Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A commute on the Scenic Route

The traffic light in Lowell is 4.7 miles from my house by the shortest route. This morning it took me 17 minutes to get there by a route you might call "Scenic" if it weren't so foggy. The last time I had to take that route, the highway was underwater; this morning I'm not really sure what the problem was but I'm glad I found a way around it.

I knew something was wrong when I had to wait on the bridge at the end of my driveway while three cars zipped past--and then another 11 cars passed me before I got out to the highway. It's rare to encounter even one car on that mile of road, so 14 cars make a veritable parade. Why was my road suddenly so popular? 7 a.m. is a little early for a wild party.

I made it a mile or so down the highway before I saw signs of trouble: dense fog, flares in the road, a line of stopped traffic so long I couldn't even see what was causing the stoppage. Time to turn around and find another route to town.

Now my road provides an alternate route, but only a fool would call it a short cut. Scenic? On a clear day you get a panoramic view of the power plant five miles upriver. On a foggy day--best keep your eyes on the road.

I followed the Scenic Route down narrow, twisty gravel roads, up steep hills and around blind corners, and I discovered that even with new tires, my car fishtails badly going uphill on gravel. Those roads are not designed to take the kind of traffic volume they carried this morning, especially since drivers facing unexpected delays are not always known for their patience. I breathed a sigh of relief after I found myself finally in Lowell--17 minutes after I left my house.

But at least I got there! Arrive Alive has always been my motto.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Making it count

Yesterday I enjoyed discussing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks with a group of faculty members, and today I'm wearing a bit of white gauze over the spot where a nurse drew blood during the annual Wellness Screening. I'm seeing these little patches of white gauze all over campus--call it the White Badge of Wellness.

Our campus theme this year is Health and Wellness, which explains the choice of Henrietta Lacks for our common reading. Few students attended the reading discussions, but it was great to get together with colleagues and talk about medical and journalistic ethics, informed consent, and other hot topics.

Today's hot topic is how we can get more students interested in reading and discussing books outside of classes, but I don't know how to do that without somehow making it mandatory--or making it "count," as the students say. Here's a scary fact: when I asked a group of nine junior and senior English majors what interesting thing they'd read over the summer, three were unable to come up with a title.

Can we motivate academic wellness the way we motivate physical wellness? Our wellness program requires participants to fill out a health survey and participate in a health screening every year; the college receives anonymous composite information while the specific results go only to the employee. Participants who complete the wellness screening and log at least 150 wellness points (one wellness point = one half hour of exercise or other wellness activities, such as Weight Watchers meetings or smoking cessation classes) earn a $100 bonus at the end of the year. That's just enough motivation to get a whole bunch of my colleagues off their butts and up into the rec center.

So if busy faculty members are willing to exercise because it counts for something, we ought to find a way to encourage students to read books unrelated to classes by making it count. But how? That's the question many of us are discussing today.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday poetry challenge: small annoyances

Here's the miscreant that caused all the trouble in my Volvo last week (read it here). This little bolt was flipping around the flywheel, making my car scream and clatter like the end of the world. My mechanic couldn't find a place where this loose bolt might belong, and there's not much point in taking the entire engine apart when it's running just fine right now. So we've decided to leave it alone and see what happens.

It astounds me that such an insignificant item could bring my car, my household, and my entire week to a screeching halt, but isn't that the way life works? Many small things can make big trouble: a pebble in your shoe, a microorganism in your breakfast egg, a missing bolt on a bridge. What else? Your challenge today is to make poetry out of the small things that make big trouble in your life. I'll start:

Bitty bolt, flywheel
flusterer, screech and clatter
til all systems stop.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A detour into doggerel

I've always wanted an excuse to make students read James Whitcomb Riley's execrable poem "The Happy Little Cripple," and I finally found it. This semester I'm teaching an upper-level literature class called Representative American Writers focusing on the works of Stephen Crane and Kate Chopin, and I want my students to get a taste of American literary culture of the late 19th and early 20th century.

So I assembled a list of works representing a wide variety of genres and styles: Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick, a few Whitman war poems, "To Build a Fire" by Jack London, A Country Doctor by Sara Orne Jewett, Old Creole Days by George Washington Cable, a few of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus tales, Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders, and, of course, some James Whitcomb Riley poems. I included some familiar authors' less familiar works (Pauline's Passion and Punishment by Louisa May Alcott) as well as works that were influential at the time but have since fallen out of favor (Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives). All the texts are readily available online (many at Project Gutenberg).

On the first day of class (Monday), each student selected one work from the list; by Thursday evening, each student had to write a brief summary of the work and draw conclusions about what it suggests about literary tastes of the time. Students reading long works are expected to read a few chapters--enough to get a sense of the whole without slogging through, for instance, 300 pages of Dreiser's deathless prose.

By this morning, four students had already posted their summaries online and were responding to each others' posts. I expect to see the rest by the end of the day, and tomorrow in class we'll discuss what we've learned and draw some larger conclusions about the era.

I hope someone will volunteer to do a dramatic reading of "The Happy Little Cripple." We may be devoting our semester to studying Serious Literature, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the occasional detour into doggerel.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Fine. And you?

A year ago I complained about how my cancer diagnosis made it difficult to respond to simply questions like "What's new?" and "How are you?" (Read it here.) This year I'm enjoying the luxury of mindlessly responding, "I'm fine. And you?"

Except occasionally that's not enough. Today I went through the usual fine-and-you script with a colleague, who then stopped me and said, "No, I mean how are you really?" That one little word makes a big difference, transforming the conventional scripted exchange into a moment of compassion and connection.

"I'm fine," I said, and I really am, as far as I know. I feel great. My hair is back and bushy and about ready for a cut. I don't mind the gray. I earned that gray! My next round of testing is scheduled for October but so far every test has come back normal. So really, I'm fine, as far as I know.

But thanks for asking!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What's in your backpack?

My Honors Literature students set out this morning to save civilization. The class is a Learning Community linked with an honors section of World Civilization, so all the readings in my class focus on the concept of civilization. We'll start of by reading some Rousseau and Thoreau, move on to some Romantic poetry, tackle Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and A.S. Byatt's Morpho Eugenia (the basis for the film Angels and Insects, which we'll watch), and then after midterm we'll look at some postcolonial poetry and drama before finishing up the semester with Art Spiegelman's Maus (so we can consider how our awareness of human horrors affects our understanding of civilization).

Today, though, we're just trying to save civilization. Here is the writing prompt I gave my honors students this morning:

Survivor Marietta A devastating virus is sweeping over the planet, threatening to destroy the entire human race. Fortunately, some wealthy alumni have offered to move Marietta College employees and students to a remote island free of the virus. The island is entirely undeveloped, with no dwellings, no infrastructure, and no electricity, and no one knows what sorts of wildlife might live there. Space is tight, so students are allowed to take only what they can stuff into a backpack. You will remain on the island for four years, after which time the virus will have died out and you will return home to a place devoid of human life. Your goal is nothing less than the survival of civilization. What will you take with you? How will you spend the next four years? What do you need to do in order to assure that human civilization will not perish? Write an essay explaining what part you will play in preserving human civilization.

What do my students want to put in their backpacks? Many offered practical suggestions--water purifier, first-aid kit, seeds, tools, bleach--but others want books (and not just survival manuals). They want math and science textbooks, the poems of Robert Frost, all the Harry Potter books, and the complete Sherlock Holmes. One student wants to pack a copy of the United States Constitution, while another insists on Stephen Colbert's I Am America, and You Can Too! One wants a graphing calculator and 24 batteries, while others want rope, blankets, or a collection of personal photographs.

How do they expect to spend their time? One student imagines himself as a hunter-gatherer, and another thinks it would be a great idea to dig wells and latrines. Most mentioned the need for organization, government, and a code of ethics, and several mentioned the need to keep history, art, and literature alive. "Civilization needs imaginative people, out-of-the-box thinkers," wrote a student who wants to create art on the island, and another wants to keep a written record of the group's experience. One wants to spend her time serving as a peace-maker, and another wants to organize frequent celebrations to provide hope and remind people of their purpose.

They all want to learn--from books, from each other, from their environment. That's a great way to approach education, whether on a remote island or in the middle of Marietta. Now it's up to them to figure out how to survive 15 weeks in my class!

Monday, August 23, 2010

It's all one

It's always 1 in my daughter's Nissan. I'm driving her car while mine is in the shop, and I've noticed that every time I get in the car, the dashboard clock starts at 1. It might move on to 1:06 or 1:22 or even 1:47, but I've never seen it switch to 2 or 3 or any other number.

This gives my daily commute a timeless feeling enhanced by the lack of a working radio. Shut in the car with no clock reminding me of the passage of time and no NPR news to remind me that the outside world is still turning, I feel as if I'm adrift outside time and all its demands and I achieve a sort of car nirvana.

I was enjoying the oneness this morning when I arrived on campus, opened the car door, and stepped out into a puddle of vomit. Farewell, nirvana! It's time for Real World 101.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shut up or sue

What happens after doctors make mistakes? An article in the New York Times examines the importance of communication between doctors and patients even after mistakes have been made, noting that keeping communication open can reduce the threat of litigation. One expert on the subject said,"Everyone loathes litigation, but it's the only alternative we've ever given anybody."

Not long ago I made an attempt to re-open communication with my family doctor, writing a letter explaining why I am considering switching to a different practice. It was a calm and friendly letter and I specified right up front that I am not at all interested in litigation; instead, I wanted to express my concerns and hear his responses. So far, I have had no reply. Perhaps I'm expecting too much.

For the past year, all my medical needs have been cared for at the Cancer Center, but if I should develop, say, an ear infection or a bad bout of pain in my arthritic hip, the oncologist is the wrong person to call. I need a family doctor for that, but I'm reluctant to return to the practice of a doctor whose only response to my symptoms year after year after year was "you ought to lose some weight" or "that's a natural part of the aging process" or "you ought to just tough it out until menopause."

I explained my concerns to my (ex?)doctor, but I'm not sure what I want in return. I'm not asking for an apology ("Oops, guess we missed your cancer! Sorry!") and I'm not interested in lawsuits or compensation. What I would really like is for the doctor to say something like, "You know, you're right: we could have taken your concerns more seriously and we'll try to do better in the future."

But I know why he won't reply: because any admission that mistakes were made could be used as evidence in a lawsuit. The fear of litigation shuts down communication, so I'm left dangling out here with no way to find closure except to shut up or sue. Neither option appeals to me, but what else can I do?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Just-in-time service

Late this afternoon I found myself stranded in the parking lot at a Marathon station with a river of trucks zooming past on one side and the Little Kanawha river easing past on the other, when suddenly a tow truck drove by pulling a Frontier Communications repair truck. "Ha!" I thought, "Now we're in the same boat!"

Those who have been closely following my attempts to persuade Frontier to restore telephone service to my home will be pleased to know that our phone was fixed this afternoon, just in time to allow me to phone home to tell my husband that I was stranded near Mineral Wells, West Virginia. I wasn't planning to be in West Virginia today, but I had to put out a fire.

It was just a little fire sparking from the heating element in our oven while my husband was baking bread to take to the Farmers Market in Cambridge tomorrow. (Have I lost you yet? It gets complicated.) He called all over creation to find a replacement part and located one in South Parkersburg, which is not the easiest place to get to from our house. Or from anywhere, for that matter. If you ever need to get there, I recommend teleporting.

I was pretty exhausted and I really wanted to stay in all evening, but my husband had to shuttle bread pans over to the tiny oven in the apartment above the garage so I left the house at 4 p.m. to try to get to the appliance store before it closed at 5. Even though I don't have a teleporter, I made it with two minutes to spare. (Again, just-in-time service!)

But by then, traffic was outrageous and I had trouble turning left, so I made a right turn and hoped to find a better way, which is how I ended up in Mineral Wells, a great place to go if you have time to stop at the Coldwater Creek outlet store but not when the bread dough is rising and the oven is awaiting its element. So I got on the interstate and drove north.

"At this pace, I'll be home by 6," I told myself just before the engine starting losing power in the middle of a construction zone with nowhere to pull off. My Volvo limped to the nearest exit. As I pulled into the Marathon station, the engine began to scream.

I checked the oil: fine. I checked the belts: all present and accounted for. Having run through my entire repertoire of car-diagnosis options, I put a few quarters in the pay phone and phoned home. And it worked! First time I've been able to call my own number all week, but I had only three dollars in cash on me so I had to keep the long-distance calls short and sweet.

A very helpful FedEx employee came over and looked at my engine, but he couldn't find anything obvious wrong either--but he did let me use his cell phone to call AAA for a tow truck. I had a hard time making the AAA person understand me with all the trucks roaring by, but in less time that it would take to translate the Volvo owner's manual into Esperanto, she promised to send a tow truck "soon."

So I thanked the helpful FedEx guy and gave him a hand-written coupon good for free bread from our booth at the Farmers' Market, and then I settled in to wait. In the heat. With the interstate on one side and the river on the other and nothing to do but stare into space.

Which is what I was doing when the Frontier truck went tootling by behind a tow truck. If I have to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do but wait to see what AAA means by "soon," it's comforting to know I'm not the only one.

I wonder whether Frontier's tow truck arrived just in time? Mine did. The car is in the shop, the bread is in the oven with the new element, and I am at home. Just in time.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Call waiting (and waiting)

Poor Angie and Josh! I don't even know them, but for the past week we've been receiving all their phone calls. Somehow the lines got crossed so that calls to our home number go off into a black hole somewhere but anyone who dials Angie and Josh's home number gets us.

I've spoken to a number of Angie and Josh's friends and family members, sometimes several times a day, and they regard us with some suspicion, as if we are guilty of skullduggery involving the kidnapping of telephone lines. I keep telling them to call Frontier. Why not? The more, the merrier!

Calling Frontier has not worked well for me. I have been told at various times that someone would be out before 8 a.m. yesterday, by midafternoon yesterday, before 8 p.m. yesterday, before 9 a.m. this morning, and before 8:46 p.m. today. The specificity of that last promise encouraged me to hope, but alas, no one has been out to untangle the mess.

Frontier's hold music brings back memories of the "Small World" ride at Disney, with all those smiley plastic dolls singing the same perky tune over and over and over and over until you really wish you'd brought along a blowtorch. Everyone I've spoken to at has been polite and pleasant, and they've all ended the conversation with the same sentence: "Is there anything else we can do for you?" "Fix my phone" is what I tell them, but apparently they mean "anything but that."

At one point I suggested that perhaps my next call should be to the Public Utilities Commission, which got me connected to a supervisor who made yet another promise that my phone line would be functioning by the end of the day. Ten minutes after he hung up, I received a recorded message informing me that due to high demand, my service call had been rescheduled for tomorrow, and I should make sure a responsible adult is available at home between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

But I think I'll be irresponsible and go to work. If they need me, they can call me.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Copy that

At 2:30 p.m. I find myself sitting in a comfy chair in the administration building while a photocopier runs off a pile of copies for me--and frankly, at this point, I welcome the opportunity to be a little mindless.

All day I've been tweaking syllabi, writing paper prompts, responding to e-mail messages, trying to get my home phone fixed, and meeting with budget people to work out the costs for a spring break class trip to San Francisco (strictly for educational purposes, of course--it's a course on California Literature).

My mind has been going in too many different directions at once, so it's good to sit and let it gel while the photocopier spits out the copies one after another. The gentle rhythm of the rolling drum is soothing, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if my eyes were to shut.

All these people are rushing past moving boxes and computers back into freshly painted offices...if I fall asleep, surely one of them will wake me before my 3:00 meeting, right? If not, I may have to find a new job as a photocopy attendant so I can listen to those copies slide out all day long.

Just Moodling around

Here I am at 4:03 Tuesday morning, wide awake and aware that classes begin next Monday. I'm feeling refreshed after a long weekend with family, but having done no work in the past three days, I'm feeling a bit frantic about everything I need to do this week, especially Moodling.

We've switched our campus course management system from WebCT to Moodle, so I've gone to some training sessions on the new system and last week I started putting a bunch of course material online. So far, I find Moodle much more intuitive than WebCT and much more fun, but on the other hand, I've also been finding the wrong way to do just about everything. I know it'll get easier as we go along, but right now, Moodle seethes just below the surface of awareness and occasionally rises to rudely awaken me.

The irony, of course, is that I can't even work on Moodle from home because it would take forever to load on my slow dial-up connection. Do I dare go in to my office this early in the morning? I could go back to bed, but it's hard to sleep when my brain won't stop Moodling around.

Maybe drugs would help. Where do I find anti-Moodling meds?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Going the distance

What separates me from my son? 881.6 miles right now--but that distance will be reduced considerably tomorrow when he flies from Texas to Columbus, where we will pick him up and drive up to our daughter and son-in-law's house for a fun family weekend.

But what separates me from going to Columbus tomorrow is a pile of work I really need to finish so I can relax and enjoy my family time. I've had meetings all week and the evening weather has not been conducive to outdoor labor, so I haven't been in the garden since last Saturday. I need to pinch off the basil buds and pick tomatoes, cucumbers, swiss chard, peppers, okra, squash, beets, and a cabbage the size of a basketball, and don't even ask me where I'm planning to store a cabbage that big.

I'll have to clean the catbox, fill the birdfeeders, and clean the bread-making mess in the kitchen, and I should probably take a glance at my son's room and make sure it hasn't been colonized by dust mice the size of labrador retrievers. If they attack, I'll toss 'em a cabbage.

Laundry? Probably. I need to pay some bills too and pack some clothes. And some vegetables. I worked like a maniac today so I can take Monday off, and I'll have to work like a maniac tomorrow before I can get out of the house. But that's okay. Each task I check off the to-do list brings me one step closer to seeing my son.

Besides, it could be worse--at least my to-do list is not 881.6 miles long.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Doing the lockdown lockstep

My wonderful colleague took this photo today as I was explaining some important matter during our New Faculty Orientation.

"You're dancing!" she said.

No, I'm teaching. Not that there's much difference between the two.

After spending the better part of two days interacting with the new hires, I'm delighted with the energy and talent they bring to the college, but I'm also worn out. The schedule had to be shuffled this morning when the entire campus was placed on lockdown after a crime spree broke out very close to campus. At first we heard that someone had robbed the local dry-cleaner and was heading toward campus, which made me wonder whether we should be on the lookout for a miscreant loaded down with freshly pressed shirts. Later, we learned that he had robbed a drugstore at gunpoint and could be anywhere.

But he didn't come here. The lockdown was cancelled just before noon, which was good because we thought we might need a police escort just to get out to lunch. All the new hires have now been thoroughly oriented and are ready to go and face the world of teaching.

Or dancing, as the case may be.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Walk on

Three cheers for my new shoes! They're cute and comfortable and appropriate for the classroom, and my colleague says they make my big boat feet look smaller. But best of all, I've been walking around in them all morning and my feet don't hurt. Not one bit. I even brought a back-up pair of shoes to campus today because it generally hurts to break in a new pair of shoes, but so far, no pain.

That kind of performance deserves some applause!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The season of excess

Too many tomatoes.
Not enough refrigerator space.

Too many meetings.
Not enough time.

Too much heat, haze, humidity.
Too little energy.

Too much flesh.
Not enough fabric.

Too much too much.

Monday, August 09, 2010

To the colleague in whose office I accidentally left my gym bag:

Don't look in the bag. Trust me, there's nothing in there you need--unless you've been concealing a serious sweat-sock fetish. I had a really good workout this afternoon, so everything in that bag is saturated with sweat and whatever my towel soaked up when I dropped it on the shower-room floor.

I wish I could drop by and pick up my gym bag this evening, but I didn't realize it was missing until I got home and found myself wondering why I was standing in the laundry room gazing at the gaping mouth of the laundry hamper but unable to feed it. What's missing from this picture? Gym clothes, which are in the gym bag, which, for some unknown reason, is not in my hand.

I mentally retraced my steps to try to track down the bag: did I leave it in the parking lot? In my office? Somewhere in between? That's when I remembered that I had stopped by your office to ask a burning question regarding faculty governance just before leaving campus. I recall setting my gym bag down on the chair and then moving it to the floor, where it's probably still sitting.

Left unattended, my dirty sweaty stinky gym clothes will eventually evolve into a festering mass of disgustingness and stink, creating its own ecosystem and manufacturing disease spores by the millions. Here's my advice: step away from the gym bag, moving slowly so as not to alarm the incipient microorganisms that dwell within. Place the oxygen mask firmly over your own face before assisting other passengers with their masks. Do not--repeat, NOT--open the bag.

Unless you're doing laundry tonight anyway, in which case, it's all yours.

Stop me before I click again!

After spending most of the day getting caught up on all manner of piddly little problems, I am now a lean, mean clicking machine.

A transfer student wants to major in English and needs to register for classes: I click my way through the online course catalog in search of classes that still have space (very few) and then click on through the registration process to get her a meaningful schedule of classes.

My son needs his student loan cosigned for fall semester--his penultimate semester in college! I click my way through the Wells-Fargo site, wondering how long it will take them to insist that I fax them a recent pay stub to verify my income. How many times have I answered these same questions and faxed the same supporting documents? Don't think about it--just keep clicking.

My proposal to present a paper at a conference in Prague in November was accepted, so I clicked my way through a travel site to book a flight, clicked through another site to book lodging at the conference hotel, clicked through the process of paying the conference fee online, and then clicked open the application for a travel grant to cover all these expenses. I won't learn whether the travel grant is approved until October at the earliest, but the conference deadlines are much sooner than that and the airfare will just increase the longer I wait, so I'm booking everything now and trusting that the college isn't planning to drastically cut travel funds this fall.

And I clicked my way through a deluge of e-mail that piled up after I took Friday off. How much e-mail can pile up on one business day? Enough to fill my morning with clicking and typing, clicking and typing.

Now I've finally run out of stuff to click on and I'm ready for a break. The Annual Autumn Many-Meeting Marathon begins tomorrow. If any of my meetings includes a clicking contest, the smart money is on me.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Bimbo breakfast

Today's New York Times features an article about English muffins--not a particularly sexy topic, and yet it requires references to "a Bimbo vice president" and "a Bimbo spokesman" and "Bimbo employees" and even "the nook and cranny cognoscenti." There's a reference to "muffin culture" and an attempt to break "Thomas' English muffin code," which makes me wonder what's going on in the pantry when no one is looking.

All of this silliness is presented without a wink or a nudge from the journalist, one William Neuman, who should get a prize for his ability to write deadpan business prose about all those Bimbos. I'll never again eat an English muffin without thinking about the nook and cranny cognoscenti. Thank you, William Neuman, for contributing Bimbos to this complete breakfast.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Ten lashes with a poisonous tentacle

Last spring I put a lot of effort into convincing myself and others that I was perfectly fine with the idea of staying home all summer, not taking a vacation (except a few days to visit my daughter), not doing much beyond the usual round of gardening, writing, reading, preparing for classes. I need some down time, I told myself. I had too much excitement in my life last summer and I need to be still and recover.


The lady doth protest too much. Making virtue of necessity is like making bricks without straw: it wears you out and all you have to show for your labor is a pile of bricks.

Now the summer is essentially over and my colleagues are returning refreshed and reinvigorated and ready to chatter about their vacations in exotic places, but I have little to add to the conversation: I weeded the garden, planned teaching workshops, submitted articles to journals. And I went to Akron--twice!

My besetting sin of envy threatened to get the upper hand earlier this week when a colleague kept sending me e-mail messages urging me to perform a particular task that I was unable to perform without first obtaining some essential information from people who were not available because they're out of town at the moment. I decided to try to calm down the frantic e-mailer with a personal visit, but when I went to the appropriate office, I discovered that the colleague in question has not yet returned from a certain tropical isle.

Anyone who wants to crack the whip at me while comfortably ensconced on a tropical island can just go jump in the ocean, preferably while it's infested with stinging jellyfish.

Okay, that's just mean. I clearly need a vacation. Even a mental vacation would help. I'm taking the day off tomorrow: what can I do on a limited budget in one day that will make up for not having a vacation all summer long?

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Performing the authentic self

Two days ago I wrote about the much-forwarded New York Times article on the problem of plagiarism (read it here), but I get a little nervous about commenting on an article that's commenting on a book that I haven't read. So yesterday morning I e-mailed our library director and suggested that he order Susan Blum's book My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture, and an hour later the book was in my hands. Note to self: next time, check the library catalog first.

So I've been reading My Word, which is simultaneously interesting and infuriating. Blum takes an anthropological approach to college student culture, seeking data through interviews conducted with students over several years. The interviews offer a rare look inside the minds of college students at a selective private college, but they are studded with unexplained ellipses, leading me to wonder what has been deleted. Still, the students' words provide insight into attitudes that often puzzle me when I encounter them in the classroom.

Surely be the most controversial part of Blum's book is her assertion that today's students experience selfhood differently from their forebears. She distinguishes between two types of selves, "the authentic self" and the "performance self":

"The authentic self celebrates uniqueness, individual contribution, essence, fixity, and authorship. It is inner-directed. Its words are its own, and are always meant and sincerely believed. The performance self celebrates collaboration, incorporation, fluidity, and appearance. It is goal-oriented. Its words are derived from many different sources and may be spoken or written in earnest or in jest, with conviction or just to get along" (61).

The academy, says Blum, cherishes the authentic self, while the "performance self, however, is more likely to regard boundaries between its own and others' contributions as permeable, to focus on accomplishing goals by any means necessary, and to regard the origins of textual material as unimportant" (61). Blum admits that students might possess a mixture of these two types of selves, but "[t]o the extent that students share the values of the performance self, they are more likely to regard both cheating and intertextual plagiarism as valid strategies, to juggle outward appearances and behavior to fit others' expectations, and to incorporate texts casually in all aspects of their self-expression" (61).

Here is my question: if today's students are so adept at performing selves to meet the demands of various environments, why can't they create a convincing performance of an authentic self? If the academy promotes and rewards the characteristics of the authentic self, why not perform those characteristics, adopting, if only for a limited time, a concern for originality in written expression and proper citation of others' ideas? Blum justly applauds students' abilities to step into various personas online and in real life (whatever that is these days), but why can't one of those personas be the "authentic self" avatar?

Suppose a student gives me a paper that presents original ideas in the student's own words and properly credits sources: would I have any way of knowing whether the paper is a product of an authentic self or a performance self temporarily adopting the characteristics of authenticity? Would it matter? I hope I'm not in the business of grading a student's sense of selfhood; like my colleagues, I evaluate students based on what they produce, how they perform required tasks. Blum seems to be arguing that "the performance self" makes it more difficult for students to fulfill these tasks without cheating, but an ability to perform various roles in response to changing conditions ought to make students more, not less, adept at producing honest work, or at least the semblance of honest work.

I believe in authenticity and integrity and wholeness and all those quaint values Blum believes are dying out, and I'm not ready to applaud cheating as evidence of the creativity of the performance self. A self that wants my applause just needs to perform the traits of academic integrity. A temporary performance of academic integrity will get the same A as genuine integrity, and the "performance self" just might find integrity addictive.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Taking flight

My teeny-tiny infant boy turns 21 today and I've been wavering between feeling mushily nostalgic and just feeling old. The first thing the obstetrician said on delivering Steve was "We have a scrawny boy!", but he's not scrawny now and he hasn't been for a long time. He's tall and clever and witty, a college senior this fall, and he just earned his commercial pilot's license a few weeks ago.

He's working in Texas this summer but he'll be home in a few weeks for a brief visit, so we'll celebrate his birthday then with a family trip to see a Cleveland Indians game. He hasn't been home since Christmas and every time we see him he seems to have grown a foot taller, or maybe I've shrunk, or maybe my perspective has shifted a bit, or maybe he's just acting his age.

Which is 21 today. Woo-hoo. The last of the fledglings has left the nest and appears to have landed safely. Here's to many more safe landings!

Monday, August 02, 2010

A pastiche of personas

By the time I got to the office this morning, three different people had already e-mailed me the link to a New York Times article on plagiarism (read it here). The article indulges in the usual hand-wringing about the ease of copying from the Internet, but it also suggests a connection between a rise in plagiarism and a change in the concept of personal identity.

The article quotes Susan D. Blum, an anthropologist a the University of Notre Dame, whose research among undergraduate college students led her to conclude that "student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today--TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs."

Let's just overlook the fact that pastiche has been driving "creative endeavors" longer than television has existed--witness, for instance, James Joyce or Jean Toomer. More interesting is Blum's assertion about the decline of unitary identity. According to the article, Blum said "the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual," while "undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity...than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking."

Blum seems to be saying that our students live in a multiple-choice world in which "all of the above" is always a viable option; they need not limit themselves to one identity each, and "If you are not so worried about presenting yourself as absolutely unique, then it's O.K. if you say other people's words, it's O.K. if you say things you don't believe, it's O.K. if you write papers you couldn't care less about because you accomplish the task, which is turning something in and getting a grade."

Blum wants us to recognize that our "notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning," but authorship is not giving up without a fight and neither is the notion of integrity--a word, the OED reminds us, that springs from the Latin "integer" and suggests a sense of being whole, undivided, sound and complete.

Can integrity spring from a pastiche of personas?

Where does a person devoted to improvising new identities from a pastiche of fragments experience wholeness?

And what happens when the pastiche identity encounters an academic culture devoted to integrity?

I don't know the answers but those of us involved in teaching writing had better be thinking about the questions.