Monday, February 28, 2011

California dreaming

Across a rocky expanse of classes, papers, meetings, and annoying responsibilities, I see California looming in the distance--except looming sounds so negative, so threatening. California is not looming ominously but instead stands at the end of the week waiting to embrace me and carry me away from Ohio--except that sounds like an old commercial for dishwashing liquid: "Calgon, take me away!"

Readers were getting carried away by California long before Europeans caught sight of its shores. Around 1508, Garci Ordonez de Montalvo described his own private fantasy island: "Know ye that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very near the Terrestrial Paradise and inhabited by black women without a single man among them and living in the manner of Amazons. They are robust of body, strong and passionate in heart, and of great valor. Their island is one of the most rugged in the world with bold rocks and crags. Their arms are full of gold, as is the harness of the wild beasts which, after taming, they ride. In all the island there is no other metal."

This description shaped explorers' expectations of California, but I've seen California and I know better than to look for an island populated by Amazons bearing gold. Instead, I'll be looking at California through the eyes of its authors. All next week my California Literature students will present information connecting literature and place: we'll hear about John Muir while visiting Muir Woods, commune with the spirit of John Steinbeck in Monterey, evoke the Beat poets in San Francisco and Big Sur, discuss Maxine Hong Kingston in Chinatown, and hear Robinson Jeffers's voice while visiting the house he built in Carmel.

That's the California that beckons at the end of the week, but between me and that dream stands a mountain of midterm grading. I can't get to California without crossing the Sierras, so the best thing to do is just start climbing and hope I don't end up stranded in Donner Pass.

Friday, February 25, 2011

"Well done!" or "Weld on!"

Don't get me wrong: I love my job. I love my colleagues and I love my office and I love playing with words alongside my students, looking at terrific literature and trying out interesting ways to assemble ideas into sparkling syntax. But sometimes when I get tired of answering the same MLA format question for the 27th time this week, or when I'm facing a stack of student drafts starting off "In society today" or, for a little variety, "In today's society," or when I've been spending too much time in meetings full of busy people who seem content to merely tread water--when it all piles up a little too high I find myself thinking, "I could have been a welder."

Why a welder? I've never welded anything and I don't have any idea whether a welder's job is any less demanding or more satisfying than mine. Nevertheless, when I get discouraged with the way things are going, the alternate career I imagine for myself is welding.

Wouldn't it be better to imagine a more colorful career plan? I could have been a hot-air balloonist or a brain surgeon or President of the United States (except I get motion sickness and blood makes me queasy and political debates give me hives).

I could have run away and joined the circus. (As what, exactly? Trapeze artist? No spandex and spangles for me!)

I could have been a beach bum (except I hate getting sand in my shoes).

I could have been a princess (except look what happened to Princess Di, who would be my age if she weren't dead).

I could have been (and was) a journalist, but now journalism is morphing into something I don't recognize and I don't know whether what I used to do still fits anywhere.

I probably could not have been a welder, but sometimes it's appealing to think about wrapping myself up in protective gear and wielding powerful equipment that can make stuff stick together. The thought of producing something tangible, of setting goals and knowing when I've reached them, is very attractive. I don't always know whether my students have learned whatever I'm trying to convey in class on any given day, but if I welded something, success would be measurable (and so would failure): either the weld would hold or it wouldn't.

Today I'm collecting drafts in one class and giving a midterm essay exam in the other. I'll be collecting evidence of whether the welds between words and ideas are strong enough to hold, but the evidence is sometimes clear but more often incomplete or ambiguous or incomprehensible. And when things fall apart, it's often not at all clear why or what I could have done differently.

I love my job enough to keep doing it even when welding starts looking like an appealing alternate career. I couldn't have been a welder, but sometimes considering the possibility helps keep me committed to being a teacher.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Recent heavy rains caused my creek to rise, and when it fell it left behind a hubcap and a rusty muffler. If we stand on the bank long enough, perhaps the creek will cough up the rest of the car.

In the seven years we've lived with this creek, it has brought us many gifts but few of any worth: a battered bathtub, a rusted barrel, lengths of tattered rubber hose, a deflated raft, shards of glass and clay pots, a child's car seat, twisted fenceposts and antenna wire and a stand for a basketball hoop. Once the creek brought us a chunk of coal weighing more than 60 pounds, and sometimes it brings silt for our garden and gravel for our driveway--not nearly enough, though, to replace the gravel the creek took away in our first big flood.

The creek brings other things, of course, enriching our lives with intangible gifts: the soothing chatter of water rushing over rocks, the beauty of fall leaves reflected on the water, the lacy patterns at the edge of winter ice. This week we've seen wood ducks paddling in the creek, perhaps just passing through but still an encouraging sight. The creek attracts herons and deer, frogs, fishes, and birds; the sight of a kingfisher swooping along its surface is enough to make my heart sing. The creek nourishes the columbines and dutchman's breeches that grow along its banks and feeds the stately sycamores that mark its course.

Will it ever bring me a car? Probably not, but even when it insists on washing away gravel and tossing up rusty mufflers, a creek like mine is a good friend to have around.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Juxtaposing the penultimate liminal palimpsest

"Who wants to get liminal?"

Two students jump up and say "I'll do it!" Then they walk across the room and stand in the doorway as I start singing that great old Olivia Newton John hit, "Let's Get Liminal."

I don't know what's more frightening about this scenario: the fact that I am singing in class or the fact that several of my students know that the easiest way to demonstrate liminality is to stand on the threshold. Apparently they've seen me get liminal before. It happens. "Liminal" is a word I work into many of my classes, along with "palimpsest" and "juxtapose."

"Palimpsest" takes me back to my first semester in grad school, when I studied Beowulf in a dim, musty seminar room that always made me wonder whether Grendel's mother might be hiding behind the curtains. I can still hear the great Kevin Kiernan explaining in his gravelly voice how scribes used to scrape ink off in order to re-use vellum but some of the original text would remain, creating layers of meaning with varying degrees of legibility. I don't teach Beowulf or anything involving vellum, but I find metaphorical palimpsests all over the place--and so, sometimes, do my students.

They also learn how to juxtapose, a tricky skill I demonstrate with a silly bit of theater: "Silence, please, while I juxtapose these two books" (or pens or papers or dry-erase markers). I move the two items slowly, carefully, closer together, a look of intense concentration on my face, and as soon as they are adjacent I say, "Look! Just like magic! They're juxtaposed!"

"Wait, that's all it means?"

I don't mind being a bit silly if it helps students realize that a word they employ as if it had profound and magical meaning really just indicates that two items are side by side. And then when we're all done juxtaposing and getting liminal and finding palimpsests all over the place, we can take up the penultimate challenge, which is informing students that all penultimate means is second to last.

"Wait, you mean it doesn't mean, like, really really ultimate?"

Sadly, no. But don't ask me to sing about it. I don't know any penultimate songs.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hidden in plain sight

I'm making my usual rounds in the library when I notice a door I've never before walked through and suddenly I want to see what's on the other side.

I've always wanted to live in a library and for the past two years I have, more or less. My office and classroom and work area are in the library; I teach and write and research and lead workshops here, and I have taken students to Special Collections and read ghost stories to listeners in the stacks (read it here). But as much as I know and love my library, it still offers occasional surprises.

I walk through that unfamiliar door, and if this were a thriller I would find something shocking on the other side--a blood-drenched corpse, a Cheshire cat, a chance for romance or heroic action. But instead I find a stairwell. I've never used that stairwell before, but it's good to know it's there if I ever need it.

I look around some more and find corners I've never explored, cabinets full of microfilm I've never read, periodicals bound in marbled covers I've never cracked. On the top floor I find a new hero: Bernice Eddy Wooley, class of 1924, whose work contributed to the development of the polio vaccine and "provided a major impetus for further research on cancer viruses." Three cheers for Bernice! She's been hanging on the wall up there all this time and I never bothered to know her.

How many other heroes are hiding in my library? The only way to find out is to keep opening doors to see what's on the other side.

Monday, February 21, 2011


This is the week I buy a phone.

Am I ready to give up my cell-phone-free status and start carrying around an annoying little beeping object? I don't know, but I need a cell phone for some upcoming events so it's time to take the plunge.

What kind of cell phone? Cheap and simple. We live too far out in the woods for cell-phone reception, so I can't give up my land-line and I'm too cheap to pay multiple phone bills. I need a phone I can carry with me when I drive my ancient Volvo to Texas for my son's commencement in May or to Florida for my sabbatical next January. More than anything, though, I need to take a cell phone with me during spring break when I'm taking my California Literature students on a journey through literary California. If I get lost on the way to Muir Woods or stranded on the Pacific Coast Highway, I want to have an easy way to call for help--and I want my students to be able to reach me if they can't find their way from Chinatown back to our hotel or if, God forbid, they should get mugged or need to be bailed out.

Frankly, I don't really want a cell phone; I've lived without one this long and I don't feel any urgent need for constant connectibility. But it's time to take the plunge, enter the fray, walk through the door to the world of tomorrow--

If someone will just tell me which phone I ought to buy.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Q & A (without the Q)

People have been asking me all kinds of questions about the impending administrative changes on campus and it's about time I offered some clear answers:

1. Yes.

2. No.

3. No really, I mean no.

4. Cupcakes.

5. Only on Thursdays when the moon is full.

6. No no no no no.

7. The Grapes of Wrath.

8. Gila monsters.

9. Section III.D.1 of the Faculty Handbook.

10. What part of "No" don't you understand?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

High-fashion slide shows

Right now the New York Times offers two colorful online slideshows featuring fantastic photographs representing the height of fashion. "Best of Breed" highlights prime canines photographed by Fred Conrad at the Westminster Dog Show (click here), while this link takes you to highlights of runway shows at New York Fashion Week. I'm sure I'm not the first to notice some similarities amongst the subjects. Where do they go to master that steely gaze? Same finishing school, no doubt.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A bad idea that just might work

Inside Higher Ed features an article today about an idea that's really bad--and not just for the obvious reasons. In "Punching In at Kean U" (click here), Scott Jaschik reports that Kean University's administration has angered its faculty by "requiring them to fill out time sheets reporting how many hours they have worked each day, to demonstrate that they are working at least a 35-hour week."

Find me a faculty member who's working less than a 35-hour week. The profs I know attend meetings during lunch and late in the afternoon, grade papers late at night and all weekend long, respond to student e-mails in the wee hours of the morning, and spend vacations visiting archives, writing articles, and planning new classes. Compared to my current load, a 35-hour work week would feel like a walk on the beach.

Jaschik's article cites a study suggesting that most full-time faculty members work well over 40 hours a week, with the average working 48.6 hours. He also offers a telling quote from Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, who told Jaschik, "Many of us work 12 or 15 hour days, seven days a week. If it became clear how many hours we put in, there'd be an unimpeachable argument for better compensation and more faculty positions."

So maybe requiring time sheets is not such a bad idea after all.

Alarms and diversions

First the septic tank backed up and sent sewage spurting all over the house and then my sister-in-law (who has never smoked) tossed a lighted cigarette into a trash can full of paper while a total stranger snorted cocaine on my living-room sofa, and then a diapered toddler went wandering off into the dark damp scary furnace room while a kid who couldn't have been more than three years old sat on the basement steps cursing.

I think it was the cursing child who finally woke me up. I intended to turn to my husband and comment on how odd it was to find a cursing child on the basement steps, but I looked at the clock first and said, "We've overslept! Up and at 'em!"

Who needs an alarm clock? My mind is creates its own alarms.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Whole lotta lovin'

We had a full plate of important faculty business at the faculty meeting today, but a plate of cookies took the cake. The Advancement office provided some really luscious heart-shaped Valentine cookies to let the faculty know how much we are loved, but those cookies sat on the big table up front through the course of most of the meeting. Finally, in the last 15 minutes, a rumble arose from the upper right corner of the big room and a brave colleague came forward to take the cookies and start passing them around. Who cares about curriculum? Let 'em eat cookies.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


We were sitting in the stands watching a stressful but exciting basketball game when the cheerleaders came out and started doing backflips and splits and tossing each other up in the air. A colleague asked me whether I've ever been a cheerleader and I responded with a bitter laugh. "I can't even do a cartwheel," I admitted.

"But maybe if you tried doing cartwheels, you'd enjoy it."

"Oh I've tried. Spent hours and hours in my childhood hanging around my friends' yards trying to do cartwheels, but I always sort of flopped about halfway over."

We watched a cheerleader go flying into the air, do a split, and land without a wobble.

"That's what you should do on your sabbatical," he said. "Learn a new skills. Cartwheels. You could lead the faculty cheerleading squad."

Sign me up! Where do I get some pom-poms?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fringe benefits

When I see a picture of Justin Bieber, I always want to brush his hair out of his eyes. I can't help it: it's a mom thing. If my mom could see me right now, she would reach out and brush my hair out of my eyes and say in a soothing voice, "There now, sweetheart. Doesn't that feel better?"

I've needed a haircut for weeks but I can't seem to find the time to make an appointment, so instead I just gripe all day long about how much I hate having hair in my eyes. Today, though, as I sat at the cancer center waiting for my monthly port flush, I realized that there are worse things than having hair in my eyes. A year ago I was still pretty bald, but hey, I have hair! And my fingernails aren't falling off! No one is trying to pump me full of poisonous chemicals! I'm not suffering from radiation burns! I don't have to parade around half naked in front of medical personnel every afternoon! And sometimes I go for days at a time without even thinking about cancer!

Hair in my eyes may be an annoyance, but it's also a reminder of the passage of time and the process of healing. Considering where I've been, I don't mind so much looking at the road ahead through that fringe of wayward hair


Yesterday President Obama said in a speech that we are "witnessing history unfold" in Egypt, and while that may be true, I'm bothered by his syntax and I can't quite figure out why. Let's do some comparisons:

watching history unfold
witnessing history unfold
watching history unfolding
witnessing history unfolding

Watching and witnessing don't differ much in meaning, but witnessing history unfold sounds wrong to me while witnessing history unfolding sounds fine. Let's try some more:

watching a murder

witnessing a murder
watching a person murder someone else
witnessing a person murdering someone else

Why do I need to switch from murder to murdering in that last example? I need a noun phrase after witnessing: I witness a murder or I witness a person murdering, but I don't witness a person murder or witness history unfold.

But apparently our President (or his speechwriter) does. He's probably not the only one. In fact, a simple Google search shows 2.3 million hits for witnessing history unfold but 6.8 million for witnessing history unfolding. My way is more than twice as popular, but it would take a trained linguist to explain why.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A new view

Here I am teaching a group of colleagues (faculty, staff, even a few random librarians) how to set up a blog, and they're coming up with such wonderful designs for their blogs that mine looks pathetic by comparison. Time for a change! How about a window on a world that's not covered with snow? Here we go!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Viscerally speaking

So my freshman comp class is talking about what sort of opening line makes us want to keep reading and a student offers the following from Dan Brown: "Physicist Leonard Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own."

"Gross," they say, but we agree that the line arouses curiosity and appeals to the senses. "It creates a visceral reaction," I said, but then I pause. Does "visceral" mean anything to these first-year college students?

So I ask, and it turns out that "visceral" is peripheral to my students' experience. But it's not every day that I get to use words like "guts" and "entrails" in a writing class, so I guess I ought to enjoy it while I can.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Writing in the dark

Denise Levertov prefaced her 1978 poetry collection "Life in the Forest" with a quote from Henry James's odd story "The Middle Years," penned in James's 50th year, in which the main character describes the artist's plight: "We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. Our doubt is our passion. Our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

Later, though, Levertov offered more practical advice to artists and poets whose ideas well up in the middle of the night. "Wait till morning, and you'll forget. / And who knows if morning will come," she writes, but flipping on the light will startle you "stark awake" while the vision fades back into darkness. Instead, she encourages writers to keep paper and felt-tip marker at hand by the bed and to practice writing in the dark, using one hand to guide the pen and the other to feel the paper and "keep each line / clear of the next":

Keep writing in the dark,
a record of the night, or
words that pulled you from depths of unknowing,
words that flew through your mind, strange birds
crying their urgency with human voices...

Keep writing, she says, because writing in the dark "may have the power / to make the sun rise again."

Now if only Henry James and Denise Levertov could have taken paper and felt-tip markers along on their final rest!

Monday, February 07, 2011

De minimis non curat lex

I took a quilt to class this morning not because I was cold but because my American Lit Survey students were discussing Susan Glaspell's "Trifles," in which a key plot device hinges upon determining whether Mrs. Wright was planning to "quilt it or knot it." To fully comprehend the complexity of the question, students need to know that quilts are made of fragments of fabric carefully pieced together, just as the play portrays characters trying to piece together a jailed woman's life based on the fragments she's left behind. They need to know that quilts are assembled in distinct stages, from cutting the squares to piecing the top to connecting the top to the batting and bottom, and they especially need to distinguish between different methods of sewing together the layers in the final stage.

And then, like good detectives, they need to look at the evidence presented in the text and see whether it's possible to find the correct answer to the question "quilt it or knot it?" If Mrs. Wright is still piecing the quilt top and has not yet started connecting the layers, how can anyone possibly know whether she was planning to quilt it or knot it? And if no one can know the answer to that question, why do the women in the play insist that Mrs. Wright was planning to "knot it"?

Knot what?

My students have seen enough CSI and Law and Order to know that evidence doesn't lie, but like the men in "Trifles," they don't always know what counts as evidence. There are no smoking guns in this case, no big obvious answers to questions of motive; instead, we have to pay very close attention to very small matters: a row of crooked stitching, a broken birdcage, a lump of rising bread dough. "Quilt it or knot it" could be a life-or-death question if the lawman on the case put his mind to it, but he can't be bothered to notice the difference because, as Susan Glaspell knew, the law does not concern itself with trifles.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Just another dip on the sofa

There's a Bev-shaped dip in the sofa where I like to sit by the big front window and watch the birds, and for the past few days I've been mostly living in that dip. No, I didn't go to Our Nation's Capital to give a paper at AWP. Yes, I backed out. No, I don't feel guilty. Much. Most of the time.

Instead, I stayed home and graded papers, and then I graded exams, and then I graded another set of papers, and then I dug into a big project editing a collection of conference proceedings. Since Thursday evening, I've spent so much time glued to this same spot on the sofa that I'm afraid I'm about to merge with the furniture. A few more hours of this and I'll be transformed into a lumpy spot toward the end that gets in the way when you try to vacuum.

Okay, I did leave the house a few times--a walk with the dog on Friday, a basketball game on Saturday, and church this morning--but other than that, I've been living right here in this spot, my butt glued to the sofa and my laptop glued to my lap. Now, though, it's time to put away the computer and break free, to step away from the sofa and turn toward whatever awaits on campus this week. Will the sofa let me go? If you don't hear from me soon, send in the St. Bernards.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Don't ask, don't yell

Some questions I never remember to ask visiting job candidates:

1. If you were a tree, what tree would you be and how would you feel about having distant branches of your family chopped down to make paper for printing multiple hard copies of reports for those who dislike electronic document sharing?

2. Did you ever inhale? If so, where did you find any breathing room at all within the strenuous schedule we set up for your visit?

3. For faculty members who fail to complete their assessment reports, what punishment would you favor: tar and feathers, denial of tenure, ten lashes with a wet Excel spreadsheet, or permanent assignment to the Assessment Committee?

4. What color magic wand will you bring? Is it insured?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Don't tread on me

Whenever I hear someone talk about our "liberal arts foundation," I get a warm glow inside. That's me! The English Department is at the heart of our liberal arts foundation! We may not be the sparkly dress the starlet wears when she walks the red carpet, but we're the hidden stays that give the dress shape! And we may not be the marble facade that makes a building glitter in the sunlight, but we're the buried concrete on which it stands! Our work may be hidden, buried, walked all over, but without the foundation, the dress drags and the building sags.

But let's face it: when Joan Rivers stands on the red carpet and shoves a microphone in the starlet's face to ask who she's wearing, she's not asking about underwear. And when they're doling out the Pritzker prize and slapping the winning architect on the back, no one even thinks about the guy who poured the foundation.

I didn't get a PhD in English expecting to win an Oscar. Those of us who teach at the core of the liberal arts foundation have to accept the fact that we exist to be buried underground and walked all over. But every once in a while when someone with especially big feet stomps on me, I think I can be forgiven for wanting to rise up and say Ouch.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

I'm not the right kind of doctor to do this diagnosis

Comedian and singer Mark Lowry recalls that when he was a child and tried to claim that he was too sick to go to church, his father would say, "Throw up and prove it." Then if he managed to throw up, his father would say, "Now don't you feel better? Let's go to church!"

All morning I've been trying to decide whether I'm too sick to go to--well, anywhere. I don't teach today but I have two important meetings plus two big piles of stuff to grade, and I need to finish the paper I'm supposed to present at the AWP conference in Washington, D.C., provided that I'm healthy enough to attend the conference, which at this point looks unlikely.

What's my problem? All I want to do is sleep.

Am I too sick to drive to campus? Clearly not since I've been here since 8. Am I too sick to think clearly? There is some evidence to suggest that this is the case, beginning with the incredibly stupid thing I said to a Very Important Person first thing this morning. Am I sick enough to visit a doctor? I have many symptoms of a sinus infection except I'm not running a fever, so I don't know. I would feel silly calling a doctor and saying I'm just really really tired and I might be sick but I can't throw up and prove it and even if I could I would feel so much better I'd probably just go right back to work.

I'm obviously too sick to write a scintillating blog post, but if you ask me to throw up and prove it, I'm afraid you'll be sorely disappointed.