Monday, March 31, 2008

Sick season

Of the six full-time faculty members in my department, one is home recovering from surgery, one was in the emergency room last night and won't be in for a few days, one was out sick on Friday, and I'm not feeling so hot myself.

Read my lips, people: no new sicknesses!

Stairway to heaven

I saw a stairway dangling in the sky above my head this morning. At first I didn't know what it was: it looked like just another big chunk of steel being lifted up to the dome of the emerging campus library, but then I remembered that the last bit of steel supporting the dome was installed last week with great hooplah and hurrah.

I saw it first from blocks away from campus, the huge hunk of something dangling from a towering crane, and it was only as I got closer that I recognized it as something I really don't expect to see high above my head: a stairway. We're now one step closer to the finished library--but that first step is kind of high!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

One bird two bird red bird blue bird

I didn't walk far this morning but within the first half-mile I saw one kingfisher chattering by the creek, two eastern bluebirds perched on a phone line, and three (!) red-tailed hawks making slow circles above the meadow.

Birds are back!

Next I'll be listening for the song of the oriole.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Rx for happiness

So I'm griping with a colleague about some of the annoying people we can't seem to avoid when she says, "Sorry I'm so catty...maybe I need to take a nice pill."

And the next thing you know, we notice bright yellow blossoms standing out against the bleak brown deadness of early spring. "Forsythia is blooming!" I say. "There's a nice pill!" We came back smiling.

But is forsythia nice enough to overcome the anguish of spring allergies? Everywhere I go today, someone is sniffling--or coughing or sneezing or reaching for a Kleenex. We've had rain on and off for the past three days, which ought to have washed all the allergens out of the air, but my nose is running and my throat is sore and my head feels crowded. How can something as wonderful as spring make me feel so rotten?

Could I have my forsythia without the pollen, please? That would be just what the doctor ordered.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Answer Man = Obstacle?

The faculty book group was discussing Donald Finkel's Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, so I wanted to take a roll of duct tape to the meeting. Finkel wants us to shut up and let the students (or the book or the activities) do the teaching, but those of us who take up teaching as a profession often like speaking more than listening. The book offers some interesting suggestions for engaging students in the process of inquiry, but I found most interesting Finkel's claim that when we provide all the answers, we "rob the students of their own struggle" and become an obstacle to learning.

Knowing all the answers is how we got where we are, isn't it? Over the years we learned to excel at the process of inquiry and answer enough questions correctly to work our way up to the front of the classroom, where we can serve as founts of knowledge, sources of correct answers.

Now Peter Finkel wants us to shut up--to put wonderful books in front of the students and provide the right circumstances to allow them to struggle toward their own answers. Over the next few weeks we'll be discussing what those circumstances might be, so I guess it's too soon to insist that everyone sit down and shut up. It's just as well that I forgot that roll of duct tape...but I'll keep it handy just in case.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Playing hooky

Today I did something I've never done before: cancelled two classes for no good reason.

There are reasons, of course, and if someone asks me, I'll spout them off glibly: My students are working on group presentations and I want to give them some time to meet outside of class. The online essay they were supposed to read for today has been inaccessible for the past few days. My allergies are acting up and I feel a sinus headache coming on. Besides, it's spring!

But that's not the real reason. The fact is that I'm teaching three large writing-intensive classes this semester and I've fallen behind on grading, and if I don't do something drastic, I'll end up collecting another set of papers before I've finished the previous set. I graded 24 papers last night, and if I can get through another 24 today and then whiz through two sets of quizzes and a half dozen revisions, I'll be more or less caught up.

In all the years I've taught, I've never been this far behind. Of course, I've never taught an overload before or taught an overload while chairing the department or taught an overload while chairing the department, running a search, planning a reading by a visiting author, advising the literary magazine, and coping with the absence of a sick colleague (who came through her surgery just fine). It's all part of the job, I realize, but just for today I need a break.

So instead of teaching my two film classes, I'll shut my door and grade papers. I'm sure the students won't complain about getting an unexpected day off, and if anyone else wants to complain, let them go to my department chair.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

You may already be a winner!

A Prada bag full of sidewalk chalk, a swim in the English Channel, an all-expense-paid trip to Omaha: these were just a few of the prizes I could have won this morning in my Creative Nonfiction class.

The goal of the exercise was to work on arranging words euphoniously, with an ear for rhythm and repeated sounds, and an ideal way to accomplish that is to work with lists. But first we had to generate lists, so the students broke into groups to brainstorm lists of items that could be prizes in a contest. One group listed things, one listed activities, and one listed locations. After each group had generated 20 items, they selected at least five of the items and drafted a letter informing the winner of his or her good fortune.

The letters were creatively banal ("Dear Mr. or Mrs. Individual"), but the lists--well, they were simply incomparable. Let's go to Omaha for some bird-feeding, bear-hunting, cow-tipping, and rhino-wrestling! How about a two-hour visit to lovely Los Angeles followed by a junket across India via third-class train? And I'll wear my Prada bag atop my polo pony for an afternoon chukker in Gary, Indiana.

If these students ever get a chance to put their prize-giving talents to serious use, I fear for the sweepstakes industry. Just listening to the results of the exercise made me feel like a winner!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Heated words over words

The committee was wrestling with a rigorous challenge: whether the document under discussion should use the word "rigorous" or "challenging." After some debate, we moved on to the next major issue: "appropriate," "actively engaged" or "productive"? I've already forgotten what the context was but it was important enough to inspire heated debate amongst seven overworked professors.

This is why committee-inspired prose comes out sounding so awful: clarity, simplicity, elegance, even common sense all fall by the wayside in favor of the phrase that pleases the most people. I confess that I was once a party to the production of what may well be the worst example of committee prose ever perpetrated, a policy statement that begins thus: "A perceived and sometimes real conflict of interest can occur...."

When a committee starts mincing words about the appropriate (or rigorous or challenging) adjective, I experience a perceived and probably real conflict between my interest in serving the college and my desire to write effective prose and I develop a sudden overwhelming urge to become actively disengaged from the writing process. But fortunately, all committee meetings eventually come to an end, and within the hour I've forgotten every detail of the meetings...except that rigorous and challenging debate about the appropriate word.

The rest is silence.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Torture in living color

Two recent articles exploring the lives and motivations of photographers raise similar disturbing questions. The current Atlantic--yes, the one featuring the really unflattering cover photo of Britney Spears--takes readers into the alternately frenetic and boring lives of paparazzi and asks the question, "How did they get that picture?" And then in the March 24 New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris's article "Exposure" examines the complex motivations of Sabrina Harman, who obsessively photographed prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The Atlantic article suggests that celebrities and paparazzi exist in a torturous intertwined dance from which neither partner really wishes to be removed, but the New Yorker article makes a broader statement about public fascination with images of humiliation:

Of course, the dominant symbol of Western civilization is the figure of a nearly naked man, tortured to death--or, more simply, the torture implement itself, the cross. But our pictures of the savage death of Jesus are a byproduct of religious imagination and idealization. In reality, he must have been ghastly to behold. Had there been cameras at Calvary, would twenty centuries of believers have been moved to hang photographs of the scene on their altarpieces and in their homes?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Play ball!

Work is piling up on my desk and I haven't prepared for tomorrow's classes yet, so what did I do this afternoon?

Walked down to the softball field to watch the first few innings of the home opener.

We're not having particularly good weather for softball: torrential rains have left the spectator area muddy and slick, and high winds kept blasting me in the face. I wasn't wearing the right shoes for walking in mud or the right clothes to keep out the cold wind (although I was grateful to be wearing a faux-wrap skirt and not the non-faux kind). And frankly, I'm not even a tremendous fan of softball. I always enjoyed watching my daughter play, but I would have watched my daughter playing tiddly-winks if she'd taken that up instead. I have a few students on the softball team but none of them are my daughter. So why did I walk out and watch the game?

Because a softball game isn't another student draft, another committee report, or another plea for assistance with an annoying problem. Because any problem that arises during a softball game is not going to fall at my feet. Because softball is something I don't have to think about. I can think later. For now, let's play ball!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

One actor, three characters

Interesting activity in today's film classes. We're working on analyzing acting as an element of meaning in film, so we looked at clips of three performances by Robert Duvall: unflappable Tom Hagen in The Godfather, cocky Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, and soul-searching Sonny in The Apostle. All three clips involved meals: Tom Hagen eating while Woltz screams at him, Kilgore enjoying a barbecue on the beach before bombing a Vietnamese village, Sonny eating shrimp during an awkward dinner date. It's amazing how Duvall seems to transform his voice and body to inhabit these very different roles, each character problematic in his own way.

....Which of these three dinners would I most want to share? I hope I'm never that hungry!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A peculiar peddler

In the quiet of the late afternoon I look up from my desk to see standing in the door a flea, a fat one, the fattest flea I've ever seen but nicely dressed, not sloppy like a lot of guys get when they bloat. If my life were The Maltese Falcon he'd be Joel Cairo, which I guess makes me Bogart, if Bogart were an English professor and a woman and still alive, but never mind.

So this flea comes sauntering in like he owns the joint, stops in front of my desk and just taps it gently with his walking stick--tap tap, like that, just to get my attention. "I heard you was looking for a flea," says the flea.

"Am I?" says I.

"That's what they say," he says.

"Who says?"

He taps the desk again. "Never mind who," he says. "I got connections all over. Let's say a little bird told me you was looking to pay a fat flea for a pedagogy workshop."

"But--but wait--there's been a mistake--"

"My sources never make mistakes. Said youse guys need a workshop. Workshops I got." He unbuttons his overcoat and opens it up to show me rows of pedagogy workshops hanging there like fake Rolexes. "What'dya want? Got 'em in face-to-face, hands-on, online, whatever, all your big names--here, this just came in, a genuine learning communities workshop, just a little dent in the corner is all, good as new."

I try to break in but every time I open my mouth he slaps another workshop down on the desk. "Got a great deal here in online diversity workshops, all colors, just fell off the back of a truck, and you want to talk about assessment! Buyers' market in assessment workshops right now, but you'd better get 'em while they're cheap. Custom orders too--just tell me what you want and I'll make you an offer you can't refuse."

"But I don't need any of your workshops!"

The flea looks at me the way Dad looks at the kid who just wrecked the car. "I'm disappointed in you," says the flea. "I hear you have a need and I come right away to fill it, and wha'd I get? Nothin' but lip. What's the point of sendin' for me if you don't want my services?

"But I didn't send for you!" I insist.

"My sources tell me you did," says the flea. "Got the text message right here on my cell phone: says the provost wants the committee to pay a fat flea for a pedagogy workshop. Couldn't be clearer. When the provost says 'Jump,' I say 'How high?' So here I am."

The minute I lay my eyes on that text message, it's like somebody turned on the lights. "It all makes sense now," I say with a smile. "It's just a little misunderstanding is all. See, at the meeting today, the provost didn't ask for a fat flea," says I.

"What kinda flea did she ask for?" says he.

"None at all," says I. "She was trying to say flat fee but she got her words mixed up. A mistake, that's all it was. Simple spoonerism."

"Spoonerisms? I'm all out of those, but I got a great deal on a critical thinking seminar if you're in the market."

"Thanks," I say, getting up from my desk and ease him toward the door, "but don't call us, okay? We'll call you."

"Not so fast! You didn't even look at my symposia--"

But I had already shut the door.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Universal Excuse Generator

  1. Mom and Dad
  2. Professor
  3. Love of my Life
  4. Blog Readers
Please excuse my
  1. failure to phone home
  2. failure to write my term paper
  3. failure to remember your birthday
  4. failure to recall your existence
I was so busy
  1. serving soup to homeless people
  2. attending my grandmother's funeral
  3. writing a term paper for Dr. Demanding
  4. banging my head against the wall until it hurt
that I totally neglected my responsibilities. However, I am prepared to make up for my neglect if you will only
  1. send money
  2. give me an extra credit assignment
  3. bake me some chocolate chip cookies
  4. excuse me for having a life
So let's just put this behind us and move on!

  1. Your loving child
  2. Your diligent student
  3. Your only true love
  4. You lookin' at me?

Friday, March 14, 2008


My students and colleagues have flown south for Spring Break, but the birds stayed around to keep me company.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Spring break without the break

Spring Break is well under way and I've already turned in my midterm grades, so why am I sitting in a cold, empty academic building waiting for the phone to ring?

A professor in my department suddenly needs surgery and will have to miss the second half of the semester, so I'm working on finding people to cover four classes. I've managed three so far, but the fourth is proving more difficult. I have called all my contacts at other colleges, worked my way through my Potential Adjunct Pool, and even called the former chair, who retired two years ago. Those who would like to teach the class can't manage the schedule, and those who can manage the schedule would rather not teach the class.

I have one more feeler out, one more person who could conceivably take it on, so I sit here and wait for him to return my calls when I ought to be anywhere but in the office. It could be worse, I suppose. I could have four classes still to fill instead of one, or I could be the one having the surgery. The worst-case scenario is that I end up teaching the class myself, even though it's outside my area and I'm already teaching an overload, but I'd rather not think about that.

Instead, let's think about the phone and wonder why it isn't ringing.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Recycled metaphors, pre-owned words

Last week I posted this paragraph from The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean because I found the metaphor fresh and compelling. Yesterday I picked up Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (the Moncrieff translation because that's the only one I have) and encountered the very same metaphor:

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

This passage appears at the end of the "Overture,"the opening chapter in which Proust provides a sort of raison d'etre and reading manual for the work as a whole. It's an important enough passage that I should have remembered it when I saw the same image in The Orchid Thief--and maybe, at some level, I did remember it. I hadn't been planning to re-read Proust this week, but by Sunday afternoon, I had already exhausted my Spring Break reading. Maybe some dim memory of that blooming paper image drove me to reach for Proust when I had been inclining toward Dickens.

Was Susan Orlean aware that she was employing a recycled metaphor? Does Proust's use of the metaphor nearly a century ago make it any less fresh and compelling? And where did Proust find the metaphor?

I've always been a sucker for the bright, sparkly image, but this experience reminds me that it is always wise to kick the tires and look under the hood just in case someone is trying to hide a pre-owned vehicle under a shiny new coat of paint.

Wait a minutes...hasn't that used-car metaphor been used before?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Thirteen ways of looking for Wallace Stevens

Somehow, I seem to have misplaced Wallace Stevens. He should be on the syllabus, tucked neatly between William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore (and don't you wonder what they talk about when no one is listening?). But no matter how carefully I look, I just can't find him.

I didn't even realize that I had left Stevens off the syllabus for my American Lit Survey class until I sat down to write the midterm exam, using last year's exam as inspiration. Wallace Stevens was on the exam last year, which means he must have been on the syllabus last year. Why isn't he on the syllabus this year? I don't remember taking him off. Editing error? Momentary lapse of attention? Triumph of my subconscious mind, which still quakes in panic at the memory of that moment in my oral comprehensive exam when I suddenly froze up on being asked to explicate a Stevens poem?

The more important question is whether my students are suffering from the absence of Wallace Stevens. I haven't heard any complaints, but that's not surprising. The survey class is designed to introduce students to the important authors of the era, but for most of them, it is a first-time meeting (and often a final meeting as well). How many introductory survey students would know enough to notice the absence of Wallace Stevens? I suppose I would hear about it if I neglected Robert Frost, but Stevens is a taste many of my students have not yet acquired.

And now they won't, thanks to me. If the Canon Police find out that I'm loosing a whole class full of students into the world without any awareness of Wallace Stevens, they'll brutally beat me about the shoulders with the Norton Anthology of American Literature (and not the shorter version either). So let's hope they don't find out! Let's just keep this between you and me.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Muting the political rhetoric

Something has been lacking in my life lately and I now realize what it is: I have not seen a single televised political ad this year. Not one. This morning I heard an NPR report on a particularly nasty ad campaign, and I was suddenly struck by the dearth of political advertising in my life. We still have a television but it's no longer connected to any service provider and there's no signal out in our hollow, so the screen has gone black.

Am I missing anything exciting? From what I've read, the political rhetoric is no more rational this year than in any other year, but it's much less strident when I encounter it in print than when it assaults me in living color on the television screen. I have heard from some of the candidates. They call me on the phone. They don't listen very well, though--just keep nattering on regardless of any comments I may interject. What kind of relationship can we build based entirely on one-sided conversations?

I look out the window of my office and see posters of a particular candidate looking sincere and serene--but silent. The lack of political advertising in my life has muted the strident rhetoric--but after all the shouting is over, I'll be content to read all about it calmly, privately, and, best of all, silently.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Seeing the blossom

"I read lots of local newspapers and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly any articles that are full of words in combinations that are arresting. In the case of the orchid story I was interested to see the words 'swamp' and 'orchids' and 'Seminoles' and 'cloning' and 'criminal' together in one short piece. Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can't believe there was a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water."
--Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

Monday, March 03, 2008

Lives of quiet desperation?

Highlights from my early-morning inbox:

1. Excuse from a student who represented the college at an out-of-state event and got stranded in Dallas with no flight home.

2. Excuse from a student who broke his elbow skateboarding and therefore wants to turn in a hand-written draft. (But at least he turned it in!)

3. Excuse from a student who can't make it to class because of a sinus infection and therefore wants to turn the paper in on Wednesday.

4. Excuse from a student whose weekend was so exciting that he is suddenly obliged to appear in court.

And some are inclined to envy the young!