Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A place in the sun

In the early-morning sun I'm sitting in one of the brand-new Adirondack chairs on the lawn in front of the administration building, two chairs in the school's colors--navy blue and white--but I pick the blue chair because I'm wearing blue and I want to be invisible. It doesn't work: everyone who walks by wants to ask about the chairs.

The chairs have been here just a few days and we've been encouraged to try them out, but very few actually sit down in them. A colleague stops to chat but I can't look in his direction because the sun is shining right in my face, so he moves to stand between me and the sun and give my eyes a break. Then others stop and soon we're taking turns trying the chairs, two of us standing where we can keep the sun out of our colleagues' eyes. Sometimes that's what collegiality means: shielding our colleagues from the bright morning sun.

Later we walk around campus, nine of us, stopping to put our hands on each building and share in a word of prayer--for the building, the people who work there, the students, and the campus as a whole. It's an eclectic group of (mostly) faculty, representing different departments and disciplines and even different understandings of faith. Will prayer help? It's helping me, and sometimes that's what collegiality means: coming together to serve as a conduit for good on campus.

Next it's time for the annual fall convocation, our new president's first opportunity to address all the faculty, staff, and administration and set the tone for the new year. Last year's meeting was a horror show, full of wretched news about budget problems and staff cuts, with little hope on offer; this morning was a whole different story, full of laughter and excitement about how we'll get through our difficulties and come out the other side better, faster, stronger. 

They made me believe. The future's so bright we're gonna need shades! (Or helpful colleagues willing to stand in the light to shield our eyes.) 

Friday, August 19, 2016

The calm before the semester

"We have entered the season of fog," says the resident prognosticator, and he's right. In the morning sunflower blossoms rise like beacons above the fog-shrouded meadow, and I sit in the car at the end of our road waiting to turn left onto the highway, wondering what will come barrelling out of the fogbank ahead of me: a school bus, a tanker carrying fracking waste, or maybe nothing at all. 

Yesterday five deer, three does and two little spotted fawns, crossed the road in front of my car, calm as could be. Maybe the fog makes my car look less threatening, or maybe they know they don't have to worry about hunters for a few months yet. In the fog we coexist, quietly, briefly, and then they're gone, disappearing into the woods.

I strive to break through the fog and find sharp outlines, to know clearly where I'm going. A firm schedule calms me, even one that requires teaching at 8 a.m. and having a two-hour late-afternoon meeting every Thursday, my least favorite day of the week. Syllabi and assignment sheets printed neatly and stacked ready for distribution suggest that everything is under control, that the semester will unroll calmly, predictably. A clean desk and a to-do list that keeps shrinking, an inbox containing just a few straggling loose ends, a clear path forward--that's what makes the fall semester so inviting.

It can't last, of course. Things fall apart--the center cannot hold. The to-do list will grow, the desk get piled with papers and books, the inbox overflow with serious issues and petty demands. (And spam. Always spam.) Even syllabi are not inviolate: those reading schedules and policies that seem to clear and sharp right now will be overtaken by events and slowly morph into something less crisp, more chaotic.

But not today. Today everything sits clear and sharp and beautifully organized, denying the very existence of fog. How can confusion enter a room where the syllabi are stacked so neatly?

(If you're quiet, you can hear it creeping in on little cat feet.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On the care and feeding of young scientists: Hope Jahren's "Lab Girl"

What kind of writer can pen a gripping, suspenseful, can't-put-the-book-down passage about watching moss grow?

Her name is Hope Jahren, and if you care about science, teaching, students, nature, trees, moss, or really terrific writing, you need to read her memoir, Lab Girl, a funny, moving, and insightful exploration of the growing conditions required to nurture great trees and great scientists.

Now a botanist with her own lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Jahren was born in rural Minnesota to Norwegian parents who mastered both science and silence. Her father, a biology professor at a local community college, and her mother, whose promising academic career was thwarted by midcentury gender norms, come across as emotionally distant and demanding perfectionists:

While I was a child, I assumed that the whole world acted like we did, and so it confused me when I moved out of state and met people who effortlessly gave each other the simple warmth and casual affection that I had craved for so long. I then had to learn to live in a world where when people don't talk to each other, it is because they don't know each other, not because they do.

The young Hope nevertheless flourished in her mother's garden and her father's lab. She describes the lab as home, refuge, playground, church, and castle; beakers and bunsen burners "were not kids' toys; they were serious things for grown-ups, but you were a special kid because your dad had that huge ring of keys, so you could play with the equipment anytime you went there with him, because he never, ever said no when you asked him to take it all out."

Although she "never heard a single story about a living female scientist, never met one or even saw one on television," young Hope found a home in her father's lab and strove to recover that sense of home in every new lab she entered or created. "People are like plants: they grow toward the light," she writes; "I chose science because science gave me what I needed--a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be."

But that sense of safety did not mean pursuing a career in science was either safe or easy. Jahren details her struggles with manic episodes, failed procedures, exploding equipment, inadequate funding, intransigent students, and with trying to maintain a research agenda while pregnant, all described in a style alternately playful and contemplative. Her joy in language (informed by a wide range of reading) makes her most mundane task seem like an adventure, and she can draw meaning out of the unfurling of a leaf or the symbiotic linking of fungus and root.

Jahren finds linkages everywhere she looks; indeed, the very structure of the book emphasizes the connections between plants and people. Long narrative chapters detailing events in Jahren's life alternate with very short chapters focusing on specific elements of plants--the seed, the root, the leaf. These short chapters are highly informative and lively; further, they echo important themes from the narrative chapters, suggesting a joyful symbiosis between the scientist and the object of study.   

"A seed knows how to wait," she writes at the beginning of one short chapter, and after she shows readers various seeds waiting to become what they will be, she ends the chapter on a philosophical note: "Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited."

It would be easy to focus on the more dramatic moments in the narrative--the bizarre encounter with monkeys, the van full of students sliding on the icy highway, the test-tubes full of samples seized by customs agents--but I am drawn to Jahren's frequent meditations on the nature of scientific inquiry. Once she visits a mentor who is retiring after a long career without having reached the end of his research:    
It was kind of tragic, I reflected, that we all spent our lives working but never really got good at our work, or even finished it. The purpose instead was for me to stand on the rock that he had thrown into the rushing river, bend down and claw another rock from the bottom, and then cast it down further and hope it would be a useful next step for some person with whom Providence might allow me to cross paths.
I am not a scientist but that image describes beautifully the work we do in the classroom, capturing the mingled futility and hope experienced by those of us wading in academic streams. 

Elsewhere Jahren considers the way her perception of her world changes with time and the necessity of finding a meaningful way to measure and record those changes. "Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life," she writes, adding, "It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more."

Young Hope has grown up and her father's lab has vanished, but in Lab Girl she records something important: how the growth of a scientist and the growth of a tree are not so different as they might first appear.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Not every Monday will be like this, right?

It's great to hear the sound of students hard at work in my building, even if at the moment it's just a small group of early-arrival international students working on their English skills. This morning one of them was walking up and down the hall outside my office carefully repeating the word redneck over and over. Practicing pronunciation, no doubt--but for what purpose? How often does the word redneck come up in an international student's summer coursework? It's a mystery.

Other mysteries: 

Who's supposed to get our departmental copier fixed before our new administrative assistant starts her duties? How will I get my syllabi copied before the onslaught?

With no building coordinator available to take complaints, whom do I notify when the departmental kitchenette loses power? What if I need to heat water for tea? I hope no one left anything perishable in the mini-fridge!

Why does the Chronicle of Higher Education have to publish all those depressing salary figures every August just when I'm preparing to pour body and soul into innovative and exhausting pedagogy? According to the current figures, my salary is about on target for an associate professor of English at a private four-year college, which would be great news if I were an associate professor. The full professor average salary is so far out of reach that it may as well be on Jupiter. Am I doomed to remain eternally below average?

Why do I have to start the week on such a negative note? Bring back my students! I need them to remind me why I'm here and to make me want to keep going despite the petty problems of a miserable Monday.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Chomping on lightbulbs

When my son-in-law got home from work this evening, my granddaughter gave him an important message: "Daddy, you have to eat some lightbulbs! They make you light up inside!"

He looked puzzled--and who wouldn't? What kind of person would teach a three-year-old that it's a good idea to eat lightbulbs?

That would be me.

In my defense, we're not talking about real lightbulbs but those tiny yellow lightbulb-shaped tomatoes that are so abundant in our garden right now. They're so bursting with juicy sweetness that they're guaranteed to make you light up, inside and out, as my granddaughter discovered when she started popping them into her mouth like candy. She would have eaten the whole quart if we hadn't insisted on saving a few for Daddy.

Growing tomatoes is like harvesting sunshine, but once you open your mouth and take a bite, there's no turning out the light.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Coulda been a contender

When will the Olympics offer events for the 99 percent of us who lack the training, time, and talent of Simone Biles or Michael Phelps? If there were a medal for crossing items off a to-do list, I know I'd be a contender. If the International Olympics Committee wants to encourage more people to be participants rather than couch potatoes, they should create events like these:

Cleanin' Jerk: Watch me tilt chairs, roll rugs, and shove a massive sofa out of the way so I can sweep the floors. (But will she stick the landing?)

Uneven Parallel Barriers: Contestants vie to be the first to emerge from the maddening health insurance obstacle course, designed by those devious experts at the International Denial of Claims Organization (IDCO). No medal has ever been awarded in this event because no one has ever made it all the way through the course.

Academic Pentathlon: Start with the Book-Boxing event, which requires relocating a professor's library to a new office two floors and three buildings away, and then move on to the Faculty Meeting Dash (first to make it to the comfy seats without spilling coffee wins!), then Committee Composition Whack-A-Mole (make sure every committee includes at least one competent worker bee and no more than three whiners), the Hoop-Jumping Tenure Course (miss that invisible hoop and you have to go back to adjuncting and start over), and the Final Grading Marathon. Extra style points for regalia that doesn't look as if it's been serving as bedding in the rhinoceros house at the zoo. 

Synchronized Storytelling: Put a three-year-old in your lap who demands that you tell a story about a big fish, and after you've spontaneously created a big fish story out of the blue, she demands a totally different story about a little fish, and then she wants one about girl and the fish going on a picnic with a capybara. How many stories can you invent? (I'd win this one hands down--but then, I've had a lot of practice) 

Turkey Dressage: Prepare a complete Thanksgiving dinner for an extended family of 16 people, being careful to avoid offending anyone's intolerance for gluten, lactose, peanuts, carbs, and libertarians.  

I don't know about you, but I'd watch events like these. In fact, I wouldn't even have to turn on the TV!   

Monday, August 08, 2016

Same old path, always new

Walking the same route over and over offers advantages and disadvantages. The chief disadvantage, of course, is repetition: every time I walk I see the same stretch of creek, the same meadow, same woods and cow pasture and donkey paddock, sometimes even the same cows and donkeys. 

The same dogs come barreling down the hill to bark the same old barks. The same leaning tree threatens to drop the same rotten limb on me, and the same types of beer cans pile up in the same inappropriate spot. Same old same old, every time.

And yet it's not the same, not entirely, not ever. Observing the same area through the years and seasons only deepens the wonder. How can the same stretch of woods that's dotted with tiny white bloodroot blossoms in the early spring produce a profusion of thigh-high jewelweed by midsummer? How can the creek that looks algae-green and sluggish in midsummer swell to carry whole trees downstream during floods? Why are the kingfishers so abundant one year but absent the next, and where do they go when they're gone?

Long-term exposure to the same stretch of road has made me sensitive to the subtlest of changes. I know when to listen for prairie warblers, where and when to look for tiny rue anemone blossoms, what to expect next week or next month. When did the last red-winged blackbird leave the area, and when will the juncos arrive? I could give you a pretty good estimate.

And then there are always surprises: the fox slinking across the road, wild turkeys chattering in the meadow, a snapping turtle near the creek. Familiarity makes the anomalies more obvious, begging further investigation. Why would a giant puffball mushroom crop up on a sunny slope during the hottest, driest month of the year? Oh, it's just a deflated soccer ball peeking up through the weeds. What is a deflated soccer ball doing alongside my road in the middle of nowhere? That's one of life's persistent mysteries.

When I'm away for a while and explore new areas, I always appreciate the change, but then it's exciting to come back to my usual route and see what's new: Joe Pye Weed and ironweed have reached new heights while I wasn't looking, and the donkey babies have been moved out of sight but there's an adorable new goat gamboling about. 

The same old tree still threatens to drop the same old limb on me, but hey--someone picked up the pile of beer cans! As I come to the end of the same old walk, a kingfisher chatters and flies along the creek, which is clear today and shallow enough to show striations on the underlying rock. 

Same old rocks. Same old water. Same old walk, but not the same, not entirely, not ever.