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/

RECALLING TIMES PAST: ACADEMIC LIFE 1980-2020

As someone wrote recently, it makes sense to think of the 1970s as 40 years ago but how can 1980 be 40 years ago? This has come to my mind in relation to a question asked by one of my Master’s students. He wanted to know whether, on the whole and considering our current access to countless sources of information, academic writing has improved in the Humanities. This question started my recollection of the times when I didn’t have access to the Internet, much less to a computer. Having been born in the mid- 1960s, I’m old enough to have seen a dramatic change in academic work in my own lifetime. As this student told me, there will be far less difference between the academic life of people born in the 1990s and in the 2020s than there is between the academic life of the people born like myself in the 1960s and that of those born in the 1990s. I can only say that he’s totally right.
So let me go back to 1980, the year when I started secondary school. The first papers I handed in were handwritten, a situation which continued for at least three more years until my fourth and last course, what used to be called Curso de Orientación Universitaria (College Orientation Course). If you think that what comes next is the arrival of a PC to my working-class home you are in an alternate universe. What I got then, when I was 17, was my grand-father’s second-hand typewriter, a rather basic, heavy Olivetti. I recall in one particular instance a long Literature paper which I wrote by hand and my mom typed late into a Sunday evening; she had been an admin clerk before marrying, and still had the typing skills that I have never acquired. The typewriter in question, however, had a few glitches, one of which was that the Spanish orthographic stress key was broken. This means that the accents in my paper, which was in Spanish, were all open, in Catalan style. My teacher forgave me because she knew from what kind of home I came from.
This state of matters continued for a while. I enrolled as a university student in 1984, that Orwellian year. I continued using a typewriter, though I seem to recall a lighter new Olivetti made of plastic, with some suspicion that it was not mine but, again, someone else’s. I continued writing handwritten and typed papers based, of course, on school library resources until 1987. I spent the year 1986-87 in England as an au-pair girl and all my communication with my family and friends was through handwritten letters and the occasional phone call from a phone booth. Only when I returned from England did I finally have access to a computer, that of my boyfriend at the time, a nerdish type who grasped how important PCs would be before this was generally understood. All this time, please notice, I was still using library resources: those of my own university, the Autònoma, and the resources of the British Institute in Barcelona, which were in many cases better than what I found at UAB.
After completing the five-year Licenciatura, I started in 1991 my doctoral studies. Doctoral programmes consisted of two years of taking courses with a third year for writing your first dissertation, or tesina. I still wrote mine using bibliography on paper from libraries because although the Internet had already been born it only existed in very limited military and scientific circles. I recall purchasing dozens of articles, very expensively photocopied, from the British Library. I started work on my doctoral dissertation in 1993, spending one year in Scotland (1994-95), still with no internet access, not even e-mail. Like back in 1986-87, all communication with family and friends was done though snail mail and phone calls (no cell phones yet!). I submitted my doctoral dissertation in 1996 still without an Internet connection, though the novelty then was the introduction of email in our communications. This means that if you wanted to publish an article you would snail-mail the hard copies of the article accompanied by a cover letter and then whether the article was accepted or not would be communicated to you in the same way, by letter.
The first academic websites were started then, in the mid-1990s, and some look as they did originally. I was going through the Victorian website the other day and I realised that the layout and most of the texts that you can find there possibly come from that time. The same goes for many other websites built in the 1990s on a voluntary basis that need a revamp but will be lost for lack of volunteers. My post-doc life begins in 1996, when home Internet access also became generally available, but without a flat rate, which means that any prolonged consultation with any website could potentially cost a lot of money. In 1998 I became a consultant at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, the first online university in Spain, and that was an interesting position because the job included free Internet access. Telefónica eventually offered, around 2000, a flat rate, which was really the moment when the Internet took off in Spain (and so did illegal downloading of music, films, books…).
From 2000 onward, then, we academics started having access to many online sources, which means that composing a bibliography became quite easy. Months of research could suddenly be done in one afternoon sitting before your computer, accessing catalogues anywhere in the world. However, what truly made the difference was database access. A catalogue tells you what is available and where, but the database usually contains part of what is available as downloadable texts and that makes an enormous difference. You might have a bibliography which is 200 entries long but if none of those sources is really accessible there is not much point in its bulk. The wonder of research in the last 15 years, then, is not only that any list can be quickly compiled but also that you can download onto your computer in just a few hours many sources, particularly articles in journals. Books remain a grey area of research because not so many are accessible from college libraries as e-books. Universities subscribe to article databases but there are not equivalent book databases, which is the reason why everyone is using Google Books but keeping quiet about it. The price of academic books has gone through the roof so that few researchers and even few libraries can actually purchase books, which may easily cost 100 euros or more (a non-illustrated hardback). So, thanks Google!, you know what for.
The abundance of sources does not necessarily mean, however, that we are producing better research or better academic writing. A typical article in the Humanities usually contains around thirty secondary sources. They take less time to be located but still take a long time to be read. In the past, before the 1990s, when theory exploded, researchers in the Humanities could get away with using a maximum of ten sources for each article. This is a luxury that we can no longer afford. The proliferation of bibliography might seem to be a benefit and in many senses it is. Yet, at the same time, it has resulted in a style of writing that is very constrictive. Most articles I read these days consist of a long barrage of quotations taking the introduction and usually two thirds of the article itself, leaving just a little corner, usually less than one third of the article, for the actual discussion of the text supposedly analysed in it. Before so much bibliography was available and used, literary criticism was literary criticism, that is to say, it was an exercise in reading focused on what the primary source did say. The voice of the scholar had to be strong because it had to sustain the whole analysis, and so you got classics of literary criticism such as Leslie Fiedler, Tony Tanner, John Hillis Miller, Marianne Thormählen, Catherine Belsey, Elaine Showalter and so on.
Now there is very little room for one’s own voice among so many secondary sources, and to be honest this is one of the reasons why I started writing this blog: I was losing my voice in my own academic production. Since the need to publish has grown enormously, this means that you have less time for each of the articles or chapters you write; many sources need to be read diagonally, looking for that quotation which will contribute to your own article. Articles are more frequently quoted than books because a) they are more easily found in databases, b) can be read more quickly. Nobody uses bibliographies in which most items are books that must be read from beginning to end, for a quotation ends up costing too many working hours. That’s our reality. All this constant flow of bibliography, then, is coming when we have least time to benefit from it: to sit down and absorb whatever may be new and exciting. In my worst days I think that literary criticism is dead and we are just endlessly circulating the secondary sources without really paying much attention to what the literary authors themselves are saying. Post-1990s academic rhetoric, in short, has eaten up academic creativity in Literary Studies, and even in the apparently less conventional Cultural Studies.
This can be very daunting for a beginner in the field but, like all rhetoric, academic writing has a playful side. You need to look at academic research as a complex game, with rules that need to be mastered. I do not mean that scholarship is trivial or banal. I just mean that in order to get published you need to learn how to play the game, and this includes understanding which sources you need to check and how valuable they are for you. Having said that and although I’m not going to praise those times when literary criticism was written by hand and based on what your university library housed, we have certainly lost an indefinite something. The Internet has brought the world to our fingertips, but our brain still needs time to process information and deliver solid discourse. Yet time is what we most lack now, in our frantic effort to excel when more people than ever are in academia.
In a sense, then, the cyberpunk dream of the 1980s–if only we could access all the academic riches computers contain–has become if not a nightmare, certainly a source of anxiety, for those who rule academic life have decided that we need to use that flood of information to generate a flood of academic work and so increase the deluge until nobody can really follow it. The solution is to work on one’s own little corner, and play the game as best one can.

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

SUPPOSING REASEARCH MATTERS: A BAD AND A GOOD EXAMPLE OF LITERARY INVESTIGATION

The mood has changed so much this weekend that I must think somebody is crazy: either the scientists asking for as much prudence as possible until the Covid-19 vaccine arrives (most likely 2022), or my fellow citizens who have taken to the streets disregarding all precautions as if this nightmare were already over. The latter, I should think. My crystal balls tells me that in two or three weeks we’ll be back in square one, with panicky calls to the emergency services and overcrowded hospitals again. If I were a doctor or a nurse I would be seething with frustration, anger, and disappointment and would scream during the daily 20:00 celebration of their heroism. What a mockery!

I’m writing this preliminary note because I no longer know which direction to take: are we still fighting for the survival of the species and nothing else matters?, or are we already on the road towards business as usual to save the economy? I’ll let my reader take their pick. For those of pessimistic inclinations, I strongly recommend the devastating article by Antonio Turiel “La tormenta negra”, which describes all you fear to know about the next oil crisis (https://ctxt.es/es/20200401/Politica/32045/Antonio-Turiel-petroleo-tormenta-negra-crisis-energetica.htm). For the rest, go on reading…

Supposing research still matters in this world, I’d like to discuss an example of bad literary criticism and an instance of great literary investigation. In a world now gone if somebody published a controversial article a polemic would follow with replies and counter-replies ad nauseam. Today, this is not worth the effort because so much is published and because, let’s be honest, you never know who you might offend. I have, therefore, decided not to name the author or the title of the bad article to which I’ll refer (though, of course, nothing is hard to find anymore). In contrast, I’m very pleased to reference the good article on which I’ll comment next: “‘I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people’: Varieties of Agency and Interaction in Writers’ Experiences of their Characters”, by John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough, and Angela Woods, Consciousness and Cognition 79 (March 2020): 1-14, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2020.102901.

The bad article analyses Hareton in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, defending the thesis that he is an idiot in the clinical sense of the term. To begin with, I was mightily surprised to see the word used formally but Wikipedia teaches me that even though ‘idiot’ is not used in British psychology, in the United States it is still used in legislation, with amendments in diverse state legislations as recent as 2007 or 2008. The author of the article on Hareton uses ‘idiot’ in the sense of someone with an intellectual disability even though Merriam-Webster, an American source, claims that “The clinical applications” of idiot, imbecile, and moron “is now a thing of the past, and we hope no one reading this would be so callous as to try to resurrect their use” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/moron-idiot-imbecile-offensive-history).

The article I am discussing, published by an outstanding A-list American journal of literary criticism, uses a nice trick to avoid political incorrectness: it reads Hareton by measuring his characterization against 19th century conceptions of idiocy. The author is not simply calling Hareton an idiot, then, but suggesting that this is how the original readers would have understood his ungainly appearance and brutish behaviour. In fact, the author uses a Disability Studies perspective so that they can also criticize how persons with an intellectual impairment were callously classified as idiots in the not too distant past. I have nothing against this line of argumentation, for prejudice needs to be exposed and the appalling wrongness of earlier psychology also denounced. The problem is that Hareton is not at all an idiot, nor would original readers have mistaken him for one. The Literature of the past surely has other examples of persons with an intellectual disability worth exploring.

That Hareton is not mentally impaired in any way is very easy to establish: he responds quickly to the young Catherine’s literacy programme, which the lad himself suggests (once he returns the books he has stolen from her). When Catherine understands that he wants to be educated she proceeds, and this is the first step in their joint undermining of Heathcliff’s patriarchal rule. In the process, Hareton’s good looks and warm feelings resurface, having been buried under the thick layer of illiteracy that Heathcliff imposes on his foster son. If you recall, basically he wants to avenge himself by humiliating the son of his main enemy, his foster brother Hindley. When this man dies, Hareton becomes Heathcliff’s adoptive son. The author of the article, thus, misses what any Victorian reader would understand: Hareton looks and acts like any other person of the time who had received no education whatsoever and was subjected to much abuse from harsh parents. In fact, if one pays attention, there are frequent comments about how handsome the lad is despite Heathcliff’s efforts to destroy him physically and psychologically. No reader who reaches the end of the novel should doubt that Catherine has fallen in love with an attractive, warm-hearted, loyal man who is, besides, willing to learn from her (and teach her in return about nature).

What, then, is the cause of the misreading in the article I have mentioned? Two causes: one is the misguided desire to expand the field of Disability Studies to works which have no disabled character; the other is that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to producing new readings of the classics, as my friend Esther Pujolràs tells me. The author of the article knows that the happy ending disproves the thesis, and even acknowledges that there might be no evidence of idiocy in the text, but the article has been accepted by peer reviewers who have seen no problem in publishing a piece which is plainly wrong. I am 100% sure that this has to do with the use of Disability Studies as the theoretical frame, though I must add that I have seen other articles cheekily warning that there is no evidence for the thesis presented. I was taught that this is mere speculation but it seems that the rules have changed. The other question, the depletion of new things to say about the classics, is visible in the thick stream of research that deals with minor aspects. It is, logically, hard to approach a classic like Wuthering Heights from a truly new perspective and so attention is paid to smaller elements missed by previous research. A result of this is that 21st century bibliography looks like an analysis of single leaves on trees rather than of the forest. Another problem is that there is so much bibliography that any new author has hardly room to develop a thesis among so many obligatory references to predecessors. I am not saying that no new work about the classics should be published; what I am saying is that many other authors, works, and aspects of literary criticism are waiting for someone to pay attention to them.

The article by Foxwell et al. is a very good example of this. Finally someone has thought of asking authors how they imagine their characters and here are the first results. The authors present evidence collected with a questionnaire sent to the authors who presented work at the Edinburgh Literature Festival (in 2014 and 2018). 181 replied (mostly women, mostly British) and from their replies the first tentative sketch of the imaginative process behind writing characters has emerged. Foxwell and his colleagues wanted to investigate a phenomenon which I have often mentioned here: writers claim that characters take decisions in the process of building a piece of fiction, often taking it in directions unanticipated by the author. The questionnaire was designed to have writers be more specific about their relationship with their own characters: are they like the imaginary friends of childhood?, is hearing their voices a sort of hallucinatory experience?, are characters’ voices different from the author’s own inner speech?

Although the results are not homogeneous, a general conclusion is that writers imagine characters and then they give them a voice in ways that recall how we suppose a person we know would react in certain circumstances. Of course, this is a very superficial summary of the many aspects concerning the topic which the article analyses. Read it and you will see how amazing the statements from the writers are. Here is an example: initially, the characters “feel under my control and then at that certain point when they feel completely real, it’s becomes a matter of me following them, hoping to steer” (10). The bibliography, full of articles on diverse forms of hallucinatory madness, indirectly hints that somehow the researchers were worried to discover that the authors of fiction actually suffer from some kind of mental disorder. They very carefully point out throughout the discussion of results that all authors know that their characters are mental constructions and that the voices they hear and the conversations they have are perfectly normal manifestations. Normal for a fiction author, I should add. I remain mystified by how it feels to have your imagination colonized by the presence of other people. The article describes quite well what happens in the mind of a fiction writer at work but it cannot say why it happens.

I am not a big fan of the strict, formalist language in which Foxwell and his colleagues write, and which is habitual in cognitive and linguistic analysis. Here is an example: “Those writers whose characters were fully distinct from their inner speech were significantly likely to report dialoguing as themselves with the character (χ2 = 22.19, df = 6, p < 0.001), to feel like they were observing their characters (χ2 = 32.15, df = 2, p < 0.001), and to experience their characters as possessing full agency (χ2 = 28.29, df = 6, p < 0.001)” (9). In fact, I’m quite sorry that there is no room for discussing how the imagination works in literary criticism, from which living writers are mostly absent. There should be, I think, a middle point between the interview and the statistical analysis, but it seems nobody is really interested, perhaps even few authors (see my post of 13 January, “The Elusive Matter of the Imagination: Too Frail to Touch?”). Tellingly, many writers declined the invitation to participate in the survey, refusing to explore in detail mental processes that are personal and delicate. As the researches stress, imagining characters is “a specific aspect of inner experience for which no established vocabulary exists” (13).

I’ll end by suggesting that perhaps that vocabulary does not exist because writing fiction is play and connecting adults with play is always complicated. I do not mean by this that the task carried out by fiction writers is easy child’s play but that dreaming up characters has a playful aspect. We take fiction too seriously to accept that it is a complex game and in the end we have no idea about how it works. If we could resurrect Emily Brontë, everyone would want to know how she imagined and spoke to her characters, so why not ask the living authors surrounding us? Obviously, they have plenty to say.

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/

HOW ENTITLEMENT AND VILLAINY CONNECT (AS I EXPLAIN IN MASCULINITY AND PATRIARCHAL VILLAINY: FROM HITLER TO VOLDEMORT)

I have been delaying this post in the hopes that some of our local Spanish universities would have bought by now the monograph I published back in November 2019, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy: From Hitler to Voldemort (Routledge, https://www.routledge.com/Masculinity-and-Patriarchal-Villainy-in-the-British-Novel-From-Hitler/Martin/p/book/9780367441463). This has not happened yet, though you can check here where the volume is available near you (https://www.worldcat.org/title/masculinity-and-patriarchal-villainy-in-the-british-novel-from-hitler-to-voldemort/oclc/1140353245&referer=brief_results). I’m told there the paperback edition will be published next year, when I’ll continue my own personal marketing campaign, of which this is post is, unashamedly, an item.

It is hard to say how long it has taken me to write this book because the idea first occurred to me back in 2008 (I spent a sabbatical then gathering bibliography), but technically the book expands on a chapter in my doctoral dissertation (submitted in 1996). Since 2006-7 I had been teaching the seminar (in Spanish) “Representations of Heroism” within the Cultural Studies module of the MA in Literatura Comparada: Estudios Literarios y Culturales of my university. I taught the last edition in 2016-17, so you can say that the book, which connects with my discourse on villainy for this seminar, was started back in 2006 and has taken thirteen years to be written. That might be the case, though the actual writing, from contract to publication, took about twenty months. If I have managed the feat of producing a monograph this is only because my teaching workload is now lower (thanks to the Government decree of 2012 by Minister Wert which few universities are applying), and because my Department allowed me to organize my teaching so that I could spend a complete year on the book (apart from tutorials for BA, MA, and PhD dissertations). I am already at work on another book, but I’m not sure at all that this window of opportunity will ever present itself again, considering that it has taken more than twenty-five years of my career for the past one to materialize.

Another reason why it has taken me long to write this book is that, once I hit on the idea that my topic should be villainy and not heroism (on which far more has been written), I had basically the whole field to myself. Believe it or not, there is very little direct bibliography on villainy, and what is available deals mainly with specific villains and not with the concept itself. Typically, I started with lists of villainous characters and soon got mired into what promised to be the beginnings of an encyclopedia. That was not, however, the kind of book I wanted to write. Nor a history of fictional villainy, though now that I’m done writing my own book this is a project that I wish someone else would write (not me!). The problem of how to select a corpus and structure a coherent volume plagued me for years –as I kept myself busy doing a thousand other things– until I ask my previous PhD supervisor, Andrew Monnickendam, for help. His advice was very simple but very helpful: narrow down the field to a genre, a period, and a nationality. Since most bibliography on villainy deals with recent American audio-visual products, here was the solution to my needs: I would focus on the British novel since WWII.

Why? Reason number one: the fictional construction of villainy is rooted in British culture, beginning with the Devil and Vice in the morality plays, following with Shakespeare, Milton, the Gothic novel, Dickens… Should I go on? The villain is, most definitely, not a product of American culture. Reason number two: the villain’s audiovisual presence often depends on novels that have been ignored or that, even when they are very popular, are seen as vehicles for the hero. I wanted to put together a variety of cases that would help me stress a crucial point: there is a remarkable coherence in the presentation of villainy across different fiction genres; this has been overlooked simply because no one was paying attention. Third reason: Adolf Hitler had to be in my book as the real-life villain that changed the rules of representing villainy. I knew from the very beginning that my book should be called From Hitler to Voldemort, though Routledge preferred the title to act as subtitle, and have the volume be called Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in British Fiction, which was originally my subtitle.

Here is the table of contents:
Introduction. Defining the Patriarchal Villain
Chapter 1. Adolf Hitler: The Threat of Absolute Villainy
Chapter 2. Big Brother and O’Brien: The Mystique of Power and the Reproduction of Patriarchal Masculinity
Chapter 3. Morgoth and Sauron: The Problem of Recurring Villainy
Chapter 4. Steerpike: Gormenghast’s Angry Young Man
Chapter 5. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Larger Than Life: The Villain in the James Bond Series
Chapter 6. Richard Onslow Roper and the ‘Labyrinth of Monstrosities’: John le Carré’s Post-Cold War Villains
Chapter 7. Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart Trilogy: Democracy at Risk
Chapter 8. Big Ger Cafferty, Crime Boss: The Constant Struggle to Retain Power
Chapter 9. Voldemort and the Limits of Dark Magic: Self-empowerment as Self-destruction

This is quite similar to the list I started with, although Chapter 4 was originally split between Mervyn Peake, Grahame Green (Brighton Rock), and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). I soon realized that Peake’s Steerpike demanded more room and I gave it to him. As you can see, some chapters deal with very well-known texts, others not so much (Chapter 7 is the first academic essay on the Urquhart novels by Michael Dobbs). One thing that bothered me is that the list of primary sources for each chapter ran from just one book (Orwell’s 1984 in Chapter 2) to twelve (Ian Fleming’s Bond novels in Chapter 5) and even more (Ian Rankin’s many novels in Chapter 8). I discovered, though, that the strict word-count which I had to respect (110000 words), helped me to stay focused. Of all the villains here considered, I was most surprised by Tolkien’s Morgoth, a relatively little known character because he appears in the pages of The Silmarillion, not an easy book to read. If you’re wondering who Morgoth is you need to know that he is Sauron’s much admired master.

How did I tackle Hitler’s immense figure, you may be wondering? A turning point in my research was Ian Kershaw’s two-volume biography, Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (1997) and Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis (2000). Kershaw, an English political historian, discusses Hitler’s rise and fall in relation to how the mechanism of power operates and why German society failed to control his crazed tyranny. Kershaw rejects evil and psychopathology as explanations for Hitler’s personality, and that was what I needed. I added to Kershaw’s interest in power my own interest in gender, and I developed thus my main thesis, namely, that villainy is the expression of the patriarchal sense of entitlement to power in its highest degree. For me, Hitler is not exceptional as a man who believes himself entitled to power in the patriarchal context of his own society, but rather a representative of a type of masculinity we now call toxic but should simply be called patriarchal. What was exceptional in his case, as Kershaw explains, is that all the mechanisms to stop Hitler’s excessive entitlement failed. The hero, I argue, personifies those mechanisms but in Hitler’s case there could be no German hero since he had presented himself as such. The Allies had to play that role but they did so among so many tensions that WWII was soon followed by the Cold War.

My theory of power is, unlike Kershaw’s, gendered but despite my focus on the patriarchal masculinity of the villains I have studied, I believe that entitlement is a negative quality present in both men and women with patriarchal inclinations. That is to say, although patriarchy has so far accumulated most power and deployed a series of strategies to keep non-white, non-heterosexual, non-upper-class men and all women subordinated, patriarchy is so attached to notions of power that as those excluded from power rebel (= empower themselves) it may welcome them in its patriarchal hegemonic circles. This is why, as I have written here before, I find the notion of empowerment very suspect. I decided not to deal in my book with female villains because to really understand villainy in women you need to find them in a post-gender context –while I wrote the book, then, I produced a chapter on Alma Coin, the female villain of The Hunger Games, for a book on the Final Girl. Women, my claim is, may feel a strong sense of entitlement to power, too, but so far this has been denied by patriarchy. If, however, patriarchy becomes less gender-obsessed while still retaining its obsession with power, we might see a female Hitler one day.

At this point, though, I have made it my mission to offer an anti-fascist diagnosis of what makes patriarchal men tick, claiming in the process that we urgently need positive representations of men as alternatives to patriarchy (see my previous post). It has been inevitable, logically, to speak of the heroes in connection to the villains but what I have found out is mostly depressing. The heroes offered by the British authors I have selected are mostly weak and disempowered –often crushed by the loss of male honourability– or plain nasty. I was surprised by how deeply Ian Fleming disliked his James Bond and dismayed by how fond Mervyn Peake was of Titus Groan, to me a young man on the verge of either worshipping or becoming someone like Hitler. My authors are all white and male because I wanted to see, precisely, how they deal with the tale of the hero and the villain, which is so central to hegemonic patriarchal culture. The only woman I chose, though, J.K. Rowling, provides, as I have been arguing again and again, the best possible model of anti-patriarchal heroic masculinity (borrowing from Tolkien’s Frodo). Harry Potter, however, seems to be too good for our macho-oriented times.

Throughout the writing of the book and afterwards I have been daily testing my thesis that what we call evil is actually entitlement based on a patriarchal understanding of power. Evil, in my view, is an interested patriarchal construction designed to mystify us about the operations of entitlement. Let me explain myself. Hitler acted as he did because he felt himself entitled to taking other European lands for the expansion of the German people, and to eliminating other European bodies that (for prejudices widespread at the time) he abhorred. He went further than any other villain (except for Joseph Stalin, of course) but you could say that all of human life is organized on the principle of how we express our own sense of entitlement depending on the power we wield and our disregard of punishment. From colonial occupation down to leaving your motorbike parked in the middle of the pavement everything is a matter of entitlement. Our own sense of personal privilege, our belief that we can do as we wish because we can (= we have the power) overcomes all sense of solidarity with the rest of the species. You might think that there is an enormous difference between bothering pedestrians and killing six million Jews (and many other persons) but this is a matter of degree (I’m NOT being flippant). Let your child’s sense of entitlement go uncurbed and you have a potential fascist in your hands. The rest is a matter of opportunities (the many Hitler had), befuddling your enemies (as he did with his impressive PR Nazi apparatus), and acting fast (while the victims considered appeasement policies that would never appease).

So, if the premise of my book works well readers will stop seeing patriarchy as a mechanism for women’s repression (it’s a hierarchical social structure based on power), and will deny the existence of evil (what matters is entitlement). Readers will also see female villainnesses, specially femme fatales, as the pathetic creatures they are, with their ultra-sexualised bodies, and will perceive how the villain’s masculinity is shaped by patriarchal doctrines. The way I see it, the hero has been invented by patriarchy to solve one of its main weaknesses: if you structure society on the basis of power, sooner or later an individual will claim too large a share, and this will endanger the other powerful individuals. The hero acts out, therefore, on behalf of patriarchy, to limit its excesses but not at all to challenge its hierarchy-oriented, pyramidal construction.

I ended the book with a plea that one day we find other stories to tell, in which there are no heroes because the power-hungry patriarchal villains are gone. I have no idea what these stories might be, or whether they will be exciting at all, but we really need to see beyond power, abuse, and suffering and think of new plots – for the sake of our survival as a species.

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/

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/

THE COMPLEX MATTER OF CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (WITH THOUGHTS ON THE NATIVE AMERICAN CASE)

Working these days on an article about speculative fiction author Vandana Singh, I tried to find an American-born, white woman author to whom I could compare her case. Singh was born in Delhi but lives in the USA since the late 1980s, where she works teaching and researching Physics. The collection by Singh I am examining –Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018)– has been published by Small Beer Press, an independent publisher, and I found among their books one that appears to be the perfect comparator I need: Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees (2012). Johnson, a white Iowa native born one year before Singh, has a higher reputation, based on her having received more nominations and awards and having published novels. Yet, this is also useful as I am looking into the causes why Singh is not better known. I was not looking specifically into the thorny question of cultural appropriation but it has surfaced, hence my post today.

In three stories of her collection –“Fox Magic”, “The Empress Jingu Fishes”, “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”– and in her novels The Fox Woman (2001) and Fudoki (2004) Johnson uses ancient Japan as her background though she has no direct personal link to this country. Scholar Joan Gordon (white, American-born) defends her choice on the grounds that “Rigorously researched historical narratives enable [Johnson] to avoid trivializing or exoticizing the complexity of another view of the world, and it may be that casting one’s narrative into the remote past, as Johnson’s stories do, avoids some of the difficulties of power inequity”. However, I came across a review in GoodReads by Minyoung Lee, an American female reader of Korean descent, who has a very different opinion. She is deeply offended by “The Empress Jingu Fishes” because, Lee claims, Johnson’s research is inadequate, and this leads to serious mistakes in the representation of still unsolved, complex conflicts among the Korean, the Japanese, and the Chinese.

Apparently, Lee even exchanged letters with Johnson about this but far from feeling appeased her impression that outsiders “not immersed in the subtle nuances” of the foreign culture they describe will inevitable offend insiders was confirmed. Lee wonders why anyone would “write about another person’s culture and history that you only superficially know about when you have a rich and fulfilling story of your own that cannot be told in the fullest by someone else?”. This suggests that rather than speak of cultural appropriation perhaps we should speak of cultural depletion in the case of white authors who feel no strong attachment to their own cultural background and use parasitically other cultures. Just an idea. I didn’t expect, however, to come across a case of (possible) cultural appropriation within the context of the Native American cultures of the United States…

On Friday I finished reading Jack Fennell’s edited volume Sci-Fi: A Companion (Peter Lang, 2019, https://www.amazon.com/Sci-Fi-Companion-Genre-Fiction-Companions/dp/1788743490) to which I have contributed an essay on the aliens in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. The book has an article called “Indigenous Futurisms” (by Amy H. Sturgis), which was a total eye-opener, for I know nothing about Native American literature beyond having read a couple of novels by Louise Erdrich. Sturgis deals among other authors with Rebecca Roanhorse and what I less expected is that I would meet her the following day, Saturday. She was a guest of honour at the ‘Seminari de Gèneres Fantàstics I’, beautifully organized by Ricard Ruiz Garzón of the Associació d’Escriptors en Llengua Catalana. Roanhorse’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” was offered as a souvenir in the excellent Catalan translation by Miquel Codony. Independent publishers Mai Mes presented the Catalan version of Trail of Lightning (as El raster del llamp), the first translation into another language of Roanhorse’s first novel. Later, I had lunch with the author, an activity which as you know from a previous post is a ‘necessary encounter’, and I learned a few things, for which I am very grateful.

Rebecca Roanhorse (https://rebeccaroanhorse.com/), born in Arkansas and raised in Texas, is the daughter of an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo mother and an African-American father. She lives now in New Mexico, together with her Navajo/Diné artist husband, Michael Roanhorse (https://www.truewestgallery.com/michael-roanhorse), and their pre-teen daughter. Both were present in the seminar and the ensuing lunch. I was very much surprised to read that Trail of Lightning has been criticized as a very negative example of cultural appropriation by Saad Bee Hozho, the Diné Writers’ Association, mainly on two grounds: Roanhorse is not Navajo herself and the values presented as Navajo in her novel are not acceptable as such because her work is violent whereas Diné culture is peaceful. The extensive open letter published online created quite a controversy, extended to other websites, mostly siding with the critique.

I was, therefore, very curious to see how Roanhorse would approach the matter in her talk with interviewer Alexandre Páez. When he asked about cultural appropriation, without alluding to this episode, Roanhorse simply replied that this kind of accusation is inevitable and one must face it as best one can. However, since she had not explained to the audience that she is part of the Navajo nation by marriage but not by birth her reply somehow suggested that the problem was white authors’ appropriation of Native American heritage. To be honest, I was not very happy with her reply and, although I feared very much stirring a nest of hornets, I was getting ready to ask the really uncomfortable question I had in mind when Catalan author Víctor García Tur asked Roanhorse again about cultural appropriation. Only then did she explain how she connects with Navajo culture, noting that about 30% of the readers were fine with her choices, 30% had criticised her and the rest had problems to make up their minds. She did not allude to the Navajo authors’ letter.

My personal opinion is that writers should be free to explore any topic and culture they feel germane to their interests. However, I think that they should make their own position as clear as possible (why not write a preface or a note?), and I certainly believe that respect for the culture visited is fundamental. Also, impeccable research. What was worrying me in Roanhorse’s case is that she was not clarifying her position before the audience and, so, most were assuming that she is Navajo. For me this is the equivalent of, say, someone from Catalonia writing about Extremadura and concealing this vital information from a foreign audience meeting someone from Spain for the first time. This type of nuanced information is very important. Authors, whether they write fiction or academic work, should avoid any misconceptions about who they are and must totally avoid, in my humble view, speaking for a whole collective to which they do not belong or only are members of in part. This can be a bit ridiculous, if you see it that way, but in my own article about Vandana Singh I have included a paragraph detailing my own position (colour, gender, nationality, age, occupation) so that readers know from which position I speak. Even so, I think, there is a world of difference between Johnson’s choice of ancient Japan, which is exoticizing no matter how lovingly done, and Roanhorse’s choice of Diné culture, which she knows through her personal experience. Or maybe I’m wrong.

I asked Roanhorse about something completely different also on my mind these days. If you read academic work on non-white authors (how I hate this adjective!…) it might seem that they are progressing following traditions isolated from white authors’ work. In Vandana Singh’s case she has often referred to Ursula le Guin as a mentor, writing in her tribute following le Guin’s death that “it is safe to say that I would not be the writer or the person I am without the deep and abiding influence of who she was and what she wrote”. Le Guin not only personally encouraged Singh to publish her first story, she also provided her with crucial instances of non-white characters she could identify with. Indeed, in le Guin’s masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), there is not any white character, a point often missed. During the seminar there was some comment about whether le Guin could get away with this choice today, or would she be accused of cultural appropriation… Anyway, Roanhorse noted that Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) was a major influence for her as a writer. I asked her how she connected with other white male writers, whether they read each other and so on, and she explained that fellow New Mexico resident George R.R. Martin had helped her very much, and so had John Scalzi, possibly the most popular SF author right now. Scalzi, she told me, is particularly generous in promoting the work of non-white authors. Other white male authors, Roanhorse added, are going in the right direction in their fiction by being more inclusive (paying no attention to cultural appropriation issues…) or placing women in the role of the protagonist. I must say that this is what I missed in the Sci-Fi Companion: an overview of what the ‘white boys’ are up to these days. For they are still there, dominating sales and pleasing readers –including non-white women.

Allow me to recommend Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (https://www.apex-magazine.com/welcome-to-your-authentic-indian-experience/), an uncomfortable story that has plenty to say about cultural appropriation and what it is like to be a dispossessed Native American (man) today. Don’t miss the readers’ comments! I have not read The Trail of Lightning (yet) but I’m told it is an exciting novel. You may not like its hero, Navajo monster-slayer Maggie Hoskie, whom Roanhorse herself describes as an “unlikeable woman”, but what is there not to like in the opening up of fantasy and science fiction to as many cultures as possible?

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/

ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE: WHY ACADEMIC CAREERS HAVE LOST THEIR APPEAL

The teachers and researchers of all Catalan universities have been called to strike on Tuesday 28 in protest against the appalling conditions under which the non-permanent staff work. The article by the branch of the workers’ union CGT which operates in my own university, UAB, explains that Royal Decree 103/2019, on the rights of trainee researchers (Estatuto del Personal Investigador en Formación, EPIF), is insufficient and, anyway, it is not being applied, which puts UAB on the side of illegality (https://cgtuab.wordpress.com/2019/05/17/28-de-maig-vaga-del-pdi-de-les-universitats-publiques-catalanes/ ). The call to strike refers both to part-time associates and to full-time doctoral and post-doctoral researchers who enjoy fellowships and grants, and, most importantly, to the lack of tenured positions they might occupy one day.

A friend told me recently that one of the main weaknesses of the academic sector is that we are not solidary with each other, which is why our protests always fail. This makes me feel quite bad about my decision not to join the strike, but, then, it is my habit to systematically reject all calls of that nature. I am a civil servant offering a public service and I don’t see why my students should be negatively affected by my refusal to work, no matter how justified the cause. Actually, I believe that strikes have lost their edge in the education sector, as there are so many every year that Governments (local, national) just do not pay any attention to the protesters. Other forms of activism are needed, and, so, this is what I am doing today: inform my students, and anyone interested, about what is going on.

I have described the situation many times in this blog, and what follows may sound repetitive, but this is one of the problems: nothing has changed since September 2010, when I started writing here, and certainly for some years before. To recap a very old story, until 2002, when I got tenure, you just needed to be a doctor in order to apply for a permanent position. Obtaining it depended, logically, on the quality of your CV and competition was anyway harsh, but on average you could get a permanent job around the age of 36 (it used to be 30, or slightly below, in the early 1990s). Next came the ‘habilitaciones’, an evil system which meant that candidates to positions had to demonstrate first their qualifications to a tribunal which could be sitting hundreds of miles away from home. This was expensive, tedious, anxiety-inducing for the members of the tribunals (who had to interrupt their lives often for months, regardless of their family situation) and evidently for the harassed candidates (who often had to try several times in different cities). Once you obtained your ‘habilitación’, you had to apply for tenure in a specific university and compete with other qualified candidates. ANECA, technically a private foundation attached to the Government, created in 2001, was given in 2007 the crucial function of organizing a new accreditation system to replace the nomadic ‘habilitaciones’, centralized in Madrid but mostly run online. Under this new system, imitated as we know by local agencies such as Catalan AQU, candidates must fill in a complex, time-consuming online application before being certified apt by the corresponding commission. Then you can apply to a university position. If you find any.

The perfect storm that risks demolishing the public Spanish university has been caused by the confluence of two incompatible circumstances: ANECA’s demands from candidates have been increasing–in principle to secure that better research is done and better teaching offered–whereas the 2008 economic crisis (about to be repeated) has destroyed all the junior full-time positions that trainee researchers used to occupy. Very optimistically, ANECA (and the other agencies) suppose that applicants have produced their PhD dissertations while being the recipients of a grant, and that they have next found post-doctoral grants, etc. In fact, most junior researchers are part-time associate teachers, which is incongruous because associates are, by definition, professionals who contribute their expertise to the universities for a few hours a week, and not academics aspiring to tenure. The Spanish public university suffers because of all this from a most dangerous split between the older, tenured teachers (average age 53, a third or more inactive in research) and the younger, non-permanent staff who should one day replace us, if they survive their frantic daily schedules. In fact, the 2008 crisis and the associate contracts have destroyed the chances of a whole generation (now in their forties and even fifties) to access tenured positions. And I am by no means as optimistic as ANECA, which appears to believe that all those currently beginning their PhDs will be eventually tenured.

We were told, around 2008, as a collective that Spain was not doing well in research and that we needed to raise the bar, hence the increasing demands of the accreditation system and of the assessment system (I refer here to the ‘sexenios’ that examine our academic production). The rationale behind this is that if we applied measuring systems borrowed from first-rank foreign academic environments this would increase our productivity and the quality of our research and teaching. Three problems, however, have emerged.

Here comes number one. Whereas in the past having a PhD was enough (being a ‘doctor’ means that you are ready to offer innovative teaching and research), now this is just the beginning of a long post-doctoral period that has delayed tenure to the age of 40, if you’re lucky, and with the addition of total geographical mobility within Spain. This means that private life is totally subordinated to the needs of academia, a situation which punishes women severely since the decade between 30 and 40 is when we have babies. Since, besides, men tend to leave women the moment they choose to move elsewhere for their careers, this means that few women scholars can succeed in the terms that are most highly praised, namely, by becoming an internationally known scholar. My personal impression is that the persons earning tenure at 40, or later, in the current system could have also earned it at 30 under the older system. And, obviously, we run a major risk: faced with this perspective of a long professional post-MA training, of 17 years…, most budding scholars will simply give up. Specially the young women, right now the majority in the Humanities.

Problem number two: without young full-time staff we, seniors, are collapsing, too. Here’s how I feel this week: seriously depressed. Why? Well, because after almost 28 years as a teacher/researcher I have a very clear perception that I will leave nothing behind. Since we have no full-time colleagues to train, and replace us, but a succession of part-time associates, when we retire our research area will retire with us. Overall, I feel, besides, very much isolated. I work mostly alone, either at home or in my university office, and I never meet my colleagues for a distended chat. Formal meetings are increasingly hard to organize because they conflict with the overworked associates’ hectic schedules. Informal meetings do not happen because we are too busy working for the glory of our CVs and we have no time to spare. And, anyway, when we speak our topic is invariably the pathetic state of the university. I just wonder where intellectual life is happening, if it is happening anywhere. I feel, besides, frustrated that all new projects to do something exciting never get started or are always provisional. Our book club is run by an associate who might be gone any day. When an enthusiastic associate and I visited the head of audio-visual services at UAB last week, to ask for advice about the project of opening a YouTube channel for the Department, the first question he asked was whether it would have permanent staff in charge. Too often, he said, new projects are started by keen associates only to be abandoned as soon as their contracts expire. My colleague replied that hers would last at least for… four years.

The third problem is that we are following foreign models of research and teaching assessment already imploding elsewhere. You may read, for instance, Anna Fazackerley’s article of 21 May, “‘It’s cut-throat’: half of UK academics stressed and 40% thinking of leaving” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/21/cut-throat-half-academics-stressed-thinking-leaving?CMP=share_btn_tw). In the British system there is technically no tenure: teachers do not become civil servants but are hired for life (like in the Generalitat-run Catalan system). This is why so many are thinking of quitting. In our case, we, tenured teachers, develop a sort of bad marriage relationship with our jobs: I realized recently that I am constantly protecting myself from my academic career, as if it were an abusive partner. In Britain there is an additional misery to deal with: academics are made responsible for the recruiting of the many students to guarantee the financial stability of their institutions. Aware that they are coveted clients, students have learned to disrespect their teachers even more than we are disrespected here (as supposedly lazy, privileged ‘funcionarios’… which some are indeed).

Fazackerley’s piece is actually based on a report about the wellbeing of British academics (https://www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk/resources/research-reports/staff-wellbeing-higher-education ), which, as you may imagine, leads to worrying conclusions. Reading it, I even wondered whether we have a right to our wellbeing as tenured teachers, in view of the ill-treatment that associate teachers and post-docs are victims of. Of course, this is one of the most devious tools of the system: making you feel bad about tenure you have earned with great effort. Anyway, the report notes that “Wellbeing is maximised when people feel valued, well-managed, have good workplace collegiality and can act with agency and autonomy”. However, our wellbeing is being eroded by, they say, “management approaches that prioritised accountability measures and executive tasks over teaching, learning and research tasks”, though in the case of Spain I should say this is different. Here there is, simply, an obsession for publishing based on scientific principles that just fails to understand what we do in the Humanities (and I mean ‘should do’, namely, think slowly). The British report concludes that “In general, respondents did not feel empowered to make a difference to the way that Higher Education institutions deal with wellbeing issues and this generated some cynicism”. That’s right: one day you feel depressed, the next one cynical, and so on. Even angry which, unfortunately, may affect classroom mood and lead to burnout.

I have already mentioned the sense of isolation (what the report calls ‘lack of collegiality’). The Guardian article highlights, as well, the stress caused by the frequent rejection of work for publication (which begins now at PhD level), the pressure caused by deadlines, the impossibility of excelling at the three branches of our jobs (teaching, research, admin tasks), and two more factors I’d like to consider a bit more deeply. One is that the rules change all the time and the top bar keeps moving. The other is how you are judged by what you have not done, despite having done a lot.

We are being told by the agencies which judge us that our planning should be improved, that it to say, that we should focus on publishing in A-list journals and not waste time in other academic activities. I acknowledge that I don’t know how to do that: I get many rejections from the top journals, I am invited to contribute to books that I love but that are worth nothing for the agencies, and so on. And the other way around: projects I have committed to, thinking they would bring nothing worth adding to my CV, have led to the best work I have done so far. Anyway, since the rules about what is a merit and what a demerit are changing all the time, you cannot really plan your career. You may choose, for instance, to be Head of Department for four years, and diminish the pace of your research at risk of failing your ‘sexenio’ assessment, only to find later on that admin work does not really count towards qualifying as full professor. I constantly suffer, in addition, from impostor’s syndrome because I have chosen to be very productive in some lines of my work but not invest time in others that the official agencies prefer. I certainly feel that my rather long, full CV is simply not good enough even though I have done my best. And intend to go on doing so until I retire.

Will this situation implode? I think it might, and soon enough. So far, we have been relying on a constant supply of young, eager volunteers to accept whatever poor conditions the university offers, for the sake of the glamour attached to presenting yourself as a higher education employee. If, however, that glamour, which was never real, goes on being eroded, young people will find something else to do. At this point, I do not recommend to anyone that they begin an academic career. If you’re talented enough, train yourself up to PhD level, and then find alternatives to disseminate knowledge through self-employment (I would say online audio-visual work).

In view of the situation in Britain, we might conclude that the situation is about to reach a tipping point all over the Western world, for something needs to give in. Naturally, the solution for Spain is more money, a return to full-time contracts at non-tenured level, simplifying the process of accreditation, and offering more tenured positions around age 35 at the latest. Unless there is, as many suspect, a plan afoot to destroy the public university and, with it, the social mobility it has afforded to some working-class individuals (not that many). What is going on cannot be, however, that clever and it is possibly just the product of political short-sightedness, compounded with–yes, my friend–our inability to present a common front before society as a collective, and defend our lives from this constant stress.

And on this bitter note, here finishes my contribution to the strike.

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

BIBLIOMETRICS AND OPEN ACCESS: FIGHTING FOR COMMON SENSE

My topic today is the corporate hold on academic research on two different but closely interrelated fronts: open access and bibliometrics. Open access policies are very simple to understand: the publications generated by research funded with public money should be available for free to anyone interested. This is, simply, not happening. Bibliometrics used to be a system designed to aid university librarians to choose how to invest their meagre, or large, resources into the best journals available but became about ten years ago an Orwellian way of measuring what cannot be measured: scholarly reputation and impact.

I attended back in 2010 a one-day workshop, organized by the Catalan Agència per a la Qualitat del Sistema Universitari de Catalunya (AQU), to debate the best way to implement the, at the time, rather new bibliometric approach to research. I was on the side of the Catalan researchers who complained that if you work on a tiny corner of the world of knowledge (and in a minority language) you can hardly expect your research to have world-wide impact. Your specialized journals will always be on the C and D list, even for your own local Catalan universities. So why measure not only personal production but also whole areas of research by pitting them against each other? Who has the right to say that a journal in English about Milton is more relevant that one in Catalan about Pedrolo? Why should an article published in the former be automatically regarded as superior to one published in the latter?

The other main concern expressed had to do with how bibliometrics negatively affect new publications, as scholars have quickly learned that since newly-born journals take time to consolidate it is preferable to try to publish in older, fully consolidated B or A-list journals–the only ones that really count for assessment though it make take years to publish in them even when accepted. I believed all this was plain common sense but was totally flabbergasted when hearing the line defended by some of the Catalan colleagues present at the AQU workshop, who were truly convinced that where you publish and not what you publish is what matters. Since then I have learned to do as required by my employers, and, so, I made sure that my last research assessment exercise included at least one article in an A-listed journal. I am also flooding, however, the digital repository of my university with plenty of academic work which I am self-publishing, following my own version of open access.

I say my own version because what is usually meant by open access is not free self-publication, whether peer-reviewed (which can be easily done) or not, but the online liberation of work previously offered through an academic journal (occasionally in collective books). That is to say: even though most universities have set up digital repositories to guarantee their researchers easy access to a platform where they can publish their work (beyond Academia.edu or Research Gate, which are private), it turns out that this has had no major impact because our CVs are measured, more rigidly than ever, on the basis of journal bibliometrics. If, to give an imaginary example, I publish an article in an A-ranking journal available by subscription that gets read by 30 persons but the same article is downloaded 300 times from the DDD of my university, which has the higher impact? You might think it’s the DDD but, no, it’s the journal publication–officially, digital repositories contribute zero to academic CVs. I am not speaking here of peer-reviewing vs. self-publication, I’m speaking only about access, which is supposedly the basis of impact.

Open access, in short, cannot function unless all journals decide to act like repositories and offer their publications for free online. Many, of course, are doing that and even using, besides, open peer reviewing, which means that you can leave comments either as a plain reader or as a formal reviewer (not anonymously). In contrast, most of the A- listed journals (highly-ranked according to bibliometrics, not necessarily scholarly consensus) tend to be available only by subscription, which means that universities are spending most of their library budgets on publications that actually depend on the researchers’ giving their work away for free. As we all know, though we do not get payment for our articles, the main academic journal publishers do good business by charging money for each article independently and for the subscriptions, some truly expensive–I mean up to tens of thousands of dollars for one journal (in the sciences).

A recent article in The Guardian complains that the European Union, in charge of guaranteeing the growth of open access policies, has hired academic giant Elsevier to check its progress. As the author, Jon Tennant, protests, “That’s like having McDonald’s monitor the eating habits of a nation and then using that to guide policy decisions” (https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/jun/29/elsevier-are-corrupting-open-science-in-europe). Elsevier, naturally, very much disliked at the critique. See in Tennant’s own blog the letter that Elsevier sent him, defending their appointment, and his arguments (http://fossilsandshit.com/elsevier-open-science-monitor-response/).

Business is business and corporations will do their best to go on accruing power over us, academics, as well as they can–just as Amazon, Apple and company do. What you should be wondering at this point is why this state of affairs is tolerated. If most of us, researchers, agree that open access is the way to go, why is this so hard to implement? Well, one answer is that open access is not free in the sense that if you want to set up a respectable online journal you still need extensive resources: a platform funded by your university, the know-how to operate it as editor (a time-consuming task), and lots of stamina to send regular cfps and manage peer reviewers, that unruly lot. It seems easier to let others do the job or, to be more specific, help to give the job you’re anyway willing to do more resonance.

Also, and this is the main point, for whatever reasons the political authorities, from the European Union down to each regional government, including the university admin teams, are upholding an assessment system that benefits the major academic publishers. We are assessed on the basis of their impact and reputation not of ours and, one way or the other, we have ended up working not quite for the good of knowledge but mainly for the benefit of our publishers. Let me give you an example of things that are beginning to scare me very much: I was planning to reuse a chapter that I wrote for a collective volume issued by a very well-known academic publisher in a monograph for another publishing house; I found out, however, that I was expected to pay 1000$ to get their permission. Needless to say, I’m writing a completely new chapter for the monograph. A doubt now corroding me is whether I can use the arguments without repeating my own text verbatim, for I’m not even sure that I can. What exactly do we give away with copyright?

Concerned specifically about the Journal Impact Factor, The American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) published in 2012 a document known as the “San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment” (https://sfdora.org/read/). JIF, a product of Thomson Reuters now published by Clarivate Analytics, is being used to measure academic CVs at all levels and beyond the USA. Incidentally: Clarivate Analytics is owned by the Onex Corporation (a Canada-based private equity or investment fund) and by the London-based Barings Bank, now in the hands of ING. Draw your own conclusions. Anyway, the San Francisco Declaration couldn’t be clearer: its general recommendation is “Do not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions, or in hiring, promotion, or funding decisions”. What should you use, then?: “assessments based on scientific content rather than publication metrics”. As an alternative, Altmetrics is proposed (http://altmetrics.org/tools/). For the British view of the matter, see James Wildon’s article which, among other matters, announces the establishment of the UK Forum for Responsible Research Metrics (https://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2018/jul/10/has-the-tide-turned-towards-responsible-metrics-in-research).

I cannot find (sorry) another article in which a scientist working on an emerging field (possibly big data) explained that although researchers have organized themselves competently through open-access networks and publications, a major publisher has announced the launch of a journal specializing in their little patch of the academic quilt. This researcher was positively furious at what he regarded as an unwanted interference. I seem to recall that a number of the leading researchers in his field have signed a manifesto vowing not to publish in that corporate-owned journal but the question, obviously, is whether they will be able to stick to their resolve, or risk being pushed out of the fierce competition for funding and jobs by those who publish in the new journal.

Let me explain something I am doing. Since early 2017 I have been co-editor of the online journal Hélice (www.revistahelice.com), which specializes in science fiction. My co-editors, Mariano Martín and Mikel Peregrina, and myself had the intention of transforming the journal, originally founded by Asociación Xatafi in 2007, into a proper academic publication. Hélice certainly is an academic publication because we three are scholars and we publish in it scholarly work. What I mean is that we intended to introduce peer reviewing and bibliometrics into Hélice, and publish through my university’s online platform. We have decided, however, to post-pone indefinitely the decision for several reasons: one is that we do enjoy being editors in the classic style of many SF-related publications; another is that we are publishing work by rooky undergrad researchers not necessarily interested in an academic career; also, that we simply don’t have sufficient time to meet the demands of a university-endorsed journal. This may change in the future but we find ourselves interested in filling in the gap between fandom and academia, and in doing that beyond what counts or not academically speaking. And we need not worry about any major academic publisher wanting to steal the limelight from us. Perhaps we’re being Quixotic but, then, why not?

I think I am calling everyone to change the way we make research available. Establish your own online resources though blogs and websites, question your university’s investment into expensive subscriptions rather than full-time jobs, cite colleagues’ work because you find it relevant not because it is published in A-list journals, use peer reviewing wisely but also welcome other editorial approaches, don’t let yourself be consumed by your CV, that hungry monster. I personally know that I’m doing my most important academic work here in this blog yet, you see?, I have never counted who is reading it and whether it has an impact or not at all. It adds, by the way, zero points to my CV.

Some might think that doing academic work at any level which is not officially measurable is a waste of time but, believe me, though I feel enormous satisfaction when I see my academic work in relevant publications, I also feel much happiness when working outside the rather inflexible lines of current academia. That the words ‘inflexible’ and ‘academia’ may appear in the same sentence gives me, and should give you, much cause for concern. Let’s vindicate common sense instead and re-imagine how we approach reputation.

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/

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/

FANDOM AND ACADEMIA: CRITERIA TO DISCUSS TEXTS

Even though it is already four years since I taught my monographic course on the Harry Potter series, Rowling still features prominently in my academic activities. This time I was invited to the ‘Semana Harry Potter’ organized by the undergrad students of the Facultad de Ciencias de la Comunicación of the Universidad de Sevilla. The Dean, Mª del Mar Rodríguez Alvarado, opened the inaugural session by confessing that she had borrowed from her 10-year-old daughter the Gryffindor hooded jumper she was wearing… which was very sweet! She was very much surprised that her tweet about the Potter week had become so popular; also by the generous press coverage of the event.

I chose to offer for the occasion a 45-minute lecture on Sirius Black, based on the article which I wrote a while ago; this was rejected by five Anglo-american academic journals until I decided that enough is enough. “Between Brownlow and Magwitch: Sirius Black and the Ruthless Elimination of the Male Protector in the Harry Potter Series” is now available online (also in Spanish) at https://ddd.uab.cat/record/163545. I first gave this lecture in the 2016 Pottercon and it went down well, by which I mean that the debate was lively and many fans joined in my critique of the cruelty that Rowling pours on poor Sirius. In Seville the reaction was different.

As I developed my argumentation about why Sirius’ sad fate may hurt sensitive readers very much, particularly children, I noticed that the audience was split–some nodded, others were sitting quite stiff. I observed something similar later in the day, when Paula Rodríguez Hoyos gave her excellent lecture on Albus Dumbledore, the subject of her recent BA dissertation, “Creación literaria y arquetipos: Aproximación al personaje en la fantasía del siglo XXI” (https://idus.us.es/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11441/64429/TFG%20FINAL%20.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y). In both cases the question and answer sessions revealed that the students, all of them Potterheads, had received our critical approach quite negatively. I noticed that both Paula and I were answering defensively, almost apologizing for having an opinion–which is a new experience for opinionated me…

Paula and I both did something similar: we took for granted that Harry Potter is worth studying in a university context and, then, proceeded to offer a critique of how these two prominent male characters, Sirius and Dumbledore, are presented in the text. In my case, I questioned authorial decisions while at the same time praising Rowling for a) having created Sirius, b) managing to manipulate my affects in a way that I care very much for this character (even too much!). Paula’s reading was not really a critique but a thorough examination of how Rowling deconstructs the figure of the mentor, traditional in heroic tales, by characterizing Dumbledore as a blemished example. This is not at all far-fetched and can even be deemed obvious if you consider, for instance, Dumbledore’s withered hand in the last stages of the saga–a clear sign that he’s up to no good behind Harry’s back. Everyone agrees, beginning with Severus Snape, that the way he grooms Harry to be slaughtered by Voldemort is disgraceful. Dumbledore is, in short, a born manipulator and what Paula did was simply (or not so simply) to highlight how Rowling steers our reading in that direction.

The audience, however, chose to put their feet down and correct us: basically, I was told that all the (wrong) decisions that Rowling makes about Sirius are unquestionable, simply perfect; Paula was told, to our surprise, that she was misreading Dumbledore and that he remains to the very end a devoted mentor to Harry, unlike what she suggested. Let me rephrase this: the fans in the room were protecting their own misreading of Rowling, in the belief that they were protecting her authorial decisions. Whatever happens to Sirius, they told us, is his fault (as Rowling argues), and Dumbledore is a good guy (even though Rowling points out in many different ways that he’s not!). There is, in short, a single way of approaching the text, and it belongs to the fans. Not to us, academics. Perhaps not even to the author…

I think that I finally understood why my article on Sirius has faced so many problems. It’s because it offers an opinion and we, academics, are not supposed to offer any–just praise the text we analyze. I was, plainly, wrong to approach Rowling from a critical position that questions how she takes the wrong turning points in Sirius’ narrative arc. Instead, I should have stayed on safe ground and, for instance, deal with James Potter as a reviewer suggested. Please, consider that, once he is described as a teen bully, nothing saves James’ reputation as a secondary character, not even his being a good father to Harry. He is unproblematic, unlike Black and, so, off he goes. What I did, then, was similar to arguing that Shakespeare wrongly endorses Hamlet’s misogynist attitude towards Ophelia and that, hence, her drowning is an excessive cruelty that really adds nothing to the Prince’s characterization. Poor girl.

But, wait!! We do that, right…?

I’m sure you see that I am being sarcastic. What worries me is that while I can more or less accept that I overstepped the boundaries in my critique of Sirius’ ill-treatment (though this is not at all the first time I question authors’ relationships with characters), what worries me far more is the reaction to Paula’s lecture. That was based on the audience’s blatant misunderstanding of the text. We joked that perhaps the simple presence of a long white beard and the connotations associated with Santa Claus are enough to put Dumbledore beyond suspicion. Yet, that he does manipulate Harry is not a matter of opinion but of engaging in a solid close reading of the text. Of course, a fan is a fanatic and, so will tend to approach his/her favourite text uncritically. This might be acceptable in very young readers but it is worrying in university students… and in relation to their favourite text.

When I taught my Harry Potter course I was certainly anxious that a scholarly approach would result in constant wrangles with my students. This didn’t happen perhaps because I made it quite obvious from the beginning that a) I’m a Potterhead (though not of the staunchest variety), b) the academic method is supposed to enrich the depth of any reading, not destroy the text (unless it is very bad, but, then, why teach it?). I did ask my students at the end of the course whether their pleasure in Harry Potter had been spoiled by their course work and they said no. That was unanimous. Surely, they were at points dismayed to see obvious flaws but that made, so to speak, Rowling more real to them as an author. Less godlike, more approachable. And I am not saying that this is exclusive to Harry Potter or to any popular text. It is a general phenomenon: you may love Jane Austen as a committed, blindly adoring fan, or you may appreciate her talent from a more sophisticated position. What makes no sense to me is keeping a fan’s stance in a university classroom, for the simple reason that fanaticism is out of place if you want to be educated. Quite another matter is passion, which is a good foundation for education, I think.

As teachers, then, we do not face any problems when inviting our students to read the classics or more modern texts in which they have not invested (with few exceptions) much emotional energy. The problem, I’m warning you, may surface when dealing with texts that our students have first approached as fans, whether they are YA fiction, TV series or videogames (cinema is, I insist, fast disappearing from our horizon). It is no longer necessary, as it was in the past, to erect an impassable wall between fandom and academia, and to force students, as many were and are still forced, to put aside the texts they do love in order to do proper academic work. What needs to be remembered, and in this I may have been very naïve, or very lucky, is that whereas fandom is based on adulatory celebration of authorial achievement, academic work is about wondering how texts work, which may result in sharp criticism even when you admire the author profoundly. Perhaps, just perhaps, this is less confusing to English Studies students because there is so much bibliography on any aspect of popular culture of the kind that inspires committed fandom. Perhaps, just perhaps, what I am describing here is a situation far more visible in the Spanish context, in which popular fiction is still kept outside the university walls unless, as you can see in the example of the ‘Semana Harry Potter’, students bring it in.

Still, Sirius Black hurts–stubbornly. My good friend Bela Clúa, now a teacher in Seville, and the person responsible for bringing me into the Potter cult (my thanks to her!), kindly reminded me that Sirius is doomed from the start–as doomed as Hamlet. Yet, while I don’t care much for fickle Danish princes, I am a total sucker for characters that risk their lives to protect children–call me sentimental! You need to blame Dickens for this: he gave us John Brownlow and even Abel Magwitch, and now I think that for every Oliver (or Pip), there must be a good man ready to help. Harry gets Sirius (or Sirius Harry, I’m not sure) but things go as wrong as they can go, and, so, I overreact. If in order to be an accomplished academic in Literary Studies you need to be coolly indifferent, then I must acknowledge that I’m as bad an academic as they make them (and so I was told, ouch!). I wonder, though, how many throwing their academic stones at me have overreacted in their own academic work (or were overreacting to my own critique).

What baffles me, then, is uncritical admiration in any context, for no text is perfect–the flaws, the chinks in the machine is what make us react to them. The fan invests colossal amounts of emotional energy into beloved texts and becomes awfully territorial, even within academia, which is why I have been told at so many levels “don’t touch my Rowling!” (as others have been told “don’t touch my Joyce!”. Yet, the true connection with a text only happens when we lower our defences, prepare to be hit in the head with interpretations that question our own, and engage in meaningful debate with other admirers. If you cannot do that you have two options: a) stay away from academia and be an uncompromising fan, b) separate what you love as a fan from what you do as a scholar.

But, then, that is so sad… right?

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/

THE RISK OF REDISCOVERING THE ACADEMIC WHEEL (AND THE HANDMAID’S TALE)

The students in my Gender Studies class could freely choose the subject of their paper and I have ended up marking five (out of twenty-five) on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In parallel, I have been asked to peer-review two articles submitted to journals on the same topic. Even a proposal for a TFM dissertation.

Curiously, although the renewed interest in Atwood’s dystopian classic is due to Bruce Miller’s series (first season, 2017) for the streaming service Hulu, none of these articles nor the dissertation proposal, refer to it as an relevant trigger for new academic work. First issue, then, that calls my attention: the way in which all these budding academics hesitate to connect novel and series (it seems that if you deal with one, then you don’t deal with the other).

Second issue, the total absence of any comments on the quite good 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale directed by Volker Schlöndorf, with Natasha Richardson as Offred and Aidan Quinn as Nick, based on a screenplay by a Nobel prize winner, illustrious playwright Harold Pinter. This film did generate some academic attention because of Pinter’s contribution but it’s worrying me very much to see how cinema is being neglected these days in favour of TV, even within academic circles in the Humanities.

Third issue, and this is my main issue today: the constant rediscovery of the academic wheel… Here we go.

One of the most beautiful feelings a reader can enjoy is the discovery of a text that becomes a significant landmark in one’s development. If you’re a student, or a professional academic, and you may choose what to focus on in your work, this joy of new discovery often becomes the foundation for papers, articles and even books. I have never ever believed in the phallacy that Literary Studies should be objective since all work within them begins with the process of falling in love with a text–and other sentimental variations, such as falling out of love with a text or hating it. Something mysterious happens and suddenly you do know that, sooner or later, you have to write about this or that text, and then proper research begins.

In Literary Studies ‘proper research’ means entering into a dialogue with your predecessors, those who also expressed their sentimental attachment in the sophisticated jargon of academia (for we’re not… irrational fans… or are we?). If you fall in love with a recent text, then the obvious problem is that there might not be any predecessors. In that case, you need to write a list of keywords and see who has contributed something indispensable in each area of interest. For instance, one of my TFG/BA dissertation tutorees has fallen in love with a new film adaptation, Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017, written by James Ivory, based on the 2007 eponymous novel by André Aciman). His dissertation will be among the first academic works devoted to this very well-received film and, so, he’ll have to compile a bibliography with sources that deal more generally with the representation of gay men in cinema, and the theory of film adaptation.

This student had also fallen in love with Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and although there is not that much published on this ambiguous character, we decided that mastering the huge bibliography on this ultra-famous play would be a too tall order at this level. Besides, my student quickly found out that what he had to say about Mercutio had been covered by other scholars and, so, he decided to embrace the chance to make an original contribution. This does not mean that you should not write about Shakespeare. I have indeed tutored a TFG on Romeo’s masculinity and written myself a long piece about Antonio’s love of Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/132012). It simply means that if you feel an unstoppable love for a classic, you need to brace yourself for a long struggle to acquire an acceptably solid idea of all the relevant bibliography.

Here is, however, the problem: what is ‘relevant bibliography?’ I usually tell my students that their bibliographies should be properly updated and that, ideally, they should cover the period from 1990 to the present. That’s twenty-eight years!! Already a lot… Of course, I also tell them that they may quote from any source previous to 1990, provided this is absolutely relevant or an academic classic (Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 1975). In practice, however, what happens is that most pre-1990s gets a blanket dismissal, and I won’t even mention how awfully neglected anything written before 1980 is, unless it is by a really big name like Michel Foucault or Raymond Williams. F.R. Leavis, anyone? Northrop Frye?

In the specific case of The Handmaid’s Tale this poses a singular problem, as I have seen in the work I have marked or assessed. The novel was published in 1985 and, as the MLA database shows, 24 authors wrote about this text before 1990, beginning with Michele Lacombe’s article “The Writing on the Wall: Amputated Speech in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale” (1986). The MLA database offers 199 registers for the period 1990-99, then 72 for 2000-9 and 41 since then; you can see the curve here: climbing up to 1999, then going down, then up again. Someone should look into these fluctuations and the reasons for them beyond my sketchy approach here.

Anyway, back to my point: what the 24 initial commentators said cannot be dismissed because they set the foundations for the critical approach to Atwood’s text, and covered all the main issues: feminism, dystopia, post-apocalyptic narrative, politics, speech manipulation, religion, puritanism, nature vs. nurture, even ironic autobiography and the epistolary nature of this novel. Naturally, this doesn’t exhaust The Handmaid’s Tale, as the many subsequent essays on it show. What I mean, rather, is that if you wish to write today about the dystopian nature of Gilead, the fundamentalist Republic that deprives women of all their rights in Atwood’s novel, you do need to take into account what the first authors to tackle the subject had to say. Even more so because this was criticism contemporary to the book’s publication and will give you a clear context for it.

What happens if you neglect the 1980s sources? Well, you may end up de-contextualizing the novel. It is certainly true that the 2017 television series indirectly comments on the dictatorial style of new President Donald Trump. However, the novel was published in a decade dominated by Ronald Reagan’s administration, when Christian fundamentalism, the dying but still vicious Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, and Iran’s radical Islamist revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini were very much in the author’s mind. As I’m sure the 1980s academic work stresses. This doesn’t mean that you cannot read The Handmaid’s Tale, novel, against the context of the early 21st century, as, say, Baz Luhrman’s film adaptation reads Romeo and Juliet for 1993, rather than 1593. Yet, just as no Shakespeare scholar would ever neglect the 1590s context, you cannot neglect the 1980s context.

Besides, you run the risk of reinventing the academic wheel… which consists of presenting as new arguments which others have already presented decades ago and that, are, in addition, obvious. If you’re lucky enough to be the first one to tackle academically a given text, then you can deal with the basics: The Handmaid’s Tale connects with the dystopian tradition. But if you approach a text thirty-two years after its publication, then the obvious is not an option. Again: of course you can write about dystopia in Atwood’s novel but not as if you were the first one to do so. Understood? So, yes, it is necessary to consider academic work published before 1990 in the particular case of Atwood’s novel to avoid reinventing the academic wheel.

Now I’m going to destroy my own argument…

What should we do with much older texts? I’m going back to Romeo and Juliet, with 1411 registers in the MLA database for work published between 1900 and 2017. And this is only because the registers begin with the 20th century… So, supposing I’m working on Shakespeare’s allusions to Queen Mab, should I take into account W.P. Reeves’s pioneering essay, published in Modern Language Notes (1902)? How about the 27 academic publications about this play from the 1940s? Is anyone quoting them? Should my student have started work with Leslie Hotson’s “In Defence of Mercutio” (Spectator, 8 August 1947: 168-169)? How long would his bibliography be in that case? Is this the reason why we tend to begin bibliographies in 1990? To limit our work?

Perhaps if we read early Shakespearian scholarship we might be dismayed to find that all has been said and that we reinvent the academic wheel every few years, as long as academic generations last. I was myself a second-year undergrad student when The Handmaid’s Tale was published, which means I am old enough to have a personal memory of all its academic trajectory; this is why I’m warning the current generation that they should be prepared to go beyond their own time. But, then, no teachers currently active were employed before 1975, right? And, anyway, the conceptual revolutions of the early 1990s, when apparently all current methodologies were invented, means that this is own our operative chronological barrier. 1990 is already beginning to seem too long ago to begin a bibliography on Romeo and Juliet, with 879 MLA registers since that year… Should we start in 2000? Is this good scholarship or bad?

To sum up, then, we’re constantly reinventing the academic wheel, perhaps not at all advancing but moving in circles. Yet, I still think that one should try to enter a dialogue with the inventors of each wheel if they are historically close to us… and the final bibliography is manageable… and we’re not offending any scholar still active by neglecting their work.

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/

BLURRED LINES: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE WRITERS OF THE PAST

No, sorry, this is not a post about Robin Thicke’s catchy, appallingly sexist 2013 hit, which, by the way, turned out to be plagiarised (from a Marvin Gaye song). No: today I’m dealing with our difficulties to produce a clearly defined portrait of the writers of the pre-media past. By pre-media I mean the historical period before the invention of the recording (and broadcasting) of sound and of the moving image, even tough the press and photography may have been already available. And I’m using the Brontës as an example.

It has taken me a long twelve-step Google search to finally find out thanks to The Penguin Book of Interviews (edited by Christopher Silvester in 1993), that the first text of this kind to be published (in an American newspaper) dates back to 1859. The person interviewed was Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church, and the conversation appeared in the New York Herald. Silvester’s volume includes interviews with writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen, just to name a few authors who started writing in the 19th century. As an undergrad, I remember reading with immense pleasure a couple of anthologies gathering together the excellent interviews with writers published by The Paris Review, funded in 1953 by Peter Matthiessen, Harold L. Humes and George Plimpton.

So here is the first point: before 1859, the tools available to build the portrait of the writer, beyond the texts they chose to publish, are tangential. We have pictorial portraits, photos (from the 1830s onwards), impressions written by others, biographies and, here’s a vexing question, private letters. And the memorabilia. But not their voices in answer to our questions.

In the case of the Brontës, poor things, we have the dismal portrait of the three sisters painted by their adored but untalented brother Branwell. The photo believed to depict Charlotte has been revealed to be of someone else. Charlotte was the subject of a pioneering writer’s biography, written by fellow-author Elizabeth Gaskell. This volume, however, is now regarded as a manipulative instrument to present a more palatable image of the author to Victorian readers (even against Charlotte’s own wishes). And then there is the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where you can touch Emily’s bed, among other personal objects.

Obviously, even when portraits of the writer from the past exist, these are confusing objects. The slow speed of pre-20th century cameras required subjects to sit still for a long time, which is why all Victorians look so stern and unsmiling. Victorian photography was a new art and, above all, a new social habit; 150 years before the invention of the selfie, people simply lacked the know-how of self-presentation. See the ridiculous photos of Charles Dickens–a writer very careful of his public image and the first one to market himself as a brand–to understand how far he was from mastering this specific aspect.

In the absence of reliable elements for a clearly focused portrait, then, we use whatever we have at hand, and this is mainly letters, or diaries. Leaving aside the problems attached to the use of private documents which may have nothing to do with the literary craft to study how writers do write, it might well be the case that none have survived. Here’s an example of our difficulties, found in Josephine McDonagh’s 2008 introduction to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848): “The absence of an autobiographical record makes it difficult to be sure of Anne’s motivations in writing The Tenant, but episodes of her life have led commentators to suppose that not only were some of the characters and events based on her own acquaintance and experiences, but that the novel itself was conceived as a response to troubling family circumstances” (xvii). This exemplifies the biographical phallacy that still dominates research (surprisingly): if you could map the writer’s life down to the most private detail, you would be able to explain his/her writing.

Interviews with living authors, however, reveal that this is not the case, as they have a mysterious something called ‘imagination’ that seems to lead a life of its own. A typical academic reply to writers’ strenuously denying that the biographical approach is correct is that writers themselves do not understand the process of writing. Or, as my PhD supervisor would remind me: “Writers lie all the time”. If, in short, we could interview Anne or her sisters, I’m sure they would be flabbergasted by the amount of speculation poured onto their lives… but they would not necessarily tell us the truth. What a vicious circle.

Here’s an alternative, coming from the same introduction by McDonagh: “Anne Brontë’s immersion in the print culture of her time, and specially her acquaintance with these more ephemeral forms of magazines and albums, may account for some of the stylistic features of the text” (xxxii). Observe the hesitation implicit in ‘may’ and ‘some’… This is the classic philological approach: if we could have access to the complete list of all a writer has read from infancy, then we would eventually be able to explain how his/her style works.

This stance led, as we know, to two apparently incompatible approaches: the intense Russian formalism later borrowed by American New Criticism (from which our close reading practices derive) and Harold Bloom’s idea of the ‘anxiety of influence’, which still respects the presence of the writer but tries to exclude the gossipy biographical approach and focus on authorship. Julia Kristeva cut an important Gordian knot by proposing that since influence cannot be really proven we should speak of intertextuality. This is both an extremely productive idea and a surrender, for it tells us that writers remain impenetrable fortresses better left alone. Just connect the texts with each other.

Let me recap: despite the immense energy poured by countless researchers, the portrait of the Brontë sisters we have today is a poorly assembled collection of blurred lines. Perhaps this is part of their myth and if we had them on television and on YouTube as much as we wished, they would not be the object of so much veneration. Or would they? I’m thinking of how contemporary writers market themselves and beginning to realize that fans would never tire if J.K. Rowling gave daily speeches and interviews.

In neo-Victorian conference I recently attended, there was someone very earnestly speculating whether Charlotte Brontë was actually pretty or not. A letter by her publisher George Smith was quoted, in which he offered a very unflattering description (later partially corrected by his daughter). We may disagree whether we find Rowling pretty or not, but in the age of the selfie it is absolutely frustrating that we cannot even be sure what Charlotte looked like, much less Emily or Anne. You may be thinking that, despite the countless interviews, press articles, documentaries, photos, etc., we’re not really closer to knowing who Rowling is. Our exploration of her work is not closer, either, to revealing how she managed to imagine the world of Harry Potter. Of course, but at least we can ask her whereas in the case of the writers from the past, unless new evidence appears, we are constantly stuck with the same limited, tangential material.

So what should be, as researchers specializing in Literature, do? I don’t know myself and I am beginning to be increasingly perplexed. It is clear to me that our central mission–the faith we profess as professors–is the survival of the texts from one generation to the next. Also, the correction of false impressions: Wuthering Heights used to be considered trash, and now it’s part of the canon. I am personally doing all I can in my classes to vindicate Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Every teacher of the Brontës fiction knows that biographical gossip helps to fix an idea of who these women were in the students’ minds. Yet, I certainly don’t want to discuss with them in class whether Charlotte was pretty; and the realization that Jane Eyre is the expression of sexual frustration regarding her unrequited passion for a married man has very much damaged my pleasure in this novel. Meaning that the more I know about Charlotte, the less I like Jane Eyre

Perhaps, and here’s the rub, the problem is that as teachers and researchers we are bound to fail: even if the best Brontë researcher devoted all his/her energies for the next fifteen years to Tenant and to Anne, this person would still be far from disclosing the mystery of her literary creativity. It’s back to the blurred lines. I don’t like speaking of ‘mystery’, as this makes literary research sound subjective and romantic in the worst possible way. But scientifically speaking, a mystery is that which cannot be explained with the current tools for research. And the ones we have are extremely limited. Even in the case of contemporary writers for, unless we sit by them as they write, we cannot really get a true insight into how writing works. And I see no author tolerating that kind of academic intrusion, not even for the sake of literary glory. For many, interviews even appear to be something they put up with and not something they truly relish…

Having just re-read Anne’s Tenant, with great pleasure, just after reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, I am wondering whether we should produce more criticism. We often teach texts or write about them taking for granted that they are good and this is why they are canonical. My fellow teachers and I decided, precisely, to include Tenant in our course on Victorian fiction because it has excellent features but also some problems, deeper than the faults to be found in Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Rather than teach, then, that Anne’s Arthur Huntingdon is based on her brother Branwell’s, we focus on why the friendship between Gilbert and Lawrence is not convincingly narrated. And the challenge of explaining why King Solomon’s Mines is so inferior to Heart of Darkness and, at the same time, so indispensable to understand Conrad appears to be now very exciting. I’m glad we have chosen to teach Haggard.

So, yes: let’s apply a better focus on the texts, let the authors remain blurred, ghostly presences. And enjoy the mystery.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

BRIDGING GAPS (AND FEELING SPLIT) BETWEEN DIFFERENT CULTURES

I am currently in the middle of my reading project for this year (see my post of 4 January): going through the 46 novels which comprise Benito Pérez Galdós’ series, Episodios Nacionales (1872-1912). To be specific the Episodios consist of four complete series of 10 novels, and one incomplete series of 6. I’m finishing today the second series (each novel is about 250 pages, hard to say how many exactly as I use a Kindle; all can be downloaded for free from www.dominiopublico.com). Reading Galdós’ simply marvellous historical fiction is something that I have wanted to do for a very long time and I am certainly enjoying myself very, very much. I will eventually explain why, once I’m finished. Or read to the end…

I have been procrastinating, however, because I had this feeling that I should be reading 46 novels by different authors in English, instead of, somehow, waste my time. This is an impression that I haven’t yet managed to shake off. After all, I’m an English Studies specialist. Shouldn’t I use all my reading time for English works? I feel, and I know this is absurd, a bit guilty, as if I were a little girl skipping school… Maybe because of this sense of guilt I am hurrying, absolutely devouring Galdós’ books, in the hopes that in this way I’ll have time to return to English Literature before the year runs out. But, then, here’s another major gap in my education: I have not read Tirant lo Blanch yet…

Reading Galdós is bringing back to me the History lessons about 19th century Spain which I received in secondary school. Since then, and with the exception of a 19th century Literature course which I took as a second-year undergraduate, I have learned nothing about this very complicated period in Spain. My focus has been, rather, the Second Republic, the Civil War and Franco’s regime, and only in recent years. Since I teach Victorian Literature, then, it turns out that I know much more about Britain than about Spain in the same 19th century period.

This, you might think, is as it should be for obvious professional reasons. And, anyway, it is my fault if I haven’t managed to find time for Spanish History in such a long time. I believe, nonetheless, that the lack of a comparative approach in English Studies, as we practice them in Spain, translates into a too exclusive focus on British History and that of other anglophone countries, mainly the USA. Again, maybe this is my fault but I have never taught my students 19th century History in a comparative way and I wonder if anyone does. I also wonder what use this comparative method would be as I very much doubt that my students have been taught any 19th century Spanish History at all…

This lack of a comparative approach and the intensive focus on English Studies means that I always feel split from my own two cultures, the Spanish one and the Catalan. I recently met an American scholar, Dale Pratt, who teaches all kinds of Spanish fiction (in Utah), from El Quijote to science-fiction, and who is currently doing research on Spanish novels dealing with prehistory. I was awed by his extensive knowledge of Spanish Literature, of which I know really very little. Of course, I’m sure that many native anglophone speakers would also be awed by the detailed knowledge that many Spanish specialists in English Studies have of their Literature, also including peculiar little corners. Yet, I do feel illiterate in my own two languages, and this is not a comfortable feeling for a Literature teacher. At one point I even thought of taking a second doctoral degree–but, then, in which area? Spanish or Catalan Literature? And, really, a second PhD seemed overdoing it…

So, you might be thinking: just give yourself the education you’re missing. I do not know what my peers all over Spain do, but every year, as I have explained here, I promise myself to do 50% of my reading in Spanish and Catalan, the rest in English. Usually by February I have already given up, under this self-imposed pressure that I should be reading in English all the time. The flow of novelties is so immense, the list of classics so vast… The result of my yearly abandonment of my two cultures is that my ignorance of their Literature grows in the same measure as my knowledge of English Literature increases. Perhaps I should have specialized in Comparative Literature… but there was no degree of this kind back in the 1980s.

Ironically, while we here in Spain insist on working in English Studies as if our local cultures were of no consequence for what we teach, and for how we teach it, in anglophone areas we are seen from a very different perspective. Let me give you as an example my most recent work. In March I published in the journal Science Fiction Studies an article on British author Richard Morgan. Last Friday I finished editing for the same journal a monographic issue on Spanish science-fiction. In the first case, I was acting as a specialist in English Studies. In the second case, my role has been very, very different, for I have acted as a bridge between two cultures.

The chance to edit this monographic issue fell into my hands quite by accident but once it materialized, I knew I had to do it. With the help of my co-editor Fernando Ángel Moreno (trained in ‘Filología Española’ and in Literary Theory) we assembled a solid team of authors, including Prof. Pratt, who have certainly done their best. I am extremely proud of our collective effort and of the end result, and I do hope that the volume (to be published in June) gives Spanish science-fiction a much more definite place on the world map of SF.

Now, happy and pleased as I am, still I feel concerned about how to announce the publication of this special issue to my English Studies peers. Perhaps I feel too paranoiac but I’m sure that many will wonder why I have put so much energy into doing something for Spanish, rather than English, Studies. My answer, ‘why shouldn’t I?’, might not be satisfactory. Perhaps I should think of a second argument: ‘none else could have done it’, at least none in my position. In this case, as in the case of my translation of Mecanoscrit del segon origen and of the edition of the forthcoming monographic issue on this novel for the US journal Alambique (also to be published in June), what has happened is very simple: I happen to write academic English, and this has been my main qualification to bridge gaps between different cultures.

Although some of the authors who have collaborated in the SFS monographic on Spanish SF have written their texts directly in English, language is a powerful barrier which I can easily cross, like any other English Studies specialist. The authors have contributed their expertise and, as I learned about Spanish SF (of which I knew very little when I started), I have shaped their articles into academic work that can function in English. This is not always easy, as we work in very different academic traditions. For my own article in the Mecanoscrit volume I have chosen to apply Masculinity Studies to a close reading of the male protagonist, Dídac, a methodology that while well-established in English Studies, is absolutely new to Catalan Studies. In both cases, by the way, we have decided to translate the work done in English to, respectively, Spanish and Catalan, thus closing the scholarly circuit. Bridging the reverse gap, so to speak.

As you can see, I am not speaking about translating texts, which, by the way, should be a much bigger part of our task as Spanish specialists in English Studies (if only the Ministry valued translation as academic work). I am speaking here about being a sort of cultural interpreter, giving access into our local cultures to anglophone audiences by means of English Studies traditions and, in the process, opening up the local field. I’m not seeking an acknowledgement of merits, if I have any, but a debate about why this type of work is so limited. Or a correction of my views, if these are wrong.

In recent years, I have been also frantically translating into Spanish everything I have published in English and making it available through my university’s digital repository for, otherwise, who would read me here, in Spain? As for what I publish in English elsewhere, I wonder whether it is read at all and by whom. And I have the impression that the SFS issue on Spanish SF might matter much more than any other work I may have done in English precisely because it bridges an important gap. We have insisted, by the way, that Spain is not the same as Latin America but a separate cultural domain that happens to be in Europe.

Funnily, going back to Episodios, as I wrote here about two years ago, Benito Pérez Galdós was also a cultural bridge-builder between Britain and Spain. In the post ‘Charles and Benito: A Celebration of Influence’ (11 August 2015) I explained that Galdós was absolutely fascinated by Dickens, who died in 1870, the same year when the Spanish author started publishing. A very young Galdós managed to publish a Spanish translation of Pickwick Papers, even though he knew no English and most likely translated the book from the French version. Reading these days the Episodios there are moments when I feel that I’m reading Dickens in Spanish, so strong is his influence. The detailed descriptions, the structure of feeling, the plot twists are so Dickensian and at the same time so profoundly ‘castizos’ and Galdosian, that I marvel at how they overlap. At the same time, the Dickensian influence often reveals what is obvious: that Dickens knew El Quijote by heart, as did Galdós. You see how I’m justifying to myself my reading of the 46 Episodes: this is actually about how Dickens influenced the rest of Europe and Spain in particular. And I’m wasting no time…

I do envy Galdós, for he created something new and unique in Spain by merging two very different traditions. Perhaps it’s about time we debate why as Spanish specialists in English Studies we are finding so many difficulties to do something similar and why our main aspiration is to be treated as honorary anglophone academics. It is: let’s begin the debate by acknowledging this. Our real mission, however, seems to lie elsewhere: in explaining our culture(s) to anglophone audiences, bridging gaps between us and them; most importantly, healing the split from our own background.

Back to Galdós… How Dickens would have loved the Episodios!!!

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.

BREAKING POINT: THINKING OF THOSE STILL WAITING FOR TENURE

The last tenured position came up in my Department about 8 years ago, though tenure is here a relative term, as the two colleagues in question were offered permanent contracts rather than the civil servant’s position that I myself enjoy. I just learned this morning that Universidad Juan Carlos I, whose credibility is now in total jeopardy because of the plagiarism the Rector has been accused of, abruptly dismissed last summer, with no previous warning, a dozen teachers with permanent contracts (they were reinstated).

The total security that you will be employed for life is a dream for most people, something which the head of the Spanish national employers’ association considers ‘very 19th century’. However, tenure is, or has been until recently, a foundation of university life, justified by the idea that we, scholars, should be free from the care of finding a job in order to produce our best work. Yes, we all know of teachers who have found tenure so mentally relaxing that they have managed to produce nothing in 40 odd years before retirement. Here, however, I’m thinking of deserving academics, who make the most of the chance to be employed for life.

When I got tenure back in 2002, after 11 gruelling years, I vowed to myself that I would never forget what those 11 years were like–perhaps the many times I visited doctors’ surgeries and emergency rooms would give a clear idea of the anxiety. Also, I swore that I would never ever gamble, as I felt that I could not be luckier than that. Since I haven’t forgotten those days, I have a very clear picture of what some dear colleagues in my Department are going through this morning, when they have received news that not even the chance to fight for a four-year full-time contract will materialize in the immediate future, much less tenure. I’m talking about four persons with an accreditation to be (finally) hired full-time, apart from other associates with hopes that they can eventually be rewarded with tenure. Absurdly, the position we have been expecting to be granted for years has gone elsewhere, where it is was never expected, nor much needed.

I’m going to sound quite incoherent because I’ll argue here that the Spanish university fails to see both each personal case and the impact on a whole generation of researchers of its hiring policies. I know it is the same in Britain, as I have recently written, and in many other countries, but this offers no comfort.

There is much talk of endogamy connected with how people are selected to occupy university positions instead of what really matters: how individual hopes and expectations of an academic career–serious individual vocations–are exploited by a ruthless institution which adamantly refuses to consider personal cases. When I was myself waiting for tenure, I always felt that the vice-rector in charge of signing the petition was a mythical creature, for I never had access to him (or what it her?). I don’t know how business concerns operate and I’m sure that many workers are hired and dismissed without ever knowing who signed their papers. Yet, unlike what it may seem after hearing so much talk of endogamy, I find the whole university employment system oddly depersonalized. Logically, this works in favour of the institution, which needs not justify why it suddenly has no room for a person who has given her best for a dozen years or more.

I know very well that in many other sectors, people are also nonchalantly dismissed or offered low-paid jobs for which they are woefully overqualified. However, the singularity of an academic career is that, as everyone knows, it qualifies you for nothing else, for no other job. This is the situation on which everything else hinges, for, despite all our complains about students who don’t study and so many other little miseries, if you’re a vocational teacher/researcher, once you set your foot inside a university classroom it is very hard to let go. I had a job offer before I was hired by my university, aged 25, and I would have been happy enough, I know, being a secondary school teacher of English, and reading non-stop in my spare time. However, when, aged 36, I considered what I could do if I failed to secure tenure, the prospect was bleak… A secondary school classroom seemed a letdown after so many years of sophisticated academic work. And I took it as a very bad omen that an application I sent to a very different kind of job (connected with communication) was returned by the post, for mysterious reasons.

I understand, then, why vocational teachers/researchers allow themselves to be abused by the system because I would have done the same. This is what the university counted on in Spain, when some anonymous villain made the decision of stopping all pre-doctoral full-time contracts and offering just a handful of post-doctoral positions, with a very vague promise of perhaps, who knows, might happen or not, tenure. This is the equivalent of being hired as an intern with the promise of quick promotion to be told, year in, year out, that you need to wait a bit more… until you’re just told the promotion will never happen. The additional problem, obviously, is that in the university you’re never told that tenure will never materialize for you, only that it won’t do so in the short term. This means that associates are always thinking of a nebulous long term, as, well, life moves on and time passes. This is being done, I insist, not to a handful of unlucky individuals but to a whole generation trapped by liberal economic policies which are not the product of the 2008 crisis but of the mid-1990s mentality declaring all public services a burden rather than a collective benefit.

In the darkest moments, I wonder whether what’s happening in the Spanish university and in other nations is a sinister social experiment to test for how long un-tenured academics are willing to be exploited until they reach a breaking point. Does this happen when you turn 35? 40? 45? 50 perhaps? Or will the life of many academics born from the 1970s onwards consist exclusively of this kind of underpaid, temporary employment? Does it really make sense, in terms of finance, to keep many individuals employed part time rather than grant tenure to fewer? What’s the point of raising expectations only to dash them? Is it merely cruelty, indifference, ignorance, a mixture of all? Could it be a basic lack of human empathy?

I recall a family dinner back at the time when I was waiting for tenure when a well-intentioned relative told me I should consider that the Spanish university could not accommodate all the aspiring academics. It seems to me that as long as we find money to rescue useless, expensive highways from bankruptcy–as we’re about to do–we can find money to employ deserving academics. They’re not asking for football player salaries, just for a dignified, full-time job, and, believe, they’re cheap workers. Also good ones, as we know because despite having the chance to dismiss then as we can do with associates, we have kept them.

I have no words of comfort, really, this is just terrible. I simply don’t know what to tell my friends: cling or, for eventually all valuable people are rewarded; or, stop hurting yourself and find another job. The optimistic message has no foundation, whereas telling someone to seek employment outside the university feels oddly callous, even when you’re thinking of the wellbeing of persons you care for. The worst thing is the survivor’s guilt (why me and not them?) and the impotence for, yes, we complain as loudly as we can to the authorities that be, you can be sure about this, but nothing seems to change.

I’m SO sorry…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/.