Friday, February 27, 2009


This morning I put on a wonderful suit that I haven't been able to wear since 1986. I didn't actually wear the suit to work because I don't have a blouse that matches, but still, it was pretty exciting to zip up the skirt on a suit that has been languishing in the cedar chest for 23 years.

It's a terrific suit: 100 percent wool, rich rusty brown, classic lines and timeless style. Last spring I took it out of the cedar chest, had it dry-cleaned, and hung it in a highly visible spot in my closet to act as inspiration, and I've been trying it on about once a week all winter. Now that it finally fits, I'll need to buy a blouse so I can wear it before the weather turns too warm. That will be my weekend challenge: find a wonderful blouse so I can wear my wonderful suit.

And then I'll work on getting into another treasure from the cedar chest: the Black Watch kilt skirt I bought in Ontario in 1984 (fits in the waist but not in the hips--yet). It hangs in my closet like a flag waving me on: "Get up off your buns and go for a walk!" it says, and if I obey often enough, one of these days I'll be able to wear it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Catch-22, take two

Last time I taught Joseph Heller's Catch-22, it was a total disaster; this time, it's a delight. What made the difference?

Context is key: I taught Catch-22 three years ago in a sophomore-level Literature into Film class full of non-English majors interested in fulfilling two General Education Requirements (Literature and Writing Proficiency). Many students were attracted to the class because they saw the word "Film" in the title and assumed that it would be less demanding than a literature class focusing entirely on books.

They balked at Heller. Didn't like him one bit. Didn't understand why he couldn't just tell the story straight out instead of jumbling the chronology and switching between so many characters the students found incomprehensible and introducing obscure theological debates and going on and on and on for so many hundreds of pages.

And then they didn't like the movie any better: too scattered, too unpatriotic, too confusing. They really didn't like the brief moments of semi-nudity, complaining on course evaluations that I forced them to view pornography in class.

Those were probably the worst course evaluations I've ever received, and not just because of the nudity thing. It was the first time I had ever taught a three-hour evening course. I am a morning person. My brain shuts off the lights and pulls down the blinds at about 7 p.m. The class lasted until 10. For that particular group of students, I needed to be at my best, and I simply wasn't.

This semester it's all good: I'm teaching Heller in an upper-level American Novel class full of English majors who enjoy dissecting Heller's rhetoric, his characters' peculiar moral arithmentic, and his theological debates. I'm teaching in the morning when my brain is fully functioning, and I'm showing brief clips from the film but avoiding nudity.

Well, mostly. Yesterday I wanted to show the scene in which Yossarian receives a medal in the buff, and I warned students that they would be exposed to Alan Arkin's bare butt, but I also offered the advice my adorable son gave me years ago when my husband and I were setting out to see Titanic for the first time: "I heard there's a naked girl in it," he said, "But you can put your coat over your head when it gets to that part."

I didn't notice whether any coats went over any heads in class yesterday, but I did hear the sort of painful laughter that arises at so many points in both the book and the film. Heller takes all the ideas mid-century Americans held dear and twists them until they squeal in joy or pain or sometimes both, and that's a complex set of emotions for the average student to encounter.

Good thing I have above-average students this semester, because they make Catch-22 an awful lot of fun.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Outside my bailiwick

Every time a student tries to excuse clueless behavior by saying something like "It wasn't my intention to turn in my paper five days late" or "I never intended to plagiarize," I thank my lucky stars that the task of judging the thoughts and intents of the human heart does not fall within my bailiwick. I'll leave that task in more capable hands and concentrate instead on what the student actually did, not what he or she may or may not have intended.

Monday, February 23, 2009

What makes a great weekend?

1. A long walk in the sunshine before the snow started falling.

2. Really cool birds enjoying really cold weather.

3. An article accepted by an academic journal in record time.

4. A completed draft of the next article for submission.

5. Homemade broccoli soup with triple-cheese-and-chive bread.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Dumb and dumber

The worst way to start the day is to grab a pile of student writing and immediately notice not one but two obvious cases of plagiarism right on top. Copying and pasting from Cliffs Notes? You just can't get any stupider than that. I hate to go to class angry but I have under an hour to calm down before I have to confront the charming young people who have ruined my day. Can I have a lifeline?

Update: One of the students e-mailed me to ask whether I could be "generous enough" to overlook his infraction. Great: now the issue is not his academic dishonesty but my generosity (or lack thereof). That puts things in a whole new light! Why didn't I realize earlier that it's not about the student at all! It's all about me!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The hovering blur

Yesterday for the first time I was able to follow the professor's instructions in a Photoshop exercise, and it felt really good. My problems are not the professor's fault: Photoshop is entirely new to me and I haven't spent enough time playing with it to have an innate sense for where things are. But the other problem is more personal: when we're looking at what the professor is doing on the big screen up front and then look back at our little monitors to try to do the same thing, my eyes simply cannot make the adjustment in focus quickly enough, so I end up missing the next step while I'm waiting for my vision to un-blur.

Yesterday, though, it all came together: I knew where to find things on the menu bar, how to locate the appropriate tool, how to undo a disastrous choice. I still can't switch between small screen and big screen without feeling as if my eyes are popping out of their sockets in protest, but I compensate by listening closely and rarely looking at the big screen. Photoshop is pretty cool now that I'm getting the hang of it; it's teaching me that I can't always trust what my eyes are telling me, particularly when it comes to color and composition.

Neither can I trust my eyes to keep functioning properly without the occasional eye exam. Spring Break is hovering like a blur on the horizon, but after my Spring Break eye exam I hope to start seeing things much more clearly.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Notes to my tardy students

To the student who shows up five minutes late every day: I admire your consistency, but why don't you initiate that consistency five minutes earlier?

To the student who comes thumping into class 45 minutes late mumbling a totally lame excuse: You may be here in body, but you're absent where it counts--in the gradebook.

To the student who keeps sending assignments as imaginary e-mail attachments: I can't grade what I can't see.

To the student who comes to about one-third of the class meetings and shows up 15 to 20 minutes late: I hope you never need any grace from me (deadline extension, grade nudge, or letter of recommendation) because the most memorable thing about you is your willingness to disrupt class.


Being married to a man who thinks he can climb a tree leaning dangerously close to high-tension power lines on a cold day at twilight and cut it down armed only with a bunjee cord, a rope, and a handsaw has it advantages and disadvantages.

The chief disadvantage is that all I can do is watch--I can't even catch him if he falls.

The advantage? Really cool photos.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Adventures in photography

It took me a while to figure out how to approach this week’s assignment for my Scientific Imaging class. The task: take a photograph of liquid in glass. Sounds simple enough, but avoiding glare and reflection can be a challenge, and then what do you do when the background shines through the liquid?

The sample images feature a lot of beakers, test tubes, and other scientific equipment, but I wanted to take a photo more relevant to my interests while still suggesting some scientific purpose. Finally it came to me: I would fill a Mason jar with silty creek water, set it on a rock in or near my creek, and create an image that would show how much stuff is floating around in water that appears to be clear and sparkling.

So I found a jar, bundled up against the cold, and headed down to the creek, where I had no problem locating water full of floaties—but where would I set the jar? I found a flat space on a log next to the creek, but the log was studded with bright white plate-size fungi that made annoying reflective patterns on the glass.

How about a rock? We have plenty of rocks both in and out of the creek, but few flat spaces where the jar wouldn’t wobble. The perfect rock was about four feet into the creek in water about eight inches deep, which isn’t much if you’re wearing waterproof boots, but I don’t have any waterproof boots so I was out stomping around in the creek in a pair of raggedy old sneakers.

Have I mentioned that it’s cold outside? The air temperature was in the mid-30s and the water felt like knives shooting through my ankles, but to an intrepid student, cold is no obstacle. So I waded out into the creek, positioned the jar perfectly, set the exposure, and knelt down to start shooting pictures.

Nothing happened.

I’ve had this camera for about a month and I’m still learning the meanings of various blinking lights and symbols, so it took me a while to figure out the problem: low battery. Too low to run the shutter.

Note to self: buy a back-up battery.

So I went up to the house to charge up the battery, change into dry clothes, and warm up with some hot tea, only to repeat the entire adventure again a few hours later. (And when wading in cold water on a freezing-cold Sunday afternoon qualifies as an adventure, what does that tell you about my life?)

The result? A whole bunch of photos of a jar full of creek water. I need to pick the best one and run it through Photoshop, but when it’s done I think I’ll call the finished product “Dull as Ditchwater.” Story of my life.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Spark, shine, song

"When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud."

The theology is a little screwy, but this is what I love about teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: she immerses readers in the mud so we can see the shine and hear the song.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Blowing in the wind

At lunchtime the sky was clear and blue, but some interesting weather seems to be blowing our way, bringing black clouds and wicked wind. Last night we listened to wind blowing limbs down in the woods, but none of them caused any damage or blocked the road. Others on our road were not so fortunate: power was out to a large area this morning, while the power stayed on at our house.

Well, mostly. Yesterday afternoon the furnace fan seized up and blew the circuits to part of the house, but last night was not a bad time to live without heat. This morning the furnace guys came out to fix the fan and they were surprised to find that we still had power when so many others don't.

These swift weather changes leave people dull and cross, and the same thumping headache seems to be sweeping the campus. Meanwhile, I'm hoping the wind will blow some of the cobwebs out of my mind. For the first time all week I'll go home before dark today, and I intend to do some therapeutic cooking and then spend some totally mindless time with the spouse, playing Scrabble or reading or watching a DVD. Maybe we'll just sit and stare out the window as the interesting weather blows in. Consider it free entertainment--and it doesn't even require electricity.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

U who?

Dear U-ser,
That's right, I'm talking to you: the student so addicted to text-speak that she peppers her papers with "u," even papers that have no reference to "u" or "you," such as literary analysis essays. You may have noticed that your "u" habit is not earning you any kudos in the the classroom, but have you ever wondered why? What's wrong with "u" anyway?

You'll notice that I'm liberally using the word "you" in this open letter. I can do this for several reasons:

1. I have made it abundantly clear to whom the "you" refers, so I'm not employing "you" in that lazy way that means "people in general."

2. On the Formality of Writing continuum, a blog post falls somewhere between the abbreviated informality of text-speak and the more formal writing expected in academic essays.

3. This is my blog, and I set the standards. I don't go to the grocery store in my pajamas and I don't strip a perfectly good pronoun of two-thirds of its letters in writing intended for public consumption. When you are in control of the rhetorical situation, you can decide what's appropriate and what isn't.

You'll notice that in your classes, you are not in control of the rhetorical situation; instead, you are expected to adapt to standards imposed by others. You could argue that this system is oppressive and squelches individual expression, but unless you make your argument in language your oppressors recognize as valid, you will not be heard. It's a sad truth but you might as well get used to it.

Many professors will tell you that it is never appropriate to use "you" in academic writing, but my policy is: never say never. Every writer should approach each rhetorical situation with full access to all the capabilities of the English language and should then make appropriate choices based on the audience and purpose of the writing task. I can easily envision times when it would be not just acceptable but essential to use "you" in academic writing, but those situations are fairly rare and are unlikely to arise in an essay analyzing a work of literature.

In your essay, you use "u" to mean something like "people in general," the sort of undefined usage that reinforces your essay's overall sense of vagueness. This usage can actually work against you when it makes inappropriate assumptions about your audience. Look at these sentences:

When you read poetry, it is hard to understand what you're reading.
When you braid your hair, you should decorate the braid with pretty ribbons.
When you murder someone, you should hide the body very carefully.

The first sentence assumes that your reader has a hard time understanding poetry, which may be true--but if not, you have just alienated that reader. The second and third make similarly alarming assumptions about readers; since I'm not planning to put ribbons in my hair or murder anyone anytime soon, these sentences tell me that you're not talking to me. There may be times when you want to strictly limit your readership--when writing a how-to manual on braiding or murder, for instance--but again, those situations are unlikely to arise in an essay analyzing literature.

In a literary analysis essay, you focus on the literature itself ("it") or sometimes on the author ("he" or "she"). "You" and "I" don't really enter into it unless you're doing some fairly sophisticated reader-response analysis, which you are not. So for the sake of this assignment, assume that the word "you" is off limits.

But then if you must use "you"--if you simply must feed your addiction--then for heaven's sake spell it correctly, okay? Save the "u" for informal settings in which spelling doesn't matter--and then on those special occasions when you want to sound educated and credible and careful, give the word its full complement of letters. Adding those letters may be painful, but trust me: "u" will get you nowhere.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Weird whimsy

I've just read a student draft that refers to a character with a "whim of iron." I've heard of an iron will before, but what is an iron whim and who carries one? A footloose and fancy-free sprite equipped with brass knuckles? A sylph packing heat? A cuddly panda trained in Kung-fu--oh wait, that's been done.

From now on I intend to wrap all my whims in iron. The better to brain you with, my dear.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Starry-eyed spelling

Some of my colleagues are wondering whether Alex Rodriguez's name ought to be spelled with an asterisk in the middle, but I'm more concerned about how they pronounce "asterisk." No one seems to have any trouble with the first s, but that little s near the end gets overlooked all the time. It's "asterisk," people, not "asterik"! The last syllable sounds like "risk," not "rick." What's so difficult about that?

Partly sunny

This morning I drove to work in daylight, which sounds fairly ho-hum unless you've been driving to work in the dark, driving home in the dark, and spending the entire day indoors for at least a month. Yesterday the sun was shining all afternoon, and Saturday morning I managed to walk the loop under blazing sun, and even though I still had to pick my way around veritable glaciers covering shady sections of my road, it still felt like I had walked from darkness into light. It was just about one year ago that I first walked the loop (read it here), but since that time I've done it so many times that if I can't walk for a few days, I feel deprived. The recent cold and icy conditions have prevented me from walking for nearly a month, so Saturday's walk was quite welcome.

Moreso because that walk was really the only relaxation I enjoyed all weekend. I revised a journal article, reviewed a textbook proposal, did some housework, assembled a pile of papers to mail to my tax guy, took some pictures, prepared for classes, and basically spent the entire weekend working--except for the two hours it took me to walk the loop. That walk may have provided enough solar energy to recharge my batteries for a few days, but it won't last. One good dose of sunshine leaves me wanting let's hope more is on the way.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Laughable phone lines

When the guy from the phone company got a good look at the telephone pole leaning across the corner of our back yard, he laughed out loud. "You should have called this in years ago," he said. My husband pointed out that we did indeed call the phone company to complain about the pole five years ago when we first moved in to this house, but the phone company said that they had just recently fixed a bunch of poles in our area and therefore there couldn't possibly be anything wrong with it.

So PhoneCoGuy did some further investigation and discovered that the phone company had paid a sub-contractor to do those repairs in 2003, but it was clear from the situation on the scene that the repairs had never been done. The only reason we were able to get the phone company to take any interest in the situation right now is that we finally have a renter living in our garage apartment so we need to get a phone line out there, which is more difficult than it sounds given the distance from the house to the garage and the presence of intervening trees.

"I'll tell you what," said PhoneCoGuy. "I'll write on the repair order that this pole is on the ground" (which was not too far from the truth) "and that'll get someone out here to take care of it right away."

Of course, at that time he could not have known that an ice storm would distract the phone company's attention, so three weeks later there's still no phone line to the apartment--but we do have a new telephone pole in our yard and it's not on the ground. It's not even leaning. I don't miss the old pole, and I certainly don't miss the static caused by the old pole's tendency to sway in the wind and scrape the phone line against trees. Next week they're bringing out some new line, so one of these days we'll be fully connected and static-free. No one laughs at my telephone pole!

My septic tank, on the other hand, is kind of amusing.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Chiasm R Us

You know you're a certifiable language nerd if the act of constructing a sentence with chiastic structure makes you feel as if you've swallowed sunshine. Unfortunately, this kind of joy is difficult to share with others. Anyone who asks me why I'm grinning like an idiot this morning and hears my response ("I just created the most wonderful chiasm!") is likely to back slowly toward the door, nodding and smiling all the way. "There, there, now," they'll say, or "I think they've got a new treatment for that--you might want to check with your doctor."

But I can't help it: it's not every day that an opportunity to employ chiasm arises, and I intend to enjoy it while I can. I'll tell everyone--and if they don't understand, that's their loss, not mine.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


I've finally finished Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, which is both enchanting and infuriating. Rushdie creates an amazingly rich world blending history, fantasy, and myth, a world so enchanting that it is impossible to imagine an end, so it's inevitable that any ending would be disappointing, and Rushdie's is doubly so--a lush, baroque plot rushes suddenly to a lame, unsatisfying conclusion. That's the infuriating part.

But it is an amazing book. The novel explores the public hunger for myth, the sort of hunger that today inspires cable news networks to cast every petty newsmakers as epic hero or villain. Rushdie suggests that the human desire for myth functions just fine even when the only means of transmission is word of mouth: "Plainly Lady Black Eyes was becoming all things to all people, an exemplar, a lover, an antagonist, a muse; in her absence she was being used as one of those vessels into which human beings pour their own preferences, abhorrences, prejudices, idiosyncrasies, secrets, misgivings, and joys, their unrealized selves, their shadows, their innocence and guilt, their doubts and certainties, their most generous and also most grudging response to their passage through the world." Few know better than Rushdie that in order to become a vessel for the public's hopes and fears, one must first be reamed out, emptied, scoured, and possessed.

The idea of possession recurs throughout the book, with characters becoming possessed by hungers for passion, power, and poetry. The protagonist is a compulsive storyteller who "had picked up languages the way most sailors picked up diseases; languages were his gonorrhea, his syphilis, his scurvy, his ague, his plague. As soon as he fell asleep half the world started babbling in his brain, telling wonderous travelers' tales." Even when he finds himself in a dark dungeon slithering with vermin, his greatest fear is that he will die without telling his story: "He found this thought intolerable and so it refused to leave him, it crawled in and out of his ears, slid into the corners of his eyes and stuck to the roof of his mouth and to the soft tissue under his tongue."

While the ability to create a fluid universe of narrative eventually elevates the storyteller into a position of power (however temporary), other characters illustrate that narrative creativity is not the only way to win political favor. Sometimes success comes to those willing to disgorge the undigested contents of an excellent memory, those like Bakti Ram Jain, who "proudly held the rank of Imperial Flatterer First Class, and was a master of the ornate, old-school style known as cumulative fawning. Only a man with an excellent memory for the baroque formulations of excessive encomia could fawn cumulatively, on account of the repetitions required and the necessary precision of the sequencing."

Such playful moments have been fleeting in Rushdie's recent novels, but The Enchantress of Florence bubbles over with delight in the intricacies of the English language and the follies of the human condition, as well as a wealth of playful allusions suggesting that Rushdie has drunk deeply from the Sea of Stories and served up a generous draught for his eager readers. I just wish it hadn't ended quite so quickly.

Bonus tidbit: "By the Caspian Sea the old potato witches sat down and wept," begins one chapter, but "When they heard the news of Ismail's rout, the eastern potato witches wiped their eyes, ceased their wailing, and danced. A pirouetting Khorasani witch is a rare and particular sight, and few who saw the dance ever forgot it." Those who teach on my campus are laughing uproariously right now, but others don't get the joke. Every campus ought to come equipped with a pirouetting Khorasani!

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Other side of the desk

I just spent two hours in the lab struggling to complete my homework assignment for this week's Scientific Imaging class, and I'm exhausted. I don't understand the assignment! I can't make Photoshop behave! The prof is too demanding! Doesn't he know we're not all science majors?!!!! Doesn't he realize that I have three other classes??!!!!!!!!

Okay, I exaggerate. Actually, the fact that I spent most of the afternoon working on an assignment for a class in which I'm not even receiving a grade tells you more about me than about the class. Why don't I just slack off? It's not as if this will go on my Permanent Record!

We're only three weeks into the semester and I've already learned a few things from sitting on the other side of the teacher's desk. I've learned that I'm not too old to learn a few new tricks with technology, and I've learned that I need to work on my dithering (and if you haven't used Photoshop, you don't know squat about dithering), and I've learned that procrastination is not always a character flaw but can also be a survival technique--if I'd tried to do this assignment between meetings yesterday, my brain would have popped a circuit and sizzled until crispy.

Tomorrow I'll take a look at my classmates' results and see how my work measures up. I'm sure I'll learn a few things from them too. More than anything, I hope my classmates will teach me the secret to slacking off, because otherwise, it's just a matter of time until the sizzling starts.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Things that go Bark in the Night

Whenever I mention the nocturnal creature that has been attacking animals in my part of the county, my colleagues look skeptical. If some rough beast has been slouching around the area eviscerating animals, they wonder, why haven't they heard about it?

If they spent some time out in my part of the county, they'd hear about it. The local newspapers have been full of reports about a series of vicious attacks on animals, all within a mile or two of my house. The death toll so far includes two pygmy goats, a golden retriever, and a 750-pound adult female donkey, which apparently fought pretty hard to protect her offspring but was still brought down by whatever is out there.

Local animal control officials are stymied, so they've brought in a predation expert (and how would you like that job description on your resume?) to examine the remains of the unfortunate animals. So far they've ruled out bears and coyotes, which are known to occasionally roam these woods, and they believe it's either a pack of wild dogs or one honking big vicious dog. (Dog vs. donkey: that's got to be a really big dog.)

Those of us who live in the affected area have been warned to stay in at night and carry protection, although what sort of protection will fend off something capable of bringing down a enraged mama donkey? Are vicious dog packs deterred by pepper spray? Will my tiny flashlight intimidate whatever is out there?

I'm certain that something is out there. Last night our dog, who rarely barks, joined the neighbors' hounds in barking frantically for five solid hours, starting at around 3 a.m. when the clamor woke me up. The dogs sometimes bark when deer are crossing the meadow or when raccoons get into the garden, but those incidents last 20 or 30 minutes and then stop, while last night's barking went on and on. I tried to get back to sleep but I kept being haunted by questions: what mysterious beast is out there riling up the dog population? Is it just a persistent herd of deer or has Sasquatch's cousin invaded our turf?

Whatever it is, I hope it moves on quickly. I've had about enough of Things that go Bark in the Night.