Friday, September 28, 2007

A man hears what he wants to hear

I seem to have fallen into a time warp: this morning on the way to work I kept hearing Don MacLean singing "American Pie" in my head for no clear reason, and then in class one of my students turned in a paper that contained an oblique reference to "The Boxer," and since then I haven't been able to dislodge Simon and Garfunkle from my brain.

I seem to have squandered my resistance: will someone please tell me how to say bye-bye to "American Pie"? I am leaving, I am leaving but the the fighter still remains.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Getting my feet wet

Rain all day and relentless gray clouds, but that's good! We need the rain! Brown lawns and dry creeks will be happy! But it was a bad day to wear the shoes with the holes in them, the only shoes that go with my favorite suit, which now fits me after languishing for three years in the "two small" section of the closet, which is good news, and the even better news is that I'm now making forays into the "WAY too small" section of the closet, which means I need new shoes, which is bad news, except the raise letters came out today and I'm getting more than I expected, which is good-ish news, especially since I need to go pick up the shiftless car, which has just had a used rack and pinion installed, which is good news, except that means I have to drive the car, which is off the charts on the "bad" end because that means I have to go outside in the rain with leaky shoes on and then work the stubborn clutch with wet feet.

Will somebody please send me the faculty helicopter?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My fantasy book-signing

At the end of a thoughtful post complaining about a particular book, Bardiac admits that despite her reservations, she asked the visiting author to sign her copy: "I'm torn," she says, but "Hey, if I could get my Shakespeare text signed, I totally would!"

Which made me wonder: which author, living or dead, would I most like to ask to sign a book?

I have books signed by Anthony Doerr, Scott Russell Sanders, Bill Bryson, and Tim O'Brien, who seemed flattered that I was teaching "The Things They Carried." (If you locked those four authors in a room together, what would they talk about?) I have a book signed by my very talented colleague and a few visiting authors of varying talent levels. I have clearly spent too little time in the presence of greatness, because that's about it.

I'd love to have Toni Morrison sign my copy of Paradise and explain the answer to the riddle posed by the opening line, but that would defeat the purpose of the book, and if Hone Tuwhare signed a copy of his poem about the bronze Maori warrior, it would make me feel like one of the tourists the poem denigrates, the ones who seek "authentic" souvenirs of indigenous people in order to enhance their own hollow identities.

If I could get Derek Walcott, James Joyce, and Homer together, I'd like them each to sign the others' works, and then I'd like to see them all put out to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat.

If I had any books by Jim Harrison, I would ask him to sign them with an apology for all his clumsy syntax. (Sorry, Jim!) Likewise, I'd ask Ralph Ellison to sign Invisible Man with an apology for all the other books he never wrote.

I would ask Robinson Jeffers to chisel his name into a stone that I could use as a paperweight to hold open my copy of his Selected Poems to the page containing "To the Stone-Cutters," and I would ask Kurt Vonnegut to scratch his name on a stack of cannonballs covering my copy of Cat's Cradle.

I would ask Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to a mutual book-signing just to see what they would say to each other, and I would make Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf share pens. The list could go on: Salman Rushdie, Gwendolyn Brooks, Charles Chesnutt, James Wright (whose name could be writ in water, provided the water came from the Ohio River). And one of these days I'd like to sign my own name in a book.

But first I'll have to write it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Free-writing or writing-free?

Moment of truth time: my freshman composition students turned in their first major papers this morning, and afterward I asked them to free-write for five minutes on the topic "What I've learned about writing so far." They wrote and they shared ideas with partners and the rest of the class, and then I told them what I had written about: the value of writing regularly. "When I make an appointment with myself to write every day," I said, "then when the appointed time comes, I find ideas waiting to meet with me."

Blank stares.

"Writing regularly improves the fluidity of my writing," I insisted.

More blank stares.

"How many of you write a blog?"

No response.

"A daily journal? Diary?"


"Regular e-mail messages to a particular person?"

Crickets chirping.

"Does anyone in this room besides me write anything aside from class assignments?"


The sound you now hear is the professor's head banging against the wall.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Transcend yourself!

An e-mail message from a textbook publisher invites me to "transcend the essay!" by considering three new composition textbooks. Frankly, I'm not sure I know what it means to "transcend the essay!" and even if I had clear, detailed diagrams, I'm not sure I'd be ready to take that step. I love the essay form. I even like the word "essay," despite the dark cloud of connotations it can carry in the minds of many students. To essay is to attempt, to try, to give it a shot; it's a step into the unknown, a tentative bridge across the abyss, and if it fails--well, it's not rocket science or heart surgery. No one ever died of reading or writing a bad essay (although I've read a few that have driven me pretty close to the edge).

The essay I would be tempted to transcend is the mediocre essay, if by "transcend" we mean move beyond, rise above, escape the limitations of. Very bad essays can redeem themselves by providing some humor, and good essays help me transcend the limitations of the human condition and experience exaltation to the world of ideas, but what can you do with a mediocre essay? It just sits there like radioactive waste with a long half-life, polluting everything it touches, or it sucks up ideas the way a black hole sucks up matter, inexorably drawing even light into its gravitational pull. Show me a way to transcend the mediocre essay and I might buy your textbook. Ask me to transcend the essay form entirely and I'll delete your message, exclamation points and all. It may not be easy to "Transcend the essay!", but I can transcend the e-mail with a click of a button.

The bikers, the bovine, and me

So I'm driving along a country road barely wide enough for two cars to pass when I zip around a corner and suddenly find that I'm sharing the road with three bicyclists and a cow. The bikers, clad in bright yellow and orange biker shorts, shirts, and helmets, were just ahead of me in my lane and were conscientiously observing the rules of the road; the cow, naked as the day it was born, was trotting
blithely northward in the southbound lane as if utterly unaware of the traffic code, weaving in and out of the lane and even pulling over onto the shoulder without once signalling its intentions.

I had plenty of time to slow down to accomodate traffic conditions, but the bikers, the bovine, and I were all heading slowly up a steep incline and anyone coming the other way would have been blissfully unaware that he was about to face an important decision: hit the cow head-on or swerve straight toward the bikers? I had no way to warn any approaching traffic, nor am I proficient in the appropriate methods for removing a bovine scofflaw from the right-of-way.

Fortunately, the five of us topped the hill without incident, and then the cow, perhaps seeing the error of its ways, took a left turn into a meadow. I didn't see a turn signal, but at least I was spared the sight of seeing a healthy cow turned into hamburger on the highway.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Into the labyrinth, across the abyss

About Rome, Anthony Doerr says this:

History lies beneath the city like an extensive and complicated armature. Emperors were stabbed beneath tramlines. Sheep grazed beneath supermarkets. The thirteen obelisks of Rome have been toppled and reerected and shuffled around so many times that to lay a map of their previous positions over a map of their current ones is to evoke a miniature cross-hatching of the city's entire memory, a history of power and vanity like a labyrinth stamped beneath the streets.

Doerr's new book Four Seasons in Rome is a memoir of his attempt to negotiate that labyrinth armed with a grant, a wife, their six-month-old twin sons, and an inadequate understanding of the Italian language. He struggles to write, sleep, think, and survive in a place where his babies suffer jet-lag and he doesn't know the words for diapers, fever, crib sheets, but most of all he observes the swirl of events around him and writes about them in prose that sings.

Rome, he writes, is "a contest between sun and shadow, kingdom and time, architecture and weeds. The shadows will win, of course, and time, and weeds. But this morning the match seems close." He muses on time and eternity, wars present and past, the nature of power and the power of change, and he records his observations with the wonder of a bright-eyed boy from the provinces who suddenly finds himself in the midst of the Eternal City, where he learns to see things new:

Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We'd pass out every time we saw--actually saw-- a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there'd be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs.

Doerr records his wrestling with the novel he had intended to write in Rome, a project he finally shelves in favor of a story that he takes through draft after draft, revision after revision; like parenting twins, writing is a perilous adventure through unknown territory: "[T]o write a story is to inch backward and forward along a series of planks you are cantilevering out into the darkness, plank by plank, inch by inch, and the best you can hope is that each day you find yourself a little bit farther out over the abyss."

Four Season in Rome follows Doerr as he ventures out above the abyss, fumbles about to find his footing, and eventually arrives safely home again, a journey described in prose so compelling that readers will want to follow his path.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Baker's dozing

My father is in a hospital in Florida out of his mind on pain-killers while awaiting surgery and there's not a blessed thing I can do except wait for the phone to ring, but when it rings, it's one of our church members calling with the news that a sweet old lady in our congregation is not expected to live through the night and could the pastor please come? So the resident pastor, up to his elbows in bread dough for tomorrow's market, mutters a few hurried instructions and goes out the door.

Which is how I end up in charge of baking the bread tonight. "These are the easiest loaves to deal with," he says. "You can't go wrong." But the brain cells that were alert and active in my 8 a.m. freshman comp class are now running on auto-pilot and wondering: did he say 300 degrees for 45 minutes or 450 degrees for 30 minutes? The recipe is in his head, which is on its way to the hospital. My head, on the other hand, is full of fatigue.

I figure I can bake two batches before midnight and then I'll call it quits. That's not nearly enough to satisfy tomorrow's customers, but I need to teach a class at 9 a.m. so that will have to do. Besides, the resident baker may be home by then and he doesn't mind staying up all night baking bread. I'll wake up to the delicious aroma of freshly-baked bread and for a few moments I won't have to think about the fact that my father is in a hospital in Florida out of his mind of pain-killers while awaiting surgery and there's not a blessed thing I can do about it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Full text of my lecture notes for this morning's class:

1. ergonomic pirates
2. electronic reserves
3. Baudrillard

Q: What was the class? What was the topic? What was the point?

Picky, picky

A correspondent told me that his daughter, a college freshman, received a zero on a quiz because she had turned in a paper with ragged perforations on the edges. This strikes me as a bit picky; after all, a professor who gets that wigged out about ragged perforations has set his annoyance threshold pretty low. But then the question arises: when is such pickiness justified? And how picky is too picky?

For instance, when marketing and business education majors at Illinois State University were required to dress in "business casual" attire or be thrown out of classes, they rebelled; as a result, the dress code remains but the potential penalty has been softened: professors are allowed to deduct up to 10 percent from a student's final grade for unprofessional attire or behavior. (Read about it here.)

And a philosophy professor at McGill University requires students in her course on Plato to earn 100 percent on a quiz on the Greek alphabet or drop the class. (Read it here.) An uproar ensued, with students rejecting rote memorization and faculty members pointing out that learning the Greek alphabet is probably the easiest task encountered in a course on Plato.

And then we have ongoing debates on many campuses about whether hats, pajamas, cell phones, laptop computers, bare midriffs, or slippers should be permitted in class, and what about the student who comes to class accompanied by his therapy ferret?

Pickiness in the service of education is justified: students seriously studying Plato need to know a little Greek, and students entering the business world need to learn about professional behavior. I'm not sure what educational purpose is served by flunking students who turn in quiz papers with ragged perforations, unless the goal is to teach that form is more important than content and that nothing is more important than kowtowing to a professor's personal neuroses.

But then I always tell my students that I don't care how they complete their in-class writing assignments as long as I can read them. One of these days a student will try to write the quiz answers on his hand and try to turn it in at the end of class, and then I'll be sorry. Until then, thoough, I'll keep my annoyance threshold pretty high and be picky only when it serves a clear educational purpose.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Defining moments

Yesterday in the middle of my Postcolonial Literature class, a class that has spent three solid weeks reading and discussing and writing about literature by twentieth-century African authors, a senior in the back raised his hand and asked, "What's apartheid?"

I covered my consternation by turning around to write "apartheid" on the whiteboard, and I vividly recalled the time I had asked the same question. I pronounced it "apar-thade," but I was in eighth grade at the time and I was a reader, not a talker. I don't recall now where I had encountered the term, but I asked a classmate to define "apartheid" and she gave me a look I'd seen before--the glare of consternation she wore whenever I provided further evidence of my mis-spent youth--and then she corrected my pronunciation and explained the concept. I've often wondered what ever happened to Diana: if any eighth-grader was cut out for a career in teaching, she's the one.

I thought of her as I was writing "apartheid" on the whiteboard and then I turned to the class and asked for enlightenment, which, thankfully, they were able to provide. But how did we get through three weeks of reading and writing and discussing (including a major reading assignment establishing the historical context) without a clear understanding of such an essential concept? And, more importantly, how did a student manage to make it to his senior year of college without knowing the meaning of the word? Where have I gone wrong--and how do I make it right again?

I wish Diana were here. She would know.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bulwarks of something-or-other

A colleague and I were speaking very circumspectly about a recent incident involving Professors Behaving Badly: no one listening would have been able to discern the identity of the miscreant or the exact nature of the offense, but a student standing nearby expressed surprise at the existence of drama among the ranks. "Professors aren't supposed to have drama," she said; "Professors are supposed to be bulwarks of sanity in an insane world!"

I'm sure you can still hear the bitter laughter ringing through the air.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Inexplicable omissions

Movie listing found in the Sept. 17 New Yorker:

A documentary about the typeface and its historical significance. Directed by Gary Hustwit.

Movie listings inexplicably not found in the Sept. 17 New Yorker:

A musical about lumbar radiculopathy. Directed by Julie Taymor, who also designed the costumes.

An animated adventure following the progress of two brave little drops of water as they journey through the hydrologic cycle and encounter the joys and dangers of our great big wonderful world. Disney animation at its best!

Toyota Celica
A romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts as a woman with a cranky car and Hugh Grant as the man with the oil can. Directed by Jane Campion.

Fra Angelico
Saints with paint take the screen in this psychological thriller about the development of linear perspective. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

The epic story of asbestos abatement and the gutsy men who make it possible. Directed by Peter Jackson, with music by John Williams.

This year's hot sports flick pits Tom Hanks against the odds in a celebration of parimutuel betting. Directed by Ron Howard.

Matt Damon stars in this thriller about a dulcimer repairman who maliciously mis-tunes antique instruments. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Woody Allen wrote, directed, and stars opposite Scarlett Johansson in this comedy of mathematical mysticism on the streets of Manhattan.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Another addition to my imaginary entourage

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a sign that said "Reality Specialists," and I thought, Just what I need!

When I'm shopping online and on the verge of clicking on "Add to shopping bag," I need a Reality Specialist to say, "Remember the last time you ordered from that company? That vest may look exquisite in print, but the fabric will be as flimsy as well-worn pajamas."

When I'm grabbing for another handful of free popcorn in the faculty lounge, I need a Reality Specialist to say, "Free food is not the same thing as calorie-free food, and a bag of popcorn does not count as a serving of vegetables."

When I'm planning my syllabus for the coming semester and I schedule all my classes to turn in major papers on the same day, I need a nudge from my Reality Specialist to remind me that even Homer nodded and that English professors likewise need their rest.

When I'm dreaming of all the wonderful ways I can spend my tax refund, I need a Reality Specialist to wave a sheaf of credit-card bills in front of my face.

Someone to stop me from stepping off the cliff into fantasyland: that's the sort of Reality Specialist I need. Where can I find one?

Not here, apparently, because when I looked a the sign more closely, I discovered that it actually advertised "Realty Specialists." Nuts: now how am I supposed to add a Reality Specialist to my imaginary entourage?

Time to advertise: "Reality Specialist needed. Join a team of imaginary individuals devoted to making my life easier. Must be willing to work for popcorn."

Now I'll just wait for the applications to roll in.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Evaluating evaluations

I just received an e-mail from the provost thanking me for writing a colleague's annual evaluation. "It must have been a joyful task," she wrote. And you know what? She's right.

Writing evaluations is one part of my job that I really enjoy. I love visiting my colleagues' classes because I always learn something and I find their passion for teaching inspiring. I enjoy reading updates on their research and their plans for the future. I don't always enjoy reading student evaluations because there's a certain inanity to many of the comments; I don't really need to hear from any more students who think it's unreasonable that a Writing Intensive class might, of all things, require a lot of writing. But I read them, glean what's helpful, and move on.

And I really enjoy writing about my colleagues and bringing their accomplishments to the awareness of others. When I nominate a colleague for an award or write a letter of support for a sabbatical request or write an evaluation that will be a part of a tenure file, and when my efforts produce positive results, I'm like a parent whose child has just earned a round of applause: "Yep, that's my kid up there! Part of me! Couldn't be prouder!"

I suppose things would be different if I had a group of cranky or creepy or annoying colleagues in my department, but I am blessed with some really wonderful co-workers. Spending time observing and writing about wonderful people: could there be a more joyful task?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shiftless revisited

I need to clarify a few points about my recent car fiasco (read it here) for the benefit of concerned colleagues ("You did WHAT?!") as well as those impressionable young readers who might be my daughter:

1. I was NOT hitch-hiking. I was simply walking along the shoulder of the highway minding my own business, and if I had not been picked up, I would have kept walking until I hit the gas station on the edge of town (about a mile) or perhaps even the Farmers' Market (three or four miles).

2. So why did I get into a car with a strange man? Well, for one thing, he wasn't that strange: he was a clean-cut middle-aged guy, and his truck carried the logo of a prominent local business known for its integrity.

3. But how did I know he wasn't an ax murderer? My firm belief, perhaps misguided, is that ax murderers don't search for prey at 8 a.m. Saturday morning. In fact, I have always subscribed to the Puritan belief that people who get up early in the morning are inherently virtuous, which suggests that the ax murderer who wants to sneak up on me should disguise himself as a clean-cut middle-aged businessman driving a company truck at 8 a.m. So I guess the moral here (and I hope my daughter is listening) is this: keep walking! Don't get in the truck!

4. Why didn't I call a friend and ask for a ride? First, no cell phone; second, unsavory edge of town where none of the houses looked as if they welcomed spontaneous friendliness; third, unwillingness to knock on strange doors before 8:00 on a Saturday morning; finally, by the time I had reached a friend, roused her from sleep, and gotten her to drive out to wherever I was calling from, I could have walked all the way to the Farmers' Market.

5. Why didn't I call AAA? See above, plus this: I always forget that I have a membership with AAA. I've had a membership for three or four years and I've used it exactly once, primarily because I have difficulty thinking of myself as the kind of person who can afford AAA. (Crazy, I know.) I actually woke up in the middle of the night Saturday and remembered: "I could have called AAA!" And then Sunday afternoon, we did just that and got the car towed to our mechanic's garage.

It's back now, by the way, and it runs, except it won't go into fifth gear. It needs some pretty serious work that could end up costing more than the car is worth, but while the mechanic gets us some quotes, we're driving the car--very carefully. We do have a new rule, though: whoever drives the gimpy car must carry the cell-phone. Next time I end up shiftless, I'll be ready.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

It's not the heat...

This morning in class I had trouble handing out papers because the humidity had turned them limp and sticky. We've had a little rain this week (badly needed) but mostly we've had gloomy dark clouds and little spitty bits of drizzle and a constant annoying moisture that creeps into photocopiers to make the paper jam and oozes into keyboards to make the keys stick and looms over students and faculty alike to dampen spirits and drain energy. It's the kind of weather that makes you want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over your head, but here we are instead trying to learn a few things.

Can I declare myself a conscientious objector to the weather?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Art from evil

When you have a bad experience with a book, sometimes the best thing to do is to set it aside and wait a while before giving it another chance to prove its worth. In the case of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, my reading experience was poisoned by its context.

The book was required reading in the worst graduate-school class I ever had, a three-hour seminar that met on the fourth floor of a very old building in which the only ladies' rest room was on the first floor--and there were no elevators. The professor was, excuse the technical language, a wuss: he allowed a small group of American Cultural Studies grad students to dominate the discussion and run roughshod over other students' ideas, and he wouldn't even start the class until those three favored disciples arrived, even if they were 20 minutes late. But that kind of behavior was not unusual at a university in which the American Cultural Studies program was nationally renowned while the Literature Ph.D. was being phased out. (I may have been the penultimate recipient of a Literature Ph.D. in that program--unless one of those perennial ABDs finally finished the dissertation.)

The event that really soured me on that course occurred the week before we were scheduled to discuss Blood Meridian. Now on the first day of class, Professor Wuss had explained why he had selected each book on the reading list and described it in glowing terms, but as we approached Blood Meridian, it was clear that something was awry. The professor looked distressed. "I'm sorry I assigned Blood Meridian," he said. "One of my colleagues pressured me to include it on the reading list. I just started reading it and I find the violence disturbing. Frankly, I couldn't get past page 57."

The next week when he asked the class what they thought of the book, you wouldn't believe what they said: "Disturbing." "Appalling." "Couldn't get past page 57."

(Page 57, for those familiar with the novel, is where our hero stumbles upon the dead-baby bush. It's a pretty clear indication that the reader will be spending the next 300 pages in Hell.)

Now I'm just contrary enough to have been annoyed by the professor's attempt to dictate students' responses to the book, so I had read the whole thing--and from casual conversations before class, I knew a few others had read it too. But when the professor asked how many people had finished the book, my hand was the only one that went up.

The favored disciples shook their heads as if I'd just admitted to eating small children for breakfast, and the professor demanded that I defend the book. "You assigned it--you defend it" was what I wanted to say, but that would not have been wise. (Given his specialization, that professor could easily have ended up on my dissertation committee, and I can thank my lucky stars that he did not). The class was three hours long. I did my best.

For years I've wondered whether Blood Meridian was really worth all that fuss, because it would be ridiculous to be publicly crucified over a book that isn't really very good. So finally this year I decided to read it again, and the verdict is mixed.

Let's admit right at the start that the violence is disturbing, but on the other hand, the worst violence is described with the same sort of affectless prose we encounter in some of those Old Testament passages dealing with dashing babies' heads against the rocks or chopping a concubine into 12 chunks for easy mail delivery. More disturbing is the fact that some of the violence inspires really beautiful prose, such as the vivid passage in which a man's death by burning is described in words that flame right off the page.

Is it acceptable to make art out of evil? That would have made a great discussion question in that long-ago grad-school class, but it would have been difficult to discuss without some reference to the book that no one had read. It's a question that comes up in reference to Holocaust literature and, more recently, literature about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The same question could be asked about, for instance, Dante's Inferno, but the Inferno is not the end of the story: Hell might be full of wretched people gnawing on each others' necks, but Paradise is always ahead.

McCarthy, on the other hand, offers Hell without the promise of Paradise. If McCarthy's purpose was to immerse readers in the problem of pain and rub their noses in the type of evil that like a roaring lion searches to and fro seeking whom it may devour, then the book is a success, but it's not for the faint of heart. I wouldn't recommend it to Professor Wuss or his ilk. It takes a strong stomach to walk through Hell, and some are just not up to the journey.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


This morning I wondered when I would be able to squeeze a walk into my busy day: with papers to grade, cabbages to chop, and an essay to revise, it just didn't look like the right weekend for a walk. But the day had barely started when suddenly a walk insinuated itself into my schedule, just between the time I abandoned the car on the side of the highway and the time when the nice man in the white pickup truck offered me a ride.

It wasn't a flat tire this time but something more challenging. I was driving my husband's car because he needed my van to haul all the veggies and home-made bread to the Farmers' Market, and I had a few errands to run before I joined him there, the most important being the task of getting the bank to change a bunch of 20-dollar-bills into ones and fives for the Market cashbox, so that I was carrying significantly more cash than I normally do, not to mention that I had my camera bag with all the fancy lenses in it and a travel mug (why didn't I leave that in the car?) and a library book, so when the car finally cruised to a stop in an unsavory neighborhood beside a busy highway, I was a little nervous. But what could I do? The car would not go on.

I can't really blame a 16-year-old Honda CRX with 185,000 miles on it for wanting to take a rest, but it could have given me a little more warning. I had no idea anything was wrong until I turned right onto the highway and tried to shift into first gear, but it wouldn't. The gearshift lever just flopped around as if unattached to anything. I let the car coast down the hill and pulled over when it ran out of steam, and then there was nothing to do but walk.

I walked past a house surrounded by a big chain-link fence decorated with signs saying "Beware of the Dogs." I walked past a construction site, quiet on Saturday, and a bar, closed at 8 a.m., and an old farm house with boarded-up windows and a saggy roof. I could see the interstate in the distance and hear the sound of trucks and travelers zipping past at 70 miles per hour, and I tried to send some silent signals begging them to take this exit and drive my way, but no. Pleasant day for a walk, I thought, but that was just whistling in the dark--if I could whistle.

Finally a local landscaper stopped and gave me a ride to the Farmers' Market, where I grabbed the van and finally got a start on my immense to-do list. At least I can cross off the walk--except it was never on the list to begin with.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Score one for the flies

So I'm out in the garden stooping and squatting to pick hot peppers when suddenly a horsefly as big as Connecticut discovers my sweaty back, much in the way Christopher Columbus discovered America: "Look! A vast expanse of unclaimed territory bulging with natural resources--and mine, all mine!"

Meanwhile, I'm suddenly straightening up with a yelp: "Hey! If you haven't noticed, I'm sort of using this back right now, so buzz off!"

But the fly not only fails to listen, but he also notifies his extended family of an unprotected back in the pepper sector, and before you know it I'm spending half my time bending to pick peppers and the other half standing and swatting myself spastically with my visor or whatever else happens to be at hand, including, once, a red chili, which was less effective at discouraging the horseflies than you might think. One time I knocked the biggest horsefly to the ground, but he was only stunned. Before I could squash him, he was buzzing around my back just out of my reach.

I somehow finished picked my peck of peppers and headed for the house, where a careful examination revealed three big horsefly welts on my shoulder, neck, and back--but don't worry about me. A horsefly bite is no more painful than, say, being beaten repeatedly about the shoulders with a ball-peen hammer.

Today's score: horsefly 3, human 0, but I'll survive to swat another day.

How to read Terry Eagleton

"In everyday life, talking about imaginary people as though they were real is known as psychosis; in universities, it is known as literary criticism."

So says Terry Eagleton in his entertaining book How to Read a Poem. While the book provides a fount of helpful information about the history of literary criticism and the relationship of form and content in poetry, I'm mostly enjoying his pithy asides, such as the statement on the first page that "[l]ike thatching or clog dancing, literary criticism seems to be something of a dying art."

What nightmare haunts the literary critic? "Literary critics live in a permanent state of dread--a fear that one day some minor clerk in a government office, idly turning over a document, will stumble upon the embarrassing truth that we are actually paid for reading poems and novels. This would seem as scandalous as being paid for sunbathing or having sex."

How is a poem different from a candy bar? "People sometimes talk about digging out the ideas 'behind' the poem's language, but this spatial metaphor is misleading. For it is not as though the language is a kind of disposable cellophane in which the ideas come ready-wrapped."

How is a poem different from an e-mail message? "[T]hey treat the poem as though its author chose for some eccentric reason to write out his or her views on warfare or sexuality in lines which do not reach to the end of the page. Maybe the computer got stuck."

And so on. I'm halfway through the book so I've reached the part where he writes in depth about specific ways to approach and analyze poetry, and while my goal is to determine how useful this book might be in an undergraduate survey class, I'll keep the book even if I decide not to use it in class--primarily because it's pleasant to spend time with someone who shares my peculiar psychosis.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Summertime, sort of

This afternoon I've been transported to next summer without the benefit of a time machine. How? By writing a proposal for a summer research grant.

I can't tell you reliably what I'll be doing in the middle of next week, but today I have produced an action plan and timetable showing what I expect to be doing all next summer, research-wise. It's a little early to submit the proposal, but I want to write it while the research I've already done is still fresh in my mind. This has forced me to look over what I accomplished on this project in summer 2007, and you know what? It's pretty cool.

I just hope the faculty development committee finds it as cool as I do, because if I get the grant, I can spend all next summer immersed in this cutting-edge piece of literary scholarship without worrying about teaching summer classes. Go, grant proposal! Make it so!

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Cantaloup vs. Reality

I came home tonight to find on the table a cantaloup straight from the garden--the sweetest, freshest, juiciest cantaloup I have ever tasted--and it could not have come at a better time. I made it through the first week of classes with plenty of energy and optimism, but yesterday, I hit the wall named Reality and came home feeling flattened.

So we took a walk and looked at red-tailed hawks and saw an oriole, which helped a little, and then today I went out to lunch with a person who can be relied on to cheer me up, which helped more, and then I stopped by for a chat with someone I rarely see, which helped even more, and then I came home and found that cantaloup. In a one-on-one smackdown between the cantaloup and Reality, the cantaloup wins.

Still, I'm taking ome leftover cantaloup to campus tomorrow just in case Reality once again rears its ugly head.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Laboring on Labor Day

"Why are we here?"

When my student asked the question this morning, he was not introducing a metaphysical exploration into the meaning of life. Rather, it was a practical question: Why are we here having class when everyone else is off having picnics?

"It's Labor Day," I said. "We labor."

But it is a legitimate question: on a campus bulging with really smart people, why can no one figure out how to put a Monday holiday into the academic calendar? My two children are split on this--one has classes today and the other does not--but the one who has the day off illustrates the problem: since her classes started last Tuesday and she has no classes today, she'll be three weeks into the semester before her Monday classes ever get a chance to meet.

On my campus we have a number of labs and a few evening classes that meet only on Mondays, so a Monday holiday means a week's worth of missed work. But surely other colleges figure out how to avoid this problem, so why can't we?

Some people have the day off: the secretaries and janitors and other support service employees are enjoying their family picnics today, which means we're having classes in buildings that haven't been cleaned since Friday. But because that's the way it's always been done and because no one is sufficiently motivated to find a solution, the rest of us labor on Labor Day.

And that's why we're here. Next question?