As anyone who enjoys reading Dickens knows, he had a very active interest in theatre to the point of staging amateur theatricals in his own home and taking part in them as an actor (that is how he met Ellen Ternan). His passion for drama is more than obvious in the dialogue of his novels, which is not at all like ordinary conversation; no wonder he electrified the crowds of Britain and the United States with his public readings.

Clearly, his novels are designed to be read aloud by a playful reader willing to perform the text, not simply read it. And it seems this is the way his novels were often consumed, whether in urban British Victorian households with the pater familias reading to wife, children and servants, or in the prairie camps of the ante-bellum America moving fast westwards, with the hardy pioneers taking turns to read to their companions. Many in the 19th century, it seems, never read Dickens but heard him, or, rather, listened to his written words.

Today, audio books are a growing business in the English-speaking world (not so much in Spain, who knows why), which suggests that the oral dimension of the novel has not been completely lost. We may have lost the ability to listen, however, since audio books are most often used as the background soundtrack to exercising, driving or cleaning the house, among other boring occupations. Making the most of the combination of working and listening (not just hearing), the Cuban tobacco factories still employ ‘lectores’ whose job consists of reading aloud a variety of texts for the benefit of the workers. In this way, even those who happen to be illiterate can claim they’re very well read.

It’s hard to imagine, in any case, someone listening attentively while doing nothing else, much more so a single individual, for this attitude can only assumed within a group: the audience in a book presentation, a book club, or a classroom. As a student joked last week as we read in class passages from Great Expectations, the problem is that if he read Dickens aloud on the train he’d be taken straight to the loony bin! And he’s right –the classroom is possibly the only space left where reading aloud feels natural. And where listening with full attention happens. More or less…

Dickens calls for quite a bold performer and students of English don’t like reading aloud in class, as they don’t want their mispronunciations mocked by their peers. The consequence? We teachers bear the burden of reading aloud, as well as we can… and end up perhaps amusing more than teaching our students. My guess is that all teachers of Victorian fiction have an embarrassing memory of voicing little Pip as he’s scared by the ogre –the escaped convict– at the beginning of Great Expectations. I got lucky this time since half the attention was diverted towards the girl student who read so beautifully the convict’s part (she has a training in acting). I am sure that her peers were a little awed by her performance. That was just what I needed to convince them that Dickens invites readers all the time to use, if not their actual voices, at least their mental theatres and, well, play.


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

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

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

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

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


I’ve started teaching Great Expectations and, as our times will have it, I have used a PowerPoint presentation to accompany a brief introduction to the life and works of Mr. Charles Dickens. In the course of searching for pictures that might make this write out of the remote Victorian past more real for them, I came across Claire Tomalin’s acclaimed biography of his supposed live-in mistress for 13 years: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (2004). ‘Supposed’ as no documents attest to their actually living together, for this silenced romance was regarded as a scandalous affair in Dickens’s lifetime (1812-1870).

I don’t favour at all biographical approaches to writers’ lives and much less gossip about their romantic privacy, although this is still quite widespread (just read the magazine Qué Leer for a contemporary version). I make a point of never reading biographies, feeling that they can hardly bring a satisfactory explanation to the riddle of why/how some people grow up to become writers. Also, because I feel that many other biographies could be equally enlightening and even more exciting, and I don’t mean those of football players –think here housewives or truck drivers. I am sure Dickens himself would agree that either any life or none at all deserves a biographer (who writes the biographies of biographers, I wonder?).

Just as Pip imagines that his father’s looks reflect those of the letters on his grave, I wanted to imagine that Dickens’s personality reflects the ‘letters’ in his novels. I pictured him not just as a genius but also as the kind of warm, committed person I definitely would like to meet and make friends with. Now my idol is fallen, quite possibly for ever.

What’s changed? My internet search led me to a webpage on his wife, née Catherine Hogarth, which disclosed how nasty Dickens had been to her after they separated and, yes, before. I read gossip I want to forget about his being quite unsympathetic towards Kate during a long breakdown, caused by their baby daughter Dora’s death. It seems he even published a notice in the newspapers when they formally separated in 1858, essentially blaming her for her incapacity to run their large household (there were at least two sisters-in-law helping the wife, maybe the husband had a point?). Someone claimed that Dickens even blamed Kate for their sprawling family of ten children.

I don’t have enough elements to judge Dickens and I don’t want to have them –instead of borrowing Peter Ackroyd’s famed biography from the library, I borrowed Dickens’s own American Notes. My students will learn about the difficulties of divorce in Victorian times but not about Dickens’ ungentlemanly behaviour, unless they read this post (is this censorship?). Yet, I am disappointed, not just as a daft groupie, which I am, but mainly as a feminist teacher who, once more, must separate the man from the artist.

Others may find this irrelevant or even androphobic (I hope it’s not), but when I admire a writer, I admire a mind that I suppose untainted with major sins: misogyny, racism, snobbery, homophobia, anti-semitism… If the mind is tainted, so is my pleasure in the text.

As a woman I am of course particularly sensitive to misogyny. Yet, finding out about Dickens’s private life is teaching me, to my surprise, that I am more willing to accept misogyny in the man’s text than in the man. A radical feminist would tell me I should expose both in class, text and man, as they are inseparable. Being no radical (or not always) and because I still love the text even though I love the man much less, I’ll teach Great Expectations with the enthusiasm it deserves, pointing my finger at its weaknesses, and including mine for Dickens.


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

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

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

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

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

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


A student in my Victorian Literature class complains (the third time in five weeks) that we’re reading too much and too fast for this subject. I do worry, as I know that he is bright and capable –also that, like too many of our students, he works, given the serious scarcity of grants in our system. His complaint, by the way, is motivated by my blurting out in our final, seventh session on Wuthering Heights that it’s shameful that students haven’t finished reading it yet. Typical reaction, right? Mine and his.

How much is too much, though? I don’t think that a graduate in English (as a foreign language) can claim s/he has a basic knowledge of Victorian fiction if that’s based on fewer than four texts. As for speed, working out how many pages of wordy 19thC English an average Spanish second-year student of, well, English can read in one hour leads nowhere: the problem, I feel, is, rather, how many hours students devote to reading. Or do I mean endure reading non-stop? (Excuse me if I offend the truly devoted readers)

Essentially, there are two ways of teaching Literature. You may teach a History of Literature based on plenty of data and brief passages from literary sources, and leave to students the choice of how much Literature they actually read. The risk? Students may read no book at all –maybe not even a poem. Instead, we select a few representative texts and comment intensively on them (with groups of up to 100 students…, 40/50 on average, a small miracle!). We do offer introductions but, basically, we trust students to read History of Literature on their own. The risk? Students may read no secondary sources at all and end up with a confusing, patchy image of the History of English Literature.

What’s driving us, teachers who favour close reading, up the wall, is that students hardly ever read the set books BEFORE we start commenting on them (some NEVER do, as one of the best students I’ve ever hard candidly disclosed). Also, once started, they take very long to finish. English Literature teachers in Spain complain about this all the time: how are you supposed to analyse a text without students’ being previously familiar with it? I’ve even had students asking me not to spoil their reading by commenting on the book’s ending!!

This makes classroom close reading terribly constrained, as it imposes an awkward chronological order on what we comment on, for we patiently wait for students to read on (plod on?). At least, I do, or have to. It also keeps analysis at a very elementary level, at least until the last sessions (or so I thought!!). I’ve found myself recommending to my students that they read plot summaries before they read each chapter, which, yes, I know, sounds desperate… And I don’t even want to think today about whether my students are reading the secondary sources in English (4 articles, compulsory; 1 book, recommended). Some other day…

I wonder whether my colleagues in the Spanish or the Catalan Departments face the same problem, working, as they do, in our own language(s). I also wonder if this is happening in Britain… Somebody tell me!!

The main reason for our difficulties is, I’m sorry to say, that the English students learn in secondary education is painfully inadequate. It’s amazing how a novel that seems quite accessible becomes, the moment I read a passage aloud in class, an almost impenetrable maze. Yet, we’re too pressed for time to wait for our students to have a good enough command of English to read fast, much less to appreciate the nuances. Surely, there’s a minimum they should read before graduation.

A colleague suggests that I reduce my list of four down to two books, but if we go down that road we might end up reading just ONE book and maybe need a whole year. Yes… that how Victorian readers read but this is a luxury we, as teachers, can’t afford nor allow students.


I was teaching Wuthering Heights, trying to convince my students that when Heathcliff characterises his wife Isabella as a very dumb creature who has stupidly mistaken him for a gentleman hero of romance, Emily Brontë is actually pulling the rug under our feet –‘we’ being the women readers who, like Isabella, are mesmerised by the villain Heathcliff.

I was in the middle of ranting about the ills of clichéd romantic fiction and how it generates too many dependent, abused Isabellas in real life when I realised that my focus on the heterosexual readers of Brontë’s masterpiece was excluding a male gay student in my class. He’s openly gay, in case this clarification is necessary (um, just I am openly heterosexual…). Not that he complained at all; I did, silently and to myself, feeling suddenly self-conscious about how the heteronormative 19th century discourse was colonising my own teaching.

As a researcher I specialise in Gender Studies (yes, not Women’s Studies) and that’s how I teach. Many may disagree with this approach but I feel that as a feminist teacher of English Literature I fulfil a double mission: teaching about the texts as outstanding narrative, and teaching about their heteronormative context in order to make ours more visible, less powerful. This, of course, supposedly might also help any gay student, male or female (why are the lesbian girls so invisible??).

Actually, I am reading Wuthering Heights with a focus on how the unexpected homoerotic bonding between Heathcliff and Hareton should not blind us to Brontë’s defence, through the latter’s vindication, of a softer version of patriarchy by no means subversive. Yet, I hadn’t wondered until last week whether this is enough. I do have the training to offer passable queer readings of all the Victorian texts I’m dealing with –think what comes next: Great Expectations, Dr. Jekyll, Heart of Darkness– but I am not sure heterosexual me can be totally fair to the identities and interests of the homosexual(s) in class. I am not (hetero)queer enough no matter how hard I try not to be, at least, heteronormative straight. I do hope that my assessment is fair enough to alternative queer readings of the texts and I hope they materialise.

As happens, I’ll be teaching in a few days a seminar within Dr. Rodrigo Andrés’s exciting ‘Queer Readings’ extension course at UB. My seminar deals with Sarah Water’s lesbian novel, Tipping the Velvet. I had submitted a 20 minute paper to the conference that Prof. Andrés has organised for 4-5 November, «Noves subjectivitats/sexualitats literàries», but I was invited instead to expand that into a 3-hour-session. My panic transformed my paper on Waters’ mainstream success into an examination of how I, as a heterosexual feminist, can read a lesbian text that doesn’t address me. Can, not may, as I believe I have a right to read Waters, as much as my gay student surely can read (critically) that heterosexual novel, Wuthering Heights, and queer it. I should ask him to enlighten me about how he’s doing it, though I don’t know whether this should be privately over coffee or publicly in class. To be honest, I don’t even know how to address the issue…


This post is not so much about teaching as about writing academic essays.

I’m working on a paper on the concept of sexiness as regards men under the female heterosexual gaze and for the umpteenth time I’ll have to quote Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” (In The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. Eds. John Coughie and Annette Kuhn. London: Routledge. 22-34; 1992)

I have no idea how quotations are counted for impact indexing –I imagine underpaid students boringly keeping track of who quotes whom, in an Orwell-style open-plan huge office– but, surely, Mulvey’s already quite old essay (for our hectic academic standards) must have broken all records.

What irks me is that I don’t agree at all with her psychoanalitycal conceptualization of the person holding the active gaze as male. Many, many other feminists have expressed the same annoyance with Mulvey’s categorization of the passive as feminine and the active as masculine, which has in practice prevented heterosexual women from clearly explaining how they desire the [onscreen] men they find sexy (I’m trying to explain this, at least to myself). Yet, inevitably, we have to quote her in order to manifest our disagreement and offer alternatives that never really seem to discredit her work.

This leads me to the conclusion that, quite possibly, the most often quoted author needn’t be the one who best illuminates an issue. I see Mulvey’s merit in breaking new ground for the understanding of the mechanism of desire in film consumption and I see how she contributed to clarifying the exploitation of women as sexual objects by plenty of voyeuristic masculinist cinema, thus inviting women directors to re-imagine film (although, to tell the truth, I find only Kathryn Bigelow up to the challenge and she’s been called a ‘male-in-drag,’ just imagine… Well, see her Point Break, please.).

Anyway, I assume we quote Mulvey again and again because of her ground-breaking effort but I get tired of endorsing her work in one way or another and it worries me that, 35 years later, there’s no new ground-breaking work to ‘replace’ hers. We seem to be too busy saying NO to her to come up with a radically new idea. I have the impression that only work that forgot about Mulvey could really offer a truly new approach but I know that simply ignoring her won’t do, as it would be, yes, bad research.

Mulvey would matter less to me, of course, if impact indexes were not a reflection of mere quantification. Her impact index must be, of course, enormous but I wonder why/how impact can be positively quantified even when of this irking, negative kind. I wish I knew how to write an essay so wrong that it would prompt everyone to quote me in disagreement and I’m beginning to realise that maybe that’s a merit.

In my stupidity, I though that impact had to do with making a striking point that generates productive consensus and a significant paradigm shift (yes, Judit Butler’s Gender Trouble did that back in 1990). Mulvey did shift the paradigm but I still puzzle that she did so by generating disagreement and, although that’s also VERY productive, personally I prefer quoting those I admire.


A post today on the uses of virtual environments to help teach Literature. From the title you can see that this week I have been learning to use Moodle, maybe much later than you, my reader (if you exist), as it seems dear UAB has not been exactly in a hurry to open its Moodle classrooms. We’ve had our own platform, Virtual Campus, for a number of years now and even though it is less flexible than Moodle it seems both are going to coexist for a while. I myself feel right now too laaazzzzyyyy to open my Moodle classrooms.

Moodle, all considered, seems fine to me, maybe a bit overwhelming at first with all those mysterious menus. It is also time-consuming, which makes it particularly apt for courses of fixed content in which material and exercises are repeated from one year to the next.

This is precisely the reason why I’m not so happy about its applications to teaching Literature, as all self-respecting Lit teachers change the set texts as often as we reasonably can (even teaching Wuthering Heights for the twelfth time in a row is boring). What is, then, the point of developing, say, a quiz you’re only going to use once? (Um, maybe sell it? In the process of looking for materials for my Moodle class, I found out there’s an internet teachers’ market for PowerPoint presentations –and then we complain that students are lazy…)

Before you think I’m a technophobic Taliban (would I be writing a blog?) let me explain that I have been teaching an ‘Introduction to English Literature’ (compulsory for Humanities and Catalan) at the online Universitat Oberta de Catalunya since 1998. That’s already quite a long time but I haven’t really seen much change as regards how we teach Literature.

Essentially, students at the UOC read (and they do it well, being mature students mostly educated in the far more serious pre-1994 pre-LOGSE system), consider the questions in the exercises and write; I read their exercises, mark them and provide feedback. They DO learn. Do the Forum and the Debate compensate for what happens in a conventional classroom? No, I don’t think so, it’s quite impossible. Yet, my online students do in many cases, not to say most cases, better than their UAB equivalents. Why? I have already said: they have been trained/educated in another system and are far more autonomous readers and learners.

At the UAB we are being asked to use Moodle, which is a platform for online learning (or e-learning), as a complement to our ‘traditional’ classroom-based teaching. I am not sure this is fair, probably because I also teach online. I find Campus Virtual and Moodle VERY useful, don’t get me wrong, to keep the class up-dated, send messages, place materials in their hands. However, when last year I used the Forums, as I do at UOC, the result was mixed: positive peer interaction, yes, but both the students and myself felt we were doing too much. Don’t we have classroom time for debate? Why should we use Forums? (And what else can we do for Literature in e-learning, I wonder?)

In a way, virtual interaction works well for shy students and has become more and more necessary because classroom time seems to have shrunk. I don’t mean that we teach fewer hours (with Bologna and the new BA degree we actually teach more, which mystifies me). What I mean is that as students’ autonomy as readers and learners has not been encouraged by ESO (our secondary education seems to have destroyed all vestiges of that), classroom hours are needed for pretty basic stuff, such as making sure students follow the plot of the novels they read. More and more is pushed onto the virtual classroom and, therefore, home, but not as Bologna intends.

The idea is that the new generation, being used to the internet, will approach the traditional teaching of Literature with more eagerness if new technologies are used. My impression is that this is not the case, at least in a conventional, presential environment. Reading online has nothing to do with reading books and I, personally, prefer students to read books. The virtual classroom takes time off that and, anyway, no one can STUDY using a computer. We still need paper and pencil (yes, some eBook readers already allow users to underline and makes notes, that’s also valid).

I’ll get ready, then, to Moodle myself up hoping I won’t muddle my teaching even more. In the meantime, teachers who have never even bothered to prepare a photocopy pack will continue as usual… offline.


I wish this were a romantic post about counting the hours until seeing a loved one. It is not romantic at all, as here I want to comment on how our working time is being quantified to ridiculous extremes.

In Spain tenured university teachers are civil servants. The contract we sign with the Spanish state (or the regional governments) claims that we work 37.5 hours a week, 44 weeks a year (do we really get 8-week holidays? I hadn’t noticed). This amounts to 1,650 hours per year. The UAB considers that these hours should be distributed as follows: 560 (teaching), 560 (research), 200 (administration, excluding appointments for particular posts like head of Department) and 330 (training and free choice activities).

Here’s the obvious: you can’t really count the hours we work, much less distribute them in neat packages. Some universities are even trying harder than this –a colleague in Lleida tells me they keep a strange accountancy which details how many hours it takes to write an article. As if we were robots instead of thinking persons. Maybe that’s what they want, ‘they’ being the robotic bureaucrats that want to regulate our time as if we were factory workers (with all my respects to factory workers, including those in my own family).

Class hours, of course, can be counted but try to count the hours it takes to prepare one: from nothing, if you’re recycling last year’s materials, to anything if you’re reading a novel just for one or two sessions (plus criticism, of course). Then, everyone has the experience of reading a book or seeing a film in their leisure time and end up using that as the basis for an article, which becomes the basis for a seminar, etc, etc. How do we quantify this mixture of leisure and working time?

A good Literature teacher must read as much as possible, and this includes time on the train, the evening until early hours, weekends –plenty that falls outside the 37.5 hour contract. Writing is even harder to quantify as perspiration doesn’t always lead to inspiration and one piece may come to you as if dictated by the muses and another take ages, whether this is due to writer’s block or because, as I have said before, THINKING TAKES TIME.

Actually, I believe that there is no way teaching Literature, producing good research, being an improvised administrator, etc, etc, fits into a 37.5-hour schedule. Maybe if we counted all the hours we do put in, governments would realise how CHEAP we are, but, then, this is not what they want, do they? Also, if we shouldn’t have to waste our time making our own photocopies or being our own travel agents when we attend conferences, and if our groups were of 25 instead of 100 students, our time would stretch further.

And I’ll stop here, and I’m sure someone is already thinking that the 20 minutes it takes to write a blog post are wasted time or, even worse, time I cheekily take off my ‘well-paid’ 37.5 hours. By the way, today is Saturday.