Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My kind of provost

This morning I saw our new(ish) provost out jogging in the rain, and I immediately looked to see if she was being chased by angry faculty members, demanding parents, or domineering trustees. But no: she was simply getting some exercise, and she wasn't going to let a little rain stop her.

I like that. And it's not the only thing I like about our new(ish) provost: I like the fact that she does not need to be repeatedly educated about how my discipline works, that she reads the annual evaluations I write about my faculty members and responds to them with encouraging and constructive comments, and that she writes clear and sophisticated prose. Most of all, I like the fact that she cares enough about faculty research to actually read and converse intelligently about our work. I'm not naming names here, but I'm a little tired of administrators who claim that we humanities scholars are somehow deficient because "all you do is read books and write about them." An administrator who engages with my research as if it really matters and offers insights from her own field is my kind of provost.

I'd like to tell her so, but I'd have to catch her first--and I'm not about to go out running in this weather.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Death with dignity?

P.J. O'Rourke contemplates the nature of God, death, and dignity in a remarkable article in the Los Angeles Times (read it here). He wonders, "Why can't death--if we must have it--be always glorious, as in The Iliad?" O'Rourke complains that his recent diagnosis rankles in comparison with more dignified diseases: "I am a logical, sensible, pragmatic Republican, and my diagnosis came just weeks after Teddy Kennedy's. That he should have cancer of the brain, and I should have cancer of the ass...well, I'll say a rosary for him and hope he has a laugh at me. After all, what would I do, ask God for a more dignified cancer?"

Friday, September 26, 2008

Head vs. brick wall

Next time I'm tempted to spend my lunch hour driving out to haggle with the helpful people at Alltel, I'll just stay in and bang my head against a brick wall. I'll save the cost of gas for the trip while achieving the same effect.

Fuzzy fall

This is what my upper meadow looks like these days, if you add an expanse of goldenrod with millions of bees buzzing amongst the blooms.

Thursday, September 25, 2008


"I'll sleep when I'm old," proclaims a campus poster, but apparently I'm not old yet because I haven't been doing much sleeping (except on Tuesday, when I took Zyrtec so I would stop sneezing long enough to make it through class and then went home and slept it off all afternoon), my wakefulness assured by persistent disturbing nightmares such as the one last night in which I was frantically trying to drive past the local golf course but found my progress impeded by a whole bunch of Stalin statues that had been knocked down and were lying in the road, and while driving through a statue-studded obstacle course might be annoying in itself, I found myself most frustrated by the question, "What's Stalin doing at the golf course?"

Somehow, waking up didn't help.

Puzzling papers

The writing assignment, I thought, was quite clear: in-depth, focused analysis of a particular literary work, examining how it responds to a particular idea. No outside sources. Rely on evidence from within the work. That means using quotes--at least a few--but not too many very long quotes because readers skip 'em. And even though it's an upper-level writing proficiency class, I distributed and went over a handout to help students brush up their skills in integrating, punctuating, and citing quotes, and I showed them an online sample paper demonstrating the finer points of MLA format. "Make your paper look just like this," I told them, "and if you don't know how to do that, come and see me."

Most of the papers were really good, but the bad papers were bad in some really peculiar ways. Here's a paper that tries to analyze a work of literature without actually quoting from any particular text. Here's one that lists two works in the Works Cited but doesn't actually quote or cite any works within the analysis. Here's one that is made up almost entirely of paraphrased material taken from online sources. Here's one that starts off sounding a bit superficial on the first page, leading me to hope that the ideas will be developed in further depth on the next page, but then I turn the page and find oh, about three more sentences before the dreaded phrase "In conclusion." And here's one that is made up of vague generalizations interspersed with many very long quotes, all of them single-spaced, centered, and in boldface type. Okay! What do I do with that?

In an upper-level course, I prefer to engage with student essays on the level of ideas, content, and elegance of writing, but here I'm encountering some really basic misunderstanding of the conventions of literary analysis. I'm not interested in devoting more class time to the thrilling topic of how to format long quotes; further, I'm not sure what to do with students in an upper-level literature class who don't realize that analyzing a work of literature requires some familiarity with the actual literature. Besides, most of the students already knows this stuff, and why bore them to pieces just to help out the small but significant group of struggling students?

Clearly, some intervention is called for, but what? An out-of-class workshop? Individual tutorials? My experience with that kind of activity is that the students who need it the most can't be bothered to show up. So I'm scratching my head and I welcome suggestions: how do I deal with a handful of students who just don't get it?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A fan of fungus?

This morning I asked the Concepts of Nature class, "Why do we have football teams named for rams, bulls, and bears but not, for instance, fungus?"

Let's face it: fungus is a powerful force, adaptable to a variety of environments and almost impossible to destroy. Just try to eradicate athlete's foot fungus from a locker room! And there's a huge fungus growing in our yard that's as hard and stubborn and immoveable as a linebacker: running into it with the weed-eater or mower is a traumatic experience.

Why does such a potent force fail to be adopted as a symbol of pure masculine force, as bears, bulls, and rams have been? Give me a team called the Fungus and I'll cheer 'em on!

Monday, September 22, 2008

What's wrong with this image?

Yesterday's Columbus Dispatch featured this image prominently displayed on the front of the Insight section. Apparently images are not proofread as carefully as text....what, exactly, does "withdrawl" mean, anyway?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sneezes can't stop me!

I refuse to allow the annual fall allergy attack to prevent me from taking a walk in such beautiful weather--but I'll admit that it did slow me down a bit, what with having to haul huge wads of tissues in my pockets. Out amongst the ragweed and freshly-mown hay is probably not the best place for my sinuses to be right now, but that's where I took them. I just can't resist such a clear, crisp day.

Hopeful and I have worked out a particular rhythm on our walks: I plod along at my usual pace (a bit slower today because it's hard to walk straight up a steep hill when your sinuses feel as if they've been invaded by live baby hippos) while she goes bounding off into the fields or the woods along the road. If I don't see or hear from her for a while, I whistle and she comes bursting out of the woods about 50 feet ahead of me and sits there looking at me with impatiently, as if to say, "Where've you been?"

Last week a big buck jumped out of the woods right in front of her and ran across the road with Hopeful in close pursuit, not that it did her any good. I doubt that she'll drag a deer carcass onto the front porch the way she did with a squirrel recently: I opened the front door to find the dead squirrel plopped down right there with Hopeful gleefully wagging her tail and begging for applause. I wanted to tell her that a dead squirrel is not my very favorite thing to see right outside the front door, but I couldn't resist those hopeful eyes. "Good dog," I said, but my heart wasn't in it.

At one point on our walk today, Hopeful hung back and hovered behind me as if nervous. What was she afraid of? I looked around and saw no other dogs, no cars, no deer--but there in the yard of a house nearby was a toddler clad only in a diaper and a frilly pink hat. Okay: the dog is not the least bit intimidated by a deer twice her size, but she's frightened of a two-year-old girl? Maybe she once suffered trauma at the hands of a little girl--maybe the sight of a toddler in a frilly pink hat brings back memories too horrible to speak of. Whatever the problem was, she's not sharing.

I'm just happy that she shares my walks, although I didn't appreciate her attempts to share my used tissues. I generally carry a dog treat in my pocket when we go for a walk, but this time the treats were crowded out by all those tissues. Every time I put a hand in my pocket to take out a clean tissue or stash a used one, Hopeful came running to see what I had in my hand. "You don't want this," I told her. "It's icky." I'm not sure she believed me.

She got her reward when we arrived back home: a nice doggy treat and some fresh clean water. My reward was knowing that I'd survived, that it'll take more than a horde of nasty allergens to confine me to the house. I defy pollen! I spit on mold! I laugh out loud at allergies!

Or I would, except laughter tends to bring on a coughing fit.

Applauding appropriate insouciance

Even as I wrote the word on the student paper, I knew it was a bad idea, but I couldn't stop myself. I've been grading essays for three days straight (my fault--I assigned 'em!) and I've had many opportunities to write "vague" or "unclear" or "redundant" (such as when the student wrote that a particularly literary work "portrayed the way nature is depicted," which is either part of a complex argument focusing on metaliterary concepts or simply a sloppy sentence), but rarely do I have the opportunity to apply to a student paper the phrase "charmingly insouciant." And it was a freshman paper!

The problem with writing "charmingly insouciant" on a student paper is that the student might not know what "insouciant" means--might even consider it vaguely insulting. That's why I appended "charmingly": as a hint that insouciance is not a flaw, at least in this case. I can imagine contexts in which insouciance, charming or not, would be inappropriate, but a freshman essay in a class devoted to the topic of humor can be as insouciant as it wants to be as long as it fulfills the requirements of the assignment.

Funny thing: over the years, literally hundreds of desperate people have blundered onto my blog after typing into a search engine the phrase "how to use suave in a sentence" (and now I'll attract even more!), but no one ever asks how to use "insouciant" in a sentence. Why not? Suave is shampoo. You use it on your hair. Insouciance serves in many situations, including student essays on the purpose of humor.

I've been reading too many essays that don't even come close to insouciance--that live in the land of the bland, the nation of the vague generalization, the locus of lack of focus--so when I encounter a paper appropriately employing charming insouciance, I have to applaud. I trust that a student capable of writing with insouciance is also familiar with the term, but if not, she'll learn something new. That is, after all, why we're here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

An emerging mother-in-law

Today in the middle of class, I had a horrifying revelation: when my daughter gets married next summer, I will become a mother-in-law. That's right: one day I'll be just an ordinary normal person, and then next day--poof! A mother-in-law.

Does anyone want to be a mother-in-law? Butt of a million jokes, stereotype of an annoying nag, dreaded intrusive voice on the phone: who wants to be that person?

Don't get me wrong: I'm delighted about my daughter's wedding and thrilled with her choice of life partner, but I wish there were a way she could get married without transforming me into that most reviled of beings, a mother-in-law.

What if the mother-in-law label so powerful that I won't be able to resist its evil influence? Who knows, I might develop an irresistible urge to ask obnoxious questions about, for instance, reproductive plans or spending habits. I might even give my future son-in-law a gift of a sweater so ugly it could be worn only by a reject from clown school, and then I might be inconsolably hurt if he refuses to wear it in my presence.

It could happen. Worse things have happened to mothers-in-law of my acquaintance. Then again, maybe I'll break all the stereotypes. No one knows what type of mother-in-law she might become until she walks a mile in those moccasins (or Army boots or ballet slippers as the case may be). I only know I'll walk into the church as my plain old normal self and walk out of it as an entirely different person--a mother-in-law.

I hope I like that person, because I intend to be stuck with her for a long, long time.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A lot of maybes

I can't remember the last time work kept me at my desk past 6 p.m., and yet here I sit still working into the evening with another big pile of papers demanding attention on my desk. Where did the time go? I got to the office before 8 this morning and I left the office exactly five times: to teach two classes, attend two meetings, and eat lunch. I've spent the rest of the time right here, and I could stay here all night and still not make much of a dent in the work.

I told the provost today that teaching an overload while serving as department chair is too much, and she agreed. Maybe I shouldn't do this again. Maybe we should hire more adjuncts so I won't have to do it again...but we're under orders to cut down on our use of adjuncts. Maybe I should opt out of teaching the first-year seminar...but I haven't taught it for four years and it was my turn. Maybe I should opt out of teaching upper-level literature classes...but our majors need them and I'd go crazy without them. Maybe I could have postponed teaching my sophomore-level nature course...but it fulfills two general education requirements and those students needs literature too!

Maybe I'll just get accustomed to staying at the office late into the night...or maybe I'll just fall asleep right here and forget about going home at all.

Then again, maybe not.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Glaring Girl

There she is again: the Glaring Girl. She sits in the front row in my class and glares, but I can't tell how to interpret her expression. Is she disgusted with my teaching, contemptuous of the material, or simply accustomed to greeting the world with an angry glare? I don't know how to find out, either: "Um, excuse me, do you hate me personally or is it a more general contempt? Or is that just your usual look?" I find myself avoiding her glance, looking right past her, teaching to the other side of the room. What is one to do with the Glaring Girl?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Escape from paradise

I know it's a mistake to draw conclusions in advance of facts, but something really bothers me about the suicide of David Foster Wallace. Yes, it's disturbing to lose a talented young writer (exactly my age!), and I don't know what sorts of inner demons might have been tormenting him, but the fact that really bothers me is this: according to the New York Times article, David Foster Wallace was an English professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, where he taught one or two classes per semester with about 12 students per class.

He was living in English Professor Paradise! He wrote a critically acclaimed novel and some remarkable essays, including the funniest essay ever written on the topic of the Caribbean cruise, AND he had a teaching position any English professor would kill for.

If he didn't want the job, why didn't he just give it to me?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A storm magnet

Today I intend to wipe that lipstick smile off the face of the car I'm currently driving--the car my son wrested with difficulty from the grasp of Tropical Storm Fay--while hoping my son manages to keep my car out of the path of Hurricane Ike. And I suppose it would be nice if he avoided the storm too.

Of course I am more concerned about my son than about my car, but today I've got cars on the brain. Maybe I ought to post a "No Parking" sign on my cerebellum.

When last we visited the car issue, my son had arrived home from his lengthy encounter with Tropical Storm Fay just in time to pack up his things and leave for Texas the next day, except the title office, oddly enough, isn't open at midnight on Saturday so he couldn't get his new (used) car titled or get a permanent tag on it before he left, so he took my car to Texas and left me with a car carrying a temporary tag made of a chunk cut from a grocery bag with numbers written on it in lipstick. (Read about it here.) I soon discovered that I could not transfer the title or get a permanent license plate until my son signed a power of attorney, which I promptly mailed to him and which he signed, notarized, and sent back in such a timely fashion that it arrived only yesterday. The temporary tag expires on Monday. Fortunately, the title office is open from 8 to 2 on Saturday, so I'm all set to go.

Meanwhile, the kid has been using my car at his college, which sits directly in the path of Ike. Apparently, tropical storms find my son irresistible; he's everywhere they want to be. Ike will certainly lose strength by the time it gets that far inland, but the storm will still be packing high winds and plenty of rain. I have to trust the college to know how to keep its students out of danger, but still, I'm monitoring the storm from a distance and sending powerful mind rays intended to steer it away from my son. And my car.

Let's not forget that I managed to drive that car for only about a month this summer before it was whisked away to Texas, and at some point I would like to get reacquainted with my little mermaid-blue baby. Right now it's sitting in Texas pulling Ike ever closer while I'm sitting at home trying to influence Ike to go the other way. In the battle of wills between mom and hurricane, who will win? Who will lose? Who will sell popcorn and peanuts to the fans in the stands?

And, more importantly, where will they all park?

Friday, September 12, 2008

All dressed up and nowhere to go

I'm wearing my brand-new suit today because I've been feeling a bit glum and I thought my mood might be improved if I dressed like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (except without the hat that looks like a chimney or the cigarettes that smoke like same). The whole suit-as-mood-modifier strategy was working pretty well until I actually mentioned Rosalind Russell and His Girl Friday and encountered blank stares. How can no one remember Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday?

My students this morning also demonstrated no familiarity with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and when I told them the movie was the source of the famous "Don't need no steenking badges" line, they looked dubious. Everyone knows that line comes from a Mel Brooks movie! What does Bogart have to do with it?

Yesterday my freshman humor class was befuddled by a joke subtly referring to Monica Lewinsky, and on Tuesday they were reading a satire of hard-boiled detective fiction and had to ask for the meaning of the word "gams." I wanted to say "Ask your father," but given that my students seem to be getting younger at a rapidly accelerating pace, I probably ought to say, "Ask your grampa."

For those who don't have a grampa close by, "gams" are what Rosalind Russell has in His Girl Friday, back in the day when no self-respecting woman would step out in public without a complete set. She definitely didn't need no steenking badges to sharpen up her mood. She just donned the perfect suit, took her gams out for a walk, and wowed the world.

I'm not sure I'm quite up to that this week, but if this suit doesn't help, nothing will.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

An intoxicating environment

Today I experienced two classes from a different perspective--sitting at a student desk to observe my colleagues' teaching--and I learned two really important things:

1. The reek of dry-erase markers reaches all the way to the back of the class, creating an annoyingly intoxicating environment.

2. The heating and cooling system in one classroom blows so loudly that I don't know how students in the back can hear the speaker.

I'm sure I learned other things too--after all, I was listening to some brilliant colleagues putting their best teaching skills on display--but I took special note of these two items because I wonder if they're true in my classes too. I teach in both of those rooms and I use dry-erase markers whenever necessary, and if the reek and the noise are annoying to me, they may be annoying to others as well.

I don't know what can be done about the loud fan except to speak up, but maybe we can do something about the dry-erase marker stink. Odorless markers, anyone? I don't mind if students get high on knowledge, but there's no need to send them to altered states via stinky markers.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Where's a harpoon when you really need one?

My freshman students are quietly reading and commenting on each others' first paper drafts as I write this, so my primary duty is to simply be available for questions (if they have any questions, which they rarely do during peer review but in case they do, I'm here to help). I could be reading and responding to drafts or preparing for tomorrow's classes, but writing a blog post in the middle of class feels transgressive and frankly, I'm in the mood for a little transgression right now.

I've already looked at most of these essays and I'm mostly pleased with them, although I did a double-take when one student wrote that Appalachia is full of "tailor parks." This year both of my freshman classes have demonstrated great proficiency at following directions, a talent their predecessors have not consistently displayed. The papers in my freshman humor class are downright funny and most of them fulfill the requirements for the assignment, which is a plus, and the papers in the Appalachia class are moving away from stereotypes and toward analysis at a pretty brisk pace. So I'm not complaining about my freshman classes.

Neither will I complain about my literature classes. We had our second Moby Dick Monday in the nature class yesterday, and the discussion was both intellectually stimulating and energizing, making me feel as if I could go right out and hurl a harpoon through the biggest conundrum in existence. And the African-American Lit class tackled Harriet Jacobs, an author who always provokes excellent discussion. Further, over the weekend I read some terrific paper drafts from those classes and I have high hopes for the future. So as far as classes go, I have no complaints.

A few weeks ago I went to a certain administrator and said, "I have a complaint." A look of woe came upon his countenance, but then I continued, "My complaint is that I have nothing to complain about."

"Ah," he said. "You feel you need a complaint to provide meaning and structure to your existence? I'll see what can be done about that."

Last night's faculty meeting took care of that problem in spades....but most of the things I could complain about really ought not to be bandied about out of context. Things are going well except when they're not, and there's not much anyone can do about those situations so let's all just get together and wring our hands. I'll just say this: if the intent of the administration was to make faculty members feel demoralized and devalued, yesterday's faculty meeting certainly did the trick.

So now I'm feeling like rebelling against the status quo, and writing a blog post in the middle of class is a fairly harmless method of transgression. A more extreme but perhaps more satisfying method would be to issue harpoons to faculty before each faculty meeting, but I would be little nervous about my colleagues' ability to aim properly. I wouldn't want to hurl a harpoon toward a problem and end up pinning my own feet to the floor.

Monday, September 08, 2008

A sea of chiffon

In the midst of all the excitement about my daughter's engagement, it suddenly occurred to me that I might be required sometime next summer to don a horrible pastel chiffon mother-of-the-bride muumuu.

Maybe we'd better rethink this whole wedding thing...

I haven't worn chiffon since my own wedding 25 years ago.

Pastels? Never!

And I refuse to consider anything resembling the long pink gown a relative wore at a family wedding and ever thereafter referred to, not without reason, as "my shroud."

What's wrong with a nice linen sheath dress with matching jacket? How about a dressy suit in natural fibers with a stunning silk blouse? Must I dress like a pile of leftover wedding-gown trimmings?

My daughter says no: she wants me to look sophisticated, which I may be able to pull off with a little help from my friends. The challenge will be wading through the racks of frilly pastel muumuus without drowning in a sea of chiffon. If you see me going down for the third time, toss out a lifeline!

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Now it can be told!

All week I've been trying to avoid communicating with my daughter, not because of anything she did but because of something I'm afraid I might do--namely, spill the beans. Since last weekend I've been living in fear that in response to some simple question like "So how's life?" I might blurt out something like, "Oh, fine, I guess, nothing much going on, no excitement whatsoever, certainly no surprise visit from your sweetheart--Ha ha! What a silly idea!--and even if he had visited, he certainly wouldn't have mentioned anything about a top-secret plan to surprise you with a diamond ring and a Really Big Question, so really, life is just one long stretch of dullness now that you're gone!"

So all week I've been biting my tongue and biding my time until the top secret plan should come to fruition, which occurred last night and which our daughter told us all about when she called early this morning to announce that she and her sweetheart are engaged.

I tried to act surprised, but I needn't have bothered: he had already told her about his surprise visit to our house last weekend, where he laid out his plans with the precision of an engineer.

I didn't have to pretend to be delighted because I am. If someone had asked me to design the perfect mate for my adorable daughter, I could not have come up with a model any better than her boyfriend--and I probably would have done much worse because it would not have occurred to me to include in the specifications the ability to play the accordion. He has passed all his important relationship tests with flying colors: the family test, the extended family test, the long-distance relationship test, and the long road trip test, any one of them sufficient to reveal any inherent unsuitability in a potential spouse. I don't intend to go all Jane Austen on him and ask him to reveal his annual income, but hey, he's an engineer! You can't go wrong with a guy who knows how to make computers obey his every command.

So now the secret's out of the bag and the ring is on the finger and the family is getting bigger, and now, after a week of biting my tongue, I can finally relax and let it all hang out: my daughter's engaged, and I couldn't be happier.

A walk in the clouds

Yesterday morning I stepped out the door into autumn: summer's heat had been nudged out of the way by a wall of gray clouds bringing cooler air and the scent of fall. Dry brown leaves line the creek bed while the trees on the hills are painted with dabs of bright color, just a hint of the glory to come.

Despite the overcast sky, it was still warm enough for short sleeves when I left the house--but then Hopeful and I walked up the hill into the clouds, where I wished for warmer clothes. It wasn't exactly raining, but tiny cold droplets condensed on my skin as I walked along the high ridge on a road shrouded in fog. The hayfields up there are dotted with round brown bales and flocks of birds storing up energy for migration; at one point Hopeful bounded gleefully into a field to startle a flock of starlings into instant flight. Later, when we got back down to the creek, she took off after two big blue herons, which eluded her by the simple expedient of taking flight, a feat they accomplish with a sort of lazy aplomb. Hopeful has a natural talent for leaping, but despite many attempts, she has not yet mastered the art of flight.

When we got back home, we picked hot peppers and eggplants and okra (meaning I picked them while Hopeful supervised helpfully) to cook with the tomatoes we picked yesterday. All those bright red pepper and tomatoes make the garden look like Christmas, but the tomato plants are turning brown and droopy and the eggplants are just about out of commission. Everything is winding down and getting ready for a change, including me. Summer has been terrific, but the first sniff of autumn in the air fills me with peace.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Making my list, checking it twice...

This has been a day of crossing things off lists, something that fills me with great delight. I have completed annual evaluations of two faculty members in my department (out of eight). I have read and responded to 10 student drafts (out of 37 that need to be returned early next week). I have updated my bulletin board, posted grades, read the online discussion produced by my brilliant African-American Lit students, picked tomatoes, prepped Monday's classes. That's an awful lot for one day, but I worked through lunch just so I wouldn't have to take so much home with me for the weekend.

The best part, probably, was reading my students' contributions to their online discussion. This is an experimental assignment in my African-American Lit class: on each of five Fridays spread across the semester, four students will write brief but thorough summaries of theoretical articles dealing with African-American Lit, and the rest of the students will write brief responses (at least 250 words) to at least two of the summaries, exploring the ideas in greater depth or connecting them to our reading in the class. I was a little nervous about how seriously students would take the assignment: will the discussion forum become an echo chamber or a lively conversation focusing on profound ideas?

The answer is B. The summaries themselves were quite well done, introducing provocative ideas objectively and insightfully, and they provoked a variety of responses ranging from bland agreement to sharp critique. With a few minor exceptions, students showed evidence that they were reading carefully and thinking deeply before responding. Best of all, students who have never opened their mouths in class presented their ideas confidently. That's what I wanted, and that's what I got.

Getting silent students to speak up: there's another item to check off my list.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Definitely Not Funny

My freshman seminar students have been reading, writing, and thinking about the role humor plays in human societies, so this morning I asked them to respond to roll call by briefly stating something that is Definitely Not Funny. They came up with some obvious ones: dust is not funny; pain is not funny; migraines that prevent you from doing assignments are Definitely Not Funny.

One student said lightbulbs are not funny, which is probably true, but then why are there so many how-many-whatevers-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-lightbulb jokes? We agreed that lightbulbs may be the occasion for humor, but the lightbulb qua lightbulb simply isn't funny.

One student finds Jesus jokes Not Funny and another strongly objects to vegetarian jokes. "They're offensive," she said. "They make me so upset I have to leave." And yet when she said "vegetarian jokes," everyone laughed, suggesting that humor, as we have already discovered on many other occasions, is pretty subjective.

One student said, "Making the freshmen soccer players clean the team bus after an away game is Definitely Not Funny," but I asked him whether it might look more amusing from a distance, when he and his fellow sufferers get together at their 25th reunion and start talking about old times. "Will you ever laugh at this experience?" I asked, and he cracked a smile. "We're already planning revenge," he said. "That'll be funny."

So what did we learn from this experience? Nothing terribly earthshaking, but it did confirm the importance of context to humor. Broken cell phones, for instance, are Definitely Not Funny, but when a classmate whose cell-phone struggles are already legendary brings up the topic, everyone laughs. Indeed, that was the most interesting thing about the experiment: no matter how unfunny the stated items were, they made people laugh.

Now that's funny.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Daydream believer

Want to be more creative? Daydream.

So says Jonah Lehrer in "Daydream Achiever," an article surveying recent research on the importance of daydreaming to brain health. Lehrer highlights studies linking daydreaming to innovative thinking and abstract reasoning, but perhaps most interesting is one researcher's suggestion that children whose every waking moment is filled with media images may be losing the essential skills imparted by daydreaming. Teresa Belton's research concluded that moments of boredom are essential to creativity, but because the children she studied "were rarely bored--at least, when a television was nearby--they never learned how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment." Maybe we ought to set aside areas that promote daydreaming--vast tracts of land free of intrusion by mediated images--and encourage people, especially children, to just go out and be bored. Come to think of it, this is pretty much what my parents used to do, except instead of saying "Go out and be bored!" they would say "Would you for heaven's sake get out of the house and find something to do?!"

Daydreams, concludes Lehrer, help us "plan for the future, interact with others, and solidify our own sense of self. And when we are stuck on a particularly difficult problem, a good daydream isn't just an escape--it may be the most productive thing we can do."

So next time someone wandering into my office and wonders why I'm staring out the window, I'll just say, "I'm being productive. Care to join me?"

Monday, September 01, 2008

Instant Picnic (just add water)

I brought my Instant Picnic Kit to school with me today--a picnic basket, some lunch, and a checkered tablecloth--and sent out an e-mail to my colleagues inviting them to a spontaneous Labor Day picnic. If we have to teach on Labor Day, we may as well have a little fun too.

Which we did. I'm not sure how many people showed up because they kept coming and going, but we ran out of space at the picnic table and had to pull up some chairs. One colleague rolled out a wheelchair that happened to be sitting around his building and sat in it at the end of the table. Every time a new person arrived, he would stand up and claim a miracle.

All day long people have been asking for my help with problems that fall outside my bailiwick, problems that are normally solved by the staff members and administrators who have the day off. I do not know how to fix the copier, send a fax to China, find out whether a particular classroom is available at 3 p.m., or replace the ink cartridge in a computer lab that belongs to another department, but I do know how to have a picnic, which, on Labor Day, is all we really need.

I wonder whether I should list that on my annual review?