Thursday, December 30, 2010

Birds on the beach

It's always a mistake to expect birds to serve as landmarks. "We'll walk up the beach as far as that big pelican" might result in a walk much shorter (or longer) than you'd expected, and "I know we parked the car near that big flock of gulls" is not likely to end well at all.

Early morning is the time to photograph birds on the beach, and an overcast day is best of all if you don't want everything to be overexposed. Including yourself. We spent just over an hour walking on the beach this morning and my face is already a bit pink. We'll go out again after lunch and hope the sun stays behind the clouds. There's nothing like sunburn to enliven that long drive home.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Chillin' in Florida

I'm sitting in the busy lobby of the Winter Park Public Library trying to warm up and chill out at the same time. It's a little cooler than usual for central Florida, but the sky is so blue and the sun so delicious that we've been trying to spend a lot of time outside. We're going to the beach on Thursday regardless of the weather just because it's soothing to stare at waves rolling in.

Today we had breakfast with some of my old high school friends and then went window-shopping on Park Avenue, where marching bands from West Virginia University and North Carolina State University paraded by and performed in preparation for the Citrus Bowl game. I recall marching down Park Avenue during my brief and inauspicious career in the junior high marching band, probably just before I quit band and joined the newspaper staff (instantly improving the quality of both institutions).

Park Avenue is also where I purchased the first hard-back book I ever bought with my own money: A Thurber Carnival. I paid something like $4 for it and I rode my bike home clutching it as if it were gold-plated. The Little Professor bookstore where I bought that book isn't even there any more, and neither are many of the other cute little stores I haunted in my youth, replaced by Starbuck's and Talbot's and Williams-Sonoma.

But the neighborhood where my parents live looks just the same as always, with the same old Spanish moss hanging from the same old live oaks. On a walk last night I noticed that the house up the street still has the name of my seventh-grade English teacher out front. I wonder if she would remember me? I can't recall the names of students I taught last year, so I wouldn't want to put the question to the test.

What are we doing for the rest of today and tomorrow and the rest of the week? Nothing much. Next week we'll have to hit the ground running, so today we'll just chill out and watch the parade pass by.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Weatherbeaten

When we left Ohio the weather was fine. Sure, a few fluffy flakes of snow were drifting lazily down from the sky, but the roads were dry and the wind was resting.

Nine hours later we're in South Carolina worrying about whether the roads will be passable in the morning. Ice and snow are predicted. I've never seen snow on palmetto trees before; it looks Disneyesque.

West Virginia was wretched: snow, slush, ice, poor visibility, and lots of traffic. Virginia was less snowy but more windy, and we spent an hour stuck in stop-and-go traffic after an accident on the interstate. In North Carolina, sudden winds kept trying to blow us right off the road. (We're traveling light in a rented Hyundai Accent, so it wouldn't take much to send us over the edge.)

And now here we are in South Carolina worn out and wondering what the roads will look like in the morning. We hope to be in Orlando tomorrow afternoon, weather permitting. I'll see if I can sweet-talk the weather, and if that doesn't work, I'll try wheedling. Please, weather, permit us to proceed!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A fishy tradition


I don't recall when or why my husband took over the stocking-stuffing duties, but he has made the job his own and it's always interesting. You can count on getting a little candy in your stocking, but you never know what else might be in there--pens in neon colors, dried edamame, "Japanese peanuts" manufactured in China by a company based on Omaha. You can always count on sardines or smoked oysters or some other canned fish product. Why? Nobody knows, but everybody laughs.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and may all your stockings be stuffed with seafood!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

An Ice Day

Ice and snow may be treacherous on the roads, but if you don't have to get anywhere, they're instant fun. With the young folks all present and accounted for, we went out to romp in the snow and stomp on the ice in the creek. A few feet got wet and snowballs connected, and then we went inside to put on dry socks and thaw out with pasta and pie. Tomorrow we celebrate the Christmas Eve baby's 24th birthday followed by a holiday dash to a much warmer climate. Better enjoy the snow while we can!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Neighborly

Living in the woods means we're not very close to our neighbors, but that doesn't mean we're not aware of them. Our closest neighbors have two stubborn bossy basset hounds that think they own the road and don't like to allow us access. They stand in the middle of our bridge and bar the way down the driveway, and they give Hopeful a terrible time whenever she tries to get by. "Hey you hounds," I tell the bossy bassets, "this is my driveway. I live here. You don't. Go home." They're too busy barking to listen, but they don't bite, so I walk right by.

And then I walk down the road and up the hill, taking a break to admire the stack of sycamore logs the friendly guys from the power company left behind and to watch Hopeful romp on the frozen creek, and I see that another neighbor has added a new item to a fallow field already well decorated with rusting machinery. I think it's the bucket of a cement mixer, but I could be wrong. That orange-red color catches the eye...a few flashing lights would make it positively festive.

Two recipes

Here are two festive holiday recipes, both requiring thick red gooey fluids that look very similar--but be careful not to confuse them! Remember: transmission fluid goes in the car and maraschino cherry juice goes in the cookies. Get it backwards and I can't vouch for the results.

First, a recipe for a properly functioning transmission: take one jump drive to the library and attach firmly to a computer. Use Google to locate the owner's manual for a 1995 Volvo 940 wagon and page through until you find a diagram showing where to locate the transmission fluid dipstick. Note that the manual goes on for eight or ten pages about proper use of safety belts but includes only one well-hidden sentence about where to add transmission fluid. Refrain from cursing, or if you must curse, try a seasonal favorite like "peppermint fudge!"

Find a sticky note and a writing implement and draw a rough diagram of the location of the transmission fluid dipstick, also taking note of the proper type of transmission fluid. Download manual to jump drive for future reference. Be sure to click on "safely remove jump drive" before removing! You wouldn't want to get home and find it empty.

Drive home, stopping along the way to pick up transmission fluid. Open hood on Volvo that has been sitting immobile ever since Sunday, when refused to shift out of second gear. Start engine and let it idle. Using diagram hastily sketched on sticky note, locate transmission fluid dipstick and pull it out, taking care to avoid brake fluid reservoir and power steering reservoir. Wipe on a dry cloth, stick it back in, and remove again quickly. Note how very dry it is. Find a funnel long enough to stick down between miscellaneous engine parts to the transmission fluid reservoir; lacking an appropriate funnel, construct one out of parchment paper and tape. (If you're the type who needs to stencil festive holiday motifs on the parchment paper funnel, talk to Martha Stewart.)

Pour fresh transmission fluid through funnel, noting how closely it resembles maraschino cherry juice--except for that rotten-egg smell. Take the car for a test drive, noting how smoothly the transmission shifts gears. Don't even think about where all that missing transmission fluid might have gone. Instead, go inside and have a cookie.

What kind of cookie? Try my husband's favorite Christmas cookie recipe: Santa's Whiskers. Cream one cup softened butter (and I mean real butter--no substitutions) with one cup sugar; add two tablespoons maraschino cherry juice (not transmission fluid), and one teaspoon vanilla (the real thing). Blend well. Add two and a half cups of all-purpose flour, three-quarters of a cup finely chopped maraschino cherries (not--well, whatever), and one-half cup finely chopped pecans (not walnuts! never walnuts!). Stir just until it holds together. Form dough into two logs and roll in flaked coconut. Wrap tightly and refrigerate at least an hour.

Heat oven to 375. Remove dough from refrigerator and use a sharp serrated knife to slice logs into quarter-inch disks. Place disks on cookie sheet. Some of the coconut will fall off as you're cutting; sprinkle this loose coconut over the disks. Bake around 12 minutes until edges are golden. Cool and eat while contemplating your car that now runs. Have a brief moment of panic as you wonder whether you poured maraschino cherry juice into the engine. Note that the cookies smell nothing at all like transmission fluid. Relax.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Picture this

I bundled up, grabbed the camera bag, whistled for Hopeful, and headed up the snow-covered hill behind our house without first checking to see whether the camera battery had enough charge left to allow me to take winter wonderland pictures. It didn't. Now I can't show you photos of Hopeful following first one and then another critter trail in the upper meadow, where deer, rabbits, and dogs have left behind signs of their presence, nor did I take photos of the purply-blue bramble canes arcing in elegant contrast to the gray and brown winter woods, or of snow making windswept designs on the mottled bark of sycamore logs stacked for burning, or of Hopeful prancing around on the frozen creek and skittering off in a panic when the ice begins to crack, or of a whole flock of juncos pecking at the fallen seeds beneath the birdfeeders, or of seven bright red cardinals all perched at a respectful distance from one another in the same tree, or of the lacy edges where ice meets open water in the creek, or of anything else for that matter. You'll just have to take it on faith that it looks terrific.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A fan of Ngrams

A new toy! I found it not wrapped under the Christmas tree but nestled within an article in the New York Times: "In 500 Billion Words, a New Window on Culture" (read it here). "With little fanfare," writes Patricia Cohen, "Google has made a mammoth database culled from nearly 5.2 million digitized books available to the public for free downloads and online searches, opening a new landscape of possibilities for research and education in the humanities."

Scroll down to the third paragraph and click on the link to the Google Labs Book Ngram Viewer (here), and you can type in a pair of words or phrases and see a graph showing the frequency of your terms in the Google Books corpus since 1800. Want to know when the word "relatable" began its climb into ubiquity? It rarely occurs in the corpus before 1940 but then climbs to peak usage around 1980 before declining again (which makes me wonder why I don't remember hearing it before around 2005). Want to know when "center" overtook "centre" as the common spelling? Looks like around 1910. Want to compare the frequency of the names "Eleanor" and "Michelle"? "Eleanor" shows a sharp spike around 1950 and then declines, while "Michelle" is nearly invisible until the 1970 and then makes a gigantic jump upward around the mid-90s. Want to compare the relative frequency of "sunshine" and "clouds" in books written in English since 1800? Clouds consistently come out on top, although we see a sharp upturn in both terms starting around 2000.

What am I going to do with this fun new tool? Play with it, of course. One of these days I may find a way to employ Ngrams in literary analysis, but for now I'm just having fun. And you can too!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stitching and snapping

A stitch in time kills two birds with one stone, but no birds were injured in the mending of these trousers.

Let me start over: snow is falling so I'm staying home and trying to get caught up on household chores like the mending pile, which was stacked with torn jeans and work pants that my husband wanted patched even though they would end up more patch than pants. Now I love the creative part of sewing but I hate hate hate to mend, which explains why the mending pile was so tall I couldn't see over it when I sat down at the sewing table, which sits right on top of a heat vent in the warmest room in the house, making sewing hot work.

So I decided to open the window, which looks out on the birdfeeders in the front yard. Watch the birds or sew the pants? I decided to do both: I opened the window and the screen, set the camera next to the sewing machine, and alternated between stitching patches and snapping pictures. The birds flitter about the feeders so quickly that they're impossible to count accurately, but at one point I counted two dozen out there at one time--juncoes and cardinals, finches and titmice, nuthatches, woodpeckers, chickadees, and bluejays.

My mending took a little longer than it should have, but the birds made the experience much more pleasant than usual. Next time my husband wants some mending done quickly, he'll just have to order up some snow and birds to motivate me to take a stitch in time.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The wanderer returns


I knew my son was driving home from Texas sometime this week but I didn't know he was planning to drive all night, so you can imagine how surprised and delighted I was when he walked in the door at 7:00 this morning. He took time for a few hugs and some breakfast before his head hit the pillow. By the time I got home from campus, he was wide awake and ready to help put up the Christmas tree. I worked efficiently enough today to allow me to stay away from campus for a while, so now my break can finally begin!

Ample sample

Wow, do my students work hard! How do I know? Because I promised my California Literature students that I would post a sample minitheme on the course web page, and I've just finished writing it. You wouldn't think 500 words about some aspect of the portrayal of place in a work of literature could wear me out, but again I say: Wow.

I've written sample assignments before, but usually I take the easy way out and make everything up. It has given me great joy over the years to write a series of sample essays, proposals, annotated bibliography entries, and other texts on the thrilling topic of lawn statues. I have created characters like Bob Blastoid, whose lawn-statue addiction turned to tragedy when two-year-old Darcy Devlin got lost amongst the gnomes and geese and wandered, dazed, for days before police finally rescued her. I have asserted with a straight face that historians trace the proliferation of cement lawn goose back to prehistoric times, when men attempting to produce the first cement lawn geese instead created the pyramids, the Sphinx, and Stonehenge--and I have cited every source, including mythical statistics on lawn statue proliferation produced by the Federal Bureau of Aesthetics (FBA).

That kind of writing is fun and effective, engaging students in tasks relevant to various classes and topics, but today I wanted to produce a sample paper that followed the guidelines for the assignment and used real information. That's right: a real analysis of a real work, using real evidence in support of a real thesis--all in under 500 words.

I did it, but writing a focused and substantive essay in so few words was a real challenge. My California Lit students will tackle this kind of task almost every week next semester, and if they work as hard as I did today, they're bound to ace the assignment and perhaps the class. I'm not sure I quite aced it, but I'll give myself an A for effort. Extra credit for getting it in early?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

But I don't do windows

If you had been driving behind me yesterday afternoon, you would have noticed that at every red light I opened my window and stuck out my arm to spray the front windshield with window cleaner. You wouldn't see the same thing today, though, because this morning I found my handy bottle of window cleaner frozen solid.

This is the problem with driving a 15-year-old car: some parts are more reliable than others. I can open the driver's side window but not the one on the passenger's side; I can adjust the outside mirrors electronically but I can't open the sun roof (not that I want to with temperatures in the single digits). The pump that sprays window-cleaner doesn't work but the seat-warmers do, which was a good thing this morning because I was relying on the seat-warmer to thaw out the window cleaner so I could clean all that winter gunk and grime off my front windshield. Visibility is kind of important, especially up front.

And let's not even talk about the rear windshield. I can spray the front windshield and let the wipers wipe off all the gunk, but the rear wiper makes no contact with the windshield, which is distinctly unhelpful. Hence the roll of paper towels in the back seat. Every time I park, I get out the spray bottle and paper towels and smear that sludgy road salt and grime and gunk all over the glass.

But what can I do with frozen window cleaner? It sits on the passenger seat like a pampered pet, soaking in the warmth and refusing to lift a finger to help me. Utterly worthless--unless I can find a way to repurpose the bottle. Seal-clubbing, anyone? Need any windows smashed? Maybe I could call it a nutcracker and give it to someone for Christmas. The festive green fluid glows with a jewel-like clarity when frozen. It looks positively ornamental.

But not useful. No, not at all. In fact, if you see me sticking my arm out in traffic today, assume that I'm trying to hail a cab--preferably one with clean windows.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Erupting issues and other errors

"Goodnight," she murmured; the gate screeched under her hand; and she hurried along the narrow walk that led around to the corner of the house.

"Wednesday," he celled softly.

"Wednesday," she answered.

When you read this passage, do you picture a cell phone? Even if "celled" isn't the usual verb expressing the use of a cell phone, it's plausible. Except this passage comes from the novel The Valley of the Moon by Jack London, and it's unlikely that he was referring to cell phones in a novel published in 1913.

It could be a typo. My edition is studded with errors, including a sentence on the back cover that starts with "When a issue erupts...." When "a issue" slips past the editors to erupt on the back cover of a novel, one can be excused for suspecting that the editors were not quite so eagle-eyed as they ought to have been.

Maybe London was dictating the text to a secretary when suddenly, without warning, a yawn erupted in the middle of the word "said" so that the secretary heard "celled." It's possible, but did London employ a secretary? And wouldn't he catch the error on the page proofs? Did he read page proofs? I know less than nothing about Jack London's writing process.

In the absence of solid information, I assume that "celled" is a typo for "called." What else could it be? Belled, jelled, felled, welled? Culled? Curled? Cuddled? Swelled? " 'Wednesday,' he expelled softly." It lacks a little something or other, don't you think?

In fact the novel as a whole lacks a little something or other, but that's a topic for another day. Today I cherish the image of a cell phone erupting into a potboiler published 100 years ago and enjoy imagining how it got there. " 'Wednesday,' he creweled softly...."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A stirring experience

Every year about this time I welcome the day when I can turn my back on the house with all its demands--the dust, the laundry, the catbox, the gifts--so I can pull up a barstool in front of the stove and sit there stirring. Start with butter and cream and two kinds of sugar, heat and stir and watch it darken and thicken and bubble until the swirling patterns lull you into caramel nirvana, but when it hits the right spot on the thermometer be ready to spring into action, adding almonds and vanilla and pouring into a buttered pan. And if that's not a stirring enough experience, try again with another pan, another chance to stir butter and cream and sugar and watch the bubbles swirl and pop, then pour it over chocolate, add peppermint extract, and stir until it's glossy and ready to become fudge. The rest of the world can rush around frantically buying and wrapping and jockeying for parking spaces, but I relish the chance to turn my back on all that and sit here stirring.

And the results? Delicious--but don't take my word for it. Stop by and try it for yourself.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Now it can be told

After I wrote about the joy of writing an essay question (read about it here), several readers asked to see the question in question. Your wish is my command:

For my Representative American Writers class, I wanted a question that would require upper-level literature students to reflect on the entire semester's reading, demonstrate some breadth of understanding of the works of Kate Chopin and Stephen Crane, and analyze specific works in depth. Here's what I wrote:

Representative Writings by Representative Writers
Most college students encounter only a few representative works by Stephen Crane and Kate Chopin: "The Open Boat," "The Blue Hotel," The Red Badge of Courage, "The Story of an Hour," "Desiree's Baby," and The Awakening. You, on the other hand, have read a great variety of works and have therefore developed a thorough understanding of these authors' stylistic choices and important themes, so you are aware that the above list is not entirely adequate. What is missing? What two works by these authors should be added to the list and why? Your task is to argue that students' understanding of Crane and Chopin is incomplete unless they read two works that you will select, one by Crane and one by Chopin. You must select works that are not on the above list and explain what they add to our understanding of the authors.


How did my students respond? I threw them a strike and they hit it, some of them right out oft the park. They selected interesting and sometimes surprising works and analyzed them with wit and passion. Several students argued for Crane's The Monster and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (which, one student wrote, "moves Crane's readers off of the battlefield, out of the water, away from the West, and into the mind of a desperate, urban young lady"). Kate Chopin's "The Storm" made a few appearances, while other students examined the puzzling story "A Vocation and a Voice."

The most unusual selection was an early example of muckraking journalism by Stephen Crane, "In the Depths of a Coal Mine," which, wrote my student, "touches upon the sublime, his work creating a nightmare world that drags the reader's imagination downward--he writes with such gripping and fluid detail that it is hard for one to not sink slowly into the depths." This, really, is what Crane repeatedly tried to do--immerse readers in the gritty reality of extreme situations--and this early piece of journalism provides an excellent frame for his more renowned later works, introducing techniques and ideas he would develop throughout his brief writing career.

My students took good advantage of the opportunity to sum up the impact of an entire semester's reading, and they analyzed the works with such insight that they made me want to go back and read all those stories again. The question accomplished everything I asked it to do, and so (mostly) did my students. The test passed the test! That's something to celebrate.

Studious sounds

I arrived on campus while it was still dark but found students gathered around tables in the library cafe to study together for final exams. The library wasn't open yet and the cafe hadn't started serving, but the space was filled with the murmur of students sharing knowledge--one of my favorite sounds.

My Representative American Writers students are writing their final essays this morning and I'm eager to see how they approach the question, which I posted on Moodle just moments ago. I had promised to post the question before 8:30 and the finished essay is due by 11. I don't worry about cheating on this final because the only people with the expertise to answer the question are busy taking the exam--or they will be as soon as they notice that the question has been posted. Moodle lets me monitor students' activity on the site, a feature I don't often use, but it's interesting to note which student was awake and alert enough to download the essay question mere seconds after I posted it. Well done, early riser! May your ideas flow and your fingers fly across the keyboard!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Donny 'n' me

There was a time, however brief, when I could gain status among my peers by loudly announcing that I have the same birthday as Donny Osmond; these days the announcement would likely be greeted with "Donny who?"

Donny is 53 today, and I hope he's enjoying his birthday. I'm 49. Really. No, I'm not "49" [wink-wink]. I've never been in the habit of lying about my age and I don't intend to start now. Maybe next year...

Meanwhile, I'm enjoying my birthday by attending two holiday breakfasts and two holiday lunches, although I don't intend to feed at all four troughs. I'll have a nibble here and a nosh there and mostly enjoy the chance to relax with colleagues and students.

I'm waiting for my son to get home before I use one of my birthday gifts: a big pasta bowl my daughter made, with cheery colors on the outside and pasta ingredients on the inside. It sits invitingly on the sideboard, and the happy little tomato seems to always be smiling.

As am I. I have too many places to be today and not enough time to do it all, but I'll enjoy once again the chance to share a birthday with Donny Osmond.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Source of confusion

All right boys and girls, it's time for a little quiz. If you're writing a literary analysis essay, which of the following qualifies as a reputable source?

A. An article from a peer-reviewed academic journal
B. A chapter from a book published by a university press
C. A brief excerpt from a sample paper written by an unnamed student and published in a composition textbook

If you answered A or B, give yourself a pat on the back! Otherwise, we need to have a serious talk.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

No story here, folks

Bizarre experience at the DMV: no lines, pleasant clerk, quick service, and a new driver's license photo that is not utterly wretched. Crazy. If this kind of thing keeps up, I'll have nothing at all to write about.

Start shoveling

The problem with finals week is that my schedule is so loose that I think I have time to pack all sorts of things in and I end up not just busy but insanely busy at odd times with awkward amounts of space between commitments--which may or may not explain why I've graded only two papers since last Friday. I have a flurry of final papers and exams coming in starting Thursday, so I'd better start shoveling before the drifts get too high.

Plus there's all the eating to attend to. Wednesday is the only day this week without some sort of holiday event on the schedule, and on Thursday I could attend four different eating events between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. but you'd have to roll me home afterward.

At some point I need to do some shopping, make some candy, and write some cards, but this week isn't looking promising. Putting up the Christmas tree might be an idea. Maybe I'll save all the heavy lifting for after my son gets home. He's struggling through his own finals week followed by the long drive home in a slightly cranky car, so how will he respond if I let the flurry of holiday chores pile up and then hand him a shovel when he comes through the door?

Time to start shoveling.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

An unexpected houseguest

Suddenly we have a cow. Not a whole cow but just a quarter of a cow, butchered and dressed, with hooves and hide and other extraneous bits removed. It lives in the deep-freeze waiting to be cooked, although, come to think of it, "lives" isn't really the right word.

Living as we do surrounded by farmers who raise beef cows, I suppose it's about time we sampled some of the local product, but nevertheless, I was not expecting a cow to show up in the freezer uninvited just when I need to devote my grocery budget to the many pounds of butter and chocolate required for Christmas cookies. But the resident farmer struck a deal with one of his Farmers' Market buddies and the result is a quarter of a certified black angus grain-fed antibiotic-free cow in the freezer.

"I thought you might want to cook some beef," he explained.

Now beef is not my best thing. I can do remarkable things with chicken, fish, and pork, but I've always found beef overpriced and underwhelming. I can go months at a time without buying, cooking, or eating beef, except that I craved cheeseburgers while I was pregnant with my son, which led to our referring to him before birth as "The Beefeater." (And won't he be surprised to come home from college next week and find a cow awaiting him.)

But I digress: my husband's usual method of asking me to make some special dish is to bring home the ingredients and say, "I thought you might like to cook some [whatever]," even if [whatever] is something I've never expressed any desire to cook, so when he comes home accompanied by a cow and says "I thought you might like to cook some beef," he's really saying "I want beef."

So the other day I cooked some beef--nothing special, just a pound of ground beef browned with onions and peppers and mixed with tomato sauce and spices and rotini, topped with cheese, and baked in the oven until bubbly. I noticed, though, that the ground beef was a rich red and very lean, and while browning it released an aroma that I can only describe as really beefy.

And the taste? Astounding. If this is what beef is supposed to taste like, then what's all that stuff in the grocery store masquerading as beef? Where has beef been all my life? And when can I cook some more of it?

Plenty more in the freezer. Steaks, burgers, or stew? I think this cow and I are going to get along just fine.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Assessing a flawed assignment

Last day of classes! Time to reflect on what went well, what didn't, and why.

Rarely do I teach a class without wishing I had done something differently, but I have no regrets whatsoever about this semester's Honors Literature class. I could have added one more reading assignment in the final week just to keep students on their toes, but at that point my students were so involved in final projects for all their classes that they couldn't complain about the lack of additional reading in mine. Terrific students, interesting material, engaging assignments--it's all good.

The Representative American Writers class was another story, but the problems with that class were mostly of my own making. I need to think about whether to institute an attendance policy in upper-level literature classes, and I probably should have required an annotated bibliography to get students engaged in their final research projects at an earlier point in the semester. The biggest problem, though, arose when my attempt to solve one problem created several others.

In an upper-level literature course, I expect students to become acquainted with the scholarly conversation on the literature under discussion, which requires reading theoretical and analytical articles from books and academic journals. In the past, I would assign certain articles to the entire class so we could discuss them together. This, however, offered students a very limited window into the scholarly conversation, so I began selecting a wider variety of articles and assigning them to individual students, who had to summarize the articles for the rest of the class.

At first students presented their summaries to the class orally, which failed to inspire in-depth discussion, perhaps because of performance anxiety or perhaps because the students did not have time to cogitate over the ideas they were being asked to discuss. So a few years ago I moved the discussion online, which worked better: about once a week, two or three students would post 500-word summaries of scholarly articles, and the rest of the class would post responses. This method produced much more depth of discussion and made it easier to incorporate the ideas into in-class discussions and writing assignments.

But there was one problem: students summarized articles I had located and selected, so they missed out on a valuable opportunity to use research databases to locate appropriate articles on their own. This semester I tried to remedy that by requiring students to find their own articles to summarize and discuss. I provided a few guidelines and limitations on databases and types of material, and then I set them loose to explore the scholarly conversation about Stephen Crane and Kate Chopin.

You've probably already figured out the problems I did not anticipate: First, the temptation to select the shortest and most superficial article available was almost overwhelming, and second, I had set up no system to prevent multiple students from summarizing the same article. Frankly, no one needs to read three different summaries of the same lame article.

Results were disappointing. Even when the summaries presented interesting ideas and sparked lively online discussion, the ideas in the articles rarely migrated into class or into the students' writing assignments. By the time I realized that the system was flawed, we were too far into the semester to make changes.

What have I learned from my mistakes? If I use this assignment again, I'll require students to first submit to me a list of articles for my approval, and I'll let them know which ones to summarize. This ought to prevent duplication and allow me to guide students toward more compelling material.

I'm not teaching an upper-level literature class next semester so I've got plenty of time to rethink this assignment--too late for this semester's class, unfortunately, but it's not too late for me to learn from my mistakes.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Grammar: the greatest gift of all!

Anyone who cares about words and language needs to see the remarkable video posted on Language Log today (click here). Trust me on this. You've got to see it.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Neigh? Nay!

In August of 1828, the frontier settlement along the banks of Leatherwood Creek in Guernsey County, Ohio, was making good progress toward civilizing the wilderness when suddenly life was disrupted by the intrusion of a mysterious stranger named Joseph Dylks, a black-eyed man who appeared in the middle of the congregation at a church service and interrupted the sermon by snorting and neighing like a horse.

Well, what would you do?

According to R.H. Taneyhill, "Some of the men jumped to their feet, others bounced in their seats, women shrieked aloud, and every cheek blanched." Dylks repeated this performance at other religious meetings in the area, and an eyewitness insisted that the stranger's peculiar noises "carried with them, right through you, a thrill like that felt when greatly scared in the dark, and a dread similar to that experienced when we think of dying instantly."

In fact, Dylks's performances filled listeners with such "awe and fear" that within three weeks he had convinced a great number of settlers that he was God.

Of course there's more to the story. A mysterious light hovers over Dylks's head. Satan makes a brief appearance. Miracles are promised. The essence of the story, though, is that an entire community was swept into religious mania on the basis of a stranger's remarkable ability to neigh like a horse.

Taneyhill wrote his history some years after the event, drawing on eyewitness accounts, and decades later William Dean Howells wrote a fictionalized version (The Leatherwood God, 1916). Taneyhill's account is more credulous than Howells's, but both attempt to examine how a stranger could convince an entire community that he was God.

Now if a man appeared in my church and started snorting like a horse, I might think he was congested or crazy, but God? I'd sooner believe he was a horse. I've never heard a man neigh like a horse in a way that made me bounce in my seat or jump over chairs or think about death.

And in fact the settlers along Leatherwood Creek couldn't maintain their credulity for long. Dylks arrived, swept the community into a religious fervor, promised certain specific miracles, and was eventually run out of town when he was unable to deliver. The community was disrupted and some followers went to their graves believing Dylks was God, but over time, the Leatherwood God became just another of those peculiar stories hiding in dusty tomes down in Special Collections.

Until someone comes along and digs them up. But now that I've got the story, what am I going to do with it?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The test that transports

I just wrote an essay question so cool that I wish I could shout it to the world, but I need to keep it under wraps until next week. It does everything I could ever ask of an essay question except mow the grass--and when I figure out how to make a string of words mow the grass, I'll definitely shout it to the world. I don't want to give away the farm in case any students happen upon this space, but this question puts me in mind of the best essay question I ever encountered as a student.

"For your Fulbright semester in Europe," began the question, and let's just stop right there and relish the moment. Imagine being a grad student facing the comprehensive exams that will stretch your body, mind, and soul to the breaking point over the next 24 hours, a grad student surrounded by stacks of dusty library books so tall that you can't see across the room much less across the ocean, and suddenly an essay question transports you to Europe for a whole semester as a Fulbright professor. My, that sounds nice.

But then there's the rest of the question: "For your Fulbright semester in Europe, you have been asked to teach a graduate course on African-American literature. Propose a reading list for the course, providing a rationale for the works you select."

Consider the skills this question required me to demonstrate: the ability to formulate meaningful connections among works, to understand an entire genre and its historical context, to argue effectively for the pedagogical importance of specific works as opposed to others. For years my professors had been telling me what to read and why, and now they were handing over the keys to the car and letting me drive. To Europe. As a Fulbright scholar.

Well, who wouldn't want to answer a question like that?

The essay question I just wrote isn't quite that comprehensive but it's a doozy. I hope my students enjoy responding to it as much as I enjoyed writing it. In fact, I'm sure they're already bubbling with excitement! Or something.

Monday, November 29, 2010

House of voices

A colleague was explaining why he's not interested in blogging: "I could never put all my private thoughts out there for everyone to read," he said. "It's too personal."

So I explained that what he sees on my blog is a public persona that may not be exactly identical to my private self.

"I wouldn't want to have a public self and a private self," he said, "because one of them would have to be fake."

Fake? Maybe "partial" is a better word. The essence of me sits ensconced in layers of personae--the teacher who wanders around the classroom waving her arms, the scholar who hunts down obscure references to forgotten authors, the mom who checks to see if her son's car got fixed and commends her daughter on her custard pies, the blogger who tries to twist the chaos of daily life into coherent and entertaining prose. They're all me, or pieces of me, but some of these personae eagerly come out in public and play while others prefer to hide under the bed and whimper.

I'm reminded of the Billy Collins poem "The Night House" (read it here), which imagines the body sleeping soundly in the bedroom while its restless heart goes to the kitchen for some warm milk, the mind grabs a cigarette and studies engineering, the conscience "awakens / and roams from room to room in the dark, / darting away from every mirror like a strange fish" while the soul "is up on the roof / in her nightdress, straddling the ridge, / singing a song about the wildness of the sea." Daylight brings all the parts back to the sleeping body, "that house of voices," which sometimes pauses "to listen to all its names being called / before bending again to its labor."

In this space my public personae can hear their names being called and put their restless energy to creative use, allowing my private personae a few moments of peace so I can bend again to my labor.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Percussive prose

"I had a traditional musical education, in a provincial English cathedral town," begins James Wood in "The Fun Stuff" in the Nov. 29 New Yorker, and he follows with a sentence that makes me smile all over:

I was sent off to an ancient piano teacher with the requisite halitosis, who lashed with a ruler at my knuckles as if they were wasps; I added the trumpet a few years later, and had lessons with a younger, cheerier man, who told me that the best way to make the instrument 'sound' was to imagine spitting paper pellets down the mouthpiece at the school bully.

I relish the specificity of the nouns (halitosis, wasps, paper pellets, bully) and the vividness of the verbs (lashed, spitting), but most of all I love Wood's careful attention to sound and rhythm. Listen to the hissing sibilants from "requisite halitosis" through "wasps"; hear the rhythmic slapping of ruler on wrists in "who lashed with a ruler at my knuckles as if they were wasps."

This passage appears at the beginning of an essay (subtitle: "My Life as Keith Moon") in which Wood examines the seductive draw of the drums: "Noise, speed, rebellion: everyone secretly wants to play the drums, because hitting things, like yelling, returns us to the innocent violence of childhood," and Keith Moon was "pure, irresponsible, restless childishness." Wood analyzes Moon's drumming with all the rigor and insight he usually applies to great literature, concluding that Moon was "the drummer of enjambment." Wood explains the connection between drumming and writing:

For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to do: a long, passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self-interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong. Such a sentence would be a breaking out, an escape. And drumming has always represented for me that dream of escape, when the body surrenders its awful self-consciousness.

I don't know about you, but reading James Wood's sentences really makes me want to hand him a drum kit and see what he can do.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The poet of a thousand (lying) voices

On Monday morning I'll be tempted to lead my Representative American Writers class in a rousing chorus of the hymn by Charles Wesley that has appeared at the beginning of the Methodist hymnal since the founding of Methodism:

O, for a thousand tongues to sing
My great redeemer's praise!
The glories of my God and King,
The triumph of His grace!

It's true that Wesley spent a few months in St. Simon's Island, Georgia, in 1736, but that hardly justifies importing his hymn into a Representative American Writers class--unless one of those writers was the son of a renowned Methodist minister and grew up in an environment steeped in pious Methodism. Early in his collection "The Black Riders and Other Lines," Stephen Crane offers this brief stanza:

Yes, I have a thousand tongues,
And nine and ninety-nine lie.
Though I strive to use the one,
It will make no melody at my will,
But is dead in my mouth.

Here we see the young poet thumbing his nose at Charles Wesley along with, perhaps, his parents, their church, and their god. Or perhaps not. In "The Black Riders" Crane is a poet of a thousand voices, but if 999 of them lie and the thousandth one is dead in his mouth, where should the reader seek the poet's true voice?

I've read a few of Crane's poems to students over the years but I've never before attempted to pay any sustained attention to them in class. In Monday morning's class we will try to sift through the many voices in Crane's poetry, but I warned my students in advance that these aren't the sorts of poems they'd want to read to the family over Thanksgiving dinner. Some of the poems resemble Zen koans in their pithiness:

A man feared he might find an assassin;
Another that he might find a victim.
One was more wise than the other.

The sound you now hear is that of one hand, clapping.

Many of Crane's poems feature antagonists circling one another, tossing out taunts and throwing down gauntlets but never coming to any resolution, as in this little snippet from "War Is Kind":

A man said to the universe:
"Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe,
"The fact has not created in me
"A sense of obligation."

The most interesting thing I've learned about Crane's poetry is that he insisted on calling his poems "Lines" and printing them in all caps so they resembled the stacked headlines commonly used in newspapers in the 1890s. Here, such treatment would suggest that a man's search for meaning is front-page news--unlike in my local paper, which today offers a front-page headline touting the challenges and rewards of shopping on Black Friday. In his fiction, Stephen Crane employed the conventions of popular journalism and genre fiction to sell stories to a reading public for whom his stories conveyed a thinly veiled contempt, but he knew his poems would never sell. Why, then, format them like popular newspaper headlines?

Perhaps because the human search for meaning was always news to Crane, the biggest news of all. In his poems, Crane's men (always men, never women) cry out to big-G God, little-g gods, the universe, and various sages without ever finding definitive answers to their questions. The many-voiced poet suggests that men who believe in God are fools and men who deny God are fools and gods who believe in men are the biggest fools of all. In one poem, God meticulously crafts the universe to exacting specifications but then, in a moment of inattention, it slips out of his grasp and straight into trouble.

Crane's tiny stanzas are so pithy and self-contained that it is tempting to grasp at one or another and assume it represents the poet's big-v Voice, but the poet keeps slipping out of our grasp with every turn of the page. "The Black Riders and Other Lines" thumbs its nose so persistently at all kinds of beliefs that eventually it sounds as if the poet doth protest too much, but then the collection ends on a peculiar note. In the final poem, a spirit speeds through the entire universe calling out for God and finding only silence, until

Eventually, then, he screamed,
Mad in denial,
"Ah, there is no God!"
A swift hand,
A sword from the sky,
Smote him,
And he was dead.

If the poet has at his disposal 999 lying voices and one dead tongue, which voice is that? The sound you now hear is one poet, lying. Or not.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Thanksgiving staple

My copy of the Greene on Greens cookbook by the late lamented Bert Greene falls naturally open at page 329 to a recipe that's flour-dusted and spotted with dried brown stuff even though I use it only once a year. How many years? I don't know, but when Thanksgiving rolls around, I'm making Bert Greene's Pumpkin Rolls.

Now this is not the dessert treat made of moist pumpkin cake rolled around rich cream-cheese filling. No, this is a recipe for savory pumpkin yeast rolls perfect to serve alongside the Thanksgiving turkey and ideal for making turkey sandwiches with the leftovers--if you have any leftovers. These rolls tend to get gobbled down pretty quickly.

First Bert Greene's recipe:

Take 1 1/2 tsp dry yeast and combine it with 1 tsp sugar and 1/4 cup lukewarm water; let stand 5 minutes until it starts to bubble. Stir in 1/2 cup all-purpose flour. Cover and let rise one hour.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter and pour it in a medium bowl. Beat in 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1 cup pureed pumpkin, 1 egg, 1/4 cup maple syrup, and 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon. Add this mixture to the risen roll base. Beat until smooth. Add 1 cup whole-wheat flour and enough all-purpose flour, about 2 1/2 cups, to make a firm dough. Knead it briefly in the bowl. Cover and let rise for two hours.

Punch the dough down and transfer it to a floured board. Knead briefly and roll out until about 1/2 inch thick. Cut into one-inch circles. Place them on flour-rubbed baking sheets, cover with flour-rubbed tea towels, and let rise for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 425. Melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter and brush the rolls with it. Bake 15 minutes. Makes about 2 dozen rolls.

Now my comments: I always double the recipe because if you're going to go to all that trouble you may as well make a bunch of 'em. Yes, you do have to use real butter and real maple syrup--no substitutions. I always increase the cinnamon. This year I'm using home-made pumpkin puree, but canned pumpkin is fine as long as it's just pumpkin and not "pumpkin pie filling" or "pumpkin pie mix." Bert calls for all-purpose flour but bread flour works just fine as well. One-inch circles are cute, but I make them bigger so they'll serve well with leftovers.

I'll serve these later at my in-laws' Thanksgiving gathering and everyone will ooh and ahh as they do every year. That's the sound I'm waiting for, the sound that gets us up early to start the dough rising every year, the sound that inspires another round of splotches on page 329 in the cookbook. Just thinking about it makes me thankful.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Excelsior

Of course I wouldn't want to imply that anyone reading this blog is an idiot--in fact, one could argue that reading this blog is proof of genius. Nevertheless, recent publicity has resulted in a flood of new visitors who don't know the password or the secret handshake and are likely to stumble about bumping into furniture and stumbling into oubliettes unless they get some guidance.

Thus, this:

If you want to know why it's called Excelsior, click here. If you want to know why and when I abandoned the cloak of anonymity and put my name on the blog, click here and here.

If you want to read about cancer, go to the labels list over on the lower right and click on The New Normal. It's all there. If you really really want to read the very long post about a day in the life of a chemotherapy patient trying to teach a humor class while hooked up to an IV drip, click here.

If you're interested in the very dull life I lead out in the woods with the birds and the dog and the turnips, click on the label Life in the Slow Lane. If you're interested in seeing me fumbling for the lightswitch and trying to find my way around in the dark, click on The Perils of Being Me. If you want to see pictures of birds or trees or garden vegetables, click on Birds or Nature or Garden. (Pay attention! All this will be on the test!)

And if you want to see what happens when I'm involved in a whole lot of stuff I can't discuss in public so I press it down and hush it up and squeeze it into the inaccessible oubliette of state secrets where it ferments and combines with other unspeakable stories to create an utterly new and unrecognizable version of actual events, click here. If nothing else, this post provides evidence of the direct correlation between repression and humor.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Everything is an argument (NOT)

I will be immensely thankful when Thursday arrives not just because thankfulness is the order of the day but because by Thursday I will be done reading and responding to the latest pile of student drafts. Many of them are quite good and even the mediocre ones have luminous moments, but every semester at about this time I find myself wondering where I have gone wrong. Why do I have so much trouble getting students to write arguable thesis statements?

The concept is simple enough: if the thesis is arguable, that means it must be possible for someone to disagree. "Herman Melville wrote about Ahab's quest for the white whale" is about as obvious an insipid a statement as can possibly be made about Moby Dick, but it fails as a thesis primarily because it is not arguable. How could anyone disagree? "No he didn't! Melville wasn't writing about Ahab's quest for the whale at all!" (That might make an interesting paper, actually.)

Adding the phrase "I believe" to the beginning of the sentence makes it even worse: "I believe that Herman Melville wrote about Ahab's quest for the white whale." How would you argue with that? "No you don't! I know for a fact that you're just pretending to believe it so you can pass the class! You haven't even read the book!"

Even worse is adding the phrase "I argue" to a point that argues nothing: "In this essay, I argue that Herman Melville wrote about Ahab's quest for the white whale." That's like saying, "I argue that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen" or "I argue that two plus two equals four." Where is the argument? I'd be more interesting in hearing the opposing view!

A popular composition textbook is titled Everything's an Argument, and of course I see the point: content, genre, format, structure, and many other elements contribute to the rhetorical effectiveness of any text, written or otherwise. No argument with that. However, when I ask for an arguable thesis, I'd like to see a thesis that actually argues. Adding "I argue" to a statement so obvious only a cretin (or certain kinds of genius) would disagree cannot rescue an insipid thesis.

That's my story and I'm sticking with it. Feel free to disagree.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Befogged

When Carl Sandburg asserted that "the fog comes in on little cat feet," he clearly wasn't referring to a November morning fog in an Ohio river valley. This morning's fog is far too cold and wet to resemble a cat in any way, and neither would I compare it to pea soup. Soup is warm and soothing; this morning's fog slaps you in the face and makes you wish for a wetsuit and snorkel.

Driving in this fog is an act of faith. The road ahead could dump you off the edge of the known world into the mouth of a dragon or a maelstrom worthy of Poe, but by the time you realized the danger, it would be too late to brake.

I sit now in my warm, dry office with my back to the window and I know that the fog is dissipating even as I write. Soon it will exist only in memory and metaphor--if only I could find the metaphor to do it justice. This fog is neither cat nor soup--and now that I look out the window, it's nothing at all.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Love Song of J. Alfred Profsquawk

My freshman honors students this morning were comparing the obstacles that separate them from winter break:

"Only three more class sessions before finals!"

"Only two more papers!"

"Only one more lab report!"

Yes, they have measured out their lives in lab reports, papers, and class sessions. Meanwhile, I'm measuring mine in committee meetings to attend (one more!), student drafts to read (26!), and final exams to write and grade (just one but it's a doozy!).

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the visage of a prof who has sold her soul for the promise of the occasional student who recognizes an allusion to T.S. Eliot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Collecting myself

I've had a parade of students in and out of my office this morning needing help with various projects, and I'm happy to help them. Mostly, though, I'm happy that they didn't stop by yesterday.

Yesterday was a mess. I woke up ready to seize the day at 3:30 a.m.--long before the day was ready to be seized--and I couldn't get back to sleep. "You look tired," people told me all day long. "Maybe you should go home and take a nap." But I had classes and meetings and other commitments all day long so I just pushed on stubbornly. If a student had stopped by to ask how to order an article through interlibrary loan or how to quote an indirect source, I would have had to crawl under my desk in shame.

Last night I slept like a normal person and woke up at a normal hour and today no one has urged me to go home and rest. I'm thinking clearly (I think?) and I'm capable of forming coherent prose (I hope?) and I'm coming up with (allegedly) helpful answers for my students. Since Sunday some of my brain cells have been loitering in the "unclaimed baggage" area, but today they all seem to have arrived back home, slightly battered from the trip but ready to be put to use.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Spare change

Spare change jingles in my pocket, heavy foreign coins that won't spend in Ohio. I carried little Czech currency with me on my trip and tried to spend the last straggling bits at the airport, but how many bookmarks and magnets can one person take home? In New York I tried to transform my last remaining wad of Czech money into dollars, but the currency exchange won't take Czech coins so I have a few left jingling about uselessly in my pocket.

They're not worth much but they're impressively heavy, weightier by far than an American quarter. They're too fat to fit in a vending machine and too pretty to throw away. I would gladly contribute my change to some kid's coin collection if I had a kid at home. Instead, I think I'll save them in a porcelain bowl in the china cabinet, a little piece of Prague to serve as a promise that I'll return them home someday.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Not home yet

First thing this morning I took a long walk up a hill to a genuine castle; now I'm sitting in the terminal at Kennedy airport sitting out a three-hour layover. On any trip, I always welcome reaching the point where I can say, "If I break down here, I can walk the rest of the way." I'm not there yet.

I didn't break down walking up to the castle this morning but I did feel a bit lost a few times. I found it almost impossible to remember names of streets in Prague, including the name of the street where I stayed, but I maintained a pretty complex internal map of little bits of English I found scattered around the area. I always found it encouraging to pass the graffiti proclaiming "Twin Pigs Mafia," but I knew that if I got lost, it would be useless to ask for directions to the Twin Pigs Mafia graffiti. Note to self: next time, write down the hotel's address. And carry a map. Now there's a thought. Why didn't I carry a map?

Now that I'm back on home ground I ought to spend my three hours reading student papers and getting caught up on all the news I missed while I was gone, but most of my brain cells are still circling on the baggage carousel. If I grade papers this evening, I'll have to go back and double-check all of them tomorrow to make sure the grades aren't suffering from altitude sickness. And my eyes hurt. A trip to snoozeland would be great!

As long as I can find my way back.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Culture shock

I'm just back from a long walk around Prague's Old City, where I watched the astronomical clock chime the hour while I sipped the thickest, velvetiest mug of hot chocolate I've ever encountered. By night, Prague's distinctive and ornate archictecture is lit up in brilliant colors reminiscent of Disney World, which borrowed much of its aesthetic from European cities like Prague. The Old City is a labyrinth of narrow, winding cobblestone streets lined with tiny shops selling overpriced tchotchkes--sort of like Disney World with head shops.

Walking on uneven pavement fatigues my ankles beyond bearing, so after a few hours I came back to my room to prop up my feet and chill out before the next adventure. Let's just turn on the television and see what's on offer: a report on flooding somewhere in Germany, an ad in which the only word I recognize is "Donkey Kong," some sort of dance competition involving stripper poles, and what's this? The Simpsons in Czech!

Bart seems to be on a ship swabbing the deck--and now they're singing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." In English. And now Bart's making a speech in Czech except for the word "Sayonara." Now there are penguins. And now the penguins and the ships are gone and the whole Simpson family is sitting around a table in a restaurant...and suddenly some smarmy band is singing disco tunes on a cruise ship. Wait, why is she singing "The Morning After"? I don't understand this at all.

I understood most of the papers at the conference, although several of them made me work pretty hard to make out the meaning. Only one paper was a total mystery to me: the reader spoke too softly in a room with poor acoustics, but she was talking about Judith Butler so hearing would not guarantee comprehension.

I'm only beginning to find my way around Prague and it's nearly time to leave. Tomorrow morning I'll be packing my bag and heading back home, but not before uttering the traditional parting phrase I picked up this evening on Czech television: Sayonara, baby!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Making sense of making sense of suffering

I suppose it's appropriate to hear a paper on Kafka while in Prague at a conference called "Making Sense of Suffering." One scholar this morning mentioned that she had a sore throat and thought it appropriate to suffer pain while reading a paper about pain, but I would hate to have to suffer as Kafka did in order to write a paper about Kafka.

At any rate I'm not doing any suffering at the conference. This evening I joined several other attendees for some traditional Czech fare followed by a stroll through the labyrinth of the old city, and my only moment of discomfort arrived when I realized that I had been admiring the buildings so much that I had no idea how to get back to my hotel.

But here I am, safely ensconced in a hotel redolent of--well, it's hard to tell what it's redolent of. It smells like bacon fat but let's call it Old-World Charm. I went with the budget hotel located half a block from the conference site, and when people ask me how I like the hotel, I say, "It has character." Its character takes the form of faux-medieval gewgaws: vaulted ceilings in the dining room, suits of armor in odd nooks, and stenciling on the walls. A small door in the corner of the lobby looks as if it might lead to a torture chamber, but open it up and step into an elevator the size of a phone booth.

My room is a little bigger than the elevator. The only usable power outlet in the entire room is high on the wall in the bathroom, so if I want to plug in my laptop to charge up the battery, I have to leave it in the sink or on the bathroom floor. And the mirror in the bathroom is so high on the wall that it captures my reflection from chin up.

But these are minor privations considering the thought-provoking conversations taking place at the conference, the wonderful meals we are sharing, and the beauty of the city itself. We're not required to do any actual suffering at a conference on suffering; we're just trying to make a little sense.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

If it's such a small world, why does the flight take so long?

Today in Prague I chatted with a scholar from San Francisco who served as the best man in the wedding of another scholar whom I once babysat back when we were all much younger. That's probably the oddest thing I've learned so far, although I've learned a number of odd things.

I've been in Prague for less than a day and I've learned already that some shoes simply don't work well on cobblestones and that it is possible for a stylish woman to go out in public with a functioning timepiece dangling from her ear.

I've learned that French babies sound distinctly French when they cry. I base that conclusion on a fairly small sample (two babies), but they were crying for a very long time on the flight from New York to Paris. I thought of those French babies this afternoon as I struggled to remain alert through the first two sessions of the conference I'm attending. The one closest to my seat on the plane finally fell into a deep sleep just as we were taxiing up to the terminal.

I've learned an awful lot more about Charles de Gaulle airport than I ever wanted to know. First I walked for what seemed like miles and then they put me on a bus for more miles out to the plane and then the plane taxied so long I thought Air France had given up on the idea of flight altogether. The flight home on Sunday goes straight from Prague to New York, so I'll have one less connection to make and one less opportunity to go through security. Tragic, that.

Perhaps the oddest thing I've learned is that academics from 16 different countries and many different disciplines can sit around discussing profound ideas without all that posturing and posing and hierarchical hoo-hah that goes on at some academic conferences. Better keep it under your hat, though--if word gets out about how good this conference is, everyone will want to come.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Minutes of the previous meeting

Welcome to this week's meeting of the Task Force on Selecting a Special Committee to Study the Impact of the Profusion of Task Forces, Committees, and Working Groups on Campus (TFSSCSIPTFCWGC). I'd like to call this meeting to order, except someone stole the gavel so I'll just pound on the table with my colleague's cranium.

First order of business: minutes of the previous meeting. Do I hear a motion to approve? Yes, Norton, we've all heard your argument that minutes are an arbitrary human construct, but at the moment we have no procedure for faculty members to declare themselves "conscientious objectors" to the taking of minutes, so unless you'd like to form a subcommittee to study the possibility of formulating such a procedure, it's a moot point.

What's that? You'd be happy to form such a subcommittee? But where would the Subcommittee to Study the Possibility of Formulating a Procedure for Declaring One's Conscientious Objection to Minutes (SSPFPDOCOM) fit into our established committee structure? We'd better send that proposal over to the Special Working Group on Study the Structure and Function of Campus Committees (SWGSSFCC).

Now back to the minutes: Do I hear a motion to approve? No, Thom, you can't propose an amendment until the motion is seconded. Do I heard a second? Thank you, Thom, and now what's your problem with the minutes? Item three? Well you may claim that item three misrepresents your comments at the previous meeting, but it sounds accurate enough to me. I have reason to recall your describing the Chair of this committee as a "noddle-headed wombat," which struck me at the time as a serious redundancy verging upon solecism. No, I reject your move to strike the word "solecism" from the secretary's notes; "noddle" clearly refers to the back of the head, so "noddle-headed" is redundant, and if you don't believe me, let us adjourn to the library to consult the Oxford English Dictionary.

Very well then, if you insist: a motion has been moved and seconded to amend the minutes of last week's meeting to replace the phrase "noddle-headed wombat" with "mistaken," which doesn't even work grammatically but let that go. All in favor say aye. All opposed same sign.

A tie! How rarely chairs are permitted to exercise the right to cast the deciding vote! I vote against the amendment. Noddle-headed wombat remains.

Any further discussion of the minutes? Yes, Steffi, we did discuss the proposal to reduce class time by fourteen minutes per credit hour in order to open up more time for committee meetings, but as you will recall, there was some debate about whether 14 minutes would make enough of a difference. As the minutes reflect, Norton issued his usual objection to the hegemonic imposition of anthropocentric measurements of time and Greg pounded the table and insisted upon 17 minutes, but no, we did not vote down the proposal but agreed to send it for further study to the--wait, there's an error here: the minutes say we sent it to the Task Force on Saving Time in a Bottle (TFSTB), but I'm certain we sent it to the For Every Thing There Is A Season Working Group (FETTIASWG).

Do I hear a motion to amend? What's that, Norton? Time is up? I thought you didn't believe in time? What, faculty happy hour begins in five minutes?

Meeting adjourned!

Monday, November 08, 2010

Acknowledged

I was just looking over a sample textbook that arrived in the mail when I happened upon my name. There I am on page xli nestled amidst the Acknowledgments section that thanks a long list of faculty who "gave generously of their time when asked to review the text." That's not quite true, though: I didn't exactly give my time but rather sold it in exchange for a nice little check. That's the way it works: I read the draft textbook and respond in detail to a long list of pesky questions about content and format, and in exchange I receive a tidy sum and a listing in the acknowledgments.

Will I use this textbook? Possibly, but one place I won't use it is on my vita. I've always felt that there's something a little cheesy about listing textbook reviews on a vita, as if being paid to offer suggestions on someone else's work were equivalent to publishing a journal article.

(What about encyclopedia articles? I would feel a little better about putting those on a vita because they are my original work and they require some research, but I wouldn't put them up in neon lights.)

I realize that there's some disagreement about this and I'm probably wrong and insensitive and hopelessly elitist, so feel free to correct me. Still, I've done one or two textbook reviews each year for eight or ten years but I don't intend to list them my vita. I did the work, received my pay, and appreciate the acknowledgment, but that's really all I expect from the endeavor.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Cutting remarks

This morning I chatted with a former student of mine who is just about done with her Physician's Assistant degree and has received offers to work in pediatrics or obstetrics/gynecology. I asked which one she would prefer and she chose the latter because, she explained, "I like surgery."

She seemed sober and sane when she said it so I'm sure it's true, but I still find her statement puzzling--because, frankly, I don't like surgery. I don't like undergoing surgery or observing surgery and I can't imagine liking performing surgery. When I was a kid watching MASH on TV with the family, I always had to close my eyes or turn away whenever they showed the surgery scenes. I don't even like watching people get poked with needles. Heck, I don't watch when I'm being poked with needles--I show the nurse the best spot to poke and then I turn away and think about oceans or trees or anything other than needles.

It's not the pain that bothers me. If pain were the problem, then I would have no problem watching other people get poked with needles. I just suffer from a deep, visceral conviction that the appropriate place for blood is inside one's arteries and I find it disconcerting when it escapes.

I've just read David Denby's New Yorker review of the film 127 Hours, in which rock-climber Aron Ralston amputates his own arm to escape a tight space, and I can promise that the closest I'll get to that film is David Denby's review. He concludes with two pieces of advice: "First, be sure to sharpen your knife before you go on a solo hiking trip, in case you have to cut your arm off. Second, always call your mom back."

If I'm ever in a situation requiring amputating my own arm, I'll ignore his first piece of advice because it doesn't matter how sharp my knife is if I'm too squeamish to take the first cut. But I will call my mom. She spent many years as a nurse and I have no doubt that if her daughter were in danger, she would know where to cut.

Or I might call my former student who likes surgery. As long as the world contains people like me, I have to be grateful for people like her.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The red badge of normal

Twelve months after my final round of chemotherapy, I've just received results of my recent follow-up medical tests: blood tests normal; chest x-ray normal; CT scan normal. Normal normal normal. Sounds really good, doesn't it?

I had the tests last Wednesday morning just after my American Lit class, so I had to lead a discussion of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage without the benefit of caffeine or breakfast, and then I had to drink an entire bottle of that wretched barium sulfate smoothie in the middle of class. It's difficult to devote full attention to the plight of poor Henry Fleming while one's entire being revolts against the glue-like texture of that drink. I wanted to follow Henry in running screaming from the battlefield, but even he eventually had to turn around and run back.

So I took my medicine, submitted my body to the medical machines, and came away wearing a band-aid--but at the time I didn't know what my little red badge represented. For a week I've been wondering what the tests would reveal and struggling (not always successfully) to keep the chattering monkeys of fear locked in their cages. Now the results are in and I'm proudly carrying around the red badge of normal. Normal normal normal. Lovely ring, that word. I think I'll say it again.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Freeze-face strikes again!

I was sitting in a meeting earlier this week when I suddenly heard my mother's voice giving that familiar warning, "You'd better watch out or your face will freeze like that."

Like what? I wouldn't want my face to freeze the way it looks when I'm sitting silently in a meeting that's going on too long without getting anywhere, or the way it looks when I'm glued to my computer screen sorting through message after message after message, or the way it looks when I've been reading too many student drafts one after another without a break.

When I sit too long, I need to get up and stretch my legs; when my face gets plastered into one unpleasant look for too long, I need to give it some exercise. That's when it's time to laugh. There's nothing like a deep-down belly laugh to wipe that dreadful look off my face.

It's easy enough to find an excuse to laugh when I'm in my office; I just have to browse the titles on my humor shelf or click on a link (like this one that one my daughter send me today, which offers an amusing variation on the "I Before E" spelling rule). But I can't break out YouTube in the middle of a meeting with my colleagues or whip out a little P.G. Wodehouse while conferring with the college trustees, can I? "Excuse me, I know this whole budget thing is kind of important, but my facial muscles require a brief respite so would you mind if I were to read aloud the passage where Edwin the Boy Scout wallops Bertie Wooster over the head with a hockey stick?"

No, sometimes laughter is not the best medicine. Those situations call for a different prescription, an alternative method to fight frozen-face syndrome--but what other exercise would stretch the facial muscles far outside their normal confines?

Excuse me, but this post is so boring I just can't stop yawning.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Tuesday's child--or Wednesday's, as the case may be

I was talking to a colleague when we were interrupted by a gaggle of students trying to sign up for advising appointments on the schedule posted on his office door. Suddenly my colleague called out, 'That's yesterday! You all signed up for yesterday!"

Yesterday one of my advisees showed up for an appointment scheduled for next Monday, and last Friday an advisee, apparently suffering from the delusion that the weekend had already started, missed an appointment entirely.

At least I'm not the only one who can't always remember what day it is! I stand in a Tuesday/Thursday class telling them that a particular assignment is due on Friday, and they remind me that we don't have class on Friday. "If today is Tuesday, then the assignment is due on Thursday," I explain, "but if today is Wednesday, I'm in the wrong class."

I've been assuming that my difficulty in keeping track of the days of the week is a sign of aging, so I find recent encounters with confused students reassuring. If young people in the prime of life lose track of the day of the week, then perhaps age is not the issue here. Maybe we're all just trying to do too many things and moving so quickly we can't keep up with ourselves.

Or maybe it really is Wednesday. If so, I'm going to stop worrying about my Tuesday committee meeting because it's already over. I wonder what we did? I would ask my colleagues, but they're so busy trying to teach their advisees the days of the week that they probably wouldn't remember.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Time bandits

In my younger days when I could see well enough to thread a needle, I used to spend a lot of time doing cross-stitch. When you visit my house, you will note a number of my cross-stitch pieces gracing the walls, each one testifying to many hours of painstaking labor.

No one ever asked me, "Why do you waste so much time doing cross-stitch when you could be doing something more important?" Similarly, it would never occur to me to ask my colleagues on the faculty bowling team, "Why do you waste so much time bowling when you could be doing something more important?" Or to ask my colleague with the impressive collection of antique bottles, "Why do you waste so much time scouring flea markets and sales when you could be doing something more important?"

So it always startles me when someone asks, "Why do you waste so much time blogging when you could be doing something more important?" I get defensive. I splutter: "It's not that much time! Thirty minutes a day, tops!" But they shake their heads and gripe, "But that's thirty minutes you could spend grading papers or preparing classes."

Which is true, but it's also thirty minutes I'm not spending bowling or collecting bottles or kayaking or golfing or playing Farmville or trying to organize a faculty paintball team. I don't play sports and I don't collect stuff and I don't play games on Facebook and my eyes won't let me cross stitch anymore, but I like to play with words. It makes me happy. What other reason do I need?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tales from the crypt

Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary over why we never sit around telling ghost stories anymore, suddenly I sat surrounded in the stacks! Poe's verses pounded from my lips as guests, astounded, leaned and listened as of yore. In the crypt-like stacks they leaned and listened as of yore--only this, and nothing more.

Sorry about that, folks. Poe seems to have taken up residence in my skull since last night's Ghost Stories from the Stacks event, where I read "The Raven" to a hushed crowd intent upon capturing every word of Poe's galloping and alliterative verse. Students, staff, faculty members, and even a few college trustees chatted over cookies and cider before gathering in the dimly lit library basement to listen to ghost stories long into the night.

The library staff outdid themselves preparing for this first-ever event: backlit skeleton silhouettes hung from the library windows; visitors entered the library through a mist of faux fog and were greeted by librarians who looked as if they'd stepped out of a Charles Addams drawing. They had set up chairs for 25 or 30 people, but 60 showed up for the first reading at 10:00 and more for the second reading at 11. The staff brought more chairs, but even so, some students sat on the floor in the flickering light and eagerly listened to tales from the crypt.

Several of the ghost stories were set in southern Ohio or West Virginia, but a few old classics from elsewhere crept in as well: "The Monkey's Paw," "The Golden Arm," and, of course, "The Raven." A mixed group of students, faculty, and staff read the stories from a throne-like chair, introduced by the library director swathed in a black cape. From the chair I could see the faces of only those students sitting on the floor; the rest of the crowd disappeared into the darkness while the stacks loomed behind them. The crowd didn't mutter or shuffle or fiddle with cell phones; they simply leaned forward intently, listening enrapt as scary stories unfolded in the flickering light.

Given the success of last night's event, will Ghost Stories from the Stacks return another year? Quoth the librarian, "Evermore!"

Friday, October 29, 2010

My dream student

A correspondent wants to know what I wish students would learn in high school so they would be prepared for my classes at Marietta. That's a difficult question because high school is simply too late for students to learn many of the things I'd like them to know.

I would be delighted, for instance, if all my students arrived on campus with a passion for reading, but who is responsible for instilling that passion? A particularly scintillating high school English teacher can inspire or nurture her students' love of literature, but it's difficult to quantify that passion on standardized tests or justify its inclusion in the curriculum. Further, if the student's family or peer groups and popular culture disdain reading, who will help that love of reading grow?

Likewise critical thinking: high school classes can certainly introduce critical thinking skills and employ methods that encourage critical thinking, but at some point the student has to take responsibility for his own thought processes. (Or, as Dorothy Parker is reputed to have stated, "You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think.")

But I suspect my correspondent wants more practical suggestions. What should students know before they get to my class? Here are the top five items on my wish list, in no particular order:

1. The ability to adapt writing style to the needs of various contexts and audiences. (To U or not to U? That is the question.)

2. The ability to evaluate the reliability of various types of sources. Some days I'd be happy if students demonstrated an awareness that there's more to research than Google and Wikipedia.

3. The ability to locate answers to questions about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and style. I don't expect students to have memorized the MLA handbook, but if they're uncertain about whether a title should be underlined or placed in quotation marks, I'd like them to know how to find the answer for themselves.

4. The ability to write a clear, straightforward thesis statement that's not hedged about with qualifiers and weasel-words like "I feel" or "I think" or "It seems to me" or "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion so who am I to say?"

5. The ability to draw on prior knowledge combined with the willingness to put aside every pettifogging grammar peeve, every SparkNote-worthy interpretation, and every prefabricated argument in order to tackle a reading or writing task from a fresh perspective.

Sure, it would be great if all my students could spell and use semicolons and properly employ the subjunctive mood, but if all my students came to me with the five characteristics above, I'd be happy.

How about you?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

History on the Midway

Today I experienced a harmonic convergence of concepts from two very different classes. My American literature class is immersed in the literature and culture of the 1890s while my honors literature class is discussing the Holocaust as portrayed in Art Speigelman's Maus. What could these two classes possibly have in common?

The honors class today began with an excerpt from Theda Purdue's book Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 describing the "Old Plantation" section of the Midway, where visitors were invited to experience an "authentic" display of slave life: happy slaves singing, dancing, cracking wise. Purdue explains, "The depiction of slavery at the Old Plantation resonated with northern as well as southern whites, since both had been schooled in the sentimentality of Negro spirituals, antics of minstrel shows, and stereotypes of coon songs. Slavery, in their minds, had not been so bad."

As I often point out in my American literature classes, this nostalgia for the Old Plantation was quite common in the 1890s and early 20th century, when minstrel shows abounded and fairs all over the country put re-enactments of slavery on display (for an example and photos from Buffalo, New York, in 1901, click here). But if portrayals of slavery as a benevolent institution were so common 100 years ago, why don't we see an Old Plantation display at Epcot? Why doesn't Disney World have an "Escape from the Old Plantation" thrill ride? Why has the Old Plantation booth disappeared from the Midway?

My students have no problem coming up with answers for these questions: slavery meant more than spirituals and cake walks; the Old Plantation myth sanitized and suppressed the messy, painful parts of history. We know better now.

And then we get to the Holocaust. Maus asks us to consider how "survivors" are marked by history, whether it's acceptable to profit from the pain of others, and how art and literature can represent history too horrible to comprehend. In the 1890s, some Americans sanitized slavery and contained it safely in easily digestible form for fair-goers; Spiegelman, on the other hand, repeatedly emphasizes the messiness of history, its resistance to control, its insistence on spilling outside the bounds of his comic-strip panels. His story is never slick and tidy like a theme park but instead fragmentary and incomplete, pockmarked with ugly facts and details that seem to shift shape at will.

The most interesting parts of the story are simply gone--the mother's journals burned, the fate of many characters unknown. About one character Vladek explains, "He got killed. Or he died. I know they finished him." In the next panel he suggests one possible narrative: "Maybe on the walk to work, a guard grabbed his cap away. So what could he do? He ran to pick it up. And the guard shot on him for trying to escape." But in the next panel he adds, "I don't know if this was how it was with Mandelbaum-only that very often they did so."

The Midway version of history has no room for "maybe" and the Theme Park no space for details that don't fit into tidy boxes. Everyone's smiling on the Midway, even President Grover Cleveland, who visited the Old Plantation display at the Cotton States Exposition in 1895 and found it quite entertaining. Why couldn't fair-goers in 1895 see through that slick, smiling, one-sided portrayal of history? Why did they accept the artificial image instead of demanding the whole messy story?

And are we doing any better today?