Friday, October 31, 2008


For Halloween, one of my students dressed like Cher and another like Amy Winehouse (complete with elaborate hand-drawn tattoos), but my favorite costume was a set of students dressed as characters from Jaws: Matt Hooper and the Great White, together once again!

Meanwhile, I dressed like the scariest creature I know..... English professor.

If you can't read this, read on!

A brand-new billboard popped up along the busiest part of my morning commute, its big bold letters proclaiming, "If you can't read this...."

I can think of several ways to complete the sentence:

If you can't read this, press 2 for Espanol.

If you can't read this, call a literacy tutor.

If you can't read this, time to get your eyes checked!

The third option turns out to be correct: below the bold sentence fragment is the name of a local group of opthalmologists followed by their phone number in much smaller type. (If you can't read the big bold type, how are you going read the phone number?) A billboard aimed directly at people unable to read billboards seems an exercise in futility, but it makes me want to ask yet another question:

If your vision is so bad that you can't read this, what are you doing driving a car? Get off the road before you kill someone!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Good enough, considering

Lately I'm working on being a good-enough teacher. Not great, not perfect, not wonderful, sometimes not even terribly good, but just good enough, considering.

Considering what?

Considering that we've reached the point in the semester when everyone wants something from me (grades, money, help registering for spring courses).

Considering that I can't seem to find time to eat lunch or take my car to the shop or iron a pair of pants, which will be a real problem in the next day or two unless I want to start wearing sweats to class.

Considering that there's no such thing as the Perfect Teacher and if there were, she would not be me. Be I. See? Sometimes I'm not even a particularly good grammarian, but I'm usually good enough. Considering.

Considering the demands of administrative tasks and committee foolishness, it's a wonder I have time to be any sort of teacher at all. Nobody becomes a college professor out of an earnest desire to attend mindless, pointless, contentious committee meetings week after week, but that's an important part of the job. Last week I sat on a committee that actually made progress on a particularly knotty problem, but this week the same group will have to "revisit the issue" because of some objections from the Powers That Be. Progress is slow, but maybe it's the best we can hope for, considering.

Considering the hours I spent yesterday and today beating my head against a particularly stubborn technological problem, I don't know when I'm supposed to prep tomorrow's classes or read the big pile of drafts that's slowly drifting across my desk, and I don't know how detailed my comments will be considering the size of those draft-drifts. I'm not trying to write the world's greatest student-draft comment, which would sum up all accumulated wisdom on the topic of writing in one easily digested phrase; instead, I'll write comments that are good enough, considering that the papers themselves, with a few bright exceptions, rarely rise above that level.

Considering the cold, the weather, the long drive to work in the dark, and considering the existential angst associated with the human condition, I've come to believe that good enough ought to be good enough. I'm not aiming for perfection, people! If good enough is good enough for me, then it ought to be good enough for anyone. Considering.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I resemble that remark!

Someone using an internet server located in Yazd, Iran, ended up at this site after googling the phrase "picture of baloney." Um, whatever turns you on!

Monday, October 27, 2008

The unwelcome guest

I've just finished reading An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, a beautifully written memoir of the year between the stillbirth of her first child and the live birth of her second. Amazingly honest without being maudlin, the book examines the complicated experiences of a woman preparing to give birth while still mourning a great loss, and even though it begins with "Once upon a time," the book actively avoids entering fairy-tale terrain:

Once upon a time, before I knew anything about the subject, a woman told me that I should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child. (This is not that book.)

McCracken's prose crackles and sparks and assumes a lyrical cadence, and it is always thoughtful and polished and full of vivid images:

Of course you can't out-travel sadness. You will find that it has smuggled itself along in your suitcase. It coats the camera lens, it flavors the local cuisine. In that different sunlight, it stands out, awkward, yours, honking in the brash vowels of your native tongue in otherwise quiet restaurants. You may even feel proud of its stubbornness as it follows you up the bell towers and monuments, as it pants in your ear while you take in the view. I travel not to get away from my troubles but to see how they look in front of famous buildings or on deserted beaches.

I've never lost a child but I've known the kind of sadness that tags along like a guest who won't go home. McCracken considers the impact of grief on her creative process, an emphasis that invites comparison to Anthony Doerr's Four Seasons in Rome, which similarly deals with the author's difficulties in trying to write in an alien place where he doesn't speak the language. The chief difference, however, is that Doerr's twin infants act as little ambassadors between the writer and the local community, while the death of McCracken's baby opens a gulf few are able to cross. This book shows us the dimensions of that gulf and marks the places where crossing is possible, providing a useful map for anyone encountering great loss.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Old dog, new tricks

Duke lives a good mile away by road, but he generally takes the short cut across farm fields, walking slowly and with a limp. Nevertheless he often ends up at our house before I leave in the morning, just in time for the food to hit the dish.

Duke is a dog, an old dog unlikely to learn new tricks. He's not our dog, but he's quite fond of our dog--fond enough to spend about half of his time at our house and to encourage Hopeful to spend about half of her time at his. When they dine at our house, Hopeful stands back and lets Duke eat first; when they dine at Duke's house, Duke defers to Hopeful.

I've never observed such a close and enduring friendship between two dogs. Near neighbors have beagles, border collies, and one particularly bossy basset, but Hopeful avoids them all, preferring to trot all the way over to Duke's place or bring Duke back to hers.

The friendship between our dogs has deepened our friendship with Duke's owners, who, fortunately, do not object to Hopeful's frequent presence. I suppose we could break up the relationship by tying both dogs up to keep them separate, but Duke seems to take great comfort from Hopeful's presence and vice versa. Why would we want to break up such a beautiful relationship? Duke feels like part of our family, and I'd hate to lose his steadfast presence. Instead, we celebrate the fact that our family has grown in an unexpected but wonderful way.

This weekend we'll experience a different kind of family growth. We have enjoyed getting to know our daughter's fiance and his amazing family, people we never would have encountered if our kids hadn't hit it off. We barely know these people but we love them dearly and look forward to seeing our family grow and stretch in unexpected ways, but this week it stretched into that "undiscovered country from whose bourn / no traveller returns."

Our daughter's future mother-in-law died this week after a long and painful battle with cancer. She was just a terrific person, full of wisdom and joy, and I have so looked forward to working on this wedding with her, but instead, we'll be attending a memorial service that will celebrate her life. Our kids brought us together, a gift for which I am grateful. Next summer the wedding will go on, but not without her, not really--she'll be there in spirit and in the wisdom and joy she has passed on to her children. She'll be there in our hearts, now grown larger because of her life.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A dash of perspective

I arrived on campus when it was still dark this morning, but I was cheered on my way when I saw the emerging library's windows all lit up from within and workmen inside taking care of business. It's nice to know I'm not the only one working at the crack of dawn.

I had been feeling a little sorry for myself for being so swamped with work that I had to get to the office in the wee hours, but along the way I stopped at the grocery store and griped a bit to the cashier, who informed me that she had to scrape the frost off her car windows at 4 a.m. so she could get to work on time--and she's 68 years old! "I love my job," she said, "but I never really expected to be scraping car windows that early in the morning at my age!"

She didn't look 68, and she didn't act at all bothered about her plight. I don't expect to be scraping windows in the wee hours at age 68 just so I can stand on my feet and scan groceries all day, but if I ever end up in that position, I hope I have the grace and patience to love my job.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pipe (cleaner) dreams

Lately I've been having a series of very vivid dreams about my daughter's wedding, dream ceremonies full of bizarre rituals involving, for instance, the throwing of hats and the reciting of very bad poetry. In one dream she wore a brilliant yellow and blue dirndl skirt and carried a bouquet made of orange pipe-cleaners, and in another the bride and groom were wheeled out of the church in what looked like an overgrown perambulator.

My dream self finds nothing odd about these ceremonies, instead finding them marvelously meaningful and moving; my waking self, on the other hand, says, "Pipe-cleaners?! What were we thinking?"

The wedding will happen next June, which means I have eight more months to dream. If I keep being visited by these bizarre rituals, by next June I'll be able to accept blithely anything that happens without a trace of concern: "Orange pipe-cleaners? Lovely. You want to toss some hats? Divine. Where can we find a giant perambulator? Let's start with the Yellow Pages. Whatever you want will be just wonderful!"

Monday, October 20, 2008

From workout to burnout

It is an indisputable fact that working out at the campus rec center is an smart move: it keeps me in shape, gets the endorphins flowing, and gives me an opportunity to take out my frustrations on mindless equipment.

Despite this, I'm convinced that working out makes me stupid--that every second I spend up there in that big booming building drains my brain cells, paralyzes my critical thinking skills, and hampers my ability to communicate clearly. I'm up there pounding away on the elliptical machine while my ears are assaulted by piped-in pop music set just a tad too loud and my eyes can wander between televisions set to stations that seem to originate in entirely different planets, none of them my own. Angry guys argue about their fantasy football teams on one scream while on the other Dr. Phil yells at a family about how unhelpful it is when they yell at each other. Sometimes the TV's are showing soap operas, and sometimes there are cooking shows focusing, in one instance, on the entire process of the making of haggis.

I am convinced that a regular diet of daytime television absorbed while my brain cells are being jiggled violently up and down will pummel my brain into a mass of mush. As evidence, I present today's African-American Lit class, which I taught after making the fatal error of exercising during my lunch hour. I normally exercise after all my teaching is done for the day so as to minimize the chance of humiliating myself, but I have meetings all afternoon so I worked out just before class.

This was a mistake, as I realized in the middle of class when I lost track of what I was saying in the middle of a sentence. I had trouble retrieving important information, fumbled on simple words, and even referred authoritatively to the Legend of the Frying African, which is not at all what I meant. And then about ten minutes before class was due to be over, I ran out of steam. The words just stop working, the ideas stopped arriving, and the energy pooped out. I guess I left it in the rec center.

I need to find a way to fit exercise into my life even on days when I have a million meetings. How's this for brilliant: next time I have a schedule like today's, I'll take the whole class to the rec center with me and teach from my perch atop the elliptical machine. I may not be any smarter over there, but in that context, the students will never notice.

Friday, October 17, 2008

It's Friday, but Sunday's a-coming

Friday afternoon is difficult: I have an hour free between my afternoon class and my late-afternoon meeting, and I ought to use that hour to do some class preps so I don't have to take so much work home with me over the weekend, but I just can't make myself do it. It's been a long day--a long week--a long month, and I'm so close to a small weekend reprieve that I can taste it, if I can just press on through these next two hours....

But I can't. Between 3 and 4 on Friday afternoons, I'll do almost anything but think about classes. I look at the honking big books on my desk and tell myself that if I'll read Monday's sections, I won't have to carry 'em home with me--but it's not happening. Instead, I fiddle. I catch up on my e-mail correspondence. I look at Facebook. I wander the halls practicing Management by Walking Around (aka doing nothing, really, but doing it in the presence of other people). I may even wander into the Writing Center, sit on one of the reclining chairs, and close my eyes for a few moments. Anything but work on classes! Anything but think! I'll think tomorrow! Tomorrow, as Scarlett reminds us, is another day. It's Saturday, in fact, when I won't feel like thinking about class preps at all. Sunday?

Better open those books now or I'll be facing a pretty bleak Sunday afternoon.

Indisposed to dispute

When a dispute with a student devolves to the point that the student pouts and insists that "you just don't like me," I don't like being a professor. Is it too late to take up something less contentious like, say, forklift repair?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A vile comment

Today I returned midterm essays in my morning class and afterward a student asked why I had written "vile" all over his essay.

"I didn't write 'vile' all over your essay," I said. "Do I strike you as the type of person who would write 'vile' all over a student's essay?"

He showed me the scribbles in question.

"That's 'nice,'" I said. "As in 'nice title' or 'nice thesis.'"

"Oh," he said, "now I get it!"

I really need to work on my handwriting!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


From a distance, a field of drying corn looks monochromatic, but it's a different story up close.

Strictly circular

Still life with grindstone and hay bales.

Prospectus perspective

The prospectus is in the mail, with sample chapter attached!

I ought to feel relieved, but instead I'm distracted: I want to snatch the manuscript out of the envelope and fiddle with it more, or expand the cover letter to explain all the reasons that the manuscript doesn't quite live up to my high expectations, or visualize the responses of editors who read it, which makes me hyperventilate.

Time to calm down: breathe in, breathe out... breathe in, breathe out. Relax, it's only a pile of words. What's the worst that could happen? Breathe in, breathe out...

Someone stop me before I run to the mailroom!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dogged by a document

Fall break is nearly over and what do I have to show for it? Sticky shoes, a wounded knee, blurred vision, and pages--publishable, I hope.

One of my goals for fall break was to do a lot of walking through the rapidly changing countryside, where leaves are changing color almost before my eyes. I've walked something like 18 miles in the past four days, marvelling over just how much racket a measly little chipmunk can make when it runs across a forest floor covered with dry leaves. To get to the good parts I had to walk across fresh patches of tar and chip, leaving my shoes marred with globs of sticky goo. On Saturday morning, at the most remote point on a six-mile walk, I slipped on some loose gravel and slammed into the ground knee-first, twisting my back and causing my entire body to cry out in pain. Nobody was listening except the cornfield and it didn't care, so I hobbled home.

Today my knee still looks ugly but the pain is gone, so I ventured out again, hoping to rest my blurry eyes by looking at something more interesting and varied than a Word document. At first I couldn't see much except that same document that seemed to be dogging my steps, banging on my brain cells, and demanding attention, but finally I put it behind me, and behold, there was autumn--an amazing show and all of it free.

And now I'm back home with my sticky shoes, wounded knee, and blurry eyes, and I'm ready to print out that pile of pages and send them off to an academic publisher first thing tomorrow. Best of all, putting some concentrated time into this project has jump-started my thinking on the next stage, so once I get this bit into the mail, I'll know where to put my energy to best effect in the coming months. It feels good to reach this goal...but it feels even better to have another goal calling me forward.

Now if I can just get my shoes unstuck from the tar, I'll really be getting somewhere.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

A turkey treat

I arrived home last night to find a whole flock of wild turkeys in my meadow. They scattered when I drove up, of course, but for a long time afterward we could hear them chattering their insane gobbledygook from the woods above the house.

The dog, off gallivanting with her best dogfriend, Duke, missed all the excitement. This morning I walked about a mile up the road to retrieve Hopeful (which, come to think of it, makes me a Labrador Retriever retriever), and I gave her a stern lecture about the virtues of staying close to home. "You could have been chasing turkeys!" I told her, but she just sat there looking hopefully up at me with that familiar expression that says, "Did you bring me a treat?!"

So now Hopeful is home and the turkeys have dispersed and I'm grateful that I stayed up late last night grading the big pile of midterm essay exams, with only a few turkeys in the bunch. I worked students pretty hard on these exams but they stepped up and met the challenge with insight and perseverance and only a modicum of gobbledygook. I'm out of the woods and ready to enjoy my fall break--and, like my dog, I'm looking forward to the treat, despite the occasional turkey.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Circling the drain

Some of my colleagues were talking about the sorry state of our pension funds, and I tried to reassure them by pointing out that we're all in the same boat.

The problem, of course, is that the boat we're all in is the one the Tidy-Bowl man uses to circle the drain in the toilet.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Melville for dummies!

The text begins with the familiar words "Call me Ishmael," but that's the last sentence in which Melville's distinctive voice rings out; it quickly moves on to more generic prose: "Call me Ishmael. I am a schoolmaster, and whenever life got me down, I would leave my job and head for one special place." Just in case we didn't get the point, the facing page features a line drawing of a man looking out to sea above the caption, "The Sea Restores Ishmael's Spirits."

This book, brought to me by a wonderful English major, made me want to leave my job and head for one special place where such bowdlerization would be considered complete balderdash. The book is the Baronet Great Illustrated Classics version of Moby Dick, in which one Shirley Bogart adapts Melville's text for readers who wish Melville's style had been strongly influenced by the Dick and Jane readers. The text is nearly 250 pages long, but the print is large and friendly and the drawings present a world which Melville would have relegated to the chapter on The Monstrous Pictures of Whales.

Bogart's chapter titles succinctly sum up the action: A Strange Roommate; The Mad Prophet of Doom; Queequeg Does It Again! The final chapter is titled "I Alone Survived" and it begins, "The story's done, and I alone survived the wreck," thereby assuring that even inattentive readers will grasp the essential point.

Bogart's text is characterized by an amazing economy of line, but it lacks Melville's memorable rhythm, his complex rolling sentences as vast and profound as the sea itself. It also lacks Melville's love for suspense; several important mysteries are demystified right at the start within the dramatis personae, which informs readers that Moby Dick is "the Great White Whale with almost human-like intelligence" while Ahab is "the fanatic one-legged commander of the Pequod who swears vengeance on a gigantic white whale who crippled him." Good to get that cleared up right up front so we don't have to waste time sussing out the subtleties of Melville's characterizations.

Similarly, the book leaves out any passages that distract from the action, like Father Mapple's sermon and all those passages about cetology and pictures of squashes masquerading as whales and the functions of all those tools and ropes and bits of whaling paraphernalia. There's also no room for metaphysical musings or even Melville's playful sense of humor. A writer--excuse me, "adapter"--would have to work pretty hard to drain Melville's prose of its richly mordant humor, but somehow, Shirley Bogart does the trick.

I know why books like this exist--perhaps some small child will read it and become enamored of Melville's world and later move on to encounter the real thing, like the child whose addiction to candy cigarettes leads him to emulate the Marlboro Man. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. Melville's story without Melville's prose and Melville's metaphysical speculation and Melville's subtle characterization just isn't Moby Dick at all, whatever the cover of the book might say. Call me whatever you want, but don't call Shirley Bogart's book Moby Dick.

Plowing through papers

So far, my no-so-secret plan for getting some extended time to writing during fall break is working well: I gave my freshman writing class a midterm this morning and I've already graded two-thirds of them while my freshman seminar students were writing their midterm essays. The seminar meets in a strange classroom with fixed theater seats and tiny pull-up writing desks, so the students spread themselves out in some odd ways, some of them preferring to sit on the floor and one commandeering the huge table that stretches across the back of the room. With only 16 students in a large tiered room that seats more than 100, there's plenty of room for everyone.

Not plenty of power outlets, however. This room was clearly built at a time when no one envisioned students' needs for electricity in class. Those using laptops clustered near the three available outlets, while those writing by hand drifted toward the powerless places.

I'm pretty well plugged in myself, but by the time I read all these essays, I'll be feeling drained of power and ready for a break--and I intend to get one! Just let me plow through all these papers first.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Open house

The weather today is cold, gray, and wet, but I'm not complaining because we desperately need the rain. On the other hand, I am delighted that the rain held off until this morning, because yesterday afternoon was absolutely gorgeous--the perfect day for students from my Concepts of Nature class to come out to my house to enjoy a cookout and commune with nature.

Trees turn colors along our hollow earlier than they do in town, and the clear blue sky put those orange and yellow leaves into the spotlight. We sat on the deck eating apple crisp and drinking hot cider and then we took a little walk up into the woods, relatively ho-hum activities but a nice break from midterm exams.

It made me recall with pleasure the few times my college professors opened their homes to students. I was first introduced to A Prairie Home Companion at the home of one English professor, and another gave us frequent opportunities to enjoy home-cooked meals--a nice change from cafeteria food. Things were different in grad school: a grad student well lubricated with the fruits of the professor's wine cellar might say some things that would be held against him later. During grad school, I never allowed myself to relax at a professor's home, but as an undergrad I always enjoyed the chance to get away from campus and spend some time surrounded by good books and good food and good conversation.

Now I'm happy to provide the same for my students, but we live so far from campus that many students are reluctant to make the trip. I invite about one class each semester to my house, and generally about one-third of the students show up. But that's okay. More leftovers for the rest of us! I'll thank the no-shows this afternoon when I decompress from the cold, gray, damp day by enjoying a nice warm mug of mulled cider.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The write way

I miss writing.

I realize that I'm writing right now, but this isn't the kind of writing I miss. I miss the sort of deep, sustained, thoughtful writing I was able to do over the summer, the kind of writing that keeps me at the keyboard through lunch and supper and creates enough momentum to keep the thoughts rolling for days on end.

I keep telling myself that I'll get back to that sort of writing soon--as soon as I finish this next committee report, grade these papers, wash the dishes, fold the laundry, take the dog for a walk...and meanwhile, what little writing time I have comes in little chunks with a lot of distractions pressing in on all sides, so it's fragmentary, brief, ephemeral--like this.

And this.

I guess what I need is some time off with no distractions. Four-day break comes up this weekend and it looks as if I'll have about 80 exams to grade in between attending a wedding and doing some yard work. So the goal will be to get all of Thursday's exams graded on Friday and all of Friday's exams graded before the wedding on Saturday so I'll have Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday relatively free.

Can I do it? I need to try--because I need to write.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Cold comfort

I'm sitting in my office trying to work with a blanket draped over my back, but my fingers are so cold I can't type straight and icicles are forming on the end of my nose. Everyone who wanders into my office comments on how cold it is and offers a helpful suggestion: "Why don't you turn on your space heater?"

And I could turn on the space heater, but then the first time someone uses the microwave in the next office, the circuit breaker will pop and we'll have to call the helpful guys from the physical plant to come and restore power and as soon as they walk in and see me huddling under a blanket for warmth they'll yell at me for operating a space heater in violation of a campus policy designed, I believe, to keep professors focusing on the cold so we won't have any energy to spare for looking for work in a warmer place.

Not that I am bitter.

Bitterness, in fact, might provide some heat. Trying not to think about how cold I am does not produce any measurable warmth. Maybe I should get really, really angry, angry enough to make my blood boil--but not boil over, because as soon as the anger is released, I'll start cooling off again.

I need to work on maintaining a constant slow simmer, a mumbling, grumbling, griping undertone of discontent, just enough to keep me bubbling but not enough to make me boil over. And where shall I find inspiration for this simmering anger? Why, the people who keep my office so cold I can't function, of course! As long as they insist on making me work in a subzero environment, I'll continue to harbor enough anger to keep me warm.

And if the Powers That Be decide they want to douse the fire, there's one simple solution: turn on the heat.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Engaging conversation

Reading my African-American Lit students' online theory discussions is like walking into a room where a bunch of really smart people are having a fascinating conversation and being allowed to listen in. They engage with interesting ideas, articulate coherent arguments, consider implications, explore contexts, educate and inform and even entertain each other in an enlightening and civilized manner. I wish the conversation could keep going on and on....and for some, maybe it will. That, at any rate, is the goal.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Is there a 12-step group for punctuality addiction?

For some people, punctuality is a virtue; for me, it's a disease. Missing a deadline makes me physically ill--even if it's not my fault.

In all the years I worked as a journalist, I missed a deadline only once, when a job-related injury sent me to the emergency room for X-rays.

I dropped a book on my foot.

It was a big book, a bound volume containing an entire year's run of a weekly newspaper, and I dropped it from a pretty good height, which caused my foot to turn ugly colors and swell to elephantine proportions. A year later I still had problems tying my left shoe, and pain was a constant companion for months.

Fortunately, a trained Emergency Medical Technician was present when I dropped the book, and he provided immediate assistance. "You ought to get someone to look at that," he said.

Because of my unexpected visit to the emergency room, I missed the event I was supposed to be covering: a local boy's Eagle Scout ceremony. In small-town journalism, this counts as hot news. The next day, the Eagle Scout's usually perky mother called me at the office to curse me loudly and at great length. You can't tell a screaming mother "I dropped a book on my foot," so I apologized.

Okay: I'm hobbling around on a foot that looks like it belongs to the Elephant Man while this churchgoing mother curses me in terms that would make a longshoreman blush, and I'm the one apologizing? What's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong is my compulsive need to be punctual, a neurosis that has been keeping me awake all this week, ever since the deadline passed for the submission of a particular document.

Let the record show that I did my part. I turned in my share of the work on August 17, so the person responsible for doing the rest of the work and turning the document in by Sept. 30 has had five full weeks to do so. The stakes are pretty low, but that doesn't matter: the deadline was Tuesday and the document is not done, so I've been hobbling around under a heavy weight of guilt and catching maybe three hours of sleep each night, tossing and turning on the mattress and thinking dark thoughts in the wee hours.

My dilatory colleague looks cheerful and well rested. Every time I see him, he says something like, "Yeah, I guess I'd better get to work on that, ha ha!" Next time I find myself lying awake at 3 a.m., I'll call my colleague at home and share some of my dark thoughts--except he would probably just curse me loudly in terms that would make a longshoreman blush, and then I would end up apologizing.

Times like these I envy the irresponsible.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Plodding through Purgatory

Once upon a time a well-loved teacher of eighth-grade English succumbed to an aneurysm in the middle of the school year and had to be replaced by a long-term substitute who, whatever her merits as a teacher, could never replace the dead teacher in her students' hearts, so certain students expressed their feelings about the class by posting above the door a sign that read, "Relinquish all hope, ye who enter here."

I was one of those students, and this week, those words came back to haunt me after I taught a class characterized by weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

Midway through the dark wood of freshman writing I found myself faced with the necessity of giving what we call the Come to Jesus Speech, which has three essential points:

1. If you don't earn at least a C- in this class, you will have to take it again--and as much as I know you adore my class, you really don't want to take it again.

2. The average grade on the first essay was a 77, and one-third of the grades fell below the C- theshold; moreover, this is the easiest essay assignment you will receive from me all year, so if you've struggled on this one, you need to figure out how to use all the resources available to help you pass this class.

3. And speaking of resources, none of you paid a visit to the Writing Center or met with me for a one-on-one conference, and many of you ignored the helpful comments you received on your drafts. This is not the best way to assure safe passage out of the dark wood of freshman writing.

This kind of moment always lends a certain sombre tone to the rest of the class, except amongst those who happened to be snoozing, a classroom contingent pretty much identical to the list of students who most needed to hear the speech. Then I returned the graded papers. That woke them up.

First, though, I offered a rare lifeline: spend the rest of class time revising one paragraph of your essay to respond to all the comments on the paper and turn that in for up to 5 extra points on your grade (depending on the quality of the revision). Most of the class immediately set to work on revising a paragraph, but the sleepers, apparently annoyed at having been so rudely awakened, staged a protest.

One cried. One sulked. One yelled: "I don't know how anyone could get an A on this assignment if I didn't! There must be professional writers in this class!"

I pointed out that the alleged professional writers in the class were diligently working to improve their writing and the yelling student would be well advised to do likewise, and in the end everyone ended up trying for the extra points. I invited students to confer with me individually if they needed help understanding any of my comments, and a few did, but the the atmosphere in the classroom remained fraught with tension, grumbling, and tears. It was, like Dante's Hell, not a particularly happy place, and I wondered whether I might be facing payback for my youthful prank.

But this morning there were no warning signs posted outside the classroom, no weeping, wailing, or gnashing inside. We seem to have moved on beyond the gates of Hell and toward more pleasant vistas, which is a profound relief. I won't say we've reached Paradise just yet, but at least it's vaguely visible in the distance. We've got a bit of Puratory to plod through first.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Oblivious to obviousness

Some poor misguided soul stumbled upon my blog by googling the phrase "obviousness in today's society," and I feel so guilty about having nothing to offer that I decided to do a little research into the topic, the results of which I present below:

Obviousness in today's society is a serious problem. In yesterday's society, nobody really noticed obviousness, and back in the day, individuals had to craft their own small stocks of obviousness on fragile hand-looms. Therefore, obviousness is becoming more and more obvious as time goes on.

Some people believe that obviousness was created by God, basing their conclusions on an alternative translation of the word "light." Others claim that obviousness suffuses the universe as part of the energy leftover from the Big Bang, and still others assert that obviousness is actually a space-age polymer secretly manufactured in factories along the Ohio River, where it can easily be introduced into today's society's drinking water like so much C-8. People will believe the theory they personally believe, so who am I to judge?

Obviousness often appears in literature, although not as often as some readers would prefer. Shakespeare, for instance, suffered from a severe shortage of obviousness; otherwise, Hamlet's famous soliloquy would have been only three words long: "To be--obviously!" In today's society, readers struggle to understand what was so special about that red wheelbarrow William Carlos Williams was always carrying on about. If so much depends upon that red wheelbarrow, why didn't he just come right out and make it obvious? But everyone is entitled to their own interpretations.

Tomorrow's society will look back at today's society as the Golden Age of Obviousness. If obviousness continues to increase at current rates, then tomorrow's society will simply be swimming in obviousness. When obviousness becomes as obvious as the nose on one's face, who will notice it? Tomorrow's society, then, will become completely oblivious to obviousness, which suggests that someone ought to write a paper called "Obliviousness in Tomorrow's Society," but who am I to say? Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. At the end of the day, nothing is more obvious than this.