Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Syllabus smackdown

Dear Student,

I am sorry to inform you that, contrary to your fond belief, you are not exempt from meeting the demands of the syllabus for my class.

I am aware that you were absent on the first day of class when we discussed the syllabus, but I am also aware that I gave you a copy of the syllabus when you finally, two weeks into the semester, honored the class with your presence. "Let me know if you have any questions on the syllabus," I said, but you didn't ask any questions so I assumed that you understood it. Furthermore, I clearly recall giving you a second copy of the syllabus after you lost the first one, and then after you lost the second copy, I pointed out that the syllabus is also easily accessible online.

Your grades in the class are also easily available online, so I'm not sure why you waited until the final week of class to look them up. I understand that you're a creative genius, a free spirit who finds the whole idea of grades and deadlines oppressive, but if that's the case, isn't your current panic about the grade a bit hypocritical? Your policy of not caring about grades and deadlines has resulted in a pretty pathetic grade, which would not be any surprise if you had bothered to read the syllabus.

I am aware that you also did not read (and perhaps did not purchase) the textbooks for the class or do most of the work, although the work you did produce was competent enough. I suspect that you are quite satisfied with your own writing skills and hope that those writing skills will someday usher you into a realm in which you will be rewarded for exercising creativity without reference to oppressive deadlines or rubrics or performance expectations--but if that world exists, you're not there yet.

You are here in my classroom, where the syllabus applies equally to all students. I am aware that you consider it demeaning to be forced to fit your creative talents to the expectations of a tyrant wedded to the oppressive world of grades and deadlines, but it's entirely possible that you could learn some valuable lessons from a professor who has actually earned a living by writing. One important lesson I've learned in my writing career is that writers who can't meet deadlines don't have careers.

Similarly, students who don't follow the syllabus don't pass the class. It's that simple. If you find my expectations oppressive, feel free to file an academic grievance with the provost's office. Instructions and deadlines for academic grievances are clearly outlined in the student handbook, which is probably located right next to your class syllabus.

Struck speechless

If literature has nothing to say to tragedy, then what good is it?

This question arose in my American Lit Survey class today during a discussion of a section of Art Spiegelman's Maus and some poems responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The fact that the Norton Anthology, like so many others, divides American literature into eras based on wars suggests that literature does have something to say in response to tragedy. Sometimes what literature says to tragedy is that there's really nothing that can be said, no gesture sufficient to respond to the enormity of the situation. D. Nurske's poem "The Reunification Center," for instance, catalogs the unusual offerings distraught survivors pressed on those working through the chaos following the collapse of the towers: "we offered aspirin, / stock certificates, a child's rocking horse, / a teddy bear with an empty eye socket, / but no one consented to receive that treasure."

I don't have any eyeless teddy bears to offer my colleague whose husband died unexpectedly yesterday morning. Everyone who heard the news was stunned speechless, unable to comprehend that a person we just saw last week walking hand-in-hand with his wife has suddenly left us without warning. People keep pointing out what a genuinely nice person he was, as if nice people ought to be immune from death, and we wonder what we ought to do for our colleague. Of course there will be the common gestures, but cards and flowers seem inadequate to the shock.

What would I want if I suffered such a loss the week before finals? I would want someone to bring the loved one back to life, but resurrection is beyond the power of poets and professors alike. I would want someone to take care of my classes, my advisees, my meetings and grading and assessment reports, but my grieving colleague's close-knit department will manage that. What can the rest of us do?

And if we can't do anything, then what are we good for?

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Under siege by student writers

I'm under siege this afternoon, doing individual conferences on final paper drafts with one film student after another all day long. I did the same thing yesterday and I'll do the same thing tomorrow. These conferences are optional, so naturally, the students who are most in need of help with their writing have not signed up, while the best students are coming in to work one-on-one to perfect their papers.

The American Lit Survey class turned in drafts last week after an in-class peer review session, and I was so impressed by the excellent suggestions students made on each others' drafts that I found very little to suggest myself. Meanwhile, my creative nonfiction class is workshopping final paper drafts all this week. They're so proficient at reading and responding to each others' papers that I generally get to sit there and listen, but this morning I had to interject. "You've all written lovely personal essays," I said, "but unfortunately, that's not what the assignment calls for." Good thing they've got a week to revise!

I've left just enough space between student appointments to snatch a few minutes here and there for lunch and class preparations and trips to the rest room, but as soon as I get started on something, I look up to see another student at my door seeking help. Which is fine. I enjoy working with them, particularly when they're working so hard. Still, I'll be glad when tomorrow is over and I can get back to business as usual--which, starting Friday, will include grading all those papers that now exist only as drafts.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Charmingly insouciant with earthy undertones

You know how real estate ads tend to tout properties with "mature plantings"? You never see listings proclaiming "immature plantings" or "charmingly insouciant plantings" or "plantings in the final stages of decrepitude," but I know those plantings exist. In fact, some of them exist very close to home.

On a scale from "infantile" to "senescent," the plantings around my house appear to be entering adolescence. They've learned the lesson of the birds and the bees: namely, if you want to attract birds and bees, you need to put on a show. The lilacs and azaleas and even the tiny pink dogwood tree have suddenly transformed themselves from scrawny, scraggly collections of sticks to plantings bursting with va-va-voom blooms.

In the upper meadow an apple tree gnarly enough to date back to the Johnny Appleseed era has attracted a riot of buzzing bumblebees. Dead branches are destined to flavor meat smoked for our departmental picnic, but the living branches have put forth blossoms of such density that the scent carries across the meadow and down the hill. Meanwhile, the pear trees we planted last summer are producing their first blooms, along with the apple, cherry, and almond trees we planted the previous year.

The least mature plantings in our emerging orchard are the two kiwi vines, male and female, planted just yesterday uphill from the ancient apple tree. It'll take two years or three for those vines to start casting the first lingering looks at one another, but one of these days, they'll mingle and produce fruit. For now, though, they're positively infantile, two toddlers playing in the dirt, stretching their roots out to experience their new environment.

To a writer of real-estate ads, these immature plantings would be inconsequential, even invisible. To me, though, they are a sign of hope, a promise for the future. The gnarly apple tree might be nearing senescence, but it can't stop the kiwi vines from climbing toward the sun.

Friday, April 25, 2008


Today I heard a student complaining that it's not her fault she drinks so much--she can't help it if there's "nothing to do here but drink."

Whenever I hear that complaint, I'm tempted to hand over a list of things a student could do instead of drink. Homework, for instance, or pulling the weeds from the flower beds behind the rec center. But I suspect that the student really wants to do something that will help her forget the fact that she's in the weeds vis-a-vis homework. If it's oblivion she's after, then drinking is one way to find it.

But what if she seeks an activity that does not necessarily result in oblivion? I recommend a portable Scrabble board. A student with a Scrabble board is never at a loss for something to do.

Not that anyone asked.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Stooping for asparagus

I picked the first asparagus of spring tonight, just five small stalks, not even enough for a single meal, but more asparaguses are poking their little heads through the earth and even more will come up if I get the weeds out of the way. I went after the weeds with a vengeance, pushing in the potato fork to loosen the roots and then stooping and grabbing and pulling up one pestilent weed after another, and now I'm sore all over. Apparently the muscles I've developed this winter with all that walking and climbing are not the same ones I need for stooping and pulling.

There's certainly nothing wrong with the muscles in charge of chewing and swallowing. Nothing tastes more like spring than fresh asparagus straight out of the ground.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

River of forgetfulness

The day isn't even half over yet but I have already called several students by either no name or the wrong name and referred to the poet James Whitcomb Riley as Charles Nelson Reilly, who is not at all the same person. Not even close.

It's appropriate, then, that today's reading for American Lit Survey included the Billy Collins poem "Forgetfulness," which begins, "The name of the author is the first to go." I suppose I should be happy I didn't call the poet either Billy Carter or Martha Layne Collins. It's annoying, by the way, to effortlessly recall the name of a former president's black-sheep brother or the name of the first female governor of Kentucky when I can't recall the name of either a familiar student or the poet who wrote "The Happy Little Cripple."

"Whatever it is you are struggling to remember," continues Collins (Billy, not Martha Layne), "It has floated away down a dark mythological river / whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall, / well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those / who have forgotten even how to swim and how to ride a bicycle." I've been heading down that river for a while now, but suddenly the current seems to be picking up speed. Can somebody throw me a lifeline?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Up in the air, junior birdmen!

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I have in front of me a photograph of my son standing in front of the airplane in which yesterday afternoon he took his first solo flight.

Maybe it's the angle of the photo, but the airplane looks teeny, hardly taller than he is. I'm trying to get accustomed to the idea that my younger child is flying around alone in the sky in a piece of equipment that looks not much bigger than a Honda Civic, but my brain cells resist, no matter how many times I look at the photo.

He's leaning his arm on the airplane in a proprietorial manner, the way he leans on his car in his prom picture, as if to mark his territory. He looks happy, like someone who has spent the afternoon blatantly defying the laws of gravity--and, moreover, intends to continue to do so. He's comfortable. He's in his element. He can fly!

And, best of all, he can land.

Puffin prose

In "The Way of the Puffin" in the April 21 New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen traces the origins of a stuffed puffin golf-club cover back to the factory in China, with some visits along the way to Chinese nature reserves and bird-watchers' meetings. First, though, he explains his love-hate relationship with golf:

My difficulty with golf is that, although I play it once or twice a year to be sociable, I dislike almost everything about it. The point of the game seems to be the methodical euthanizing of workday-sized chunks of time by well-off white men. Golf eats land, drinks water, displaces wildlife, fosters sprawl. I dislike the self-congratulations of its etiquette, the self-important hush of its television analysts. Most of all, I dislike how badly I play the game. Spelled backward, golf is flog.

I'm not much of a fan of golf, but I'm a big fan of Franzen's use of parallel structure in the third sentence and the clunky, bumptious phraseology in the second half of the second sentence.

But what does golf have to do with puffins? To find out, you'll have to read the article.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Avoiding the feedback loop

Today I received the fourth request to fill out a campus survey in four days. I have completed two of them because they were very brief, well designed, and relevant to topics of great concern to my working life, but I have thus far avoided responding to the other two. For the benefit of those vast hordes of students, faculty members, and administrators interested in receiving my valuable feedback on various topics, here's some advice:

Don't demand. Ask, request, cajole, wheedle, but don't demand.

Especially don't suddenly pop up in my inbox or in my office and demand that I drop everything and respond to your survey right now. If I tell you I'm busy right now, don't imply that your survey is more important than anything else I might be doing, and don't whine about your deadlines. I have deadlines too, and I'm not going to meet them if I drop everything to help you meet yours.

Pay attention to the wording of questions. If I can't figure out the question, I'm unlikely to come up with a meaningful answer.

Offer me several different ways to respond. Numbered scales are fine, but some questions resist quantification. Text box, anyone?

Explain why you need my expertise on this topic. If you're just looking for warm bodies to fill a quota, go ask some of those people chatting loudly on cell phones in the middle of the hallway and let me get back to work.

If this information has been helpful to you, I would value your feedback...not.

Friday, April 18, 2008

What happens when I spill a whole cup of tea on my desk

Some things get destroyed, including a note pad, some miscellaneous filing, and my desk calendar. Notes written in black ink remain legible, while those written with the gel pen dissolve into green soup, obscuring the name of the person with whom I have an appointment next Thursday at 1:00.

Some things, on the other hand, remain untouched, including a book I borrowed from a student, framed photos of my children, and a pile of ungraded quizzes.

Some things are damaged but salvageable, including a whole stack of papers I need to return today, some of which now feature illegible green blobs where comments used to be. The grades, fortunately, are still legible.

My desktop is now sparkly clean, thanks to my secretary's quick draw on the Windex trigger, but the absence of a desk calendar is a bit disturbing. I need those rows of little boxes to tell me what day it is, what I'm supposed to be doing, who needs me and why: without it, I feel lost, confused, untethered.

Come to think of it, that's not entirely a bad feeling. Toss of the tethers! It's Friday!

At least I think it is.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Upholding mystery

Today is Poem In Your Pocket Day, when people who love poetry carry poems in their pockets to share with their friends, but I have a big problem: no pockets. Since I carry my keys everywhere, I used an alligator clip to attach a poem to my key ring, which will serve as surrogate pocket for today only.

The poem in my surrogate pocket is Denise Levertov's "Man Wearing Bird," one of my favorites because of the wonderful image of the man standing on the lawn of the insane asylum with a pigeon on his head: "This is my pigeon / and I its prophet." The man may be unhinged, but he has a sense of his purpose--a purpose not unlike that of the poet: "I am a column, a pillar of / / righteousness, upholding / mystery...."

Today I'll be upholding mystery in my surrogate pocket. This is my pocket and I its prophet....

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Truth is beauty, except when it isn't

Yesterday a perfect storm of rumor and innuendo swirled across campus, and each time someone told me the latest version of the ugly "truth," I told myself, "It can't possibly get any weirder than this." But it can, it can! It can always get more weird...particularly as it gets less true.

In the end I fled from the craziness and went for a walk around the woods, where I saw the first indigo buntings of the season along with lots of trilliums, spring beauties, and dutchman's breeches. No weirdness there: just honest-to-goodness beauty...but if beauty is truth and truth beauty, then I must have encountered truth as well. I go to the campus to find gossip: to find truth, I go to the woods.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Taking a poem

In "A Poem is a Walk," A.R. Ammons asserts that "every walk is unreproducible, as is every poem. Even if you walk exactly the same route each time--as with a sonnet--the events along the route cannot be imagined to be the same from day to day, as the poet's health, sight, his anticipations, moods, fears, thoughts cannot be the same....If a poem is each time new, then it is necessarily an act of discovery, a chance taken, a chance that may lead to fulfillment or disaster."

I'd like to take a chance on taking a walk today, provided that the weather cooperates and my 4:00 meeting doesn't run long, but just in case the sky falls or the meeting runs overtime, I think I'll take a poem instead.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The nightmare of misnumbering

I had a nightmare last night involving a long annotated bibliography with misnumbered pages. I was desperately searching for information on page 14, but the page numbers skipped from 5 to 79 and back to 23, with no apparent order. I woke up in a cold sweat.

I'm definitely working too hard.

Friday, April 11, 2008

An unexpected windfall

We got a check in the mail yesterday and we're trying to figure out what to do with it. We'd like to spend it on something really special, something we'll remember for a long time to come. After all, it's not every day we receive a check for 31 cents.

What can we buy for 31 cents? Even a pack of gum costs more, unless we use the unique payment system demonstrated by the small child in the line in front of me at the grocery store yesterday: while his mom was distracted by the payment process, he picked up a pack of gum and put it in his pocket. I looked him in the eye and said, "That's really good gum, isn't it?" He looked at me, hand in his pocket, and thought about it a while, and then he slowly drew out the pack of gum and put it back in the rack.

If I were to follow his example and shop-lift a pack of gum, I would still be left with the 31 cents, which would defeat the purpose of the exercise. There must be a memorable way to spend 31 cents! One colleague suggested that we go to an old-fashioned feed 'n' seed store--the kind where they sell bulk seed by weight--and purchase 31 cents' worth of our favorite flower or vegetable seed. Then we can watch our 31 cents growing and multiplying all summer long.

But that's just his 31-cents'-worth. How about yours?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Ah, that fresh country air!

Today my husband is hosting a group of area pastors at our house, allowing them an opportunity to relax after the exhausting Easter season. Coincidentally, our normally quiet country road has suddenly become a locus of loudness and stink.

Some neighbors up the way have been having trees cut on their hilltop, and for the last few days, trucks pulling large loads of hardwood logs have been barreling along our road, which is just wide enough for two cars to pass and has no real shoulder, so driving is a challenge. And then yesterday the county road crew decided that it was time to send out the heavy equipment to clear debris out of the drainage ditches along the road, creating yet another obstacle to navigation along with a great deal of noise and bother.

To top it all off, yesterday our neighbors decided it was time to top-dress the fields surrounding our property, so out came the manure-spreaders.

Ah, that fresh country air!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What a Department Chair can't do

Hear ye, hear ye:

By the powers vested in me by virtue of my position as Department Chair, I hearby outlaw all medical conditions that might threaten departmental stability. I banish all allergens, viruses, cysts, bugs, and fluxes, and prohibit all such pestilences from entering my domain.

For let the record show that the English Department has suffered enough. When three out of six full-time faculty members end up in the hospital in a mere three weeks' time, it is high time for human frailty to find another venue. And so I proclaim my department off-limits to illness.

There. That ought to take care of the problem.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

How journalist [sic] do their job

An article in the student newspaper states that a respected journalist who recently visited campus "believes that journalist [sic] can change the world by doing their job well and being credible."

The newspaper demonstrates its commitment to this creed by spelling the speaker's name incorrectly on the front page, spelling many words wrong within the article, using verbs that do not agree with their subjects ("sloppiness and overreaching has given readers a sense that the news media are more biased than they should be..."), and implying that George W. Bush was convicted and pardoned of charges related to failure to fulfill his National Guard duties.

I could go on, but I don't have all day.

I used to be a student journalist. I know how difficult it is to maintain journalistic standards while relying on a staff of untrained and often overcommitted writers, but one would think that a journalist writing about the need for accuracy and credibility would attempt to achieve those virtues herself.

The irony would be amusing if it weren't so tragic.

May I ask who's (not) calling?

Suppose someone walks up to your front door and rings the doorbell while you are on vacation. Could be anyone: a Jehovah's Witness, a school board candidate, your mother-in-law. And then suppose you have a doorbell that records the number of times it has been rung in your absence. When you return from vacation, do you feel any obligation to track down the ringer?

This is my main point in the arg--er, discussion I keep having with my husband about missed cell-phone calls. He sees the little number on the "missed calls" list and he becomes obsessed with finding out who has been trying to reach him; I assume that if someone really needs to reach me, he or she will call back. But then I don't have a cell phone so what do I care?

(I care because I pay the phone bills, as I reminded him the time he wanted to track down a missed call from a number in Germany....)

What did we do before the missed calls list came into our lives? The phone rang in an empty house. No one answered. End of story. Or an answering machine picked up or the call went to voice mail, which means the story lasted a little longer, but we still choose not to return some calls. For instance, I never return those calls from recorded voices telling me that the warranty on my car is about to expire. The newest car in our household is 12 years old, so if it's still under warranty, I'll eat my cell phone. (Except I don't have a cell phone, so never mind).

The missed call list is probably intended to make our lives easier, but does it really? If we didn't know about those calls, we would go blithely on our way without devoting so much as a single brain cell to their existence. The missed call list, though, puts those numbers in front of our eyeballs and demands that we decide which ones to delete and what to do with the rest.

I don't care about the rest, okay? Except when I do, such as this morning, when my husband, while driving to work, called me at home to say that his cell phone listed a missed call from the area code in Texas where our son is at college. It wasn't our son's number, so I didn't worry about it.

At first.

But then it started gnawing on me while I drove to work: who would be calling us at 6:13 a.m.--5:13 in eastern Texas? Salespeople and computers know better than to call that early in the morning. It could have been a wrong number, in which case calling back would only cost money and extend the confusion. Or it could have been my son calling with some dire need...but it would take a platoon of armed soldiers to drag him out of bed that early on a Monday.

If he needs us, he'll call. That's what I keep telling myself. So far, the phone is not ringing, which makes me wonder: may I ask who is not calling?

And who will answer?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Punching my time card

In the past 24 hours, I have:

1. Taught a class. (Dismissed early...because we were done.)

2. Read and commented on 34 student drafts ranging from superficial drivel-fests to well organized, beautifully written, appropriately documented masterpieces. About one-third of the drafts open with two sentences lifted directly from the assignment sheet. (Those are my sentences, students! Go write your own!)

3. Attended a Faculty Forum, where I nibbled on cheese and crackers while colleagues reported on their research, including an interesting foray into the junior high school reading class in rural Appalachia and another into the mathematics of complex polar spaces, and frankly, if they're giving away free vacations to either location, include me out.

4. Read a New Yorker article by Michael Kinsley titled "Mine is Longer than Yours," which is not about what you think it's about. It's about...six pages long.

5. Spent some quality time with my beloved spouse, who could not knead bread dough last night because he was substitute-teaching in an old building yesterday and a sticky window fell right smack down on his thumb, which now looks quite festive. He's stuck on the injured/disabled list without a pinch-kneader.

6. Slept. Not much, but still, it was something.

7. Expressed disbelief when the alarm clock rang at 6 a.m. and my husband insisted that I get up. "You've got to go do that thing today, remember?" It's Saturday! Let me sleep. "You told me to remind you about that history thing. " Oh yeah, that thing.

8. Served as judge for a district event at which junior-high-school students demonstrated their mastery of various historical concepts, such as the concept that Pearl Harbor ushered America into the Civil War. The students were bright and articulate and enthusiastic and polite and I am delighted that they are interested in history,'s Saturday! And I have another 14 drafts to read before Monday!

9. Written this blog post...which takes me right about up to the starting line for the next 24-hour marathon.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

A gift of daffodils

We bought our house five years ago without ever seeing much of the property. It was February and the slopes were too icy to allow us to examine the hills or meadows, but as we stood in the driveway and looked over the view, we all saw possibilities.

"If we buy this house," said my son, "we'll have to buy a four-wheeler."

"If we buy this house," said my husband, "we can plant a garden--a big one."

"If we buy this house," said I, "I'll plant daffodils right there along the curve of the driveway."

We bought the house. We bought a four-wheeler. We planted a garden--a bigger one every year. And every spring we have daffodils exactly where I wanted them--but I didn't plant them.

I don't know much about the woman who planted them except that she lived in our house for 40 years and raised horses, but I know what she planted: forsythia, rhododendrons, redbuds, and dozens and dozens of daffodils, one flower deer won't eat. The first year the daffodils were a wonderful surprise springing up exactly where I wanted them, but as we've cleared the thick brush in the woods along the driveway, more and more daffodils have popped up where we've never seen them before.

I think of that woman kneeling with a trowel in her hand to tuck bulbs into the soil just where I wanted them and I want to thank her, but I don't know where she went after she sold our house and the house changed hands three times in the six years after she left. I wish for her a gift of daffodils at least as nice as the gift she's given me.

Elvis has left the driveway

I dreamed that Elvis wrecked my car and experienced such remorse that he handed me a fistful of $20,000 bills. "I've never seen a $20,000 bill before," I said. "Are these real?"

Okay: Elvis wrecks my car and hands me a fistful of money and the only thing I find odd is the denomination of the bills? Why didn't it occur to me to question whether Elvis was real?

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Worlds made of words

"There was nothing in the story that really caught my attention," complained a student. "It seemed to be just words."

Well, yes, words are the basic building-blocks of any story. Words are what we work with in fiction: they're all we have.

But why do some stories seem to provide more while others remain "just words"? What elevates a story beyond the province of words? How do some stories make us forget that everything we experience in fiction is a world made of words? And why didn't that happen for this particular student in this particular work?

Those are the questions that keep me in the classroom.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

X in excess

Judging from my experience at the doctor's office today, the ideal name for a new drug would be something like Xxyzzyxx. I commented on the odd name of the antihistamine sample she gave me (Xyzal), and my doctor explained that marketing studies show that customers are more likely to remember names of drugs that include the letters X or Z than those that don't.

....come to think of it, maybe I'd better patent Xxyzzyxx before someone else gets to it first!