Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The positive-thinking arms race

Day One of my Official Fall Semester Attitude Adjustment Program started well enough: I rose bright and early, feeling positive and ready to apply a positively positive attitude to every single element of this positively positive day. Tried to check e-mail. Computer froze. Rebooted. Froze again. Brand-new computer, not one sign of trouble for a solid month, and now it won't even boot up all the way. Where's my sledgehammer?

Kidding! Just kidding! Maybe a walk will help: gorgeous morning, blue skies and a nice cool breeze until halfway up the big hill when the sun comes out and starts the sweat-rivers flowing while a parade of fracking-company pickup trucks goes zipping past, raising a cloud of thick dust right in my path, and then along comes a horsefly assiduously attempting to attack the one part of my back that I can't reach when I use my baseball cap as a horsefly swatter--gah! Where's my blowtorch?

LOL! What good would a blowtorch do against a horsefly and swirling dust and sweat and pickup trucks? None at all! I would need, at the very least, a grenade launcher and lots of ammo! Do they stock grenades at Wal-Mart? I'll just crank up my brand-spanking-new positively positive attitude and drive to town to find out! 

Wait, why is that guy standing in the middle of the intersection? Why are none of the traffic signals working? Who does that guy think he is, trying to make a left turn at the busiest intersection in town when the traffic light isn't working? We'll be here all day! If only I had that grenade launcher. Or better yet, a drone! Think of all the ordnance I could drop on that pickup truck with my own personal weaponized drone! Make that every pickup truck in town! Death to pickup trucks! Wipe 'em all off the face of the planet!

See what we can accomplish with a little positive thinking?

Sunday, August 02, 2015

One way to choose a major

Nell Zink’s novel Mislaid is as lightweight as drifting dandelion fluff, full of superficial characters acting in outlandish and unbelievable ways, but certain passages ring true. Here, young Karen demonstrates how to choose a college major: 

She was planning, tentatively, to major in English. As she explained to her mother in a letter, she knew English already, so she could probably get okay grades. There was no point majoring in something she didn’t know already, as she would just get into trouble or, more likely, major in the wrong thing. Employers always need English. Besides, she had to take all sorts of electives to graduate anyway.
I wonder how many of my students follow similar reasoning--because what, really, is the point of studying something you don't already know? Seems like a colossal waste of time.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Swift Friday mini-rants

Dear charming new coffee shop: I like your edgy decor, your tasty tea, and your cheerful service, but if the chicken salad tastes like dessert, it's too sweet, and if the texture feels like babyfood, then you need to stop pureeing and start chopping--or, better yet, tear up the chicken by hand so it comes out in chunks recognizable as meat. Too sweet + pureed to smithereens = off my list of acceptable lunches.

Dear person responsible for communicating with me in a timely manner: GAAAAH! If you do your job correctly, then maybe I can do mine too, okay?

Dear person responsible for selecting fabrics for women's professional attire: What ever happened to natural fibers? Not everyone wants to be walk around wearing the equivalent of a Hefty trash bag every single day. And another thing: if the fabric on the SALE SALE SALE blouse is so thin that I have to buy a second shirt to wear underneath it just to preserve a modicum of decency, then how am I saving any money?

Dear helpful bank employee: You did exactly what I needed you to do quickly and efficiently and with a smile on your face, and you even apologized for something that was totally not your fault. What's wrong with you? How am I supposed to write a mini-rant if you won't supply me with some good material? Get with the program or I'll--I'll--let you take care of all my banking needs! 

So there!


Farewell to July! (Go away, August.)

I remember a time--not so very long ago!--when July spread before me as an entire month absent of major commitments, a vast gift of time for writing with nothing much else to worry about.

And now it's over. Where did it go? I did some writing, yes, but not nearly enough. I worked on syllabi. I read a pile of books important to my research plus a few others. (Percival Everett's Watershed--how have I missed this for so many years? And why am I just now reading Thoreau's The Maine Woods?) I did a little canoeing and went to my son's softball games and spent some time with my adorable granddaughter and saw a few movies, but how did I get to the end of July with so little to show for it?

And you know what comes next, don't you? August, the month of meetings and mayhem. It's true that classes don't start until August 24, but I already have no fewer than eight meetings scheduled between now and then, including several multi-hour meetings. If I have to be on campus more than three days a week, summer is officially over.

So it's been fun, July, and I wish we could hang out a little longer but it's time to move on. Come back and see us sometime, okay? And next time, don't be in such a big hurry to get out the door, because once you're gone, there's no holding back the mayhem.


Monday, July 27, 2015

The new-class crazies invade my space

It's the first day of class and my first-year writing students are tearing around the room behind my back while I hunch over the computer at the front of the classroom frantically trying to finish writing the syllabus in time to e-mail it to our department's administrative assistant so she get the photocopies to me before the class ends, but I keep getting distracted by the rampaging imps in the room until I finally have to turn around and warn them: "If you hit me with that squirtgun one more time, you're outta here!"

I know it's a dream for three reasons:

1. Squirtguns? This isn't third grade!
2. My department doesn't even have an administrative assistant anymore!
3. Showing up on the first day of class without a syllabus? I'd rather walk in naked!

It's way too early to be suffering from new-class nightmares, but I've had some variation of this dream three nights in a row. The squirt-guns were a new touch, startling enough to wake me up. I'm always hopelessly overprepared on the first day of class: Classes start four weeks from today and I've already completed three out of four syllabi, while the fourth one just needs some page-number tweaks to account for a new three-meetings-per-week schedule. So these nightmares clearly aren't expressing anxiety over syllabi; instead, they're probably channeling some other anxieties:
What will we do without our beloved administrative assistant? Who will order those special green pens she used to keep hidden in the drawer just for the two of us who love them?

How will I deal with three first-year classes, including one that meets three days a week at 8 a.m.? 

How many new students will actually show up this fall? How will the campus respond to the enrollment figures? Are more staff cuts in the offing, or have all those voluntary departures bandaged the gaping wound in the budget? 

How will I cope with the stress of serving on Faculty Council? I've already fallen behind on some important online discussions because I don't have a smart phone and I haven't figured out a way to respond to e-mails while getting a root canal. Who expects an academic to respond instantly to e-mails in the middle of July anyway?

There's more--a lot more. When I think about it calmly, I'm quite sanguine about my class preparations and the challenges I'll face in the classroom; the challenges outside the classroom, on the other hand, make me want to pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep.

But only if those guys will put away the squirtguns.    

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Grandma's little helper

Yesterday my granddaughter asked me to read her a book she'd found among the many children's books sitting neglected downstairs, this time a Little Golden Book called We Help Daddy, in which little Benjy and Sue lend a hand while Daddy has a Very Busy Day--pulling weeds, painting a fence, giving the dog a bath, and more. 

I remember these little big-eyed round-faced children from my own childhood, but today the book reads like a dispatch from a different world: Daddy smokes a pipe without a worry about lung cancer or second-hand smoke; Benjy and Sue spend an entire day outdoors, only lightly supervised, without a flickering screen in sight; and Mommy stays in the kitchen baking cookies without getting a single grain of flour on her elegant silk blouse. Sue and Benjy work really hard without ever getting dirty, a trick I've never observed in children living outside of books. In fact, very little inside this book resembles the life I see my two-year-old granddaughter living.

She loves to help Daddy grocery-shop or help Mommy pick strawberries ("Only the red ones!"). Yesterday she helped us make a peach pie: Mommy rolled out the crust, Grandma sliced the peaches, and little E stirred the peaches, sugar, and spices in the big bowl, narrating all the while: "Stir stir stir! All stirred up!"

"It's delicious!" she says. And you know, she's right.

She also helps Grampa throw rocks in the creek, a never-ending task since the creek is always delivering up more rocks to throw. She helps Grandma wake up in the morning ("Grandma! Come in here! I'm awake!"), and she helps Uncle Steve loosen up ("Push me higher! Higher! Again!"). When her baby-doll is hungry, she puts colorful blocks in a bowl and calls it soup. 

"What kind of soup is that?" 

"It's purple and yellow soup," she says. And you know, she's right.

There are no pipe-smokers or silk-blouse-wearing bakers in our house,  which is not surprising since we don't live in 1965. Maybe in 2065 our more enlightened descendants will look back at our current way of life and find us hopelessly quaint and backward, but let them think what they want. The past is a a closed book that the future sneers at, so I'm glad to have a grandchild around to help me focus firmly on the present. 

"It's time to play!" she says. And you know, she's right.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

RBORCR, or something like that

"You've just been impaled by paper points," said my dentist in the middle of my latest bout of Dental Hell. No idea what that means. All I know is that my gum is swollen, my mouth feels as if it's been stretched to admit a bowling ball, and all I want to do is ... well, nothing. Thus, these Random Bullets of Root-Canal Recovery: 

Unless I'm hallucinating, I just heard on the radio that the minor-league baseball team in Akron, the Rubber Ducks, will play a series against the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This is what happens when you put toddlers in charge of naming baseball teams. (I'm rooting for  Underdog.)

Jill Lepore's long New Yorker essay "Joe Gould's Teeth" makes for some really interesting reading, touching on topics as diverse as the nature of biography, the brutality of authorial friendships, and the heyday of the prefontal lobotomy. For chuckles, though, nothing beats "Mitt Romney's Slumber-Party Diary" by Paul Rudnick. ("'I mean, what kind of unions do they have in Wisconsin, anyway? Cows and chickens?'")

I saw an acquaintance in the grocery store today and almost ducked down the next aisle to avoid her because who wants to talk to a grieving widow with a mouth full of novocaine? (Meaning my mouth was full of novocaine, not hers.) But I'm glad I stopped for a chat because we somehow managed to mutually encourage each other. (And I somehow avoided drooling all over myself too.)

Too much summer squash? Yesterday I baked a summer squash bundt cake containing ground pecans and dates, and my my my was it good. However, it called for only one cup of grated squash, which won't put a dent in my squash supply unless I make a lot more cake. In which case I'll have plenty to share. Come on over!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Reassessing disengagement--or, how to manufacture eureka moments

I could have yelled “Eureka!” on my walk this morning and no one would have heard it except the indigo bunting singing in the top of a willow. What does he care about my writing problems? He’s a bird. Birds don’t spend their summers agonizing over academic essays.

This is what I’ve been doing since I gave my paper at the ASLE conference last month: agonizing over how to patch a glaring hole in my argument. As I was revising my conference paper to fit the time available, I hesitated over a particular point that seems, to me, fairly brilliant, but it did not fit well with the focus of my paper. I hated to cut such a cool point, but on the other hand, I couldn’t possibly explain it thoroughly without cutting something more central to my argument. So I crossed it out.

But it’s been nagging at me ever since: as I expand my conference paper into a journal article, how do I deal with that dangling insight? It’s too interesting to bury in an endnote, but how do I make it feed my central argument? Three weeks of diligent thought have not solved the problem, but 20 minutes into my walk this morning, I had the answer.

How does this work? I was just walking up the road watching goldfinches flee from one Queen Anne’s Lace blossom to the next when eureka! There it was: I knew how to incorporate that important point into my argument, where to suture it smoothly into the essay, what examples to use in developing the idea, and even how to connect it back to the opening paragraph and lead into a great conclusion. And (this is the best part!) I came up with a new title, just two little words that tie all the parts together and ought to grab hold of readers' eyeballs really nicely. I couldn't wait to get back home so I could write it all down.

As I'm preparing to teach our senior capstone class this fall, I wonder how to explain to students the essential ingredients of the academic writing process. Reading widely, yes; research, yes; really outstanding note-taking skills, absolutely. But sometimes it's important to just close the books, put down the notes, and disengage entirely from the process, to let the mind wander randomly without direction and see what it picks up along the way. How do I include mind-wandering as a requirement on the syllabus? How would I assess student disengagement? When I encourage students to make time to walk away from the project and let their minds wander, will they roll their eyes at me and turn up the volume on their earbuds while tweeting thousands of followers about the latest lunacy proposed by their English professor? 

I know what it takes to produce eureka moments in my life: a mind stocked with interesting ideas; a disciplined approach to bringing those ideas together in writing; and a regular time to disengage from the process entirely and let my mind wander. What I don't know, however, is whether that formula will work for my students or how to help them discover their own methods. I want to create the conditions that will multiply their eureka moments--but unless I'm there to hear the eureka, how will I even know how it works?