Monday, November 23, 2015

Thankful for what I won't be doing this week

Things I'll definitely be doing this week: grading papers, shopping for groceries, playing with my granddaughter, making pumpkin cheesecake, and serving a turkey and all the Thanksgiving trimmings for family and friends. Plus dishes--someone has to wash the dishes. Maybe take in a local Christmas parade. And I predict some napping.

Things I won't be doing this week for the first time since 2009: driving around in circles at the hospital's parking garage,  spending time in medical waiting rooms, getting poked with needles, having vials of blood rudely removed from my body, drinking horrible gluey "smoothies," trying to lie still with a needle in my arm and my arms over my head while listening to commands issued by a whirring machine with horrible bedside manner, and then tensely awaiting test results.

That's right: six years after my final round of chemotherapy, I'm free of the need for medical monitoring. 

I don't know about anyone else, but that's enough to make me thankful.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Maybe someone forget to pay the punctuation bill

Commenting on drafts would be much easier if I could stop looking for patterns where they obviously aren't or seeking reason behind random sloppiness:

Why did this student put quotation marks around two titles but not the third? Did the rest of the quotation marks elope with the ampersand? 

Why is the character's name capitalized roughly three-quarters of the time? Did it find the stress of being a proper noun so exhausting that it had to lie down and rest for a paragraph or two before standing upright again?

Why would a student consistently place commas precisely where they are least necessary? Or did he load a shotgun with commas, point it at the paper, and pull the trigger? 

And why does the next paper eschew commas in favor of dashes? Who does she think she is--Emily Dickinson?!

I look for patterns so that I can diagnose the problem and prescribe an antidote (so maybe I should be reading through a stethoscope), but lately I find myself  thwarted. I think I see the beginning of a pattern (he's putting commas after 'and' and 'but') but then it falls to pieces (wait, here's an 'and' surrounded by commas, and here's a 'but' with no punctuation whatsoever). 

My mistake, I think, is in assuming that students are always making conscious choices about their writing and if I just uncover the flawed reasoning behind those choices, I'll be able to fix it. But what if reason has nothing to do with it? What if they're too tired or busy or drunk or distracted to notice little details like punctuation and capitalization? What if they simply don't care?

I'm seeing a constellation of errors and trying to connect the dots, but I fear that they're as random as the stars and equally inaccessible. (So maybe I should be reading through a telescope.)  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Let 'em eat pie!

It's Friday Pie Day because pie heals all ills (according to our new provost), but today is also Penultimate Friday--the second-to-last Friday classes of the semester--and I for one am ready to celebrate. I'll teach three classes on Monday and then a full week after Thanksgiving, but despite the mountain of grading I'll need to drill through, I'm seeing some glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel. It's an oddly shaped shaft of light, like a wedge--or a piece of pie. It's Penultimate Friday! Let 'em eat pie!

Pie makes so many things better--even poetry:

Let us go then, you and I
and fetch ourselves a piece of pie. 


How do I love pie?
It would require all the digits of pi to count the ways.

Two pies diverged in a yellow wood
and I ate them.

Because I could not stop for pie--
it kindly stopped for me--
banana cream and pumpkin pie--


The pie comes in
on little crust feet.

It sits looking
so sweet and enticing
in silent splendor
and then it's gone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Too much and not enough

This is the week of too much and not enough:

Too much tension; not enough sleep.

Too many drafts to read and too little few eyeballs on the ground, or on the page, or wherever.

Too many excuses and too many tears and so few time machines.

Too many petty little details to prepare for a Big Event, plus one big messy detail that dwarfs all others and will probably remain unresolved until the very last minute.

Too many meetings. 

Too many awkward silences at meetings plus one big beautiful eloquent silence at just the right moment. 

Too much everything. Not enough everything else.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris rising

"What I saw first of all," recalls James Thurber in "The First Time I saw Paris," "was one outflung hand of France as cold and limp as a dead man's." 

This was November 13, 1918, and young Thurber had made a difficult sea journey to serve as a code clerk at the Paris Peace Conference. He continues: "I know now that French towns don't die, that France has the durability of history itself, but I was only twenty-three then, and seasick, and I had never been so far from Ohio before." 

His first sight on land was a line of "desolate men, a detachment of German prisoners being marched along a street, in mechanical step, without expression in their eyes, like men coming from no past and moving toward no future." Soon, though Thurber and his fellow code clerks arrived in Paris, "the veritable capital city of Beginning." The city was coming back to life after the long, bloody slog through the War to End War, and Paris "was costumed like a wide-screen Technicolor operetta, the uniforms of a score of nations forming a king of restless, out-of-step finale." 

All was not revelry and joy, however; Thurber took a tour through battlefields with a friend searching for souvenirs and cemeteries: 
In our trek through the battlefields, with the smell of death still in the air, the ruined and shattered country scarred with ammunition dumps and crashed planes, we came upon the small temporary cemeteries arranged by the Graves Registration Service, each with a small American flag, such as the children of Paris waved at President Wilson, nailed to a post and faded by the rain and wintry weather. In one of these cemeteries my companion, a Tennessee youth, only a little taller than five feet, began singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his hat over his heart, and went on singing it in a sudden downpour of rain, for the anthem, once started, must be finished.
Thurber's visit occurred nearly 100 years ago, when France lay scarred and wounded but still capable of resurrection. A visit that began with a vision of death had been transformed into a celebration of life and hope:

Paris, City of Light and of occasional Darkness, sometimes in the winter rain seeming wrought of monolithic stones, and then, in the early days of its wondrous and special pearly light, appearing to float in mid-air like a mirage city in the Empire of Imagination, fragile and magical, has had many a premature requiem sung for the repose of its soul by nervous writers or gloomy historians who believe it is dying or dead and can never rise again. Paris, nonetheless, goes right on rising out of war, ultimatum, occupation, domestic upheaval, cabinet crises, international tension, and dark prophecy, as it has been in the habit of doing since its residents first saw the menacing glitter of Roman shields many centuries ago.
 Of course, Thurber arrived in Paris at the end of something awful; what would he write today in the midst of a very different kind of conflict? I don't know, but I hold on to his image of a city that goes right on rising--despite the forces that would try in vain to hold it down.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Here's mud in your eye

If you're trying to create a work of art by throwing wads of mud at a wall (and let's not even get started on why you might want to do such a thing), you could draw the design first and toss the mud inside the lines or you could toss the mud first and draw the design around them afterward--but either way, the lines give shape and purpose to the random splats.

I've seen students draft papers using either method: create a clear, compelling, specific thesis statement and then arrange the points in the argument to fit within the lines, or toss a bunch of semi-related ideas on the page and then go back and write a thesis that specifies the connection. A diligent writer committed to revision can make either method work, so part of my task as a writing teacher is to figure out what kinds of writers I have in the room and guide them toward success.

Me? I'm a little of both: in the early stages of a project, I'll toss a bunch of ideas against the wall and see what sticks, but as soon as the ultimate shape of the essay starts revealing itself, I draw the lines and write the thesis. It will surely get revised along the way, but I need structure to guide my writing.

But what can I do when students want to toss a bunch of mud clods against the wall, draw a vague, squiggly, illegible line around them, and then declare the work a masterpiece? I offer suggestions on drafts and require revision and I frequently offer sample thesis statements to serve as models, but I can't do the thinking for them

Which is why it's so hard to answer the question "What should my thesis say?" If a student has put in the thinking required to determine how various ideas are related and has a sense of purpose, the question is simply asking for help putting that purpose into words. I worry, though, about the other kind of student, who hasn't done the thinking and doesn't have a clue about connections, and if I ask what purpose the essay is pursuing, the response is something like "I want to get a good grade." (Don't we all! But what does your paper want to accomplish?)  

Some days I wear out my eyeballs staring at clods of mud thrown randomly at a wall--but when someone finally draws a line around it and reveals the design, all I can do is applaud.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

My tiny time machine

The chocolate sphere in my hand may look like a malted milk ball to you, but to me it's a tiny time machine: I pop the chocolate treat into my mouth and suddenly I'm transported back to the early 1980s, when my college newspaper staff held a weekly layout marathon fueled by diet colas, grapes, and a big bag of malted milk balls.

Those were the days of manual layout, when we would use scissors to cut typeset sheets into long strips of copy, run them through a waxer, and then lay them out on paper ruled to indicate columns and inches. 

We were armed with sharp exactos, metal rulers, and copy rollers but it still took a while; we often worked well past midnight on a Tuesday, which made Wednesday classes a bit hazy. Mistakes could be costly. Run the copy through the waxer upside-down and you'd spend the next 20 minutes carefully scraping wax off text. A dull exacto blade could tear and wrinkle the copy, while a sharp blade might veer off track, slicing through words or even flesh.

Sometimes staffers didn't show up, leaving the rest of us to do their work as well as our own. Sometimes they showed up eager to argue about issues that seemed really important at the time: When does a music review become newsworthy enough to go on the front page? How much detail do we provide about a student's suicide so we can tell the truth without sensationalizing the gory act? Where is the fine line between reasoned critique and ad hominem attack? 

The work and the talk were different every week but one thing remained constant: diet cola, grapes, and malted milk balls. The big challenge was keeping drips and dirty fingers off the strips of copy, but somehow we managed, most of the time.

These days most college journalists lay out pages electronically; they may have some of the same debates we had 30 years ago but I'll be they wouldn't know what to do with a waxer, an exacto, or a long strip of copy. But give them a bag of malted milk balls and they'll know where to put them. Student journalism: dedicated to truth, justice, and the American way, and, like many other labor-intensive group endeavors, fueled by chocolate.