Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My start-of-semester security blanaket

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I rarely delete a handout entirely, even if it seems hopelessly out of date.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.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Paddling among the egrets

This morning for the first time all year I took the camera out in the canoe, which I would not have done yesterday when we spent the afternoon fighting waterskiers' wakes. We're spending a couple of days at Salt Fork State Park, just an hour from home but a nice getaway before the semester begins. Yesterday we paddled in a more populous part of the lake, but early this morning we drove to a boat launch at a no-wake zone and explored the upper reaches and backwaters scented by lotus blossoms, where great blue herons and great egrets perched in trees or swooped majestically over the water. We had the lake to ourselves for over an hour, but then storm clouds started moving in and the wind picked up. Time to head for shore and leave behind the birds. (But not their pictures.)

Morning stiillness







Storm rolling in.
 

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Not in my wildest dreams

There's a knock at my office door so I open it even though I'm wearing my rattiest nightgown, and there I find a well-dressed woman who tells me she'll be observing my class to determine whether I qualify for our biggest teaching prize and we'd better hurry if we want to start on time, but I can't go to class until I find my bathrobe and then I can't find my class roster and it's only the second day of class so I won't know anyone's name and I can't find the right textbooks so I grab a random stack of outdated Norton anthologies and hustle up the steps to the classroom, where all my students are sitting on the floor because someone has taken away all the desks, so the observer sits on the windowsill rolling her eyes while I try to get the computer booted up and the projector turned on and then realize that I can't even pull up any course material online because I haven't posted anything on Moodle, and the observer is so disgusted with my miserable pedagogy that she comes to the front of the room and starts teaching my class just to show me how it's done.

And do you want to know the only thing that bothers me about this nightmare scenario? I keep berating myself for not wearing a nicer nightgown to class

Thursday, August 03, 2017

A well-hidden superpower

I was trying to tell a colleague about a book I read last week (The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski, a lively, insightful, thought-provoking critique of critique that offers a clear path out of the labyrinth) but I got flummoxed by this response: You read a book in a week? I wish I could read a whole book in a week.

What am I supposed to say to that? I'm certainly not going to admit that I read not one but three books last week or that this is not such an unusual feat. I can't help it: I'm a compulsive reader with a freakish ability to read really quickly with full comprehension.

That's not the kind of superpower most people seek. In fact, Mild-mannered English professor saves the world by exercising her power to read really, really quickly is the plot of no action movie ever. Once you get past elementary school, there are no more gold stars for reading quickly, and you'll never see a reality show reward a contestant's ability to breeze through the pages of Remembrance of Things Past.

Granted, my ability to read quickly without sacrificing comprehension allowed me to earn a Ph.D. while working as a journalist and raising small children, but otherwise, it's a superpower that rarely earns respect and therefore remains well hidden. Nevertheless I'm certain that others of my freakish ilk exist out there somewhere, readers whose fingers blister from turning pages so quickly, who view a blurry world through eyes that insist on staying focused on reading-distance. Ye shall know them by their squints.

If you're out there, please: read Rita Felski's book The Limits of Critique and then get back to me so we can discuss it, preferably by tomorrow. Monday at the very latest.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

When the room demands writing

A colleague walks into a small conference room and says to the rest of us, "Greetings, writers!" Only three of us are in the room so far, but it's early. This is our penultimate Writing Wednesday, a weekly opportunity for colleagues to gather for a few hours in a quiet room in the library and simply write. 

There's no formal structure or programming. We chat a little before we get started and we often go out to lunch afterward, but usually it's just two or three or five faculty members tap-tapping away at their laptop keyboards. Sometimes we send each other drafts of our articles for feedback, but all that reading and responding happens outside the room, because our time here is reserved for writing.

I know some people can't write in a group, but somehow, I find it easier to remain focused on the task at hand when I'm writing in the midst of my colleagues. No one is checking my work, so I could be sitting over in my corner playing FreeCell for all my colleagues know, but something about the space and the company demands that I keep writing. 

In this room I have written big chunks of the article that I sent off to a journal last month, and since then I've been working on a conference paper proposal and a sabbatical proposal. And now I'm writing this blog post! That's not really what I'd intended, but look, we're only 20 minutes into our writing time. I'll post this and then get down to doing what the room demands: writing--in a hurry before the summer runs out! 

Next week is our final Writing Wednesday, and we'd love to keep it going through the school year but it's really difficult to find a common time. But that doesn't mean I won't try. After all, if we are writers, then we'd better focus on making time to write.