Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I've got sunshine (on a cloudy day)

Stuck in my dungeon office all day yesterday dealing with drafts and advisees and annoying computer glitches, I finally decided that I needed a mental health break, so I trudged upstairs desperately seeking a place that wasn't cold, dark, damp, and gloomy.

I haven't found it yet. 

A week ago we were surrounded by sunshine and warmth and trees bursting with fall color, but then on Saturday the rain started falling.

It hasn't stopped yet.

But we haven't lost power or had trees fall on our house and I bought new tires so my car is no longer trying to plunge into the river every morning, which ought to inspire me to quit bellyaching and make my own sunshine: take one yellow leaf, a pinch of departmental laughter, a heaping cup of good news from a colleague who officially Exceeds Expectations, a mess of drafts demonstrating significant improvement in analytical skills, one game of Scrabble I didn't even win, and one opportunity to wave the word "vicissitudes" like a banner in a freshman class; knead thoroughly to work out the frustrations and then bake until golden. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Did I say that out loud?

Here is a sentence I was surprised to hear actually coming out of my mouth this morning: "The answers you need, gentlemen, are up here on the board, not in your lap."

That got their attention. So did a well-placed expletive, so much more effective when wielded by one who rarely utters anything more potent than "Rats!" So did the Voice of Doom with which I explained what will happen if they copy and paste information from the Internet into their analysis essays. 

Yes: it was Destiny Day, the moment when I try to convince my freshman students that their grades, their prospects, perhaps their very lives depend upon how competently they perform on the next assignment. Time to get serious! Shape up or ship out! (Perhaps literally, if the river keeps rising.)

Of course I offer carrots to temper the sticks. "Master these skills now," I tell them, "and you will earn rewards for the rest of your life," but then they want to know what kinds of rewards and suddenly I'm spinning tales about the Comma Fairy and one of my students, looking rather dubious, says, "You mean every time I use a comma right the Comma Fairy will leave a dollar under my pillow?"

The little literalists. No wonder they never believe a word I say. 


Monday, October 29, 2012

The syllabus switch

You know the nightmare: walk into class prepared to discuss a particular text--but it's the wrong one.

I thought I'd left that nightmare behind in grad school but today I lived it. Yes! I arrived in African-American Literature all set to discuss poems by Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni, but the students were prepared to discuss August Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Because that's what the syllabus says. Right: they read the syllabus correctly but I goofed.

And here's the worst part: I've never taught Joe Turner's Come and Gone. Never even read it. But I will--by Wednesday. Today my students came through in a pinch and did some group work on poems by Shange and Giovanni after I did a little spontaneous syllabus-shuffling song and dance. Free entertainment! What else is that Ph.D. good for?

Our storm mascot

On the eve of FrankenStorm, our garden presents: FrankenTater! 

(I think we'll call him Sandy.)

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday poetry challenge: metapoetry

A colleague away at a conference e-mailed to ask me to send him a poem ASAP--a short, serious poem about the importance of writing. What am I, Insta-Poet? I sent him links to "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes and "Writing" by Howard Nemerov, but this nagging sensation at the back of my mind insists that I'm missing some essential, seminal poem that perfectly nails the reasons we do what we do.

But my drivel-drenched brain can't disgorge the title of that poem, so maybe it's time to write my own:

Letters crawl across the page
whispering secrets, screaming rage,
marshaling arguments, construct-
ing edifices, passing bucks, 
singing joyfully of romance,
boldly calling folks to foment
revolution, seeking peace,
carefully describing geese,
playing games that no one wins,
changing rules, confessing sins,
rattling, rumbling, stuttering badly,
sotto-voce muttering madly, 
counting blessings, courting sleep, 
mourning madness, digging deep
caverns seething with the de-
mons of our nightmares, mining seams
of meaning--letters romp and rage,
crawling, crawling 'cross the page.  

Writing about writing: let's get meta! Submit verse in any form in the comments, as long as you're writing about writing.


Thursday, October 25, 2012


One of my Sports Literature students used a green highlighter to take notes in class this morning and all I could think was this: at least he's taking notes! I have students in there who haven't written a word down all semester except on exams--and not much there either. I'll be explaining some brilliant concept that will help them understand the literature and I'll notice that only one or two students have pens in their hands so I'll write a word on the board and say, "This is important! Write it down!" And they'll all immediately pick up a pen, write down that one word, and put the pen down.

I'm trying to help them move toward a more analytical approach to literature. So far, most of their written responses to literature take the form of review or reminiscence: "I can relate to Fences because my dad is mean to me too!" Today we started The Natural, and so far no one has called it "relatable," which is a good thing, but on the other hand, many of them simply didn't do the assigned reading because they didn't think it would be "relatable."

At this point I really don't care whether students can "relate" to the literature; I want to know whether they can read and understand and analyze it. Today I drove them crazy with an in-class writing assignment: choose one page from the first section of The Natural--any page at all--and write a one-paragraph summary of what's happening on that page--easy enough so far--except the summary should not include any evaluative comments ("Malamud did a lousy job making the story relatable...") or indicate any personal feelings about the material.

It was difficult but they did it. And they'll do more next week and the following week until eventually we'll be ready to make the big switch from writing objective summaries to writing effective analyses. I don't even care if they write them in green highlighter, as long as they're writing more about the text than about themselves!

I don't know about you, but I can relate to that.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why O why?

Why I purchased a print of Nathan O. Marsh's illustration of the letter O from his Alphabet Apocrypha:

Nathan O. Marsh, Alphabet Apocrypha
1. Everyone loves an ornery orphan--especially one with outrageous organizational skills.
2. Okra--so often in the garden, so rarely on the wall.
3. Oligarchsburg, Ohio, of course.
4. An offal and onion offering. 
5. Obstructionist oafs--so often in committee meetings, so rarely on the wall.

6. The word with which I conclude almost all of my e-mails: Onward!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Flight plan

I wouldn't call this morning a total disaster. Information was imparted. Learning occurred. Birds were sighted. Other things were sighted as well, but let's not go there. 

My plan, I thought, was pretty good, but flaws appeared in the execution. Yesterday I heard that cedar waxwings have been hanging around a local wetland and I really wanted to stop by and see them before they move on, but I wasn't wearing appropriate shoes for tromping around a wetland. So early this morning I put on jeans and a T-shirt and hiking shoes and went straight to the wetland, taking along the camera and a change of clothes. My plan was simple: spend an hour or so stalking cedar waxwings at the wetland and then drive two blocks to the best coffee shop in town, where I would change clothes in the bathroom while awaiting my medium vanilla latte.

What went wrong? Just about everything. I saw and heard cedar waxwings (along with kingfishers, cardinals, woodpeckers, and some other birds I couldn't identify), but the cloud cover was so thick and the light so dim that I kept waiting and hoping for more light. My few photos look like gray blurs--and that was before the rain started falling.

I tried to stick it out but it occurred to me that while I could change out of wet clothes, I had neglected to pack a hair-dryer. So I packed up and went to the coffee shop, where I executed half of my plan without a glitch. The other half of the plan--the changing-clothes-in-the-bathroom part--was thwarted by the presence in the bathroom of a total stranger who had, sadly, neglected to lock the door. I wasn't interested in seeing any more of that particular gentlemen, so I took my vanilla latte and my bag of clothes and fled.

Arrived on campus with just enough time to change into dry teaching clothes (but not dry hair) and dash off to class insufficiently caffeinated, only to discover, in the middle of class, that the handout I needed for the second half of class was missing. There's nothing quite like standing in front of a room full of freshmen and realizing that you have no idea how you're going to fill the next 30 minutes.

But I survived that class and the next one, and now I'm looking at my blurry gray photos and trying not to think about my damp, dirty hiking clothes sitting in a bag next to my desk. The sky has cleared. The rain has stopped. Are the birds still there? 

There's only one way to find out.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Pruning the syllabus

Painful as it may be, the time has come to chop something wonderful off the syllabus.

Yes, the syllabus for my African-American Literature class is a little ambitious, but I keep reminding students that this is an upper-level class and therefore my expectations are high. 

Maybe too high.

Okay, definitely too high. If even I am having trouble keeping up with the reading, it's too much--and with that huge writing assignment coming due soon, it's time to do a little pruning. I can't chop off the deadwood because there isn't any, so instead I'm trying to distinguish between different types of wonderful.

Students adore Alice Walker and Maya Angelou but tend to be stymied by Rita Dove, while I'd love to devote more time to Dove and let the others slide. Shall I cut off the authors students find less familiar or those they're likely to encounter elsewhere? 

I could cut the ones I teach in other classes, but that would mean saying goodbye to Toni Cade Bambara and Amiri Baraka. Maybe I should choose a totally random method, like drawing names from a hat or deleting every author whose name begins with W--but there goes Colson Whitehead!

If it must be done, let it be done quickly. Chop! Chop! Chop! (Why do I get the feeling I'm cutting off my own arms?)


Saturday, October 20, 2012

Heigh ho, the wind and the rain

Hamlet encounters his father's ghost on the castle walls while a cold wind batters the audience with rain right on cue, and we feel in the bleak dark dampness that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

This time, though, it's real wind, real rain, real bleak dark dampness. Our theater department's production of Hamlet took place outdoors under the trees between two brick buildings, one serving as backdrop and castle. We sat huddled on folding chairs, clutching blankets close around our cold bodies and putting up our hoods when the rain came. Last week I asked a theater professor what would happen if it rained during a performance. "The play will go on," he said. "That's the risk you take with environmental theater."

The play did go on--and very well indeed. Players projected their voices above the rushing wind and in the end the bodies hugged the ground as if unaware of the cold and damp. Corpselike, in fact. Then we in the audience, cold and stiff, rose and dispersed to our warm homes, carrying in our cold bodies the memory of the bleak dark dampness of Hamlet's Denmark.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday poetry challenge: herds, hordes, huddles

Ever since I observed a murmuration of starlings, I've been puzzling over those odd words we use to describe groups of things. I can see how the term  murmuration might arise from the murmuring sound of the starlings settling in at night, but in that case we should call a group of cell phones a twitter and a group of bureaucrats an obfuscation. Why do we have a herd of cows, caribou, buffalo, and bison but a pack of wolves, a flock of geese, a pod of whales, or an army of caterpillars? Caterpillars are too soft and cuddly to merit military language!

And then someone tossed out the phrase binders full of women.

Well! It's about time to coin some new terms:

a huddle of Sports Literature students

a derrida of literary theorists

a cleese of British comics

a serving of spoonerisms

a burquet of veiled women

a gaga of rock-star wannabes

a babel of linguists

a frisk of police officers

It's not quite poetry, but it's fun with words. Now you come out and play!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

One big happiness sandwich

The first time I gave a paper at an academic conference (this is true!), my nervousness spawned a physical response so extreme (I'll leave the details to your imagination) that I later had to throw my conference clothes in a dumpster. 

I'm pleased to report that the students who gave papers today for the annual Ohio Valley Shakespeare Conference did not suffer such a response. Their nervousness showed only intermittently in the pace of their reading and their relief when their session was through, but they presented their papers skillfully and responded to questions with grace and insight.

Of course, this is a highly supportive audience. Our college hosts the OVSC conference about every five or six years and everyone in the English department is happy to assist, which is how I ended up chairing a student session even though I am not by any means a Shakespeare scholar. Before we began I told the students that the audience would be rooting for them to succeed, and in this case it was true. The question-and-answer time was lively and thought-provoking, lacking the competitive speechifying so common to academic conferences. Afterward I welcomed a chance to chat with a former student who's been busy introducing remedial reading students to slam poetry.

I'm always happy when my students do good work, so seeing current students on the stage and former students in the audience is just one big happiness sandwich. And, best of all, no one had to throw any clothes in a dumpster.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Joseph Anton and the storyteller's art

Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie's memoir of the fatwa years, is one of those rare books whose vices and virtues are identical. It's long and gossipy, full of shameless name-dropping and self-righteous defensiveness; Rushdie exposes his own fears and foibles but also shines a harsh but sometimes humorous spotlight on the inadequacies of others. For those reasons alone it's well worth reading, but I cherish those moments when the book offers a peek at the writer's imagination at work.

Soon after the fatwa required Rushdie to go into hiding, he began writing a book for his young son, Zafar: "He had told Zafar stories while the boy took his evening bath, bath-time stories instead of bedtime ones. There were little sandalwood animals and shikara boats from Kashmir floating in the bathwater and the sea of stories was born there, or perhaps reborn." From this bath-time ritual grew Haroun and the Sea of Stories, an enchanting tale of the power of storytelling.

He recalls experiencing this power on a visit to Kerala, where an oral storyteller broke all the rules of conventional narrative: "The storyteller stirred stories into one another, digressed frequently from the main narrative, told jokes, sang songs, connected his political story to the ancient tales, made personal asides, and generally misbehaved," but the audience did not "hiss or boo or throw vegetables" (or draw guns or throw bombs or declare death sentences). Rushdie wonders why the audience remained enraptured by the storyteller's unconventional art--"Did it do so in spite of the storyteller's complicated story-juggling act, or because of it?" 

I want to share this question with my postcolonial survey students, who have just begun reading Shame and wonder why Rushdie didn't arrange his story in strict chronological order but instead allows different times and places to intermingle promiscuously. Rushdie describes his earliest attempts to find the connection among the various "fragments of narratives and characters" that eventually assembled themselves not very neatly into The Satanic Verses, a book in which he realized that "his real subject, the one he would worry away at for the rest of his life," was not India or Pakistan or any particular place or time but "the great matter of how the world joined up, not only how the East flowed into the West and the West into the East, but how the past shaped the present while the present shaped our understanding of the past, and how the imagined world, the location of dreams, art, invention, and, yes, belief, leaked across the frontier that separated it from the everyday."

The everyday hassles of life in hiding consumed great swaths of the writer's time and imagination, requiring him sometimes to forsake fiction and master the alien language of political speech, which felt flat, ugly, colorless:

Did it matter if the writer was denuded in this way, stripped of the richness of language? Yes, it did, because beauty struck chords deep within the human heart, beauty opened doors in the spirit. Beauty mattered because beauty was joy and joy was the reason he did what he did, his joy in words and in using them to tell tales, to create worlds, to sing. And beauty, for now, was being treated as a luxury he should do without.

And beauty is only one of many luxuries he has to do without. The claustrophobic nature of his life in hiding comes through clearly in the book, but when the walls close in, he finds escape in writing. "Literature," he writes, "tried to open the universe, to increase, if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be. Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before."

And the audience sits enraptured and listens, despite the storyteller's juggling act--or perhaps because of it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Bewildered, bothered, and befuddled

No phone here.
Places where I could have dropped my cell phone Saturday morning: in my car, in my birding buddy's car, in the woods, at the church bake sale, in my husband's office, in the church parking lot, at the cemetery where I stood to take some photos, at the historic covered bridge.

Places where I frantically searched for my cell phone Saturday afternoon: in my car, at the church, in my husband's office.

Place where a colleague from the biology department found my cell phone on Sunday: in the parking area near the woods where my birding buddy and I saw the white-crowned sparrow and the hairy woodpecker.

Not a short story.
Things I've said this week that (some of) my students have not understood: transcend, meritocracy, penultimate, General Education requirements.

Things students have said that I have not understood: Lincoln was assonated, abortion is a topic that is too often spewed under the rug, and Why aren't we reading any short stories? (in a class in which at least one-third of the reading assignments are short stories).

Number of times I've taught Salman Rushdie's Shame: five for the postcolonial literature survey, two or three more in independent studies.

Number of times people have protested the novel's sharp critique of Pakistan and Islam: zero.

Not a General Education requirement.
Response from an administrator when I mentioned that I'm hoping to one day teach a full-semester course on Rushdie including The Satanic Verses: "Would the title of the course have to include Rushdie's name?"

Number of students who admitted that they hadn't done the reading for this morning's class: three.

Number of students in yesterday's class who had nothing to contribute to their group discussions because they were frantically trying to read the short stories (in a class that's one-third short stories!) during class time but wouldn't admit that they hadn't done the reading: more than three.

Words I may soon need to explain to those students soon: dissemble, temporize, founder

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Right panic, wrong person

Another stress dream last night, another panic attack over an impending deadline--why am I freaking out over an assignment I don't even have to do? My students should be the ones freaking out! If they're not freaking out by now, they're not trying!

I worry that I haven't impressed upon them just what I expect. "I expect perfection," I told them, but do they know how to achieve perfection of both form and content on an annotated bibliography? This is an upper-level class and many of them are English majors--but some are not. Will they know how to use the online MLA bibliography? Will they know what counts as a "reputable" source in literary analysis? Will they know how to briefly summarize their sources and evaluate their effectiveness without resorting to "I like this article" or "I didn't understand it"?

Who will teach them?

That would be me. And that's why I'm panicking. I've posted samples, talked about expectations, suggested resources, but students who ought to be well on their way to finding sources seem to be stuck in the "I don't know what to write about" stage. This worries me when it ought to be worrying them, and then I worry about why it's not worrying them. Maybe they're confident in their abilities to bring the whole thing together at the last minute. Or maybe they really have no idea what I'm asking them to do.

So I panic. And I worry. And I have stress dreams. And I wonder whether I ought to pass that panic on to my students: "How can you sleep at night? Why aren't you panicking?! Don't you know how important this assignment is?!!!!" 

On the other hand, maybe we'll all be better off if I sit back, relax, and expect the best. They're adults. They can manage their own time and tasks. They can do this!

I hope. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday poetry challenge: pictures from a murmuration

It starts with a whooshing sound like water sweeping over a waterfall or waves rushing ashore. Above my head a small flock of starlings swoops past and joins up with another group and another until soon a phalanx of starlings fills the sky, wheeling and massing and making shapes that move smoothly from rhomboids to ovals to multi-armed whirligigs.

How many starlings make a murmuration? Surely thousands--some say hundreds of thousands. They gather faithfully just before sunset at this time of year, flocking in with a whoosh from every direction and then joining up to create shifting shapes in the sky. Still photos can't capture the motion and even videos available online (for instance, here) leave out the rushes of wind and sound that accompany each startling transformation.

They gather each autumn at the same spot along the Muskingum River, sky-dancing for a time before finally settling into a thick copse of trees, where they chatter shrilly for 30 minutes or an hour before settling into silence. I'm standing a few feet from the copse, but they may as well be invisible--aside from an occasional shadowy movement, the only indication that thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of starlings have simultaneously settled among those trees is the sound they make.

And what a sound! I grasp at metaphors: like the world's biggest orchestra warming up before a performance, or like the audience chattering and rustling and cell-phoning before settling into their seats. A few shrill calls stand out but it's mostly one chaotic roar rolling in waves like radio static with the volume turned all the way up. 

And then they stop, suddenly, as if the conductor has stepped up and tapped his music stand. The silence is immediate but lasts less than a minute before they're chattering again, and then the volume gradually declines as darkness falls. When the sound ceases, it feels as if a physical object has been removed, as if someone has plucked earphones off my head or knocked down a wall separating me from the rest of the world. It's impossible to convince myself that the starlings are still there even though I know I saw them wheeling in the sky, saw them descend into the trees all at once as if obeying a field marshal's sudden command. 

No poetry or picture is sufficient to convey the wonder of the murmuration, but that doesn't mean I won't try:

Starlings wheel, whirr, whoosh,
bank and turn, sit and chatter. 
Darkness falls. Silence.

Your challenge: poetry of any sort encapsulating a moment of wonder.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Testing one two three

I'm watching a room full of students take an exam and wondering wondering wondering about many things, like why do exams inspire so much coughing? Students who never cough all semester long are suddenly overcome by coughing fits that threaten to blow out the windows. Maybe it's a code, the Coughing Code. I hate to tell them, but if they're not ready for this exam, coughing won't help.

And then there's a student in the back picking his nose. Yuck. Wish I hadn't seen that. But maybe he's trying to  gross me out so I won't look his way so often. The Nose-Picking Strategem? Um, yuck.

What's up with the students who refuse to clear their books and papers off their desks? It's a long exam and they'll need the whole hour to finish, but while their classmates are already starting to write, a few slowpokes are trying to squeeze in a few more minutes of study time. How long do I have to stand there with the exam in my hand while the laggards struggle to clear their desks? 

And why do I suddenly feel as if I'm teaching third grade?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A discombobulating break

Back from break and all morning I've been confused. Today feels like Monday but I went hiking on Monday and we can't have two Mondays in the same week, so I've lost track somewhere. Let's review: Saturday, house-cleaning and midterm-grading; Sunday, church, driving in the rain, visiting; Monday, hiking, hummus, and Katharine Hepburn; Tuesday--what happened to Tuesday? On the road, driving home, taking the dog for a long walk and trying to catch a glimpse of the green heron squawking down by our creek. That would make today Wednesday.

For weeks I've been postponing tasks and telling myself I would do them over four-day break, but to do it all I would have needed four months. A four-day break is just long enough to offer a taste of life outside of campus and make me hungry for more, but it's never long enough to satisfy that hunger. Except for grading--I'm perfectly satisfied with the amount of grading I did over break and I really don't hunger for any more right now.

Now I'm back to work and wondering why I'm feeling so Mondayish on what can only be a Wednesday. On Monday I hiked with my daughter in a forest that felt enchanted, full of venerable trees that looked as if they could talk to us and stepping-stones designed for the feet of giants. For a brief moment we wandered into a timeless realm where anything could happen, but now we're back in the land of disenchantment and I don't know what day it is or what I did yesterday or what I'm doing tomorrow. Stand still, time! I need to catch up! 

Monday, October 08, 2012

Links to kill the Monday blues

Midterm grading is DONE so I'm heading out for a fall hike with my adorable daughter. Here's a little something to entertain those still stuck in Grading Hell:

In an unparalleled feat of investigative journalism, the New York Times tracks down the origin of the Escape key and offers some computer keys for those inhabiting alternate realities.

Get back to basics with the ABCs: read Nathan O. Marsh's Alphabet Apocrypha to discover why I'm suddenly enamored of air-adapted anchovies.

Is that a marching band or a gigantic game of Tetris? Watch and wonder as the Ohio State University marching band transforms the football field into a video game.

I'm not a huge fan of taxidermy, but if the book is half as good a this review, it's a must-read.  Anjuli Raza Kolb writes, "We pick up a feather, pocket a sun-bleached crab shell, a bolt of whale skin brushes a foot underwater. Whatever the object, to handle and hold these fetishes in a life so digital is practically psychotropic."

Finally, I'm driving on the interstate in the pouring rain, surrounded by Sunday drivers who don't know their right turn-signal from their left, and suddenly this song comes on the radio and the whole world smiles. In fact, I'm still smiling. Hope you are too.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Random flotsam from a floppy mind

Twice in the past week I've been part of a very small group charged with completing a specific task with a close deadline, and both times the experience was delightfully productive. Why can't all committee work be so satisfying?

Grading midterms from different classes makes the information all run together in my head, which may explain why it took me a moment to figure out what was wrong with the claim that a particular work written in 1852 contained an allusion to the Gettysburg Address. Antebellum time travel! Who knew?

I returned the borrowed leash to my neighbors today without encountering Apollo the friendly doberman or the bottomless barrel of dog biscuits (read it here). The neighborhood was pretty deserted. I assume everyone is hanging out at the Oktoberfest shindig over on the river. I once worked a very long afternoon at Oktoberfest selling sandwiches at the band booth just across from the karaoke booth, and the karaoke-induced trauma cured me of any desire to attend Oktoberfest.

Startled a great blue heron in the creek this morning, which reminds me that yesterday I met with a student whose passions are rowing, writing, birds, and nature photography. He's Mini-Me! Except for the rowing thing. And the gender thing. And, let's be honest, the age thing. So not really like me at all except that he's the only student who has ever gotten excited about my green heron photos.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Friday poetry challenge: the pencil test

The look on my student's face this morning would bring tears to the eyes of a granite monument, but I can't help it: I don't carry spare pencils. In fact I rarely even use pencils. I'm a pen person, but my student is not.

She asked for a spare pencil to use on the midterm exam. "I've got a spare pen," I told her, but she prefers pencils. She asked a few classmates for a spare pencil--no luck. She finally accepted my extra pen, but she looked as if she wanted to stab out her own eyeballs with it rather than write.

I can't say I understand this pencil fetish but I do sympathize. In a pinch I'll write with whatever comes to hand but given a choice I prefer my pens fat, blue, and smooth. A pen that feels  uncomfortable in my hand or that doesn't glide across the page gets tossed in the drawer until I'm desperate. I always tell students they can write their exams with anything as long as I can read it, but I really don't expect a student to prick her finger and write in blood, even if I don't have a pencil she can borrow.

Do comfortable tools make ideas flow more smoothly? A pen that drags and skips might interrupt the stream of thought, but strong ideas can force their way even through defective or uncomfortable equipment. Or so I hope, for my student's sake.

Pens leak, pencils break,
ink blots and splatters;
take the test, do your best:
only ideas matter.

Now that's simply dreadful. Surely you can do better! Submit a poem in any form in the comments--in ink, in pencil, in your own blood if that's all you've got!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Awash in grading

The grading pile now holds 31 essays with 40 more essays and exams coming in tomorrow, so naturally I'm sitting here clearing out my inbox, knocking items off my to-do list, and revising an article that isn't even due until the end of November. This burst of productivity feels good until I glance at that grading pile, and then I feel as if I'm busy sharpening pencils while the Titanic sinks. 

Ah well, the grading isn't going anywhere--and at least I won't be carrying any unsharpened pencils as I sink to my watery grave.



Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Twilight

When Apollo the friendly doberman comes bounding toward me like the Hound of the Baskervilles following the scent of fresh meat, I know the best course of action is to freeze. My feet scream RUN and my heart pounds RUN but my mind tells me to stand as still as a tree stump and look harmless.

Apollo isn't interested in me anyway. He's interested in the happy Hopeful hound. Usually when we walk past the neighbors' house, we see Apollo barking his fool head off while lunging at the window, and I've often wondered what would happen if Apollo came out to play without a leash. This evening we found out.

Apollo comes running. I stand still. My feet say RUN. He keeps coming. I remind myself that he's just a big friendly rambunctious fellow even if he looks like he's slavering to sink his teeth into my throat and then tear my arm right out of its socket. 

I stand still. It isn't easy.

"Tackle him!" calls out the neighbor, but tackling dobermans is outside my bailiwick. All I want to do is continue my walk but Apollo wants to play and he won't stop following Hopeful, so the neighbors try to corral their pet.

That's not easy either. The neighbors aren't exactly decrepit, but they're not physically equipped for doberman-wrangling, and I'm putting every ounce of energy into not running away, which is no help at all.

Finally, as the twilight deepens and I begin to wonder whether I'll have enough light to walk the half-mile back home, they develop a brilliant plan: lure Hopeful into the garage so Apollo will follow. Hopeful is easily lured by a doberman-sized bucket of dog biscuits, but Apollo remains wary. At one point my neighbor takes off his belt to use as a leash but Apollo evades him--and then his pants fall down.

My neighbor's pants. Apollo doesn't wear pants. (Where would the Hound of the Baskervilles shop?)

As the twilight deepens, Apollo keeps bounding and Hopeful munching. I make a few futile gestures toward easing Apollo inside because otherwise I fear I'll be planted in my neighbors' yard for the rest of my life.

Finally Apollo is safely confined and I can start feeling my way home in the dark--except  Hopeful is reluctant to leave behind the motherlode of dog biscuits. Now I'm the one with the dog that won't be wrangled, until finally the neighbor lends me a leash (not his belt!) and I lead my unhappy hound home.

In the end we all get what we want: Apollo gets some playtime and Hopeful too many dog biscuits, and my neighbor gets to keep his pants on. Best of all, though, I get to keep both my arms. 

For now.

eXcess eXam anXiety

Exam season: floating anxiety wafts around my building in tangible, sticky filaments like the spiderweb I walked through as I left the house this morning. Students sit on benches clutching index cards as if they held the answer to the meaning of life rather than notes about the Smoot-Hawley Act or the definition of diaspora.

Many departments use this building so while I'm sitting in my office writing a Sports Literature exam, the hallways are humming with petroleum engineering students drilling each other on--well, drilling. Meanwhile, some of my English majors huddle clutching Norton anthologies to their chests. "Theory exam tomorrow," they tell me, their gaze intent on a blank spot inhabited by the spector of Aristotle, Coleridge, or Northrop Frye.

"I don't know why, but I have a lot of anxiety about your postcolonial exam," says one English major, "not that there's anything wrong with that." What's so wrong about exam anxiety? It motivates, energizes, and eventually dissipates--but not before filling the building with wisps of floating angst. 

And who will clean up the excess anxiety when exam season is over? Whoever it is, they'd better bring along a blowtorch. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Dr. Demanding strikes again!

Further evidence that I'm totally unreasonable and heartless and the most demanding professor in the whole entire world:

Yes, I expect you to know the titles and authors of the stories covered on the midterm exam. Nine titles, nine authors. Pretend they're song lyrics and you'll do fine.

I realize that your SmartPhone is really, really smart--certainly much smarter than my IntellectuallyChallengedPhone--but it's not smart enough to learn the material or take the exam for you, so tell it to be quiet during class.

Of course I understand that you had expected to get a better grade on the paper. What I don't understand is how you expected to get a better grade without taking any notice of the suggestions your classmates and I made on your draft. Did you expect the paper to revise itself?

I know you're tired. We're all tired--it's the tired time of year. We would all love to put our heads down on the desk and take a nap, but we have work to do and we'd like to do it without being distracted by your snoring. So sit up and get to work or go back to the dorm where you can sleep in peace. 

Now let's get back to work! 


Monday, October 01, 2012

The impossible scream

Some days I'm expected to accomplish seven impossible things before breakfast, and some days I'm expected to accomplish seven impossible things instead of breakfast.

And then there's today.

I can't put a number on the impossible things I needed to accomplish today. They just kept pouring in: teach Paule Marshall and Olive Senior in one class and Jean Toomer's Cane in another, meet with students upset about grades on papers, meet with students wondering how to revise papers, meet with students begging me to predict grades their papers might receive after they revise them, meet with students worried about upcoming exams, meet with Learning Community partners concerned about students worried about papers and exams, read and respond to online reading comments, write study guides for two exams, prep tomorrow's classes, run to the bank to make an emergency deposit to cover an error so my mortgage payment doesn't bounce, and somewhere in there find time to eat lunch.

All that would have been impossible enough under normal conditions--heck, teaching Jean Toomer is beyond impossible regardless of conditions; there's nothing to do but gesture lovingly toward the text and say, "See?" But "normal" is not the word I would use to describe conditions today. I challenge you to wend your way elegantly through a complicated labyrinth of challenges and encounters when the only thing your entire body wants to do is to scratch.

I don't know exactly what stung me--I barely caught a glance at the winged fiend last Saturday before it struck and then moved out of sight. Some sort of wasp, I suspect. Whatever it was, it left me with a wee red mark that slowly grew and spread and puffed up until today this hard red swollen knot was radiating enough heat to power a steam locomotive.

And it itches. Like crazy. All the time. I might be soothing a distraught student, writing midterm exam questions, or trying to gesture meaningfully toward Jean Toomer's Cane, but behind that measured calm all I want to do is tear off my jacket and go after my swollen arm with a chainsaw. I've taken antihistamines and rubbed anti-itch cream on the bite, but it still screams out during every waking moment, "Scratch me! Scratch me! Scratch! Scratch! Scratch!"

Please, may I just scratch out this whole day and start over? Preferably minus the sting.