A CALL TO MAKE ROOM FOR GENDER IN THE SPANISH UNIVERSITY: THE ‘MANIFIESTO POR LA INCLUSIÓN DE LOS ESTUDIOS FEMINISTAS, DE MUJERES Y DE GÉNERO EN LA UNIVERSIDAD’

Yesterday, I got via email news of the publication of a new manifesto, the ‘Manifiesto por la inclusión de los Estudios Feministas, de Mujeres y de Género en la Universidad’. I signed it at once, wondering whether it is a good idea to launch this kind of initiative when most academics are off email because of the Christmas break. The whole text of the manifesto is available at http://portal.uc3m.es/portal/page/portal/inst_estudios_genero/manifiesto%20universidad.pdf; you can judge it for yourself and decide whether to sign it (here: http://portal.uc3m.es/portal/page/portal/inst_estudios_genero). As happens the text seems to have been published on 5 June and I cannot explain why it has taken so long to circulate, unless this is a matter of how different academic circuits work. The promoters are academics from all over Spain specializing above all in constitutional law, among them my UAB colleague Encarna Bodelón. The group is composed of 14 women and only 1 man. No comments required.

Apparently, the manifesto is the result of a second meeting in the Basque town of Oñati (the first one took place in 2005) to assess the evolution of gender-related issues in Spanish higher education. The first problem noted is that most degrees fail to meet the standards and obligations set by Spanish legislation, in particular L.O.1/2004 of 28 December, ‘Medidas de Protección Integral contra la Violencia de Género’. This law decrees that Spanish universities have the duty to promote in all their areas training and research in gender equality (article 4.7). This is further supported by L.O.3/2007 of 22 March for the ‘Igualdad efectiva de Mujeres y Hombres’.

In 2005 the same group agreed in their first meeting to demand that the new degrees included a BA (‘grado’) in Gender Studies to train ‘equality agents’, specific MAs specialised in this area, and a variety of courses within the diverse BA degrees to raise awareness on gender issues within each discipline. Also, the modification of already existing courses or subjects as necessary. Ten years later, they say, nothing much has changed and few universities if any in Spain have fulfilled the 2005 legal mandate.

This failure to comply, the manifesto claims, or, rather, denounces has resulted in, at least, two very serious problems: there have been no significant advances on equality in Spain in the last decade and official research assessment clearly punishes those who practice Gender Studies. What follows is a call for all political parties to sign a pact that supports a pro-feminist academic policy by which the dismal situation can be corrected. The manifesto urges universities to include compulsory training in ‘gender perspectives’ in all areas, the firm establishment of Gender Studies as a respectable academic area and that the persons interested in becoming ‘equality agents’ receive university training, not just professional preparation (‘formación profesional’).

My own university has an active ‘Observatori per la igualtat’ (https://www.uab.cat/observatori-igualtat/) and offers a Minor in Gender Studies open to all degrees (http://www.uab.cat/web/estudiar/minor-d-estudis-de-genere-1340778453143.html). I myself took advantage of the establishment of this transversal Minor back in 2005 to establish an elective course, ‘Gender Studies (in English)’, which is also part of our degree in ‘English Studies’. The pity is that since then I have only managed to teach it once, last year 2014-15. We also included in our MA Advanced English Studies a Gender Studies course very confusingly called ‘Postmodernity: New Sexualities/New Textualities’, a name chosen without asking for my opinion in order to complete the historically-oriented list of subjects. I have been trying to have the name changed for the last two years with no success as the MA coordinator–a woman–does not see this as a priority.

I have written a paper on the frustration I feel as a Gender Studies specialist, “Teaching gender studies as feminist activism: still struggling for recognition”, which you may read at https://ddd.uab.cat/record/126586. This frustration branches out in many directions but three stand out: the patronizing attitude used by the persons (men and women) who think that doing Gender Studies and calling yourself a feminist is a gal’s thing and not proper academic work, as noted by the manifesto; also, the difficulties to be critical of certain aspects of feminism as this creates unwanted divisions and, finally, the limitations to which one is subjected by declaring an interest in Gender Studies–by which I mean that I can lecture and write on many other things beyond feminism and gender but this is what people mainly associate with me…

I can see many people baulking at the idea of making Gender Studies compulsory in all university degrees. In my view, students should reach us already trained in gender equality, for this type of education in citizenship should be offered in primary and secondary school (and at home). This, of course, is not the case and despite some apparent advances everyone realizes that equality is not increasing in Spain–or just very, very slowly. In practical terms I’d rather students take in the first year ‘Gender Studies’ than ‘Grans temes de la Història’, yet I would defend the idea that the corresponding course operates with an even wider perspective than the manifesto proposes–the authors make no mention, for instance, of Masculinity Studies. This sub-discipline of Gender Studies, which I have been practising for years, seems to be indispensable to reach young male students, as I can see whenever I get the chance to read with them a text from this angle (say Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). As all my students know, I hope, my approach is always anti-patriarchal and gender-inclusive, as I have been preaching for years that equality can only be reached if men liberate themselves from the weight of patriarchy on masculinity.

Apart from teaching specific subjects, one very simple thing can be done within the specific area of Literature: combining men and women authors in the reading list. My oncoming course on SF includes 5 novels, 3 by men and 2 by women, and a list of 50 short stories, 25 by men and 25 by women. I am not saying that all reading lists should include men and women in the same exact proportion, for then courses on women’s Literature would be impossible. Yet, courses covering a genre, a period, a geographical area can easily attain some kind of gender balance. And one caveat: a course focused exclusively on male authors is only justified if what is to be explored is masculinity. This semester a new teacher in my Department has taught a course on contemporary American Literature with no women writers on his list, despite addressing himself to a class almost entirely of girl students. This simply makes no sense, as the list of authors does not reflect at all the nature of the Literature he has taught. And please consider that I am not taking into account the thorny matter of how minorities should be dealt with. In the case of my own Gender Studies elective, I decided to go for variety rather than focus on the binary men/women and explore other identities conditioned by gender and sexuality: gay, lesbian but also bisexual, transgender, intergender, you name it…

Now, brace yourself. I am writing this a couple of days after it was revealed that a male carer in a nursing home near Barcelona attacked on Christmas Eve nine elderly women, beating some and raping at least four of them, including a woman above 100 years of age. This 30-year-old man, a good professional with a university degree, unleashed his inner Mr. Hyde by using a combination of drugs and alcohol. All the news articles I have read stress how he preyed on the most defenceless victims but none discusses the obvious fact that his brutal conduct is an expression of pure misogyny and, indeed, part of the widespread violence against women. And this is one of the main problems: that we need to educate people to recognize what the real problems are. As for this monster’s victims I can only say that the terror they have endured is proof that we women are not safe from violence ever in our lives, no matter how long they are.

Now, please, sign the manifesto…

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BARCELONA, CITY OF LITERATURE (ACCORDING TO UNESCO): A MANIFESTO FOR READING

Last 11 December, UNESCO officially designated Barcelona new City of Literature within the Creative Cities Network (http://cat.elpais.com/cat/2015/12/11/cultura/1449842212_437362.html). The first City of Literature was Edinburgh, awarded the title in 2004 (see their handsome website, http://www.cityofliterature.com/). 11 years later, the list extends to 20 Cities of Literature, some a bit surprising given their complicated political background: Edinburgh, Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin, Reykjavik, Norwich, Krakow, Dunedin (New Zealand), Prague, Heidelberg, Granada, Ulyanovsk (Russia), Baghdad, Tartu (Estonia), L’viv (Ukraine), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Barcelona, Nottingham, Óbidos (Portugal) and Montevideo. The idea, as you may guess, is to encourage international networking by promoting culture. Also, putting your own city on the world-wide map of culture.

Cities bid for the designation, as they bid for the Olympic Games and other titles and events. I have before me the dossier submitted by Barcelona’s Town Council, in particular by its Institut de Cultura (ICUB) (see http://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/ciutatdelaliteratura/sites/default/files/dossier_de_candidatura_es.pdf). Our first female mayor, Ada Colau, declares in her preface that “Barcelona is a city that lives literature and literature has always been part of its essence”, a statement that surely should make any teacher of literature very happy to live here…

Some of the strongest points highlighted by Barcelona’s application are that we are a city where two languages co-exist (indeed, the city is “the world’s largest centre of publishing in the Spanish language, and the capital of the Catalan language”); we celebrate yearly Sant Jordi or “the day of books and roses”; we have a variety of literary festivals (among them Kosmopolis and BCN Negra, or the crime fiction week) and book fairs; we offer plenty of courses on creative writing; we are home to a long list of writers; we boast an excellent network of 40 public libraries (half my fellow citizens have a public library card); publishing is a major economic sector…

The plan is to turn Barcelona into an even more active city as regards Literature, with a variety of new activities, including the establishment of a new literary centre for dissemination and research, housed at Vil•la Joana, the former residence of Catalan local hero writer, Jacint Verdaguer. I’m very happy to see that the dossier even mentions Eurocon (http://www.eurocon2016.org), which I’m doing my bit to help organize, as a major event on the horizon. And, yes, I aim at furthering contacts with the council in charge of implementing the City of Literature programme to see what we can do from the university.

If you’re an habitual reader of this blog, you know what’s coming next: how does the distinction conferred on my city for its active literary life agree with the lack of enthusiasm for reading I perceive in my Literature classes? I myself and all my literary colleagues, mind you, possibly all over the (Western?) world. As I read the dossier yesterday a few of my students came in for tutorials, and I asked one of them–who had followed my course with, I think, interest–what the problem is. Can you confirm my impression that most students in your class have not read the books and do not generally read? Yes, she said, no doubt. Next question: why? Her answer was that her generation has a great reluctance to doing anything out of obligation and that our reading lists feel exactly like that, like an obligation.

Obviously, we both agreed that this is a very hard problem to solve for, unless students are given the chance to choose what they want to read for class, there is no way around the practice of having the teachers impose a reading list. I did explain that we consider very carefully what students may enjoy but it just happens that some authors need to be read, otherwise you cannot claim that your literary education is complete. I don’t see Mathematics students avoiding certain class of equations because they just don’t like them. Also, and this is confirmed, my language colleagues complain that students don’t read the texts they select for them, which suggests that the problem is not Literature per se, but reading generally.

All this clashes, as you can see, very negatively with the celebration of Barcelona as a City of Literature, unless I follow the student’s argument to the end and conclude that, generally speaking, people love reading what they want, and hate reading what they need to read as students. My own solution to the problem, as a student, was to read what I had to read and then keep at hand something else to read for pleasure, yet those were other times.

The corridor conversations with my Literature colleagues always turn around the same topic: some students read plenty and enjoy it, but the majority avoid reading as much as they can. Teaching a text is fast becoming an absurdist exercise as you find yourself boring students who simply cannot follow you and, as I have already noted here, you also lose the incentive to improve your teaching methods. So, what can we do? I’m thinking of launching a manifesto and calling all my UAB literary colleagues to join me in doing something more active than simply complain among ourselves about why students don’t read. So, here’s the first draft.

A MANIFESTO FOR READING

As a student it is your duty to collaborate in your own education. No teacher can teach you anything unless you want to learn. The path to learning passes through plenty of autonomous study, for class time is limited. This means that whatever discipline you are studying, you need to read. Generally speaking, all university degrees require that students read as much as they can, no matter whether they study Sciences or Humanities. An attitude by which reading is perceived as an imposition is simply immature and in total contradiction with your own decision to give yourself a university education–it is the equivalent of an athlete refusing to train, and whoever has heard of a lazy athlete?
This need to read is even more evident in the degrees in which Literature plays a major role: Catalan, Spanish, English, French, Classical Languages and all their combinations, including minors in other languages, or in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, as we offer you in the Facultat de Filosofia i Lletres at UAB. You cannot really claim that you know a language well unless you are familiar with its artistic expression, which is what we call Literature. There is at the same time, little sense in choosing a language and Literature degree if you do not enjoy reading. This applies to literary texts but also to texts on all aspects of language.
As Literature teachers we are asking you to bear in mind that we cannot work at the required university standard unless you read the texts we lecture on. We are well aware that few students fulfil this basic requirement, which is why Literature courses are increasingly harder to teach. We base all our methodology on teacher/student classroom interaction and on close reading and this simply cannot work if students do not read. It is boring for you and frustrating for us.

As your Literature teachers, we remind you, therefore that:

*you should buy a good edition of the books you need to read. Good does not necessarily mean expensive; many respectable editions of the classics and also of contemporary texts are available for little money. If you cannot afford new books, buy them second-hand but read on paper so that you can underline and make notes. Online editions can be a useful complement but none is up to the standard of paper editions, which usually contain an introduction by the editor and explanatory notes. Spending money on books is not only a logical thing to do for students but also an investment in your own education. This is, besides, the period in your life when you should start your own personal library.

*you should read the texts we discuss in class well in advance, making notes as you do so for class discussion. Take advantage of the syllabi or ‘Guies Docents’ (published in July) and read the set books in summer. Naturally, you should take part in class discussion, and make notes of what the teacher and your classmates say for further reflection at home.

*you should check any doubts and problems with your teacher; Literature teachers are always willing to discuss books, and will give you any help you may need. We also enjoy making suggestions for further reading, so do not hesitate to ask–this is what we are here for. You are always welcome.

*you should also read literary criticism for its content and as a model for your own writing. We do not simply ask you to read Literature but to be able to produce informed criticism on it. This is why it is important that you train yourself from the first year into understanding how academic literary criticism functions. Start by reading academic articles, then books (monographs, collective volumes).

*you should visit the Humanities library regularly, and borrow books. Our library is very well stocked both as regards literary texts and literary criticism. Take advantage of its excellent collection. And make suggestions if you think certain books are missing.

*you should train yourself into finding time for reading every day. If you are an habitual reader, you know that there is always time for reading. If you are not an habitual reader, then you need to avoid wasting time at other occupations that contribute nothing to your education. As long as you are a university student, your studies are your priority and your leisure time, although very necessary, should be reduced down to a minimum. We know that many of you work but, precisely, if you work to pay for your studies, then work should not be a major obstacle to study. If it is, you need to reconsider your situation.

To sum up: students must study, and study is based on reading. Above all, we teachers need you to contribute to your own education for we cannot educate you against your will.

Merry Christmas! And congratulations to all of us, Barcelona citizens, on our designation as City of Literature.

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/

SUPERVISING DOCTORAL STUDENTS: A COMPLICATED TASK

I have so far supervised 4 doctoral dissertations, I am currently supervising 4 more and have been asked in the last month to supervise other 4 dissertations. This nice symmetry is completed by the fact that 4 students who started writing their doctoral dissertation under my supervision have eventually abandoned it. The 16 cases teach me a variety of lessons, all more or less connected with a basic situation: gone are the times when Departments were full of young persons combining full-time teaching with writing their PhD dissertations.

I wrote my own PhD dissertation between 1993 and 1996, in three academic years. The first year I taught 24 credits (12 each semester) as a full-time teacher in my third year as an ‘ayudante’, a contractual figure now extinct. The second year, I was in Scotland as a visiting PhD student with a grant from ‘La Caixa’ and so I had all the time in my hands for my research (I didn’t teach for fifteen months!). The third year, I taught my 24 credits in the first semester just by chance, not because I asked, and then I spent from February to July writing non-stop. This means that half the time of my three years I was a full-time PhD student. It also explains why my dissertation is so long.

In those years, I was by no means an exception. I cannot tell you exactly how many of us, junior members of the Department, were both full-time teachers and PhD students but I’m sure it was a handful, perhaps close to eight persons (in a Department of about 35?). Then the Government suppressed the figure of the ‘ayudante’ and the moment we lost the possibility of employing young persons full time, earning a doctoral degree became a very complicated affair. Either you got a scholarship by joining a research group (FI, FPU) or by being awarded one of our only two Department fellowships (which carry the funny name of PIF), or you hanged by the skin of your teeth onto the Department as a part-time associate teacher doings two jobs apart from your research. I don’t know about FI and FPU but PIF and are woefully underfunded, with a salary actually lower in relative terms than what I used to make as an ‘ayudante’ 20 years ago. Associates, of course, are supposed not to do research but what else can one do? How one can balance eating and researching for a PhD is itself the object of a potential PhD dissertation. (You realize, I’m sure, that the implicit Government strategy is to stop people from wanting to earn doctoral degrees…).

I had two supervisors, one in the Department and one in Scotland. Contact with them was no problem: I simply dropped in my Department supervisor’s office whenever we agreed on an appointment (or just chatted in the corridor) and I saw my Scottish supervisor regularly every two weeks for a long two-hour session. I don’t recall at all being anxious about the regularity of these meetings though my Department supervisor used to make me quite nervous by demanding that I submit written work when I was in the early stages of my research and had no clear idea where I was going. My Scottish supervisor was happy enough to see notes, and to discuss with me ideas, my reading list for the previous two weeks, passages from the secondary sources… anything I needed. He would also offer many suggestions for further reading. My third year was, in contrast, quite lonely because my Department supervisor was himself away in Scotland and those were the times before email. I was by that stage, anyway, very busy writing and needed less supervision.

All this has very little to do with my own experience of tutoring doctoral students. To begin with, making appointments is always complicated because they work full-time outside the university. I have ended up using a downtown cafeteria in Barcelona as my second office, since reaching my university often adds many complications. The meetings are never regular, nor is email communication. I have lost count of how often I have asked my doctoral students to email me once a month, no matter what they’re doing, even if it’s only to tell me ‘I have read nothing’. No way, they’re too busy. Add to this that some are not even nearby, either because originally they lived in Barcelona but then moved elsewhere or because they have never been able to move to Barcelona. That’s a lesson I have learned and I have vowed to myself not to accept students who cannot meet me regularly.

Since most doctoral students work elsewhere full-time and they need to go wherever their jobs take them this means that embarking on supervising a doctoral dissertation is now quite an adventure. With BA and MA dissertations the time limit plays in our favour: we start in November, we finish in July. Telling PhD students you are only available for three years, however, makes no sense at all as you never know when they’re going to finish. My most recent supervised PhD student took five years to complete her dissertation simply because she is overworked and had no time to do research. This would be a relative problem only if we could take in as many doctoral students as we wanted. My university, however, limits the number to six which means that you can easily miss the chance to tutor a good student because your oldest tutorees cannot make progress despite their efforts. This is why I am going to try to accept as many students as I can: because I never know when they will finish, if at all.

The 4 students who have abandoned dissertations while under my supervision have done so for different reasons. One started but soon saw she could not combine work and study. A second one started working with me while in Italy thinking he would immediately move to Barcelona but this never happened and he eventually saw no point in continuing with his work (in the fourth year…). A third one simply could not cope with the linguistic demands of writing the dissertation though this only became apparent in her third year. The fourth one came to me after not finishing her dissertation with another supervisor in four years and, as I feared, soon gave up because she needed a job. Now, here’s the other issue: we supervisors get a paltry 52 hours in our teaching account for supervising a PhD dissertation (that’s 3 ECTS or half a semestral subject) and only when the candidate passes his viva. If a candidate abandons half way through, whether this is in the first or the fourth year, we get nothing at all for our pains…

Supervising a PhD dissertation then has become a matter of trust and good faith: you try to do your best to set the student rolling, giving him/her the required conceptual and technical tools and then you meet very sporadically and do the bulk of the job when actually reading the final dissertation. This in my experience is usually very hard work, which needs plenty of editing and revision.

They once told me about a gentleman in Oviedo who was supervising 13 PhD students at the same time–in the Humanities, each with their own topic. I have heard stories of a famous supervisor in English Studies who would accept students only to order them not to bother him for three years and then contact him only with the finished dissertation. Perhaps the Oviedo gentleman uses this method, I don’t know. In my infinite stupidity I thought I could work very smoothly by accepting one student per year as the oldest of my tutorees submitted their final work. I dreamed of a regular turnover, if you get my drift, which would constantly keep me supplied with my maximum of six students. No such luck! I can easily decide how many BA and MA dissertations I want to supervise each year but with PhD dissertations, as you can see, irregularity is the rule.

On the other hand, perhaps using two hours every two weeks for each of my current three doctoral students would be right now an excessive demand on my time. Of course, if they worked in the Department we could meet as frequently as we liked and do what tutors and tutorees should do: keep the conversation going… for three years. And then move on.

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/

HACKING DOWN THE HUMANITIES: THE JAPANESE WARNING

This piece of news has taken a long time to reach my ears, which since then are ringing. The very fact that it did not make front lines in Spain (which I do check more or less daily) is proof enough of the insidious ways in which the Humanities are under attack.

To cut to the chase: on 8 June the Japanese Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura sent a letter to all national, state-sponsored universities requesting that Social Sciences and Humanities faculties were closed down. This request was accompanied with a direct threat to withdraw funding if the measure was not implemented in the academic year 2016. Even though recently the Minister declared that his instructions have been misunderstood, nonetheless 26 universities (out of 60) have already announced plans to close their corresponding faculties or to convert them, as the letter ordered, “to serve areas that better meet society’s needs”. The Minister, needless to say, was simply applying the liberal economic doctrine defended by President Shinzō Abe, popularly known as “Abenomics”.

Among many other articles, “Humanities under attack”, an opinion piece by Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University, published by the Japan Times on August 23 (quite late…), informed the rest of the world about the catastrophe threatening the survival of the Humanities in what had so far appeared to be an extremely civilized society (see http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/08/23/commentary/japan-commentary/humanities-attack/#.VmmQrl7W1Bp). Sawa complained against the long-lived interference of business interests in Japanese higher education, explaining how during World War II, “students of the natural sciences and engineering at high schools and universities were exempt from conscription and only those who were studying the humanities and social sciences were drafted into military service”. In 1960 there was a first attempt by the Government to abolish the same faculties now under attack or, alternatively, push them onto private universities. Sawa makes the far-fetched claim that only Social Sciences and Humanities students have the “superior faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, which are required of political, bureaucratic and business leaders”, which seems to be a faux pas. I agree though that we teach students to cultivate a “robust critical spirit”, indispensable in democratic societies.

A more recent article, of 6 November, by German correspondent Julian Ryall (http://www.dw.com/en/backlash-prompts-japan-to-rethink-controversial-university-policy/a-18831857), informs that the controversial policy is being reconsidered because of the vast protest coming not only from Humanities and Social Sciences academia but also even from its alleged enemies: industry (represented by the business federation Keidanren) and science (with organizations such as The Science Council of Japan). In a further document of 1 October, the Japanese Government clarified its position, or, rather, backpedalled, stressing that “The importance of versatility cultivated by liberal arts education is indeed growing in an era that calls for the autonomous ability to seek out solutions to problems without definite answers”. Unsurprisingly, Japanese academics remain wary and distrustful. With exceptions. Ryall reports the treacherous words of one Yoichi Shimada, professor of International Relations at Fukui Prefectural University. According to this gentleman, the Ministry’s main concern is “to secure jobs for graduates” since, he adds, “People who study philosophy or French literature do not easily find jobs and don’t contribute much to society. This would be beneficial to them”.

I don’t know how many Japanese university teachers will see their careers destroyed by the decisions made in these 26 universities loyal to the Ministry, but I assume this will be a considerable number. I can only sympathize and think of that popular Spanish refrain, “cuando las barbas de tu vecino veas pelar pon las tuyas a remojar” which translates more or less as “when you see mischief done to your neighbour prepare for mischief to be done to you”. So there we are. If the Japanese Government can do it, then any other Government will do it. By the way, the same person who told me about the news in Japan, an Anglo-Indian senior lecturer in London, also told me that according to new anti-Jihadist British Government policies (see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/6/contents/enacted) teachers should be monitoring students for signs of radicalization. One of her students recently asked her whether watching Edward Said on video could be taken as one of these signs. And, yes, if you Google the word ‘Jihad’ in a school computer to learn what it is about and how to be in a better position to maintain a critical stance against it, this will trigger an alarm. There are, then, many ways of killing the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

I am in this context fascinated by the contrast between the two main meanings of the word ‘liberal’: a) a believer in the freedom of the market, b) a believer in the freedom of thought. I’m vastly simplifying here a very complex issue but, essentially, the ideology started in the Enlightenment in defence of the individual has eventually lead to quite a bizarre situation by which the doctrines of economic liberalism are trying as hard as they can to eliminate intellectual liberalism for the very simply reason that liberal intellectuals are the main critics of liberal business.

So far, we, liberal thinkers, depend on the delicate balance of prestige, by which societies have willingly accepted that part of public funding pays for our jobs. As it can be seen, the point that Minister Shimomura is making on behalf of the Japanese Government is not at all that the Social Sciences and the Humanities should disappear but that they should receive no public funding. Of course, all liberal thinkers understand that they offer a public service (I certainly do) and that placing us in private universities makes absolutely no sense at all. Many liberal intellectuals have certainly developed their careers in private contexts, above all in the United States, but there is always something suspicious about a critic who makes a living off who knows what private-company interests. And needless to say, barring the access of working-class and low-middle-class students to the Humanities and the Social Sciences is simply a social crime, for they are the ones best equipped to understand the inequalities brought on by economic liberalism.

Having staked my claim in defence of my own field (and job), I will now declare that the Japanese and international protests against Shimomura’s famous letter (not even a decree by law!) ring hollow. They feel completely patronizing. Two main arguments are advanced, both built on shaky foundations: business also needs persons trained in the Humanities and the Social Sciences because business requires skills not always taught in the corresponding schools; or, society needs persons willing to put intellectual commitment before spurious business interests. Both ways we are told we don’t have a role of our own: either we become part of business or we accept that we’ll never be successful persons in society. If both business and society believed in the Humanities and in the Social Sciences then it would never be the case that “People who study philosophy or French literature do not easily find jobs”. Notice that the public university is in most countries the one and only institution willing to offer us jobs. If our university departments close, this is the end.

There was a time when I believed the university was a safe haven for us, Humanities and Social Sciences scholars, mostly (though by no means always) liberal thinkers–not any more. Little by little we are becoming like any other worker, a person whose rights are never secure and whose job can be always eliminated. Just because a Minister sends a letter. In a way this is only fair, for who are we to demand a special treatment from the appalling liberal economy that is causing so much suffering? Yet, at the same time, what’s the point of our jobs and our task if we are not encouraged and respected by the very persons who fund these? No point at all…

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/

THE GOOD STUDENT (AND WHY HAVING ONE IS SO EMBARRASSING)

I have an exceptional student in class. This is when you know that someone might pursue an academic career and quite possibly do much better than any teacher s/he’s met at university, including yourself. I have gone through that a few times and it’s beautiful, pure enjoyment. I am, however, concerned that this kind of students are now painting themselves into a corner, as the whole system seems geared towards suppressing excellence.

This good student is not the only one in class. Judging by the marks in their last exercise, I have 6 very good students in a group of 43–and his is not the best exercise. As happens, the number of students who have done very poorly in the same exercise is 7, which seems quite balanced. This, however, puzzles me very much for, essentially in this case the exercise consisted of following my instructions to produce an abstract, accompanied by a bibliography and a selection of quotations in preparation for writing their first academic paper. Naturally, all my students have received the same instructions so what makes the difference is their ability to follow them; also, their keenness (or lack thereof). The best 6 have fulfilled all the requirements, the 7 worst ones have failed to do so… twice (I allowed them to re-submit).

This makes me wonder whether the exercise itself is beginning to show signs of its unsuitability, for if only the top students can complete it, then it’s clearly above the abilities of most students. Yet, I cannot lower standards for, as I explained to my class, with the new 3+2 BA and MA degrees it is even more urgent that they learn basic academic skills in the second year–this process simply cannot be delayed. On the other hand, I’m concerned that the papers I used to mark in my first years as a teacher, so more than 20 years ago, in the same second-year course, would now do as BA dissertations. I did not have to teach my students then to search for secondary sources, they knew where to find them; now I need to explain what valid academic work is constantly. I’m also very worried by what a colleague told me: her students recently mounted a rebellion against her teaching and plainly refused to do the exercises she demanded for assessment, as they found them too difficult. As it turns out, my colleague had been using the same exercises for years with no complaints.

Back to the good student. The other good students follow my lectures with interest (mostly); they look at me as I speak, something which not all students do, nod their heads in agreement, make notes now and then and even smile in encouragement. The bad students, by the way, keep that glassy stare that makes no bones of politeness and clearly announces they’re bored, sit either rigidly or slumping, never make a note, sigh when I go on for more than five minutes in one of my usual tirades. Their attendance is spotty (I check it). The very good student attends quite regularly, takes notes (perhaps not of my lectures) but is constantly switching on and off. I don’t mean he is distracted. What I mean is that he sort of skims as I speak but lights up almost visibly when I go into deeper waters. The problem is that he tends not to acknowledge the allusions I make to names only he recognizes and possibly knows well, since being the centre of attention as a pedantic student (which he is not at all) must be a drag.

I do not connect particularly well with him. I’m used to establishing a sense of complicity with my better students, which often leads to my being later their tutor in one way or another. I have tried with this young gentleman but I simply feel too embarrassed: I know he sees through our collective mediocrity. And this is the problem I really want to discuss here.

Perhaps I am wrong to attribute this to the language barrier but I’m frustrated that we (I’m speaking of the Literature teachers, though I assume this also applies to language) cannot give our best. In a sense, this student is displaced in time, as he seems to belong in one of my 1990s classes, when my being very junior mattered less because my students were better read. Now when I am a senior teacher, when I know more than ever, my students reach me with the lowest training in culture and literature I have seen in 24 years. The result is an uncomfortable mismatch: instead of raising the level of my lectures I find myself simplifying my teaching to levels that often want to make me cry. Particularly when I notice my very good student disconnecting, which is his polite way (for he is very polite) of telling me ‘you’re not doing well’.

I’m not paranoid, believe me–I have discussed this student with another colleague and it’s funny how relieved we felt to share the same anxieties. I have had students look at me with critical eyes often but I’m very self-assertive, despite my many insecurities, and usually enjoy the challenge. With this young man, though, there is no challenge, for he puts up a mirror and I see myself as what I don’t want to be: a mediocre teacher. To compensate for that I have a very sweet student, another young man, who spends my lectures looking raptly at me, taking in every point I make, even the silly ones, as the voice of wisdom. I could do with more like him, certainly… but I wish I had many more of the other kind.

The language barrier is a problem, as I say, because it makes it hard for students to follow the texts they need to read, leaving aside their increasing displeasure with reading. The other problem, however, what makes me so self-conscious with my very good student is the diminishing understanding of what academic work is, as I have hinted. Students seem to think generally that we’re teachers, not active researchers; I make a point of telling them what I’m up to in that sense but they see us primarily as their teachers. In my first year as a student when, together with the rest of the class, I was frightened by the loud-voiced Prof. Luis Izquierdo into going at once to the library or else be branded an idiot for the rest of my studies, we got the message. Either you wise up or you’re out of the game. Now, the game is invisible for the students–except that one.

I don’t think he reads my blog, but if he does, my other concern is that he needs to be a bit more humble. I’m not saying that his constant scrutiny is not welcome, for it keeps me on my toes and this is refreshing. What I mean is that it can be self-defeating, as lacking the stimulus to do his very best, he’s just doing well–probably with more ease than effort. The difference between his exercise and the other good students’ exercises was precisely that: the other were trying harder. Also, sooner or later, a mentor is useful-whoever that is.

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