Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Information overload

Years ago when I was a journalist, I wrote a newspaper column about my children's struggle with head lice. The response from the local community was made up of a loud "How could you write about such a thing!" followed by many whispered confidences about epic battles with head lice. I quickly became a walking repository of head lice horror stories.

Something similar has been happening ever since I learned that I'm heading for a hysterectomy. Women I barely know have told me about fibroids the size of a golf ball, baseball, or grapefruit (yes, I realize that the next logical point on that continuum ought to be "softball," but they always go with "grapefruit") and, just to be different, a cyst the size of a hockey puck. I have heard horror stories about nicked ureters and life-threatening infections. Today as my surgeon was examining me I mentioned the name of a friend who had also been his patient. "Sure, I remember her!" he said. "She had a really big uterus too!"

You know, I've never really thought about the size of my friend's uterus, and I'm okay with that. My feeling about internal organs is that there's a good reason they're kept under wraps. Now, though, I've stumbled into some parallel universe in which it is considered appropriate to bandy about information about the relative sizes of various organs, excrescences, and unnatural growths. I've received all kinds of helpful brochures from the doctor's office, all written in that perky tone designed to make disease sound non-threatening, but nothing telling me how to cope with this flood of information. I realize that people are just trying to be helpful, but do I have to think about tumors and wombs 24 hours a day?

Next time someone starts sharing too much, I think I'll just tell her to put a sock in it...but what size sock? Golfball, baseball, or grapefruit?

Opie, Reggie, and imperfect unions

I'm reading drafts of my freshman writers' research essays, which are more interesting than usual and mostly pretty well done. Somehow I managed to impress upon most of my students the importance of using reputable sources, but I got a pretty big laugh out of the way one student cited one of his sources: he interpreted "Opec Secretariat" as the name of the author. This is almost as brilliant as a previous student who interpreted "Regina, Saskatchewan" as a reporter's name.

Of course, given the current trend toward peculiar baby names, it's only a matter of time before some poor infant gets tagged with one of these names--and then what if they later meet and marry? Opec and Regina Saskatchewan-Secretariat: the cost of ink for the invitations would be outrageous, and their adorable children Opie and Reggie will be mercilessly hounded by classmates envious of their unusual monikers.

Let's just put a stop to this right here and now. OPEC is an organization and Regina is a city, and I'm not aware of any locale where marriage between two such incompatible forces would be permitted.

Monday, March 30, 2009


After three days I'm finally getting accustomed to my new glasses, but I still find myself tilting my head up and down to find the right spot for various distances. In class I look from my notes to the blackboard to a student in the front row and then to a student clear in the back, and with each adjustment I have to tilt a little up or down and then maybe a little more.

I know I'll get used to these glasses eventually, but meanwhile, just call me Bobblehead Bev.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fur and loathing

I saw clear evidence of the economic downturn when I went shopping for a raincoat in Pittsburgh Friday night. I found a rich deposit of colorful raincoats on clearance at the downtown Macy's, a vast multi-floor complex filling a city block, but I saw no more than half a dozen customers the whole time I was there.

The raincoats were adjacent to the fine fur department, an area that appeared to have been abandoned by the human race. When I had made my selection (with not a hint of assistance from any sales clerks), I went to the nearest cash register, where three sales clerks were standing and gabbing.

"You can't buy that here," said one of them. "We deal only with customers buying furs."

"And how's that working for you?" is what I wanted to say, but instead I took my raincoat across the store to another register and checked out. If they're planning to stand and chat until the next serious fur-buying customer appears, I have a feeling they'll be waiting a while.

So if you're in the market for a fur coat, I know three salesclerks who are eager to serve, but if it's a raincoat you're after, you're on your own.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Long and rising road

"May the road rise to greet you" runs the well-known Irish blessing, but I did not feel at all blessed this weekend when the road kept looking as if it was about to rise up and slap me in the face.

I blame my new glasses. I picked them up just before leaving for my trip to Pittsburgh, and my prescription has changed so much that I was a bit disoriented at first when everything below eye-level kept trying to tilted toward me.

I got sort of accustomed to this tendency during the three-hour drive (which would have been a two-and-a-half-hour drive if I hadn't taken a wrong turn on a one-way street that introduced me to a larger swath of the city than was strictly necessary), but then I had to get out of the car and walk--first on city sidewalks and then on garish hotel carpet covered with geometric prints. The road was rising up to greet me all right, and it hurt.

But that's not the only reason I spent much of the weekend feeling disoriented. This was a peculiar conference. I attended six sessions, and only two of them had more people in the audience than on the panel. (The largest audience I saw--12 people--attended a session on blogging inside and outside the classroom.) Gathering a semi-huge assemblage of scholars together to deliver papers to virtually empty rooms seems an immense waste of time, energy, and resources, especially when so many of the papers I heard were (sorry, folks) pretty superficial: no theoretical foundation, little in-depth consideration of ideas, vast billowing clouds of vague generalizations delivered in smug, self-congratulatory tones. Why do we do this to ourselves? Is a line on a vita really worth all this fuss?

And let's not even talk about the state of the academic wardrobe. No job interviews were being conducted at this conference, and yet at fully half of the sessions I attended, every presenter was wearing a black or dark gray suit. One panelist livened up an otherwise somber ensemble with red patent-leather shoes, but aside from that, the entire experience was swathed in blah. I would have been happy to see some navy blue--and I was delighted that I'd decided to wear my new goldenrod jacket, which made me feel like the sun breaking through a storm-darkened sky.

Frankly, Pittsburgh looks as if it could use a little sunshine right now. I remember when my father used to come home from work and open his briefcase to release the distinctive odor of Pittsburgh's steel mills into our house in the northern suburbs; today the mills have left and taken their pollution and stink with them, but the city still feels dark and bleak, dressed in black and shades of gray.

But maybe that's just me. I was, after all, experiencing the conference and the city through lenses that made me frequently fear for my life. Maybe I ought to try again after the road loses interest in rising up to greet me.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mixed messages

Suppose you need to communicate some bad news to a significant chunk of the students in a class: "If you keep missing class, you're in danger of failure" or "Your plagiarism has resulted in an F on the paper" or "I'm really disappointed in your performance on the midterm exam." Many--but not all--of the students need to hear the message, and you'd rather say it once and get it over with than deal with students one-on-one, or maybe you've already tried the one-on-one route and it's time for the Come to Jesus Speech.

Here's the question: how much time do you devote to delivering this message in class?

And here's the other question: how do you soften the blow for the students who don' t need to hear the message?

This morning I needed to remind about a third of my freshman writing students that consistently coming to class late will result in a lower grade. Earlier in the semester, I spoke to the offending students individually and saw some improvement, but lately this big clot of students has been wandering in late just about every day, and I wanted to sternly remind them of the consequences. On the other hand, I didn't want to dump this big pile of negative energy on the students who somehow manage to come to class on time every day.

So I thanked them. At the start of class, before the habitually tardy students arrived, I told the students how much I appreciate their prompt attendance, and then I said, "In a little while I'll be delivering a different message about tardiness, but I wanted you to know that it's not for you." They seemed pleased. To judge from my e-mail inbox, the tardy students were less pleased with the message I reserved for them.

The worst waste of time I've ever seen was when a professor spent 50 minutes of a 75-minute class reaming out the students for their bad performance on an exam. Halfway through the tirade, the student sitting next to me turned red and started to vibrate as if about to spontaneously combust, and that was before she saw her grade on the exam.

She got a 92.

That's one student who did not need to be raked over the coals for poor performance for 50 minutes, and I suspect there were others in the same boat. I can imagine other solutions: allow the students who did well to leave early; cut down the length of the tirade so that it's not an entirely wasted class; deliver the bad news briefly and with a smile and schedule a separate session for students who need extra attention.

It's probably easier to just stand up there and yell for 50 minutes, but what possible pedagogical purpose could such a performance serve?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Send in the bulldozers

Anyone want to loan me a bulldozer? I'll need one to shove around the big piles of work on my desk: papers to grade, advising folders to update, reports to file, committee work to continue ignoring until it can no longer be ignored. I promised myself that I wouldn't leave today without attending to enough of the piles to make it possible for me to go out of town on Friday, and even though I weaseled out of two afternoon meetings, I'm still here working 11 hours after I arrived.

I'm giving a paper at the College English Association conference in Pittsburgh on Saturday, which means that all my Friday tasks have to be tackled on Thursday, except Thursday is pretty crowded with advising appointments, which are crowding out my usual oases of work time. I value the time I spend with my advisees, but their presence causes some other matters to slip. This week's slippage has been immense. But I'm digging my way out little by little so that I can roll out of here on Friday without so much as a glance back at whatever's left of the piles of work.

My fear right now is that the slippage will get extreme and I'll be buried under piles of papers. If you don't hear from me in 24 hours, send in the bulldozers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hope for late bloomers?

"People serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee. Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable." --Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Me and my shadow

Telling secrets can be fun--except when it's a secret no one really wants to hear.

I remember that wonderful moment years ago when I knew I was carrying around a mysterious secret, and all I had to do to make people's eyes light up was to spill the beans: "I'm pregnant."

I'm a little more timid about spilling the beans since I learned last week that my womb is now nurturing a bouncing baby tumor. As tumors go, it's fairly harmless, causing a great deal of what the doctors like to call "discomfort" without being life-threatening. Everywhere I go I carry a mysterious secret, but it's unlikely to make anyone's eyes light up.

It's impossible to casually insert the word "tumor" into a conversation without introducing a note of awkwardness, an uncomfortable solemnity:

"How's your bracket looking?"

"Pretty good except for that Ohio State upset. How about yours?"

"Well, it's hard to focus on basketball when I'm distracted by this whole tumor thing...."

Pregnant people pass around ultrasound photos of their unborn children--in fact, they invite half the planet into the ultrasound room to watch the process. While I was waiting for my ultrasound last week, three different pregnant women went in for their ultrasounds trailing parades of supporters, one of them followed by seven friends and family members, all eager to see some nebulous shadows on a field of gray.

I went to my ultrasound alone. No one wants to see an ultrasound image of a tumor. Not even me.

But like Jack Gladney in White Noise I suddenly find myself carrying around a reminder of my own mortality. Jack believes computer data and graphic images will help him cope with the human condition, as if quantifying death as a series of "bracketed numbers and pulsing stars" could make death comprehensible, controllable. What I'm carrying is not death but discomfort, and no one really welcomes that sort of secret.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Somebody's hiring!

I dreamed that one of my beloved colleagues announced that he would be leaving to take a better job elsewhere.

"Where in the world did you find a job?" I asked. "Nobody's hiring!"

"Vulcan," he said.

"Vulcan College?"

"No," he said. "The planet Vulcan."

Which, I suppose, demonstrates the lengths to which job candidates will go to find meaningful employment in the current academic market. Nobody's hiring! The regional state university about 40 miles from here cut nine adjunct slots in December, so I've been hearing from a lot of disgruntled ex-adjuncts and I hired two of them this semester. Thanks to some changes in our first-year program, I have a larger than normal number of adjunct slots available in the fall, but I've been receiving unsolicited queries from newly minted PhD's as well as seasoned professors whose jobs have been downsized, all eager to work for peanuts teaching the classes no one else really wants. At some level I feel a little guilty about exploiting the misfortunes of others, but on the other hand, at least I have something to offer.

I just hope I can offer more than they do on the planet Vulcan.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Twenty-seven years ago a brand-new professor arrived on my undergraduate campus to teach journalism and serve as advisor to the college newspaper; since I was the editor, we spent a lot of time together, and since she was just 10 years older than I was, we hit it off pretty well. I learned an awful lot from her, and now her daughter is learning an awful lot from my daughter. That's right: my daughter served as student-teacher for a class including the daughter of my former teacher and mentor.

I guess this means that we're all getting older, but it's nice to know that the gift of teaching keeps on giving.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

News junkie

"Young people don't read newspapers anymore," I said. "At least that's what the candidate for the journalism position told us today. They just can't be bothered with reading the paper when all the information they want is instantly available online."

We were sitting at the table together, my husband and I, smelling the delightful aroma of roast pork and rice pilaf, but we didn't want to dig in until the Texas kid joined us. He's home from college on spring break but even home cooking could not distract him from the newspaper article that held him in thrall--"Just let me finish these last two paragraphs!"

"That's right," I said. "Young people aren't reading newspapers at all. Not a bit of it."

But he didn't come to dinner until he was done reading the paper.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Today a professional photographer took a picture of me taking a picture of her. You can't see me. I'm kneeling in the mud by the creek--but then, so is she. She's shooting me shooting her, but why?

The college magazine is running an article on the experiment in cross-disciplinary creativity in which I am involved, the project that inspired me to take a Scientific Imaging class to spark new ideas for teaching nature writing. The article talks about taking the plunge into unknown territory, using the example of my adventure stomping in cold creek water to get a photograph (read it here), and the photographer wanted to get a photo of me stomping in creek water to get a photograph. So I taught this morning in my creek-stomping clothes and then changed into my creek-stomping shoes and went out to stomp in a campus creek.

"Pretend you're taking a picture of something interesting," said the photographer, but this creek offers little of interest besides a deflated St. Patrick's Day balloon and a lot of mud. So I shot the photographer. It was a totally meta-photographic moment--well, except for the mud. There was nothing meta about the mud.

Monday, March 16, 2009

My own economic stimulus plan

At first I felt guilty about taking two new pairs of dress pants to a seamstress to be shortened. Why pay someone else to take up a few hems when I could do it myself for free? But the fact is that I can do it myself for free only if my time is worth nothing, and this week in particular, my time is pretty valuable. Besides, cuffs are a pain--and in these difficult economic times, I'm doing my patriotic duty by stimulating the local economy.

Likewise, that speeding ticket my husband got last week in West Virginia is simply our opportunity to stimulate West Virginia's economy, and all that shopping I did last week looks like a bold statement of patriotic fervor. Even my recent spate of expensive medical care might look like an close encounter of the painful kind, but the pain dissolves when I consider the sacrifices I'm making to stimulate the local health-care economy.

Now that I've done my part, though, I'm happy to pass the torch on to others. I'm just waiting now for someone to come along and stimulate my economy!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Full service

I got up this morning to find two inches of snow covering my car. In mid-March! In Kentucky! That's just wrong. My daughter helped me scrape it off and we set off for Lexington, where I dropped her off at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, where she is student-teaching. I refrained from reciting any Dunbar poetry. I'm not sure I could do it without my morning dose of caffeine anyway.

Now I'm sitting at a BP station taking advantage of their free wireless Internet access. The local Starbucks charges $9.95 for wireless access, but at the BP station, it's free. Gas stations used to check your oil and wash your windows, but now they offer free wireless Internet instead. That's fine with me. I can check my own oil.

I've got the rest of the day to enjoy before gathering my daughter and having dinner with her and her fiance, so I think I'll do some more shopping. I've already bought all the interesting items I need for spring, so I'm now stuck with the boring but essential stuff: underwear, towels, a new suitcase. Maybe I'll go downtown and visit Black Swan Books, a treasure trove of used and rare books. Or maybe I'll just sit here at the BP station all day and enjoy that peculiar gas-station/convenience store ambiance.

Choice: that's what Spring Break is all about.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Boldly going where no Bev has gone before

Early this morning I awoke from a shopping nightmare: desperate to find a new suit in a store that was about to close, I couldn't even find the right department; I would ask salespeople for directions and try to follow, but I kept ending up in the children's section or in some dark musty sub-basement full of broken furniture.

Fortunately, my actual shopping expedition wasn't the least bit nightmarish. I drove to the Big City this morning along with an artistic friend who kept encouraging me to try on colors and styles I normally wouldn't consider so that at one point I found myself in the dressing room at Sak's trying on a gorgeous orange jacket ($568) and a stunning pair of white pants ($300), which seemed, oddly enough, quite reasonable at the time. But instead, I came home with two very nice but moderately priced teaching outfits and a dress to wear to my daughter's wedding. I still need a spring suit, but I'll have a chance to do some more shopping as I head to Kentucky to visit my daughter tomorrow.

Next week when all my colleagues get back from spring break compare notes about their amazing travels, it'll sound a little lame to admit that I mostly spent my break hiking and shopping--but today in those dressing rooms I found myself boldly going where I've never gone before, which is pretty exciting (and much more pleasant than my shopping nightmares).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hawk's Nest

A few shots from yesterday's hike: Cathedral Falls, a view of the river, the rhododendrons slope, and the cliffside trail.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Day tripper

Today we drove through towns called Boomer, Alloy, and Smithers on our way to Hawk's Nest State Park in West Virginia. Just two hours south of here the fosythia is already bright yellow and daffodils and tulips are blossoming, but we were more interested in hiking a steep cliffside trail that led first through dry deciduous woods and then suddenly turned a corner into a lush green grove of rhododendrons. Bright sun, clear skies, stunning views, and the sounds of songbirds and waterfalls cleared out the cobwebs and left behind a feeling of peace that, thankfully, survived the drive home.

Friday, March 06, 2009

D- in Scofflaw Studies

Once upon a time when I was a student at a college with very strict rules for dress and behavior, I realized that I had made it almost all the way through my freshman year without a single demerit in my file and I thought that was kind of pathetic. So I set out to break some rules. What sort of misbehavior would earn the wrath of the Powers That Be without resulting in some drastic measure like expulsion? I decided on a desperate plan: on a lovely afternoon in spring, I screwed up my courage and walked right into the college library--barefoot.

No one noticed. There I was doing the worst I could imagine and no one gasped in shock or handed me a demerit slip or complained to the PTBs. As a scofflaw, I was utterly worthless.

I thought of that experience the other day when I carried a cup of coffee into our brand-spanking-new high-tech library. Part of me expected a white-haired librarian with a hanky stuffed up her sleeve to gasp in shock and faint dead away, but we don't have any white-haired librarians with hankies stuffed up their sleeves and even if we did, they wouldn't be shocked. Why? Because the new library welcomes food and drink.

There are limitations, of course. Nobody wants to see big greasy messy pizzas or take-out Chinese noodles or cheese fondue in the stacks, but self-contained snacks are permitted, water bottles are everywhere, and coffee is de rigueur.

But I still felt like a scofflaw when I carried my coffee cup into the library. It'll take me a while to shush the voice of the white-haired librarian who lives inside my conscience. One of these days I'll lure her up to the stacks and crush her between those movable shelves--especially if she keeps reminding me of the time I went to the library barefoot and utterly failed in my attempt to be a scofflaw.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Breaking away

It's amazing how a little sunshine improves the prevailing mood on campus. All week faculty members and students have been rushing from building to building, their faces hunched into their collars for warmth, while today they're sauntering about or just sitting on benches and soaking in the sunshine.

I've been asking students where they're going on Spring Break next week and the one thing we all agree on is that we're ready for a break regardless of where we're going. Many of them are taking trips to Florida to play baseball or softball or lounge on the beach, but most of my students admitted that they're just planning to spend the week goofing off at home.

I'm with them. Sure, I'll do some shopping and maybe take a day trip to a good hiking area, but I'll be happy just to sleep a little later than usual and to not be required to read any essays full of strangled syntax and tortured logic. Maybe I'll zip down to Kentucky to spend a few days with my adorable daughter. As long as I get a break, I don't really care much where I go...and if Spring Break brings a break in the weather, that's even better.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Funnel-Cakes of J. Alfred Prufrock

When I read the midterm essay in which the student asserted that T.S. Eliot in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" created a feeling of happiness by introducing images of funnel-cakes and fireworks, my first response was to laugh. Unless my edition is sadly lacking, funnel-cakes do not appear in Prufrock, although there are spots where they might not be terribly out of place:

Should I, after tea and cake and ices and funnel-cake,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis, for goodness' sake?

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant funnel-cake vendor, one that will do
To swell a belly, start a fart or two....

Even though funnel-cakes do not appear in Prufrock, I completely understand why this student placed them there, and thereby hangs a tale that will enlighten gentle readers about students' essay exam preparation practices: while there are no funnel-cakes in Prufrock, the word "funnel-cakes" did appear on the blackboard on the day when we discussed the poem in class.

Why? Before we began discussing the poem, I wanted to explain Eliot's idea of the objective correlative in terms understandable to the non-majors who make up the majority of the class. Suppose you are a poet and you want to create within your reader an experience of happiness without coming right out and saying "I am happy!" What sorts of images would you present to readers that might suggest happiness?

"Funnel-cakes," said one student, so I wrote that on the board, followed by a plus sign. "Fireworks," said the next, and soon we had a list of images designed to add up to an equation for the feeling of happiness. That's the objective correlative: a set of objects that serve as the formula for a particular emotion.

"Now let's see how this works in the poem," I said, and we began working our way, line by line, through "Prufrock," examining Eliot's assemblage of discrete images that add up to a particular emotion--not happiness, though, thanks to the overwhelming absence of funnel-cakes and fireworks.

It's easy to see how the funnel-cakes moved from the blackboard to the student's notes and from thence into the midterm essay exam. The only essential element missing from this equation is the poem itself. If the student had been listening closely in class or if he had bothered to study the poem instead of simply memorizing his notes, he might have noticed Eliot's avoidance of funnel-cakes, fireworks, and happiness. But that would be too much work.

I suppose I should be flattered that the student found my words more memorable than Eliot's, but that won't improve his grade any. I don't know what sort of emotion the grade will cause the student to experience, but I doubt happiness will have anything to do with it--unless he has easy access to a healthy supply of funnel-cakes.

Monday, March 02, 2009

A gaggle of guys

This month as we celebrate five years in our little house in the not-so-big woods, I'm thinking about all the different ways this house has enriched our lives. For one thing, we've developed close working relationships with a variety of guys.

For instance, you can't live with a driveway like 0urs without getting to know your gravel guy pretty well, and living in the woods requires dependence on the chainsaw guy. (Who knew chainsaws could be so persnickety?) We rely regularly on our furnace guy and our electricity guy, and the tree-trimming guys know just where to dump those piles of mulch.

Some guys come and go. Our garage guy has moved on to other projects and we haven't needed the septic tank guy for a while, but we're now working with a llama-dung guy who promises to supply fertilizer for our garden this spring.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to have one do-it-all guy who could take care of everything that needs attention, but on the other hand, variety is the spice of life--and all these guys have definitely brought some spice into ours.