Friday, February 16, 2018

From Prufrock to whooping cranes to a silent, gentle snooze

This morning I taught "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to a group of students intent upon illustrating the line "like a patient etherized upon a table": lots of blank looks, not much alertness. Of course it's not a young person's poem, and the oppressive gray weather and overly warm classroom didn't help. I would have appreciated a nap myself.

Conditions weren't much better in Florida Lit, where we joined Jody and Penny at the fishing hole where they encounter the dance of the whooping cranes:
The dancers raised their wings and lifted their feet, first one and then the other. They sank their heads deep in their snowy breasts, lifted them and then sank them again. They moved soundlessly, part awkwardness, part grace. ...The birds were reflected in the clear marsh water. Sixteen white shadows reflected the motions. The evening breeze moved across the saw-grass. It bowed and fluttered. The water rippled. The setting sun lay rosy on the white bodies. Magic birds were dancing in a mystic marsh....
I read this passage aloud and then pointed out that it's different from other encounters with wild animals so far in the book. Other animals are predator or prey, portrayed as either a threat to the family's survival or as meat. "So if Jody and Penny are so desperate for food," I asked my class, "Why don't they kill some cranes and take 'em home for supper?"

No response.

"Come on, they've just been discussing the law of the jungle, the need to eat or be eaten. Shouldn't they skip the awe-filled observation and bag a bird?"


"And what's with all the 'magic birds' and 'mystic marsh' stuff? What makes these birds so special?"

Finally, a brave student works up the courage to respond: "You're the one who likes birds."

Well alrighty then! We'll assume that Rawlings wrote this passage to appeal to those few peculiar people among us who like birds, and that way everyone else can go back to sleep. I'll just stand up here mouthing meaningless blather about nothing in particular while everyone else succumbs to gentle slumber...until human voices wake us, and we drown.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What would Marjory do?

Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived to be 108 years old, and she never stopped fighting for justice--for minorities, for women, for children, for the land itself. In her 90s she appeared in a hearing where she was the lone voice opposing a plan to drain a portion of the Everglades in Dade County, and when she was booed, she reportedly responded, "Can't you boo any louder than that?"

"Look, I'm an old lady," she said. "I've been here since eight o'clock. It's now eleven. I've got all night, and I'm used to the heat." She persisted--and the county commissioners cancelled their plan to drain the wetland.

In her youth she fought for women's right to vote and later she worked to provide safe drinking water to residents of Miami's segregated slums. She fought to improve conditions for Florida's migrant workers and to provide them legal services, and she fought to earn her voice as a writer in the predominantly male world of journalism.

But her most sustained and intense fight was her decades-long campaign to protect south Florida's waterways, especially the Everglades, from overdevelopment, drainage, and pollution. In her 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass, she elegantly portrays the wonders of the massive wetlands that had long been viewed as a barrier to development. Where others saw a virulent swamp, Douglas saw beauty:
The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slowly moving, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades. It is a river of grass.
Her research for River of Grass led her to look beneath the surface, to consider the peculiar geology of south Florida, the interdependence of fragile species in the wetland's unique ecosystems, and the natural cycles of rain and drought that could transform lush green growth into kindling:
The saw-grass stands drying to old gold and rustling faintly, ready, if there is a spark anywhere, to burst into those boiling red flames which crackle even at a great distance like a vast frying pan, giving off rolling clouds of heavy cream-colored smoke, shadowed with mauve by day and by night mile-high pillars of roily tangerine and orange light. The fires move crackling outward as the winds blow them, black widening rings where slow embers burn and smolder down into the fibrous masses of the thousand-year-old peat.

Then the spring rains put out the fires with their light moving tread, like the tread of the running deer, and the year of rainy season and of dry season has made its round again.
In River of Grass, the Everglades emerges as a character in itself, a misunderstood but fascinating entity with a complex history and an uncertain future. Douglas was among the first to proclaim that the destruction of the Everglades by drainage or pollution would be a disaster for the state as a whole, to see the health of wetlands as a harbinger for the health of the nation. "The Everglades is a test," she once said. "If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet."

Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived 108 years but, thankfully, not long enough to see a school carrying her name polluted by senseless violence and bloodshed. She saw environmentalism as a practical way to care for the weakest among us, claiming that providing clean water and clean air demonstrates our love and concern for children and those marginalized by poverty or other problems. When we love the land, we love our children, and if we fail to pass that test, our children bear the wounds of our neglect.

Today we face another kind of test: can we develop a sensible, workable plan to keep the most lethal weapons out of the hands of murderers? If we can't pass this test, we don't deserve to keep the planet.

As I hear more painful details about the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I mourn for the families and I mourn for the victims and I mourn for a culture that can't find a way to make these shootings stop, but I also mourn for Marjory. She doesn't deserve this, I tell myself, and neither do we.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

No curtain calls in academe

Now here's the downside of spending a whole weekend putting together new teaching materials, as I did recently: When I was done giving this massive brilliant presentation in my Florida Lit class yesterday, I looked at my students and saw the same blank looks I see most days and I wondered Why aren't they applauding?

I didn't waste much time wondering, though, because of course they're not applauding: I've just given them a whole bunch of new stuff to learn, and even if the material was accompanied by photographs and engaging stories, it's still work. I wouldn't expect a child to applaud a new list of household chores even if it was beautifully formatted in rhyming couplets and accompanied by fireworks, so why would I expect my students to applaud my little academic song-and-dance?

But I performed so well!

Right, and there's the problem: this lecture was pretty much a one-person performance, without much participation by students except for note-taking (and, in one case, sleeping). I don't often teach that way, but we were starting a new unit and I needed to provide some necessary context and introduce essential concepts that will inform our discussion, and while I can congratulate myself on presenting it in an interesting way, it was still 40 minutes of me standing in front of the class yammering away.

I didn't stand still, of course. I'm not capable of talking for more than a minute without waving my arms around and moving around the room, which may be why I was so exhausted at the end. At one point I used the word "peripatetic" and, suspecting that my students would find it unfamiliar, I said, "I shall now become peripatetic right before your very eyes," and I did. And then of course I defined the word.

After the lecture I put my students to work applying some of the concepts to their reading assignment, which worked well enough, and then they were out the door and I moved on to the next class, but all afternoon I felt a lack, a sense of longing for something I'd lost without even know what was missing. After all that work and an exhausting performance, I'd really like a round of applause, a pat on the back, or even a small nod indicating a modicum of understanding. 

Instead, I sit in my office facing a pile of papers to grade and I take a moment to tell myself Well done, you. Now get back to work. Accompanied by the sound of one  hand clapping.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

On (not) coutenancing error

A student wrote about an author who provides "a perfect Segway" into a new topic, and suddenly I found myself imagining Henry James zipping around Rye on a two-wheeled personal transport device, if James could be said to do anything zippily. Would he hop curbs and go airborne? I'd pay money to see that. Someday when someone finally has the foresight to open up a Henry James theme park, we'll all zip around on Segways along paths as complex as James's labyrinthine sentences, paths that keep promising to lead to a satisfactory destination--Gilbert Osmond's Passive-Aggressive Gift Shop, say, or Fanny Assingham's Mad Teacups--but somehow fail to finally arrive.

How long before Segway overtakes segue as an alternate spelling? Maybe the student never saw the word segue in print or saw it without knowing its pronunciation. Another student wrote that he had never seen the word countenance before, which made me sad. How can anyone be expected to understand Theodore Roethke's great poem "My Papa's Waltz" without understanding the meaning of countenance in the line "My mother's countenance / could not unfrown itself"?  (And where is the not-unfrowny-face emoji?)

My countenance fell when I saw that another student had formatted the date incorrectly in the heading of his paper, using one of those little nd, rd, or st dealies that make MLA tsk. Surely I marked that on his draft, I told myself, but then I checked the draft to be sure, and no, I did not mark the error on the draft because it wasn't there. That's right: he formatted the date correctly on the draft but then changed it to make it wrong on the final paper. Why?

And before you ask why I get all picky about formatting the date correctly in the heading, here's my thinking: if it's wrong in the draft, I mark it and insert a comment; if it's still wrong in the revised essay, that immediately lets me know that the student either hasn't  read my comments on the draft or doesn't care. Either way, helpful to know.

But then here's a student who didn't need to change the format of the date but did it anyway and thus introduced error into his paper. Who told him to change the format? I didn't do it, and he didn't see it on the sample papers I provided. Is someone giving bad advice during peer review? If so, how shall I address the problem? 

That's too much for my tired brain right now. I need to grade the rest of these papers, but first I need to find a way to smoothly shift from one topic to another. Where's that Segway when I need it?


Tuesday, February 06, 2018

On proof-texting, periodization, and any old poem

I thought I'd fallen into an e.e. cummings poem this morning when a student tried to attribute a certain idea to "Any poem by Campbell McGrath." I'm reading drafts in the Florida Lit class and the prompt required them to choose "Any poem by Campbell McGrath," but most students correctly interpreted this as requiring them to write about a specific poem. Any poem lived in a pretty how anthology--no, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

I'm fighting a tendency toward proof-texting in these papers: students are picking quotes out of context without taking into account the larger purpose of the piece, which leads to incomplete or misleading readings. Uncritically quote a portion of a line that appears to laud Minnie Mouse in a poem brutally critiquing commodification and your argument will stand on extremely flimsy evidence.

I saw something similar in last week's American Lit survey drafts, suggesting that we need to do more class work on depth of analysis. But on those drafts I also had to keep reminding students that Henry James, Kate Chopin, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and their contemporaries do not fall into the category "Early American Literature" and did not write in "Old English."

Maybe I should make them read some actual Old English. Any poem lived in a pretty hwaet anthology--nope, not feeling it.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Not slacking off (except when I am)

Sometimes the syllabi align in amazing ways: over the weekend I prepared to teach three Harlem Renaissance authors in Literary Theory, prepared an extensive presentation on the friendship between Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings for Florida Lit, and prepared a short presentation and handout on the Harlem Renaissance for American Lit Survey.

Aside from the coincidence in subject matter, I'm a little impressed that I spent that much time preparing new teaching materials even for a class that I've taught many times before. I've taught Hurston so many times that I ought to be able to phone it in, but apparently I'm allergic to slacking off.

Except when I'm not. Today my department met to work on next year's course schedules, which will include a significant change in the way we teach first-year composition, thanks to the recent approval of a new General Education curriculum. I'm mostly in favor of the changes but when it became clear that we'll still need one section of the "old" version of the class this fall, I jumped all over it with both feet. 

It's not that I don't want to change how I teach composition--I just don't want to do it right now. I'm teaching only one semester next year thanks to my spring 2019 sabbatical, which means I'll be teaching only one section of composition all year, and I just don't feel like reinventing my tried-and-true methods for the sake of only one section.

After the meeting I ran into a retired colleague at the grocery store, and he asked how long until I'll be able to retire. For years I said I'd never be able to pay off enough of our horrible debts to ever be able to retire, but careful husbandry and a little help from unexpected sources have eliminated enough debt to make retirement appear possible within the next eight or ten years.

And now I feel myself slowing down, still trying new things in class and putting tons of energy into updating my pedagogy, but I an increasingly unwilling to hop up and volunteer to  pilot the next new thing or revamp a tried-and-true course. Let someone else be the pioneer for a change. I'm happy to watch from the sidelines. I can catch up with the changes later on, but for now I need to hang back until I've caught my breath.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Author of my own onslaught

Who brought on this onslaught
of papers and tests?
Who sent out abundant
e-mails and requests? 

Who piled up the powerpoint
slides and the quizzes?
Who multiplied meetings?
Who offered the whiz-kids

enriching experiences
outside of class?

Who wrote this danged syllabus?
Who let this thing pass?

Who scheduled assignments
to arrive all at once?
Who authored this onslaught?
(That was me. What a dunce.)