THE FAILURE TO ENGINEER THE STUDENTS’ CHOICE OF BA DEGREES: THE AUSTRALIAN CASE

I have an immensely talented doctoral student from Australia, and when I asked her whether she has considered applying for a job at a university back home, I got all confused because she started telling me that fees have gone up dramatically, and this makes things complicated. Sure, I replied, but I meant applying for a job, not to take another degree. What she meant, however, is that fees have gone up so steeply for Humanities degrees that many jobs are being lost because of lower demand (as you will see, this is not general all over the country). The Australian fee hike reminds me of what happened a few years ago when the British Government allowed English universities to start charging fees of around £9,000 for BAs. The Australian case, however, has an even worse sting in its tail, for the fees went up just for some degrees but not for others, following a twisted logic which corresponded to a blatant but failed attempt at social engineering.

A few days ago the Spanish universities published their BA grade point cutoffs and, as happens every year, the newspapers were full of articles about why some degrees are so popular and others less attractive. The grade point cutoff for each BA degree depends on the ratio between offer and demand and, so, the combined degree Mathematics and Physics does not justify its amazing top-raking grade because it attracts a crowd of students, but because it only offers 20 places for a demand possibly only five times bigger. If it offered 500 places, its grade point cutoff would be low because I don’t think there is that big a demand for it. For many years, UAB’s BA degree in Translation and Interpretation has been amongst the most demanded, even though chances of getting employment as an interpreter or translator are quite low, forget about being well paid. It’s just a fashionable degree, for mysterious reasons. In other cases, such as Medicine, the degree has an enormous demand which seems justified by the high demand for doctors, yet Spanish universities are not offering more places in Medicine BAs because apparently Spanish hospitals lack sufficient positions to train resident doctors.

In Spain, in short, there is not an adequate match between the BA degrees which students choose and the prospective jobs, nor between the places offered and the demand. Our main problem, however, is not so much that mismatch but that 15%-35% students abandon the BA of their choice between the first and the third year (our BAs run to four years), in many cases because that was not their first option. Needless to say, this is very costly for public universities, which must invest much effort and resources on students who often will never finish their degree. Consider that our registration fees are rather low (1.202,32 € for the first year in the BA in English Studies at UAB) but only cover around 15% of the real cost of tuition.

Now for the Australian case. In 2020, Dan Tehan, Minister of Education in the conservative cabinet of Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Liberal Party of Australia, 2018-2022), came up with a plan to redistribute university costs. Claiming that Australia needed workers trained in STEM degrees, education, construction, and health care in the next five years, Tehan lowered the fees for those degrees by 20% (with top discounts of 62% for mathematics and agriculture), and increased the fees for humanities, social sciences or law, up to 113% (see here). In a speech quoted many times in the Australian media, Tehan argued that “Universities must teach Australians the skills needed to succeed in the jobs of the future”. He added that since the fees were fixed at ‘unit’ (subject) and not degree level, “students studying Arts can still reduce their total student contribution by choosing electives in subjects like mathematics, English, science and IT within their degree”. Peculiar, to say the least.

One year later, in 2021, it was already clear that, as higher education expert of the Australian National University Andrew Norton noted, the Government’s policies and the fee hike had not had a “dramatic” impact on students’ choices. By June of 2022, the state of New South Wales was even reporting an increase of 9% in the demand for Humanities degrees relative to 2020, even much higher in specific degrees (see The Boar). A girl student declares in this article that “Most people I know didn’t choose subjects based on fee costs, we picked our subjects based on interest or future career, but I know that does come from a bit of a privilege though”. This is very worrying because it suggests that the students who can afford to take degrees in the Humanities are the ones more capable of sustaining the burden of a substantial student’s loan. On the other hand, Professor Catharine Coleborne, president of the Australasian Council of Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, noted in the same piece that “the fee hikes had also created problems for funding” STEM courses since lower fees also mean a lower income for universities. The new Education Minister Jason Clare has promised to review the “job-ready graduates” policy of his predecessor, as Tehan called the bizarre scheme.

As the reader signing as voiceinthewilderness comments, “Only an inhumane government would not want people to study the Humanities”. I can only agree, but I am also going to play Devil’s advocate today by arguing that Humanities degrees should be much more elitist. Intellectually, not financially. Perhaps all degrees. Supposing Minister Tehan was perfectly honest in his wish to supply Australia with well-trained workers in the areas his nation will need in the near future, he was still making the mistake of associating degree choice to price. If you want to engineer the make-up of the work force, however, you need to attract vocational talent and this has nothing to do with fees. If you want to improve nursing, you need students with a talent for it, for which you need to award grants, not lower the fees. Keep all fees moderate, so that anyone who wants to study can pursue a degree, but make degrees much more competitive, so that the best students are given grants. You don’t want more students in one area or another, you want better students in all.

Gabriel Plaza, the student with the highest grade for the university access test (or Selectividad) in the community of Madrid (13,964 out of 14) has chosen to pursue a BA in Classical Philology, a decision which unleashed an astonishing tweetstorm. He replied to those who mocked him or accused him of wasting his talents that “I prefer happiness to success”, as if he could not be both happy and successful in this field of knowledge. The negative reaction to Gabriel’s choice connects with the general impression that Humanities degrees are useless, and full of students with limited talents who could not enter more demanding degrees. In fact, I think that Humanities degrees should have much higher grade point cutoffs so that only students with an average B- grade would be admitted. I believe that Tehan was wrong in increasing fees, he should have made the Humanities more selective by entrance grade if, that is, there is a real need to reduce the number of students. I’m sure that a rich country like Australia can afford them.

We can discuss endlessly the problem of how many Humanities students a society should educate, but this still leaves us with the problem of why, as we are seeing, so many traditional professional areas have no generational replacement whereas newer professions are failing to attract employees despite offering high salaries. Perhaps what the Australian case is revealing is something else: that university students see primarily themselves as students and cannot (or will not) see themselves as professionals. Possibly, the Humanities remain popular against all odds precisely because they are not intended to professionalize but to further educate students, offering a space for personal growth that more practical degrees lack. What seems clear in any case is that no national system of education can make full sense of how personal vocation and the job market combine, and it seems likely that things will continue in the current haphazard way for a long time. Here or in Australia.


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

DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY: THE MAIN ACADEMIC KEYWORDS TODAY

In a recent teachers’ meeting the pressing issue of students’ low attendance this last semester came up. I have not been teaching but my colleagues tell me less than 50% of the students have attended classes, which is even lower than what I saw in the first semester, when we were all still wearing facemasks and enduring the discomfort of the windows open in winter for ventilation to protect us against Covid-19.

The causes for the students’ absence from the classrooms, for this is a general problem not limited to a particular degree, are hard to pinpoint since, logically, you cannot speak with persons who are not there and asking their peers about their absence is useless. Those whose job is to speak to students claim that the missing students are generally disinterested in classroom activities; they find lectures and listening to their peers’ oral presentations boring, which, anyway, is not a new phenomenon. What is new is that about 20% of all the students in my university have notified to the corresponding office that they are unable to attend classes because they are suffering from mental health issues connected with depression and anxiety. These two words have become in this way the most important keywords in our academic life.

Teachers are also depressed and suffering from anxiety, though arguably age and experience give us a resilience the younger generation might lack, at least among the ranks of the more privileged tenured teachers. The younger staff, employed mostly as part-time, temporary adjuncts even when they are doctors embarked in serious academic careers, are also suffering from depression and anxiety caused by the same factor that overwhelms the students: lack of prospects. As things are now, students are being asked to make an effort to train for their professional future by staff who are themselves trapped in a career limbo which is not being dissolved fast enough. My university is boasting these days that they are offering between 50 and 70 new full-time positions every year (most with a five-year contract) but even though my Department has been allocated three for 2022-23, two have come to give adjuncts with an academic career spanning about twenty years the chance to be tenured (of course, somebody else might win the positions after the public examination). As for the colleague who has retired, her full time position has been transformed into a set of three associates, thus saving the institution about half her salary. Depression and anxiety indeed.

Among the older staff, those of us who have been around for thirty years or more, I see mostly disappointment and tiredness. We, lucky tenured, full-time teachers can retire after the age of 60 provided we have been active for 30 years and taking into account that our pension will be reduced in relation to the full-pension which is only earned at 67. The colleague who has retired in my Department is precisely in that situation. I’ve heard of many others who have taken early retirement at a notable economic loss because they could cope no longer with teaching the depressed, anxious students now in our classes and with the pressures put on us by the bureaucratization of the university. I was under the impression that only the teachers less interested in research were retiring or thinking of doing so, but this week a dear friend who has published a marvellous stream of excellent research told me that he is considering retirement, too. He is tired, a word I hear among the older staff with monotonous regularity. I myself feel very tired, and if I am coping this is because I have a low teaching workload and can finally write books. I still have a decade to go, at least, and there are days when that feels a very tall order. At the same time, I look forward to continue publishing once retired, in, hopefully, peace and quiet.

The causes for the general depression and anxiety are transparent: neoliberalism has created a low-pay service economy which only offers bad jobs to the young; climate change threatens to wipe off life on Earth in about fifteen years at the most, and fascism is rising everywhere, undoing human rights which have taken more than 200 years to secure. As if Covid-19 was not enough, Ukraine has been suffering a horrifying invasion for almost four months which, besides, might result in the death by famine of millions in Africa and Asia who depend on Ukrainian grain to survive. Vladimir Putin declared last week that the reign of the West is over, to be replaced by a new era, which I would not mind at all if this was an era of true international democracy and cooperation. I don’t think he meant that. These days I have found myself encouraging my eldest niece along the three days which her university entrance examination has lasted, and while I did that I was feeling horribly anxious about the kind of future she and her generation will find. I know that many of us in our fifties and sixties are thinking that we’ve had a relatively good life (I won’t mention the constant fear of illness or that we’ll never get a pension) but we tremble for what the future might bring to the young, at least I do. So, yes, I understand that they are feeling depressed and anxious, and that they see no point in education, even though they know that without attending university their prospects will be even lower.

The situation is objectively bad but I am also wondering whether it feels subjectively bad because our ability to cope (our resilience) has been undermined by a philosophy of happiness that requires being constantly satisfied. I myself have no personal or professional reasons to feel dejected, but this is how I would describe my state of mind since at least 2008 when the financial crisis erupted. I am not clinically depressed but, like many other of my fellow citizens, I find it increasingly difficult to watch the news (not because I don’t care for the others but because I do care) and even to cope with minor personal crises that are not really that important. I am, besides, as a Gender Studies scholar, sick and tired of the pressures from the left and from the right, to the point that I am considering giving up altogether and writing about other matters, once I’m done with my next book. I am, therefore, trying to understand whether beyond the actual problems the widespread depression and anxiety have to do with the disappointment of a promise of personal and collective happiness, made perhaps in the 1960s, that has failed to materialize.

Trying to understand if that is the case, I’ve read back-to-back, quite by chance, two books that are in deep dialogue with each other. For reasons I cannot explain, I had not read yet Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (1946), originally titled Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager. Possibly, I was under the wrong impression that this would be a dry philosophical book, when it is a memoir of Frankl’s harrowing experience of being a prisoner of the Nazis in diverse camps. The other book is Manufacturing Happy Citizens: How the Science and Industry of Happiness Control our Lives (2018) by Eva Illouz and Eric Cabanas, originally published in French in the same year as Happycratie: comment l’industrie du bonheur a pris le contrôle de nos vies. I was reading this book and thinking of how it connected with the other when I came across a quotation from Frankl, which proved there is indeed a connection.

Frankl (1905-1997) was a prestigious neuropsychiatrist in Vienna, when in 1942 he and his family were imprisoned and eventually separated. During the three years of his imprisonment, he managed to make notes about his mental condition and that of his fellow prisoners, finding solace in the hope of meeting his young wife again without knowing she had already died. Frankl’s memoirs are different from those of other Holocaust survivors precisely because he has an extremely lucid understanding of resilience, a word that is now trending as much as depression and anxiety. It would be obscene to speak of happiness in the context of the camps and what Frankl describes is a situation in which the Jewish prisoners adapted as well as they could to the erosion of their humanity because they placed resilience before any other value. Their thoughts, so to speak, whether neither positive (that would be foolish) nor negative (that would be suicidal) but focused on surviving one step at a time. Frankl claims that the most resilient prisoners were motivated by the idea of something left behind which needed to be continued, whether this was a career and a marriage as in his own case, or other questions. This is why he explains that for many the darkest period came after their release when they found that the life whose memories had been sustaining them in the camp no longer existed. Many also suffered, I will add, because their accounts of extreme suffering were not believed. Frankl’s volume was translated into English in 1959, which suggests that for about fifteen years survivors’ accounts were of little interest at least in the Anglophone area of the world.

Illouz and Cabanas cite Frankl as part of their efforts to demolish positive psychology, the American school of thought claiming that psychology should not be limited to treating the mentally ill but should provide everyone with tools to feel mentally stable, and, ideally, happy. They complain, very rightly, that neoliberalism has turned positive psychology with the acquiescence of their inventors into a tool to make individuals responsible for their welfare, thus avoiding the structural issues which are at the root of much human suffering. Within the parameters established by the neoliberal ‘happicracy’, the students are not depressed and anxious because the present and the future are bleak, but because they are mismanaging their mental health. Many of the ‘happicratic’ gurus base their careers on teaching persons who are not mentally ill to feel bad because they are not working adequately towards happiness. This would be the equivalent of telling the Jewish prisoners that the problem is not the camp but their negative approach to the situation. Resilience is in many ways part of positive thinking, but the difference is that whereas true resilience refers to the ability to cope with negative situations, of which life has many, resilience is now being sold as a tool to secure personal happiness against all odds, which is not. At the same time, if the absurd promise that you can lead a life free of care (for this is what happiness is about) had never been made, depression and anxiety would not be so widespread.

For me the main conundrum is why so many whose lives are quite good in comparison to the lives of the many disenfranchised persons in the world, in the West and everywhere else, suffer from depression and anxiety. I am a confirmed atheist but I tend to agree with the Christian view that life is to be endured, not enjoyed (or only enjoyed in special moments). Life needs not be a valley of tears and, certainly, what angers me most is that it could be much more satisfactory if we respected human rights and did away with the patriarchal hunger for power. Yet, I find the declaration in the American constitution that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” not only hypocritical but also a poor foundation for a communal life of peace and justice. Perhaps if all the negative energy consumed by depression and anxiety could be channelled towards a demand for social and personal justice we would feel better, but as Illouz and Cabanas suggest, that’s the whole point of neoliberalism: making us focus on our personal happiness (or lack of it) as the world remains in the hands of the few that are destroying it for their own personal gain. And, presumably, happiness.

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

YOUR OWN BRAND: THE (IN)VISIBILITY OF ACADEMICS

To my surprise, my school invited me to attend a seminar by writer and coach Neus Arquès addressed to making our personal brands more solid and visible. Having turned herself into a self-employed consultor, Arquès claims that she was one of the introducers in Spain of the idea of the personal brand, beyond, I assume, the world of show business and celebrity. She helps her clients to turn their skills into recognizable personal brands as a first step to publicize professional projects and attract, in their turn, clients. I was invited to join her seminar, it seems, for my efforts to make academic life visible with this blog, my e-books with students, and my collaborations with non-academic fandom associations.

In the end, I didn’t learn from Arquès’s seminar what I wanted to learn: how I can break the barrier that is preventing me from publishing books in Spanish, and by that I mean both academic volumes and essays for a general readership in one of the Planeta publishing houses. Arquès herself issues her books through a publishing house attached to Planeta, so why not I? However, the advice she gave me was that I need to be patient and try as many publishers as possible (I have gone through fifteen already trying to publish my book on villainy in Spanish) and, perhaps, disguise the academic nature of my work. Deep sigh.

At some point I apparently missed the train, because even though my first two books were in Spanish (with a publisher whose name I won’t even mention), I have been unable to secure the attentions of other more serious Spanish publishers (I mean without paying to be published). In contrast, many of us in English Studies in Spain are publishing regularly with top academic publishers Routledge, Palgrave, Brill and other Anglophone university presses (not Penguin Random House but, well, good enough). I see, besides, that most books currently popular in Spain within my own field of research, Masculinity Studies, are not written by scholars but by journalists with a significant media profile (see La nueva masculinidad de siempre: Capitalismo, deseo y falofobias by Antonio J. Rodríguez). It’s tremendously frustrating. A friend tells me that first-rank academics are now self-publishing in Spain even on Amazon, which is certainly something I have been considering. In fact, I have just self-published a new book in my university’s digital repository, of which more next week.

I digress, though. My theme today is how academic life forces all academics to turn into personal brands even when they don’t know this is how things work. Arquès explained to us that you may understand the value of your personal brand by checking how you are mentioned on the internet; this is what she called ‘reputation’, warning this is a word few like. I happen to like it. Reputation used to be the prestige attached to outstanding scholars usually thanks to a well-known book (I’m talking about the Humanities). Reputation used to be what made others scholars and even some illustrated students exclaim ‘oh, yes…!’ when a name was mentioned. It still is the cause by which one gets invitations to lecture. Reputation, however, is now being destroyed, if it has not been already destroyed, by metrics, accreditation processes, and other types of measuring standards (I am amazed by how people insist on winning awards and prizes, when its sheer abundance devalues them to much). At any rate, since competition is so fierce in academia, a basic tenet is that you need to build your reputation (new or old style), which is why every academic is indeed a personal brand, whether they know it or not.

A brand, in case I am not explaining myself well, is what makes a business publicly recognizable as a concept. Please, don’t confuse this with a logo, though of course they are related. Apple, as a brand, is the concept that Steve Jobs developed to identify a set of technological products and the strategies to develop them; the logo is the famous bitten apple (Jobs used to work picking apples in his hippie youth, hence the fixation). Brand and logo connect in a rather awful way: ‘to brand’ means to mark with a burning iron a symbol on the hide of cattle, so that the owner can be identified. Slaves and criminals also used to be branded. The brand burnt into animals and persons is the originator of the logo which companies use to identify themselves, so next time you proudly wear a t-shirt with any commercial logo on it, consider how you contribute to your own enslavement and feel treated like cattle. Harsh, I know. Particularly if you think that even universities are brands and have logos. I am attending these days a course on how to maintain the Department’s website and you can be sure that the matter of the correct UAB logo to use has already been raised.

So, even though we may not have individual logos (hey, that’s an idea…), we scholars are personal brands since we must put a great deal of effort on the constant promotion of our talents and work. This comes quite as a shock when rookie teachers are hired, for not all have the skills that self-promotion requires. I have seen some individuals progress from being doctoral students to full professors in a little more than a decade, on the basis of what you might call unbounded ambition, whereas others initially enjoying the same scholarship have even failed to complete their PhD dissertation, soon losing their bearings.

Nobody tells you openly what the rules are, so you need to grasp them as you work on. You are generally told that you need to make your work known through conferences and publications, that you need to join a research group, that you should join Academia.edu and ResearchGate, but these is general advice. It is then up to each scholar to work out how to engage in effective networking, what publishing houses and journals give you more visibility (i.e. citations), and how to position yourself strategically in relation to the job category you aspire to, vying with others in the same Department or elsewhere. Even so, obstacles arise or errors are committed in the plan. You may have dreamed of being a catedrático in your favourite city only to become a catedrático but in a city you hate and be stranded there for decades until you retire.

I referred in another post, years ago, to the figure of the obscure professor and the difficulties of being visible and my impression is that nothing much has changed. I dutifully joined Academia.edu and ResearchGate and this has generated a variety of problems: I need to keep track of my publications in both sites apart from my own website and the UAB’s Research Portal, I keep on getting requests for publications which are copyrighted and I’m not supposed to circulate, and I don’t have time to keep up with all my colleagues upload. I don’t know if my presence in these networks has really increased the number of my citations, but one thing I can say is that even though I am doing all I can to make my work visible, in a recent application for a group research grant my impact was calculated on the basis of Scopus, for which I hardly exist since I am not a scientist. I felt so deeply humiliated… How Scopus and academic reputation combine is beyond me.

A quite intriguing aspect of Arquès’s seminar is that she insisted that being visible does not necessarily mean being present in social media. I agree: you can have a Twitter account, as I do, and keep a very low profile, as I do. I have never got the hang of social media and I am not really making any efforts to learn because of the immense amount of noise they generate. It certainly makes more sense to publicize academic work in Academia.edu or ResearchGate than on Instagram. I know that some primary and secondary school teachers are very popular TikTokers, but I don’t see my academic peers or myself capable of generating much interest in that way – perhaps I should try to have my students work with me on a Victorian Literature TikTok channel… Yes, I know, not really… So basically, Arquès meant using personal websites wisely and making sure you release information in your social media (academic or otherwise) that enhances your impact. Always considering that this takes time stolen to research.

I am thinking, to conclude, that whereas Neus Arquès’s seminar did help me to understand in which ways I already operate as a brand and in which other ways I don’t (can’t, won’t), I would like to be in a seminar with a really big academic name who could teach me how they have gained their visibility. On the other hand, as matters stand now, with Elon Musk about to buy Twitter and erase its already extremely limited rules of engagement to express opinion, being visible only means being vulnerable. I like passing on information and ideas to share in debate, that’s all, as I assume most scholars do. Any other ambition in the Humanities is just quite silly (fame, money… come on!). It just annoys me that others passing on information and ideas are not academically as qualified, though they are certainly clever at making themselves visible. Perhaps the key word in all my ranting today is not, after all, reputation but recognition and, why not?, envy.

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

STUPIDITY: THE FORBIDDEN WORD IN THE CLASSROOM

I whole-heartedly recommend the delicious collective volume edited by psychologist Jean-François Marmion, The Psychology of Stupidity (2020; originally Psychologie de la Connerie, 2018; trans. Liesl Schillinger) for its truly glorious outing of all types of thoughtlessness. It is really thought-provoking! Marmion’s volume warns that stupidity is hard to define and explore because it has multiple facets. It is easy to recognize assholes like Donald Trump, his contributors explain, but it is much harder to understand why people daily showing their intelligence professionally can say and do truly foolish things.

One thing that I should note is that persons are never wholly intelligent. Whenever uber-computers Deep Blue and Alpha Go are mentioned, AI detractors make a point of noting that they lack general intelligence and are only good at performing specific tasks. I think that a common mistake is believing that intelligent human beings possess general intelligence, which is not at all the case. To avoid offending other persons, I’ll mention that in my own case, I appear to have a certain talent for language, but my alleged intelligence evaporates the moment I need to apply it to other disciplines (yes, maths) and I have certainly made appalling, stupid mistakes in my life. I am also totally talentless for sports, which means that I would always get a basic pass for Physical Education. I am stupid, then, on many more fronts than I am intelligent, but because I am hard-working, my primary school teachers got the impression that I am mostly intelligent. As I grew up, I kept up the pretence by shedding the subjects at which I am stupid until I got in the niche where I seem to excel, more or less (let’s not exaggerate).

Among the many paragraphs I ended up underlining in Marmion’s book, I’ll reproduce here one from Jean-François Dortier’s chapter “A Taxonomy of Morons” which provides us with an insight into how school and intelligence (or stupidity) originally connected: “When, at the end of the nineteenth century [in 1881-2], Jules Ferry made primary education compulsory in France, it appeared that certain students were incapable of absorbing routine instruction. Two psychologists, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, were asked to create an intelligence test in order to identify such children so that they could receive an adapted education. This test formed the basis of what would later become the famous ‘IQ’—the Intelligence Quotient”. Today, Dortier adds, we use euphemisms (‘learning disabilities’) to avoid referring to children once commonly described as ‘retarded’, just as we don’t speak of ‘gifted’ children but of “children with ‘high potential’”.

I have never taken an IQ test, an instrument which I find of very little use. In fact, I think it is totally ridiculous, since having a high score does not mean a person is particularly useful to the welfare of humankind. If you are interested in this matter, I have just learned searching information for this post that there is something called Mensa International, a non-profit association that gathers together 134000 persons all over the world with IQs “at the 98th percentile or higher on a standardised, supervised IQ or other approved intelligence test”. What these persons are doing to stop climate change, or end the war in Ukraine, is not known, hence my mistrust of this kind of classification. What Dortier’s passage suggests, nonetheless, is that there was a moment in history when it might have been possible to organize all schools on the principle of IQ scoring, which is as frightening to me as the idea of eugenics. Happily, public schools were organized on the basis of providing students with the same education, though it is true that some students were horribly discriminated because of ableist prejudice and that others with special needs were awfully neglected. We were saved, at least, from carrying our IQ emblazoned on the school uniform, which is a relief.

This does not mean that there are no differences in learning capability among children, or that the school does not emphasize them through assessment, which I have opposed here recently. Reading Marmion’s Psychology of Stupidity it seems obvious that there must be a direct correspondence between the number of adults that show remarkable intelligence and those who enjoy wallowing in stupidity, and the number of children in both categories, despite the current pretense that all children are equally capable and will demonstrate it if given the right kind of education. I have been defending the idea that education should make the most of each person’s abilities and I hate any kind of classification that separates children according to academic performance—I still shudder to recall a fourth-grade teacher who had us shift seats at the end of each week (or was it day?) depending on how we had done, placing the best students at the front and the worst ones at the back. It is ugly to do this to children, but we all know cases of adults whose learning abilities are limited and who were already like that as kids. I am not speaking here of children with manifest problems, but children who could not and would not be educated and who have become adults that despise intelligence and learning. Thousands are displaying on social media each day what can only be called a profound stupidity, and, as we are seeing, the phenomenon begins as soon as children are given a smartphone, around age ten.

As I have noted, the supposition today is that no child is stupid but also that children’s self-esteem can be damaged if they are in any way told that their performance is below par. This has turned assessment into a minefield. In 2016 the local Catalan authorities decided to eliminate for that reason the 0-10 scale that we still use at the university to rate students’ performance, replacing it with another system which while apparently more lenient, still classifies children by performance. The new score system is ‘excellent achievement’ (assoliment excel·lent), ‘notable achievement’ (assoliment notable), ‘satisfactory achievement’ (assoliment satisfactory) and ‘no achievement’ (no assoliment). These are the old Sobresaliente (A), Notable (B), Aprobado (C), and Suspenso (D) but with an emphasis on learning outcome rather than assessment, or so did the authorities claim. This year the Catalan Education Councillor Josep González-Cambray has tried to replace ‘no achievement’ with the more optimistic ‘achievement in process’ (en procés d’assoliment) but teachers have argued that this would confuse families, and the ‘no achievement’ nomenclature for fails remains in place.

The struggle to find replacements for the traditional assessment categories is plainly manifesting that the school does not know how to handle the children who are not learning, despite being fully able to do so. It is feared, as I have noted, that they will feel abused if told openly that they have failed, but perhaps what is undermining the respect for intelligence and endorsing the reign of stupidity is, precisely, the supposition that children can be measured by the same system. If I am a child constantly told that my school activities lead to ‘no achievement’, I will do my best to bring the world down to my own level, beginning as soon as I can and with the help of social media. There, the more intelligent people are being mercilessly abused by those who feel free, thanks to the anonymity the media allow but also under their own names, to impose their aggressively stupid views. It’s a sort of revenge of the underachiever that is eating up any authority teachers or the school once had. They are winning the war, as the school can do nothing to revalue intelligence as what it used to be: not something a handful of children have, but something many children can show.

If, in short, all children are treated as equally capable and worthy of attention, which I am sure they are, where do stupid adults come from? The politically incorrect suggestion is that some people are born stupid, by which I mean congenitally incapable of benefitting from an education, even at its primary stage. The politically correct assumption is that the school produces stupidity by insisting on assessment and on presenting the more capable children as children of ‘high potential’, instead of selling intelligence as the more desirable model for all. As I have insisted, nobody is generally intelligent or totally stupid, and it is a question, then, of finding out in which areas each person is most capable. It is also a question of valuing in school other aspects. There might be children whose performance is not particularly outstanding but who are caring and generous. Others might be able to pass solid moral judgement and promote mutual respect. Some could be genius with their hands, rather than their brains. The school, in short, needs to be more intelligent in curbing down a system that, as I see it, produces excess adult stupidity.

The other institution that needs to be more intelligent are the social media. Back in the early 1990s, when I joined the pre-internet BBS (Bulletin Boards System) such as Fidonet, trolls would be shouted down as the disrespectful creatures they are. I had intense conversations of all kinds with a variety of persons all over Spain and we could certainly disagree without insulting each other. Then the internet came on in 1994, and later the social media (Facebook was launched in 2004). They attracted not necessarily less intelligent people but more permissive business models, based on the premise that the more users a network has, the higher income it receives from announcers. Trolls were for that reason welcome, if not directly more welcome, than people who could join in intelligent debate. Add to this anonymity and the populist rule of the like, and the recipe for the growth of worldwide stupidity is ready.

Please, recall that the guy who started the ball rolling, Mark Zuckerberg, was a Harvard University student at the time, showing how close intelligence and assholery often are. His cleverness has led to the massive exploitation of stupidity and the downfall of intelligence as a respected value all over the world. Food for thought.

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

BACK TO BASICS, WITH A CALL TO RENEW SELF-IMPROVEMENT IN LEARNING

BACK TO BASICS, WITH A CALL TO RENEW SELF-IMPROVEMENT IN LEARNING

I’m now in the middle of reading the essay by the philosopher and pedagogue Gregorio Luri, La escuela no es un parque de atracciones: Una defensa del conocimiento poderoso [School is not a Theme Park: In Defence of Powerful Knowledge, 2020], which, of course, I chose because I agree with the title. I guess this is how the author is weeding out the readers that might disagree with his views.

In essence, Luri disapproves of all the current pedagogical theories that, applied to actual teaching in school, have resulted in the very wrong view that learning should be fun and effortless. He is particularly critical of how competences have eroded the importance of knowledge; this is the reason why he finds the notion of ‘learning to learn’ meaningless; as he argues, unless you know about something (meaning that your memory retains information on the subject) there is no way you can truly learn, much less ‘learn to learn’. If, say, my Victorian Literature students have not memorized the names of authors, the titles of books, the basics of Victorian History, they won’t be able to learn how to write a paper on any of these aspects. Or, rather, they will, but their papers will be very poor. Luri’s argumentation is plain as daylight: the accumulation of knowledge has been wrongly derided by a pedagogy set on teaching skills, a pedagogy that forgets that nobody can teach or use skills without previous knowledge.

I read yesterday on thew newspaper Nius (yes, believe it or not) that Alexandre Sotelinos of the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, has won the Abanca competition for best university teacher in Spain (the award is based on students’ votes combined with those of a jury). Sotelinos, a pedagogue by training, teaches in the BA in Pedagogy and the BA in Primary School Teacher Training. The article does not say on what merits he has won that competition; he himself just says that “I try to reinvent myself, learn plenty from other colleagues who have amazing projects and try to apply that to my classroom”, the classic endorsement of teaching innovation.

What called my attention, once I got over my deep envy of this Galician colleague, is how he reads the saying “Education through head, hand, and heart” by Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827): “In the end, what this idea means is that beyond knowledge, we have to learn skills and how to manage emotions. And that to learn some things or others, all is related. That is to say, we can never learn if our emotional state is not adequate”. To begin with, I really doubt that 18th century pedagogy connects so neatly with its 21st century descendant; in the second place, Sotelinos’ view of education is precisely what Luri condemns as the failed strategy that has wrongly turned schools into unmanageable institutions where learning happens only patchily, depending on students’ decisions to engage or disconnect. And that’s not my envy speaking.

Reading Luri I have found myself questioning my own conservatism as an educator. Some of his proposals do sound conservative but, then, perhaps I need to accept that I am a conservative teacher. I agree with him that the classroom is not a place for students to be entertained, but for them to be focused and make an effort to learn. I am myself making the effort to teach them. Students at all levels of education should accept a basic discipline. Teachers must be respected and their lessons absorbed in attentive silence unless students are asked specifically to speak. In my possibly annoying view, the students’ body language and facial expression should show that they are listening and actively participating in their own education and respecting the teachers’ work in the classroom.

Furthermore, students need to accept that learning entails making a constant effort; studying is necessary, which includes making notes, memorizing data, developing work using the knowledge and skills acquired in class. Students must also know that, whether we like it or not (and I don’t), they are being assessed, which means that they need to make the best possible impression (for their sake, not the teacher’s). Attitude does count for assessment, as we all know. Learning, Luri says and I agree, must be a process of constantly meeting challenges, in which students tests themselves to the maximum of their abilities. Instead of this, we have at least 20% of students who are not interested in learning, and the problem is that we are making a long series of efforts to engage those students in an education they don’t really care for while we neglect the needs and abilities of the better students, who are actually the majority.

Luri mentions as one of the pedagogues that most firmly attacked the traditional school, the American John Holt (1923-1985), author among other books of The Underachieving School (1969), known in Spanish translation as El fracaso de la escuela (1977). As happens, I had an Ethics teacher in secondary school who asked us to read this book, when we were 15. I can’t remember his name but I recall that he looked as if he was being forced at gun-point to teach us, second-year students; perpetually embittered and aloof, he had a strangely mixed pedagogy, both very loose and very demanding intellectually. Part of his rebelliousness against the school was that we were allowed to seat as we pleased, which means we ended up on the tables until we saw that the chairs were more comfortable. His true rebelliousness, of course, consisted of making us read Holt (and Orwell, among others) and teaching us that school was not run thinking truly of us; yet, he was unable to establish any kind of dialogue with us.

This man was simultaneously one of the best and one of the worst teachers I have ever had. He gave me a deep shock lasting until today by asking me to absorb Holt’s deconstruction of the (American) school, a deconstruction so deep that Holt ended up promoting home-schooling. And this teacher was the first to ask me to freely express my views, for which I thank him. I learned much more, though, from the teachers who believed that the true rebellion against school consisted of making us become deeply learned students. I have never ever been in the hands of a teacher that saw their job as simply passing on information. I was always taught by imitation, by which I mean that my best teachers were so good I just wanted to be like them. I admired them, and I my own work was a way to express my admiration. I learned to love learning because they were wise and I wanted to be just as wise.

Logically, not all my teachers were wise, and some were rather poor pedagogues but in the pedagogy that came before the current one, that didn’t matter because what mattered was the students’ abilities, and responsibilities. I was always told at home that I was responsible for my studies, just as my father was responsible for his job. Studying was my job, and I had to do it well, regardless of my teachers, as he did his, regardless of his bosses. If my teachers were good, then I was lucky; if they were bad, I had to compensate for that. No excuses. Getting an education was regarded as a tough task: I would have never dreamed of saying that I was bored, for the adults around me would have replied that recess was for fun, not the rest of school. I just don’t recall any problems of discipline among my fellow students at any level, with few exceptions that we all understood to be a minority and very special cases. Teachers were respected, even when disliked, and school generally accepted, even when abhorred. Teachers did not spend, as they do now, specially in secondary school, a good portion of their time (Luri says 20%) trying to have students sit down and listen. We just did, as we walk in the street rather than skip and jump all over the place, or willfully disregard the traffic lights.

I think I am trying to say that there is currently a wrong impression that education used to work on the basis of the teacher’s authoritarianism and the institution’s implementation of a strong discipline. This is not my impression of my own education in public primary and secondary schools. They worked well because, I insist, teachers were respected, parents would not dream of undermining their authority and children generally behaved well, understanding that they were responsible for their own progression. Because of Holt and many other pedagogues that rebelled against traditional teaching, however, we have a now the chance to make learning truly thrilling but have lost the necessary personal discipline required to engage in studying. Perhaps I should blame Pink Floyd. I hate with all my soul their idiotic 1979 anthem “Another Brick in the Wall” and its chorus of kids singing “We don’t need to education / We don’t need no thought control / No dark sarcasm in the classroom / Teacher, leave them kids alone”, not only because I wanted very much an education, but because in my experience teaching had been about freeing my thinking and I had never encountered sarcasm, just encouragement.

Sotolino is optimistic and thinks that primary school teachers in particular are now beginning to be better valued, following the information we get on the news about the Finnish system. I am not so sure, but in any case my impression is that the secondary school remains the most problematic part of current education. In my time primary education ended at 14, with the less scholarly-minded students choosing to train for jobs. The extension of secondary school to 16 in most countries means that teachers face everyday a huge wave of adolescent resistance and rebellion, far different from my own secondary school, in which the kids aged 14-18 were struggling to go on to college and, thus, less prone to resisting education. I find, returning to Sotolino and to Pestalozzi’s “Education through head, hand, and heart”, that the heart has been overemphasized and the hand most neglected, with actual skills to do things with our hands instead of our brains being woefully neglected.

Yes, what I am saying is diversify education, make the compulsory segment shorter, give professional training the same status as academic training, make the university again a place for generating knowledge and not for training and, above all, respect teachers. The solution is not trying to entertain disaffected teenagers but building a better commitment to serious learning at all stages of education. This does not mean returning back to an authoritarian model but celebrating the main reason why education was demanded and extended: it is called self-improvement and consists of going as far as you can in the development of your abilities, no matter of what kind they.

Head, hand, and heart will follow if you are set on making the most of yourself, not beyond knowledge but beyond what is required and expected of you. After all, how you are taught is in the end far less important than how you learn. Just don’t forget this.

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

BEING ASSESSED AS A TEACHER: CAN WE PLEASE IMPROVE HOW WE DO IT?

I have spent several days recently writing the report for my assessment as a teacher by the regional Catalan authorities, an exercise that takes place every five years. Funnily, the Spanish authorities only ask that we apply to be assessed, also every five years, and I have not done any further paperwork towards that. In contrast, the Catalan authorities require a long report (mine extends to 18 pages), followed by as many certificates as you can add, for as we know here in Spain nobody trusts that university teachers have actually done what we claim to have done. As I put together the final 65 pages (thanks Manuel for teaching me about I Love PDF! and how to mix different documents), I wondered about which bureaucrat will go through them. My impression is that someone will use reading my report (perhaps just taking a cursory glance) to justify their working time, not really to take my assessment seriously. Yes, we work for the bureaucrats.

Writing this type of report is immensely annoying because we are supposed to enter all our information in the EGRETA application, so in theory the application itself should generate whatever documentation we need. Instead, we need to keep track of every single thing we do by constantly updating our CV in our home computer and even so, we always lose track of some thing or other. I forgot, for instance, that the yearly assessment interviews with doctoral students also count for assessment. My impression is that everything counts except what actually happens in the classroom. I have compiled for my examiners lists of courses taught, dissertations supervised, tribunals I have been a member of, admin positions, and have written a lengthy essay on my view of teaching in the last five years. Yet, the weakest segment has been the one connected with teaching itself, because, guess what?, the students’ surveys of my work were not sufficient in number for that section of the report to be acceptable with no further evidence.

I must clarify that students’ assessment of us, teachers, used to be done in class on paper by taking a few minutes off each subject. This was time-consuming and expensive and so UAB opted for moving the surveys online. The problem is that students are just not interested in filling them in, which I totally understand. I myself would only bother to complete a survey if I wanted to say something very positive or very negative about the teacher.

I don’t run surveys among my students at the end of the semester, in which I am possibly wrong, but going through the ones they did fill in, I started wondering whether I should. One thing I would like to do, after this catastrophic academic year in which I have not managed to learn much about students because of the (literal) distance Covid-19 has imposed, is starting each subject with a short questionnaire to learn who each student is as an individual with their own interests and expectations. A young member of the staff who was once my student reminded me that I had already done that years ago, but I have forgotten I did so. The problem about running a survey asking for feedback at the end of the subject is that it is by then too late to correct any problems, so I’m not so sure that this is useful. Perhaps the really useful thing is running surveys (or feedback sessions) periodically, but I have never done that and simply do not have the time.

The survey results we receive at UAB consist mainly of numbers on a scale of 0-4 (I don’t know why, since we use 0-10 with students). If you get, for instance, a 3 in relation to how you deliver your lessons, you know that there is room for improvement, though the problem is that you still don’t know how. In surveys students are not asked this type of nuanced question, but only offered the chance to offer open comments. In my own assessment, there were not many comments, but in general the problem is that I don’t know what to change or how to improve what I do from reading them. I believe that my general mark was good enough, and some students seemed pleased with my work, but, then, others clearly were not. I ran a feedback session at the end of my fourth year elective subject in January, and I found that far more useful since I could ask direct questions and I valued very much that students gave me very direct constructive criticism. With the official surveys, I just don’t see it.

There were two comments that have stuck, for different reasons, both come from second year students. One student wrote in a negative comment that “the teacher is very proud”, a description I have a hard time identifying with and that set me thinking in earnest about when I had been ‘proud’ in class and what is the meaning of that adjective. Did the student mean ‘demanding’? Well, yes, I am very demanding but I have a pass rate of 90%. Did the student mean that I somehow despise students? That would be a first in my 30 year long career. I wish, with all my heart, that I could ask this student ‘what do you mean?’, ‘was I having a bad day?’, ‘do you mean generally every lecture?’ The comment hurt me very much, as you can see, and I still feel perplexed by it.

About the other comment, I just don’t know what to do. Someone complained that I include too many comments on painting and architecture, and not enough on general background, in the Victorian Literature course. As happens, I have one PowerPoint presentation for painting and one for architecture, and around seven or eight for social, political, and cultural background, leaving aside the ones for specific authors. I use, therefore, about one hour for painting and architecture in a fifty-hour course. I do recall overhearing a student complaining at the end of the corresponding session that painting and architecture were out of place in a Victorian Literature course, so I assume the comment was his (I can’t recall who he is). I’m still flabbergasted. I bring to class as many images as I can of the Victorian Age, and you can be sure I am not going to suppress the tiny segment on painting and architecture just because it annoys one student in five years of teaching.

It would have been far more useful to me if the student in question had protested in class when I was doing my presentation about its use, because then I would have been able to explain myself. This leads me to what I am really thinking about the students’ surveys, not what they say in them but how they are organized. Imagine you’re having sex with someone, and you think you’re communicating well in bed, but when it’s over this person goes go to a public rating board and comments on your performance—and only then do you find out that the sex was bad. What is the point of telling a third person about your lover’s shortcomings? How does this help your lover improve? That’s what I feel. The relationship between a teacher and the students should not work on the principle of sending teachers messages about their performance through a third party (or a public website such as Rate my Professor), but directly. I don’t assess my students by asking a colleague to please tell them how they are doing; I assess them personally and if there is any problem I call them for a tutorial. I believe we should have the same system between students and teachers: if I am not doing well in class, I need to know as soon as possible and as openly as possible.

Obviously, the main snag in this is that students can hardly offer candid views about the teachers’ performance to their faces for fear of being punished with a lower grade if these are negative. So we need to work out a system that excludes that fear. A possibility is inviting students to channel their worries through the class delegate, or to drop anonymous notes in the teacher’s mailbox. Of course, this is awfully awkward. I can see a student dropping a note protesting the uselessness of my painting and architecture PowerPoints but I would not know how to address the issue in class without outing the anonymous student. At least, though, I would get some kind of hint. You need a very special group of students for them to be able to tell their teacher how things can work better, particularly if any of them perceives the teacher as ‘proud’. Deep sigh. My fourth year students seemed far more comfortable telling me what to improve because they know me better, so I am making a mental note to talk as early as possible with second-year students to receive feedback, and to explain better at each point what I am doing and why.

As you can see, I am not concerned about getting a 4/4, though I’m very curious to know who has the highest rating in the Department (I can imagine), the School, and UAB; the ratings can only be accessed by the teachers assessed and the Degree Coordinator. I think that there will always be dissatisfied students, with inevitably some hating my guts and others enjoying my (supposed) cleverness, possibly in a similar proportion. Once a formidable teacher we used to have in the Department told me and a colleague that we worried too much about the students’ ratings, whereas she got very low ratings and still did not care to change her teaching. I’ll write here what I told her then: I don’t care for the ratings, I care to do my job well. In that sense my favourite rating is the 90% pass rate, I have never understood teachers who are proud of failing almost the whole class.

It turns out that I am a ‘proud’ teacher, after all, hopefully not in the problematic sense that student complained about. I am ‘proud’ of losing very few students along the semester, and of raising the standards so that the pass really means they have done great work. I’ll think hard about how to talk to them more fluently and more frequently about what we do together, though there is little I can do to convince UAB to improve the way students’ surveys are carried out. A pity, really.

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

MORE ON NON-FICTION: HOW ABOUT FACTUAL PROSE?

I wrote almost eleven years ago—time does fly indeed—a post almost identical to what I was planning to write today: “The Other Books: The Problem of Non-Fiction” (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/04/25/the-other-books-the-problem-of-non-fiction/). Good thing that I checked before I started writing today. This is proof that I may be beginning to repeat myself after so many years blogging (I started in September 2010), or, alternatively, that each of us has a set of fixed interests and ideas that do not really vary along the years although we might have the impression that constant reading must have an impact on our thinking.

Eleven years ago I mentioned my growing allergy to novels (still increasing), that I find the label ‘non-fiction’ lazy (I find it now irritating), and that Lee Gutkind seems to be responsible for the slightly less lazy label ‘creative non-fiction’, used to distinguish non-fiction with literary aspirations from the more pedestrian purely journalistic type (see the eponymous journal he founded at https://www.creativenonfiction.org/). I mentioned back then some lists—’100 best non-fiction books’ is still available on the Modern Library website (https://www.modernlibrary.com/top-100/100-best-nonfiction/)—to which I will add now Robert Crum’s ambitious list for The Guardian covering five centuries (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/31/the-100-best-nonfiction-books-of-all-time-the-full-list) and the ‘Must Read Non-Fiction’ list on GoodReads (https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/735.Must_Read_Non_Fiction). Wikipedia still has an entry for ‘nonfiction’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonfiction) with a bewildering array of sub-genres, which even includes ‘factual television’, that is to say TV documentaries.

I have been thinking about non-fiction again these days after reading Patrick R. Keefe’s captivating books Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2020) and Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (2021), but failing to finish Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), which is, as happens, a key volume to understand the 21st century and the originator of the indispensable label ‘surveillance capitalism’. Checking readers’ comments on GoodReads in the hopes that I would find some enticement to plod on (I still haven’t given up), I came across many complaints against Zuboff’s unfriendly prose—”The unnecessarily ornate writing style makes the content harder to comprehend and retain,” Lucy tersely wrote—with a person noting that this is typical of non-fiction. Hannah Cook specified that Zuboff’s volume is like “someone’s Phd thesis” with its avalanche of data, which is unsurprising, Cook added, since the author is a Harvard academic. “Not that everything should be dumbed down,” Cook concluded, “but this feels like it is purposefully trying to be hyper intellectual and the result is a giant yawn fest”. There is a lesson in all this about how non-fiction based on massive research, whether this is journalistic (Keefe’s case) or academic (Zuboff’s case), must result in books that can be consumed with no supplementary effort.

I remain, however, confused by why non-fiction encompasses such a wide-ranging territory, at least as the label is used by readers, publishing houses and even authors. Keefe’s mentions in his author’s note that he writes ‘narrative non-fiction’ and it is certainly the case that the two books I have read do tell a story accompanied by a massive influx of information. His non-fiction is quality journalism about individuals in key historical and social circumstances extended to book-size, and he uses narrative to sugar-coat, I think, the reading of the denser passages. It works very well. I was wondering, however, how this is different from Dave Eggers’s The Monk of Mokha (2018), a volume that kept me interested in the world of coffee in Yemen through the story of American-Yemini entrepreneur Mokhtar Alkhanshali, and I came to the conclusion that not that much, even though Egger’s book is closer to being a memoir written by someone else at many points. The memoirs I have read recently—Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart (2021) and Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots (2012) —are also narrative non-fiction, but, of course, they are a first-person narrative, which is not common in the type of books that Keefe and other journalists write. As you can see, I remain confused by the gradation from journalism to the memoir since, to a certain extent, journalistic non-fiction can be personal without being exactly a memoir. From Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966), which arguably inaugurates the current cycle of modern non-fiction to, for instance, Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003)—another fascinating recent read—the author of non-fiction is often present in the text even when this is presented as pure reportage.

I remain, as I was 11 years ago, puzzled by the general absence of non-fiction from academia. Autobiography and memoir, what might be called ‘life writing’, have attracted much attention and it is common to find courses and publications, though not presenting these types of texts as non-fiction. I doubt, however, that anyone is teaching in any English degree other sub-genres of non-fiction. Perhaps someone might be teaching travel writing (the ‘travelogue’ is the label on the Wikipedia list); after all, Bruce Chatwin is already a canonical writer, and one can include on the reading list volumes as delicious as R.L. Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879), or the many written by Victorian travelling women. Yet, I see no scholar devoting any efforts to teach, choosing again from Wikipedia’s list, handbooks, popular science or even academic writing in English courses. Creative non-fiction is taught through handbooks and courses, but it is not taught as a literary category in English degrees, at least not that I know of.

And, yes, I have been thinking for a while of teaching narrative non-fiction. I was, however, taken aback when I mentioned this in my subject on documentary films (2019-20), and a student observed it would be a very boring subject. Documentary films (for TV, cinema, streaming platforms, or YouTube) are the audiovisual branch of non-fiction, as I explained, so plainly what worried this student was that reading non-fiction would be boring. I don’t think he said so because he knew the genre first-hand but because he imagined a boring long read of a book full of data (yes, in the style of Zuboff). Funnily, he contributed to our e-book Focus on the USA: Representing the Nation in Early 21st Century Documentary Films (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/225886) a wonderful essay on Charles Ferguson’s quite demanding documentary Inside Job (2020), actually an adaptation of his own non-fiction volume Inside Job: The Financiers Who Pulled off the Heist of the Century (2012). Perhaps the difference is that while the film takes 110 minutes to watch reading the 371 pages of the book takes considerably longer. I am, however, still very keen on teaching narrative non-fiction, and hope to do so in 2023-24, in one of my project-oriented electives: I won’t work with a closed set of four or five texts, but will invite students to discover a set they might enjoy and will publish the corresponding e-book.

This, I’m not kidding you, might be the first academic introduction to narrative non-fiction, at least as far as I now. Cambridge UP and Oxford UP, which publish companions for the obscurest corner of English Literature do not have one for non-fiction. I would love to volunteer to edit an introductory volume but I have never published on non-fiction, and I don’t think I am qualified. I don’t see, however, that there is a specialist possibly because the territory is so vast that this is like calling yourself a specialist in the novel. I will be extremely happy to be corrected, and flooded with bibliography on non-fiction but so far my search for bibliography has led to scattered articles on specific works, and just three volumes. Barbara Lounsberry’s The Art of Fact: Contemporary Artists of Nonfiction (Greenwood, 1990) offers chapters on Guy Talese, Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer; it can be borrowed from https://archive.org/details/artoffact00barb. I thought that Lee Gutkind’s The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality (Wiley, 1997), would have gone through many reprints now but it does not even have a second edition (see https://archive.org/details/artofcreativenon00gutk/page/n9/mode/2up). Gutkind’s more successful task is the edition for Norton of a three-volume anthology, The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007-09), which I assume is possibly being used in courses. My Google search has led to a variety of creative writing courses, but, I insist, not to English Literature courses.

Perhaps, you may be thinking, this is right since practically no prose except the novel has a central place in English Literature or English Studies degrees with the noted exceptions of the autobiography and the memoir. The lists I have mentioned earlier prove, however, that there are many quality volumes to choose from both for courses and for research. Like the student in my documentary film class, however, we teaching scholars seem to believe collectively that non-fiction is dull and might only lead to dull courses in comparison to teaching fiction. I find this is a misperception, having been thrilled much more by well-researched, well-written non-fiction in comparison to many dull novels of any genre published in recent years. I really believe that liming literature to the novel, and secondarily to drama and poetry, is a serious error that has deprived students of an education in prose works which are often not only much more sophisticated but also a major source of learning. I am not saying that we should stop reading novels but that human experience is also portrayed in other kinds of non-fictional narrative and non-narrative texts.

I wrote in my post of 2011 that calling a book ‘non-fiction’ is like calling men ‘non-women’, which is an aberration and would certainly cause much offence (just stop using the adjective ‘non-white’, please). I’ll offer ‘factual prose’ as an alternative, such as Wikipedia offers ‘factual television’, since the opposite of fiction is fact, not non-fiction. One Walter Blair already used the label back in 1963 for a book called Factual Prose: Introduction to Explanatory and Persuasive Writing (Scott & Foresman, 1963), so maybe that’s worth rescuing. It’s not very sexy, but at least it is more accurate than non-fiction. Let me know if you have other suggestions.

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

SONGS OF EMPOWERMENT: WOMEN IN 21ST CENTURY POPULAR MUSIC

First, a note. This is the first post I publish on the date it has been written after four months of silence, caused by the cyberattack that affected the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona on 11 October 2021 (the blog is hosted by UAB). I was confident that the texts were not lost, as I keep separate copies, but at one point I did believe that I would have to rebuild the whole blog from scratch (eleven years posting, more than 500 posts). This didn’t happen, but I learned an important lesson about the fragility of digital media and its ephemerality. Last week I posted the twelve posts I wrote between 11 October 2021 and 10 January 2022. The ensuing five weeks of silence between that date and today are due to my finally losing the impulse to write without imagining an audience. I don’t know who reads me, and I have never checked statistics, but I realize that every blog needs an audience, if only an imaginary one. So, thank you for being there.

In those five weeks I have been extremely busy editing the tenth e-book I have published with UAB students (see the complete list here). The book is called Songs of Empowerment: Women in 21st Century Popular Music) and it can be downloaded for free (in .pdf and .epub) from the digital repository of UAB. In its more than 300 very entertaining pages, the reader can find the students’ analyses of a selection of more than 60 songs by currently active women artists using English in their lyrics. Each short essay consists of a biographical presentation of the artist, followed by a commentary on the song, mainly focused on the lyrics, and of the music video. The songs run from 2000 (Kylie Minogue’s “Spinning Around”) to 2021 (Charli XCX’s “Good Ones”). The book is not, however, a history of women singers in the 21st century, but a selection based on the students’ preferences. It is a sort of snapshot of what music by women sounded like in the Autumn of 2021, when I taught the subject from which the e-book derives. And, yes, it comes with a Spotify list, compiled by one of the students.

This is the first time I have ever taught a course on music, and this requires some kind of justification being, as I am, a Literature teacher. It is obvious to me that most of us, born in the 1960s and later, who choose to study for a degree in English did (or do) so out of an interest in Anglophone music. I have always been a keen reader but my initiation into English was through the songs which I would try to translate painstakingly as soon as I bought any new album. Music, however, meaning basically pop and rock, has never been an integral part of English Studies degrees in Spain, and although I constantly told myself that I should teach a course on this topic, I procrastinated until I lost the ability to work while listening to music. With the time devoted to music reduced practically down to zero, I decided that the chance was gone to present myself before students pretending I knew about current trends. This changed last year when I supervised a marvelous BA dissertation by Andrea Delgado López on Childish Gambino’s music video “This is America”. Andrea also did a research internship with me that we used for her to produce a booklet called American Music Videos 2000-2020: Lessons about the Nation. Andrea wrote for each of the twenty-five videos analyzed a short essay presenting the singer(s), the song, and the video, and this gave me the idea for the e-book.

I told my students in the ‘Cultural Studies’ elective (2021-22) about the projected e-book, candidly confessing I had no idea about what was going on in the world of popular music in 2021. They would have to teach me. Since I believed that we could not cover everything of relevance in one single volume, we focused on the women artists, and I will focus next year on the male artists with my MA students in a similar project. I brought to class a very long list of about one hundred women singers, all of them active, and asked students to choose two each, which they did, adding some new suggestions. I gave them, then, as much freedom of choice as possible, though I made sure that the main names got due attention (some, like St Vincent or Kacey Musgraves, will be probably missed, though, perhaps also Alanis Morrissette). I extended this freedom of choice to the songs, which students selected on the basis of their preferences and also thinking of whether the song and video combination would be productive enough for their essays. In a feedback session which I held at the end of the course, some told me that had been a major difficulty, since many favorite songs had no music video, or because they found the videos less interesting than the songs. I happen to like music videos very much as a strange bastard child of cinema and advertising, so there was never a question of focusing only on a song. Given, besides, our lack of training in music, I feared that students would be unable to write even a few hundred words on lyrics which are often very basic at a poetic or literary level.

Something quite peculiar has happened in relation to the main thesis behind the e-book. I originally announced that we would organize the class presentations of the songs and videos (used as a rehearsal or pre-draft of the essays) around the question of whether the songs women pop singers sing today are empowering. Little by little, we lost track of that question, as we worried mainly about how to continue the presentations with no internet in the classroom because of the cyberattack. We became so interested by the particularities of each singer—from mainstream Jennifer Lopez to indie Mitski, and so many others—that the notion of empowerment lost focus. We did discuss it all the time indirectly, mainly by commenting on the artists’ self-presentation and whether their choices could be called feminist and other issues such as race or class; it seemed to us that depression and abuse, a constant in most singers’ biographies, were somehow antagonists to any notion of empowerment. However, as I went through the second final draft of the essays, I noticed that the students had not missed at all the notion of empowerment, and had in fact addressed their essays mostly to explain how this is not in contradiction with women having been radically disempowered by patriarchy. That is to say, the common thread in the e-book is how women singers, despite being in some cases quite powerful, are constantly subjected to abuse (mental, physical, even commercial) and must send each other a message in favour of self-empowerment. This message is not sent, as I assumed, by songs that celebrate natural strength but by songs that candidly admit that strength is often born of vulnerability. In that sense Madonna, though still the Queen of Pop, is not representative but, rather, Rihanna, whose battered face we all remember and, indeed, Lady Gaga.

Although with variations, most of the songs in the e-book (and, believe me, they are a very representative selection) hold the same discourse: the singer describes how she fell in love with a man who turned out to be either abusive or simply disappointing, next how hard it was to break up with this man because of the strong hold of love on her mind and body; and, finally, how this experience brought empowerment by teaching the woman that she, and not a man, should be the centre of her own life. I found that with few exceptions (such as Shania Twain’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” and perhaps Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP”), the expression of female heterosexual desire for men had been replaced by the expression of a constant disillusion with heterosexual love and masculinity. With the songs women not only express their personal feelings but aim at giving other women support, inviting them to discuss their own views of love. The classic love song with the triad “I love you”, “I want you”, “I need you” has been replaced by “I once loved and wanted you, but now I don’t need you anymore”; “I will survive” is now “Of course I will survive, why shouldn’t I?” Secondarily, there is also a parallel discourse on femininity, which on the one hand expresses great admiration for women’s superiority (Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman”, Halsey’s “I Am not a Woman, I’m a God”) and at the same time a certain acknowledgement of imperfections (as in Celine Dion’s eponymous song), which must be accepted as they are. I have no room here to comment on each of the sixty plus songs—please, read the book—but I think these are the main lines.

In class another topic that came up recurrently is how much pressure these women singers must endure from the social media. Since music videos became popular after the establishment of MTV in the mid-1980s, women singers have had to accept a constant exposure of their bodies to the public gaze. Videos, photoshoots and even performances are subjected, however, to a limited time frame. Social media are not, which means that female singers must now be posting on a daily basis about their activities, their looks, and their private lives trying to please fans but also battling haters. Just a week ago Charlie XCX announced on Twitter that she is taking a break from social media, tired of the endless monitoring and the angry comments by her own fans: “I’ve been grappling quite a lot with my mental health the past few months and obviously it makes negativity and criticism harder to handle when I come across it—and of course, I know this is a common struggle for most people in this day and age.” So it is, indeed, but because of how the lines between being a celebrity and being a pop artist have been blurred, many women singers like Charlie XCX are bearing a brunt that few other professional must endure. It seems to me that the pressure is much lighter on the male singers.

Next year, as I have noted, I will be dealing with the men in current popular music. I do have a list already of bigger and lesser names, and I’m bracing myself for the barrage of sexist, misogynistic lyrics, particularly those coming from rap. I am telling myself, though, that these lyrics must be analysed, also the music videos, from a perspective as constructive as possible. I don’t know, however, what the resulting e-book will tell us. I just hope it is not called Songs of Entitlement, though my deepest fear is that it will.

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

TOWARDS A NEUROEDUCATION (AND SOME MARXIST MUSINGS)

NOTE: This post was originally written on 29 November 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

Today’s post is written in reaction to Francisco Mora’s volume Neuroeducación: Sólo se Puede Aprender Aquello que se Ama (2013). Mora is a doctor in Medicine and Neuroscience, not a pedagogue, but he has been working for years on ‘neuroeducation’, that is to say, the field proposing that education could be much more effective if we understood more precisely how the human brain works. This sounds appropriate, in the same way that one supposes that coaching in sports improves the more the coach knows about the trainees’ anatomical features and capabilities. However, I was disappointed by this particular volume since it seems that we are still very far away from adapting education to the stirring of particular areas of the brain. Mora offers, in short, no recipe to remake education so that exercises can be devised to stimulate, as I say, key brain areas. Proof of this is that when dealing with the major problem of how to turn on students’ curiosity he offers the following advice (I’m paraphrasing):

1) Begin with something provoking.
2) Present a mundane question based on everyday experiences that the student can relate to.
3) Create a relaxed atmosphere, so that students feel comfortable; never judge their contributions as being below standard or inadequate.
4) Give time enough for all students to accomplish tasks.
5) In a seminar context, avoid asking direct questions; elicit questions from students themselves.
6) During lectures insert elements that are shocking, surprising, disruptive and so on…
7) … making sure they don’t cause anxiety.
8) In a seminar context, invite students to participate actively.
9) Reward with praise good contributions by students (questions, comments).
10) Help students find the answer to a question, rather than give it to them.

Deep sigh… For this we don’t need neuroscience but plain pedagogical common sense. Of course, if you are the kind of teacher who thinks that transmitting information through lectures in which students needn’t intervene is the best pedagogical method, Mora’s advice must be knew to you. But I do hope you are not that kind of teacher.

Let me go back to the subtitle of Mora’s book, Sólo se Puede Aprender Aquello que se Ama, that is ‘you can only learn what you love’. In theory, the best teachers are those who make you love those matters you were initially indifferent to, or even hostile. Yet, I believe there is a limit to that kind of miracle, and this sudden falling in love with some matter possibly corresponds to the teacher tickling an area of the brain so far dormant. I do not think, however, that in my thirty years as a Literature teacher I have turned any non-readers into readers, though it might be the case that I have interested some students into certain texts. Likewise, even though in my days as an undergrad a good teacher who is now my colleague (Mireia Llinàs) got me very much interested in Linguistics that was not enough to sustain a firm vocation in this area of knowledge, and I ended up embracing what appears to be my natural area of interest, Literature.

I have thought plenty about why some persons, like myself, love reading while others never get the habit. My provisional neuroscientific conclusion is that our brains are wired so that we get pleasure out of that, in the same way the brains of persons who enjoy practising sports get pleasure out of exercising. Education, as we understand it today, supposes that mind and body can be trained to read and to exercise as basic skills that humans require to lead productive lives. Yet, I remember with glee the day at the end of secondary school when I was finally free from the physical education class which had made me so awfully uncomfortable since the age of six. Why this discomfort? Because I was measured against what my colleagues could do, not what I could myself do –none bothered to check, for instance, that I was much better at dancing than at running. I assume, therefore, that many of our students in the English Studies BA feel the same glee when they pass the last compulsory Literature class. For, your see?, ‘you can only learn what you love’, and you cannot learn the beauties of Anglophone Literature if you don’t love reading to begin with. And that, it appears, has to do with your brain’s nature.

So here’s the catch: the neuroeducators like Mora use a general model for the human brain but are possibly missing the nuances of each individual human brain. As education works, we teach children up to the age of 16 the same contents, supposing that this is what they all need to become responsible citizens and persons mature enough to embark on the next stage of their education. The system, however, is producing students who are either so uninterested that they quit, or students who learn to navigate the system even though they never really care about a great deal of what they are being taught. I don’t think there has been ever any single student in primary and secondary education who has enjoyed learning all the subjects, not even those children with the highest grades. Neuroeducators are telling us that if we knew how children’s brains work we could iron out everyone’s difficulties in learning and teach kids with less mutual embarrassment the current curriculum, designed, let’s be honest, with little care for truly awakening a love for learning.

Perhaps it’s the other way round. If we understood well the leanings of each human brain, we could adapt education to each child’s abilities and thus engage this child in his/her education from the beginning. Suppose, for the sake of argumentation, that neurologists find there is an area of the brain that indicates a person has great mechanical skills, perhaps even of an engineering type. Why would this person spend his/her complete childhood never developing those skills, being fed instead a dry diet of matters they will never care for? Same with any other kind of skill, and always supposing a correspondence could be found between certain folds in the brain and certain skills. Try to think of this: those of us with scholarly inclinations adapt more or less well to the current type of education, which is based on producing exercises; but if we were subjected to an education based on working with our hands, we would be probably do poorly. However, few of the persons appalled by the fact of so many children are quitting secondary school ever consider whether the problem is the rigidity of the scholarly model of education.

Am I saying that this should be Brave New World and people should be educated according to a neurological analysis of their brains taken at age three, before school begins? Not really, though I think that any perceptive teacher can see that teaching, for instance, mathematics to certain kids (like me) is a waste of time for teacher and student; or that short kids will never make basketball players. What we do instead when a child does not care for a subject, or for education on the whole, is to dismiss that child as a born loser in the worst case scenario and as an educational failure in the slightly less worse. If we go down the path which Mora’s rumination opens, then, there is no failure on the side of the child but on the side of the system which has failed to understand his/her abilities and provide him/her with the best possible education (particularly at a secondary school level).

As the system works now, in the cheapest possible way, all children are forced into the same mould. It cannot escape anyone’s attention that children from richer backgrounds do better, not because they are more intelligent but because they receive more personalised attention that can bring out their best skills. There are the same number of potential future doctors or designers in each social group, or of crane operators and short-order cooks, but whereas kids from wealthier backgrounds are always being monitored for their skills to bloom, kids in poorer backgrounds are told that they can only do well under exceptional circumstances that require extraordinary commitment either from the individual or from the family. And that hard, low-skilled work is to be their lot.

I am sure you are all horrified by the possibility of that brain scan that will show at age three how each individual should be educated to make the most of their abilities. But perhaps what might be truly scary for the upper echelons is that the scan might show that the brains of little kids show little differences across social classes. I don’t think this is where neuroscience and neuroeducation are going but, as you can see, they may have revolutionary consequences not even Marx could dream of. Yes, some people’s utopia is other people’s dystopia.

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

A CONFERENCE ON TEACHING INNOVATION: SOME NOTES

NOTE: This post was originally written on 11 October 2021, but it’s published now, four months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

I do not know if you have noticed this but there seems to be here in Spain a certain proliferation of teaching innovation conferences recently, by which I mean about the last four years. Some conferences have been around for much longer than that (and I have been running the Department workshop Teaching English Language, Literature, and Culture TELLC for seven years now), but suddenly a new crop is materializing, with acronyms such as CIDICO or CIVINEDU, perhaps in imitation of the more veteran CIDUI. I am not in the habit of attending teaching innovation events because I usually find them too general to be of application to my own teaching–hence my setting up TELLC with my Department colleagues–though possibly this is the wrong stance. I decided, then, to correct my prejudiced view by attending two weeks ago the fifth CIVINEDU Virtual Conference on Educational Research and Innovation.

Before I sum up what I learned, which was plenty, I’d like to defend virtual conferences; they, it must be noted, pre-date Covid-19. For those of us who do not particularly like travelling for professional reasons and who find the cost of attending a conference quite steep (particularly international conferences), virtual conferences are always a good idea. I do know the social aspect is missing but debate is far more intense. In an in-person conference you’re lucky if you get two or three questions from the audience, after travelling hundreds of miles and spending hundreds of euros. In, for instance, the CIVINEDU conference (cost 80 euros for speakers, 45 for attendees), some speakers got dozens of comments and questions, as online debate was kept open for a few days, not just the 90 minutes of the specific session. I am not saying with this that all conferences should be virtual, but that it would be very useful to keep virtual conferences alive even after Covid-19 is over for good. Virtual conferences are, besides, far kinder to the planet than the events that require very high mobility and that leave a high carbon footprint, a matter we, the academic community, must also consider.

At CIVINEDU I attended the three plenary talks and saw the video presentations by 21 speakers in two days, pretty intense I should say. I mostly selected presentations dealing with university teaching in the Humanities (the conference covered all levels and all areas), but made the point of attending at least a couple of presentations about Science degrees, which was interesting, too. There was a total agreement in all I saw that the students’ learning should always be the main focus of teaching, and that teachers should be, above all, guides and by no means the protagonists of what happens in the classroom. I totally agree with that view.

As happens in all conferences, my view is very partial and another set of papers would lead to different conclusions, but the presentations I attended showed a preoccupation with the emotional stability of students, how to keep their attention engaged, and using social networks skills for improved teaching. I marvel at how often the word ‘gamification’ could be seen in the titles of papers offering the most varied advice about how to turn boredom into excitement. I have already expressed here my prejudice against this concept. In my modest view, we are going in the wrong direction by trying to have students feel excited all the time in class, when actually we should train them in accepting that learning cannot always be exciting. I attended an excellent presentation which defended the creativity of boredom but, beyond that, I think that modern pedagogy is too invested in the idea of excitement. My impression is that a student who expects excitement from classroom activities will be twice bored if classes happen to be less exciting than expected. I do not know enough, in any case, about gamification to radically disregard the whole trend, but I am asking for caution.

Something that worried me very much in the presentations addressing the emotional wellbeing of students, very much affected as we all know by Covid-19, is the underlying assumption that we, teachers, are perfectly stable persons. We are not. I do not mean that the profession is full of whacky characters, though we possibly have a higher ratio than most professional sectors. What I mean is that it is somehow implied that we can transmit knowledge about our area, train students in it and contribute to their emotional health as if we were robotic machines. I try to do my best not to cause unnecessary distress and keep my students as happy as possibly, but I am a highly stressed, often unhappy person and I do not see anyone worrying about that. By this I mean that I am pretty average, and I think that possibly 99% of my peers are subjected to human emotions that impact their teaching. A teacher can only be an efficient guide for students if s/he is reasonably stable in emotional terms when stepping into a classroom, a position increasingly harder to sustain with all the pressure put on us to perform at all levels, not to mention the job instability of the associate teachers. A presentation, I must note, did comment on emotional coaching for teachers, but my impression was that this is right now a luxury few universities can afford.

Another presentation commented on the mismatch between the competences employers sought in new graduates and the competences students had actually acquired. The same speaker offered a second presentation about whether talent was missing or had been made harder to spot with the implementation of the competence system. We started introducing the new degrees back in 2009 and since then we have been describing what we do, both to the Ministry and to students, in lists of competences. I doubt, however, that any of our graduates pays much attention to that. We should check, but my guess is that at the end of their studies no graduate is thinking of competences but of knowledge acquired. The most absurd aspect of the competences, however, is that we were never allowed to use the verb ‘to know’ in them because the corresponding committees agreed that acquiring knowledge was secondary to learning how to do something. You should have seen, though, my students’ faces when I told them that the main mission of ‘Victorian Literature’ was not just to have them acquire knowledge about this area of the Humanities, but guiding them to produce basic academic writing. What the competences of the course describe is for them secondary to the fact that they need to read and know about authors and texts, as in traditional teaching. Haven’t we forgotten, I ask, to tell students about how we actually teach and they are supposed to learn?

It occurs to me that this is a major problem. A presenter described how she established a weekly encounter with her students during lockdown to discuss how they were coping with the situation brought about by online teaching and so on. I found it a wonderful idea because we speak too little about teaching with our students. When we do, great things happen. For instance, in one of the TELLC workshops, two students expressed their view that our instrumental subjects were a waste of 24 credits for students who already had the B2-B1 entrance level our degree requires. They suggested replacing them with language courses focused on academic writing, and this is what we have started doing. I have kept the TELLC workshops open to students but I realize that we need another type of forum. I am sure students do have many more ideas about how to teach and learn, but they have no mechanism to discuss them with us, for fear of offending teachers and jeopardizing assessment. And, yes, I have indeed thought of an anonymous mailbox for suggestions, but I still hope the conversation can be started face-to-face. In the end, if you think about it, perhaps the main problem of any teachers’ forum is that we speak to each other of what we think students feel or might welcome, but do not ask them directly. This is like discussing with your best friend how to have better sex with your couple, without ever asking your couple.

There was a paper that drew particularly good criticism and many positive comments. Did it offer a ground-breaking teaching technique? Perhaps the solution to keep students gleefully entertained and the teachers happily engaged in class? No… The presenter simply drew attention to the design of our classrooms. Eleven years after the start of the new degrees, which supposedly eschew lectures for more collaborative teaching, we still work mostly in classrooms designed for a large audience to face a speaker. See the problem I have now, for instance: I have 65 students in my Victorian Literature class sitting in benches, in rows of eight seats (I think). My platform is placed to the left, and I stand about two metres from the closest student. The ones at the back must be about ten to twelve metres away from me. With their facemasks on, I can’t understand them, which forces me to teach less than thrilling lectures, shouting like I’m possessed (I refuse to use a microphone, the last thing I need!). If, instead of the compact sitting arrangements, students were in individual chairs, I could have them work in small groups and I could move around talking to them. Yet this is a luxury we only have in the smaller classrooms. Why the benches have staid put is easy to understand: in the last ten years, the school where I work has only had money to keep us going, not to consider any major investment. If you ask me, the whole building should have to be redesigned, but that is as impossible as demanding that university classes have a maximum of 30 students.

Oh, yes, I had forgotten about that. The most frequent comment to papers that called for better guidance of students was, ‘yes, I love the idea, but with one hundred in my group, how do I do that?’ I know that in smaller universities classes of 30 students may be the norm, but in big universities like my own, we may have up to 140 students per group. This is insane. Yet, there is a complete taboo around discussing the issue of group size for the simple reason that if we took it seriously many universities should double their staff. And, as things are, we have trouble enough trying to secure tenure for those who have been around for ages as associates. I will insist again and again that in my time both in primary and secondary schools the habitual class size was 40-45, and little by little 25 became the ideal. I don’t know whether this is the actual size of most primary and secondary classes but a class of 40 kids, we all know, is an aberration. In contrast, nobody remarks on the number of students in university classrooms, or if we do it, this is only in terms of the teachers’ workload. Beyond that–how can anyone guide efficiently groups of more than 30?–there is the matter of students’ rights. I think that a fundamental right is that your teacher knows your name in, let’s say, the first two weeks of the course, and can accordingly pay attention to you as an individual person. With more than 30, this cannot happen (or happens at the cost of a great effort).

The main lesson learned at the conference, in short, is that there is plenty of good will and good ideas to make teaching and learning better, but that, as long as the universities keep their old architecture, limited staff, and big groups of students, there is little that can be actually done. What most speakers proposed, from gamification strategies to flipped classes, passing through small group tutorials and so on, involved an increased workload, which perhaps some of us, tenured teachers, can assume but not so our associates, who make up now more than 50% of our teaching staff. I do not mean that the bottle is half empty and nothing can be done, but that the very concept of innovation must refer to what can be done, not mostly to what could be done if only things were better.

Now tell me what it’s like for you, whether you’re a teacher or a student.

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

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

I am re-reading my post for 7 September 2020 in which I express my fears about returning to face-to-face teaching and I marvel at how little things have changed. I wrote then that I was in the grip of “Fear that the return to class next week means being infected with Covid-19, with who knows what consequences, and fear that I might infect those who live with me and endanger lives I love even more than mine”. I also wrote that I hoped those fears would soon be over and the return to normality a matter of six months. We are now eighteen months into the pandemic and although it seems that with 70% of the Spanish population already vaccinated matters have improved very much that is only part of the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISTORY HAPPENING: SUMMER, KABUL AND KATHARINE

The structure of the academic year makes summer the strangest of seasons, with a first month in which one is too exhausted to properly think just when a little bit of time for writing nonstop materializes, a second month when one is supposed to forget about all matters academic but cannot really do that, and a third month which marks a new beginning more than January does. That was a long sentence, but much happens indeed between 21 June and 21 September every year academically speaking. For this particular blog, this post is, besides, a moment of reckoning and closure since it concludes the yearly volume I publish as a .pdf in the digital repository of my university. Believe it or not, this will be volume number eleven. And, yes, I’m planning to continue writing, though part of my energy is flagging because the world really is in a terrible state, much more so if you’re a woman. It is hard not to fall into a dark mood these days, and I don’t think I will be able to escape depression today. I don’t mean personal depression but this general feeling that we, human beings, are not doing well at all.

To begin with, as I write hurricane Ida is devastating Louisiana on the same date when fifteen years ago hurricane Katrina almost erased New Orleans. Ida, we are being told, appears to be the most powerful hurricane in 150 years but one thing we know now is that while hurricanes used to be a product of the forces of nature in the past, they are now the bastard children of manmade climate change, too. Something very similar can be said about pandemics, with Covid-19 being proof of the excesses we go on committing in our dealings with animals. As if its murderous effects were not enough, eighteen months after the onset of the crisis in Wuhan, the scientists have now confirmed that we are on the brink of certain extinction because of the brutal climate change patterns, unless we do something urgently—which we will not do. I had high hopes that Covid-19 would change how people behave, turning us into more prudent and solidary community members. Yet the images these days of thousands of drunk youths acting like barbarians in the streets of Barcelona once the curfew has been lifted shows that something fundamental is wrong. No matter how few they are, these people and the anti-vaxxers, and the virus negationists—and the greedy pharmas and obtuse governments—reveal that as a species we are suicidal. Expecting the species to alter the path of climate change when we are unable to protect our fellow human beings from a deadly virus is almost preposterous. This is not who we are.

Add to this the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the resurgence of ISIS in Afghanistan. I must confess that I have been avoiding the more detailed reports coming from that corner of the world and just paying attention basically to the headlines, cowardly trying to bury my head in the sand to pretend that the end of the Afghan War is not connected to my world. Of course, the sudden imprisonment of all Afghan women under sharia law affects all of us, the women that constitute 51% of the Homo Sapiens species but that live as a helpless minority. The fall of Kabul is not at all comparable to the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the Communists, which has so often been commented on this summer. In the end, and unlike what the domino doctrine behind the Vietnam War preached, Communism did not conquer the world after 1975. My deep worry is that in contrast other countries will follow the patriarchal dictatorship now established in Kabul, with not only Afghan women’s rights being lost but those of all women. You need not be a fan of The Handmaid’s Tale to understand that the future might quickly become worse than the past. On the other hand, both Syria (now forgotten in the news) and Afghanistan make me think of how the worst excesses can happen in daylight and in the face of the international press without anyone being able to stop them. It took a mighty alliance to stop Hitler’s army of darkness in 1945 but the UN and NATO have been unable to stop the far less powerful Taliban in a catastrophic failure of nerve (and, let’s say it, of military know-how) that will have terrible consequences for women, LGTBIQ+ persons, and non-patriarchal men all over the world. Terrorism will join forces with Covid-19 and climate change to make human life on Earth even worse than it already is.

Try to educate young persons in the middle of all this for the future. My project-oriented subject for this year is a semestral course on women in current pop music, an idea intended to cheer us up which now sounds to me a bit irrelevant. Of course, you never know these days what is really relevant—Leo Messi’s torrent of tears in his farewell press conference in Barcelona seemed to be very relevant to the state of masculinity these days but perhaps what is more relevant is how quickly we saw him smiling once the torrent of millions from Paris Saint-Germain fell on his lap. But I digress. The Taliban have forbidden all music in Afghanistan, having already executed key figures such as folk singer Fawad Andarabi. Discussing in this context the empowerment of women through their musical careers is chilling. Even the most trivial wannabe star takes on an enormous importance as a figure of anti-patriarchal dissent in ways I had never considered when designing the course. On the other hand, I very much suspect that once we listen to what current Anglophone female stars do say in their songs, we will grow more sceptical about their empowerment. As we are learning in Kabul—and not so far in local social media—we women are always one step away from being silenced no matter how vocal we may be. My intention in any case is to share with my students the pleasure of hearing women sing loudly and beautifully, as so many do. I was going to write ‘for as long as we can’ but perhaps that’s self-defeating.

Perhaps because of the constant threat of being cancelled by patriarchy, in this summer of apocalyptic proportions I have found much comfort in the memoirs of Katharine Graham, the woman who owned and ran The Washington Post for decades. As a young person I was a fan of TV series Lou Grant (1977-1982), the spin-off of popular sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) starring Ed Asner, the excellent actor who died yesterday (he was also the voice of grumpy Carl Fredricksen in Up!). Journalist Grant’s boss in the fictional Los Angeles Tribune was the formidable Margaret Jones Pynchon (played by Nancy Marchand), a composite character, Wikipedia informs, merging “real-life newspaper executives Dorothy Chandler of the Los Angeles Times and Katharine Graham of The Washington Post”. Later, I came across Graham herself as played by Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s undervalued The Post (2017), on the crisis caused when the Nixon administration tried to ban all US papers from publishing the Pentagon Papers leaked by whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg. In Graham’s memoirs, Pulitzer-award winning volume Personal History (1997), this episode looms large, but the lesson on how to protect the freedom of the press she offers is nothing compared to her teachings about how marginal women were in journalism when she was suddenly empowered.

Basically, Graham’s patriarchal father Eugene Meyer could never see his daughter as his heir in The Post and so he chose his son-in-law Phil Graham to play that role. While Katharine lived the busy life of the upper-class wife, mother and society hostess, Phil went the downward spiral, plagued by thoughts that he had not succeeded because of his merits but for being his wife’s husband. Unable to deal with his own male chauvinism, Phil took his life, which left a shocked Katharine at the helm of The Post when she least expected it, aged 46. Her memoirs are often painful to read for the constant insecurity she shows at all times, even when she was one of the most powerful women on Earth. The elderly Katharine (she published the memoirs four years before her death in 2001, aged 84) narrates her life not as a woman who was a feminist from the start but as a woman who discovered feminism once she was empowered and who is appalled at her own naivete as a younger woman. It could not be otherwise given her background and the times. Tellingly, Katharine inherited The Post in 1963, the year when Betty Friedan jump-started second-wave feminism with The Feminine Mystique. Graham’s many comments about being the only woman in her professional circle (and how this constricted the socializing habits of her male peers, spoiling their sexist pleasures) remind us of how lonely a figure she was only sixty years ago. Many things have changed but tell that to the female journalists now fleeing Afghanistan (or trapped there).

Kabul and Katharine have taught me this summer, in short, that if living one’s life as a woman is complicated enough, being subjected to the patriarchal forces of history makes any illusion of personal control naïve and even dangerous. Frankly, I do not know where we are going as human beings, which is why I am sure I will find much comfort in going back to teaching Victorian Literature, since Victorians had a clear sense of progress, including the women who invented first-wave feminism. There was a moment in the 1990s when it seemed Homo Sapiens might have a chance to establish a truly enlightened multicultural global culture but that was revealed to be a false impression generated by the interests of multinational corporations, gleefully celebrating the end of Communism. Then came 9/11, the tragic wake-up call to the real nature of (in)human civilization whose twentieth anniversary will happen in a couple of weeks. Since then, we seem unable as a collectivity to find a new solid horizon, a sense of the future, a project for us and our planet. I would not mind so much for myself, but I have young people to educate, most of them women, and I am just wondering out loud how to do it with enthusiasm and hope for their future. I’m listening if you have any ideas.

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

BORN-DIGITAL TEXTS AND ITS USES IN THE FOREIGN-LANGUAGE CLASSROOM: AFTER A SYMPOSIUM

Last week I attended the symposium organized by Saskia Kersten (U. Hertfordshire) and Christian Ludwig (Frei U. Berlin) called “Born-Digital Texts and its Uses in the Foreign-Language Classroom”, on which this post focuses. I first got in touch with Prof. Ludwig a while ago, when I replied to his cfp for the volume he has edited with Elizabeth Shipley, Mapping the Imaginative II (Universitätsverlag Winter, 2020). I have contributed to this volume the essay “Producing E-books on Fantasy and Science Fiction with University Students: Classroom Projects”, which describes the process by which I have edited the first five volumes out of eight that I have published so far with students in the BA and MA English Studies degrees for which I work (see https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/books). The ninth e-book, on which I am now working, was the subject of my presentation. Funnily, I didn’t know that these e-books are born-digital texts until I read the cfp for the symposium. Although there is not a total agreement on the definition of this concept, in principle a born-digital text is any type of text that is first created and circulates in a digital format, such as an e-book. The disagreements have to do with whether the born-digital texts can be made available in a non-digital form (an e-book can be printed as a book). However, once you know the concept, the idea is easy to grasp: many born-digital texts, from photos to hashtags, will remain digital and will not be transferred to any analogical medium; even though some might, the label is still useful.
The general question asked in the symposium was how we should adapt the foreign-language classroom to make the most of the familiarity of our students with the diverse digital media. This is not, of course, a new question. It was first asked back in the 1990s when internet access was first made commercially available, and when other digital tools such as e-mail were introduced. The difference is that for some years now our students have been coming from the cohorts born after this time. There has been much talk about how those born from the mid-1990s onward are digital natives and it is indisputable that their lives are organized around digital platforms in ways that those of previous generations are not. Of course, as a symposium participant reminded me, we should not divide digital users along generational lines, but even though we can find many of these users in older generations, it seems obvious to me that any child or young person with no access to their generation’s heavily digitalized environment runs a risk of becoming a social pariah. A participant mentioned how the lack of access to social media of less privileged children may become a problem in their future, when prospective employers check their networks and draw a blank. This is possibly already a problem for many of us –I’m sure that my empty accounts in Facebook and Instagram, my minimalist use of Twitter, and my absence from Linked In are inexplicable to many digital frequent users.
My approach to using digital media in the English Literature classroom remains sceptical, even though I am at the same time a staunch defender of that strategy. Of course, having taught online for the last two semesters I cannot say that the digital tools should have a minimal impact on the Literature classroom but, as I did in the symposium, I want to defend what I called the principle of reciprocity. By this I mean that I am very much concerned that many of the strategies described in the symposium and elsewhere are based on an academic surrender before the push of the social media and on the sad acceptance that some skills are being lost for good because students find them boring. That is to say, we, teachers that work with language from the primary school to university, seem to be giving up on the importance of two immensely important skills, reading and writing, in which we have a solid training; I mean of substantial texts, and not what young learners come across in the social media and, generally, online. I would agree that one can learn a foreign language on the basis of limited texts, and that not all learners should be expected to produce lengthy essays. However, as much as audiovisual media, from Netflix series to YouTube gamers’ life play streaming, can help learners, their knowledge in this case of English is going to be limited without some intensive reading and without the ability to write beyond the 280 characters on Twitter. By this principle of reciprocity, then, I mean that I am willing to incorporate digital media to my classroom as long as students are willing to read and write at the demanding level that higher education and academic life requires.
I understand that my position is totally conditioned by the fact that I don’t teach English language but English Literature, and I certainly see the point of adapting language teaching in primary and secondary school to other types of students than mine. The main point of the symposium, in a way, was to establish that learning English from print books, as it has been done so far is limiting –and here I mean both books written specifically to teach English but also fiction in English. I have no doubt whatsoever that the kind of exercise consisting of writing imaginary letters of complaint to a travel agency (which my 16-year-old niece showed me recently) has little reason to be in the current EFL classroom in comparison to producing a few minutes of narrated video to post on YouTube. Yet, perhaps a main problem is that attractive reading and writing has never been well integrated in English teaching, and little has been made of what students are actually reading. My colleagues and I have been told that in some secondary schools Literature has been introduced in English classes in which students have an advanced command of English, but I have little idea (rather, none) of how that is being done. If it were up to me, I would have secondary school students produce booktubing videos in English, based on short fiction, or novels. Even long sagas, for, let’s recall that YA fiction is usually published in trilogies or series, and consumed precisely by young readers sitting in high school classrooms.
Although I am explaining myself here very poorly, what I am trying to say is that what most worries me about the use of born-digital texts in the classroom inspired by social media, platforms like YouTube, gaming and so on is the lowering of educational standards. In my case, the e-books I have been producing with my students actually make higher demands on them since in my kind of project-oriented learning their written exercises are not simple classroom exercises but writing that needs to be ready for publication. As the participants in the symposium argued, there is indeed a barrier between the classroom and the outside online world in the sense that teachers and students are encouraged to integrate all digital media in learning but not to produce texts for it. One of the participants noted with undisguised bitterness that her university would not allow her to upload born-digital texts produced by her students, invoking matters of privacy and of authorship. Another noted that, indeed, authorship could be a problem but in my own university this has been solved by having students sign their permission to have their work uploaded onto our digital repository. With this I mean that there seems to be an important contradiction between having students bring to the classroom strategies of digital production and communication that they use in their private lives only to tell them that what happens in the classroom stays in the classroom. I find this very limiting. My approach has been, instead, that if we are to invite students to produce born-digital texts, then there must be a place for these to be visible; otherwise, the skills learned appear to be just part of assessment instead of part of an actual experience in communication at the level of actual real life.
In this sense, an interesting matter is how limited the production of videos for YouTube is in higher education (at least as far as my experience goes). I recently wrote an essay on Pat Frank’s SF novel Alas, Babylon (1959) and I came across many videos produced by American high school children commenting on it, as this novel is apparently a set text in many schools. Good for them! In contrast, YouTube does not seem to attract much attention in higher education. I have tried several times to convince my colleagues to start a YouTube channel but nobody has the know-how, my university does not provide training and, since it is not a priority, I keep delaying the project. I naively assumed that all institutions of higher education had advanced YouTube channels but I must say that the panorama is quite pitiful. I’m sure that many university teachers keep their own channels but I see no systematic effort on the side of the universities to turn YouTube into a far more effective educational tool. By this I do not simply mean as a platform for teachers to deliver lectures and upload teaching materials but as a platform for students to contribute to generally available online knowledge, in a foreign language or in their own. I have not given up on the idea of opening a channel for my Department and I certainly have many ideas for it, but I just don’t know enough about this medium, my younger colleagues are too busy having three jobs at the same time to help me, and we couldn’t find among our 400 students any with experience as a booktuber, LifePlay gamer or similar. So much for digital natives!!! Again, my ambitions for the future YouTube channel is not that it might make learning easier or more fun, quite the opposite: I’d like to have students learn skills that can be applied to improving standards. Excuse me but it seems to me that fine as current booktubing is to circulate opinion and encourage reading, it is missing quality academic criticism and I fail to understand why this is not being provided by universities. If you follow me, then, I would not have students imitate anyone but do a new job, which is right now vacant. Too ambitious, I know, but someone should do it.
This leads me to another concern that was voiced in the symposium: who should be responsible for the teachers’ training in digital media? My impression is that all the participants were making an effort to apply their own knowledge to their teaching but that this knowledge had been acquired independently from their institutions. This always happens: the institution of learning, whether this is a primary school or a university, suddenly decides to introduce a new tool, but it is always up to the teachers to train themselves in it. This has recently happened with Teams in my university, chosen overnight to be our main platform for online teaching, but possibly starts with e-mail back in the 1990s. The problem is, then, not only that we should be making the most of digital platforms that in many cases we just don’t know how to use (see my comments on YouTube) but also that these platforms’ popularity changes enormously in time. Using Facebook as a teaching resource may have seemed a good idea just a few years ago, but it is now hopelessly old-fashioned. And by the time a teacher learns to use Tik-Tok, this will have been replaced by some other platform not even born today. From this perspective old-fashioned, non-digital materials appear to have a certain advantage.
Finally, I’ll mention another matter that worries me: using born-digital texts can be time-consuming and not at all ‘cost-effective’. My MA students have been producing narrated PowerPoints for our virtual classroom, and one of them decided to produce instead a video. It took him 15 hours to produce a 15-minute video. His efforts and the results were generally admired, but not more than some of the PowerPoints, which means that he invested in his born-digital text too much. There must be, then, a balance between the time invested and the learning results. Producing, for instance, videos for YouTube only makes sense as a tool to teach/learn language if the skills needed for that have been already acquired or take limited time to be acquired. And the other way round: the more proficient a teacher is in the process of producing born-digital texts with students, the lighter the task of producing them is (as I know from my already longish experience of editing e-books).
So, in short: the foreign-language classroom can be and should be at some levels a place for the production of born-digital texts but this process should contribute to enhancing the educational experience (not to trivializing it). It also needs to strike a balance between the time invested in mastering the digital skills and the time devoted to learning the language, which in the end is the main target. I would also insist that the activities need to be carried out in a spirit of reciprocity, with teachers learning from students’ experiences in the digital media and students’ willing to learn from teachers indispensable skills in reading and writing substantial texts.
Thanks Saskia and Christian for the great symposium!

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

ANOTHER DISPATCH FROM THE FRONT LINES: TEACHING IN THE TIMES OF COVID-19 (2)

I’ve been teaching from home for the last three and a half weeks after teaching face-to-face for about four and a half weeks and this seems a good moment to send a second dispatch from the front lines. We have been told to stay home until the end of November, three more weeks then, and with the current very high figures for contagions and deaths by Covid-19 in Catalonia it seems unlikely that we may return to face-to-face teaching this semester. Particularly if, as it seems, a total lockdown might happen next week and because there is a general assumption that we all need to make some sacrifices if Christmas is to be enjoyed with family and friends. Of course, implicit in this is the risk that if we manage to reach Christmas within more or less acceptable levels of contagion, the celebrations may bring yet another new wave. It’s a roller-coaster.

So, how are things working? I believe this is a matter of the half-empty, half-full glass or bottle. If you consider that all educational activity could have been stopped at all levels, then we’re not doing so poorly, since all universities in Spain are open and working mostly online. If you compare the current situation to how we used to work before the onset of the Covid-19 plague, then there is a general impression of tiredness and a more or less open acknowledgement that online teaching is not replacing adequately face-to-face teaching. This past week, for instance, our degree Coordinator had to send a reminder to our undergraduate students, indicating that their cameras should be on during lectures. Many, it turns out, simply don’t connect to their Teams classroom or keep their cameras off, which means a distressing lack of feedback for teachers. I don’t know what students have replied to this message but I hope their engagement improves.

I do agree that face-to-face teaching must occupy an important place in higher education but it is my impression that now, when we cannot meet together in the classroom, we are generating a false impression of what actually happens in that situation. To begin with, attendance is not regular. I usually ask students to sign up because I award a grade for class participation and I need to keep track of who is actually there. Students misunderstand my reasons and assume that attendance is compulsory (it is not) and, so, some come to my lectures simply to sign up. The result last year was that a had a small group who spent each whole session discussing whatever they saw in their laptops screens, which had nothing to do with what I was teaching. I have, therefore, stopped checking attendance for I certainly do not need that kind of distraction in class. Better stay away than be in the classroom but mentally elsewhere.

The other matter is participation. As we all know, some students will interact with the teachers every single session while others are perfectly capable of not expressing a single opinion or idea in the whole semester. This is why most of us regularly implement some kind of compulsory classroom activity, otherwise we would have no grades for class participation. What I must say of the students who would never participate in class without this type of grade is that some are shy but have thoughts to share while some simply are there to obtain the credits, particularly in the compulsory courses, doing as little as they can manage. Let’s be honest, for once. This is the equivalent of keeping the camera off, then: not attending classes or being there with no intention to participate. It is simply not true that in face-to-face teaching we have totally participative students constantly providing feedback and interacting with us. There is, therefore, little sense in expecting 100% interest in the far more boring (excuse me) online teaching.

A major problem of synchronous online teaching, that is to say, in streaming sessions, whether they are lectures or seminars, is that technology does not allow teachers to look at students in the eye. In order to produce that illusion we teachers need to look at the camera but, logically, if you look at the camera you cannot simultaneously see the eyes of the person you’re addressing. I find this unnerving. In face-to-face teaching you engage students’ attention by looking into their eyes (fortunately even facemasks allow us to do that) and, depending on what you see there, you see that you’re doing well, or boring people to death. In online teaching, you don’t have that kind of contact, not even with the camera on. It is quite possible that this is the reason why so many students switch off their cameras, apart from their preference for being in their pyjamas or the need to conceal untidy rooms. There should be, logically, an etiquette and everyone should be online as formally dressed and positioned as we are in the classroom. But I insist that the lack of direct eye contact is a key factor in how tired we all are of online teaching. I don’t doubt that some colleagues know very well how to use streaming to their advantage but there is an evident discomfort in the practice, necessary as it may be now.

On the whole, however, the rush to move from face-to-face teaching to online teaching practically from one day to the next is preventing us from discussing what we do in the classroom and why it should have an equivalent as close as possible online. There are major questions that haven’t been asked for a long time, such as what is the purpose of interacting with students, why it is adequate to do that a particular number of hours a week, and what is the place of teacher-centred activities in higher education. The last time these questions were asked was during the process to sign the Dublin agreements that resulted in the new degrees launched around 2008-9, but I believe that the answers obtained were erratic to say the least and ineffective. We were told that we should teach skills rather than content and that assessment should be continuous rather than based on final exams. However, many university teachers still teach by offering lectures without students’ intervention and assess by means of final exams, disguised as part of continuous assessment. There is, in my view, an exaggerated reliance on the exam as an adequate tool of assessment, particularly now when, as we are learning, exams are open to all kinds of cheating in an online environment.

The point I’m trying to make, in short, is that teaching remains mostly static despite the changes introduced by the new degrees and will remain mostly static despite the Covid-19 crisis. We are not reinventing teaching but using digital classrooms to do what we did face-to-face, which was mostly what has been done since the Middle Ages: transmit information and then use exams to check that students have acquired it. I know that I am exaggerating but I hope you can see my point.

Proof of this inertia is that the online universities specializing in distance learning are not now the authorities they should be. Each face-to-face university has chosen the software better suited to its needs but none has asked these other universities what they do. I assume that this is because everyone believes that the situation is temporary and sooner or later we will all return to the classrooms. Yet, if you think about it, with only 50 hours out of 150 hours in each 6ECTS course happening there, this means that two thirds of all university teaching are already distance teaching, that is to say, activities happening elsewhere. One place where they happen is the Virtual Campus (whatever this is called in your universities), which I suspect is mostly used as a noticeboard and not used at all by the older staff (as many desperate Deans are now discovering). If we had been making a better use of the asynchronous possibilities of Virtual Campus, then the transition to online teaching would not have been so uncomfortable. Actually, part of the discomfort also has to do with the fact that, at least as happens in my university, we use two different platforms: Teams for online synchronous teaching and Moodle for asynchronous Virtual Campus interaction. I don’t know whether this is because Moodle lacks the feature to offer streaming or because Teams is integrated in Outlook, which we use for webmail, but having two platforms does not help at all.

What happens in distance learning and we are failing to understand, is that asynchronous teaching has much more weight. In my own experience of sixteen years at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya all teaching was asynchronous, which means that students used the resources as they wanted, not within a rigid schedule. During my time at UOC I was never asked to produce narrated PowerPoints, or podcasts, or video and, as far as I’m concerned, I never missed them there. My students learned mainly by reading the materials and the books, and by interacting with me through their exercises, which included forums. I know that some might believe that their learning must have been limited but that was not the case. I asked a friend at UNED how things work there and he told me that tutors, that is to say, the teachers that solve doubts, provide feedback and occasional lectures, work both synchronously and asynchronously. The teachers’ working hours are not counted on the base of the time spent in direct contact with students but on the basis of how many are enrolled in class and other factors which are not connected with synchronous teaching. This is, of course, very different from traditional universities in which (at least at UAB) our workload is counted on the basis of classroom teaching and the number of students in the group.

I would, in short, recommend using other strategies than just streaming sessions to interact with students. I find forums a great tool for they can remain open beyond the time limits of the classroom and engage all students, including the shy ones, in conversation. Thus, for instance, my MA students (13 in total) were doing between two and four 10-minute oral presentations in each session followed by debate and complemented by my own introductions (20’-30’). In practice this meant that their presentations were rushed, students lacked the time to react and prepare questions, and my own interaction with them was limited. What we do now is use the same schedule to watch their presentations (narrated PowerPoints) and start interacting in the corresponding forum. The forum remains open for one week and in this way they have more time to send contributions, see my PowerPoint notes, etc. In practice they spend (and I spend) more than our three hours a week interacting but, well, the conversation is far richer. I think that if we go back to the classroom we’ll adapt poorly to the time constrains and I’ll use anyway the forums.

It’s not a matter of always doing the same, then, but of alternating diverse activities. Teach online using streaming if you want, but don’t forget forum activities that can be done together, or narrated PowerPoints, or podcasts, or whatever imagination dictates. I wish we were exploring right now new ways of working in virtual environments instead of using the same old way of teaching but online, so that when the Covid-19 pandemic is over our return to the classroom offers richer possibilities than ever.

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

DISPATCHES FROM THE FRONT LINES: TEACHING IN THE TIMES OF COVID-19

My good friend Brian Baker (@SciFiBaker) tweeted yesterday: “Hands up who’s tried, through classroom technology failures and ‘dual mode delivery’, to teach online students down your phone at the same time as trying to organise discussion with other students in the classroom? Next time I’ll take a unicycle with me as well”. And do handstands… Fortunately for me, my school is too poor to have installed cameras in the classrooms and I have been spared the pleasures of ‘dual mode delivery’. I know, however, of colleagues here and in other universities who are using their personal laptops or cell phones and have equipped themselves with mikes to teach in this way. Without technology to stream my classes, which I do not want anyway, I have chosen to improvise what to do online with the fifty percent of my class that cannot attend face-to-face teaching on alternate Thursdays. So far I have used narrated PowerPoints and asked them to read my own academic articles; I am now about to record a series of podcasts and go on thinking of other resources.

Complaining about the new teaching conditions caused by the Covid-19 crisis may sound unprofessional but I think it would be simply counterproductive to pretend that teaching goes on as usual with no glitches. That is not the case at all. From what I see in my own school one important matter is that, as I have already commented on here, there is a poor understanding of what online teaching means in one particular regard: the obsession with synchronous teaching. One of my colleagues has permission to teach online for justified health reasons and what he did was to record a couple of lectures for the first week of his course which he uploaded onto his Virtual Campus classroom. The school authorities upbraided him because, according to them, he needs to respect the schedule whether he teaches face-to-face or online. Since the school has not booked a classroom for his students, and most of them are in the building attending lectures, this means that they must follow his synchronous online teaching wherever they can. With all classrooms now fully occupied since the arrival of our new 1150 first-year students and no alternative spaces available anywhere (except for just a handful of students) this means that whole classes taught online synchronously are having a very hard time trying to follow lectures. Some, we have been told by the students’ delegates, are doing so in their cars. I may see the need for synchronous online teaching when student participation is essential but when it is not this is an added difficulty that helps no one.

Another matter is how actual classroom teaching is being implemented. I don’t really know where to begin… Right, I’ll begin with the windows. We have been asked to ventilate the classroom ten minutes between sessions, which is not working well at all because students have no place to wait in the meantime. The main hall is spacious but soon crowded, and so are the corridors (I haven’t been to the cafeteria yet…). The result? Students get in the classrooms as soon as the previous group vacates them. I don’t know what the other teachers are doing but I’m not very good myself at waiting. With one thing and the other I’m wasting a lot of precious time. Also, I’m so nervous about the whole situation that I think I have only signed up for attendance twice out of eight teaching days. We have been asked to keep the windows open for the duration of the lectures, which can still be done since this is a mild October month (and this is Spain, not Sweden…) but this has already caused students in early morning classes to complain that they are cold. In one of my classrooms the draught caused by keeping windows and door open is so strong that my notes started flying off the table. I am closing the door now but with some misgivings as the space is rather small.

Students, by the way, do not appreciate at all being taught in large groups of 50 or 100 with just one metre distance between them, they simply do not feel safe. I have already mentioned the crowded corridors, which our students are indignantly reporting on a daily basis on their social media. Add to this that some spaces occupied to accommodate teaching are not really suitable to be used regularly. My bigger classroom is, as happens, the ‘Sala de Grados’, that is to say the formally furnished classroom where doctoral students present their dissertations and teachers are examined for tenure (this brings some memories…). This means that this room has very comfy seats but no tables for students to take notes. I won’t even mention the ugly artwork that distracts me so much, above all the ghostly image of man possibly supposed to be an alien staring at me from the back wall. Ugh!

Then there’s the problem of the facemasks. We, UAB teachers, were allowed for the first three weeks to teach with no masks on but this period of leniency is over and now we all have to wear them. This is a decision which makes perfect sense on health grounds but that is disastrous for teaching. Our colleagues in the Speech Therapy section of the School of Psychology had sent us a cheerful report in early September (https://www.uab.cat/doc/mascaretesdoc) basically arguing that the facemasks are no hindrance for good teaching, as they are no obstacle to project our voices and be adequately heard. They reminded us of the need to keep our vocal chords hydrated and not to strain them by trying to speak in a louder voice. This is the reason, let me tell you, why primary and secondary school teachers who need to speak to their classes for many hours every day have in many cases temporarily lost their voices. So, sorry but the facemasks do have an obvious negative effect: not only are they a nuisance, it does really feel as if you cannot be heard well, regardless what the scientific evidence proves about oxygen intake and sound projection. The physical effects, on the other hand, are not imaginary at all: mouth dryness increases palpably and the discomfort is noticeable (and the smell, right?); the masks were made for protection in medical environments not to cover the mouths of people speaking to large audiences, much less in big spaces for, say, three or four hours.

The facemasks have a far worse poisonous effect on teaching: they prevent teacher-student communication. My cheerful colleagues in Speech Therapy note that facemasks “diminish non-verbal communication and, therefore, bidirectionally, certain feedback from students. This needs to be considered and adapt teacher’s attention to communicative aspects such as the reception of the habitual and necessary feedback”. In my own teaching practice these four weeks, what this means is that I can speak (with some difficulties) with my 13 masters’ degree students in our smallish classroom (about 40m2) but there is no way I can communicate with my 45 students in my bigger classroom (roughly 120m2). I have tried but their words come out absolutely muffled (most of them use cloth facemasks, not surgical ones) and I simply don’t understand them. The students in the MA class are physically closer to me and I can more or less follow them, but I have also noticed that the cloth masks need to be held with the fingers, otherwise they tend to slip off. Needless to say, students wear washable cloth masks because they are cheaper than surgical masks that must be replaced every four hours. All this means that those who claim that facemasks are no obstacle to teaching are thinking of lectures in which only the teacher speaks and the students make notes in silence. With the facemasks on any kind of interaction is next to impossible, except in smaller spaces where seminar-style teaching may happen. In a couple of weeks I need my students in the bigger group to do class presentations and I really don’t see how this is going to work. And, please, do not misunderstand me: I’m not arguing here that we should take our masks off at all, I’m saying that they are a major obstacle in a higher education face-to-face context.

The other toxic effect of facemasks is the anonymity they bring to teaching. With my facemask on, I feel like a robot. I try to give my voice all the expression I usually communicate facially (I teach Literature, remember?) but this is very limited. My students cannot see me smile (a piece in The Conversation actually claimed that we are smiling less because it is no use…) or in any way make the many funny faces I use when reading from the literary texts we analyse, and just as part of my teaching style… I miss that very much! Besides, what I see in front of me is a totally anonymous audience of persons I might never recognize without their masks on. In the case of my MA class I have already taken a look at their photos with no masks on for even though I have already learned their names I don’t know what they look like. In the case of my Victorian Literature class, I’m waiting to receive the first exercises to do the same and start connecting names to… eyes, which is the part of their faces I must focus on. I must say that these students are very kind to me, showing as expressively as they can with their eyes that they are following my teaching, for which I thank them.

I’ll grant, then, that my teaching this semester could be certainly improved but my feeling is that I have lost control over my habitual teaching strategies. I hate lecturing with no dialogue and I feel that this is what I am forced to accept doing. Since we have ‘survived’ four weeks in this way and it seems that we might continue face-to-face the rest of the semester the question that arises is whether this is not, after all, what the Government has called the ‘new normality’. Aren’t we generally doing well and carrying on business as usual? I think that it is business as usual for the traditional lecturer used to transmitting information without expecting students’ feedback. For those of us in the Literature classroom that understand teaching as working with the students on textual analysis in constant interaction this is working very poorly. I have insisted and I insist that I would be far more comfortable and effective working asynchronously (and occasionally synchronously) online and properly interacting with my students via forums, etc.

A colleague told me today that, most likely, the university authorities all over the world that decreed the implementation of hybrid teaching did not expect this situation to last. By now, we should be all working from home again. It is fortunate, of course, that we are healthy enough to move about and be at our universities at all but a) we are certainly assuming a risk by travelling to our centres and staying there in crowded spaces; b) the current practices are going to diminish the quality of our teaching in most if not all cases. I am well aware that I am in the minority and that most teachers prefer face-to-face teaching but I still demand my own right to go online (and I mean in a flexible asynchronous way). I do want to guarantee the quality of my teaching and I cannot do that in my current working conditions. I simply fail to understand what the compulsory face-to-face teaching is proving, considering that we are in the middle of a dangerous pandemic, and why all the issues I have raised have so little weight. In any case, I will certainly try to do my best, be as professional as I usually am.

PS Guess what? Face-to-face teaching has been suspended by the regional health authorities for two weeks…

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