Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sartorially challenged; or, coming to terms with my inner Grandma

I've often told the story about the car I drove during my first stint in grad school back in the 1980s: a used Mazda GLC, which, depending on your perspective, stands for "Great Little Car" or "Ghastly Lemon Crap." Among the car's many foibles was a tendency for the doors to freeze shut in the winter, so that I would go out in the morning all dressed up for my T.A. gig--wool skirt, silk blouse, high heels, faux-pearl necklace, long wool coat--and find that the only way to get into the car was to open the hatchback and climb over the seats, taking care not to nudge the gearshift lever into Neutral and set the car rolling. Not a particularly graceful way to start the day.

I've often talked about that car in the context of terrible-car stories, but these days I look back and want to slap myself silly for dressing so unsuitably for the weather. Seriously, what was I thinking? Silk, high heels, and faux pearls do nothing to protect the body from the hazards of ice, snow, sleet, and slush.

But in my defense, I was a newbie tackling my first teaching gig, just a few years older than my students, and I felt the need to Dress for Success. Over the years a sense of sartorial inadequacy has led to wardrobe choices that in hindsight look pretty egregious: the infamous peacock dress; the red and black faux-moleskin interview suit that made me sweat buckets; the polyester double-knit jacket with nautical trim that made me look like a rear admiral who'd slept in his uniform--not to mention decades of uncomfortable shoes.

Today I'm sitting in my office in plain black chinos, sandals (because they don't make my feet hurt), and a print blouse that I almost didn't buy because it struck me as something a Grandma would wear. No pearls, no earrings, no jewelry at all (because ever since my brief encounter with peripheral neuropathy, it bothers me to have stuff attached to my flesh). I'm wearing a little moisturizer and powder but I have finally and definitively given up lipstick (because I can't find a brand, no matter how special and expensive, that doesn't make my lips crack and bleed). All told, I look like someone who has given up trying to dress professionally.

But I'm okay with that. I admire and envy colleagues who somehow manage to look stylish and professional every single day while carrying a heavy burden of teaching, professional development, and service, but that doesn't mean I'm going to expend any energy on joining their ranks. I long ago realized that no one's ever going to award me a chili pepper on ratemyprofessors.com, and I've come to terms with my inner Grandma. If students get distracted by colorful Grandma blouses and scarves, maybe they'll find it easier to stay awake in class. (Besides, I'm a better teacher when my feet don't hurt.)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Eyes on the prize, nose to the grindstone

When sore eyes prompt me to raise my head from piles of grading to stare blankly into space, I see a shimmery vision materializing at the end of the week: a silver van with a red canoe strapped on top waiting for me to get in and drive off to a cabin in the woods in Pennsylvania where we'll spend my four-day break with family on and near the water. Getting from here to there, though, will take some doing.

Four committee meetings, one promising to last several hours, are the least of the hurdles standing in my way. Today and tomorrow I'm holding individual conferences with all my Sports Literature students plus a few other first-year students whose recent paper grades offered a wake-up call. I have to lead my capstone students through the next stage of their research and lead my honors students through a chunk of the Civil War plus grade their presentations.

Essay exam in my composition class on Wednesday--and I don't want to take a pile of grading to the cabin in the woods so I'll be grading between meetings all day Thursday. A set of quizzes in one class and a homework assignment in another--if I grade papers in the middle of a meeting, will anyone notice?

Cleaning the van (not my job, thankfully). Packing the van full of clothes, fishing gear, camera, kitchenware, linens, and other essentials--definitely my job. Strapping up the canoe--a joint effort. Then at noon Friday, after a full morning of teaching, grading, and teaching again, I'll take my place in the passenger's seat and settle in for a long drive to a rustic place lacking cell-phone coverage, internet access, and television--not to mention committee meetings, campus drama, and grading. At this point in the semester, that sounds like heaven.

But first I've got to get there.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition--especially in the middle of class!

I'm sitting in front of the room while my students scribble merrily away on their first exam of the semester and all I can think about is getting out of here--not just because it's Friday and I'm tired and I have a ton of grading to do but because I've never given an exam in this room before so I was not aware that the chair up front was designed by the guys running Guantanamo or maybe the torture experts whose skills were so central to the Spanish Inquisition. In fact if the actual Spanish Inquisition were to come bursting through the classroom door carrying chains and shackles and thumbscrews, I'd fall at their feet and thank them for the interruption. Anything to get out of this chair!

If I'd known at the beginning of the class period that this chair would soon have me begging for mercy, I would have dragged one of the student desks up front, but making that kind of racket right now would be a bit disruptive. I can't sit on the big desk up front because it tips. I suppose I could sit in the window well, but then I'd have no place to put my laptop. Getting up and wandering around the room offers temporary respite, but I can't pace and proctor and grade papers at the same time.

And so I sit here squirming and inventing vivid scenarios vis-a-vis this wretched chair: beat it, burn it, toss it out the window. Somehow I doubt that this chair would inspire anyone to stand and recite "O Captain, My Captain," but can pain inspire poetry? Let's see:

The spot on my back
where the chair hits aches, tests my
patience. Where's my hacksaw?

Nope. Better go ahead and send in the Spanish Inquisition.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

This excuse is for the birds

As I set off on my 22-minute drive to campus 10 minutes before I was due to begin office hours, I prepared the perfect excuse for my lateness: I was unavoidably detained. It's vague enough to cover a variety of delays--speeding ticket, wardrobe malfunction, car breakdown, intestinal distress--but dire enough to deter questioning.

Which is a good thing because I wouldn't want word to get out that what unavoidably detained me was a kingfisher.

I heard him chattering down by the creek this morning and welcomed the sound. Kingfishers have been pretty scarce this season, so I checked the weather and the clock and calculated that I had just enough time to walk the one-hour loop, shower, change, and get to campus in time for my 9:30 office hours (that no one ever attends). But the kingfisher proved flighty so he demanded more time than expected, and then of course I was delayed by a chat with some donkeys, a search for some woodpeckers, and a futile attempt to capture on film the morning sun's rays raising feathers of mist from the neighbor's meadow.

So I was late getting to campus, but I came equipped to work. This is the result of an early-morning walk: some decent photos, a refreshing workout, and a mind brimming with ideas for my stalled writing project. Why don't I do this every day?  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Please do feed the librarians

"Reference librarians thrive on questions," I told my first-year writing students this morning. "In fact, if they don't get enough questions, they shrivel up and die, which stinks up the library something fierce."

Fortunately, my students fed the reference librarians some fresh juicy questions this morning. We're doing our part to keep the library smelling sweet!

This semester I've totally changed my approach to teaching research skills. Instead of having one or two full-class sessions in which my students are expected to absorb everything they need to know about research, I've broken up the task into specific skills that build in complexity as the semester goes on: evaluating online resources, locating books, using subject headings on the online catalog to browse related topics, using databases and interlibrary loan, and so on.

Each lesson is tied to a hands-on activity linked to the students' writing projects, so they immediately have to put in practice the skill I've introduced. Today my first-year writers enjoyed a tour of the library and then had to check out books; meanwhile, my honors students are finding resources in three different databases, reading abstracts, writing Works Cited listings, and evaluating the usefulness of these resources for their research projects.

The best learning happens when students encounter obstacles and have to figure out ways to get around them. They ask me questions ("How can I narrow my search terms so I don't get 8000 items?") or they share strategies with each other. 

And some students ask the reference librarian, who sits caged behind the big reference desk all day eagerly awaiting a chance to put his expertise to use on something more challenging than clearing up paper jams in the printers. So please do feed the reference librarians! We wouldn't want all that expertise to go to waste. A question a day keeps the librarian from decay (and helps students produce better research).

Monday, September 21, 2015

Potholes on the road to success

This morning I told a panicky student that he doesn't need to figure out right this minute how he'll be spending his whole entire life because (a) he'll be spending his whole entire life figuring out how he'll be spending his whole entire life; (b) even the most complete and detailed Road Map to Success is likely to get piddled on by a puppy at some point; and (c) that essay isn't going to write itself, so let's postpone the existential crisis and sit down and write.

But the whole time I kept flashing back to the movie I'm currently showing in my Sports Lit class--Breaking Away, the 1979 film in which a bunch of recent high-school graduates commit themselves to the goal of spending their whole entire lives not figuring out how to spend their whole entire lives.

Today we saw the scene in which the long-suffering dad takes his son on a walk through the Indiana University campus. Dad points at a building and says, "I cut the stone for that building," but his stonecutting days are long behind him and he wonders whether anything he's built will last. He asks whether the young folks still swim out at the old quarry, and when his son says yes, Dad says, "So the only thing you got to show for my 20 years of work is the holes we left behind?"

In 1979 when the film came out, I identified with the misunderstood son; today, though, I sympathize with the disillusioned dad looking over the meager evidence of his impact on the universe. Just those big holes in the ground? That's it? I don't remember any holes in the ground on my Road Map to Success!

But here I am at a point that I couldn't have predicted or planned 30 years ago, and here's this student in front of me so overwhelmed by the prospect of mapping out his whole entire life that he can't focus on the task immediately in front of his face, and it's my turn to offer the voice of experience. Don't worry about the holes up ahead, I tell him, and don't worry about comprehending every possible permutation of the route through the obstacles; let's just find enough light to take the first step down that road.

For today, that means butt in seat and hands on keyboard, because the Road to Success starts in my classroom.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Margaret Thatcher walks into a bar...

Margaret Thatcher walks into a bar and runs smack into George Washington.

(Did I mention that this bar is just down the street from the U.S. Treasury's Bureau of Engraving and Printing? It's where all these green-tinged fellows hang out after a long day spent posing for the currency.)

So Margaret Thatcher walks into this bar and stumbles up against George Washington and the first thing he wants to know is "Who's your wig-maker?" Because let's face it, George's curls look limp and lifeless next to Margaret's gravity-defying hair.

"It's not a wig," she says, and when George reaches out to give her curls a hearty tug, she draws away in high dudgeon. The Iron Lady is not amused.

What is she doing here in the haunts of American heroes? That's what Alexander Hamilton wants to know.

"I hardly know myself," says poor Margaret. "I was dragged into this debate by Jeb Bush, who thinks my face should grace the 10-dollar bill."

Poor Alex is torn: make way chivalrously for the weaker sex or stand firm for his right to fill the green oval? Before he can decide, his compatriots step in:

"She's not even an American," says U.S. Grant, "and besides, she doesn't have a beard."

"Well, a beard isn't strictly required," says Maggie.

"Beard or no beard, what have you ever done?" demands Honest Abe. "How many slaves have you freed?"

"And how many did you breed?" asks Jefferson.

"Have you fought any battles with your own tender hands?" asks Andrew Jackson, but before Thatcher can mention the Falklands, he charges on: "We whipped you fair and square in the War of 1812, and we don't want losers on our currency. We want winners! How many elections have you won? Ever been elected President in a landslide?"

Margaret draws herself to her full height, looks Jackson straight in the belly-button, and marshals all her baronessial hauteur, but before she can speak, gentle Ben Franklin grabs her elbow and moves her smoothly toward the bar. "There, there, my dear," he says, "there's no need to fuss. My colleagues have forgotten both their manners and their history. Everyone knows that you don't have to be elected president to appear on the currency."

"Then what does it take?" she asks. "Come, Ben, tell me your secret."

"You must be willing to be passed from hand to hand, collecting dirt and germs and miscellaneous marks. You must endure a million caricatures without complaint. You must maintain a smile that convinces consumers that you're thinking profound thoughts when maybe your teeth hurt. You must, above all, be willing to become common."

"Common?" Lady Thatcher bites off the word as if it were a bit of sour persimmon.

"Yes, there's nothing more common than currency," explains Ben. "And yet despite your commonness, very few who see your face will come to know you deeply, and many won't even know your name."

"You can say that again," says a dour-looking man at the bar. He turns toward Maggie and holds out his hand. "Allow me to introduce myself," he says. "I'm Salmon P. Chase."

"Who?" she says.

"I rest my case," says Ben.