Thursday, April 30, 2009

Invisible poetry

After spending two and a half hours freezing half to death while my American Lit students took their final exam, my brain is melting under the heat of their pressure-cooked prose. These exams show the same wide range of understanding that I'm accustomed to seeing in survey courses, but one section seems to have stymied a large group of students at all levels: given some characteristic chunks from two long poems, students had to identify the authors and titles (A.R. Ammons, "Garbage," and Allan Ginsberg, "Howl") and write a little bit about the ideas or techniques the two poems share. I thought this would be the easiest question on the exam because these two poems are so distinctive in both style and content; "Garbage" is the only poem we studied in this unit that's arranged in couplets, and nothing else we've read in this unit looks the least bit similar to "Howl."

And yet: more than half of the class got this section wrong. Many identified "Howl" as "Garbage" and vice versa, while others offered up a wide range of authors, including Sylvia Plath, Billy Collins, and Jack Kerouac (who makes more sense than the others, but still!). Even if a student has difficulty figuring out what a particular poem is trying to say, shouldn't he or she at least notice the distinctive shape the poem makes on the page? Even if I'd substituted gibberish for the words, students should have been able to look at the lines and identify the authors, especially given the limited number of poets we studied in this final unit. Further, I selected sections of these poems that we had discussed at length in class, so even if they didn't read on their own, they should have heard the words more than once if they'd been paying attention.

Maybe they're trying to study poetry without actually looking at it. That's a novel method, but for a large group of my students, it clearly isn't working.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Peace and quiet

It's unbelievable how quiet my classroom building is this morning...I haven't seen or heard another human being in the hallways. Somewhere in this building final exams are being administered, but to sit in my office and listen, you'd think you were in a mausoleum. It's a great place for grading papers, but I need to crank up some tunes before the silence soothes me off to sleep.

Visions and revisions

Yesterday I received the verdict from an academic journal to which I had submitted an article in February: revise and resubmit. This is fine with me. The flaws the readers found in the article are exactly what I had expected, and they said some pretty nice things about my work so I'm not complaining. This will be my first big summer project.

Except wait, it'll have to be my second big summer project. First I need to write a paper to deliver at the ASLE conference in June, a paper that I'll later revise and submit to another academic journal. That's two big projects involving revision, and that's just the beginning: I need to revise syllabi for fall classes and redesign writing assignments and work with a faculty member from another department on a new learning community we'll be teaching in the fall.

I'll also be doing some revision in other areas. In June I'll be revising my family status to include the mother-in-law role, and I'll have to revise my income tax withholding when I lose my daughter as a dependent. My surgeon will be editing out a pesky organ later in June, and I'll have to revise my summer gardening schedule to allow time for recovery. (I'll be laid up during tomato season! That's just wrong.)

Finally, I'm planning a major revision to my job title. I'll still be teaching, but this fall I'll move over to the new library to serve as the first director of our new Center for Teaching Excellence. I've always wanted to live in a library, so now I'll get my chance!

What vision do I have for this new venture? A vision of revision after revision--and it starts right now.

Monday, April 27, 2009


One of my students keeps writing about the problems that arise when students spend too much time maintaining their "online dairies," and I so enjoy the image of tiny electronic bovines mooing away deep within verdant server farms that I'm reluctant to point out the small but important difference between "dairy" and "diary." Do students rise at 4 a.m. to milk the virtual cows in their online dairies, and what do they do with all that virtual milk? Where does one store the silage in a virtual dairy? And are e-cows happy cows?

Problems like these I'd gladly read about, but that's not what I'm reading today. Ah well, there's always next semester.

Comings and goings

Orioles are back! I thought I would have an oriole photo to share this morning, but they're all blurry. Neither do I have any photos of the rose-breasted grosbeak that turned up yesterday. They're shy, those fellows, and they seem to view cameras with suspicion. Not so the red-bellied woodpeckers, which go about their business without any apparent awareness of my presence.

Fire pinks and waterleaf are blooming and the first crop of asparagus is ready to cut. The Dutchman's Breeches in the photo are the last blossoms remaining on a patch of hillside that was covered in blossoms a week ago. Trilliums remain abundant and beautiful.

Over the weekend I did my first weed-eating of the season, got my first sunburn, and encountered my first tick. But the joy of hearing orioles again outweighs the annoyance of ticks, and the sunburn just makes me fit in with my red-bellied and rose-breasted and orange-backed feathered friends. Call me a red-shouldered tick-avoiding asparagus-fancying weed-eater. That's about right.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The passing of a pacesetter

In the bleak midwinter, a group of female faculty members gathered to express appreciation for a woman who had paved the way for us. Our colleague was preparing to retire, but before she moved on to new challenges, we wanted to let her know how much we valued her encouragement, her mentorship, and her feistiness in fighting the battles that opened opportunities for women on our campus.

That was just three months ago. Today, our colleague is dead. We will all miss her: she was a tall, imposing presence on campus, a passionate teacher, a distinguished scholar, and a valued mentor, willing to fight like a bulldog for what she believed in. She went out of her way to encourage me at a particularly low point in my career, and she also gave excellent concise advice about the road to tenure. "Finish things," she said. And she was right.

Today I'm sad that I won't be seeing my colleague in the hallways anymore, but I have one consolation: I'm grateful for that winter party, where we all took the time to tell her "Thanks."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Stalking words

According to, that highly reputable and authoritative source so beloved by students eager to pad their research papers, a pedicle is "a small stalk or stalklike support, as the connection between the cephalothorax and abdomen in certain arachnids." I had to look this up today in order to understand a sentence in a student paper, but I'm afraid my foray into the dictionary did not, in this case, clarify the matter at all. The paper asserts that one of the "many common factors" shared by Muslims and Christians is that "they both hold their men on a high pedicle."

Maybe if it's a really big arachnid....

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Shaking hands with the dead

"Where facts are few, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history."

There's a sentence I wish I had written. You can find it in a very interesting article in the New York Times by Stacy Schiff, "Who's Buried in Cleopatra's Tomb?" (Read it here.) If she is correct, the problems faced by powerful women have apparently not changed much over the course of the centuries.

Which reminds me of my recent conversation with the outgoing Chair of the Faculty. We're trying to set up a meeting so he can teach me the Secret Faculty Chair Handshake and show me where the bodies are buried. The problem, he said, is that the Secret Faculty Chair Handshake is properly performed by firmly grasping hands with long-dead corpses.

He wouldn't reveal whether the ceremony requires the presence of asps. Go ask Cleopatra. She'll know.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Straw prof

In the April 24 Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Edmundson calls on English professors to "befriend the texts that we choose to teach," pointing out that texts are "the testaments of human beings who have lived and suffered in the world. They too deserve honor and respect." While I find this idea appealing, I'm a bit befuddled by the sort of teaching he finds objectionable.

The article is called "Against Readings," and in it Edmundson objects to literature professors who, instead of befriending and honoring texts, instead stand before a class and subject texts to readings informed by particular theoretical schools. Edmunson constructs an image of the literature professor who stands in front of a class and performs, say, a Marxist reading of Blake or a deconstructionist reading of Eliot. What he wants, says Edmundson, is "A Blakean reading of Blake, or an Eliotic reading of Eliot."

Great, but who is this straw man against whom Edmunson rails? Do lit profs really stand before classes performing theoretical analyses of texts as students silently watch? What would be the point of that kind of teaching? If my goal is to equip my students to develop their own literary analysis skills, how will my solo performance help them?

Maybe I've missed the boat here, but I don't know many profs, if any, who teach like Edmunson's straw man. Am I just out of touch or is his description more accurate elsewhere?

Monday, April 20, 2009

Grace happens

The weather is bleak and I haven't been getting much sleep and all day long I have been suffering the kind of pain that feels as if it being inflicted by a sadist wielding a ball-peen hammer, and yet: I am happy. I know, it doesn't make any sense to me either.

What do I have to be happy about? Well, yesterday I got all excited about taking photos of buckeye buds (in the rain!) and then this morning I was so eager to get down to the computer lab to run the photos through Photoshop that I arrived there in the dark (in the rain!) while the custodians were still cleaning the room. I mean, they're just photos of buds and leaves! There are not even any people in them! And yet they made me very happy.

It made me happy to open today's mail and see three cards responding to invitations to my daughter's wedding. We haven't even finished mailing all the invitations and already we're hearing daily from people eager to let us know they're planning to attend (or not). I was very happy about the leftover salmon and asparagus for supper and even more happy that I didn't have to cook, and then there was that homemade vanilla ice cream with strawberries, an excellent distraction from the whole ball-peen hammer scenario.

I was delighted earlier today to devote a small chunk of my federal income tax refund toward stimulating the economy of Oregon by ordering a healthy supply of Stash loose teas, including all my favorite varieties to pour over ice when the clouds part and summer finally arrives.

I'm happy that I finally made a dental appointment and finished a book I've been reading and wrote one and a half (out of three) final exams. I'm happy that I had fun playing Boggle with students yesterday and didn't fall asleep in the middle of class today and tried to set an errant student on the path toward redemption (of her grade).

If I set all those things on one side of the scale and, on the other side, set the nasty weather and insomnia and pain, the bad stuff ought to outweigh the good--after all, that ball-peen hammer alone ought to smash the bejeezus out of all the tea in Oregon. And yet I am happy.

My cup runneth over. Care for a drink?

Alien life forms

In April, buckeye leaves burst from their buds like B-movie aliens from the head of an unsuspecting human host. One day the tight red buds perch on the ends of bare stalks, and the next day the buds disappear and the leaves leap into bright green growth. It's easy to miss the in-between stages, when the incipient leaves look like alien life forms unfurling toward nefarious ends. For that one brief moment before the leaves take their final form, it's easy to believe that April is indeed the cruelest month.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Captain Obvious Strikes Again!

Yesterday I read 26 student drafts (because I really really really didn't want to take them home with me on such a beautiful weekend!) and while many of them were quite good, I was especially impressed by one student's ability to take obviousness to new heights. I received no more than the usual number of papers proudly asserting that "poetry means different things to different people" or "throughout time, authors have used many different ideas and techniques," but this time I received a statement that moves to a whole new level of achievement: "These works would appeal to the kinds of readers who find these kinds of works appealing."

There's just no arguing with that logic. I could screech "tautology!" until I'm red in the face, but the word would not be meaningful to the sort of student who does not know the meaning of the word.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The cow that stomped Tokyo

This morning as I left for work I saw a 12-foot-tall cow.

I know it wasn't really 12 feet tall. Cows don't grow that tall around here, and if they did, the barns wouldn't be big enough to hold 'em.

But there's a peculiar optical illusion that occurs when our neighbor's cows wander across the high ridge on the other side of our road: when they reach a particular bare spot with no trees or shrubs to lend a sense of scale, they seem to balloon into monsters tall enough to stomp across Tokyo. It's hard for a cow to look menacing, but when they're 12 feet tall, they look positively primeval and even powerful--until they move closer to the trees and shrink again into ordinary bovines, utterly harmless and eminently ignorable.

For that brief moment, though, when the cows are 12 feet tall, they definitely get my attention.

Added later: One of my students turned in a draft containing the word "cowage," which seems to be a combination of "coward" and "courage." Cowage is what I need when I encounter the Cow That Stomped Tokyo.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My inspiration

Once as a child when I had performed some geeky feat like winning the county spelling bee, I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter who asked me that question every child dreads hearing: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

My mother, who was present at the time, probably expected me to say something normal like "a nurse" or "a teacher," and she would have smiled even if I'd admitted the truth and said I wanted to be a writer. Instead, when the reporter asked what I wanted to be, I said, "An inspiration."

My mother was appalled, but at the time I didn't understand why. "Inspiration" isn't one of those vocations open to the granddaughter of a tobacco farmer, and no matter how carefully you comb the classified ads, you're not going to find a lot of companies desperately seeking Inspirations. Maybe my mother foresaw a future of compromise and broken dreams.

These days, though, I understand even better why my bizarre response made my mother uncomfortable, because I find it very uncomfortable to be told over and over again, sometimes by people I barely know, that I am an inspiration--and not at all the sort of inspiration I dreamed of being as a child. I was thinking of writing some amazingly wonderful book that would inspire awe at my insight and creativity and inspire readers to take bold steps to make the world a better place. Little did I know that all I had to do to become an inspiration was to lose 100 pounds.

Now the people who keep telling me I'm their inspiration always want to know the same thing: how did I do it? And their interest is not purely academic: they want me to reveal the secret, tell them the name of the magic pill that will melt all their fat away without effort. The problem is that I don't know the secret, and the things I can tell them aren't terribly inspiring.

For instance, the plain and simple truth is that if you want to lose 100 pounds, the first thing you have to do is gain 100 pounds. This is actually the easy part (two words: Taco Bell), but there's nothing the least bit inspiring about it (and if you don't believe me, pay a visit to Wal-Mart on a Friday night).

Losing all that flab is more difficult, and people who want a quick and easy way to burn off unwanted weight aren't going to like what I tell them: Eat right and exercise. Turn off the television and plant a big garden. Stop drinking pop, even diet pop. Losing 100 pounds took me two years of pretty much constant effort, and I can't ever go back to the kind of lifestyle I led before or all that weight will come back.

Not very inspiring, is it? Maybe that's what my mother understood: being an inspiration is not a vocation you can actually seek, and if you stumble into it, it's just not as exciting as you might have expected.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Promises, Promises

My first act on being elected Faculty Chair will be to demand a recount. There must be some logical explanation for this stunning result. I suspect hanging chads.

Next, I'll take advantage of the fact that fully half of the members of next year's Faculty Council are English professors and institute a series of sweeping reforms on campus. We'll establish a crack squad of Grammar Police armed with red pens and authorized to issue citations to anyone apprehended in the commission of a solecism.

Classes will be cancelled on T.S. Eliot's birthday, Bloomsday, and the first day the trilliums bloom in spring.

Every student will be required to recite Donne's "Meditation 17" from memory before receiving a diploma.

New faculty members will be required to wear beanies embellished with the college logo; beanieless newbies will be required to sing the Alma Mater on demand and pay a steep fine if they bobble the high notes.

In order to study effective models of academic leadership, the entire Faculty Council will take a two-week fact-finding excursion to London and Paris. How will this junket be funded in these bleak economic times? Simple: Faculty members will be required to pay-to-play in faculty meetings. The first 30 seconds of speech will remain free, but speakers will pay tolls based on a sliding scale keyed to years in rank. Further hefty fines will be imposed upon anyone slipping into the subjunctive mood. (Would that it were so!)

Finally, Faculty Council will finally find a solution to that serious problem that is always with us but no one seems willing to tackle. I refer, of course, to the weather. If our campus leadership is unwilling or unable to ensure a comfortable working environment both inside and outside the buildings, then who needs 'em?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Light strikes a pose

How do I write the light?

I value light for what it illuminates, but what happens when the light itself becomes the main show?

I wondered during our sunrise service how to put light itself into the spotlight. Outside the church window the light turned from midnight blue to purple to pink to a soft clarity that seemed to caress everything it touched, but how do I write about that without resorting to time-worn cliches? This morning the sunrise mottled the sky with rough patches of cotton-candy pink tinged with firey orange and surrounded by whiteness so soft it looked like felt--but even as I write this description, I am struck by its inadequacy. The sky didn't really look like felt or fire or cotton candy or like anything so much as light. I want to say "Just go look at it for yourself," but by the time I'd noticed the peculiar quality of the light, it was already starting to change. I can't make light sit tight or stay put while I go find the camera, and even if I could, the photograph would frame a woefully incomplete distortion of a transcendent experience. Light refuses to pose, at least for me.

An evanescent natural phenomenon that defies description: that's the light I'd like to know how to write.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Trillium time again

I'm not sure why I get so excited when the trilliums bloom in the spring. It shouldn't be any great surprise: given the right growing conditions and an adequate amount of sunshine, the trilliums will return year after year; they may be more or less abundant from one year to the next, but they can generally be relied upon to bloom. They're not even the earliest wildflowers in our woods; we've had spring beauties and stonecrop blooming for weeks and the Dutchman's Breeches are just coming into bloom, but I look forward to the trilliums the way a child looks forward to Christmas.

This morning on my walk I saw just a few trilliums blooming in the woods where there were none a week ago. It was 40 degrees and foggy when I left the house, but by the time I returned two hours later, the sun had burned off the fog and the temperature had risen a whopping two degrees. I was chilled and sore (leg cramps...forgot to take a water bottle) but excited about what I had seen: buzzards making big lazy circles above a freshly plowed farm field, dozens of goldfinches flitting like flecks of sunshine through the woods, mottled leaves of the waterleaf speckling a hillside. Earlier in the week, my husband located the nesting site of a pair of wood ducks--a hole about twenty feet up in a sycamore beside our creek--but I haven't had any success in finding the wood ducks, probably because my dog always accompanies me on my walks and she's not as helpful as she seems to think.

On the entire six-mile loop, though, I found trilliums blooming in only two spaces: on the hillside next to our driveway and on the slope right across the road from our house. So far there are just a few, but seeing their bright white faces brightening up the dark wintery woods is like opening an unexpected gift and knowing that it is exactly what I needed.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Great performances

In the past 24 hours I've witnessed some terrific performances:

1. The prof in my Scientific Imaging class introduced some new and challenging photo techniques and then set us loose to try out the techniques on campus and then return to share what we had done. In under an hour, my classmates managed to take some really cool photos demonstrating both great technical skill and impressive artistic sensibilities.

2. A whole mess of students and a few faculty members read selections from their creative writing last night at the public reading our department sponsors every semester. The variety of materials was great, from dramatic monologues to personal essays to an awesome villanelle, and it was wonderful to be a part of a highly responsive audience. For the first time since we've been offering these events, we ran out of pizza. Time to think about a bigger venue.

3. This morning five of my freshman composition students did class presentations about their research topics, and once again I was amazed at students' facility with PowerPoint. The presentations were not all equally wonderful, but I saw some remarkable graphics, amazing animations, and pleasing color palettes. For students who sometimes struggle to express themselves clearly in prose, they sure know how to create effective slide shows.

Now I need to follow their example by taking some wonderful photos, writing creatively about them, and putting the results into a PowerPoint presentation for my Scientific Imaging class. I've worn myself out teaching my students this semester and now I'm delighted to sit back and let them teach me a thing or two.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

To cite the unciteable source

A student wants to know the correct MLA format for citing a source that she is not, technically, in the strictest sense of the term, actually using. Why, she wonders, doesn't the MLA guide tell her how to do this?

Well, that's a tough question. The issue arose when I read her draft and noticed that she credited about three sentences to a particular book without including page numbers. I pointed out that there's nothing easier than citing information from a book with one author: simply put the author's name and page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence. We have covered this simple procedure throughout the semester, so what's the problem now?

The problem is that the student doesn't know where, exactly, the information appears in the book. And that's because she has not actually held the book, opened the book, or read the book, and it is not available in our library so there's no chance that she will do so now. She knows what the book talks about and wants to refer to it in broad, general terms, but she doesn't want to go to the trouble of actually reading the thing.

I tried to explain that a book that is not being used as a source cannot actually be cited as a source, but she's pointed out that she doesn't have enough sources to support her argument and she thinks this book would lend credibility.

I have no doubt that numerous students over the years have cited as sources books that they have not actually read, but at least those students were aware that they ought to be ashamed of themselves. This student sees nothing wrong with trying to improve the credibility of her argument by citing a book without ever opening the book.

Gee, I don't know why the MLA guide doesn't offer a way to accomplish that. If enough students complain, maybe they'll include it in the next edition.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Caught up or left behind?

I don't want to say this too loud lest the Powers That Be dump a pile of work on my head, but: I think I'm caught up.

I have no papers or exams to grade. I am prepared for tomorrow's class. I could teach Wednesday's classes blindfolded and with both hands tied behind my back. I have updated my online syllabi as needed.

I have submitted the paperwork to hire two adjuncts and sent them a stack of helpful information. I have written and distributed letters thanking various colleagues for serving as judges for our scholarship competitions. I have started on the book orders for fall classes, except that I need to review a few texts before I make a final decision. (Has anyone seen the new edition of the MLA guide? I don't know whether to require it for freshman composition.)

I'm prepared for this afternoon's two committee meetings, and I have approved supplemental questions on course evaluations. I have even read the immense document the provost distributed related to perceived inequities in course loads across campus. I don't know what to do about the problem, but at least I am well informed.

I have taken the photographs for this week's Scientific Imaging assignment, and later this afternoon I'll go down to the lab to run them through Photoshop. First, though, I'll go to the rec center for a badly needed workout--I enjoyed some wonderful walking weather over the weekend, but I haven't done a full workout a the rec center since last Tuesday.

Why have I been skipping workouts? Because at no point last week could I have called myself "caught up." In fact, I was the antithesis of caught up, whatever you call that--left behind? I kept hearing the voice of the Red Queen urging Alice on: "Here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

Along with Alice, I'd like to reply, "I'd rather not try, please....I'm quite content to stay here."

I couldn't say that last week, but today is another story. I think I'm caught up--but don't tell anyone or I'll have to start running again just to stay exactly where I am.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Finally, spring

It's a little early for wildflowers, but yesterday I saw my first Dutchman's Breeches of the season, hovering over the forest floor like tiny white balloons. The towhees have returned but I'm still waiting for orioles. If the rain holds off, this evening I'll plant pansies in the flower boxes in front of the house. Finally, spring.