Thursday, December 30, 2010

Birds on the beach

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

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

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Chillin' in Florida

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 26, 2010


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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A fishy tradition

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

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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

An Ice Day

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

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


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

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

Two recipes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 20, 2010

Picture this

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

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A fan of Ngrams

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

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

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

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stitching and snapping

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The wanderer returns

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

Ample sample

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

But I don't do windows

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 13, 2010

Erupting issues and other errors

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

"Wednesday," he celled softly.

"Wednesday," she answered.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A stirring experience

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

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

Friday, December 10, 2010

Now it can be told

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studious sounds

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

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

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Donny 'n' me

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Source of confusion

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

No story here, folks

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

Start shoveling

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

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

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

Time to start shoveling.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

An unexpected houseguest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 03, 2010

Assessing a flawed assignment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Grammar: the greatest gift of all!

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

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Neigh? Nay!

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

Well, what would you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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