CELEBRATING A LIFE WELL LIVED: IN MEMORIAM LOIS RUDNICK

The Fulbright Commission has been sending visiting scholars to Spain since the academic year 1958-59 (according to its directory, Howard Floan was the first visitor, to the University of Zaragoza). My Department received a steady flow of visitors, shared with the Department of English of the Universitat de Barcelona, between the mid-1980s (as far as I can tell) and 2013. The modest financial aid we could contribute towards our visitors’ expenses could never compete with potent private universities, like Deusto, and although we still welcome visitors, none has materialized in the last eight years. The last one was poet John Poch. I was recently approached by another possible visitor, so hope has not died out that we’ll get back in stride.

I met our Fulbright visitors first as a student (undergraduate and doctoral) and later as the person in charge of running the applications from our side, which included socializing with them, sometimes minimally, sometimes more regularly. I do not recall all our visitors but some made an important impression both among us as a Department and personally in my career and life. Thus, I learned to work in depth and at speed with the wonderful Bonnie Lyons who taught us, doctoral students, about Jewish American Literature. Russell Goodman, who specialized in philosophy and Literature, welcomed a quite crazy essay I perpetrated on Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, my first academic writing on sf. Another very generous visitor, Connie L. Richards, persuaded me to send my paper for her course on turn-of-the century American Literature to a Texan journal she co-edited, which –to my immense surprise– accepted it. That was my first publication ever at a time, besides, when my teachers in the doctoral programme of my Department were telling us that no pre-doctor should dare publish anything. How things have changed!

On a personal front, visiting professor Tiffany Lopez (2004-5) and I shared great moments. She had a guide by a Californian publisher to the best patisseries in Barcelona, and we would visit a different one every week. Our sweet tour culminated in a most memorable dinner at Espai Sucre, a restaurant which serves an awesome set menu only composed of desserts. Academic life and its pleasures… Yet, the visitor that left the most indelible impression was Lois Rudnick, who jokingly called herself ‘the Queen’, and was indeed a marvellous woman, a real queen. For the few months in 1994 when I had the privilege of enjoying her friendship, my life was very much enriched. I have heard the same praise from the many persons celebrating her life a couple of days ago in the online memorial held to gather her friends together. Sadly, Lois passed away in June aged 76, too early, when she still had much to do and say, the victim of a devastating cancer.

I last met Lois, after too many years, in October 2018. I wrote next a post about her book The Suppressed Memoirs of Mabel Dodge Luhan: Sex, Syphilis, and Psychoanalysis in the Making of Modern American Culture (2012). What I never told Lois but can finally say now that she’s gone is that I find it unfair that Luhan got so much attention from her because I doubt that someone will one day write about Lois herself. Literary Studies and, in general, the Humanities disciplines devoted to studying artistic production are implicitly biographical since we put ourselves in the background to celebrate the work done by others. Some will say that we are parasites living off the achievements of persons whose monthly wages have been never guaranteed as ours are (if we have tenure, that is). There is a little bit of that, I grant it, but also much of selfless caring for what talented persons have done and we wish to preserve. This should be plain common sense, yet whenever I have read Lois’ outstanding work on Luhan, I have always resented the situation, thinking that extraordinary persons like Lois will never find their biographer because academics have a lower status than artists. Obituaries, memorials, and texts like this post will have to suffice and, of course, Lois’ academic publications – her ten books and dozens of articles.

We know, however, don’t we?, that academic lives are not limited to what we publish. In fact, now that I think about the matter, unless one is extra careful in giving instructions to perpetuate one’s work beyond retirement or death, my impression is that whole careers can be scattered to the winds and either totally disappear or persist just in the randomness of who cites whom. We scholars do not seem to care much what happens to our writings so that, thinking of the case at hand, I’ve had trouble finding online the complete list of what Lois published in book form, and had to check GoodReads and Amazon. On the other hand, the legacy of good teachers and researchers lives on for generations, sometimes anonymously and in ways no academic authorities can quantify. For instance, Lois coached me about how to deliver my first paper in an academic conference and I have coached my doctoral students applying what she taught me. Hearing her ex-students and colleagues a few days ago in the memorial I understood that we have no instruments (happily!) to measure true impact of this kind. This has nothing to do with publication metrics, performance assessment in teaching, awards or distinctions, but with that much bigger impact good scholars make through being kind and caring.

Perhaps because of this in the middle of the memorial, when so many persons had already described Lois’ academic achievements, a person complained in the chat: stop, she wrote, and give us your personal memories. For it is in the personal memories, either fully personal or professional, that a real imprint is left. So, here we go. I saw Schindler’s List with Lois when it was released in Spain and we both left the cinema in tears; Lois was Jewish and when some idiot tells me that Spielberg sentimentalized the Holocaust excessively, I recall her distress and her tears and let stupidity pass. Lois loved contemporary dance and we saw together all the performances of that already long gone Spring of 1994 in Barcelona. There was a small theatre, L’Espai (1992-2005) run by the Catalan Government, which kept us supplied with a constant stream of great dancing. We were lucky that public money was used then in that way. Incidentally, my funniest personal memory of Lois, ‘the Queen’, came when I told her that Queen Sofía in person would be at the ceremony to award the LaCaixa grants, of which I was a recipient. Her surprised expression that actual Queens could be met will always stay with me.

To sum up, I have not wanted to commemorate here Lois Rudnick as someone who is gone for good but as someone who will always remain in the memories of friends and colleagues. This is the same for everyone who passes away but it’s been my intention to highlight here how unexpected academic encounters lead to the greatest benefits and pleasures. An underside of academic life is that attachments that can be very intense for the three days a conference lasts or the few months a visitor remains cannot be integrated in one’s regular life easily. I do not mean that persons we meet in academic gatherings cannot remain friends for many years and stay regularly in touch; we all have important relationships of that kind. What I mean is that as a human collective we are used to long-distance friendships that we wished were much closer. I feel that way about Lois but also immensely happy that she was in my neighbourhood for a while.

On the other hand, I have also wanted to make the point that good scholars who, like Lois, are warm persons leave behind a powerful trace that fortunately the academic system cannot measure. I think that, on the whole, we are missing the chance to enliven and increase this other, much more personal, aspect of academic life. The pandemic has made much worse our tendency to work and live in academic isolation, or at least that’s how I feel. Of course we are in touch through the networks we work for, or through the personal relationships established within Departments, but I have the impression that we are not doing enough to truly talk to each other. I’m sorry, as you can see, that I did not speak more with Lois; somehow I assumed we would meet again, but that chance to enjoy friendship anew is gone. Don’t let other chances pass you by.

And Lois, my queen, just let me say this planet has been made much brighter by your walking on it. Thanks for that.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

THIRTY YEARS AS A TEACHER: THINKING OF ASSESSMENT

In a couple of days I will be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of my career as a university teacher. I was hired as a youthful 25-year-old and time passes that fast. I believe it is an important anniversary, though I am not sure yet what sort of watershed this is. Until the 2008 crisis (I think), university teachers with 30 years’ experience were allowed to retire with a full pension, provided they were at least 55. This privilege is now long gone and since retirement for my baby-boomer cohort will most likely be at 70, this means that I am only two thirds into my career, which may extend up to 45 years. This is a daunting thought. If I think 15 years into the past, then I go back to 2006, the pre-crisis world that belongs to another era. This is when I realize that 15 more years –climate change willing– are still very many to go.

Having got rid of these melancholy thoughts, I must say that I do not wish to use this post to reminisce about the first 30 years in my career. This is not an uncommon figure for my demographic or older and I am sure that the recollections of other persons are juicier. I would like to consider instead the devaluation of experience and the overvaluation of innovation, though, as you will see, I will soon enter into other matters, the main one being assessment.

I am certainly an experienced teacher but students –who, as a friend said, get younger and younger as we teachers age though they are always the same age– are a constant reminder that teaching experience is only relatively valuable. A long experience means that each session –seminar, lecture– takes less to prepare but since our audience is different each year experience does little for the finetuning of mutual communication. Students are in some sense eternally the same, and in many others very different, as corresponds to members of different generations. My first students are now nearing 50, the ones I’ll start teaching tomorrow are about 19. When I started I was only 7 years older than my second-year students, I am now 36 years older, and the time might come when I am 50 years older than my ever young students. My case, which is absolutely very common, means then that the more experienced teachers of my age group are, the more disconnected we grow from our students. Teaching innovation is supposed to bridge that gap though no doubt the greatest innovation would be going back to hiring full-time 25-year-old to teach undergrads. Currently, the average age of Spanish university teachers is my age, 55.

The problem with the concept of innovation is that it does not really address the nature of education in depth. I think that I am entitled to say after 30 years that what is wrong with education is assessment. I don’t know how Aristotle or Socrates taught their students but, somehow, I don’t see them marking papers. Or worrying about whether a disciple was copying from another disciple’s exercise. Everyone understands that a romantic relationship in which one of the partners never loses from sight the possibility of cheating is unhealthy. In contrast, higher education assumes that students will and do cheat. This is supposed to be in the nature of students, those devious creatures!, but it is actually part of the nature of education as it is now. In romantic relationships monogamy tends to be a hurdle if one of the partners does not believe in it (I read in the paper that a surge in infidelity is expected, now that employees are going back to the offices after the worst of Covid-19 is over). Likewise, assessment is an open invitation to cheating because who can really agree to being assessed all the time?

Assessment is the opposite of education for the very simple reason that it is not a mechanism to check the advance of learning but to prevent students from cheating (= doing as they like). Let me give you an example. In my Cultural Studies course I want my students to read and study independently David Walton’s extremely informative Introduction to Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice. This is the only book they need to read, as we will be working with pop songs, and texts such as opinion articles, reviews and interviews. To make sure that students do read Walton’s book, I have valued this part of the course with a hefty 25% of the final grade. For me to assess that students have studied the book, they need to submit a 500-word essay based on the passage they prefer from the whole text. Well, I have already had a student ask me whether they need to read the whole book, in an attempt to open a negotiation about how much really they need to read. I am simply not interested in this kind of negotiation and I have, therefore, decided to avoid assessment and make students responsible for their self-assessment (using a rubric I will provide) for the whole subject.

This is not the first time I leave assessment in the students’ hands. In the past academic year I invited my MA students to self-assess, also on the basis of a rubric, and this worked very well in the sense that nobody cheated and gave themselves a higher grade than they deserved (in my view). The tension always affecting this aspect of teaching evaporated and we could focus on what really mattered, which was producing a book together. As I return again to project-oriented learning with this new BA class, it makes more and more sense for me to educate students into being responsible for their own work. If a student decides to resist my efforts to educate them, then they should be responsible for awarding themselves a fail, not I. I do not think a person is led onto the path of adulthood by teachers’ assuming the burden of assessing students who refuse to do their best. I want my students to blossom into responsible adults and this should begin by their understanding that trying to cheat on me or any other teacher either through actual academic offence or simply by not being sufficiently involved is immature and, well, childish. Not what undergrads should do.

In the last ten or eleven years I’ve had second-year BA student self-assess their grade for classroom participation (meaning actual involvement, not just attendance), which usually amounts to 10% of the final grade. This has worked well and in the last five years, more or less, I have hardly ever altered any of the grades. I must explain that rubrics are essential for self-assessment. A student may believe that they deserve, say, an 8/B+ but when faced with the description of the learning results actually deserving of an 8/B+ they will think twice. I’ve had students having to painfully acknowledge they deserve a 0 (is that an F?) and others proudly claiming they did wonderfully, but I have never had a student question this practice and tell me that my job consists of assessing them. Actually, the time I don’t waste in assessment is time they gain in other types of attention from me (for instance, last year I made myself available online one hour a week just for chatting about the books we were reading – I loved those sessions!). I do not know if I am going too far this year by having third/fourth year students self-assess all their exercises, maybe I am, but I just don’t want assessment to interfere with teaching.

I am well aware that what I am saying here cannot work with all degrees or subjects, and works best when the whole class is involved in a common project. My worry right now is not who will pass and who will fail but whether I will be able to convince my 27 students in Cultural Studies that our common aim is not filling in 6 credits but producing a book. None of my students can fail, for all need to be good enough writers to participate in our project, which means that I will use most of my time to correct and edit their work in at least two versions (I use rewriting all the time). This method, of course, has nothing to do with cramming in, say, Medicine or Law Studies and with the need to constantly test whether the future doctor or lawyer has advanced enough to be able to engage in increasingly specialized knowledge. I have a woefully poor knowledge of how other disciplines work, including the Linguistics area in my own Department, but I have this total certainty, based on my experience, that assessment is too important in higher education and needs to be either limited, or altered, or abandoned for ever.

Suppressing assessment possibly sounds wonderful to the laziest students (and teachers!) but I am not speaking of a free-for-all by which you end up earning a degree by doing nothing except registering. No, what I mean is the opposite: assessment has all this protagonism because we don’t trust our students to really want to learn, and need to push them around so that they learn enough stuff to at least pass assessment. Carrot and stick, stick and carrot. As I know, both as a former student who did well at exams and as a teacher who hates exams, assessment is not learning. I am still assessed regularly as a teacher and as a researcher, and I can say for good than the highest pleasure of learning usually come to me when I work on activities which escape assessment –including this blog. Perhaps for you, dear readers, the conclusion is that I have learned nothing in 30 years of teaching and that resisting education is part of education, which makes assessment necessary. The way society is structured, assessment operates at all levels to weed out slackers and incompetent employees, and to reward the most brilliant minds with money for their research or prizes, yet this only replicates what we face from day one in kindergarten. Isn’t it time we change tack?

I wonder what students think about this – or are they the first ones to defend assessment?

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

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

I am re-reading my post for 7 September 2020 in which I express my fears about returning to face-to-face teaching and I marvel at how little things have changed. I wrote then that I was in the grip of “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”. I also wrote that I hoped those fears would soon be over and the return to normality a matter of six months. We are now eighteen months into the pandemic and although it seems that with 70% of the Spanish population already vaccinated matters have improved very much that is only part of the story.

We now know that doubly-vaccinated persons may still suffer from Covid-19, either in its mildest or in its most lethal form, and we are getting from the scientists worrying information about the serious waning of the vaccine protection only after four months. If this is true, we will go back to square one in December, two years–two years!–after the onset of the pandemic in Wuhan. There are rumours that British PM Boris Johnson has privately declared he is willing to accept a situation in which 50000 persons die of Covid-16 yearly in the UK. This sounded monstrous to me until I realized that we are already there and above, with more than 150 daily deaths in Spain’s fifth wave, close to 200 on some days. If a terrorist group massacred 150/200 Spaniards every day we would be angrily filling the streets. However, in this summer’s cruel normality, the streets have only been filled with people anxious to party as hard as possible. Many of them are young people soon to be in our classrooms.

University classrooms have not really been a focus of contagion even though many have been full beyond the 50% norm and very few teachers were already vaccinated when presential teaching partially re-started last Spring. The Spanish Government considered primary and secondary school teachers a priority, but told us to our face that since we were mostly teaching online vaccination was not urgent for us. I would agree in my own case, as I have indeed remained home teaching, but I must protest that the lives of many of my colleagues were unnecessarily endangered and that if the damage has remained low this has been just a case of sheer good luck. Most, if not all of us, were vaccinated between April and July, but please recall that vaccines are only 90-95% effective and that not all our students will have been vaccinated next week (nor some anti-vaxxer teachers). Besides, local news outlet Betevé explained last week that street parties are growing, since newly vaccinated young people who had refrained from attending them so far, do so now believing that they are safe. No one is safe because, please let’s remember this, the vaccines do not stop contagion, they only diminish the chances of Covid-19 being lethal.

All in all, then, I am bracing myself for a semester that will be, to say the least, complicated. Last year we taught in the flesh for about four weeks before being sent home. We were so optimistic back then that we even started teaching without masks (for the teachers, students had to wear them at all times). We teachers were soon masked, with all the discomfort this entails when you need to project your voice, but at least we were spared the cold winter of open windows that primary and secondary schools have heroically gone through. Not this time. My university regulations require that lectures are shortened by fifteen minutes so that classrooms can be ventilated, but (like last year) the authorities fail to explain where students will be in the meantime, making our crowded corridors again a risk. Classrooms will be filled to 70% capacity, which means that in classrooms for 100 students you will get 70 students, who will be unable to keep the minimum social distance (three feet or two meters, depending on the system you use). We all know from our experience last year that interaction with masked students seating at a considerable distance from teachers to maximize social distancing is a nightmare. At least, I simply could not understand my students’ muffled words. Then there is the matter of streaming if your university cannot find a classroom big enough for your group (in my university groups can be as big as 140 students). This year my university has decided that streaming classes for students who cannot physically be in the classroom is a free choice for teachers. Some may have been happy with the bimodal arrangement, but most teachers and students have concluded that one cannot teach well addressing both those in the classroom and those elsewhere.

Yes, what I am saying is that we are hurrying back to crowded buildings quite recklessly. This push back to classroom rather than online teaching is part of the same trigger-happy dynamic by which many companies are forcing employees back to the office, disregarding the danger and the discomfort. We seem to be operating internationally under the illusion that the pandemic is over, when in fact our hurry to put it in the past tense is prolonging it. No lessons have been learned at all, and we are just travelling, socializing and working as if things were normal. I am not saying that we need to be permanently trapped by the virus, and react hysterically to any bout; what I am saying is that I am appalled that the whole world is pretending that this is 2019, when it is 2021 and the virus is still on the rampage. We are taking for granted not only the death toll (under the wrong impression that only the very old are dying) but also the whole health system, whose workers must be hating every single one of us who ends up in hospital out of imprudence.

The impatience to go back to the classroom or the office has nothing to do, then, with the desirability of traditional models of teaching and working but with a general inability to have benefitted from the new ways brought in by the pandemic. I was truly convinced that the advantages of online learning and working would be appreciated and maintained beyond the end of the pandemic, but this has not happened. Parents of young children who had found a solution to the problem of how to conciliate family needs and working schedules are being deprived of that solution for reasons that are not clearly explained; surely, the cost for companies of keeping offices open is always higher than subsidizing the expenses of at home employees. As regards teaching, even though little is gained right now by gathering masses of students in classrooms to listen to lectures in which they need not participate, this is preferred to online teaching regulated by one’s own weekly schedule. Clearly, everyone hates online teaching and learning and this is an important factor but I will insist again and again that a major problem is that what we have been doing during the pandemic is not online teaching but using online resources to continue traditional teaching.

What is worrying me is that a situation in which teachers and students are afraid of returning to the classroom (I am very much afraid!) is not normal. I would not go to class if I had a gunman pointing at me every day, but I am asked to take health risks that are still pretty serious, vaccine or no vaccine. One need not be top virologist Margarita del Val to understand that by mid-October at the latest, we will have a sixth wave of contagions, now when we are still going through the tail-end of the fifth one. I do not understand the logic of this, particularly because the situation is not accompanied at all by clear legislation from the national Government and a better sense of responsibility from each citizen. When I read that people skip vaccine appointments and that many of the 30% still not vaccinated are anti-vaxxers, negationists, and plain covidiots I simply hate the human species.

In my own teaching practice I am going to keep going what I did online last year with my in-person teaching, that is to say, I will open online forums for discussion beyond the classroom, I will have students who do class presentations upload narrated PowerPoints to our virtual classroom for further discussion, and I will try to use my tutorial time for open online sessions, book-club style. I very much want face-to-face teaching to be less fundamental to my courses, so that students see that learning is not something that happens on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 to 10:00 but a continuous process that weaves in and out of our online and live meetings. I will, of course, try to make my presence in the classroom as productive as possible but, unlike what I have recently doing, I will stop checking attendance and will allow students more freedom to learn as they wish, as long as they follow the course. I intend, in short, classroom interaction to be a resource with the same importance as others online and not the very core of teaching. We’ll see if anything really changes.

Let me finish by sharing something else that worries me. I have not stepped into a classroom in the last 330 days, more or less, and I keep having these nightmares in which I see myself going back to teaching but being rejected by students. They don’t listen to me, or leave the classroom in the middle of my lectures… On the day I return to class I will have been a university teacher for thirty years, but that I have these nightmares says all I need to say about how vulnerable Covid-19 makes me feel. Should make us all feel.

Hopefully, by September next year this pandemic will have died out… only by then Barcelona might be gone, flooded by the effect of climate change as some apocalyptic media have warned. The future is, definitely, not what it used to be.

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