Friday, May 30, 2008

Writing and reading, planting and weeding

These days I devote large chunks of time to gardening and writing, tasks that make very different demands on both mind and body but nevertheless seem more similar the longer I perform them. Robinson Jeffers's poem "To the Stone-Cutters" suggests that writing a poem and cutting a stone are essentially the same task, and anyone who has read his sturdy, workmanlike poems in close proximity to the stone walls he built with his own hands will sense the kinship of stone and poem. Right now, writing and gardening require the same sorts of processes: clearing the ground, culling the weeds, planting the seeds, nurturing growth.

I have on my desk a stack of books, journal articles, and miscellaneous notes jotted down over the past eight or nine months, materials I have read and marked up but not digested or synthesized. That's what I'm doing this week: going through the stack, transcribing the useful notes and culling the unnecessary ones, seeding my document files with ideas that will germinate and put down roots and, I hope, produce fruit in the finished product. At my current pace, I expect to be finished transcribing notes by the end of next week, which seems like a lot of time to spend on preparation, but bringing together all the research I've done over the past year and juxtaposing all those ideas in one place helps my mind to make connections so that when I'm ready to write, I just can't stop those ideas from growing.

In fact, they're growing right now. I move away from the computer and go out to the garden to pull weeds, plant seeds, prepare the soil to accept another tomato or pepper or cabbage plant, and as I'm bending over with my hands in the dirt, I suddenly see how to make a certain part of my argument work or how to structure the introduction or how to demonstrate that two apparently unrelated ideas are actually rooted in the same soil. Planting seeds, planting ideas: same thing, really, at least at this stage.

When will the ideas produce fruit? That remains to be seen, but as long as my writing is as productive as my tomato plants, I'll be one happy gardener.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Gardening in the absurd

In retrospect, I can put my finger on the precise moment when my adventure in gardening crossed into the realm of the absurd: I found myself using the garden hose to water a row of freshly-planted peppers while standing in the mud in the pouring rain.

"Sweetheart," I said to the resident gardening enthusiast, "Why am I watering the peppers in the rain?"

"Because the peppers need to be watered," he replied.

"But I don't."

"Don't what?"

"Need to be watered."

"But the peppers do."

So I watered the peppers and the rain watered me, and within me grew a fresh awareness that gardening is not entirely a rational pursuit. Rewarding, yes, but not entirely rational.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Plugged in

The chief disadvantage of using a laptop computer on one's lap is that the computer marks my legs so that they look like molded electronic components, as if my lap has become an extension of my technology (although I'm not sure whether the computer is plugged into me or I'm plugged into the computer).

This morning I took my laptop out on the deck to tackle my summer writing project while surrounded by the joys of spring. Bees buzzed me and birds squawked, and at one point a chipmunk came close to cast a curious eye in my direction, but none of this distracted me from the task at hand.

I've noticed that when I grade papers out on the deck, my students seem to be better writers. I hope the deck's magical power to un-muddle prose works in my favor as well, making this complex writing project come together with insight and elegance. For that, I am willing to suffer a few marks on my knees.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Pop-trop spectacles

"South Pacific, like Michener's blockbuster epic of Hawaiian locality, Hawaii, worked as spectacles circulating in the American pop tropological grain."

I can't help it: this sentence makes me envision a pair of glasses rushing through a field of grain ripe for harvest. When a spectacle meets a spectacle coming through the rye....

When will we see a breakfast cereal called Pop Tropological Grain?

Transpa(rentheses)cific P(arenthetic)rose

While ingesting my first morning dose of caffeine, I encountered this sentence:

Riddled with ethnic tensions and racial battles that go far back in history, at least to the contact of Captain James Cook's untimely three explorations (cum apotheosis) in 1778 and the American Board of Commissioners of Foreign Missions' offshore project in white cultural redemption (cum indigenous demonization and racial abjection) in 1820, which dragged Hawai'i into the battle of imperial nations, postmodern Hawai'i is still struggling with these (uneven) global/local dialectics (ongoing) dependency syndromes a la some Pacific Caliban seeking for a blessed pidgin voice, and searching for some capable theory, economic sufficiency, and path to counterimperial survival as people and place.

At first I thought more caffeine might help, but no: after my second cup of tea, the sentence still looks bad. And that's because it is bad. Its badness springs from several sources: too many ideas elbowing for attention, too little concern for the finer points of syntax, and too much indulgence in distracting verbal tics. I see "Riddled with ethnic tensions" and I immediately wonder who or what is so riddled, but I have to wade through four more lines of type before I encounter the answer ("postmodern Hawai'i"), and in the meantime I'm expected to absorb a boatload of historical references, jargon, and parenthetical comments (cum self-indulgent, showoffy, distracting digression). A similar syntactic mess occurs at the end of the sentence, where I read that "some Pacific Caliban" is "seeking for a blessed pidgin voice," which is fine, but then am I expected to believe that this same Caliban is "searching for some....path to counterimperial survival as people and place"? Caliban is neither a people nor a place. But wait! Maybe the search is being conducted not by "some Pacific Caliban" but by "postimperial Hawai'i"! Now I have to go back and re-read to see if the sentence works that way, but I once again stumble over all those parentheses

I have nothing against parentheses per se, but this author (Rob Wilson in Reimagining the American Pacific, Duke University Press, 2000) sprinkles them liberally throughout his prose in places where parentheses are patently unnecessary. Here is another example from the same page:

Nowadays in "postlocal" Hawai'i, at least within the tormented cultural politics of the literary scene, a dream of first possession, cum local entrenchment in ethnicity and place-based identity, at times refuses to join in the global flow; resists (understandably) national assimilation of self and culture; wants to start over (as it were) by going back to a time when the island economy was not so much caught up in the flows, mongrel mix, and struggles of imperial powers.

I can understand the desire to place "understandably" in parentheses so as to suggest that its awkward placement in the sentence is intentional rather than accidental, but why "as it were"? If the phrase is necessary, why not use commas? The parentheses simply draw attention to the relative emptiness of the phrase. Here's another example two pages later:

As the U.S. state of Hawai'i now undergoes its ninth year of economic turmoil in the 1990s, it yet again searches for a (lost) sense of place and (fleeting) vision of the future.

And another:

Longing to be the new Jack Lord of the bistros, tourist resorts, and beef-laden beaches, at least Hasselhoff's instinct for story was in the right place, if a bit naive as to the lurking problems and tormented history of Hawai'i (as U.S. outpost in the Pacific) that cannot be gleaned in a tourist's week skimming books and videos on his new Diamond Head verandah.

In this sentence, the distracting parenthetical phrase is perhaps the least egregious problem. Am I expected to believe that "Hasselhoff's instinct for story" is "Longing to the be the new Jack Lord of the bistros"? And who, exactly, is skimming all those books and videos in Diamond Head?

Reading Wilson, I'm so distracted by the infelicitous prose that I'm having trouble absorbing the argument--and I haven't even made it through the Preface! I know academic publishers everywhere are having problems, but this book wasn't published by Nowheresville State College of Welding: this is Duke University Press! Please, people, find a competent copy editor and beat that tortured prose into shape! It's too late for Wilson's book, but it may not be too late for others! Anyone who writes or publishes prose that awkward ought to be sentenced to solitary confinement in a parenthetical digression (cum on!).

Friday, May 23, 2008

The touch that heals

Historians tell us that the tradition of Touching for the King's Evil fell out of favor in the 1700s, but a similar tradition continues in academe, where the king's touch has been replaced by the provost's gaze.

Of course we don't believe that the touch of the sovereign's hand can cure what ails us, but the desire to be touched by a powerful person lives on in modern life. Attend a high school football game in small-town Ohio and note how all the children line up, stretch out their hands, and fight for the privilege of being touched by the players as they take the field. Politicians know the power of touch to make voters feel exalted, and fans fight for eye contact from a celebrity, whose mere gaze is powerful enough to validate the fan's existence.

We like to think that we in academe are above all this sort of superstition, but I'm not convinced. For the past three years I've served on a committee charged with organizing pedagogy workshops and other events designed to enrich professors' teaching skills, and while many faculty members attend these events because they sincerely desire to share ideas and learn from their colleagues, others use a very simple criterion to determine which events to attend: "Will the provost be there?"

The question may indicate a certain level of respect for the provost, particularly if the provost is actually presiding or presenting material at the workshop; however, that's not often the case. Usually the question indicates not a desire to learn from the provost or benefit from the provost's expertise but a simple desire to be seen by the provost--in particular, to be seen attending a pedagogy workshop, to be perceived as a faculty member dedicated to continuous improvement.

Thus it is not the provost's mind or will or thought that draws participation; rather, it is the provost's gaze, a gaze believed to have the power to deliver the untenured faculty member into the wholeness and security of tenure. A gaze that can motivate exhausted faculty members to attend pedagogy workshops during summer break--there is no greater power in academe. Neither outside experts nor local talent nor hands-on workshops nor free tote bags can attract the attention aroused by the gaze of the provost.

So why waste the time, effort, and money to plan meaningful workshops? From now on, let's just line up the faculty on the mall and let the provost pass by and gaze briefly into each set of eyes. "I see you," she will say. If this simple ceremony does not transform our campus into a center for innovative teaching excellence, then at least it ought to cut down on the incidence of scrofula.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Charlie the creep

If Creeping Charlie were a cash crop, we'd be rolling in clover. I have pulled armloads of it out of the yard, the flower garden, the herb garden, the blueberry patch, the strawberry patch, the raspberry patch, the asparagus patch, and any number of other patches around the property. It does not surprise me to learn that the pernicious pest is related to the highly invasive mint family or that it was initially introduced to the U.S. intentionally as a ground cover that grows well in moisty, shady areas. As long as we have moisture and shade in abundance, Charlie will come Creeping in...and I'll go creeping through the garden to pull it out.

This morning I went creeping through the asparagus patch, which is producing just enough asparagus for a side dish once or twice a week, and the strawberry patch, which is full of small, hard, white berries. When they all turn red, we'll have heaven on earth: there's just nothing better than fresh strawberries straight from the garden. Corn and okra are sprouting and the radishes are well on the way, but the garden has been too wet and cool for putting in tomatoes, peppers, and other plants. Ideally, we'll have tomatoes just about the time when the tomato sauce from last year's garden runs out....but first we need some sunshine.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Of mice and me...and columbines

Within just a few short hours early this morning, I managed to maim one living creature and rescue another, except that I'm not entirely responsible for the maiming, and "rescue" might not be quite the right word but I hesitate to use a more accurate one like "purloin." Right now, my relationship with nature is about as complicated as nature itself.

The maiming occurred in the wee hours of the morning, when I was awakened by what sounded like a bunch of marbles being shaken around in a jar. On investigating, I discovered a mousetrap flailing its way across the wood floor, with locomotion provided by a mouse, three of whose legs were free from the trap while the fourth one was firmly attached.

The cat just watched, lifting nary a paw to interfere with the mouse-laden mousetrap's uneven progress across the living-room floor. The mouse was heading for the gap behind a bookcase when I went to awaken my husband. Mice living or dead fall within his bailiwick, so I had no compunction about interfering with his sound sleep to inform him that a mousetrap was raising a ruckus in the living room. "It's just a bad dream," he insisted. "Go back to sleep."

It took me a while to convince him that I wasn't raving, and by then the mouse and mousetrap had made its way under that bookcase. The intrepid mouse-hunter didn't want to move the bookcase in the middle of the night, so he went back to bed, leaving the mouse to suffer until daylight. "It's pretty well stuck in there," he said. "I'll deal with it in the morning."

In the morning it was gone. The mousetrap was still there, but every trace of mouse had disappeared. Somewhere out there lives a mouse that is maimed and angry--a mouse, moreover, that has learned to be wary of mousetraps. What kind of revenge will it inflict upon my household?

I didn't have much time to think about that because the time had come to execute the Great Columbine Rescue. Ohio has only one native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, which produces delicate yellow-and-orange bell-shaped blooms in spring. A clump of it grows in just one spot on the steep slope beside our creek, which would be terrific if it grew on our side of the creek, but instead it grows on the other side near the road, where it thrives beautifully until the county road crew comes along to do its annual spring mowing. According to the local newspaper, mowing begins today.

Now I have domesticated columbines growing near the house, but I've never seen anything as tall and lovely as these wild blossoms. Wouldn't it be a shame to let the mowers cut them down in the prime of life? Someone ought to rescue some of them. This is what I told myself as I carried a bucket and shovel to the wild columbines' location, which was steeper and slipperier than I had expected. I was delighted to discover that the columbines were growing in rocky soil, which means they'll feel right at home in the flower garden in front of our house. I had to fight my way through poison ivy to get the shovel into the ground, but I got my columbine.

Of course it is not really "my" columbine. I suppose it's probably against the law to dig up wildflowers from the public right-of-way, which is why I choose to employ the rhetoric of rescue. If nature wants to fight back against my depredations, the poison ivy ought to do the trick.

And if not, the maimed mouse is still out there somewhere waiting to take its revenge.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Ready to commence

I'm sitting in my office waiting for Commencement to commence, but I've got quite a wait ahead of me. I'll go to the President's brunch at 10:30 and to the faculty marshals' meeting at 11:30, but that gives me more than two hours to sit here and watch paint dry. Or nail polish, to be specific. I haven't done my nails since classes ended because I've been spending a lot of time planting things and pulling weeds, activities not consistent with nice fingernails. So the first thing I did when I got to the office was to apply a few coats of polish. Now I sit and wait.

Why did I come here at 7:30 a.m. if my first meeting is at 10:30? Because I refuse to drive my husband's car, particularly while I'm dressed in Commencement-worthy attire and lacking a cell phone. Why don't I use my husband's cell phone? Because as close as we can determine, it's hiding amongst the tall weeds in the upper meadow somewhere and it doesn't come running when we call. I can just see myself getting stranded (again) by the car that hates me and having to march down the side of the highway in my Commencement dress and nice new shoes. Not happening. Nope.

And of course I couldn't drive my van because the husband needed it to get all his stuff to the Farmers' Market. His booth has been shut down for two weeks because he was sick, but today he's ready to rejoin the real world, and he needs my van to accomplish that. So the only way for me to get to campus today was to hitch a ride with him at the crack of dawn.

Which I did.

So here I sit.

Watching paint dry.

I just hope Commencement is interesting enough to make it worth the effort!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Evolving books

"Many critics see the electronic age as heralding the end of books. I think this view is mistaken. Print books are far too hardy, reliable, long-lived, and versatile to be rendered obsolete by digital media. Rather, digital media have given us an opportunity we have not had for the last several hundred years: the chance to see print with new eyes, and with it, the possibility of understanding how deeply literary theory and criticism have been imbued with assumptions specific to print. As we work toward critical practices and theories appropriate for electronic literature, we may come to renewed appreciation for the specificity of print. In the tangled web of medial ecology, change anywhere in the system stimulates change everywhere in the system. Books are not going the way of the dinosaur but the way of the human, changing as we change, mutating and evolving in ways that will continue, as a book lover said long ago, to teach and delight." --N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Daily detritus

The following vital information appears on miscellaneous pieces of paper scattered all over my desk:

  • "The new password is a combination of your 10-digit account number, the capitalized first letter of the state you live in, and the last four digits of your Social Security number." Yes, another honking big number to memorize!
  • "We have reviewed our records and learned that the [renowned academic press] received some permissions fees that should be shared with you....We are required by IRS code to obtain a tax identification number in order to make and report this payment to you." Lacking is any mention of who wants to reprint my article and how much money they're paying.
  • "In 2007 the ribbons were put on the maces at the last minute. The ribbon on the large mace did not stay on and caused problems at 12:56." Apparently, the job of the faculty marshal is not all fun and games, what with all those intransigent ribbons.
  • "I hope this looks better. Thank you for your time and have a great summer!" This was the message attached to a revised paper a student turned in approximately one hour after I had submitted final grades.
  • "On a lightly floured surface, roll out the cobbler dough 1/4 inch thick. Tear the dough into 3-inch pieces and place on top of the peach filling." Now there's some news I can sink my teeth into!

Monday, May 12, 2008

My report card

I give myself an A+ for getting my final grades submitted well before the deadline, but all my assessment data still sits in an unsorted pile on my desk. The quality of the data is probably in the B-B+ range, but until it gets assembled into spreadsheets and analyzed to within an inch of its life, I give myself a D on assessment.

I've caught up on all my piles of filing: A+. Part of that filing process involved throwing out large piles of student exams and papers leftover from previous semesters. There is some debate about how long professors ought to hold on to student work and whether old papers and exams can be safely tossed in the paper-recycling box, which could violate students' confidentiality if some curious person were to go rooting through the box. I tossed out papers leftover from fall semester but I didn't want to walk over to the shredders because it's too cold and damp outside, so I tossed them in the recycling box. I figure that makes me pretty average, so I give myself a C.

For summer preparation, I give myself a solid B. I've distributed the schedule for the independent study I'm doing with two English majors who somehow missed taking the required postcolonial survey, and I've ordered about half the books I need for my summer research project. I've been thinking deeply about the project without actually doing much to make it happen (aside from applying for and receiving a summer research grant). Right now, the only thing standing in the way is that big steaming pile of assessment data on my desk. Better grab the shovel and start scooping.

From the peanut gallery

"A book in which there are theories is like an article from which the price mark has not been removed." --Marcel Proust, The Past Recaptured

Friday, May 09, 2008

Thrill of victory?

So I got this snippy e-mail from a student upset because I deducted major points from her final paper, which lacked sufficient reputable print sources. She claimed that she had searched for HOURS on our research databases and simply could not locate a single print source on her topic, so she had no choice but to rely on her trusty friend Google. "If you can find three print sources on my topic, I will accept the grade," she concluded.

For the benefit of any student who might be tempted to challenge an English professor to a no-holds-barred research duel, let me offer a word of advice: don't bother. You can't win. Anyone who has completed a dissertation, published articles in academic journals, taught the senior capstone class, and guided hordes of college freshpersons through the intricacies of JSTOR simply has an unbeatable edge. Pitting an undergrad against such an expert is like trying to win the Kentucky Derby on a hobby-horse: the odds are insurmountable.

I spent maybe 10 minutes searching the databases and found a dozen highly relevant and reliable sources, which I sent to the student with my humble regards. She has decided, wise student, that she is willing to accept the grade after all.

But such an unbalanced duel provides little satisfaction to the winner. Anyone want to try a title-formatting challenge using MLA Guides at 10 paces? How about a winner-take-all spelling smackdown? Ten rounds with apostrophes drawn? There's just no glory in winning a race against a hobby-horse!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Arbiter of Apostrophes

The person in charge of producing the college's commencement program just asked me to serve as Arbiter of Apostrophes. A sentence describing the commencement speaker required editing to indicate possession, so one senior administrator added apostrophes thus:

John Lewis's, Georgia's House of Representatives

However, another administrator objected, insisting that it should look like this:

Lewis', Georgias'

What does the Arbiter of Apostrophes say?

The first version (Lewis's, Georgia's) consistently uses MLA style while the second follows AP Style for the name (Lewis') and no recognizable style for the state (Georgias'), unless we're referring to multiple states named Georgia.

I vote for consistency: stick with MLA even though AP aficionadoes will shriek. At least the person following MLA format got both apostrophes right!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A literary wish list

Last week a student asked me what class I most enjoy teaching, and I wanted to say, "Whichever one I happen to be teaching at the moment," but that's not a satisfying answer. I enjoy many classes for different reasons, but the class that I consistently enjoy teaching year after year is the American Lit Survey, and not just because I've taught it so many times I could do it blindfolded and with both hands tied behind my back. I just get really excited about introducing students to all those wonderful authors.

To help me decide how to update the syllabus next year, I asked my students last week to respond anonymously to three simple prompts:
  • the most important thing I've learned about literature is...
  • the most important thing I've learned about writing is....
  • I wish....
I've found their responses interesting and sometimes surprising. I'm not surprised at the number of students who wished for less poetry ("Poetry isn't all bad, but short stories are better!") or less of certain works (David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross leads the pack in this category), but I was surprised by several specific suggestions for additions to the class. "More Plath, less Whitman," insisted one student, while others requested more Jhumpa Lahiri, more Beat poets, and works by Nikki Giovanni and Dorothy Parker. One student requested "more poems about food" while another requested less realism and more fantasy. I can feed the first student's appetite easily but I'm not so certain about the second.

"We went through the Civil War, two world wars, and Vietnam. I would have liked to read more about those historical events," wrote one student, while another asked for "more uplifting works," objecting to the Holocaust literature and poems responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks: "Grief is a part of the world, but literature is about escaping it."

A number of students expressed surprise that American Literature is so darn good. "I had no idea so many American writers had developed and written worthwhile works," wrote one student. Where are they picking up the idea that American Literature is a ragged step-cousin of British Lit?

Several students expressed appreciation for information on literary movements. "I've really enjoyed studying postmodernism," wrote one. "I've never studied it in a class before, so basically everything I know about it is from here! I also enjoyed learning about other literary movements because they helped me connect with works from different time periods."

One student wrote that she learned an important lesson about writing from studying imagist poetry: "Be brief! But also be clear." Other students learned about the value of pre-writing and revision, the need for a solid thesis statement, and the difference between summary and analysis. One student confessed to an epiphany: "The most important thing I learned about both literature and writing came from reading A.R. Ammons and Allen Ginsberg. Their writing stresses the commitment of a writer to their work. They talk about giving away part of oneself in the name of literature and poetry, and this idea really struck me. I’ve always enjoyed literature, but in this class I have come to realize that writing it is a calling. Literature has the power to move people, to lend a voice to tragedy or hope or joy, but it requires the soul of the author to achieve this transcendence."

And that's why this is my favorite class.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Wikipedia Excuse

A student who used direct quotes without quotation marks or citations tried to defend his actions thus: "In high school they told us we didn't have to cite Wikipedia!"

Questions I'd like to ask:

What high school teacher would encourage students to borrow quotes from Wikipedia without quotation marks or citation? Give me a name and school district so I can make some calls.

The assignment sheet calls for the use of reputable print sources appropriate for academic writing. What makes Wikipedia appropriate for this assignment?

I know your freshman composition professor, and I've seen what she does to students who insist on using Wikipedia in academic papers; moreover, I know she emphasizes the importance of punctuating and citing quotes correctly. How did you pass her class without learning these essential lessons?

You're a junior, three years removed from high school graduation. Did that precious high school diploma grant you immunity from ever learning anything new?

Constructive campus reflections


Monday, May 05, 2008

A free day without the freedom

Today is our one "free" day before finals begin, but I'm still hunting for that promised freedom. First thing this morning I interviewed a potential adjunct, took care of the paperwork required to issue a contract, attended a going-away party for one colleague and a retirement party for another, attended a committee meeting called hastily to cope with questions about a proposal to be presented at today's faculty meeting, and attended the long and contentious faculty meeting...which means I haven't copied tomorrow's finals or graded any of the 64 papers awaiting attention on my desk. Now I need to leave early to attend to a sick spouse. If this is freedom, I'll take captivity!

Friday, May 02, 2008

Forgetting to remember to forget

Last night I planted some flowers in planters in front of my house--ivy (two kinds), pansies (purple and white and yellow), and angelonia (purple)--and I liked the effect so much that I told my husband, "I hope I forget all about planting these so that when I come out the front door first thing in the morning, they'll be a wonderful surprise." He laughed, and rightly so. No matter how many times I reminded myself to forget the flowers, I still remembered them when I got up this morning and as I ate breakfast and while I showered and dressed. I'm a failure at forgetting, I told myself. May as well not even try.

So I stopped trying to forget. Instead, I did my nails and then immersed myself in Remembrance of Things Past while the nail polish dried. When I finally went out the door, I was so intent on avoiding smudging my nails that I didn't even think about the flowers but walked right by without even seeing them.

Then I got in the car and looked through the windshield and there they were: pansies and ivy and angelonia. I had forgotten all about them and now, seeing them as if for the first time, they were a wonderful surprise, an unexpected gift.

Is it the gift that keeps on giving? Note to self: remember to forget the flowers.