Thursday, January 31, 2013

My "Just Say No" policy

As we begin the arduous process of scheduling classes for next year, I'm determined to protect my time, priorities, and sanity with a strict Just Say No policy:

Just Say No to new freshman advisees. I have enough for now, thanks. Maybe later.

Just Say No to requests to participate in special programs unless the terms of participation are explicitly spelled out in advance.

Corollary 1: Just Say No to "the stipend will probably be the same as last year, but we don't know yet for sure."

Corollary 2: Just Say No to "the contracts won't be written until May or June, but we need a commitment right now."

Just Say No to adopting a course another colleague wants to dump so she can do something far more interesting than anything I'm doing. Do you see a sign on my door saying "Unwanted Course Dumping Ground"? No? Then go dump it somewhere else.

Just Say No to trying to teach literary analysis to students who don't know how to read. (Okay, this one's probably impossible to enforce. Let's call it "aspirational.")

Just Say No to teaching during my stupidest time of day just to accommodate colleagues whose very special scheduling needs dominate the good spots. Being the second-most-senior member of the department doesn't count for much, but if nothing else my seniority ought to confer upon me the privilege of teaching 9 a.m. rather than 3 p.m.

That's it for now. If I can stick with this strict policy, I may emerge on the other end with a bearable long as my colleagues don't wise up and develop their own Just Say No policies. I picture our department sitting around the conference table beating each other over the head with NO NO NO until some weak, meek, backboneless person gives in for the good of the cause. Just this once, I hope that person doesn't have to be me.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Attack of the tentative toe-dippers

Toward the end of the first week of class a student came up to me at the end of a class and asked me to sign his drop slip. He had done the reading assignment and actively participated in class discussion, but as soon as the discussion was over, he handed me a drop slip. Why do the work and sit through the whole class if you know you're to drop it anyway? "It doesn't fit in my schedule," he said, "but I like the topic so I wanted to try it out."

This is the toe-dipping student, the one who comes to one or two classes to see whether he likes the reading or can handle the writing. These students are auditioning me for the professorial role in the piece, and sometimes I don't make the cut. This leads to a certain fluidity in enrollments.

Two of my classes have remained stable all semester: an upper-level film class mostly full of English majors (who know what they need) and a writing class required for all freshman honors students (who have no other option). My two general education literature courses, on the other hand, have featured a very fluid roster: each day, I face a slightly different sea of faces.

This semester the problem of late adds has been especially acute because a colleague in another department had to cancel a class because of illness, leaving a handful of students with too few credits to graduate. These students received an extra week to add classes, which is why I had new students showing up for the first time in my Concepts of Comedy class yesterday. We've already read Lysistrata and Love's Labor's Lost and we have drafts due on Thursday and an exam coming up: how will these students possibly get caught up? I don't intend to re-teach the first two weeks of class!

Now we're in the middle of the third week of the semester and I hope the rosters have stabilized. But wait--one student has missed a whole week because of an injury and another has been out with food poisoning. How long is this boat going to wait at the dock for everyone to board? It's time to pull up the gangplank and head off to sea, even if that means leaving behind some indecisive toe-dippers.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Dawn of a new day

Yesterday's beautiful blanket of snow has been transformed into dirty puddles that reflect dark clouds and constant rain rain rain. Another beautiful day in the Mid-Ohio Valley! 

I'm keeping dry in the library, up on the top floor where the big windows let in the sunshine when there is any--and when there isn't, there's that great big yellow artificial sun glowing below the blue curved dome of the sky. Ceiling. Whatever.

It's a quiet place full of comfy chairs where I can sit and read drafts without fear of further irritating my allergies. I hit the steroid-induced wall over the weekend and I'm making progress toward normal, but I'm not there yet. It occurred to me this morning that some of my brand-new students this semester have never heard my actual voice uninflected by sinus-inflection distortion. I'm still croaking my way through conversations, but I made it through two classes without losing my voice and I'm certainly thinking more effectively on my feet, so it's all good, or getting to good, or at least better.

Best of all, the Powers That Be have mea culpa'd and offered to thoroughly clean the residual floor-sanding dust out of my office, and I may even get an air purifier out of the deal. By the end of the week, I may be able to work in my office just like regular folks.

Meanwhile, though, I'm basking in the warm glow of sunshine in my favorite library. Don't tell me that big yellow globe isn't really the sun. It's sun-ish, at sometimes that's about as good as it gets.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Caution: crash zone ahead!

So here's the thing about steroids: they make you crazy.

By steroids I mean prednisone, and by you, of course, I mean me. (Individual results may vary.) But when I say crazy, what I mean is: crazy.

Don't get me wrong: I very much appreciate my current prescription, which has restored one of my favorite activities--namely, breathing. It's a marvelous experience. You should try it sometime.

But then the side effects kick in. I've taken prednisone before (ah, those thrilling days of chemotherapy!) and I know what to expect: neverending mind-racing lesson-planning PowerPointing unceasing insomnia accompanied by massive bursts of energy.

Sounds great, yes? Here I sit working continuously and feverishly for seven or eight straight hours on essentially zero sleep and I feel great! Fine! Euphoric!

But I've been down this road before and I know there's a great big bad brick wall at the end and the impact hurts. 

Like crazy.

Tossing Miss Daisy

I never thought I’d say this, but I think it’s time to toss Daisy off the bus.

That’s right: I’m tossing Daisy Miller off the American Lit Survey syllabus.

I’m sure this is hurting me more than it’s hurting Daisy. Henry James’s enigmatic American girl has been a staple of my syllabus every spring for more than a decade. Other authors, other works drift on and off the bus, but Daisy always remains firmly seated in a prime spot.

This year, though, I’ve already had to cancel two days of class because of sickness so I’m scrambling to get back on track, but there are just too many authors on this bus. Someone’s got to go.

The problem, see, is that you can’t just squeeze Daisy into a thin smidgen of a class between two other authors. Delicate she may be, but our Daisy sprawls a bit. Students need to be led at a studied pace through Daisy’s European adventure; they need to know what’s up with that whole International Theme and why readers were alternately appalled or delighted by Daisy’s exploits and what Winterbourne was allegedly “studying” in Geneva and why the Coliseum by moonlight was ideal for Winterbourne but fatal for Daisy.

That kind of contextualizaton takes space and time and speech and silence, long silences in which we watch Mr. Henry James watching Mr. Frederick Winterbourne watching Miss Daisy Miller. It’s impossible to accomplish that kind of intense observation while rocking along at highway speed while squished between Stephen Crane and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Looking over the entire semester’s schedule with special attention to the important writing assignment deadlines approaching in the coming week, the best solution at this point is to toss Daisy off the bus. And what can it hurt, really? No one ever died of a dearth of Daisy Miller.

At least that’s what I tell myself to quell the nightmare scenarios my mind keeps serving up. I have English majors in that class! What happens if one day one of those English majors stands before a Ph.D. committee, a co-op membership board, or a White House press corps and accidentally exposes the fact that he or she has never encountered Daisy Miller? “You call yourself an English major! What kind of two-bit English department gives a diploma to an English major who has never read ‘Daisy Miller’?”

These are the angry voices that keep me awake nights, but I think I’ve figured out a way to turn down the volume while also taking care of poor Daisy after she gets shoved to the curb like a battered steamer trunk. “Go find Daisy,” I’ll tell my English majors. “I had to kick her off the bus for the good of the class as a whole, but I’m leaving her in your care. Go back and find her, embrace her, take her home and clean her up, and then spend some time listening and watching, observing Mr. James observing Mr. Winterbourne observing Miss Miller. When you’re done, come back and tell me what you’ve learned. It won’t do a thing for your grade, but it will help you in ways I cannot possibly predict. Just trust me on this: rescue Daisy Miller after she gets kicked off the bus and someday she may save you from a similar fate.”

Will they do it? I don’t know. I hope so. I cling to that hope as my hand hovers over the “delete” key. The bus door swings open. Daisy looks out at the highway speeding past and then looks at me, pleading. Do I dare? Do I dare toss Daisy off the bus?      

Friday, January 25, 2013

Emerging from the haze, sort of

What I haven't been doing for the past two days: teaching classes, prepping classes, reading e-mail, writing e-mail, going to campus, breathing easily, thinking clearly.

What I've been doing instead: sitting in the doctor's examining room clad in hat, scarf, and gloves, shivering; taking heavy-duty antibiotics and steroids; sweating through the sheets with a temperature of 102; sleeping; watching the entire first season of Parks and Recreation on DVD (although I may have been sleeping through some of it); taking half a hour to eat a bowl of oatmeal because that spoon was too darned heavy; sleeping some more.

What I intend to do as soon as I'm thoroughly mobile: buy an air purifier for my office; hold office hours in the library until the residual floor-sanding dust gets cleared from the building's ventilation system; stomp my feet all over campus until someone in a position to do something about it believes that polluting an allergy-prone person's personal airways with floor-sanding dust is unlikely to result in continued productivity.

But that's too much to think about right now. Besides, I've got more important things to do. Like sleep. And then maybe later, after a good long nap, I'll sleep some more. Because right now, that's what I can do.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wildlife roundup

Saw a bobcat running across our road this morning--my first! I wondered what it was doing out in the bitter cold, but I guess that beautiful fur coat keeps it cosy.

The cold is driving small critters toward warmth, which certainly explains the mouse droppings and shredded tissues in the back seat of my car. We keep mousetraps set in the kitchen year-round but we sometimes go months at a time without catching a mouse, which makes last night really odd: three mice in eight hours. Two thrashed around loudly enough to wake me in the night, and then I heard the trap snap again this morning during breakfast. We set the trap before leaving for work this morning, so maybe we'll finish off the family.

And the dog brought home another deer head over the weekend. Just what I need: another lawn ornament!


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Get the Gripe-O-Matic Today!

Want to hear a complaint? You don't even have to insert a quarter or press a button--just walk into my building and listen, and within seconds you'll hear someone, possibly me, complaining about how cold it is.

Yes, I know it's the middle of winter, and yes, I know that only wimps complain about single-digit temperatures in January, but I'm talking about the indoor temperature. The Powers That Be tell us that there's something wrong with the heater but the part has been ordered and it should be fixed, quote, soon. Meanwhile, I sit in my office with my coat on and a shawl over my legs and try to get some work done.

How does my office hate me? Let me count the ways: One, dust from sanding down floors in the big lecture hall sparked an allergy attack that still has me coughing two weeks later. Two, every time I touch my desk, it gives me a shock. Three, broken heater, too much cold exacerbating cough, unable to get all the way through a class session because I'm cold and coughing too much to talk.

That's it, office! I give up! You've defeated me! I'm going to pack up my things and go home!

Except I car-pooled this morning so I have no transportation. Which is worse, walking 20 miles in 12 degrees or making peace with my murderous office? 

Maybe we should all storm the administration building. I'll bet they've got heat over there!  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cheerios on my back

Years ago (decades, actually) my husband and I both had mono, one after the other, while our kids were too small to take care of themselves. I vividly recall lying on the sofa and hearing vague rustling sounds suggestive of a small child messing around in the pantry.  Somewhere in a small corner of my brain I knew I ought to get up and explore the situation, but walking across the room seemed like too much work, so I stayed on the sofa with my eyes shut. And that's where I was when my helpful daughter climbed on my back and dumped an entire box of Cheerios all over me.

No Cheeri0s have been dumped on my back in the past week but I still have that can't-quite-get-up-and-do-what-needs-to-be-done feeling. I made it through my classes last week and may have even led my students toward new understanding, but I finished every class drenched in sweat and ready for a nap.

I went home Friday afternoon ready to quit speaking forever (because I lose my voice by the end of class even if I'm not doing all the talking) but then made some wonderful sweet potato bisque, my helpful daughter's recipe and much better than Cheerios on my back. Spent most of the weekend resting, reading, not much cleaning, and now I feel almost sort of semi-normal. Still coughing occasionally. Still sounding a little rough and raw. Still lacking stamina, but yesterday I managed a long walk in the gorgeous sunshine with the sweet hubby and the dog, so we seem to be approaching normality.

I hate the way sickness turns me in on myself, as if the only thing that matters in the entire world is whether I manage to take this next breath. But seriously? Breathing is important, and when I can't do it, I get a little alarmed. Now that it's coming more naturally I can forget about breathing and focus my attention on other things, like--well, like the whole big wide world out there. Hello, big wide world! I'm back! Without Cheerios!    

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The new know-nothing party

Beware of advisees bearing Add/Drop slips, for they know not what they know not:

I want to switch to a different section of freshman comp.

Which section are you in now?

I don't know.

Who's the professor?

I don't know.

What time does it meet?

Um, sometime in the morning.

Why do you want to switch?

[Shrug. Blank look.]

There's room in the 11:00 section. Will that conflict with your other classes?

I don't know.

Well why don't you come back when you know something?

(Except I didn't really say that last bit. Wish I had.)

Lucky for you I found this brochure!

What was Willie Nelson doing in my honors literature class this morning?

Singing "On the Road Again." Great way to kick off a discussion of Walt Whitman's "Song of the Open Road," don't you think?

A moment of instructional serendipity occurred partway through class while students were doing some group work on the benefits and burdens of travel: I stepped out of the room to get a drink (because after 10 days of coughing, my voice still needs frequent lubrication or it poops out)--now where were we?

So I step out into the hall to get a drink while my students are brainstorming benefits and burdens of travel and my eyes fall upon a study-abroad brochure boldly declaring, "It's All About You!" 

"You are not like everyone else who has gone abroad," asserts the brochure. "You have your own aspirations for this incredible experience. Lucky for you, you have chosen the study abroad program that understands that. Check out how we built our programs to serve your individual interests."

You you you you you, how lucky for you!
I took the brochure back to class and read that to the students. What would Whitman say? If travel is all about pursuing your own unique individual path, why would you need to join a group? If Whitman was simply celebrating his insatiable desire for perpetual motion unshackled by commitment or stasis, why does he conclude by inviting a traveling companion to "stick" with him as long as they live? 

I concluded today's class--I, the teacher, the representative of the school, the one who assigns the Required Reading--with Whitman's exhortation:

Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen'd!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn'd!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher! 

(But how can you mind not the cry of the teacher who tells you to mind not the cry of the teacher?)

Don't ask me. Ask Walt.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Professorial fallibility

This morning I couldn't get my online gradebook to accept a grade because of a flaw in the due date. I looked more closely: according to the online gradebook, that assignment was due 1/15/2012. One year ago. Nasty gradebook! Who put that due date in wrong?

Um, that would be me. In fact, further examination revealed that I typed in "2012" for every due date for every assignment in every class this semester. And the gradebooks won't work until I fix every due date. One at a time.

Thank heaven for copy-and-paste.

That's not the only dumb thing I've done while preparing my classes this semester. The other day I stood in front of a classroom puzzling over a handout stating that students will submit 5 reading responses at 10 points each for a total of 100 points. "One of those numbers is obviously wrong," I told the students, and the pointed out that the correct figure appeared elsewhere on the syllabus.

"I shouldn't try to write syllabi while I'm sick," I said, but here's the thing: I wrote my syllabi and set up my online gradebooks before I got sick. I completed all my class preps by last Wednesday, and then I went home and didn't leave the house for four days. I might have caught the errors if I'd spent those four days looking over my syllabi and gradebooks, but I was too busy coughing.

Professorial fallibility on display! What a great way to start the semester.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sub standard

Dr. Hogue is out sick today. I'm her hopelessly incompetent substitute.

That's what I wanted to tell my students yesterday, but too many of them know me from previous classes--although they might not recognize me behind the glowing red nose. I certainly don't sound like me. By midafternoon I got tired of hearing people say "You sound horrible! Go home and go to bed!" So I went home and went to bed.

Which gave me plenty of time to mull over the oddities of my classes this semester. In the same room where last semester I taught a class made up of 16 men and 1 woman, this semester I'm teaching a class made up of 13 women and 1 man. Strange. Only one class has a fairly normal gender balance; the rest are mostly female. Overall, this semester I'm teaching 43 women and 19 men. 

Where are all the men? Don't tell me they're all studying petroleum engineering in that big lecture hall across from my office, because even petroleum engineers have to take writing and literature classes. However, they're clearly not taking them from me. 

This week, in fact, no one is taking classes from me. Instead, they're getting my hopelessly incompetent substitute. By the end of the week they'll be so disgusted that they'll welcome the return of the real me with joy, singing, and the throwing of confetti. At least that's my goal.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Pre-semester assessment

I know I'm not the only one sitting sequestered in a nest of tissues and warm compresses, but classes start tomorrow and it's time to assess the situation.

Nose: red.

Clothes: wrinkled.

Voice: comes and goes, sometimes nothing more than a croak.

Choice: stay home another day or teach tomorrow?

Fever: gone, along with fever dreams in which I kept chasing Victor Hugo, perhaps to demand an explanation for all those chapters tracing the history of the Paris sewers.

Syllabi: done and printed, I think. I hope. I'm pretty sure I did all that before I left campus on Wednesday.

First-day writing prompts: written, yes, but did I print it? Don't remember.

House: smells like sick people.

Car: hasn't moved an inch since Wednesday evening. Hope those new ignition wires do the trick! 

Brain: coming back from wherever it hides when my head is crowded with wads of mucus. 

I think I'll teach. If my voice won't work, I'll just let the students do the talking.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Syllabus serendipity

Thanks to my semiannual syllabus-writing marathon, all kinds of disjointed ideas are now bouncing around my brain like pinballs smashing into bells and bumpers and occasionally making the whole place light up.  

What happens when Monty Python and the Holy Grail meets Don Quijote

What advice would the protagonists of Straight Man and Miss Lonelyhearts offer each other?

Dorothy Parker and Ambrose Bierce walk into a bar....and what's the punch line?

Can computer-generated whales rub shoulders with taxidermied cats poised for a tea party?

I'm getting ready to find out.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

What's the buzz?

Across the hall: the buzz-squeal-pound of power tools where workmen are installing floors and furniture.

Along my wall: hordes of bees creating bedlam, or something screwy with the heat register? 

Inside my head: deadlines due dates syllabi updates, scroll up scroll down copy paste DELETE repeat. 


Monday, January 07, 2013

What my office needs right now

Food first. Gotta get some food. Lunch, yes, but if the rest of my syllabi are going to take as long as the first, I won't be leaving the office all week. I need some serious hunkering-down food: apples and granola bars, hummus and pita chips, gallons and gallons of whatever will keep me alert and hydrated. Or better yet, how about an intravenous drip? That way I won't have to worry about getting crumbs on my keyboard.

And let's arrange things more suitably for a syllabus-writing marathon: the Powers That Be never installed the sleeping loft I requested, so what I need to get through the week is a great big recliner comfy enough for sleeping, with a fold-down tray just right for my laptop. A first-class airline seat, in other words, and if it has a built-in sound system with speakers, so much the better. 

Visitors--but not too many. A few colleagues are similarly hunkered over their keyboards frantically assembling syllabi, and the occasional chat helps break up the tedium but I don't want to get entangled with too many lengthy conversation or I'll never get done. How to control the volume of visitors? I need a handy little sign to hang on the doorknob, with "Do Not Disturb" on one side and "Please Interrupt!" on the other.

Wait, I know where I can get all these things! What I need right now is not an office but a luxury hotel suite! In fact, I'm sure all of my colleagues would be more productive this week if the college were to whisk us all away to a resort where we can enjoy private rooms, comfy work spaces, and minibars providing all our needs. 

Only one problem: who would want to come back?

Saturday, January 05, 2013

It's either the best teaching schedule ever--or the worst

It seemed like a good idea at the time but now I'm wondering what possessed me to agree to this bizarre teaching schedule for the spring semester.

Only 60ish students spread out over four classes? Excellent! The smallest class has 9 students and the largest 22, while the other two sit neatly in the middle with around 15. I can manage 60ish students as long as they don't all turn in drafts on the same day.

Four preps? No problem--except three of them are new. I've taught American Lit Survey every spring since the dawn of time (except when I was on sabbatical), so I can draw on past lecture notes, exams, and class activities. For my other three classes, on the other hand, I'll have to create everything from scratch, which takes a lot of energy. What made me think I could do this?

Four syllabi? Manageable, as long as I maintain a master list of major assignment deadlines so I don't end up with 60 drafts needing comments the same week. It's like a jigsaw puzzle: if I put the Film exam here, I'll have to put the Comedy exam over there and move the Honors presentations a week later--but I can make it work. Just a few more tweaks to the schedule and I'll be ready to post my syllabi to Moodle.

And what an interesting semester it will be! 

American Lit Survey: a perennial favorite, with a few updates to reading and writing assignments. I've finally figured out how to return Howells's "Editha" to the syllabus, which makes me very happy.

Honors Literature: A small group of gifted first-year students focusing on literary journeys, from Whitman's "Song of the Open Road" to Death of a Salesman, Cold Mountain, and The Namesake. My favorite assignment requires each student to present information that will help their classmates comprehend the historical and cultural contexts of either Cold Mountain or The Namesake.

Concepts of Comedy: Too much to cover in one class so I'm struggling over what to cut. We'll start with three plays (Lysistrata, Love's Labors Lost, and The Importance of Being Earnest) and end the semester with a honking big novel--Richard Russo's Straight Man, which simultaneously demonstrates and theorizes various concepts of comedy. It's the short stuff in between that's giving me trouble. I want to juxtapose mock-heroic battle scenes from Don Quixote and Invisible Man, but that makes nearly every author on the syllabus a dead white male. This is a problem. I'm working on it. Quickly.

Romancing the Beast: My only upper-level class this semester and I'm really excited about it! It's a special topics course featuring both historical and theoretical readings and some wonderful films demonstrating various passionate entanglements involving animals: Bringing Up Baby, King Kong, Whale Rider, The Electric Horseman, and Grizzly Man. The best part, though, is that the students will take over the class for the last three weeks, becoming experts on various films or genres and presenting the results of their research in class. Or at least I hope it's the best part. We'll see.

I get really excited when I think about the content of my spring courses, but the logistics scare me. Which suggests that I probably ought to get back to work tweaking deadlines and finalizing readings instead of complaining about it. Write! Right?

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Miserable musical interludes

Every once in a while a student wants to know what's the point of reading a big fat novel when we can get the information from a movie "more efficiently," and I usually respond by reminding the student that if literature were primarily designed to convey information efficiently, no one would write a novel requiring more than 140 characters.

But I sympathized with that student recently when I viewed Les Miserables (the movie) and read Les Miserables (the book). The musical drastically condenses Victor Hugo's prose, which is a good thing because no one wants to watch a 20-hour musical. Some of the cuts lead to more efficient storytelling; for instance, in the film Marius  and Cosette follow the musical convention by falling in love at first sight, while the book follows Marius's lengthy journey from apathy to obsession to disappointment to love. Similarly, Eponine is an only child in the movie but has four siblings in the novel, most of whom barely impinge upon the plot.

And then there is the plot itself. The film focuses like a laser on the suffering and redemption of Jean Valjean, but the novel loses sight of that plot for long stretches, suggesting that Hugo was trying to dramatize the suffering and redemption of an entire people, which may explain why it seems at times as if he's intent upon providing a full character sketch of every single person living in France in the early nineteenth century.

And the man could pontificate. At length. About anything. It's tempting to call these long plotless chapters digressions, but if the goal is to thoroughly dramatize a particular cultural moment, then everything is relevant. (In this way, Hugo was an important precursor to Proust, who similarly strove to tell us everything about everything.)

Good thing Hugo's prose is so compelling or the novel would be simply unbearable. In fact, I found some of those long plotless passages so quirky and charming that I wish they'd been included in the musical as big, colorful production numbers. For instance:

1. Dance of the Nuns: Six chapters describe the convent on the Rue Petit-Picpus (its layout, character sketches of notable personages who play absolutely no part in the plot, details of its rules and relationships to other religious communities) and eight chapters explore the history of the monastic impulse and its possible future relevance. I can't imagine why none of this made it into the musical. I envision a Busby Berkeley-style production number filmed from above, with masses of bewimpled nuns forming flower-like patterns while singing passionately about the theological and practical distinctions between Benedictine and Bernardine rule.   

2. Wails from Waterloo. Hugo's compelling description of the decisive battle unfolds at a leisurely pace over 19 chapters, ending with an incident of pilferage tenuously linking this large digression with the Jean Valjean plot--but the battle is central to Hugo's larger concerns. Let's see the battle and its aftermath condensed into a five-minute medley involving martial drumbeats, a wailing bagpipe suddenly wiped out, and the Song of the Moonlight Pickpocket.   
3. Song of the Slangsters: Hugo devotes four long chapters to defending his decision to put street argot in the mouths of his thieves, which was apparently a controversial move at the time. Even while defending his use of slang, he personifies "that pustulous vocabulary" as a "frightful, living, and bristling thicket" in which "[o]ne word resembles a claw, another an extinguished and bleeding eye." Later he claims that the specialized slang of street thieves resembles the jargon used in other venues, including "the painter who says: 'My grinder,' the notary who says: 'My Skip-the-Gutter,' the hairdresser who says: 'My mealyback,' the cobbler who says 'My cub,'" and so on for several pages. Imagine all those slangsters slinging their specialized argot in song!

I could go on. Or I could just let Victor Hugo go on. For 900 pages, more or less. I would gladly see the movie again, but the book? I'm singing the "Glad-I-Read-it-But-Don't-Ever-Expect-Me-to-Read-it-Again" blues.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

A shy highway guy

How many times have I stalked the wild pileated woodpecker through the woods, gliding as silently as possible to avoid scaring one away? And how many times has the majestic bird fled before I could get close enough to snap a decent photo? And how many times have expert birders sympathized by reminding me that pileated woodpeckers are notoriously shy and reclusive?

Hundreds of times. Okay, slight exaggeration, but still: I've come honestly by the conviction that the only way I would ever see a pileated woodpecker was fleetingly, blurrily, from a distance.


Today I was driving toward one of the busier intersections in Marietta, where Colegate Drive descends a steep hill to meet State Route 60 just where the highway squeezes between the hill and the river. I had seen a bald eagle atop a tree not far from there Sunday morning, so I had tossed the camera bag in the car with me first thing this morning in hopes of seeing the eagle again.

But that was this morning. By the time I came driving down Colegate this afternoon, I had given up on seeing anything interesting and I had switched my mind to autopilot mode, so it's a wonder that I even noticed the pileated woodpecker directly in front of me halfway up a tree on the other side of the intersection, closer to the river.

Well what could I do? I squealed to a stop at the gas station on the corner, grabbed the camera, and got as close to the highway as I could to watch the busy bird and snap some pictures. There's no sidewalk on the river side of the road or even a decent shoulder--nothing but highway, curb, guardrail, and river. So I stayed on the opposite side of the road and took photos as traffic permitted. Occasionally a truck would spoil my view, but the only way to get any closer to the bird would have been to stand in the middle of the road, which would be a real birdbrain move.

The bird did not seem at all bothered by the noise of traffic streaming by or the smell of exhaust. What happened to "notoriously shy and reclusive"? This bird wouldn't have been bothered if the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade had passed by--admittedly an unlikely event in Marietta, Ohio.

I wanted to jump up and down and wave my arms at the passing cars--"Stop! Look! You're missing the show!" But I didn't want to become the show, so I packed up my camera and went home.

The woodpecker, the last I saw, was still halfway up that tree next to the highway, pecking away obliviously. Notoriously shy? Ha!

Dorks in a Dart

My son was looking through our wedding album when he pointed out that a certain youthful groomsman looked, quote, like a dork.

"It was 1982," I said. "Everyone looked like a dork."

I had hunted down the album to scan a photo for our Christmas letter, which would reach our family members' hands while we were in San Diego celebrating our 30th anniversary. That old ivory album includes many lovely photos, from formal portraits with the two of us flanked by attendants to a candid shot of a discreet kiss, but I knew immediately which photo I wanted: the last one in the book, with the two of us peering out the window of our  1970 Dodge Dart. (Anyone who would marry a man who drives a car that color would have to be hopelessly in love.) 

It's not a particularly good picture. It's dark and poorly composed, with odd elements visible in the background (What's that scribbled on the glass? Is that my father standing back there?)--and look at the annoying reflections in my glasses! 

Those big glasses. Remember those great big dork glasses we all wore in 1982? They don't appear in any other wedding photos because I wasn't wearing them. Yes: I was vain enough to leave my glasses off and fumble blindly through my own wedding.
But when I think about that wedding, this is the photo that comes back to me. We were always going somewhere in some barely-functional beater, so it seems appropriate that we started this 30-year journey not in a limo but in a battered Dart, which was, in essence, a dork car.

In San Diego last month we enjoyed cruising along the sunny shore in a Mustang convertible with the top down, but no one would have mistaken us for cool people. In my heart of hearts I'm still wearing my dork glasses in that dork Dart with my dork sweetie, getting ready to conquer the world in our own dorkish way. It's been working for 30 years, so why not 30 more?     

Unemployable after all these years

I enjoyed a little time-travel this morning by dipping into the 2012 issue of MLA's Profession, which this year reprints representative articles published during the journal's 35-year history. It's interesting to see which issues remain unresolved after so many years and which ones have been overtaken by events, but I was especially interested in the spate of articles bemoaning the sorry state of the job market, the most dire dating from 1994--the year I returned to grad school to work on a Ph.D.

Now I'll admit that I was a little naive about the state of the job market at the time. I'd been happily pursuing the Earth Mother track for seven years since finishing my M.A., so I wasn't reading Profession or The Chronicle of Higher Education or anything else that might have opened my eyes. I recall some anguished hand-wringing around the English department at BGSU when the state de-funded the Ph.D. program, a clear sign that this might not be the best time to enter academe, but as long as I had journalism to fall back on, why would I worry?

Did anyone every try to discourage me from pursuing a Ph.D.? I don't remember, but if they did, I wouldn't have listened anyway. I was a nontraditional student: employed as a journalist, taking grad-school classes part time, taking no part in any of the professional activities likely to boost my chances of finding an academic job. By the time I finished my Ph.D. in December of 2000, I had presented exactly one conference paper and published exactly zero scholarly articles; my vita featured plenty of journalistic experience but only five semesters of part-time teaching. Twelve years later I'm on the verge of becoming a full professor at a college I love. 

Good thing no one ever told me I was unemployable.