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!!: https://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!!)

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ASYRAS: A TOAST TO ITS GROWTH AND TO THE FUTURE OF YOUNG RESEARCHERS IN SPAIN

I have had a memorable birthday present as one of the guest plenary speakers of the third ASYRAS conference, celebrated at the University of Oviedo. This was intriguingly called “The Significance of the Insignificant in Anglophone Studies”, a title apparently inspired by Bergson. Very philosophical!

I cannot sufficiently thank organisers Alejandra Moreno and Irene Pérez for this wonderful present, nor for their constant attention to my person, their friendliness and warmth. As a further way of thanking them and ASYRAS’ current president, the very charming Pedro Álvarez Mosquera (of Salamanca), I have decided to publicise here what ASYRAS is, as it deserves that and much more.

ASYRAS is the acronym of the Association of Young Researchers in Anglophone Studies. It was born in 2007 out of an initiative carried out by a group of just 8 post-grad students in Salamanca and it is plainly meant to generate much necessary networking among its members. I asked whether ‘young’ meant in this context under, say, 40, or whether it had to do with being untenured. The answer was that ‘young’ refers to any researcher up to five years after his or her obtaining a doctoral degree. Fair enough. I myself got tenure 6 years after becoming a doctor but I know very well that many young people today face a much harsher time. Tenure, which for me was testing enough, is for them practically utopia… This is why ASYRAS seems to me so necessary.

One of the aims of ASYRAS is to provide guidance to graduates starting post-grad studies in any Spanish university, which means in practice guidance into how to start doing research. Thinking of my own shortcomings as a rookie post-grad student and of what I see around in conferences whenever young researchers offer papers, I believe that this is still very necessary. We rely on a person to person transmission of how to do things academically speaking but I know of no general guidelines to help you start doing research in the Spanish context. I would ask ASYRAS to provide them, and also to contact all master degrees Coordinators for them to pass on information about ASYRAS to the new students.

Just consider that a few years back, before MAs were generalised, students who registered for doctoral courses already had a certain idea about what PhD dissertations meant whereas now post-grad students often have a hard time to complete a much simpler MA dissertation. We need to start helping them as soon as possible. Also gone are the times when one could/should wait to have a doctoral degree to start publishing. Competition is fierce. I myself ask my doctoral students to try to publish a first article in their first year. Soon, we might have to prepare MA students for this daunting task. If not undegrads.

Something else that came up over dinner: although I see many novelties in the quickly expanding field of Cultural Studies, with, say, the TV series of the day being the object of interest of unprejudiced young researchers, in general national conferences evidence a certain lack of imagination. What I mean is that the list of literary works on which research is done seems to have become fossilised in the last 20 years – this means that we, seniors, need to suggest new titles as this is our job. My uppermost worry, though, is what I call the constant rediscovery of garlic soup, by which I mean that too often young researchers, particularly pre-doctoral, tend to ignore the key bibliography of their field (MLA basics…) and seem to have discovered on their own primary texts already very well known. We had a person narrate Alien to us in a SF conference… and with no bibliography. This should change urgently.

Finally, I think ASYRAS should also teach young researchers to quote senior Spanish researchers –and we seniors (I count as senior after 20 years in the conference circuit) should also learn to do that and to acknowledge the research done by our peers on national territory but with totally proven international validity.

All my best wishes for the newly elected President of ASYRAS, Jimena Escudero Pérez. And all my help if you need it!!

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A VIVA IN BRITAIN: COMPARING EXPERIENCES

I was quite surprised when a UAB doctoral student in the ‘Arts Escèniques’ programme run by the Catalan Department asked me to be the second internal examiner of a board that should meet at Warwick University. Surprised because a) I didn’t know her, b) I do not specialise in Theatre Studies (though I teach Theatre now and then), c) I didn’t know you could –as she has done– get simultaneously a British and a Spanish doctoral degree with the same dissertation.

Cleverly, she got Warwick and UAB to sign an agreement and I became technically UAB’s envoy to check that the proceedings met our regulations. I said yes considering I would never have again the chance to experience in person how a British viva works (why I never stopped to consider the hassle of reaching Coventry from Barcelona and viceversa is another matter). I realise now that I was a desperate choice as examiner, as more alert UAB doctors claimed not to know enough English. I, in contrast, took the bait hook, line and sinker. Silly me!

It’s been a peculiar experience. We –the 3 examiners and the chair or advisor– met two hours before the viva to agree on the list of questions we’d ask (7 for a 90 minute conversation, a long list I’m told). Forget, then, about the notes I’d prepared for my intervention, Spanish-style. This meeting took 1 hour, followed by a modest lunch with these 3 persons, plus the 2 co-supervisors (one Spanish, one British). Then came the viva itself.

The PhD candidate offers no presentation and I almost jump out of my chair when I heard the external examiner (who leads the viva) wonder where the candidate could sit so that she felt most at ease. There were finally 6 of us in a tiny room, a very high number as usually vivas, which are not public, involve just the candidate, the internal and the external. The supervisors attended because I explained that in Spain not attending the defensa of your own student is an offence. No audience, no families, though –which I did miss. The tone has been throughout kind and friendly and the conversation, for that’s what it is, rich and productive. The candidate was nervous but she soon relaxed (and so did I).

Spanish ‘defensas’ make me quite edgy as even when my intervention is short this lasts for at least 15 long minutes in which I feel exposed, as if I also were under examination. At UAB we have 3-member boards and the session lasts around 3 hours (plus paperwork) but one of my poor doctoral students had to endure a few years ago a 5-hour session with a 5-member board! In Britain, as I saw, the viva did take almost 5 hours, paperwork included, but time was allocated differently and the tension was much lower. I’m told this was a placid viva –it ended by the way with a pass with minor revisions, which means the new doctor will be awarded her degree once we’re satisfied that the typos, grammar mistakes and bibliography incorrections are gone. In worse cases, candidates may be asked to rewrite substantially and resubmit 6 months later, though I’m told this is not at all a dishonour.

Yet… I have missed our own ritual. In Britain candidates are not expected to invite the board to lunch, as we do here. This may seem a bit feudal but since a doctoral degree is the highest degree a human being can get anywhere in the world, I see the point of senior doctors celebrating the occassion with the new doctor. Also, since board members are not paid, this is a courtesy that the candidate extends to them for their efforts.

In my case, I did make the effort not only of reading a dense dissertation outside my field but also of taking quite a long journey to do both universities a favour. Yet, here I am: it’s 4 p.m., the viva is over, I can’t get back to Barcelona this evening and, except for a brief thanks from the candidate and her supervisors, no other courtesies have been extended to me. Nobody bothered to check if I arrived safely yesterday, nobody has bothered to ask me how I’m to spend the long evening nor how I’m going home tomorrow. From my university I expect no thanks, either –just a swift return of the 300 euros in expenses that I have advanced. Yes, silly me as I said.

In contrast, I have the fondest memories of the last tribunal I took part in, a year ago in Zaragoza, which ended with the most fabulous lunch I’ve ever had in my life… and, what matters most, with a fulfilling sense of having shared very good academic company and of having accomplished an important academic task. Different cultures, different views, of course…

THE HANDBOOK OF THE PHD DISSERTATION SUPERVISOR: IS THERE ONE?

This cruel month of May is turning out to be quite peculiar in my academic life as regards doctoral dissertations. Today is 23, and in the three weeks of May I’ve gone through: an examining board for a dissertation supervised by someone else, the defence (or viva) of the second PhD dissertation I’ve supervised, the thorough editing of the my third supervised dissertation. Yes, that’s plenty.

Just check this: it’s taken me 20 hours to read/correct/comment on this third doctoral dissertation (380 pages), now on its final stage. Yet, my university supposes that the total amount of hours spent on a doctoral student is only 30 (computed when the dissertation is submitted, nothing along the 3 or 4 years we’ve been working together). This means that supposedly I’ve helped my student only 10 hours along the rough path he’s chosen. Well… (MA dissertations count as 5 hours – the one I’m supervising now, 55 pages long, has gone through 5 complete rewritings so far).

So here’s my question: where’s the limit? How much energy should one invest on someone else’s dissertation? Of course, we supervise PhD students for the glory of our CVs, since we get no economic reward whatsoever for them and those paltry 30 hours do nothing except engross the amount of hours I already give my university for free. If one is lucky and the student writes and thinks well, the whole process is logically easier and reading the final version amounts to making a note, say, once every 10 pages. Now, if the student has problems thinking and writing well the process of reading his/her intermediate and final texts may be agony (say 10 notes for every page…). But, where do we draw the line? As I’ve been explaining in diverse entries, in Spain it is assumed that both the student and the supervisor have done their best; furthermore, the supervisor is supposed to prevent dissertations deserving less than an A from being submitted (to a board of tired, overworked colleagues). Ergo: faced with a problematic dissertation, which might never get an A, the supervisor is placed in practice in a very tight corner. Every typo, every wobbly section subtitle, every neglected secondary source will count against him/ her. The only solution seems editing the candidate’s dissertation to one’s thorough satisfaction, as if we were his or her examiner or even the candidate him/herself.

Yet, I wonder whether editing is part of the supervisor’s job description. I’ll remind my readers that I work in a second-language department mainly with PhD students for whom English is not their native language. It’s practically impossible to discuss ideas without discussing the kind of English in which they’re couched. I don’t know how this will work with the two native speakers of English I’m supervising, but whether you ask for a sample of writing in advance or not, there’s no guarantee that the PhD dissertation will be immaculate. In this, possibly our worst enemy is that we must always rush. PhD students are all exhausted at the end of three or four years and want to get rid of their baby as soon as possible, often before it reaches full term. We, as the midwives, face the difficult task of risking a still birth… or finish the pregnancy ourselves!!

A friend told me recently that his own PhD supervisor warned him that he’d only accept supervising his dissertation on condition that he was never bothered with it. Yes, you heard me. When my friend called him to ask for help he needed badly, his supervisor (who never ever met him) reminded him of his initial warning. As my friend is brilliant, his supervisor got for free, as we say in Spain, another medal for the collection.

Cheeky, awful, yes, but maybe a system that thinks that supervising a PhD dissertation along 3 or 4 years and helping to make it outstanding takes ONLY 30 hours deserves this, I don’t know.

DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS: THE STRANGEST GENRE

Doctoral dissertations are the strangest genre because they’re both the record of a process of learning and its final product. PhD candidates are so overwhelmed by the effort made throughout the years that they don’t seem to notice this particularity until, precisely, the time of the ‘viva’ (or ‘defence,’ as we call it in Spain echoing old Inquisitional tribunals…). Once the questions from the examining board pour down on the poor candidate, s/he realises that it would be perfect if only s/he could start again all over, now that the main mistakes are highlighted. But, then, part of the game is that you can’t start all over and correct those mistakes you see in hindsight with all clarity.
This leads to a peculiar situation: if an examining board has enough ill-will against the candidate (or his/her supervisor…) any PhD dissertation can be failed, which seldom happens, if ever, in Spain –quite the opposite. I’m aware that in Britain PhD candidates can be sent back home to reform their dissertations and are allowed to re-submit them a few months later. This is unthinkable here, as it would be an appalling embarrassment for the supervisor. A peculiar idea of honour, then, turns defences into very strange exercises, as a dissertation can be awarded the highest mark regardless of the intensity and even aggressiveness of the criticisms it may receive. No wonder foreign members of examining boards are puzzled by our grading scale (remember the French diva?).
As a member of a few tribunals so far, I do worry about our very typical ‘cum laude’ hyperinflation. I’ve fought hard to keep up standards on examining boards that intended to reward candidates in excess of their merits, as I think that the all-too common automatic ‘cum laude’ diminishes the merits of real ‘cum laudes.’ This, ironically, might make me unwelcome to other examining boards, for I may gain the wrong reputation… We need to understand that if universities allow for a wider range of marks, these should be used, included ‘Aprobado’ (C) and ‘Notable’ (B). I do realise that the supervisor is a key element in the ‘cum laude’ hyperinflation, as his/her colleagues would not want to question their professionalism by awarding one of his/her dissertations a low mark. Yet, it’s funny how we never think this way of plain exams, which the best university teachers can fail with no qualms about his/her own reputation (again, quite the opposite). In the same way, although a doctorate is our own honours program, we need to understand that the impact of falling standards will soon be felt and we’ll have indeed dissertations that only merit a simple ‘pass,’ regardless of the efforts of the supervisor.
Knowing that this blog is, somehow, autobiographical, I’m sure readers will suspect that I’m referring here to a particular dissertation. Well, yes, last Friday I was part of a PhD examining board and, yes, criticism was quite thorough, despite which the candidate got a ‘cum laude’ (A+). I awarded this mark with all my heart for I did see that the candidate, a hard-working person whose academic capacities I know well, understood our criticisms and would make most of them in order to publish a better version of his dissertation. Also because his failings were connected to his ambition to do innovative research in his field, which is, after all, the point of a dissertation. Well done!!
I just hope my own doctoral students do so well and that if they receive a ‘cum laude’ it is justified on the same grounds. I’m ready to help but I’m also ready for the time one of mine might deserve just a ‘pass’ despite my efforts. Sooner or later, it’ll happen to any of us.

EUROPEAN DOCTORATE: SOME DOUBTS

This entry is prompted by a suggestion from one of my senior colleagues, recommending that we invite EU (= non-Spanish) researchers to the examining boards of our doctoral students. At UAB we do have something called ‘Doctorado con mención europea’ (European Doctorate), which entails quite a complicated system of validation for dissertations: a three-month stay abroad for the candidate (self-financed!) tutored by a local researcher; two reports once the dissertation is completed by two other non-Spanish researchers and a fourth EU specialist, invited to the board. The four non-Spanish EU specialists get nothing for their pains (well, one gets invited to Barcelona…), which makes finding them a matter of appealing to friendship or flattery. Although the internet suggests this scheme is active all over Europe, still today, after asking repeatedly the corresponding administrators, I can’t say whether this is a UAB, Spanish or European validation system. No one seems to know…

Here’s a sample of my experience with European doctorates. I tried to set up an exchange with a British university I won’t name. I send one of my doctoral students to study with a specialist, who is, indeed, very willing to help (because she knows me, not because she’d heard about the European Doctorate) and I get one of theirs to tutor. Sending my student is no problem at all, but the student I was supposed to tutor at UAB was told by this British university that a) they’re not aware that the European Doctorate exists and b) the stay at UAB would not be considered part of the study time for his dissertation. When he asked whether I could be an external examiner on his board (with the full support of his supervisor), the answer was that foreign specialists are only invited for linguistic reasons (i.e. if the dissertation deals with a foreign language). So much for reciprocity.

This might be unusual, or pure bad luck, but I witnessed recently yet another example of European miscommunication that left me reeling. A colleague invited to the examining board of a doctoral student who had fulfilled the expensive, demanding requirements for a European Doctorate two non-Spanish EU specialists (French, I think). I have no idea why but one of them decided it was the right time and place to teach a lesson in European assessment strategies and, after quite an ugly debate, awarded the candidate a lower mark than she deserved. Why? Because, in her own words, this is what the dissertation really deserved using a European grading scale. This clearly hinted that we, Spaniards, overvalue our PhD dissertations -which might be the case?- but also that we are NOT European. By the way: there’s no such thing as a European grading scale for PhD dissertations, although in view of this incident we might urgently need one, as national grading traditions clearly differ from each other.

My two examples might just be examples of very bad luck but I worry that by calling foreign specialists to our examining boards here in Spain we’re sending out the wrong message: that we need them to validate what we do, for we are not good enough. I have seen websites by other British universities with the same rules we use for European Doctorates but I wonder who is invited to their boards (German and French specialists?). Are we going to build yet another hierarchical system by which the aim of reciprocity results in having a jet set of top European specialists (German, British, French…) validating what their less efficient neighbours do? Am I simply too pessimistic, as usual?

NOW I GET IT!! (WHY THE MAs ARE REALLY BEING DISMANTLED)

I have heard many voices explaining that the cost of the MAs we established barely 5 years ago is too high for the Catalan university to maintain. I could not quite understand this as our now dying MA ‘Advanced English Studies: Literature and Culture’ (slashed for having less than 10 students) cost more or less the same in terms of teaching resources as our old Doctoral courses. A friend in the Philosophy Department, where they seem to have more alert minds but whose MA has been also slashed, nonetheless, has explained to me why this is happening. Here it is, for your benefit. Apologies to those who already know for my usual thickness.

MAs are taught by doctors, of course, which means that the more senior staff may use up to 25% of their teaching time for them. This absorption of resources by the second cycle leaves the first cycle, the new BAs, with fewer resources provided by senior teachers. The result? Associates are hired to teach anything and everything, particularly considering, in my own Department, the sudden increase in numbers in the first year, due to the establishment of combined degrees with other ‘philologies’. Our staff this year comprises one third senior teachers (tenured or under contracts lasting at least 4 years), two thirds associates, most of them on a yearly, provisional basis linked to the deployment of the Bologna-style BAs, some already doctors.

Now, take our now declining MA (we’re in the fourth, final year). It is very cheap if you consider that it only requires 8 teachers teaching 5 ECTS credits each (24 teaching hours), plus dissertation supervision value at an extra 5 hours (maximum 0.5 dissertations each teacher, so far). If you look at it this way, and consider that the number of students we’ve been teaching was the same as in the old Doctoral programme (around 7-8 new ones every year), the cost has not really increased. Now, if you put the 8 subjects we teach together, this amounts to 2 full time teachers (here we teach 4 semestral subjects each per year), or 2.5 associates (they teach 3 semestral subjects a year). Dismantle the MA and you have magically made room for 8 other semestral groups in the BA taught by senior teachers (54 hours each, by the way). At least two of the 5 associates we employ now in the Literature section (with only 6 seniors…) can be ‘released.’

What irks is that the Generalitat is not openly acknowledging this. Instead, we’re told that the MAs have intrinsic problems due to low registration figures (regardless, by the way, of the nature of each of them) because we don’t know how to offer attractive, market-oriented degrees. Of course, an MA degree is a requirement to enter a Doctoral programme and with fewer MAs in Catalonia, we’ll necessarily have fewer Doctoral students which, I suspect, is very much another unacknowledged ultimate aim. Fewer doctors also mean fewer accreditations and fewer employable university teachers, which will help reduce the size of the staff at PUBLIC universities in Catalonia. The rich, as a friend reminded me, do not care about this, as they send their kids to private or foreign universities, anyway.

Think, think… I personally feel as a dinosaur on the verge on extinction – Angloliteraturus redundantis.

IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL WHEN IT WORKS…

There’s a little bit of irony in the title of my blog but also a little bit of despair, as you can see from many of my postings, about the sad fact that teaching is not always as joyful as it should be. Yet, this is exactly what it is when it works well, joyful indeed, so this time I’m celebrating.

I’ve just marked 26 longish papers (2,500 words, standard conference measure) on villainy and heroism for my segment of the Cultural Studies module within the MA in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory. It’s been tough, because as usual I had very little time (just two days, more papers and exams coming in next Monday…) but it’s also been a pleasure, which is rare. In the best cases, I’ve even learned, which is the highest praise a teacher can give a student. Well done!!

The problem is that I can’t apply any of the strategies that have worked well for this class to other classes, as the success of these strategies does not depend on my teaching but on the students’ willingness to learn. It is true that we, teachers, work at a higher standard when our teaching is received with interest but, if this is the key, then it’s not my merit at all but the students’. They’ve listened patiently and they’ve applied very well what I lectured on to their own papers, choosing to focus on a variety of very interesting texts. Again, all of it is their merit. I’m the same teacher, with my well-known limitations, in all my subjects but, then, some work beautifully (at least for me!) and some don’t. The difference, that’s the inevitable conclusion, are the students.

This particular class has no common denominator, which is peculiar, except that they’re all in the same MA. They come from very different BAs and from a variety of countries; only 5 have the UAB ‘Licenciatura’ taught by practically the same teachers that teach in the MA. I’d say they’re exceptional if it weren’t because it’s the fourth time I see this exceptionality. Perhaps the MA is exceptional in that it attracts plenty of intellectual energy focused on reading, though no teacher can say whether this will turn out to be the last flare of the dying pre-Bologna system or a constant stream that will survive the mounting ravages on education.

I feel, it’s odd to say, well used by this class. They’ve made the most of me, as a resource funded with public money and, of course, by their own money, and I think that this is what all students need: an awareness that we, teachers, are resources they should exploit for their own intellectual growth. Students who cheat, who don’t work, who don’t care are simply wasting the resources others could use better but also, and this is where they show that they don’t deserve a university education, they are not making enough of the possibilities offered to them.

Anyway, today I’m satisfied. Thanks, students!

POLITICAL CRITERIA AND MASTERS DEGREES

I’m more and more baffled by what is happening in Spain and here at home, in Catalonia, regarding the European convergence in higher education. We have ended up with 4-year BAs and 1-year MAs, instead of the more desirable 3+2 scheme, and now, before most of the new BAs (Grados/Graus) have even produced their first graduates, we’re being asked to modify and, in the worst cases ordered to shut down, MAs which have been running for under 4 years. This is madness, particularly if we think that, simultaneously, the tuition fees have sharply gone up making it even more difficult for any of the Bologna-style MAs to survive (and much less attract foreign students). And also, that we face very tough competition from the new MA required to teach in secondary schools. And also… (the list goes on).

Anyway, I have already written about this and before I start sounding like a broken record, let me consider what is new. The novelty these days is that we’re been asked to reform the surviving MA degrees to fashion them as a second cycle degree, a continuation from a BA, rather than a specialised degree. In a way, this would mean going back to the old Licenciatura system which I myself followed and which consisted of a 5 year degree with two cycles (3+2), followed by 1 or 2 years of doctoral courses. In the new proposed scheme, the numbers would be 4 BA + 1 MA +1 PhD courses (yes = 6, as of old), as we’ll probably have to reintroduce teaching at doctoral level to make sure MA graduates can minimally face the challenge of writing a PhD dissertation. Running in circles, I call this. And losing, in the meantime, much of the original intellectual energy of the old-fashioned Spanish degrees. I don’t believe I’m writing this but that’s what I feel right now.

What irks most is that all these decisions are being taken by politicians sitting somewhere at remote Generalitat offices here in Barcelona or even further away in Madrid. The tiny Literature section to which I belong in the English Department at UAB had managed more or less well before Bologna happened, as we used to teach our Licenciatura subjects and a one-year doctoral programme, which attracted between 6 and 10 people each year, most of them finishing their equivalent MA dissertations satisfactorily. Suddenly, the same figures no longer seem good enough for the MA, which is ridiculous as, logically, the market for post-grad degrees in English Literature has not increased. Why should it?

I do believe our MA is good enough, considering our circumstances (we’re a second language Department, an understaffed section and divided into many fields as each of us has to cover at least one for all of English Literature and Cultural Studies). If the product cannot find its niche it’s clearly NOT our fault but the fault of those who pushed us onto a market that we needn’t/couldn’t enter in the first place. We used to be happier, now we’re a frustrated bunch, tired of the whole Bologna nightmare.

There are plans to fuse with the other Department MA, as we should have done from the beginning, to guarantee survival. Yet, this is, as the main opponent against the merger claims, absurd from an academic point of view as MA degrees should be designed to offer specialisation not for simply furthering the general education offered by the BA. I can only say to this that this absurdity doesn’t spring from any of us in the Department but from the remote politicians. These incompetent bureaucrats believe that training less than 10 post-grad students is too expensive but do not see that admitting up to 140 students in an undergrad class (official UAB figures) might be even more expensive in the long run for the nation they seem to care about, ehem, as this reduces dramatically our time for research.

These are indeed bad times for teaching, Literature or anything else.

THAT SUBVERSIVE CANON… OR DOING MARGINAL RESEARCH ON 19TH CENTURY US FICTION

Recently, I spoke with a doctoral student working for her PhD dissertation on Herman Melville’s more neglected texts. To my surprise, she complained that the field of American Studies in Spain is saturated with research on 20th century and contemporary texts with a strong racial and ethnic component. This is why, in her view, 19th century American Literature is being unfairly ignored to the point that writing on someone in principle as canonical as Melville appears to a bold choice. Or even, I assume, using that favourite word of the anti-canonical, a subversive choice.

A colleague in the tiny circle of Popular Texts in Spain used to joke that he was looking forward to the day when a student would ask him to supervise a doctoral dissertation on James Joyce and he would be in a position to reply ‘estás tonto/a, ¿o qué?’ His boutade grew out of his tiredness at being constantly told that our research on non-canonical texts is trivial, even banal, but it also shows how tempting it is to dismiss what others do, once you pass from the minority to the majority. It also shows how the unorthodox displaces the orthodox creating a new marginality which, in its turn, becomes subversive –just think of how that budding Joycean would feel. Not that this has really happened with the canon yet… but, who knows? Maybe the first signs are here…

Of course, the choice of a 19th century white man (say, Melville) or an contemporary Afro-American woman (say, Toni Morrison) as the focus of research has nothing to do with the final quality of a PhD dissertation: the study on Melville might break new ground even beyond 19th century US Literature, that on Morrison could be just a boring repetition of academic clichés. Yet, it is true that we tend to attach the labels ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ to particular topics and it seems, at least at first sight, that working on Melville might be more conservative –might be, as what really matters is seeing Melville with fresh eyes, using the latest methodological and theoretical tools. One simply cannot write an old-fashioned dissertation, whether or Melville or on Morrison, out of touch with issues that dominate the current academic debates, for that would be just an apology of ignorance. And we’re all fighting ignorance, right?

For me, in the end, literary and cultural research boils down to filling in the gaps in the currently available bibliography. If there is already plenty on Melville, why write more?, particularly considering how many other US or UK 19th century writers are still neglected. But if you feel there’s a gap, go ahead and fill it up –who am I to stop you? Just don’t stop my efforts to fill in other gaps… All in all, it is a perplexing irony of academic life that, although there is room for everyone, those working on the canon and those of us dealing with non-canonical popular texts feel equally marginalised. Do we do this to each other? Or is there a post-canonical (or neo-canonical?) orthodoxy disguised as subversion doing this?

Could it just be that no one is discriminating anyone any more and that we’re simply not reading each other? I’ll have to think harder…

FASTER, FASTER… (DO DIGITAL RESOURCES MAKE LITERARY RESEARCH EASIER?)

This issue of whether the internet and the related digital resources make literary research faster comes up in conversation with our new MA students and with a doctoral student, now finishing her dissertation. Actually, I seem to have pretty much forgotten what it was like to do research before the internet although I wrote my own PhD dissertation at a transitional period (1994-6), when the net was finding its feet in Spain (see, about its fascinating history, the web of the Asociación de Usuarios de Internet, https://www.aui.es/index.php?body=histo_seccion&id_rubrique=255). Today PhD dissertations are published almost automatically on university websites, whereas mine belongs to the time when they were published by the UAB as microfiches, which sounds now as something vaguely out of old-fashioned Cold War spy fiction. That the UAB is now re-issuing those 20th century dissertations as .pdf documents available on the net, says it all about the obsolescence of microfiches.

A colleague in the Spanish Department, dazzled by his discovery of the main resources we use in English (the MLA database, among others), enthused about how anyone could get hold of the basic bibliography in any field –and even pretend s/he is a specialist. In a way, he’s right. The availability of databases and catalogues devoted to secondary sources in English is certainly impressive and, yes, it’s possible to produce a reasonably complete bibliography fast (passing for a specialist? Not really…). This, however, is not enough and has other consequences.

The time required to write an MA or PhD dissertation, an article or a book, is possibly shortened by on-line resources. Perhaps a year spent plodding through paper catalogues in library-based literary research can now be reduced to a few weeks, even less. Many sources can be downloaded from home, of course, and any book can be located all over the world. Naturally, once the sources are found, reading them takes the same time it used to take in pre-computer or pre-internet times, so does thinking and articulating thought. Until the time, that is, when, as happens in cyber-punk fiction, neural implants become generally available. I mean it…

Many students beginning literary research feel overwhelmed by the many resources available and it’s certainly harder and harder to determine what should be the proportion between sources quoted and our own writing. If you read older secondary sources on English Literature you’ll be surprised by how much pre-1980s quality work (published, for instance, in PMLA) has a very short bibliography or even none at all. I am by no means saying this is desirable but when I come across articles that quote 50 sources in 20 pages, I wonder where the limit should lie. We run the risk of transforming our literary research into an exercise in intensive cut and paste, and even though collage has its merits, surely we need to consider them carefully.

In fact, evaluating the merits of any bibliography in literary research is also becoming quite complicated, as there must be very few specialists who can keep track of all that is published in their field, no matter how small that is (say, lesbian detective fiction!). Also, there’s no way to distinguish between bibliographies that reflect extended reading on the author’s side or a great proficiency in the use of the digital resources to avoid, precisely, investing too much time on a dissertation or an article. Add to this that as instant availability matters much in our fast-paced times, secondary sources on paper that are hard or expensive to track might eventually disappear, never to be quoted again.

So, on reflection, do the internet and other digital resources make literary research easier? No, I personally think they make it different: daunting for beginners; richer in secondary sources perhaps even to a dangerous extent; increasingly indifferent to the old idea of authority and more often conditioned by immediate availability. These tools may give you more time for reading as less is needed for (re)searching, but they also increase the amount of what the researcher may deem fundamental reading. They require, in the end, not so much skills to use them as skills to know when to stop using them… and start writing!

ABOUT THE NEW MA DISSERTATIONS

This post was lost during the updating of the UAB’s blog software, somebody may have read a longer version. Here I go again…

This week I’m done assessing MA dissertations for three different MA degrees and now’s the time to consider what the new European convergence plans for higher education, which we know as plain ‘Bolonia,’ have brought about. Not much that is good.

In my time as a student, ehem, mid 1980s to mid 1990s, it took 11 years for someone to complete a PhD in Spain: 5 for the ‘Licenciatura,’ 2 for doctoral courses, 1 for the equivalent of the MA dissertation (100 pages), 3 for the PhD dissertation (around 500). That was too much, no doubt. The 2002 reform reduced the ‘Licenciatura’ to 4 years and the doctoral courses to 1, so that the total amount of years to get a PhD went down to 9. Now it’s down to 8 years: 4 for the ‘Grado,’ 1 for the MA including the dissertation (35-50 pages) and 3 for the PhD dissertation (350). This, of course, includes learning English in our case to a level high enough for international conferences and publication.

It’s easy to see that time has been dramatically compressed at the MA level, which means in practice that in our UAB MA, Advanced English Studies: Literature and Culture, students have a maximum of 15 months to complete assignments for 8 different teachers and to write the dissertation. Yes, they may submit the dissertation in September rather than June, and yes, it’s short, but this hardly helps.

We start the process of tutoring the dissertations as soon as possible with a research seminar given by all members of staff between November-December leading to a proposal submitted after Christmas. There is a constant follow-up with intermediate submissions of work in progress. Yet, this cannot make up for a new problem that we didn’t have with the doctoral courses.

In the old system, students who enrolled in these courses aimed at completing a doctoral dissertation. Many gave up after writing the shorter dissertation, which was, anyway, twice as long as the current MA affair and researched over at least 1 year. Only students graduating with average Bs and As attempted the feat of getting a PhD. Now our public is different: they may just want the MA and never considered writing a PhD dissertation at all. The MA dissertation is hard enough for them but, then, ours is a research MA.

Why not filter the students and be more demanding, you may be wondering? Well, let’s be frank: we need as many students as possible to guarantee the survival of our MAs all over Catalonia, just in case Generalitat considers that they’re too expensive in terms of teaching resources. The result? Frustrated students and, at best, with a few honourable exceptions, half-baked pieces or nothing at all.

Delaying the submission of the MA dissertation to a second year means that students pay a staggering 900 euros for re-registration (600 plus a 40% surcharge). I’m beginning to believe universities are banking on this unlikelihood to complete the MA dissertation in time to get some extra money. Our suggestion that students may submit their work either in September or in February, counting as part of the same academic year, has been discounted with the excuse that our computers cannot do it.

Bureaucratic matters apart, the fact is that you in the same way you can’t hurry love, as the song claims, you can’t hurry learning (much less thinking, that undervalued activity). The production of good Literature dissertations takes time, as it takes plenty of reading and that is time-consuming. We have, of course, the additional problem that some ‘clever’ politician decided to implement first the introduction of the MAs and then that of the new BAs (the four-year ‘grados’). Also, that many of the most committed students are taking the new MA in teacher training for secondary schools which has been made compulsory for those who wish to teach in Generalitat schools. Thank you very much!!

If anyone knows of a fool-proof method to write excellent dissertations within a 15 month MA (in a foreign language, remember), do let me know…