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 http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://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 http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://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 http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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

I should be celebrating in today’s post, the first one in the academic year 2020-2021, that this blog is now ten years old. Instead of happiness, however, the feeling that necessarily affects my writing now and that makes my nights so restless is fear. 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. This is not at all the spirit in which a teacher should start a new year and I’m writing today to leave a record of that fear, hoping that by next semester I can read this post and laugh at my concerns. Right now I feel no joy. I do look forward to teaching Literature again but not at the cost of my health, which is very much at risk, and my peace of mind, which I have lost.

Like all my colleagues in Spain, I have been working from home since 14 March. I taught about four weeks in the classroom before lockdown forced me to go online, with no major problem as I already knew this crisis was coming (the news in The Guardian about the plague in China had been scaring me already for at least one month). My experience of teaching online using an asynchronous model, combining forums and weekly activities, and without using streaming, worked very well to the point that I awarded the highest marks since the implementation of the new BA degrees ten years ago. I even published a very handsome e-book on American in documentary film with my students (see ). In view of this, I have been defending, to no avail, each teacher’s right to choose whether to continue online or return to class. Like the rest of us who prefer staying online I find myself, however, forced to return to the classroom against my better judgement and forced to assume a serious risk to my health. Ironically, many teachers in my Department who could have plead their age (past 60) or their poor health and stay home have chosen to teach in person, which totally baffles me.

I have been imagining what the first day will be like and I see myself first on a very crowded train, which no minimal social distance at all. I work at a campus university and it takes me about 30 minutes to get there. It is just impossible to run more trains and thus make more room for passengers; in fact, the railway management had already acknowledged last year that trains are running at more than 100% their capacity and this is not going to change because of Covid-19. Next, I see myself reaching the also overcrowded building of my school, which will not really be emptier despite the measures taken by the Dean’s office.

In my own case, I have been given a larger classroom to accommodate my 45 students in Victorian Literature on Tuesdays, but with no guarantee of the necessary 1’5m social distancing required. I have been asked to split my class in two groups, in rigorous alphabetical order to keep track of eventual contagions, and see them on alternate Thursdays, ideally streaming my lessons for those who cannot be in the classroom (but who will possibly be in the school corridors waiting to attend another course taught in similar ways). I am totally against the idea of streaming my lessons and having people I cannot see watch me teach and, so, I have decided to have my students share each other’s class notes and my own notes. This morning I have been working on a calendar to guarantee that everyone will get sufficient hours for the needs of the course and, basically, I need to teach more compact lessons, with less time for student participation. That might work if I focus more intensely on the assessment requirements and cut any extras that might enrich the students’ learning about the Victorian Age.

In my visions of Tuesday next week, I enter next my classroom wearing a facemask and I see 45 equally masked students. I see no point in checking their names for I will never be able to recognize them. I must carry, or will be provided with (that is not clear), disinfectant to clean the table and be able to leave my notes on it, and the computer to use my USB. The windows need to be open for fifteen minutes between sessions but I intend to keep them open all the time. I don’t know yet whether I am supposed to shorten my lessons by fifteen minutes at the beginning, I don’t know who to ask. It’s now September and still beautifully warm (the air conditioning might even be on for the virus to circulate…) and I don’t know what will happen on colder days in November but the windows will stay open. I will buy and carry my own blackboard eraser and chalk, as we’ve been told that they cannot be shared. I don’t trust that the eraser will be properly disinfected, as we have been told it will be.

We have been told that we can teach without the facemask on provided we are two metres away from the students and even though facemasks are now compulsory in all private and public spaces. I have been using so far surgical masks of the basic type but my pharmacist tells me I should wear KN-95 respirators on the train, which possibly means I should also wear them in class. There is no way, however, I can properly breath and project my voice with a facemask of any type on and this has me very, very worried. The masks were never designed to be worn for so many hours and much less to teach in big classrooms, so I have no idea right now about what I should do. I don’t know either how one communicates with masked students whose expressions I cannot read at all.

So, supposing I manage to teach for seventy-five minutes without suffocating and feeling cut off from the masked persons before me next comes the nightmarish time to leave the classroom and join the hundreds of persons abandoning the other classrooms in the same corridor. The authorities have limited gatherings to ten persons but all the universities will have gatherings in many classrooms of fifty and more. There is, besides, absolutely no way the occupation of the corridors, the bathrooms, or the cafeteria can be limited to safe numbers (no problem in the library, though, the least crowded space always). I have been given the choice to be available for tutorials either online or in person, by the way. I chose to be available online any day of the week at my students’ convenience but I was told that, according to the Dean’s office, I must be in my office for online tutorials. Luckily for me, I have a big office and I have chosen to meet my students there at a safe two metres distance, with open windows and disinfecting the chairs they may use. I hope this relative proximity gives a human touch to any possible meeting, though I’ll try to solve problems by e-mail if possible.

No doubt staying home all this time and carefully managing my meeting friends and family may have turned me into a bit of a misanthrope. Perhaps that’s not the right word but I don’t know if the Covid-19 crisis has already given us a word for the fear of personal contact. I have never liked crowds but that is very different from feeling that my 45 students are a danger to me, and I to them. To be honest, I fear that they are a much bigger danger to me than I am to them because they are part of the demographic now responsible for the largest number of contagions. I’m sorry to say that the young have been breaking the safety rules implemented by the authorities more than other age groups and, with no previous testing, we teachers simply cannot know how to assess the danger in our classrooms. One of my colleagues also made the point that by forcing students to attend lessons we are committing a sort of moral fault, for they are indeed also risking their health. Covid-19 has killed many more older people but the young have also been affected, sometimes cruelly. Nobody is safe as we all know by now, so why insist on making classes presential?

After introducing myself on the first day, I will write on the blackboard the word ‘candid’ and will invite my students to have a candid conversation about why we need to risk our life by meeting in a classroom in the middle of a truly scary plague. I know that, right now, this means assuming a totally unnecessary risk but I want to hear from them what they expect from me and why, all of a sudden, attending classes has become such a big issue. Every year students cut classes, and nobody checks on them, or miss them because they are ill and nobody tells the teachers that we have to make up for these absences by teaching online. Absurdity and self-denial rule our return to class. Some of my colleagues are telling me that we’ll start next week and will close down the week after for there is no way Covid-19 can be controlled in a university environment. That might be a correct assessment of the situation but even just one day of teaching is a risk we cannot assume. I find that primary and secondary schools are a different matter, for kids stay in the same classroom and don’t move about all over the place. In universities, masses of teachers and students circulate from classroom to classroom, which will also increase the circulation of the virus. I think of the cafeteria and I shiver…

I am not saying, then, that universities should abandon presential teaching for online teaching for good but I am saying that we live in exceptional times and that there is absolutely no need to return to the classrooms. We have been receiving these days cheerful messages from the Rector’s and the Dean’s office and though I know they have been sent with the best intention they have done nothing to appease my fears, quite the opposite. I have kept so far my concentration and carried on with my academic work at home but I tried to prepare my first session for next week today and I simply couldn’t focus. I have serious difficulties to believe that what I teach is so relevant to myself and my students as to want to risk my health, much more so when I could perfectly fulfil my teaching duties online. I know that some might think I am a coward, or exaggerating the risks, but there are two kinds of negationists right now: those who claim that Covid-19 does not even exist and those who claim that the return to class is safe. It is not.

Good luck to all of you, keep safe. If you can.

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

THINKING OF NEXT ACADEMIC YEAR UNDER THE SHADOW OF COVID-19: A TIME TO RECONSIDER WHAT WE DO AS TEACHERS

Like most of my colleagues in Spain, I will not finish teaching until mid-July, when the marks for the MA dissertations will be introduced. Yet, now that I’m done ‘teaching’, that is to say, interacting with my undergrad students before assessment, might be a good moment to stop and consider how Covid-19 has changed some pedagogical matters but will most likely fail to change others. I have spelled ‘teaching’ between quotation marks because since 12 March, when I taught my last two presential sessions, I have been teaching online—again, like the rest of my colleagues in Spain. This does not mean that we have all being approaching online teaching from the same angle, though I lack sufficient information to know what my colleagues have been doing so far. From what I hear, my impression is that, given the lack of general guidelines, they have improvised and have mostly tried to transfer their habitual activities onto our Moodle classrooms. A common complaint by students is that they have been overloaded with extra work to compensate for the missing lectures; this has been gradually corrected but it is for me a sign that the approach taken might not be the best one.

I was an associate teacher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, a pioneering online university, between 1998 and 2014. I used to teach there an elective subject called ‘Introduction to English Literature’ for the BA in the Humanities. I was part of the team that had written the handbook and I myself set the course in motion under the supervision of Pauline Ernest. I combined, then, online and presential teaching for sixteen years and I only gave up because in the last semester at UOC I had 70 students in my hands. Multiply this by six exercises each and you will see that I just couldn’t cope with UOC and UAB at the same time. The current teacher tells me that the subject is going to be discontinued after twenty-two years, which is a pity.

I joined UOC when I was an untenured teacher, seeking to enhance my possibilities of getting tenure. The money was also an enticement, of course. When I became tenured, in 2002, I found out to my surprise that my new contract was compatible with UOC, so I continued teaching online. My motivation was at this point pedagogical: the UOC students were mostly very well read, highly autonomous mature students and interacting with them was a pleasure. In all my sixteen years, I only failed one student; the rest who did not pass the subject just quit, though most passed the second time around.

I learned plenty at UOC in terms of planning tasks for continuous assessment, giving constructive feedback, encouraging students who were less autonomous. I never used exams—only a variety of written exercises, including forums—and I never missed them. I don’t know how other UOC teachers managed, though. And, although this might sound surprising, I never used video. My students were not taking a degree in English Studies but in the Humanities and although their command of written English was good (in some cases much above that of my UAB students), none of my three UOC supervisors (or coordinators) thought that video was a necessary part of the subject. I agreed.

I had been reading worrying news about Wuhan in the British press for weeks before quarantine started in Spain, so I was ready to go online at any moment with my two BA courses: ‘English Romantic Literature’ (second year, 58 students) and ‘Cultural Studies’ (third-fourth year, 42 students). For this, I have mostly followed the UOC model. In fact I have been following that model for years, in the sense that I avoid exams and I think of my courses as a chance to teach a set of skills though a set of tasks, and not just to teach content. So, what we were doing in class in February is not in the end very different from what we ended up doing after 14 March: I transferred what was supposed to be presential to our Moodle classroom mainly through the use of forums—I use plenty of students’ oral presentations in class, so that was not really a problem. In the case of ‘Cultural Studies’ the students have interacted online infinitely far more than they were interacting in our physical classroom. In the case of ‘English Romanticism’ their interactions have been available for much longer than they would have been in the classroom.

I have not, however, used my teaching time in the same way I was using it in February. To begin with, I believe that online teaching needn’t be synchronous. That is to say: I see no need to keep the rigid schedule of classroom teaching, much less to reproduce online the same twice-weekly ninety-minute sessions we were teaching. With 58 students in one class and 42 in the other, I have seen, besides, little use in online Teams meetings; to the matter of numbers I need to add that for me teaching works by looking at people in the eyes, which cannot be done online. The few Teams meetings I’ve had with colleagues have been quite awkward in terms of visual quality and the personal awareness needed to interact well. For that, the classroom is much, much better.

I know that some of my colleagues have used Teams regularly or have recorded themselves and uploaded podcasts and video, which is fine. I am just saying that I have used other strategies. For instance, in ‘English Romanticism’ I have been teaching students to write papers, and so, for one of our books (Frankenstein) I wrote a paper for them instead of lecturing. The same applies to ‘Cultural Studies’: in this subject I have provided sample written exercises and guidance about how to do presentations. Students have in fact taught each other much, and I have used my teaching time to give detailed, personal feedback. I have certainly missed classroom interaction and I do look forward to meeting face-to-face again. But, let me be completely honest, I have not missed at all the students who were projecting onto me a relentless sense of boredom in my English Romanticism lectures, possibly because that is a compulsory course. That is one of the great advantages of teaching online: students’ eating and drinking in class, using cellphones, chatting need not bother me.

Our schedule for next year is ready but, even though the end of quarantine approaches (21 June), it seems likely that the preventive measures against Covid-19 will be enforced for a much longer time, at least until December. I am personally scandalised by the imprudence that Spaniards are displaying now, after a death toll of possibly near 40,000 persons (not the official 28,000 count) and in the absence of a vaccine. This summer we’ll see the actual danger that the virus poses once foreign visitors return and general national mobility goes back to normal (or pseudo-normal). It might well be that Covid-19, in the best case scenario, is under control by early September and that we can resume teaching as we have done so far. Even so, it would still be a great moment to consider how we teach.

I am logically speaking as a Literature teacher, and I understand that matters can be very different in other disciplines, beginning with the Language section of my Department. A six ECTS course, allow me to remind you, amounts to 150 hours of work, of which 30%-40% (45 to 60) should be of classroom interaction, leaving only 100 for reading, and assessment activities. In my school we used to teach 45 hours in 15 weeks (so, 3 hours a week), but this has gone up to 50 hours in 17 weeks. Here is for me, a first problem: Literature students have too little time to read, and too much is taken by listening to us, teachers, discuss books they haven’t had the time to read. Add to this that to reach UAB, or many other campus universities, students and teachers often have to employ at least 2 hours every day (and think of the carbon footprint this means—you just need to see the parking lot any day). Our buildings are woefully overcrowded with students who spend on average fifteen to twenty hours a week in classrooms, mostly passively listening (if they listen at all!). The furniture in our classrooms consists mostly of benches facing towards the teacher’s platform, which are not only very uncomfortable but also impossible to move and guarantee a better use of the classroom space for group work (and now that Covid-19 is making personal distance necessary). To sum up: the way we teach takes too much reading/studying time, the classrooms are obsolete as teaching spaces, and we contaminate too much.

Next, what do we do in our biweekly ninety-minute lectures? We are supposed not to use ‘lecciones magistrales’ (lectures) but I should think that this is still a very typical model. The question we are not asking is whether this is the best possible model. Ninety minutes is an amount of time that goes totally against all studies in the attention span of average human beings. In conferences we offer twenty-minute papers and each ninety-minute session has three papers followed by discussion. Why do we assume, then, that our students benefit from ninety-minute sessions? And do they? Shouldn’t we start thinking of alternatives? Perhaps forty-five minute sessions? Perhaps one presential and one online session a week? Of course, the problem with this is that our task as teachers is measured by how long we spend lecturing. Try to explain to the authorities that monitor us that teaching is not only face-to-face interaction but mainly guidance. It used to be about passing on information but this is the 21st century, not the Middle Ages, and information is accessible in many other ways than it used to be. The rule should be simple: the classroom should only be used for what cannot be done elsewhere.

Sixty per cent of students’ work already happens elsewhere, in the library or at home. It is ‘virtual’, in the sense that it does not happen in the classroom. The thirty per cent that does happen in the classroom is now a problem because of how Covid-19 has attacked our capacity to be together in the same indoors space in big groups and for a long time. I believe, though, that with or without Covid-19, we still need to think why we need to crowd so many people in classrooms and what for. In primary schools they have 25 children in each classroom, though in really advanced countries like Finland this is down to 15. In universities, however, we think that it makes sense to have 100 students sitting huddled together—it doesn’t make sense now, but it has never made sense at all. Past 25 students classroom interaction simply does not happen, you just see a mass of faces looking at you, as you desperately try to remember their names. In big groups, it really makes no difference whether you’re there in the flesh or on YouTube.

Our target, then, should be making new sense of university teaching in a world that, as Covid-19 is forcing us to see, already needed a profound reform.

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

WRITING A PHD DISSERTATION: AN EXERCISE IN RESILIENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEACHING THE CONTEMPORARY: CHALLENGES AND METHODS

This post is inspired by two presentations offered yesterday during the sixth TELLC (Teaching English Language, Literature, and Culture) Department workshop, a series of meetings which I have been organizing since 2014 (see the Sharing Teaching Experiences notebooks at http://ddd.uab.cat/record/132688). My colleagues Felicity Hand and Andrew Monnickendam dealt with the issue of how we are supposed to teach contemporary culture and Literature from extremely different but complementary perspectives and here is my chance to comment on both.

Felicity’s presentation was focused on the most recent edition of the third/fourth year elective course ‘Postcolonial Studies’. She shared with us her worry that, to begin with, it is hardly possible to offer undergrad students any meaningful introduction to a completely new field based on a selection of just three or four volumes. Since, however, students do not seem willing to read more, what other methods can we choose to expose them to a much wider-ranging experience of the subject taught? She had opted for class presentations (in groups of two) on any aspect of the postcolonial world but this had led to a bit of chaos since many students had failed to check with her in advance the suitability of their topic (as they were supposed to do) and their understanding of the concept ‘postcolonial’ did not totally overlap with that of their teacher. Besides, although they were supposed to speak about today’s world, some referred to past issues or events.

I teach contemporary fiction and film, and share with Felicity the preoccupation with how to select any relevant texts in the midst of so much abundance. When I teach Victorian fiction, I do not feel the same anxiety because there is a far more limited list of works which students are supposed to know about (and can read with their still limited command of English). But when dealing with living authors it is truly hard to decide who to include, much more so when the choice is limited to a maximum of five and can be down to three at most. An obvious solution is abandoning classroom close reading for traditional lecturing, and taking it for granted that students will read independently the set books. That’s how I was taught Spanish 18th and 19th century Literature over a year in which our lecturer never addressed any of us by name in class. She just droned on, though her droning, I must say, was quite interesting. The other solution I have used, and will continue using, is similar to Felicity’s –using class presentations by students– but on the basis of a closed list. I’m about to start a course on the American documentary (under our ‘Cultural Studies’ label) and this is how it’ll work. We have no set texts; instead, all of my 45 students will present each two documentaries in class. They’ll write next a factsheet, with a short essay considering how the USA is represented in the films, and we’ll produce a joint e-book. Presumably, they will read each other and will feel interested in seeing at least half a dozen documentary films.

I grant that in this way the students will not get deep insights into any of the films they will hear about but at least they’ll hear about 90 films. I also grant that listening to your classmates can be boring, but a) I have the experience of having taught an MA course in this way and it was fun indeed!, b) students are anyway bored in class, and much more so if they just listen to the same person for 90 minutes. If (or when) I teach the electives I’ve been thinking about for a while (one on non-fiction, another on autobiography) I will use the same approach. And if (or when) I teach the new compulsory fourth year course Contemporary English Fiction, I will also rely on this method but in this case, since students are already used to reading novels, I’ll train them to write reviews –a critical practice much necessary but that we never include in our teaching. Working on a closed list, incidentally, is still hard when dealing with the contemporary for not even 20, 30, 40 or 50 titles can be enough. If we assume, for the sake of my argumentation, that the contemporary is the 21st century that’s already 20 years of writing –now try to choose just one volume per year and you will see how difficult that is.

Andrew’s presentation was, as he called it, ‘abstract’. He took as his departure point Lionel Trilling’s classic essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature” (1961) to consider how we understand Modernity today, also to reflect on whether the problems Trilling pointed out have changed. I have not been able to read this short essay because it is not available online, legally or illegally, always a sign that it is at risk of disappearing from view (yes, there are copies in my library…). There are many online pieces on it, from academic analyses to blog posts, in any case. Trilling, Andrew explained, was very much reluctant to teach Modern Literature, as his institution, Columbia University, finally asked him to do after much dithering. This reluctance sprang from his impression that students feel too much at home in the present world and would, somehow, produce smug, self-congratulating, vapid work on the contemporary which would, besides, belittle the importance of History. Hence, he devised for them a gruelling reading programme which comprised the intellectual foundations of Modernity: they had to read Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Freud, Nietzsche, etc in the first semester before addressing any Literature at all.

Andrew didn’t not describe the students’ reactions but raised the issue of what is meant by Modernity, and whether, as Trilling suggested, teaching it leads to falling into a dangerous ahistoricism. He unfairly blamed, I think, the rise of identity politics after 1990 for that. In my view, it’s the other way around: identity politics destroyed a view of History in which minorities had been absent because hegemonic patriarchal circles had decided that the Culture produced by them was universal. In fact, the teaching of Modernity started by Trilling and company is what set the ball rolling. Students used to be monolithically male, white, and middle-class but when students started being more varied and we were taught about Modernity, which we were living through in person, then the question arose of why our identities were missing in the teaching of the present, call it Post-Modernity or whatever. Then, the slow process of bringing back from oblivion all the authors that were not male, white, and middle-class started. Methinks that Trilling and company were not interested in that still ongoing rescue.

Anyway, if, as Andrew argued, the keyword to understand our own Modernity (post-post Modernity?) is cruelty, and perhaps anxiety, can we teach the texts that express this irrationality from a rational post-Enlightenment point of view? Can our academic pedagogy in the classroom and our academic rhetoric in our writing truly make sense and illuminate our own Modernity? I wonder about that. My new doctoral tutorees of this year have chosen topics that perhaps demand that we break down standard rhetoric: one wants to write about humans as animal prey in fiction, the other about climate-related anxiety (yes!) also in fiction as a sign of our times. I think that this will require, funnily, a return to the academic essay in the personal way that Trilling and company practised it, and not a continuation of the rigid scholastic methods introduced with theory in the 1990s (see my previous post). I’m also thinking that perhaps my inclination to expose students to as many titles as possible is a way of approaching our own Modernity by acknowledging its formidable noise and granting that it cannot be reduced to a single sound. Welcome to fuzzy academia!

In the question time following Andrew’s intervention, our colleague Carme Font raised a very interesting issue: we should teach each historical period, she said, not as what has survived from the past but as its own Modernity. In this way, she suggested, we would stop worrying about our own Modernity, which would simply be placed along a continuum which our students could more easily recognize and learn about. This makes perfect sense to me, at least I do try to present the British Victorian Age as the product of cutting-edge technology and a rabid sense of Modernity, and not at all as a quaint time of impossible crinolines and dishevelled Dickensian urchins. Still, I worry very much about the smugness which the “attitudinizing present”, using Trilling’s words, has brought to our classrooms. The students’ presentism is harder and harder to fight because it is fuelled by the social media, which reject all authority and thrive on a cacophony of voices. By authority I mean here the person who can offer a wider-ranging vision of the times, not someone who imposes their opinions. I find it particularly difficult to teach students where they belong in History and that their generation is not the centre of the universe, but just a tiny notch (like mine) in the few millions of years Homo Sapiens is spending on Earth. Modernity, I would insist, is not a confirmation of presentism but the opposite: an awareness that the generation that represents it now will be superseded soon by other ways of understanding Modernity. This will happen increasingly faster: reading this week about Billie Eilish (aged 17) I have come to realize how old one can be at 30 (Taylor Swift’s age) and how forgettable at 60 (Madonna). That’s Modernity for you: a sense of the quick passage of time and of how History’s present peak time is always rushing forward.

By the way, TELLC 7, which will hopefully be held next January 2021, already has a title borrowed from a student’s comment on one of our courses: ‘It was supposed to be fun, but it’s overwhelming’. This is a feeling I share at all levels about what we read, teach, and think about in our cruel, anxious Modernity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALL THAT RESENTMENT: UNIVERSITY TEACHERS AND SPANISH SOCIETY

My post today refers mainly to the article in El País, “La Universidad afronta la salida del 50% de sus catedráticos en siete años” (https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/01/09/actualidad/1547044018_002135.html). As it is habitual in the Spanish media, El País mistakes ‘catedráticos’ (i.e. full professors) for tenured teachers (i.e. those with positions as civil servants until they retire, but not necessarily ‘catedráticos’). The point raised is the same, though. By 2026, 16200 of the current full-time university teachers will have retired (almost 17%) but, here’s the nub: the current hiring system will not allow to fill in the vacant positions. The Spanish university will dramatically shrink though, in view of the constant demand, it might have to offer in a rush a high amount of tenured positions. Most likely, as we fear, 2026 will be the date when many Departments might disappear.

Allow me to comment on some on some points raised by the article, and then on some comments by the always angry readers of El País.

Point 1: the average age for teachers in the Spanish public university is 54. This refers only to full-time tenured teachers for, as we know, the average age for part-time associates is much lower (but also rising towards 40 since no tenured positions are being offered). I am myself 52 and was hired full-time aged 25 (yes, 27 years ago), so I am of the privileged best-paid, best-positioned teachers that aspire to retiring before 2026 (I certainly don’t want to be teaching 20-year-olds when I am past 65). Whenever I read this kind of news, I feel guilty that I am so lucky and profoundly annoyed that my professional group is presented as unusually, or even unfairly, privileged. This is the trick that the Spanish Government (and many others around the world) have been using to antagonise the different generations: the problem is not that the young are being grossly abused (they are!!) but that we, the ageing parasites, cling to our privilege.

Point 2: Pedro Sánchez’s current Socialist Government does not want to offer “an avalanche of tenured positions” that might bar access to the following generations, as happened in the Orwellian 1984. What happened then? Well, 5000 teachers with five years of experience and a doctoral degree were offered tenure in quite accessible state examinations. This, it is said, was a serious error as a blockage was formed that prevented the next generation from accessing tenure. The information, however, is not correct. In 1984, the year when I myself became an undergrad, there was a massive influx of students with working-class backgrounds (me again) thanks to Felipe González’s Socialist policies. This influx made it necessary to improvise the hiring of the new teachers; at the time, nobody thought of an alternative to the tenure system because this is how the university traditionally worked.

By 1991, when I was first hired as a teacher, the system still ran quite smoothly: you were employed full-time, with the expectation that you would write your doctoral dissertation in three years, and next face the corresponding state examination one or two years later. I should have been tenured, then, by 1997 or 1998, at the latest. What interrupted the quite acceptable ratio of generational replacement was not the bottleneck allegedly formed in 1984 but the new restrictive policies by the conservative Government headed by José María Aznar, which started to brutally attack the public university by destroying its hiring system. Thus, to use my own example, I did between 1996 and 2002, when I finally got tenure, the same amount of work as a tenured teacher but on the basis of temporary, poorly-paid contracts, while I waited. In 2008 the full-time contracts to hire junior researchers, as I was in 1991, were withdrawn. Then started the agony of the system and of the individuals who, like me, only aspire to doing their best for the Spanish university. Incidentally: replacing 17% of all employed teachers in seven years is a very acceptable ratio below 3% each year. This should liberate money that would suffice to pay for new tenured positions, which would be anyway cheaper as teachers would not be receiving money for any extra merits as after a long career. As things are now, though, this is considered too much and here lies the main problem.

Point 3: the function of ANECA and the accreditation system. Since the university system no longer could absorb the junior researchers, for lack of tenured positions, the Government raised the amount of qualifications needed to apply for one about ten years ago. The agency founded to grant national accreditations, ANECA (and other regional equivalents) guarantees the possession of those qualifications but has also created a fantastic amount of frustration. El País reports that ANECA has certified that 15000 Spanish doctors qualify for tenured positions (both ‘titular’ and ‘catedrático’) but this is far more than it is offered. Once you’re ANECA-approved, the waiting can take many years, during which, if you’re an associate, you might easily be dismissed by your university. I see that many of my colleagues have started signing as ‘catedrático acreditado’ or ‘titular acreditado’, which, in my modest view, is very sad.

By the way: I totally disagree with the opinion that, when we retire, there will be no sufficiently qualified personnel. It might well be that the Spanish university goes up a few notches in the international rankings, since the patient ‘anecandos’ know very well how to be competitive. What I see is that the 70-year-olds will be replaced, at the rate we’re going, by 50-year-olds with waning energies, past their prime in some specialities which require the stamina of the 25-35 young. After a time of restrictions, in which only 10% of the positions occupied by tenured teachers could be offered again, the Government has finally allowed universities to replace all their teachers. Yet, without better funding, this cannot be done. What I say: many brilliant researchers now in their 40s will still have to wait long years for tenure. Only 2.3% of all current ‘titulares’ like myself (i.e. senior lecturers) are younger than 40. Of course, many researchers in the 40-50 bracket are hired rather than tenured, but, even so, the case is that students aged 18-22 are being taught by their grandparents’ generation!

Now, three comments from readers (there are 270).

Comment 1: some countries, a reader says, would take the chance as a “golden opportunity” to replace the “endogamic, stagnant” Spanish teaching body. Thank you very much on behalf of the generation currently doing our best to educate students who are amazingly reluctant to being educated and to do, besides, research at levels never known in Spain before the 21st century. It is extremely satisfactory to receive so much support from the society that we serve and to be told, besides, that anyone younger would be better prepared. By the way, dear reader: the article does not refer to the massive dismissal of currently employed teachers but to our retirement. We do expect to be replaced by much better personnel, of course, but the point the article is making is not that we should retire but that the younger generation should be employed in adequate conditions. Not the same.

Comment 2: who cares, a reader writes, if the public Spanish university disappears? There are not sufficient students, anyway, to maintain a “bunch of lazy, overpaid guys, while the mass of workers lives in miserable conditions”. Thank you again, on behalf of my colleagues and myself. The whole point of the 1984 university revolution was to guarantee the higher education of the working classes so that they could be critical with their life conditions, including employment, and socially mobile upwardly. The 2008 crisis was used to destroy the university hiring system following the same abusive economic policies that have reduced the life of those born after 1985 to a constant struggle to survive. I am well aware that I am a luxury but what we should be demanding is not an end to the Spanish public university but an end to all the ultra-capitalist policies that are making the rich richer and the poor poorer. You might say that a university education does not guarantee any upward social mobility (the upper classes have done all they can to hinder it) but imagine for one moment a Spain with only ultra-expensive private universities and a paltry scholarship system, possibly much worse than what we have now. How’s that an improvement on the lot of the working classes? The upper and the middle classes can choose between the public and the private university, either in Spain or abroad. But, how do you allow the talent of working-class individuals to flourish? Aren’t you interested?

Comment 3: (with this one I must agree). “Spanish society does not value research”, nor any merits attached to it. This is possibly the key to the whole matter: the comments elicited by this article show a colossal miscommunication between those of us who take university research and teaching seriously and those who, unaware of what we actually do (or in some cases rejected by the system), show enormous hostility at what they assume to be our privileged positions. Reading the comments you can see how the colleagues that try to explain our job face an adamant dislike, even hatred, based on immovable premises: we get tenure aided by a close circle of accomplices though we lack sufficient merits, and the little we do does by no means justify the enormous salaries we are paid. Of course, to someone paid 800 or 1000 euros a month, a salary of between 2500 and 4500 (these figures are public) might seem stratospheric. Also, the very idea of tenure. It is funny to see, though, that nobody disputes what football players, top models, influencers of all kinds and the CEOs that kills thousands of jobs at the drop of their hat are paid. Supposing, then, that in the next seven years a new generation is given tenure, this is what they’ll find: generalised resentment. Just what one needs to offer good teaching and progressive research.

We’re trapped, then, in a vicious circle: any defence of the Spanish university as a necessary public service and of their under-50 workers as unfairly exploited sounds to lay ears as a defence of privilege. I do acknowledged that some of my colleagues shamelessly abuse their positions but a) they are the minority and will be out by 2026, b) the same can be said about many other workers–we’re not saints, and nor is anyone else. The resentment poured on us is a product of envy, the ‘national sin’ as many call it, but also of the low educational levels in Spain. Germans, Britons or Americans do not seem to hate their university teachers, though they’re possibly only socially respected in places like Japan (my guess). Long gone are the times when being a ‘catedrático’ or a simple senior lecturer elicited respect and I keep no illusions about that. But why we are so misunderstood baffles me. Also, why instead of urging the Government to solve a situation that can be indeed solved with a minimum good will the solution offered is getting rid of absolutely the only institution that can bring some social change to our chronically backward nation. Unamuno’s ugly “¡Qué inventen ellos!” still has us in thrall.

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

UNLEARNING ROMANTICISM, LEARNING REGENCY LITERATURE

As part of preparing for my Winter-Spring course on Romanticism, I have been reading Duncan Wu’s incisive 30 Great Myths about the Romantics (Wiley Blackwell, 2015). I’m inwardly smiling at how little the world may care for a crisis involving a middle-aged woman teacher suddenly discovering that she has to unlearn everything she thought she knew about Romanticism. But, well, this is the crisis I’m going through. I feel blessed and fortunate to be sharing it with my co-teachers, David Owen and Carme Font, who have been in charge of the course for several years. This crisis is already resulting in very fruitful discussion with them, and I am certainly benefitting from their experience and insights: David specializes in Austen, Carme is an expert on women writers of the 18th century, so you see what great company I keep!

I do not intend to comment here on all the thirty myths–a kind word for lies–that Wu destroys with his razor-sharp scholarship. Some are ideas which every self-respecting feminist has been battling for years (myth 25: ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Frankenstein’); others are a matter of common sense, for it is obvious that myth 5, ‘the Romantic poets were misunderstood, solitary geniuses’, is nonsense. Almost as barefaced as myth 6, ‘Romantic poems were produced by spontaneous inspiration’. Funnily, the myths about Byron are the ones I cannot stop thinking of, mostly because Wu is quite brutal with poor George Gordon. I accept with no problem, except Wu’s barely concealed homophobia, that Byron was a fat queen who preferred 15-year-old boys to women. Yet the demolition job applied to myth 19, ‘Byron was a “noble warrior” who died fighting for Greek freedom’, ends with a truly pathetic image: that of the poet dying in Greece not in the battlefield but at home, bled to death by incompetent physicians treating him for a fever caught from a tic in his dirty pet Newfoundland, Lyon. This is indeed the complete antithesis of Romanticism!

I must say that myth 14, ‘Jane Austen had an incestuous relationship with her sister’–Cassandra and the author shared a bed for 25 years, it seems–though improbably lurid made me reconsider again a nagging suspicion: Austen may have been a lesbian mocking the heterosexual women of her class, desperately seeking enslavement by the gentlemen of 1810s. An idea to consider when I teach Pride and Prejudice… with much care, for this is what Wu is attacking: using speculation and misinformation as the basis of scholarship. One thing is inviting students to consider ‘what if…?’ Jane Austen had been a lesbian, and quite a different matter is accepting with no proof that this was her sexual identity and, hence, this is how we should read her books. If you find this second option preposterous (which it is!) then you’ll be as surprised as I have been to discover that most assumptions about Romanticism are of that kind: empty bubbles very easy to puncture if only the right bibliography is read. For that is Wu’s main message–if scholars worried to check their sources, the myths would not be perpetuated. An extremely important point to make in the age of fake news.

I’ll quote two passages from Wu’s ‘Introduction’ that call for a profound reflection. ‘What we call Romantic’, Wu observes, ‘might more accurately be called Regency Wartime Literature were we to backdate the Regency, as some historians do, to 1788’ (xiv). Anyone who has studied the early 19th century knows that, properly speaking, it begins in 1789 with the French Revolution and includes the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). I read a while back the twenty-two volumes by Patrick O’Brien narrating the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin at sea during those wars, but even so I still find it problematic to connect Romanticism with war.

The problem also affects our understanding of Modernism (roughly 1910-1939) for similar reasons: the name attached to a particular movement is used for a historical period, thus breaking the neat monarch-based chronology of English Literature. ‘Victorian Literature’ (1837-1901) should be preceded indeed by ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’ but, then, it is also followed by a mess of labels in the early 20th century which contemplate Edwardian and Georgian as periods but then get lost into Modernism and Post-Modernism (rather than the Second Elizabethan Age!). The point not to forget, however, is that Romanticism belongs in the Regency Period and that this was beset by revolution and war, as was Modernism (WWI, 1914-18; Irish uprising, 1916; Russian Revolution, 1917).

The second passage: ‘The point is that the contemporary perspective was different from our own. Today Jane Austen is one of the most popular novelists of all time but in 1814 no one thought she would occupy that status, nor did they suspect an obscure engraver named Blake would 150 years later be hailed as a literary and artistic genius’ (xv-xvi). The writers that Wu names as popular, best-selling names in Regency Wartime Literature (let’s start using the label) are not at all part of the canon that has survived, in which mostly unknown names with some exceptions (Byron, Scott) shine. I suspect that Wu cheats a little when he claims that ‘The current popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner would have been unimaginable to the scattered few who heard of them when they first appeared’ (xvi, my italics), for I believe that their fame soon grew (or am I perpetuating a myth?). Yet the point he makes is equally relevant. What survives from the past is a haphazard selection no person then living could foresee. If we could bring back a handful of common readers from the early 19th century they would be as amused (or dismayed) by our preferences as we’re certain to be should we return from death in the 23rd century. What great fun it is to guess who will survive!! I wonder that gambling houses are not already offering the chance to bet, for the benefit of our descendants…

Why do the myths persist? Wu replies that ‘The limpet-like persistence of some myths may be related to the illusion they draw the Romantics closer to us’ (xviii) but I’m not quite convinced. It might even be the other way round: Wu’s presentation of Byron as a flamboyant homosexual feels somehow more relatable than his reputation as a heterosexual Don Juan; likewise, his middle-class Keats, the well-educated Medicine student, makes more sense than the working-class apprentice apothecary killed off by a review. Wu, then, is the one approaching the Romantics to our time while debunking old and new myths (lesbian Austen!). Rather, what seems to be happening is that since the instability of the label ‘Romantic’ makes it impossible to understand what Romanticism truly was, we clutch at the myths, even knowing they’re lies. At least they form a coherent body of knowledge, fossilized into respectability first by the Victorian critics and scholars, and later by all the rest until our days. The myths, in short, are convenient and, as we know both as students and teachers, they’re also a convenient way to keep undergrads interested as they swallow with immense difficulties the poetry and the novels (we don’t even touch the Romantic plays).

Wu is at his most sarcastic when he highlights the ‘nuttiness of the thesis’ defended among others by John Lauritsen, according to which Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Why? Because any scholar who bothered to check the two volumes of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Frankenstein Notebooks: A Facsimile Edition of Mary Shelley’s Manuscript Novel, 1816–17, edited by Charles E. Robinson (1996) could see that a) Percy contributed little and b) of no interest. Wu is specially annoyed because most of the textual evidence required not to blunder and perpetuate myths is easily accessible online. The point that he is making is transparent: all our knowledge of English Literature, beyond Romanticism, relies on bad scholarship; even worse, despite the efforts made in recent decades to correct the most glaring mistakes/lies/myths, they are still being perpetuated because nobody really cares about the truth. You may be thinking, ‘well, I prefer my Byron thin, handsome, and a woman-eater’ but apply lazy scholarship to other fields and we might get ‘Stalin was never as big a genocidal tyrant as Hitler’, a myth we should question. For, you see?, if the History of Literature is based on almost indestructible myths, surely this also applies to History, only too easy to sum up as a pack of lies. Not what you want to do in Trump’s era.

How should we, then, teach Romanticism? There is no introduction yet that follows faithfully Wu’s volume, which means that we’re bound to teach still a myth-based version of Romanticism (a mythical version?!). I see little sense in teaching the myth and the truth together to students who know nothing about Romanticism, yet I don’t feel ready to incorporate fat queen Byron into my teaching–I might be starting another myth, for all I know. Then, as Google tells me, with two exceptions in minor colleges, everyone still uses the label ‘Romantic Literature’ rather than ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’, though I’d be happy to re-name our course at UAB. What Wu has produced, then, is a sort of intaglio effect in cameo carving, by which you see the figure as concave or convex, depending on the light. I have reached the point when the effect is visible but, to be honest, I don’t know how to proceed.

Well, I do know: hard study. I doubt, however, that I have before February the time it will take to undo 30 years of knowing the Romantic in the standard, clichéd way. And this is how myths survive: by acquiring partial, biased knowledge we are later too pressed for time–or too plain lazy!–to undo.

(PS: Now go and check myth 26, ‘Women writers were an exploited underclass–unknown, unloved, and unpaid’)

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

A PERSISTENT BUNCH: DOCTORAL STUDENTS AGAINST THE WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FANDOM AND ACADEMIA: CRITERIA TO DISCUSS TEXTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, wait!! We do that, right…?

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

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

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

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

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

But, then, that is so sad… right?

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

WHAT WE DON’T SEE FROM THE UNIVERSITY: THE BATTLE FOR SECONDARY SCHOOL EDUCATION

Every family with young children eventually faces the crisis that starting secondary education, or E.S.O., supposes for many of them. It is difficult for us, university teachers (with no children), to offer solid advice to troubled parents. This is why, seeking to help my own family, I have read a couple of excellent books on this subject.

One is very new–Pablo Poó’s Espabila Chaval: Cómo NO suspender y aprovechar tu tiempo en el instituto (2017); the other–José Sánchez Tortosa’s El profesor en la trinchera: La tiranía de los alumnos, las frustraciones de los profesores y la guerra en las aulas–is older, from 2008. Even the subtitles are worth reading! In the nine years between them, you need to realize, tablets and smartphones have become common among secondary-school children. Television, which Sánchez Tortosa hates as one of the monsters that devour children’s time, is practically a relic of the past for the new YouTube generation. They no longer text each other using Messenger or sms, but Whatsapp. This, I’m told, is fast replacing Facebook… Poó’s volume, which even offers teens advice on how to set up a successful YouTube channel based on his own experience, might soon be out-dated.

The two authors paint a very bleak panorama, using widely different styles. Poó addresses teen students (trusting that they will read a book!!!) in a fresh, straightforward language, very apt for his target readership. He offers very useful practical advice and I particularly applaud him for explaining the actual cost of living. He declares his own income and his monthly expenses, thus teaching children a valuable lesson: life is expensive, and you need a job that is rewarding but also minimally well-paid. Studying might not be a secure path towards that kind of personal success but it gives you at least a chance. There is no shortcut between failing spectacularly in school and owning a Ferrari, though it may have happen, very exceptionally. And I love the bit where he explains that Cristiano Ronaldo only wins a third of the earnings of the current best-selling author, James Patterson. So, read!

The approach chosen by Sánchez Tortosa is very different, as he is not addressing students. He is voicing aloud for any adult to hear his own feelings of disappointment and despair, common among those of us who discover that, despite our efforts, students reject learning. Tortosa’s style is somewhat pedantic but his many quotations from classical philosophers and Enlightenment pedagogues show that although teachers’ concerns with students’ difficulties have a long history, the situation today is really worrying. Unlike Poó–a cooler, happier teacher who highlights that what he is describing is mainly the students’ problem and not his–Tortosa sounds awfully bitter. His descriptions of an anarchic, unruly student body and his difficulties to keep the teens in his classroom in silence reveal an underlying, palpable sadness; also, deep sorrow for that those that, in better conditions, could learn in peace instead of wasting precious time because of their classmates’ annoying insubordination. Tortosa is very clear: when students disrupt a lesson with their misbehaviour, those who suffer most are not the teachers but the students who do believe in education. The bad dynamics of current classrooms mean that, regrettably, the most popular are also the most ignorant students because they impose with their bullying a group code that marginalizes the individuals interested in self-improving.

Although from very different stances, Poó and Tortosa agree on a basic idea: learning offers liberation from slavery; by rejecting education the current teenage generation is embracing their own oppression. Tortosa constantly refers to the Wachowkis’ trilogy Matrix (1999-2002) and to how, despite Morpheus’ efforts to free him, Cipher chooses willingly to remain enslaved to the false reality created by the dreadful machines that control human life. Each in their own style, both teachers preach the same maxim: education is not about the details of each specific subject matter; it’s about turning children into full persons who understand the world around them and who won’t be taken in by its many false allures. Or tyrants.

Poó and Tortosa focus on E.S.O., the compulsory segment of secondary education, though they also refer, logically, to what comes next, Bachillerato (and the university entrance examination, Selectividad). It is assumed that students’ negative attitude towards education improves as they move onto higher levels which they freely choose. However, reading their books, I conclude that students never shake off the idea that whatever is compulsory curtails their freedom and must be rejected. They may freely choose a university degree but still treat its obligatory aspects as shackles restraining them. This might also explain their resistance to reading in Humanities degrees what teachers select as compulsory. We should, in short, forbid reading and perhaps that might give students an enticement. Just kidding…

Many other countries suffer the situation described by Poó and Tortosa: extending compulsory education results in students’ restlessness, as their impatience with what they’re being taught grows together with their adolescent bodies. In my time as a schoolgirl (1970-1980), E.G.B. (Educación General Básica) ended at 14, which was also the age when you were allowed to take a job. This was later raised to 16 as the labour market shrank, which made it necessary to keep disaffected teens in school. Many of them would possibly be happier working for wages but employing children has now become anathema in most Western societies (except for the children of celebrities working as models… Kaia Gerber, anyone?). When secondary schools release these indifferent students into the world they have often destroyed their own chances of getting a reasonably good job by rejecting all attempts at being educated. Thus grows the notorious ni-ni generation (or ‘neets’ = ‘not in education, employment or training’), who should pay for our future retirement pensions but cannot fend for themselves.

I have been saying for years that the difference between school pre-LOGSE (1994) and post-LOGSE is that the ignorant bullies used to be the minority whereas those in the majority where the students with grades between C+ and B+. LOGSE, and the beginning of secondary education at 12, rather than 14, means that a general immaturity affects relationships in the classroom. The ignorant bullies are now the centre of attention of a lazy majority that rallies around them, while the C+/B+ students are cornered and frequently despised. I fail to understand how the A students cope, though I assume that it is with great difficulty: their absurd labelling as ‘gifted children’ only worsens the situation by making them feel like singled-out freaks, when they should be classroom leaders. As they used to be.

This perfect storm is compounded besides, as we all know, by bad parents who a) disauthorise the teachers because they believe that their children are special and unique, b) are too busy to really care to educate their children at home, c) are themselves in need of training as parents and persons. Poó begins his book by declaring “Mira, chaval, eres un privilegiado y ni siquiera te das cuenta”, not only in the sense of belonging to a relatively affluent society that thinks nothing of children provided with smartphones worth a person’s monthly salary, but also because only a minority on Earth has access to a school education. The privilege, far from being acknowledged, leads to this sense of entitlement and of arrogance we often see, to our chagrin, in the children of our own families: they have everything, they know everything, and they never listen. They have their own authorities on YouTube and whatever we may say to them is worthless. Of course, I refer here to the worst case scenario but I’m certain that the admiration I felt for a few wise adults as I grew up, and who were my role models, is now a thing of the past.

Is this ranting and raving productive? Not really but I am at a loss about how to correct the situation, even beginning with the children going astray in my family. If you read Poó’s book between the lines you will see that now and then he refers to what is actually taught in secondary schools and perhaps a key factor in the general failure is that the curriculum is not adequate. I don’t mean ‘useful’ in that utilitarian way in which students regard education (“What’s the good of learning this?”). I mean adequate in the sense of being generationally well-targeted. We have gone past the bad pedagogy that demanded learning lists of monarchs by rote but, clearly, we’re not producing a sound, updated pedagogy that attracts children (and this is not about using hip ‘modern’ technologies).

Tortosa claims that the post-Francoist project to make schools democratic has failed, and hints that the classroom should be far more authoritarian that it is now. I agree that teachers should not try to be their students’ friends (this comes once marking is over, if it comes) and I regard myself as a very strict professor. Yet, I also try to be democratic, which means that as my experience shows, when students are allowed to choose what they want to work on, they’re more creative. This does not mean that they should be able to choose the contents of the courses but that their opinion needs to be heard. Feedback certainly helps to improve our teaching and I do believe that students can provide it from the age of 12 onward.

Something else that Poó writes strikes a deep chord: an education is the way to, ideally, find a job which makes you happy. Even more ideally, a job which doesn’t feel like work. He explains how little kids usually enjoy school because they see no difference between play and study, and although I am fully aware that I am sounding here hopelessly romantic, this is what the best jobs are about. Perhaps the problem is that Poó and I myself think that teaching is perfect in that sense because it gives you the privilege of extending your education for decades by educating others. In contrast, the current teen generation sees this mixture of play and work only in the (apparently) effortless success of YouTubers, football players and models. They see how popular Instagram celebrities are and wrongly believe that this is what they are also entitled to. They do not see the much more modest rewards of daily effort because that is not part of the media and the social networks.

Teachers, besides, were people we used to admire, now we are ridiculous figures. The same applies to parents (including those who are teachers!). So, how do you convince a teen daughter/son, niece/nephew that they need to make an effort? Well, you can’t, unless they accept reading Poó’s book… which is unlikely. You, parent or uncle/aunt, perhaps grandparent, can learn what is wrong in the secondary school classroom and admire the teachers for their courage and dedication. Yet it seems to me that there is little we can do. Perhaps we could focus on the most motivated students, and ignore the others–provided, that is, none of them is in your family. Or even your own child.

In the meantime, it would be important to consider why so many of our children are so privileged, yet so ungrateful, and so fond of ignorance. Perhaps, unlike Poó, we have failed to clearly explain to them what adult life is about and have gone too far in trying to delay their assumption of personal responsibility. Just an idea.

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

CHANGING PATTERNS IN STUDENTS’ PERFORMANCE: RESISTING CLASSROOM PARTICIPATION

In my post of 10 October last year I discussed the problems connected with using a methodology based on close reading to teach long texts. The main concern I expressed was that a pedagogy developed to train students into producing literary criticism of poetry might be inadequate for dealing with prose, particularly complete volumes. I spoke then of the challenge of trying to acquire total recall of the nuances of very long novels (any Victorian three-decker) or even novel series (like The Hunger Games).

To be honest, the post was trying to process a deeply-set anxiety that has plagued me this semester and that has to do with the changing patterns in students’ performance, specifically their resistance to engaging in class participation.

Now that I’m practically done marking the corresponding papers I can say that this has not been an easy semester for me as a teacher. Let me acknowledge that I have often felt uncomfortable in class, unable to find my feet, as the saying goes, and to understand what I was doing. Unusually, then, the posts for the last four months carry practically no comments on my teaching practice and read, rather, as a series of independent essays mostly on Gender Studies (this is what I have been teaching, together with Victorian Literature).

The remarkable quality of the papers I have just read (and some kind words from students) tell, however, a story quite different from what I thought was unfolding in class, this is why I am finally writing this post. I have been at some points truly distressed in class and if I have managed to keep my cool (mostly), if you allow me to use the expression, this has been thanks to a handful of extraordinarily participative students, two of whom have received my warmest thanks in the shape of an A with honours. Thank you, Carla and Marc. And Neele, Alicia, Albert, indeed.

I must grant that the anxiety-inducing political climate in Catalonia has been a major obstacle to keep going as a teacher last Autumn. Not only my own personal worries but also the students’ have had an impact in class, for when the future looks so uncertain education takes on part of that uncertainty. You might think that students were enthusiastic about the project of a possible new republic but I have seen mostly long faces in class, expressing a deep concern that the near future might be even more difficult than it already is for the millennials. There have been no direct political discussions in class but, even so, this has been a heavily politicized semester. At one point I asked my Erasmus students whether they wanted to stay in view of the (perhaps unsafe) turn that the situation was taking and they responded no, as the situation seemed ‘interesting’ for them. This, of course, reminded me of the Chinese curse: ‘may you live in interesting times’… You need peace of mind to teach well, and this has been lacking for the whole past semester.

Now, to the specifics of the case, which, I’m sure will be familiar to any teacher but to which I need to add some very odd factors like… my smelly classroom (a classic in my blog). My Facultat has a peculiar corridor which seems to be built on a swamp (I’m told it is actually built on sandy soil that doesn’t drain well). Our first action on entering the classroom has been every day the same one: opening the windows as wide as they would go. Even so we, students and teacher, have been forced to associate Victorian Literature with a bad odour–which possibly is what Victorian themselves were used to in their dirty streets but not what we need to focus on intellectual work.

Add to this the fact that the classroom was too big, which resulted in a strange seating pattern, with students basically forming a diagonal from the first row of benches to the back row, instead of sitting close in just a few rows. There were moments when I didn’t know where to place my gaze; and, then, when I did, what I saw was not very reassuring: students texting, or lounging as if on their sofa… not taking notes at all… talking to each other but not to me… I’m amazed that so many days I had to ask for silence to lecture and, then, when I asked for comments the chatterers kept silent.

Here is what every student should understand (or at least my students): a teacher’s performance depends on the students’ attention. If this attention wavers or is never available, the teacher falters, hesitates, starts waffling instead of properly lecturing, and the discourse collapses in the worst case. That was the day when I stopped and told my students that since they were not interested in what I had to say, I was perfectly willing to go to my office where I had tons of work to do. You can’t begin to imagine how foolish I felt, and how hard it was to return to my topic.

By the way, I have also noticed another symptom of bad teaching: linguistic accuracy vanishes. My English simply starts evaporating, the sentences don’t flow, the mistakes are unbelievably basic. When a class goes well, however, the solidity of the use of language increases tenfold and the brain seems to go on a faster gear, which is why I love teaching: this is when I do my best thinking.

I finally came out of my bleak cocoon to speak to some of my students and some of my colleagues about what was missing in class, and it turned out that the impression that my teaching was not working was not shared by the students (um, at least the ones that spoke to me). It was, however, shared by my colleagues, not because they think I’m a lousy teacher but because they were in a similar situation regarding their own classes. And I don’t mean my Department colleagues only, but others teaching English in Britain, which shows this is not a local case. Somebody, then, should produce an academic study of why, plainly, students are very clearly showing with their attitude in class that they prefer lecturing to participative-style teaching. For this is it: my discomfort has to do with realizing that basic truth.

Students’ resistance to class participation manifests itself, to begin with, by their not reading the books we discuss in advance. We publish the syllabus in early July for them to read the texts over summer but this has never ever worked–yet, we persist. I told my students that in order to succeed in their degree the main trick is acquiring good time-management skills. This means planning ahead and preparing all tasks with sufficient time, both to avoid failure and stress. Since very few do that in spite of our efforts to inform them of the content of courses, I must conclude that they need to be told that this expected of them.

It occurs to me that, possibly, our problems have to do with our different perception of the situation: we teachers believe that students understand what their role involves, and students believe that it’s our duty to point out at each step what they need to do. My syllabi, then, will include from next year onward a warning in bold, red type that a) books need to have been read at least two weeks before their class discussion begins; b) time-management is essential and c) class participation… inevitable.

For the last six years, we have invited students to participate in class in the following way. The first novel in the course (second-year Victorian Literature, remember) is entirely in the hands of the teacher, who produces plenty of close reading to set an example. Then, we distribute the chapters of the second novel among students and in each session a maximum of about 8 contribute a comment based on a passage. Then for the third and fourth novels students need to contribute a passage from a secondary source. Well, this is the first time when the method has not worked at all, as some students have chosen to ignore that this is a compulsory activity. In some sessions only 1 or 2 of the students were present–some, indeed, had a valid excuse for their absence but they were a minority. I did ask my class whether there was a boycott afoot, which they denied, a bit surprised at my paranoia… But then I do know that some students take our invitation to participate as a form of coercion, and it appears that, whereas in previous years they made an effort to comply, this year they have resisted the obligation to speak in class.

I don’t wish to give you the impression that the whole thing has been a disaster – not at all. Very few students have failed and these were the ones that did not complete assessment. What I’m trying to say is that this resistance to engaging in a participative-style of teaching benefits nobody. I’ll say again this: when I taught Harry Potter back in 2013-14, every lecture was a most enjoyable party, not because of the text itself but of students’ eagerness. I refuse to believe that only Harry Potter produces that effect… I’ll add that I expected something similar regarding our newest addition to the Victorian syllabus: Dracula. Instead, attendance was at its lowest.

The students that speak to us, teachers, are, of course, the keener ones. It is then only partially useful to ask them why their peers are not so keen. A factor that emerges in conversation, anyway, is that the university entry system in Spain forces students into degrees that were only their second or third choice. I will not go into the shortcomings of our secondary education, nor into the problem of how the social media are negatively impacting the attention span of young people (even their ability to think in silence and with no interruptions). There is, however, something else at work: a generational pragmatism which rejects all unnecessary extras. Since my students’ performance has, on the whole, been quite good, I need to reach the conclusion that the lectures (classes, sessions, whatever) are beginning to be seen as superfluous activities, which they eschew, rather than as what they should be: an occasion to engage in high-level intellectual dialogue.

I was for sixteen years a teacher at the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and I am, therefore, familiar with a pedagogical model that does not rely on classroom interaction. My students at UOC did very well but at the back of my mind there was always the question of whether they would do even better in class. As happens, one of them did become my presential student and even my BA dissertation tutoree and this convinced me that we do need direct personal contact in lectures. Now I’m not so sure and I wonder whether the millennials’ pragmatic ways will, in the end, force us either to return to traditional lecturing or to abandon the classroom altogether.

We’ll see.

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

CLOSE READING: THE PROBLEM OF THE LONG TEXT

In my Department, we use a pedagogy based on close reading combined with contextual comment to teach Literature, as happens in all English Departments in the world influenced by Anglo-American styles of teaching Literature. Yet, I’m growing anxious this academic year about the limits of this methodology and how it actually works in our context, both for teachers and students.

Close reading, let’s recall, is a teaching methodology based on exploring the actual texts by paying minute attention to detail; ideally, it should lead to interactive classroom discussion between teacher and students. This formalistic approach was developed in the USA in the early 20th century to replace an older European philology-oriented methodology, in which the texts were described without actually reading from any in class. Thus, as an underground student I took a year-long ‘traditional’ course on 18th and 19th century Spanish Literature, consisting exclusively of lectures about approximately twenty set texts. We were expected to read them all but we never carried any books to class, nor discussed them in any way with the teacher. This kind of ‘lección magistral’ aimed at very large classes is the equivalent of the Anglo-American lecture, which is then combined with the seminar, a type of undergrad teaching we don’t have a tradition for in Spain. In most English Studies Departments in Spain we do use, then, the seminar format but applied to large groups, ranging from 20 students in the elective courses to 90 in some compulsory core courses. Yes, absurd!

Since we have not really managed to convince students to read the books in advance and contribute their own passages for comment, I believe that what we do in class fails on both counts: it is never as informative as a lecture, nor as effective as seminar in-depth analysis. My own classes have become a very strange product: I read a passage, comment on it and students make notes of what I say, as in a lecture, instead of contributing their own comments. Only a handful talk with me, which does not necessarily mean that they have read the text, they may just elaborating on the specific passage. The bigger the class, the less productive close reading is, even though common sense suggests that class discussion should be livelier with many participants. I need to add that I’m no longer sure about how close reading must combine with introductory lecturing, as it seems a waste of classroom time to transmit what can be easily found on the internet, especially when this is what we use for our own introductions. I won’t even mention the nightmare of producing a nice-looking PowerPoint in as few hours as possible…

I realize that I have never discussed with any of my colleagues how a text is prepared for class; actually, I have never been trained as a teacher on that central aspect of my profession. So what do we actually do?

Basically, I do as I did as a student: read the text once to get an overall impression, then again pencil in hand to locate what I call the ‘hot spots’. During this second reading, I make very brief notes of the plot in each chapter, which is an extremely tedious business. I hate it so much that often I can’t decipher my own handwriting. Then, whether this is legitimate or not I don’t care, I borrow another summary (from Wikipedia, or study aids such as Gradesaver), and produce–only for my eyes–a kind of composite creature, merging my plot notes with these other notes as briefly as I can manage. Next, I add to the summary thus produced the page number of the main passages from the ‘hot spots’ and, obviously, I place small pieces of paper marking the most relevant pages in the book. It is very important that the notes I take to class are visually very clear so that I see at one glance the ‘hot spots’ I want to discuss and the quotations. Funnily, although I usually select around ten, I never have time for more than six, yet I never manage to select only those six. Discussion inevitably leads to passages not marked and that are impossible to find in a hurry.

How long does it take to work on a novel using close reading? Well, it’s funny how a novel can be dealt with in a couple of sentences in a wider-ranging lecture–“Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall denounces that women married to abusive husbands in the 19th century lacked the protection of the law and were reduced to trusting the gentlemanly inclinations of good men”–but ‘covered’ only very partially even in ten sessions of frantic close reading. For, here is something else: what dictates the number of sessions are the needs of the syllabus and not the intensity of the text, which might require a year-long monographic course to really get to its core. Or surface.

On the other hand, perhaps we’re overdoing it. Because of a series of external accidents affecting my program, I have been forced to compress my teaching into fewer sessions. Novels that should have been taught in seven sessions have been reduced to four. Hence, I’ve had to talk ‘about’ the text rather than read from it as extensively as I wanted to do. Strangely, this change is not so negative as I would have assumed because attention to textual detail often results in not having the chance to discuss larger issues in the text, from characters’ narrative arcs to plot architecture. And it’s great to be able to do that.

What is it like for a Literature teacher to prepare a novel for a series of close reading sessions, then? A time-consuming chore. Let’s say, for the sake of argumentation, that a 300-page contemporary novel to be taught in 5 sessions takes 5 hours to read the first time, and 8 the second (pencil in hand, marking text, making notes). Add 3 hours to produce a summary, then, say, 3 more hours to check bibliography (download at least one article and read it, check at least 3 other sources). This is already 18 hours, plus, say 2 hours for the PowerPoint, if you’re lucky, that’s 20 hours for 5 sessions of 75 minutes each, 1.92 hours of preparation for each hour we teach, instead of the official 1.07 in my university. And this, of course, is just a silly figure, for to properly teach any novel, you need to have read many, many others novels, other Literature, and plenty of literary criticism… What I teach every session has taken, in fact, 33 years of my life to prepare, since the day I became an undergrad.

Time-consuming as preparing a novel for class is, I find it increasingly difficult to ‘control’ the text. No matter how often I have taught the text and how hard I have worked on the summary and the passage selection, it is more and more complicated to keep the whole novel ‘fully available’ in my mind.

To strengthen my grip on the text, in a few occasions I have transferred the selected quotations onto a Word document, projected onto the classroom screen. With classics available online this type of document can be produced in a reasonable time, but with new books typing the selected quotations into your computer constitutes a waste of precious (research) time. A possibility is, of course, using both the paper copy and the ebook. Since we’re trying to convince students to buy the set texts, however, I find that projecting a selection of quotations rather than reading from the print book is a self-defeating pedagogy. With quotations from secondary sources things are, I believe, different and I see no problem in just sharing a passage without bringing the whole book to class. But maybe I’m wrong…

These days in particular, I feel that the bottom is dropping out of my own pedagogy, for I am having trouble handling in class the bulky text of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games. Summarizing in the manner I have described book three, Mockingbird, selecting the passages for discussion and writing the class notes took me about three hours of a very busy morning. This is for a book I have read twice, which means I was already using a copy with pencil markings and comments. After these three hours, however, and seeing that there was no way I could comment on so many aspects of the protagonist’s (gender) characterization in just 75 minutes, I threw it all away (metaphorically speaking) and decided to focus on just the last chapter and the Epilogue, using intensive close reading. And trust that the novel would be sufficiently ‘covered’ in one session (I’m using 7 for the whole trilogy, treating it as a single text, within a one-semester elective course on Gender Studies). In the end, I only had time to read three passages…

Perhaps I should be teaching poetry… Or use less close reading?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/