Tuesday, February 28, 2006


I've been wanting to write but my impeller was broken. Fortunately it was under warranty, so now it is back at work impelling frantically as if there's no tomorrow.

There is, however, a tomorrow, and it's called Ash Wednesday, a significant event even for a Methodist. "For Lent I think I'll give up griping," I proclaimed over lunch in the faculty lounge. Several of my devoted colleagues offered to help me keep the pledge. They'll need a pretty big roll of duct tape.

Or an impeller. I'm not entirely sure what an impeller is but it sounds impressive, and if it can keep my house warm and cosy, what can it not do? I'll order one in every color.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Explanation marks

A student wrote about an author who used a lot of "explanation marks." The explanation mark might be a valuable new piece of punctuation, but what would it look like and what would it do? Is there a way to communicate a shoulder shrug via punctuation?

In this era of emoticons, it ought to be possible to communicate just about anything through abstract marks. Isn't it about time we reconsidered punctuation? I need an irony mark, a punapology point, a slapper's-hand. The magic-mirror-mark could be used by students to indicate that everything that follows simply reflects a slightly warped version of something the professor said in class, but then students might appreciate it if professors adopted the elitomark to indicate that they're about to indulge in a particularly egregious example of intellectual elitism. One of my colleagues suggested the pointless mark, which would be used in place of a period to indicate that the words preceding it weren't really worth reading anyway, and another proposed the coma, which indicates the pause that keeps on pausing.

And what about the blog that keeps on blogging? We need a punctuation mark for compulsive bloggers, a mark that issues the desperate plea "stop me before I blog again!" I don't know what it would look like, but I know what to call it: the neverending blogstopper. I'll order 'em by the gross.

Coup plot quashed!

On the radio this morning I heard that the president of the Phillipines had "quashed a coup plot." There's a phrase that plops off the tongue in a particularly squishy way. It sounds like wads of drippy mud thrown against a window.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Striking sentence

From In Praise of Practical Fertilizer: Scenes from Chester Township by John Baskin:

To the untrained eye in a poor season, the country here is all isolation.

Now that's a sentence. You could sing to it. You could march to it. You could dance to it. Listen to the repetition of n's, the progression of vowel sounds, the conversational rhythm that almost scans. Its symmetrical half-lines would be at home in Beowulf. The word isolation dangling out there at the end of the sentence carries a weight of emptiness, like a black hole sucking in the entire universe. The meaning could have been expressed in several other ways, none of them quite so satisfying:

In a poor season, the country here is all isolation to the untrained eye.
The country here in poor season is all isolation to the untrained eye.
The country here is all isolation to the untrained eye in a poor season.

That last attempt inverts the original, but somehow season at the end of the sentence does not carry the impact the original sentence imparts to isolation.

It is a perfect sentence. I wish I had written it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sentences on strike

As an expert in communication, I find nothing more frustrating than to be hopelessly, inexplicably, disastrously misunderstood. I work hard at getting the words right, whether I'm writing or speaking, in class or in the hall, in public or private. I agonize over the wording of e-mail messages, assignment sheets, even handouts explaining the finer points of MLA style. In classes I watch my students' faces for signs of comprehension, and when I don't see any, I try to express myself in a different way. In one-on-one conferences I try to reach students where they are and take them to where they need to be. I am clear; I am focused; I communicate.

But then when things fall apart they fall apart badly and I sit here scratching my head wondering what went wrong, how the words went awry. Today this happened twice--twice!--and both times I wanted to just hit the "rewind" button and start over. But alas, the words won't come back and the sentences won't stand still and explain themselves, and I am left to pick up a pile of scattered pieces that all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't manage if I tripled their salary.

Maybe I need to seek some advice from Humpty Dumpty in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master--that's all."

Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a temper, some of them--particularly verbs, they're the proudest--adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs--however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That's what I say!"

"Would you tell me, please," said Alice, "what that means?"

"Now you talk like a reasonable child," said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. "I meant by 'impenetrability' that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you meant to do next, as I suppose you don't intend to stop here all the rest of your life."

"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone.

"When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

"Oh!" said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

"Ah, you should see 'em come round me of a Saturday night," Humpty Dumpty went on, wagging his head gravely from side to side: "for to get their wages, you know."

(Alice didn't venture to ask what he paid them with; and so you see I can't tell you.)

And there's the problem: if I don't know how to pay the words I employ, how can I make them do my bidding? And if mere words won't submit to my mastery, why should my students? From now on I intend to stand before my classes and mumble incomprehensibly, and if I fail to see signs of comprehension, I'll resort to semaphore.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Just juncos

Spent some time watching my birds over the weekend. I know it's ridiculous to call them my birds; they don't recognize my authority or even thank me for the birdseed that miraculously appears in our outdoor feeders, but if it's possible to possess a portion of bird life simply by watching, then they are my birds.

Winter birds are more subtle and less spectacular than our summer visitors. Bluejays and cardinals and woodpeckers' red heads bring the occasional flash of color, and the nuthatches' blue-gray backs stand out against snowy branches. But most winter birds are small and unspectacular: the little downy woodpeckers dressed as if for a white-tie dinner blend into the mottled bark of the trees, and the chickadees and titmice look as if they need a spring makeover.

But most of all I watch the juncos. I don't know when they plan to leave in the spring but I know exactly when they arrived last fall: they just showed up en masse on the day before Thanksgiving. One minute the usual suspects were gathered haphazardly around the feeders, and the next minute the ground was hopping with juncos. There's nothing spectacular about this little bird with its charcoal-gray back and flashes of white, but they stand out like exclamation points against the snow-covered yard, hopping here and there in search of dropped seeds. The dead winter yard is alive with motion as the juncos hop and scoot and flit from here to there, and then they're gone and it's quiet again.

I probably won't even notice when they leave; I'll be too busy looking for spring visitors, waiting to hear the orioles's songs again and watching as kingfishers chatter and chase each other in their turbulent territorial fights. The juncos that enliven our winter lawn will just disappear one day and I'll forget all about them until next winter when suddenly they'll come back and the lawn will be hopping again.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Don't stop thinking

From Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear by Javier Marias:

In one respect--but only one--Tupra reminded me of my father, who never allowed us, my siblings and me, to be satisfied with what appeared to be a dialectical victory in our debates, or a success in explaining ourselves. "What else," he would say when we had assumed, exhausted, that an exposition or an argument was over. And if we replied: "Nothing. That's it. Isn't that enough?", he would reply, to our momentary wild despair: "Why, you haven't even started yet. Go on. Quickly, hurry, keep thinking. Having an idea, or identifying it, is something, but then again, once absorbed, it's almost nothing: it's like arriving at the first, most elementary level, which, it's true, is more than most people ever do. But the really interesting and difficult thing, the thing that can prove both truly worthwhile and very hard work, is to continue: to continue thinking and to continue looking beyond what is purely necesssary, when you have the feeling that there is no more to think and no more to see, that the sequence is complete and that to continue would be a waste of time. In that wasted time lies the truly important, in the gratuitous and apparently superfluous, beyond the limit where you feel satisfied, or where you get tired or give up, often without even realising it. At the point where you might say to yourself there can't be anything else. So tell me, what else, what else occurs to you, what else can you bring to the argument, what else can you offer, what else have you got? Go on thinking, quickly now, don't stop, go on."

Friday, February 17, 2006

Some say the world will end improbably

When the secretary told me "You shouldn't probably kill people," my first response was, "All right then, I'll kill them improbably!" But no, this week I think I won't kill the student whose cell phone emitted a loud, obnoxious ring tone in the middle of class or the one who sent me an e-mail message begging for mercy but who demonstrated his mastery of writing by spelling "you" with only one letter and "when" with three.

I also won't be killing the computer salesman who apparently sold this student a computer keyboard lacking a shift key or any marks of punctuation, but if I did kill him, I would do it by stuffing commas, semicolons, dashes, and ampersands down his throat so that he would eventually suffer the dismal fate accorded to Bennett & Ward in Derek Walcott's Omeros. (Chapter LVIII! Page 292! Look it up!)

And while I'm at it, this week I promise not to kill the person who invented Roman numerals or the poet who decided to number his chapters with them, despite the unnecessary annoyance these unpronounceable numerals add to the teaching of an already challenging poem. ("All right, class, can someone tell me what's happening in chapter XV?")

While I'm not killing poets, this week I won't kill Robert Frost, who every year causes cliches about nonconformity to be bandied about the classroom as if they counted as profound insights. I haven't decided whether to not kill him by fire or not kill him by ice, not that it matters since he's already dead.

I think this week I won't kill the person who designed the new radio in my old car, the radio with buttons so small and so poorly labeled that every attempt to change a channel or adjust the volume causes incomprehensible messages to flash across the little screen, messages that could actually kill me if I took my eyes off the road long enough to decipher them. Are car radios designed by mutants with 20-20 vision and fingers the size of sewing needles? If I did kill them, I'd make sure their eulogies were delivered via digital messages on tiny screens so that their squinting mourners would leave less comforted than puzzled.

This week I won't kill the person who decades ago selected the hideous shade of green that covers desks, filing cabinets, and bookshelves all over my building, and I also won't kill the one who put my name in blue icing on a cake so that when it was my turn to say something significant at a meeting last night, my teeth looked as if they were covered in blue fur. (Ingesting all that blue icing may be killing me slowly, but that's another matter entirely, one that Robert Frost never considered. "Some say the world will end by sugar / Some say by fat" is a promising start, but I can't go on without finding a suitable rhyme for "sugar," and "booger" isn't it.)

I won't kill the family member who suggested that an appropriate way to celebrate my tenure and promotion would be to finish up all that leftover meatloaf in the fridge (especially after he atoned for this error in judgment by bringing home piles of Panera bagels), and I frankly wouldn't know how to kill whoever is responsible for the wild winds that kept the tarp over the wood pile flapping noisily all night long. How does one kill a wind? Pepper it with quail shot? Where would I get quail shot? Dick Cheney doesn't return my calls.

All this thinking about how not to probably kill people has diminished my desire to do so. So I think this week I won't kill anyone at all. Probably.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Communing with the inner stapler

Yesterday my Concepts of Nature class discussed a very funny article in which Jon Tevlin decribes a visit to a mythopoetic men's retreat where he attempts to commune with his inner beast through mask-making, drumming, farting, and swooping around like a hawk. Why is it, I wondered aloud, that when the men in this article get together to commune with their inner beasts, they all end up acting like hawks and rams and wolves and not, for instance, hedgehogs? Why not slugs, sheep, or fuzzy little bunnies? Why not insects? Tevlin tells us that "the male wilderness is full of ticks," so why don't they accept nature's open invitation to commune with the tick? Be immersed in nature while nature is immersing itself in you!

Well it was an interesting discussion but it must have infected my subconscious because last night I had a very vivid but strange dream involving communing with nature. I was at a garden supply store scooting around on a wheeled office chair that kept getting caught on bits of mulch, when suddenly I saw in the distance a group of large animals lumbering past, including a few fierce-looking dinosaurs and two really big kangaroos. "Look!" I said, "those kangaroos must be 20 feet tall!" Not a word about the dinosaurs. Who notices dinosaurs when faced with really big kangaroos?

I wasn't tempted to commune with any of the animals and in fact I was more concerned about the mulch that kept getting caught in the wheels of my rolling chair. Perhaps my inner beast is not natural at all but something available from Office Depot. Deep in my heart there lurks . . . a stapler. You'd better look out: I know how to use it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Lost in translation

Concepts difficult to explain to a high-school exchange student from Germany:

1. marching band competitions
2. asparagus
3. "fastidious" vs. "meticulous"
4. which cars can be called "creampuffs" and which cannot
5. Groundhog Day
6. "swashbuckling"
7. eggplant ("Does it look like an egg? What does it taste like?")
8. Why Ranch dressing is neither "gravy" nor "sauce"
9. football (the American kind)
10. the oom-pa music at the German restaurant ("Do Americans really think Germans listen to that?")

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cheaters often prosper

I realize that I'm exposing myself as a hopeless prig by admitting this, but I'll never understand why people cheat. I marvel at the time and energy some students put into cheating, and I wonder: why not use that time and energy doing something more worthwhile, like--oh I don't know, studying for the test?

It wasn't even a difficult test, at least for those who had done the reading. Students had to know the titles, authors, and significant ideas of ten or twelve short works of fiction and know how those stories fit into a few literary movements. Piece of cake. But nevertheless I saw heads craning to glance at other students' papers and afterward I saw evidence of cheat sheets. Why not just do the reading?

The test required a small amount of memorization and I suppose some people are better at memorization than others, but still: it was possible to get a perfectly respectable B on the test without even knowing the titles and authors of the works involved. Why not settle for a B instead of risking an F?

From a cursory glance at the exams, it's fairly obvious that some students simply would rather not do the reading. I don't understand this either. This is terrific stuff! Henry James, Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, Sara Orne Jewett! How could anyone possibly prefer putting together a cheat cheat to reading Kate Chopin?

People tell me there's some sort of adrenaline rush involved in cheating. Maybe so; maybe I'm the one who's missing out on some essential human experience. I did cheat in class once, back around sixth grade (true confessions time). I've forgotten all the salient details, but I'll never forget the attack of guilt that kept me awake that night.

Here's a novel idea: get the adrenaline rush without the guilt and learn something in the process. How? Read Henry James, Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, Sara Orne Jewett....the list goes on into infinity, and so do the rewards. I'm cynical enough to know that cheaters often prosper, but what can they gain that exceeds the excitement of reading Kate Chopin?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Yes, but what about the brussels sprouts?

From "Serial Monogamy: My Cookbook Crushes" by Nora Ephron in the Feb. 13 New Yorker:

This was right about the time that arugula was discoverd, which was followed by endive, which was followed by radicchio, which was followed by frisee, which was followed by the three M's--mesclun, mache, and microgreens--and that, in a nutshell, is the history of the past forty years from the point of view of lettuce.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Now it can be told

Hear ye, hear ye:

The Trustees have spoken.

Tenure is mine.

Let the revels begin!

The Vagueness Award

From a quiz in one of my classes:

The story represents some realism because the characters in the story all take on different roles. They are explained by using descriptive words that make it seem as though the characters characteristics are standing out and coming alive. Realism takes place throughout most of the story when people are talking and events are taking place.

Extra credit to anyone who can figure out which work of literature is being described.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Theory of theory

I've been talking to some former students about their experience in grad school and I just don't get it. When I ask them how they like their literature courses, they say, "What literature courses?" They're in grad school because they love literature but they seem to be taking nothing but theory courses: African American literary theory, feminist theory, theory of theory. Here's my theory: effective teachers of literature must be immersed in literature the way the fish is immersed in water, and that requires taking some literature courses.

I realize I'm old and out of touch, but really: I finished my Ph.D. only five years ago and in all my years of grad school, the least helpful course I encountered was my one (one!) course in literary theory. (Sorry.) I've had to do a lot of outside reading to keep up with current trends in theory, but in classes I had the wonderful privilege of studying just about everything. I spent a semester struggling through Beowulf in the original language (with Kevin Kiernan! The Beowulf god!) and another semester immersed in Wordsworth and Coleridge--and none of those authors are part of my area of specialization. (Wrong place, wrong time.) I took graduate courses in California literature and nature writing and contemporary American narrative and southern American women writers and science fiction (with some scary guys who thought Robert Heinlein's fictional worlds were real, or ought to be) and British modernist novels and Shakespeare and I don't remember what else. The first time I went to grad school I took a course on images of the city in fiction (with John Cawelti! The Grand Old Man of Popular Culture Studies!) in which we read three (three!) novels by Saul Bellow plus James Joyce's Ulysses, and the second time I went to grad school I spent an entire semester studying Ulysses. By that time I knew what I was doing.

I'm willing to admit that I went about things the hard way, taking seven years off between the Masters and Ph.D. and taking a wide variety of courses that interested me but were unlikely to make me attractive on the very competitive job market. And I have had to do some remedial reading in literary theory, but still: my former students rarely get to study literature at all. They may never once read Ulysses for a class, much less read it carefully for two different classes ten years apart.

Maybe they'll get a job, but will they get an education?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


What am I doing here?

I know pretty well what I'm not doing here: grading papers, doing research, planning classes, and attending committee meetings, all important things. So one of the things I'm doing here is avoiding other things I ought to be doing.

But I'm not the only one. I've been looking at a bunch of academic blogs, trying to discern the parameters of the beast, and while many are informative, insightful, or entertaining, many others could be summed up thus: "Students are stupid! Administrators are morons! I, on the other hand, am pretty darn clever!" While this type of rant may have its place, this isn't it.

But what am I doing here? Thinking out loud? Writing things down so I don't forget them? Preserving my brilliant thoughts for posterity? As far as I'm concerned, posterity can take a hike. Posterity cares about dead people, so my advice is: when posterity comes knocking at the door, take a flying leap out the nearest window.

I like the way one of my students described what I'm doing here: "Modeling the life of the thoughtful writer." Sounds nice, but it's not something I can say out loud in the kind of conversation that comes up in the faculty lounge:

"You have a blog? Whatever for?"

"I'm modeling the life of the thoughtful writer."

My interlocutor would spit Diet Coke out her nose.

So I guess I don't really know what I'm doing here, but I know I'm enjoying it, and that's got to count for something.

Now where are those papers?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

A poisonous gift?

Opening lines of Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear by Javier Marias:

One should never tell anyone anything or give information or pass on stories or make people remember beings who have never existed or trodden the earth or traversed the world, or who, having done so, are now almost safe in uncertain, one-eyed oblivion. Telling is almost always done as a gift, even when the story contains and injects some poison, it is also a bond, a granting of trust, and rare is the trust or confidence that is not sooner or later betrayed, rare is the close bond that does not grow twisted or knotted and, in the end, become so tangled that a razor or knife is needed to cut it.

As opening lines go, it's hardly so inviting as "You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "What I am about to tell you" or Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board or even Call me Ishmael. I wouldn't want to memorize or recite or even diagram Marias's lines, but there's something mesmerizing about the way they tumble obsessively down the page, issuing an oddly compelling warning: "Tread carefully; here be dragons." Will a suit of armor and a vial of antivenin be enough?

Monday, February 06, 2006


“No one ever gets killed by a whale in Iowa.”

I pronounced the words confidently to the class, but then I began to wonder. While one is certainly less likely to be killed by a whale in Iowa than on a whaling ship at sea, it is not impossible to imagine Iowa-based death-by-whale scenarios, perhaps involving a family visit to Sea World Des Moines that turns tragic as Mom calls out, “Now Timmy, don’t tease the wha--”

But that’s just silly. For one thing, I’m not sure Des Moines even has a Sea World. But surely there must be lots of ways one could get killed by a whale in Iowa, if I just put my mind to it. Or better yet, let’s put a lot of minds to it. Suggestions?

Applause from the cheap seats

Snow!! It's not quite a blizzard, but it'll do. The young men have a two-hour school delay but I'm in the office bright and early ready to face any challenge that may come, despite an eclectically busy weekend that included 10 hours in the car and three hours over a pile of receipts associated with income taxes. Am I the only person on the planet who sorted receipts last night while others were watching the Superbowl?

On Friday I saw the Mikado in my shower curtain--or wait, I wasn't wearing my shower curtain; the Mikado was, or at least he was wearing regal robes of the same fabric as my shower curtain. He was a charming Mikado with a terrific voice, but it was Poohbah who had the audience eating out of his very expressive hands. With his talent for facial contortion and physical humor--well, picture Jim Carrey playing Poohbah.

Of course my eyes were on my daughter, who was the star in my book even if she wasn't listed that way in the program. With her face painted and her curly hair tucked under that big black bun of a wig, she looked like a whole different person, a person I'd love to claim as my daughter but who is becoming not so much my person as her own. I suppose this is one of the reasons we sent her away to college: so she could step off my stage and find her own. At this point I'm happy to applaud from the cheap seats.

Now we've left the land of Gilbert and Sullivan and returned to the land of taxes, classes, and snow. It's time to put my nose to the grindstone...but in my heart, the applause goes on.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Having the drains seed to

This is my pin.

I wear it on my lapel once or twice a week, sometimes more.

People notice it and wonder: is it some sort of patriotic statement or an indication of merit, like a Phi Beta Kappa pin?

I don't have a Phi Beta Kappa pin, but neither do the Phi Beta Kappans of my acquaintance have a National Drainage Congress pin.

That's what my lapel pin says: Delegate, National Drainage Congress, New Orleans, April 10-13, 1912.

I was not a delegate to the National Drainage Congress in New Orleans in 1912, nor to any other drainage congress since that time. I do not intend to attend a drainage congress of any sort at any time in the near or distant future. I just wear the pin.

I bought the pin nearly 30 years ago at a flea market in Florida for one dollar.

People ask me what it is worth today. I do not know the answer.

I have lost the pin many times, but it always comes back to me.

It is my pin.

P.S. "Having the drains seed to" is a quotation from a work of literature. Anyone know the source?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A thorny issue

I had to tell a class today that sometimes a cactus is just a cactus, that a scarred saguaro standing with arms outstretched is not necessarily Christ, even if it appears in a poem. We're dealing here with the devotional approach to poetry, which treats the poem as a tool for personal improvement. I am impressed by my students' ability to find in poems messages intended to warm their hearts or inspire their actions, but when I urge them to move beyond What the Poem Means to Me and think about How the Poem Means, I encounter resistance. Alliteration just isn't very inspiring, is it? And noticing the number of stresses or syllables or beats per line requires counting. Counting is for children. We are adults, and if we want to see Jesus in the arms of a cactus, then that's what we'll do. There's no arguing with What the Poem Means to Me.

But sometimes, I assert, a cactus is just a cactus--a Saguaro cactus doubly so.

Fresh as a daisy

Today in American Lit I showed a brief clip from the wretched 1974 film version of "Daisy Miller" starring Cybill Shepherd, who fulfills no one's ideal image of Daisy. So I asked the class: whom would you cast? "Paris Hilton" said one, and another suggested Angelina Jolie. Daisy Miller with tattoos? Come on, we need someone who can convincingly portray an ambiguous innocence tinged with recklessness, and Angelina ain't it. A student nominated Reese Witherspoon. "Too perky," said one. "Too old," said another, but at least she can act! Finally someone suggested Scarlett Johansson. She could be Daisy...but she'd better start filming soon because, as everyone knows, Daisies lose their freshness fairly quickly.