Friday, February 05, 2016

I need some R&R from R&R

At a time of enrollment crisis, when classes compete for a shrinking pool of students and faculty members fear that classes will be cancelled if they don't hit the magic number, it would be crass to complain about too many students. I've taught more students in the past and I trust that I'll have more in the future, but this semester I happen to be teaching twice as many students as I did last semester when I had some unusually small classes, and I feel the difference every day.

The problem, though, is not that I have too many students; in fact, for a writing-intensive class, any number between 10 and 18 is just about perfect, and that's what I have. The problem is that all four of my classes are writing-intensive. For a prof committed to providing swift and useful feedback on student drafts, that's a lot of strain on the little grey cells, not to mention the aging eyes.

I got smart on the syllabus and didn't require all four classes to turn in drafts on the same day, which has happened in the past. But even with assignments staggered, I'm swamped: Last week I read and responded to postcolonial and American lit drafts; this week I responded to freshman comp drafts on Monday and Tuesday and graded postcolonial papers Wednesday and Thursday. Today I'll respond to online discussions in the film class. Next Monday: American lit papers. Tuesday: film drafts. Wednesday: freshman comp papers. Friday: the next round of postcolonial drafts. And it never ends. (Well, maybe never is an exaggeration. Here's a circle of Hell that Dante never knew: drafts every day--forever.)

With all those papers piling in one after another, I don't have time to enjoy them. These postcolonial papers are really interesting and the film students are knocking my socks off with their insightful online discussions. I'm a fast reader, but I still have to zip through them at the speed of light if I don't want to be up all night reading papers until my eyeballs fall right out of my head. 

The goal is to avoid getting lapped--collecting a new round of papers from students before I've returned the previous round. All the best research in teaching writing tells us that students improve when they write frequently and receive feedback quickly, so that's what we do. It's just that some weeks it feels as if that's all I do: read and respond, read and respond, R&R, R&R, R&R like a machine. 

Someday someone will invent a Reading-and-Responding Machine that will do what I do much more quickly and efficiently. Until then, feed me a paper and I'll spit out comments. Again and again and again.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Winesburg, Indiana: A tasty casserole

"Everyone knows how to make a casserole," writes Marny Vanderrost in the Acknowledgments to Winesburg, Indiana: "you mix the ingredients--even those that don't seem so savory alone--and let the heat transform them into something that will feed everyone."

The twist, of course, is that Marny is herself one of those ingredients, a character in a collection of linked short stories all set in the fictional town of Winesburg, Indiana, and penned by 30 different writers. Marny is the creation of Jim Walke, who knows how to top a casserole: "Some towns keep their crazy hidden, but we scatter it on top like potato chips."

The crazy comes out clearly in Winesburg, Indiana, which embraces characters who eat toenails, collect space-alien feces, or avoid barrels full of eyeballs, along with more ordinary people stuck in situations that challenge their quest for meaning.

Michael Martone and Bryan Furuness edited the collection and Martone wrote a baker's dozen of the stories, many of which include allusions to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio that range from the obvious to the obscure. Anderson experts will nod knowingly when they read a throwaway line about death by toothpick-swallowing or when a character named Clyde questions the reality of a town named Winesburg. (Note for non-experts: Anderson died of peritonitis after swallowing a toothpick, and his fictional Winesburg grew out of his knowledge of the small northern Ohio town called Clyde.) Further complicating the interplay of allusions is the book's subtitle: A Fork River Anthology. Let's see: Edgar Lee Masters wrote Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems in which dead former residents of a midwestern town speak harsh truths about their twisted little lives; Sherwood Anderson was a friend of Master until he (Anderson) ran off with Masters's mistress. 

Yes, it's complicated, but like the best stories, these remain compelling even for those unfamiliar with their influences.

The collection tackles the question of influence in Martone's opening chapter, written in the form of a cease-and-desist order from the lawfirm of  Biddlebaum Cowley Reefy and Swift (names familiar to readers of Winesburg, Ohio, which opens with a chapter focusing on the problems of a character named Wing Biddlebaum). The law firm claims that Winesburg, Ohio--the fictional town, not the actual town in Ohio named Winesburg, which Anderson didn't even know about when he wrote his stories--now where was I? 

Okay: the letter claims that Winesburg owns rights to "the distribution of dramatic monologues and third-person narrations to invoke the grotesque and map the psychophysiological and neurotic manifestations of its inhabitants in order to derive empathic and epiphanic pleasure and/or pain in a controlled hermetic setting," or, to put it more simply, "We have patented Madness. We own Trembling. We extensively market Grief."

Undeterred, these stories unleash their own versions of Madness, Trembling, and Grief, along with Absurdity, Illusion, and Despair. Kelcey Ervick Parker's "Limberlost," for instance, alludes to Gene Stratton Porter's sentimental tear-jerker A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), in which a young Indiana girl escapes from the swamp of provincial life to marry the man of her dreams, but such a fate eludes Parker's protagonist, who abandons her pursuit of a Ph.D. and becomes "an adjunct teacher in the department of Sure, I Can Teach That." After enduring a loss that carefully skirts the borders of the swamp of Limberlost sentimentality, she sees herself as a ghost, "A woman who wandered into this swamp of a town, got lost, and never made it out."

Beau Morrow (created by Robin Black) is also stuck, not in a swamp but behind a meat counter that separates him from his passion, "Flesh between our flesh, Death surrounded by desire." Meanwhile, "Manchild" Morrison, the creation of Porter Shreve, desperately seeks escape from his starring role in local sports legend. 

Despite their isolation, these characters, like those in Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, occasionally experience fleeting moments of communion, such as when the adolescent protester in Shannon Cain's "Occupy Winesburg" sees her solitary cry of pain draw together neighbors in solidarity with her futility. Something similar happens when residents watch Constance H. Wootin paint the post office mural where those residents are painted into permanent togetherness contingent on continual change. She leaves her own figure unfinished, however, her face "an empty outline" until she completes "all of my studies of this little precinct of this unending, this infinite, heaven."

Michael Martone created Constance H. Wootin along with other distinctive voices that wobble along a fine line dividing heaven and hell, meaning and futility, absence and presence. Walt 'Helper' Voltz, for instance, walks a short line of railroad that connects life,  death, past, and present, while Ken of Ottumwa sees the future coming into focus right in front of his face. Ken, a photographer committed to making pictures using old-fashioned film and chemicals, arrives to takes yearbook photos of Winesburg's Smartphone-equipped students:
They make pictures of each other. They make pictures of each other making pictures. They make pictures of each other making pictures of each other. And then (I know it) they begin sending the pictures they have made to each other. I can hear the phones ringing, singing, buzzing, clicking as they receive the pictures. I can feel them, the pictures, being sent in the air around me like the floating after-images of all the real pictures I make of the same children on the spinning piano stool in front of the silver-white background strobing on the excited filmy film of my retina.
Martone plays even more complexly with self-referential images in "Jacques Derrida Writes Postcards to Himself from a Diner in Winesburg, Indiana," which is unquotable except in full so you'd better go read it.

In fact, you'd better read all of it. A few characters are less compelling than others, but as Marny Vanderrost reminds us, "you mix the ingredients--even those that don't seem so savory alone--and let the heat transform them into something that will feed everyone."

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The curious case of the dog in the headlines

Friends in distant places want to know what it feels like to work in a city whose officials recently stepped in a steaming pile of dog poo that got smeared all over the media. I don't intend to add anything to that pile by commenting on the viral case of Officer Hickey and his dog (read it here), but I do wonder when I'll stop seeing Marietta, Ohio, in the "trending news" section of Facebook, as if the city were a long-lost Kardashian sister.

People all over the world now think of our little river town as a seething hotbed of injustice toward animals when there's so much more that makes Marietta special. For instance, what other small midwestern city can boast a former mayor who released a CD of music about road kill? ("Eat more possum--it's America's other other white meat.")

Wait, that's not helping.

When I travel to conferences I'm frequently asked how I like working in Georgia and I have to tell people "We're the other Marietta," but now I wish I could find a way to show the world another side of Marietta: a place where you can see eagles on a regular basis, get on the river in a kayak or canoe or speedboat or sternwheeler, visit Indian mounds and cemeteries full of the remains of Revolutionary War veterans who first settled here, take part in a CashMob on Monday evenings or visit the Farmers' Market on Saturdays, enjoy street fairs and blues music competitions and amateur theatricals, see Paula Poundstone perform in the restored historic theater or hear the college choir sing in a church built to caress the sound of the human voice.

But this other Marietta doesn't interest the media; it's too ordinary, too boring, too undramatic. They'd rather run with the "Man Buys Dog" story even if it smears a smelly mess all over the city. Which, I guess, is perfectly normal; they're just doing their job, exposing the foibles of city government in the way most likely to lead to clicks and page views. But here's my question: after all the reporters leave and the city falls out of the headlines, who will be stuck cleaning up the mess?

(Watch out--you're stepping in it!)

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Slime trails, sluggish writers

How often do I confront two unique and startling experiences before 9 a.m. on a Saturday? I guess today is my lucky day, because within a 10-minute time span I discovered the spelling "sort've" in a student paper and a trail of slug-slime on my nearly-new living-room throw rug. I don't know which one is worse.

I know the presence of slug-slime in the house sounds horrible, but it has an entirely innocent explanation: when the resident plant maniac brings in a bunch of potted plants in the late fall so they'll survive the winter, sometimes little critters come along for the ride. The banana trees downstairs often host spiders that soon make themselves visible by weaving webs, which makes them easier to remove. Sometimes we see a beetle or two or other kinds of creepy-crawlies, but never before have we seen signs of a slug. (Which doesn't mean they're not there.)

If this slug rode in on a plant last fall, then it's been cruising around that dense clot of plant pots all winter without showing its face, such as it is. What drove the slug to explore more distant terrain? Slugs need moist places, which the new rug definitely isn't. The glittery slime trail suggests that the slug blundered about on the rug for a while and then returned to the plants, although it's impossible to say which one. 

What harm can one slug do? Once years ago we came back from a picnic not knowing that a great big nasty spotted slug had hitched a ride on the bottom of the hamburger-bun bag, exactly where you would grab the bag if you were the one unpacking the picnic basket, which I was. The last thing you want to grab onto while reaching for food is a slug, and the unexpected slimy sensation may have resulted in a sharp vocal response and some violent throwing of buns.

If I were to walk out to the living room in the middle of the night and step on a slug in my bare feet, I suppose I might jump up in alarm and break a leg, but on the other hand, it's no worse than some other things I've stepped on in the dark. (If you've ever had an incontinent cat, you know what I'm saying.)

So I'm feeling fairly sanguine about the slug. I don't want to see it or step on it or look it in the face, but I take comfort in knowing that it doesn't want to see me either. Eventually it will shrivel up and die and we'll forget that we ever had a slug in the house, as long as I clean up the slime trail on the rug.

The spelling, on the other hand, is a different kind of problem entirely. I've never before seen "sort of" spelled "sort've" and I'm not quite sure how to handle it. Every semester I have to deal with students who have been told in high school never to use contractions in their writing but they're not aware of the derivations of "should've" and "could've," so I get a lot of "should of" and "could of" on student papers, as we all do. 

I fight this but I fear it's a losing battle. I may persuade a student to write "should have" in a paper for my class, but he'll go right back to "should of" in the next paper or the next class. We pronounce "should've" as if it were "should of," so it's really hard to persuade students who have been saying "should of" all their lives that they need to write "should have." Sometimes I have to let it slide so the student can focus on more serious issues, like the lack of thesis or insufficient evidence or plagiarism. In fact, if a student who consistently writes "should of" suddenly produces a paper full of "should have," plagiarism is the first thing I suspect. 

Now comes "sort've." If I'm drilling into students the need to change "should of" to "should have," then how do I prevent this student from overgeneralizing and producing "sort have"? Habits like this are really hard to break and getting a sluggish writer to attend to two different patterns simultaneously will take some effort: sort of, should have--the pronunciation is similar but the spelling is oh, so different. I suspect that I'll have an easier time eliminating the slug.

***Update: The slug has been found and removed from the premises. The spelling problem remains.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Teaching tasty texts (It's all about the mouth-feel)

This morning I'll introduce my Postcolonial Lit class to Jamaica Kincaid's "Blackness," and I know from experience what complaints I'll hear as I walk into class:

I don't understand!

Why can't she just say what she means? I don't get it!

Who is this person and what is she doing?

It doesn't make sense!

And that's when I'll say, "Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't, but what else can a work of literature make besides sense?" And that's when we'll start talking about sound and images and rhythm and the feeling of words rolling around on the tongue, and before the end of class I'll make them read passages out loud to each other just to relish Kincaid's delicious sentences:
How soft is the blackness as it falls. It falls in silence and yet it is deafening, for no other sound except the blackness falling can be heard. The blackness falls like soot from a lamp with an untrimmed wick. The blackness is visible and yet it is invisible, for I see that I cannot see it. The blackness fills up a small room, a large field, an island, my own being. The blackness cannot bring me joy but often I am made glad in it. The blackness cannot be separated from me but often I can stand outside it. The blackness is not the air, though I breathe it. The blackness is not the earth, though I walk on it. The blackness is not water or food, though I drink and eat it. The blackness is not my blood, though it flows through my veins.
And on she goes, kneading the blackness until it feels mutable as a diphthong on our tongue, solid as a lump of clay in our hands.

I would generally use this kind of exercise to introduce poetry-phobic students to the visceral pleasures of poetry, but in this case we're reading what purports to be prose. Jamaica Kincaid writes in several genres, often simultaneously: her fiction is suffused with biography and poetry, and her nonfiction creates poetic worlds situated at a slight angle to reality. Students who have trouble comprehending "Blackness" as fiction should not be embarrassed but should instead congratulate themselves on having detected the work's essential hybridity. "If it's difficult to make sense of as fiction," I'll ask them, "how would you read it differently as poetry?"

And that's when I'll make them read passages out loud to each other. Some will not feel the rhythm or hear the delicious permutations of sound, but at least they'll have an opportunity to taste and see that the word is good. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

My souped-up lunch lacks one essential ingredient

"Go ahead, expand your horizons," said the woman behind the lunch counter, but if all it takes to expand my horizons is to try a new type of soup, then my horizons are pretty constricted. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I shouldn't have needed to buy lunch at all today thanks to my forward-thinking work in constructing a lovely ham sandwich with mustard on homemade rye bread last night, but a ham sandwich forgotten in the refrigerator back home provides little satisfaction when I'm miles away at work, so I decided to try the soup despite the fact that it was billed as "Philly Cheese Steak Soup." It strikes me that soupiness would not be a desirable trait in a Philly Cheese Steak, and I don't want to think about what would result if you put a bunch of Philly Cheese Steaks in a blender and hit "Puree." But the lunch counter lady told me to expand my horizons so how could I resist such a challenge? 

I am now prepared to reliably report that the soup contains just about everything you'd expect to encounter in something called Philly Cheese Steak Soup: pale melty cheeselike product, limp bits of green bell pepper, floating microscopic shards of a substance that may at one time have been attached to a cow.

Everything, that is, except flavor.

It did not taste like cheese. It did not taste like steak. It did not taste like onions, grilled peppers, or a toasted bun. It did not, in fact, taste like anything. I submit to you that any food product that claims a resemblance to Philly Cheese Steak ought to, at the very minimum, taste like something, but this soup failed the taste test. I'd rather try to survive on an invisible ham sandwich.

Now I'm busy trying to contract my horizons to exclude Philly Cheese Steak Soup. I just hope my horizons have not gone all flabby from being overstretched.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Who wins a snowball fight between a leopard and a shark?

And now it's time to dig myself out of a different type of blizzard: student papers. Some colleges have barely begun the semester but this week I'm responding to drafts in two classes, moderating an online discussion in another, and commenting on homework assignments in the fourth, not to mention the exam I'm giving on Friday. (Already!) 

Not to mention long meetings. Not to mention preparing classes. Not to mention having an actual life. So yeah, I'm kind of snowed under and desperate to find a shovel.

Today as my film class finished watching the madcap antics of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, I saw myself on the silver screen. That's me in the jail scene, surrounded by easily distracted people assaulting me with a torrent of words and demanding answers right now, except instead of actual people, they're student papers. I promise to spill the beans if someone will just shut up and open a window! I've got to get out of here and get those wandering leopards under control.

Or that's me in my American Lit Survey class, bobbing on an open boat with the correspondent, the cook, the captain, and the oiler, except there's not enough room in this little boat for all those student papers and no matter how hard I paddle, I never get closer to shore. And who sent the sharks? Surely there's a life-saving station out there somewhere!

So I'm feeling a little overwhelmed, I guess, but whether I'm snowed under or stuck in a jail cell full of screwballs or bobbing in a boat amidst sharks, there's only one way out: better get reading. 

(If I toss the sharks to the leopards, do you think they'll stop bothering me?)