Saturday, January 31, 2009

Invisible Woman

Last week a colleague publicly berated me for maintaining a "secret" blog, despite the fact that I have spoken freely about my blog in the faculty lounge, given the address to anyone who asked for it, put a link to my blog on my Facebook page, and even printed the address in my annual Christmas newsletter.

This week a campus committee sent me a form letter full of the usual passive-voice language one expects from a committee burdened with informing unfortunate nominees that they will not be receiving any teaching prizes this year, but they also committed the further indignity of spelling my name incorrectly.

One of these days I'll just change my name to Mudd and go live under a rock.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Why I love my library

Among the many reasons to love my new library, I really love the way certain shapes and colors are echoed throughout the building and the way unexpected openings frame design elements. It love the fact that it is full of light and color and interesting upholstery.

And then there are those chairs. If Pixar were producing an animated film featuring talking chairs, they would look just like the study chairs in the library's Center for Teaching Excellence. If these chairs could speak, what would they say?

Exercise what?

Yesterday's local newspaper reported on the ice storm that made travel treacherous in our area, noting that later "the advisory was downgraded to a Level 1, with motorists still asked to exercise when driving on snow- and ice-covered roads."

Maybe it's just me, but I'm not sure it's a good idea to ask motorists to exercise while driving on snow- and ice-covered roads--but then I suppose it depends upon the nature of the exercise. I wouldn't recommend taking a treadmill or rowing machine out on the road, but small barbells wouldn't be any more distracting than, for instance, a cell phone. Sit-ups would be possible for those with electronic seat adjustments, but it's difficult to see out the windshield from a recumbent position. And jumping jacks are out of the question.

Still, if the Powers That Be insist that I exercise while driving on snow and ice, who am I to challenge their authority? I just need to find a stability ball to coordinate with the color of my car.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Sneak preview

The Sticky Situation

It began like any other day. We came into class at 8 a.m., opened our books, and began to discuss the previous night's homework. Then, she sprung it upon us: the challenge of epic proportions, to make this class interesting to an outside reader. What was this great challenge? We were to dream up the perfect title accompanied by an introductory paragraph describing today's class. Thus, we found ourselves stuck in a sticky situation.

...It sounds better if you read it in a deep movie-preview-announcer voice, but even without such dramatic tones, don't you want to know what's going on here?

I wanted to make my freshman writing students think about methods for attracting reluctant readers, so I did the usual in-class exercise involving looking at a bunch of titles and opening lines and determining what makes them effective (or not). They agreed that it's easier to make readers care about topics that are inherently interesting or controversial, but what about a topic no one in his or her right mind would want to read about?

Hence the assignment: in groups, students had to write a title and introduction for a hypothetical essay describing today's freshman writing class. Given such a dull topic, how would they make reluctant readers care?

They did it by using vivid verbs, immersing readers in specific examples, introducing interesting questions, and generally avoiding the kinds of vague opening lines that tend to appear in freshman writing ("Education means many things to many people in society today...."). Now that they have some experience in producing interesting openings, they face the real challenge: will they be able to transfer these skills to their first major essays? Tune in next Tuesday for the thrilling conclusion of--The Sticky Situation!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Icing on the cake

Early this morning we lay awake listening as ice-covered tree limbs crashed to the ground in the woods, and we wondered what sights daylight would reveal. It's a shiny white world where pine trees struggle to hold up ice-laden limbs and icicles drip from the edges of everything. My college cancelled morning classes, a wise move considering the treacherous circumstances, so I'm planning to stay inside and grade papers all day in front of the fire while enjoying the savory aroma of potato soup bubbling in the crockpot. I know I'll have to pay for this day off eventually, but for now, I intend to cherish the ice.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Third Monday Syndrome

The first Monday bubbles with the excitement of new classes, new students, new stories about what happened over break: on the first Monday, anything is possible.

On the second Monday, reality begins to set in: the weekend simply wasn't long enough but the week ahead looks doable, not quite as sparkly new as the previous week but still possessing possibilities.

The third Monday comes barrelling in like an out-of-control freight train carrying piles of student papers, e-mailed excuses, venomous glares, malfunctioning technology and meetings meetings meetings stretching down the rails from here to eternity.

Everyone at the department meeting today looked as if they'd stepped directly into the path of that train. It was a clanking screeching train wreck of a day, and right now the debris is piled so high that it's impossible to see over the top. Hello! Is anyone out there?! If so, would you mind tossing me some rope and a lantern and a healthy supply of hope? We're fresh out.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Xtreme cluelessness

After some heated cogitation, I believe I've figured out the function of extreme sports. I was up at the rec center working up a sweat (because it's too cold and windy for a winter wimp like me to walk outdoors) while watching these Xtremely insane young men compete in a series of Xtraordinarily ridiculous events in the Winter X Games, and at first I couldn't figure out the point.

You want to drive a snowmobile up a steep ramp and then flip it upside down while swinging your feet from side to side and doing a little can-can kick? That's got to violate a whole mess of rules--if not the laws of physics, then certainly the conventions of common sense. Snowmobiles are heavy, clunky chunks of equipment full of moving parts that could splatter your body all over that pretty snow, sort of like the wood-chipper scene in the movie Fargo. If God had intended for snowmobiles to fly, He would have equipped them with full-time orthopedists and traction gear.

And yet here were a bunch of guys willing and eager to go out in the cold and do Xtremely dangerous things with vehicles capable of killing them. Why? Granted, the medals look like lethal snowflakes you could use to disembowel your worst enemy, but even a good old-fashioned disembowelling is hard to enjoy if you're on crutches. People willing to fly through the air on and under twirling snowmobiles must fulfill some sort of redeeming social purpose, but what could it be?

The answer came to me when I caught a glimpse of my own reflection in the glass: a middle-aged, pudgy professor wearing mismatched floppy workout gear to climb steps to nowhere, hair flapping and sweat dripping down her face, looking about as ridiculous as a person not wearing clown shoes can look and feeling not a whole lot better because she's spent a little too much time obsessing over stupid decisions, missed opportunities, failures large and small, and summing it all up, the person I saw reflected in the glass struck me as just hopelessly clueless.

And that's when I understood: no matter how many dumb things I may have done, I've never tried to make a snowmobile fly. I'll never earn a lethal snowflake medal, but when it comes to common sense, I'm way ahead of the pack.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dance of the Scheduling Fairies

For the past two weeks committee chairs have been performing the twice-yearly Dance of the Scheduling Fairies as they try to determine a day and time on which every member of the committee can meet. It's sort of like those logic problems on standardized tests: if the peas must be on the shelf above the corn but the beets can never abut the brussels sprouts, where should you put the celery?

Professor A teaches four classes back-to-back TTH and can meet only MWF, except for alternate Fridays. Professor B teaches all morning and Professor C teaches all afternoon, right up to the moment when Professor D has to leave campus to drive his offspring to hockey practice. No one wants to meet at lunchtime or early in the morning, and everyone wants to get off campus before 5, but there are only so many hours in the day so someone will have to bend. It's the same dilemma we face when scheduling classes: if the students had their way, all classes would be offered at 11 a.m., but we don't do that, do we?

Last week a committee chair sent out an Excel spreadsheet and invited committee members to block out the times when they definitely could not meet. The result was a nearly black spreadsheet with one open hour glowing cheerfully in the lower left corner, so that's when the chair scheduled the meeting. The next day he received an e-mail message from a faculty member senior enough to know better: "I know I said I could meet at that time," he wrote, "but I was an idiot."

Back to the drawing board. I say toss that committee member in the bin with the brussels sprouts and if he doesn't like it, let him eat corn.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Out of the bendy byways

It's not often that a student introduces a word I've never seen before, and when it happens, it's generally the result of inventive spelling. Very rarely does a student offer up a useful and satisfying term like the one I learned yesterday when a freshman writer gave me "circumbendibus."

Say it out loud: it fills the mouth deliciously, and it sounds like what it means--a circuitous, bendy route. Michael Quinion over at World Wide Words explains that circumbendibus "was created in the late seventeenth century as humorous fake Latin from circum-, around, plus English bend, plus the Latin ending -ibus." Goldsmith used it in She Stoops to Conquer as a noun meaning something like "roundabout way" with overtones of "wild goose chase." Quinion produces only two examples (from Goldsmith and Walter Scott) and asserts that writers continue to employ the term occasionally, but I found so few instances that I have to wonder where a freshman came up with such a rarity.

The answer, of course, is in the box--the little hand-held translators many of our Chinese students use to help them find the words they need to communicate in English. Sometimes these translators offer up words that are denotatively correct but inappropriate for the context--too earthy, too formal, too archaic. In this case, the student was writing about different approaches to writing tasks. Americans, he says, tend to get straight to the point, while Chinese writers use more circumbendibus.

For which I am grateful, because a word that wonderful ought not to be relegated to the bendy byways of the English language.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On the stuffness of things

At the moment my mental life seems to be dominated by stuff--things, objects, all that ordinary everyday stuff that gathers dust around the edges of life. Just last week the prof admitted that the photography class I'm taking is "stuff-intensive," and this morning my American Novel class considered the impact of all that stuff that crowds Mrs. Peniston's parlor in The House of Mirth. So it's only natural that I should read a book on the meaning of stuff: The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity by Richard Todd. This elegantly written and highly accessible collection of essays delves deeply into the human tendency to fetishize our stuff, to endow certain objects with special meaning.

Todd considers the stuffness of art, asserting that a work of art is a physical object that at once draws us away from the material world and directs our attention back toward it. Art is different from mundane stuff because its value is not determined simply by its materials but is instead constructed within a community that fetishizes objects because of their origins, their rarity, or their ability to transcend stuff. "Art is to objects as sainthood is to people," he explains. "Most people can't be saints, and most objects can't be art, but in each case the extent to which they are marked by an impulse toward grace is a measure of their worth."

Even ordinary objects, though, can gain an aura after they have outlived their usefulness. Todd examines the power of nostalgia to endow antique tools and tractors with new value when these objects no longer serve their original purpose. Nostalgia even influences the relative value of places as urbanites seduced by nostalgic narratives of simple country life move to the countryside only to transform the agrarian spaces that seemed so appealing. "All places are stories, stories we tell to ourselves," he says, adding that no matter how apparently pure and untouched a place may appear to be, "all inhabited places... are in fact polluted with meaning."

If natural places are polluted with meaning, what of artificial places? Todd describes trips to Las Vegas and Walt Disney World, reveling in the self-conscious artificiality of the first but finding Disney's dream world oppressive and claustrophobic. Walt Disney, asserts Todd, "is what we had instead of Hitler. He gave us a fascism of smarm. If real fascism ever comes to this country, can one doubt what it will look like? It will not be goose-stepping legions and blaring music. It will be cute, like a Disney movie. There will be country music and laconic heroes and lovable dogs."

The idea that our stuff says a lot about us is so obvious as to be a cliche, but Todd makes the topic fresh and treats it in unexpected ways. This is a very stuff-intensive book, but like the works of art, places, and objects Todd writes about, the book directs our attention to the tyranny of stuff while also endowing it with an aura of grace.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Learning the ropes

For a week or so I've been slowly allowing my new camera to show me what it can do. It's not easy. I used the same old film camera for so many years that my fingers keep reaching for buttons that aren't there, and I'm always half afraid that I'll press the wrong button and wreck everything.

But what's to wreck? So far, I've taken a bunch of pretty lousy pictures. One problem is that I've always been better taking available-light photos than shooting with flash, but it's just too darn cold to spend much time taking pictures outside. But this afternoon I had to get out and see what winter is bringing to the upper meadow, so I bundled up and went up the hill and saw...well, not much. Deer tracks. Lichens. Dry brown thistle and desiccated goldenrod.

My dog spent the entire time hiding in her doghouse, but the neighbor's dog Duke joined me on my short jaunt up the hill. I took a bunch of badly exposed photos of Duke before I finally realized what a stupid thing I was doing: when I tilted the camera to see the readout on the back and adjust the shutter speed and aperture, the light meter was "reading" my dark pants instead of the scene I was trying to photograph. I finally managed to get a few decent shots but I dumped a lot of images--after learning what they wanted to teach me. That's the great thing about digital photography: the instant feedback lets me know exactly how dumb I'm being.

The first three-hour session of my scientific imaging class left me really excited about what I'll be learning this semester, including all the ins and outs of Photoshop. For now, though, I'll just be happy if I can get my fingers to stop reaching for buttons that aren't there.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A surreal conversation

The phone rang and the caller identified herself as the mother of one of our students.

"My daughter is in a literature class," she said, "but I don't know the name of the professor."

I asked her for the course's name or number.

"It's just called Literature," she said.

"We're offering several literature classes this semester, but we don't have any classes just called Literature," I said.

"Well, if I tell you my daughter's name, can you look up what class she's enrolled in?"

"No, I really don't have access to that information."

"All I know is it's a literature class that meets at 1:00 three days a week."

So I looked at the online course listings and found only one course in our department meeting those criteria and I told the caller the name of the professor.

"That doesn't sound right," she said.

"Sorry, it's the only literature course we offer at that time," I said.

She paused. "I really need to contact the professor," she said.

I pointed out that there are literature courses taught in the Theater department, but she said no, it had to be an English class.

"Why do you need to reach the professor?" I asked. "Maybe I can help."

"I just need to know whether tomorrow's class will be cancelled."

"Okay, let me just get out my crystal ball" is what I probably should have said, but instead I pointed out that our college almost never cancels classes because of weather (and besides, tomorrow's weather is supposed to be quite cold but not too snowy) and if the professor has some other reason to cancel the class, it would be difficult for me to ascertain that information without knowing which class we're talking about.

She was disappointed but I'm just annoyed and puzzled. I can imagine several scenarios to explain this surreal conversation:

1. Mother wants to make sure we won't force her precious little snowflake to venture forth when the wind chill is -15.

2. Mother wants her precious little snowflake to come home for the weekend and hopes to persuade professor to cancel class.

3. Student has told Mother that Friday's class is cancelled and Mother is checking up to make sure Student isn't feeding her a line.

I vote for 3, although I could be wrong. I'm certain of only one thing: that's five minutes of my life I'll never get back.

A novel theory

Yesterday I heard (for the third or fourth time) the story of an esteemed senior colleague who won $6500 on one hand of cards at a casino over break, and another esteemed colleague--a psychology professor--offered a novel theory to explain the gambler's persistent good luck:

"He's very religious," explained the psych prof.

I pointed out that many religious people never win six dollars at cards much less six thousand. Like me, for instance.

"Yes," said the psych prof, "but he also tells the world's dirtiest jokes, and that gets God's attention."

Someone ought to put this theory to the test. Do you suppose there's a grant available?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A paeon to parking

Early this morning as I walked to the garage I saw snow sparkling in the moonlight along the deer-track-pocked path--but anyone unfamiliar with our immense complex garage saga has no idea why that statement is so remarkable.

We have a garage! And for the first winter since we moved out to the woods, I can park my car in the garage every single day if I want to! Which is a really good thing, because last week one day when I left the car outside in some wet weather followed by a hard freeze, my car doors froze shut and then froze open, refusing to latch despite all our efforts. "I can drive to work holding on door shut," I said, "but it's hard to drive while holding both doors shut!"

When I get home from work these days I'm so exhausted that I function on auto-pilot: drive halfway up the driveway, get out of the car, open the garage door, get back in the car, pull into the garage, close the garage door, walk the rest of the way up the hill to the house....I do it without much awareness. But early in the morning when I walk back down the hill, I am grateful for my garage. No more scraping, no more doors frozen shut, no more wondering whether the car will make it around that last steep icy curve; just snow sparkling on moonlight and the sound of woodland creatures scurrying into the undergrowth and a car safely stowed where ice and snow can't go.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Some opening-day observations

1. I know classroom space is at a premium, but is it really wise to schedule a technology-intensive class of 20 students to meet in a broom closet? Even if they overturn all the mopping-up buckets for seats, most of the students will end up sitting in the hallway--and where will they plug in their laptops?

2. The ability to work out on a step machine does not necessarily translate into an ability to walk up long flights of steps.

3. If 22 students are enrolled in the class and the bookstore orders only 10 copies of the textbook, someone is bound to suffer--but why does it have to be me? The bookstore should provide a gopher to run around the library finding materials and putting them on reserve so my students can complete their assigned reading.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sleepless in spring semester

My first class of the semester is at 9:00 this morning but I was wide awake at 4. Why? No forgot-to-write-the-syllabus dreams, no teaching-naked nightmares, just a lot of excitement about the new semester.

There's plenty to be excited about, starting with an excellent schedule. I have only one section of freshman writing two mornings a week, and I'll be teaching two American Lit classes back-to-back three mornings a week: a sophomore-level survey and an upper-level class called Later American Novel, starting with Edith Wharton and ending with Toni Morrison. Last year I taught overloads in both spring and fall semesters and also taught a J-term class and a summer independent study, for a total of 10 classes (while chairing the department); teaching only three classes this semester will feel like a walk in the park.

I'm also excited about the return of the students, without whom the campus is entirely too dull. I want to know what my wonderful English majors have been reading over break, what they're talking about, where they've been.

I'm thrilled about taking my freshman writing students to the new library--or taking anyone to the new library, for that matter. Just having a new library is enough to make me happy.

Unfortunately, the library isn't open at 4 a.m., and the students are sleeping (I hope) and the classrooms are empty, so there was nowhere to channel all that excitement. I tried to sleep for a while but finally gave it up as a lost cause. Now I'm chomping at the bit, ready to get into my first class and get this exciting semester off to a good start. Here's hoping I don't fall asleep in the middle of class!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Library magic

The shelves in our new library are moving and sensitive: press a button on the end of the row and a whole series of shelves scoots silently out of the way so patrons can walk between them, but if a patron steps into the path of a moving shelf, it stops at once. How does a mere mass of metal sense the presence of a patron? I suspect magic.

Our new library opens to the public on Monday, but I paid a visit today to pick up some books, and one of the librarians gave me a private tour. The flat, monochromatic design we viewed so often on blueprints has become an attractive and functional building flooded with light and full of wonders: shelves that move, high-tech classrooms where students can learn research methods and faculty can try out new technology, a center for teaching excellence that houses our brand-new instructional technology expert.

And books--lots of books. Most of the library's books have come back from remote storage, and the special collections will return in the coming weeks. The warm, inviting tones of the woodwork and paint make the library a welcoming place, and amenities include an outdoor amphitheater, a small coffee shop, and lounge areas featuring faux fireplaces, but all those things would be irrelevant if it weren't for the books.

Jorge Luis Borges envisioned Paradise as a library, but his Paradise was not dependent on moving shelves, faux fireplaces, or high-tech classrooms. Borges knew that the library's magic lives in its books. Now that the books are back, we can all pay a visit to Paradise.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Picture-perfect delivery

In the midst of a week crammed full of class preparations, meetings, and sudden unexpected hiring of adjuncts, I received a phone call from UPS informing me that they'll be delivering a package tomorrow between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. and someone needs to be at home to sign for it.

So it looks like I'll be staying home tomorrow, but I don't mind. I brought my laptop home and I have all the info I need to work on my final syllabus, and I don't have any more meetings until Thursday. And besides, I'll be delighted to stay home and wait for UPS since they're delivering MY NEW CAMERA!!!!!!!!! (Oops, it's a little early in the year to use up my annual quota of exclamation points....better calm down.)

Lest you think that I'm a tad too excited about this event, I have my reasons. First, my current camera is 15 years old and served me well during my years as a journalist, but it has a serious light leak and Nikon doesn't make the parts for that model anymore. Second, photography has been a serious hobby of mine for going on 30 years and I can't imagine greeting the spring birds and wildflowers without camera in hand. And finally, this camera will enable me to do something I haven't done in nearly a decade: take a college class.

I've been eager to take this class for some time. It's listed as a 300-level biology class, but the title is Scientific Imaging and it is taught by an expert in bird and insect photography. The class will refine my skills in nature photography, introduce some interesting software, and help me to view nature through a scientific lens.

This last goal is important because I am part of a group of three faculty members who will attend the College English Association conference in March to present a panel on how cross-disciplinary experience influences our practice and teaching of creativity. Last semester, a creative writing professor and fiction writer took a drawing class, and this semester, an art professor is taking creative writing. The Scientific Imaging class will give me experience with various methods of observing and representing nature, which ought to spark creative ideas as I design a summer special topics course in writing about nature.

With so many good things depending upon the arrival of this camera, I'm happy to stay home and await the special delivery. Freezing rain and ice are in the forecast, but as far as I'm concerned, tomorrow will be a picture-perfect day.

Can't curb my enthusiasm

As a department chair and a member of the committee that makes recommendations about tenure, I get to read a lot of course evaluations, and I'm puzzled by a statement that pops up frequently across the campus: "The class would be better if Professor X realized that not everyone is excited about Topic A."

I get that comment occasionally on my own evaluations and I see it on many others, and I wonder what I'm supposed to do about it. The fact is that I already realize that not everyone is as excited as I am about the topics I teach; indeed, if everyone in the world were as excited as I am about American literature or writing or poetry, I wouldn't need to teach it: students would be knocking down the doors of the library in their eagerness to soak up everything they could discover about the topic.

So I understand that many students are not excited about the things I teach, but I'm puzzled about what they want me to do about it. How should this realization affect my teaching? I could stand up in class on the first day and say, "I realize that many of you are not excited about Topic A; therefore, I'll be teaching Topic B instead." Or I could take a poll and see what topic excites the most students in the class and teach that, but I can envision some problems with this approach. What if I don't know anything at all about the topic that excites them the most? If I could teach a class in how to be rich, thin, sexy, and popular without any effort (Topic C), I wouldn't be an English professor. And then what do I do with the outliers who really aren't excited about Topic C? Regardless of the topic, some students are bound to be bored by it.

Maybe students just want me to curb my enthusiasm and pretend that I'm as disgusted with the topic as they are: "Class, I know American literature can be a real drag and writing about literature isn't your idea of a day at the lake and studying poetry isn't going to make you rich or thin or popular, but we're all in the same boat so let's just be miserable together like those four unnamed guys in Stephen Crane's 'The Open Boat,' and speaking of 'The Open Boat,' don't you just love the way Crane manipulates perception so that the boat seems to be standing still while the beach rises and falls? And how about those shadowy sharks? And what the heck does he mean by the 'sacred cheese of life' anyway?"

No, I'm afraid my excitement about Topic A is incapable of being held in check. But if I can't curb my own enthusiasm or teach the topic that excites the most students, then how am I supposed to respond to that puzzling comment? What do they want me to do?

Monday, January 05, 2009


My very favorite comment on last semester's course evaluations: "One of those classes where when you look at your watch the first time you're surprised to find that the class is almost over."

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The tulle turn

We were halfway home from the Bridal Extravaganza when I finally figured out why I had found a particular wedding gown peculiar: it looked like a dribble castle.

You know when you're at the beach and you keep dribbling wet sand out of your hand until it makes grotesque, lumpy shapes? That's exactly what that gown looked like: a dribble castle.

In four hours of rambling amongst vendors of wedding stuff, we saw plenty of dresses that didn't look like dribble castles. The typical wedding gown looked like a little girl's princess dream, complete with yards of tulle, sweeping trains, and glittering tiaras. It was a little jarring to see these Princess Barbie dresses modeled to the tunes of "Brick House" or "Bringing Sexy Back," especially since the amateur models had clearly had little experience in flouncing about in spike heels and unwieldy gowns. We kept seeing one particularly unprincesslike maneuver: in order to make her turns properly without stepping on the train, the model would reach around as if getting ready to scratch her behind and then grab the train and fling it furiously in the right direction.

We've already bought my daughter the perfect wedding gown so we weren't terribly interested in the fashions on display, but we did spend some time sampling the caterers' wares and tasting various types of wedding cake and frosting. It was a brilliant marketing strategy: after trying every conceivable variety of canape, shrimp cocktail, chocolate fountain, and cake, attendees would be in such a glucose-induced stupor that they'd agree to anything. Yes, we need to have the happy couple's name in lights on the dance floor! Videographers? We'll take two! Camouflage tuxedoes, satin-draped folding chairs, live doves released at the door? Sign me up!

We managed to resist all these temptations with one exception: we fell in love with a trio playing classical music on violin, cello, and piano. There will be no tiaras at my daughter's wedding (because a bride is not a princess), no camouflage tuxedoes (because if the groom wants to be invisible on his wedding day, who needs him?), no "Bringing Sexy Back" in the ceremony (because it's a worship service). But we will have beautiful music and classy clothes and interesting food--and, best of all, not the slightest hint of a dribble castle.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Collecting garbage

I don't recall how the topic came up but at some point during the MLA conference I found myself proposing that I ought to teach a course about the literature of garbage. We already teach literature courses called Concepts of Nature, Concepts of Progress, Concepts of Gender, and so on, so why not Concepts of Garbage?

I was only half joking. Every year in American Lit Survey I teach a section of the A.R. Ammons poem "Garbage," which asserts that garbage is the poetry of our time, and I always enjoy the moment when I write on the blackboard "garbage = poetry" and ask the class whether the equation works both ways. It makes for an interesting conversation, particularly since at that point we've already read and discussed the Robinson Jeffers poem "Shine, Perishing Republic" in which he asserts that we're all heading eventually for the compost bin.

I'm tempted to design a Garbage Lit course every time I re-read Our Mutual Friend, the wonderful Dickens novel in which garbage links every level of society, cutting across social strata and providing the hidden foundation for the sparkling lives of the privileged. Don DeLillo borrows this conceit for his massive novel Underworld, in which garbage links the worlds of art, politics, sport, and entertainment.

I'd love to juxtapose these readings in a class and see what comes from the combination, but two poems and two huge novels do not make a coherent course. I'm sure I'm overlooking some relevant works, and someone out there knows what they are. So come on: send me your garbage. It is, after all, the poetry of our time.

Friday, January 02, 2009

There Will Be Papers

The chief advantage of attending the MLA without having to spend hours doing interviews is getting to attend a lot of sessions. This is also the chief disadvantage, because more sessions = more papers = more opportunities to hear bad papers. I heard my share of bad papers at the MLA.

But I heard my share of good papers too. The best paper I heard was in the smallest room, a tiny, cavelike conference room that could accommodate maybe 24 people. Lars Erik Larson delivered an outstanding essay on Frank Norris's McTeague, a novel I have always loved without often finding others who share my enthusiasm. Larson's paper was insightful, original, beautifully written, and well delivered, with lots of enthusiasm and a little drama. He made an interesting connection between McTeague and the movie There Will Be Blood, and it was easy to tell who in the audience had seen the movie and who had not. Best of all, his paper and the others in the same session provoked some real discussion in which ideas were exchanged in an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding, with no rancor or grandstanding. That's an ideal MLA paper.

The bad papers were less memorable. One paper was particularly unmemorable because the grad student delivering the paper spoke tentatively and kept backing away from the microphone as if afraid that it would bite her, so the text of the paper vanished into the ambient noise. I attended several pedagogy panels and I was not surprised to find that pedagogy papers tend to be less formal and less theoretical than literature papers, but I was surprised to find that several of the pedagogy papers I heard were just sloppy: poorly written, poorly organized, poorly delivered. It's always shocking to discover that purported experts on teaching writing are often not particularly good writers.

And my paper? It went well. The crowd was small but enthusiastic, laughing in all the right places, and afterward I was approached by someone interested in publishing my paper, which was encouraging. But you never know...probably there's someone out there right now blogging about all those awful MLA papers--including mine. When it comes to the MLA, you never know whether the papers you hear will be good, bad, or mediocre, but if nothing else, you know There Will Be Papers.