Friday, November 28, 2008

A holiday footnote

Firmly ensconced behind a thick wall of student drafts needing immediate attention, I've made a point this morning of blocking out most news from the outside world. Thus, I am aware that something horrible is happening in India, but I refuse to think about it until after I've reduced the wall of drafts to a mere speed bump on the highway of my life's journey, just to mix a few incompatible metaphors.

But somehow a little whiff of news came wafting over the walls and I can't quite bring myself to ignore it: a Wal-Mart clerk trampled to death by a horde of impatient Christmas shoppers. What am I supposed to do with this bit of anomalous info?

Images come in all unbeckoned: pilgrims to Mecca and other holy sites trampled to death by passionate worshipers eager to achieve spiritual enlightenment. On the day afterThanksgiving, there is no holier site in America than the big blue box, which makes this clerk's death a sacrifice to our national religion.

But what sort of spiritual experience were the frantic shoppers seeking? Were they so enrapt by the visions of discounts dancing in their heads that they failed to notice the suffering body under their feet? Or is the sacrifice of the clerk a necessary part of the ritual?

And where in the Christmas story do we find the foundation for the traditional dash to the discount store on the day after Thanksgiving? Maybe I've overlooked a footnote exempting Wal-Mart shoppers from the whole "good will toward men" thing. Peace on Earth could be right around the corner, but we'll never notice unless it carries a tag promising "50 percent off!"

I don't have time for this: I need to exercise a little good will toward student drafts instead of obsessing over the enigmas presented by our national obsession with greed, but this news has disturbed my peace. Would someone hit the "rewind" button, please? Let's go back and start this day over, this time without the bombings and tramplings and worshipings of greed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Five reasons to be thankful

It's snowing! Once I get home this afternoon, I have no urgent need to leave the house until Sunday--so let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

My daughter is coming home (and bringing my wonderful future son-in-law)! So, okay, maybe the snow can stay light until she arrives this evening, but after that, let the sky fall!

My MLA paper is done! Well, the draft is's 10 pages long with a weak conclusion, so I'll need to revisit it after I get some distance. But still: next month I'll get to attend MLA to give a paper about a topic I love, and I won't have to spend any time in the big ugly interview room entertaining candidates desperate to work here. That's right--for the first time in four years, we have no search in our department, so I get to do MLA the right way: attend sessions, give a paper, be a scholar, and goof off, all on the college's nickel.

I'm done reading freshman drafts! I do have a pile of upper-level literature paper drafts to read this weekend, but from this point until the final exam, I won't need to read or comment on another freshman draft.

And did I mention that it's snowing?! That ought to be enough to make anyone thankful.

Monday, November 24, 2008

All-Star Non-Slackers

I'm sitting in my afternoon classroom enjoying the sound of students busily following instructions. They're good at this, these students. It's an upper-level literature class full of juniors and seniors, so I shouldn't be surprised, but still, I have to confess that I brought an extra activity to class today just in case some of the students didn't follow directions. I should have been more confident. These, after all, are my star students! They've been doing things right all semester long! Why should I expect any less today?

The cloak of visibility

These days my primary goal as I prepare for a walk is to look as un-deerlike as possible. Of course I want to stay warm and dry and I need enough pockets to stash my essentials (pepper spray, lip balm, tissues, keys), but what I really need is outerwear that screams one simple message: "I'm not a deer!"

That rules out my new winter coat: it's warm and waterproof and a bit skimpy on the pocketage, but its chief flaw is its color, a shade of taupe that could accurately be described as Bambi-esque.

Likewise I rule out the big green leather coat: it's warm and waterproof and amply provided with pockets, but its color suggests leaves--not a terrific choice for walking by woods during deer season. It's also about four sizes too big and bulkier than a leather sofa, and who wants to carry a leather sofa on a walk?

The red wool coat that kept me comfortable one windy July in Auckland is as close as I'll ever get to Hunter Orange, and it's plenty warm, with pockets you could smuggle a sheep in. However, it's not even close to waterproof, and all that heavy wool gets pretty uncomfortable when wet, like trying to lug a drenched sheep on your back. Moreover, that coat is sized to fit the much larger me who visited Auckland six years ago (in fact, you could probably fit me in one of those pockets), so I reject it outright.

That leaves the last coat in the closet: it's warm and waterproof and well equipped with nifty zippered pockets and all kinds of velcro straps, and best of all, it's bright red. One problem: it's not my coat. It belongs to my son. The fact that my son is a good seven inches taller than I am suggests that this coat can't possibly fit me, and it's true that I can pull my hands right up inside the cozy warm sleeves, but aside from that, it fits me perfectly--and it definitely says "Not a deer! Not even close! So don't shoot!"

So that's why I've adopted my son's red coat, and I intend to keep wearing it as long as he's not around to object.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wastelands R Us

A small group of students and professors hiked through a remote section of woods nestled in a slight depression in the mountaintop, quiet winter woods surrounding us as far as the eye could see. Through the trees we could see the tops of mountains in the distance, some of them looking flatter than one might expect, but this small area of natural beauty felt safe, protected, remote from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

Then we walked up a steep rise to a point where the surrounding mountains became visible. No longer protected from the bitterly cold wind, we found our senses assaulted by the weather and our souls assaulted by the devastation surrounding us. Behind us was a safe and serene haven of natural beauty; before us was a vast unnatural site drained of color and life.

This is what mountaintop removal mining looks like, and it's a sight not available to many people. Located a mere 45-minute drive from Charleston, West Viriginia, Kayford Mountain might as well be on the dark side of the moon. Mountaintop removal mining is practiced far from the prying eyes of a public so addicted to coal power that we don't care that this method of mining recovers only a tiny percentage of the coal from the area--while transforming wilderness areas and inhabited hollows into land on which nothing can grow or live.

On a snowy day in November we visited Larry Gibson on 50 acres of land his family has owned for more than 200 years, property now surrounded by 7500 acres of mountaintop removal mining sites. The mountaintops are sheered off and the rubble dumped in hollows, polluting creeks and other water sources with arsenic and mercury while removing wildlife habitat and acres upon acres of trees, mushrooms, wildflowers, and other living things, all sacrificed to feed our national addiction to cheap energy.

According to a 2007 New York Times article, "From 1985 to 2001, 724 miles of streams were buried under mining waste," and "If current practices continue, another 724 river miles will be buried by 2018." There's no hope of recovering a stream buried under millions of tons of polluting rubble; mountaintop removal chews up and spits out the land, leaving it uninhabitable and incapable of reclamation.

We visited on a Sunday when Massey Energy's mining operations were suspended, but Gibson described the relentless noise of constant explosions that make his small cabin shake, explosions that sometimes send debris and rocks as big as cars tumbling onto his property. He described the coal trucks that barrel along his gravel road taking thousands of dollars' worth of coal from the area every day. "Look at the houses you pass by on your way out of here," he said. "Does it look like any of that money is staying here?"

The answer is no: it looks as if mountaintop removal mining is removing everything of value from the region and leaving a vast wasteland in its wake. If wastelands are what we want, then mountaintop removal ought to be encouraged; otherwise, it has to stop. But how?

We couldn't look at the view from Kayford Mountain for long: the wind was too cold and the sight too appalling--we couldn't quite wrap our minds around the enormity of the devastation. But one thing I'm sure of: it doesn't take an expert to look at Kayford Mountain and conclude that what's happening here is just plain wrong.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Preview of coming attractions

Beauty and devastation coexist within a few feet of each other--but where? Coming soon: a full report on my recent field trip to an undisclosed location.


This week workers have been taking down the ugly blue barriers, removing heavy equipment, and putting the finishing touches on the exterior, and in just two weeks they should be moving books.

It's been a long time coming, but we're getting a new library for Christmas!

Popping wheelies

An article in today's Orlando Sentinel (read it here) explains that "Brevard County deputies on Friday arrested a man in a wheelchair they say robbed a credit union on Merritt Island and hid the money in his prosthetic leg."

Okay: the wheelchair robbed the credit union and hid the money in a prosthetic leg? That's a mighty powerful wheelchair.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Just one stupid thing after another

Juncos arrived Saturday so naturally snow arrived this morning, creating a slushy, slippery mess all over the sidewalks and roads, making this a really bad day to be wearing high heels--but considering the progression of stupid moves I've made over the past few days, the Imbecile Footwear Fiasco was just par for the course. In a mere 24 hours, I have:

  • Driven home without my purse on a day when I needed to pick up groceries along the way.
  • Driven home without my books on a day when I needed to spend the entire evening prepping for the next day's classes.
  • Tottered out to the car in the snow on high heels in the pitch blackness of the early morning so as to get to campus by 6:30 a.m. to prep the classes I couldn't prep the night before due to lack of books.
  • Walked to the bank to deposit a check at 8 a.m. even though the bank doesn't open its doors until 8:30 so that the only way to deposit the money that would prevent my account from being overdrawn was to walk up to the drive-up window on foot--in the snow--in high heels.
  • Opened the driver's side window of my car in order to pick up the mail (which my husband had already picked up), remembering too late that while that window may open without much trouble, it really does not care to close (and a new motor costs $276 so don't even suggest it).
That's about enough stupidity for one day, don't you think? Tomorrow everything will be better--or if not, at least I'll face tomorrow's slings and arrows in appropriate footwear.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Syllabus serendipity

Sometimes a set of syllabi can create remarkable serendipity so that separate classes consider similar ideas at the same time. I didn't intentionally plan it this way, but my morning Concepts of Nature class is currently discussing Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood while my afternoon African-American Lit class is discussing Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days, and the two novels keep conversing with each other in my head.

In both classes I find myself talking about strange relationships between human beings and their tools and the consequences of treating people as mere cogs in a machine. This morning I found myself quoting a chilling line about an Atwood character who uses language as "a tool, a wedge, a key to open women," while this afternoon we looked at Whitehead's portrayal of a capital-T Tool that subsumes human beings into a meaning-making machine and eventually makes people obsolete.

Both books deal with the creation and function of myth in human societies, and both consider the consequences of treating life as a contest to the death. The two novels address the same question in different ways: What's the point of winning if the prize is a wasteland? What's the point of beating the machine if the prize is death?

A half dozen students are taking both classes, so they may be noticing this serendipitous overlapping of ideas. I'd like to have a separate class meeting with those students alone and see what they make of the parallels--parallels I never expected to find in two works so very different from each other.

For now, though, I'm enjoying listening in on the conversation between the two books. Serendipity is an unexpected bonus, an accidental gift that cannot be earned or expected--an experience of grace in a place where it's least expected. The only thing to do is accept the gift because there's no telling when it might happen again.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The cruelest day

If April is the cruelest month, Thursday is the cruelest day. The weekend is so close I can smell it, but I have to climb a mountain of student papers, meetings, and class preparations first. As of this morning two of my 20 or so advisees still hadn't managed to put together a spring course schedule, which gets more difficult as time goes on because courses are filling rapidly. I just spent 30 minutes juggling classes and times and searching for general education requirements with an advisee before finally producing a workable spring schedule, but then he told me he's planning to transfer at the end of this semester so he probably won't be needing those classes after all. Cruel, I tell you. Very cruel.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Prone to wander

I woke to the sound of a knock on the door and jumped up out of my chair. "Who's there?" I said, which was a better choice than all those vague, unformed questions that generally pop into mind in the moment of confusion that follows a sudden awakening.

Usually I confront those questions in the privacy of my own home; today, though, I was in my office. Yes: a student came by for his advising appointment and found me sound asleep with my head on the desk.

I guess I'm glad it was a student and not the provost, say, or a certain member of the Board of Trustees who likes to drop in for a two-hour chat every time she's in town. Students understand what it means to be overwhelmed by work and weather and sinus congestion, so they shouldn't be shocked to discover that those forces affect professors too. At least that's what I'm telling myself. Surely the student won't make some snide remark on my course evaluations, will he? "Sleeping during office hours--tsk, tsk!"

Some of my colleagues throw things at students who sleep in class--erasers or chalk or whatever comes to hand--but I've never had the guts to do that, which is just as well, because I wouldn't want to be suddenly awakened by a well-tossed cellphone or backpack. It's bad enough waking up to a sudden knock at the door, a knock that calls my self back from wherever it went wandering while my body was asleep.

Note to self: stay awake! No more wandering in the office.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Scarlet A (for Atypical)

The recent alarming onslaught of unexpected health care has finally resulted in a definitive result delivered today by my doctor: "The lab found nothing atypical."

"So typical is good?"

"Typical is good," he confirmed. "Typical is just what we want to see."

I was so giddy with relief that I briefly considered having the phrase "nothing atypical" tattooed on my forehead, but that in itself would be an atypical act and thus a self-contradicting gesture.

Maybe I'll embroider a bid gaudy patch--a scarlet A (for Atypical!) with a black slash through it--and wear it wherever I go. "Nothing atypical about me!" I'll say. "I've got it in writing!"

Answers to life's persistent questions

How many PhDs does it take to send a text message?

If yesterday's experience is any indication, my guess would be nine.

Why were nine women with PhDs trying to figure out how to send a text message on a Sunday afternoon?

To get the answer to a compelling question, a question so vital it could not wait for an Googleable moment: Was Lawrence Welk a Norwegian-American?

Did we ever find the answer?

That's a question I simply cannot answer.

Friday, November 07, 2008

My new mantra

Way back in January at a campus teaching workshop, a specialist in something-or-other told a bunch of faculty members that our students won't be aware of the importance of critical thinking unless we keep reminding them--and that, in fact, we should print the phrase on every syllabus and mention it frequently in every class. I suggest a series of classroom posters: "Have you hugged your critical thinking skills today?" "This is your brain. This is your brain on critical thinking skills." "When life gives you lemons, make critical thinking skills."

Okay, maybe I'm being a little facetious, and maybe critical thinking is so serious a topic that joking is not permitted. That, at least, is what one of my colleagues suggested today. We were in a committee meeting discussing a topic that touches only tangentially on critical thinking, and when someone suggested that we should revise a particular document so that it wouldn't use the word "critical" three times in the first three sentences, I piped up: "But if we say 'critical thinking skills' in class every day, our students will be geniuses!"

Everyone laughed...except one colleague, who found my levity misplaced and offensive. "That's not funny," he said, setting off on an impassioned plea for serious attention to critical thinking. "Critical thinking is nothing to laugh about!" he said--and he meant it.

Well, yes, but it's Friday and it was my second meeting (out of three for the day) and I've got to laugh at something so I won't just lay my head down on the table and weep, and if there's nothing funny about the claim that merely reciting the mantra "critical thinking skills" will improve our students' critical thinking skills, then I need to find another line of work.

Love means never having to say you're sorry for joking about critical thinking skills.

See? I said it. Don't you feel smarter already?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Advice for job candidates

If you've been meeting with the search committee for 45 minutes and they've asked only three questions, someone is talking too much.

(Here's a hint: it's probably you.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Much more what?

"This is a factor that makes the book much more relatable to."

The evolution of this appalling phrase is evident (I can relate to the book, so the book is relatable to), so just for fun, let's apply that same process to some other verbs:

I can conceive of the concept, so the concept is conceivable of.

I can put up with the problem, so the problem is put-uppable with.

I can submit to the requirement, so the requirement is submittable to.

I'd rather not go on with this exercise, so this exercise is not go-onable with.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Free advice for all!

For doctors: You know that moment when the patient describes a really alarming symptom and you try to make your face a complete blank so the patient won't worry? It's not working. It's also not helpful when you say "It's probably nothing serious but let's run a few very expensive tests just to be certain," because I stop listening after "probably nothing serious"--and I'm certainly not interested in spending a pile of money on such a negligible problem. I'd prefer that you put a name on the monster and tell me how to tame it.

For my Platonic mechanic: In an ideal world, I would allow you to fix everything you ever find vaguely wrong with my car so as to transform it from a good-enough car to the Platonic essence of automotive excellence, but in an ideal world I would also have an unlimited amount of money to spend on car maintenance. In the real world, I can afford to fix exactly two items on your eight-item list--and let's assume that I already feel awful enough about that so you can stop with the guilt trip already, okay?

For women: When the cocky state trooper young enough to be your son swaggers up to your car and wants to know where you were going in such a hurry ma'am, do NOT say "I was really desperate for some Midol," because (a) you're not getting any sympathy from him and (b) you've now given him another reason to hate women drivers. Just accept the ticket and move on (and if you need to cry, wait until after the helpful woman at the courthouse informs you that the fine plus court costs will put you back $150).

For the stupendously unhelpful non-humans responsible for Sallie Mae's non-information telephone line: Answer the phone. And if you can't answer the phone, provide an alternate method for me to obtain the information I need. Do not (repeat NOT) send me a letter stating that the loan for my daughter's final semester at college won't be approved unless I send certain additional information unless you are willing to reveal to me what specific information you need me to send. I can't read your mind! (Assuming that you have one).

For schedulers of important meetings: If you schedule meetings from 10:30 to 11:30, 11 to noon, 11:30 to 12:30, and 1 to 2 all on the same day and insist that I attend all of them, you're going to be disappointed, so let's try not to overlap, okay? I hate to run out of one meeting early so I can get to another meeting late.

In fact, if you must make my day that difficult, I may just stay home and take the phone off the hook so doctors, mechanics, traffic cops, student loan robotic voices, and schedulers of important meetings can't find me. Advice to everyone: if you need me this Thursday and you can't find me, take a chill pill. That's certainly what I intend to do.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Your Guide to the ORRF of the SPV

Yesterday we learned that Sarah Palin will be speaking at a rally on campus Sunday afternoon. Normally this kind of thing would have no impact on me because (a) I don't like crowds; (b) I don't like politics; and (c) I don't go near campus on Sundays. However, Sunday is also the day when a horde of prospective students and their parents will visit campus, and I'm scheduled to meet with those interested in the English major at approximately the same time that the candidate will be speaking to the gathered multitudes (who will have already taken up every parking space within five miles of campus by the time I get there...)

Moreover, my building has been designated the Official Rest Room Facility for the Sarah Palin Visit. My building is playing host to a speech tournament today, and since the custodians don't work on Saturdays, every trash can in the building will be overflowing by the time the building switches roles to become the Official RRF for the SPV.

(I wonder whether I ought to mention that fact to the prospective students and parents who manage to beat their way through the crowd to find my session? "Welcome to the Official Rest Room Facility of the Sarah Palin Visit! Souvenir toilet paper squares will be available at the gift shop, and if you're lucky, maybe you can get them autographed!")

The rally will be held in the Rec Center, so late yesterday afternoon we were told that the Secret Service will be cutting off all locks in the locker rooms during their security sweep, so if we want to keep our locks, we'd better get them off our lockers. I do not intend to drive all the way to campus today just to take my lock off my locker, so I went down there before I left campus Friday and took it off. I brought home my shoes but left everything else in there unprotected; anyone desperate enough to steal my shampoo, deoderant, or feminine hygiene products is welcome to them. ("Welcome to the Official Unprotected Locker Room of the Sarah Palin Visit! Help yourself to any personal items you see in these unlocked lockers, and don't forget to pick up a souvenir toilet paper square on your way out!")

I suppose I ought to be delighted that our little town is being visited by both VP candidates so close to the election (Joe Biden was here two weeks ago), but frankly, I'm tired of the entire election season and I'd just like to get some work done. Instead, I'll be serving as Your Guide to the ORRF of the SPV, and I don't even know what I'm supposed to wear.

Hey, maybe this would be a good time to break out that tiara....