Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Links for the mid-grading break

I'm not even halfway through my grading pile and I'm already tired of seeing infer used where imply is needed and wondering why students like to lengthen analysis into analyzation while shortening adaptation to adaption. Time for a break! 'Tis the season for mid-grading break links:

1. If Dave Barry's annual holiday gift guide doesn't make you laugh, your sense of humor has fled the territory (click here). Now I'm desperately trying to figure out who on my list needs a Barry Manilow coloring book; Dave Barry suggests giving it to a young adult who refuses to move out of the house:
Imagine the look on some lucky young person’s face when he or she unwraps this item, along with a pack of crayons (not included) and you say, quote: “If you think this Barry Manilow coloring book is exciting, just wait until you hear his music!” Then you turn on your stereo system (not included) and the room fills with the scintillating sounds of “Copacabana” or one of the many other Barry Manilow hits from the past two centuries. Pretty soon that young person will develop an appreciation for good music. Either that, or that young person will move out of your house. Either way is good.

Read more here:
I don't know about the Man-Bun Ken Doll or the Star Wars lightsaber barbecue tongs, but maybe we can get some Shakespeare insult bandages for our department office! 

2. Everyone's twittering about Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person" in the New Yorker (read it here), a bit of short fiction about a train-wreck of a relationship (if you can call it a relationship). Days after reading the story, I finally realized who it reminded me of: Henry James. 

There is nothing the least bit Jamesian about Roupenian's style, but James pioneered the kind of limited perspective she employs, and like Roupenian's main character, James's protagonists make unfortunate relationship decisions based on inadequate information. If Winterbourne could have stalked Daisy on Facebook instead of relying on rabid gossip, he  would still have dismissed her as nothing more than a "pretty American flirt" (just as Roupenian's Robert dismisses Margot, except Robert uses more pungent language). Similarly, Isabel Archer prefigures Margot when she ignores all her misgivings about Gilbert Osmond, filling in the gaps in his character with her own romantic inventions. The difference, of course, is that Margot escapes after one horrible date while Isabel is stuck with Osmond forever.

3. I don't have a whole lot to say about Julie Beck's "The Secret Life of 'Um'" (read it here), except, um, yeah. If using a lot of vocal filler suggests that one is "really playing an important role in the smooth operation of the conversation machine," then I'm well equipped to keep the gears turning.

4. Nina Handler's essay "Facing My Own Extinction" made me very sad (read it here), dealing as it does with a college's decision to discontinue the English major. But this paragraph especially struck me:
The belletristic tradition is obsolete, and those who once imparted the art of rhetoric now strive to teach basic literacy. English, once a backbone of the university’s structure, has become a little-used organ with only vestigial value — the appendix of academia.
The "appendix of academia"! I'm feeling it: nobody quite understands why we still exist, so it's easy to suggest surgical removal. It hasn't happened here but many of us who teach in English departments can hear the surgeon scrubbing up in the next room and fear that it's only a matter of time before we end up on the operating-room floor.

But not today. Today we have work to do, like trying to explain to a student why infer and imply are not interchangeable. It's a tough job, but, um, somebody has to keep the wheels turning. (Maybe some Barry Manilow will help...)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

There are many aspects of grading that can be analyzed

"You do a really great job weaving quotations seamlessly into your sentences," I just wrote on a student's paper. Clumsiness with quote integration is endemic to first-year papers, so when someone integrates quotes elegantly, it's time to pass out the gold stars.

I'm seeing evidence of haste on many of these papers, which is peculiar because they had plenty of time to seek help and revise the draft. Last Friday a student told me that he had failed to look at my comments on his draft until late the night before it was due, so it was only then that he realized that I'd accidentally sent him another student's draft and comments. Oops. My mistake, of course, but then if he'd looked at the file a little earlier, he could have asked me to send him the right document. 

Apparently he was distracted. So am I. In fact, these marathon grading sessions make me eager to grasp at any distraction that happens to flit past. I assigned all these papers so I have to grade 'em, but my goodness I wish I could put some of them off until, say, January. Of 2027.

But here I sit dutifully reading one paper after another after another, puzzling over peculiar punctuation, trying to untangle incoherent prose, wondering where a student ever learned that a great way to start a paper is to write something like "There are many aspects of literature that can be analyzed." When I'm drowning in drivel, an elegantly crafted sentence arrives like a lifeboat, buoying my spirits and inspiring me to keep reading. 

Let's hope I see a lot more such sentences; otherwise, I'll be ending the semester with an excess of gold stars and nowhere to stick them.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Remembrance of libraries past

A student came to me with a great idea. He was showing me the scholarly article he'd received in his e-mail inbox via interlibrary loan, and he said, "Why don't they have a place where all these articles were printed out and we could go read them right away instead of waiting for them to come to our e-mail?"

What a concept--a whole building dedicated to collecting texts and making them available to students! We could call it--a library! And it could have a big room dedicated to print copies of academic journals! Sort of like what we have in our own beloved library, except we don't have nearly enough space for all the specialized journals students might need, so we could go back to the days when dedicated students would drive two or three hours across the state to a whopping big academic library and then spend hours and hours in the dusty stacks photocopying articles from academic journals, only to drive back home to read them!

And if starting up an institution like that would be too much trouble, we could build a time machine and send my student back a few decades to research his paper. He'll be begging to return home within minutes, but how will he ever reach us? He'll never find a cell-phone signal!

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Adventures in refrigerator recycling

When the Fridge Collection Dude (hereafter FCD) called last night to say that he would like to pick up our refrigerator earlier than the time originally promised, I was delighted. I've been wanting to go out stalking that snowy owl again, which I can't do if I'm sitting around between 10 and 2 waiting for the FCD to show up and haul away my fridge. So I said sure, how early, and he said between 6:00 and 6:30.


....on a Saturday.

....that also happens to be (1) the day after the end of an exhausting semester and (2) my birthday. 

But sure, I said, we get up early, go ahead and try to find my driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, and if you have trouble, give us a call, except that you'll have to backtrack a mile or two to find any cell-phone reception.

So this morning we got up early enough to clear the last few things out of the fridge and prepare for a week of fridgeless living, and we were dressed, fed, and ready to answer the phone when it rang around 6. I expected to hear the voice of the FCD explaining that he couldn't find my driveway, but no: this was an entirely different FCD, who explained that last night's FCD got called away for a sudden family emergency and had to dump his work on this new FCD, who sounded as if he'd just crawled out of bed himself and was clearly in no position to pick up our refrigerator at 6 a.m., so he'd come by later, between 9 and 1.

Well what could I say? I'm not going to physically haul this FCD out of bed and drag him out here to pick up our fridge, so instead I guess I'll sit around enjoying the morning. One of the advantages of cleaning out the fridge is that you sometimes find things you'd forgotten about, which explains the pawpaw smoothie I enjoyed for my birthday breakfast. The sun is starting to illuminate a frosty world outside, and the dog is bumbling about wearing the Cone of Shame--she had a skin growth surgically removed yesterday but seems to be recovering just fine. I have a pot of hot tea, an unread magazine, and a clear view of the birdfeeders out front, and if I get tired of all that excitement, I can always grade some papers. What more could I possibly want?

(Besides, of course, the absence of refrigerator.)

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Night Stories: Illuminating absence

I thought I was being a little extravagant when I bought myself a hardback book for $45, but then I looked for other books by the same author and I found only one, selling for $1,827.93. (Plus $3.99 for shipping!) So I guess my Linden Frederick collection will remain limited to one book.

But what a book! Linden Frederick is a New England artist, and Night Stories: Fifteen Paintings and the Stories they Inspired is exactly what the title says: 15 of his paintings accompanied by short stories (and a one-act play) written by contemporary authors as diverse as Ann Patchett, Dennis Lehane, Louise Erdrich, and Richard Russo.

I was initially attracted by the art. From his home base is in Maine, Linden Frederick allows his eye to roam across small-town America, producing austere images reminiscent of Edward Hopper's Night Hawks. Though his paintings generally lack human figures, Frederick's night scenes of dimly lit vacant lots, isolated gas stations, and silent houses hint at lives barely imagined. The cover image, Offramp, invites viewers to travel further down the highway or follow the offramp into some forgotten community where lonely people lead lives of quiet desperation.

The night sky is a brooding presence in many of these paintings, its rich shades of blue, green, and gray often pierced by unexpected points of light. In Downstairs, a hulking mass of house crowds the left side of the frame, but our eyes are drawn to the lower edge, where a brightly lit basement window suggests the presence of vibrant life. Vacant Lot presents a greeny-blue night sky so murky it seems to be drowning the planet, but some sort of ordinary life survives in a tiny house where a car drives into a well-lit garage.

In 50 Percent, a one-story house seems squeezed between bands of darkness, as if it is being swallowed up by earth and sky, but large windows reveal a group of women dressed in candy-colored prom dresses. On closer inspection, the festive women resolve into mannequins. A commercial sign shines blankly on the right side, suggesting that this is some sort of business, but in the absence of words, the meaning of the assemblage of mannequins remains a mystery.

Lois Lowry fills that absence with a story called "Vital Signs." The stories in this volume reverse the usual process: instead of finding an artist to illustrate a text, Linden Frederick found a bunch of authors to create stories suggested by his paintings. Lowry imagines a group of retired men trying to play a prank on one of their own but instead coming face to face with the power of loneliness and loss. 

Ted Tally's one-act drama "Repair" closes with a reminder that "Some things can't be fixed," even by an honest mechanic, and many of these stories features lives so broken that the possibility of redemption does not even enter the picture; nevertheless, light shines through the murky depths of the human condition. In "Ice," Andre Dubus opens the doors of a cold, lonely convenience store to reveal the beating heart of passion, and in "Downstairs," Richard Russo takes us inside that dark, hulking house, where a glimmer of life lingers in the midst of despair and death. In Dennis Lehane's "Offramp," a cynical U.S. Marshal on the verge of retirement takes a brief detour toward compassion, while Joshua Ferris's "Maniacs" follows a teen boy through an idle summer vacation; the story throbs with youthful energy that leads the boy headlong into dangerous terrain.  

Louise Erdrich's "Green Acres" takes a turn into uncanny territory, though it begins normally enough:
The house was a soothing color and the streets had pleasant names--Joy Street, Lydia Street, Crystal Way--the names of the developer's wife and daughters. There were also echoes of the old farm--Hereford and Holstein Streets and Jersey Trail. The breeds of the animals that once had grazed the subdivided fields. Our cabin house was at the end of Angus Avenue. Which had the ring of happiness, I thought, pregnant. It had the feel of the address a family would refer to one day with nostalgia.
This pastoral setting soon turns strange, though, in a way that will resonate with any nursing mother who has felt a kinship with cows. Erdrich's brief story dramatizes what happens when we attempt to transform forces of nature into comforting nostalgic images: nature does not forget. It may take a while, but eventually, the cows will come home.

At $45 for a hardback beautiful enough to grace any civilized coffee table, Night Stories would make a great gift for the literary-and-artsy people in your life, but it's currently listed as "temporarily out of stock" at Amazon, and if you want something else by Linden Frederick, you'll have to fork over $1,827.93. (Plus shipping!) But you can view images of some of his paintings here, and who knows, maybe they'll inspire you to write your own story. Imagine the hearts that beat behind those dark walls and within those dimly lit landscapes. I know the people who live in these paintings--and so do you.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Only one calling bird, but it's a doozy


I really should be sitting in my office right now, I thought as I scrambled along a muddy hillside in the rain, trying desperately to keep my camera dry while gusts of wind kept whipping my umbrella around. I should be back at work, quietly awaiting visits from my hordes of students who have papers due this week and may need a little last-minute advice. If I'd stayed on campus, I wouldn't have wet feet and muddy shoes! 

But I wouldn't have seen a snowy owl either, and that was definitely worth an adventure with rotten weather.

Word went out over the weekend that snowy owls had been spotted nearby, rare visitors to this area. I get a lot of these e-mail alerts from the local birding group, which is mostly made up of retired people with time on their hands;  they can squawk about cattle egrets 20 miles upriver all they want but if I'm in class, I'm not going anywhere--and if I do manage to scrape together enough daylight to drive to some remote area to look for a rare bird, it's bound to be gone before I get there. That's how I missed the unusual visitation of sandhill cranes a few years ago, and cattle egrets last weekend, and snowy owls yesterday.

But today I'm not teaching, merely holding office hours for students who seem universally uninterested in assistance on their final papers. I'll have a pile of grading later in the week but this morning I devoted a few hours to fiddling with next semester's syllabi, utterly uninterrupted.

So when the e-mail alert arrived telling me that a snowy owl was hanging out atop a light pole ten miles down the Interstate, I first rejoiced that I still had my camera in the office (because I'd used it yesterday to take pictures of a department event) and then grabbed the keys and hopped in the car. I didn't even leave a note on the door. What would it say? "Gone owling"?

The owl was exactly where the e-mail said it would be, just sitting on top of that lightpole as if it ruled the world. Getting close enough to take a decent photo was a problem, though, since I'm not stupid enough to stand in the middle of the Interstate with all those trucks zooming past at 70 miles an hour. Gray sky, limited light, cold rain, and sudden gusts of wind all combined to make the photography conditions less than ideal.

But the owl seemed unbothered. At first it looked motionless as a lump of dirty snow, but then its head swivelled my way and I knew I'd found a treasure. My first snowy owl in the wild! And it was a good thing I went when I did, because by the time I'd packed up my camera and turned my car around, the owl was gone.

Later in the week I'll be complaining about the pile of end-of-semester grading that will hound my every waking hour, keeping me tied to work all day and long into the night, but today I'm rejoicing over the rare combination of circumstances that allowed me to walk away in the middle of the day to visit a majestic bird. If any students complain that I wasn't in my office during office hours, I'll have to explain that sometimes there's nothing to do but answer when nature calls. (Even if you have to get your feet wet.)


Sunday, December 03, 2017

A moving story with too many steps

My daughter reports that she walked more than 15,000 steps and climbed 31 flights of stairs yesterday while moving into her new house, and I don't doubt it but I wish she'd sit down and put her feet up for a little while. She is, after all, pregnant. It's time to let someone else do the hard work! But I know how difficult that can be.

It was nearly 30 years ago that we moved houses while I was eight and a half months pregnant. I wouldn't have chosen just that date to move all our belongings halfway across the state, but at the time our lives were ruled by the Methodist hierarchy, which determined a single moving day for all pastoral families living in parsonages. It makes perfect sense: the previous pastor moves out of the parsonage one one day so that the new pastor can move in on the next, and if any painting or repair needs to be done in the interim, everyone just has to stay out of the way.

We moved houses under this system every two or three years and usually it worked well enough, but if you have a choice, I do not recommend moving while heavily pregnant and accompanied by a two-year-old.

The good news is that we didn't have quite as much stuff back then. Our kitchen was still full of wedding gifts in pretty good repair and our bookshelves were overstuffed, but we had no drum sets or giant boxes of Legos or dining tables capable of seating twelve, and we had only one or two desks instead of the six or eight we currently possess. 

I'd been teaching the occasional adult education class at the local community college but at the time of the move I was unemployed, so I had spent about a month packing up everything we owned: pack a box, change a diaper; pack a box, take a nap; pack a box, sit down and put my feet up for a while. Of course I wasn't supposed to be doing any heavy lifting, but sometimes boxes needed to be moved and, lacking servants, my choice was to wait until my husband got home from work or do it myself. I didn't have a Fitbit so I can't tell you how many steps I walked or stairs I climbed or boxes I moved, but I'm sure it was way too many.

The worst part was when moving day arrived and I had to watch other people manhandle my things. Moving out was not too bad but then we got to the new house and people I didn't even know kept telling me, "Sit down and rest! I'll unpack this for you," or "You just sit there and tell me where you want this." 

It's hard work sitting idly while everyone around you is carrying things and unpacking boxes, and it's much easier to put things where I want them myself than to try to explain my preferences to a total stranger. As helpful as church members may be, I don't necessarily want them unpacking my ratty old nightgowns or sorting my underwear.

The new house had no air conditioning and the summer heat was brutal, so eventually we found my daughter's swimsuit and filled up the little plastic kiddie pool, where she romped in the cold water while I soaked my tired, swollen feet and tried not to think about the chaos inside the house. I was supposed to be taking it easy, but I can't just sit back while there's work to be done. In fact, the only person in the family who was really taking it easy was my unborn son, who was so comfortable in utero that he decided to stay there a little longer than he should have and was eventually wrenched into the world two weeks late, shrivelled, scrawny, and gray.

After all the times we've moved, I understand his reluctance to shift homes: why disrupt a reasonably comfortable home, endure the pain and chaos of relocating, and then suffer all the trials and indignities of getting accustomed to a new place? Better to just stay in the womb!

Except we can't. We have to stretch our legs, expand our horizons, boldly go where no baby has gone before. Sometimes we just have to pack up and move. I just wish I could find a way to save my daughter a few of those steps.