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?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Many people (two) have asked about my brief illustrious career as cobalt.

Not that kind of cobalt.

Not that kind either. Nor was I an element in the "so-called Cobalt real estate scam" in which three men were "convicted of defrauding more than 250 people of $23 million" (read it here).

No, I was a different kind of element--the cobalt that appears on the Periodic Table at number 27.

Yes, that kind of cobalt. In the inaugural 6K Mole Day Fun Run (and walk) last Saturday, an event sponsored by the college's Chemistry Club to raise funds for student scholarships in honor of a retired professor, participants were labeled not with numbers but with elements from the Periodic Table. I proudly represented cobalt, fending off advances from a retired professor who lusted after my label. He had spent his entire career studying cobalt but carried the carbon card in the race. (An inorganic chemist representing carbon--just a little chemical humor there.)

I gave him my cobalt card after I completed the race. At that point I was so relieved at finishing the course that I no longer cared what element I carried--carbon, cobalt, carborundum, whatever. I'm pleased to report that I didn't come in dead last. A few emeritus faculty members and a mother pushing a stroller ambled in behind me.

But winning wasn't the object (for me, anyway--some of those race-walkers looked like they were taking the event pretty seriously). They tell me that cobalt appears naturally only in combination with other chemicals, so I followed cobalt's example and mingled with other elements to see what sort of reaction might occur. We shared some conversation, honored a retired colleague, and raised a nice little pile of money. See what nice things can happen when elements work together?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Poetry lessons

Every poet and every student of poetry and everyone who reads or writes or thinks about poetry ought to read The Poetry Lesson by Andrei Codrescu, a fanciful and cynical and altogether exhilarating description of the first class session in an Introduction to Poetry class and a brief book ranging widely through the author's encounters with poets living and dead. How is it possible for a dead poet to shoot a gun at a living devotee of poetry? You'll have to read the book to learn the answer to that question, as well as others:

On whether poetry is teachable: "Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism."

On the difference between professors and poets: "The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject. They go about in the certainty of their well-cultivated fields and keep adding what they can to the antheap of text before them. My job, I think, is to burn all that came before me--by handing my predecessors to the students to misunderstand, if it comes to that, which it obviously does."

On why American students seem so much younger than Europeans: "the right to a prolonged childhood was hard fought-for and laboriously won by generation after generation, wherever and whenever. The long, physical strain of standing and fighting only to earn the right to lie down and dream was humanity's story."

On what a poet needs: "Every poet worth his or her salt, and, trust me, this is the only reward we get for the hard work we do, and in this sense we are still one with the ancient Romans who valued salt above all else, as does, I'm sure, the Borden family, whose cows, no matter what their level of culture, still require their salt licks, every salty poet, then, had a good fountain pen."

That's a sentence I would give my eye-teeth to have written, but if I couldn't write it, I can at least enjoy the experience of encountering it in print.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Another reason to love where I live

The thermometer read 30 degrees under overcast skies when I left this morning to walk the inaugural Mole Day Fun Run, but by the time I got home and did some house-cleaning, the temperature had risen to 70 degrees and the sun was shining. I hauled a comfy chair out into the sunniest spot in the backyard and settled in to relax with a book, a cup of hot tea, and a stinky dog. The gentle sound of dry leaves rustling in the breeze could have sent me straight to sleep if it hadn't been for the shots.

Target practice or fireworks? The nearest neighbors are hosting a wedding this weekend and the sharp sounds issued from the former cow pasture where the groom recently built his house; given the number of pickup trucks parked up there, I suspect bachelor-party hijinks. Hopeful abandoned me to cower under the deck, but I stayed where I was. The shots and occasional hoots and hollers seemed an appropriate backdrop to the Stephen Crane war stories I was reading, and I wanted to spend time with the lovely yellow trees before all the leaves fall off and it gets too cold to enjoy them.

After a while the shots ceased and all the pickup trucks went racing down the road and out of my life (for now). Hopeful came out from under the deck and sat in front of me with an expression that seemed to ask what all the fuss was about, but before I could answer, she went bounding down the hill to investigate something more interesting. I went back to my book.

The trees just stood there.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Astute and helpful sub

When the HMS Astute, a nuclear submarine touted as Britain's stealthiest, gets stuck in the mud off the Isle of Skye (read it here), a number of questions come to mind: What was the sub scouting for in that particular spot? Wasn't anyone minding the periscope? Can sonar detect mud?

One question no one seems to be asking, though, is this: Where's Winnie-the-Pooh when you need him?

I find it impossible to hear the word "astute" without thinking immediately of the situation described in chapter 8 of The House at Pooh Corner: venturing out on a windy day to wish his friend Owl a Very Happy Thursday, Pooh finds himself, not unlike the HMS Astute, stuck--not not in the mud but beneath an arm-chair after the wind knocks over Owl's house. After Owl and Piglet release Pooh, the intrepid friends consider how to get out of the house when the front door has been inconveniently relocated to the ceiling.

No need to call in the tugboats when Pooh gives his mind to the problem:

Pooh's mind had gone back to the day when he had saved Piglet from the flood, and everybody had admired him so much; and as that didn't often happen, he thought he would like it to happen again. And suddenly, just as it had come before, an idea came to him.

"Owl," said Pooh. "I thought of something."

"Astute and Helpful Bear," said Owl."

Pooh looked proud at being called a stout and helpful bear, and said modestly that he just happened to think of it....

If you don't know what Pooh happened to think of, you'll have to go read the book yourself. When I read this as a very small child I marveled over Owl's impressive vocabulary, but I even then I knew that "Astute" and "stout" were not at all the same thing. The word "astute" arises rarely but when it does, I think of Pooh--and I'm probably not the only one. Has a Winnie-the-Pooh fan insinuated himself into the process of naming British nuclear subs?

I have no doubt Pooh could solve the problem of dislodging the HMS Astute, and afterward he would commemorate the feat by composing a hum. Sing ho for the life of a sub! And then let's all sit down amongst the honey-pots for a little smackerel of something.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Funky skunky

Hopeful looks about the same as she always does as she bounds toward me eager to play, but if she were a cartoon dog, her body would be surrounded by powerful aroma rays.

She had tangled with a skunk.

So that's what all that night-time barking was about! In the past I've tried to maintain ignorance of Hopeful's solitary activities. I turn a blind eye to the treasures she brings home, the chunks of deer carcass and the occasional dead possum, but there's no ignoring the smell of skunk.

She doesn't seem at all bothered by her funky smell; in fact, she seems downright proud. She's an outdoor dog who never comes inside and she's free to roam our woods without fear of encountering anyone likely to be offended by the smell of skunk, so I'm inclined to just let her stink. She can splash in the creek and roll in pine needles and eventually the reek will diminish.

Meanwhile, I'll just have to endure the aroma rays--and hold her at arm's length when she runs up to play.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Minutes and memory

Midway through my life's journey through a dark wood of minutes from past faculty meetings, I stumbled on something remarkable: myself. I was trying to figure out when a particular change had been made in the faculty handbook but I had absolutely no memory of the matter, so I was delighted when a prior faculty chair directed me to the appropriate minutes from 2006--and there I was. According to the minutes, a younger me made a motion that the older me can't even recall.

I do, however, recall yesterday afternoon, when Faculty Council approved a method to consider faculty members' advising activities in annual evaluations and tenure reviews. Several of us have encountered various incarnations of this proposal on different committees over the years, but how long has this idea been bouncing around? In another foray into minute-mania, I stumbled upon the fact that Faculty Council had discussed the need to find a way to evaluate advising way back in 2001. Nine years later, we can put a fork in it and call it done.

How long will it take this action to delete itself from memory? We'd better pat ourselves on the back right away before we forget everything we've accomplished!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tragic flaws

Midway through Scarlett Thomas's novel Our Tragic Universe, the main character lists the problems with her novel-in-progress: "It is boring; it has no focus; it is self-indulgent; I hate the central character; it's too depressing; no one wants anything; no one does anything; there are no questions to be resolved; there is too much narration." Tragically, this same list could apply to Our Tragic Universe.

Soon after this passage, the main character (whose name I've already forgotten even though I just finished the novel yesterday) actually starts wanting and doing, but by then I don't care. She is an annoying character in an unbelievable relationship with an impossible person in a novel full of characters who can't basic conversations without launching into earnest speeches about any number of arcane topics vaguely related to the plot of the novel.

Plot? What plot? Annoying woman asks the universe for wonderful things which the universe then helpfully provides, enabling her to finally break free of the unbelievable relationship with the impossible person while making a lot of rambling speeches about arcane topics.

Thomas's earlier novel, The End of Mr. Y, also features impossible relationships and characters who make speeches instead of conversing, but The End of Mr. Y is more entertaining than Our Tragic Universe and comes equipped with a plot that creates some real suspense, while Our Tragic Universe is less compelling. It is boring. It has no focus. It is self-indulgent. How helpful of the author to have included in the novel this handy list of its faults!

Synonymously yours

Yesterday at a meeting I heard someone say, "If you populate the synonym, you can leave everything else blank." In context, it made perfect sense. I know how to populate the synonym! I do it all the time! Well, not all the time, but several times a year during course registration season. Anyone who uses this particular online registration system quickly learns that populating the synonym is an essential skill.

Recently I received in the mail a review copy of a textbook that's just a little out of date. How can I tell? Here is a representative passage from the chapter on online research:

Don't get scared away by all the techno-jargon. The way most of these gizmos work is that you sit down at a keyboard in the library and choose from an on-screen 'menu'--a selection of choices. Each choice produces a new menu, until you narrow your search to exactly what you want. Then by pushing a button--usually marked 'print'--you print out what you see on the screen. So you leave the library with a printed 'hard copy' of the information you need...

Remember, this textbook is intended for American college students, who are unlikely to be "scared away" by such "techno-jargon" as "menu" and "hard copy." The book was published in 1996, which doesn't feel all that long ago, but its solicitous explanations of how to use the Internet as a helpful research tool feel downright quaint. "Nowadays," we're told, "even inexpensive computers come with modems, meaning you can work in the most remote locations and still have at your desk a very sophisticated reference library." Right. The book even tells us how to locate an internet service provider by looking in the yellow pages under "Internet services." The one term in this entire chapter that students might find unfamiliar is "yellow pages."

Which goes to show, I suppose, that today's techno-jargon is tomorrow's quaint throwback to a simpler time. Ah, how young and innocent we all once were, back when the yellow pages were a book and the card catalog was a great big piece of furniture! One of these days we'll be tottering around the nursing home fondly recalling that primitive time when populating the synonym was pretty hot stuff, and the young folks will pat our hands patronizingly and say, "She's raving again, poor thing."

So we'd better enjoy our opportunities to wield techno-jargon while we can. Populate that synonym--before it's too late!

Monday, October 18, 2010


A few updates:

My on-again, off-again romance with the mortgage lenders of America is on again as I seem to have located a loan officer who thinks we might be worthy of trust. "Let's just ignore your husband's income," he said. "That'll make it easier on all of us." Of course he demanded more documents, more signatures, more data. Story of my life!

I've finished editing my paper for the November conference in Prague and I'm awaiting word on whether I'll have funding, which hasn't stopped me from thinking about packing for the trip. What sort of reading matter will get me through an all-night flight through three international airports? Kafka would be appropriate but I'd like to stay sane--at least until I've delivered my paper.

And our long hike in Hocking Hills last week left me feeling refreshed and invigorated but also stiff and sore. After a few more outings on our local hills, I've decided to blame my decrepit hiking shoes. But who has time to shop? I'm too busy rounding up documents.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tater tots

Growing sweet potatoes is an act of faith: they spend the summer spreading lovely deep green vines and leaves all over the garden, but you never know what the harvest will look like until you start digging. Last year we had a decent number of small-to-middling sweet potatoes, but today we kept pulling up bundles of potatoes that looked as if they were pumped up on steroids. I'd never seen a sweet potato this big--until we pulled up an even bigger one a few minutes later. I guess we're all set for Thanksgiving!

Friday, October 15, 2010

A kick in the asterisk

Ever since we started trying to refinance our mortgage, people have been telling me what a terrific time this is to refinance and what a difference refinancing made for them: "We'll have our house paid off in 15 years instead of 30!" "Our monthly payments were reduced by 30 percent!" "Our new interest rate is so low the bank sends us money every month!" Okay, I made up that last one, but it captures the tone of my colleagues' comments.

Our experience has been different. I don't want to go into a lot of painful details about a process that continues to drag on into its fourth heart-wrenching week, but we've run into a few snags, not the least being that my husband's income does not fit neatly into the kinds of little electronic boxes loan officers like to fill up with honking big numbers. Everything about our financial situation seems to require an asterisk. We're just not normal, which shouldn't surprise any regular readers of this site but seems to have utterly befuddled our loan officers.

The whole process has been a huge burden and a distraction and a pain in the brain and we don't seem to be any closer to a final answer than we were a month ago, but we have to keep pushing on or face Dire Consequences. So when I ought to be preparing for classes or doing committee work or writing clever blog posts or editing conference papers, I'm tracking down documents to explain those annoying asterisks next to all those little boxes on loan forms or I'm meeting with loan officers who have never encountered our kind of weirdness before and don't know how to deal with it. This makes me want to go home and pull the covers over my head.

But I go on, wending my way through the asterisks armed only with a pen and a sheaf of documents. I'm trying not to think about that miserable Dickensian character--is it in Bleak House?--whose life withers away while she waves sheaves of documents in the faces of powerful people who can't (or won't) try to understand them. Instead, I'm trying to cherish my asterisks. We are so very unusual that the banks don't know what to do with us! I feel so special I could just scream!

Thursday, October 14, 2010


Toward the beginning of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Edna Pontellier reads a risque novel making the rounds of the summer resort, feeling compelled to "read the book in secret and solitude, though none of the others had done so--to hide it from view at the sound of approaching footsteps." That's more or less the way I read The Awakening for the first time 30 years ago: I stayed home sick from church on a Sunday morning and sat up in bed reading Chopin's novel from beginning to end without stopping (and hardly breathing!), hoping to read it undetected.

And who could object to my reading such a book? The Awakening was never on the syllabus in any of my undergraduate classes, but in one class I recall reading The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic, a novel published two years earlier than The Awakening and also involving a main character whose passions are unleashed when he listens to a talented woman playing Chopin. If Frederic's novel was not considered dangerous to impressionable young minds, why was Kate Chopin's?

Now I'm getting ready to teach The Awakening and I find that most of my students have already read it, some in high school. Once again, one generation's dangerous literature becomes the next generation's required reading. I've been trying to recapture the sense of transgression I felt on first encountering the novel, but it's hard to imagine the intensity of emotion the novel evoked in its first readers, many of them so horrified by Edna's actions that they utterly overlooked the novel's elegance of language and nuances of character development. An early reviewer condemned the novel as unhealthy because "if it points any particular moral or teaches any lesson, the fact is not apparent."

These days Edna seems downright quaint. Tomorrow in class I'll show photos of women's bathing costumes from the 1890s just to set the scene, but the women in those photos look stiff and stodgy and passionless and incapable of relishing the feeling of the warm seawater buoying up the body. I'll remind my students that The Awakening was among the earliest published novels to portray pregnancy and childbirth as natural parts of a woman's life rather than as secret and even indecent mysteries incapable of being discussed in polite company.

But I know I'll be hard pressed to help my students understand what caused all the brouhaha. It's just a simple story about a woman trying to find herself--the synopsis of a hundred hackneyed dramas on the Lifetime network. Over the next couple of days I'll work to peel away the accretions of time and interpretation to help students encounter the text as if it were hot off the presses, to awaken to the risks Chopin took and the wonders she accomplished with this slim little book. And no one will feel compelled to read it in secret.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Tight squeeze

This stone staircase twisting through a narrow passage between two immense rocks is called Fat Woman's Squeeze, but it's tight enough to squeeze even medium-sized people. We made our way down those steps yesterday during a long hike at Cantwell Cliffs in southern Ohio's scenic Hocking Hills, where we also visited Old Man's Cave and hiked from there to Cedar Falls, which was quite scenic except for the distinct lack of falls. Recent dry conditions have reduced the waterways to a mere trickle.

We hiked roughly eight miles up and down steps and rock formations striped green and orange from minerals and minute growths, and we encountered quite a few fellow hikers, many of them accompanied by really big but well-behaved dogs. Do dogs grow bigger in Hocking Hills or do owners of small dogs hike somewhere else?

We left our dog at home, where she played furiously with a discarded snakeskin and perhaps pondered the big front-page headline in our local paper: "Elderly woman injured trying to allude dogs." The online edition was corrected to "elude," but even without the puzzling headline, the article raises questions: this woman fell and was injured because two dogs escaped from their enclosure and got friendly with the elderly woman's dog, causing her to trip. What sorts of dogs were these menacing escapees? Pit bulls? Rottweilers?

Nope. Corgis.

I picture Her Majesty the Queen calling out to the royal corgis, "Come back here at once! We are not amused!"

The royal corgis were not in evidence at Hocking Hills yesterday; instead, we were politely greeted by a lovely Dalmatian, several border collies and golden retrievers, a beautiful chocolate lab, and a pair of mastiffs that looked like what you might get if you crossed a giant panda with the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Today every muscle in my body is reminding me of all those stone steps and tight squeezes, but I'm glad we took the time to get away before gearing up for the rest of the semester. We've come a long way, but I still have to lead my students down a long, steep trail studded with obstacles. I hope we'll all manage to squeeze through the tight spots. If you don't hear from us, send in the Saint Bernards.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The antithesis of frivolous

I've promised myself that I won't do anything frivolous until I'm done grading midterm exams, so now I have to rationalize blogging as a non-frivolous act, and then I'll have to rationalize my attempt to rationalize blogging, and then I'll have to rationalize my rationalization of my rationalization and so on ad infinitum. I'll never get done unless I get started, so here goes:

First, let us examine the source beloved by persons seeking to establish the seriousness of their endeavors: the Oxford English Dictionary. "Frivolous," asserts the OED, means "Of little or no weight, value, or importance; paltry, trumpery; not worthy of serious attention; having no reasonable ground or purpose."

Thus, in order to be non-frivolous, this blog post must be weighty, important, worthy of serious attention, purposeful, and whatever the opposite of "trumpery" might be. Untrumpful? Lacking in trumpitude? Further exploration reveals the following enlightening quotation under the entry for "trumpery":

"1456 Sir G. Haye Law Arms (S.T.S.) 287 For gif sa daft that thai wage bataill for lytill, evyn as to say...that he dauncis or syngis better na he dois, or for syk maner of tromperyis."

This blog would not be so daft as to wage battle for lytill or to claim that it dauncis or syngis better na he dois; indeed, this blog rarely dauncis or syngis at all, which speaks highly of its untrumpitude.

But I digress. The OED also defines "frivolous" as "Characterized by lack of seriousness, sense, or reverence; given to trifling, silly." The OED is hardly a trifling tome--have you seen the size of that thing?--and no one would ever claim that it lacked seriousness, sense, or reverence, especially considering the worshipful responses it evokes from abecedarians and lexicographers everywhere. Since the OED itself is not characterized by frivolity, a blog post carrying the full heft of the OED can hardly be called lightweight. Q.E.D.

But wait: the OED encompasses the word "frivolous" and this blog post embraces the OED. How can I practice non-frivolity while immersing myself within the origins of the word? I find myself agreeing with a quotation the OED offers from Thomas Timme's Commentarie of Iohn Caluine upon Genesis, translated in 1578: "It is too frivolous and vaine to expound this worde." Trump that.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Fuel stop

Running on fumes today--literally. Made it to the gas station with the gas gauge pointing decisively toward "E." Filled up. Disgusted: how can gas prices possibly go up 30 cents overnight?

Arrived at campus late. Parking lot full. No energy to search for legal parking space. (Nouns either. No energy to insert subjects in sentences. Let's verb!)

Parked illegally. Fully intended to move car from two-hour space after teaching class. Waylaid by student in need. Distracted by meeting. Fumbling about in the brain for some forgotten task, which finally surges to the surface: must move car.

No ticket! Running errands--but darn, forgot to bring bank deposit from home. Checks bouncing? Possibly.

Muddled around with Moodle and Sharepoint. Wrote midterm exams. Ordered pizza. No energy to check all these tasks off my to-do list. Fall break looms like that Mobil pegasus promising fuel at the end of a long, lonesome highway. Two more days. Running on fumes.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Gateway to fun

Something amazing happened this morning: I offered my students an opportunity to do something really fun, and instead of groaning, they said, "Neat! Let's go!"

I've long since come to terms with the fact that my idea of fun does not always mesh with that of my students, so I know what to expect when I say something like "I've got a really fun group activity for your this morning" or "I've written some really fun questions for this exam." They groan. They roll their eyes. Sometimes they express heartfelt disagreement with my idea of fun.

So I was prepared this morning when I announced to my honors students that we would be leaving class 15 minutes early to go on a field trip. It's cold and damp and gloomy outside and we would be walking three or four blocks to visit a big truck parked at the edge of campus, which doesn't sound like any fun at all until you hear what was inside the truck: the Gateway to Knowledge, a traveling exhibit of facsimiles of documents that live at the Library of Congress. (Read about it here.)

We had a lot to do in class today to prepare for the midterm exam (on Thursday), but as we got closer to the time to leave, a few students started chanting, "Library of Congress! Library of Congress!" And then we trotted down there to gaze enrapt at a facsimile of Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence ("Look! Jefferson practiced writing as a process involving drafting, feedback, and revision!") and the Waldseemuller Map ("Look! Europeans envisioned America as an island ending at the Alleghenies, which leaves Ohio under water!") and the original Spider-Man drawings ("Look! Peter Parker looks like he's trying to catch flies with those webby wingy things!"). Okay, the Spiderman art wasn't terribly relevant to a class looking at the concept of "civilization" in literature, but the rest of it was pretty interesting.

And fun! A good time was had by all. Now I want to take the class on a field trip to the actual Library of Congress! That's my idea of fun--and perhaps theirs too.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Technapocalypse Now

By the powers vested in me by nobody in particular, I hereby declare today Raincoat Appreciation Day. It's not the most rational response to the recent campus technapocalypse, but it's the best I can do.

Living without e-mail for the weekend was perhaps a bit of a blessing: for two whole days I didn't have to deal with any demands for immediate attention, and when the e-mail server came back online, I thought that's that, it's over, we can move on.

Little did I know that the e-mail problem was just the tip of the iceberg that would sink my Monday morning. The technapocalypse caused every update anyone has made to the campus website for weeks to be irretrievably lost. All our recent faculty council minutes--gone. All our documents related to faculty meetings--gone. The lists of faculty committee members, deadlines for submitting applications, updates to the faculty manual--gone. Someone will have to go through the entire site page by page to see what's missing and try to restore it.

In the face of such a titanic task, I say it's time for all good men (and women) to appreciate my new raincoat, a lovely full-length London Fog trenchcoat with a warm lining and a hood to keep the rain off my head. I've always loved trenchcoats and this one is even better because it was free, left behind in a closet by the woman who used to own my daughter's house. Yes: for the cost of dry-cleaning, I picked up three wonderful coats that look as if they've never been worn. My daughter should buy houses more often--provided that the previous owner is just my size.

So I spent a good bit of time this morning trying to cope with the aftermath of the technapocalypse, but at this point there's nothing I can do but panic and that won't work. Trust me--I've tried. So instead I plan to walk away from the computer and admire my raincoat. Neat idea, raincoats: put one on even when it's not raining and when heavy weather strikes, you'll be protected. If only someone had thought to toss a raincoat over that server....

Friday, October 01, 2010

Sweet (gum) dreams come true

Last fall I announced one Sunday that I wanted a sweet-gum tree, and my adorable spouse said, "Okay." (Read it here.) However, making my sweet-gum dream come true has not been easy.

A friend sent sweet-gum seed pods, which we planted in pots to see if they'd grow. Some woodland creature promptly knocked over the pots, disinterred the seeds, and carried them away. Perhaps they're growing, but who knows where?

In the spring we looked at trees at local nurseries. No sweet-gum trees in sight. I assumed we were out of luck.

Then last Saturday the adorable spouse came home from the Farmers' Market with a tree in the back of his van. He won't tell me where he got it, but I assume that one of his Market buddies hooked him up with a sapling just in time for fall planting. And even though the spouse was sick, he promptly dug a hole and planted our tree. I don't see a chipmunk uprooting that tree and carrying it away.

It's a petite tree with lovely star-shaped leaves. I'm rooting for growth and so is the weather, which provided plenty of water to welcome the new tree. That's what it takes to make sweet-gum dreams come true.