Friday, September 30, 2016

Too tired to write (so why am I writing?)

I could blame the thunder that made me sit straight up in bed and yell out "What just blew up?!" or I could blame the difficulty of settling back down to sleep after I'd determined that nothing had blown up or I could blame the nightmares about lizards and ants invading my bed or I could blame the Tana French murder mystery novel that wouldn't let go of my hands until close to midnight, but wherever I place the blame, the result is the same: I'm tired.

Not the kind of soul-crushing tiredness that accompanies those massive stacks of papers or the dizzying exhaustion after traveling long distances but the kind of tired that makes me tell my honors students, "Trust me: you don't want me grading those papers today. When my eyeballs start drifting shut, everything looks like an F."

I'm tired enough to put my head down on my desk and take a quick nap before class, even though my desk is about as warm and soft as an Antarctic ice floe.

I'm tired enough to cancel class if I were the type to cancel class, but I'm that annoying professor who kept teaching through chemotherapy, so I didn't cancel this morning's classes but instead powered through them.

But don't come looking for me in my office this afternoon. I intend to keep my eyes open just long enough to drive home, and after that--forget about it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Gaping holes in the new MLA Handbook

This morning I heard a hated phrase coming out of my mouth in class: "Because I said so." I don't want my students to carry me around throughout their lives to serve as the ultimate arbiter of where to place a comma or whether to italicize foreign words and phrases; far better for them to know how to use the MLA guide to look up answers to such questions.

Except the MLA guide--excuse me, the MLA Handbook, 8th edition--no longer covers these topics.

The new MLA has nothing whatever to say about the Oxford comma, the correct use of apostrophes, or how to format foreign words in a document, and if you want to know about margins, fonts, titles, and so on, you have to go to their online style center.

Now I like the new MLA style center (, and I appreciate the philosophy behind changes to MLA citation style even though it produces citations that look less like a sleek black tuxedo and more like the baggy old pants you wear to work in the garden. But what I lack is the ability to say "Because MLA says so" about certain topics.

So this morning when a student asked about the Oxford comma, we had to talk about context. "Intelligent people can disagree about comma placement," I told them, "so know your audience." Writing for publication? Look at the publication's house style sheet. Writing for a class? Ask the professor. Writing for my class? Put in the comma. Please. It pains me when it's missing.

Need to cite an authority? In the absence of a definitive statement in the MLA Handbook, just do it--because I said so.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Nothing I can do but hold the flashlight

I'm standing in the dark holding a flashlight for my son while he installs a new starter in his car. Bats are zipping past overhead but I hear no mosquitoes--too cool and dry. Feels like autumn finally arriving, a slight cooling and dampness in the air, and from the garden a whiff of decay. 

Holding a flashlight for my son is not how I'd planned to spend my evening, but after an exhausting 11-hour day on campus, I had nothing else important to do. Holding a flashlight is a mindless task--just aim it where his hands are working, shift to the socket set then over to the manual then back to the engine where he's trying to get the new air filter tucked in correctly then moving on to the battery.

Stars start coming out overhead, a nice treat after all those dark clouds looming all afternoon. We had hoped for rain since the creek has shrunk to  disconnected puddles, but the clouds moved on without releasing more than a few scattered drops. The dark surrounds us like a curtain except where the flashlight illuminates a little bit of engine.

"Over this way a little," he says, and I oblige. He's having trouble getting the battery bracket screwed down tight, too many shadows obscuring the essential bits. A few more shifts of the flashlight, a few turns of the screws, and everything is in place for a test--and the car starts right up on the first crank.

A job well done, we tell each other. He did the hard part and he has the greasy hands to show for it; I just stood there in the dark aiming the beam where it would be most helpful. But still I feel I have a stake in the purring of the engine, as if I've played an essential role in my son's movement into the future. When he was young I carried him and then I drove him around, but now I'm happy just to stand silently by and aim a beam of light where his hands need to work. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Nutshell: a ridiculous plot that really works

Imagine Elsinore as a bouncy castle and Hamlet tumbling and squirming against its deep red squishy walls--but then it's not Hamlet but some kind of travesty, good only for a few cheap laughs. 

Imagine Hamlet as a baby--but at that stage he has no father's murder to avenge, no self-awareness or ability to act independently.

Imagine Hamlet as an unborn child in his mother's womb, unwittingly overhearing his mother and uncle plot to murder his unsuspecting father--but what baby possesses the language and knowledge of the world to understand murder or exact revenge?

It's a ridiculous conceit, implausible except as farce. What kind of fool would try to turn such a bizarre plot into serious fiction?

Ian McEwen is that kind of fool, and the remarkable thing is this: it works. Nutshell is a gleaming little gem of a novel, fast-paced and suspenseful and sparkling with insight about flawed humanity.

The novel demands an instant suspension of disbelief but offers rewards in clever and elegant writing, McEwen's most poetic prose. Our narrator, the unborn and unnamed child, insists that he is not a blank slate but "a slippery, porous slate no schoolroom or cottage roof could find use for, a slate that writes upon itself as it grows by the day and becomes less blank. I count myself an innocent, but it seems I'm party to a plot."

The plot is hatched by Trudy and Claude, just one of many echoes of Hamlet, the play never mentioned but frequently evoked, starting with the epigraph that provides the novel's title: "Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space--were it not that I have bad dreams."

Our narrator recalls his first moment of awareness within the womb, the first fleeting idea that solidified within his developing brain: "[M]y idea was To be. or if not that, its grammatical variant, is. This was my aboriginal notion and here's the crux--is. Just that." But will he ever have a chance to be, an unwanted child destined to be sacrificed as part of the impending plot?

And what a plot! If an unborn child is the only witness to murder, how can he bring justice on the perpetrators? He has only contempt for clueless Claude, "Whose repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble, whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading....As a man he's a piece of work, a self-constructed device, a tool for hard deception." But his mother, too, has blood on her hands, causing our narrator to struggle to balance his hatred for her acts with his love for her person. "I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap," he says, but he cannot remove that cap without removing his only source of comfort and nourishment.

It's a clever fetus that knows its own father and no fetus is cleverer than McEwen's narrator, but despite his cleverness, putting his plan into action poses challenges. "Between the conception of a deed and its acting out lies a tangle of hideous contingencies," he says, and those contingencies keep the suspense at a maximum until the end.

And what an end. Nutshell is a tiny book, readable in an afternoon, with a closing passage so satisfying I wanted to start over and read it again right away just so I could land on that moment one more time. Despite its macabre machinations, it's a joyful little book, abounding with energy and insight. Just don't try to explain the plot to anyone. Hamlet as an unborn child? Ridiculous.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

There's more to life than happy endings (and magic pixie dust)

There comes a point in every semester when a student wants to know why everything we read is so depressing, but usually it doesn't arrive quite this early.

I heard it most last spring in the postcolonial class: That movie we watched was such a downer. That story about the violence following Partition was so disturbing. Why do these poems have to be so serious?

And now I'm hearing the same complaints in my first-year seminar: Why are you making me read about disturbing history and injustice? Why can't something happy happen in these stories? Why so serious?

I never know what to say to these complaints. First, I challenge anyone to find a syllabus on which absolutely every reading can be characterized as depressing, even if we could agree on what that means, exactly. Life is difficult and injustice rampant so it shouldn't be surprising that our literature reflects those difficulties and shines a light on injustice, but even the readings students label depressing offer moments of transcendence or hope.

But really they're looking for happy endings. I think about the last time I saw a film in a movie theater; I first had to sit through twenty minutes of previews of films in which some unthinkable evil threatens to destroy everything we hold dear, but then along comes the latest superhero or superpower or magic spell to vanquish the evildoers, restore hope, and maybe even bring together the star-crossed lovers. In the end order is restored and everything gets neatly tied up, except for the occasional loose end left dangling until the sequel.

I don't know about your life, but my life doesn't work that way. I have no superheroes to call on, no magic to deploy; many of the strands of my life's plot resist clear resolution. Happiness pops up here and there but can't be beckoned at will, while deep meaning and comfort creep in during times of suffering and grief.

That's the kind of reality our current readings reflect, readings I find deeply moving and transcendently beautiful. If you're expecting some deus ex machina to swoop in and sprinkle magic pixie dust around to create a sparkly happy ending, then these readings are bound to disappoint--but depressing? I'm not feeling it. How can anyone be blue while surrounded by such beauty?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Into thin air

Because I've been teaching The Sound and the Fury and thus immersing myself and my students in that cacophony of amazing/annoying/irresistible voices--

And because I've been reading draft after freshman draft tackling similar topics with varying degrees of grace, elegance, and precision--

And because I've been sharing with my honors students Anne Lamott's excellent advice about silencing those squeaky-wheel voices in our heads that stand in the way of getting words down on the page--

And because we've reached the point in the semester when absolutely everyone wants a piece of me at every moment of the day, sometimes on opposite ends of campus at the same time--

I decided to turn off the radio in my car and drive home surrounded by silence, nothing but engine noise to disrupt my thoughts for 22 straight minutes.

It was great.

I'm not Faulkner so I won't try to recreate my stream of consciousness during that drive, but I know my thoughts returned again and again to the solo my daughter sang in church on Sunday about the balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole, the wonder of seeing my little girl all grown up and spreading comfort through song, and I thought of those marvelous tree images in the last three books of Homer's Odyssey--the immovable bride-bed firmly rooted in place; the fruit trees given to the child as a promise of future production; the oar planted in the earth like a tree to mark the end of the hero's journey--and somehow that took me back to Faulkner and Dilsey's conviction that she has seen the beginning and the end, her search for a moment of thrumming quiet in that chaotic household, and her barely perceptible humming, one of the few intrusions of music into the text--

And I don't know what else I thought but I stopped thinking entirely when I turned onto my road and the red-tailed hawk swooped down and preceded my car up the hill through the woods and then it swooped upward and disappeared, taking all those voices into thin air.

And now I'm ready to enjoy my evening.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Rebooting a tried-and-true method

A student sits in front of me, draft in hand, adrift in the process of revision. "I get what you're saying," he says, "But how do I fix it?"

It's a question I'm hearing a lot these days as I'm requiring all of my first-year writing students to meet with me outside of class to talk about their drafts. I've moved away from requiring conferences in the past few years, primarily because I can provide much more detailed feedback on papers by inserting comments electronically. However, I can't guarantee that students read those comments, and neither can I be certain that they understand them.

So for this first major paper of the semester, I sent them comments and then set up required conferences, but I warned them first: "Don't come and see me without looking at my comments and those of your classmates. This is your chance to ask me questions, and it's my chance to ask you what progress you're making on revision."

So far, it's working. Every student has brought in specific questions, some of them easy to answer (what do you mean by "hanging indent"?) and others more challenging. The most common problem on this assignment is a tendency to grab quotes from the readings and drop them into the essay and then move on without providing any context or commentary, and I've had several students tell me, "I don't know how to do that." But that awareness gives us a good place to start, and by the time we're through, maybe the student has a better idea of how to proceed.

But here's the thing: no one asks those questions in class. Further, students rarely ask this kind of question via e-mail--perhaps because they postpone looking at my revision suggestions until just before the deadline for submitting the revised essay, and they know better than to frantically e-mail me at 3 a.m. the day the paper is due. (Well, most of them know better.)

So while they're learning a lesson about how to add depth to their writing, I'm learning a lesson about the value of one-on-one instruction. I will still send them comments electronically (because no one can read my handwriting!), but after this week, maybe they'll see the value in seeking assistance--and maybe I'll keep making conferences a part of our writing process.