Wednesday, November 13, 2019

You may feel a little discomfort

In the evening the hospital waiting room is quiet, with just a few tired people scattered in chairs listlessly watching Wheel of Fortune while awaiting news about their loves ones. A wall monitor lists patients' code names alongside little icons indicating the stage of their surgeries: a scalpel when slicing begins, a row of sutures when he's being stitched up, a bandaid showing he's in recovery, or a big T telling us to contact the reception desk. Except there's no one manning the reception desk; the two staffers went around telling us all they were leaving for the evening before stepping through the sliding doors that WHOOSH as if the receptionists were leaving the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. 

I wish I could WHOOSH out with them. My husband's procedure is minor and simple--removal of a large, squishy fluid-filled cyst near his armpit--but we've been at the hospital since 5 p.m. and they didn't get him into surgery until around 7. After a long day at work, the last thing I want to do is spend the evening hanging around a hospital waiting room.

Let's face it: I don't handle hospitals well. My husband's job as a pastor requires him to spend long hours with suffering people in all kinds of unpleasant places--hospitals, prisons, nursing homes--and he always knows how to bring cheer into the room, when to open the hymnal and sing, and when to shut up and pray. I, on the other hand, start to tense up the minute I enter the parking garage, and when I walk through the doors, my jaw clenches up and my wordhoard shuts down. Just to stay sane, I have to retreat to a safe place, like the middle of a book, and when I'm not reading I devote all my energy to getting out of the hospital as quickly as possible.

This is what I tried to do last night after my husband's surgery, but he was in no hurry to leave, even though he was experiencing some discomfort after having his armpit shaved, sliced, and sutured (with glue!), a process alternately painful and ticklish. I tried to hustle him out the door but he kept finding friends to talk to--a former student who's now a nurse and another wearing the uniform of a sheriff's deputy. The deputy had just finished a 12-hour shift guarding a jail inmate while she gave birth. Imagine spending 12 hours waiting for a person not related to you to give birth, keeping watch in case she dashes out the door between contractions dragging her IV pole behind her. All I'll say is: It's a good thing they don't let people like me carry a gun in a hospital waiting room--and yet this deputy was just as friendly and cheerful as if he'd spent the day at Disney World.

I envy this gift my husband has: the ability to be present and encouraging in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. All I had to do was sit in a comfortable chair for a few hours while he got sliced, but by the time we left, I had tensed up into a tiny, dense black hole of stress while he was chatting cheerfully with everyone he passed, without the benefit of mood-altering drugs. If hospitals handed out Valium to everyone in the waiting room, the world would be a mellower place. (But then who would drive the patients home?)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


We're meeting in the library, my first-year writers and I, as they diligently gather sources for their research projects, and suddenly all those research skills we've talked about in theory run up against the real world when a student asks me, "How do I get the shelves to move?"

I distinctly recall showing this class how to make the library shelves move back when we had our library tour, but this time there was some sort of glitch preventing the mechanism from operating. "This is when we notify a library official," I told my student, which we proceeded to do. Soon, the shelves were moving and he'd found his book.

Some students had trouble with search terms that were too broad or too narrow (or too badly spelled) to produce useful results, while others wondered how they could find a source opposing their view--how could anyone possibly disagree? Deadlines are looming and the clock is ticking so we are meeting in the library all week, determined to locate sufficient sources for every topic. 

This part of the semester is when the rubber hits the road, not just for first-year writers but for the rest of my students too. This week in class my capstone students are practicing their presentations in preparation for the big public event next week, so I'm busy providing guidance about all manner of practical matters, from making titles more specific to indicating quotes without resorting to bunny-ears to using a water bottle to create a meaningful pause.

In these classes my role has shifted from instructor to troubleshooter as I help students make their way toward completing big projects. I like this role; it may look sometimes as if I'm not doing much in the classroom, but it takes some effort to clear the path so students can find their own way, and in the end, they'll learn something from the struggle.

I worry about some of them: will they have time to pull it all together before the deadline, or will they fall by the wayside despite my best efforts to keep them focused? I'm taking encouragement from the condition of the damaged dragon tree in my office, which looked hopeless in August but is now sending forth shoots that get stronger by the day. If all my students can end the semester with that kind of fortitude and strength, we'll all be happy.


Friday, November 08, 2019

In the bleak pre-winter

We've reached the point in the semester when a lot of things that looked like really good ideas back in August now appear to be utterly foolish. What made me think I'd want to fill these bleak November evenings reading students' annotated bibliographies? Who thought analyzing 9/11 literature would make a rewarding experience when night falls just a little after lunchtime? And teaching at 8 a.m.--what was I thinking?

This morning my car was encased in ice, the valley was socked in with fog, and my head was full of phlegm, still, two weeks after I started feeling rotten. I can go for hours at a time without a cough but once the coughing starts, everything else stops, including sleep. 

But I stopped coughing long enough to make a quick visit to the grandkids, simply because I needed some liveliness and color in my life in the bleak pre-winter. I'm pleased to report that my youngest grandchild has precociously mastered two important words: Why and No! I need to remind myself to use these words more often while I'm planning my syllabi and course schedules, and the primary person to whom I need to address them is myself. Thinking of teaching an 8 a.m. freshman class? No! Why?!! NO NO NO!!  And then I need to hit myself over the head with a baseball bat until the temptation passes.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Taking the funhouse tour

If my father's house could comment on its own appearance on the realtor's web site, it might ask, "Does this terazzo make me look fat?"

I don't know if the realtor used a distorting lens or did some creative photoshopping, but the online images reflect a funhouse view of my old Florida home. The text is bad enough, touting a "HUGE two-car garage" that barely had room for Dad's Buick Behemoth and a "pleasant screen enclosed porch" described as "great for entertaining." I do recall a time I entertained four of my closest friends on that porch after my ninth-grade class held a mock presidential debate in 1976. (I played the role of Gerald Ford and my dear friend played Jimmy Carter, who lost the election in our school if not in real life.) For years now, though, that "pleasant screen enclosed porch" has entertained only legions of lizards.

The photos, though! The house looks like it's been stretched, every room appearing about double actual size. Rooms look sparkling clean but lifeless, denuded of warmth and hospitality, partly because all the carpets have been removed to reveal the stark terazzo floors underneath. Nothing scrams of a desperate need for redecorating like terazzo. 

That dark paneling in my brothers' room! Who thought that was a great idea? And then I see those drapes that I sewed for their giant windows, and I'm not sure what amazes me more: the fact that I was able to sew serviceable and attractive drapes for my brothers' room as a 14-year-old kid or the fact that they're still hanging there doing their duty. They don't look bad in the photos but I'll bet they're ready to fall to pieces.

Further, of the more than 20 photos on the realtor's web site, not a single one shows the cracks in several walls caused by the slumping of one corner of the foundation, evidence of the need for the purchaser to invest a pile of money in repairs.

But that's not likely to happen. The best thing about that house has always been its location, in a quiet neighborhood half a block from one of the best high schools in Florida and a mile from great shopping and medical care. All through that neighborhood developers have been buying up old Granny houses, gutting them, and replacing them with McMansions, which will no doubt happen to Dad's house as soon as it sells.

Rumor has it that the host of a reality home-improvement television show is interested in Dad's house, and wouldn't it be great to see total strangers mocking my parents' aesthetic choices on national television? It would almost be worth it to see them take a sledge-hammer to that oven, something I've wanted to do for years. But at this point I can't even see it as my home anymore because everything that made it mine is gone while everything that remains has been squeezed through the realtor's image-making machine to create sparkling photos that feel entirely unfamiliar.

My old house is gone, its shell a collection of funhouse images, its warmth reduced to bare terazzo, but the memories? Still warm, colorful, and alive as long as my brothers and I remain above ground.


Tuesday, November 05, 2019

When a train of thought takes a detour

I drove five miles in the wrong direction this morning before I remembered that my polling place had been moved, and I briefly thought about not voting at all. What's on my ballot anyway? Exactly two contested races--township trustee and school board. My vote is unlikely to make a difference, but nevertheless I turned around and drove to the polling place to cast my vote, which was more difficult than usual because the machines were acting wonky so anyone who had a job to get to was urged to use paper ballots instead. Then of course I was way behind my usual commuting schedule so I drove through two 20-mph school zones and got stuck--twice!--behind school buses loading passengers. But hey--at least I had some extra time to charge up my phone.

Oh, what a fragmented morning! Papers to grade and classes to prep, but my brain is going in a million different directions:

How would you like to be interviewed by a bot? Inside Higher Ed ran a story about companies using Artificial Intelligence to conduct initial interviews with job applicants, which is supposed to counteract bias based on appearance because the AI relies on an algorithm instead of a human being's gut reaction. However, human beings write the algorithms, which remain relatively opaque to the uninitiated, so there's no telling what kinds of preferences may be programmed in to the AI: smiling too much or not enough, gesturing or not gesturing, code words that can either improve or sink a candidate's chances. My feeling is that AI interviews will select for candidates who are good at communicating with AI bots, and if that's the kind of workforce we need, then we're all set.

Every interview is an opportunity to hone and share the story of ourselves, just as every court case requires a transformation of fact into narrative. Before I left the house this morning I was reading a fascinating article in PMLA by Peter Brooks called "The Facts on the Ground," in which he examines the importance of how facts are framed in court cases. "The facts on the ground may not themselves be malleable," he writes, "but once they are narrativized--as they must be if they are to be intelligible--their shape may prove protean." How we tell the story is sometimes a matter of life and death, which is why the human ability to create stories will never go out of style.

And sometimes storytelling can give us a whole new window into history. I'm a little behind on my podcast listening by the other day I heard the Code Switch episode called "A Strange and Bitter Crop," a fabulous feat of storytelling dealing with the lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida, 85 years ago. Colson Whitehead's The Nickel Boys, which I'll be teaching next semester, is based on events in a fictionalized Marianna, so the podcast deepened my understanding of the area's troubled history, but it's also sobering to recall that lynching is not ancient history and to consider the different ways Claude Neal's story has been framed in the past 85 years. How we tell the story makes a huge difference, but sometimes so does who gets to tell the story, especially when the facts have been intentionally obscured.

Looking at the past can make me wonder whether we're as advanced as we think we are, while looking at the future makes me wonder what sort of world we're creating for our children. Maybe I'm not the only one driving the wrong way! My unintentional detour this morning may not have given me much of a story to tell, but sitting behind a school bus gave me time to think and muse and simply be, a commodity in dreadfully short supply.


Saturday, November 02, 2019

Those grading-on-a-gorgeous-day blues (sing it with me!)

I've got those can't-go-outside-until-I-finish-gradin'-papers blues.
Oh I've got those can't-go-outside-until-I-finish-gradin'-papers blues.
But instead of sittin' here cryin'
I'm puttin' on my big-girl shoes.

Oh I've graded annotated bibliographies so it's time to tackle honors exams.
I say I've graded annotated bibliographies so it's time to tackle honors exams,
and then American Lit essays--
my grading inbox is simply gettin' slammed.

Well my eyes are gettin' blurry and my fingers just don't want to hold a pen.
I say my eyes are gettin' blurry and my fingers just don't want to hold a pen.
Oh will someone please remind me
why I put so many assignments on the syllabus way back when.
(And one of these days I'll up and retire
so I'll never grade papers on a weekend again.) 


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"And other duties as required...."

How many academics does it take to free a trapped sparrow from an elevator shaft?

Well, it depends on how you define academics. At least five people were involved in the sparrow rescue, some digging in hands-on while others served a more supervisory function. My primary role was to say "Hey, is that a bird stuck in the elevator shaft?"and find someone who could help, but since we don't have a designated bird-rescuer on staff, I grabbed the nearest administrator.

I'm going to avoid naming names here not because my bird-rescuing colleagues aren't heroes but because I'm certain that we violated a not insignificant number of OSHA policies while trying to rescue the bird and I don't want to get any of the rescuers in trouble.  In the end the rescue group included representatives from English, IT, Academic Affairs, and the Physical Plant.

Now the first thing you need to know is that this isn't your normal ordinary indoor elevator but a glassed-in outdoor elevator sitting alongside the steep steps at the front of the administration building.  You can't get into the elevator without the appropriate key, and if you're a wheelchair-bound campus visitor who lacks a key, you use a little call box to alert someone inside the building that you need to get in.

I don't know how the bird got into the space below the elevator--after all, birds don't need elevators, can't operate call boxes, and don't have any pockets where they can carry keys--but he was clearly struggling to get out. Why not just open the door? I didn't have a key, but the administrator did; however, it's not possible to open that door while the elevator is, um, elevated. (This is getting confusing, but trust me, it was a lot more confusing in real time.) Use the manual override to lower the elevator...and the door won't open. The bird is now fluttering in a narrow space between the elevator and the external glass, but it can't stretch its wings out enough to take flight.

Suggestions start flying, with random passersby tossing in their two cents' worth. Reach a branch down there so the bird can climb up it! The administrator finds a long gnarly branch to reach down in to the gap but the bird wouldn't climb. Reach a hat down there to scoop up the bird! But no one present has long enough arms. Finally the Physical Plant guy says, "Anybody got a broom?" And before you know it the bird gets scooped up into the elevator and the door gets opened and the bird scoots off into the bushes.

And we all give each other high fives and celebrate our bird-rescuing efforts, but really, what did I do? I noticed the bird in distress and sounded the alarm, and then I mostly sat back and watched my colleagues work. My eye was on the sparrow! (If OSHA calls, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

No tricks, all treat

I took muffins to a class this morning, which I wouldn't even consider doing if there were 200 or 100 or 40 or 20 students enrolled in the class, but with only 10 students, why not give them a treat? 

And they deserved it. They've been doing great work all semester, and I have come to admire the way they support each other in times of need: studying together, sharing a granola bar with the classmate who's skipped breakfast, waking up the classmate who accidentally set her alarm for p.m. instead of a.m., and so much more. When one of them gives a class presentation, the others don't just sit there looking bored but they take notes and ask good questions, and last week they were doing peer review on a set of drafts and one of the students called out, "Hey everyone, listen to this great sentence!" And that's when I thought I ought to take them a treat.

Today turned out to be a great day to start off with muffins because they were all going to the same exam after my class so they'd been studying instead of eating breakfast. We spent our time reviewing concepts for the exam they'll take in my class on Friday, and when a student asked me to explain a particular concept again, I said, "Who would like to try to draw that on the board?" And one of them jumped right up and did it. Did a fine job, too. 

I can't remember the last time a class worked together so cohesively, taking responsibility for their own learning but willing to support one another in the process. They've even gone so far as to call out a classmate who wasn't performing up to the class's high standards, exercising the type of peer pressure that pushes everyone to improve.

That's the kind of class that makes me happy, so why not return the favor? If we can all sit in a classroom happily eating muffins while discussing great literature, good has been done here.