Sunday, March 31, 2013

Gaps in the causal chain

Because I happened to be at the right place at the right time--except "happened" doesn't quite capture the moment. I had to be at just that spot, despite the persistent drippy rain.

Why? Because daffodils grow just there, on the hillside beside the driveway. 

Why? Because the woman who lived here for four decades planted them, and because they've been left alone to naturalize and spread, and because deer don't eat daffodils.

But why did I have to be there? 

Because it's Easter and I'm baking a ham--me! A ham! I never bake ham! But it's too cold and wet to grill lambchops, so ham it is, with asparagus and rice and angel-food cake with fruit, and a meal like that deserves daffodils in a vase on the table. And so I went outside to cut some.

Why? I never remember to cut flowers for the table! But my adorable daughter knows how to bring beauty into any situation (Why? It's a mystery), and so she grows lovely lilies and daffodils and foxgloves and then cuts some of them to take inside her house and arrange in vases, and when she's here she can be counted on to find something beautiful to cut and arrange for a centerpiece.

But she's not here today and no one else will think about cutting flowers unless I do it. So when I drove up the driveway after church and saw the daffodils, I had to grab some scissors and go right out there in the rain.

And so I happened to be standing at the right place at the right time when the pileated woodpeckers swooped past, a pair of them, so close I could have reached out and touched them. But I didn't.

Why? Because I didn't want to drop the daffodils.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Out with Scout

Clear blue sky up above, calm brown water beneath, and between it all just me and my hubby in our little red canoe.

In the weeks since I brought the canoe home, I've frequently looked out the window and wondered when we would ever get out on the water. On the few really nice days we had other commitments--baby shower, funeral, classes, meeting madness. But mostly we've had horrible days: cold, gray, windy, snowy, slushy, icy, and did I mention cold? 

Today we had the time but not, at first, the temperature: 20 degrees first thing this morning. But the sky was cloudless and the mercury kept climbing--30, 40, 50, 55--and when it hit 60, we strapped Scout to the van and headed for the lake.

For our inaugural outing, we selected a local lake frequented only by a few fishermen. Today we saw one small fishing boat puttering around on the brown water surrounded by woods that haven't yet started to green up. No wind, wakes, or currents, so we worked on our paddling skills, practiced keeping the boat steady. Find the center. Lean in. No sudden movements. Communicate! Find the balance.

Sometimes we stopped paddling and drifted, watching and listening. A towhee's call. A Cooper's Hawk circling overhead. Geese coming in for a landing. A stray bit of down drifts toward the water in a silence so serene I expect to hear a splash. 

No moments of high drama, but we get enough drama in our daily lives. One of these days, after we strengthen our paddling skills, we'll venture out into some more adventuresome waters, but for now it's enough to glide along the stillness, listen to the silence, and keep our craft from tipping.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Owls and ends

Fragments from a freaky weak:

We're in the middle of a class discussion of Cold Mountain, not quite at the end so trying to avoid spoilers, and suddenly a student's face lights up and she says, "Now I understand the ending!" Moments like that are what I live for.

Also, owls. We've heard owls at night and seen owl pellets around our property, but last night, for the first time since moving to the woods 10 years ago, I saw an owl in the wild. I was driving along our country road in the dark when suddenly a flash of feathers and wings swooped past in front of my car so quickly I could barely register its presence. The immense wingspan, mostly white underneath, suggests either a barn owl or a great horned owl, but I didn't see the head or hear the call so I can't say for sure. But it felt like a blessing.

An owl confers a blessing in the section of Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima discussed in my American Lit class today. Who, seeking a blessing, runs to owls? Antonio, apparently.  I haven't taught this text for years but its beauty nearly takes my breath away.

As does Toni Morrison's "Recitatif," also discussed this morning. How did we manage to work the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle into a discussion of Morrison's stunning story?

And speaking of stunning, we've lived so long with wretched weather that the return of sunshine and spring seem to have left us all stunned and speechless, wandering around with our arms out in appreciation as if to say, "It came back! The sunshine came back!"

So maybe the sun really will come out tomorrow--and if it does, so will the canoe! 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Collecting an old debt

Savannah, Georgia, owes me a good time (or at least some good weather) and next week I aim to collect.

The last time I visited Savannah was in 2005, when I presented a paper at a conference during a cold, dreary, wet February. I remember driving to the Columbus airport through a snowstorm in my husband's car, a tiny Honda with manual transmission, which was usually pretty good for highway driving but not so great with snow all over the road. It was a tense two-hour drive with a lot of stop-and-go, which means a lot of stomping on the clutch, shifting, and stomping again. I don't know if it was the cold, the clutch, or the stress, but by the time I got to the airport, my left hip felt as if it had been attacked by thugs with truncheons.

Then I squeezed my sore body into a seat on the plane and sat without moving for what seemed like days but was probably a couple of hours. When the plane stopped and I tried to get up, I couldn't.

It was raining in Savannah and cold, and I didn't have any money so I had to walk everywhere, which sent daggers of pain up and down my leg. I took aspirin and did stretching exercises, switched shoes, and sat at every opportunity, but the pain only got worse. I remember finally finding someone who took pity on my pain and gave me some serious painkillers so I could sleep, but then I didn't want to get groggy for my presentation so I postponed taking the pills until my part was over--and then I surrendered.

I don't have much memory of that trip aside from misery, but I'm giving Savannah a second chance. Next week I'll be giving a paper at the College English Association conference, and although my paper is scheduled for Thursday afternoon, I'm arriving Wednesday and staying until nearly noon Sunday.

I don't intend to be in pain because that hip problem is now under control. (Just a little arthritis, and the right kind of exercise keeps it from flaring up.) And I don't intend to drive through a snowstorm on the way to the airport, but this is Ohio so you never know. And I certainly don't intend to drive that old manual Honda because we got rid of it years ago.
Savannah in April has got to be better than Savannah in February--and best of all, I'll have a rental car and plenty of time, so I hope to visit some wildlife refuges to look at birds. Of course I'll give my paper and attend some other sessions, but after a long, cold, wet winter, I'm really looking forward to soaking up some spring.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The reading crunch

Suddenly I come face-to-face with the consequences of teaching three brand-new courses in the same semester: teaching two novels I've never taught before in the same week. 

That's a lot of pages to read, and not just to read but to organize into notes and discussion questions and possibly some group work. Of course I've read them before, but reading a book for pleasure is very different from reading a book in preparation for teaching it. I have no notes from prior years to fall back on, no ready-made handouts or group discussion prompts. I love these books but how can I possibly read and prepare to teach 150 pages by tomorrow? 

What crazy prof made this syllabus? If I had a time machine, I'd go back to January and slap myself silly.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Words, wonderful words!

The other day I was reading some vapid prose and, overcome with the desire to share the experience, I phoned a friend to say, "I just feel like talking to someone who understands the word vapid."

I tried vapid and hedonism in one class this morning and palimpsest and wraith in the other, and of course I had to stop and explain my meaning in smaller words, even though the book we were reading followed the word hedonism with "You dedicate your life to the pursuit of pleasure."

I enjoy telling my students about palimpsests and even drawing diagrams to illustrate, but sometimes I need to speak to people familiar with palimpsests, people for whom the pursuit of pleasure includes the pleasure of unusual words. Here, for instance, is the context for wraith: "Lodged there in the tree, he began to feel himself to be a sodden wraith askulk in the night, some gnome or underbridge troll." That's from Cold Mountain, a book full of delicious sentences. I roll sentences like that around in my mouth like dark chocolate, delighted that I don't have to query any of its ingredients.

I hope to infect my students with this love of words until it spreads like a glorious contagion across the land, but they seem to have been vaccinated against my efforts. Whoever is distributing this insidious vaccine needs to just stop. Otherwise, we'll all be immersed in a sea of vapidity with no one to throw us a lifeline and then we'll all end up sodden wraiths askulk, if it's possible to skulk on the sea. (Yes, I know I'm mixing metaphors. No, I don't care.)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Send in the clowns

So I'm working on a presentation about clowns, fools, and grotesques (for the Concepts of Comedy class, of course) and I run across this photo of Emmett Kelly Jr. at the 1964 World's Fair in New York.

I've seen him before--often. In my father's collection of slides is a photograph of me at age 3 encountering Emmett Kelly Jr. at the World's Fair. I'm wearing a cute little summer dress and holding the skirt out to the sides as I curtsy to the clown.

I have no memory of this, of course, but I have internalized my parents' memories of the event until they are nearly my own. I was there! (Although not, apparently, while he was making that charming hand gesture.) 

"I was there!" I told my American Lit Survey students this morning as we encountered the World's Fair in an entirely different context: Kurt Vonnegut's introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five. He describes taking two sweet little girls in party dresses to the 1964 World's Fair, where he "saw what the past had been like, according to the Ford Motor Car Company and Walt Disney, saw what the future would be like, according to General Motors. And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."

Time and memory slip away and even pictures resist comprehension. Today I look beyond the famous clown and wonder about the little hand reaching into the frame from the right, eager to touch the hem of his garment. Is that moment preserved forever in some family's photo album? Does the hand remember or is it dependent, like me, on prosthetic memory?

That past, so distant in my students' minds, was once my present--but how much of that present was mine to keep?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Hold the mayo

This week I have enjoyed wonderful class discussions on remarkable literature, with students contributing valuable insights right and left, and I have read online discussions and papers demonstrating that they get it--they really get it! So why do I keep obsessing over one student who really doesn't?

Maybe because I'm dealing with cluelessness on a level I've rarely encountered. Imagine that a student wheedles well enough to persuade you to overlook your no-late-papers policy just this once, and then imagine that the student finally turns in a piece of writing mentioning mayonnaise where the story under discussion features manure, and then you Google it and discover the same error spread all over a prominent online summary of the work in question.

At this point that student is up to his knees is something, but it sure ain't mayonnaise.




Thursday, March 21, 2013

Showers of pinkness

That's just ducky!
Having heard from a small horde (a smorde? a hordlet?) of readers interested in hearing about the baby shower I wrote about last week (here), I offer a few observations--but if you're allergic to pink, stop reading right now! I don't want anyone breaking out in hives.

We didn't play the poop game or the pin-the-sperm-on-the-egg game or the name-that-babyfood game, but we played a name game. People wrote answers to questions on a card (What was your grandmother's first name? What is your favorite bird? What is the name of the person on your left? What is your favorite color?) and from their responses created potential baby names: Frances Mango Williams, Almuth Eagle Williams, Strawberry Belle Williams, and so on. The expectant couple selected the winner: Gertrude Hydrangea Williams.  They are, of course, under no legal obligation to apply that name to their baby, but at least they have some options!

Showers ought to be an opportunity for the tribe to share its collective wisdom with the expectant couple, so I challenged attendees to share their wisdom--in five or fewer words. "Don't drop baby in shark-tank" is pretty good advice but perhaps not as practical as "Roughen breast with a towel." My favorite snippet of wisdom? "Keep grandma close." Words to live by, people!

I haven't been to a baby shower in years so two things really surprised me. First, attendance. I plan social events the way airlines sell seats: assume a bunch of people won't show up. In the end, my double-booking led to a dearth of chairs, a problem my son-in-law solved by wiping off a lawn chair and bringing it inside. Fortunately, we had enough cake. Running out of cake would be catastrophic. (Cake-tastrophic?)

My second surprise came during the gift-giving time: nobody brought just one gift. (Except for me. I had no idea the rules had changed!) Every gift bag contained multiple gifts: little pink onesies and sleepers and bibs and washcloths plus diapers and pacifiers, hair ribbons and socks--and let me just say that the only way the baby will ever get to wear all those tiny pink socks will be if she's born with 17 feet, which is highly unlikely.

Of course tiny pink socks can get lost and babies quickly grow out of their onesies, which will get stashed away or passed on to other infants. Baby showers lead to streams of pinkness circulating through the babysphere until people stop having babies or stop feeling the need to draw together as a tribe and support the novice parents. 

I just hope some of that essential wisdom gets passed on as well. After all, you never know when you might stumble upon a shark-tank. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Things I shouldn't have to tell my students

1. "I was distracted" is not an adequate excuse for missing class--unless the distraction is provided by, say, a mile-wide meteor streaking directly toward southern Ohio.

2. "This doesn't reflect my true character" suggests that you've been keeping your true character tied up in the attic while your false character lurches around wreaking havoc in your name. 

3. Of course you missed something. In fact, you missed a lot, as you would realize if you hadn't been so distracted.  

4. No, you can't make up eight weeks' work in two days, but go ahead and try. Maybe that dude you've got tied up in the attic will help. Otherwise, you'd better hope for a meteor strike.     

When a talky class goes quiet

Faced with a class full of students trying to discuss a text without actually having that text in front of them, my first assumption is that they're not reading. Yesterday, though, a student reminded me that there are other ways to read texts. "I'm reading it on my phone," she said.

Who reads a 450-page novel on a tiny cell-phone screen? I read Les Miserables on my Kindle over Christmas break and the vast number of screen-taps required to move through a 900-page book made my arms hurt all the way up to the elbow. Reading on the Kindle screen was comfortable enough after I learned how to adjust the size of the font and the brightness of the screen, but I wouldn't want to try reading that much text on a smaller screen. 

But of course I am a dinosaur. I get that. If students want to read Cold Mountain on their phones, I should simply rejoice that they are reading.

Except they aren't. Based entirely on their (un)willingness to participate in class discussion, I would bet that three students in that class are keeping up with the reading while the others are trying to coast. This is generally a talky class, so I'm not accustomed to silence.

I suggested that they read the book over Spring Break and perhaps they did, but they're not talking about it. I saw one copy of the text that looked so pristine it clearly had not been opened--and we are supposed to have covered close to 200 pages by now.

Tomorrow in class we'll do some group work requiring them to come up with examples of certain concepts from within the text. Meanwhile, I'm just griping about their unwillingness to read and discuss a really wonderful novel. This morning I asked my department chair, "Why wouldn't they want to read Cold Mountain?"

"You've got the question wrong," he said. "It should be 'Why wouldn't they want to read,' period."

If that's the question, I'm afraid I don't know the answer. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Where are the hippos of yesteryear?

That's me on the left with the hibiscus blossom in my hair.
No matter how deeply a memory is submerged, someday it will surface on Facebook.

I had forgotten the hippos. And the hippo party. And the immense amount of time I must have devoted to cutting and piecing together intricate little bits of fabric to make stuffed hippos for myself and my two close friends.

This must have been around 1977 or 78, when we were 16 and could think of nothing better to do than to write silly songs about our stuffed hippos. They had names, of course: the purple one, Harriet, was mine, while the yellow plaid was Harmony and the pink fleece hippo was Hilary. It's possible that the tattered remains of Harriet live in a box stashed away in a closet at my parents' house, but I doubt it.

Last night Hilary's keeper posted hippo photos and tagged me so all my Facebook friends can be reminded of a time when 16-year-old girls threw parties for stuffed animals. In the current media climate, it's hard to imagine that adolescence need not be a seething mire of angst, shame, and ennui. Sometimes youthful energy can be steered toward silliness--and then everyone smiles.

Even the hippos.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

On brobdingnagian vocabulary

This is a small word. That is also a small word. In fact, all the words in this post so far are small, which makes them easy to read. But ease of reading isn't everything.

Is everything a big word? Ten letters! Three or four syllables, depending on how carefully you enunciate! But readers allergic to multisyllabic words can't enunciate, can they? They can only speak.

The day is coming when I won't be able to speak to my students at all, thanks to the Big Word Problem. Just about every semester on course evaluations some anonymous student complains that I use too many big words. "She uses big words alot," they write, or "She uses alot of big words." I generally read these comments while sitting on my hands so I can't spontaneously insert a big red virgule between a and lot. And if I mentioned this in class, I would have to explain not only what a virgule is but why people who want to give advice about vocabulary would be taken more seriously if they wrote a lot as a two-word phrase. 

So the Big Word Problem crops up every semester, but this week it suddenly got bigger when a student complained that when I grade papers, I seem to care more about big words than about content.

How does this complaint rankle? Let me count the ways:

1. Nothing on my grading rubric refers to big words. The rubric asks whether the paper employs diction appropriate to the audience and purpose, which seems like a reasonable expectation. The size of the words matters less than how well they suit the particular writing task.

2. This is college, where little words go to grow up. Anyone who prefers to write paragraphs composed entirely of familiar single-syllable words ought to go back to second grade. 

3. This complaint arose in a literature class in which I am trying to equip students to use specific analytical terms so that I don't have to keep encountering relatable. Some of those analytical terms aren't even all that big--prose or rhythm, for instance--but you wouldn't believe the grief I endured when I expected students to learn the word stasis.

4. When grading an essay, I don't know how to separate the content from the words. The words are the content. We're not finger-painting, drawing graphs, or sending messages via semaphore; all we have to work with are the words, so we ought to use the best words possible for the task. Sometimes the best words are big.

In our family we reserve the big word brobdingnagian to describe the cutlery at a certain chain steakhouse. When the server plops down in front of you a steak the size of a hubcap, you don't want to attack it with a nail file and oyster fork--a pitchfork, maybe, but not an oyster fork. Fortunately, the restaurant provides a knife and fork sturdy enough to carve a haunch of venison. It's positively brobdingnagian.

There I go using big words again. If I want to communicate this lesson to my students, I'll have to simplify: Use the right word for the task. If you don't know the right word, learn some new words. They won't bite--they're just words. And no matter how big they are, remember: you're bigger.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Party-poopers not allowed

I was talking to a colleague about an upcoming baby shower and she said she would attend on one condition: "Promise me that you won't be playing that poop game."

What poop game? 

I haven't been to a baby shower in so many years that I had never heard of this game, which is apparently all the rage: smoosh a candy bar inside a disposable diaper; pass it around and ask your dearest friends and loved ones to examine the diaper and identify the type of candy bar. Is that a Mars Bar or Three Musketeers? Maybe a little Grey Poupon?

Um, no thanks.

We won't be playing the poop game at my house tomorrow, and neither will we be playing the guess-mommy's-tummy-size game or Pin the Sperm on the Egg. No one will have to decide how to slice open a bulging-womb cake because we're eating the kind of cake I do best: angel-food cake with fresh fruit and whipped cream.  

I have no pink balloons, party favors, or streamers. I have prepared two games, one of which isn't even a real game. The bulk of the party will be a time to socialize with people we don't often see and share the joys and delights of impending birth.

And if anyone wants to get bent out of shape because I'm not embracing the latest baby-shower trends, then they can just throw their own poopy party.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Even workaholics have their limits

So I'm parallel parking my station wagon across from campus (because the campus parking lots have been invaded by pickup trucks), and as I pull up and back and up and back I notice an international student standing in the tree lawn just across the road from me and grinning like an idiot. I pull up, she grins; pull back, she nods; pull up, she grins again. Could anyone possibly have a life so empty that watching me parallel park counts as entertainment?

But no. I gather up my things and cross the street but before my feet hit the curb she's holding out a paper and asking me to go through it with her to correct her grammar. 


1. She is definitely NOT my student. I don't even know her name. 

2. I don't even WORK in the Writing Center any more and I haven't worked there since this student left kindergarten.

3. In case you haven't noticed, it's SPRING BREAK.

So no, I won't be going through this student's paper with her. She'll have to stand there beside the road desperately awaiting the next parallel-parking professor, or perhaps accosting any random person who happens to wander by. 


Where the work never ends

When I arrive on campus at the crack of dawn in the middle of spring break, I expect to find a parking space. But not today! By 8 a.m. the parking lots were full--of pickup trucks. Not redneck-style heaps of rust but big shiny duallies of the sort that contractors drive. That's not something you see every day in an academic context. Clearly our campus has been taken over by aliens.

Why am I here so early? Because I haven't been in a library since last Friday and I'm suffering withdrawal--and besides, I need a fast internet connection so I can find some good video clips to use in my comedy class next week when I introduce Depression-era comedy. Reading Miss Lonelyhearts seems to be plunging my students into depression anyway, so let's see if Charlie Chaplin can cheer them up.

And then there's this big pile of annoying piddly little tasks I need to tackle, blech. I've promised myself that if I can clear all this junk off my to-do list, I'll take a drive down to the Ohio River backwater where eagles have been nesting. It's oddly quiet in my building and dark too, since the lights in the basement are triggered by motion sensors and there's no one moving around out in the hallways. I've got Michael Buble turned up high to keep me company so I'll just keep working until the work runs out.

Alternately, I could just go dump it all in the back of a big shiny pickup truck.  That's what they get for taking my parking space. 


Monday, March 11, 2013

Spring broken

Do I look relaxed enough?
Spring break!!!!!! And I've spent the entire morning preparing a presentation for my Learning in Retirement class. That's right: working. 

But it's fun work, much more fun than figuring out what's wrong with my Comedy class and how I can fix it for the second half of the semester. (Nobody likes Nathanael West. Maybe they're too young...reading West requires a certain jadedness, a wee smidgen of cynicism, a dollop of dolor. Can perky students appreciate Miss Lonelyhearts?)

It's noon now, though, so soon my adorable daughter will be done with work and we'll go out for lunch and shopping. We had hoped for a hike this afternoon but the weather is too cold, wet, and ugly, so we'll walk around the mall instead. (Wimps.) Which reminds me: I need new walking shoes, and a vacuum cleaner, and lentils and almond extract, and of course we need to look at baby stuff. We're clearly not doing any one-stop shopping today.

My son-in-law analyzed the canoe-slippage situation and figured out a better way to secure the Scout. Tomorrow morning I'll be on my way south again, heading for home (and a whole pile of housework, class preps, and baby shower tasks). At some point this week I need to write the paper I'm delivering in Savannah next month...but first, lentils and vacuums and babies, oh my!    

Saturday, March 09, 2013


Lesson one in the Great Canoe Adventure: buying the canoe is the easy part. 

Driving with a canoe on top of my car? Not so easy--especially since I had trouble getting it tied down securely. The woman who sold me the canoe helped, but she was a little fuzzy on the details of canoe-securing since her husband had been in charge of that and, sadly, he died in December, which was why she was selling the canoe (and paddles, life jackets, supplemental sling seat, and car-top straps and pads).

I found the canoe on Craigslist, spoke to the widow woman on the phone, drove two hours early this morning to check it out, and handed over the money. Easy part done. My husband was tied up marrying people, so it was just the widow woman and me attaching the pads and lifting the canoe on top of my car and then fumbling with the straps, trying them first one way and then another until it seemed secure.

My first mistake, I think, was in trying to take the quickest route toward my daughter and son-in-law's house, which meant getting onto the interstate before I was really ready to deal with the difference a canoe on top of the car can make. I got off a the first exit that presented itself and sat there breathing deeply while rethinking the situation.

Then began my real education: putt-putting at 35 or 40 miles per hour on state roads through three-horse towns that probably boast impressive historic architecture that I never saw because I was constantly monitoring the state of the tie-downs. At first I had to stop and tighten them about every 10 miles, but eventually I found a way to keep the canoe from sliding around for as much as 20 miles at a stretch, with long lines of cars following me because every time I nudged the car above 50, the canoe would shift and start to scream.

How can I describe the noise of that vibration? The aural equivalent of a dental drill, maybe. I learned soon enough that the canoe made more noise when the tie-downs started loosening up, but I would wait until the screaming was really unbearable before stopping to tighten and readjust once again.

But the canoe and I made it. It's still sitting on top of my car. My son-in-law the engineer has promised to figure out a better way to secure the tie-downs so I can drive it home on Tuesday, at which point we will learn how to secure it to my husband's car, which has a roof rack. 

The easy part is over, but next comes the fun part: getting my canoe into the water. Another day, another adventure.  

Thursday, March 07, 2013

A question of trust

Why do I trust one student to take an exam unsupervised while I require another to sit in my office and write while I watch? 

It's a matter of trust. There's nothing like exam season to inspire a careful parsing of the parameters of trust.

One student needs to take the exam early so she can leave town for a college-sponsored activity; another dashes into my office and begs to be allowed to take the exam even though he overslept and missed the exam period.

One student has taken several of my classes and always demonstrates responsibility, character, and perseverance; the other frequently skips class, sits in the back, rarely participates, and provides no clear evidence of virtue.

One student is taking an exam for which notes, textbooks, and other students would not be helpful, so it would be difficult to gain points by consulting sources; the other is taking an exam requiring identification of authors and titles of works and specific examples of concepts from certain works, so having access to sources would give the student an unfair advantage.

Which one would you trust?

And after you've figure that one out, please let me know what to do about the student who left the classroom in the middle of the exam to use the rest room and didn't come back for more than 10 minutes...and then wrote about a section of a work that we did not read for class. Who will proctor my exam if I have to start following students into the bathroom?

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


I know I ought to be grading midterm exams right now, so just shut up about it, okay? I've graded a bunch. I have a bunch more to grade. They'll wait. Meanwhile, I'm thinking up names.

In Cold Mountain (which I'm getting ready to teach tomorrow for the very first time), the names of familiar places and plants act as incantations reminding the wanderer of home, but I'm aiming at more practical names: what shall we name our granddaughter?

Of course I realize that we are not, technically, the ones who will do the naming in May when our granddaughter is due to arrive, but a grandma can dream, can't she? I've been sending my daughter names drawn from her favorite fields: music, flowers, and fungi. So far my contributions include Melody Harmony Hilary Williams, Trillium Lilian Williams, Lily Zinnia Williams, and Chanterelle Morel Williams.

Oddly enough, these charming names have been met not with open arms but with laughter. I can't imagine why. Come on, get creative! How many more Chelseas does the world need?

I keep stumbling upon names in the oddest places. Used car ads? Lumina Volvo Williams. Mapquest? Xenia Marietta Williams. Yesterday a student paper referred to a literary character as the "affable oddball Oreo," which isn't a name you hear every day. Hey, let's combine more of our favorite things: Oreo Oriole Williams! 

Stop me before I name again!

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Paddling upstream

For a few brief moments yesterday, I was caught up on everything--course preps, grading, miscellaneous annoying tasks. 

Today begins the deluge: essay exams in one class, paper drafts in another. Exams Thursday and Friday in other classes plus an online discussion to evaluate. Starting at 9:30 today, I'll be grading grading grading for the rest of the week.

It's easier to keep my nose to the grindstone when I can see a light at the end of the tunnel (although you have to wonder what kind of idiot puts a grindstone inside a dark tunnel, especially if it's a railroad tunnel, in which case you have to wonder how much damage a grindstone would do to a moving train or whether the train would smash it to smithereens and emerge relatively unscathed)--now where was I?

Oh yes: nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, eyes firmly fixed on the light at the end of the tunnel (a position bound to result eventually in neck cramps): early Saturday I'm looking at a used canoe! In Columbus! That sounds exactly like what we've been looking for! And comes equipped with paddles, life preservers, and car-top carrier! So I won't be up the creek without a paddle while keeping my nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel and eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel!

Speaking of deluges, stop me before I drown in cliches!

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Desperately seeking a deus ex machina

Microsoft Word keeps autocorrecting deus ex machina until I'm tired of fighting it (and also tired of wondering when some deus ex machina will materialize in a cloud of smoke and zap Autocorrect into the stone age) so I'll take a break to seek a grammar guru who will emerge from the internet machine to help me with a sticky problem.

It's simple: my students think although is the same as however.

It isn't. However, this is what I see in student papers all the time:

Although, the deus ex machina failed to materialize.

Just like that: although with a comma attached to a sentence  or a fragment. The sentence would be just fine if they replaced although with however or nevertheless or therefore, but they don't. Maybe they're not familiar with however. Or maybe they think although is essentially the same thing.

It isn't, but so far I haven't found a way to explain the difference without relying on terms like concessive adjunct. What are the odds that someone unfamiliar with however would understand concessive adjunct? Pretty close to nil would be my guess.

Here's where I'd like to adjust Autocorrect so that it administers an electric shock every time a student puts an unnecessary comma after although, but that's just the kind of deus ex machina that never shows up.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Wind and woodpeckers

A walk through the snowy woods today revealed woodpecker holes on many of the trees damaged by last summer's high winds. Which came first, the winds or the woodpeckers? Do the woodpeckers attack trees damaged by winds, or were trees weakened by woodpeckers more likely to be damaged by wind? Either way, we have some brand-new open spaces in the woods and we're wondering what weeds and wildflowers will fill those spots this summer.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Links, both whelming and otherwise

In honor of my alter ego, Agnes, today I will be whelming

Yesterday I read this wonderful article by Rachel Aviv about the local journalists who covered the Newtown massacre for the Newtown Bee and I want to recommend it to everyone who has ever worked as a small-town journalist or loved a local newspaper, but the site offers only a taste of the story so non-subscribers will have to buy the March 4 New Yorker.

Brad Leithauser's essay "In Praise of Concision," on the other hand, is fully available here. His explication of a moving Seamus Heaney haiku is almost as interesting as the haiku itself.

And now for something completely different: for a lecture on Monstrous Beasts, I showed the Learning in Retirement class a bunch of images and clips from various monster films. We watched Godzilla stomp Tokyo, Mighty Joe Young smash a nightclub, and Betty White feed a giant crocodile, but nothing we saw or discussed was as powerful as Robert Shaw's monologue from Jaws (here). It's helpful to be reminded that blood, gore, and spectacle may create overwhelming emotional responses, but sometimes all you really need is one guy quietly telling a story.