Sunday, December 30, 2012


Trying to forget--how does that work? It's easy enough to accidentally forget something I really ought to remember, but intentionally trying to forget something is like trying not to think about green elephants or trying to wipe an annoying tune out of your mind. 

Go ahead: try not to think about the last time you did the Chicken Dance. Don't think about how ridiculous you felt flapping your elbows like a chicken under the glittery disco ball at the roller rink, and don't think about that constant fear that you might fall off your skates right there in front of everyone. And especially don't think about that annoying tinny tune. Put it right out of your mind. No humming! Not a peep!

See? Impossible.

But my sole New Year's Resolution for 2013 is to forgive and forget some resentments I've been carrying around for far too long--not because the people involved deserve forgiveness but because keeping anger alive takes too much energy. Time to write 'em all down, toss 'em in the fire, and forget where the ashes are buried.

But how?

Suppose I decide to forget all about the Infamous Chair Incident of 2001. Painful as it was, that incident long ago switched categories from gross injustice to just another funny story so that even if I succeed in forgetting, one of these days I'll be sitting at a social event and one of my wonderful colleagues will say, "Hey, tell that story about the chair!" Unforgettable.

There's more to life than the Infamous Chair Incident of 2001--but if I label those resentments and keep their stories alive, they'll fester unforgettably. 

And I really want to forget. I'm tired of thinking evil thoughts every time certain people cross my path, so it's time to wipe the slate clean on resentment and hit the reset button on relationships. 

That's my New Year's resolution--and the only way I'll know it's successful is if I forget I ever made it. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Winter on the wing

We awoke this morning to a sparkling white landscape, with three or four inches of snow on the ground and more falling--and early birds by the dozens visiting the feeders. They perch on the nearby maple tree, causing the small limbs to quiver each time they land or take flight and releasing little puffs of falling snow each time. Within an hour after sunrise, the small branches nearest the feeder have been shaken free of snow.

Snow deadens sound, allowing me to stand nearby taking pictures until my feet get cold. I see ten, twenty, maybe as many as thirty birds at once perching on the branches, pecking beneath the feeders, or swooping down to grab some seed or suet. 

Four or five bright red male cardinals observe from on high until two come together in a spiraling midair dance of dominance. I see titmice, phoebes, chickadees, two kinds of nuthatches, two or three kinds of woodpeckers, juncos, house finches, even a Carolina chickadee, its rusty plumage standing in sharp contrast to the fluttery masses of gray, black, and white.

I could watch them all day if I didn't have a house to clean and syllabi to write, so I'll watch them out the window until while my feel warm up again--and maybe just a little longer. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Reading Russo

Ah, the luxury of spending a morning lost in a good book! I turn my back on the cold and wet outdoors and hunker down on a comfy sofa with a cup of hot tea and a book, just a book, no pen or paper, no need to take notes or keep track of testable concepts or think about how to incorporate the book into a syllabus, just read without regard for the passage of time until I suddenly find myself at the end of the book and it's lunchtime. 

Luxury, I tell you, especially when the book is as good as Richard Russo's Elsewhere, his witty and moving memoir of his life with a complicated mother. The chapter describing the adolescent Russo's cross-country road trip with his mother in the shotgun seat is worth the price of the book (even in hardback), and his meditations on his genetic heritage are by turns compelling and disturbing. And then there's a long paragraph about novel-writing:

[N]ovel writing is mostly triage (this now, that later) and obstinacy. Feeling your way around in the dark, trying to anticipated the Law of Unintended Consequences. Living with and welcoming uncertainty. Trying something, and when that doesn't work, trying something else. Welcoming chatter. Surrendering a good idea for a better one. Knowing you won't find the finish line for a year or two, or five, or maybe never, without caring much. Putting one foot in front of the other. Taking small bites, chewing thoroughly. Grinding it out. Knowing that when you've finally settled everything that can be, you'll immediately seek out more chaos. Rinse and repeat.

Good advice, that. Worthy of sharing with students. Except I would have to get up out of my warm, comfy nest to find a pen and make a note, and just for today I refuse to interrupt the pleasure of reading, just reading, simply reading and reading and reading until I am well and truly done.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Romper room

We're digging for treasure, my daughter and I, excavating the cedar chest in search of booty for my impending grandchild. Some fabrics withstand the rigors of long-term storage better than others--what made me hold on to those sorry crib sheets and stained bumper pads?--and so along the way we fill a bag with discards, but we also unearth real treasures.

She holds up a simple white romper with blue trim on the collar and sleeves. Why hold on to such an unimpressive item? "We have pictures of your dad wearing that," I say, "and also your brother and maybe one day your son, if you have one."

A grandson would be fine but one of these days we'll need a granddaughter to wear all those adorable dresses I made when I had free time, young eyes, and nimble fingers: green velvet with red ribbon trim for Christmas, pink calico with cross-stitched collar for Easter, the bonnet I smocked for her christening and the ballerina tutu I made when she was two and twirled.

The smell of cedar surrounds us as we try to see the beauty through pervasive wrinkles. I smooth out three tiny tiers of wrinkled purple satin attached to a black velvet bodice. "You wore that to see The Nutcracker, remember?" I say, and she remembers the ballet but not the dress.

We strike the mother lode of baby blankets in pastel pink, blue, green, and yellow. "Your aunt crocheted that one," I tell her, and she wants to know which aunt. "Well," I say, "your uncle's ex-wife, which would make her your ex-aunt, I guess." A broken marriage removed her from our lives, but her handiwork lives on. 

Another damaged relationship becomes apparent when I keep mentioning an old family friend: "She made that blanket for your brother--she crocheted that afghan for you--she was with me when I bought the fabric to make that pink calico dress--we used to go to fabric stores together and attack the sale racks and remnants to find just enough fabric to make something adorable for our babies."

We used to see or speak to each other every day but then our lives diverged--who knows how these things happen? Today we're friends only on Facebook, but the cedar chest offers evidence of what we once meant to each other. Can this relationship be saved? And how big a cedar chest would you need to preserve a friendship without spot or wrinkle?

The cedar chest works pretty well to keep the bugs out of the embroidery but it can't prevent fine fabrics from deteriorating over time. That ballerina tutu has turned delicate and filmy, and the lacy white bonnet I wore as a baby is stiff, its pink ribbon faded. I hold up the black velvet trousers and purple satin vest I made for my son when he was too young to object to being dressed like a doll and I see not the vest but the boy inside it, the small quiet child who somehow gave way to the hulking blond man now moving confidently through the wide wild world.  

Putting these clothes on a grandchild won't bring back my babies or restore lost relationships, but it will extend a hand linking past to future and assure that we pass on some tangible legacy. Even if it's just a simple white romper.    

Monday, December 24, 2012

Nest wishes!

It was three weeks ago, I think, when my husband and I were looking at holiday wreaths and he said something like "Why spend so much money on a wreath when we have all those evergreens at home?" I pointed out that I didn't have the time or ability to make a wreath, and he said, "How difficult could it be?"

So I bought a big red bow ($2.95) and set him loose. For a while we had a pile of miscellaneous evergreen limbs on the front porch--pine, cedar, hemlock, holly--and then I came home one day and found that some of the limbs had been wired into a sort of vaguely wreath-like shape. 

Then we went away for a week, and since wreaths don't make themselves, we came home to find that same agglomeration of miscellaneous misshapen greenery on the porch.

"Next year I'll just buy a wreath," I declared with a harrumph, but perhaps I spoke too soon. This morning my multi-talented husband beat that mess into shape, wired on the bow, and inserted the centerpiece: a tiny bird's nest attached to a delicate Y-shaped limb.

Next year I'll let my husband make me a wreath again.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


So apparently in only five days in San Diego I shot something like 700 photos. I deleted some as I went along, but it's not always easy to evaluate the quality of a photo until I get it on my good computer, which stayed at home. After spending Friday elbow-to-elbow
with strangers in terminals and airplanes and then driving the final two hours home this morning, and after unpacking, sorting mail, doing laundry, and generally getting the house up and running again, I poured some eggnog, put on the Christmas music, and started editing photographs.

I see lots of glare and overexposure. Like most snowbirds, we sought the sun by walking on the beach, skipping stones, looking at birds, splashing in tidal pools, and cruising along the coast with the top down. We got a little sunburn, a little windburn, a lot of relaxation--and too much light washing out the colors in our vacation photos. 

Judging by the subjects of the photos, I've got a thing for rocks and water, especially together. I see stark contrasts in shape or color, with curves meeting straight lines or layers of browns broken up with sudden splash of brighter hues. I see a lot of birds and succulents, some tall ships and sunsets, my husband skipping stones in the Pacific and me looking content just to contemplate the scene.

The photos don't show the scent of eucalyptus, the sounds of hummingbirds high in the trees, or the constant flurry of their zipping through the air like colorful little bundles of energy. They don't show my difficulty getting accustomed to the time zone (who wakes up at 4 a.m. on vacation?!) or the challenges of driving on I-5 at rush hour, and they certainly don't show how my soaked shoes and socks smelled after a good dousing in a tidal pool followed by a long hike along dusty cliffs.  

But they show the most important things: rocks and birds, sand and water, cacti and contentment, and light, lots of light, that neverending southwestern sunshine that will keep me warm all winter.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Just another day in paradise

If these bird of paradise blooms could speak, what would they say?

There's not much on this earth more adorable than buffleheads bobbing and diving in a lagoon, but they baffled my attempts to get a good picture. Instead, I offer the Nuttall's Woodpecker, which is not all it's cracked up to be.

Topiary Mariachi would be a great name for a band, unless you want to switch it up and make it Mariachi Topiary. 

This red-shouldered hawk looks pensive. Maybe he's disgusted by the very idea of mariachi topiary. 

There's nothing particularly newsworthy about a sunset--it happens every day without ever rising to the level of "Dog Bites Man." And yet! Sometimes a sunset is worth writing home about.

(Who put a ring on it?)

A succulent story

When my son was small enough to jump on the sofa, he fell off once and landed on a cactus and then lay patiently in my lap as I pulled the spines out, one by one. That would never happen today: he's too tall to stand on the sofa, much less jump on it; I don't have a lap that big; and that particular cactus is no longer with us.

We still have enough cacti to make dusting hazardous, but we lost a bunch of large succulents just after we adopted our late cat. Apparently she mistook the cactus pots for litter boxes and overwatered them. The most painful loss was the death of a beloved pencil plant, a gift from my brother, which my husband loved like a third child and still fondly remembers after all these years.

So yesterday when we walked into a Dr. Seuss landscape and found first a pencil plant that reached my shoulders and then another that stretched far overhead and then more densely packed rows of pencil plants, we were in cactus heaven. Rufous hummingbirds buzzed about the blooms as we walked a dusty switchback trail, each curve revealing a new landscape of bizarre succulents. Barrel cacti lurked at knee level while towering succulents loomed overhead, more varieties than we could identify. 

If we lived familiarly amongst such wonders we might pass them by without a glance, but I hope not. I wouldn't ever want to be inured to such spectacular grotesques. I would, in fact, transport the entire cactus garden into my living room just to be reminded that nature never tires of producing beauty bizarre enough to pierce ours spirits and let in light.

Or, if we're not careful, poke us right in the keister.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Pacified by the Pacific

Top ten reasons this is going to be the best anniversary ever:

1. Our adorable pregnant daughter drove us to the Akron airport at 4 a.m.--in her pajamas. Any trip that inspires that level of devotion has got to be good.

2. That wild-and-crazy husband of mine didn't bat an eye when the Thrifty rental car dude suggested that we upgrade to something a little more festive--like, say, a Mustang convertible. Which we did. (!)

3. Peacocks. On the wall. In our room at the cutest B&B in Encinitas.

4. Not to mention a hot tub. On our balcony. With a view of the ocean.

5. Yes, that ocean. There's a reason they call it the Pacific.

6. Hummingbirds! All over the place!

7. Eating fish tacos on the beach.

8. That bossy seagull trying to chase away all the other birds eager to share in the scraps of our fish tacos.

9. Plus a whole bunch of other birds I don't recognize. Time to bone up on those west-coast species.

10. Have I mentioned that wild-and-crazy husband of mine?  Thirty years tomorrow! And here's to another 30!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The nuthatch has landed

Red-breasted nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatches have arrived! They generally spend their winters farther north, but about once or twice a decade they move south seeking more abundant supplies of seeds and nuts. They're similar to the white-breasted nuthatches that live here year-round, but the red-breasted variety is more colorful and smaller, about the size of a chickadee. Too cute!
White-breasted nuthatch

Friday, December 14, 2012

Our Connecticut cousins

This afternoon I encountered one of my Connecticut cousins in an unexpected place: on a monument atop a hill in Oak Grove Cemetery in Marietta, Ohio. I felt more than a little guilty about tromping around a cemetery while final exams demand attention in my office, but word went out among the birding community that crossbills had been sighted at the cemetery so I gathered up my birding-and-botanizing buddy and off we went.

Silence reigned beneath the hemlocks, holly, and oaks as we climbed steep hills. We had to tread carefully, glancing alternately down at the uneven ground and up at the treetops, where we hoped to catch a rare sight of the colorful migrating crossbills.

We saw some robins and juncos and a few fat flickers and once we saw a flock of what may have been crossbills too high, too far, too fast to be identified. Halfway up the hill in the newer part of the cemetery we paused by the tombstone of a former Marietta College biology professor, the predecessor of my birding-and-botanizing buddy. On the back of the stone were carved the words of Aldo Leopold: "He who searches for spring with his knees in the mud finds it, in abundance."

At the top of the hill we paused to enjoy the view, the cemetery sloping downward in every direction and the Ohio River glimmering in the distance. The river brought my distant cousins here in 1818 along with a group of intrepid New Englanders intent upon building a new paradise in the wilderness. They fought in wars, studied law, served in legislatures, and left their names on maps and monuments all over town. We found my cousin today at the top of the hill where a monument bears the name of William A. Whittlesey, mayor of Marietta in 1860 when the cemetery was founded.

Cousin William was born in 1796 in Danbury, Connecticut, not far from the site of today's tragic school shooting. He shares my mother's maiden name and perhaps some DNA but he's as much a stranger to me as the children and adults senselessly massacred in Newtown--but I still wish I could reach out to them, draw them close, lift their pain.

I stand on the highest point in Oak Grove Cemetery wondering what Cousin William Whittlesey saw when he stood in this place--a city on a hill, a beacon in the wilderness, a place of opportunity? I wonder whether he ever looked far to the east and longed to reach out and diminish the distance dividing him from Connecticut. I can't connect to him any more than I can connect to the families devastated by the shooting, but somewhere deep inside, we're all Connecticut cousins now.   

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Ah, sweet mysteries of finals week!

Why would a student submit a final version of an essay without first deleting the comments I inserted in his draft? Unless he's just resubmitting the draft without making any changes. Or maybe he never even opened the file to look at my comments. 

Is there any correlation between how well a student prepared for a final exam and the likelihood that she'll need to use the rest room during the exam period? What's so exciting about the rest rooms all of a sudden anyhow?

Why does that one guy keep staring at the ceiling? The answers aren't written up there--unless someone has obscured a secret message in the pattern of the ceiling tiles.

Does the student who borrowed my book really expect me to overlook the non-return of that book when it comes time to turn in grades? That'll be an Incomplete until my book comes home, sweetheart!

When a student leaves the final exam, closes the door carefully, and then utters an ecstatic "Yahoo!" out in the hallway, what are the chances that he aced the exam? Does the volume of the yell correlate with the student's performance?

And how much extra credit should I offer to whoever manages to answer all these questions first?


A taste of moonlight

What's the best part of finals week so far?
  • Driving to campus in daylight? Nice, but that's not it. 
  • Grazing on the yummy goodies popping up in every office? Close, but no cigar. (Which is good since this is a smoke-free building.)  
  • Finishing the Sports Lit class's grades early so I don't have to think about class anymore? A high point, sure, but not the very highest point.
No, the best part of my week so far is a little automated e-mail that pops up in my inbox every day to offer information or suggestions about our anniversary trip to San Diego next week. I'll be drowning in a wave of asinine essays or trying to calm a crying student convinced that her not-at-all-borderline F should be transformed into a D, and then I'll glance at my inbox and see the magical name of the bed-and-breakfast where we'll be staying in Encinitas, and immediately I stop what I'm doing and pay a little visit to our winter oasis.

The first message contained driving directions and a map, so no big deal except the map was clickable and expanded to show the Inn's proximity to the beach. "Moonlight Beach"--the name alone serves as a vacation. 

Another message offered dining suggestions with little capsule reviews including walking distance from our Inn to each eatery and tantalizing references to shrimp tacos. Shrimp tacos! That's not something you see in Ohio.

Today's message introduces The Coaster, the train that carries visitors to the heart of San Diego's harborfront for a mere $7, rolling past majestic views of beach and ocean. 

For a while I've had trouble believing we're actually going to make this trip, but these daily reminders make it feel real--and then I go home in the evening and share the highlights with the hubby, who spends at least an hour each evening with his nose in the San Diego tourist guide. I tell him about The Coaster and shrimp tacos and he starts talking about tidal pools and whale-watching.

We leave on Sunday but in many ways, we're already halfway there.

But of course we can't go at all unless I get my grading done. Back to work! Moonlight Beach can wait.    

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Grading break!

Link to soothe the savage(ly grading) beast:

Abandoned piano + random people = moving moments. Not sure why but this made me cry.

Intrepid interviewer + resistant writer = awkward interview. Just try looking away from this slow-motion train wreck, even if you don't need any more reasons to dislike V.S. Naipaul (here).

Beowulf = Jesus? Fact-checking student essays at Fie Upon this Quiet Life (here).

Sunshine + clear skies = boring weather--in Ohio. But on Mars, the weather outside is frightful! Look here for some lovely dry-ice snow and other amazing extraterrestrial weather patterns.

Why - wh = y. Why? Read a student e-mail message I'm glad I didn't receive--but there's still time! I still have three sets of final exams to grade!


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

If only I were a character on the Mary Tyler Moore Show....

I'm thinking of an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Our Mary registers for a college journalism course taught by an egotistical professor who assigns his own textbook as required reading. Sleazeball move, yes? And yet I find myself disappointed when my upper-level literature students fail to consult essays I've published when those essays are directly related to their paper topics.

On the one hand, I don't want to require my students to read my work; on the other hand, some of the things I've written could prove helpful. 

When I read advanced students' research proposals, I often recommend additional sources they've overlooked: "You'll want to consult Paul Gilroy on the Black Atlantic," I write, or "John Lowe's treatment of Hurston's use of humor would be helpful here." You would think students would take note of those recommendations, but I didn't see Gilroy or Lowe cited in any of the papers I've just finished grading. If students are comfortable ignoring the big guns, I guess I shouldn't take it personally when they ignore my own humble contributions to the scholarly conversation.

But: my articles would have been helpful. And I told them so. And they ignored my recommendation.

Why would a student (or a class full of students) do that?

Our Mary would know. Where's Mary when we really need her?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Epiphany time!

I can read and evaluate a wonderful essay in a fraction of the time required to read a horrible essay; therefore, all I have to do in order to reduce my grading workload dramatically is to insist that my students submit only wonderful work. Brilliant plan! Why didn't I think of this sooner?

Notes I need to send

To the student who thinks the word clearly works like a magic wand: Clarity must be constructed with precision and grace. Adding the word clearly will not magically clarify incomprehensible prose.

To the student who thinks the word one makes her writing sound educated: When one rubs elbows with we and you and they, all those conflicting pronouns are bound to come to fisticuffs.

To the student wondering what fisticuffs means: Take Yogi Berra's timeless advice, and if you aren't familiar with Yogi Berra's timeless advice, you can look it up.

For the student who spent so much time summarizing other scholars' views that she forgot to include her own, I'll paraphrase a wonderful colleague: The argument is a Motown hit. The other scholars are the backup singers, who get to stand on stage and wear those sparkly suits only if they stay in step and in tune and out of the spotlight. You are the soloist. I can't hear you!




Sunday, December 09, 2012

The gift of nothing

This year on my birthday I received a big pile of nothing--and I love it.

Most years my birthday falls during finals week, so I end up taking home a big pile of student writing. Today, however, is Sunday, so I'm not even seeing students, much less collecting any of their papers. My briefcase runneth over with nothing. Likewise my inbox--piles and piles of neatly wrapped nothing, with a great big bow on top. I couldn't ask for a better gift!

Today I've been rocking my fuzzy red holiday socks, singing along to holiday songs, dipping pretzels in festive habanero pepper jelly dip, and opening gifts and cards entirely lacking in student writing. I haven't even thought about my students all day until right now. Final exams begin tomorrow so I'll soon fulfill my quota of student writing, some of it quite wonderful and well worth reading. But just for today I want to thank my students for the marvelous birthday gift--nothing at all. 

And it's just my size!

Friday, December 07, 2012

When students write the questions

I don't recall my Ph.D. comprehensive exams with much pleasure--two weekends of nonstop writing-for-my-life, the second one under the influence of antihistamines, followed by an oral grilling--except for one part: writing the questions.

I didn't write all the questions, but several weeks before the exam date my committee asked me to submit a few questions for each category. Overly simple questions would have elicited inadequate responses, so I put a great deal of thought into writing my share of the questions, which helped transport me into the mind of the examiners--an excellent place to be when tackling a difficult test.

That's why I like to enlist students in writing essay questions, especially in upper-level literature classes. Today my African-American Lit students had a pizza lunch to celebrate completing their papers--a working lunch where I handed out a study guide for the final essay exam. I gave them a list of literary works and four general themes for essay questions, and then I broke them into groups and asked each group to come up with a list of relevant works from several genres for each theme. Then we shared our results and discussed how we might use those works in an essay.

I've used this technique in many classes and often I'm surprised at the students' rationales for selecting certain works. Later, I construct the essay question based on their suggestions, sometimes with a little tweaking. Enlisting students in crafting questions may make exam-writing a little easier on me, but more importantly, it invites students inside the mind of the examiner--which, during finals week, is an excellent place to be.

Everything's a story

According to the pile of student papers on my desk, everything is a story. Poems, plays, short fiction, novels--stories all, except that one student refers to a novel as a poem while another thinks an anthology of poems is a novel. 

I'm trying to decide whether to despond over the fact that this class made it through an entire semester of literary analysis without ever figuring out the difference between a poem and a story or a play and a novel. If poems can tell stories, what distinguishes a poem from a story? Form, of course--but that's the very element of literature these students are least willing to examine. To judge from this stack of papers, the only thing that matters is the plot, and once the plot has been summarized, what more can be said?

It's a plot, I tell you--a nefarious plot to drain the last dregs of sanity from my exhausted mind until I'm wandering naked around a blasted moor, drooling and babbling about genre conventions. Feel free to join me!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Valubility added

First I thought the student was writing about volubility, but no: the sentence asserted that taking classes in a variety of disciplines increases one's value on the job market, but the word the student used to express this value-added component was valubility, which is either a portmanteau word combining value and ability or else evidence of a gap in the student's vocabulary. Vocabulability. Whatever.

Or maybe it's just me. Let's take a look at the OED: nope, no entry. nothing. Google: 49,400 hits, including one promising to translate valubility into Urdu but instead suggesting malleability as an alternative. Not helpful.

However, if college students start using valubility in essays, it's only a matter of time before the word takes its place in popular usage and eases into the dictionary. Look what happened to relatable! A vapid vocable eagerly adopted by students with nothing to say now gets nearly seven million hits on Google! 

The inevitability of valubility makes me want to take up a less futile line of work, but where shall I begin? Fortunately, a student essay offers the answer: the advantage of taking classes outside your discipline, asserts the essay, is that if you fail at your career, you'll always have something to fall back on. So if this whole stamping-out-ignorance gig doesn't work out, I can always fall back on the introductory computer programming class I took in 1981. Basics of Basic! Putting that kind of course on my vita is certain to improve my valubility.         

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Time: you can only stretch it so far before it breaks

I'm standing in front of my African-American Lit class Monday and musing aloud over the fact that no one has requested an extension on the final paper.

"NO!" cried one student--"No extensions! I need to turn my paper in on Friday!"

Unusual response, but I know what she's saying: for the student compelled to keep perfecting a paper until the moment it's due, an extension may be a curse rather than a blessing. 

She's pretty rare, though. Others try to plead, demand, wheedle, or whine their way toward an extension, and occasionally the combination of a watertight excuse, a reasonable request, and a workable plan will persuade me to extend a little grace.

Here's the request that won't earn any grace: assignment given in October; drafts submitted and comments returned in mid-November; revised paper due this Thursday; student arrives late Tuesday to sign up for a conference to discuss his draft but finds no remaining time slots available--and he expects an extension. "How can I revise my paper without a conference" blah blah blah, except I point out that he doesn't actually have a paper to revise since he never turned in a draft.

Oh yeah, that. Minor detail.

I won't give him an extension, but I do suggest that he add another item to his wish list: a time machine. This late in the game, not much else will help.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Dwarves, ducks, dogs, and more

Sitting here reading drafts, writing reports, and getting so grumpy, dopey, and sleepy that it's only a matter of time before the rest of the Seven Dwarves show up, so it's time to share some holiday gift ideas:

Dave Barry's holiday gift guide--because where else can you find inflatable cat unicorn horns?

From the Quacker Gift Shop, "the most quacktacular place on earth," comes the Rubber Duck Nativity Set--only $29.95! (One of those ducks looks oddly like a duck/pig hybrid. Is that even legal?) 

From Fake Science, a great gift idea for dog-lovers. (As long as they're not dogs.)

Finally, the perfect gift for the book-lover on your list--provided that you can spend a measly $25 million! 

Monday, December 03, 2012

Shopping at work: so wrong but so right

The chief disadvantage of online shopping is that I miss that holiday magic--the sparkly lights, the shoppers elbowing one another toward the latest techno-gewgaw, the jangly renditions of "Frosty the Snowman" wafting through the air. 

But those are also online shopping's chief advantages.

I like Christmas shopping--in theory. In practice, I get annoyed. I'm not a fan of crowds, especially desperate ones, and I surpassed my quota of "Jingle Bell Rock" renditions decades ago. Part of me finds online shopping wretchedly impersonal, but I've spent the past two weekends trying to shop locally with little success. I'm not in the market for any more scented candles or overpriced faux-primitive craft items, thank you very much, and the local pasta place is all sold out of the gluten-free items I'd like to send to a certain family on my list.

So instead I'm sitting in my office using my college-issued computer on college time and ordering gifts online accompanied by Vince Guaraldi playing the Charlie Brown theme. I don't feel at all guilty about shopping at work because I have a list of students desperate to meet with me about their final papers due this week, but they keep missing their appointments. One student missed an appointment late Friday afternoon, which ought to be illegal. Online shopping distracts me from thinking of nefarious ways to torture students who skip Friday-afternoon appointments.

So I'm looking at fruit baskets online and wondering whether those pears taste as good as they look. Are they juicy enough to justify the delivery charge? If they save me from another wasted Saturday spent wandering aimlessly through uninspiring stores, they'll do just fine.  

Friday, November 30, 2012

Friday poetry challenge: grading scale

I haven't offered a Friday poetry challenge for a few weeks because it's hard for a mind steeped in drivel to write even doggerel, but then I read Matt Bell's brilliant grading scale composed entirely of quotes from Samuel Beckett (read it here). Now that's poetry! If only I could respond poetically to student papers:

Between the conception 
and the creation
Between the emotion
and the response
Falls the C-minus.

I think that I shall never "C"
a paper quite like this. (See me.)
You celebrate yourself and sing yourself,
And what you assume your readers shall assume.
(In your dreams. In my class, that's a D.)
I heard a fly buzz--when I tried--
To find your paper's form--
But lacking that--you'll find an F
Between the heaves of storm.

Now you try! Alter a poem to serve as a grading comment on a student's paper--or write your own!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Something to chew on

I heartily appreciate my wonderful mechanic and my wonderful dentist, but seeing them both in the same day seems a surfeit of wonderfulness--and besides, it's difficult for even the greatest dentist to make a two-hour dental visit enjoyable, especially when I spend most of that visit on my back with two or three (or maybe eight or ten, I don't know) people stretching my face all out of shape, poking me with needles, and shoving pointy grindy squirty sucky implements into my mouth (and yes, I know how disgusting that sounds, but trust me: it's less disgusting to read than to experience), and the only thing that makes it bearable is the realization that at least I don't have to read any student drafts right this minute, and then it occurs to me that what I need to make the draft-reading experience less disgusting is a hearty dose of novocaine, provided that it could be delivered directly to the brain without the use of needles.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What to do with a skimpy wordhoard?

Yesterday I read a paper that used "diverse" as a verb--and then I read another one! The context clearly called for "diversify" but the students apparently didn't know that word, creating instead a construction like "Go diverse yourself!"

And then in another class I was trying to get students to choose verbs other than forms of "to be," but they had trouble coming up with options. It finally hit me: they just don't know enough verbs--or they haven't seen diverse verbs in action often enough to see the possibilities. 

What we have here is a failure to communicate the multifarious wonders of words. Making students read ought to open up whole new worlds of words, but if they're not readers by the time they get to my class, it's a little late. How do I encourage them to build their wordhoards? 

In my literature classes I introduce certain terms and expect students to employ them in their literary analyses; maybe it's time to focus more intentionally on vocabulary development in freshman composition. How can I help my students diversify their vocabulary without delving back into the junior-high world of vocab worksheets?

Maybe I'll just tell them to go diverse themselves. Yeah, that'll work.    


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Missing pieces in the 13th week

This is the point in the semester when I start to wonder whether I've really accomplished anything in some of my classes. Yes, we've read some interesting stuff and batted around some interesting ideas, but are my students better thinkers and writers than they were in August? Has my class made any real impact on their skills? Will they one day look back at my class fondly and recall the moment when they suddenly understood, say, the use of the semicolons or the advantages of considering opposing views when constructing an argument?

And if my class hasn't made an impact in the past 13 weeks, how can I possibly hope to accomplish anything in the two remaining weeks?

That kind of doubt makes my head hurt. The best cure? Start constructing next semester's syllabi.

A brand-new class (or a revision of an old class) is a blank slate, and assembling the assignments and activities into a meaningful arc leading to learning is as pleasurable as putting together a mass of puzzle pieces into a lovely vista full of potential and possibility. What will students read and how will they respond to their reading? What sorts of writing assignments will build their analytical skills? How many exams, how many papers, how many days to digest a difficult theoretical essay? At what point in the semester will we really need a break? 

I move around the elements until the shape of the course becomes clear and its rhythms pulse like a human heart. For a brief moment it looks like I've created the greatest course in the world, but I'd better enjoy it while I can because it doesn't last. Before you know it I'll be at week 13 wondering why my lovely vista is missing so many pieces and whether there's time to fill in the blanks before the semester ends.


Monday, November 26, 2012

My mouth runneth over!

They say good news comes in threes but it really depends on when you start counting and when you stop--and then when the news items are supposed to be kept secret, they just keep piling up. At this point my cup runneth over and I'm tired of biting my tongue about why, so if you're not in the mood for good news, go read something else:

1. I'm going to be a grandma! Next May! And how sweet of my adorable daughter and son-in-law to plan their pregnancy around my teaching schedule--although given my daughter's eagerness to enter the world five weeks early, I'm not betting money on the actual date.

2. I'm entirely unremarkable! In the medical sense! All my recent blood tests and CT scans resulted in a report dotted with the word "unremarkable," which makes me three years cancer-free!

3. I'm still smiling! And here I have to be a little careful because the process of earning promotion to full professor goes through multiple stages before the Trustees make the final determination, but my progress through the first stage has resulted in ear-to-ear grins all around!

That's today's big three, but why stop counting? Another wave of blessings could be on the way!    

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Blah Friday

While others joined the hordes celebrating Black Friday, I hunkered down at home celebrating Blah Friday--a day free of obligations, responsibilities, and urgent tasks, a perfect day for making potato soup, drinking hot tea, and reading a good book.

Except I'm not entirely convinced that it is a good book. Ian McEwen's Sweet Tooth is both sweet and sour, featuring a lightweight but nevertheless lovable female protagonist trying to maneuver the labyrinth of early adulthood without being out-maneuvered by the surrounding panoply of manipulative men--including the author.

The metafictional twist at the end should be unsurprising to anyone familiar with Atonement, but Sweet Tooth explores a fluffier moral landscape than Atonement, which makes the twist both unexpected and completely right--unless it's completely wrong. I can't decide. After spending much of the novel wanting to grab Our Heroine by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, I had to turn that same treatment on myself. You try it. Not comfortable.

But it was a great way to spend a long, luscious, boring day. Today I'll venture forth to celebrate small-town shopping day in the most appropriate way, well rested and refreshed thanks to a totally blah Friday.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Maybe I need a rubber stamp!

Things I'm tired of writing on student papers:

Would you want to read a paper called "Analysis Essay"?

Generalizations require specific supporting evidence.

Cliches do not count as evidence.

Plot summary does not count as analysis.

Please review the quotation handout and make sure your punctuation follows those models.

What new understanding does your analysis provide?




Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My life as chutney

Need to do over Thanksgiving break:

1. Read and respond to Sports Lit analysis essay drafts.

2. Read and respond to African-American Lit research essay drafts.

3. Prep next Monday's classes.

4. Catch up on the ironing.

5. Clean bathrooms. Sweep floors. Dust.

6. Bite my tongue.

Want to do over Thanksgiving break:

1. Drive north. Drive south. In between, spend time with family.

2. Bake pumpkin yeast rolls. Cook green beans.

3. Eat really good food at Thanksgiving pot-luck with extended family.

4. Take long walks in woods with camera.

5. Attend basketball game.

6. Celebrate.

Somehow those two lists will mesh into one big mass of baking ironing walking cleaning talking traveling reading writing biting celebrating wonderfulness, but right now it's just a list of ingredients on the Recipe Card of Life, like the cranberry chutney I make every year: some sweet ingredients, some sour, some zesty, some bland, but the end result satisfies, and for that I am thankful.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Breathe in. Breathe out. Now hold!

Up at 4:30, showered and out the door at 5:20, where wet hair meets sub-freezing temperatures for a chilling wake-up call. Driving down the highway on autopilot impaired by a lack of breakfast to arrive at the hospital by 6 a.m.  for a CT scan.

Yes, it's time to celebrate an important anniversary: three years since my final chemotherapy treatment. Once again I face a barrage of tests to determine whether those nasty cancer cells are gone for good or merely regrouping to stage an all-star comeback tour. The assault started last Friday morning with blood tests that left behind an ugly bruise on my right forearm; this morning's work led to a matching bruise on the left forearm and a bonus bruise on the back of my right hand. Tag-team lab techs put out an All Points Bulletin for usable blood vessels, but my veins saw them coming and fled for the hills. Hence the two pokes (and two bruises) for one measly IV injection of contrast dye.

But that was later--hours and hours later. I arrived at the hospital just before 6 and spend two hours mostly sitting in a waiting room where two televisions are mounted on the wall at such an angle that it's impossible to escape the onslaught of morning drivel. Here's a tip for the hospital designers of America: if you're going to make me sit for two hours pouring barium "smoothies" into a stomach that hasn't seen solid food or caffeine since yesterday's lunch, could you please let me suffer in peace? Those glue-like delights go down much better when I'm not being bombarded by inescapable early-morning infomercials.

And here's another tip: your robo-voices need to improve their bedside manner.   I'm lying there with a needle in my arm, dye that feels like industrial acid coursing through my veins, both arms uncomfortably clasped overhead, and this big chunk of machine looming imperiously overhead, but the robo-voice doesn't make any attempt to ease my discomfort. "Breathe in, breathe out, and hold your breath," it demands, and then, after a great deal of clicking and whirring, it issues its final command: "Breathe!" 

Would it hurt so much to say "Please" once in a while? Or how about, "This'll just take a minute so why don't you hold your breath for me, honey, if it's not too much trouble?"

Now here I am in my office five hours after I first got up, with classes to teach and papers to grade and Thanksgiving to prepare, but all I want to do is eat and sleep, in that order. I'm trying to drive the taste of those barium smoothies out of my system and the memory of those inane infomercials out of my mind, but I'll have to wait a full week to get the results of all these tests. Meanwhile, I'll follow the robo-voice's commands: Breathe in, breathe out, and hold!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

My writing process (don't try this at home!)

1. Write an essay about a new approach to teaching a writing class. Stick it in a folder to stew for a while.

2. Two years later, stumble upon the essay accidentally. Not bad. Worth sending out? 

3. Revise to appeal to readers of first-choice publication. Submit.

4. Three months later--rejected. Stick it back in the folder.

5. Nine months later, stumble upon the essay again. Not bad but it could use some work.

6. Revise drastically to appeal to readers of second-choice publication. Submit.

7. Six weeks later--accepted! Provisionally. Please add a few paragraphs of discussion at the end, blah blah blah, deadline in three months.

8. About once a week over the next three months: Open file. Read essay. Think about ending. Write a few sentences taking the topic in a more theoretical direction. Get stuck in a swirling quagmire of vagueness and cliche. Close file. Repeat.

9. The weekend before the revision is due: Open file. Read essay. Move a few sentences around revised ending. Add another paragraph. Feel the quagmire sucking you down into oblivion.

10. Go outside for a strenuous walk. Let the breeze clear the cobwebs and the rhythm of walking inspire clean, well-lighted sentences. 

11. Go back inside. Open the file. Delete most of the new section, brutally slashing all the theoretical blather. Write down the sentences pounded out on your walk.

12. Take one last read-through to tighten up a few sentences and, as an afterthought, add a clever phrase to the closing line. 

13. Attach to e-mail. Submit to editor.

14. Hope.

15. Exactly 17 minutes after submitting the revised essay, receive enthusiastic response from editor: Great job! Love it, especially the last line!

And that, students, is how it's done. (I hope you've been taking notes. We'll have a quiz on this next week.)     

Friday, November 16, 2012

Adventures in Twinkiedom

It looks like Hostess is heading for bankruptcy despite my secret efforts to revive the company. Yes, after years--no, decades--of hiding my central role in the fortunes of Hostess Brands, I'm ready to reveal the truth: I was a teenaged Twinkie.

Well, not teenaged, exactly. The photo on the left shows me--or a reasonable facsimile--at a grocery store in Cynthiana, Kentucky, circa 1983. That was me in the ten-gallon hat and the fuzzy felt costume that was like being rolled up in a rug with the Great Pyramid of Giza plopped down on my head.

I was supposed to be walking around the grocery store during its Grand Opening Celebration and spreading good cheer about Hostess Twinkies, but you try spreading good cheer with the Great Pyramid of Giza on your head. It hurt. And it was hot, too--hot enough to inspire me to spend a lot of time in the frozen foods section even though that's not where Twinkies generally congregate.

The aisles were wide in Frozen Foods but narrower elsewhere, which was a problem because that big Twinkie mask restricted my vision, a weakness exploited by the small boys who kept trying to trip me. They succeeded, finally, when I came around the corner into the meat aisle.

You think it's hard to spread good cheer while carrying the Great Pyramid of Giza on your head? Try spreading good cheer while watching your head roll down the aisle in the meat department.

But the pain, heat, and humiliation weren't the worst parts. 

What could possibly be worse? I'll tell you what: on the way to the grocery store, I was the sole witness of a traffic accident that totalled three cars and a tow-truck. I somehow escaped so much as a scrape in the chaos, but I saw the bleeding truck driver pulled from his cab just before it burst into flames and I saw another driver's bloody hand reaching out the window, flailing about for help, finally grasping the radio antenna and breaking it in two with a thunderous snap. And as I walked around that grocery store wrapped in that ridiculous rug and wearing that ridiculous mask on my head, I could still see that bloody arm waving, still hear that driver's frantic screams.

But I was being paid to spread good cheer--not paid much, of course. What was minimum wage in 1983? Just enough to cover a week's groceries for a couple of struggling college students provided that we didn't splurge on Twinkies. I needed the money or I wouldn't have been there, and so I did my best: walking around the store sweating and in pain and with a mind roiling with bleeding, screaming car-crash victims, but through the pain I struggled to keep a great big happy smile on my face.

Stupid, of course. You've already spotted the flaw in my reasoning, but I didn't spot it until about halfway through my shift when I came around the corner into Frozen Foods and suddenly encountered my reflection: stretched across the front of that mask was the biggest, sappiest, happiest plastic smile ever manufactured.

It was a liberating sight. Inside my mask I could grimace and scowl, twist and mutter and even cry, but all anyone would ever see would be that big plastic Twinkie smile. 

Did my stellar performance sell any Twinkies? I didn't keep tabs on the cash registers, but I know I made some small children cry and inspired a grizzled tobacco farmer to flash me a big toothless grin. Maybe if I'd tried a little harder to create warm feelings about Hostess Twinkies, the company would not now be facing dissolution. 

But I did my best, and in the decades since that summer afternoon in Cynthiana, Kentucky, I've always kept a toy Twinkie nearby as a reminder of my venture into Twinkiedom and the valuable lessons it taught me: sometimes it's best to slap a plastic smile over the pain--but the longer it stays on, the more it hurts when you finally tear it off.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Have I mentioned lately why I love my job?

Casual conversations in the department office about the best way to communicate with the zombie who wants to eat your brains.
An elegant colleague who, on Halloween, dresses as if for a hoedown and kicks off class with a rousing recording of John Denver singing "Thank God I'm A Country Boy."

A professor from outside my department who comes to my office carrying a copy of William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech and wants to talk about what it means to have a soul.

A student who always smiles and talks intelligently in class and whose essay on John Henry Days is a one-way ticket to English Professor Nirvana.
A colleague willing to drive me across town to pick up my car from the mechanic and who can be counted on to return what she borrows.

A student who reads my comments on his essay and revises--and revises--and revises until he's finally discovered for himself the magic of vivid verbs.

A valid reason to read and talk about books I love, to play with words and syntax every day, and to sometimes light a fire in a student's mind that will glow and grow until it illuminates some dark corner of the universe.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Lost (and found) in a good book

Wide awake at 5 a.m. ready to lecture on narrative conventions and rhetorical templates--yes, I am a literature nerd. African-American Lit class starts on Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days today so I get to talk about a topic rarely touched in an upper-level literature class: the importance of page numbers. This issue arises very early when I teach Whitehead's novel. "Turn to page 9," I will say, and the students will fumble with the text before finding page 11 and turning back two pages.

And it's not just page 9: John Henry Days has no numbers on even-numbered pages, on the title page for each new section (or its reverse side), or on the first page of a new chapter--and there are many chapters. Fewer than half of the pages in the book have numbers on them, and the right combination of conditions results in stretches of three or four pages without a number. 

Readers tend to take page numbers for granted: we don't really notice them most of the time, but when we need one and it's not there, we get annoyed. How do we know where we are without page numbers? Why would a publisher resist such a simple convention as the page number? What other conventions might this book violate--and why?

And suddenly we find that the lostness caused by the dearth of page numbers is at one with the ethos of the piece. Look at the pronouns--notice how many chapters start with an ambiguous pronoun, sending us on a search for antecedents and inspiring us to make connections across the unnumbered white spaces between chapters.  Look at all the types of narrative templates on display--the perp walk, the press release, the Who-What-Where-Why-When-How news story lede--and note how the facts resist convention and the template deforms the truth. Notice how Whitehead makes us notice the book as a faulty and incomplete vessel--starting with the absence of page numbers.

John Henry Days defies expectations, crumbles conventions, tampers with templates, and launches us on a narratological thrill ride only a literature nerd can love, and I know some of my students will resist the opportunity but today I intend to tell them: Fasten your seatbelts--it's going to be a wild ride.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A soundtrack for comma splices

Yes, my freshman composition students arrived in class to find a Pink Floyd video on the screen and music blaring on the classroom speakers. So sue me already.  It had to be done.

Every semester when I distribute the infamous comma splice handout with the words "Another Brick in the Wall" emblazoned across the top--the handout that compares sentences to bricks, fragments to crumbling bricks, and comma splices to toothpaste squeezed in where the mortar ought to be--I hear a soundtrack furnished by Pink Floyd in the back of my mind, but many students don't hear it because they don't know the song and don't get the allusion.

So I showed the video with its brutal schoolmaster beating all the creativity out of his charges and inspiring them to burn down the school, and then I told my own little charges that I'm happy to flog them into understanding of comma splices because, clearly, oppression produces poetry and spurs students to creative action. And then I distributed the infamous handout: Another Brick in the Wall.

In my defense, I did suggest that burning down the building might be a bad idea, no matter how much they hate semicolons.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cinnamon is a synonym

As the colorful autumn leaves fall and crackle underfoot, we approach the boring time of year when nature is clothed in shades of brown.

But who says brown is boring? Yesterday I hiked in a dry wetland that outstripped my wordhorde of brown color words: auburn, beige, burnt siena, chocolate, henna, mahogany--I don't know about you, but I need a bigger box of crayons!


Friday, November 09, 2012

Insecure audience analysis

I thought I was doing my freshman writing students a favor by making them write their persuasive essays as letters to an actual living breathing human being, someone whose official positions are public and easily accessible--namely, the President of the United States. I hoped to head off the tendency to aim essays toward some vague, nebulous "you" eager to absorb a litany of vague generalizations.

So you can imagine my response when a student started his letter to the President with the dictionary definition of the word bioterrorism. I picture the President of the United States, the most powerful person in the free world, pacing the Situation Room in the middle of an international crisis and racking his brains: "Bioterrorism! Bioterrorism! What can it mean!?! I wish I had a freshman composition student here to explain!"

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but if President Obama needs a freshman to tell him what bioterrorism is, we're all in big trouble.

Audience analysis, people! You're not writing in or to a vacuum! The President is a busy guy, so don't waste his time! You definitely don't want to assault him with masses of cliches and vague warnings--those Secret Service dudes might get alarmed!

I was a bit alarmed myself until a colleague pointed out the silver lining in my bioterrorism-shaped cloud: as long as students need to learn audience analysis, we'll still have a job. 

Do I hear the dictionary definition of job security?