WRITING A REVIEW OF AN ACADEMIC BOOK: A FEW TIPS

I find book reviews a very hard genre to write. This is why I marvel every time I come across great reviews in GoodReads that cover plenty of ground in just a few paragraphs, written apparently by readers who simply enjoy sharing their opinions. It has come to a point in my own reading when I hardly take up a book without first checking what the GoodRead members have to say—or in which, lazily, I check their opinions when I sense something is off with a book but cannot be bothered to think for myself. I do have a GoodReads account but I have never posted a review precisely because I need plenty of motivation to write them. My reviews, besides, would simply amount to ‘Yes, read the book’ or ‘Please, avoid’, with no further nuance. I would not get many likes for them.

I happen to believe, however, that all serious scholars have the duty to review academic books now and then. I started in 1997 and have reviewed since then 25 books, so about one volume a year. I have just handed in my 25th review, the reason behind my post today. I wrote my first review once I was already a doctor but there is no reason why doctoral students cannot write reviews, I think. It just happened that my supervisor(s) never spoke to me of that possibility. My dear colleague Felicity Hand, then editing an issue of our defunct Department journal Links & Letters, was the person who convinced me that I could and should write a review. To be honest, I was terrified because the book she gave was a collective volume edited by a person I happen to have much respect for, and I did not see how I was authorized at all to offer an opinion on her work. What if I didn’t like her book? This is indeed a difficulty when writing reviews early in your career: a negative review can make you enemies. I know of a doctoral student who had the great idea of reviewing in negative terms a collective volume in which most academics in his field participated, including some in his own research group. I can tell you he did not endear himself to any of the authors. So, even though what I am going to say will sound rather awful and hypocritical, as a general rule only review books that you enjoy and of which you can write positive reviews.

In that sense, I have got lucky because I have enjoyed all the books I have reviewed, even when I asked for them not knowing whether I would like them (with one exception, see below). Sorry, I have forgotten to clarify that you may send an unsolicited review directly to a journal (most journals have a review editor) or ask to review a book from their list. When a scholar publishes a book, s/he sends the publishers a list of journals where the volume could be reviewed. The publishers offer then review copies to the journals, which keep lists. In my area, Science Fiction Studies, the Science Fiction Review, Extrapolation and other journals regularly publish their lists of books for review, which I get through diverse mailing lists. If I see an attractive title, I ask for it. The Spanish journal Nexus, by the way, also keeps a list of books for review. If you want to review a book that you have already read, it would be a good idea in any case to contact the journal where you want to publish to ask whether they would be interested. Not all journals welcome unsolicited reviews.

It is not a very good idea to review books by persons you know, from best friends to mere acquaintances, unless you are sure a negative review might not be a problem. A negative review of a book by a senior scholar who might be important in your future career is not, as I have noted, the kind of review you want to write. But a bad review of a friend’s book can lose you a friend, remember that too. Do I mean that you should write positive reviews always whether you like a book or not? No! What I’m saying is that you should try to review only books which you value as good books, regardless of who the author is.

Look what happened to me. I wrote a review of a collective book edited by a person that, without being a close friend is someone I share time with if we meet at conferences. I had a good opinion of this person’s work and asked to review the new book. I soon saw that the book was quite a catastrophe but tried, anyway, to highlight in my review mostly the good points, trying to conceal the most glaring weaknesses. It seems this didn’t work well, for the book editor of the journal in question asked me to revise the text not once but twice, which is very unusual. Things went down so quickly that I ended up withdrawing my review, the only time I have done that. I simply saw no point in antagonizing my academic friend, and I preferred not to publish a bad review. Other scholars might think this is stupid of me, and that negative reviews are something we should accept. Possibly. I just happen to prefer being constructive, much more so in a world as small as ours in which not even great books get many reviews. Authors spend a long time, sometimes years, writing academic books, as I know myself, and I just feel bad saying publicly that they have not done well. On the other hand, one must be careful never to write a review which is ridiculously enthusiastic, for that is not criticism–that is publicity.

Reviews run usually from 1000 to 2000 words (but pay attention to what each journal expects). Each of my posts here is between 1500-2000 words, and very often I write here about books I have just read. This means that writing a book review should be easy for me, but whereas I write a post in about two hours, depending on inspiration, I spent about twelve hours writing my most recent review (1895 words). Why’s that? Because a book review is a formal exercise, with exact rules that I cannot break as I do in my posts. Here are some of these rules:

• you need to describe the book for prospective readers, but the review cannot simply be a synopsis
• you must be familiar with the precedents of the book in question (but remember that reviews do not usually include a bibliography of works cited) and be able to contextualize it
• you need to judge the book according to what its author claims it does (in the introduction), not according to what you would like the book to be
• you are required to comment on the structure of the book, if only briefly, and be able to pick up deficiencies, if any, but don’t overdo it
• a review must engage with the ideas expressed in the book (identify a thesis, the main arguments), which means that you assume the position not only of a reader but also of a fellow writer, as if you were able to write a similar book–this is for me the hardest part, for I always try to put myself in the author’s shoes and imagine what it must have taken to have written that book
• never be smug, never be patronizing and much less insulting but don’t overdo praise
• be formal, you can never say ‘this is a glorious volume’ (much less ‘this book is awful’)

In terms of structure, reviews should begin by presenting the volume, as noted. Then the precedents (i.e. similar books already published) must be mentioned and compared to the new volume; perhaps also other books by the author. Next comes the paragraph(s) about the book’s strong points, and then (hopefully) minor comments on what could be improved or is missing. Finally, the conclusion, ideally recommending the book for its good qualities. In my last review, I had to include information about whether the volume in question could be accessible to a wider, popular audience; this puzzled me a bit, as the instructions came from an academic journal and the book was also academic. There is a similar book with a simpler academic jargon and so I could add a comment about this matter, but I found the request a bit unusual. Only academics read academic books, and only academic read reviews of academic books. We do, don’t we?

In terms of an academic CV, writing a review is not of great value, though when I passed my state examination for tenure back in 2001, the half a dozen reviews I had published were noted as a positive contribution. I don’t know what the official accreditation agencies think of reviews, and I am not aware that they are ranked in the databases which index everything we publish. To be perfectly frank with you, in the last five years or so I have been reviewing books not thinking of my CV at all but because I could not afford the volumes in question. The last book I have reviewed costs 99 euros (hardback edition) and even though we are not paid for reviewing, I feel that in this case I have earned those 99 euros (and no need to pay for taxes!). So that’s another good incentive to review. I assume that the publishing houses know about this, which is why in many cases reviewers are only offered the .pdf of the text. I hate reading .pdf…

To sum up, if you’re a doctoral student reading this post and are in your second or third year it might be a good idea to think of publishing your first review. I don’t know whether the tips I have offered here will help, and whether my position—review only the books you truly enjoy—is orthodox but this is what I do myself. And if you are a career academic with other priorities, let me remind you that even though reviewing will not do much for your CV, one can always learn plenty from paying close attention to how our colleagues write. Besides, we can hardly expect others to review our work if we do not write reviews ourselves.

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/

GETTING PUBLISHED: SOME ADVICE FOR BEGINNERS (ON BOOKS)

This post in, once more, based on the seminar for the doctoral students in the PhD programme in English Studies of my Department to which I referred in my previous post. There I voiced my own ideas, here I borrow heavily from my colleague Eva Codó’s presentation on how to transform your PhD into a book (thanks Eva!), mixed with my own experience.

Writing a PhD dissertation takes from 3 to 5 years on average (this can be extended if you’re a part-time student, though it is not really advisable). During these years you should start publishing articles in indexed journals and chapters in collective academic books, as I explained in the previous post, beginning in the second year. I am well aware that combining the effort required to write a 300-page-long dissertation with the effort required to write at least a couple of 25-page-long articles is daunting, but this is why we advise you to use part of the dissertation for those publications (you can always include a version of your publications in your thesis, with due acknowledgements; this is not self-plagiarising).

Once your dissertation has been submitted and has passed the assessment of your tribunal, that’s it, you’re a doctor! Spanish universities have an official mandate to upload online all the dissertations they produce (see www.tdx.cat, the repository of the Catalan universities as an example of how this is done) and, therefore, you will be asked to submit your dissertation (minus the typos!) for that. I know that in other countries this is not done, precisely to prevent academic publishing houses from rejecting dissertations as possible books. However, here in Spain we take into account that a) not all doctors transform their dissertations into books, b) a book based on a dissertation needs to be substantially different from the dissertation itself. The English Literature section of the programme I work for recommends that PhD candidates produce dissertations as close as possible to publishable monographs (a monograph is a book-length essay by one author), but even so there is very little chance that a publisher will accept a PhD dissertation as it is, with all the extensive theoretical framework, the many notes and so on.

My own doctoral dissertation, submitted in 1996, is available online (my university produced, believe it or not, a scanned version of the printed text!) and you will see if you check it that it is long (450 pages, plus 150 pages for diverse appendixes). I did try to have it published but failed precisely because I was told by all publishers I contacted that it was too long; nobody offered to accept only part of it. In fact, one publisher did accept it whole but the person I asked for advice (an American Fulbright scholar visiting our Department) told me that this was considered a vanity press, that is, a low-prestige publisher without a solid academic criteria that accepts any text, sometimes charging for publication. And, so, I rejected their offer without further checking their credentials, which were not at all that bad. In hindsight, I think that was a serious mistake, for a book publication would have been better than none, but I just did not have anyone who could guide me better. I did publish a sort of popular version of my thesis in Spanish, for a general readership, but even though that was a good experience which gave me a name in fandom circles beyond academia, this is not a road I would advice you to take. We are currently focused on academic validity and this type of excursion outside academic publication is not welcome. I do not regret my own excursion, though, from which I have got in the long run plenty of academic benefit.

At the end of 3 or 5 years working on your dissertation you will probably feel exhausted and little inclined to work 2 or 3 more years on your monograph. Let me tell you, however, that you might never get the chance to publish a book again, not even if you become a successful scholar. The duties connected with teaching and the preference in official assessment for peer-reviewed journal articles make it very difficult to find time for book-length work. If you pay attention, you will see that most books these days are either collective volumes or publications derived from PhD dissertations. My impression is that only a handful of extremely committed, prolific authors manage to have a career which includes three books or more. I myself felt very unhappy with myself for not having a monograph in English, though I have edited collective volumes and have some books in Spanish. When I managed to publish Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort as recently as 2019, I felt much better. This volume closed the gap left by the non-publication of my dissertation. In fact, it comes from one of its chapters, so you see how long we can go on working on our doctoral research. Mine, I know, is not over yet.

So, having established that publishing your dissertation as a book is a very good idea, let me tell you how to proceed. Here’s the first tricky matter. As I explained in my previous post, the impact factor helps you to understand how each journal is rated, but for books this is not so clear. The database SPI (Scholarly Publishing Indicators) can help you to navigate the field and have a more or less clear idea of who the major publishers are. But be careful! Their section ‘Lingüística, Literatura y Filología’ mixes fields which are in fact too diverse. I would not send a proposal for a book on Literary Studies to De Gruyter or John Benjamins Publishing Company, which I connect with Linguistics, and I wonder that Palgrave Macmillan is number 12 in the list, as I think it is much higher by prestige. Anyway, your reading for the dissertation should give you a clear idea of which university presses publish the most relevant authors and titles. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking, for instance, that publishing in Duke University Press (39 in the SPI list) is not worth it, and you should only aim at publication at number one, Oxford University Press. As happens Duke UP is a great publishing house, like others lower in that list.

A key matter in that sense are collections. Academic publishing houses do publish stand-alone books, but they tend to organize their publications into series about a particular topic, which is what collections are (yes, they are also called series). Let me give you an example. If you are, as I am, into science fiction and want to publish a monograph, then the best series is the Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies by the University of Liverpool Press (which is actually run by Oxford University Press). This series is edited by two very well known scholars in the field, David Seed and Sheryl Vint, and has an editorial board of six other very well-known scholars. If you check the webpage, you will see that you are invited to contact them through a Commissioning Editor, that is to say, the person in charge of the series on behalf of the publishers, Liverpool UP. She will consider your proposal and pass it onto the editors, who have the last word about their admission for publication. If your proposal is accepted, then either Prof. Seed or Prof. Vint will supervise your text. But before we go to that, let me tell you about the proposal.

Once you have chosen the series (or collection) you future book might fit, you need to produce a proposal. All publishers offer guidance through a proposal submission form, which tells you which steps you should follow (see for instance for the series I have mentioned https://bit.ly/2YkhV8O). Filling in a proposal is a first exercise in the marketing of your book, for here is where you have to ‘sell’ it, explaining what it is about, and describing its main saleable features. The publisher you target will want to know who might be interested in your book, what competitors is has, and so on. Writing an attractive description is, therefore, very important; this goes beyond simply writing an abstract, which tends to be a text addressed to other scholars, not to a publisher. When you write a proposal you need to ask yourself ‘why would this publisher want to issue my book at all?’ and you need to persuade them (but always use formal language!). Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that in the case of books, you can indeed send your proposal to several publishers, though perhaps it is more elegant to wait for a (possible) rejection before you try another one. And, of course, you need to accompany your proposal with a sample text, ideally one chapter.

Your proposal will be assessed by the series’ editor(s), and perhaps by other anonymous reviewers. Make sure you understand their instructions and modify your text accordingly, because you don’t want to rewrite substantially and then be told that you need to rewrite again. Your text will pass another review before publication and, of course, you will have to proofread it once it goes through the copy editor that checks errors (though not all publishers offer this service and some might demand that you pay for professional help). This varies with each publisher but make sure you negotiate a sufficiently generous deadline, so that you don’t find yourself awfully stressed. Please, note that depending on how much rewriting you need to do, and your work-related situation, this might take one or two years, during which you’re still expected to publish articles if you’re really committed to having an academic career. And, by the way, a tricky part of any book is the index –make sure you understand how to produce one, or be ready to employ paid help.

When your manuscript is ready, or almost ready, your publisher will ask you to supply back cover blurbs (usually one by you, a couple by prestige scholars in your field), and a list of journals where your book could be reviewed. Getting reviews is important, much more so if these reviews appear in A-listed journals but, don’t be, on the whole too optimistic about impact. Academic books are usually published as hardbacks costing between 100 and 200 euros, accompanied by a much cheaper e-book edition that, anyway, is expensive at around 35 euros. This means that an average academic book might sell 100 to 200 copies, bought mostly by university libraries, with royalties for the author of about 200 euros, if you’re lucky! Titles that sell reasonably well as hardbacks might be re-printed in one or two years as paperbacks, at a price between 25 and 35 euros, but, again, don’t think you’re going to make a lot of money out of that. My impression, however, is that in the Humanities no matter how many articles and book chapters you have published, what really makes you respected as a scholar are the books. I don’t think you get invitations, for instance. to be a plenary speaker at a conference without them.

When I started my own academic career, I imagined it as a process full of books, not of articles and book chapters. As a marvellous example of what I really wanted, please check the profile of my former student at UAB, Xavier Reyes Aldana, now a leading authority in Gothic Studies. Xavi’s many books as author and editor come, however, at a price. I really thought that academic careers were developed in a slow tempo, and that my books would come out regularly every three or four years. In fact, academic careers are now hectic, and if Xavi has produced so much this is not only because he is very talented but because he has submitted himself to the high pressure of British academia, which is very dangerous in terms of health (as he knows very well).

I’ll finish by explaining that in the Anglophone world, where researchers are expected to write books, they teach relatively short semesters. Here, our much longer semesters make writing books almost impossible. At the same time, this is now expected of us. CNEAI, the agency that assess our publications every six years (for the ‘sexenios’) regards books as just one of the five publications you need to present, even though a 100,000 word book is clearly much more work than a 5,000 word article. However, the current accreditations for tenure (=indefinite contracts) expect candidates to have already published a monograph. This can only be, given the time constrains, a book based on your dissertation.

I hope all this has been useful. Please, leave comments if there is any doubt. May you publish many books!

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/

WRITING A PHD DISSERTATION: AN EXERCISE IN RESILIENCE

My husband told me recently that he expected my academic life to include plenty of socialising with postgrad students at home, as we see in American films about campus life, and was a bit perplexed about why that is not happening. I was the one perplexed… That was funny! I wonder whether US academics socialize much with students today in view of the minefield that campus intergender relationships have become after #MeToo. In Spain I think that teacher-student socialising was rather more common up to the 1970s. At least, I recall my beloved teacher Guillermina Cenoz reminiscing in the 1980s about the times when she would invite home her whole undergrad class for dinner. That meant just about a dozen persons!!! In my case, I use a variety of cafeterias as my second office because my postgrad students often have working schedules incompatible with my office hours but this is still tutoring, not proper socialising. Now and then, though, I try to get a few PhDs together for lunch, for I know first-hand that being that type of postgrad student is very lonely and that networking is important.

Last Saturday, then, I organized lunch (in a restaurant, not at home…) with quite a varied group of PhD students (and one MA student) and I must say that sharing time with younger persons is a real pleasure. I notice that in our national conference on English Studies people tend to remain within their age group and make no new contacts, unless they are part of a research group, of course. I find myself greeting people I’ve known for ten or twenty years, and feeling quite shy to approach younger researchers. This is why I enjoy better this type of small gathering. I hope it was useful for the students, too.

During lunch, one of my students, Laura Luque, told me she had just read my last post and found the slogan I had chosen for next year’s teaching workshop –‘It was supposed to be fun, but it’s overwhelming’– quite appropriate to describe how it feels to write a doctoral dissertation right now. I asked then everybody why they had chosen to put themselves in that quandary and most replied that they want to be academics, like myself. Other students tell me whenever I ask the same impertinent question that they want to prove that they can do it (to themselves I mean, not to anybody else). That was my own case, for I never really believed that I would eventually get the chance to start an academic career (I must thank Guillermina for that). I was happy enough with my project of being a Doctor in English Literature one day.

The pity is that whereas PhD dissertations were supposed to be a sort of culminating point in one’s studies and a rite of passage into a second more mature phase as a scholar, they are now quite devalued. A Doctorate is still the highest degree one can obtain but the new habit of following this by years as a post-doc, with no final degree to mark the end of the process, has diminished the weight of the PhD dissertation in any academic career. A ‘doctor’ is someone certified to become a source of knowledge with no need for further training, but now it seems that doctors are not real researchers until at least three (or even five) years after obtaining their degrees. On the other hand, having a PhD is no longer a guarantee that one will eventually become tenured, as it used to be the case back in the 1980s when the Spanish university grew so massively. We are now interviewing for badly paid part-time positions persons with a doctorate and an extensive list of publications who would have been immediately hired for full time positions a few decades ago.

Now, is a doctoral dissertation supposed to be fun? It didn’t feel like that at all when I wrote my own PhD, plagued as I was by a profound hypochondria that has never really vanished and that resurfaces with the writing of any other important text in my career. Of course, I had a deadline to meet tied with my contract as a junior, full-time teacher and that was a constant source of tension. I suppose that Laura means that, unless you’re enjoying a grant, most doctoral students write now their dissertations while they work outside the university, which means they are not in the same hurry I was. On the other hand, many other doctoral students are working towards their PhD as they combine two or more university positions as part-time lecturers. I don’t know how they manage, really!!! Anyway, I believe that academic work only really becomes fun when one is very senior and can get away with publishing texts that have been a real pleasure to write. I told everyone that I am uncommonly pleased to have just published an article defending Poppy, the hero of animated children’s film Trolls, as a feminist heroine (in Contemporary Fairy-Tale Magic: Subverting Gender and Genre, https://brill.com/view/title/56407). That was great fun to research and write. My recent book Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), which is a sort of second doctoral dissertation (see the chapter summaries at https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781003007951) has been fun to write. But not my dissertation, no.

If that was overwhelming for me, a full-time university teacher who enjoyed besides a year-long leave to write it, imagine what it is like for the students I met on Saturday, who work (usually teaching English) between 17 and 36 hours a week. I mean teaching hours, apart from preparation. A dissertation, for those of you who are wondering, is a 300-page long book, about 110,000 words, which is quite substantial –and much more difficult than writing any other kind of book. You might manage to write a novel by writing 300 words every day (as Stephen King claims he does) but, no matter how thoroughly planned a novel is, this is a type of autonomous book that needn’t refer to any other. What is overwhelming about dissertations is that they seem to be bottomless as far as bibliography is concerned. This is pressing enough for each individual article but when you write a dissertation you need between three and five years for research (that is, for reading), during which the academics in your field continue producing tons of new bibliography. My main nightmare, and I know this is a common one, was that someone would produce ahead of me a dissertation on exactly the same topic. The other recurrent nightmare is that by the time you finally submit your PhD the examiners might find it already old-fashioned, or even worse, obsolete. At the pace we’re going, three to five years may mean a complete change of paradigm indeed.

What takes so much time –what overwhelms any PhD student– is the need to read so many secondary sources, of course. In the field of Literary Studies the primary sources are not really the problem, for a good dissertation can be written even about just one book (novel, play, autobiography… you name it!). Even supposing you’re dealing with, say, twenty-five primary sources, they can be read and annotated in one semester. What takes ages is the slow-going, painful gathering of possible quotations. In my case, I ended up with gigantic folders full of passages I scavenged from perhaps two hundred sources, despite knowing that I could by no means use more than 10% of all. By the way, nobody has managed to create a programme or app to manage the quotations which any scholar quickly accumulates. There have been more or less failed attempts at managing bibliographies in more efficient ways but not clever ways of indexing quotations for later use. Or I’m just an ignorant scholar who has no idea that everyone is using a magical app except she herself.

Is there any way, then, of making a PhD more fun and less overwhelming? I’m afraid not –I know as a tutor how I would make my students’ dissertations less time-consuming, supposing they were my own books. But I can offer them no shortcut because PhD students need to become experienced scholars and this is done through a process of trial and error (including wasting time). I think that the best a tutor can do is insist on having a chapter list as soon as possible, and try to stick to it for as long as one can, rather than spend three years reading and only then sit down to think of a structure. That’s a recipe for disaster. It is always much, much better to invest time on writing a solid table of contents than simply amass long lists of bibliography. The lists are also useful, evidently, but they need to be subordinated to a plan, which must be as clear-cut as possible. A PhD student who works many hours a week, or even one on a scholarship, cannot afford investing all their energies in a text that should have very clear boundaries. A novelist can ramble on, change tack mid-writing by introducing new subplots, and end with 600 pages but this is not a luxury which a PhD student can afford today. It’s all about planning, and the sooner the better.

The hardest part of my PhD dissertation was actual writing. I had a very useful chapter list practically from the beginning, time to read primary and secondary sources, time to copy quotations into my computer, and not one but two tutors willing to discuss my progress with me. The difference is that one used bi-weekly tutorial sessions, whereas the other demanded to see written work. The tutorials worked fine and I would return home with a clearer idea of what I was doing, but I always found myself unable to hand in written work of any value. I think that I blocked myself by wrongly believing that I could only start writing at the end of the process of reading. That is a mistake, I see now retrospectively. I never press my students to hand in written work if they prefer conversation in a tutorial setting but I still think that it would be best for PhD students to start a blog and write a weekly post to practice writing and, why not? find kindred souls. If it were up to me, I would have the students I met for lunch run a collective blog, perhaps there are already doctoral programmes doing that. My impression is that talking to other PhD students, sharing some kind of intellectual space, would make the whole process more fun, less overwhelming. Or not, but it would certainly be less lonely.

I realise now that I have not used the main word in my title, resilience. Well, this sums all I’ve been saying here: it takes much resilience to write a doctoral dissertation and only truly resilient people are up to the task. You may be resilient and still feel overwhelmed, but at least you’ll be in a better position to aim also at having fun!

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/

A PERSISTENT BUNCH: DOCTORAL STUDENTS AGAINST THE WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN INDEPENDENT SCHOLAR: CELEBRATING MARIANO MARTIN RODRIGUEZ

A couple of weeks ago I met a truly accomplished independent scholar: Mariano Martín Rodríguez. What is an independent scholar, you may ask? Wikipedia explains that “An independent scholar is anyone who conducts scholarly research outside universities and traditional academia”. I find that this not 100% accurate, as an independent scholar, while not employed by a university, must accept the rules of ‘traditional academia’ or risk remaining unpublished. I’ll rephrase, then, the definition: an independent scholar is a person who, though not working for a university, chooses to pursue an academic career based on doing research but excluding teaching.

I believe that there are two kinds of independent scholars: those who wish they could have a university job and those who do not care for one. By the way, the reason why they are (euphemistically) called ‘independent’ is that universities do not allow scholars to present themselves as affiliated researchers unless they are a) employees, b) students up to doctoral level. This, excuse me, is idiotic and counterproductive–I really fail to see the reason why a person with a doctoral degree from an institution cannot be affiliated for life, particularly when this person produces valid research that can even benefit the prestige of his or her alma mater.

I have met Mariano in relation to my current involvement in the organization of Barcelona’s 2016 Eurocon though I had previously contacted him concerning an article I sent to Hélice. This is a quality online periodical publication (neither academic journal nor magazine), devoted to speculative fiction (their preferred label) and the fantastic, which Mariano edits together with Mikel Peregrina. As the section ‘Nosotros’ (see http://www.revistahelice.com/) announces Hélice intends to offer “serious, rigorous criticism” which, I’ll add, bridges the gap between the scholar and the common reader–now that many of us with university degrees have the training to produce informed essays on the popular genres we love. Mariano asked me to publicize Hélice, by the way, hence this paragraph… If you wish to send a piece, please do so (in Spanish or English).

If you recall, my post on Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman included some comments on her concern that the Humanities might be negatively seen by our scientist colleagues as a ‘hobby’ (to which I replied that just as recently as the 19th century science was in the hands of gentlemen scientists). Mariano actually proves that the Humanities can be both a hobby–no matter how embarrassed Braidotti and other humanists may feel–and a serious pursuit. Indeed, whereas independent scholars make little sense for the sciences (unless they can afford building their own labs!!), the Humanities still offer some room for independent research. Here’s the recipe, as embodied by Mariano: first, find a reasonably well paid bureaucratic job which does not occupy your mental energies beyond the end of your working day; second, be willing to invest a good deal of your monthly wages in your research, as access to university-funded resources will be either limited or impossible; third, use your free time productively. Mariano is a translator at the European Commission, a job, as he explained to me, which fulfils the conditions named here. He is by the way, single, but I see no reason why a person with family obligations cannot be an independent scholar–it’s a matter of time limits not of personal will.

I can imagine many of you, dear readers, raising your sceptical eyebrows… Does this work? Oh, yes, it does: you may check Mariano’s CV at Academia.edu (https://ubbcluj.academia.edu/MarianoMartinRodriguez) and marvel at the long list of solid publications to his name… I am positive that many tenured teachers in many countries all over the world are by no means this accomplished… Seeing this impressive list, I need to scream: ‘Shame on you, tenured teachers who waste your time and produce nothing!’ And, please, do not give me the excuse that you have to teach and he does not, blah, blah, blah. These publications have been produced during busy evenings and weekends for, remember, Mariano has a full-time job. He is certainly much closer to our own overworked associates than to a tenured teacher. (By the way, I forgot: if he does not appear as an independent scholar at Academia.edu this is because the Rumanian university where he has done part of his research has kindly allowed him to become an associate member of one of its institutes… an example to follow).

I must say that Mariano has totally shocked me out of my assumption that independent scholars only put up with the many difficulties of maintaining an academic career for a few post-doctoral years until they give up in frustration. He has been active now for about 20 years and shows no signs of relenting… Actually he strikes me as the happiest scholar I have ever met, hence this post: to celebrate his career as an example that many others could follow.

A funny point in our long conversation–for Mariano is truly enthusiastic and a great talker–came when I asked Mariano whether he wished he was employed by a university. ‘Not at all’ was his reply. I think it’s the first time in my life that I meet someone with a doctoral degree who does not care for the university. Mariano elaborated: he is not interested in teaching (but, then, how many university teachers really like teaching?); above all, he will not waste his time with bureaucratic matters. Yes, the bane of our academic lives… I also found Mariano gleefully free from the obsession to calculate each step of his academic career with an eye on official research assessment, promotion, etc. If you think about it, his career is a singular example of total and absolute motivational purity, which is an elegant way of saying that he simply does as he wishes–an attitude hard to maintain within the university. I wish my career had the coherence that Mariano’s own has.

This does not mean, mind you, that I would gladly abandon my current post for a routine job in combination with being an independent scholar on the side. Not at all, and much less so considering how hard getting tenure has been. The point I am trying to make is that Mariano’s case proves that a successful academic career need not be tied to the university. Since I am a vocational teacher, I find it hard to separate research from teaching but I understand that not all scholars feel the need to deal with students. Also, there must be different kinds of academic careers, so why not choose one focused on research and publishing (with total freedom)? My celebration of Mariano’s career is not intended to suggest, either, that since good research in the Humanities can be carried out outside the university, there is no reason for this institution to offer new jobs in this area. Not at all… Remember that he has made a choice. It would be unfair to force the same choice on others, though at the rate we are going our associates are in an even worse situation, for they have all the disadvantages and none of the advantages of working in a university.

The only downside, as this is something I am guessing, not something that Mariano has shown in any way to me, must be the personal insecurity. Very often I find myself emailing people I need to pester for one reason or another and, well, I know that the name of my university below my signature guarantees at least some form of attention. In contrast, I can very well imagine the patronizing sneers that independent scholars surely receive from our most snobbish colleagues. I wonder whether Mariano has ever been called an ‘amateur’ (in any of the six languages he speaks correctly…) or whether he has ever been treated without the respect he deserves. Personally, I prefer disrespecting the privileged tenured teachers who misuse their time and who fail to be both good researchers and good teachers.

Mariano: this one is for you–may the project we are now sharing becomes the first of many collaborations in the future. Please, receive all my admiration and respect.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

SUPERVISING DOCTORAL STUDENTS: A COMPLICATED TASK

I have so far supervised 4 doctoral dissertations, I am currently supervising 4 more and have been asked in the last month to supervise other 4 dissertations. This nice symmetry is completed by the fact that 4 students who started writing their doctoral dissertation under my supervision have eventually abandoned it. The 16 cases teach me a variety of lessons, all more or less connected with a basic situation: gone are the times when Departments were full of young persons combining full-time teaching with writing their PhD dissertations.

I wrote my own PhD dissertation between 1993 and 1996, in three academic years. The first year I taught 24 credits (12 each semester) as a full-time teacher in my third year as an ‘ayudante’, a contractual figure now extinct. The second year, I was in Scotland as a visiting PhD student with a grant from ‘La Caixa’ and so I had all the time in my hands for my research (I didn’t teach for fifteen months!). The third year, I taught my 24 credits in the first semester just by chance, not because I asked, and then I spent from February to July writing non-stop. This means that half the time of my three years I was a full-time PhD student. It also explains why my dissertation is so long.

In those years, I was by no means an exception. I cannot tell you exactly how many of us, junior members of the Department, were both full-time teachers and PhD students but I’m sure it was a handful, perhaps close to eight persons (in a Department of about 35?). Then the Government suppressed the figure of the ‘ayudante’ and the moment we lost the possibility of employing young persons full time, earning a doctoral degree became a very complicated affair. Either you got a scholarship by joining a research group (FI, FPU) or by being awarded one of our only two Department fellowships (which carry the funny name of PIF), or you hanged by the skin of your teeth onto the Department as a part-time associate teacher doings two jobs apart from your research. I don’t know about FI and FPU but PIF and are woefully underfunded, with a salary actually lower in relative terms than what I used to make as an ‘ayudante’ 20 years ago. Associates, of course, are supposed not to do research but what else can one do? How one can balance eating and researching for a PhD is itself the object of a potential PhD dissertation. (You realize, I’m sure, that the implicit Government strategy is to stop people from wanting to earn doctoral degrees…).

I had two supervisors, one in the Department and one in Scotland. Contact with them was no problem: I simply dropped in my Department supervisor’s office whenever we agreed on an appointment (or just chatted in the corridor) and I saw my Scottish supervisor regularly every two weeks for a long two-hour session. I don’t recall at all being anxious about the regularity of these meetings though my Department supervisor used to make me quite nervous by demanding that I submit written work when I was in the early stages of my research and had no clear idea where I was going. My Scottish supervisor was happy enough to see notes, and to discuss with me ideas, my reading list for the previous two weeks, passages from the secondary sources… anything I needed. He would also offer many suggestions for further reading. My third year was, in contrast, quite lonely because my Department supervisor was himself away in Scotland and those were the times before email. I was by that stage, anyway, very busy writing and needed less supervision.

All this has very little to do with my own experience of tutoring doctoral students. To begin with, making appointments is always complicated because they work full-time outside the university. I have ended up using a downtown cafeteria in Barcelona as my second office, since reaching my university often adds many complications. The meetings are never regular, nor is email communication. I have lost count of how often I have asked my doctoral students to email me once a month, no matter what they’re doing, even if it’s only to tell me ‘I have read nothing’. No way, they’re too busy. Add to this that some are not even nearby, either because originally they lived in Barcelona but then moved elsewhere or because they have never been able to move to Barcelona. That’s a lesson I have learned and I have vowed to myself not to accept students who cannot meet me regularly.

Since most doctoral students work elsewhere full-time and they need to go wherever their jobs take them this means that embarking on supervising a doctoral dissertation is now quite an adventure. With BA and MA dissertations the time limit plays in our favour: we start in November, we finish in July. Telling PhD students you are only available for three years, however, makes no sense at all as you never know when they’re going to finish. My most recent supervised PhD student took five years to complete her dissertation simply because she is overworked and had no time to do research. This would be a relative problem only if we could take in as many doctoral students as we wanted. My university, however, limits the number to six which means that you can easily miss the chance to tutor a good student because your oldest tutorees cannot make progress despite their efforts. This is why I am going to try to accept as many students as I can: because I never know when they will finish, if at all.

The 4 students who have abandoned dissertations while under my supervision have done so for different reasons. One started but soon saw she could not combine work and study. A second one started working with me while in Italy thinking he would immediately move to Barcelona but this never happened and he eventually saw no point in continuing with his work (in the fourth year…). A third one simply could not cope with the linguistic demands of writing the dissertation though this only became apparent in her third year. The fourth one came to me after not finishing her dissertation with another supervisor in four years and, as I feared, soon gave up because she needed a job. Now, here’s the other issue: we supervisors get a paltry 52 hours in our teaching account for supervising a PhD dissertation (that’s 3 ECTS or half a semestral subject) and only when the candidate passes his viva. If a candidate abandons half way through, whether this is in the first or the fourth year, we get nothing at all for our pains…

Supervising a PhD dissertation then has become a matter of trust and good faith: you try to do your best to set the student rolling, giving him/her the required conceptual and technical tools and then you meet very sporadically and do the bulk of the job when actually reading the final dissertation. This in my experience is usually very hard work, which needs plenty of editing and revision.

They once told me about a gentleman in Oviedo who was supervising 13 PhD students at the same time–in the Humanities, each with their own topic. I have heard stories of a famous supervisor in English Studies who would accept students only to order them not to bother him for three years and then contact him only with the finished dissertation. Perhaps the Oviedo gentleman uses this method, I don’t know. In my infinite stupidity I thought I could work very smoothly by accepting one student per year as the oldest of my tutorees submitted their final work. I dreamed of a regular turnover, if you get my drift, which would constantly keep me supplied with my maximum of six students. No such luck! I can easily decide how many BA and MA dissertations I want to supervise each year but with PhD dissertations, as you can see, irregularity is the rule.

On the other hand, perhaps using two hours every two weeks for each of my current three doctoral students would be right now an excessive demand on my time. Of course, if they worked in the Department we could meet as frequently as we liked and do what tutors and tutorees should do: keep the conversation going… for three years. And then move on.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

AGGRESSIVE PEER REVIEWING: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

This morning I have sent the message you can read below to the editor of an A-list journal which has rejected an article I have submitted. This is an article on which I have put long hours, much effort and much personal commitment, not to say passion. I am aware, of course, that my article can be improved with good peer reviewing, which has always been the case whenever I have been asked to reconsider aspects of my work in the past. Mostly.

Now, when I finally received an answer from the editor, after five long months of waiting, I found attached to it two reviews (whatever happened to the three-review rule?): one very tepidly suggesting that perhaps if I change most of my article there is a tiny little chance that it might be published; the other a very negative review full of unspeakable bile against my work and my person. Both reviews, by the way, coincided in censoring my feminist approach and absolutely denied my right to produce literary criticism in which I judge a woman writer an androphobe (how many times have I seen a male writer called a misogynist???).

My mouth still dries and my heart skips a beat when I re-read the reviews, and this is three weeks after receiving them. I feel hurt, unfairly wounded, and depressed as now I have to go through the harrowing process of finding a new home for a piece written specifically to meet the demands of this journal. I think all you know what I am talking about.

I must clarify that, to my surprise, the editor wrote to me that although there were serious doubts that I could manage a proper rewrite, they were willing to see a second version of my article. Here follows my reply:

Dear Editor,

Sorry it has taken me a while to answer your message. It’s been hard for me to make a decision about how to answer.

I must say that I am mystified by your decision about my article, as I fail to see how you think I can be encouraged to proceed and write a second version in view of the aggressive, negative tone of the reviews, particularly the negative one recommending rejection of my article.

I am actually dismayed to see that a publication with such a good reputation encourages this kind of appalling reviewing in which a peer feels entitled to insulting authors. I have done my best and I know that the article I submitted is a good one–all work can be improved, and I have no doubt that mine can also benefit from good reviewing. I am by no means a novice and I have passed a number of peer reviews in my career but I am no longer willing to put up with patronizing attitudes and abuse.

I will certainly discourage any colleagues and doctoral students from submitting work to your publication, and I recommend that you never employ again the services of reviewer number 1. What a sad example of academic lack of empathy, and of sheer arrogance.

Yours,
Sara Martín

I am not naming the journal because the point I am making is that too many journals and editors are encouraging inacceptable peer reviewing. And this is growing because, ashamed of rejection, we do not discuss this growing trend with our colleagues. I have produced myself a good number of peer reviews and I have judged appallingly bad work: this is why I know that not needing to add your name to a blind peer review, you feel tempted to be nasty and cruel. I have vowed to myself, however, that I will always try to be at least courteous to the author for this person, despite what I believe, might be certainly doing his/her best.

As we all know, the problem with abusive peer review is that our egos are extremely fragile and in a work atmosphere which is geared towards constant competition, one failure signifies a general personal failure. If this article I produced, which I personally think is among my best, if not the best one, has been rejected in this harsh way, how have I managed to publish anything at all? Am I a fraud? Reading a novel by Neal Stephenson these days I came across a conversation between two women in very high work positions as scientists discussing the ‘impostor syndrome’, a phrase I didn’t know. This refers to the constant anxiety that you are not good enough at what you do and that sooner or later the cover will be blown and you will be exposed as an impostor, as a fraud. Each negative review feels like that: a blowing up of the carefully built cover.

Leaving my wounded pride aside, but with a still dry mouth, I want to make a call here for a better style in peer reviewing and, if possible, to put an end to the inquisitorial practice of blind peer reviewing. It is interesting to note that when we submit our CVs for assessment to ANECA (or similar agencies), we do know the names of the persons judging us and we can even access their CVs. I am well aware that ANECA has produced a high number of aggressive reviewing, and I have even heard of a lawsuit in this regard. Yet, at least, the principle of anonymity is questioned. I think we should sign our peer reviews and we should opt for more transparent systems. I have recently participated in a few peer reviewing exercises on Academia.edu in which some colleagues have submitted work in progress and asked for opinions. The tone was what it should be among peers who respect each other and the discussion enriching.

By the way, one of the articles discussed was an impressive piece by Rosalind Gill, a very well-known British scholar, “Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia”. In it she discusses the same unprofessional conduct I am discussing here, noting that 20 years ago reviews were not as “hostile and dismissive”. When, she wonders, “did it become acceptable to write of a colleague’s work ‘this is self-indulgent crap’ or ‘put this manuscript in a drawer and don’t ever bother to come back to it’–both comments I have read in the last year on colleagues’ work. What are the psychosocial processes that produce this kind of practice?” In her view, all this negativity is the product of the “the peculiarly toxic conditions of neoliberal academia” (see my post about it). Instead of lashing out at our oppressors we lash out at each other under cover of blind peer reviewing, that’s her thesis. She might well be right.

I know that it is not the habitual practice to question negative peer reviewing and that messages like the one I have sent can make you a few enemies, particularly in local contexts (this was an international journal, by the way, published in the USA). Yet, a while ago a colleague whom I respect profoundly and who is extremely proficient as an academic, told me she had started emailing back in the tone I have used in my message whenever she got a negative review. No, it’s not a good idea to do that if you are a post-grad student still in the process of hardening your skin against rejection. Yet, there comes a time when enough is enough and after twenty years in the publishing circuit I am just not willing to put up with gratuitous abuse. I’ll insist: I am willing to accept constructive, positive criticism but never again abuse.

And if you must reject my work a ‘No, thank you’ will do.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

3+2 DOES NOT EQUAL 5: ON THE NEW DEGREE REFORM

The Spanish Government has finally approved the ‘Real Decreto’ by which universities may choose to offer BAs of 3 or 4 years, accompanied by MAs of 2 or 1 year, respectively. Just yesterday, the CRUE (the organization gathering together the principals or ‘rectores’ of all Spanish universities), agreed to delay the revision of the degree to the 2017-18 academic year. Students are furious at the Government while they claim this new reform is for the sake of finally bringing Spanish degrees into the European system.

I myself have a ‘Licenciatura’ corresponding to the 1977 Ministry-approved syllabus. ‘Licenciaturas’, if you recall, consisted of 2 cycles: a first cycle, lasting for 3 years, in which students took a list of compulsory subjects; and a second cycle, lasting for 2 years, in which you specialised taking a considerable number of elective courses in your area. You might obtain a title at the end of the first cycle, called ‘diplomatura’, and there were actually independent ‘diplomatura’ degrees. Yes, we already had a 3+2 system, with the whole 5 years costing the same fee. Funnily, we were told that the ‘Licenciatura’ was extravagantly long in relation to other European countries which already had a 3+2 system. Then the fashion started for the very rich to pursue MA degrees abroad…

The ‘Licenciatura’ was reformulated for the new 1992 Ministry-approved syllabus, and reduced down to 4 years, still with no MA degrees. If you wanted to pursue further studies then the next step was a doctoral programme. The one I started back in 1991-2, consisted of 2 years tuition on the basis of elective subjects, followed by 1 year to write the ‘tesina’ or small dissertation, followed by 3 years for the ‘tesis’ or main dissertation. When I started teaching in this programme, we all referred to the first two years plus ‘tesina’ as the ‘master’s equivalent’, though I’m not sure you could obtain a title. Yes, anyone my age had to spend 8 years in university before writing the first line of a doctoral dissertation, now it’s down to 5.

The 4-year ‘Licenciatura’ was remodelled again in 2000 before the European Union decided to implement the Bologna agreements for convergence into the European space of education. In 2006, then, the ‘Licenciatura’ was transformed into the current 4-year BA degree, the doctoral programme lost its courses and the new MAs were implemented. I was there in the front line and I very clearly recall the chaos as we were given very lax instructions about what kind of MAs we should devise and how many to offer. At one point, my Department thought of offering 3, this was reduced to 2 and after trying to stay afloat independently, we finally merged 2 years ago our 2 MAs into 1. In 9 years, then, the MA I teach in has been reformed 3 times–not a good sign.

I am glad, then, that CRUE has decided to take some time to organize the new reform as, to begin with, we still haven’t tested the performance of the 2007-8 degrees. It seemed as if we would be running the tests at the same time that we did the paperwork for the new option. My own personal view is that English Studies should keep its current 4+1 scheme, as students need time to learn the language apart from the contents. We cannot put anyone at C1 level at the end of only 3 years, much more so if the first year, as rumoured, is entirely transversal (= not in English). I also believe that students would chose 4+1 English Studies degrees rather than a 3+2 version for the same reason and also, here’s the crux of the problem, because whereas in the old 5-year Licenciatura fees were the same for all years, this is NOT the case in the new 3+2 system.

Here are the maths: 60 ECTS (=one year) of the BA in English Studies cost 1657.12 euros, hence, the complete degree costs 9536 euros. The MA’s fees are 2907’52. Students can complete a 4+1 education investing a total 9536 euros. With the 3+2 formula, using the current fees, the BA would be down to 4971.36, but the MA would amount to 5815.04, and the total cost would be 10786.4, that is to say, 1250 euros above the current 4+1 system. This might not seem a lot to English students paying up to 9,000 pounds a year for BA degrees (and leaving university heavily indebted) but it is very high considering the post-crisis catastrophic situation of most working-class families (in Scotland, a referent for the, ehem, future Catalan state, local students pay no BA fees).

The Government claims quite cynically that families will save 150 million euros with the new system, as young persons will be able to enter the job market in a shorter time and at a lower cost. Then, they can save money and decide whether to take an MA. What job market, I wonder? The only jobs available are badly-paid subsistence-level jobs that make being a ‘mileurista’ seem a dream. Anyone but the Government can see that these extra 1250 euros (far more in other specialities) will tip the scales against the economy of most working-class students. They will fail then to compete in the top rank of the tiny job market with middle-class persons in possession of an MA degree (the upper classes really compete with nobody).

In short: while the simple transformation of the old Licenciatura into a formal 3+2 system maintaining the same fees would have been quite smooth, the Government has chosen the worst possible moment to implement the new system. 2006, when the chance was missed, would also have been preferable, as the crisis had not started yet and the current resistance to the MA programmes’ inflated fees had not materialized.

Supposing the fees problem were solved, we still need to tackle the pedagogical problem. In my 23 years as a teacher I have seen university degrees progressively lose much of their conceptual density (their ability to train people seriously). This is partly due to the lowered standards of secondary education and partly to the increasingly widespread idea that having a degree matters more than accruing real knowledge in a field. From what I hear, there is more concern about the matter that oh, poor Erasmus students have so many problems because of our 4+1 system than about what exactly we teach students. I heard a top-ranking person at UAB speak of MAs as a key tool to internationalize our university and of BAs as general courses in which the process of accumulating knowledge, which so dramatically varies from the first to the third year, was totally ignored.

So: yes, why not? Let’s have 3+2 but let’s retrieve the best we lost with the 5-year Licenciatura and, please, prioritize equal-opportunity, non-classist education over the needs of foreign international students. I see the despair of the working-class students seeing the Government callously pushing them out of a serious university education and I can only sympathise, as I was one of them, and I have never ever forgotten what it was like.

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‘QUEDAR BIEN’: HOW TO BE POLITE (AND MAKE FRIENDS) IN ACADEMIC LIFE

The Spanish idiom ‘quedar bien’ (or Catalan ‘quedar bé’) doesn’t translate well into English. WordReference offers as basic suggestions “to make somebody happy”, “to make/cause a good impression”, “to look good to someone”. Elsewhere I have come across this: “to stay in good terms”, “to get in good with someone”, “to please someone”, none of these 100% accurate. I mean here, of course, “quedar bien” in the sense of following certain rules of politeness and not the “quedar bien” used for clothing (“that dress looks good on you”, “you look great in that dress”) or cooking (“me queda muy bien la tortilla de patata” = “my Spanish omelette tastes delicious”).

There must be much anxiety about the impossibility of finding a perfect fit in English for this idiom, for a Google search throws up mainly links to translations, not definitions. The RAE Dictionary seemingly does not gather idioms, for it offers no definition of this one, nor do its lexicographers include it in the entry for the verb ‘quedar’. Another bout of unfruitful googling leaves me wondering about this strange lexical blank: everyone knows what “quedar bien/quedar bé” means but nobody is offering a reliable definition of this expression; fancy how hard it must be to master by foreign learners of Spanish!

The point of my post today is actually wondering whether everyone does know what “quedar bien” means. I’ll offer my own version, to begin with, then offers examples of the opposite behaviour. “Quedar bien” means performing actions addressed to showing one’s own good will to please others, for the sake of making the relationship with them work well. I think this is it. This varies in degree: you may ‘quedar bien’ with your couple by organizing a candlelit dinner to show your love, or simply greet a neighbour every morning to be in nice, neighbourly terms. Funnily, I do not know whether the ‘quedar’ in the idiom is self-reflexive (“this makes me feel good”, that is, “me quedo bien”) or transitive (“I make/cause a good impression”). Probably a mixture of both. No doubt, “quedar bien” can be quite hypocritical, as it may even cover an intense dislike: I actually hate my neighbour and I use my daily greeting to avoid real conversation.

In, specifically, academic life “quedar bien” earns you many contacts (and indeed friends). This is a situation in which it is absolutely imperative to behave impeccably, as you never know who might be assessing you for publication, a research project, a tenured position… you name it! The worst possible situation, doubtless, is one in which your academic peers whisper behind your back that you are impolite, nasty or, God help me!, an arrogant bastard/bitch.

We are in need of maintaining our reputations beyond strict academic achievement, and it hurts nobody, as far as I gather, to have the reputation of being a real gentleman or lady. Yes, old-fashioned as this may sound (remember I teach Victorian Literature?). I do my best to apply this rule though, of course, it is for the others to say whether I am successful. I also do my best to incorporate to my academic life what others teach me, like emailing a thank you message to conference organizers once you return home, which I learned to do from a very polite English colleague.

“Quedar bien”, in short, entails a big or small personal sacrifice to do something you NEED NOT DO. Generally speaking, though, it only brings benefits–yes, it can be an extremely selfish attitude or even hypocritical, as I said. Now, for the examples of how NOT to “quedar bien” in academic life, this time including students:

*the by now increasing tendency, as I noted in my last post, to tell your Literature teacher that you don’t like reading (you don’t want to signify yourself this way)

*emails sent with no opening greetings and no closing words (how hard is it to write “Dear Professor, Here’s my essay. Thanks. Yours, Mary”?)

*not thanking people who have thanked you for something (“Thank you for being a good student” means, yes, that your teacher is fishing for a compliment)

*pretending you don’t see a teacher in the corridor: yesterday an ex-student made a point of NOT seeing me by… whistling as I passed by her side

*pretending you don’t see a colleague you don’t like that much in a conference you’re both attending (just say “hi, nice to see you” and move on)

*disrespecting in any way people in positions enabling them to a) grade your work, b) offer a reference letter or recommendation, c) hire you (this is the equivalent of shooting your own academic foot)

*being arrogant at conferences when asking questions to colleagues, both your own level or superior–coming across as if you know better than anyone else will make you no friends. If you want to be nasty and cannot help it, make sure you will not cross paths with this person ever again.

*express negative opinions about the work of people who have a say in your academic future, for instance by publishing a negative review of their work (oops!)

I could go on and on, I hope you get the idea. If you think I exaggerate, I know of an individual who is guilty simultaneously of the three last offences… my inspiration for this post.

You may be thinking at this point that “quedar bien” is all about being a complete hypocrite/sycophant/brown nose/ars licker… playing a hypocritical game. There is just a little bit of this but, believe me, it is not that difficult to distinguish between the genuine article and the phony one. A person who inclines towards “quedar bien” sets clear limits: “I’m greeting you in the corridor for politeness’ sake but this does not mean I admire you”. The sycophant knows no limits and will probably tell you in the middle of the corridor, for no good reason, how much s/he admires you. Yes, they overdo it.

Academic life is, I grant this, a delicate game based in many occasions on nuanced personal impressions. I find myself frequently discussing these days how big a hindrance personal differences are for teamwork to progress. Yet, happily for me, I work in a Department in which most colleagues believe in “quedar bien”, sometimes with an effort, more commonly making no effort. Teachers may spend decades with the same colleagues and this calls for subtle policies regarding how to make coexistence as nice as possible. Blunders happen, inevitably, but, needless to say, they must be avoided, particularly, let me be crass, to protect your own interests.

To finish: “quedar bien”, as I acknowledge, is a fragile mixture of selfishness and generosity which only brings benefits, whether professional or personal. Behaving like a “señor” or a “señora” must always be the rule, in any environment. In academic life there are inevitable power dynamics that, openly or covertly, rule our life and the worst anyone can do is ignore them.

I feel like one of those Victorian ladies who used to publish conduct books, but, well, one doesn’t teach Victorian Literature for a couple of decades with no effect whatsoever in one’s mentality. I’m even using the impersonal ‘one’ like Queen Victoria. Better stop now…

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GIVING ADVICE ON ACADEMIC CAREERS: AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK

In the last month I have given advice to three students who’d like to pursue an academic career and, to be honest, I didn’t know what to tell them. The easiest part is describing the mechanics of doctoral programmes and the accreditation system. The hardest part is assessing for them their chances to ever get a job as a university teacher. Slim, really slim.

I myself came up with this crazy idea that I wanted to be a university teacher of Literature at 17, in my last year in secondary school. My family are working class and I knew from a very early age that a) I didn’t want to work in a factory, b) I didn’t want to work in an office. Being a teenager myself, and not liking teenagers that much (nor younger children) but having a vocation to teach, I realised the university had to be my choice.

Also, the person I most admired then was my Spanish Literature teacher, Sara Freijido Fidalgo, a formidable woman. I was in such awe of her wisdom that I even failed an exam with her, the only time I’ve failed a Literature exercise in my life. Retrospectively, I wonder why someone as brilliant as Dr. Freijido (I think she was a doctor, I’m not sure) had not been kept by the University of Barcelona, where she’d been an associate teacher, rumours indicated. Add to this the mysterious words that my friend Eva Ceano pronounced when I announced to her my decision to be like this other Sara but in a university context (and teaching English, not Spanish Literature): ‘You know they’re a mafia, right?’ No, I didn’t (Eva had the middle-class background, not I) but her warning has helped to keep me on my toes. Since then.

Mafia, no, not quite. Feudal system (that’s another label often heard) no, not quite. What is true is that, as I discovered in my own case, university teachers are also talent scouts, always bearing in mind certain talented students for whenever a job comes up. In my own case (sorry to sound so smug), I did get a call, but then I had to compete hard for the position that had opened. I continued competing hard with others for the following 11 years, until I got tenure –endogamy, yeah, sure… Not for me.

When I responded enthusiastically to that early call, the person who made it poured a little cold water over my hot head by warning me that the pay was low, less than I was making as an English teacher in a language school. Who cared? I was in… Nobody warned about what was coming to my life, which often felt like the worst nightmare, but I would not have listened anyway. That’s the problem with vocations: you don’t listen.

So when I meet students as keen as I was on an academic career and I paint to them the whole black panorama, I still see that look of resistance in their eyes –I’m going to try, anyway, I don’t care what you say. When I tried myself, there were full time jobs for beginners without doctoral degrees because the Socialist Government was investing much money on public education and the university was soaking it up. Today, 23 years later, the full time jobs are gone and nobody knows how we’re supposed to train the new generation of teachers. According to a recent report by the Tribunal de Cuentas, a major problem is that the although the Spanish university has too many teachers, it keeps on hiring staff and even offering tenure. This totally mystifies me, as it is by no means what I have seen in more than two decades in my own Department. We have always had too few teachers.

Actually, the situation is getting worse all the time. Just last week, we were told that the vacancies left by retired or deceased teachers will simply disappear in a new ‘clean-slate’ policy. We counted on these vacancies (six in our Department) to consolidate the aspiring tenurees with accreditations who’ve been around for more than ten years, as no new positions (as mine was) are being created. I’m well aware that other Departments are overstaffed but I’m more and more certain that this is a case of ‘justos-por-pecadores.’

I’ll explain, then, in case someone else is interested, that whereas I could produce my doctoral dissertation in three years while I was employed full time as a teaching assistant by UAB, now aspiring academics are on their own. From the beginning of the MA to post-doc level universities offer practically no help. I’ve seen recently a very brilliant student, with close links to the research group I belong to, be denied all grants – he’s migrating to Holland. Clearly, they’re cropping us off at the bottom, and at the top. I very often feel I’m the last of the Mohicans.

I guess that those with the stamina which the challenge requires will find ways to train on their own for an academic career and then come knocking on our doors in ten years’ time. Necessarily, some position will then come up, unless the plan is to wipe out the entire Spanish university. A fast ageing teaching establishment makes very little sense in a fast changing world. When I mentioned there were plans to perhaps extend our retirement age to 75 (it’s 70 currently) one of my male colleagues expressed his hope that the authorities would take into account weakened prostates…

There are days when I feel not only privilege but also guilty when I think about the future of the younger academics, even though I’m trying to do my best to help them. The only thing I can say is good luck, don’t give up, fight the fight. We do need you.

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HIGH-FLYING PLAGIARISM: NO PUNISHMENTS, NO LIMITS

A friend explains to me that a tenured senior lecturer from another university has ‘borrowed’ her PhD dissertation –acknowledgements included– and submitted it as his own research for an award. How was he found out? Just by chance: someone in the judges panel had read my friend’s dissertation… This started a very paranoiac conversation about how many articles and books must be out there published twice or more. She added to her astonishing revelation that someone told her she was a high-risk researcher for potential plagiarism, as she has published plenty and her work is easy to find.

A quick Google search reveals that a) Germany is the country where plagiarism is taken most seriously (the minister of Education lost her doctorate for that and had to resign), b) in Spain the most common case of high-flying plagiarism seems to be committed by full professors unduly benefiting from their doctoral students’ work. I’ve come across information on two similar cases with a very diverse resolution. And it’s funny that I hesitate to name the culprits even though they should be shamed for all eternity.

In one case, the Spanish Supreme Tribunal fined a full professor (‘catedrático’) 5,000 euros for plagiarising his student’s PhD dissertation twice: for an article in a collective volume, and for a booklet. He also had to pay the judicial fees and, wow, the cost of publishing the sentence in a national newspaper. To my horror, he had been previously condemned for sexually abusing the same female student –but absolved. The fine in that case was 9,000 euros. The victim was told she had not made it clear to her supervisor that his advances were not welcome and that the actual offence was minor. He is still teaching. Fortunately, so is she.

In a second case, a male student denounced his PhD supervisor for having plagiarised in four occasions research produced during the postgraduate courses he took with this person. A problem in this case is although the student could prove that this teacher (another full professor) had been plagiarising his work since the mid 1990s, the university concluded that the four offences had legally expired (they did so after only two years…). The plagiarist, by the way, argued that the student’s work had been produced following his own teaching, therefore, the contents were also his. A sad conclusion to this case is that the student never found another supervisor and never finished his doctorate.

I’ve also come across many comments on the booming internet market for BA, MA and PhD dissertations –I remember reading once that this started in Harvard about 100 years ago, as soon as typewriters started being used commonly. In the case of bought research, technically nobody is committing plagiarism as the real author, the ghost writer, has agreed to charge a fee for his or her work. This practice might explain how politicians I will not name suddenly become doctors overnight, when, as everyone knows, a PhD dissertation takes about three full-time years, usually more.

Technically speaking, the person who has presented my friend’s PhD thesis as his own research has not committed plagiarism, as this consists of inserting text from unacknowledged sources in your own work. He has committed the cheekiest theft, of a kind I thought simply nobody dreamed of committing. Even though I know of a famous case in which a candidate for tenure submitted as his own the very report written by his board’s president for her state examination. In that case, the offender got hold of a text that had been circulating, it seems, anonymously, and he simply didn’t know who he had stolen it from…

When I hear of cases like the ones I’ve summarised here I wonder with what authority we can demand that our student refrain from plagiarising. In my Department we take this problem very seriously and we’re failing students for plagiarising parts of sentences, provided, of course, we can prove the offence. Now think of someone stealing a complete dissertation… Do I need to say more?

A last comment: we, researchers, have been told that an ‘open access’ policy guaranteeing the maximum visibility and availability of our work is the only way to go in our internet-ruled times. I’m going that way myself, with the web, Academia.edu, etc. Now it turns out this increases the risk of being plagiarised… Catch 22…

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COFFEE WITH STUDENTS: THE IDEA OF MENTORSHIP

I was having coffee with an American visiting scholar and a local colleague from UB, and, I’m not sure in what exact moment of the conversation, he asked whether we had the habit of taking coffee with students, meaning the teachers in each Department. My colleague quickly replied “no, we don’t” and I answered almost on top of her words, “yes, I do.” I didn’t get a chance to ask the visitor why he’d asked, but I assume he wanted to be given the ‘rules’. ‘Rules’ we don’t have, which is why the whole process is complicated.

I believe that there is room for friendship between teachers and students, and this often starts with a coffee. My own experience is that this first coffee can lead to personal, long-lasting friendship although there is always a little bit of mentorship in it. If only because of the obvious age difference and life experience.

This means that the teacher must always keep a little distance and, this is very important, never appear to ‘need’ the friendship with the student –this even sounds scary to me. We, however, are also human beings and, well, we do have emotional needs which may not always be under control. Let me clarify for the dirty-minded that I absolutely abhor the idea of sex between teachers and students as it involves too many power issues. If the attraction is there, and it is genuine, then it’ll have to wait until the pair in question no longer share a classroom. There, I’ve said it. Now, let the gossip flow…

My Department takes office hours very seriously and we’re always available for students. Mostly they come because they have a problem but I simply love it when the resolution of the problem ends in friendly conversation and, indeed, when they simply drop in for a chat. I like very much talking with my students and I must also say that I have to talk to them, because without a minimum communication with them the intergenerational connection would be lost. I really hate it when I have to rush or finish a good conversation because I have other things to do, usually far more boring.

The next step is obvious: whether a student is in my class or not, if there’s a chance of a more relaxed conversation over coffee I take it. At the university cafeteria for, as a rule, coffee elsewhere is best once the teacher is no longer assessing the student –in individual cases, I mean. I see no problem in meeting groups of students for socialising outside the university, though I realise that coffee or, even better, dinner with a whole MA class is much easier and comfortable than organising something with a handful of under-grads. Likewise, coffee outside the university with a doctoral student is a common matter, whereas meeting an undergrad needs, somehow, justification.

Here’s the tricky matter: who takes the first step. I think it should be the teacher. If a student in my class asks me to meet for coffee, this might be misconstructed as a form of undue flattery (or, em, sucking up to the teacher). This is also why I tend to ask individual students once I’m no longer they’re teacher. It’s not easy. Or I should say it’s particularly difficult with heterosexual boys –let me be honest. Girls and male gay students usually accept coffee with no second thoughts (sorry, I don’t know about lesbian girl students as I don’t know who they might be…). Boys, even when they positively know that the teacher, that old thing, cannot, surely, be after them, always hesitate a little bit… Unless they are post-grads with a good grasp of how mentorship works and quickly see the purely friendly reasons for the invitation.

You may believe me or not, but my habit is to invite to my office or to coffee students for whom I think I can do something positive. This is what mentorship is about. This is not about picking up the cleverest ones but those with whom good personal rapport may lead to enjoyable conversation and whatever I can do for them. I’m happy to receive in exchange a little room for communication, as the simple truth is that with my colleagues most talk is about bureaucratic matters –hardly at all books, films or things that matter outside the university. And, yes, in the end it’s for the student’s benefit as we teachers are very often asked to provide references for other universities, jobs, etc. Also part of mentorship.

I have no idea why the university is often so uptight and has so little room for socialising among teachers and students. Whenever I have seen the chance, I have asked my students to celebrate all together the end of the semester. We don’t have a place for that in my school and I use the classroom for partying, for which I’m frowned upon by the caretakers. So sorry… (not really!)

I’m SO looking forward to the final party in June with my Potterheads!! And, yes, also to the many coffees I intend to share along the semester…

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A DOCTORAL STUDENT ABANDONS: AT A LOSS ABOUT WHAT TO ADVICE…

A doctoral student who was supposed to defend (as we say) his PhD dissertation next September suddenly tells me he’s giving up –in his fifth year. I’m writing this aware that he might read it and after emailing him advice about what he needs to consider before quitting for good (if at all). With many doubts on my side about my training (or lack thereof) to give the best possible guidance at this point.

The colleagues to whom I have explained the situation have worried mainly about the hours I’ve already spent supervising that dissertation. This is not a main concern for me. Even if I get the 75 hours which a PhD dissertation successfully submitted would add to my personal teaching account, they make little difference. Nor am I concerned about my own CV: I have already supervised three dissertations and another student is more than certain to finish her dissertation this year. My main worry is that I’m quite at a loss about what to tell this student in this crisis. I worry about making a serious mistake.

The student is question is a very capable man. When I agreed to supervise his work, he was supposed to move to Barcelona (from Italy, where he lives) in just a few months. His plans, however, changed and eventually it became clear he was to remain in Italy. We have met no more than twice a year and, obviously email is no replacement for that; as for Skype, I simply don’t use it. First two hard lessons learned: a) circumstances may change radically in the life of doctoral students; b) avoid supervision at a distance if possible. Ironically, I’m supervising two more supervisions by students who don’t live in Barcelona –one has migrated to Finland in search of work, the other lives elsewhere in Spain and simply cannot move to Barcelona to work with me. I’m not too happy, but, then, even seeing regularly PhD students who live close by is complicated. Mainly for them, as they work. Full time…

The assumption is that doctoral supervisors know what they’re doing, having been themselves doctoral students. Yes and no. I believe that I’m giving my students better practical advice than I was given about length and structure of the dissertation, where to start publishing, which conferences to attend, how to network. However, my own assumption is that doctoral students know what they’re doing and my task is simply to help them to achieve their own goals. I contribute 20% at the most, 10% ideally, hopefully just 5%. This doesn’t mean I’m not committed –it means that a PhD dissertation needs, above all, full autonomy from the student as a researcher. If you don’t have it, this may be a problem. It’s your thesis, not mine.

I find, of course, that this much needed commitment is harder to maintain when the student is writing a PhD dissertation for reasons of personal fulfilment rather than as part of a budding academic career. I was myself already employed as a junior teacher as I took my doctoral courses and wrote my dissertation. I would have written a dissertation even if employed elsewhere but I understand that outside the university walls the need to invest so much energy in such a peculiar personal project may seem odd –if not downright absurd. Partners, family and friends may sense this and become stern spirit dampeners. A doctoral degree, after all, is worth next to nothing, particularly in the Humanities. Some paradox in a world in which nobody can have serious professional aspirations without a BA or an MA.

So, as I have written to my student, I’ll be very happy if he finishes his dissertation but never at a high personal cost to him: writing a thesis has to make the prospective doctor happy and satisfied, otherwise there’s no point. The road may be hard and paved with many potholes but if suddenly you start seeing no road and, what is worse, no destination, then stop. The problem is that, to be honest, I don’t know whether my student is facing the final crisis before the 350 blank pages he needs to fill in, or coming to the end of his road.

A few days ago a lovely, brilliant undergrad girl student visited me to tell me about her plans to get a doctoral degree. When I asked her what for she replied “to reach the highest possible level in my education.” I told her that this is not what a PhD dissertation does and tried to explain that writing one is a very lonely process in which you need to be ready to face your own limits, and in which you no longer have teachers as you’re actually training to leave them behind. You just have a guide, him or herself lacking the training required to deal with your doubts. This was before the situation I have described here came about.

So, please, any future doctoral student out there: your thesis is your project, we just set up the signs to keep you safely on the road. None better than yourself to assess whether the road is worth travelling, whether you’re fully equipped to do so, whether you have a supporting team of family and friends.

And I hope, Dave, you make the right decision. I’ll support you in it no matter what you choose. It’s always been a pleasure.

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UNWRITING, EDITING, TAYLORING, PRUNING…: FITTING THE WORD COUNT

English is an infinitely flexible language and so, the word ‘unwrite’ does exist. Oxford Online ignores it but not Merriam-Webster: “to obliterate from writing: expunge, rescind”. I have also comes across an article by learned Laurence Lerner, “Unwriting Literature” (New Literary History, 22: 3, Summer 1991, 795-815) and an article in, of all places, The Wall Street Journal, by Karen Blumenthal. She is the one that uses the verb in the sense I mean –more or less.

I don’t mean by ‘unwrite’ the effort made at having to “rip out my work to fix mistakes” as she does in her embroidery and her young adult fiction, but rather the need to cut off from one’s work that for which there is no room. She means cases that have to do with expunging material that is not strictly needed for the internal coherence of the text; I mean rather, having to cut material that makes perfect sense but that can’t fit the pre-given word count I need to respect. In both cases, yes, “thanks to unwriting, days of work became a mere 10 lines of text.” Or less.

Here’s the particular case that has been driven me bananas in the last few months. The research group I belong to, ‘Constructing New Masculinities’ (http://www.ub.edu/masculinities/) is working on a volume on alternative masculinities, Moving Ahead, about which I am truly excited. I decided to contribute a chapter on Orson Scott Card’s hero Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggins, of whom you’ll hear plenty when Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of Ender’s Game hits the screen in November (if you’re an SF fan, of course you know Ender!).

Now, Ender appears in many, many texts since the Enderverse is a multimedia megatext in constant expansion –I focused on ‘just’ five novels: Ender’s Game, Ender in Exile, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind. The notes alone occupied thirty pages, the first draft 16,000 words. Here’s the corner I painted myself into very naively: I’m only allowed 4,800 words as there are many other contributors to the book (logically!). After gruelling pruning of the branches that needn’t be there, my article is now at 4,825 words, ready for a last thorough unwriting.

To be honest, it’s a better article than the 16,000 word version and, incredibly, I argue more or less the same points. I have sweated out, however, every single sentence, happy that English can accommodate so much meaning in its synthetic nature (no way you can do that in circumlocutious Spanish). I haven’t passed the article yet onto trusted readers, so I have no idea whether it works but I hope it does (I had to summarise five novels, remember, while I argued that patriarchal Card quashes Ender’s atypical masculinity to prevent it from becoming a real alternative).

In the good old times, you could write as much as you wanted for instance in your PhD dissertation –mine, on monstrosity, is itself a monster at almost 600 pages. Last week a doctoral student of mine was told that any manuscript over 250 pages runs the risk of remaining unpublished as, apparently, costs double past that mark. She is aiming for 400 pages at the last count, against my injunction not to write more than 350. Articles of 10,000 words are now a rarity and, let’s be honest about this, a trial for our patience. So, yes, 4,800 sounds about right, just as 2,500 is the perfect measure for conference papers. In our rushed times, our attention span is fast dwindling –Twitter will kill it off for good…

What kills me is that to reach the 2,500 or the 4,800, even in ‘simple’ cases which ‘just’ one text under analysis, I usually must write four times more and then spend weeks agonizing about how to reduce my big trees down to bonsai size. I unwrite, as you can see, much more than I write (except here, thankfully…). Now, English lacks the very colourful Spanish verb ‘jibarizar’, which I first heard philosopher Antonio Marina use, and which is exactly what I must do to my articles –this is why as I unwrite I think of bizarre mummified heads (and of bonsais, certainly).

What is the recipe? The first thing to go is the bibliography you only mention (see Smith 2009) but that, anyway, you spent time reading, underlining and assimilating. Use as few quotations as possible, which is hard in our times of sprawling bibliography, and as short as reasonable. Second, off with the footnotes –none will learn from my article that Card based the abusive relationship between Ender and his brother Peter on his own with elder brother Ray (this was a hard one to let go). Third, one can always be less loquacious and communicate the same ideas in fewer words, from 10% to 50% (less than that and you sound too hard-boiled!!).

Ironically, I agree with Laura Pallarés, an ex-student interested in writing the first PhD dissertation ever on Card (if she can afford UAB’s fees…), that Ender is enough to fill in not one but several dissertations, of 250 pages and even longer.

So, there we are: size matters after all.

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MASCULINITY EMBODIED (AND THOSE MANLY VOICES!)

Today I need to say something about men’s voices.

A few years ago I got contacted by an American man with a warm, husky voice, Dave Muldoon, who asked me to help him develop a PhD dissertation on men’s voices –he is himself the voice of Tom Waits in an Italian tribute band (here’s Dave singing live, enjoy!!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6ySDaqmAjM ). I said no to him, worried that the topic was too abstract for the conceptual and theoretical tools we use in Masculinities Studies. I still think this is the case, with much regret.

We agreed instead to work on a dissertation about the representation of masculinity in a series of biopics about iconic pop and rock male singers. He’s hard at work on it and, funnily, we’ve come full circle as it might well be that the final element he needs to tie up all the diverse films is the fundamental presence of the male singer’s voice. Since the chosen ones are Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Johnny Cash there is surely a case to be made about how Dave is, after all, dealing primarily with how male voices articulate a certain image of manliness (I don’t know what to make of the fifth one, Bob Dylan, not a voice I listen to with pleasure).

I have already mentioned here Joy Division’s suicidal lead singer, Ian Curtis, as a key figure for those of us who were young and wanted to be alternative in the early 1980s. What I didn’t mention is that the contrast between his baby face and his deep, baritone voice was what got all fans hooked. Since he died I have been looking for a replacement (found him!: Paul Banks from Interpol), and paying attention to men’s voices and how they signify masculinity. I’ll acknowledge that I’m rethinking all these matters not only because of Dave’s dissertation but also, oh my!, because of chef Jordi Cruz’s of MasterChef fame. There is another angelic, babyish face with an unexpectedly manly, velvety voice.

Logically, when it comes to male voices I tend to pay attention to performers, whether actors or singers. In Spain we have recently lost Constantino Romero, the most important dubbing actor of recent years. Romero, the kind of chubby, moustachioed man you’d call sweet, dubbed most famously Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, Blade Runner’s replicant Roy and Darth Vader. For us ‘Luke, yo soy tu padre’ comes in his voice –it seems young people used to stop Romero in the street and begged him to say that. Ramón Langa is also dubbing male icons like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis, which of course is annoying because this means that in Spanish most Americans actors you’d identify with action movies and a certain kind of ultra-manly manliness share their voices. I hate dubbing!!

So, belive me, the reason why I want to see Fast and Furious 6 in the original version is Vin Diesel’s beautifully manly voice (see the animated film The Iron Giant in which he dubs the robot). If you want another example of attractive manly voices, and this one is unusual, believe me, see any episode of the BBC’s Sherlock and see what odd-looking Bennedict Cumberbatch brings to the role with what I can only call a voice that makes intelligence sound sexy. More examples? Yes, the perfect father of To Kill a Mockinbird (the amazing 1960 classic film) has Gregory Peck’s lovely, serene voice. You want scary? Um, Ralph Fiennes both as Heathcliff and as Voldemort. A feast for your ears… By the way, Clooney’s appealing voice is the reason why the Nespresso adds are not dubbed.

Recent scholarship in Masculinities Studies by big names such as Jeff Hearn and Victor Seidler insists that we need to understand how masculinity is embodied (as you can see, I myself am more interested in how ‘manliness’ is embodied –see my essay on Zack Snider’s Spartan film 300 in my web, section articles in books). Actually, Cultural Studies have been taking a close look at men’s bodies for quite a long time now in books as diverse as Richard Dyer’s White or Susan Bordo’s obvious The Male Body. The voice is missing, though, possibly because it is very difficult indeed to find the adequate vocabulary for description and analysis (um, as you can see here).

Long time ago I was at a Tindersticks concert and I heard a girl say ‘I don’t care if he doesn’t sing, I’d give anything for Stuart [Staples] to whisper sexy words to my ear’. Maybe we need a new definition of oral sex (or sexiness?), I don’t know… Now, seriously, ehem, listen to men and tell me what you hear (and Dave, thanks!!)

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them first for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. If you like my blog, you can subscribe using the RSS feed (right-hand column, below Blogroll.) You’ll get an email message for every new post. VISIT MY WEB: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/