I mentioned a couple of days ago that was a minor kerfuffle about the teacher on my Portuguese history course.
It seems there’s was more to it than I thought. Some of her scholarship students have complained about her having abused power, apparently, and in one case even claimed she had plagiarised a big chunk of one of her books from a student essay. Blimey!
1/ O caso Raquel Varela – a ascensão mediática, a construção do CV, o concurso à medida e os abusos s/bolseiros (tolerados pela faculdade, como a peça abaixo noticia) dá um retrato sobre a FCSH, a Nova e a academia na área das ciências sociais. Thread⬇️ https://t.co/Bai6ttiipj
I don’t know what to make of this, and I’ll tell you why my cluelessness is interesting: when I’m online in my normal guise, reading about scandals in English speaking countries, I tend to have a pretty good idea of who is where on a sort of graph where one of the axes is ideology (where they are likely to come down in an argument between different points of view) and the other is honesty (whether they are prepared to bend the facts to fit their narrative, whether they fight dirty. Crucially, I can usually spot sarcasm, shitposting , spiteful ess and attention-seeking when some British ideologue (Owen Jones say) or American (Candace Owens, maybe) is doing what they do, but I am absolutely unable to read it in most Portuguese tweets. Unless people are very obvious, I dint really know what’s fake and what’s real. This one seems reputable but really, I’m a hopeless naive and maybe he’s a well-known partisan hack, shilling for some very Conservative paper that has targeted her for her opinions.
And I suppose its worth pausing at this point and asking who we trust online and why? I know there are a lot of sources I’d basically trust all the way. Like the BBC. They aren’t always right but they’re always trying. They’re not Fox News or Infowars and I trust their basic integrity as a source of facts. But there are other sources I’ve sort of grown to trust over the years but how well do I really know them? Are they just the people who have told me what I want to hear for so long that I’ve become blind to their biases? Yeah and not just me, reader. What about you, eh? I’m waving my finger at you as I type this. What about you, eh? How sure are you that the people in your social media feed are trustworthy?
I’ve been thinking for a while about writing a post on the course I’m taking about the history of Portugal, but today’s Twitter news has made me finally stretch my thumbs to do it now because… Wow, I was not expecting this!
The course is bi-weekly, presented online by the Bertrand chain of bookshops. I missed the first one so I’ve only actually attended one class so far. It’s taught by a woman called Raquel Varela, who is Portuguese, and a Brazilian guy called Roberto Della Santa. I was a bit non-plussed by the session I attended. It was about the origins or liberalism and the unification of the national market in the 19th century but there weren’t many references to actual historical events; the bulk of the lesson was given over to explaining Marx’s theories about capitalist production. OK, well, Marx does set out to explain historical processes so yeah, fine, but it seemed likes strange digression for a course on Portuguese history, going into abstract realms of economics and historiography without much reference to the real sequence of events. It felt more like a come-to-Jesus, or rather, a come-to-Karl… appeal than a lesson. That’s OK though, I’ve studied Marx at uni, and I’m quite happy to listen to other people’s points of view. I’d have asked a question if my grasp of the language was more secure but no, not today!
I’m not complaining – I enjoyed it. I hope the remainder of the course will be less abstract though.
Anyway, fast forward to today. I open twitter and there’s a tweet right at the top of my feed with a link to an article and a picture that looks familiar. It takes a while to realise it’s one of the course teachers, Raquel Varela, and the article is about a petition signed by “more than a hundred intellectuals” in support of academic freedom in general and of her specifically. It turns out she is quite a well-known figure. This surprised me because the price of the course is so low I’d assumed the teachers were just keen amateurs they dragged in from the store’s popular history counter. I wasn’t expecting star power! Its like attending a year-long study group at your local Waterstones for a hundred and forty quid and finding it’s being run by Simon Schama. You’d go “bloody hell, i wasn’t expecting this!” She’s a kind of public intellectual, attached to the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, author of several books and occasional TV pundit. She’s taken a lot of fairly controversial positions, not least on covid, but that’s another story for another day.
Anyway the reason she was in my twitter feed was to do with a public hoo-ha that has been going on for a couple of weeks now. It started when rumours began appearing on social media that her academic CV had been inflated by repeating items multiple times to make it seem like she had more academic clout than she really has. I don’t know where these rumours came from originally but she refers to them in her blog in July, describing them as a “campaign of defamation”. The matter came to a head around the 20th of September when the newspaper Público reported that the Instituto de História Contemporânea had withdrawn its support for her candidacy in a scheme run by the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia called the Concurso de Estímulo ao Emprego Científico Individual after checking the allegations and finding that she appeared only to have published about half as many articles as she claimed. Now, I know inflating your cv is not exactly uncommon, but integrity is a big deal in academic circles, especially when you are using your track record as a platform for competing against other academics as in this case.
Varela didn’t take this lying down, instead using her legal right of reply to demand (the verb is “exigir”) an apology from Público,
This brings us back to the present day where Sapo’s i online site reports on the letter of support from a hundred or so writers and academics. Their petition refers to a “campaign of character assassination”, involving Público, which it accuses of “promiscuity” with anonymous sources spreading misinformation. It also mentions other, more unpleasant allegations in “ultra-Conservative” sources and throws in a reference to “o crescimento de fake news e da extrema-direita”. In one particularly weird flourish of denunciation they say “Este é um caso exemplar de como o nepotismo dentro de um sector da academia e a necrofilia de alguma imprensa procura silenciar uma intelectual”. Wait… What? Nepotism? Necrophilia? Calm down lads.
The effect seems to be to associate the (perfectly legitimate, it seems to me) story in Público with some more shadowy stuff online, implying they are somehow part of a co-ordinated smear campaign. This seems a little unfair, since whatever the online muckrakers are doing, Público are at least reporting on matters of public record: either her CV is padded or it isn’t, and that question is being adjudicated by the relevant scientific bodies. Whether they find in her favour or not is up to them but fairness and transparency seem to be essential in upholding trust in the scientific process. Mixing it up with conspiracy theories doesn’t help either side.
Anyway, I will certainly carry on attending the course and I’ll enjoy it a lot more knowing the backstory!