Desperate Literature (or interesting bookstores and libraries)

I fell in love with literature at the American School in London with a couple of great teachers: Soledad Sprackling for Spanish Literature and James McGovern for English. But I did not fall in love with books until college.

At Bentley University I discovered the Bowles Reading Room which had beautiful books. It was glassed in from the rest of the library and every day I went there to do my homework but would invariably end up looking at the wonderful books. I loved that room so much that at the end of my studies, I donated a book about Spain to the Collection. (I contacted the librarians who got me this rare photo of the Reading Room for this post, thanks!).

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

Bowles Reading Room 1992 (After I graduated) (PC: Bentley Archives)

But I would have to wait until after college to have enough disposable income to buy books, which, living in Boston, was very easy. Some days on my lunch break I would sneak to Goodspeed’s to look for treasures. Such is my love for books and literature, that years later, I ended up getting a PhD in Spanish Literature! (see previous posts)

Speaking of UNC, one of the highlights are the libraries. Plural. The old library is the Wilson Library (which is featured prominently in Robin Williams’ great film Patch Adams). I spent hours studying in this library and a couple of times studying very old books in the Rare Book Collection. The big, modern library is the Davis Library with its 7 million books. There, I soon made best friends with the Spanish book librarians Teresa and Becky. I would walk to their office deep in the heart of the library and talk books, (and gossip). This library is as close to the Borges idea of a library as I have ever been: massive and repetitive, but with a soul.

During my studies at UNC, one summer I got a Fellowship to do research at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid. What an experience! To get to the rare book collection you have to pass not one, but two security checks, you cannot bring in any pens, books, phones, etc. Books there are treated with the care and reverence one would expect of -in my case- over two hundred year old books. I spent every morning that summer reading most of Francisco de Isla’s first editions, manuscripts, and other pieces attributed to him but not his. That experience is one of the highlights of my academic career. (Their coffee shop in the basement was also excellent – and subsidized! but that is for another post)

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

After UNC I moved to Southern Florida, which is a wasteland for books -must be the humidity. But, in 2016 I did read this great article in Vanity Fair, (to which I have subscribed and read every issue from cover to cover since around 2006) about this magical book store in Santorini called Atlantis Books.

Fast forward to 2018 when my dear friend Matthew came to visit me in Madrid. He stayed at a hotel in the old part of town. One evening after I dropped him off, around the corner from the hotel, on narrow Campomanes street, I bumped into Desperate Literature. I was ecstatic! What a discovery, what a find! A tiny bookstore, but filled with books mostly in English, with a few in Spanish and French for good measure. It was a tiny paradise, an oasis of… books!

Books in time of Covid

Books in time of Covid

I soon found out that this bookshop is part of Atlantis Books which I had read about in that Vanity Fair article. It all fit in, a collection of magical bookstores.

During this Covid-19 pandemic I found out they were sending books to folks. I ordered one and I was able to make use of my workout time to ride my bicycle to pick it up.

In conclusion: support your local -hopefully quirky- bookstores, and read.

 

The Job Search, Part I. University gigs, or what do Galileo Galilei, Einstein and Groucho Marx have in common?

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.

IMG_0866

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

 

Shameless self promotion / Job search Fall 2016

Ah yes, that time again when one has to start thinking of finding a job. Since this will be (Insha’Allah) my last (academic) year at UNC. I have to start thinking of what I will be doing come September of 2016…

One of the few things I am certain of is that I am passionate about teaching, especially my language, my culture, my literature. I am hopeful that someone somewhere will need a Spanish teacher with over ten years teaching experience and a PhD in Spanish Literature for next year.

Narrowing down my job options, I would love to be the coordinator of an American university’s study abroad program in Spain – ideally in Spain, near my family. But I know I will thrive teaching at a small liberal arts college or at a secondary school where I can also be a “dorm parent” and coach, what they call in the business a “triple threat”.

Where? You ask. Well I must confess I have fallen in love with the South – who wouldn’t? and I do love the East coast, its history, culture, and relative proximity to Europe. But I would love to explore new grounds: Asia, Korea or Japan, the Middle East, Africa, Oceania, and of course old Europe, make me an offer!!

Experience? In my first job I was in charge of training / coaching / herding? the summer interns that came to Grantham Mayo and Van Otterloo in Boston. From then on in the late 80s I have always enjoyed the training and mentoring part of my jobs. During my stint as a stockbroker in Madrid since I was not doing much in the teaching/coaching/mentoring realm I volunteered to teach English at the Colegio de Huerfanos de la Guardia Civil in Madrid  As a sales manager I was in charge of team training and later as consultant I would do the same around Latin America. Once I had my own company from ´94 to ´04 I loved all the training that happened for new employees. We even organized yearly retreats with a coach to help us improve. In 2005 I started my professional teaching career teaching at public schools, private schools and at UNC for the last three years.

They say in Spain “el movimiento se demuestra andando” (something like movement is proven by walking) so here are a couple of videos of me trying to teach. One at Walnut Hill, the oldest private arts school in the US and my first semester at UNC. In case you are really interested I have also included my abridged CV, feel free to ask for any more info!!

Antonio Balsón CV Academic -abridged-