Saturday, April 25, 2015

Historical Memory in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

1) Photography is permitted throughout the Reina Sofia museum except in the galleries that that exhibit Civil War art.

2) On either side of the canvas of Picasso's Guernica now sits, on a high white metal stool, a guard specifically tasked with scanning the crowd and making sure that everyone complies.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Survivor: Iowa State

An Iowa state senator introduced a bill to turn the public universities in his state into a horrifying, multi-campus episode of Survivor: Under Senator Chelgren's proposal, tenure would effectively be eliminated and student evaluations would be the only measure of the faculty's worth and the ultimate deciding factor in who gets to keep their jobs. Anyone who didn't meet the minimum numerial threshold on the student evaluations would be automatically fired. Then one of the lowest-performing five professors above the minimum threshold would be voted off the island by all the students at their campus, whether they had taken a class with the professors in the stockade.

The senator thinks that since we are earning "a couple hundred thousand dollars" each year, we should be more accountable.

Is Iowa paying its professors six figures? I'm certainly not earning anywhere even close to six figures and certainly not multiples of six figures. And that's part of the trade-off, as I understand it: The job security of not being put through the Hunger Games on a regular basis that allows me to take my time and do thoughtful, meaningful research and writing of the kind that can only be produced over time and with deliberate, careful thought, in exchange for a lower salary.

The senator's ignorance of the most basic details about the finances of a university system he claims to be so concerned about is the outrage-headline point. But really the rest of it is more serious.

The bill has, fortunately, died in committee, but it's one more troubling reflection of current attitudes in government towards higher education: that there is no connection between research and teaching, that students are customers, and that faculty just aren't working hard enough. It is also reflective of a conviction that college students have enough perspective to be able to write meaningful evaluations of their professors, an idea that, at least in the academy, is being increasingly recognized as flawed. Gender and race biases are rife in teaching evaluations, and despite protestation to the contrary, many students do rate more highly their professors who are less demanding.

Yet the senator thinks that "students who range in age between 18 and 30 years old, who are spending thousands of dollars to get an education, are qualified to make those decisions."

I had been vacillating about whether to write about a particular discussion that I had with my cultural history students early on in our time together this semester, and the resurgence of this discussion tipped the scales in favor because it illustrates the problem with letting college students assess their professors and giving absolute weight to those assessments.

When I took over the cultural history class and transformed it into a research seminar, I selected several topics to assign to students based upon the original syllabus that I inherited. One student complained that she didn't want to read any more work by one of my NYU colleagues, whose extensive bibliography had featured heavily in that syllabus; and then she added: "And she looks so scary, too!" I let that slide, but within a minute or so the discussion had somehow turned to all four of them having Googled a picture of my colleague, and all four of them chiming in with negative comments about her appearance — especially about the fact that she's not smiling in her photo on the department web site, and about her hair, a la the kinds of comments Mary Beard got in the wake of her Pompeii documentary. And at that point I decided that the time had come to put a stop to it.

I framed my comment by highlighting the fact that our seminar is made up entirely of women — all four students and me — and that especially because of that, and because any of us could find ourselves on the wrong side of it, I wanted to point out some of ways in which that kind of assessment of people is very gendered. I didn't say anything that would surprise anyone who is aware of the issue or has thought about it, but the idea that their slagging off a professor's looks might be unfair and shaped by deeply-rooted social expectations of women was totally new to these students. I cited studies that have shown that women are more often evaluated based on our looks or personality traits even where our male colleagues are evaluated on their teaching ability and perceived brilliance. I further framed the conversation as being a way of helping them to advocate for themselves by helping them realize that this kind of discourse is a big part of the reason why universities are starting to take student evaluations less seriously and that if they want their opinions to be heard, which they should be, they need to stick to relevant topics.  I shared with them that one of the challenges that I face when I walk into a classroom is that I often have students who expect a kind of bubbly friendliness and nurturing when they see a female professor in her early thirties that is simply not a part of my introverted personality; and because of those expectations, I have had to work doubly hard to counteract student evaluations that conflate friendliness and an outgoing personality with professorial accessibility.

They definitely didn't quite get it at first. One of the students pulled up a picture of one of her professors, a man, and said she thought it was the creepiest picture in the world. Another student wanted to make sure that I knew that that she's not sexist; but they were quickly catching on, and before I could even respond, a third jumped in to reiterate what I had already said: that this was in no way a personal accusation, but rather a looking at how we've all internalized social messages and values about women in public, in cultural life and in the marketplace of ideas.

I love this group of students. They're thoughtful, enthusiastic, and hard workers. But they're still not totally equipped to evaluate me or my colleagues in productive and professional ways. Part of my role as a professor (or as their not-professor, in this case) is to help them begin to identify and interrogate the kinds of issues that are at play in real-world interactions where human judgment is still the final arbiter. But they're just starting out, just beginning to be able to see the issues, and just beginning to develop the critical thinking skills, the compassion, and the temperance to allow them to make decisions on sound bases. And as highly as I think of these students, they'd need years practicing those skills and of hindsight perspective before I'd put my professional future in their hands.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Richard and Miguel: Some Additional Thoughts on Getting Kicked Out of Church

This is a modified and expanded version of a comment I made in the FB thread discussing my earlier blog post; I'm sharing it here because it does allow me to flesh out a little bit some of the issues of handling cultural patrimony that were encapsulated in that bizarre encounter in the church:


There are two problems, really. One is that this convent really is not in any way equipped to deal with the wave of Cervantes-tourism that is about to descend upon them; and that's not really excusable because this wasn't a case of a child digging under a tree in some rural little backwater town, finding a finger, digging deeper, and discovering that the other arm is missing a hand and the world suddenly descending. The exact grave was unmarked, but we have always known where Cervantes was buried because it was his last wish to be interred in the convent that ransomed him from Algiers. The location and the significance of the find were known before the first spade-full of earth was ever turned.

This was not the hunt for the lost remains of Richard III. That dig was preceded by an impressive amount of investigative work to determine the location of a church that no longer exists, and then followed by hoping that a highly polemical historical record might not lead them astray.  In this case, though are talking about a man who died 200 years after Richard III, with legal documentation, and a peacetime burial by allies rather than enemies. There was never any real question that once the archaeologists started pulling up the floor they'd find a one-armed skeleton in a coffin marked "M.C." The scientific institute and the convent should have had a plan in place for the interest that this was going to generate — the interest that they were clearly trying to generate by timing the dig to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the publication of the second part of the Quijote.

Except that in a lot of the really important ways, Madrid is a total, little backwater. In lots of ways it isn't, of course: the Prado, the national library, the great places to eat, the bookstores, the boutiques. But in a certain aspect of peoples' manner and way of being and perspective, Madrid is still proudly the sleepy, uncultured little town it was before the royal court was permanently relocated here in the middle of the sixteenth century; and so why on earth and how, even, would they treat something like this as being of national significance and prepare accordingly? It's proof of Madrid still not seeing itself on the national cultural stage or seeing the broader implications of its own cultural patrimony.

That's where the second problem starts: In sites of cultural patrimony — especially but not exclusively Church-run or -owned ones — people take their jobs and responsibilities not just seriously but really personally. It's their own little fifedom and the resources under their custodianship belong to them and not to researchers or citizens. On the one hand it's great and lovely for a librarian to feel a bit proprietorially in love with his library collection, but on the other, it means that if you come to see something or use it for teaching and research, the response, as often as not, is basically going to be: Get out of my room and stop touching my stuff. It's just the prevailing attitude here.

Mounting a dig for the remains of one of the best and most historically important writers of the modern period and completely neglecting to think ahead to the draw that this will have for readers in Spain and worldwide — or even worse, not caring — is very much trying to have the best of both, selfish worlds: The convent is asking for renewed acclaim for being the burial site of Cervantes while keeping all the acclaimers at an arm's length.

(The right arm.)

The One Where I Get Kicked Out of Church

This church, to be precise, the one in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarian Sisters:

 As part of my "you're stuck with the cultural history students for the rest of the semester" plan, I'm taking the class on a few field trips to take advantage of what's unique to Madrid and also to make it a little bit simpler to prep classes on topics that are well outside my area of expertise. Yesterday I took them to the archaeological museum, which was brilliant. I think they got a lot out of it, asked good questions, all the good things that you want to have happen on a field trip. I had them read a chapter of Maryam Rosser-Owen's Islamic Arts from Spain (conveniently available in Spanish translation) and we talked about the 19th-century cabinet of curiosities as a way of looking back at the past. We'll have one more field trip, and I was thinking it would be interesting to go to the convent  where they've just discovered Cervantes' body and use that as a springboard to talk about the reception of Cervantes in the 20th century, about the role (physical and metaphorical) of the author, and about concepts of national patrimony.

Our program's admin assistant called to make a reservation for the group to visit. She was told that since the archaeologists are still working on the site they are not having regular visiting hours right now; however, she was told, we were more than welcome to come during the half hour before morning Mass and look around. I went this morning to see in advance how feasible it would be and whether it was really worth taking the students there when they might or might not be able to see much of the archaeological site.

I went this morning at 9, when the church opened, sat for a few minutes and took it all in, and then walked around the chapel a bit. It's exactly what you'd expect from a convent of that period: a lot of gold, nails, and blood.

 There was a room off to the left of the altar and through the grate you could see one of the priests putting his vestments on to prepare for the mass; and to the right of the altar, there was a door that opened onto a room with a few chairs. The door was wide open, so I went into it, thinking that perhaps I would be able to see the dig site in or from there.

But the next thing I know, the woman who had opened the church, a lay person, was standing right behind me, demanding to know what I was doing there:

Me: Nothing, just looking.
Her: No, there is no nothing. What are you doing in here?
Me: I'm not doing anything.
Her: You opened this door. You can't just open doors and go into places.
Me: I'm sorry — I didn't know that I couldn't be in here, but I did not open the door. It was already open.
Her: Yes, you did open this door. I never leave it open. It is always closed. Like this. [She closes the door to demonstrate.] The minute I wasn't looking you came over here and opened the door!
Me: I'm sorry I was in there, but the door was open and I didn't know I couldn't go in.
Her: There is no sorry! This is unforgivable! And unbelievable! You have to leave right now!

Suffice it to say, I will be taking the cultural history students on a walking tour of important sites from the filmmaker Luis Buñuel's life instead.

I think that the most absurd thing is that it's a sixteenth-century wood building. Everything creaks. If you walk across the floor, it creaks. When the woman closed the door, it creaked. If I had opened it, that woman would have heard it creak, and presumably come running rather than just finding me there. That and the fact that if they're telling people that they can come look around during the half hour before mass, they do have to expect that people who don't necessarily know the norms of that particular church will come to visit, and should post signage accordingly (or actually be careful about closing doors they don't want open).

I feel terrible because it's not like I ever want to be disrespectful in somebody else's sacred space; it's also the first time, though, that I've been somewhere where there was no clear indication, either by the floorplan corresponding to what I know to expect or through signage, that I was about to enter a space where I wasn't supposed to be.

There's more to say about sacred spaces and national patrimony and the fetishization of authors' dead bodies, but I'll leave that to another post. I'm feeling a little too rattled to be thoughtful right now. I shouldn't feel bad about it, but I still take getting shouted at kind of personally. Perhaps that's the point, though — an illustration of fostering obedience through intimidation?

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Semana Santa in Seville: Some More Nazarenos

Semana Santa in Seville: Pasos

 The central focus of the various parades are floats called pasos that have statues of Jesus and Mary. They are brought out of the churches with which the different confraternities are associated and paraded through the streets to very martial music played by marching bands.

I am time and again struck by just how pagan Catholic ritual can be.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Semana Santa in Seville: Women in Mantilla

Women in mantilla which, with all the dress-up going on, is worth noting is not a costume but, rather, formal dress for going to church on Holy Thursday:

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Semana Santa in Seville: Nazarenos and Penitents

I was in Seville for Holy Week and Easter last week, because that's the place to go; it was an anthropology and photography trip for me. It was completely surreal. Coming from the historical perspective that I do, it felt like a collective, national missing of the point in which people use the trappings of the Inquisition to reenact medieval penitential processions in order to carry out their own penance while ignoring the fact that the nation that they are now is not the nation that both carried out and fell victim to that Holy Office. It was awesomely uncomfortable — and the fact of the matter is that I'll never look at my doctoral robes the same way again, what with the explicit connection that academic dress has with this general movement — but the visuals were stunning.

The penitents will often choose to carry their crosses while going barefoot, an especially impressive feat of self-flagellation this year, when they were walking on asphalt in 85-degree heat.


One of the things that caught me off guard was the amount of eye contact passers-by were able to make with the Nazarenos. That in and of itself wasn't really anything of note, but imagining being able to make eye contact with the condemned of the Inquisition as they walked to accept their sentences was really unsettling.



There were some lighter moments in all of it, too, though.

I am pretty sure that Nazarenos are not supposed to give eskimo kisses.

And capirotes do make it very difficult to get through doors: 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Being the Professor vs. Being a Friendly, Older, Smart Person

In the spirit of sharing positive classroom experiences, as has been advocated over at Hybrid Pedagogy and other related and similar parts of the academic web (and to counterbalance what I do want to write about some missteps this semester but haven't quite fully finished thinking them through), I had a great class with my students yesterday. I'd love to be able to replicate it in the future but fear that the circumstances were so extraordinary that it just won't happen.

Some background: After a colleague had a medical emergency that required her to go on leave about a month into the semester, and because one of my classes for this term was cancelled, I was tapped to fill in. The trouble was that the class is on the cultural history of 20th-century Spain. Cultural history? Great. The 20th century on three-and-a-half days' notice? Deeply suboptimal. If I weren't under the gun to finish my book manuscript, I'm sure I could have managed to put together lectures on topics such as the role of women in civic life under Franco and just followed the syllabus. But I am, and so there was no way I could put in the kind of time it would take; so I agreed to take on the class on the condition that I lead it as a research seminar. I argued that I could teach the students methodology, theory and practice well and allow them to delve into a single topic of interest to them in a much deeper way. Initially this was supposed to last for four to six weeks, but is now looking like I will have the class for the whole semester since my colleague has not recovered as quickly as anticipated.

I created a schedule and teaching document to guide them through the research paper process. Since I was initially planning for a month and a half at the most, and since there are only four students in the class, I took the next for topics and offered them to the students as their research topics, requiring that they read the assigned primary and secondary texts dealing with their theme and then develop a bibliography of additional sources they found themselves. I told them that this was going to be a class that they'd get out of exactly as much as they put in.

At the first meeting I had with the students, it dawned on one of them that the pseudo-syllabus was my own work. Said she: "Wait, nobody at NYU handed this to you?" Said I: "No, Rob [site director] called me on Thursday and I put this together over the weekend." Said she: "This isn't half bad for a syllabus you wrote in a weekend." Another student, whom I had taught in a class last spring, added: "I was really worried when they told us you would be our professor." She realized how that sounded and added: "I mean, it's not that you're a bad professor." She realized that sounded worse, and concluded: "It's just that you gave us so much reading last year! I like this better."

And that's where the great classes and the irreplicable dynamic comes in. In reality, I'm not their professor. I walked in on the first day and was completely frank with them: I could help them with the practice of cultural history; but as for the material itself, while I'm not completely ignorant of the broad trends of the 20th century and while I've even read a decent amount from the Civil War period, this is not my wheelhouse. It's a very unusual situation, I told them, and we'll figure it out together. I'm not the professor. I'm a friendly, older, smart person with more experience and a few extra letters after her name who is helping them learn things for themselves.

It seems like it would be so artificial to try to replicate that posture in a regular class that I could teach in my sleep or underwater or standing on my head, but I think that it's what has led to such an open, fluid dynamic in the class.

Yesterday was the first day back from spring break and the students were supposed to turn in their rough drafts. When I asked if they were ready to swap with a peer for critique, they sort of... squeaked. I asked them what the squeaking meant, and they said that they had all had trouble/run out of time. It was a tight deadline (again, I was only planning to be with them for six weeks at first) and on top of spring break, I should have seen it coming. (To be fair, if I hadn't required a full draft, I suspect that they might not have gotten even as far as they did and wouldn't have had specific issues to discuss in class.) And they just started asking questions about their topic, about how to solve certain problems that they were having, and the discussion completely took off from there. They talked to each other, which I find is very rare in classes I have taught, asked each other good questions, and helped each other solve the difficulties they were having. I was there as a moderator who occasionally jumped in with an additional question or idea; they all walked out feeling much more confident about their research projects because they had much more focused ways of completing them. It was spontaneous and it was kind of perfect.

I don't know that deliberately instituting a fake schedule in the future would work. (I do that on a small scale in my regular seminars with first essays of the semester, having an unannounced peer critique and giving extra time to any student who wants to revise based on their peers' comments.) I think that it worked here because the students felt more at ease to totally blow a deadline because I'm not their professor and as much as they seem to like what we're doing, it's not what they signed up for. And obviously one can't count on spontaneity. And, finally, as I already said, I don't know how to replicate the "friendly, older, smart person" persona and the "in it together" spirit in a regular class without it seeming forced. That said, I'd very much welcome suggestions or thoughts on how to better encourage this kind of engagement in the future.