KATHARINE BURDEKIN’S SWASTIKA NIGHT IN THE TIMES OF THE HANDMAID’S TALE: A WARNING ABOUT PATRIARCHAL ENSLAVEMENT

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) many years ago before seeing the unfairly neglected film adaptation with the late Natasha Richardson as Offred, directed in 1990 by Volker Schlöndorff and written by none other than Nobel Prize award-winner Harold Pinter. I have not seen, thank you very much, the ongoing HBO series, now in its second season and the object of a hot debate about whether watching misogynistic torture porn is every feminist’s duty or yet another insidious patriarchal contamination of a text about women’s suffering. On principle, I dislike feminist dystopia because in the end it tends to depress women and favour patriarchy by multiplying sexist images of women in deep distress. I believe, however, that this is a good time to recall another key feminist dystopia, which may even have inspired George Orwell’s 1984. I refer to Katherine Burdekin’s Swastika Night.

I hesitate whether to call this book a novel because, as it is often the case with utopia and dystopia, its plot is flimsy and what truly matters is the description of the happy or unhappy state of a given civilization. Burdekin (1896-1963) published Swastika Night in 1937, using the male penname Murray Constantine, as a specific warning about a future in which Adolf Hitler had not only won WWII but also become the object of a divine cult, enduring at the time the novel begins already for 700 years. Please, recall that Burdekin’s dystopia appeared two years before WWII began and one year after the Berlin Olympics, when the world didn’t yet suspect that the catastrophe that started in 1939 was on the horizon. The Jewish Holocaust that overlapped with this period and that lasted until 1945, however, may not have been so unexpected since Burdekin includes it in her novel, as one of the many shows of power of the Nazi regime. Her book didn’t do very well at the time of its release but was re-issued in 1940 within a left-wing collection, to be soon forgotten again. Decades later, feminist scholar Daphne Patai finally realized that Burdekin was Constantine and Swastika Night was re-released in 1985–the same year when Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale.

In Burdekin’s novel the world consists of two militaristic blocks constantly at war: the Nazi Empire, which comprises Europe and Africa, and the Japanese Empire (all of America, Asia, and Australia). Hitler’s miraculous birth from God the Thunderer without a mother is the foundation for the most horrendous misogyny ever imagined. Women have been reduced to the most basic animal function as breeding machines. They’re not sexually interesting to the men, who bond with each other through homosexual sex and a complex pseudo-feudal network of allegiances. Even more thoroughly than in 1984, all records of the past have been destroyed so that the Nazi Empire appears to be the only possible way of life. The plot narrates how a book assembled by a disaffected Nazi Knight falls into the hands of an Englishman, Alfred, though whom we discover how this sinister masculinist society works.

Men’s compliance with the Nazi patriarchal system is business as usual: patriarchy tells men that they are superior to women (sounds familiar, right?) and, so, they feel entitled to abusing them in any way they want. In Swastika Night rape is not a crime–it is a man’s right to which women must submit (unless they are officially ‘owned’ by a specific man). This is a demonstration of power, with no pleasure involved, since women are considered disgusting; beautiful young boys are preferred as objects of sexual desire. Mothers are routinely separated from their male offspring at eighteen-months but allowed to keep their daughters as they need to be educated into submission. This is all the education they receive. The boys are also educated in patriarchal submission but at least this affords them the protection of their fathers who, of course, try to do as well as they can by them.

Hitler was a defender of the Victorian ‘separation of the spheres’, a patriarchal doctrine by which women were told that they should accept being wives and mothers as their main role in life. In public he would claim that this should be a cherished role by no means inferior to those played by men; in private, he made no bones of abhorring women (and never had children), though he could be a gentleman if he chose to. It seems that the Nazi pro-natalist policies were not, however, particularly successful and that the aim of returning to pre-1914 birth rates was never achieved. Historian Jill Stephenson explains that the Nazi project of expanding the ‘Aryan race’ was undermined by the regime itself, which sent the ‘Aryan’ men to conquer Europe and, thus, left the ‘Aryan’ women with no adequate mates–instead, they were surrounded by foreign war prisoners, which in the end only resulted in many illegitimate children of the unwanted kind (in the Nazi’s view, of course). I won’t even mention what was done to Jewish mothers, and children.

The “fundamental immutable laws of Hitler Society” dictate that “As a woman is above a worm, So is a man above a woman. As a woman is above a worm, So is a worm above a Christian”–yes, religion is banned, except for the Hitlerian cult. What is then “the meanest, filthiest thing that crawls on the face of the earth”? A Christian woman. A classic mistake often made about patriarchy is that it privileges all men: this is not correct, for whereas men are persuaded that they are above all women, the pecking order in patriarchy is inexorable. “As a man is above a woman, So is a Nazi above any foreign Hitlerian. As a Nazi is above a foreign Hitlerian, So is a Knight above a Nazi. As a Knight is above a Nazi, So is Der Fuehrer (whom may Hitler bless) above all Knights, even above the Inner Ring of Ten”. God lies at the top of the pyramid. The word ‘mother’ is obscene. ‘Marriage’ no longer exists in the vocabulary of the English language.

Women were once as desirable as boys but the new women of the Nazi Empire are pitiful creatures, with their “naked shaven scalps,” the “horrible meek bowed way they had of walking and standing”; they have “no grace, no beauty, no uprightness, all those were male qualities. If a woman dared to stand like a man she would be beaten”. When they age past menopause women stop being socially useful beings and are only tolerated because they help to raise the younger generation of female slaves. Men like Alfred, though ‘good’ in comparison to his Nazi oppressors, never care “about the ordinary day-to-day sufferings of women”.

This starts changing somehow when the secretly rebellious Knight Hermann (of the Inner Ring of Ten) corroborates to Alfred that Hitler was indeed born of a woman and that, as the rumour goes, the creatures were different in the past. Why, Alfred wonders, “have they let themselves go down so?” Here is a passage that will hurt any woman reader (though please recall that this is a Nazi speaking, no matter how disloyal to the Hitlerian cause): “They acquiesced in the Reduction of Women, which was a deliberate thing deliberately planned by German men. Women will always be exactly what men want them to be. They have no will, no character, and no souls; they are only a reflection of men. So nothing that they are or can become is ever their fault or their virtue”. We might agree that women’s standards of beauty change to please men but when Hermann claims that “If men want them to have an appearance of perfect freedom, even an appearance of masculine power, [women] will develop a simulacrum of those things”, we may think that Burdekin is going too far. The conclusion that men can never “stop this blind submission and cause the women to ignore them and disobey them. It’s the tragedy of the human race” is infuriating, perhaps because it surpasses the limits of the novel to become something that rings true. Sorry.

The conversation continues, with Alfred defending the idea that, then, “It must be right for women to submit to men. Anything else would be unnatural”. The Knight disagrees: “It would be all right (…) if men were infallible” but it is women’s misfortune to have followed inadequate leaders. This is what I call ‘the faulty patriarchy argument’. Once a friend taunted me by declaring that feminism is the product of bad patriarchy, that is to say, if patriarchy had really fulfilled its own ideals (the chivalric code) then women would have seen no need to rebel. If every man were Darcy, we would all be happy Liz Bennets. Unfortunately, as the Knight Hermann observes, men of the patriarchal persuasion are not infallible–and, so, they abuse their authority using violence to confirm their power. Hence the constant conflicts with each other and over/with the women and children supposed to obey patriarchal family heads.

In Swastika Night the ‘Reduction of Women’, as the process is called, does not begin from above, as it happens in The Handmaid’s Tale. It begins from below with the devaluation of rape. Like the men who have distorted the label ‘incel’ (involuntarily celibate), created to define recently separated individuals, into a misogynistic badge of dishonour, the Nazis believe that “the rejection-right of women was an insult to Manhood (…)”. Their main theorist, one von Wied, claims (like the incels) that women’s beauty is another “insult to Manhood” for it gives females “an enormous and disgusting sexual power over men”. Following this man’s revolting directives, women are deprived of everything that might make them attractive: hair, flattering clothes, even basic cleanliness. When they reach the age of sixteen, they must be “completely submissive” to any man.

You might think that women put up a fight rather than meekly accept the delirious Nazi mandate. On the contrary, Hermann explains, “they threw themselves into the new pattern with a conscious enthusiasm that knew no bounds”. They believed, he adds, “those poor little typically feminine idiots, that if they did all that men told them to do cheerfully and willingly, that men would somehow, in the face of all logic, love them still more”. There is more: the women contributed to their own degradation with their love and admiration of men, which instead of gratitude generated a reinforcement of men’s feeling of superiority. Alfred begins to see that these animals are “not women at all, and never have been” because they have always seen themselves as slaves with no self-esteem. The remedy, he clarifies, is “simple”: “The highest possible masculine pattern of living should be imposed on women (…)”, beginning with basic literacy, and in this way they would see that men loathe their easy submission. By the end of the novel, Alfred feels something new when he holds his newly-born daughter in his arms, though this is not really the main point of the novel.

I am aware that Burdekin’s controversial discourse on women’s submission has elicited many answers from feminist scholars. I will insist that this is placed in the mouths of men living in an extreme form of patriarchy, though I very much suspect that the author is expressing through them her own feminist despair. The Handmaid’s Tale also complicates the issue very much with the presence of the Aunts, the women fully complicit with the system that help patriarchy to dominate the Handmaids. In Burdekin’s Swastika Night the whole situation is far worse: of course, violence was used to overpower the rebels, but most women accepted the restrictions of the (fictional) Nazi regime. Their way of life would be a nightmare even for Offred, for she recalls what life as a free woman was like whereas Burdekin’s women have lost all memories of the past. Arguably, the conversations between Alfred and Hermann are designed to elicit our disagreement and to be jolted out of any possible passivity in the face of our own patriarchal domination.

HBO, Amazon, Netflix: No, don’t do Swastika Night–time to move on and abandon dystopia for constructive utopia.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AN EXTREMELY GUILTY PLEASURE: THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

I recall from my childhood years how annoyed my father grew every time there was a musical film on TV and the actors burst out singing. I am confused to this day about whether the songs were also dubbed or left in the original English version (with no subtitles, that’s for sure). Both possibly happened, for I seem to remember my father loudly complaining that the worst thing about the songs was that you could not understand them. I still don’t like much translated musicals but I have overcome my father’s prejudices, which were my own for years, and, though not the staunchest fan, I can say that I do enjoy musicals both on stage and on screen.

I hated La La Land (2016), however, because I found it to be very weak in its dancing and singing routines, and, above all, because I intensely disliked its tepid discourse about contemporary love. To be frank, I was repelled by it; musicals are supposed to be naïve romantic fantasies, not depressing reminders of the sorry state of love today. Well, never mind. As happens, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the composers of the songs in La La Land are also the authors of the songs in this other recent musical film: The Greatest Showman (2017). They have also written “Get Back Up Again” for Poppy in Trolls (2016), a glorious hymn to persistence that I recommend you to sing in low moments (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFuFm0m2wj0).

You may have heard about The Greatest Showman because of Hugh Jackman’s very visible shock at losing to James Franco (The Disaster Artist) the Golden Globe to the best actor, back in January. Jackman, who has a solid background in musical theatre, had put much energy into completing what turned out to be a rather complex project, (complicated by his being diagnosed with skin cancer) and he was devastated. At least, Pasek and Paul won the Golden Globe for “This is Me”, though they lost the Oscar to the awesome “Remember Me” in the simply wonderful Pixar-Disney movie Coco.

The Greatest Showman is, as a musical, simply lovely. It has a gorgeous, fancy pseudo-Victorian look which director Michael Gracey does wonders with, it displays thrilling dancing choreographed by Ashley Wallen and it offers eleven exciting numbers, among which one, at least, stands out: the trapeze love dance with Zac Ephron and Zendaya. After seeing the movie once, I found myself recalling every single song, which is, I think, the mark of a great musical. After seeing it again, I could sing most. And this the very key to the film’s transformation into what is now: a cult film doing the rounds of midnight sing-along sessions very successfully. The critics who panned it as a hideous fantasy are flabbergasted. I’m not, but, then, yes I am.

Why’s The Greatest Showman hideous? The screenplay by Jenny Bicks–revised by Bill Condon (it’s her story)–offers a rosy picture of American circus businessman P.T. Barnum which is less than acceptable in its bland lack of criticism of what this shady man did do. The many differences between real-life facts and what the film narrates are irrelevant in some cases: Zac Ephron’s and Zendaya’s characters did not exist; famous Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind had strictly a business-related relationship with Barnum (who organized her first American tour). What is far more controversial is how Jackman’s film presents Barnum as a champion of human diversity, which he was not at all.

Barnum (1810-1891), the founder of the long-lived Barnum & Bailey Circus (1871-2017), was a ground-breaking showman who perpetrated constant hoaxes on the gullible American public and was known for his manipulative ‘freak shows’. The problem with The Greatest Showman is that, unlike David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980), it completely fails to address its own key issue: the exploitation of the freaks publicly exhibited in America, from village carnivals to Barnum’s famous Manhattan circus. Barnum’s presentation is simplistic and one-sided: to convince a hesitant Charles Stratton, a midget (or little person), to accept being transformed into General Tom Thumb Barnum uses the argument that if people are going to laugh at him (as Stratton worries) they might as well pay. Incidentally: the real Stratton was recruited when he was only four-years-old, not twenty-two, and, thus, unable to decide for himself. This is the only comment about the dubious business relationship between Barnum and his distinct employees, apart from his snobbish exclusion of them from upper-class events, like the opening gala of Lind’s tour.

That the Barnum & Bailey Circus closed in the year The Greatest Showman opened is a clear indication of the colossal lacunae in the film’s discourse. ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, as the circus proclaimed itself, was the object of constant complaints from animal defenders until it was eventually forced to bow down to pressure, unable to transform itself into a spectacle better suited to contemporary preferences (think Cirque du Soleil). If Barnum’s record with animals is poor (he claimed that elephants feel no pain in their trunks to justify his appalling training methods), his treatment of his human fellow beings is also deplorable. His career started with the exploitation of a black slave, supposed to be the oldest woman in the world but actually only 76, whom he even exhibited once dead. His many human curiosities and oddities were, if not actually enslaved, at least treated with what now would be called intense ableism. As Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker, “The movie isn’t merely stylistically mediocre and emotionally simplistic, it’s grossly ahistorical, shorn of the complexities and fascinations of the character whose name is associated with the film. The master of ballyhoo has been ballyhooed off the screen” (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-greatest-showman-and-the-far-more-fascinating-real-life-of-p-t-barnum).

This opinion, as you can see, clashes with my view of The Greatest Showman as highly enjoyable spectacle, an “extremely guilty pleasure”. After The Elephant Man, a film telling the story of how Victorian Dr. Frederick Treves rescued John Merrick–a man suffering from elephantiasis exhibited by ruthless exploiters–we all grew sensitized to a very different view of the freak. Photographer Diane Arbus (1923-71) owed much of her fame to her portraits of freaks in the decaying 1960s shows but now we find her approach abusive. With the rise of Disability Studies in the mid-1980s the very word ‘freak’ became an insult and a new vocabulary of PC terms was deployed. The intensive medicalization that in the 1930s started pulling freaks out of the limelight to present them as cases was, however, also an expression of hypocrisy: Merrick’s deformed skeleton was exhibited only to doctors but it is doubtful that this was only in the interest of science. Incidentally, singer Michael Jackson was its last owner, which is fitting considering what Jackson himself did to his physical appearance.

The ableist hypocrisy I stress is grounded on the impression that the persons once called freaks have been freed from their freakdom to become integrated in society. This is completely false: I would never endorse Barnum’s awful business practices but what I see on the streets and on the screen is a totally homogeneous human body following narrow, damaging beauty standards. Whenever freaks appears in texts calling allegedly progressive, they are woefully sentimentalized. The recent film Wonder (2017, based on the novel by R.J. Palacio) is not only incredibly sickly sweet but also very false in its presentation of children with Treacher Collins Syndrome. It’s insulting to them that pretty Jacob Tremblay had to be put through gruelling make-up sessions when, surely, some actual patient could have been found for the role. This is an argument, of course, constantly advanced by activists in disability causes: we award Oscars to fully-abled actors for playing freaks but reject actual freaks (excuse my language).

The Greatest Showman is guilty of this sin and of many others. When I saw the Honest Trailer for it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaE0JD1X12g) I was truly dismayed. Yes, all the points raised there are undeniable, not only the many lies but also how the interracial romance is used to leave the freaks’ presence reduced to just a colourful background, and how the exploiter is, as I have said, presented as a romantic redeemer. I do not think, then, that I can defend my pleasure in this film without committing many ethical offences. This worries me very much, for I seem to be unable to extricate myself from the conundrum: why am I enjoying a text which I should abhor, given my knowledge of ‘freaks’ and my ideology? I cannot make sense of how my ethical barriers have been weakened.

But I’ll try…

It’s the glee. A trite answer, no doubt. Of course, I’m not the first one to argue that glee is the key. Variety notes that “The Greatest Showman is unabashedly nostalgic. Whereas La La Land was grounded in a darker realism, this film is bright and ebullient, infused with a let’s-put-on-a-show spirit that’s been largely missing from cinema since the days of Judy Garland and Gene Kelly” (https://variety.com/2017/film/features/hugh-jackman-the-greatest-showman-logan-1202629864/). For The Guardian, in an article about the film’s transformation into a surprise sleeper by word-of-mouth, “It isn’t hard to see how the film’s feelgood factor can give audiences a much-needed sense of escape or respite” (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jan/31/the-greatest-showman-success-film-story-of-the-year-hugh-jackman) from our dark times.

Still, the problem of the subject matter and its treatment remains. In Mel Brooks’ 1967 hilarious film The Producers, Max Bialystock (a Broadway producer) and his accountant Leo Bloom decide to stage the most appalling musical ever, expecting it to be a flop, which would, paradoxically, benefit them. Their aim is to raise money before the play opens and then embezzle it. To their chagrin, however, Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden becomes an immense success when some members of the audience start laughing, mistakenly believing it to be a satire. The Greatest Showman is not amenable to this ambiguous reading, which is why I fear that this is actually our own candid Springtime for Hitler, with dancing freaks instead of dancing Stormtroopers.

Director Michael Gracey convinced Hugh Jackman to turn the script into a musical, perhaps as a way to politely tell his fellow-Australian film star that only the addition of songs could turn the awkward content into congenial film material. He was right. The songs and their lyrics provide the film with the uplifting tone which its admirers celebrate but also cancel the more problematic discourse carried out by the rest of the film. Or perhaps I’m totally wrong, and in the times of Lady Gaga and her ‘little monsters’, the images of the ‘freaks’ dancing riotously (so different from the Elephant Man’s tragic passivity) are far more positive than political correctness assumes. This is not nostalgia for Gene Kelly and Judy Garland but for a time when, though exploited, freaks were world-wide stars for (this is important) they were admired performers and not medicalized bodies displaced from public spaces. And, yes, I do know that my argument is problematic to say the least.

Do see The Greatest Showman and check whether what you feel and what you think clash.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A PERSISTENT BUNCH: DOCTORAL STUDENTS AGAINST THE WORLD

Yesterday we spent our working day going through the yearly interviews with our doctoral candidates–it seems, then, a good moment to ponder the use of doctoral programmes. To begin with, a reminder: only a very small minority of the individuals who practice medicine are properly speaking ‘doctors’; most just have a degree (a BA) in Medicine and mandatory professional training. They are ‘médicos’, not ‘doctores’, a distinction that, it seems, is respected in Latin America though not in Spain (https://www.elsevier.es/corp/conecta/medicina/medicos-o-doctores/).

Here, 0’8% of the population (376,000 individuals out of 47 millions) are doctors, that is to say: they have completed a doctorate, after submitting a doctoral dissertation (or ‘tesis’). In 2014, 10,889 persons managed to complete theirs (https://www.weforum.org/es/agenda/2017/03/estos-paises-tienen-la-mayor-cantidad-de-graduados-con-titulo-de-doctorado/), which is not at all a low figure in the context of the OCDE countries. Actually, the number of new doctors is growing all the time in Spain: the theses read in 2015 were 68% more than those read in 2010. This coincided with the introduction of the new 2011 national regulations for doctoral programmes and the extinction of the old ones but, anyway, it’s an amazing increase. Notice, please, that the age of the new doctors was 30-39 in 50% of the cases, with only 13’6% 29-years-old or younger (I assume that the rest, 37’4%, corresponded to persons above 40). 90% of all doctors in Spain are employed though not necessarily in their area and only a minority by commercial companies, which still don’t quite understand the value of having a PhD. A doctoral degree shows, I think, not only that the doctor is question is an intelligent person but also someone constant and capable of organizing his/her own projects. Ideally.

Many questions are being asked in relation this strange thing called a doctoral dissertation: is the world producing too many? (https://www.nature.com/news/2011/110420/pdf/472276a.pdf), how should they be valued socially? (https://www.eldiario.es/cienciacritica/Doctorado-ciencia-fraude-doctor-medico_6_110648947.html), what should we do to improve the situation of tutors and tutorees? (https://www.radoctores.es/doc/INFORME-GRUPO-DE-DOCTORADO-ACTUALIZADO.pdf), what good is in the end a doctoral degree? (http://www.elmundo.es/f5/campus/2017/10/25/59ef61f146163f721b8b465d.html).

I always heard that Cuba is the country in the world with the highest percentage of university students in relation to its total population. This factoid was usually followed by the opinion that this is bad since, as happens in Spain, a country cannot offer all its graduates high quality employment. The same argument is being invoked by those who think that not all doctors can be given satisfactory jobs: here, as we know, we are losing the best generation of Spanish researchers ever for lack of investment in research; many have migrated to richer countries, which in this way benefit from our restricted budgets. What is wrong, then, is not that we’re producing too many doctors but too little opportunities for them, possibly world-wide.

The United States shows, besides, that a country can generate a colossal amount of new doctors without this having an impact on the rest of the educational pyramid (perhaps because half or more of these new doctors are foreigners). I believe, however, that in a healthy educational system, the higher the percentage of doctors, the better all other levels should be. Doctors are not only supposed to do research but to train all the other professionals of education in secondary and primary schools. It might be even the case, then, that we need many more doctors.

Whereas in civilized nations like Germany average citizens understand the value of a doctoral degree, in Spain they don’t. This is no surprise: a barely educated society can hardly be expected to value intellectual effort, which, besides, is totally invisible outside universities. A PhD dissertation is an original contribution to knowledge but this is a definition that does not explain what it really is: three to five years of obsessing over an obscure topic, reading non-stop, trying to generate new ideas and finally writing a thick volume, possibly 400/500 pages on average. I have never seen anyone explain our educational system in any public forum, which means that families with no graduates face a hard time understanding what their children actually do in universities. A doctoral student may simply be an incomprehensible anomaly.

Why, then, do individuals put themselves through a major effort with scarce social recognition and low professional use? The usual answer is that doctoral candidates expect to start an academic career. However, as we all know, the Spanish State decided back in 2008 to suppress all full-time contracts of the kind I myself enjoyed as a rookie teacher (I was first hired in 1991). The cost of producing doctors, it was decided, should be met by the candidates themselves, with the exception of the very few grants and scholarships available. In contrast, all doctoral students, if I recall this correctly, receive a salary in Finland. Please, consider the absurdity of our situation: instead of funding the best brains in Spain to work full-time in producing innovation, we are forcing them to produce dissertations while they are employed elsewhere, often full-time. These are adults over 25 who expect to lead a normal life and who should not sacrifice themselves for the benefit of an indifferent State (and fellow citizens). No wonder then that one third of Spanish doctoral students are at risk of suffering serious mental health problems (http://www.elmundo.es/f5/campus/2017/04/19/58f646dfca4741dc138b461b.html).

Unlike a BA or an MA, then, which are supposed to have immediate professional application, a PhD appears to be an unnecessary addition to one’s education in our current circumstances, in which there is no guarantee at all that it leads to a career in research. If things are bad in science and technology, just imagine what they are like in the Humanities, an area of diminishing importance in the university and of no interest for employers outside it, except schools. Even though I have seen half of my doctoral tutorees abandon their PhD (usually after three years and when writing requires concentration they could not find), I know that this type of student is immensely self-motivated. I would have written my doctoral dissertation even if not employed by my university, and so they are doing. Completing a PhD dissertation, as I saw it and as they see it, is a challenge, a test of endurance and the culmination of the process of pulling yourself up by your intellectual bootstraps. The Victorians valued self-improvement above all else in education and a PhD dissertation is the ultimate step in that sense.

Naturally, what makes PhD dissertations so hard to sell in social terms is their specificity. BA degrees are already difficult to explain to those who don’t have one: my father used to call my degree ‘English Philosophy’ rather than ‘Philology’ although I find the idea of a BA specifically on Locke, Hume, Russell and company positively eccentric. An MA is simply understood to be a specialization course and possibly makes rather good sense at a grassroots levels because it is short: one or two years at the most. But just think of a PhD!! I always tell my doctoral students that they should be able to summarize their dissertation in a catchy sentence for conversational purposes: you immediately get a glassy stare the moment you go past three sentences whenever someone asks ‘so, what’s your thesis about?’

I assume that doctoral students working in labs, or in research groups that meet frequently (never the case for the groups I’ve been a member of), enjoy the luxury of sharing their progress and doubts. In the Humanities, however, producing a PhD dissertation is, most often, a lone-wolf affair. In my view, this is the worst effect of suppressing full-time contracts in Spanish universities. The doctoral students in my Department meet once a year in February in a workshop where they offer samples of their ongoing work to fellow students and teachers. They have no other regular meetings (we don’t have doctoral courses) and, so, basically no chances to socialize in our facilities. If they do that outside, this is on the basis of personal affinity and not necessarily in relation to their research. Since most doctoral students work outside the university they are not given free days to attend conferences; at most, they spend one day at the event to present their paper, perhaps just the morning or the afternoon. The generational networking that should be happening is thus curtailed (as is the generational replacement, of course), and conferences might be facing inevitable decay.

What is it like for tutors, then? Frustrating… The frustration begins the moment a good MA student, perhaps your own dissertation tutoree, walks into your office to ask for advice about writing a PhD thesis. What used to be ‘Of course! How can I help you?’ has now become ‘Why? Are you aware that there are no openings for young scholars?’, hardly a nice way to start. I have supervised so far six dissertations but have failed to complete the supervision of four others–they are thorns in my side, because the topics were very good and because they took time that counts for nothing in my CV. I have, then, become more cautious, less enthusiastic. Even in the best cases, what should be a three-year investment of energy is now lasting up to five or even six years. I like very much the company of my PhD students but tutoring for so many years is just not what it should be, for me and for them.

In practice, then, currently all doctoral students are part-time (like, incidentally, more than 50% of our teachers) and run, thus, the risk of ‘losing cohesion’, as one of the students who abandoned me explained. One might find this counterintuitive because it might seem that research carried out in five years should be more solid than that carried out in three. This is not true: researchers get tired even of favourite topics and need to move on after a while. A PhD is, besides, mentally exhausting in a way that writing later monographs is not because it is your first battle with a very extensive piece of academic writing. Better be done with it in a shorter, more intense period than over many years–yet, this is what we have now and must put up with.

I’ll end where I started, with the yearly interviews. I find them a great idea, one of the few useful improvements in all the arbitrary changes introduced into higher education in recent decades. They are at the same time an occasion to commiserate with the poor students, who, with very few exceptions, do all they can in an almost impossible situation. I cannot help reaching the conclusion, however, that interviews have become necessary precisely because our doctoral students are not where they should be: working with us full time.

Funny how I never made an appointment to see my supervisor: I just knocked on his office door, three down the corridor from my own office… Gone are the times when this was common for most doctoral students…

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/