Archive for June, 2016

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Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait VI (1953)

In my four years in Chapel Hill, I have mentioned it in passing and I have written about my girlfriend Melanie de Forbin-Gardanne by Jean-Louis Le Barbier but I have not dedicated a blog entry to one of my favorite spots. The Ackland Art Museum. That needs to change.

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My Sunday morning ritual

I discovered the Ackland in 2012 when I went to visit UNC during my Spring break from BB&N. I remember walking upstairs and coming face to face with some Goya prints from the Caprichos series. My mind was blown. Those prints let me know that Chapel Hill might look like a southern college town, but that it has some cultural weight. It was a deciding factor in my going to UNC.

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El sueño de la razón produce monstruos. Goya

Once school started, I discovered that walking home after Sunday mass I passed the museum. My Sunday morning routine was set: church, coffee and reading across the street at the beautiful Carolina Inn, and then walk to the museum, walk around and sit and read with Melanie. I know I am going to miss my Sundays in Chapel Hill.

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My girlfriend for the last four years, I’m gonna miss you Melanie!

This year was a bit special, the museum had an exchange loan with the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and we had Francis Bacon’s Study for Portrait VI, based on Velazquez’s Pope Innocent X. It was a pleasure to enjoy it all year long. The painting reminded me of Pierre Boulez sur incises that the Ensemble Intercontemporain performed at Memorial Hall. The piece is one, total and complete, but you have to use your imagination to “fill in the blanks”. The blurriness of the Bacon painting is also very tactile, like it was smudged. Another thought on the painting is that it is the real portrait of Pope Innocent X, it is what Velazquez would have painted if he could really represent the guy he was painting: a shifty, double faced, shrewd politician, a warmonger pope with a mistress – that might be why Bacon paints his own bedframe in the background of the painting.

For four years I have taken all my classes to the museum. We see the Spanish and Hispanic art (Picasso, Carducho, the Goyas, one of Korda’s original Che prints, etc.), I also took my French class when I taught French, and there is a wealth of French artists in the Ackland. When I was my Dissertation director’s Graduate Research Assistant for her 18th C. literature class I organized a class at the museum, and they set up some of those Goya prints in a special classroom they have. It was a great experience.

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Picasso print

After four years, I got to know the staff, the security personnel, the student employees, they could not be a nicer group of people! Professional, attentive, kind, funny, just great. I have always been a fan of the smaller, more intimate museums like the Sorolla or the Lazaro Galdiano in Madrid, the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston or the Frick in New York, so now the Ackland joins that list!

If we do not take time to appreciate beauty, how are we spending our time? This year has been another remarkable year for art, culture and beauty in Chapel Hill. It is a town with an exquisite taste for that which is beautiful. I have been lucky to enjoy that, even when in the stress of finishing my dissertation I had to miss some great performances.

The season started for me with Juliette Binoche, of whom I have been a big fan since the 80s, playing Sophokles’ Antigone in the T.S. Eliot translation, what a presence! I love strong women (now you know my vote for November 8).

UNC artist-in-residence, violinist Gil Shaham played Bach’s six violin solos. I think I still have goosebumps.

Two days later Shaham played Verdi and Tchaikovsky with the UNC Symphony.

As I become older, I have become more and more selective in my taste, but being a lover of the Portuguese Fado, I went to see Mariza, It was very nice, although I miss the tavernas in Alfama.

Another highlight of the year was listening to Riccardo Muti, directing the Chicago Symphony’s Beethoven’s Fifth and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. Of course as an encore he regaled us with some Verdi!

In November I saw The Ensemble Intercontemporain play some modern pieces. Pierre Boulez’s sur Incises for three pianos, three harps and three percussion blew my mind. Rock and Rollers talk about Phil Spector’s “Wall of sound”, I have also heard it mentioned about Brian Eno and U2, but this piece is more like a tactile wall of sound, like a curtain of sound. Watch for yourself and tell me what you think in the comments section!

Before the Christmas break, I saw the great Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker. Don’t mess with tradition.

Gil Shaham performed again in February, playing Prokofiev and Beethoven and I got to go with my composer friend, James.

After defending and delivering my dissertation I managed to catch a few more great events. The evening my dissertation was accepted by the Graduate School, I rode old Rocinante to a nice opera recital in Durham, Talya Lieberman sang a fantastic mix of Handel, Ravel, and Kurt Weill. Brava!

Back at UNC’s Memorial Hall I saw Les Arts Florissants perform a repertoire of Baroque Serious Airs and Drinking Songs. What a brilliant way to say farewell to four great years of jaw dropping concerts at Carolina Performing Arts.

Again with my dear friend James, we saw the North Carolina Symphony perform Handel, Haydn and Stravinsky’s modernist masterpiece The Firebird (1919).

On the theater front I saw not one, but two, Chekhov plays: Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, which the last time I saw performed was by my students at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts! I also snuck in one musical: Sweeney Todd, lovely Gore!!!

Of course I always support students’ productions and concerts which included two operas, the UNC Baroque Ensemble, the UNC Symphony Orchestra, and the University Chamber Players.

All in all, an extremely rewarding season, the likes of which I do not foresee enjoying in the near future.

Since I had taught high school for seven years before embarking on my PhD., I knew I loved working with that age group and in my heart of hearts I understood I was to go back to teaching them.

Back in 2011, in case I didn’t get accepted into a doctoral program, I contacted Southern Teachers Agency to help me look for teaching jobs in the South. I loved working with them, although I did get into UNC. So this time around I contacted them again, and I could not be happier with how they worked with me to find the perfect job. In fact, Southern Teachers was the only venue I used to seriously look for a job teaching secondary school Spanish.

Things took off right from the time I signed up with them. I did a very promising Skype interview in November with a boy’s boarding school in the mountains of North Carolina. During Christmas break, an all girls school in Chattanooga Tennessee booked me to go interview with them as soon as I got back stateside, which I did. They put me up in a beautiful hotel in downtown Chattanooga, and the morning of the interview I was picked up by the head of facilities,  which I found a very telling gesture. Unfortunately, things did not pan out that well later, as I was pretty much abandoned halfway through lunch to walk myself out of the school, disappointing. In January, Southern Teachers held a job fair in Washington DC, which coincided with me having to do some paperwork at the Spanish Consulate (that story is for a different blog entry). During this fair I met and spoke with many schools all over the South, but my most rewarding conversation was with a school in Florida. Our pedagogical ideologies clicked right in place, I was very impressed that there was a school that was not obsessed with AP exams, “we tolerate them” was their precise wording, preferred not working with textbooks, and so on. My cup of tea precisely.

As winter progressed I had many phone and Skype interviews, I also had to take days off to go interview at schools. This, besides requiring a lot of time, was unneeded in many cases, like when I had to teach a sample class at a school in Charlotte, North Carolina only to not be hired because “I did not use technology”. Of course this was what they call a “tablet school” where every student has a tablet and thus they are slaves, victims, to the technology. It did not help that they had given me a really bad unit to teach, with very little “meat” and a bunch of vocab – which I am against, vocab is hard to memorize and easy to forget. I was a bit disappointed at first that they rejected me, but when I realized that the best teachers in history: Socrates, Plato, and Jesus only had a stick in the sand as technology, I realized it was not me who was in the wrong. The plus side of these school visits was that I got to visit many places I did not know: Chattanooga Tennessee, Charlotte (twice), Asheville NC, and eventually Naples Florida, for that school I had been so impressed with at the job fair.

During my dissertation defense, after many interviews, and with a few offers on the table, Seacrest Country Day School in Naples Florida left me a message with an offer. Against all prognostications, that was where, surprisingly, my heart had been since that original chat in January.

Finding a job has been a fairly lengthy and tedious process, so I will break it up into two parts: Applying for university teaching positions, and Part II, looking for secondary school jobs.

Applying for that endangered species, the elusive, under paid, tenure track, university teaching job is quite a silly process, one basically has to start in the fall of your last year as a student. Although this is not entirely true, as we shall see… I was all geared up to join the ranks of the job seekers in August when the first question popped up: How many academic articles have you published? And where? Well, I did try to publish one a couple of years ago, in the fairly respected Boletín de la Biblioteca de Menéndez Pelayo. It was rejected, and I decided to move on and focus on my dissertation, which I deemed far more important than publishing anything. As usual, I was wrong. Tenure track university positions are so scarce nowadays that it is totally a buyers’ market, they get to set the rules. Also basically all universities are strapped for cash which is, as we shall see another crucial factor. So what one has published and where becomes a key deciding factor, who cares how good you might be as a teacher.

You see, years ago, I think it was my old Bentley College Dean and dear friend and mentor Bob Minetti explained to me how you have the big research focused universities and the “student centered” or “teaching centered” universities. This made perfect sense to me and it is what I have assumed as true ever since. Being passionate about teaching I figured these would be the schools I would apply to, that might value more my worth as a teacher than as a publishing machine. Now, with the cash crunch and oversupply of applicants, universities basically want candidates that have already published top articles in top journals, this is what will bring prestige, and thus money to their institutions. So do not believe the “student centered” or “teaching centered” spiel. That might have been years ago, they still preach that concept, but believe me, it looks like they could care less.

Besides the article business they want to see a Statement of Teaching Philosophy, a Research Statement, mock syllabi, etc. This is just a smoke screen, a distraction from what they really want. I am confident that if you have an earth shattering Teaching Philosophy Statement, and the best crafted (mock) syllabus, unless you have published at least one article in a respected, peer reviewed journal, you are nothing. They do not care about your teaching, if they do, it is not their priority. Which brings us to the fallacy of the teacher/scholar. Universities like to boast of their teacher/scholars. It is a very rare occurrence in nature to find a leading scholar who likes to spend hours, days in libraries, reading, writing – a rather lonesome job – I can guarantee you, who also loves to be in the classroom teaching and sharing what they are learning in their research, this requires a very different skill set and personality from the research oriented person. One is really either a teacher or a scholar, with maybe one in a hundred having both characteristics. My graduate school experience both at Simmons College (a small liberal arts school) and at UNC (a top research university) prove this point. So, to summarize, if you are looking to work in higher education, you have to ask yourself: am I a researcher or a teacher? Which is basically the ancient Greek saying from the Oracle at Delphi: “Know thyself”.

Going back to the academic journal issue. Basically the academic journal is nothing but the ID card for a club. One has always needed an ID to get into a club. Now, this is my theory: originally the universities taught in Latin. This was what set the educated from the masses. If you wanted in, you had to master Latin, sure, this was a lingua franca, but it was also a proof of membership, of how bright one was. Latin started losing its grip as early as the 13th C.[1] Eventually universities had to switch to the vernacular – and they are still smarting about that. So now you have to gain access by writing a long article, full of big words that you might not necessarily need, quoting second rate theorists like Lacan or Bakhtin. Remember that this is all my conspiracy theory, but then, why did Galileo Galilei publish his Dialogue for the general public and not for the cognoscenti? Ditto Albert Einstein who chose to publish his last thoughts on General Relativity in a “small journal after spurning the peer-reviewed process at a better-known journal, the Physical Review. To an editor at the Review: ‘I see no reason to address the erroneous comments of your anonymous expert’”.[2] In no way am I comparing myself to Galileo, Einstein, or Groucho Marx when he said: “I do not want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member”.[3]

Sorry about my rant. Now, back to my job search. Teaching two classes, writing my dissertation, preparing my job search materials, I wrote another article. At least I could say in my CV: “article submitted to…” (it eventually got rejected by an “anonymous expert” as Einstein would say).

Basically all university Spanish teaching jobs go through the Modern Language Association (MLA) job database. This year there were well over 200 different Spanish teaching jobs in the US. Most of those were for visiting professors, meaning you get a one year contract, non tenure track jobs, meaning you are “hired help” and treated as such, or for the “trendy” subjects, the ‘in vogue” topics. Of all those, there was only one posting for an 18th and 19th C Spanish Literature specialist. It was at Wake Forest, a perfectly good university. They sent me a nice email in December saying they were going to call me for an interview and another very nice email in April telling me they had chosen a candidate. I also applied to a more “generalist” position at Gettysburg College  (yes, that Gettysburg) only to receive a three line email that they had hired someone. All in all, I guess my heart was not into teaching at a university, and it showed. But I still had to “tick the box”.

This process led me to learn a few fascinating bits: I am a passionate teacher, I want to teach, to share, I love learning – from my students – not from some pompous punk that thinks they are the last Pepsi bottle in the desert because they got an article published. Universities are hiring very bright young things that might be good researchers and writers, but might not have a clue how to engage a room full of curious, sceptic students. Second: I do not want to be a member of that club, I would rather teach at a secondary school as I did in Boston before getting my PhD.

So I asked myself: At the end of a day teaching, would I rather go read an academic journal full of big words quoting Lacan and Bakhtin, or would I rather go coach soccer, tennis or fencing? The answer for me was clear, and that leads me to part II of this tirade.

[1] Paul F. Grendler. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore: JHU Press, 2002.

[2] Popular Science, November 2015

[3] Telegram to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills to which he belonged, as recounted in Groucho and Me, Da Capo, 1959, p. 321.

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Discussing job strategies with my Dissertation Director, the one and only Irene Gómez Castellano in Valencia with horchata and  fartons. 

 

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During my four years at UNC I have taught a great bunch of students, Carolina’s finest indeed. Every single one of them had a great talent: I have finally understood Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, thanks to a student who made a presentation on it – in Spanish! I have taught students that had full time jobs, students that were in every kind of club and activity imaginable. And I have taught many athletes: Rowers, Soccer players, Track and Field stars, Baseball players, female Rugby players, Swimmers, Football players – it is very rewarding when star wide receiver Mack Hollins stops you (not the other way around) on Franklin Street to say hi and catch up! -, and Softball players.

I taught a few Softball players my first year at UNC, and those girls probably told other incoming players, so throughout my four years I’ve had a few take Spanish with me. Walking across campus one day this Spring, I bumped into Lauren Fuller and Erin Satterfield, those girls are like sisters, and they asked me if I would – as their favorite teacher – throw the first pitch in the senior recognition game.

Confession time, I have never played, never mind pitch softball, so I watched a few Youtube tutorial videos, those girls are good. Then on March 25 I rode Rocinante down to the softball stadium. Those girls think of everything, I even had a parking spot reserved with my name on it!

All the seniors’ favorite teachers pitched at the same time. It was very nice, even a bit emotional, which would be a nice excuse to explain why my ball is now one of the moons of Jupiter, that’s how high I sent it. After that, I stayed to watch the game against Florida State. Although I do not know the rules, it was very exciting to see all my students play. What an honor to have been a small part of their Carolina experience and to be so generously rewarded!

Last night I finished proofreading the twelve translations I had promised the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill. With that job finished and emailed I sadly finished my volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. It has been an amazing four years. I have met the most amazing people: other volunteers, staff, families of hospitalized children and of course many of the children being treated. Although I have learnt a lot getting my PhD, what I have learnt at the House every Monday from 6 to 9 pm are the simplest, most basic lessons on humanity, on what our job is on this planet. It is not about the latest phone, gadget, money, clothes, whatever. It is about seeing a child smile, it is about helping each other out, even if all you do is get them a roll of toilet paper.

This last semester I was so frantically working on finishing my dissertation and finding a job, that I had to take a few months off from volunteering. But as soon as I delivered my thesis and stopped going to job interviews, I was back at the house; vacuuming the lobby, cleaning and preparing rooms for incoming families, cleaning up the kitchen, doing orientation tours for families, sorting soda can tabs for sale, taking the trash out, and just helping out. By far the most rewarding three hours of my week.

Besides helping at the house and translating documents, this year I again volunteered at the Spring fundraising Gala. The theme this year was Storybook Gala Under the Sea, which means: “The Little Mermaid”. This year I helped during the live auction, I was a “spotter” for my half of the massive dining room. I had to “rile up” the bidders, and jot down the data of the winning bidder. I naively thought I might bid on a nice box of Romeo and Julieta Cuban cigars, but when the bidding started at $500, I realized I would not be smoking a single one of them – the winning bid was $2000!!

My last few weeks volunteering were a bit on the sad side, as we all knew I would be leaving soon, so the whole shift team met for farewell drinks at Zog’s to mitigate the sadness. We had a blast! Our boss is Michelle, the evening manager. She is a bit of the mother goose for all the volunteers, at least during our shift. I love her management style, very understated, she speaks softly but easily gets her point across. I have three partners in crime that volunteer at the same time. Bill is the one that has been with me since the start. He volunteers chair massages for the families of the hospitalized children – although sometimes we get to sneak a massage for us. He is a star! He comes from the Seattle area, but he has had just about every job you can imagine. He used to work construction, even building a restaurant for Sonny Bono in LA! Although he has retired, he still volunteers building houses at Habitat for Humanity and gives chair massages at the USO lounge at RDU airport and at the Ronald McDonald House. He is like a big brother for me. Margaret is a hot shot executive at a Fortune 500 company, but you would never know it. She is quiet, brilliant, and funny, in fact the complete opposite of me. Our youngest addition is Sara, she was a senior at UNC and a manager of the UNC Football Team, so she always had great stories and anecdotes. I am going to miss them all so much.

Naples Florida does not have a Ronald McDonald House, but I am sure I will find new volunteering opportunities.