Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The test that transports

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

House of voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Percussive prose

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 26, 2010

The poet of a thousand (lying) voices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Thanksgiving staple

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

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

First Bert Greene's recipe:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Excelsior

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

Thus, this:

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 22, 2010

Everything is an argument (NOT)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 19, 2010


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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Love Song of J. Alfred Profsquawk

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

"Only three more class sessions before finals!"

"Only two more papers!"

"Only one more lab report!"

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Collecting myself

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Spare change

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

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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Not home yet

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

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

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

As long as I can find my way back.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Culture shock

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2010

Making sense of making sense of suffering

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 11, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Minutes of the previous meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting adjourned!

Monday, November 08, 2010


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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Cutting remarks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The red badge of normal

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Freeze-face strikes again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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