2004/5 still makes me nervous, however. I have, I think, adapted well to resources like Academia.edu, or the Dipòsit Digital de Documentació of my university and, of course, I have been publishing this blog since 2010 and have my own website since, possibly, 2012. Yet, I have no Facebook account and Twitter overwhelms me. No Instagram, either. And, um, I use my cellphone mainly… as a phone.

This summer I have been re-reading and even translating some of my oldest papers and I realise that their modest list of bibliography has nothing to do with my inability to find sources but with how the demand for long bibliographies only started after the uploading online of the main bibliographical resources. MLA is very imprecise when it comes to informing about the exact date when this happened in the case of their International Bibliography, simply noting it was the mid-1990s. The database indexes now items back to the 1880s, as in April 2003, the JSTOR’s language and literature collection was added. The print version was finally discontinued in September 2009. As we all know, 30-page papers including 50 to 75 citations are now common when in my time as a doctoral student 6 would do for a course paper. As I have already mentioned here how my MA dissertation (submitted in 1993) has an enormous bibliography because I was trying to prove my proficiency as a research–the bibliography that took me months to complete can now be completed in one morning.

Now, if you were born from 1996 onwards in Spain this means that you have known no other world than the current one, dominated by the internet. Perhaps from this perspective it is easier to understand the addiction to Wikipedia of the oldies who had to make do with library cards…

I think that my scientist colleague had forgotten how to use a card library catalogue because we are a little bit embarrassed as a generation. Recently, I had to explain to my 14-year-old nephew what a cassette player is–remember we are the ‘compilation tape’ generation, best embodied by Nick Hornby’s Rob Fleming in his novel High Fidelity. We got rid of the cassette tapes, then the VHS tapes, now DVD is going out pushed by BlueRay. I still keep in my closet a, um, vintage telephone with a rotating disk instead of buttons for the numbers.

Can we be this Jurassic?? Early cellphones are, frankly, pathetic but they are a first sign of a revolution happening. Catalogue cards, in contrast, are a memento of a world that lived long but died in just about five years. This is, I think, why we have blocked our memories. It must be similar to what the generation that passed from horse carriages to cars felt back in the early 20th century.

So, let’s recall… unless we forget.

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