Thursday, April 27, 2017

Don't fail me now, fingers!

My finger started twitching in the middle of the Faculty Council meeting yesterday--the final Council meeting of  my two-year term, so I should have been celebrating a successful completion of a heavy service load, but it was my turn to take minutes so I had to focus on transcribing my colleagues' brilliant thoughts into notes on a Word document, which was hard to do after my finger started twitching.

My right index finger, of course--or, if you prefer, my point-and-click finger. That whole arm has been sore since Monday afternoon, when I did some weed-whacking for the first time this season, and since then I've been working my way through the usual end-of-the-semester pile of student prose, all online documents into which I insert comments by means of pointing and clicking and tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard. The result is a sore arm and a finger that keeps moving even when I want it to stop, not constantly but often enough to be annoying.

I've suffered this problem before and I know the solution: give the arm a rest! If I keep the shoulder away from the weed-eater and the finger away from the keyboard for a few days, the twitch will go away.

But that pile of papers isn't going to grade itself, and next week I'll have four sets of final exams to grade, not to mention all the pointing-and-clicking required for submitting grades and assessment data. This is a really bad time to be saddled with a wonky arm and twitchy finger. Give me a week to get all my end-of-semester stuff done and I'll be happy to give the arm  a rest, but meanwhile, I'm just going to have to carry on.

Unless I can find someone to carry me. Buddy, can you spare an arm? 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Another empty word I'd like to banish from student papers

The next student who tells me that a certain poem "has flow" is going to be beaten about the shoulders with a sack full of Deeper Meaning.

Rivers flow. Blood flows. Sentences flow--some of them--when they're constructed with precision. Lines of poetry may flow, but only when appropriate; sometimes lines of poetry prefer to stumble or fumble or jitterbug across the page. But okay, I get it: many lines of poetry are so smooth and lyrical that they flow pleasantly over the tongue, and many students seem to believe that "flow" is therefore the essential element that makes poetry poetry.

So poetry flows, but turn the verb into a noun and tell me that the poem "has flow" and I wonder whether the poem is suffering colon problems. Is it time to call the poetry doctor? 

"Flow," like "relatable," translates a student's subjective feeling into a handy term that appears to be pointing to specific characteristics of the poem without actually doing so. If "flow" is some substance a poem can possess, what does it look like and what is it made of? What contributes to that lyrical smoothness? How do the lines carry readers forward without interruption? Does "flow" grow out of punctuation (or the lack thereof) or sound or rhythm or some combination of elements? That's the level of detail I'd like to see in students' analyses, but instead they like to say the poem "has flow" and move on, as if they believe they've actually said something of substance.

And don't even get me started on "deeper meaning." Let's dabble in the shallows first--tell me how many end stops, how many commas, what sounds repeat, what images rise up off the page. Let's see how the words feel on our tongues, what they taste and smell and sound like--in fact, let's take the advice of Billy Collins's "Introduction to Poetry", which includes these lines:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
"We have ways to make you talk," they tell the poem, "so you may as well open up and tell us what you really mean." But when the poem keeps mum, the torturers round up the usual suspects--Relatable! Flow! Deeper meaning!--and toss them into their papers as if they explained everything.

These words explain nothing. They don't even try. They simply gesture toward some subjective experience while deflecting attention from the elements that create that experience, which is exactly the opposite of what I want from a poetry analysis. Nevertheless, that's the kind of analysis that is flowing into my inbox this week. 

Yes, my inbox has flow. (Maybe I should call the e-mail doctor?)

Monday, April 24, 2017

It wears me out just to watch them

Just in the past week, I've observed my students making beautiful music, explaining the inspiration behind their art, stealing bases on the baseball diamond, presenting posters about their research projects, organizing a massive public arts festival, painting children's faces, sketching raptors, tossing T-shirts, pushing pizzas, and generally putting every ounce of their considerable talent on public display, and I've marveled over their energy and wondered how they're still able to keep up with their coursework.

And yet they do. (Mostly. Exceptions are few enough to stand out.) Saturday morning at the Brick Streets Arts Bash I spent some time enjoying outdoor music downtown in cold, damp, windy weather not designed for lingering, and I finally had to seek an indoor event just to warm up and rest a bit. I was sitting in the warm theater getting ready to listen to the Escher String Quartet when I saw a student dashing up some steps to help the announcer with some essential task, and I thought, didn't I just see her on the other end of town, singing her heart out in the wind and cold?  Indeed I did, and I would see her in several other places throughout the day, each time bubbling with energy and ready to work--while I'm sitting in the warm theater letting the lovely music and warmth soothe me very close to the edge of sleep.

I might complain a little bit this week about having to grade all the papers I've assigned (note to self: no more papers due in the last week of classes!) or about all those exams I have to print out and proctor and grade next week, but most of my work right now is sedentary and indoors, requiring no running around in the wind and the rain, no defending a semester's work in front of a room full of intimidating faces, nothing much at stake beyond a pat on the back for turning in grades on time and submitting assessment reports. At this point everyone is so busy that no one would even notice if I did my job badly--and yet it takes every bit of energy I possess to get through these final weeks of the semester. If I had to do it while performing music or creating art or playing baseball, I think I would lie right down in the middle of campus and give up.

But my students are not giving up. (Well, mostly.) They're doing all the hard work of mastering course material while performing to the best of their abilities in so many different ways I can't even count. For that, they deserve to stand up and take a bow.

(And then sit right back down to work on that paper for my class.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

This to-do list is for the birds

When I saw the item on my to-do list saying "id sparrows," I thought, great name for a garage band. But what kind of music would The Id Sparrows sing?

Of course the "id sparrows" note was reminding me to try to identify the various sparrows I saw on my morning bird walk today, but it's not easy. For most of my life, all sparrows looked pretty much alike to me, but I've slowly learned to recognize the ones that hang around our feeders: chipping sparrows are wren-sized and have little rusty caps and say "chip." House sparrows have a black bib. White-crowned sparrows' heads are crowned with elegant white stripes. 

But sparrow identification is more difficult in the woods, where the birds insist on sitting in trees where their distinguishing marks are obscured by little bits of leaf or twig. I look at my photos and look in my bird book and look back at my photos and wish I could backtrack and persuade that bird to turn around.

I'd probably have better luck getting The Id Sparrows to sing the Can't Name That Birdie Blues.

Make way for goslings

Tell me your name, sparrow!


Eastern Bluebird


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Further evidence that I'm an old softie

1. I took my class outside today--without being asked.

My creative nonfiction class is small (11 students) and it's a gorgeous morning--and besides, I've just about run out of things to teach them, so why not relax a little? We discussed a reading assignment and examined how comedy can be used to soften up readers and then smuggle in a serious point, and then they took turns reading their own short comic pieces aloud and laughing at each others' cleverness. We weren't even too terribly distracted by the noise of men working on a roof across the way or of the guy who cranked up a weed-whacker nearby.

(This is true: years ago I took a freshman comp class outside, first checking to make sure the coast was clear, and we were all sitting there on the lawn doing good work very diligently for about 20 minutes. Then the mowers showed up and started circling us like vultures. It is impossible to continue blithely conducting a class whilst being circled by ravenous lawnmowers.)

2. I've given that class Thursday as a research day, wink wink. All across campus, Friday classes are cancelled for our annual All Scholars Day, when students present the results of their research projects, but Thursday classes are supposed to meet as scheduled. However, many of the students in that class are giving presentations on Friday and they're all working on their final major project for my class (due next Monday), so no one's going to be paying any attention to anything I have to say on Thursday, even if I hadn't already run out of things to teach them. So they get a research day (may they use it wisely).

3. I'm offering small bits of extra credit in all my other classes. They have to work for those little bundles of bonus points (by attending All Scholars Day presentations and writing about what they've learned and how it relates to our class content, or by doing an extra assignment analyzing the films we'll be watching in class next week in particular ways), but for the desperate, any little bit helps and they're not particularly onerous to grade. It's even possible that they could (gasp!) learn something. Which, I think, is kind of the point.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spring, surprising

pawpaw blossoms
I went out looking for jack-in-the-pulpit this morning in a patch of woods where I saw it a few years ago. Okay, maybe more than a few. Frankly, I don't remember how long it's been since I saw jack-in-the-pulpit growing in our woods, but I still go out there around this time every spring hoping to see it, and the trip is never wasted, even if I don't find what I'm looking for.

This morning I saw mayapples just beginning to poke out of the ground and unfurl their little green umbrellas. I saw tiny forests of stonecrop cropping up along the cliff face, delicate green fronds of solomon's seal dangling tiny buds beneath the stems, and more trilliums and trout lilies and bloodroot (done blooming) than I could have imagined.

Trees are blooming too, the maples and redbud putting on a show while velvety red-brown pawpaw blossoms hide inconspicuously along bare branches. And back there on the slope where the pawpaws grow, where I went in vain to look for jack-in-the-pulpit, I saw something I've never seen before: tiny twinleaf buds just barely emerged from the ground.

Later in the season, after the delicate white flowers have faded, the twinleaf will grow tall and spread showy leaves in clumps along that slope, where they're easy to see from the driveway. Now, though, they're barely visible unless you're right on top of 'em, tiny purply twin leaves folded tight alongside an insignificant white bud. If I go back tomorrow or Monday, I may see a blossom, but I'd better not delay too long because they don't last.

I saw poison ivy too, the first of the season, and garlic mustard and a well-hidden critter hole that tripped me up and nearly sent me sprawling down the hill. Spring is a double-edge sword, bringing threat alongside the beauty. This time it didn't bring me jack-in-the-pulpit, but there's still time to hope and search and stumble. And if I don't find what I'm looking for, I know I'll find something worth finding.

mayapple unfurling


twinleaf bud



Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dispatches from Death Week

Half of my students were missing this morning, and I can't say that I blame them--who wants to sit in a stuffy classroom and discuss two essays about death on such a gorgeous spring day? I'd rather be outdoors too, but I'm the one who assigned these essays and I'm going to have to lead my students through them, even if some of them would prefer not to. 

I'm not sure how this turned out to be Death Week in all my classes; I planned the syllabi separately and certainly did not intend to pile up all the morbidity in one big decaying lump. Yesterday's reading in Concepts of Nature stumbled over a rotting carcass and tomorrow's considers an entire landscape of decay, while in American Lit Survey we're reading Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," a poem I last taught at this time last year while my mother lay dying.

Now I'm awaiting word from my dad on some recent health problems while trying to plan a trip to Florida that has been delayed twice by forces outside my control (and while Hurricane Matthew may have been more powerful, I'd rather weather a dozen hurricanes than ever again have to deal with customer service at Spirit Airlines), so naturally my Creative Nonfiction class today was all about death and its rituals.

We read the remarkable "Pyre" by Amitava Kumar alongside Thomas Lynch's incomparable essay "The Undertaking," in which he breathes new life into the cliche about one hand washing the other. I knew I would get weepy if I lingered too long in the final pages of that essay so I'd hoped to set the students loose to talk about it, but half of them were missing. It was just me and a few brave souls talking about how we make sense of death, how rituals help us translate trauma into narrative. 

My students wrote beautifully about rituals they've observed, mostly not morbid: the pre-game rituals of softball players, the orderly steps we take in getting our faces ready to meet the world, the delicate choreography involved in deciding when and whether to greet someone we sort-of know who is about to enter within "interaction distance." 

And I talked about the ad-hoc rituals that arise spontaneously when disaster strikes--the piles of flowers outside the dead celebrity's mansion, the teddy bears piled near the shooting scene, and the roadside memorials marking sites of tragic accidents. I showed my students pictures of the memorial marking the space where the woman died in our creek a few years ago (read it here), a sturdy sign her family erected just up the road from my driveway. The bobble-head whale, sparkly dolphins, and angels that glow in the dark remind me every time I see them that we all grieve in our own ways, some more colorfully than others.

And now I steel myself to teach "One Art" tomorrow. "The art of losing isn't hard to master," insists Elizabeth Bishop, but I'm not sure I agree. Just thinking about teaching that poem makes me tear up, suggesting that I haven't yet mastered the art of losing my mother. Then again, how can we possibly know how we'll handle the losses we have not yet faced? Maybe we won't know whether we've mastered the art of losing until we face our final loss, the last loss that erases all the rest. Maybe, as Bishop suggests, all the other losses are just practice.

But who wants to talk about such morbid stuff on a beautiful spring day? Let's go outside and look at the birds and the flowers and bubbling creek. There'll be time tomorrow to think about death. Today, I'm going to gaze in wonder upon a bright blue bobble-head whale.