THE ROLE OF ADMIRATION IN LOVE: A FEW THOUGHTS

More on gender today, this time inspired by my reading of two extremely different volumes: Núria Gómez Gabriel and Estela Ortiz’s Love Me, Tinder: Una Mirada Crítica a lo que Ellos Ofrecen (2020) and Antonio Bolinche’s El Síndrome de las Supermujeres (2020). Gómez Gabriel and Ortiz dissect with verve but rather superficially men’s written self-presentations on Tinder (not the photos) to categorize them under a series of labels (the romantic, the alpha male, the pick-up artist and so on). Their essays on each label are accompanied by a selection of, apparently, truthful quotations corresponding to men’s self-presentation on Tinder Spain. I don’t know if their ‘critical look’ missed the interesting guys but I must say that I was simply appalled by the very bad writing the men use to make themselves attractive to women. Out of I don’t know how many dozen bios I was only interested in a guy who showed a little bit of wit. The rest varied between the awfully corny and the sexist offensive. I noticed, incidentally, that none described himself as a man but as a boy, though I am aware that ‘chico’ is being used in Spanish to mean a man up to 50. I must clarify that I am not a Tinder user and, after reading this book, I’m really glad I need not use a dating app. Not just because of the men (I found the volume very much in need of a critical companion volume about the women) but because how poorly I would fit its relentless culture.

The other volume, by psychologist Antonio Bolinches, felt much closer to my own life experience and that of many career women. Bolinches, who specialises in couple therapy and, generally, in treating individuals in need of counselling for their love life, develops in this book on the basis of his extensive clinical practice a thesis that every career woman knows out of experience. It is obvious, he writes, that whereas women have changed very much in the way they approach their biography, wishing to make the most of the opportunities life presents, heterosexual men have not substantially changed. Faced with the new romantic discourse brought about by feminism some have reacted by adapting well, others are navigating women’s new demands as well as they can, and a minority is in regression maintaining sexist positions with no future.

The problem, Bolinche argues, is that the number of men who have adequately adapted is far inferior to that of the men who are still disoriented or plainly angry and lost. And since the number of women who have pulled themselves up by their feminist bootstraps is quite big, there are simply not enough suitably adjusted men for all. This means that, inevitably, many ‘superwomen’, that is to say, women who are attractive, intelligent, sensitive and in good jobs are failing to attract any men, or are only attracting men they cannot really like, much less love. Don’t we all know this… We all have women friends whom we would gladly marry were we lesbians but that can attract no man or only attract men who don’t really deserve them. I don’t know, in contrast, of any minimally appealing man who remains partnerless.

It is, in any case, quite interesting to see these ideas explored by a man who is very critical of current heterosexual masculinity. Bolinches has repeatedly insisted, for instance, that there is a serious problem with men’s lack of maturity (he has published a book called Peter Pan Can Grow), which according to him lags about ten years behind women’s. He blames the castrating superwomen, a tiny subset of the superwoman category, for being too impatient, noting that this impatience is a sign of immaturity that actually makes them underserving of the title superwoman. Yet, on the whole, he is quite clear that the problem is not caused by the superwomen. Simply, men are not up to the task of meeting the superwomen’s demands because they are not even trying. This is unsurprising. As Bolinche knows and every feminist knows, there are always women willing enough to accept men without making firm demands about gender equality in their relationships. Not every woman can be a superwoman of the type Bolinches describes but we can all be feminists (i.e. a defender of gender equality) and as long as some women fail to defend our collective rights men will feel no need to change. Read Love Me, Tinder to see the proof.

Allow me to quote an interesting passage from Bolinche’s book (my translation) that sums up the argumentation I am discussing but with the addition of a much relevant twist: “Admirable men have many chances to meet women who want to be with them, whereas admirable women see their chances of finding a suitable partner diminished for two reasons. The first one is that the more admirable they are the harder it is for them to admire a man. The second is that the number of admirable men willing to be with them is lower to the number of admirable women” (27). Speaking of admiration in romantic relationships is not habitual and I would like to stop here for a while. Bolinches derives from his female patients the idea that women need to feel admiration for the man they love but I don’t think this is a generalised feeling. I don’t see how love can prosper without genuinely liking your partner, which usually means you respect them. Admiration is a key factor only exceptionally, I think, even though I would agree that admirable men may elicit love more easily than the less admirable kind. The typical figure of the adoring wife (the great woman behind the great man) corresponds to that situation, though these days we have less and less sympathy for her.

There comes a moment in the life of the superwomen when they realize that they are as admirable as the admirable men they see around them, in their work and social circles. From that realization, there arises the very wrong impression that just as men are loved by women who admire them, they will also be loved by men who admire them. There are, however, very few men of that type for all men have been taught that they deserve a woman’s admiration and just a handful know how to admire without feeling diminished as men. For a wonderful example of the man who admires let me name Martin Ginsburg, the husband of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I am sure that there are (many?) others but, in general, as Bolinche notes, though superwomen may be admired from afar very few men will step forward to admire them in the intimacy of the couple just like so many adoring women admire their men. Every woman academic, to cite the example closest to my own experience, finds out eventually that there are no academic husbands as there used to be academic wives. Men can be perfectly supportive of a woman’s career but they are rarely devoted admirers, though, of course, there must be exceptions.

Bolinches has no real solution for the superwomen who find no admirers (I have just realized that ‘admirer’ used to be a synonym for suitor). Here we are in a territory very far from what dating apps like Tinder can offer, for which admiration is a truly alien concept. In the social media you may expect likes but with everyone expecting to collect them, there is very little room for true admiration (and I mean personal, not the impersonal admiration for a remote celebrity). The superwomen Bolinches discusses are not after casual sex or instant hook-ups that can only generate admiration for particular sexual skills, but after love in the sense of lasting companionship. Unable to radically alter men, Bolinches basically says that unhappy superwomen should learn to be as happy with themselves as possible for, as we all know, well-balanced individuals are more attractive than needy ones. The problem with this recipe, which I do subscribe, is that a well-balanced woman tends not to need a man in her life–but perhaps that is the whole point and Tinder can do very well for the occasional fling.

The admirable men, to sum up, are too narcissistic to admire the superwomen they should admire back and prefer the company of adoring partners who are not superwomen. The solution, you might say, lies in behaving like men: be also narcissistic, expect a partner to be adoring rather than admirable. English novelist Fay Weldon used to say that women should learn to do as men do: choose partners of a lower standard and raise them to their level. The problem with her view is that I don’t quite see it working. Bolinches tells the story of a female CEO who needed counselling because she felt attracted to her chauffeur. According to him, she managed to establish a satisfactory relationship with her employee but this is hard for me to believe. A male boss might be happy marrying his personal assistant but I just don’t see a female boss marrying her chaffeur–unless he starts the relationship on the basis of feeling genuine admiration for her. Would that last? I’m not sure…

Bolinches, then, is right to note that admiration does play an important role in the love life of the female achievers he calls superwomen and I would add that, generally speaking, women admire men today less than ever. Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own that “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. Without that power probably the earth would still be swamp and jungle”. Take the mirror away, she writes, and “man may die, like the drug fiend deprived of his cocaine”. Woolf was partly deluded, I think, in believing that if woman’s admiration was lost men would be lost, for it seems to be that they prefer, on the whole, men’s admiration. It might well be that soon not even admirable men find adoring partners, for we live in times in which few male icons are still standing. Perhaps the inevitable conclusion is that we can hardly expect men to admire any superwomen when men themselves are no longer so deeply admired. Mutual admiration might appear to be the desirable goal but it seems to me that Woolf’s mirror is broken and the other one has not even been built (though exceptional men like Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, are quite capable of holding it). In fact, we women have managed to progress without it and I wonder whether it is needed at all.

Bolinche remains puzzled by the paradox he himself describes: the more women improve, the worse they are punished with a lack of suitable partners; the more successful a man is, the more he is rewarded with an abundance of adoring women. Ergo: men may admire successful women at a distance but feel too threatened by them to be their loving partners. Nothing surprising here, except Boliche’s candid approach to the matter. Perhaps, just perhaps, things have moved forward too fast (though they seem to progress so slowly) for men to adapt. I am sure that the more recalcitrant men think that women’s advances are reward enough, feeling that admiration is going too far. Perhaps, just perhaps, admiration has nothing to do with love though we know that it is always part of it, not necessarily admiration for personal achievements but for personal qualities. Since women used to be trained to admire men, maybe we can train men to admire us – until one day the admiration can be mutual.

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BOYS, GIRLS, AND SEX: STATE OF THE MATTER

American journalist Peggy Orenstein became a much sought-after expert on girls before becoming herself a mother, at which point she realized that theory hardly ever matches practice. Her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture (2012) describes the discomfiture caused by her inability to steer her daughter Daisy away from the glaring pink world of girls’ toys and the allure of the Disney princesses. Next came Orenstein’s insightful exploration of sexuality among high school and college female students in the USA, Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (2016). As she herself explains, this volume brought in many petitions for a companion study of boys, which she has recently published as Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity (2020). I must clarify that neither volume is specifically addressed to girls or boys but, rather, to the adults interested in their experiences. Boys and Sex is, therefore, similar in its main theses but very different from Respect: Everything a Guy Needs to Know About Sex, Love, and Consent (2019) by Swedish sex educator Inti Chavez Perez. Thus, whereas Orenstein wonders how many US boys really know about the clitoris, Chavez Perez gives his target male readers detailed didactic information about its location and functionality.

Orenstein’s portrait of teen US sexuality is necessarily limited because she focuses her attention on just a handful of informants (87 girls for the first book, about 100 boys for the second) mostly in high school and college, thus ignoring the many youths in other situations. It would be actually interesting to learn whether sex among the young is similar across class and educational differences. Her informants are, besides, overwhelmingly white. Orenstein makes a point of discussing race, especially in the book about the boys, but she deals only with non-white young men immersed in all-white colleges, with all the difficulties this entails. Certainly, their racially-marked position has a significant impact on these boys’ chances to meet sexual partners, given the covert and overt racism they often encounter even in liberal colleges. As you have possibly guessed, the sexuality which Orenstein explores in both books is mostly heterosexual though, to be honest, she does not really endorse its current practices. My impression, from both books, is that lesbian girls and gay guys are navigating ‘the complicated new landscape’, to quote from Orenstein’s title, with more maturity than their heterosexual peers despite still rampant homophobia. Orenstein, in any case, tries to be as inclusive as possible, integrating asexual and trans teens in her twin studies.

Peggy Orenstein, born in 1961, one year after the contraceptive pill was first commercialized, belongs to a post-sexual revolution generation. This means that although there are obvious differences between the 21st century young sexuality she describes and that of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s youth the differences are smaller than with the pre-pill generations. The main difference, obviously, has to do with the emergence of the internet, made accessible in most homes between the early and the mid-1990s, and of the smartphone, popularized already in the 2000s. Computers and smartphones made online porn generally accessible to boys, which is certainly a key factor. Next came the social media and texting apps: MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), Whatsapp (2009), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011) and so on. If the internet made porn accessible, the social media and the texting apps have put in the hands of teenagers an extremely dangerous tool to make or destroy sexual reputations, as many know. The dating apps, such as Grindr (2009) or Tinder (2012), though satisfactory for many of its users have given the hot body a centrality it should not have in general human sexuality.

I have read Girls and Sex after reading Boys and Sex, and I find that the discourse is very similar in both books, though in Girls the boys are presented with little nuance as almost faceless sexual companions, and in Boys, logically, there is much more detail about who they are. It is not an easy book to read because the portrait that emerges from the average US high school and college boy is very far from flattering. In the case of the girls Orenstein is worried by the distance between the feminist personalities of the girls and their acceptance of sexual practices which are not really satisfactory for them. In the case of the boys feminist Orenstein struggles to combine lessons in respect with the reality of the rape culture rampant in colleges, especially in Greek life (i.e. frat life, in reference to the Greek initials by which fraternities and sororities call themselves). In fact, the most painful sections of the book deal with the efforts made by some young men to understand that pushing your girlfriend down to give you a blow job is part of that rape culture: that push on the shoulders is already robbing the girl of her capacity to give consent.

As many researchers have been explaining in recent years, boys now start watching porn at an age before they have had any sexual feelings of their own which they can identify as such, sometimes as young as seven or eight. They get the wrong impression that the heavily staged sex they see on screen faithfully represents actual sexuality. This has a negative impact on girls, not only because they can find themselves disrespected and abused as often female porn stars are, but also because boys expect from them sexual favours which the girls might not be ready to perform and that, most often, are not reciprocated. Blow jobs, Orenstein insists, are now as common as kissing and a practice far more habitual than intercourse with penetration because, pay attention!, somehow blow jobs are not considered to be intimate and teens prefer impersonal hook-ups. Blow jobs, then, are just an indication that the girl is sexually active and of interest to boys. The problem is that, Orenstein explains, few boys are willing to reciprocate with cunnilingus, candidly declaring that it grosses them out and apparently believing that some clumsy vaginal fingering will do. Whether with or without intercourse boys are mostly satisfied with the sex they get but girls report many hook-ups with no orgasms. Why do they keep on accepting bad sex, Orenstein asks them? The girls reply that they don’t want to seem prudish (in my time the preferred slur was ‘frigid’) nor disappoint the boys. The additional problem, Orenstein explains, is that boys are asking for more and more… Because of the porn they see boys are demanding anal sex from girlfriends more than ever to the point that the current marker to establish whether a girl ‘does or does not do it’ is her acceptance of this practice, which is for most women painful and unrewarding. Many girls, though, oblige.

The scenario Orenstein presents is one in which dating that leads to intimacy has been pushed aside to make room for hook-up culture and in which romantic relationships have been delayed to a more adult post-college age. It is important not to ‘catch feelings’ and to perform sex as a sort of sport, with no attachments, which probably explains, I would add, why platonic friendship between men and women has grown. The young are mostly keeping the personal intimacy of friendship and the sexual prowess of the hook-up separate until a later age, when the ‘one’ (or ‘ones’) may appear after a period of experimentation. It wouldn’t sound bad if it weren’t because of some factors: the persistence of the double standard, the unequal sexualization of boys and girls, the use of the social media for bragging and for shaming, and the pervasive presence of alcohol in hook-up culture. And the matter of consent.

I believe that, on the whole, Orenstein makes too much of hook-up culture and too little of the young persons who follow other paths, either because they eschew sex altogether or because they manage their relationships in more intimate, romantic ways. I’ll suppose, however, for the sake of argumentation, that the pattern which Orenstein describes is common to, say, three quarters of young people, leaving the other quarter for the less susceptible to peer pressure. According to her, sex does not happen in US colleges without heavy drinking because sober sex is too serious, and might involve icky, uncool feelings. Casual sex, then, from kissing to anal sex, starts in parties, which boys attend in their daytime clothes and girls dressed up in mini-skirts, tank tops, high heels, their faces obligatorily made up to look sexy. The Dutch courage which drinking gives boys and girls lowers inhibitions but, as we all know, it also lowers the ability to ask for and give consent, hence the countless cases of boys accused of rape who claim they had no idea they were forcing the girl. Orenstein writes that we need to make sure girls enjoy alcohol with no risk to their physical integrity but I myself fail to understand why alcohol is so essential for both boys and girls to express their sexuality. If naturally induced sexual chemistry does not happen, why force it by drinking? The result can only be bad sex for both and, always, a greater risk for the girl of being raped. To her credit, though, Orenstein also describes the opposite situation: one in which boys incapacitated by alcohol to say no are abused by girls who wrongly assume that all guys are into sex all the time.

The double standard also continues unabated and made even worse by the social media and the texting apps. Girls, Orenstein explains, need to strike an almost impossible balance between being a prude and being a slut, whereas boys need not worry except by whether their score card is full enough. This matter of numbers is mind-boggling and a question that can hardly be solved for good, for there is no fixed perception about when a person is too promiscuous or not promiscuous enough. According to Orenstein, most teens lie about how much sex they have, pretending they have more than they do, and assume that the others have plenty. The figures she gives are rather modest in view of the apparently widespread hook-up culture but what really matters is the perception of the group to which the teen in question belongs. Some girls might be slut-shamed for a number of encounters others might consider low, some boy Don Juans might be bottom of the list in different places. It’s all relative. What is not relative it how reputation can be ruined to the point of suicide by the nonchalant (or malicious) sharing of sexting and videos, and the use of social media to send detailed reports of the sexual encounters. Even this is subjected to a double standard: girls’ behaviour in bed tends to be openly discussed by uncaring boys but, from what I gather, the girls do not use so frequently the same tools to discuss boys’ deficient performances, hardly ever shaming them as poor lovers or even rapists depending on the case.

All this amounts to something very simple: whereas now is the time for young persons to be enjoying sex with more freedom and pleasure than ever the reality reported by Orenstein and others is quite different. The mixture of porn, alcohol, social media reputation, and hook-up culture has resulted in a sexuality that seems at points a compulsory chore for both boys and girls rather than something genuinely celebrated. As an older person I should be feeling envy but after reading Orenstein I feel both relief and anxiety. I’m glad I am not a teenager today and I worry about what the teens in my family are finding in their love/sex lives. I think I am most dismayed by the idea that for both boys and girls, but above all for the girls, looking sexy (for the others) is so disconnected from feeling sexy (for yourself).

Orenstein portrays boys as persons who mostly truly accept gender equality but who are much confused about what respect and consent mean in a sexual relationship. She also presents them as much more likely to bow down to peer pressure and do terrible things in groups that they would never do individually. Of course, she refers to the USA and within it to specific lifestyles and possibly other cultures are very different. To be honest, I don’t know what is going on with teens here in Spain. Orenstein names the Dutch as the most advanced culture when it comes to teen sex, thanks to the good communication between parents and children. That is an important factor indeed but in the end, the impression I get is that if guys worried less about how they are judged by their male peers and rejected peer pressure against showing their feelings, sex would be much, much better for them and, above all, for the girls. I don’t know how they can be taught to change, though listening to them, as Orenstein does, seems a good way.

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

TEACHING LITERATURE AS IMMERSIVE HISTORY: A LOOK AT THE 19TH CENTURY PAST

I have been reading this weekend Ruth Goodman’s fascinating volume How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life (2014) in preparation for the new course I start tomorrow. Goodman is a rather well-known freelance British historian who makes a living as a consultor to museums, theatre, television, and schools of all types. She is known not only for her books–who wouldn’t want to read How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England: A Guide for Knaves, Fools, Harlots, Cuckolds, Drunkards, Liars, Thieves, and Braggarts (2018)?–but also for the TV series she has hosted, which include the six-part BBC series Victorian Farm (2009). In it Goodman and others recreate everyday life on a farm in Shropshire in the mid-19th century, as it supposedly was. In fact, much to my surprise, there is quite a remarkable number of TV programmes of this type, based on the idea of the immersive historical experience, on both sides of the Atlantic and other countries like Germany.

Goodman peppers How to Be a Victorian with comments on her personal experience of cooking Victorian food or using Victorian clothes and cosmetics. Her case is a very extreme form of immersive experience in the past (she also specializes in Tudor times) but it is also closely connected with the passion for historical re-enactment that drives so many amateur clubs and that is almost indispensable in today’s museums. Beyond this, a quick internet search beginning with Goodman’s Wikipedia page soon takes me from the TV series she has participated in to the debates on how Virtual Reality technology will alter the understanding of the past in educational contexts. The debate has been going on for more than a decade now, triggered by the commercialisation of the first VR headgear sets, though I must say that VR cannot give the bodily experience Goodman aims at. One thing is walking a Victorian street in a VR environment (with no smells…) and quite another wearing a Victorian corset or, as Goodman did, keeping your hair clean Victorian-style with no shampoo for four months.

On the other hand, as Patrick T. Allen argues in an article published in The Conversation, “A Brief History of Immersion, Centuries before VR” https://theconversation.com/a-brief-history-of-immersion-centuries-before-vr-94835, “immersion is a technique much older than technology. It is the key to storytelling, in literature, film, videogames, even in the spoken stories told by our ancestors around the campfire”. He makes, of course, a very good point but even so what I learn from Goodman, and from so many years teaching Victorian Literature, is that our immersion in a text of the past is woefully superficial in many senses. Goodman’s detailed description of everyday life makes me see the characters in Victorian fiction with an unexpected fullness. I can now imagine the underwear of the richer ones and what they had for breakfast, but also notice the absence of the poorest ones, except marginally in Dickens, Gaskell, and a few others. Indeed, preparing these days a PowerPoint presentation on Victorian fashions for my students I couldn’t help noticing once again how classist our approach to teaching 19th century Literature is. I don’t think that the 20th and the 21st century have done much better in representing the working classes but one might say that working-class life is conspicuously missing in the fiction of the century in which the Industrial Revolution changed everything.

Other type of volumes aim at enhancing the immersive historical experience that reading the Literature of the past always is. I started reading What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England (1994) by Daniel Pool but I soon stopped, frankly overwhelmed. Unlike Goodman, who mentions Victorian fiction only occasionally, Pool has paid attention to all the details that may baffle any contemporary reader and written a prodigious volume which is partly a collection of brief essays and partly an extensive glossary. Unfortunately he begins with a description of 19th century currency, in the section he calls ‘The Basics’, which made me throw up my hands in despair. I have never found the energy to understand guineas, sovereigns, and crowns and the question is whether I should find it. It’s the same with the types of carriages or other abstruse matters such as the difference between a baron and a baronet (the former is a peer, the latter is top of the gentry but plain Sir, not Lord).

This means that, unless we are scholars preparing a critical edition, no matter how many times we have read a text many small details will escape our notice. In part because there is always a limit to the energy we are willing to invest on reading a text and in part because we miss much information implicitly available to the original readers or that needn’t be included for their sake. Even so, they must also have missed much context for many Victorian novels were set decades before their date of publication. Just to give an example, imagine a twenty-year-old reader of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published in 1848. The heroine, Helen Graham, refers in her diary to events that happen around 1827, when my imaginary reader hadn’t even been born (and incidentally, not Victoria but her uncle George IV was king). How was this young reader supposed to reconstruct that past? Did s/he bother to ask about life twenty years before? Where could s/he have found the relevant information? I am just a few clicks away from images of the 1820s on the internet but what could my imaginary reader check back in the 1840s? Remember that public libraries as we know them today were established later, from the 1850s onward.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”, L.P. Hartley famously wrote as the first line of his novel The Go-Between (1953), and he is absolutely right. What is refreshing in Goodman’s perspective is how she takes this ‘differently’ to celebrate it. Take the matter of personal hygiene, which always baffles and disgusts any person thinking of a past when the daily shower routine was missing. Goodman gently reminds us that a daily shower is a luxury we enjoy, precisely, thanks to Victorian advances in indoors plumbing and electricity (imagine washing your hair daily with no hair dryer!). The flushing toilet may not have been generalized in Victorian times but Victorian entrepreneurs made it a desirable domestic fixture. Goodman makes this point but at the same time she praises to the sky the sensible management of human waste, above all in the countryside where contraptions such as the earth toilet resulted in abundant compost.

What she is saying, then, but we tend to forget is that people living in the past were not barbarians who didn’t know better as we often assume but persons making the most of their circumstances. Goodman comments, for instance, that corsets were not really less comfortable than underwired bras or shapewear (of the kind Kim Kardashian uses and sells) but we tend of think just of the questionable practice of extreme tight lacing, which is what caused the bodily deformities so often criticized. In a similar vein, we know that high-heeled shoes are absurd but this doesn’t stop many women from wearing them and even claiming they feel comfortable. Goodman also makes a point of constantly stressing that many basic ingredients in Victorian cosmetics and prepared foodstuffs are still present in current products. There are elements of the Victorian past that scare her–she basically says that babies were routinely poisoned by concerned parents who fed them dangerous medicine–but she makes on the whole a very good defense of Victorian ingenuity and capacity to correct the worst situations. Life in 1890s Britain, thus, does not appear to be substantially worse than life in the post-WWII 1950s.

So, does it help to know about flushing toilets or about the difference between a crinoline and a bustle to understand Victorian fiction? I think it does, and very much. Some authors may not care very much to describe the background of their fiction but look at what Bram Stoker does in Dracula (1897). We miss the horror of his tale if we miss that Count Dracula comes from a medieval land to terrorize ultra-modern Britain. Stoker’s characters put together a record of the vampire chase using all kind of modern devices (a typewriter, a phonograph… both 1870s inventions) and they follow him back to his lair thanks to perfectly reliable train schedules. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film adaptation was the first to understand Stoker’s ultra-modernity. It even has a beautiful scene in which Dracula follows Mina into a cinema, which is not anachronistic as it might seem: “The first public film shows in the UK to a paying audience took place in London in 1896. On 21 February that year, the Polytechnic Institute on Regent Street hosted a display of the Lumière brothers’ new moving-picture device, the Cinématographe” (http://www.londonssilentcinemas.com/history/).

Reading Goodman’s volume and other excellent books such as Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2003) I cannot help being impressed by the massive effort Victorians made to improve matters. “The greatest invention of the nineteenth century”, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “was the invention of the method of invention”, as he is right indeed. It can be argued that many of these inventions resulted in the hell that factory life was for many 19th century children, women, and men. Also that others were delayed for suspicious sexist reasons: the washing machine was invented by one Jacob Christian Schäffer (in 1767!) but not commercialized. American inventor Nathaniel Briggs was granted the first patent for a hand-operated washing machine in 1797, and others followed in his steps, but only the introduction of Alva J. Fisher’s electric Thor washer in 1908 started changing domestic life for women. As Goodman claims, doing the laundry was the worst chore Victorian women had to face, particularly those in the working classes and in service to the middle- and upper-classes. One never reads about these matters in Victorian Literature, in which clothes are worn and soiled with little mention of who makes and cleans them.

To sum up, then, yes indeed reading the fiction of the past is an immersive historical experience but a limited one–as limited as reading the fiction of the present, which can hardly make sense of the widespread use of the smartphone and the impact of the social media (can it??). I am not sure how far deep into the past we need to understand what we read or if we have simply to handle the background as well we can, which is possibly the only practical option. Let’s be at least aware that in the past things were done differently, and enjoy the difference.

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

NO JOY IN TEACHING LITERATURE THIS YEAR: ON COVID-19 AND RETURNING TO CLASS

I should be celebrating in today’s post, the first one in the academic year 2020-2021, that this blog is now ten years old. Instead of happiness, however, the feeling that necessarily affects my writing now and that makes my nights so restless is fear. Fear that the return to class next week means being infected with Covid-19, with who knows what consequences, and fear that I might infect those who live with me and endanger lives I love even more than mine. This is not at all the spirit in which a teacher should start a new year and I’m writing today to leave a record of that fear, hoping that by next semester I can read this post and laugh at my concerns. Right now I feel no joy. I do look forward to teaching Literature again but not at the cost of my health, which is very much at risk, and my peace of mind, which I have lost.

Like all my colleagues in Spain, I have been working from home since 14 March. I taught about four weeks in the classroom before lockdown forced me to go online, with no major problem as I already knew this crisis was coming (the news in The Guardian about the plague in China had been scaring me already for at least one month). My experience of teaching online using an asynchronous model, combining forums and weekly activities, and without using streaming, worked very well to the point that I awarded the highest marks since the implementation of the new BA degrees ten years ago. I even published a very handsome e-book on American in documentary film with my students (see ). In view of this, I have been defending, to no avail, each teacher’s right to choose whether to continue online or return to class. Like the rest of us who prefer staying online I find myself, however, forced to return to the classroom against my better judgement and forced to assume a serious risk to my health. Ironically, many teachers in my Department who could have plead their age (past 60) or their poor health and stay home have chosen to teach in person, which totally baffles me.

I have been imagining what the first day will be like and I see myself first on a very crowded train, which no minimal social distance at all. I work at a campus university and it takes me about 30 minutes to get there. It is just impossible to run more trains and thus make more room for passengers; in fact, the railway management had already acknowledged last year that trains are running at more than 100% their capacity and this is not going to change because of Covid-19. Next, I see myself reaching the also overcrowded building of my school, which will not really be emptier despite the measures taken by the Dean’s office.

In my own case, I have been given a larger classroom to accommodate my 45 students in Victorian Literature on Tuesdays, but with no guarantee of the necessary 1’5m social distancing required. I have been asked to split my class in two groups, in rigorous alphabetical order to keep track of eventual contagions, and see them on alternate Thursdays, ideally streaming my lessons for those who cannot be in the classroom (but who will possibly be in the school corridors waiting to attend another course taught in similar ways). I am totally against the idea of streaming my lessons and having people I cannot see watch me teach and, so, I have decided to have my students share each other’s class notes and my own notes. This morning I have been working on a calendar to guarantee that everyone will get sufficient hours for the needs of the course and, basically, I need to teach more compact lessons, with less time for student participation. That might work if I focus more intensely on the assessment requirements and cut any extras that might enrich the students’ learning about the Victorian Age.

In my visions of Tuesday next week, I enter next my classroom wearing a facemask and I see 45 equally masked students. I see no point in checking their names for I will never be able to recognize them. I must carry, or will be provided with (that is not clear), disinfectant to clean the table and be able to leave my notes on it, and the computer to use my USB. The windows need to be open for fifteen minutes between sessions but I intend to keep them open all the time. I don’t know yet whether I am supposed to shorten my lessons by fifteen minutes at the beginning, I don’t know who to ask. It’s now September and still beautifully warm (the air conditioning might even be on for the virus to circulate…) and I don’t know what will happen on colder days in November but the windows will stay open. I will buy and carry my own blackboard eraser and chalk, as we’ve been told that they cannot be shared. I don’t trust that the eraser will be properly disinfected, as we have been told it will be.

We have been told that we can teach without the facemask on provided we are two metres away from the students and even though facemasks are now compulsory in all private and public spaces. I have been using so far surgical masks of the basic type but my pharmacist tells me I should wear KN-95 respirators on the train, which possibly means I should also wear them in class. There is no way, however, I can properly breath and project my voice with a facemask of any type on and this has me very, very worried. The masks were never designed to be worn for so many hours and much less to teach in big classrooms, so I have no idea right now about what I should do. I don’t know either how one communicates with masked students whose expressions I cannot read at all.

So, supposing I manage to teach for seventy-five minutes without suffocating and feeling cut off from the masked persons before me next comes the nightmarish time to leave the classroom and join the hundreds of persons abandoning the other classrooms in the same corridor. The authorities have limited gatherings to ten persons but all the universities will have gatherings in many classrooms of fifty and more. There is, besides, absolutely no way the occupation of the corridors, the bathrooms, or the cafeteria can be limited to safe numbers (no problem in the library, though, the least crowded space always). I have been given the choice to be available for tutorials either online or in person, by the way. I chose to be available online any day of the week at my students’ convenience but I was told that, according to the Dean’s office, I must be in my office for online tutorials. Luckily for me, I have a big office and I have chosen to meet my students there at a safe two metres distance, with open windows and disinfecting the chairs they may use. I hope this relative proximity gives a human touch to any possible meeting, though I’ll try to solve problems by e-mail if possible.

No doubt staying home all this time and carefully managing my meeting friends and family may have turned me into a bit of a misanthrope. Perhaps that’s not the right word but I don’t know if the Covid-19 crisis has already given us a word for the fear of personal contact. I have never liked crowds but that is very different from feeling that my 45 students are a danger to me, and I to them. To be honest, I fear that they are a much bigger danger to me than I am to them because they are part of the demographic now responsible for the largest number of contagions. I’m sorry to say that the young have been breaking the safety rules implemented by the authorities more than other age groups and, with no previous testing, we teachers simply cannot know how to assess the danger in our classrooms. One of my colleagues also made the point that by forcing students to attend lessons we are committing a sort of moral fault, for they are indeed also risking their health. Covid-19 has killed many more older people but the young have also been affected, sometimes cruelly. Nobody is safe as we all know by now, so why insist on making classes presential?

After introducing myself on the first day, I will write on the blackboard the word ‘candid’ and will invite my students to have a candid conversation about why we need to risk our life by meeting in a classroom in the middle of a truly scary plague. I know that, right now, this means assuming a totally unnecessary risk but I want to hear from them what they expect from me and why, all of a sudden, attending classes has become such a big issue. Every year students cut classes, and nobody checks on them, or miss them because they are ill and nobody tells the teachers that we have to make up for these absences by teaching online. Absurdity and self-denial rule our return to class. Some of my colleagues are telling me that we’ll start next week and will close down the week after for there is no way Covid-19 can be controlled in a university environment. That might be a correct assessment of the situation but even just one day of teaching is a risk we cannot assume. I find that primary and secondary schools are a different matter, for kids stay in the same classroom and don’t move about all over the place. In universities, masses of teachers and students circulate from classroom to classroom, which will also increase the circulation of the virus. I think of the cafeteria and I shiver…

I am not saying, then, that universities should abandon presential teaching for online teaching for good but I am saying that we live in exceptional times and that there is absolutely no need to return to the classrooms. We have been receiving these days cheerful messages from the Rector’s and the Dean’s office and though I know they have been sent with the best intention they have done nothing to appease my fears, quite the opposite. I have kept so far my concentration and carried on with my academic work at home but I tried to prepare my first session for next week today and I simply couldn’t focus. I have serious difficulties to believe that what I teach is so relevant to myself and my students as to want to risk my health, much more so when I could perfectly fulfil my teaching duties online. I know that some might think I am a coward, or exaggerating the risks, but there are two kinds of negationists right now: those who claim that Covid-19 does not even exist and those who claim that the return to class is safe. It is not.

Good luck to all of you, keep safe. If you can.

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