PATOLOG脥AS DE LA REALIDAD VIRTUAL BY TERESA L脫PEZ-PELLISA: A REVIEW

Patolog铆as de la realidad virtual: Cibercultura y ciencia ficci贸n (2015, Fondo de Cultura Econ贸mica) by Teresa L贸pez-Pellisa is a necessary book. As Naief Yehya writes in the Prologue, 鈥淐ada vez es m谩s claro que en nuestro tiempo las relaciones sentimentales con los dispositivos tecnol贸gicos materiales o immateriales han dejado de ser una extra帽a perversi贸n para volverse la nueva normalidad鈥 (12). I鈥檓 reproducing these words here on the day when I鈥檓 meeting novelist and robotics engineer Carme Torras to start work on the English translation of her novel La mutaci贸 sentimental, an excellent SF novel which I have often mentioned here. La mutaci贸 deals, precisely, with this 鈥榥ew normality鈥 and warns us against the absurd sentimental attachment that we鈥檙e developing for, in this case, robots. Carme Torras鈥檚 novel is set in a near future when robots will be everybody鈥檚 domestic companions although the malaise diagnosed in it is by no means fantastic neither futuristic. Sherry Turkle, as I have also commented here, has analyzed brilliantly the strange bonds growing between children and elderly people and their robotic pets and how impossible it is to turn these bonds into something less irrational.

Teresa L贸pez-Pellisa diagnoses in her book five disorders concerning our relationship with cyberculture: 鈥渆squizofrenia nominal鈥, 鈥渕et谩stasis de los simulacros鈥, 鈥渆l s铆ndrome del cuerpo fantasma鈥, 鈥渕isticismo agudo鈥 and 鈥渆l s铆ndrome de Pandora鈥. Before these ailments are described in detail she launches into quite a long digression about the confusing way in which we use the terminology associated with the digital domain. Following the nomenclature developed by Antonio Rodr铆guez de las Heras, she proposes that we correct the misuse of 鈥榲irtual reality鈥. She asks us to distinguish between 鈥渆spacio virtual鈥, 鈥渆spacio digital鈥 and 鈥渆spacio real鈥. 鈥楻eal space鈥 is more or less self-explanatory 鈥撯榤ore or less鈥 as the author herself realizes that all kinds of philosophical questions (and the Matrix trilogy鈥) must be left aside to accept that there is indeed a 鈥榥atural鈥 space which we tread daily. In contrast, the concepts of 鈥渧irtual space鈥 and 鈥渄igital space鈥 require some radical reconfiguration of our vocabulary, for de las Heras and L贸pez-Pellisa claim that virtual space is, basically, the product of our imaginative capacities and cognitive system lodged in our brain, whereas digital space is a specific kind of virtual space generated by computers. She also asks us to refine the way we use the very concept of the digital space, distinguishing between cyberspace (i.e. digital space maintained online) and other types of digital space, not necessarily online. This reconceptualization is certainly appealing as it reminds us that our brain is a potent generator of virtual domains, both when we鈥檙e awake and, most particularly I would add, when we sleep. Yet, after three decades of using 鈥榲irtual reality鈥 to actually mean 鈥榙igital space鈥 it is unlikely that the vocabulary can be corrected in the short or the long term. Likewise, unless I am wrong, few digital spaces are off-line in this voraciously interconnective online world for which no digital device is off-limits.

The first section of the volume offers not only a (re)definition of virtual reality along the lines I have mentioned but also an extensive genealogy, which invites us to consider the predecessors of the 20th century technologies leading to the computer and the digital space. Beginning with Plato鈥檚 cave, L贸pez-Pellisa includes in her historical overview the invention of pictorial perspective, the diverse automata, and the many visual spectacles developed in the 19th century, including cinema. Her survey of the 20th century runs from Vannevar Bush鈥檚 Memex machine (1945) 鈥搕he PC鈥檚 greatest ancestor鈥 to augmented reality, passing through William Gibson鈥檚 Neuromancer, the SF classic that made the words 鈥榗yberpunk鈥 and 鈥榗yberspace鈥 popular all over the world in the 1980s. The impression the reader gets reading this well-informed segment is that all the names, dates and data that L贸pez-Pellisa contributes should be part of our general culture. They鈥檙e not. Alexander Graham Bell or Guglielmo Marconi are household names but Vannevar Bush is not 鈥搈uch less Jaron Lanier, to whom we owe the very concept of 鈥榲irtual reality鈥.

At the beginning of the second part of the volume, which describes the five pathologies previously named, L贸pez-Pellisa declares unambiguously that she considers virtual reality a sick patient, though by no means a terminal one. It is her purpose, she states, to classify the diverse ailments and to make the reader aware of their existence rather than offer or demand a 鈥榗ure鈥.

鈥楽emantic schizophrenia鈥, the first syndrome analyzed, refers to the imprecise, ambiguous way in which we use the vocabulary connected with computers. L贸pez-Pellisa expands in this segment on the basic warning against the misuse of the computer-related semantic field of the volume鈥檚 first part, albeit also in other directions. Thus, she refers to 鈥楧on Quijote鈥檚 syndrome鈥 (her own label) as the condition preventing the compulsive visitor to the diverse digital spaces from disconnecting. She does not mean that individuals no longer recognize the difference between reality and fantasy but that they choose digital virtuality as a refuge from reality 鈥搘hich offers incidentally an interesting re-reading of Alonso Quijano鈥檚 madness. The author also gently reminds us that 鈥榲irtual reality鈥 does exist, if only as software in very real computers without which it would not survive.

The second syndrome, or ailment, diagnosed is the 鈥榤etastasis of the simulacra鈥, a certainly unnerving terminology used to name the condition of those fictional texts which not only offer 鈥渄istintos niveles de virtualizaci贸n al generar diversos entornos virtuales en el texto, sino que adem谩s nos proponen mundos artificiales digitales en el marco del espacio virtual del texto literario, con realidades virtuales que configuran el discurso metadiag茅tico en el texto鈥 (105). The main characters, whether they are the protagonists of a story by Bioy Casares or Neo in Matrix, are disconcerted by the discovery that reality is unstable and entering metastasis with a cannibalistic alternative virtual domain. The list of examples that L贸pez-Pellisa explores is quite impressive and has the great virtue of mixing Spanish-language and anglophone texts, with examples from other languages, which is not that usual. In the case of this syndrome the author warns that although we are very far from being console cowboys needing a daily fix of cyberspace surfing, like Case in Neuromancer, there鈥檚 no need to fetishize Reality, with a capital R.

The 鈥榩hantom body syndrome鈥 criticizes the radical transhuman aspiration to disconnect body and mind, supported by their claim that the organic human body can be replaced by computer hardware and also that the mind is akin to software. Following lines of thought that transhumanists call 鈥榖ioconservative鈥 but that those concerned prefer to 鈥榤oderate posthumanism鈥, L贸pez-Pellisa accepts our cyborg nature 鈥揳lready proclaimed by Donna Haraway in 1985: 鈥淪omos transhumanos ciborgianos y ciudadanos de un futuro en el que la convivencia entre lo natural y lo artificial estar谩 tan normalizada que dejaremos de emplear estos t茅rminos como algo dicot贸mico鈥 (137). She is, however, extremely critical of the radical transhumanist (or extropian) assault on the body: 鈥淢e resisto ante la afirmaci贸n de que el cuerpo est谩 obsoleto, ya que supondr铆a asumir la propia obsolescencia del cuerpo humano y aceptar que si el cuerpo desaparece, nos extinguiremos鈥 (165). The fourth syndrome, 鈥榓cute mysticism鈥 connects with the third one, as it merges the disembodied ideal of radical transhumanism with nebulous notions of what constitutes the soul and with a selfish longing for immortality. L贸pez-Pellisa does not hesitate to call this cultural disorder dangerously irrational and, hence, as damaging as a virus.

Finally, the section devoted to the 鈥楶andora syndrome鈥 is, no doubt, the best one in the volume. Here the author鈥檚 own voice is most clearly heard for 鈥揳nd this is really the only major objection to be made鈥 in the rest of the book her argumentation is overwhelmed by a constant barrage of citations. This is habitual in PhD dissertations and it is indeed the case that Patolog铆as de la realidad virtual is derived from L贸pez-Pellisa鈥檚 own thesis. Yet, the heavy weight of the quotations is also to be blamed on the Spanish academic tradition, which still mistrusts the argumentative essay and in which authority is built on the basis of humbly accepting one鈥檚 low position in the hierarchy of the many predecessors.

In this segment, in contrast, the author uses her predecessors in the field to reinforce a strong feminist voice, which is very critical of men鈥檚 fantasies of female exploitation, centred on the figure of the artificial woman. The originality of her approach is that she rejects Galatea to focus on Pandora, for whereas Pygmalion lives happily with his statue turned into a compliant flesh-and-blood wife by no other than Venus, the male protagonists of the stories analyzed in this segment come to a bitter end when they try to control their rebellious Pandoras. The gamut runs from the classic tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, 鈥淭he Sandman鈥 (1817) to Craig Gillespie鈥檚 film Lars and the Real Girl (2007) among many other examples focusing on ginoids, 鈥渕aquinif茅minas鈥 and virtual women. A controversial point which L贸pez-Pellisa raises is that even though all these stories present dehumanized women, they actually reflect men鈥檚 dehumanization and inability to deal with actual human peers. Misogyny, in short, backlashes to destroy its defenders.

To sum up, then, this is an absolutely recommended volume which contains in just 280 pages plenty of food for thought. Of a very necessary kind.

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CLASS IN THE CLASSROOM: RE-STARTING THE CONVERSATION

A couple of days after publishing my previous post, I continued the conversation about the low level of students鈥 participation in class with the colleagues who started it. This was, as usual, in the middle of the corridor and, taking advantage of the sudden emergence from her office of our emeritus professor I asked her what the situation was like in the 70s, when she started teaching.

This is the same professor who implanted the teaching methodology we use in our Literature classes, based on close reading and a (supposedly) lively interaction between teacher and students. Did students participate actively in class when you were a junior teacher?, I asked her. By no means, she answered vehemently: only when she prompted them and because groups were very small, under 10 students, and no one could escape her attention. She recalled fondly a class of mature students at the Universitat de Barcelona, composed mainly of women who, it seems, read avidly and were very keen on class participation. From what I gathered this was the only time throughout her long career in which the ideal matched the actual performance of students (my Harry Potter course鈥). To what, then, do you attribute current falling standards?, I asked. Her answer was 鈥榗lass鈥.

She elaborated: our students at UAB come mostly from a working-class background and, besides, from the geographical area surrounding Barcelona, which is by no means as cosmopolitan (I add) as the city itself. The emeritus professor explained that English language and Literature (or our former 鈥楩ilolog铆a Inglesa鈥) used to be a middle-class degree, which totally coincides with my first impressions as an aspiring university student back in the early 1980s. The first students of this 鈥楲icenciatura鈥 I had ever seen were, believe it or not, participants in Chicho Ib谩帽ez Serrador鈥檚 extremely popular TV contest Un, dos, tres鈥 (season 2, 1976-78). They were, definitely, middle-class and very exotic birds to boot, individuals who could speak English in a backward Spain where the illiteracy rate was still too high. I recall from my first visit to UAB, in 1983, the many well-dressed students who got off at Sarri脿 from a train still divided in second and third class carriages, a distinction kept until 1991. As a working-class child attending a public secondary school placed in the middle-class neighbourhood of Sant Gervasi and with students from all ranks and areas, from blue-collar El Carmel to posh Sarri脿, I was quite confused about class. I naively believed that education was the road to a middle-class life and that just by taking that train to UAB I would be one of the same kind with the students I had seen.

When my colleague and myself reminded this professor that we鈥檙e both originally working-class, she insisted that things are nonetheless different in working-class families, with less access to books and in which conversation is limited. Of course, she forgot about public libraries. I can鈥檛 remember when I got my first library card, it must have been in 1976, aged 13, a time when in Barcelona a foundation run by a bank, La Caixa, maintained the local library service (my public primary school did have a library鈥 off limits to us, children). The Barcelona libraries are now run by a public institution, la Diputaci贸, and children get library cards much earlier 鈥搕he beautiful public library in my neighbourhood boasts indeed an excellent children鈥檚 section.

I do remember, however, feeling deep chagrin when my favourite teacher, Sara Freijido, described in class with a condescending smile (sneer?) the kind of books that could be found in a working-class home: a few illustrated volumes about the wonders of the world and volumes composed by abridged biographies published by Reader鈥檚 Digest, a handful of best-selling novels purchased most likely from C铆rculo de Lectores, an encyclopaedia paid in monthly instalments. Exactly that. She neglected to mention the bolsilibros or novelas de kiosco, those cheap novelettes written by Spanish authors using anglophone pennames which started my education in genre fiction. I blushed, mightily mortified, hearing my teacher expose my family to public opprobrium, or so it felt, though she clearly confused possessing books with reading books. After all, my middle-class peers in secondary school, who had access to richer home libraries, were not more active readers than I; those who read (and who kindly passed me their books) belonged to the more bohemian segment. And I mean by this one girl.

Many of my class background and generation were the first ones in our families to attend university. I would say even to dream of attending university. Our teachers played in this a major role by steering surprised, indifferent or reluctant working-class families to making the effort of educating the strange children in their midst, children who took it for granted that if you had good grades, the university was were you should be. I don鈥檛 know what percentage we amounted to, nor do we have reliable information about the social background to which our current students belong (do all middle-class children attend university??). My impression is that the upper and upper-middle classes are attending private universities either in Spain or abroad, with the Spanish public universities attracting mostly low-middle and working-class students. My own university, I grant this, might have a much higher percentage of working-class students than the Universitat de Barcelona given, precisely, their geographical provenance, as the emeritus professor highlighted. Still, we have no hard data and are quite in the dark about all this.

When I discussed this matter of the social background with other colleagues quite like me, they were quite offended, seeing themselves as examples that the working classes include many individuals of high academic ambition. They also made a point of noting that the middle-class children in our upwardly mobile families and in more traditional families are not distinguishing themselves academically and that the number of readers is fast declining in all classes. I often remind my classes that whereas many aristocrats were key participants in culture of the past centuries (think Sir Phillip Sydney or Lord Byron) now it鈥檚 hard to see any very rich person producing culture 鈥搕hey just seem interested in purchasing it (or in sponsoring it in the best-case scenario). But just bear with me and let me propose for the sake of argumentation that our emeritus professor is right and that the falling standards are the result of opening up university education to the working classes.

I鈥檓 mystified by her impression that conversation is more limited in working-class families. I confess that one of the main enticements that a university education offered to me as an 18-year-old was the chance to hold 鈥榖etter鈥 conversations, meaning more fulfilling intellectually. This fantasy was fuelled by countless pre-1980s novels and films which seemed to promise that the grass was greener on the other social side; yet, conversation, as we know, is fast disappearing from the novel and almost gone in films (and TV) and, as Sherry Turkle argues, it鈥檚 also vanishing from our daily lives under the impact of the social networks. As Dani Mateo joked yesterday on El Informal, the Twitter generation cannot speak further than 140 characters, which quite limits dialogue.

Do middle- and upper-class families have 鈥榖etter鈥 conversations? Is, in short, intellectual exchange and intellectual curiosity stronger in more affluent families? I should say this is not the case at all. Furthermore, I actually make the upper and middle-classes responsible for the falling standards in our universities, on the grounds that if they had kept the conversation going on at the same pace as when they were alone in the Spanish university classrooms, the rest would have joined in. One can only feel spurred onto proving him or herself when their social betters (excuse me!) pose a challenge. In a society in which the upper and middle-classes have abjured the task of being active cultural leaders, conversation stagnates. Even worse, it starts dealing with the Kardashians (and I don鈥檛 mean from a Cultural Studies point of view). This could also be a case of the conversation stopping in mid-sentence when us, the working-class interlopers, tried to join in back in the 1980s, and moving elsewhere. Or perhaps it just stopped for good when being a person of culture started being a synonym of being boring and, excuse the Americanism, unpopular.

One of my (middle-class) classmates in the first year used to carry a copy of Ulysses under her arm at all times, which certainly sounds extreme as a show of academic commitment. Funny to think I didn鈥檛 find her ridiculous. I felt, rather, awed that she had the spunk to advertise herself in this way and sheepish that I had not read the book. Perhaps, poor thing, she was just looking for deep, intellectual conversation鈥 without realizing she was scaring people away. Or perhaps her Ulysses was intended to be a gauntlet to slap her classmates into a literary duel that would put them in their right, proper place. What I wonder is: where has her type gone? Who would today come to class ready to challenge their peers in this in-your-face way?

Who could re-start the conversation?鈥

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/

LOSING THE BATTLE: THE VICTORY OF THE LECTURE OVER THE SEMINAR

Once, while still a second-year undergrad, I took a year-long course on 18th and 19th century Spanish fiction during which I never met the teacher face to face. No wonder I have forgotten her name. She was a brilliant lecturer and I recall fondly many of the books she lectured on, a selection which included some hard reading, such as Friar Benito Feij贸o鈥檚 Cartas Eruditas. I passed the corresponding final exam but, as I say, I never interacted with this teacher nor with any of my peers in class, as she never addressed us directly nor did she ask for our thoughts and opinions. I did go through her extensive reading list because I鈥檓 the kind of reader that reads even the information on cereal boxes. I can鈥檛 say, however, whether my classmates read any of the texts or simply swallowed our abundant class notes to regurgitate them back to our teacher on exam day. Yes, she was brilliant, but was she a teacher? Not in my view鈥

There was another teacher whose lectures, the rumours suggested, hadn鈥檛 changed in years. A kind, anonymous student had photocopied his or her class notes and these circulated among us, the new students, freely. We simply took said photocopies to class to underline the main points as the teacher lectured on鈥搕he notes were practically verbatim and we were amazed to see that she hadn鈥檛 altered a single word for years, jokes included. This teacher eventually discovered the famous photocopies and, I鈥檓 told, published her own lecture notes as a book. If there was little point in attending her classes knowing how reliable the photocopied notes were, just imagine what the handbook must have done to students鈥 interest in spending time listening to this teacher. My point being that classroom time must be used for interaction between teacher and students, for students can always read at home the corresponding handbook.

The Department of English at the Universitat Aut貌noma de Barcelona, where I have spent my academic life since 1986, first as a student then as a teacher, simply does not believe in lecturing and it never has. My class notes as a student did not reflect what my teachers lectured on but what I found interesting as they read and commented on the texts with us (partly their ideas, partly my own); I did have pages and pages of notes but these came from my autonomous, independent reading of the set texts and of the background texts (handbooks or other secondary sources). And I was satisfied with that. After going through the courses offered by the two teachers I have already mentioned, I found the interactive approach frankly refreshing; I spent the first semester at UAB marvelling that teachers actually admitted questions in class and welcomed students into their offices for even more questions.

Of course there were and there are lectures but they constitute just a small part of our teaching practice, perhaps around 20% or 25% at the most. I myself don鈥檛 keep a formal set of notes for each course, but, rather, a class diary where I jot down the basic arguments for each single session. And if there is something I love about teaching Literature and Culture this is how open and flexible it can be. For instance: I started my class yesterday teaching my students the word 鈥榩ropioception鈥 (a 1890s word meaning the individual鈥檚 ability to connect with his or her own body, which can be impaired by neurological disease). I had learned this word literally on my way to class, as I read on the train Oliver Sacks鈥 best-selling The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. It turned out that 鈥榩ropioception鈥 explains wonderfully Richard Morgan鈥檚 SF novel Altered Carbon, which I started teaching yesterday. The protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, is used to switching from body to body, as in his world individual identity resides in a tiny device, the cortical stack, which records personality and which can be easily transferred to a new 鈥榮leeve鈥. Kovacs has, in short, a very high propioceptive ability to connect with his new sleeves. There you are: I love the improvisation that comes into teaching and could never limit myself to a lecture prepared in advance, and re-used year in and year out.

This must certainly sound strange to teachers working in the British system (or similar) which distinguishes between carefully planned lectures delivered before a crowded classroom and more open seminars shared with a small number of students. In my Department we simply prefer to turn ALL our classroom time into seminars, even when our classes are as big as 80 students. An important justification for this, of course, is that our second-language students need to practice English and, so, class participation is basic in our methodology. Students read the texts at home, prepare their notes, exercises, and remarks in advance. Classroom time consists of a lively exchange that makes the time fly by, for students are extremely interested in learning and love to engage in debate with us and their peers. We, teachers, feel fulfilled and offer our best, raising standards as our students demand, always happy to get such positive response to the many hours and hard work we put into our teaching.

This, of course, has never really happened and is not happening at all currently. Now, after 25 years of struggling to implement this healthy academic ideal I am about to give up and start lecturing. Our methodology, the methodology suggested by all the documentation about the new degrees established in 2009, and all the college-level pedagogues agree that lecturing, the famous 鈥榣ecturas magistrales鈥, should not have a primary place in the university. We are expected to be, and we do want to be, Platonic teachers in constant academic dialogue with students keen on learning (remember? Plato鈥檚 Athens school was called 鈥楾he Academy鈥) but it is simply NOT happening. Our students鈥 passive resistance is simply colossal. And they are getting the upper hand.

I was teaching yesterday my session on Morgan鈥檚 novel and I started hearing myself speak, a very uncomfortable feeling. This happens when even though you don鈥檛 want to lecture, you find yourself lecturing because the students have not read the book (yet?) and, so, you need to cover much more basic ground than you expected. Then you start feeling disengaged. I saw my students taking notes and I felt uncomfortable because I was not delivering a formal lecture and I have no idea which points they are making a note of. Dialogue on a novel which has not been read soon grinds to a halt, and so I keep bringing into my 鈥榮tream of pseudo-lecturing鈥 outside elements. This doesn鈥檛 always help, quite the opposite: I was trying to explain that Morgan鈥檚 protagonist is the high-tech, futuristic equivalent of the Navy SEALS that killed Osama Bin Laden five years ago鈥揵ut neither of these two concepts rang a bell with my students. Of course I reacted in dismay, and of course they reacted to my reaction also in dismay鈥 are we ever going to be on common ground? I get politely interested faces mostly, but also the teacher鈥檚 worst kind of kryptonite: the glassy stare. This makes me lose my thread, start rambling and even mumbling鈥 There are many moments when I feel like stopping to ask: if you tell me what interests you, perhaps I could lecture on this and we would all be so much happier. Perhaps.

I was going back to my office in quite low spirits when I came across a Language colleague who also looked dispirited. Some students in her class, she explained, have objected to some of her teaching methods finding them, basically, excessively interactive (meaning too demanding of students鈥 attention in the classroom). She was anxious and concerned that students simply want us to lecture, providing them with the kind of neat classroom notes that, well, can be photocopied from year to year. She vehemently declared she would not offer that kind of teaching and I wholeheartedly agreed with her 鈥 no, I will never ever turn lecturing into the foundation of my teaching!!!! I can only call myself a teacher if I keep a dialogue with my students and lecturing is a monologue!!! Out with it!!!

When I finally reached my office I started considering how much easier my life would be if I taught the same course every year, using formal, written down lectures that I could upload at the end of each session, without altering a single comma from year to year. And how thankful students would be for that: notes to circulate, underline, regurgitate in exams and then forget. Final exams instead of continuous assessment, no papers in which you need to develop your own thesis, no contact whatsoever with the teachers, not even to greet them in the corridors. And so end the continuous pretence that students read, when they don鈥檛; and so end the gruelling task of engaging them in reluctant dialogue which only serves to stress the state of our miscommunication鈥

Some one said once that the tragedy of teaching is that it can never work, for we teach in the way we wished we had been taught and not in the way the younger generation in our classrooms prefers. I鈥檓 thinking that after almost 25 years as a teacher I should be wiser but I find that the effect which time has is the opposite: I simply don鈥檛 know the young persons in class and what kind of teaching they do prefer. We, teachers, commiserate with each other in the Department corridors and I鈥檓 sure the students commiserate with each other at the bar. The result of all this, as I wrote in my previous post, is that even vocational teachers reach a point in their careers in which they stop caring and I am worried sick that this is coming to me 鈥 for I still have at least 15 years more to teach. Teach, not lecture.

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 FIFTY-YEAR CRISIS: A PECULIAR TURNING POINT

(No, I鈥檓 not suffering from writer鈥檚 block, which would be ironic given my last post. The problem is that every subject I鈥檝e come up in the last ten days for raving and ranting about here is so problematic that I have given up all of them. The one I am dealing with her seems to be the safest one鈥 Yes, there is a measure of self-censorship at work here.)

I鈥檒l be 50 in about one month, a figure I like. For women, 50 tends to be associated with the biological changes caused by the onset of menopause and although it would be tempting to write a post about the cultural readings of this natural transition this is not what I am up to today. Some other time.

In this strange time in which we seem to be stretching a whole decade into the next one, I am constantly being told by kind friends and relatives not to worry for, after all, 50 is the new 40. This confuses me very much because a) 50 is 50, as 40 is 40, b) since this chronological stretching manifests itself for all decades and everyone seems younger than people the same age did thirty years ago, 50-year-old women look distinctly like 50-year-old women.

Famously, Oscar Wilde declared that 鈥淭he tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young鈥 which, of course, means that one is not aware of one鈥檚 own ageing in the same way others are. I am not kidding myself that I am still 20 inside, however, for I am surrounded by 20-year-old female students and it would be foolish of me to pretend that I鈥檓 younger than I am. The young have an instinct for detecting that kind of phoniness… Also, generally speaking, I find myself enjoying my actual age and gleefully celebrating each new birthday. The only thing I certainly don鈥檛 care about is being addressed as 鈥榮e帽ora鈥 by strangers, a term I certainly prefer to the appalling 鈥榮e帽orita鈥 used for young women but that is often used with a sneer or, at least, a clear wish to indicate 鈥榶ou鈥檙e old and I鈥檓 not鈥. Twice already, courteous young people have offered me their seat on the train, which I鈥檒l attribute to my always carrying too many bags rather than to my ageing looks. Hopefully鈥

A few weeks ago a dear male friend whom I have known since we were both 14 hit 50. He is also an academic (mixing Sociology and Media Studies), though he has been a full professor for a few years already and, hence, as you will see, in a slightly different frame of mind. It鈥檚 always funny to discover that the processes one goes through regarding private matters鈥搇ike how to face the next period of one鈥檚 life鈥搕urn out to be shared by many other people. And this is what happened with my friend which, surely, you can also attribute to our having parallel academic lives. We both agreed that when you turn 50 and you are a 鈥榩rivileged鈥 academic, secure in his or her job, the new buzzword looming on the horizon is 鈥榬etirement鈥. This may sound callous and insensitive to the scholars still struggling for tenure (and at the rate we鈥檙e going now, this includes colleagues not much younger than myself) but it鈥檚 the truth.

I was hired by my Department aged 25, which means that next 15 September I鈥檒l be celebrating another significant date: my 25th anniversary as a university teacher. Even if I retire at the ripe age of 70, as Spanish legislation allows, this means that my career can stretch for just 20 years at most. Naturally, it could stretch longer if I go on publishing academic work past retirement, for, essentially, retirement means for us that we stop teaching. If we can afford it. Precisely, we have started asking our Department colleagues about their plans for retirement, for it turns out that 6 of them are aged between 59 and 63. This is a bit awkward but we just need to know what we鈥檙e going to do with our fast ageing tenured staff in the next ten years. Their reactions were diverse but, from what I see, money is the main concern.

Until before the crisis civil servants (and tenured university teachers belong in that category) could draw a pension after only 30 years of service which means that, if you were willing to accept the reduced pay, you could retire before 60. The IP I have been working with in the past few years retired at 57, though she is still very much active in research. Under this rule, which no longer applies, I could have retired at 55, which sounds totally crazy to me. Provided I can afford it, then, I am planning for 65 or 67 at the most because a) 40 years as a teacher will do, b) I don鈥檛 see myself connecting with students almost 40 years younger than me and c) I see too many people dying around 60 to believe I鈥檒l reach 93, the age my grandmother was when she died last summer.

Sorry to sound so grim but I鈥檓 an extremely pragmatic person and in view of what I see happen every day, I need to take death into account. Yes, it鈥檚 the fear of mortality that so much Literature talks about and it is certainly the hardest part of ageing. Funnily, I went through a very profound hypochondriac bout at 30 when I was writing my PhD dissertation, mortally afraid (ha, ha鈥) that I would die before finishing it. Realizing, once the thing was submitted, the silliness of it all, I decided to face life as it came in a kind of perpetual 鈥榗arpe diem鈥 (highly recommended against hypochondria).

I am certainly digressing today鈥 must be my ageing brain鈥

The conversation with my friend revealed that 50 is when you count your academic eggs in the basket and ponder what they are worth and whether you want to go on producing them at the same crazy rhythm. The answer is no. A relative no. In the Humanities 50 is still a rather young age, the time when you may turn out to be 鈥榳ise鈥, if that word still makes any sense, after decades of reading. It is also the age in which you tell yourself that 鈥榮ince what I love doing is reading, why don鈥檛 I simply use all my time for it?鈥. It鈥檚 very tempting. This is why the ages between 50 and 55 are, I鈥檓 sure, the time when many researchers start to slow down, not because they lose interest in their subjects (quite the opposite) but because they want to be let alone by a system that demands an absurd, stressful productivity offering very little reward.

At this point and after twenty-odd years of teaching my friend has decided to teach exclusively online, a possibility that his university offers; another dear male friend chose to transfer to UNED at a similar age. I have tried online teaching myself and I know that I need personal contact with my students, but I also know that this year for the first time I am teaching in a more detached, mechanical way, pretending I don鈥檛 notice the students鈥 disinterest (with few exceptions). My sociologist friend has run a diversity of research projects and is a well-known scholar, with an enviable h-index and all that. Possibly because he is already a full professor and, hence, lacks the enticement (carrot?) of becoming one I can see he is fast losing interest in accumulating more achievements. He is clearly aiming at pleasing himself in his research and this is what he advised me to do鈥揳 course for which I am certainly aiming. As my friend told me, the way we鈥檙e valued should be a logical result of our academic career, meaning that if you go out of your way only to accrue merits you鈥檙e heading for deep disappointment.

I have in my own Department and among the six most senior colleagues past 59 good examples of academic hyperactivity, one in particular who positively bloomed when reaching 50 or thereabouts. This is always an enticement. What drains the energy of any ageing scholar are the achievements of the very young, for this is when you start thinking that you鈥檝e already missed the chance to do this or that. Perhaps one of the most glaringly overlooked aspects of our academic monitoring system is that its obsession for productivity is ageist, in that it requires an amount of energy impossible to sustain in the long run. Or not just impossible but also counterproductive, for past certain age one starts losing the concern about what others may think and this is how academic careers dwindle and evaporate.

To sum up the argument here, while most people place the midlife crisis around 40 (at least the Spanish idiom is 鈥榣a crisis de los 40鈥), I find that for a Humanities teacher/researcher this happens, rather, at 50. It is not, however, a sad time in which you bemoan what will not be but a happy time when you start enjoying what I can only call, in the best sense, maturity.

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