Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Failing my own quiz

I knew that something was amiss in my Concepts of Comedy class this morning, but I couldn't figure out what. My students were quieter than usual, unwilling to respond to what I thought were softball questions. Were they upset by the reading material? Granted, David Sedaris's "Brother, Can You Spare a Tie?" does draw awkward attention to humorous aspects of the male anatomy, but on Monday we'd discussed Nora Ephron's "A Few Words about Breasts" without a problem.

But today was different: they weren't just quiet; they looked physically uncomfortable, and they kept shooting me these looks that made me wonder whether my fly was down or maybe the heel of my shoe was dragging a long line of toilet paper around the room.

I stumbled my way through the class as well as I could despite my students' lack of participation, not to mention a certain sluggishness caused by an annoying stomach bug that kept interrupting my sleep last night. (If you're interested in experiencing Total Energy Drain along with the feeling that you're passing barbed wire through your intestines, have I got the virus for you!) Then I cancelled my office hours and went home to get some sleep.

I was halfway home before I remembered: that class was supposed to take a reading quiz this morning. There they were, all set to disgorge piles of interesting insights from their overstuffed brains, and instead I was up there babbling about the Comic Body and the Licensed Fool and when are penises funny?

Twenty-two students in the room and not a single one of them pointed out that they were supposed to be taking a quiz. No wonder they were uncomfortable. I'll bet they're all deeply depressed over my oversight and in danger of moving into suicidal despair if I don't intervene. I know: I'll send them an online quiz! They'll be so relieved that they'll vote me Greatest Professor on the Planet and throw a ticker-tape parade down the middle of campus!

Or maybe we'll just forget about the whole thing and move on. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Last gasp of summer

I'm sitting in the middle of a long, horrible meeting but I'm having trouble paying attention because I need to finish prepping a class for tomorrow and writing an exam for later in the week, but I really need to pay attention because I fear that the changes being discussed will inevitably increase my workload even more when I'm barely keeping up with all I have to do right now, and I'm sitting next to a colleague who confessed that she feels guilty when she spends time with her children because she's not grading and she feels guilty when she's grading because she's not spending time with her children and all that guilt gets in the way of being in the moment and enjoying life, and all this angst is roiling about the room in an oppressive and distressing manner when my cell-phone buzzes and I discreetly glance at the message from my son informing me that he has a softball game at 6:30 and wouldn't I like to watch?

And I know I have too much work to do and I really can't spare an hour or so to watch a softball game, but the fact that I'm too busy too watch my son play softball suggests that I really need to watch my son play softball, so I put down my big ol' bag o' work and trot on over to the field to watch the game.

And they only play seven innings in church-league softball but I don't really relax and get my mind in the game until the fifth inning, which is a good time to start paying attention because they suddenly have this amazing inning in which my son's team bats through the order and my son makes it to base on an accidental bunt, if such a thing exists, and his team pulls ahead 18-9.

And it's a beautiful evening, cool and clear with a sky full of clouds that look like waves breaking on a beach, and it's the last game of the season and the last gasp of summer and the last opportunity I'll have to be in this moment right now, and I don't want to ruin it feeling guilty because I'm not grading or prepping or writing exams. 

So I don't--for now. Ask me again tomorrow.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Someone woke up on the wrong side of the classroom

I've been spending the week visiting 8 a.m. classes to observe my colleagues' teaching, and this morning I was a bit less bright-eyed and ready to learn than I had been at the beginning of the week--but so were the students in the class. Their energy level was low. They weren't jumping into the class discussion with enthusiasm. They appeared to be barely awake, which I can certainly understand. We may spend our days (and nights) differently, but we all arrive at the end of the week feeling slow and stupid. 

But here's the thing: when the professor handed out the take-home exam at the end of the hour, I just smiled and walked away. Because guess what? I don't have to take the exam! Yet more evidence, in case we need it, that being a professor is WAY better than being a student.

Here's more:

I take no tests,
receive no marks
in scarlet ink,
don't have to park
my car where angels
fear to tread.
I don't approach
a book with dread
or totter under-
neath the weight
of backpacks (stuffed).
Love my roommate!
I'll never do
a Jello shot
or argue whether
some dude's hot--
but best of all,
they never send
tuition bills 
to me. (The end.)

Anyone else want to give it a try?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lobbing in the guilt grenades

When Sherman Alexie visited campus last night, he demonstrated the power of comedy as a rhetorical device: he made us laugh so hard we let down our guard, and then he started lobbing in the guilt grenades. It was a beautiful thing to see, but at the same time it felt a little dangerous. We are, after all, in Appalachia, where you wouldn't have to be a gun-toting redneck to take Alexie's comments out of context and get a little hot under the collar.


He urged Christopher Columbus to commit an anatomically impossible act.

He reminded us that the land of the free and home of the brave spent centuries doing its best to stamp out braves.

He pointed out that even if we do not consider ourselves racists, we are nevertheless complicit in the institutional systems that perpetrate racism.  

And he criticized Chief Wahoo, the Cleveland Indians mascot.

Alexie lubed us up with laughter so well that the harsh truths just slid right past our defenses, but it was a pretty big crowd and it's possible that some people weren't laughing. Take a little clandestine video, post it to the blogosphere without proper context, and BOOM, we're accused of forcing innocent students to drink the socialist anti-American multicultural Kool-Aid.

And maybe that's a conversation we need to have, but it's much more pleasant when we leave the guns at home and do it with comedy.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

For better or for verse

We had a little trouble in class this morning while discussing Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "A Cabin Tale" (read it here). It's not Dunbar's best work but it's an excellent example of the kindly-slave-telling-trickster-tales genre popularized by Joel Chandler Harris. Our problem first arises when we encounter "a ole black bah" that "used to live 'roun' hyeah somewhah." What, pray tell, is a "bah"? One student interpreted "bah" as "boy," which adds a surreal twist to the poem, and others assumed from context that it was some sort of large animal but couldn't figure out what kind.

It's a bear, of course, but I sympathize with my students: Dunbar's dialect verse tosses so many obstacles in the way of comprehension that we have to wonder why anyone would write it (or read it). Which is why I told them about James Whitcomb Riley.

All you really need to know about the aesthetic judgment of American readers in the 1890s is that they propelled Riley to the kind of fame and fortune that most poets can only dream of. Riley appealed to readers with sentimental rhyming verse full of nostalgia for a lost pastoral innocence, like "The Old Swimmin' Hole" (here) and "When the Frost is on the Punkin" (here), along with dialect verse told in the voice of a child, like "Our Hired Girl" (here) and "Little Orphant Annie" (here). 

Riley was also the perpetrator of what may well be the worst poem ever written by a professional poet: "The Happy Little Cripple" (read it here, if you dare), a heartwarming bit of jingly-jangly verse glossing lightly over the plight of a crippled child abandoned by his father (a violent drunk) and living with his weepy aunt. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll toss your cookies when you see Riley's skill in rhyming "cryin'" with "curvature of the spine." If there's a more execrable poem out there, I'd like to know about it.

But here's the question: do we judge poets on their best verse or their worst, by their current reputation or their popular reception? The late nineteenth-century reading public gave Riley a huge vote of confidence by buying his poems by the bucketload, which helps us understand why Paul Laurence Dunbar kept producing dialect verse even when his heart was often elsewhere.

Dunbar expressed his difficulty succinctly in his eight-line poem "The Poet" (here), which portrays the dilemma of a poet whose lines touching the heart of mystery are ignored by readers who prefer to "praise / A jingle in a broken tongue." Today's readers appreciate Dunbar's poems written in standard English, but if we imagine the mindset of his readers trained on Riley and develop fluidity in reading dialect, maybe we'll read his dialect poems and respond with something other than "Bah."  

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Of metaphors and manure

This week I've been observing my colleagues' teaching in fields way outside my own and I confess that I don't always understand what they're talking about. (How well would you understand an upper-level class in a field of science that you last studied in 1978?) However, not knowing what they're saying frees me up to pay attention to how they're saying it, especially when they say it with metaphors.

I've heard colleagues invite the class to step in the Way-Back Machine or imagine a perfect world or put their metaphorical hands in their metaphorical pockets. I've seen syllabus language challenging students to explore new ground and dig deeper and go on a journey, and then I've seen the professor translate those metaphors into classroom activities that feel like adventures.

This experience reminds me of an exercise I've used to help faculty members write their teaching philosophies (because every tenure and promotion portfolio must include a teaching philosophy): Describe what's happening when everything is going well in the classroom. Somewhere in that description a metaphor will pop up--taking students on a journey or guiding them through a labyrinth or coaching them to build skills. Grab that metaphor, examine it, and see what it tells you about what kind of teacher you are. 

Now comes a document attempting to crystallize who we are and where we're going as an institution, and it is mostly pretty free of metaphors. I see several calls for develop mechanisms for success, which suggests that the college is a machine, and I see concern about spreading ourselves too broadly across the academic landscape, which makes us manure. 

There's a big difference between machines and manure, but a larger issue arises in a brief but pivotal statement intended to shape our future: our reputation is a foundation, but the building metaphor is immediately abandoned in favor of a gardening metaphor (rooted, nurturing) and then a medical metaphor (contributing to the health of a community). 

A building that employs mechanisms to remain rooted and grows to improve health? That's going to take a lot of manure.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Seismically speaking, not too earth-shaking

I'm still getting used to my new position as a professional Seismic Services Provider, but so far it's far from earth-shaking: a few festive pink ribbons in the woods, the occasional mysterious silent Texan wandering the meadow, an extra fifty bucks in my wallet--it's a tough job, but someone has to do it. On the other hand, if the current budget crisis propels me forcefully into the academic job market, at least I'll have a new title to put on my vita: Seismic Services Provider. That'll make my vita stand out in the crowd!

How did I achieve such exalted status? Well, it's either a very long or a very short story, depending on whether you want to go clear back to the time when dinosaurs roamed the earth and then suddenly didn't, instead being buried, along with wads of vegetation, far beneath the earth's surface, where they slept peacefully for millennia until men started drilling deep shafts through solid rock down down down to the dinosaurs' final resting place, and then those sharp, spiky drill bits poked the sleeping dinosaurs and startled them so much that they farted out great masses of combustible gas. (Did I get the science right there? It's just astounding that I've never been asked to teach in our Petroleum Engineering department!)

The short version of the story goes like this: fracking happens. Not terribly nearby but close enough to make others want to get in on the boom. But first they have to figure out what the rocks look like far below this broad section of Ohio, and they've figured out an ingenious way to do it: they insert tiny seismic sensors along a criss-cross network of lines covering this entire sector of the state, and then they set off a small explosion about 30 feet underground ("You won't even feel it! Cross my heart and hope to die!"), and the waves from the explosion travel in all directions, and if they happen to bump into any sleeping dinosaurs deep beneath the earth, the angry dinosaurs jump right up and eat the sensors. Or something like that.

Of course they (yes, that mysterious "they") first have to get permission to insert tiny sensors on private property, so they sent a guy around to explain the whole process and get us to sign on the dotted line. ("It can't hurt! You won't even notice! Pinky promise!") And then they sent a check for the princely sum of FIVE DOLLARS per acre (don't spend it all in one place!). And then they sent around a trio of silent mysterious Texans in a pickup truck to decorate various spots in the woods with festive pink ribbons and flags. (Both my husband and I, on separate occasions, have gently informed the silent mysterious Texans that the dog will not hurt them but if they leave the door of their truck open, she will jump in and eat their lunch. In both cases, they just stood staring silently. The door stayed open. I don't know what happened to their lunch.)

Judging from what I've seen on my walks through the area, the next stage will be the insertion of the actual sensors, followed, at some point, by the underground explosion ("Just a teeny-weeny explosion. You won't even hear it!"), followed by the collection of data from the sensors, followed by a bloody invasion by sleepy, hungry, gassy dinosaurs.

But we got the check. We're total pros at this. Want to know what it said in the "memo" line on the check? "For seismic services." Yes: we are Seismic Service Providers. Way to rock my world!