Friday, April 30, 2010

The big finish

My creative nonfiction students presented their final projects today, multimedia essays for which the only requirement was that they combine words with other media. The results were amazing and funny and moving and wow, but I especially enjoyed what they said about process:

"It took me a while to figure out how to insert the images, but then I got the hang of it and they look much better now."

"I watched a YouTube video to learn how to edit sound files with Audacity."

"I had to learn how to use that big scanner over in the art department."

"How did you create your own game? Can you send me the link?"

Here's what I didn't hear:

"This is too hard! I can't do it!"

"How can you expect us to learn things that aren't in the textbook?"

"I spent, like, 27 hours making my essay into a podcast and then my computer crashed and the dog ate the hard drive and my house burned down and my great-aunt Edna died and I have to leave before class to get to the funeral so please can I do some extra credit instead?"

No: they did the work, and when they needed new skills, they found a way to teach themselves. And wow, what terrific results. All I had to do was give 'em a little shove in the right direction and then get out of their way. That's the way teaching ought to work.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Where's Kafka when I need him?

I'm sitting in the classroom watching my American Lit students take their final exam while I try to grade papers, but I'm not making terrific progress. First I'm distracted by a possible plagiarism case...annoying but I'll have to work on it later. Then out of the corner of my eye I notice some movement on the floor--a cockroach on its back struggles to get back on its feet. I think about squashing it but it looks pretty maimed already. It's only a matter of time before it expires.

Then a student comes up to ask me a question and I don't think about the cockroach for a few minutes and when I look back, it's gone. Where did it go? Whenever vermin is in the room, I generally prefer to know where it is, because if it's not somewhere specific, it could be anywhere. Let's not think about all the places "anywhere" could be.

So now I'm trying to grade papers and proctor an exam while in the back of my mind a cockroach is wiggling. Of all the places a cockroach could be, the back of my mind is my least favorite.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Early alert

It's 5 a.m. Do you know where your blogger is?

This blogger is wide awake in front of the computer. Why? I didn't even set an alarm last night because I don't need to be anywhere before my 11:00 meeting, but I've been awake since 3. Why why why? I tried to go back to sleep, but after an hour, I gave it up. So here I sit with nothing to say.

What woke me up at 3? No idea. Could have been the cat. She snores. For years she was not allowed in our bedroom at night because her snoring would get into my dreams, but right now we need to keep our door open or it gets too hot in there, so there's no keeping the cat out. She likes heat, especially when she's sleeping, which is, frankly, pretty much all she ever does these days. But she sleeps loudly and I sleep lightly so we really shouldn't be sharing a room.

Why didn't I just roll over and go back to sleep? No idea--or too many ideas. I just kept thinking: about all those papers I need to grade, how to organize a new class next fall, what lies behind a particular campus situation, what I'll do if the sudden cold snap devastates my herb and butterfly gardens. What can I do at 3 a.m.? My grading is at the office and it won't do me any good to go out to the garden in the cold damp darkness, and the one colleague who could possibly enlighten me about the troubling campus situation is unlikely to appreciate a phone call at 3 a.m.

I tried to stop thinking, but the brain was in overdrive. So eventually I gave it up and got up. Read my e-mail...nothing too exciting. Read some other stuff. Ate a banana. Aren't bananas full of some chemical that promotes somnolence? Maybe it was a defective banana, because I'm still awake.

Hey, I could take a pill...I still have some Ativan leftover from when I was on chemo, and it works better than bananas. On the other hand, it's after 5 now and I need to be in a meeting at 11. If I get drugged up now, there's no telling when I'll be alert again.

So I'm awake. How about you? Wide awake? I could call you and find out. Don't you love it when the phone rings at 5 a.m.? Or 5:15, as the case may be? We could have a nice chat and compare notes about what we've been doing lately: "Oh, nothing really, just not sleeping. How about you?"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Couch-potato gardening

Any idiot knows that a couch potato who plunges into a strenuous exercise program without properly stretching is setting herself up for serious pain the next day, right? So why was I so surprised last weekend when a few hours of gardening made me feel like lying down in the middle of the road?

Granted, I've been out of practice since last summer, when my daily gardening routine was interrupted by surgery and chemotherapy and radiation followed by winter. But now I'm full of energy and ready to get planting, but my planting muscles are still hibernating.

I spent a mere two hours Friday afternoon putting some annuals in my butterfly garden, working up a sweat with a lot of bending and stooping and carrying big bags of manure and buckets of water. It felt great at first, but the next morning I was stiff.

I thought a nice long walk would loosen me up a bit, and it did...until about four miles into a six-mile walk, when every muscle in my body begged me to lie right down in the middle of the road. The only way to get home was to keep on walking, which I did to a chorus of complaining muscles.

If a little butterfly garden can prostrate me, what will happen when I get down and dirty in the big vegetable plots? Clearly, I need to warm up before I take up trowel and hoe--stretches in the asparagus patch, lunges among the zucchini, and then reach for the sky to pull sunshine down on my tomatoes.

Four days later I'm still sore from last Friday, but my butterfly garden is rewarding my hard work. The new plants are still puny, but remember that wild columbine I "rescued" from the roadside two years ago? (Read it here.) This spring it's bigger than our cultivated columbines and it's blooming like crazy, producing those brilliant orange and yellow blossoms in great abundance. Now if the plants I put in last week will just put in a little effort, our front garden will soon be a haven for butterflies and hummingbirds, and I'll enjoy sitting and watching them while I rest my aching muscles.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Trilliums are still abundant in the woods around our house, and yesterday I discovered patches of Solomon's Seal just beginning to unfurl their leaves and blossoms. Twinleaf hasn't blossomed yet but it apparently has an affinity for perfoliate bellwort, the lovely delicate yellow flowers growing nearby. Mayapple is abundant in the woods, and many of the plants have forked stalks, indicating that they'll blossom soon. And I found just a few Dutchman's Breeches still blooming.

Friday, April 23, 2010


The April 26 New Yorker includes a selection of Saul Bellow's letters, including a 1948 missive in which the youthful writer reflects on his timidity: "But there is a certain diffidence about me, not very obvious socially, to my own mind, that prevents me from going all out, as you call it. I assemble the dynamite but I am not yet ready to touch off the fuse."

He wrote this five years before The Adventures of Augie March and 16 years before Herzog. Once he got the fuse lit, the explosions just kept coming.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nighty-night, MIghty Mite

My new favorite student excuse, overheard in a colleague's office: "I won't be in class tomorrow because I have to take my dog to the vet. I think he has ear mites. If you want evidence, I can bring some to show you..."

The more I think about it, the funnier it gets. Maybe that's because I spent part of the day stumbling around blindly while waiting for my glasses to get fixed, part of the day reading and responding to a big pile of freshman drafts, and part of the day noodling around at a Moodle training session before coming home and collapsing in a heap. I don't know which of these three activities was more exhausting, but I know I'm so close to the precipice that the mere mental image of a student marching into class with a handful of ear mites is enough to send me over the edge into hysteria.

Time to get some shut-eye. I expect my dreams to be invaded by moodling mites chewing through piles of student prose while I attempt to smash them with whatever comes to hand, including my glasses. If I wake up tomorrow and find my glasses broken again, I'll just pull the covers up over my head and ask the department secretary to post a note on my door: "Class cancelled due to mooding ear-mites. If you want evidence, I can bring some to show you..."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Contemplating a change

Sometimes my students leave me in the dust, especially when it comes to technology.

My Creative Nonfiction students are working on multimedia essays, and yesterday they presented their works in progress. Some are doing blogs or web sites or illustrated essays; one is doing a podcast and another plans a performance piece, but they're all finding fresh new creative ways to combine words with other media.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here looking at the same old stale template I've used since 2006, the same old photo, the same tired topics. Is it time to shift to something new?

A year ago I made a major change when I moved away from anonymity and finally signed my blog, and a friend persuaded me to try the Friday Poetry Challenge, which is fun but has a limited audience. Except for those two changes, I've been doing pretty much the same thing for four and a half years.

Is it time for a change? New template, new colors, new purpose? Or is this one of those "ain't broke/don't fix" situations? Right now I'm just thinking about options, but summer is a great time for a fresh start so I would appreciate suggestions.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Writing about writing about writing

When I received the Atlantic's 2010 fiction edition in the mail over the weekend, I immediately read the nonfiction essays first. Does that say more about me or about the current state of fiction? Okay, I did eventually read the stories, most of which are quite good even though too many of the male characters seem to have stepped straight out of Cheeverville, that mythical land where disappointed men hang out in bars and grumble about the small indignities of life while secretly fantasizing about sleeping with the babysitter. "Bone Hinge" by Katie Williams takes us way outside that familiar territory, portraying the horrible impact of a single simple decision on the life of a girl and her conjoined twin sister, two small lives opening and then slamming shut like a door on a hinge.

So the fiction was good but what really excited me were two essays. In "I Am Sorry to Inform You," Joyce Carol Oates elegantly conveys the pain and sorrow she experienced following her husband's unexpected death. A mere week after his death, she takes refuge in teaching, which has always offered hope, but she asks, "For some of us, what can hope mean? The worst has happened, the spouse has died, the story is ended. And yet--the story is not ended, clearly." For Oates, teaching and writing keep the story going after everything else seems to stop.

Richard Brausch tells another kind of story in "How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons," which suggests that there's more money to be made by writing books about how to write books than by actually writing books. Examining the vast array of books offering advice about how to write books, Brausch notes that "according to the prevailing wisdom of our time, constructing a novel or a poem or a play is no different than building a back deck on your house." The problem, of course, is that "writing that comes from those whose reading is confined to the how-to books is cramped and obvious." Too many people, says Brausch, believe they can become excellent writers by following manuals full of short-cuts: "And the industry that produces the how-to manuals plays to them, makes money from their hope of finding a way to be a writer, rather than doing the work, rather than actually spending the time to absorb what is there in the vast riches of the world's literature, and then crafting one's voice out of the myriad of voices."

The irony, of course, is that by explaining How to Write Books without The Help of Books about How to Write Books, Brausch perpetuates the very genre he rejects. On the other hand, he also points us right back toward the rest of the magazine, where serious writers can dip into vast riches and perhaps find a voice.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Listening and learning

My American Lit Survey students are ending the semester where they started: by contemplating Franz Wright's poem "Learning to Read." On the first day of class, they wrote brief analyses of this poem that none of them had ever seen before, and today we discussed it in class after spending the entire semester honing our literary analysis skills. This is the first time I've included Franz Wright in the syllabus, and I placed this poem after Friday's discussion of Theodore Roethke and this morning's discussion of James Wright. Roethke taught James Wright who fathered and taught Franz Wright, and I hoped my students would pick up on the way the later poets echo the earlier ones.

And they did! Okay, only one student noticed that the phrase "break / into blossom" (from James Wright's "A Blessing") pops up in Franz Wright's "Learning to Read" as "break / but not into blossom," but others noted some persistent imagery (growth from decay, blossoming from breakage) along with stylistic similarities. I hope they absorbed the idea that poetry is not just words on a dead page but a conversation that started centuries ago and keeps going on, whether we're listening or not.

And I hope they keep listening and learning to read poetry.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Down memory lane

One of these days I'll procure a digital voice recorder to carry on my long walks so I can keep a careful record of what I see, but until then, I'm exercising my memory while I walk. Here's what I remember from this morning's walk:

Twinleaf, trillium, dutchman's breeches, dogwood, redbud, spring beauties, bluets.

Kingfishers, mockingbirds, turkey vultures, kildeer, ducks, pine siskins, red-winged blackbirds, and a pair of mysterious buzzing birds I didn't recognize.

Freshly tilled fields, green clover, and young wheat with wind blowing across it in waves.

Cows, dogs, squirrels, the neighbor's cat.

Not terribly interesting, I'm afraid, but that's life in the slow lane.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday poetry challenge: spring thing

Today I ate my lunch at a table outside the library--but first I had to grab some napkins and wipe off the thick layer of yellow pollen coating the table and chairs. I sat and ate and absorbed the glorious sunshine and watched white petals drifting down like snow.

And then I started to cough.

And sneeze.

And wipe my watery eyes.

I know I'm not the only one who has a love/hate relationship with spring. Our campus is at its prettiest right now, but that beauty comes at a high cost to those of us allergic to tree pollen:

Pollen fallen
from the trees
clogs me up
and makes me sneeze.
Pray for rain
to wash the air--
come on, Spring,
pull up a chair!

Anyone who can breathe clearly right now ought to be able to do better than that. Come on--show me!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Another sign of the impending apocalypse

Breaking news: just moments ago, I received an e-mail message requesting that I participate in a reader survey for my favorite magazine. The message begins thus: "At The New Yorker, we strongly value our reader's opinions...."

I know times are tough in the magazine world, but if I am truly the only remaining reader of The New Yorker, this could be the end of the world as we know it.

The idea factory is now open for business

Further evidence that I'm no longer suffering from chemo-brain: every day I'm coming up with new ideas for workshops and other events to enrich teaching across campus.

This, of course, is part of my job as director of our Center for Teaching Excellence, but I spent my first semester in this job mostly postponing thinking about it, and when I did try to apply some brain cells to the question of what our new CTE should do, my brain cells would lie down for a nice long nap.

Now, though, the brain cells are working overtime, even when I'd like them to take a rest. I've been reading a lot of education research and talking to junior faculty members about their needs, but my latest brainstorm was prompted by a senior colleague's complaint about an assignment that simply didn't live up to expectations. Here's the idea: let's do a workshop (or a series of brown-bag lunches?) called "Can This Assignment Be Saved?" Faculty will be invited to bring in assignments that used to work really well but don't anymore or assignments that seemed like a terrific idea at the time but that fell flat in the classroom. We'll share our failures and offer each other suggestions for improvement, and maybe we'll bid a respectful farewell to assignments that have outlived their usefulness.

That's just one idea. If you don't like it, I've got plenty more.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Recumbent incumbent

A year ago, I reacted to my election as Faculty Chair by issuing a series of promises designed to assure that I would never be elected again (read it here). Sadly, my plan to establish the Grammar Police fell apart when the Subcommittee on the Status of Official Insignia disbanded after a dispute involving the vicious hurling of epithets and epaulettes, while my proposal to raise funds for a Faculty Council Fact-Finding Expedition to Paris and London got derailed when the dog ate the Eurail passes.

Nevertheless, I felt certain that I had demonstrated sufficient incompetence in office to prevent my being elected to a second term--honest, I didn't even vote for myself! But the people have spoken and now it is incumbent upon me to issue new promises for my second term, starting with the promise to banish the phrase "it is incumbent upon me" from all official communiques issuing from this office. So forthwith and hereunto I append my official objectives:

1. All committees wishing to bring motions before the full faculty must present their requests via interpretive dance.

2. A new Committee on the Status of Faculty Self-Esteem will be charged with distribution of gold stars, certificates of appreciation, shoulder-pats, and the occasional "there, there." Funding for this effort will be taken from the money saved when we officially abolish February.

3. You know those big beribboned sticks the faculty marshals carry at commencement to keep everyone in line? I'm thinking light-sabers.

4. Chocolate fountain in the faculty lounge.

That's as far as I've gotten so far but it's still pretty early in my term. I'm accepting suggestions. It is incumbent upon me to do so.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Horseradish home

Today I watched my husband putting all his muscle into digging up horseradish roots--stabbing the ground with a potato fork, loosening the roots from one side and then another, straining to tug the long, gnarly roots from the ground without breaking them in bits--and I thought, not for the first time, "I hope those people don't still hate us."

By "those people" I refer to whoever now lives in a house we moved out of nearly 20 years ago, a spacious house in a pleasant housing development built over a swath of what was once known as the Great Black Swamp in northwest Ohio. The swamp had long ago been drained, but in rainy seasons the land remembered its origins and in any season it provided a nourishing environment for root crops. We planted a big garden in the yard, but before anyone knew what he was up to my husband planted horseradish all along one side of the house. "I thought it would look pretty," he said.

Anyone familiar with the growth habits of horseradish has already figured out the two major flaws in this plan. First, horseradish isn't exactly ornamental; at its best it looks wild and weedy. And second, the rule is that you should plant horseradish only where you'd like to see it forever, because once it gets started, there's no getting rid of it.

Horseradish thrives on neglect; you can't starve it out or drown it out, and any poison strong enough to kill it will also kill anything else nearby. Yes, you can dig up horseradish by the roots, but the roots are long and stubborn, growing deep and holding on, and if even one little sliver of root remains in the soil, the horseradish will return.

Out here in the woods we have plenty of room to grow horseradish where it blends in with the garden and won't interfere with other crops, but it's a plant not well suited for the manicured lawns of suburbia. We haven't been back to the horseradish house in years so I don't know whether anyone ever managed to remove those pesky plants or whether they've simply accepted them as an essential feature of the landscape. Maybe they curse us every spring when those long, weedy-looking leaves start poking out of the ground--or maybe, like us, they cherish the pungent bite of freshly-ground horseradish and applaud whoever had the good sense to give it a foothold in the rich soil of home.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Playing with words

My Creative Nonfiction class has been playing with words all semester, but this morning we took the word "play" more literally: the class met over Scrabble boards at Tim Horton's--with the English department footing the bill for coffee and doughnuts.

I suppose I could invent some valid pedagogical justification for Scrabble 'n' doughnuts, but my students turned in a major essay this morning and I wanted to reward them for a job well done. Besides, it's hard to accomplish much in class when many of the students have been up most of the previous night finishing a paper.

So we played Scrabble. A student with a talent for triple-word scores creamed my whole group, but I came in a respectable second. I started the game with a miserable group of letters but I managed to play the word "words" on a double-word score. Wordplay is what we're about here so we may as well make it count!

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

A poem is a walk is a class is a poem

This morning I took my American Lit students for a walk over to the amphitheater next to the library so we could discuss A.R. Ammons outdoors. Students had read "A Poem is a Walk," so it seemed appropriate to take a walk before discussing the connection between poetry and walking. They had also read "Garbage," so a field trip to a landfill would have been appropriate but we decided against that. "If you want a garbage-related field trip, go sniff a dumpster," I suggested. Maybe they will.

I've seen some colleagues teaching classes in the amphitheater but this was the first time I've tried it myself. The weather was perfect: hot but not too hot, just nicely warm with a cooling breeze. One year I took a class out to the large green behind the building where we sat on the ground and learned things...until the mowers arrived and started circling our space. Fortunately, there were no mowers out this morning, nor did the sprinklers suddenly come on in the middle of class. Students were attentive and engaged in the discussion, and it felt so good out there that I didn't even mind having sun in my eyes.

Today's class was a walk just as a poem is a walk, which would suggest that the class is also a poem. Is someone taking notes? You're going to be tested on this!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Not a scintilla of scintillation

Over the past few days, I have read (well, skimmed) five years' worth of minutes of Faculty Council meetings. "Scintillating" is not the word I would use to describe the experience. It was a reading (skimming) experience fraught with, well, I don't know what you'd call that odd mixture of puzzlement, concern, and sheer boredom.

I'm trying to track down whether or when a particular piece of legislation was approved by Council, and while I haven't found the answer to that question, I have learned some other things, such as the Law of Lacunae: the more you need to know something, the less likely it is to appear in the minutes. There are gaps in the minutes, such as an early April meeting in which the March minutes were approved--but the March minutes are missing from the archive. Some minutes consist of four or five short sentences to describe two-hour meetings, while others go on for page after page of excruciating detail about matters that must have seemed important at the time, but again, "scintillating" is not the word.

It's encouraging to be reminded of all the important matters Council has discussed and actions it has taken in the past five years, but it's discouraging to see certain topics coming up for agonized and lengthy discussions year after year after year without much evidence of change. We're clearly working really hard to make things happen, so why do we keep coming back to the same issues over and over? Perhaps there's no solutions, or perhaps we're not equipped to find it.

At this point I'm willing to admit that I'm not equipped to find the missing piece of legislation, so I intend to bring it up to Council again and see if we can make any headway. Let's see if we can jog loose any memory of when this matter was approved--and if not, let's go back and restart the conversation, as we have done so many times before.

Scintillating it isn't. But no one ever said faculty governance would be scintillating.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

At first sight

What did I do to deserve trilliums today? Nothing, I tell you, absolutely nothing, and yet there they were in front of me, first a host of green stems with buds closed tight and then one--no, two full white blossoms, and then, like icing on the cake, one tiny little stalk of Dutchman's breeches with a line of wee white puffy blossoms like bloomers hanging on a line.

I've never seen either of them blossoming this early and I certainly didn't expect to see them today. In fact, I didn't expect to see much of anything today because for a few days my attention has been tightly focused on some mild internal turmoil caused by a petty but painful slight that has sent me harrumphing around the place in high dudgeon over something I'll no doubt forget within the week. So I was in no humor to encounter trilliums and I certainly didn't deserve them, but there they were, blossoming right in front of me as if all that stuff that's been dragging me down really didn't matter.

As, of course, it doesn't.

So I am thankful for trilliums and doubly thankful for Dutchman's breeches, my favorite wildflowers hands down and even better when they're unexpected.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

A little schtick

"You'll feel a little stick," says the nurse, but it's not just a little stick--it's a little stick from a needle that will draw the blood that will tell me whether my body has thoroughly rebounded from chemotherapy and maybe whether I'll be needing more.

I can't begin to count the number of times I've been stuck with needles since last June, so this one little stick shouldn't bother me. But of course it does. I spent the morning trying not to think about that little stick and I tensed up as soon as I got to the cancer center, and then the nurse couldn't get any blood from my port so she had to stick me again in the back of the hand so it was actually two little sticks followed by two little bandaids and a not-so-little wait until I met first with the oncology nurse and then with the social worker (to once again go over that eternal question: how are we going to pay all these bills?) and then, finally, with my cheerful oncologist, who burst into the examining room to stick me with the following little joke: "Bad news! I'm afraid the scans show that you don't have a uterus!"

"I'll bet you say that to all the girls," I said, but by that time I knew that there was no bad news, that my CT scans are perfect and my blood tests produced perfectly normal numbers (except for the white cells, which remains just a little wimpy).

And normal sounds really nice to me.