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.


When I walked to my car around 6:30 last night, I was definitely going in the wrong direction: all kinds of people were converging on campus to watch the new library's foundation being poured, a 12-hour continuous pour involving many loads of concrete. Little boys on Big Wheels were rattling down the mall to watch the cement mixers line up to offload the cement into a truck that sent the mixture in long tubes down into the pit, a truck that looked like an immense alien inseminating the campus. Students and faculty members gathered on the mall to watch the pour and eat free pizza, and the library director looked as excited as a little boy finding a dump truck under the Christmas tree. I didn't enter the contest to guess how many cubic yards of concrete would go into the foundation and I haven't heard yet who won the $50 prize, but this morning the mall is quiet and the cement mixers are gone and the emerging library has a solid foundation. That's the only prize I need.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

A testy triumph

I just wrote an exam for the first time this semester and I'm so proud of it I'd like to carry it around and show it off a bit, but I wouldn't want it to fall into the hands of the students who will be taking it next week. I'm giving them a study guide, but in this case, giving them the actual exam would be counterproductive.

In general, I'm giving fewer exams and demanding more papers than I used to, primarily because most of my literature classes now fulfill the general education Writing Proficiency requirement so I need to devote significant time to improving students' writing skills. But sometimes an exam is called for, and that's when I get to have some fun.

Writing exams really can be fun. I enjoy putting together a set of questions that will require students to demonstrate the depth and breadth of their mastery of information, and sometimes I allow them to be a little playful or creative. It's very satisfying to write a challenging but balanced exam that brings together ideas and texts in interesting ways, but it's difficult to share that satisfaction with others. The students taking the exam are so focused on getting the answers down that they don't notice or comment on how well the exam is constructed, and my colleagues have exams of their own to worry about, so writing an excellent exam is a solitary pleasure.

This semester, though, I'm enjoying the opportunity to pay attention to my colleagues' exams. As a member of the committee evaluating portfolios assembled by faculty members seeking tenure, promotion, and third-year review, I get to look over the shoulders of colleagues in other disciplines and notice the pains they take in writing exams that matter. I appreciate the artistry that goes into writing many exams, and I enjoy having a part in affirming those efforts.

But I'm not up for review this year so I can't go around showing off my wonderful exams to anyone. You'll have to take my word for it: I just wrote a terrific exam. Let's hope my students agree.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Take your recycling somewhere else

The stack of freshman papers on my desk reminds me why I dislike assigning literary analysis papers to beginning writers: many students think it's so darn clever to recycle papers written for high school English classes. I don't really need to read the same old tired ideas about how Gatsby represents the elusive American Dream and "The Road Less Travelled" is all about the joys of nonconformity, with touching examples from the students' own lives. Any assignment that produces this much recycled nonsense is clearly deeply flawed, but where did I go wrong? Back to square one. It's time to shut down this recycling center.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Let the wild rumpus start!

Kamau Brathwaite's poem "Blues" begins with a section labelled "Basie" that starts like this:

Hunched, hump-backed, gigantic,
the pianist presides above the

And suddenly I'm transported to a Maurice Sendak scene, with Basie playing for a wild rumpus while pink palm trees sway in the breeze. Better romp while we can because when the boat leaves, the rumpus is over.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Finally fall

Bright yellow trees stood out like beacons behind the thick layer of fog blanketing the valley this morning. Fall is finally here: I smell it in the air and feel it in the morning chill. In the garden, the tomatoes are done but the root crops and cabbages are begging to be harvested, and deer are chomping on the sweet potatoes. Yesterday I chopped a turnip so fresh it came open with a snap, and I peeled beets so rich and dark they smelled like earth. Beets, potatoes, cabbage, turnips, parsnips, onions: a pot of borscht, a loaf of home-made pumpernickel, and good company made an excellent way to welcome the season.