Thursday, January 31, 2008

A moving story

"Moving water mains posed," said the headline, but my tired brain couldn't make any sense of it. I mean, I understand the need for mobile phones, but mobile water mains? Why would anyone want underground water lines to shimmy and dance and move around? And what were they posing for? Plumbing-porn mags? Or were those mobile water mains simply impersonating something else, perhaps posing as presidential candidates or police officers? In that case, those moving water mains ought to be arrested. Cuff 'em, Dano.

But wait! Maybe the water mains themselves are not doing the posing! Suppose some person or persons unnamed poses--what? A question about whether water mains should be moved? Perhaps someone in a position to pose such a question proposed that it would be advantageous to move certain water mains, but it sounds odd to speak of a proposal's being "posed," unless it's a particularly photogenic proposal, in which case I stand corrected.

Here's my theory: someone posing as a headline writer moved some some words around to fit the available space and produced a headline that posed more questions than it answered.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Waiting for the other shoe to drop

A colleague and I were comparing notes on our classes today and we agreed that things are going well--maybe too well. "I must be overlooking something important," I said, "because it feels somehow wrong to be enjoying the semester this much."

It's true that I'm a little swamped. I'm teaching an overload, so three days a week I feel as if I'm running from one class to another without any time to take a breath, and on the other two days I'm preparing for the busy days. But so far, I'm managing to get most of my work done without taking a pile of it home. Things may change in February when we have job candidates visiting one after another, but so far, the load is not unpleasant.

And more importantly, I'm really enjoying my time in class. I'm teaching material I love, and the students seem to be responding pretty well. Today I gave the first quiz in the film class, so I'll soon know whether the students are keeping up with the reading assignments or slacking off on the assumption that film is "just entertainment" and they don't need to know all those big words like "duration" and "diegesis." I have decided not to let the slackers bother me. If they don't engage with the material, they will fail the course, which is really their problem and not mine.

So either my semester is going really really well or else I'm living in denial, which is not entirely a bad place to be. It's the old conundrum: is there any real difference between believing that you are happy and actually being happy?

I believe I'd rather not answer that.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A student by any other name

A week into the spring semester and things are going well, mostly. I have 80 students in writing-intensive classes, which is crazy, but yesterday I tested myself on their names and I knew more than half of them, which is better than usual. I knew all but four in the American Lit class and all but six in the morning film class; the afternoon film class, though, is killing me. Twenty-one students but only four women, and the men tend toward the strong, silent type. I don't want to suggest that all tall, quiet guys in baseball caps look alike, but if they don't do something memorable within the first two weeks, I'll never learn their names, which all seem to start with J: Josh, Jason, Justin, Jack. Two Matts and two Chrises in the same class and I don't know which is which. Maybe I'll just settle for "you in the baseball cap," but that would apply to two-thirds of my students.

My upper-level creative nonfiction class is easier: only six students, most of whom I've had before. That promises to be a really fun class. Today we're discussing "The Undertaking" by poet/undertaker Thomas Lynch, an essay that consistently knocks my socks off no matter how many times I read it, and we're working on using concrete details to make abstract ideas accessible to readers.

I've tried using concrete details to make my students' names more accessible to my mind, which is why I know about half of my students' names instead of fewer. I've been taking roll by making students answer a question rather than just saying "Here," and it helps. One day in the American Lit Survey, the class had read Mark Twain's "Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which features three important characters: the unnamed narrator, Simon Wheeler, and Jim Smiley; for roll call, I made each student tell which of those three characters he or she would most like to be and why. It was illuminating, but I'm not sure I dare try the same thing tomorrow with "Daisy Miller." No one would want to be Daisy because she's dead, and, as Thomas Lynch reminds us, the dead don't care.

When I'm dead I'll stop caring about learning my students' names. Now, though, I'm still trying.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Doughnuts in the snow

Yesterday we got home to find four-wheeler tracks in the snow covering our frozen creek. Someone had been doing doughnuts, trusting in the firmness of the intermittent ice just a few feet away from a spot where the water was still freely flowing, and even though I know how dangerous it can be to drive a heavy and expensive piece of machinery on ice that isn't always as thick as it looks, my first thought was: I want to try that!

I didn't, of course. Instead, today I hauled a hefty and expensive pile of technology into the unpredictable classroom environment and did some spins and twirls, not knowing whether the result would be a beautiful pattern or a sudden disaster. Today I kept my head above water, but tomorrow--who knows?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Good has been done here

It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while I'll be in the middle of doing something brilliant in a class and it's working--students are responding, learning is taking place, good work is being done--and a little voice in the back of my mind steps up to the microphone and says, "You're good--you're really good."

I had one of those moments today and I've decided to preserve it for posterity so that in a few weeks, when my students start griping about grades and I finally get to see my fall evaluations with the inevitable comments indicating that the students somehow missed the entire point and purpose of the class, I'll be able to look back and say, "But when I'm good, I'm really, really good."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

You is who here?

That's the question I heard myself uttering this morning in class. Under what circumstances would it be unobjectionable to utter the words "You is who here?"

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pass the tiara

Sometimes I have to wonder why I'm doing what I'm doing. Right now, for instance, I know why I'm typing this very slowly and carefully in two-finger fashion--so that I don't smudge my freshly-applied nail polish. What I don't know is why I polished my nails tonight or why I've recently taken to polishing them several times a week after spending the past 18 or more years not polishing them at all. Have I finally reached Princesshood?

That's the reason I polished my nails the first time: so I could be a princess. To a small girl, becoming a princess seems quite simple: all it requires is a twirly dress, a sparkly tiara, and pink nail polish--and a Fairy Godmother wouldn't hurt.

By adolescence, though, all that pinkness gets swept away to make room for more sophisticated colors like the green glittery nail polish I sported during my seventh-grade year, the polish that made my mother put her hand to her forehead, sigh deeply, and ask if anything was bothering me. Then there were the many little bottles of deep burgundy nail polish one after the other, year after year, after I decided that it was easier to stick with a color I liked instead of constantly trying out something new that might very well turn out to be a hideous mistake.

Then suddenly I was an adult and the proud owner of a white sofa that stayed pristine only until the first time I tried to paint my nails in the living room, at which point it became the white sofa with the pink stain. And then there were children. Somewhere in there I stopped wearing jewelry (because my son was a grabber--I gave up earrings after the first time he pulled one right out of my ear and popped it into his mouth). And then I had a house and two children and a job and grad school, and doing my nails just dropped right off my priority list.

Now it's back on again but I can't come up with a good reason why. People ask. During all those busy years, no one ever asked me why my nails looked as if they'd been trimmed by rabid wolverines wielding hedge-clippers, but now they want to know: what's with nail polish? And I don't know what to tell them. Maybe it's a midlife crisis. Maybe I'm due for a whole-body makeover. Or maybe it's finally my time to be a princess.

Where's that Fairy Godmother when I need her?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Slick brick

The view from my office this morning is amazing: big fluffy snowflakes falling from the sky to coat every surface with a layer of white. It's a good thing I like the view because I'll be stuck here a while. I left the house before the snow started and therefore did not think to take the car that remains maneuverable in snow. Instead, I drove my van, and I was fortunate enough to arrive in town and get it parked just as the brick streets were getting covered with snow--but if I hadn't managed to parallel park in that spot, I would have had to just walk away and leave the car in the middle of the road because it doesn't really go anywhere on slick, snowy brick. Or actually, it goes somewhere, but not where it ought to go, and sometimes it wants to go everywhere at once, which is not the textbook way to negotiate a busy street. So I'm staying put.

Monday, January 21, 2008

In search of lost time

One good thing about teaching a J-term class: all that hard work and high-energy teaching produced a sense of momentum that carried me through the first day of classes without the usual feeling of having been jerked out of a warm, cosy bed and plunked down all unprepared in front of a group of demanding and irrational students. No first-day-of class nightmares either, although I did have a really vivid dream about trying to potty-train a nine-month-old child while stuck in an airport terminal.

I taught my first class this morning in a room so cold I wanted to start a bonfire and my second class in a room so ugly that if I'd allowed my red blouse too close to that orange wall, the students' eyeballs would have exploded. I figured out the technology, distributed syllabi, answered questions, made students write, and went back to my office to read J-term portfolios, which, so far, are pretty good. In a day or two I'll put J-term behind me for good and get on to the business of teaching my current classes, which means I'll be too busy to notice that I seem to have misplaced winter break. By the time I figure out where it went, it'll be spring.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Last week when Paul Bunyan and friends chopped down the big old oak tree threatening the garage, they found that it was hollow--but not empty.

There was no doubt that the tree needed to come down: a few limbs were still producing leaves, but most of it looked pretty dead and if it were to fall the wrong way, it would neatly bisect the new garage and guest room. The problem was finding the time and the tools to get it done: ropes, chains, tractor, and a chain saw sturdy enough to cut through a trunk nearly four feet across.

And helpers, of course. Even Paul Bunyan needs a hand sometime, so in the absence of Babe the Blue Ox, the resident woodsman arranged to have some helpers come out on his day off--and if you're ever in need of someone crazy enough to climb a nearly-dead tree in subfreezing temperatures, let me recommend an English major. The one we called works at the climbing wall in the rec center and was pretty excited about getting up into that tree to attach the chains so the tractor could pull the tree away from the garage when it fell.

I wasn't here to watch the process, but the woodsmen caught it all on videotape. The resident woodsman mans the tractor, ready to pull as soon as the tree starts tilting; the notches have been cut and there's nothing left but to knock out the last remaining bit of wood with a wedge and axe. Helper 1 runs the camera while Helper 2 swings the axe: swing, clunk, nothing; swing, clunk, CRACK--and suddenly everything is moving. Helper 2 scampers up the bank clumsily ("Why didn't I drop the axe?" he wonders later), but he needn't worry: the tree is falling the other way, right down toward the meadow, knocking a limb or two off another tree along the way but otherwise causing no real damage. When you watch the tape in slow-motion, you see one huge limb come tumbling down out of the sky long after the rest of the tree has landed with a FWUMP.

Afterward, we looked inside. The tree was hollow from the ground to about 10 feet up, and the stump still standing could easily shelter a full-grown bear, but that's not what we found inside. To judge from the many rusted bits of metal we found inside the hollow, sometime in the distant past that tree must have absorbed a section of fence. No wonder it was dying! You can't feed an oak tree wire and chain and expect it to keep standing for centuries.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Clearing the decks (not!)

I like to start a new semester with a clean desk, a clean house, and a clear inbox, but spring semester starts Monday and so far I'm batting .300.

After a veritable festival of deleting and responding, I have nearly emptied my inbox for the first time since December. My house, on the other hand, looks as if it has been hosting the annual Dust, Dirt, & Clutter Congress, and my desk looks as if a row of filing cabinets exploded on it. There's a big pile of stuff from last semester that needs to be filed and forgotten, a pile of books I borrowed from a colleague to use for my J-term class, a pile of assessment data that has somehow failed to assemble itself into a spreadsheet, a pile of information about our two job searches and the visiting author coming in March, a pile of unread submissions for the literary magazine, a pile of spring semester syllabi, and a pile of miscellaneous stuff that requires some sort of action or response but I'm too exhausted to figure out what--and on Monday there will be another pile: the final portfolios from my J-term humor writing students. Yes: I get to start the new semester with 250 pages of student writing on my desk! At least it's good student writing. If I had to start the semester with 250 pages of freshman writing on my desk, I believe I'd run away.

I can't get into the office this weekend because the whole building is closed for floor-waxing (and won't my colleagues who went on the cruise be surprised when they get back and realize that they can't get in their offices!), so the desk piles will still be waiting for me on Monday, along with all the new things that will start piling up on it right away. Today I'll clean house. I'd rather clear the decks and start the new semester with all the detritus of the previous semester neatly whisked away, but if that's not possible, the least I can do is dust.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

What happens in J-term stays in J-term

Some of my colleagues are teaching courses while cruising the Caribbean, so I'm sure they'll have some great stories to tell when they return--as well as some great stories not to tell. Not every story needs to make the trip back home.

I've enjoyed some similar freedom in my J-term class without ever leaving the cold north:
  • I have taught an entire class from a seated position--in a very comfy chair.
  • I have worn striped purple socks so fuzzy they make you want to pet them--in the classroom.
  • I have led a class discussion of testicular humor.
  • I have read and given positive feedback to a student writing about men's bathroom habits.
  • I have ordered pizza for the entire class on the last day--with the department credit card.
See what happens when you let an English professor outside the box? I hope nobody tells the Powers That Be about my intransigence; if the right people were to find out, they might get very, very angry and cancel next year's J-term.

But wait--they've already done that!

FAC 101: Humoring Colleagues

So I'm at this big faculty hoop-de-doo hobnobbing with colleagues I haven't seen since Finals Week when I keep encountering the same annoying conversation. It happens whenever a faculty member asks me what I've been doing over break and I mention that I'm teaching a J-term class, and then my colleague wants to know what kind of class I'm teaching, and when I say "Humor Writing," that's when the expression occurs: the cynical eye-roll accompanied by the little knowing nod, the sort of expression I would expect to encounter if I admitted to teaching Piece O' Cake 101 or Introduction to Loafing.

"It's a demanding course," I insists.

"But are you learning any good jokes?"

"It's not about jokes," I insist with a sigh. "It's about writing."

"Right, but how hard can it be? Anyone can be funny."

This is where I start to lose patience. "Good humor writing is good writing," I say, but then the eye-rolling starts again.

This conversation was annoying the first time, but by the third time, I realized I was fighting a losing battle. I may as well admit it: I'm teaching a course that few of my colleagues consider serious academic work. Those colleagues who consider me a lightweight teaching a laughable course would, no doubt, hold me in higher regard if I claimed to have spent the entire break watching daytime television while organizing my recipe files. "I made it as far as the Eggplant section before I got distracted by Oprah's search for the best pizza in Chicago," I'll say, "but at least I've got a meaningful project to tackle over Spring Break."

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

High-flying embroidery

I am delighted to report that my son the pilot-in-training has taken to the skies after solving his flight-related embroidery needs--and it didn't require a stitch of work on my part.

He's been looking forward to getting into the cockpit for quite some time, but first he had to overcome a variety of obstacles:

Ground school: check.
Sectional exam: check.
Logbook: check.
Radio headset: check.
Appropriate embroidery: check.

The embroidery is part of the pilot training dress code at his college: students don't take to the air if they're not dressed appropriately. Now if the college asked the students' mothers what kind of attire might be appropriate for their darling boys to wear in the air, we might have suggested an asbestos suit equipped with a personal jet pack and auto-inflating air bags, but no one asked us. Instead, he's required to wear dress pants with a white dress shirt and tie or a white polo shirt embroidered with the college's official logo, and since today's young men find ties a tad intimidating, it's no surprise that they tend to go for the polo shirt.

Except the polo shirt with official logo costs $40 at the college bookstore, and he needs several, particularly if he's planning to do any sweating in the cockpit--and let's not even think about why he might be sweating in the cockpit. I'm trying very hard not to think about the fact that the young man in the cockpit is the same one I taught to drive just a few short years ago, and I do recall some times when sweating occurred in the car--so I guess it's just as well that I'm not the one teaching him to fly!

So: unwilling to either wear a tie or pay $40 for a polo shirt, my frugal son betook himself to a local business establishment that specializes in embroidering appropriate logos on white polo shirts for aspiring pilots, allowing the young man to leap the last obstacle and take to the air. Now he's flying, which makes him pretty happy and makes me happy too--as long as he eventually learns how to land.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The She-Devil speaks

Milestone alert! Today for the first time a student called me a "She-Devil" in the middle of class. What did I do to deserve such a sobriquet? I'm making my students play surgeon with their own writing, and it hurts.

First, each student had to listen as a classmate read a chunk of his or her essay out loud, exactly as written. There's nothing like hearing one's own words read out loud to develop a sudden humiliating awareness of awkward repetitions, inelegant syntax, and inaptly omitted words.

Then each student had to choose a paragraph of a classmate's essay, underline all the verbs, and suggest an alternative for each...and when they'd finished that, they passed the essay to another classmate, who had to suggest yet another alternative for each verb. It gets more difficult with each repetition, but we ended up with some wonderful suggestions.

Finally, each student had to select a 200-word passage from his or her own writing and re-write it using half as many word. "You are a She-Devil!" hissed one student. I can't wait to hear what she says when I make her re-write it again using no more than 50 words.

Why? Because I delight in encouraging students to pay very careful attention to their own writing, and if it hurts a little--what do you expect from a She-Devil?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Random bulletin points of (non)randomness

  • First of all, I resist the very idea of "random bullet-points." Bullet points by their nature imply a certain orderly arrangement of ideas, the sort of progression from point A to point B that is the antithesis of randomness.
  • Likewise "random notes." If you really want random notes, set a bunch of squirrels loose on a piano keyboard.
  • Even more annoying is the way my students use "random" to describe any piece of writing organized in an unfamiliar manner. I have heard students refer to the writing of Henry Adams as "random," which is sort of like calling Britney Spears "predictable" or "a model parent."
  • "The author did not just pull words out of a hat and toss them on the page any which way," I tell my non-random students. "The words are arranged that way for a reason. If that reason is not apparent to you on first glance, maybe you ought to look again."
  • Still, there's something appealing about the opportunity to just plop ideas down as they pop into my head, like this: 17! Mustard! Chattanooga!
  • But even those ideas are not really random, are they? I asked my mind for some random ideas and it sent me some, of which I chose these three, discarding others for various reasons.
  • Moreover, my mind could send me only those ideas with which it was already equipped and which were accessible on short notice.
  • I suspect that deep down, at a level inaccessible to my waking self, my mind is a seething mass of randomness, but if I could dip a bucket down into that chaotic well, I might come up with nothing more interesting than "17! Mustard! Chattanooga!"
  • And who really wants to read that?
  • So I believe I'll opt out of the whole "Random Bullet-Points" genre and revert to my usual plodding style...except now I've forgotten what I was going to say.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dust, rust, dirt, and noise

My campus right now is a great place to be if you're a fan of dust, rust, dirt, and noise. In my building, brilliant blue tape lends a festive touch to doors, the better to keep the dust off the freshly-waxed floors of classrooms vacant until spring semester starts. Dust from plaster and pulverized stone hangs in the air and creeps into computers, coffeepots, and photocopiers, interfering with my ability to do my job.

While the dust appears where it doesn't belong, huge holes in the walls open up to make way for elevator installation. It's not a particularly quiet job, but it's no noisier than, say, having someone beating on my door with a baseball bat all day every day. I wouldn't trade jobs with the elevator installers, who had to do some excavating downstairs to make room for the elevator shaft but found that, in the absence of an elevator, there really wasn't any good way to haul all that dirt up the stairs and out of the building except by carrying it out in buckets.

Compared to that, carrying my laptop computer across campus every day is a piece of cake. I'm teaching my J-term class in another building, where, theoretically, we won't be bothered by dust and noise, except that the custodians are cleaning all the floors in the building with equipment that sounds like they're running a car wash in the hallway--and besides, the building is just across from the construction site for the new library, where huge steel girders are being brought together all day long with no more noise than you'd hear if they were dropping college vans off the roof of the rec center.

I worry about how orange those beams look: are we supposed to build with rusty beams? But fortunately, I'm not responsible for supervising the purveyors of dust, rust, dirt, and noise. Let someone else make the tough decisions, and I'll do my part simply by sitting back and griping.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Wrong-way weather

This week we're enjoying spring-like weather, which is a nice change from the wicked winter weather we had a week ago, but let's face it: 70 degrees in January is just wrong.

Dr. Mojo and the Assessment Enforcers

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a college professor in possession of a large chunk of free time must be in want of assessment.

I haven't written my assessment report for the fall semester. The data sit on my desk like a pile of radioactive waste, daily emitting rays of doom; the numbers demand to be aggregated into an Excel spreadsheet and analyzed to within an inch of their lives, but I'm having motivation problems.

If I just ignore the pile, what's the worst that could happen? I suppose I could receive a visit from the Assessment Committee, AKA Dr. Mojo and the Assessment Enforcers, who might expose me to various cruel and unusual methods of torture: they could beat me silly with their pocket protectors, for instance, or assault me repeatedly with committee-constructed institutional prose. I picture Dr. Mojo standing in the corner, arms folded, steely eyes glaring, as the Assessment Enforcers circle round my chair spitting out phrases like "measurable outcomes," "general education cognate areas," and "quality assessment activities." I might be able to resist all that, but if they start browbeating me about the need "to infuse the principles and benefits of continuous improvement into the culture of the college," I'll wilt like a sprig of watercress at a hot spring.

The right way to avoid this scenario is to write the report, but my desperate mind keeps casting about for another way of escape. What I need is for a friendly dog to wander into my office and eat all those tasty data. They're not very nourishing, but dogs will eat anything--which is probably the only characteristic they share with Assessment Committees.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Where's Paul Bunyan when you need him?

If Paul Bunyan lived at my house, he'd make short work of the big dead tree beside the garage, transforming it into stacked firewood before breakfast, and then he would pluck the remains of the old footbridge cables off the big tree where they've been embedded for years and twirl them around and around in the air until they made a mini-tornado, which would touch down and pick up all the leftover building materials and old tires behind the sheds.

Then we'd set him to work on the shed-moving problem. We've been contemplating the shed-moving problem for quite some time, and it looks like it's going to take Bunyanesque effort to empty out the old garden shed, move it down a steep hill with lots of trees in the way, and set it up next to the garden. Paul Bunyan would just hitch up Babe and the thing would be moved in two shakes of a Blue Ox's tail, but in the absence of Bunyan and Babe, that shed is not going anywhere.

Of course, if Paul Bunyan lived at my house, we'd have to knock down some walls to make a room big enough to fit him and raise the roof so his he could stand up straight--and where would we put Babe? An ox that big would exhaust the resources of our meadow before next Tuesday. I would have to stay home all day and cook flapjacks, stack after stack of 'em, just to keep the big man moving, and before you know it I'd be out of a job, and then who would pay the mortgage? If Paul Bunyan lived at my house, he would eat us out of house and home--a high price to pay for a little shed-moving!

Do you think I should call The Incredible Hulk?

Monday, January 07, 2008

The party's over

My full house is emptying out again: the Texas kid left Saturday and the Kentucky kid leaves tomorrow, and yesterday the Kentucky kid's sweetheart left--but not before fixing my computer and the dehumidifier and fiddling with the dishwasher. It's good to have a handyman in the house, even temporarily.

Today the Kentucky kid is busy taking down the Christmas tree and all the decorations; by the time she leaves tomorrow, all signs of the holidays will have disappeared. The house will feel emptier than ever, with just me and the old guy staring at the bare walls. The festive food is all gone, so we're ready to start digging the mystery meats and leftover bits of casserole out of the freezer. The party's over. Time to get back to real life.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dr. Dull and the Looniversity

The job applicants we interviewed last week can be roughly divided into two groups: those we'd gladly listen to all day long and those who made our eyes glaze over at "Hello." Over the course of 24 interviews, my colleague J developed some pretty effective techniques for dealing with both kinds.

Suppose the candidate was a Froot Loop who'd just beamed in from Planet Flake: interesting, but clearly not firmly enough connected to reality to work at a small college at the edge of Appalachia. While the rest of us were trying to figure out graceful ways to end the interview, J would lean forward with interest and egg the candidate on with question after question, inviting him to share grand plans for transforming our down-to-earth campus into an outpost of Loon University.

This produced an entertaining spectacle, which is more than I can say for J's method of dealing with the candidate who not only was not interesting himself but somehow managed to suck all the interestingness from the room--and possibly from the entire Chicago metropolitan area. While the rest of us struggled to steer Dr. Dull toward more scintillating topics, J would lean back in his chair and lose himself in the white noise of the interview room, nodding rhythmically and occasionally making some vague agreeable sound, like "Um-hm" or "Right!" I would look at him, my eyes pleading for rescue from this fount of dullness, but J would just nod and grin and say "Mm-hm."

When we finally managed to dislodge Dr. Dull from the table, J offered a single comment: "He just about drove me to DefCon 4."

DefCon 1: "So, do you have any questions for us?"
DefCon 2: "It's been great talking to you! Have a great trip back!"
DefCon 3: Stand up and extend the arm for a farewell handshake.
DefCon 4: Excuse yourself to visit the rest room or catch a train.

I don't know what comes after DefCon 4, but if we're ever in that situation, I'm sure J will know what to do.

January teaching tips

How to teach a three-hour morning class on a cold, snowy day in January when everyone in the room would rather be at home in front of a roaring fire:

1. Pace yourself. A three-hour class is not the Boston Marathon; it's just two 75-minute classes back-to-back with a break in the middle. Teaching a 75-minute class is a piece of cake, so two in a row should be double the cake.

2. Speaking of cake, I recommend cupcakes. J-term courses tend to attract nontraditional students, who often have children, who may have recently celebrated a birthday, which may have generated cupcakes in the low three figures. If a student offers to clear the house of cupcakes by bringing the leftovers to class, the only correct answer is "Yum."

3. Don't look out the window. There's nothing out there for you. Everything you need is in the classroom, provided that you don't need a roaring fire, a good book, a cup of cocoa, and a cat. If you do need that, then what are you doing teaching a J-term class?

4. If you were stranded on a desert island and you could choose any 11 people to share the experience, you'd probably select someone who could build a boat, someone who could create nourishing three-course meals from palm fronds, sand, and bat guano, and someone who could tell stories to keep everyone laughing through the intestinal cramps, but you didn't get to choose these 11 students, did you? You have no idea what kinds of skills they bring to the table. Find out. Use them.

5. Sit down and shut up--often. You can't lecture for three hours straight (and no one would listen to you if you could), so make the other 11 people in the room do some of the yapping.

6. Make sure the classroom is comfortable--but not too comfortable. A cozy chair in a warm room will result in droopy eyelids and the occasional accidental snort. Keep it cool and keep 'em moving.

7. Make sure to select a topic that you can teach without too much outside preparation, but make sure you still have more to learn. Choose a topic you know too well and you'll bore yourself silly (and, possibly, the students too); choose a topic you don't know well enough and you'll spend every waking hour preparing for class, which leaves next to no time for the aforementioned fire, book, cocoa, and cat.

8. Do the assignments along with the students. There's no better way to discover the flaws in an assignment than to try to do it yourself in the same time available to the students. For instance, if the homework demands that they write a set of humorous instructions for any task, then you could write a set of instructions for how to survive a three-hour class on a cold, snowy January morning when everyone in the room would rather be home in front of a roaring fire.

Nah. It'll never happen.