Friday, April 29, 2011

More on hats (or moron hats)

My favorite piece of royal wedding trivia, from "Holy Matrimony!" by Lauren Collins in the May 2 New Yorker:

In 1923, when Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon--the Queen Mum, pre-mumhood--married Prince Albert, Duke of York, a request by the nascent BBC to broadcast the ceremony was rejected by church officials, for fear that men 'might hear the service, perhaps even some of them sitting in public houses, with their hats on.'

We've come a long way, baby!

Medusa lives!

Yet another reason I'd never make it as a Princess. Frankly, I'd rather walk around wearing an ampersand on my head.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Sure I'm grading. What else would I be doing?

1. Number of piles of stuff on my desk: 7.
Number of those piles requiring immediate attention: 7.
Number of brain cells standing immediately at attention: 7.
I think we're gonna need a bigger brain.

2. What do you do with that long line of students waiting to wheedle their way to a better grade? Try Wheedle-Away today! Just spray and watch those wheedlers run! Order now and receive a free bonus can of Bogus-Excuse-B-Gone! Now in lemon, cinnamon, dogwood, or paisley.

3. A brilliant idea that just might work: if the local bowling alley closes (as it keeps threatening to do), making it impossible for the college to offer bowling classes in the fall, and if the college continues having trouble finding money to renovate the band rehearsal hall, let's kill two birds with one stone: open a bowling alley in the band rehearsal space and invite the community to bowl (for a price!) while the band plays on. Musical bowling. What's not to love?

Desks, tests, and other challenges

All semester long I've come into my American Lit classroom expecting a surprise: will the desks be arranged in rows or pods or will they form an elaborate labyrinth? The person who teaches in there before me likes to try every possible arrangement of chairs, but most days I've managed to work with whatever I've found. It's uncanny sometimes: I show up with a bit of group work and find the desks arranged neatly in just the right number of groups; I show up to give an exam and find the desks arranged to minimize opportunities for cheating. Neat.

Today I arrived early to make sure the arrangement was appropriate for a final exam and found a mostly workable room--except that a desk was missing and the only available replacement was about six inches too tall. All-righty then! Let's just snap our fingers and make a desk appear out of thin air!

Now my students are busy trying to make answers appear out of thin air. I hate to admit it, but I really enjoyed writing this exam and I hope they enjoy taking it. Is it wrong to take such pleasure in writing literature exams? I never try to trick or trip up students, but I do like to push them to show what they know and to think beyond the obvious.

In one set of questions I list pairs of poems and ask students to explain the similarities. Maybe both poems use free verse, but let's face it: 90 percent of the poems we've discussed in the last three weeks employ free verse, so the chances are pretty good that "free verse" will be a valid answer. But, as I told my students before they started the exam, sometimes the obvious answer isn't the complete answer or the best answer or the only answer. Think beyond the obvious.

We've spent some time in the past three weeks putting poems in conversation with each other, looking at allusions and influences and recycling of themes and language, so some of the questions on this exam put chunks of poetry right next to each other and ask students to analyze the conversation. Does Sylvia Plath have anything to say to Gwendolyn Brooks? How about James Wright, Franz Wright, and Theodore Roethke? Put Allen Ginsberg and Billy Collins in a room and what emerges--howling or lanyards or howling lanyards?

And then there's the essay question. I love this essay question. Love love love. Is that just weird or what?

So: one of the primary goals of a literature survey class is to equip students with the skills they need to analyze texts, so the essay on the final exam asks them to do analyze a particular poem, explaining how form and content work together to create meaning. Easy, right? Except I give them a poem we have not discussed in class, a poem that is in the textbook and was written by one of the authors we discussed but was not part of the assigned reading. At this point in the semester they ought to know what to look for in a poem, and I've given them a poem offering plenty of material to analyze. I want them to notice the obvious (line length matters!), but they'll need to show me that they can look beyond the obvious.

I'm looking forward to reading the results, but as they write, what's most obvious to me is that I'll miss this class with its daily surprises, its labyrinths and lanyards and howling about poetry. My sabbatical next year means that for the first time in 10 years, I won't be teaching the American Lit Survey in the spring semester. It's high time to rethink the course, to re-evaluate the reading and writing assignments and perhaps find some better ways to achieve course objectives. Time for me to think beyond the obvious! Who knows, I might come up with some new surprises, find some new tricks up my sleeve.

But not desks. I still haven't figured out how to make desks appear out of thin air.

Monday, April 25, 2011


I was on campus briefly this morning but people kept asking, "Why aren't you home in bed?"

Okay, folks, I can take a hint: I'm home, but I'm not in bed. Lying down is a problem. It's easier to breathe sitting up, so I move around from chair to chair trailing clouds of used tissues. In fact, the unexpected sunshine inspires me to sit out on the deck surrounded by all the detritus of a severe allergy attack: tissues, tea, chapstick, Vicks VapoRub. My only concern is that my nose is so red it might startle the birds.

So why bother going to campus at all if I have no finals to give and I'm feeling so awful? The final faculty meeting of the year is scheduled for right about now and I ought to be presiding but it's impossible to call a meeting to order without a voice, so I went to campus to hand over all the materials for today's meeting to one of my helpful colleagues, who echoed the universal question: "Why aren't you home in bed?"

It seems oddly appropriate that I'm too sick to preside at my final meeting as Faculty Chair. Two years ago I sat out on my deck griping over my inability to preside over my first meeting after being elected (read it here), but then I was struggling with the side effects of chemotherapy and I had to come to terms with letting others fill my shoes for the semester. Now here I am two years later in the same chair on the same deck missing my final meeting and my only regret is that I won't have an opportunity to thank all the people who helped me get from that point to this one. Even if I had the energy to stand in front of the faculty today, they'd be so blinded by the glare from my red nose that they wouldn't be able to focus on my pathetic little croaking voice.

So I'll put it in writing: Thanks, everyone. Thanks a million. Couldn't have done it without you. Now if you'll excuse me, I"ll go out on the deck and scare the birds.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A tale of two classes

It's the last day of classes and my students responded in very different ways:

Full classroom, eager faces, "Could you explain again how a villanelle works?"

Empty chairs, empty backpacks, half the class forgot the homework: "Do we have to do this or can we just go?"

"This is the final class of my undergrad education! I don't want it to end!" So we stay a while and chat after class is over.

Bloodshot eyes, face on desk: "Is it too late to change the topic for my final paper?"

Cheerful chatter after class: "What are you taking next semester?" "I'm in that class too! I can't wait to come back!"

Glum groaning and slamming of books: "I'm sick of this place. I'm transferring out."

"Do we have to go?"

"Do we have to stay?"

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Just a wee toot

Two voices dispute within me: my dissertation director, who warned me that I'd never survive in academe if I didn't learn to toot my own horn, and my New England Puritan ancestors, who quail in shame at any hint of boasting. It's impossible to appease both voices, but maybe those stern and austere Puritans will cut me some slack if I emit just a wee hint of fanfare over here in the corner while nobody's listening.


Look here: the e-book I co-edited is now available for download.

I realize that co-editing a collection of conference proceedings will make hardly a dent on my Vita and that conference proceedings are of little interest to anyone who didn't attend the conference and that an e-book doesn't sit in the hand or thump on the desk as satisfyingly as a print book, but all the same: I had a great time reading all the essays and corresponding with authors and putting it all together into a logical form and writing an introduction, and it makes me really happy to see, finally, the result of all that work.

So toot, and again I say toot.

Hope that didn't hurt your ears.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Rain check

First thing this morning I told a colleague that if one more bad thing happened, I planned to pull the door shut and quietly go to pieces in my office. Then it started raining.

On my desk.

Now I have nothing against rain per se--some of my best friends are rain!--but rain and I get along much better when rain stays in its place (i.e., outdoors) and out of mine (i.e., my office). Sure, April showers bring May flowers and all that, but I'm not planning to grow any May flowers on my desk, or June or July or August flowers either. When rain comes knocking at my door I pull in the welcome mat, and when it starts dripping down the walls of my office, I call Maintenance.

"We'll check the water level in that bucket periodically," says the cheerful guy with the ladder, "because if it fills up, it'll come crashing right through the ceiling tiles."

And what do you suppose sits just below the ceiling tiles holding up the big red bucket collecting rainwater? My desk, computer, telephone, books, piles of paperwork, family photos--just the stuff that resents the introduction of rainwater into its immediate environment.

So I am delighted, simply delighted that competent persons have the problem well in hand, and every time I hear the drip-drip of rainwater filling the bucket or look up and see that gaping hole in my ceiling, I'm thankful that I'm dealing with a mere leaky roof rather than, for instance, a tsunami or bubonic plague or a bus fire. It could be worse! I could have anvils falling on my desk, or even iron safes or pianos. When pianos start falling from the ceiling, I'm getting a new office.

But the rain in my office has put a bit of a damper (ha!) on my plan to have a nervous breakdown this afternoon. I guess I'll just have to postpone the hysterics until the forecast is more auspicious--partly cloudy with a chance of panic. Until then, I'll take a rain check.

What kind of retriever?

When I'm walking around the countryside it's not unusual for the happy Hopeful hound to go dashing off into field and forest to chase small woodland creatures--squirrels or bunnies or, once, a domestic chicken that had escaped from its coop. Sometimes she brings back souvenirs of the chase, but she's learned that I'm not really interested in examining the carcasses very closely so she generally skulks off and hides them in some inappropriate place (including, as I discovered to my chagrin over the weekend, in my front flower garden).

Yesterday, though, she went bounding across a field to track down her elusive prey and brought back for my inspection a different type of souvenir: a loaf of bread. Well, most of a loaf. A chunk had been torn off the end, perhaps by Hopeful or perhaps by whoever tossed the loaf down there. We weren't near any houses but we were close to an area where passersby, mistaking the countryside for a landfill, sometimes toss stuff over the hillside, including, most recently, a sofa.

Hopeful didn't retrieve the sofa. I wish someone would. In the fall those woods are full of hunters braving miserable conditions to track down deer and wild turkeys, but they show little interest in tracking the elusive sofa. No challenge in it, I suppose.

Neither is there any real challenge in hunting down a loaf of bread, but Hopeful was so proud of her treasure that she immediately dashed off to enjoy it in some secret place known only to dogkind. She swam across the creek still clutching the loaf in her mouth, a passage that did not appreciably harm the bread. Must have been fairly bricklike.

A dog that can track down and retrieve groceries is a useful companion. Next time I run low on milk or cheese or other household staples, I'm sending Hopeful out with a grocery list.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Cite fight!

So my son and daughter indulged in a little online bantering this week, one complaining about being required to write a paper in APA format and the other bragging, "I get to use MLA! Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyaaaaaaaaaah-nyaaaaaaaaah!"

Okay, I may be exaggerating just a little, but there's no denying my delight in seeing my very own precious adorable children publicly debating the merits of APA vs MLA. It warms my heart, I tell you. Every semester I hear students asking why we have to bother with citation at all, why it matters where we put the period or whether the title is italicized or what sort of source it is to begin with-- "Why can't we just list Google as the source of everything?! It would be so much easier!"

I rarely win that argument. Yes, I can hold the gradebook over students' heads to persuade them to pay some attention to the details of citation, but deep in their hearts they remain unconvinced. They'll write citations to humor me and earn a grade, but the minute my back is turned, they'll Google their lives away and burn their MLA guides. (All those colons make good kindling!)

But perhaps there's hope! My children are not my students so I never tried to teach them MLA citation format, but they learned it somewhere along with a love for precision and professionalism and clarity of expression, and that's something to brag about. My children care about APA vs MLA! My life has not been lived in vain!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Course planting

This was supposed to be a yard-work weekend but the sky fell and the creek rose and I can't mow with standing water in the meadow, so I guess I'll stay inside and try to plant a class.

Or transplant it, I suppose. I'm working on transforming an upper-level nature writing course from a face-to-face format to online, condensing 15 weeks of material into 8 without losing anything important. This delicate process will require much more than just uprooting the syllabus and plopping it into new ground; making a course grow in a new and different medium will require careful preparation, fertilization, watering, weeding, and pruning.

So far I've done little more than plot out the sections, but this week I'll start inserting learning modules into Moodle (reading and writing assignments, discussion questions, photographs, and audio recordings), all without knowing whether enough students will register to justify offering the class this summer. Will my carefully planted course produce results or simply shrivel up and die?

It's the same sort of question I ask about my garden every summer: Will the okra flower, the beans sprout, the sweet potatoes send out vines? Will blight kill the tomatoes or raccoons devour the sweet corn? Do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?

One thing is certain: the rain won't hurt the online course. It'll just give me a good excuse to stay inside and tend my technological garden.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Because sometimes I need a reminder

Reasons to be happy today:

Sunshine. Daffodils. Persimmons in a poem.

Sea dragons playing basketball. (Imagine!)

Lunch with a friend who's been watching Monty Python. Bring me a shrubbery!

A new spring blouse all covered with flowers--and no blood stains from the port flush.

Mocha Iced Cappuccino from Tim Horton's.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Fool's errand

Because I've been brooding for weeks over whether I'll be eternally remembered as the Faculty Chair responsible for the Great Big Ballot Boondoggle,

and because despite my best efforts I can't seem to prevent new projects from being dumped on my desk, all due the week I intend to go to Texas for my son's college commencement,

and because a well-intentioned attempt to help a colleague solve a problem resulted in a major misunderstanding that resists resolution,

and because last night I watched an old episode of Bones that vividly portrayed the speaking-truth-to-power role of the court jester,

and because I lost track of time this morning and kept my literature class going five minutes too long and would have kept babbling on forever if someone hadn't pointed out the time,

and because the class started with video of Billy Collins reading his poem "The Lanyard," which never fails to make me want to laugh and cry and talk about summer camp and Proust and poetry all at once until it all comes tumbling out together,

and because I followed up by reading out loud Denise Levertov's poem "Man Wearing Bird" with its memorable image of the insane man "upholding mystery" before the passing gawkers

("This is my pigeon / and I its prophet")

and because "upholding mystery" describes, in a nutshell, the task of the poet and the prophet and the Holy Fool and yes maybe even the English professor,

and because Scott Adams of Dilbert fame writes in the Wall Street Journal that teaching history and literature and calculus to B students is "like trying to train your cat to do your taxes—a waste of time and money" (read it here),

and because if I keep standing here upholding mystery a little longer maybe someone will come along and prop up my arms,

it's a really good day to be a Fool.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Trout-lily time

Every year at about this time I go on a usually hopeless quest for trout-lilies. We've found a few solitary blooms growing near our creek once or twice but none in the past three or four years.

But yesterday there they were all over the place--mottled leaves and lovely little yellow blossoms shyly poking up through the dry brown leaves in the woods along the creek. Why this year and not last year or the year before? What conditions changed to allow trout lilies to grow? I wish I knew.

Nearby we saw buckeye buds bursting open and dutchman's breeches hanging dainty and white among their feathery green leaves.

And trilliums. I've been worrying about the trilliums ever since last fall, when the power company sprayed weed-killer all up the slope where trilliums usually grow. Yesterday we found trilliums blossoming abundantly on either side of that slope, but the sprayed area still looks scorched and lifeless, like the aftermath of a massacre.

Today storms are moving in and my schedule looks about as grim as that scorched slope. I'd like to surround myself with a margin of green studded with blossoms and buckeyes, but I can't uproot my woods and carry them to campus. Instead, I'll keep the images in mind, and whenever I feel the grim slope sliding into my vision, I'll just shift a little to the left and look at the trilliums and trout-lilies.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Spring sends a wake-up call

I went down to the garden, raked away the mulch, and found that the carrots we'd left in the ground last fall had kept growing--five feet long and still delicious.

In my dreams.

The fact that I'm dreaming about gardening suggests that it's about time to get out there and see what's going on underground. In the front flower garden I need to rake off the mulch, pull up the tattered weed barrier, work on eradicating the ant colony, pull the weeds, tame the daisy patch, and plant some spring color. Empty out the planters and put in some pansies and ivy. Build a deck-like cover for the cistern with a big planter and maybe a bench. Mow the grass. Move the birdfeeders.

In the back: check on the hostas, do some weeding, clean the deck, mow the grass. Persuade the hubby to put doors on the shed and transform wood and old windows into a cold frame.

Next to the garage: weed around the irises and the pachysandra and plant some more. Pull weeds from the path and find a way to stabilize the slope. Figure out what's wrong with the forsythia. They tell me it's hard to kill forsythia but we seem to have found a way.

Up to the herb gardens: fix the wall, till the soil, plant some herbs, and install a bench to make it easy to sit and inhale the aromas.

Down to the berry patch (prune canes, pull weeds, harvest horseradish) and the vegetable gardens (till, plant, weed, repeat). I doubt that we'll find any carrots five feet long. Horseradish, maybe. A five-foot-long horseradish root--that would be quite the wake-up call!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Stage check

At a campus function I overheard some colleagues comparing notes on their young children's developmental milestones: Is he walking yet? Has she learned to eat with a spoon? Is he still afraid of dogs? Does she sit on the potty?

I remember those days when every little sign of progress called for celebration and commemoration and a cry of "How adorable!" from all who witnessed the momentous event, but yesterday I felt a little left out of the conversation. You want to talk about adorable developmental milestones? My daughter called last week and suggested that we go out for sushi tomorrow night. Trust me, there's nothing so adorable as the Taking Mom Out for Sushi stage, unless it's the developmental milestone my son will soon reach: the College Graduation "I Believe I Can Fly" stage. (Calling my son adorable in public would violate every rule of mother/son communication, so pretend you didn't hear that.)

I celebrate with my colleagues whose children are reaching those important milestones, but I'll celebrate even more tomorrow night when I'm enjoying sushi with my daughter. Yes, she knows how to eat with a spoon, but with sushi, chopsticks are more appropriate.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The end is near...but not near enough!

As much as I love my job, lately I find myself prefacing a lot of statements with "As much as I love my job...."

As much as I love teaching, I'm tired of saying the same things over and over on student drafts. I'm tired of trying to explain the difference between a colon and a semicolon. I'm tired of repeating the Quotation Mantra (Integrate, Punctuate, Cite) and I don't want to devote any more class time to showing students how to use hanging indent. You know that little Help menu on your word-processing program? It's called Help for a reason.

As much as I love reading, I'm tired of snatching brief moments of time between classes and meetings to read bits and snippets of stuff related to faculty governance and pedagogy and assessment. I look forward to spending long uninterrupted hours reading real literature, digging deeply into current scholarship, mulling over what I read at my leisure. It's hard to relish living the life of the mind when the mind is too rushed and crowded to function properly.

As much as I love writing, I'm tired of writing agendas and bits of institutional prose to insert into documents and e-mails explaining why and when and how certain things are happening. My mind is abuzz with ideas for essays and articles, but they get shoved aside to make room for reports and requests and recriminations. It's hard to write freely when it feels as if the entire campus is looking over my shoulder every time I sit at the keyboard. I refuse to take them all home with me this summer and they're certainly not going along on my sabbatical next year.

As much as I love my job, I'm just tired. This semester has worn me down and I'm the first to admit that I took on too many projects, said Yes to too many requests for help. Now, though, it's all winding down. In a few weeks I'll close the books on this semester, open a big fat novel, and sit down on my back deck for a refreshing rest.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Soul food

When I sat down to read the poet James Wood's essay "Taxonomy and Grace" in Open Letters Monthly (read it here), I had just finished leading my American Lit Survey class through Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," with its vivid evocation of poets lost in the "total animal soup of time" who strive "to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought ....with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years." I always get a little excited about the image of the poet violently tearing a pound of flesh from his body and offering the bloody mess to readers and saying, "Eat! It's good for what ails you!"

Wood's essay expresses a yearning for poetry that feeds readers. "I still believe," he writes, "that poems can speak to other human beings and can make collective society consider our own convictions, experiences, and beliefs," but he finds this belief fading among the academics who teach poetry and attend academic conferences. For instance, he describes his experience at a recent annual conference of the AWP (the Association for Writers and Writing Programs):

When I mingle with other writers there, rarely do I speak of how individual poems transformed my life. Honestly, I rarely hear any writers talk about this. Instead, we talk about our bona fides and aesthetic theories because we want to participate in the academic world—one whose tenure-line opportunities are dwindling as our numbers grow exponentially.

Woods joins a chorus of voices complaining that something is wrong with poetry these days, but he's not sure how to fix the problem or whom to blame. He criticizes creative writing programs not because they produce formulaic work but because they privilege taxonomy, dividing poems and poets into discrete groups and demanding loyalty to particular theoretical approaches until poet are stuck wriggling to the wall like Prufrock pinned by a formulaic phrase. Taxonomy is attractive, explains Wood, because it produces a sense of certainty, but poetry lives in the realm of the tenuous. "Literature matters to most people," he says, "not because it reinforces a dominant ideology or singular politic, but because it reflects tension and uncertainty."

Taxonomy flattens tension and uncertainty, but both characteristics easily coexist with the characteristics Wood would like to see more often in poetry--passion, connection, grace. "I take what I need from theory, history, or politics, and dispense with the rest," he claims, adding, "I believe that my work can reach other people--that it can matter not solely for its theme and message but for its crafting and attention to detail....I write with the belief that I will reach someone but once the poem is out of my hands and in the world, I also know I have no control over how people interpret or react to it."

So the poet stands humbly offering his bloody pound of flesh, but he can't make readers eat. He can only hope that it will be "good to eat a thousand years."

Friday, April 01, 2011

Avoiding the avalanche

Minutes after I told a whole host of people how great I felt after completing several exhausting projects, a great big boulder of responsibility unexpectedly crashed down on my shoulders. Lesson learned: she who shouts her joy from the mountaintops may dislodge an avalanche.

So I don't want to say this too loud, but here's a secret: I'm not taking any school work home for the weekend. I thought I had achieved a work-free weekend a few weeks ago, but I was mistaken; this time, though, I think I'm in the clear: I've graded all papers and exams, commented on an honors thesis, met with advisees and updated their files, prepared Monday's classes, turned in receipts and expense reports, posted documents regarding faculty governance, and cleared up all the urgent items on my desk.

A few long-term projects could use attention over the weekend, but here's the thing: my college laptop is no longer portable. After all the time and money our wonderful IT department has invested in keeping this laptop alive, they've finally decided it's not worth the effort and ordered a new one, which has not yet arrived. I don't dare unplug my college laptop to take it home, but my home computer lacks the programs for working on these long-term projects, so I guess I'll just have to force myself to take a weekend off.

Yes, I'm going home empty-handed...but let's keep it quiet, okay? I don't know how many more avalanches I can handle!