SCARLETT AND THE STATUE: WHY SUPPRESSION IS NOT EDUCATION

[This one is for Felicity, Esther, and Lola]

The brutal murder of African-American George Floyd by an overzealous, racist white cop, who thought that kneeling on the detainee’s neck for nine minutes was adequate police practice, has resulted in massive social unrest in the USA and other countries. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has taken to the streets in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic to demand an end to racism, while white individuals and white-dominated corporations apologize for having disregarded blacks in a variety of ways, from personal interaction to fictional representation.

As part of this trend, earlier this week streaming giant HBO announced the removal from its Max platform of Gone with the Wind, on the grounds that the film’s racism is no longer acceptable, though recent news updates indicate that the movie will be returned to the platform with an accompanying statement on race. Scarlett O’Hara might then go not with the wind but with the statue of former slave trader Edward Colston, which was tipped into Bristol harbour a few days ago by a crowd of angry protesters. The local City Council has now retrieved it, with the intention of exhibiting it in a museum, complete with the graffiti and ropes the protestors used to deface and topple it down, as a History lesson.

There have been countless articles, blog posts, and tweets about Scarlett and the statue this last week all over the world, but the best I have read is by the geniuses that write satirical newspaper El Mundo Today. Their piece announces that after erasing all racist movies the only one that remains on HBO is Spiderman 2 but since that one has not passed the anti-sexist Bechdel test, the platform will only stream its own menu (https://www.elmundotoday.com/2020/06/spiderman-2-sera-la-unica-pelicula-de-hollywood-disponible-en-las-plataformas-de-streaming-despues-de-que-borren-todas-las-peliculas-racistas/). What else can one add?

The past (and the present) is full of texts of all types that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist, ableist, ageist, speciesist, chauvinistic as regards nationality, and a long etcetera in the long list of human prejudice. We have no excuse now to produce offensive texts (I’m using ‘text’ here in the Cultural Studies sense of the words, which encompasses anything that can be subjected to interpretation), though political correctness is now a minefield almost impossible to navigate (see the J.K. Rowling tweetstorm this week on transphobic issues). What we cannot do is start erasing the texts of the past for we will be left with practically nothing.

Some will say that this is fine, and that the only way that a prejudice-free new textuality can emerge is by applying a sharp cultural rebooting, and starting all over again, from a completely different stance. Seeing this week how many comedians have apologised for having used blackface in their shows, there might be a point in asking for a radical revamping of culture. Still, it seems to me that retrospective apology and textual erasure misses the point without a deeper conversation.

Look at country band Lady Antebellum, now renamed Lady A: why did they think that was a good name? Why hadn’t anybody pointed out that the use of the word Antebellum has certain racist connotations in the fourteen years since the band’s foundation? And when comedians, singers, or even Vogue’s editor Anna Wintour apologize (in her case for not hiring black staff), to whom are they apologizing? It seems to me that there is a strange kind of ghostly tribunal out there deciding who is absolved and what penance must be done, and I wonder why a white policeman had to act like a beast for so many people to suddenly realize that they were being racist but should not be. How come they didn’t know before? It is not as if race is not discussed all the time.

I’ll leave for the time being the discussion of what kind of new textuality can emerge in a fully politically correct atmosphere to focus on why suppression is not education. To begin with, I believe that HBO Max’s decision may have had the opposite effect: attracting many new admirers to Gone with the Wind, a 1939 film which is hardly the type of fare that attracts young compulsive series watchers. I have fond personal memories of watching this film with my mother in its Spanish re-release, at some point in the 1980s, on the huge screen that Cinema Bosque used to flaunt before it was transformed into a multiplex. Any spectators could and can see, I think, that the original novel by Margaret Mitchell and its film adaptation are focused on white people of the American South in ways that are racist because that was a racist society. And least that was my impression: one thing is the racism of what is portrayed, the other is the film’s racism. The film does not defend that the South was right and slavery should have been maintained; in fact, it portrays what was wrong with the white society that Scarlett embodies, if you want to see it that way, and why they lost the Civil War.

Let’s not forget, besides, that actor Hattie McDaniel won the first Oscar ever awarded to an African-American for her role as Mammy (the second win went to Sidney Poitier in 1963!) and that Scarlett O’Hara’s spunkiness (courtesy of English actor Vivien Leigh) was a refreshing innovation especially in comparison to the likes of bland, passive Melania (Olivia de Havilland) in the same film. With this I mean that context matters as much as text. We now read the scene in which Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) drags Scarlett into their bedroom as marital rape and are outraged that next we see her blissful face the morning after. At the time what outraged the censors in Spain was Scarlett’s expression of sexual satisfaction. Times change and we cannot live in a constant presentism, measuring everything by our rod.

If, in any case, the values of a text are so deeply at odds with our values, what happens is that it is eventually abandoned. We show little or no interest in medieval texts that caused major rifts and much personal damage depending on which quirky religious tenet they supported. The ones we attempt to suppress still bother us, but it is much more productive to try to understand why they bother us than simply avoid them. The same applies to statues, a type of art that completely baffles me. I don’t understand what is the point of putting a reproduction of a person on a pedestal to be admired. Public spaces should be filled with art, but not of this kind. The same applies to calling institutions by person’s names. A dear friends who works at Universidad Juan Carlos I has started a campaign to have the name changed, which is the equivalent, I think of toppling down a statue. And with good reason.

I teach Victorian Literature, as I have often noted here, and there is no way that I can do that using texts which offend nobody. Even the texts by women carry a good measure of prejudice, often class-related, and on occasion notably androphobic. I believe that I did explain here that we chose to replace Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines because even though some comments by Conrad’s narrator Marlowe are clearly anti-racist the novella is not on the whole overtly so. It has generated too much admiration by snobbish literary people for its racial politics to be obvious (at least until Chinua Achebe protested in 1970 that for all its elegant prose this is a barbaric text). Haggard is so blatantly racist that, paradoxically, racism is easier to explain and to expose using his text: we do not teach King Solomon’s Mines as a text that needs to be admired but as a text that was extremely popular for a very long time for reasons that need to be looked into. Following the same engaged pedagogy we teach Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a deeply sexist text which is nonetheless extremely useful to understand the patriarchal concerns about women’s liberation.

I think that the crux of all this problematic situation is our personal and collective admiration for certain texts and persons. This is a tricky concept. In Carme Torras’s science fiction novel La mutació sentimental (2008), the future society she depicts has forgotten what admiration is about because individuals live in a totally egalitarian world. This is something she implicitly criticises. Admiration, of course, depends on acknowledging that something or someone is extraordinary and, so, worth our affection and respect. Thus, if a text or a person we admire is negatively valued, we feel an intimate hurt: don’t touch my Gone with the Wind, don’t touch my Edward Colston. I don’t care, for instance, for D.W. Griffith’s appallingly racist Birth of a Nation (1915) or for Alfred Hitchcock’s appallingly sexist Psycho (1960) and feel offended whenever they are discussed as great examples of artistic innovation in cinema. I wish they could disappear from collective memory because they offend me deeply, and if they do I’ll be happy (here contradicting my own argument that nothing should be suppressed). Now, try to suppress Blade Runner for being sexist, as I very well know it is since I am a feminist woman, and you will hear me scream, for I admire it. The same goes for Dracula, which is a superb novel.

The process of education, then, should consist of curbing down the admiration for questionable texts and persons and redirecting that feeling towards what truly deserves it (but according to whom?). The problem, as I am trying to argue, is that the process is more complex than it sounds because admiration has irrational, sentimental roots that have to do with personal experience. At the stage we are, most of us are fast re-educating ourselves but hardly willing to let go of certain texts: as a woman I am offended that men fully aware of sexism still admire sexist texts, but then I do the same if the sexist texts elicit my admiration in any way as I have noted. And nothing is ever one-sided. I admire Charles Dickens very much for certain qualities of his writing and deplore him for others of his personality. It would be very hard for me not to teach him in Victorian Literature but I have no problem not teaching Walter Scott in Romantic Literature because I do not admire him (of course, by not teaching him I am preventing my own students from admiring Scott, which might be very pig-headed of me).

The best I can do, in any case, is ask you do watch Gone with the Wind, even read Margaret Mitchell’s novel, and learn who Edward Colston was, and then decide what you find there to admire or deplore. Just don’t tip both into History’s trashcan (why have I instantly thought of Donald Trump…?) for they are what History is about.

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

THINKING OF NEXT ACADEMIC YEAR UNDER THE SHADOW OF COVID-19: A TIME TO RECONSIDER WHAT WE DO AS TEACHERS

Like most of my colleagues in Spain, I will not finish teaching until mid-July, when the marks for the MA dissertations will be introduced. Yet, now that I’m done ‘teaching’, that is to say, interacting with my undergrad students before assessment, might be a good moment to stop and consider how Covid-19 has changed some pedagogical matters but will most likely fail to change others. I have spelled ‘teaching’ between quotation marks because since 12 March, when I taught my last two presential sessions, I have been teaching online—again, like the rest of my colleagues in Spain. This does not mean that we have all being approaching online teaching from the same angle, though I lack sufficient information to know what my colleagues have been doing so far. From what I hear, my impression is that, given the lack of general guidelines, they have improvised and have mostly tried to transfer their habitual activities onto our Moodle classrooms. A common complaint by students is that they have been overloaded with extra work to compensate for the missing lectures; this has been gradually corrected but it is for me a sign that the approach taken might not be the best one.

I was an associate teacher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, a pioneering online university, between 1998 and 2014. I used to teach there an elective subject called ‘Introduction to English Literature’ for the BA in the Humanities. I was part of the team that had written the handbook and I myself set the course in motion under the supervision of Pauline Ernest. I combined, then, online and presential teaching for sixteen years and I only gave up because in the last semester at UOC I had 70 students in my hands. Multiply this by six exercises each and you will see that I just couldn’t cope with UOC and UAB at the same time. The current teacher tells me that the subject is going to be discontinued after twenty-two years, which is a pity.

I joined UOC when I was an untenured teacher, seeking to enhance my possibilities of getting tenure. The money was also an enticement, of course. When I became tenured, in 2002, I found out to my surprise that my new contract was compatible with UOC, so I continued teaching online. My motivation was at this point pedagogical: the UOC students were mostly very well read, highly autonomous mature students and interacting with them was a pleasure. In all my sixteen years, I only failed one student; the rest who did not pass the subject just quit, though most passed the second time around.

I learned plenty at UOC in terms of planning tasks for continuous assessment, giving constructive feedback, encouraging students who were less autonomous. I never used exams—only a variety of written exercises, including forums—and I never missed them. I don’t know how other UOC teachers managed, though. And, although this might sound surprising, I never used video. My students were not taking a degree in English Studies but in the Humanities and although their command of written English was good (in some cases much above that of my UAB students), none of my three UOC supervisors (or coordinators) thought that video was a necessary part of the subject. I agreed.

I had been reading worrying news about Wuhan in the British press for weeks before quarantine started in Spain, so I was ready to go online at any moment with my two BA courses: ‘English Romantic Literature’ (second year, 58 students) and ‘Cultural Studies’ (third-fourth year, 42 students). For this, I have mostly followed the UOC model. In fact I have been following that model for years, in the sense that I avoid exams and I think of my courses as a chance to teach a set of skills though a set of tasks, and not just to teach content. So, what we were doing in class in February is not in the end very different from what we ended up doing after 14 March: I transferred what was supposed to be presential to our Moodle classroom mainly through the use of forums—I use plenty of students’ oral presentations in class, so that was not really a problem. In the case of ‘Cultural Studies’ the students have interacted online infinitely far more than they were interacting in our physical classroom. In the case of ‘English Romanticism’ their interactions have been available for much longer than they would have been in the classroom.

I have not, however, used my teaching time in the same way I was using it in February. To begin with, I believe that online teaching needn’t be synchronous. That is to say: I see no need to keep the rigid schedule of classroom teaching, much less to reproduce online the same twice-weekly ninety-minute sessions we were teaching. With 58 students in one class and 42 in the other, I have seen, besides, little use in online Teams meetings; to the matter of numbers I need to add that for me teaching works by looking at people in the eyes, which cannot be done online. The few Teams meetings I’ve had with colleagues have been quite awkward in terms of visual quality and the personal awareness needed to interact well. For that, the classroom is much, much better.

I know that some of my colleagues have used Teams regularly or have recorded themselves and uploaded podcasts and video, which is fine. I am just saying that I have used other strategies. For instance, in ‘English Romanticism’ I have been teaching students to write papers, and so, for one of our books (Frankenstein) I wrote a paper for them instead of lecturing. The same applies to ‘Cultural Studies’: in this subject I have provided sample written exercises and guidance about how to do presentations. Students have in fact taught each other much, and I have used my teaching time to give detailed, personal feedback. I have certainly missed classroom interaction and I do look forward to meeting face-to-face again. But, let me be completely honest, I have not missed at all the students who were projecting onto me a relentless sense of boredom in my English Romanticism lectures, possibly because that is a compulsory course. That is one of the great advantages of teaching online: students’ eating and drinking in class, using cellphones, chatting need not bother me.

Our schedule for next year is ready but, even though the end of quarantine approaches (21 June), it seems likely that the preventive measures against Covid-19 will be enforced for a much longer time, at least until December. I am personally scandalised by the imprudence that Spaniards are displaying now, after a death toll of possibly near 40,000 persons (not the official 28,000 count) and in the absence of a vaccine. This summer we’ll see the actual danger that the virus poses once foreign visitors return and general national mobility goes back to normal (or pseudo-normal). It might well be that Covid-19, in the best case scenario, is under control by early September and that we can resume teaching as we have done so far. Even so, it would still be a great moment to consider how we teach.

I am logically speaking as a Literature teacher, and I understand that matters can be very different in other disciplines, beginning with the Language section of my Department. A six ECTS course, allow me to remind you, amounts to 150 hours of work, of which 30%-40% (45 to 60) should be of classroom interaction, leaving only 100 for reading, and assessment activities. In my school we used to teach 45 hours in 15 weeks (so, 3 hours a week), but this has gone up to 50 hours in 17 weeks. Here is for me, a first problem: Literature students have too little time to read, and too much is taken by listening to us, teachers, discuss books they haven’t had the time to read. Add to this that to reach UAB, or many other campus universities, students and teachers often have to employ at least 2 hours every day (and think of the carbon footprint this means—you just need to see the parking lot any day). Our buildings are woefully overcrowded with students who spend on average fifteen to twenty hours a week in classrooms, mostly passively listening (if they listen at all!). The furniture in our classrooms consists mostly of benches facing towards the teacher’s platform, which are not only very uncomfortable but also impossible to move and guarantee a better use of the classroom space for group work (and now that Covid-19 is making personal distance necessary). To sum up: the way we teach takes too much reading/studying time, the classrooms are obsolete as teaching spaces, and we contaminate too much.

Next, what do we do in our biweekly ninety-minute lectures? We are supposed not to use ‘lecciones magistrales’ (lectures) but I should think that this is still a very typical model. The question we are not asking is whether this is the best possible model. Ninety minutes is an amount of time that goes totally against all studies in the attention span of average human beings. In conferences we offer twenty-minute papers and each ninety-minute session has three papers followed by discussion. Why do we assume, then, that our students benefit from ninety-minute sessions? And do they? Shouldn’t we start thinking of alternatives? Perhaps forty-five minute sessions? Perhaps one presential and one online session a week? Of course, the problem with this is that our task as teachers is measured by how long we spend lecturing. Try to explain to the authorities that monitor us that teaching is not only face-to-face interaction but mainly guidance. It used to be about passing on information but this is the 21st century, not the Middle Ages, and information is accessible in many other ways than it used to be. The rule should be simple: the classroom should only be used for what cannot be done elsewhere.

Sixty per cent of students’ work already happens elsewhere, in the library or at home. It is ‘virtual’, in the sense that it does not happen in the classroom. The thirty per cent that does happen in the classroom is now a problem because of how Covid-19 has attacked our capacity to be together in the same indoors space in big groups and for a long time. I believe, though, that with or without Covid-19, we still need to think why we need to crowd so many people in classrooms and what for. In primary schools they have 25 children in each classroom, though in really advanced countries like Finland this is down to 15. In universities, however, we think that it makes sense to have 100 students sitting huddled together—it doesn’t make sense now, but it has never made sense at all. Past 25 students classroom interaction simply does not happen, you just see a mass of faces looking at you, as you desperately try to remember their names. In big groups, it really makes no difference whether you’re there in the flesh or on YouTube.

Our target, then, should be making new sense of university teaching in a world that, as Covid-19 is forcing us to see, already needed a profound reform.

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