Monday, October 24, 2016

A deluge of drafts

In some ways the Extremely Brief but Powerful Storm last Thursday was a gift. Sure, it knocked down a few trees, smashed some cars, rolled over a mobile home with its elderly resident inside (but she walked away unscathed), and caused a power outage on campus that prevented two of my first-year classes from finishing their drafts (due last Friday), but on the other hand, it also forced me to postpone the deadline for those drafts until Monday, leaving my weekend totally free of grading.

I baked pumpkin cookies, stuffed some squashes, read a totally frivolous book, went for a long walk in the gorgeous weather, polished up my conference paper for next weekend, got caught up on my napping,  and did not for one moment wish I had a pile of first-year drafts to read. 

Of course I knew I would have to pay a price for this freedom--starting today. Those drafts that didn't come in last Friday will slide into the online dropbox this morning, and the only way I can make my week work is to read and respond to all of them today and tomorrow. Wednesday is too late because that's when I leave for my conference, and the revised papers are due Friday while I'm gone.

So this is it: today I will teach three classes and, in the evening, host a two-hour film showing, but in between all that I will read and respond to 34 first-year drafts. Thirty-four. That Extremely Brief but Powerful Storm took only 20 minutes to do all the damage, but my 34 first-year drafts will lay siege to my brain for hours and hours, and by the time that storm is over, my brain will be battered and bashed to bits. Is there any hope of walking away unscathed?  

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Autumn Spectrum

Fire-red leaves on the burning bush, barn-red on the oaks.
Pokeweed-stem red. Rusty-dusty-aspen-leaf red.
Red-edged maple leaves fading to orange.

Oak orange, sycamore orange, very berry orange.
Orange fluttering from the treetops--a leaf?
No--a butterfly flapping orange-speckled wings.

Paw-paw leaves, yellow beacons glowing in the dark wood.
Sunset reflecting yellowly on water, grasses waving yellow tips
at tiny butterflies (orange-yellow, butter yellow, yellow-green).

Leaf green, gall green, stem green, grass green.
Tall green grasses wave red-tinted grains in the wind

As deep green chicory stems hold that few blossoms (blue). 

Blue sky filled with hawk; eastern bluebirds on a wire,
gray-blue wings above a rusty orange breast.
(Tail of the hawk circling overhead? Red!)

Indigo stains the sky in declining light,
the edge of night.

Violet asters
on the roadside

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Catch-22 and degrees of evil

Yesterday when my American Novel class discussed the final section of Catch-22, a clever student wanted to know who is more evil, Aarfy or Milo. 

What a great question. That's the kind of question that reminds me why I love my job, because where else can intelligent adults conduct a rational discussion of degrees of evil without tearing out each other's throats?

We batted the question around for a while before another student chimed in thus: "Aarfy is micro-evil, but Milo is macro-evil."

Lightbulbs go off over heads all over class. It's a satisfying answer, as far as it goes: Aarfy, whose most memorable line is "I only raped her once," is personally responsible for an inexcusable act of evil, while Milo operates the syndicate that makes possible multiple acts of evil, a machine blithely grinding up human sacrifices while Milo stands with clean hands in the background denying responsibility. In fact, Milo's insistence that he is only doing his job and following orders echoes the defense commonly used by Nazi war criminals.

But then why is Milo so much more likable than Aarfy? Milo is certainly responsible for more pain and suffering than Aarfy is, but somehow he remains a compelling character. Charming, even. A charismatic leader whose ability to make a profit allows him to get away with all kinds of corrupt schemes. Milo is the embodiment of Catch-22: he has the right to do anything we can't stop him from doing. So does this make macro-evil more forgivable than micro-evil? Or does it suggest that macro-evil feeds on its ability to charm the rest of us into submission?

And then let's think about Aarfy: after he rapes a woman and pushes her out the window to her death, why doesn't he get arrested? Is it simply because he exists within the system created by Milo? Aarfy is a small but necessary cog in Milo's machine, which suggests that even an single act of micro-evil is dependent upon the existence of a larger system of macro-evil that turns a blind eye to individual peccadilloes.

In other words, it's complicated. There's enough evil oozing through the book to taint just about everyone to some degree. Which is why in the end the only way out is to jump.    


Thursday, October 20, 2016

My menopausal building

A colleague in my building--a woman about my age--fans herself and says, "I think I'm having a hot flash."

"No," I reply, "This entire building is having a hot flash."

This time of year it's impossible to know how to dress for work. Sure, it's fall and we've had enough cool weather to inspire the HVAC gods to turn on the heat, but a sudden heat wave this week has rendered that heat redundant. Our HVAC system is as old as the building, which is as old as I am, so it's certainly old enough to suffer from hot flashes and it's not nimble enough to allow quick changes from heat to cool and back again. With cooler weather on the way soon, no one is interested in shifting the whole system over to air conditioning. 

So we're hot. My students fan themselves with notebooks and I open the window to make the classroom more bearable, but then we're assaulted by traffic noise. Close the windows so we can hear each other and no one can breathe. 

We find ways to cope--fan in the office, cold water bottle held against hot forehead, summer clothes in October.  Yesterday I taught in a short-sleeved shirt, summer skirt (white after Labor Day!), and sandals, but I still had sweat pouring into my eyeballs in class.

When the heat gets unbearable, I go to the library, a newer building with a more flexible HVAC system. They have to maintain constant temperature and humidity over there to protect the books, so the library is the one reliably cool place on an overheated campus.

I realize that this problem is temporary, that next week or next month I'll be griping about my cold office and the glacial desk and my Arctic classrooms, but will that knowledge stop me from complaining about today's heat? No it will not.

Nice thing about the weather: it always gives us something to complain about.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Comedy in class: risks and rewards

I was about 30 seconds into a lecture in my Comedy class when the students started to titter and look around questioningly. A guy in the back row reared up in his chair and said, "Whaa----?"

"Is there a problem?" I asked.

Giggles and awkward looks and then some brave soul said, "Your glasses."

"What's wrong with my glasses?"


"Tell me," I told them, "Where is it written that a professor is forbidden from teaching a class while wearing fake glasses, plastic nose, and a bushy moustache?"


"So why can't I wear these glasses while teaching?"

That's when the reasons poured out: the fake glasses are distracting, unprofessional, silly, undignified, or just plain wrong.

And you know what? They were right, even if they didn't know why. We spent some time talking about how comedy can subvert conventions, starting with a discussion of social norms and where they come from: What's the proper procedure for entering an elevator? What would happen if you stood facing the other passengers instead of facing the door? Where are those rules written down? If they're not written down, how did you learn that it's not acceptable to sit on the floor of the elevator and fart loudly at the other passengers?

Then we did some group work: You've just won the championship game and it's time for the big press conference. What are you allowed to say? What are you not allowed to say? Other groups had to consider the conventions of writing an obituary or presenting a wedding toast. The norms are clear, as are the results of violating them: the sports champ who denigrates the other team will be vilified in the press; the obituary that includes gory details about mode of death will result in a flood of complaints; the bridesmaid so drunk she falls face-first into the wedding cake will suddenly find herself friendless.

Unless they're really, really funny, and then they'll go viral online and inspire memes. Because let's face it: violating social norms can be really funny, but it's the kind of comedy that skirts the edge of disaster. 

Comedy always carries risks and rewards. The risk of wearing fake glasses, nose, and moustache in class is that I might end up with little bits of moustache fluff stuck in my mouth, but the reward is far greater: engaging students in a discussion that might otherwise have left them cold. Worth the effort? I would say so, if I could just get this moustache fluff out of my teeth.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Stuck in the middle of an annoying memory

It can happen anytime, anywhere, while I'm pushing a cart through the grocery store, flipping through radio channels, sitting in the dentist's waiting room, just doing whatever I'm doing when I catch a snippet of Stealers Wheel singing "Stuck in the Middle with You" and suddenly I'm transported back in time--not to 1972, when the song was all over the pop charts, but to 1984, when I'm wedged into the back seat of a compact car sound asleep until someone turns on the radio and that song comes blaring out and startles me awake. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am--stuck in the middle of a perplexing memory I may never shake.
It's dark out, after midnight, and I don't really want to be awake but it's hard to find a comfortable sleeping position while sharing a very small car with three other full-sized college students. I look out the window and figure that we're zipping through downtown Atlanta on our all-night trip from our college in Kentucky to our hometown in Florida, where we're planning to attend a friend's wedding. It's a warm spring night and the car is too wimpy to carry the four of us and our luggage at highway speed with the air conditioning running, so the whole car smells like sweat and crumpled burger wrappers and anger.

The anger is mine, and so is the car. Driving my friends to Florida for a weekend wedding had not been my idea, and in fact I had resisted the plan for good reasons: you can't comfortably fit four large people and all their luggage in a Mazda GLC for a 17-hour trip, and besides, it's a wimp of a car carrying way too many miles and it sometimes shuts off entirely in a heavy rain. (The distributor cap keeps cracking. No one knows why.) 

And then there are reasons I don't want to admit out loud: I don't want to be responsible for getting my friends to this wedding on time, especially given my car's track record; I know that spreading the driving duties out among four people will keep the burden off my back, but frankly, I've seen these people drive. I don't want to be responsible for transporting my friends, and I don't want them to be responsible for my car.

And so I had resisted and refused and insisted that we find another travel plan, but no other plan had presented itself. Over time, they wore me down. And so I found myself bundled into the backseat of a very small car and tearing down the interstate toward Florida. Stuck in the middle with--who?

These were my friends, remember. I'd known them a long time, maybe too long, so I should have been prepared for their idiosyncrasies, but somehow taking a road trip in close quarters multiplies the weirdness. I remember laughing a lot, enjoying the adventure, but at some point I started getting really annoyed--because they kept making fun of my car.

It's underpowered, they said. Well, duh. That little four-cylinder rotary engine couldn't putter its way out of a paper bag under the best of conditions, but pile it with people and luggage, turn the air conditioning on full blast, and then try to drive it straight up a Tennessee mountain at highway speed and you'll soon be wondering whether you ought to toss out some ballast or get out and push.

So the complaints start soon after we set out and they Just. Don't. Stop. I try to turn the constant griping into a joke, shake it off, deflect, resist, ignore, but they keep it coming, comment after comment about what a loser of a car I drive. I remind them that I'd resisted taking my car on the trip, remind them that they'd begged me to take my car, remind them that riding in a wimpy car is a lot better than walking to Florida, but they keep sniping, mile after annoying mile. It's a 17-hour trip and I spend at least 16 of those hours wishing my dear friends would just for heaven's sake shut up about how much they hate my car.

Decades later, I can still feel that anger. I don't recall one single moment of the wedding, although I'm sure it was a joyful event, and I don't even recall the name of the fourth person who made that trip with us, but all these years later I can vividly experience the sudden shock of waking up in the back of a small car that smells like sweat and feel the anger bloom once again.

If I could travel back in time and talk to that angry person suffering a rude awakening in that backseat, here's what I would say: You won't be stuck here forever. Someday you'll look back at this moment and laugh--but you'll also wish you could recall more of this trip than the anger. So pay attention. Look to your left. Who is that clown? Look to the front. Why did you let those jokers in here? Someday you'll want to remember.

But instead of remembering my friends, I remember their complaints, and I remember my anger, and I remember the car, but most of all I remember the song that holds the power to bring it all back. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am--stuck in the middle with you.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Sometimes you just have to drop back and punt

I was having trouble getting my honors students to discuss Cold Mountain--or even open the book in class--so I stopped what I was doing and made them read. 

Out loud. To each other.

"Pick a passage you consider particularly beautiful," I told them, and they all got really quiet and started thumbing through their books. It took a while before a student got brave enough to break the ice and start reading, but soon the room was humming with Charles Frazier's golden prose.

When they were done, I directed them to the scene in the "naught and grief" chapter where Stobrod and Pangle play fiddle and banjo for the brutal Teague and his henchmen, performing for their lives so passionately that they inspire one of the henchmen to call out, "Good God, these is holy men. Their mind turns on matters kept secret from the likes of you and me." But this plea for the sacredness of beauty falls on deaf ears as Teague gives his men the order to shoot the players in cold blood.

I let that sink in a minute, and then I asked, "What is beauty for?"

We chewed on that question a bit and then moved on to others: Why can't Teague allow music to survive within his private war? What is the function of music, art, and literature in times of suffering? Is it morally questionable to create beauty out of violence and suffering?  Why are we reading a novel about the Civil War when we could get the information more efficiently from a documentary or a history text?

"Because education isn't just about conveying information" is the correct answer. It took a little while, but we got there. I may not have converted the skeptics in the group, the ones who wonder how fiction could have any bearing on their all-important career paths, but at least for a few moments I made them roll some beautiful sentences around in their mouths and think about the power of literature to connect us to "matters kept secret from the likes of you and me."