Monday, December 31, 2007

Wild party...not

We arrived home last night to find a wild party raging all over the house, with drunken youths swinging from the light fixtures and a live band disturbing the neighbor's livestock. Okay, I lied. We got home to find a very quiet house, with both of the young people sitting on the sofa and reading books. That's the perfect end to an excellent (working) vacation.

And now suddenly it's the final day of 2007, and how will we celebrate? What will make the perfect end for an excellent year? We'll go for a walk, eat some sauerkraut, and play some board games later on. Not all that exciting, is it? I'm reminded that a year ago we celebrated New Year's Eve by watching paint dry (read it here). Even Monopoly has to be more fun than that!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Meeting the OMDB Candidate

No one wants to meet an OMDB candidate, but every pool of candidates includes at least one of them--and sometimes more.

The OMDB candidate inspires Search Committee members to proclaim, "We'll hire Candidate X Over My Dead Body." Sometimes Candidate X becomes Candidate OMDB within nanoseconds of the start of the interview, but the rules of the game clearly state that the interview must continue to the bitter end even after the Search Committee has relegated Candidate X to the OMDB file.

What causes an otherwise hire-worthy candidate to assume OMDB status? Here are some sure giveaways (although circumstances have been changed to protect the guilty):

1. Candidate OMDB expresses a fervent desire to teach her dissertation texts and only her dissertation texts in every class from now until the end of time.

2. Candidate OMDB believes that American literature begins with Washington Irving and, when pressed to consider earlier authors, cannot envision ever teaching a text dating from before 1800.

3. Candidate OMDB oozes smug self-satisfaction while saying, "I don't know if you know anything about American literature, but..."

4. Candidate OMDB expresses a fond desire to teach just about every course in the curriculum, most especially those taught by Search Committee members, and then coyly suggests that his administrative experience would make him a prime choice for department chair.

5. Candidate OMDB name-drops shamelessly: "Maybe it's obvious that I studied with [Big Name Scholar]...."

6. Candidate OMDB transform the interview into a personal monologue, causing Search Committee members to lean back and take mental refuge in their Happy Place, so that when he finally stops chattering long enough for anyone else to get a word in edgewise, no one is alert enough to notice.

We have one more day of interviewing and we are very pleased with the quality of our candidates so far, with a very few exceptions. We've already encountered more than enough OMDB candidates for this search, so I'm hopeful that we've filled our quota and tomorrow's candidates will all be stellar. Then we'll have another kind of problem: why can't we hire all of them? That's when the provost steps in to say "Over My Dead Body."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

It's better than walking on hot coals

One day down, two to go--but let's not get too excited. We had only five interviews scheduled today and one had to be rescheduled because the candidate had two flat tires on the way to Chicago, so we're doing nine tomorrow and eight on Saturday, one after another all day long in the big interview room with the horrid carpet.

Where do hotels find all this horrid carpet? Do they all patronize the same Horrid Carpet Warehouse, or do their design teams offer Affirmative Action for the Aesthetically Impaired? One hallway in our hotel features puke green walls and checkerboard carpet with interlocking lines and angles that make my eyes hurt.

And how did all this ugliness ooze into the prettiest part of the prettiest big city in the midwest? I'm not a city person, but I can't walk a block up Michigan Avenue without being awed by the wealth of architectural variety and detail, the Gilded Age buildings oozing with sheer, brazen, unashamed hope. I sense the presence of Carl Sandburg swooping among the towering stone towers or stomping along the crowded sidewalks. Sherwood Anderson looked at the Chicago River and saw mud, but it was the kind of mud that could support the (self)creation of an artist. Harriet Monroe made poetry happen here. In the public library just up the street stands a bronze bust of Gwendolyn Brooks looking like a straight-talking, no-nonsense goddess of poetry. City of big shoulders indeed.

But none of those authors had to live with this horrid hotel carpet. Sherwood Anderson stayed in a cold, bare room in a cheap rooming house while he wrote Winesburg, Ohio; if, instead of bleak, bare, drafty walls and floors, he'd been surrounded by horrid hotel carpet, his muse would have jumped in the river. How many potential works of Great Literature were stillborn because the muse couldn't coexist with obnoxious upholstery?

Good thing I'm not here to create Great Literature. Horrid hotel carpet is appropriate for the big bad interview room because no one expects to be comfortable in there anyway: the MLA interview room is a black hole of angst right now, full of people so desperate for a tenure-track teaching job that they wouldn't notice if the floor were coated with hot coals.

As for those of us who already have jobs, the horrid carpet is the least of our concerns. We want to find someone who knows a little something and knows how to teach it to our students, someone who can teach a 4/4 load plus serve on committees and still do some research and publishing, someone we wouldn't mind running into in the hall every day. If putting up with horrid hotel carpet is the price we have to pay to find that person, then it's a price worth paying.

So I'm willing to put up with the ugly carpet. Just don't ask me to write any poetry about it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Fit for a king

The bed in our hotel room has nine pillows on it. Nine! It's a king-size bed, but until nine-headed kings become more plentiful, nine seems a bit excessive.

Who sleeps on nine pillows? And if we're not planning to sleep on them, what do we do with them? The closet is already crowded with clothes, a safe, and, of course, extra pillows. (In case we need more!)

Some of the excess pillows can sit on the sofa, which is shoved in a corner of the room so dim that if I tried to read over there, my eyeballs would jump right out of my head and out the window and fall splat to the street 24 stories below. I would gladly trade any six of our pillows for just one 100-watt lightbulb, but that would violate one of the unspoken rules of hotel management: "Keep the Customer in the Dark." The less we see, the less we know and the happier we are--or at least that's the theory.

This works with valet parking as well: a charming young man in a dark overcoat whisked our car out of sight and hid it in the bowels of the parking garage, knowing that the absence of car will translate into an absence of awareness of the parking charges adding up day by day. It would be distracting, for instance, if we had to face the unpleasant fact that none of the motels where we stayed on our honeymoon charged as much for a room as this hotel charges daily for a parking space.

Now here's a thought: let's put that idle space to good use and solve our pillow problem at the same time. I say we take the excess pillows down to the parking garage and ask the valet to stash them in the car. He could even take them for a test-drive! With the excess pillow problem solved, I'll be able to relax and enjoy a snooze fit for a king.

Caution: road hazards ahead

So here we are in Chicago getting ready to interview a zillion job applicants at the MLA convention--and let me just say that the excitement level on the road trip was a bit uneven. That long stretch of I-65 from Indianapolis to Gary is so boring you could drive it in your sleep, while the final 30 miles into Chicago are packed with back-to-back (and bumper-to-bumper) thrills. If there were a way to spread out all that excitement over the entire trip, it would be a more pleasant drive all around.

Now I have one or two little logistical matters to adjust before I'm ready to start the interviewing assembly line, but my brain is stuck in thrill-ride mode. Somehow I need to connect with my inner Indiana. Is there a Hoosier in the house?

Sunday, December 23, 2007


Yesterday we celebrated the birthday of the resident woodsman, pyromaniac, bread-baker, gardener, teacher, and theologian (and how we squeezed all those clumsy characters into this little house is a mystery to me), and I reminded him that in two years I'll be married to a 50-year-old man.

"Really?" he said. "Anyone I know?"

Friday, December 21, 2007


It's not every day that one sees a spine dangling from a tree; nevertheless, that's the sight I found myself contemplating during my morning walk. It wasn't a complete spine, just about a dozen linked bones hanging from a notch in a branch about ten feet above the ground. The question, of course, is where did it come from and how did it get there? (That's two questions, I realize, but you try to think coherently while contemplating a treed spine.)

Now the spine in question was in a tree at the edge of woods frequented by hunters, and since deer season has just ended, it would not surprise me to find that this section of spine originated in a deer. The other options are less appealing: the bones are too big to have come from anything smaller than a deer, and the other large mammals in these woods are (1) people and (2) bears. I haven't heard of any bear sightings recently and if that's a piece of person up there, I don't want to know about it.

One part of the puzzle was solved when I stumbled upon the remains of a deer about 20 feet uphill from the treed spine. The head was entirely missing and the rest of the carcass had been pretty well picked over, so I assume some hunter killed the deer, took the head for a trophy, and left the rest. But how did the spine get up a tree 20 feet away? Deer are not known for their posthumous tree-climbing ability, but I suppose a hunter could have hung the spine in the tree. But why? Just to be cute? What else could hang it up there? A carrion bird of some sort?

I'm afraid it's going to have to remain a mystery because Your Intrepid Explorer is, frankly, less than enthusiastic about investigating the matter any further. I'd rather contemplate the mystery of Christmas cookies--warm and crunchy and utterly spineless.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Nutty syntax

The peppery aroma of ground cardamon fills the kitchen but while the dough rises I'm puzzling over the syntax of a recipe calling for "1 cup roasted chopped almonds." It's clear that I am expected to perform three actions:

1. measure
2. roast
3. chop

But in which order? Measure then roast then chop, or roast then chop then measure, or chop first and then roast and measure at the end? What if the recipe called for one of the following instead:

1 cup almonds, roasted and chopped
1 cup roasted almonds, chopped
1 cup chopped almonds, roasted
1 cup chopped roasted almonds

And does any of this really make any difference?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Computer limbo?

What do computers do when nobody is looking?

The question arose this morning while I was sitting in the library computer lab surrounded by bright, shiny computers all booted up and ready to work, but with no one around to use them--except me. I have a few small matters to attend to on campus this morning but I had to flee my office because the elevator installation project has begun and the whole building is suffused with some sort of chemical odor that made my head throb almost instantly.

So I went to the library, where the computers seemed to jump for joy with eagerness to serve as, and I wondered: do they feel lonely when no one uses them? At the end of the day when the lights are turned off and the students and staff members go home, do the computers celebrate? Do they miss us when we're gone or do they take a few nips from their secret stash of bites and belly up to the bar to gorge on ones and zeroes? Or do they just relax and take a snooze?

Silly questions, I know, but I spend way more time with my computer than I spend with any human being or pet, so I'm tempted to personify my computer, to think of it as a helper and friend rather than a cold-hearted piece of machinery. I wish them well, all the computers of the world, and I hope that during this blessed season even the poor neglected computers will have a chance to let their hair down and celebrate a little--and if they want to have a little after-horus limbo party under the desks in the library, that's fine, as long as they're ready to serve me when I need them.

Monday, December 17, 2007

An imperfect Christmas

I've just posted final grades so now I can start thinking about Christmas--a little late. I have not written a card, mailed a package, baked a cookie, or put up the tree. This is bad. If I do nothing but prepare for Christmas 24/7 until the 25th, I still won't quite get everything done. So I've decided not to try.

Oh, I'll get a few things done: I'll write some notes and send some gifts and put up a tree (especially now that the Texas kid is home to help and the Kentucky kid is coming Wednesday), but I refuse to beat myself up for once again failing to produce the perfect Christmas that exists within my imagination. We'll settle for an imperfect Christmas, and if the young'uns complain, I'll just gather them at my knee and remind them of what happened on the first Christmas after the old guy and I got hitched:

It wasn't really our first Christmas. We got married (25 years ago tomorrow!) a week before Christmas, so we spent our first Christmas on our honeymoon. A year later, we were living in a horrible tiny upstairs apartment under a roof with a slope so steep we had to bend over to get out of bed. We were both in school and therefore had no money except the pittance we brought in from part-time jobs, including my holiday fill-in work as a typesetter at a small-town newspaper.

Now the publisher of this newspaper was an old-fashioned skinflint, and he saw no need to switch over to newfangled computerized typesetting equipment as long as the ancient punch-tape machines were still running. I spent long days sitting in front of those machines, surrounded by their incessant clatter and vibration, typing letters and codes on the stiff and sticky keyboard, which translated my typing into perforations on a long skinny sheet of tickertape: punch the tape with one machine, carefully remove the tape without tearing it, and feed the tape into the other machine, which translated the ticker-tape into long columns of justified text.

The room was big and poorly lit, with a cold concrete floor, and I sat with my back to the door so that every time the door opened, I felt a cold draft on my back. I went home every day stiff, sore, and frustrated, because often the tape broke or the machines messed up, and the only solution was to totally re-type whatever got wrecked. I had been in love with journalism for as long as I could remember, but my idea of a great jouralistic job was more like the one Rosalind Russell filled in His Girl Friday: exciting work that could make a difference in the world (and it wouldn't hurt to have Cary Grant as a boss!). Instead, I worked for a crusty old skinflint and shivered in front of a piece of noisy, cranky equipment and typed (and re-typed) articles about the impending increase in water rates and the village Christmas parade. (My favorite sentence: "The winning float will not be chosen.")

So I was inclined to feel a bit sorry for myself that Christmas--and to make it worse, we had no tree, and even if we'd had the money for a tree, we had exactly two Christmas ornaments, both wedding gifts. So it didn't look or feel much like Christmas.

Until one day my husband brought home a Christmas tree--a sad, scrawny, bare tree, the last one in the lot, which was why it cost him only $10. With only two ornaments, though, it looked pretty meager. Where would we get more?

The next day I came home from work with a grocery bag full of discarded rolls of used yellow ticker-tape, and we spent the evening twisting it into paper snowflakes and angels and stars and garlands. In the end it was the oddest Christmas tree I'd ever seen, festooned with yellow perforated paper that barely covered the bare spots, but it looked festive, so we dimmed the lights and lit the candles and sat in front of the tree sipping eggnog, and nothing could have looked lovelier.

Now we have an artificial tree and so many boxes of ornaments that we won't use half of them, and it will look far more sparkly and colorful than our yellow ticker-tape tree, but even then, our Christmas won't be perfect. It's never perfect--but it'll be festive, and that's enough.

Eggnog, anyone?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Finally (almost) finished

One more paper! That's all I need to read to be entirely done with grading. Unfortunately, the paper isn't here. It should have been here earlier this week, but I granted a rare deadline extension so I don't have it.

I ought to have an immense feeling of accomplishment right now, but until I grade that final paper, my semester feels incomplete. Yesterday I read all my freshman research essays one after another all day long, which felt like soaking in a vast tepid sea of mediocrity and then emerging, pink and wrinkled and slightly waterlogged, onto solid ground. The capstone papers were much more pleasant, and the postcolonial exams were either wonderful or awful, with lots of A's and F's and not much in between. The exams made it pretty easy to discern who had done the reading and who had not.

Now that (most of) the grading is done and (most of) the grades are posted, what I really want to do is go out Christmas shopping and then go home and bake--but no, I've got to wait for that final final paper to come in. Not that I'm bitter. And even if I were, whose fault is it that the paper isn't here? After all, I'm the one who granted the extension. So I'll just sit here kicking myself until the final final final paper comes in--finally.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Recommended reading

"The impulse to keep a diary is to actual diaries as the impulse to go on a diet is to actual slimness," writes Louis Menand in the Dec. 10 New Yorker. "Most of us do wish that we were slim diarists," he adds, and then he goes on to explore why we aren't. Menand's article meanders through various theories of diary-keeping and the work of various diarists both famous and infamous. Altogether a delightful article.

The Best American Short Stories 2007 (edited by Stephen King) is more uneven but equally rewarding. Many of the stories deal with families struggling to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: child murder, parental discord, schoolyard angst. My favorite among these is Joseph Epstein's "My Brother Eli," which explores the aura of the artist and its effect on those closest to him. The story is told from the perspective of a working stiff trying to understand his famous brother, a successful novelist too sensitive and special to feel at home in his working-class Chicago neighborhood. The narrator's no-nonsense observations reveal the ties that bind as well as the boundaries that divide the two brothers:

Eli was wearing a tux with an especially wide sateen collar, a shirt with lots of big ruffles and a red cummerbund and an enormous red bow tie, of the kind which, if, when you shook his hand, it flashed 'Kiss Me,' you wouldn't be in the least surprised. He looked like a Jewish trombone player in the old Xavier Cougat orchestra. His wispy, now completely white hair was combed over and patted down to cover his baldness. He got the family talent, wherever in the hell it came from originally, but I got our old man's thick hair, which maybe was the better deal.

The narrator's clear eye, compassion, and absence of rancor result in a story that reveals a believable world.

Another type of world is revealed in Roy Kesey's "Wait," in which a group of people gathered in an airport terminal in an unnamed country wait out an oppressive fog--a mundane situation to be sure, but Kesey's surreal take sparkles:

The fog scurls. Toilets clog and garbage cans overflow. Darkness drops, the generators growl and fail, and the airline personnel regret that no additional blankets are available. The subgroups gather into themselves. The girl from Ghana dreams the roar of a thousand fontomfrom drums while across the lounge the accountant fights through a nightmare involving misconstrued negative amortization schedules.

The wait goes on and the characters develop novel ways to pass the time, each activity more unexpected than the last--but like all waits, this too must pass, as much as the reader would like it to continue indefinitely.

And who is that reader? In the introduction to the volume, Stephen King proclaims the short story alive but not entirely well, suffering from marginalization to the bottom shelves of bookstore magazine racks dominated by photos of celebrities and sports stars. The result of this marginalization, he says, is that the audience for short stories consists of "other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines...not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn't real reading, the kind where you just can't wait to find out what happens next...It's more like copping-a-feel reading. There's something ucky about it."

In the Contributors' Notes, Richard Russo offers another reason for reading:

You'd think that the life of the mind, especially the liberal arts, would make us better, if not happier, people, but too often it doesn't. The study of literature had had what I believed to be a salutary effect on my own character, making me less self-conscious and vain, more empathic and imaginative, maybe even kinder. Perhaps it's an oversimplification, but as I've gotten older I've come to wonder if maybe this is what reading all those great books is really for--to engender and promote charity. Sure, literature entertains and instructs, but to what end, if not compassion? How is it, then, that so many smart people use the study of literature to erect sturdy barriers between themselves and their lives, to become strangers to their truest desires, their best selves?

An excellent question well worth consideration by those of us devoted to the life of the mind. For those stuck behind those "sturdy barriers," this collection is an antidote, for it is suffused with that sense of compassion and charity that Russo considers the purpose of reading.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Rogue recording on the loose!

I'm pleased to report that I am no longer on hold--but that doesn't mean I won't be again soon. Early this morning I spent about 20 minutes listening to the same cheesy melody over and over again, but the music was less frustrating than the ridiculous conversation that had preceded it, which sounded like an echo chamber:

"Why would we have called you at 1:30 a.m.?"

"That's what I want to know. Why would you?"

"Can you identify the person who called?"

"It was a recorded female voice, and it wasn't interested in answering my questions."

"No one from this office could have called you at that hour. This office isn't even open at 1:30 a.m."

"And yet the recording claimed to be speaking for your company. Why would your office try to contact me to provide a new Personal Identification Number at a time when hard-working people are sound asleep?"

"You must have requested a new PIN."

"At 1:30 a.m.? In my dreams?"

"Is anyone else associated with your account?"

"Only my husband, who was snoring right next to me at the time. We have no need for a new PIN, particularly at that hour of the morning."

"Then why would we call you at 1:30 a.m.?"

"That's what I want to know!"

After going around in circles like that for quite some time, being put on hold was a nice break, but after 20 minutes of having my eardrums assaulted by the same tinny, chipper tune over and over and over again, I had to hang up. I gave my morning exam and came back prepared to jump back into the on-hold queue, but now the line keeps being busy. Maybe I'm not the only one who wants to complain about receiving a phone call from a recorded voice at 1:30 a.m. Civilization has come to a pretty pass when rogue recordings can maliciously rouse law-abiding citizens from a sound sleep to offer unwanted information about their Personal Identification Numbers. Is this the end of the world as we know it?

Monday, December 10, 2007

Utterly workless

When a local farmer asked me what I'll be doing during Christmas break, I said, "I'll be teaching a January class three hours a day for three weeks, so I'll be working pretty hard."

"Three hours a day?" she said. "That's not work!"

And then I did some hasty back-pedaling: "Yes, but it's a writing-intensive class so I'll have to read drafts every day and prepare for the next class--"

But she just laughed and shook her head. Reading drafts! Teaching three hours a day! That's not work!

Well, okay, it's not plowing fields or chopping wood or changing diapers, but it sure feels like work. Three hours of teaching is not as painful as three hours of weed-pulling, but it's strenuous and challenging and exhausting to the mind if not to the muscles. It's just a different kind of work. Isn't it?

To a farmer, nothing I do looks very much like work: I sit, I read, I write, I stand in front of classes and say brilliant things, I go to meetings, I fill out forms. Mostly I think a lot. Thinking can look an awful lot like loafing, especially to people who work with their hands. There's not much point in trying to explain to a woman with calloused fingers that the time I spend staring out the window is just as valuable as the time she spends canning beets. How can my staring possibly feed a family? Work should look like work, and thinking doesn't.

So next time someone asks me what I'm doing over break, I'll have a better answer. "Nothing at all," I'll say. "I'll just spend three hours a day having fun with students--and being paid very nicely for the pleasure."

Keeping my head above water

My computer crashed. The phone lines were full of static. Rain kept falling and falling. The creek rose. The snow melted. More rain fell. More snow melted. The creek rose some more.

All this may or may not explain why I've been pretty much out of touch for the past few days.

When we left for church yesterday morning, the fields were still covered with snow. When we got home, the snow was gone and the creek had widened from bank to bank, but it was only about six inches deep under our bridge. Around midafternoon I glanced the window and saw water. "That's odd," I thought; "The creek is not normally visible from this window." So I walked down to take a look and found that the creek had risen to within a few feet of the bridge. That's at least a seven-foot rise in water level in about three hours--and it was still raining.

Fortunately, the river was low enough to allow the creek to drain quickly, and by this morning the water level had fallen by a foot or two. No damage so far, although I did see a few large chunks of tree rushing downstream. After the water recedes, I'm sure we'll find some major limbs trapped against the bridge piers--but at least the bridge itself isn't under water. More rain is in the forecast for another few days, so who knows what could happen?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

And all the professors are above average

I had my final meeting with my least favorite class today and apparently they weren't any more thrilled to be there than I was because by the time class started, only two students had bothered to show up. Two more wandered in over the next 15 minutes, but by then I had already covered everything I needed to cover and I was doing individual conferences to deal with specific problems on research papers, which are due next week. Two students in that class never bothered to pick up their drafts with my comments--drafts that have been available for pick-up since last Friday. I don't know how those students will do on the final paper, but I'm not holding my breath for a positive outcome. I'm much more sanguine about the students I met with today. I've never had a class fall to pieces so badly as this one, so I really don't want to see the evaluations. Let's just put it all behind us and move on.

This afternoon, on the other hand, I'll meet for the last time with my wonderful capstone class, which will be much more pleasant. In the meantime, I'm reading and commenting on a few drafts from my postcolonial students, many of whom have really made tremendous progress this semester. While I'm inclined toward melancholy because of the awfulness of my awful class, I have to remind myself that I've had one outstanding class and one really good class this semester, which is batting better than .500. Sometimes that's the best we can hope for.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

An essential equation

I have discovered the equation for departmental bliss:

(S + C) * W = B

S = snow outside, big fluffy white flakes falling gently to the ground to beautify everything they touch.

C = chili inside, a big crock pot bubbling in the department office all morning long, guarded by the departmental secretary, who made the chili and transported it to the office

W = wonderful colleagues who gladly brought in cheese, bread, chips, pop, bowls, and everything else needed for a casual chili lunch

And B, of course, is Bliss, the departmental kind.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cratchit comes to college

These are the times that try men's soles (and women's too), and not just their soles but their ankles and toes, which rest most of the day on a cold floor in a drafty office. How to stay warm when the indoor temperature hovers in the low 60s? I keep in my office a big fuzzy poncho to toss over whatever I happen to be wearing (whether it matches or not), so that this morning you could have seen me wearing a brown and orange poncho over a purple sweater ensemble.

But the real key to comfort starts with the feet. If my feet are cold, I feel the chill clear up to my earlobes, which explains why I've developed an almost religious devotion to warm socks. The only thing that would ever tempt me to keep sheep in flocks: an endless supply of wool socks. I have 'em in black and brown and green and red, but the black ones have reached the end of their useful life, so today I took time off in the middle of the day to go and buy more, and since none of the local stores carry wool socks, I had to drive over the river and through the woods to get them, which stretched my lunch break into midafternoon. (If the Powers That Be want to object to my going sock-shopping during regular office hours, then maybe the Powers That Be should spend some time in my 61-degree office and then explain how I'm supposed to grade papers when all of my energy is devoted to staying warm.)

Now that my feet are toasty warm, I notice that my hands are a bit chilly. I can't type with gloves on and mittens are out of the question--but how about some of those Bob Cratchit gloves with the fingers cut out? Or here's a thought: what about the whole Cratchit outfit, with top hat and scarf and wool waistcoat and fingerless gloves? It might not look terribly professional, but if all of us who work in this building were to dress up for one day in the whole Cratchit outfit, we might inspire the resident Scrooge to put a few more coals on the fire and warm this place up!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Overheard in the halls of academe

"I would never wish for a building to explode actually, but some days when I've been grading papers--!!"

Winter in the air

Snow today! Tiny, hard snowflakes were coming down when I left the house this morning, not enough to stick to the ground but enough to make it feel like winter. The temperature in my office this morning is 63.7 degrees, which is too darn cold, and the department office is full of various types of rich, sweet chocolatey goodies, a very good reason to stay away. But I have a meeting at 5 (yuck) so I have to stick around. I may flee for a while and do some Christmas shopping just to get away from chocolate and cold--or, better yet, I'll spend some time at the rec center. It's got to be warmer there than here and it's impossible to eat chocolate while working out.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The could have been camels

So I'm driving to town along the river this morning, way up in the sticks where the land along the river features not fast-food restaurants but campgrounds and mobile homes and hunting cabins, when I saw camels, three of 'em, kneeling in a row in a low, foggy clearing. They looked like refugees from some Living Nativity scene; I looked around for magi bearing gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Maybe they got lost following a bright star in the fog and stopped at this campground to wait for morning.

Or maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me. I looked again, and instead of camels I saw three neat stacks of firewood, one two three, all in a row, each with a tall post at the front and a humped-up pile toward the back. Of course they weren't camels! The river's name allegedly comes from a Native American word referring to elk, but elk haven't lived here for centuries and camels never. A town up the river suffers from a plague of elephant statues, but I've never seen or heard of a camel, living or dead, dwelling along this river.

But early this morning, still bleary-eyed from sleep and pumping the caffeine into my system, I could have sworn I saw three camels sitting in the campground along the river and patiently awaiting the next stage in their journey.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Supporting what I support

Dear freshperson,

I have read the draft of your so-called persuasive essay and I am a bit befuddled. You show evidence of having done at least a modicum of research on your topic, and your thesis suggests that you will take some sort of stand on the topic although it fails to specify the exact nature of that stand. But after reading six pages of "on the one hand this and on the other hand that," I was really hoping that at some point you would raise one of those hands and provide an answer. Instead, you give me this: "Most of the time people will support the study they personally support."

I am willing to admit the truth of this statement. It is undeniable that people support what people support. However, this assignment asked a specific person (you) to support a specific thesis (proposing change) to persuade specific readers (in a position to act on your proposal) to take some specific action (change the world!). Your paper fails in every respect.

Here is my question: if, after carefully researching your topic, you are unable to come to any conclusion about the matter, why write about it? And if you can't be bothered to actually say something about the topic, why should anyone read your paper? If all you can do is throw your hands in the air and say "People will do what people will do," then what's the point of writing at all?

True, people support what people support--and after reading your draft, I support the idea that you need to take a stand on the topic. But students will do what students will do and there's not much I can say to change that.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A real community of scholars

From the depths to the heights: yesterday morning I taught my disastrous freshman class, and then last night my senior capstone students gave their final presentations. The presentations were lively and polished, the audience was large and responsive, the food was fine (despite a bit too much garlic in the hummus), and as far as I know everyone survived the after-presentation party (which involved, I've been told, two pitchers of margaritas).

One of my primary goals this semester was to encourage my eight capstone students to form a supportive community of scholars, and it worked: they read each others' papers with care and made insightful suggestions; they met outside of class on their own time to struggle through complex ideas in their reading and writing; and they even scheduled an extra practice session for the presentations over Thanksgiving break--all I had to do was show up on time to unlock the door, and I left them alone in an empty building to practice presentations and offer suggestions for improvement.

Last night, the results were clear. The papers were amazing, and even the weaker ones were delivered so well that the weaknesses were not readily apparent. That's the way a class should work: everyone struggling together to create something worth sharing, something that advances the scholarly conversation on a subject. I don't know why this is so much easier to accomplish in some classes but virtually impossible in others, but I know that when a class performs the way my seniors performed this semester, it makes all the struggles worthwhile.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Diary of a disastrous class

I have to face up to the fact that I've utterly failed to reach my freshman composition class this semester. I've suspected for a while that I was getting nowhere with them, and the most recent drafts confirm that fact.

The papers are bad in a way I expect early in the semester, but far too bad for late November. The students are bad at skills we've worked on repeatedly, skills they should have mastered no later than midterm. Nothing I say or do seems to make a difference.

The class is quiet. Not just reluctant to respond to questions or enter into discussion, but completely silent, unwilling to respond regardless of how I phrase the question. If I stood in front of the class and offered to toss a Krugerrand to the first person who said a word--any word--I'd still be standing up there holding the gold next Wednesday.

When I open my mouth in front of that class, a curtain seems to fall between me and the students. They close their mouths (and some close their eyes) and act as if they're playing a private game of Statues. I want to reach out and sweep away the curtain, but nothing works. I can't make them laugh and I can't make them listen and I can't make them angry enough to want to respond.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning I lie in bed and ignore the alarm clock, hoping I'll suddenly fall sick enough to cancel my 8:00 class but not so sick as to ruin the whole day. It never happens. Do I hate that class? "Hate" is a strong word; a more accurate one might be "dread." Some of the students I quite enjoy outside of class, and we've made some significant progress working one-on-one, but as a group, they make me want to run screaming from the room and hide in a dark closet gibbering like an idiot.

Today I managed to get a smile out of a few students by announcing that I'm cancelling the final exam so we can spend the final three class sessions focusing on improving their research papers. I'll try to salvage the little time that remains and do my best to help the few students still making an effort to improve, but this class will go down in my permanent record as an F.

Monday, November 26, 2007

That deer-in-the-headlights look

Back to school today! Only a few students missed my 9:00 class, but many wandered in a little late and sat looking like lumps on a log. I know how they feel: I've had a nagging headache all morning that I choose to blame on the weather. The rain started late last night and has not stopped yet, nor does the sky look particularly promising. Cold, wet, gray, icky: this weather makes me want to put my head down on the desk and close my eyes for a long, long time.

Yesterday was better--blue sky, mid-fifties, bracing breeze. I went for a walk away from the woods and I wore my bright red wool coat even though it was warmer than necessary because I wanted to look as un-deerlike as possible. Gun season starts today, but for weeks the hills have been alive with the sound of gunshots, which makes this a good time to work out at the rec center, where the chance of being mistaken for a deer is significantly reduced. Some public schools in the area cancel classes today because who would show up on the first day of deer gun season? Of course, these are the same schools noted for their annual gun raffles, when impressionable students learn that the best way to support education is Gambling for Guns.

So even if it's a lousy day to be an English professor, I'll just stay inside my warm, dry office and be glad I'm not a deer. Come to think of it, some of my students this morning had that familiar deer-in-the-headlights look, as if something really bright and scary were about to slam right into them. Look out! Finals week is on the way!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Only half loopy

Three of us got half-loopy yesterday while the fourth had visions of armadilloes dancing in his head. Okay, it was a singular armadillo, and I doubt that it was dancing. The Texas kid had classes on Wednesday and is still having car trouble, so instead of coming home for Thanksgiving break, he went with his roommate to Oklahoma, where they saw an armadillo and got snowed on while picking cotton, both experiences unlikely to happen in Ohio.

The Kentucky kid is here, though, so the three of us have been doing typical family things like building a fire in the fireplace and playing games of Trivial Pursuit that drag on for days. (I won handily Thursday afternoon, but the kid and the old guy have been playing for second place on and off ever since.) Yesterday afternoon we took a break for a long walk, a four-mile round trip on narrow country roads I've recently come to know and love.

I take two routes up through that area, one that follows the creek through a wooded valley beside a steep hill and another that climbs the hill and follows the ridge up above. I normally walk out a mile and two and then back, but a few weeks ago I realized that the two roads must come together at some point and therefore it should be possible to make a loop and enjoy both hilltop and creekside scenery in the same walk. But where do the roads come together, and how long would it take to walk that loop?

So not long ago I drove the loop just to see whether walking it is feasible. The roads get narrower and twistier and more like corduroy before they come together, but the scenery is absolutely astonishing and the walk would be well worth the effort.

How far is it? 5.9 miles. I've been doing three miles fairly regularly and yesterday we walked four, but it'll take some effort to make a nearly six-mile walk full of steep climbs and drops. I can't do it now, especially with the weather turning quite cold, but it's the kind of goal that can keep me working out at the rec center all winter: one pleasant day next spring I'll walk the whole loop. Yesterday was just a preliminary warm-up, a sort of half-loopy lope. It was good to be together and even better to get back to the house, sit in front of the fire, drink hot cocoa, and defrost after our cold winter's walk.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


This morning my adorable daughter, home for Thanksgiving break, declared today FWUMP day: this is the day when all the lovely golden leaves that have been clinging so tightly to the maple tree out front will all fall FWUMP to the ground.

We've been sitting on the sofa doing schoolwork (music ed for her, student drafts for me)and watching as every once in a while a big wind comes along and denudes a section of the tree. At this rate, the tree will be naked by midafternoon.

Later we'll do some preparation for tomorrow's feast (which will, for the first time, include sweet potato ice cream), but for now I'm thankful to be able to sit and read and chat and watch the lovely golden leaves go FWUMP.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Pursuing parity of effort

"The works that have been addressed in this course seem to connect in one way or another."

This is the brilliant opening line in a draft of what is supposed to be a three- to five-page paper, although the alleged draft is only one paragraph long. The title of the paper is "Title," a singularly inauspicious beginning. The draft's five sentences are models of muddled syntax and wordy constructions (such as "the ability to be able to"). On the plus side, most of the words are spelled correctly.

In my responses to student drafts, I'd like to achieve a sort of parity of effort here: more feedback for students who are clearly doing their best work, less for those who are clearly not trying. Assuming that the student spent no more than three minutes composing this draft, how much time should I devote to responding? Or have I already done too much?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Teaching in the engine room

I walked into class this morning to find the room abuzz with sound--and not from students talking. It sounded like helicopters landing on the roof just above our heads, but I found out later that the heating system is having problems and we'll just have to put up with the noise and vibration until the part arrives.

Meanwhile, my class met in what felt like an airport terminal. The constant vibration made me sick to my stomach, and I can't even get away from it by going downstairs to my office because the whole building seems to be vibrating. By the time my class was over, I felt as if I'd spent the hour having my teeth drilled.

But all is not lost: I immediately went downstairs and requested a different room for Monday's class, and then we'll go on Thanksgiving break so the nasty thing can make all the noise it wants. When will it be fixed? "Soon," say the Powers That Be. Maybe we'll come back after break to a lovely sound of silence. That would be something for which to be thankful!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What do students want?

I know what they don't want: I've been reading big stacks of student evaluations, and students state fairly clearly what they don't want. Homework, for instance. Also exams, especially difficult ones. Also reading assignments, writing assignments, math problems, and science labs. They don't like lectures that seem to be "random," although no one offers a really clear explanation of what that means. A truly random lecture would be a sight to behold: you could use a random-number generator linked to an online dictionary to create the text, and then find a similar method to select visual aides online--but if anyone on this campus is doing that type of performance art, I'm certainly not aware of it.

Students are less clear about what they like--at least in the comments they write on course evaluations. You might think students would applaud easy exams, but I've seen many comments in which students show contempt for a class that is perceived as too easy or "too much like high school." Students do express a desire for "good notes," but they tend to characterize notes as something the professor "gives" ("he gave good notes," they write, or "he needs to give better notes"), as if notes could be distributed like chocolates from a box. I suppose the practice of distributing PowerPoint slides contributes to this perception, but somewhere along the line the student needs to put some effort into acquiring information from the course. (I'm always befuddled by students who ask for copies of my lecture notes. You want this little sticky note with three words on it? Or would you like to see the questions scribbled in the margins of my text?)

Students want to be listened to and they want their questions answered, which is a reasonable expectation, but they also want the professor to spend more time explaining difficult concepts, doing problems on the board, providing one-on-one assistance, commenting on homework problems, supervising small-group projects, and (believe it or not) lecturing. "Just stand up and teach the material!" they write, as if lecturing were the only way to teach. In some cases, the best teaching method is to sit down and shut up, but that doesn't necessarily look like teaching, so that's not really what students want.

What do students want? In some cases they're painfully clear: they want Prof Blimp to lose weight, they want Prof Drudge to buy a new sweater, and they want Prof Sunshine to stop smiling so much. I don't find these kinds of comments terribly useful, and neither, I suspect, does anyone else.

Looking at all these evaluations from all sectors of campus has convinced me that students want mutually exclusive things--that is, when they know what they want. Most of them haven't a clue--which puts us all in the same boat, paddling away in random directions and hoping we eventually discover new worlds.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No papers (knock wood)

I probably shouldn't admit this out loud lest the sky open and drop down upon my head a deluge of student writing, but I have to say it: I have no student papers to read tonight.

In fact, I may be free of papers for the entire weekend. I'm collecting drafts in two different classes Monday and Tuesday, but aside from that, I may--dare I say it--have an entirely paper-free weekend.

I don't know what I might have done to deserve such a boon, but I intend to enjoy every minute of it.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Eye-rolling epidemic

I don't whether to blame the bleak weather or the crunch time in the semester, but my colleagues and I are suffering through an epidemic of eye-rolling. I encounter it most in my composition class, where students are not shy about using body language to express the anguished question, "Why do I have to learn this?" And yesterday one of my departmental colleagues, who was working very hard to help a small group of students to improve their writing skills, actually had a student reject his suggestions with the brilliant question, "Don't you know we're paying your salary?"

I've been trying to think of a good response to that question, but the best I can do is "Of course you're paying my salary. That's why I'm doing my best to help you learn," which is true but not very satisfying. Likewise, "You're paying my salary because I'm the expert, so you ought to appreciate the opportunity to benefit from my expertise." The problem with reasonable statements like these is that they are unlikely to pop into mind when a snotty-nosed pipsqueak who can't form a complete sentence is rolling her eyes and expressing contempt for the value of the education we are trying to provide. The sentences that come more readily to mind, some actually containing the words "snotty-nosed pipsqueak," are unlikely to raise the tenor of the discussion. And so we stand there stumbling over our tongues.

There must be a better way! I welcome suggestions--otherwise, I may have to indulge in some eye-rolling of my own.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Attack of the wall-stompers!

Yesterday at the rec center I noticed the profusion of little pink signs saying "Do not put feet on the wall." From my perch on the elliptical machine I could see at least a dozen of them, and if I'd turned around, I would have immediately fallen on the floor and broken both my ankles, but that's beside the point. The point is that it is impossible to get to that room without passing many copies of the infamous pink sign prohibiting people from stomping all over those nice clean walls, but somehow that's not enough: every little spot of wall must be likewise decorated with a pink sign, suggesting that the campus is crawling with people just looking for an unprotected square inch of wall on which to prop their feet: "Look--they missed a spot! Pink signs abound to the right and left, but I'm sure no one will mind if I put my feet on the wall right here!"

How many times must the Powers That Be scream in garish pink that the walls are the wrong place for feet to be put? Likewise, how many times must they warn against spitting in water fountains, with multiple exclamation points reinforcing the urgency of the message? How many signs would it take to stifle the urges of all those serial wall-stompers and fountain-spitters, not to mention wearers of inappropriate T-shirts or those dastards who dare to wear street shoes in the building?

If 20 signs are not sufficient, will 30 work? How about 130? 1300? Why don't we just paper the walls with prohibitions? Then we wouldn't have to worry about keeping the walls clean because we wouldn't be able to see them.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Just call me Dennis

Today for the second time I became a point of interest on a tour, and I don't recommend the experience. I'm not always prepared to be put on display for the benefit of prospective students, but today I couldn't find a way to avoid it.

I hadn't intended to work out at the rec center this afternoon, but the weather looked pretty iffy and I know I'll be too swamped to work out tomorrow--and besides, I have to meet with a group of prospective students and their parents later this afternoon, so since I have to be on campus anyway, why not get in a little exercise?

So there I was walking to nowhere in a virtually empty facility. Three of us in the cardio room, all women. One of my students was running on a treadmill. (I envy people who can run on treadmills: I can't even walk on them without falling over sideways.) Another student in hot-pink short-shorts pedaled a stationary bike in a desultory manner while chatting on her hot-pink cell phone. Down below on the track a couple who looked like a dad and his teenaged daughter ran smoothly around the oval, side-by-side for the first few laps until the girl pulled out ahead and dad fell farther and farther behind, finally falling into a slow, loping walk, hands at his sides--but he kept going! He didn't give up!

And neither did I, although I've been tempted to eschew the rec center ever since Monday, when I was slogging my way through a strenuous workout, sweat pouring down my face, my baggy sweats streaked with paint--looking, in short, as if I'd been running a marathon straight through Death Valley while being attacked by rabid weasels, when suddenly a student led a tour of prospective students and their parents right through the cardio room and right past my elliptical machine, where she stopped and pointed me out by name as if I were a notable piece of architecture, not failing to mention that I am the chair of the English Department.

"I don't always dress like this," I wanted to tell them, "And I am often capable of articulating sophisticated and complex ideas, but right now all I can really do is breathe and sweat, and I'm not really sure about the breathing part. So you go on and enjoy your tour, okay?"

But I didn't say that. I smiled weakly, nodded, and waited for the tour to move on to something more interesting, like the climbing wall. Why would they want to watch me sweating when they could be looking at a climbing wall?

Today, though, I thought I was safe. With the rec center nearly empty and no one around campus, I thought I could get through my entire routine without suddenly finding myself in the spotlight. And I almost did it, too, but then as I was walking up the steps after my shower, my hair still wet and my face still red, I saw a huge clot of nicely-dressed strangers standing between me and the exit.

A tour. A big one. No way around it if I want to get out of the building--and the tour guide is one of my capstone students. Surely he'll let me slip on past without a fuss, won't he?

He will not. In fact, he will draw attention to me, invite everyone to look at me as if I've just stepped off of Mount Rushmore, and tell them all my name and my title. All I can do is wave and move on--out the door and down the sidewalk, which is blocked by, you guessed it, another clot of well-dressed strangers. Another tour. And the only way through is right past the tour guide, another one of my students. Not again!

If this keeps up, I'll need to invest in a mask and wig to wear to the rec center, or perhaps several to keep the tour guides on their toes. I'll be Dennis Kucinich one day, the Dalai Lama the next, and Katie Couric on the third. If that doesn't work, I could add to my already considerable entourage a biggish oaf whose sole duty is to stand stupidly in doorways so that tour guides and their followers can't slip past. We'll call him Dumble-Door. He'll work for peanuts.

I'm dreaming, of course. I've always known that the chief danger of working out in the campus rec center is that I will at some point humiliate myself in front of my current students, but now I have to worry about prospective students too. One of these days I'll figure out some clever thing to say when I stumble all unprepared into the spotlight, but right today, just call me Dennis.

Friday, November 09, 2007

It's a bird! It's a plane!

Yesterday I awoke at 4 a.m. with nightmares about confronting Plagiarism Girl, and in the course of the day I had two surreal encounters with her, one in which she claimed innocence ("It's just a coincidence that my paper is identical to hers!") and another in which she tried to apologize her way out of trouble ("But I said I was sorry!"). That was enough for me: I cut short my office hours and came home early to go for a long relaxing walk around the countryside. Got a little windburn, but I'll survive. At one point I heard the sound of distant jet engines, but when I looked up, all I saw was a red-tailed hawk circling lazily above the meadow. I was just addled enough to think, "That's odd. A hawk with jet engines."

Students need to stop plagiarizing. It takes too much out of all of us.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Advice to potential plagiarists

First of all, don't do it. Plagiarism is theft, lying, and evidence of academic laziness (if not moral turpitude), and it can be deleterious to your precious gpa.

But you've already heard that and yet you insist on plagiarizing, and you can't understand why you keep getting caught. Plagiarism indicates a devotion to cutting corners, while avoiding detection requires careful attention to details--two mutually exclusive skill sets. But if you think you can slip your plagiarized paper past your canny professors' watchful eyes, here are some hints:

If you must copy a document off the Internet, you really ought to take the time to remove the little url address printed at the top of the page as well as the hyperlinks scattered throughout the paper.

If you must turn in a paper you wrote for another class, think about changing the heading on the first page--you know, the place where you put the name of the class, the name of the professor, and the date of submission. And while you're at it, take a look at the documentation style: if the class is using MLA style and you turn in a paper full of APA citations, the professor will suspect foul play.

Finally, if you must turn in a paper written by another student on the same campus, you ought to take a few moments to find out for which class the paper was written. If you hand me a paper identical to one I received from another student last year, I can guarantee that I'll recognize it. I'm not senile yet: I can still recognize examples I've read before, and I can still detect vast changes in your writing style from one week to the next. It may take me a little time to track down the source, but I'll find it eventually, and you will not enjoy the outcome. Trust me.

And then after you're caught, the question is: how can I ever trust you?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fall color

This is what's left of my creek after the long drought: just a few disconnected puddles and a creekbed full of fall leaves. The meadow behind the trees is where we often see red-tailed hawks.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...turn right to go upstream and left to go home.

This is where I saw the buzzards and pileated woodpeckers last week. The creek is on the right and the trillium hill is on the left. This is the beginning of my favorite walk.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Playing the numbers

We're halfway through spring registration and so I'm seized by suspense daily, repeatedly checking online course listings to see whether certain classes will attract enough students to be offered in the spring. Will that learning community class soar or flop? Will the numbers in the new creative writing courses remain low, or is there a huge flock of sophomores out there just waiting their turn to sign up? I breathe a sigh of relief when I notice that one literature course has moved above the magic number--there's one colleague's schedule I won't have to shuffle again. But I keep going back to check on two or three other courses, and I silently cheer every time the enrollment number rises. Go students! Fill that class!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Happy bird day

This morning while walking along creek banks and ridges, I saw a blue heron (flying), two red-tailed hawks (squawking), a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers (pecking), and four pileated woodpeckers (chattering). I've never seen more than two pileated woodpeckers together before, and at first I couldn't believe my ears: I heard that distinctive chatter coming from first two and then three different places high in the sycamores along the creek, so I looked up, followed the sound, and found them, three on one side of the creek and one on the other. Were they arguing or agreeing? Hard to say, but whatever they were doing, it was a pleasure to make their acquaintance.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Signing my week away

Hypothesis: there is an inverse relationship between the number of students seeking my signature on little pieces of paper during the week and the number of brain cells still functioning by Friday afternoon.

What a week. I have endured budget meetings, pedagogy meetings, and career center meetings. I have met with my advisees, other people's advisees, and my capstone students. I have fielded requests for special treatment from angry seniors, pleading juniors, befuddled sophomores, and whiny colleagues. (I expect to hear from the freshmen next week.)

I have worked out, walked out, and wigged out, and now I'm worn out. But the good news is that the weekend is on the way! I'll take a pile of papers home, but anyone who comes to me looking for a signature is going to be sorely disappointed.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

With great power...

Q: When is a prerequisite not a prerequisite?
A: When I say so.

At least that what I've been told.

Last year while we were revising our program to add a creative writing concentration, one of my courses gained a prerequisite. It was a good move intended to ensure that students taking an upper-level writing course have the preparation necessary for success in the course.

Next semester is the first time the course will be offered with the prerequisite in place, and now comes the deluge. Students didn't know there was a prerequisite, didn't pay attention to any of our publicity on the topic, planned their lives around taking that course, and now they won't be able to graduate unless I waive the prerequisite.

I gained some time by telling them I don't know who has the authority to waive a prerequisite, but then I found out that I am empowered to sign students into the course using whatever criteria I choose.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Now I have to decide whether I ought to waive the prerequisite and, if so, under what circumstances. Admit the students with the best writing portfolios or the best sob stories? I was happier before I knew I had this power: I can't just let the computer decide who can take the class but I have to actually think about it and then inform students of my decision.

Or not. I could Just Say No.

Let in students who may not be equipped to pass the course or keep them out and make it difficult for them to graduate? I'd like to put the whole question off until tomorrow, but I have a feeling solving this problem is a prerequisite for a good night's sleep.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Ex cathedra

Yesterday I made a decision that is bound to please several large groups of people on campus while displeasing one or two people within my department, and this morning I was fretting over the possible fallout, but one of my fellow department chairs reassured me: "Do what you have to do! You're the chair!"

He's right, of course: I'm the chair. But when the complaints start coming in, I need something more substantive to say than "I'm the chair! Get over it!" For one thing, I don't want to sound like an unreasonable parent ("Because I'm the mom, that's why!"), and for another, the decision solves a particularly sticky scheduling problem (therefore allowing a large group of seniors to graduate on time) by shifting one of my courses to an adjunct, therefore freeing me from teaching freshman composition next semester. To an outside observer unfamiliar with the behind-the-scenes struggles that led to this decision, it could look as if I'm just trying to get out of teaching a class everyone in my department teaches. It looks as if I'm abusing the chair's powers for my own benefit, and that's a message I don't want to send, particularly if it's accompanied by "Because I'm the chair and I said so!"

I'll just have to face it: while this decision looks really good from most angles, from one particular angle it looks selfish. But there was no possible solution for this problem that would have made everyone happy, so I guess I'll have to settle for minimizing the number of unhappy people. I can do that. After all, I'm the chair.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The vultures' pit stop

I had some company on my walk yesterday afternoon: a crowd of turkey vultures attracted to a raccoon recently killed on my road. At first I saw two of them huddled over the carcass, but they swooped away as I walked past and then I looked up and saw more perched in trees nearby, a total of nine huge turkey vultures all looking down at me with those big beady eyes as if to assess my future potential as dead meat.

Turkey vultures would make excellent Halloween decorations if only they could be persuaded to stay put, but they are not the most pleasant walking companions. I could feel their beady eyes following my progress, and every once in a while one of them would swoop down and circle as if to speed me on my way. They look majestic while flying but when they sit and stare, they're just creepy.

I comforted myself with the knowledge that turkey vultures are seasonal residents, moving south as the cold weather comes in. In fact, these nine vultures may have been making a pit stop on their way out of town. Let 'em go: I'll just keep walking and look alive.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Multi-tasking to the max

So I'm sitting in my office wishing I could go work out at the rec center but I can't because advising season has just started so I'm under siege by students seeking answers to questions about whether they can use a 100-level transfer class to meet a 300-level writing proficiency requirement (no), why they have to take science classes when they're destined to be Famous Writers (because I said so), and when I'll be willing to teach a sophomore literature survey class as an independent study (when pigs fly), when suddenly it strikes me: why can't I do both--go to the rec center and advise students simultaneously?

My students have no problem multitasking--text-messaging during exams, talking on cell phones while doing whatever else they're doing behind the stall door in the rest room--so why can't I do my advising while taking care of some other important tasks?

For instance, I can tell a student "no" while walking to nowhere in the gym or explain the benefits of a well-rounded education while getting a haircut. And that student who wanted to meet with me on Saturday morning could confer with me while I'm cleaning the bathroom. Granted, I might have difficulty making eye contact with a student while scrubbing the toilet, which would surely be no more distracting than trying to engage a student in class discussion when she is squinting at the little screen on the I-phone.

Think of all the time I'd save if my I could listen to students' sob-stories while chopping onions for stew--I'd get twice the mileage out of the same set of tears. And that 20-minute drive to town could be utilized more efficiently if I had a van full of seniors who want to graduate in May but somehow neglected to fulfill the General Education Literature requirement and suddenly need to do it next semester, but sadly, they can't fit any of our Lit classes into their schedules and they certainly can't change any of their other courses because they're really important, so please would I change the time of one of my classes? I can fit six passengers in my van, so if I took one load of students per trip, two trips each day, I could cover all the bases while covering the miles and be done with it all in a week.

Think of all the time I'd save! I've got to give multi-tasking a try. My next advisee is due in 30 minutes. I hope he enjoys shoe-shopping.

Bad books

Okay, maybe "bad" is too strong a word: maybe these are actually good books that I read at a bad time. All I know is that recently I've read a bunch of books that were seriously disappointing.

Sherman Alexie's Flight, for instance: it's short, swift, and sassy but sadly lacking in substance. The time-travelling young person who learns lessons about history and personal responsibility appeared to better effect in Octavia Butler's Kindred 30 years ago. Both books share similarly uninspired prose, but at least Butler provided some depth and subtlety to her main character. Alexie's protagonist is little more than a walking bundle of superficial stereotypes. Predictable plot, predictable characters, predictable pat ending (who knew that the best way to get a rebellious teen to love you is to cure his acne?)--why did I read this?

And then there's The Best American Essays 2007, edited by David Foster Wallace. There's some remarkable prose in there and a few memorable images, but the overall tenor of the essays is staid, static, and stiff. Many of Wallace's choices focus on decay and death, which says something either about Wallace himself or about the current state of American culture, but there was not one passage in this entire collection that made me wish I had written it.

And I've been working my way through some V.S. Naipaul novels in hopes of figuring out what inspired the Nobel Prize committee to honor him a few years ago, so far in vain. I'm on my third Naipaul novel, but it's barely distinguishable from my first: the characters are so blandly interchangeable and observed from such a great distance that they fail to stick in my mind beyond the final page. Naipaul's prose reminds me of a collection of elegant cut-glass vases in grandma's parlor: sparkly and perfect but capable of accomplishing nothing except standing there looking pretty.

Into every life some bad books must fall, but lately I'm experiencing a downpour. I need some wonderful reading to purge my mind of these disappointments. Quick, where are those freshman essays?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Saturday in the park

Dear Student,
Of course I would be delighted to meet with you at 11 on Saturday. I understand that you have a very busy life and can't possibly meet during any of my posted office hours, so I would be happy to devote my weekend to your needs. "Anything for my students" is what I always say, and the fact that you are not even my student is utterly irrelevant. The important point is that you, a student, need to me with me, a professor, at 11 on Saturday, and my only problem is that you don't specify a.m. or p.m.

Now I might have a little difficulty meeting with you at 11 a.m. because that's when I expect to be cleaning the bathrooms at my house. I realize that the condition of my bathrooms is not nearly as important as your personal concerns, but we're having company tomorrow and I'd like to beat some sense into those little grimy microbes trying to colonize the world one bathroom at a time. Before that I'll be harvesting, chopping, and processing hot peppers to make pepper sauce, and after that I'll be reading a pile of student drafts that I need to return at 9 a.m. on Monday.

If you had suggested 11 on Sunday, then it would be easy: I could take you to church with me and discuss your issues during the sermon. (No one ever listens to the sermon anyway!) Sunday afternoon won't work because I'm expecting eight extra people at my house for a cookout and you're not one of them--and besides, if Sunday worked for you, you would have mentioned it in your e-mail.

So I suggest that we meet, as you requested, at 11 on Saturday--11 p.m., that is. By then I'll be done with the cleaning and cooking and paper-reading and I'll be ready for a nice restful 20-minute drive to town to meet with a student who isn't even mine. Of course we won't be able to meet in my office because the building will be locked up tight, as will all the other campus buildings. Besides, the weather is so nice that it would be a shame to be indoors, so let's have an outdoor meeting. I suggest the city park down by the river, where you will find a number of piers. Find the shortest pier and walk to the end; if you don't see me right away, take one more step.

See you soon!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Impossible dream

"Is it still possible for me to get an A in your class?"

Three different freshman students came into my office this week to ask this question, and in each case I had the same answer: "Possible, but not probable."

They always look at me quizzically after that, so I explain: "Mathematically, you might be able to get an A if come to every class on time, turn in every assignment on time, and earn 100 percent on every assignment from now until the end of the semester, but looking at your record so far, I don't consider that terribly likely."

They always respond the same way: "Thank you! Thank you! I can still get an A!"

I can't decide whether they're poor listeners or whether they're blithely inhabiting a fantasy world in which a barely competent writer can suddenly develop the ability to produce first-rate, sophisticated prose, where the alarm clock always rings on time and the printer is never out of ink, where extracurricular activities never distract from academics and where a student can play Grand Theft Auto all night every night without ever missing a class or failing to shine on an assignment.

I don't want to lie to my students, but sometimes I wonder whether it's cruel to give them false hope. Maybe I should tell them, "No, you can't get an A in my class, and in fact you're going to have to work pretty hard to scrape by with a C-, so why don't we skip the math lesson so you can get back to work?"

If I tell them it's impossible to get an A, maybe some of them will be motivated to prove me wrong. It's possible--but not, I'm afraid, very probable.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Of mice and men

I came home this afternoon to find the resident fix-it man sitting on the porch surrounded by the bright-yellow entrails of a broken tape measure doomed to retract no more. "It broke," he said. "I tried to fix it." Note the past tense. The eternal optimist always thinks broken things can be fixed, and they probably can, but at some point you have to wonder whether the fix is worth the time it takes.

So we've added "tape measure" to the shopping list, but the time he spent taking it apart was not wasted: while he was sitting out there fiddling with it, he killed a mouse. How? "I threw my boot at it," he said. Not the most orthodox method of mouse-killing, but effective nevertheless.

It was one small step for man--but we'll never know just how small without a functioning tape measure.

The Midwife Committee

It doesn't happen often, but yesterday in the middle of a meeting I had an epiphany. Conditions were not ripe for epiphany: it was my third meeting of the day, a late-afternoon meeting in a small, stuffy room, and the agenda suggested a distinct lack of drama, but in the course of a discussion about a proposal for a new program, I suddenly had a vision of how it could work and I thought, "There is hope!"

It was a simple realization but it made the rest of the day bearable. I can't even talk about the proposal itself because it's still a glimmer in a committee's eye, but its very existence gives me hope. So no more griping about too many meetings: sometimes collective effort allows new life to spring forth, and those of us who get to serve as midwife to new life can only share the joy.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A failure to communicate

I have to read five more freshman drafts before 8 a.m. tomorrow and I have two long meetings this afternoon, so here I sit practicing avoidance. Some of these drafts desperately demand avoidance, such as the one that starts off by asking whether a career as a professional football player is likely to hurt my health. Given that I am unlikely to pursue a career as a professional football player at this late date, I do not find the question compelling.

I suppose it is unreasonable to expect students to write about topics I care about, but it would be nice if they would either write about topics they care about or make some effort to show me why I should care about them. "Write as if your paper will change the world," I tell them, "but remember that most people resist change. Make me care!"

The same could be said of another little writing project: revising our department's vision statement. The best thing that can be said about our official vision statement is that its syntax is unobjectionable; however, our official vision focuses entirely on what we expect our students to do in the future after they leave here, leaving the present out of the picture. The message, in a nutshell, is that students should come here not because it's a great place to be but because it's a great place to have been. It's a particularly vacuous vision, probably no more compelling to prospective students than my freshman drafts are to me.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. To my students and my colleagues I say the same thing: "Make me care!" Otherwise, I might not be able to resist the temptation to pursue asecond career as a professional football player.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Pure, unadulterated tripe

I just received a document containing the sentence "I got my tripe hurt."

What is the context?

What is the purpose?

What is the appropriate response?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Working on my MTR (Master of Tent Rental)

Yesterday I once again found myself speechless. I met with some prospective students and their parents, which I generally enjoy because I get ask prospective students what they love about literature and talk about all the exciting things going on here and how fun it is to be an English major. But one of those prospective students was accompanied by a parent who asked a series of unanswerable questions, starting with "Why should my sweet little pumpkin come here when she can go elsewhere and major in [insert major not available here]?"

What do I say to that? "Um, sorry, I'm not an expert in that discipline, and neither is anyone else here, which is why we don't offer a major in it, which makes me wonder why you're here. Why visit colleges that do not actually offer the major your daughter wants? Seems like an incredible waste of time."

But I can't say that, can I? My role in this little drama is to sell the benefits of my program, not to drive people away. So I smile and nod and explain that while no, we do not offer that particular major here, we do offer students many opportunities to hone their talents so they can be prepared for a wide variety of challenges blah blah blah...

And then the mom asks another one: "Is there anything to do here on weekends?"

I start talking about the variety of cultural and athletic events offered on weekends, but that's not what she wants. That's when the real questions come out: "Where do students go to rent camping equipment? And what about canoeing? Does the college sponsor canoe trips? Is there a hiking club?"

That's when I realize I'm out of my depth. I'm an English professor: ask me about literature and writing. I'll even take a swing at questions about local cultural events. But don't ask me about programs we don't have, and don't ask me where to rent a tent. I'm sure someone on campus knows where to rent a tent, but if I were you, I wouldn't look for that person in the English department.

But again, I couldn't say all that. "Maybe someone from Student Life can help you with that," I said, smiling, but Mom didn't look pleased. What kind of English professor doesn't know about tent-rental opportunities? I suspect that she shook the dust off her feet as she left campus.

But that's okay. People who don't want what we offer should go somewhere else. We'll take the ones who really want to be here--provided that their mothers stay home.

Friday, October 19, 2007

My lips are sealed

So I've been noticing this peculiar trend in letters from applicants for the open position in my department....but oops, can't talk about that.

And then there was this bizarre comment that came up in a committee meeting the other day! But it's strictly under wraps.

Hey, I read about this neat pedagogical a colleague's tenure file, so my lips are sealed.

Did I mention that my brother called last night out of the blue to ask me about--never mind.

And the hubby and I had some rather sharp words about--better not go there.

All zipped up and nothing to say!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Candy from a baby

A new study (read it here) suggests that students who are offered chocolates give their professors higher marks on course evaluations than students who are not offered chocolates, even though the professor was not the one distributing the candy. In this study, a person unconnected with the class offered chocolates to students, saying the candy was left over from an event. Some students did not even accept the proferred candy, but overall ratings for professors improved anyway. So apparently the mere fact of being offered chocolate influences students to give professors higher ratings.

I always thought that getting good evaluations was as difficult as taking candy from a baby, but apparently I had it backward: give candy, get good ratings. And if candy, why not doughnuts, cookies, or chips 'n' salsa? Why not money? If it'll result in higher ratings, we should hire someone to come into classes on evaluation day and offer students sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll--although, come to think of it, that might distract them from those little bubble-sheets.

Better stick with chocolates. I'd buy stock in Nestle if I were you.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Plunging into Rushdie

I was introducing my postcolonial lit class to Salman Rushdie this morning and I had talked about the whole Sea of Stories idea (making new stories from recombined and reimagined strands of old stories) and explained how The Satanic Verses imaginatively riffs on the Koran, and one of my more vocal students said, "I'm surprised no one tried to kill him!"

Which gave me a perfect opening to talk about the fatwa and all that followed, which made me realize that these events that seem so real and present to some of us are fading firmly into that dim and distant realm known as History. In the eyes of my students, Rushdie is their angry grandfather who's always trying to tell stories of his childhood and his heroic action in some war or other and the crazy guys he knew way back when; they wonder when he's going to shut up and talk about something that matters.

But that's okay. I love Shame and I could talk about it to an empty room, so I'm delighted that some of my students seem to be digging into the book with some gusto. Granted, a few are sitting in the back of the room looking befuddled ("Omar Khayyam? What's that supposed to mean?"), but let 'em look. I'm plunging into the Sea of Stories and I'm taking some students with me, and I'm having so much fun that I don't really care if the rest of 'em want to sit on the shore and try not to get splashed.

Monday, October 15, 2007

If the shoe fits....

Shoe retailers are trying to make a man out of me and I'm not sure I appreciate the effort. I sort of like being a woman vis a vis shoes. Granted, it's not easy being a woman with feet like mine; I walk into the biggest shoe store in town, ask the helpful salesperson to bring me everything she has in my size, and wait for her to emerge, eventually, from the storeroom with a single pair of spike heels in green suede.

Or, more likely, nothing at all. "We don't carry any wide widths in sizes larger than 8," they insist, and when I ask why, they say, "Because there's no demand for them."

"You want demand?" I say. "I can be pretty demanding when I put my mind to it. I am 10-wide, here me roar!"

But it's useless, so for some years I've made a habit of driving two hours to the Big City a few times a year for the express purpose of buying shoes at the one store where I'm certain to find them, and when I find a pair I like in my size, I don't even look at the price tag. It gets expensive, but it beats going barefoot.

So today I'm on fall break and the loyal spouse took a day off so we could go gallivanting off to the Big City in search of shoes: a pair of walking shoes and a pair of casual loafers to replace my old Eastlands that finally became too disreputable-looking to be worn anywhere but in the garden. A simple task, you might think. Ha!

My old faithful store no longer carries my size. "Nothing over size 8 in wide widths," said the salesperson. The guy in the sports store said the same thing. "Women don't wear shoes that wide," he said. By that time I was so demoralized that all I could do was sigh deeply and move on.

Across town a bigger sports store had the goods: one pair of walking shoes, my size, my price. Perfect. We asked about loafers and they suggested the big shoe warehouse nearby.

It was big, all right. If I'd needed patent-leather thigh-high boots with five-inch stilleto heels, I could have chosen from a wide spectrum of colors ranging from lime green to eggplant to princess pink. We wandered rows and rows of women's shoes: camouflage print pumps, plaid Keds lace-ups, shoes with criss-crossing velcro straps, bowling shoes, hiking shoes, showing-off-your-funky-socks shoes, but nothing resembling a loafer and nothing--nothing!--in my size.

I was about ready to give up when I ran into a former student who lent a sympathetic ear. "You ought to try the men's department," she said. "They have loafers over there."

She was right. I tried on one pair after another before settling on a perfect pair of Sperry Topsiders. They fit! They're comfortable! They even look good! Okay, they weren't cheap, but it beats going barefoot.

I did get a few odd looks while trying on shoes in the men's department, but after a two-hour drive and five solid hours of shopping, I didn't care. If the shoe retailers of America insist on squeezing me out of the women's department, there's not much I can do about it but stand up and take it like a man.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Socked in

The fog comes in
on little cat feet,
lies down,
curls up,
and settles in
for a long

The sun comes in,
trips over the fog,
mutters "Outta my way!"
and stands

The fog looks up
with sleepy eyes,
rolls over,
and curls up
for a long

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A new contender for the Obvious Award

"Reading poetry is always a good way to expand a person's ability to interpret what the author is saying."

So true! And so is the converse: Not reading poetry is a good way to reduce a person's ability to interpret what the author is saying.

When I think of all the ways to expand a person's ability to interpret what the author is saying, reading the poetry ranks way above other methods. Telepathy, for instance, is rarely reliable, and putting the poem under one's pillow at night just wrinkles the paper. Give that student an A for Obvious!


The sun has barely risen but my composition students are busily at work writing their midterm essay exams. Once again I posted sample essay questions on the class website and allowed students to bring to class any resources they might need: textbooks, notes, laptop computers, pocket translators (for the Chinese students), anything they could carry into the room aside from a brilliant roommate. And once again some of them have interpreted this as a sign that the exam would be easy, that they would not have to prepare in advance. I can tell which students did this because they are now frantically trying to catch up on their reading before they respond to the essay prompt. For first-year students, the midterm essay exam is a learning experience--even before they start to write.

For me, the essay exam is a chance to relax a little bit before the grading frenzy begins. I'm caught up on my other grading and I have only one more class to teach before fall break begins, so I'm coasting. This afternoon I have to review a colleague's tenure file and observe a different colleague's teaching, both activities that require some mental alertness, but right now I'm just letting the soothing sound of fingers flying across keyboards soothe my exhausted gray cells. In a moment I'll sit at my desk and pretend to be doing some serious work when I'm really reading Salman Rushdie and losing myself in a world far removed from the composition classroom (and regretting that Rushdie once again did not receive the Nobel Prize in literature, no offense to Doris Lessing).

They're thinking and writing; I'm coasting and reading. For now, that's the way it ought to be.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Aches and pains

Let the record show that I felt FINE when I left the house this morning--so why am I a wreck right now?

Some background: I've been having muscle spasms in my back on and off for about three days now. Pain-killers dull the pain but don't stop the spasms; muscle relaxants stop the spasms but also knock me out, so I've been trying to tough it out until the weekend. Yesterday the pain was so intense that it hurt to breathe, so I went home early and went for a long walk through the fall countryside.

After the walk I felt significantly better, and the lack of pain allowed me a good night's sleep for the first time all week. And when I left the house this morning, I felt great. The spasms started up again just as I was stepping out of my car, and they haven't stopped.

Is it my car? My shoes? My midterm stress level? I can't blame my office chair because the spasms started before I ever sat down. (Some years ago I was forced to use a chair that caused me pain every day of my life--but that's another long and not terribly interesting story.) Something is making my back spazz out and it's not making me very happy. I'm getting really boring about it: "Gather round, children, and let me tell you about my aches and pains...." But right now pain is all I can think about, which makes me not a very fun person, but I can't go home early today because I have a 4:00 meeting. I'm already tired of listening to myself whine. There must be a solution somewhere, but what is it?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Just being unreasonable

Unreasonable, that's what I am. I wouldn't let a student keep a cell phone on the desk during a midterm exam, and I wouldn't let another student have an extra 20 minutes to finish the exam after she wandered into class 20 minutes late without an excuse. I wouldn't make a special trip to my office on Sunday to send a new copy of the study guide to a student who lost his, and then, if you can imagine an act so cruel, I insisted that my freshman composition students learn the correct format for citing essays from anthologies.

They rolled their eyes at me, of course--the ones who still had their eyes open. They muttered angrily and wondered why they even have to learn this bleep. I skipped the long philosophical disquisition on the value of a well-rounded education and stuck to the essentials: "Your midterm essay exam is Thursday, and if you do not properly integrate, punctuate, and cite quotations in your essay, you are unlikely to receive a passing grade."

Harsh, I know. Unreasonable. Perhaps even inhumane. But let them mutter. Someday they'll thank me--and if not, I can live with that. I'm not in it for the gratitude.

I'm in it for the parking.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Walking nowhere

My least favorite walk goes not uphill or upstream but upstairs at the campus rec center, where I walk on the elliptical machine to earn Wellness Points. I don't much care about Wellness Points qua points, but if I walk often enough, then at the end of the year the points turn into money, which is just enough to motivate me to trek up to the gym two or three times a week and take a walk to nowhere.

Dressed in shapeless blue workout clothes, I climb onto the machine and start walking and I don't stop until 30 minutes have passed (only 29 minutes until I can quit...only 28 minutes 59 seconds until I can quit....). Now when I walk at home, there's always something interesting to look at or listen to, so I'm often surprised by how much time has passed when I get back; at the gym, on the other hand (only 27 minutes 27 seconds until I can quit...), I am aware of every passing minute and sometimes even the seconds (only 27 minutes 26 seconds until I can quit...).

Walking at the gym is, let's face it, boring. There's not much to look at and even if there were, I can't exercise with my glasses on so everything becomes a colorful blur. I look through the big windows down toward the track and sometimes I see students running sprints or playing basketball or old folks walking patiently around the big blue oval (only 25 minutes 52 seconds until I can quit...), but in the afternoons the place is often empty, so the windows don't really help. I could watch one of the televisions mounted on the wall at the front of the room, but there's no sound and I can't read the captions without my glasses, and even if I could, why would I want to? They're always showing high-stakes poker or daytime soaps, and if I'm not willing to watch them when the sound is on, I'm even less likely to put the required effort into reading the captions. (Only 23 minutes until I can quit...)

The other day I was walking to nowhere (only 22 minutes 45 seconds until I can quit...) when a student (male) mounted the machine next to mine and started offering a running commentary on the poker game taking place on the television in front of us. He seemed deeply moved by one player's missing queen, but frankly, I did not share his anguish. When I exercise, my anguish comes from motivating myself to take another step on the road to nowhere (only 21 minutes until I can quit...)

And then there are the sweaty grunting guys on the weight machines. Every gym has 'em. I don't know why they grunt (17 minutes 32 seconds until I can quit...) but I know their grunts are not nearly as interesting as the sounds I hear while walking at home: kingfishers chattering by the creek, wind whispering in the trees, shotguns blasting on the hilltop. When I walk at home, everything reminds me that the world is alive and growing; when I walk at the gym (only 16 minutes 55 seconds until I can quit...), I often wonder whether someone is being eviscerated on one of the torture racks behind me. And while I may occasionally encounter some sour smells on my walks at home (dead possum, anyone?), there is at least the possibility of encountering honeysuckle, freshly-mown hay, or the rich moist earth of farm fields; the air in the gym (only 15 minutes until I can quit...) is constantly suffused by the sour smell of sweat.

But I keep walking anyway, even if I don't seem to be getting anywhere. I am making progress, I remind myself: I am healthier, happier, soon to be wealthier once those points turn to money. I am getting somewhere; I just wish the road were a little less boring. Only 14 minutes 59 seconds until I can quit...

Friday, October 05, 2007

Authors, critics, and tulafale

In a really interesting collection of essays called Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics, and Identity in the New Pacific (ed. Vilsoni Hereniko and Rob Wilson), Vilsoni Hereniko and Sig Schwarz complain about the tendency of critics to write about Pacific Islands literatures without adequate understanding about those islands' cultures or politics. They suggest that a the role of the literary critic should resemble that of the "talking chief" or tulafale, who speaks for a chief from a place of in-depth understanding: "Not everyone an be a tulafale; similarly, the role of critic should be reserved only for those who know Pacific cultures and peoples well and have a broad knowledge of the literature. The tulafale speaks on behalf of the chief, explains or clarifies when necessary, and interacts with the rest of society regarding the intentions of the chief."

How would these traits transfer to the literary critic? "Critics," say Vilsoni and Schwarz, "like tulafale, should take pains to ensure that what they say about an author's work is accurate." So far I follow them: there is nothing more annoying than blather produced by ignorami. But what is the educated critic to do? "The critic's role," they add, "should be to represent, elucidate, provide context and background information, mediate between the writer and the readers, and criticize constructively when necessary. The critic's ability to elucidate the writer's political and social worldview in relation to his or her work is very important in the Pacific. For example, who does the writer claim is the oppressor? From within or without? Where is the writer positioned in the spectrum? How has the colonial past influenced the politics of the present? How have oral traditions influenced the form or structure of the author's work?"

These questions raise some important issues, but here is my question: if the author's political standpoint and relation to oral traditions are so important, why does he (or she) require a critic to state them? Why are these ideas not apparent in the text?

Now I'm being just the kind of critic Vilsoni and Schwarz denigrate: I don't know much about them or their politics or their relationship to oral literature; all I have are their words on the page. That is how authors get their ideas across to readers: through words on a page. And while the critic's role may well include helping readers understand the words on the page and their relationship to politics or oral literature, critics should, in general, refrain from being spokesmen for authors. An author is, by definition, someone who has something to say and knows how to say it with appropriate form and language; if they can't do so, maybe they should take up forklift repair.

Let authors speak for themselves. Let critics speak for (or against) texts. Let ignorami speak for no one.