Friday, February 27, 2015

Name games

It's my own fault, of course: If I'd told the visiting poet how to spell my name, then I wouldn't have ended up with two wonderful books inscribed to "Beth." 

Not that there's anything wrong with Beth. Some of my best friends are Beth! But until I officially change my name to Betherly, I am not Beth (or Bess or Betty or Barb or Maeve or any of the other names I've been called).

Only under
extreme duress
would I respond
to "Hello, Bess!"

To be called "Bet" 
is not a thing
that makes my heart
begin to sing.

Both Betty Boop
and Betty White
can keep their names
Get my name right!

The Beths I've known
have been just fine.
But "Beth" (the name)
just isn't mine. 

Your best bet, friend,
I do confess,
is not to call me
Beth or Bess

or Bet or Barb
or even Maeve. 
I'll stick with Bev
right to the grave.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Choose your adventure!

Hike in the Grand Canyon or look at Grand Canyon wallpaper.
Gaze at a Monet waterlily painting right up close or look at a reproduction on a postage stamp.
Hear your favorite song performed by your favorite artist or by a twelve-year-old doing karaoke.

Most of us would choose the adventure that brings us face-to-face with the real thing, which makes me wonder why so many students read online summaries of literature instead of encountering the actual text. Why read a prosaic, tepid, watered-down version instead of the work itself in all its glory?

I've ranted on this before both in and out of class, but I've never found an effective way to persuade students that they're cheating themselves out of amazing adventures. When asked why they prefer online summaries, they mention textbook costs or time management problems or other priorities, but what it comes down to is that online summaries are easier. 

Right, but here's the thing: Looking at wallpaper is certainly easier than hiking in the Grand Canyon, but only a fool would claim that the experiences are equally valuable. Likewise great art: it's easier to get hold of a postage stamp, but how much is lost in the reproduction? The pale reflection of the thing simply cannot recreate the experience of the thing itself.

My students don't seem to feel any sense of loss when they avoid reading literature. After all, they're getting a quick and easy rundown of the important characters, plot elements, and themes in the book. What could they possibly be missing?

They're missing everything that distinguishes the real thing from its shadow: intensity of color, integrity of line, clarity of voice; the sweat that results from an uphill slog, the quickening that occurs when a sight touches the soul, the stirring that inspires creativity.

Why would anyone forego that kind of adventure in favor of a postage-stamp-sized experience? And what can I do to persuade them to stop?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Doing what works--works

Some unseen force in the textbook-writing industry decrees that every writing text must include some variation on this statement: You have to find the method that works for you. I immediately want to dial up Captain Obvious to report a cop-out, but then I recall that I gave that same advice to one of my own students just last week. It's true--you do have to find the method that works for you--but the problem arises in how we understand that word works.

Context matters. The method that enables E.L. James to write Fifty Shades of Gray will not necessarily serve the student attempting to write a research paper for a first-year composition class, and telling certain lazy students do what works for you sounds like permission to do nothing--or to plagiarize. (Which, lest we forget, helps students develop the time management skills that they need to succeed in the world of work.)

First-year writers in composition class need to find the method that works to demonstrate mastery of certain conventions of academic writing. A student comfortable with sub-par performance might smile and say "It works for me!" But it may not work to produce the desired grade. 

Upper-level classes are different. With first-year writers, I tend to issue directives: you must put the parentheses here; you must properly integrate and punctuate quotations from sources; your thesis statement should follow one of these helpful models. Advanced writers get gentle nudges: try this clause at the beginning of the sentence and see how it changes the emphasis; consider more vivid verbs here and see how they impact meaning and rhythm; have you thought about switching these two points around? Give it a try and see what works. It's like the difference between giving a preschooler a coloring book (Color inside the lines!) and giving an older child a blank canvas and a bunch of paint.

Do what works for you works best for writers who know enough about writing to know what works best. In that way, it's like much writing advice: most useful for those who don't need it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Frosty morning

Who can complain about the cold when it makes this much beauty?

(I can--but just for the moment, I won't.)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Powerless to avoid cabin fever

Cabin fever? Don't get me started!

With schools closed and churches closed and every possible fun weekend activity postponed because of ice all over the roads, with the hubby stuck inside because there's no work in this weather, with appliances suddenly failing and pipes freezing and power outages and cold cold cold, there's just no escape. 

I thought that going to work today would be a welcome break from the cabin fever--and it was, until the power went out all over campus and then came back on in certain places, not including the bathrooms in our building. No heat, no light, no bathrooms, no internet.

So I came home, where here I sit contemplating the birds at the feeders and the work on my laptop. On the way home I saw a pair of eagles, one diving and lifting a fish from one of the few spots where the river is not frozen solid. Do they have antifreeze in their feet or what? If I were an eagle I'll bet I wouldn't get cabin fever at all.

(But what about the fish-breath problem?)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lights-out links

Last night as I tossed and turned and tried to stay warm and stop worrying about whether the pipes would freeze, I kept asking myself, "What could be worse than suffering a power outage on the coldest night of the year?"

Lots of things could be worse. Like, for instance, suffering a power outage on the coldest night of the year without the benefit of a house and a bed and lots of warm blankets. At least we're not homeless! And the power came back on after five cold, dark hours! And the pipes didn't freeze! And even if I feel a little less than rested today, I know I'm better off than some people I could mention. Time to count my blessings:

I'm not currently "camping out in line with half the population of the United States in the dead of winter to register [my] outrage," so I don't have to worry about whether the Federal Department of Outrage will reject my attempts to document my ire. (Click here to read it in McSweeney's.)

I've never had to eat any of the cakes pictured here, which is a good thing because they make my head explode.

When one of my favorite academic blogs asks readers "How do raises work where you work?" I laugh bitterly and say, "Raises? What raises?" But: at least I don't work at Wal-Mart. Or the Federal Department of Outrage. Or the Harlan City (Kentucky) police department, which addressed the winter weather outrage by putting out an APB for Queen Elsa of Arendelle. Or our power company, which fielded calls from a large number of the 4000 local people who were without power and sent workers out in the dead of night when temperatures were in the single digits to try to persuade the hamsters to start running on those big wheels again.

Wait, now I know what could be worse than suffering a power outage on the coldest night of the year--being responsible for fixing it. Three cheers for those guys, whoever they are. I hope they're sitting someplace warm and enjoying a nice hot cup of something wonderful, which is exactly what I intend to do as soon as the temperature in my kitchen rises above 50. Until then, I'm staying under the covers.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Music that mends the cracks

When composer Jake Runestad addressed an audience of mostly students last night, the first thing he pointed out was that he is not dead. The word composer, he said, might evoke in their minds an image of some long-dead European dude with wild hair and an unpronounceable name, but no: if Runestad is any indication, today's composers wear hip suits and use mousse and emphasize the joy of playing with music.

Runestad's talk, punctuated by glorious performances of some of his works by our college's concert choir, provided abundant evidence that the liberal arts continue to feed spirits even in our hectic information age. His creative process requires mastery of the technological tools that put notes on the page, but those notes spring from long stretches of time devoted to studying and internalizing texts. Most of the works performed last night were settings of poetic works by poets as different as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Wendell Berry--a setting of "The Peace of Wild Things" that made me want to lie down and die right now so the choir can sing it at my funeral.

Runestad draws on works of both established and lesser-known authors; "Dreams of the Fallen," his new work for orchestra, piano, and choir, sets to music poetry by Iraq war veteran Brian Turner. By far my favorite, though, is "We Can Mend the Sky," a choral work based on poetry written by young Somali immigrants to the U.S. (Click here to listen.) The piece opens on a dramatic note, with drums and shifting rhythms creating tension, but it then moves toward a solo expressing deep yearning for peace before developing into a rousing chorus proclaiming "If we come together, we can mend a crack in the sky" performed so joyfully that it made me believe.  

The students, of course, had the most fun singing Runestad's popular "Nyon Nyon," a work composed entirely of gibberish and allowing accomplished singers to break out their amusing mouth-noises. Runestad explained that he wrote that piece as a college student because he just wanted to play around with words and sounds and music. His playfulness, of course, is grounded in a deep understanding of how music works, a willingness to delve into texts until they become a part of his psyche, and an ability to employ technological tools to disseminate the results.

I hope my students heard that message, and I hope they will pursue that highly informed and creative play. But more than that, I hope they will listen to the music and know that the arts are not any more dead than is Jake Runestad.