Monday, April 19, 2021

Showing up, regardless

The exhaustion I'm feeling may spring from the miles I hiked over the weekend or the mowing I did last evening or the Covid nightmares that keep interrupting my sleep (Put your masks on, people!), but at least I showed up in class with a lesson plan and some great discussion questions and even a little bit of group work. 

My students this morning barely showed up. Some offered excuses for needing to attend via Zoom (okay, I don't want you throwing up in the classroom, whatever) but the ones who were present in the room--well, there's not enough caffeine in the universe to supply the alertness missing from my classes this morning.

What have my students been doing to wear themselves out all weekend? Probably homework and projects and papers. That's what I choose to believe. We have made it to the final week of classes so we ought to be jumping up and down on our desks and cheering, but their eyes are barely open and their heads hang low.

A colleague posted last week on Facebook about how exhausted everyone is, and a helpful respondent suggested that she should give the students a pep-talk every day. As if we're not doing that anyway. As if a pep talk could restore everything we've lost in this pandemic-teaching year. As if any of us have a single scintilla of energy left for another stinking pep-talk delivered to students who didn't listen to the last one.

But here we are! Lesson plans in hand, discussion questions at the ready, group work all queued up. One more week! We can do this! And if we can't, we're going to do it anyway! 

Friday, April 16, 2021

In search of small beauties

Pawpaw blossoms are so tiny and inconspicuous that the only way to see them is to get up close to a pawpaw tree--but then, that's not a bad place to be. The color blends in with the surrounding brownness of the spring woods, so you won't find them unless you know where to look, and meanwhile you're bound to see other splendid things like buckeyes beginning to bloom and solomon's seal leaves curling above tiny buds. Not a bad way to spend a spring afternoon.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Coasting the chaos

Is it selfish to make things easier on myself in the final weeks of the semester? I do it every year in American Lit Survey: the final two or three weeks are devoted entirely to poetry written since the 1950s, focusing on poems I could teach with my eyes shut and both hands tied behind my back. There's not much prep required--I mean, if I can't get up in front of a class and lead a discussion on Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," I'm in the wrong business. Similarly, next week my literary theory students are giving presentations in class. They'll be working pretty hard to prepare and present, but my role is just to show up and take notes, maybe ask some questions at the end. Easy-peasy. No prep required. Time to coast!

Well, sort of. The time I'm not spending doing heavy-duty class prep is now devoted to writing final exams and grading papers and dealing with panicky emails from students who have suddenly realized that the end is near and they're not ready. I'm already looking ahead to a new class I'm teaching next year, but my struggling students are still mired in the murk of this semester and hoping they'll find a way out. I feel for them. This bizarre year has not been easy on any of us.

And yesterday I discovered yet another small pleasure the pandemic has diminished: browsing at the library. Sure, we can still walk over there and search for books in the stacks, but we're not supposed to touch any books except the ones we intend to check out. My problem is that I can't read the call numbers on the spines unless the books are at eye level, so I end up pulling out a lot of nearby books and bringing them up to my face so I can read the numbers, touching book after book after book. I suppose I could send a student worker over to find the books I need, but then I would lose the pleasure of browsing nearby shelves, the serendipity of discovering something I didn't know I needed to read.

It will all come back, I tell myself. One day the masks will come off and the signs warning about touching books will come down and we'll be able to gather face-to-face without fear. Meanwhile, we carry on for just a few more grueling weeks full of anxiety, stress, and struggle. Can you blame me for trying to make one small part of those weeks just a little easier?

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Side effects? What side effects?

In retrospect, I should have taken it a little easier after getting my second Moderna vaccine yesterday afternoon. I taught my morning classes, drove to Jackson, got the jab, and then taught my afternoon class over Zoom, and the whole time I felt fine. A little headache last night, a little arm soreness this morning, but nothing that would lead me to believe that a two-and-a-half-mile hike in the woods would not be a good idea. 

It was a pretty good idea at first. We walked a little more slowly than usual, but that's no problem when there's so much beautiful stuff blooming all around. I had thought that if we felt worn out, we could cut our usual hike short and take the shortcut from the wetland up to the parking lot, but when we got there, we felt okay. And besides, I really wanted to see whether those white trout lilies were blooming this week, but the only way to see them is to take the long loop through the wetland and up the bluebell trail alongside the creek.

So that's what we did. Hiked the wetland, heard Louisiana waterthrushes in two different places, saw trilliums and bluebells and festoons of dutchman's breeches and foamflowers and violets and I don't know what else, and we found not one but four white trout lilies blooming, very small and nondescript next to the trail, easy to overlook if you don't keep your eyes peeled. 

But by that time I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. Is it possible to nap while hiking? My arm hurt and started swelling. My legs felt like wet spaghetti. We sat on a log to take a break and when I closed my eyes for a few minutes, I came very close to falling asleep right in the middle of the woods. And when we got back to the top, I did not feel alert enough to drive us home.

Good thing I had the hubby with me. He had his second vaccine jab on Thursday and tried not to let it slow him down, but he wasn't moving at his usual pace this morning, and pretty soon we'll be napping the afternoon away.  I'll remember this lesson next time we have to get vaccinated against a nasty global pandemic--but let's hope there's no next time! I've had about as much as I can take of this one.



Friday, April 09, 2021

Taking a trip on the T Train

I tried to sell my students tickets for the T train this morning--the train toward Transcendence--but I found few takers. Boarding now on the American Lit Survey platform, step inside A.R. Ammons's "Garbage" for a contemplative journey past a towering garbage dump and on to a different type of landfill:       

                                        there is a mound, 

too, in the poet's mind dead language is hauled
off to and burned down on, the energy held and

shaped into new turns and clusters...

I'm reading this out loud with great enthusiasm and I look up expecting to see some light dawning on students' faces but I see nothing, nothing but incomprehension and boredom. I want the students to feel the way a poem can transforms dead language into new life and move us

        far beyond these our wet cells,

right on up past our stories, the planets, moons,
and other bodies locally to the other end of the

the pole where matter's forms diffuse and
energy loses all means to express itself except

as spirit,

But they're not having it. Maybe it's a bit much to ask students to think about language as a landfill at 9:00 on a Friday morning, and I can't drag them kicking and screaming into the ineffable. Last call for the train to Transcendence--the doors are closing now! I'm manning the controls as the engine rumbles away so I can't see whether the T train is carrying any passengers.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

That's not Santa on the roof, but it still feels like Christmas

Day has barely broken but already I hear the clump of feet and the whine of power tools overhead as young bearded men in work-boots tromp all over my roof, tearing off twisted bits of decrepit flashing and flinging them to the ground. My usual view out the picture window is interrupted by ladders, piles of building materials, and pickup trucks. Yes: we're getting a new roof! It feels like Christmas in April.

From the sound of it, work is happening at a furious pace. My roofer dudes moved their original installation date (tomorrow) in hopes of avoiding the rain that's expected to arrive late this afternoon. Does this means they expect to have my new roof fully installed before suppertime? That seems to be the plan.

Just now something big made a massive thump above my head--it sounded catastrophic, like a chimney collapse, but it's apparently just part of the roof-construction process. Compared to the noise and activity of the roofers, my keyboard-clicking seems wimpy and inconsequential, hardly worthy of the word work. Every time one of the roofer dudes walks past the window, I try to look busy. It feels wrong to just sit here while so much heavy lifting is going on overhead.

They've been here twenty minutes and already one pile of wooden laths has disappeared overhead. The truck carrying the new metal roofing materials has not yet arrived, and I'm eager to see how it gets across the creek and up the hill. They don't want to take the big truck across the bridge because it can't handle the sharp turn on this side, so they're hoping to drive it through the creek, across the meadow, and up the secondary drive. Fortunately, the big utility trucks that took that route last week left big ruts to show the way, but that doesn't mean it'll be easy.  

And it's not easy for me to concentrate on my own work with so much hullaballoo happening, but I've finished responding to student writing for the moment so I can focus on some less demanding projects, like writing final exams, doing laundry, and whacking some weeds. The important thing is to look busy, even though it wears me out just to see how hard the roofers are working.'s done! Before 9:30 a.m.!


Monday, April 05, 2021

Preparing for the approaching tsunami

This morning my composition students were so focused on working on their research projects that I had a hard time getting them to stop writing at the end of class. They've seen the writing on the wall, the amount of work they'll have to complete in the next three weeks, and they're taking good advantage of every opportunity I give them for in-class work.

And I'm doing the same. I teach four writing-intensive classes and so far this semester I've successfully avoided having multiple classes submit written work on the same day, but this Wednesday my perfect record falls to pieces. I'll collect a set of exams from the American Lit class, a set of annotated bibliographies from the literary theory class, and paper drafts from my two larger classes--composition and Literature Into Film. 

I'll have to respond to the drafts first because the turnaround time for revision is pretty brief, but I also need to respond promptly to the annotated bibliographies, which provide the foundation for my theory students' final projects. The pile I'm most interested in reading will have to wait for last--the exams on which my brilliant students will bring some of my favorite short-fiction writers into conversation with each other. (Louise Erdrich! Flannery O'Connor! George Saunders! Raymond Carver! Don't you want to listen in?)

So my week is a little upside-down: Today and tomorrow I'll do all my reading and prep work for Friday's classes so I can spend Wednesday and Thursday reading and responding to draft after draft after draft. By the end of the week my eyeballs will be falling out of my head and I'll be kicking myself for not planning this end of the semester a little more carefully. 

Maybe I'll get so caught up in my work that I won't even notice when this crazy week is finally over. When Friday rolls around, I'll need someone to give me a nudge and say "Class dismissed!" And then listen for the rewarding sound of a laptop computer slamming shut.