Tuesday, August 22, 2017

My deubiquitization project

"You're ubiquitous on this campus," said a brand-new colleague this morning, and for the moment she's right: I'm serving as a new-faculty mentor, so I've been spending a lot of time mingling with the newbies. 

But one of my projects this semester is to reduce my ubiquity. I've finished my term on Faculty Council so I won't be in the middle of campus controversies (hurrah!), and my teaching schedule leaves every Thursday free. Further, my Thursday office hours are listed as "by appointment only."

That doesn't make Thursday a day off--I'll still have my full load of grading and four preps--but do I have to do all that on campus? Why not work from home one day a week? Or, better yet, organize my time so I can devote the day to research and writing projects. That would be a treat!

The thing is, I've always hated Thursdays, a day of low energy and little motivation. If I can make Thursdays a little less unbearable by introducing some variety to my schedule and putting pleasant tasks on that day, maybe Thursday can become a day to look forward to instead of dread.

It's worth a try. So I'll start the semester staying away from the office on Thursdays and see whether that helps me get through the week with sanity intact. If nothing else, it will certainly reduce my ubiquity.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Smiles on the sidewalk

I spent some time this afternoon milling about amongst a crowd of people working very hard to avoid looking directly at the sun. From babies in strollers to grampas tottering around on canes, everyone was trying out various ways to see the sun without really looking at it: they stood in lines to peer through telescopes provided by our college astronomers, looked at images reflected in cereal boxes, plastered protective lenses over their eyes to look up and see the sun being slowly eaten by the moon. 

We didn't get the full effect here--the sun was roughly 86 percent obscured--but I remember an earlier eclipse back in my grad-school days, when I was walking across a parking lot oblivious to my surroundings and suddenly this massive cold shadow swooped across the world. I understood then why people sometimes scream when they experience a full eclipse, but today's viewing party was purely festive, a time for college and community to come together in awe.

As I walked back to my office, a colleague pointed out what looked like little crescent moons all over the lawn. Here was the image of the eclipsed sun reflecting through the trees to paint smiles all over the sidewalks. Neat! And a totally safe way to view the eclipse.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Eyes on the ibis

When the clerk at the photo counter handed over an enlargement of one of my bird photos yesterday, she said, "I don't know what it is, but I know it's free."

Yes! That sense of freedom is one reason I have an 8x10 of this glossy ibis hanging in the living room at home. I took the photo in Florida in May, on a day so clear and bright that everything ended up overexposed. It's kind of a strange photo--weird color combination, peculiar composition, wonky exposure--but of all the photos on my walls, this is the one my eye seeks out many times every day. And now I have another print hanging on the wall in my office, where I can glance up and feel that freedom flapping in on glossy wings. 

Let the students charge in and the papers pile up--I'm keeping my eyes on the ibis.



Thursday, August 17, 2017

Gone caving

It feels a little ridiculous to tell people we're going hiking to a new cave when there's nothing new about it. The walls and rock layers at Whispering Cave show signs of eons of weathering and erosion, and intrepid hikers willing to go off the beaten path have been able to get to it forever. What's new is the trail, recently opened in Hocking Hills State Park, that allows (and encourages!) anyone to visit Whispering Cave.

Well, it's not accessible to everyone. The trail winds more than half a mile beyond Old Man's Cave, through the gorge, over a swinging bridge, and up a steep hillside studded with roots begging to trip you up. I managed the rough parts with help from my husband, but even his steady hand couldn't help me on the swinging bridge, which induced vertigo within seconds. On the way back, I skipped the bridge and waded through the creek. (Pretty shallow this time of year, so no problem.) 

Along the way we saw massive rocks topped with ferns, moss, and lichens, rocks in various shades of orange, brown, green, gray, and black weathered in honeycomb patterns or ridged striations, and we heard pileated woodpeckers and hermit thrushes. At the end of the trail we found a cave too wide to fit comfortably into a photo, offering a cool resting-place under a sloping ceiling that loomed and sparkled.

We've been hiking Hocking Hills for twenty years, on and off, but every time the experience is a little different: bridges get washed out and paths re-routed, and you never know what you'll find blooming or whether you'll see butterflies or birds or other forms of wildlife. The light in the gorges changes by the minute, making the trees glow golden one minute and highlighting a rock that looks like a ship the next. Always something new to see--in the midst of something very, very old.

Steep stairs down into Whispering Cave

Tree root shaped like a J!

Can't get the whole cave in the frame.

Down in the gorge

Lower falls--not much water

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My start-of-semester security blanket

A student once asked me whether I have a handout on everything, and I was tempted to respond with Yes I do--or if I don't, I can make one.

The good news is that I no longer have to keep hard copies of all those handouts on file, which explains why I no longer need two big filing cabinets in my office. The bad news is that I have so many handouts saved in files on my computer that I don't always remember where to find the one I need right now.

I have folders full of handouts for specific classes and other folders for handouts I use in multiple classes, sometimes in various versions. Some file folders have other file folders embedded inside, each embedding leading into a black hole of more and more files. If I haven't taught a class for a while, I have to go through all the folders just to see what's in there. Sometimes I'm surprised by what I find (My, how clever I am!) and sometimes just befuddled (What was I thinking?).

I'd be lost without my Find function, and it really helps to give files screamingly obvious names. A special version updated to meet the needs of a specific class gets an abbreviation for the semester at the beginning of the name (f17 thesis powerpoint), but the rest of the name has to communicate clearly across time to Future Stupid Me, who isn't going to have any idea what f17tp might mean. 

I rarely delete a handout entirely, even if it seems hopelessly out of date. I may move it to an Archive folder, but it'll still be sitting there when old format standards or certain types of writing prompts come back into style.

All those handouts near at hand pile up like a security blanket to soothe the start-of-semester jitters. I may not know when I'll need every single one of these handouts, but it's good to know that when I need them, they'll be there.  

Files for just one class.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Can literature put the brakes on racism?

A long time ago while working on my dissertation, I had to hold my nose and read a bunch of virulently racist literature dating from the early 20th century, like Thomas Dixon's novels The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman, which inspired the film Birth of a Nation. Dixon promoted the one-drop rule, portrayed white southerners as genteel aristocrats being victimized by invading northerners and angry ex-slaves, and described African Americans as subhuman beasts. Pretty awful stuff.

I had to read Dixon to understand his influence on other authors I was examining, especially Gene Stratton Porter, the gentle nature writer from Indiana noted for woodsy romances like Girl of the Limberlost. Her racism and xenophobia simmer in the background of her Indiana novels but step securely into the center in Her Father's Daughter, set in California, where the author had moved in order to make movies. The villain in Her Father's Daughter is a recent Japanese immigrant described as resembling a plant--so not even worthy of animal status, much less human. When a female character pushes this villain off a cliff to his death, readers are supposed to cheer. What could this character have done to merit such treatment? He lied about his age so he could get a high-school education. 

Her Father's Daughter was a failure for a variety of reasons, not least being Stratton Porter's insertion of recipes and tidy lessons about home economics, which made the novel half Suzy Homemaker, half racist tract. But her other novels were massive best-sellers, and so were Thomas Dixon's.

But that was 100 years ago. Surely their ideas have died out by now?

The photos of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last weekend reveal a bunch of twentysomething white guys who would look right at home in my classes; in fact, the man who rammed his car into a crowd of protestors was a 20-year-old from Ohio. Will I be seeing these men in my classes--or are they already there but I haven't noticed?

I don't encounter much overt racism in my classes. Okay, there was that one time when a student loudly announced that Title IX had been "invented by President Clinton to screw white guys out of a chance to row," a statement wrong on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start. (When I asked for his sources, he said, "Everybody knows that." No, I'm not making this up.)

And once a student made a flippant xenophobic comment in class, but the other students called her out before I even had a chance to pick my jaw up off the floor. If a student made a more explicit appeal to white supremacist ideas, what would I say? What's the best way to call out racism without shutting down discussion? 

What I'd like to tell them is this: Thomas Dixon is dead and so are his ideas. We're not going back to 1905 or 1918 or 1950. Open your eyes and get to know the complexities of the people around you, the wonders of a world that's wide enough for many types of people. In fact, that's the underlying message behind every syllabus I write: Look at how many different ways there are to be human. 

But maybe that message is too subtle for our trying times. I look at the faces of those men in Charlottesville and I wonder what steered them so wrong and whether reading a semester's worth of literature would make a difference in their entrenched ideas. A hundred years ago  popular literature promoted white supremacy, so I hope literature can play a part in combating the same ideas today. If I didn't believe literature could change minds, I would stop teaching--but how effective is literature at stopping cars from ramming into protestors?

Friday, August 11, 2017

So simple it's complicated

My brother was maybe 12 years old when he bought a used canoe with his lawn-mowing money. He paid something like $50--so, not a great canoe. We lived in Florida a few blocks from a lake, so he and his fishing buddies would carry the canoe down to the lake and come back, sometimes, with a fish or two. It was an easy and harmless way for young guys to burn off their summer energy.

But imagine how much more complicated it would have been if they'd had to take along a horse.

Not in the canoe, of course--what kind of idiot would put a horse in a canoe? But what if the only way you could get to the lake was by horse and buggy? 

This morning we saw three Amish boys--maybe 14 or 15 years old--launching a canoe and two kayaks in a quiet cove at the upper reaches of Salt Fork Lake, and their launch process was considerably more complicated than ours, primarily because we don't travel with horses.

We'd chosen that particular launching place because of its remoteness from civilization; it offered a parking area but no boat ramp, just a grassy spot leading into shallow water. We paddled in the early mist without seeing a soul except one guy fishing from a bridge, and then when we headed back to our launching spot, we saw the two black Amish buggies with two bright blue kayaks and a green canoe strapped on the backs.

We pulled in to shore as they unhitched the horses, and their responded to our greetings by offering to buy our canoe. (Not for sale!) They seemed quietly competent as they took care of their horses, buggies, boats, and fishing gear. We're pretty efficient at strapping the canoe to the top of the van, but by the time we were done, the three Amish boys had silently disappeared in their boats while the horses stood near the woods, sedately chewing.

People like to call the Amish lifestyle "simple," but that feels a little reductive. Paddling a canoe on still water is pretty simple, and fishing from a canoe can be simple unless the fish has a lot of fight. I've never found managing horses simple, but then I wasn't raised alongside them. Strapping canoes to a horse-drawn buggy and driving it down narrow country roads...well, with enough practice it might feel simple enough, but all those simple parts add up to an incredibly complex endeavor. How many 15-year-olds would be able to pull off that feat without breaking a sweat?

And I thought my life was complicated! At least I don't have to take along horses when I canoe. 

Our launch site.