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?


Thursday, November 08, 2012

The annotation contraption (not another Bourne movie!)

Reading and responding to a pile of research proposals and annotated bibliographies is like trying to decode a Rube Goldberg contraption: locate all the moving parts (topic, working thesis, the current state of research, sources, annotations, citations) and evaluate their effectiveness: Viable topic? Original thesis? Sufficient awareness of current research? Credible sources? Effective annotations? Correctly formatted citations? The wheels spin--and so does my head.

But soon I stumble upon the proposal that can, with a little tweaking, serve as the introduction to the final essay, with a working thesis that makes me think about a familiar literary work in a new way and annotations that reveal the cogs and wheels of the argument ready to be assembled into a smoothly-running machine. For students who know how to wield the proposal-and-bibliography tools, the final paper will practically write itself.

This is why I keep assigning research proposals and annotated bibliographies even though they spark more student complaints than any other type of assignment. In upper-level literature classes, I require a formal proposal and annotated bibliography at least two weeks before the paper draft is due; if nothing else, this assures that students will locate relevant sources before the last minute, and it gives them time to consult further sources I might suggest. In the worst cases, I can guide students away from certain lines of research and toward others, which prevents the student from devoting unnecessary time to a non-starter.

In the best cases (and I saw many of them yesterday!), the proposal and annotated bibliography allow the students to articulate a thesis and begin assembling the parts of the argument, which brings them that much closer to that exciting moment when they flip the switch to see how the machine runs. Hear that engine purr! 

And if it clinks or groans or breaks down entirely, we still have time to make it work.


Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Cry "havocking!"

Yesterday a student wrote about a problem currently havocking the environment, which drove me to consult the OED, which lists a handful of instances of havoc as a transitive verb, the most recent dating from 1884. More concise than wreaking havoc but lacking that wreaky-wrecky vibe, havocking is more likely to show up in my vocabulary than another unusual verbification I encountered in a student paper this morning: biograph as a transitive verb, which, the OED tells me, has a pedigree stretching back to 1776 and including this 2004 reference in Commonweal: "William Faulkner is now an institution, first biographed thirty years ago by Joseph Blotner in two massive volumes."

If Blotner biographed Faulkner, then I suppose I can allow my student to use biograph as a transitive verb, as long as he's aware that sometimes verbification uglifies nouns, havocking the aesthetic environment.  

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Long road to election

I arrived at my  polling place in the middle of nowhere at 6:30 this morning and found 15 people in line--with temperatures in the mid-20s. What will the lines look like when my husband shows up to vote around 5 p.m.? At least the temperature ought to warm up by then.

Dropped my car off for some front-end work at 7 and my mechanic had kindly already warmed up a loaner car for me--not the bulky green van he usually provides but a beige Buick with 240,000 miles on it. (Anyone who can keep a Buick going that long gets my vote!) I'm happy to have a car to drive but here's the thing: I'm not a beige Buick kind of person. I sit in that big beige American car and suddenly I feel as if I'm sneaking out for a spin in my father's car, and I keep waiting for him to come barreling out yelling.

Last Saturday I saw a car lose a tire in the middle of the busiest intersection in town. This van suddenly went screeching past on three tires while the axle scored the pavement, but all eyes were on the loose tire suddenly bouncing and rolling through the middle of the intersection. It rolled this way, veered that way, tilted and bounced until a brave soul finally stepped in the middle of traffic and led the tire over toward the curb.

That's how this election season feels: a whole bunch of loud, noisy, hazardous machines veering through ordinary people's everyday lives, with the American voter stepping out into the melee to curb the chaos. But who will repair the deep grooves in the body politic? 


Monday, November 05, 2012

Giants in the sandbox

A colleague from the big city recalls the first time she drove down I-77 to Marietta and saw, out in the middle of nowhere, a big brown tourist information sign conveying the enigmatic message "Big Muskie Bucket." 

That was the point when she knew she had arrived in Appalachia. What sort of savage, uncivilized people would enshrine as a tourist attraction a Big Muskie Bucket?

If she had taken that turn, she would have found out. 

During the height of the strip-mining era in southeastern Ohio, Big Muskie was the world's largest dragline digging machine (read about it here). What do you do with a machine that size when it's no longer needed? Sell it for scrap metal--except for its bucket,  which now perches on a pile of rocks on a hilltop in Noble County, Ohio.

The bucket looks like like a broken toy dropped by a giant baby, but moving the bulky bucket to its hilltop perch required a great deal of organizational and engineering knowhow. It serves as the centerpiece of Miners' Memorial Park, dedicated to the memory of the workers who died in service to coal, and it overlooks miles and miles of reclaimed strip-mined land now devoted to camping and recreation.

Savage and uncivilized? Tool-making, cooperation in service of community goals, and the desire to memorialize the dead are prime markers of civilization, but even more telling is the reclamation of the ruined land. It's as if the voice of authority told the giant baby, "You made your mess--now go clean it up," and the baby dropped the bucket and got to work, leaving behind a 230-ton steel toy as an artifact of a lost civilization.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Friday Poetry Challenge: Dog Bites Doohickey

In my previous incarnation as a journalist, I was known for creating inventive and effective headlines, and I like to display a lovely blown-glass trophy declaring that I produced the Best Newspaper Headline submitted to the Press Club of Toledo's newspaper contest in 1996. However, in a long career of headline-writing that started in the eighth grade, I never found a good reason to write anything quite like this:

What, pray tell, is a "muffin-crystal-thingie assault"? It's exactly what it sounds like, as you will see if you click here. Vandals "assaulted" a Native American effigy mound by burying thingies--"small muffinlike resin objects"--in order to "realign the energy" of the mound. Orgonites is what they're called, but put "orgonites" in a headline and your readership will expect something about aliens, origami, or orgies.

The originators of the orgonites have irked the curators of the effigy mound, who will now have to devote all kinds of time and energy to finding and digging up perhaps as many as 100 muffin-crystal-thingies. When you're trying to cope with an outbreak of orgonites, who ya gonna call? 

Muffin-Crystal-Thingie Busters! 

Raiders of the Lost Muffin-Crystal-Thingies!

Moby Muffin-Crystal-Thingie!

What if every headline writer followed the example of the Columbus Dispatch? Here's what today's news would look like in Thingie-ese:

Doohickeys Still Down following Sandy's Something-or-Other

What's-His-Face Appeals to Voters to--Like, Whatever

Weird-Hair Guy Walloped by Falling Whatchamacallit

Bars-and-Numbers Thingie Offers Hope for Seekers of Earning-A-Living Opportunities

This is fun! You should try some: submit your best thingies, doo-dads, widgets, and whatchamacallits to the clicky-commenty-thingie below.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Survival under surveillance

"Do you mind if I record our meeting?"

My student pulled out her smartphone and awaited my reply. This student is sincerely struggling with a difficult assignment and wanted some specific guidance on how to proceed, and she thought it would be helpful to review my comments later on in case she ran into trouble. She asked nicely and clearly wasn't interested in making a secret "Gotcha" video, so I said yes.  

Knowing I was being recorded for posterity made me weigh my words a little more carefully than usual, but let's face it: when the topic is literary research methods, I'm not likely to say anything worthy of submission in the latest "Catch a Professor Acting Liberal" contest. When teaching a student how to refine search terms in the MLA International Bibliography becomes a controversial act, I'm outta here.

But what about students who don't ask permission? Last year a student surreptitiously recorded a colleague in an unguarded moment, which led to sleepless nights and serious repercussions. Even harmless comments can create controversies when taken out of context--I would hate to think, for instance, what would happen if my promises about the Comma Fairy got loose online and out of context. I would look mighty silly!

But then again, I'm accustomed to looking silly. By writing about embarrassing moments here, I defuse their power and limit their potential to cause harm.

I hope.