Friday, October 15, 2021

Friday poetry challenge: Apostrophizing apostrophes

"The apostrophe is your friend," I told my freshpersons, but they seemed skeptical, preferring to eschew apostrophes altogether or use them incorrectly to form plural nouns. "That's called the grocer's apostrophe," I told them, just in case the question ever comes up on Jeopardy or something. They don't need to know how to identify a grocer's apostrophe, or even grocers' apostrophes; they need to know how to use apostrophes to form possessives, a topic that has no doubt been troubling students since the invention of the apostrophe--but not enough to motivate them to finally learn the rules of apostrophe placement. And so I gave them the whole song and dance, all the while wondering when the Apostrophe Dance will be featured on Dancing with the Stars. (Not Star's.)

Apostrophes dance across the page;
in plural nouns they're all the rage.
They do-si-do and stick their feet
in "it's" when "its" is needed. Beat

the big bass drum for proper nouns:
"Charle's" keeps on swinging round,
racing to keep up with "Jone's."
Prancing into forbidden zones,

these marks dance on with steps so errant
I fear I'll never cure their tarrant-
ism or constrain their gams
to Arthur Murray diagrams.

Step one: write the plural noun.
If at the end an s is found,
add an apostrophe. If not,
add 's. Apostrophes gavotte

in graceful, orderly progression
when used to indicate possession.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

My next pet peeve?

What makes a word repellant? Novelty, sound quality, redundancy, or some other factor?

While grading midterm essays over the weekend, I saw some really good papers but also the usual pile of mediocre writing demonstrating the usual problems: comma splices, spelling errors, difficulty in forming possessives. One of the essays my first-year students analyzed was written by a fellow named Kohls, and when it came to making the name possessive, I saw every possible variation: Kohl's, Kohls', Kohls's, Kohlses', and just plain Kohls. None of this provoked any response other than the usual bland marginal comments.

Only one word in the whole pile of papers made me feel as if I'd been kicked in the gut. I've seen my share of awkward constructions over the years, but few cause the kind of visceral response I felt when I encountered Nextly.

What an ugly word! Next is such a neat little bundle of meaning, entirely inoffensive and useful in indicating progression, but add that little -ly and suddenly it grates on the ear. Was my reaction to the word based on its redundancy, its novelty, or something else? 

I recall when I first started seeing relatable oh so many years ago and found it vague, unnecessary, and lazy. I fought it at first, but it was a lost cause: relatable filled a need so neatly that its general adoption became irresistible. I still bristle when students use it to say something about themselves when they ought to be saying something about the text they're analyzing, but no amount of bristling is going to send relatable back where it came from.

But I can't help bristling at nextly. Is this one instance just a harbinger of change to come? Will nextly be the next relatable? What niche does nextly fill that can't be filled by next? And why does the simply addition of -ly make the word so stinking ugly? 

I hope this was just an isolated error and not the lone cockroach you see in the night kitchen--a visual manifestation of a much larger infestation. Stomping on the cockroach may solve the immediate problem, but it has no effect on the vermin still hiding under the cabinets.

Friday, October 08, 2021

Who says there's no rhyme for "midterms"?

I'm tired and the weather is lousy and I've been up to my eyeballs in committee work all week but I still feel like writing a poem. Problem is, nothing rhymes with midterms. Interns? Infirm? Lid perms? I'm just not feeling it.

In fact I haven't been feeling particularly poetic all semester. I'm well aware that the verse I write barely qualifies as poetry, but playing with words in a rhymey way feeds a particular part of my psyche. As a child I somehow came into possession of a decrepit rhyming dictionary with the front cover missing, and I used to pore over that bedraggled volume by the hour trying to put together words to make them sing. My first publication, in fact, was a set of rhyming quatrains called "Love," published in Wee Wisdom magazine when I was in fourth grade. Everyone has to start somewhere!

Then in my turgid teen years I tried to give up rhyme and write Serious Poetry, but alas, lugubrious best describes my swerve toward free verse. Nobody encouraged my efforts, and I missed the way that comfy old rhyming dictionary fit into my hands. Did it finally fall to pieces or did someone donate it to the Goodwill? If I had it in my hands right now, would I find a rhyme for midterms?

Well I've got some time to kill while my students write their midterm exams so nothing's going to stop me from trying.

When I handed my students their midterms,
they all squirmed in their seats (like a squid squirms).
Students wriggled and writhed
like fresh bait--It's alive!--
or a bucket in which you have hid worms.

But they soon settled in, fingers flying
over keyboards, their minds clearly trying
to respond to the prompt
with aplomb. They all chomped
up the question and wrote without crying. 

Now I'm the one crying and squirmin'
(like a squid) over piles of midterms in
my inbox for grading,
so there's no more evading
the task: it's my turn for midterming!

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Let 'em eat pawpaws

I'm sitting in my office scarfing down chunks of fresh pawpaw, thanks to my finicky Honors students. Our pawpaw harvest was not great this year but I had just enough to peel and slice and divide into little cups for my Honors Lit students, so they could get a taste of the sort of thing Inman might have eaten in the wild during his long trek to Cold Mountain. 

They were underwhelmed, to put it mildly. The pawpaws were ripe, fresh off the tree, soft and delicious, but two students didn't have the guts to try it, and many others took one bite and then dumped the rest in the trash. Did they at least have the courtesy to say thank you? No they did not. So I took the two untouched portions back to my office and ate them myself--yum!

Earlier, a student in my composition class told me that I'm the nicest professor she has, which inspired the response, "Great--now I'll have to do something mean just to prove that I'm not a pushover." Maybe I'll make them eat pawpaws.

In another class, students stare silently at their desks when I ask a question, avoiding eye contact as if it were lethal. That's the class where I have the most trouble remembering names, primarily because I never see their faces and they all appear to be variations on the same person--skinny athletes with long straight hair. Funny: overall, we have pretty good gender balance this year, but I have one class that's 75 percent male and another that's 90 percent female, and the women speak up so rarely in class that in my mind they've all merged into the same person. 

It occurs to me that I've broken one of the primary rules of pandemic teaching: masks required at all times inside buildings, and no food or drink in the classrooms. My students would have been happier if I hadn't brought them fresh pawpaws this morning, but chalk it up to a learning experience. At least they know what pawpaws smell like--and by the end of the day, so will everyone else in the building. 

Monday, October 04, 2021

Making mistakes into opportunities

A first-year student asked me the other day whether I'd actually used a typewriter back when I was in college, and I admitted that yes, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth I did indeed use a typewriter, and in fact I made enough money typing papers for classmates to pay for the 800-mile drive home for winter break, but then the student asked, "But what did you do when you made a mistake?"

Well of course there was Wite-Out if you didn't mind big blobs of glop smearing all over the place, or I could slide some correction tape in and try to make the error disappear, or I could pull the page out and start over to create a pristine page, or I could challenge myself to edit the sentence on the fly so that the error was no longer an error but simply a new pathway for the sentence to follow. And there's a joy my students may never experience--adapting a sentence in response to a hard-to-correct typing error.

And now they've made me feel old again, these energetic young people who can't imagine hauling a bulky electric typewriter down to the lobby of the dorm to type late into the night without disturbing roommates--but hey, at least that was better than the manual typewriters I'd learned on back in junior high, those clickety-clackety masses of metal with keys that required the strength of seven men to press and here I was one wimpy little woman, or not even a woman yet but a wimpy girl pounding painfully on those reluctant keys because typing would surely be a useful skill in whatever career I could conceivably pursue.

I recall sitting in a room full of these manual typewriters--because yes, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, a junior high could justify devoting an entire classroom to typing instruction--trying desperately to hit the right keys called forth by my teacher's dictation. I don't remember his name, but I recall how he would stroll slowly up and down the room calling out, at an ever-faster tempo, "a, s, d, f, j, k, l, sem," and he said it just like that, "sem," because life is too short to waste time on all the syllables of "semicolon." His voice is seared into my memory but I can't picture him doing anything other than dictating text, so maybe that was his entire life, pacing the room and calling out letters and words and, eventually, sentences, but you know what? He taught me to type quickly and accurately, and if I could do 40 words per minute on a manual typewriter, just imagine how my fingers could fly across the keys of an electric typewriter!

Too fast and I'd make more mistakes, which is why I developed the ability to transform error into serendipity. It didn't always work, of course; there's nothing anyone can do with hte or brng or Tmmy. But if I caught an error while it could still be turned into a real word, and if I could adapt the sentence to the presence of that word, I'd do it just to avoid the annoyance of grabbing the Wite-Out or pulling out the whole sheet and starting over.

I was a good typist but mistakes were made, and if occasionally I could turn a mistake into coherent prose, that felt like a triumph. Typing introduced many rewards into my life but also many small miseries, and sometimes--when I was working toward a deadline and the error was far down on the page and the thought of starting over filled me with gloom--what I really needed to keep my fingers moving was a small triumph, a little mistake that could suddenly be transformed into an opportunity.    


Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Hot under the collard

I was reading a student essay that referred to "blue collard workers" and I suddenly recalled the fabulous collard greens served alongside equally fabulous smoked brisket in North Carolina last week, but sadly, my student wasn't writing about greens but about collars. Spelling errors aren't as nutritious as collards and brisket, but they're my bread and butter.

Ah, academe! With your annoying notices about late-afternoon Zoom meetings, your advisees reluctant to heed good advice, your bottomless pit of bad excuses! Yesterday afternoon I overheard a tutor trying to explain the function of the semicolon to another student and I thought there's no place like home! Sure, it's fun to be whisked away on a colorful adventure that tastes like brisket, but there's nothing more comforting than the gentle drone of professors' voices emanating from rooms full of sleepy students.

As of this moment I am finally caught up on the grading that piled up while I was away, so now I can look toward the future--classes to prep, essays to edit, meetings to schedule, and on it goes. I've been back two days and already I'm wondering when I can get away again. Last year at this time I was contemplating a semester with no breaks, no opportunities for travel, no enticing prospect outside my home and office and piles of work; this year we get a brief break two weeks from now and a longer one at Thanksgiving. Covid transmission is dropping in the area and campus case numbers remain very low, so things are starting to feel more normal.

Last year all I wanted was a return to normal, but now that I've tasted the brisket and seen the sights, I'm bored by normality and I want to get away. Unfortunately, the only way to break away is to work really hard to earn that break, so off I go once again to stamp out ignorance, one blue collard at a time.   

Sunday, September 26, 2021

A full and colorful life (but now I need a nap)

In just five days we managed to drive seven hours (twice!), stuff eight people into an AirBnb, eat way too much junk food, attend my nephew's wedding, watch my adorable granddaughter dance with Daddy and Grampa, eat a slice of the world's best wedding cake (apple spice!), sing Happy Birthday to my dad, hang out with both of my brothers for the first time in years, watch the grandkids splash in a pool that set their teeth chattering, and even teach an online class--and then come home to a new concrete front-porch slab! I'm having a full life over here, so full that I don't have time to write about it, and now I need to try to catch up on all my course work so you'll have to make do with photos.


With my brothers.

I guess we clean up well.


Great-Grampa had lots of help with his birthday gifts.

Taking Grampa out for a spin.

Dancing with Daddy

A feat of cheese engineering.

Some handsome dudes.

Beautiful wedding venue.