Just by sheer coincidence my first and my last post this month have to do with time and how we employ it in consuming fictions. I wrote on 1st September about whether investing so many hours on watching one of those US TV series so popular today is worth it. I argued that this is not the case (for me), and came to the conclusion that I won’t invest more than 20 hours in any given narration.

Then, two colleagues called my attention to a couple of related questions. On the one hand, Laura told me about a piece in about “How Long it Takes to Read the Most Popular Books” ( On the other, David emailed us to comment on Ian McEwan’s recent boutade, arguing that most novels are too long. I don’t have an exact link for this, but it seems McEwan offered this critique on Radio Four’s Today programme.

“My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil,” he claimed, when he reads books above the 800-page mark (think Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch). McEwan added that “The Americans especially love a really huge novel, they still pursue the notion of a great American novel and it has to be a real brick of an object. Very few really long novels earn their length.” ( McEwan’s most recent volume (224 pages) is a novella, he says, The Children Act, just 55,000 words long. McEwan’s statement has not really impressed readers: a poll run by The Guardian showed that 52% disagreed with him. One can always make the obvious claim that this depends on the novel in question, although I would agree that not all novels “earn their length.” Also, with McEwan’s hint that novelists need more than ever the good offices of competent editors.

If we take a look at the piece, we’ll see that McEwan’s novella is, rather, a novel, similar in length to Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate (53,234 words, the paperback is 256 pages long). I do not understand the calculations in that page as the logical thing to do would be to note the hours and minutes it takes to read a text, instead of which they use a decimal notation (2.96 hours for Esquivel’s book). If my mathematics work correctly, this is 2 hours and 57 minutes at a rate of 300 words per minute. 3 hours and 3 minutes for McEwan’s book (which he wants us to read in one sitting). I have checked and this is more or less how fast I (a very experienced reader) read, but it might not be feasible at all for, say, one of our first year students painfully reading in a second language. Or many native speakers of English, depending on their education.

Then, I doubt anyone can manage Sophocles’ Antigone in 0’61 hours (that’s 36 minutes, isn’t it?), reading at the same pace one would read a Tom Clancy thriller. Length is not all that matters, as my students, currently reading Oliver Twist must now be thinking. Just to comment on a few titles: the whole Harry Potter saga amounts to 60 hours (the time I spent watching The Wire!). War and Peace, the longest volume I have ever read at 1,800 pages requires 32.63 hours (with volumes that long, I tend to count days, not hours –it took me a long August to read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, same with Tolkien’s trilogy of The Lord of the Rings). And I don’t think that readers willing to read George Martin’s massive A Song of Ice and Fire care about the hours, days, months, or even years this will take.

I do not know whether this is a consequence of that Kindle function which enables you to see how long you need to read a volume (the machine establishes your speed once you read a few pages). Yet, something tells me that in this overcrowded fiction panorama of today time is beginning to matter (will writers also count the hours invested in particular novels?).

This came the same week my 13-year-old nephew and I had this crazy conversation about the new game Destiny, at 550 million dollars the costliest piece of fiction ever. We got into quite a tangle trying to work out how many hours (minimum) a player would expect from the game and how this related to its high price (55 to 75 euros depending on the retailer, though he had seen a special edition at 150 euros). Perhaps Mr. McEwan is missing the point that readers are happy to read thick volumes because (like gamers) they get value for money, that is, many reading hours. With his slim novellas one is done on any rainy afternoon (like today’s); that might be simply too expensive for someone used to paying what his little book costs for a thick paperback.

I puzzle, anyway, every time I take my Kindle to see that duration has replaced length for me as a reader. The first thing we do, Virginia Woolf said, when we pick up a new volume is to see how many pages it has. Not any more, it seems, or not always.

(I’m told games do not have a specific duration, as this depends on how we play them. I read though that the first player to reach level 30 in Destiny has consumed 107 hours, which seems to be an absolute record. Also, that other gamers are complaining that the game runs out too fast. So much to learn…)

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Back on May 12 I published a post commenting on my students collective volume, Addictive and Wonderful: Reading the Harry Potter Series ( Today, I’m announcing the publication of our second collective volume, Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series (

The elective I taught last Spring, ‘Cultural Studies in English: The Case of Harry Potter’ has given me many satisfactions but also much work, as I decided to turn it as well into an experiment on teaching. I’m writing this post today with the aim of describing this experiment, in case it is useful for any colleague out there. I am repeating many of these innovations in my current elective subject (also fourth year), ‘Gender Studies (in English)’.

To begin with, I choose a handbook, on which I based my initial lectures: David Walton’s excellent Introducing Cultural Studies: Learning through Practice. I soon realised that there was no way I could write one or several exam questions to test my students’ reading of this ultra-rich volume. I asked them instead to produce their own exam question: read the book, select a topic, find a text related to it (not Harry Potter), e-mail me the question. On the day of the exam, they brought from home a printed page with the question, and if they wished so, a quotation to comment on. Then they wrote in class the 500-word argumentative essay planned at home. It worked beautifully, not just because, obviously, everyone passed, but most importantly because they learned to ask questions rather than simply answer them.

The short essays published in Addictive and Wonderful were not part of assessment for two reasons: a) I hadn’t planned to publish this before the course started; 2) I want students to learn that assessment is not everything and that it’s fine to produce ideas for free (I’m doing this here all the time). When I started reading the essays, the idea of the volume came to me as a sudden inspiration. I have just checked and, as happens, 492 persons have downloaded already this volume from its location at my university’s digital repository. I had no idea we could reach this kind of readership at all. Something else I have learned, then. This semester I’m repeating the experience, with a volume by my students on gender issues (currently at its very early stages).

The second volume Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series, was clearer in my mind when I started teaching the subject but I think I miscalculated the effort it would entail from me. Not that I regret it, quite the opposite –once more, I’m trying the experiment again.

I offered my students a list of 50 topics, a wide-ranging panorama of Rowling’s series. I had no clear idea of the coherence the final volume might have but hoped for the best. My reasoning was that since I had to mark the papers anyway, I could turn my marking into preliminary editorial work, then use the corrected texts as the basis for a second round of editorial revisions before publication. I was quite sure from the beginning that I would not teach Harry Potter again, a decision I am going to maintain because there is no way I can reproduce the atmosphere generated by the happy convergence of a particular group of students and a particular group of guests. The volume would be a trace left for ever by that happy experience.

The papers were part of assessment and I awarded the corresponding marks. As it is my habitual practice, I asked for revisions in a handful of cases. Only one student among those who followed continuous assessment failed the subject, the rest passed but I decided to discard 5 of the 38 essays because they demanded a too extensive revision before publication. I was on the whole happy with the papers and awarded high marks.

The course was over by the end of June but I could not lay my hands onto the projected volume again until late August. This was good because texts need to cool down, if you know what I mean. When I took a second look, however, I almost gave up.

Even though I had provided my students with a template for their paper, thinking this would diminish my workload as an editor, and they had mostly used it well, I had to make the 33 final essays as homogeneous as possible in terms of editing. Luckily, I learned a few new tricks from Word which saved me plenty of time (like how to accept all revisions in the text). I spent anyway a whole week, Monday to Friday, working on the text. This included all aspects of text layout, including the cover, for which I had a wonderful illustration by the talented Genzoman.

In the preface I wrote that 85% of the text was my students, 15% mine. This is correct, I believe. Call me silly but I had not realised that the impression a student’s paper produces for the purposes of awarding it a grade has nothing to do with the impression it produces when you’re thinking of publication. I have by no means changed the nature of the papers but I have worked hard on the language, careful not too make it sound artificial for an undergrad. This has been a challenge: let it be as it is, but make it nicer. A little, yes, like applying a discrete layer of make-up.

What puzzled me enormously is that, once I saw the complete volume, it turned out to have much coherence. The essays are organised by students’ surname but –this must be yet another example of the magic haunting my Harry Potter course– they connect this way much better than in any other way I could have planned. I really think the volume is quite decent, a strange word, I know. I suppose other teachers have published similar volumes but the word that sums up how I feel is ‘proud’, very proud indeed. Whether this is a pioneering initiative or not, it doesn’t really matter.

Finally, without my university’s repository I may not have thought of publishing the volumes. I have my own professional website and I have published there plenty, yet I am convinced by now that the repository seems to work better. I wonder that people are downloading the volumes at all but it’s nice to see the count grow. I’ll be very happy if both Addictive and Wonderful and Charming and Bewitching reach 500 downloads.

I forget: this is as low-cost as it can be, and it is still a book. I have spent no money at all, just my own personal work and my students’. This, I believe, is how knowledge should flow: we have the instruments to generate content for the internet, and we must use them.

I hope this experience encourages and inspires other colleagues to do the same, in whatever courses they teach. And students as well.

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It is always thrilling to witness a key historical moment, and today it is one. The results of the Scottish referendum on independence mark, as many political commentators have noted, a decisive turning point in the History of the United Kingdom, which will have to revise urgently the conditions of the union (including, most likely, the establishment of an English local Parliament and Government –how intriguing!).

I am personally fascinated by the political savoir faire with which this delicate process has unfolded during the last fifteen years on both sides of the border. A friend who’s now a Glasgow resident emailed me a couple of days ago to explain that watching the debates was absolutely exciting. The very existence of these debates and the chance the Scots have had to manifest their opinion attest to the high degree of maturity and stability that democracy has in the UK.

My own reading of the 55/45 result, which I am offering here both as a Cultural Studies specialist very much interest in Scotland and as a Catalan, is that this is neither a vote in favour of the union, nor against independence. It is a vote that expresses uncertainty about the future. Perhaps this is my own interested personal reading but what I am trying to argue here is best summarised by the opinion of a Scottish gentleman I heard yesterday on TV: “I cannot vote ‘yes’ to a matter politicians disagree so much on”. He defined himself as an independentist.

Both sides stand to gain in the end: Cameron will be a hero for keeping the union alive, Salmond another hero for doing his best to grant Scots the right to choose. In my view, though, they have both lost: Cameron had to use a fear campaign to increase the ‘no’ vote, Salmond could not convincingly explain what the future of an independent Scotland would be like. Neither was persuasive enough about the benefits of staying on or of leaving. The anxiety about the future, rather than patriotism of either kind, has ultimately carried the day.

How do I know? Because even Cameron himself has realised that the union can only survive with less, rather than more, centralism. If the Scottish vote really meant a wish for a stronger union, there would be no need to grant the Scottish Government and Parliament greater powers as Cameron promised to do during his campaign. There might be even good grounds to withdraw some of the powers already devolved in order to strengthen the union. I heard talk today of a future ‘federal’ United Kingdom. Logically, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, who were holding their breath waiting for the results to materialise, are now also demanding more powers. Soon the English will also wake up from their lethargy and assume once and for all that England is one nation in the union, not the union itself.

The message behind all this is, in my view, very clear: people want matters closest home to be decided locally, and think of unions as fulfilling a role only for large scale issues and institutions (Scotland will not go to war against the Islamic State, but NATO will). Also, this is the second message, even though the small Scandinavian countries seem to be the most desirable model in many senses (Norway is the referent for Scotland), the republican federal model of the United States and Germany seem to work best for economic development. Most likely, a federal British monarchy (if they persist on supporting the Windsors, God knows why) is the solution best suited to that particular corner of west Europe.

In this particular corner of south Europe, the media are focusing today not on the result (which might very well reflect a similar division here, too) but on the fact that the Scots have had the chance to vote. Today the Catalan Parliament is passing a law to secure Catalan citizens’ right to be consulted in major decisions, a law than will be immediately annulled by the Spanish Government, for fear that the projected 9 November referendum might result in a pro-independence vote. I wonder why Rajoy has never considered, like Cameron, the possibility that the ‘no’ might win. His own permanent ‘no’ is fast undermining unionism and increasing the independentist ‘yes’. And, something else he cannot see, leaving Catalan unionists completely desauthorised.

I am personally worried sick about what might happen in an independent Catalonia as I believe we would all be impoverished and, anyway, we don’t have enough information to make a reasoned decision (what’s the rush, I wonder?). I do, however, firmly support the right of citizens to decide, not only on this crucial matter but on many other equally crucial matters like what kind of education, justice, welfare services, etc. we want. I actually would like the Spanish Parliament to pass that kind of law and, thus, prevent certain Ministers from implementing laws nobody wants.

The matter of Scotland might not be over. If I recall correctly, in Quebec they have voted on independence several times. I’m sure, however, that Salmond will take a reasonable break before he or someone else in the SNP tries again (perhaps one generation?). The funniest thing about the whole process is that an independent Scotland with her own monarch would see our dear Cayetana de Alba, the last of the Stuarts, crowned Queen Cayetana I. Alba, of course, is the Gaelic name for Scotland. Here we don’t even know whether we’d be a Republic, or, this is a nice joke, still part of King Felipe VI dominions –a joke since he’s a Borbón as much as the independentists arch-villain Felipe V, his direct ancestor.

Congratulations, once more, United Kingdom, on facing a major crisis with an admirable democratic spirit. I hope citizens in Scotland continue the debate and work for what really matters: a transparent political system, accountable to all voters, and as close to them as possible.

[By the way: I’m celebrating today the fourth anniversary of this blog. Thanks for reading me!!]

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I am very fond of timelines. I find that one of the problems of the post-traditional model of education is that it has condemned memorizing as a useless nuisance. This leads to a great deal of imprecision regarding exact historical dates, which in its turn produces a hazy impression of historical periods. Without learning particular dates one may think that the whole 20th century is an undifferentiated mass of events with just a few major highlights. Thus, it is not rare in Spain for young persons to name incorrectly the years when the disgraceful Civil War took place (1936-9) and to suppose that Franco’s brutal regime ended much earlier than 1975.

The problem with timelines is that they are actually of little use for study. You may check a detail or two, take a general look –but who can read a timeline in detail and absorb all that information? This is why I find that timelines only help us to memorise dates if you produce them yourself. Hence, I am always producing new ones in my own study time. It is not easy.

I am currently working on a timeline which, here’s the contradiction, I might eventually publish in my website. I realised that I know more about British and American women’s history than about Spanish and Catalan women. This is why I decided to start a local timeline and later on add to it the key dates in US and UK feminism. My timeline is currently 45 pages long, I can say I have already learned very much but I do not know yet where to stop.

In principle, I decided to include key general political events (my grasp of Spanish History is not that good…), and dates connected with women’s advances (mainly legislation, education, labour). I decided not to include literature, only books connected with the ‘woman question.’ The problem came when I realized that, as Isaías Lafuente hints, domestic innovations –like the mop, invented by Manuel Jalón and first commercialised in 1958– and others, like sanitary pads (no reliable date so far) may have changed women’s lives much more deeply than certain pieces of legislation.

Then, I came across a website on the evolution of the women’s liberation movement in Spain during the 1960s and 1970s, and it was so dense with dates that my using them would automatically require the same for all periods. Finally, guess what? The hardest periods to reconstruct are the most recent ones. I don’t know the date when gay marriage was introduced in Spain. Um. It’s 3 July 2005 (just checked).

One thing that is quite clear, reading Geraldine Scanlon’s impressive pioneering study La Polémica Feminista en la España Contemporánea 1868-1974, published in 1976, and Pilar Folguera’s slim but very information collective volume, Feminismo en España: Dos Siglos de Historia (1988), is that Spain is also different when it comes to how our feminism compares with the rest of the Western world.

Both volumes make it very clear that there was no feminism movement as such until, properly speaking, the 1970s. We had formidable individual figures (Concepción Arenal, Emilia Pardo Bazán, Clara Campoamor…), many associations of different signs but no all-encompassing movement. When the chance came for that, after Franco’s death, the ‘Transición’ took much of he necessary political energy away from the movement. At any rate, believe it or not, this is the best historical moment ever for women in Spain. Hopefully, the women living in the 22nd century will find ours still an obscure time.

If anyone cares, this is a rough division into main periods of women’s history and feminism in Spain:

*1724-1868: Enlightenment ideas enter Spain (with the French Bourbon dynasty). Men who believe in them, and a few women, start a very timid reform of public education for women (primary and professional levels, schools for teachers).
*1868-1939 Individual women feminists fight for the rights of women (access to secondary and higher education, and the professions); also, with much division, the vote. Many feminist associations are formed in the 1920s, none major. Brief period of fast advances under the Republic (vote and divorce 1931) and the Civil War.
*1939-1965 Franco’s military regime imposes traditional ideals of womanhood. Women are split into meekly following these ideals, or struggling to end the dictatorship (clandestine resistance organised by left-wing political parties and women’s illegal associations)
*1965-1982 Full emergence of the feminist liberation movement, particularly after 1975. Women are split mainly on class lines between the need to consolidate left-wing policies and the need to work specifically for women’s gains.
*1983-2014… Institutionalised feminism (after PSOE wins 1982 election). Legislation becomes the main tool for equality, together with education, supported by widespread social acceptance of the main feminist tenets (feminist activism remains fragmented in a myriad organizations).

Um… 2014-2044… Full equality of rights and opportunities is reached for women of all classes, mysogyny is considered a relic as intolerable as cannibalism. Gender divisions become irrelevant as all, men and women, face life from the same position.

Now back to the timeline…

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Last year a lecturer from a Scottish university, where I’d been a doctoral student, emailed me after more than a decade without contact. She explained to me that she was retiring (to Mallorca) and looking for a home for her collection of books on Gothic. Would the UAB be interested? Oh, my!, I thought, but this is wonderful news. The library kindly accepted to pay for shipping expenses and soon enough they even staged an exhibition to publicise the donation –more than 100 books. I got to keep a few which we already had. Anyone thinking of working on Gothic in Spain or nearby… come to us!!

There are a few things that puzzle me about this case, like why did this lady bring all her books to Spain rather than leave them in Scotland. But what puzzles me above all is what the gesture of giving her professional books away means in relation to our profession.

I recall a colleague who retired a few years ago dismantling his bookshelves in his Department office, even throwing in the bin some old paperbacks but, somehow, I assumed this was the tip of the iceberg and he had the main collection at home. I myself have half my books at home and half in my office, and I regularly take the ones I no longer find uses for to the library. I cannot, however, imagine myself dismantling my library for good, though I also wonder who would want all these, mostly, cheap paperbacks.

The library receives, now and then, immense book collections as bequests. Professor Francisco Rico, who retired in 2012, donated 5,237 documents… which makes me wonder about the size of his home. Professor Xavier Úcar, of the Department of Systematic and Social Pedagogy here at UAB, donated more than 700 SF works a while ago (*cat/a?SEARCH=(col•lecci de ciència-ficció de xavier úcar), as he happens to be an avid reader and simply cannot keep at home all he reads. The pity is that the collection remains housed in the basement… so unless you know it exists you don’t see it.

There are, then, circumstances that justify massive donations: retirement, home size and, of course, death. One of my colleagues has often told me that when she is gone she wants me to make the suitable arrangements for the library to keep her books as a special collection. Fair enough.

What puzzles me about the Scottish lady professor I mentioned at the beginning, and a couple of other cases I’ve heard about recently (also in Britain) is the firm severing of the ties with our profession. A while ago I opened a space in the Department for book crossing and it is always empty (except when I leave books there!). The few books that turn up now and then are either extremely specialised studies the owner clearly does not want, or best-selling novels mostly of a trashy kind (best given out anonymously). University teachers, it seems, are, like Prospero, very fond of their books.

Perhaps, though, I simply misunderstand retirement, possibly because I look forward to my own as a time when I will be finally able to write non-stop if I want. My main hobby is reading and, somehow, I imagine retirement as something quite similar to my current holiday time: lots of books, time to think. I keep on forgetting that research as we do it today, with all the accountability mechanisms thrown upon us by Ministries and sundry agencies, can be psychologically oppressive. And that the gesture of giving the books away may have to do with finding relief for that oppression. Yes, indeed, I can think of a few books I’d rather never see again.

Anyway, I must say that all considered I’m very happy that this lady, whom I’m not mentioning because she was not particularly interested in the library naming the collection after her, thought of me. At a time when the crisis has reduced our book-buying sprees to practically nothing, this was a gift from heaven.

Now, please, students and colleagues, enjoy these books… (tip: search the UAB catalogue, by ‘paraula clau’, type in ‘gothic’ and voilà…)

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I have chosen a very tricky topic for this, my 300th post, inspired by an article in El País, entitled “La Universidad expulsa a 30.000 alumnos al año por rendir poco” ( I don’t know what to make of the word ‘expels’ in this headline, as I connect it with inadmissible behaviour. I would have use instead ‘no permite seguir (sus estudios)’, which is not quite the same.

Some raw data: the Spanish public university has about 1,000,000 students, which means that 3% (= 30,000) are barred from following a particular degree, though not from attending university altogether. The article explains that after two failed attempts to complete a degree third opportunities are hard to get by.

In the old Licenciatura times (before 2008), students might attempt to pass a subject 6 times (this included the September exams, now gone); the trick was that ‘no presentado’ did not count, which in practice meant that students might take years, even a decade, to obtain the corresponding credits. The new ‘regimen de permanencia’ in my university (each has its own) has regulated this, establishing a minimum of credits to continue in the degree and also determining that 3 ‘matrículas’, that is, three chances to register in about there years, is the maximum time for a student to pass a subject.

The regulations to remain in a particular degree are not very harsh. My university, for instance, establishes that first year students must pass 12 ECTS credits (out of 60) as a requirement to enrol in second-year subjects. They have two years to complete a minimum of 30 first-year credits. As I’ve been frequently told, one thing is how you design a Syllabus for a degree and a very different one is how students follow it… The regulations are intended, then, to draw a line beyond which a student can be told to give up. Or must be told.

Last Spring we at UAB counted for the first time how our students are doing in the new European-style degrees. I actually got into a panic (I’m BA degree Coordinator) because a good student warned me that he had used up the three chances in two of his subjects and, now in his fourth year, he might not be able to finish the degree. Holy cow, I though, how many more must there be? Well, it turns out that 45 students are facing the same problem –though what really scared me was that a handful, about 5, had exhausted their chances for between 4 and 5 subjects.

Then a Coordinators’ meeting was called and I discovered that this was not so bad, as some students in other degrees were in trouble in 10 subjects, and a particular degree had one third of all its students at risk of being ‘expelled’ (in too many cases because of transversal subjects irrelevant to their studies). We were told that new instructions would soon follow and that, most likely, the 3-chances rule would become a 4-chance rule, as it has (I think). I hope I am not disclosing any sensitive details here…

What do I think of all this? The old Licenciatura system was simply bizarre. It perpetuated the presence of students in our classrooms unnecessarily, and did not encourage them to make an effort. I firmly believe that the new system, with its three chances to register for a subject, is far more reasonable. What I did not expect, and do not quite understand, is that so many students would be in trouble. Somehow, I imagined that the problems would be concentrated in the first and second year but I never imagined that students about to graduate might fail to do so because of just 1 subject, even a first-year one.

I don’t know whether this will have been taken into account but for me there is a clear difference between the student in trouble because of 1 subject, and the student in trouble because of 5 (or 10). The regulations clearly require some leeway to solve individual circumstances, and in a way they already cover that. On the other hand, my very personal impression is that students have not really paid heed to the sword dangling over their heads; many have proceeded with a certain cavalier attitude, perhaps hoping that the university would not really dare ‘expel them’.

The article in El País actually dealt with an unfair situation in the Universidad de Oviedo by which misinformation about registration requirements had put many students on the brink of expulsion. I agree that the regulations must be clear, transparent and sufficiently publicised. I also understand that working students have more difficulties than others to pass their subjects (I sympathise, I was myself a working student).

Yet, there must be a limit: public universities cannot waste resources on educating students whose talents lie elsewhere, it is as simple as that. Besides, I’m sorry but I’d rather be a patient in the hands of a doctor who passed his degree according to plan, and not after 4 attempts for each subject. In our case, with many students stuck in certain subjects because their command of English is not strong enough, I’d recommend a stay abroad –working if they cannot afford anything else. As I did myself.

I know this can raise much controversy but being barred from continuing a particular degree does not mean a student is branded as ‘inept’. They may have simple made a wrong choice in opting for a university degree, instead of professional training, or in choosing a particular degree. It’s not a tragedy.

What I cannot understand is the attitude of the students who must clearly see that they are not doing well but insist on torturing themselves, perhaps to please their parents, or to fulfil an unrealistic personal goal. Why not try something else? Before they tell you to go.

Find how to employ your natural talents best…

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