Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sunshine on my laptop

Sunshine on my laptop makes me happy but makes the laptop dusty. Or maybe that's pollen--yes, big billowing clouds of fine yellow pollen drifting down from the blooming buckeye trees and then depositing itself on my laptop computer screen so thick that I'm tempted to drag my finger through the pollen to spell out "Wash Me."

I ought to go inside. If pollen is adhering to the screen, it's probably drifting down between the keys too and getting into all kinds of places that don't like dust. And besides, the sun is bright enough to make the black keyboard hot to the touch.

Of course that's easily fixed: just pull the deck chair back under the shade and leave my poor pathetic pale legs projecting into the sunshine. All this sunshine after so much rain makes me want to stay outside and grade papers until my legs burn to a crisp and my laptop totally clogs up with pollen.

But I can't. I'm nearly out of battery power and need to plug in soon--plug the computer into the power outlet and plug me into a burst of caffeine. Or a nap. Which will refresh me enough to tackle the next pile of papers? Maybe it's time to click on sleep mode.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Blog prob dogs prof

Here's the dilemma: for reasons too complicated to explain, I'm considering moving my blog to another platform so I would love to ask bloggers to send recommendations, either privately or in the comments....but how will readers leave comments if I can't get the comment function to work properly? (And there you have just one of the reasons too complicated to explain.)

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Call of the wild vs. scream of the grading pile

perfoliate bellwort
I wonder what harmonic convergence of conditions resulted in a massive bloom of perfoliate bellwort on the slope across from our meadow. Most years I have to hunt to find one or two in bloom, but suddenly they're all over the place, or all over that one particular place--I haven't seen them anywhere else. They're small and subtle and easy to overlook, but I love to see those buttery-yellow ribbonlike blooms fluttering like feathers in the breeze. 

Nearby, Solomon's Seal unfurls, its incipient blooms dangling beneath the stalk. The leaves emerge in delicate curls before eventually straightening into fernlike fronds. It looks like a banner year for Solomon's Seal, along with mayapples and more unusual wildflowers. My birding-and-botanizing buddy introduced me to miterwort, so named because the tiny white blossoms are said to resemble the headgear worn by cardinals. (Not the bird. Don't be silly. A bird wouldn't be caught dead in one of those silly hats.)

Solomon's Seal
We heard a phoebe call and found its nest, and we watched a catbird mewing in a tree just across the creek, its deep-blue feathers shining purple in the afternoon light. The call of the Louisiana waterthrush drew us along the bank, binoculars at the ready, but we never saw the bird. 

"You'll have to come down here every day about this time and listen for it," said my colleague, but we both know that's unlikely to happen this week. How can I heed the call of the waterthrush when the grading pile is screaming so obnoxiously?
sitting in the catbird seat

Squirrel Corn

Friday, April 26, 2013

Of donkeys and dignity

On Wednesday I led a class through the wonderful Yusef Komunyakaa poem "Slam, Dunk, & Hook," which describes the grace, fluidity, and elegance evident in young boys playing basketball:

               Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous... 

Last night I realized that Komunyakaa would have written a very different poem if he had instead attended a donkey basketball game. 

Dangerous? Maybe, but you wouldn't describe donkey basketball as beautiful, lyrical, elegant, or graceful--or even fluid. Okay, some fluids hit the floor, but the crack team of waste removers cleaned 'em up quickly. Mostly what hit the floor were people's butts. Donkeys may be small, but if they want to get you off their backs, they'll find a way.

I don't know how I've made it this far without ever have seen a donkey basketball game, but as I watched I kept wondering who can be credited with inventing the sport, if we can call it a sport. Who first looked at a high school gym with its slick wooden floor flanked by hoops and said, "What this place really needs is a bunch of donkeys! And I know--we'll make the teachers and administrators and even the stray substitute teacher compete against a bunch of students to see who can score the most goals! And we'll charge admission to raise money for some worthy cause! People will pay to see that!"

And they will. Seven dollars apiece!

Last night the students won, which shouldn't be any great shock, but I am pleased to report that my adorable husband put aside his pastors' garb and substitute-teaching suit and tie to clamber aboard a donkey and score one-third of the points for his team. (Which sounds pretty impressive until you learn that his team scored only 6 points.)

"Mr. Hogue drives toward the basket!" proclaimed the announcer as my highly dignified spouse nudged his reluctant donkey forward at a glacial pace, through a scrum of students and faculty falling (or being dumped) off their donkeys. He shoots! He scores! The crowd goes wild!

But the donkey plods on, its dignity intact.


Thursday, April 25, 2013

But I like my paper the way it is!

When I'm working with a student to improve a draft and she says "I like my paper the way it is," I don't know whether to respond with delight or despair. Consider:

1. The draft does what it needs to do with considerable skill, so my comments are mostly stylistic suggestions: "You might consider a more vivid verb here" or "Try this phrase at the beginning of the sentence and see how it sounds." In this case, "I like my paper the way it is" means "I've carefully considered your suggestions and made some changes to improve precision, and I'm pleased with the results." The only appropriate response is "Hurrah!"

2. The draft demonstrates serious problems with grammar, spelling, organization, or format so my comments are more pointed: "Eminent and imminent have very different meanings; make sure to select the right one" or "Shifting from past tense to present tense in the middle of a sentence undermines unity and coherence" or "Rough transition--how does this relate to the previous paragraph?" The student shows me a revised draft that attempts to address most of the problem areas, although the paper may still fall short of perfection. In this case, "I like my paper the way it is" means "I've worked hard and done my best and I hope my work is sufficient." Stick a fork in it and call it done!

3. The draft may be written competently but it somehow misses the point--it's a book review instead of an analysis, a rant instead of a reasoned argument--so revision may require further research, major restructuring, or a total rewrite. But the student pulls a Bartleby: "I prefer not to. I like my paper the way it is." I point out that she might not like the grade the paper earns, and the conversation quickly starts going in circles: "I like my paper the way it is! But I want a better grade! But I don't want to do any more work! But I want a better grade! Why are you always trying to change my writing? But I want a better grade! But I like my paper the way it is!" 

What to say? Recently I tried to extricate myself from this infinite loop by saying, "Look, you're an adult. If you don't want to revise your paper, don't. It's your decision." But that just sparked a whole new round of "But I want a better grade!" followed by bargaining: "If I add two sentences to each paragraph, will that be enough to get me a better grade?"

Sometimes silence is the only answer.    

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Crankcase cranky

Do you know what happens when you put oil in an old car (because there's a slow oil leak and you've forgotten to check the oil level frequently enough and the oil light is now blinking) and forget to put the cap back on the crankcase before driving 12 miles over twisty, hilly roads? 

Oil splatters out all over the hot engine, that's what. And then it burns, causing smoke to billow out from under the hood (and making you light-headed if you make the mistake of breathing while driving). And then if you accidentally left the crankcase cap sitting at just the right spot near the hood latch, you may find that the latch is stuck and the hood will not open. 

Don't ask me how I know all this but I will say that I've already experienced my full quota of excitement for the week and now I'm praying for an extremely boring day.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Playing with dolls? Who, me?

It took a mere 24 hours to solve half of the Mystery of the Doll in the Tree, but the other half remains mysterious.

Q: Who put the doll in the tree in our woods? 
A: My husband, who found it stuck in the ground while chopping firewood. (No, the doll wasn't chopping firewood. Don't be silly.) 

But he never mentioned finding the doll or putting it in the tree, so when I saw the doll the other day, I wondered why I had never seen it before. How did it get there? Did some past resident or youthful visitor put the doll in the tree or did it fall from the sky? Stranger things have happened! And how long has the doll been there? If a prior resident left it there, then how could I have walked past that tree for a full decade without seeing the doll?

Of course I didn't. The doll has been in the tree for only a few months since my husband picked it up in the woods. How did it get to our woods? The mystery remains.

I'm calling her Salvador Dolly, International Woman of Mystery, and I'm leaving her in the tree until her rightful owner returns. (See what happens when you grade paper after paper after paper? Even a doll in a tree looks interesting!)  

Out of order

Arrived home yesterday afternoon with arms full of groceries and an eagerness to transform them into something wonderful and found no one at home, no faucet fixtures on the kitchen sink, no way to access water in the kitchen,  bits of corroded old faucet parts all over the counter, and every single cleaning product that usually resides under the sink spread out across the kitchen floor. Not to mention the vacuum cleaner sitting in the middle of the room. (Why? Who uses a vacuum cleaner to fix a faucet?)

Did I manage to cook a wonderful dinner despite conditions? Yes I did, and eventually the resident Mr. Plumber came home and installed a new faucet and even helped clean up the mess. So there's that. However, I'm still awaiting resolution of some other issues involving nonfunctioning stuff--Spring seems to be the season of rampant mechanical collapse. 

Yesterday, for instance, I spent an absurd amount of time on the phone with the friendly customer service people at Amazon trying to track down the replacement Kindle they claimed to have delivered to me last week (because the Kindle I received for Christmas stopped working). You should have heard me explaining patiently to the cheery customer service person that if sending one replacement Kindle to the wrong address was an error, sending a second replacement Kindle to the same wrong address was unlikely to fix the problem.

But I survived all that and arrived on campus this morning ready to take on the pile of drafts requiring immediate response, only to find that the coffee-maker in the department office won't turn on. Why? Because there's no power in that end of the office. Why? Because someone must have tried to use the microwave and the hotpot at the same time and tripped the circuit breaker...and then walked away from the problem. 

I don't want to know who that someone might be because I'm not in any condition to express myself clearly before my morning coffee. At times like these, the best I can do is to throw my hands in the air and call out to the Powers That Be to send a repair person pronto. What will my colleagues do without their morning quota of caffeine? The place will be unbearable. Fix it, please! Will somebody please just fix it?!!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Some pre-teaching exercises to exorcise resentment

I know it's irrational, but I resent Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton for requiring me to talk about suicide on such a beautiful day. On the other hand, maybe it's better to talk about suicidal poets when the sun is shining and the cherry trees are blooming and the air feels crisp and fresh and full of life, because talking about suicide on a gloomy day would feel gratuitously bleak.

I really hate to teach Plath and Sexton anyway because students are always tempted to read the poems as extended suicide notes, seeking clues to solve the mystery instead of examining the interplay of form and content. Maybe if we count every fifth letter from the end of the poem we'll uncover a cipher clearly naming the culprits who drove them to take their own lives! It's a futile effort and I resent the poets for making it possible. Why couldn't they have lived on to ripe old age? Then we could read the poems as poems instead of as puzzles.

When I read the tender poems both women wrote about their children (such as Plath's "Morning Song" and Sexton's "Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman"), I resent the poets even more. How could they write such love notes to their children and then cause those same children such pain? And how could they snuff out their poetic gifts and deprive the world of future gifts of poetry? Selfish, I tell you. Just selfish.

Before I teach Sexton and Plath, I have to take some deep breaths and remind myself that whatever mental aberrations drove them to suicide is beyond my comprehension that my resentment is a futile waste of energy. Let's just focus on the poems, the poems the poems the poems, and on the fact that it is a beautiful day, a beautiful beautiful day. 

Deep breath. Now teach!

Friday, April 19, 2013

The untenable tree

Snow was falling a few weeks ago when this tree fell across our creek, a windfall offering of future firewood. We've been viewing it as a dead thing, done with life entirely, destined to heat our house next winter, but apparently the tree isn't quite ready to accept its fate. This week buds burst and leaves sprouted from branches lying in the creek, an untenable and unsustainable position for a tree. 

The chainsaw can wait. Let the tree enjoy its last leafy fling at life.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Peace in my pocket

The events of this week demand a dose of peace so I'm observing National Poem-In-Your-Pocket Day by carrying in my pocket "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry (read it here). I'll share it with my classes and with anyone else who wonders what I'm carrying in my pocket, which could be dangerous because reading it out loud just might make me cry.

Of course, April is the crying month. Something awful always happens in April, and my students and I are all overwrought from overwork. (Which is redundant, since "wrought" and "work" derive from the same Old English root.) What have words wrought? Today the words in my pocket work peace.  

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Muddy morning

 Early-morning walk in the wet, muddy woods, so damp I got soaked through and my glasses kept fogging up. I watched  a turtle swim across a pond, listened to a cardinal singing his heart out on a fence-post, startled some deer, and watched a red-bellied woodpecker dig for grubs in a rotten tree. Now I've got to get to campus and watch some seniors present the results of their research. Good thing I brought a change of clothes! (But I can't decide which is more challenging: walking uphill on mud or walking downhill.)


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Words, not bombs

I heard on the radio last night that whoever set off the bombs at the Boston Marathon was "trying to send a message," but unless the message is "I am a homicidal maniac," bombs are a particularly ineffective rhetorical method. (That's why we don't teach bomb construction in composition classes.)

So many ways to send a message: letters, books, tweets, music, manifestos. The Donald Barthelme story "The Balloon" portrays a man who deploys an ambiguous message--a gigantic red balloon--onto which observers project their own meanings, which differ from the private meaning intended by the balloon's author. But no human beings were harmed in the deployment of this balloon.

What sort of message might a bomb convey? News analysts suggested a number of motivations: maybe the bomber has a grievance against the Boston Marathon or athletes, or maybe the bomber hates Americans (on Patriot Day!) or hates paying taxes (on income tax day!). Anyone who wants to protest paying taxes ought to revisit Thoreau,who never threw any bombs but whose message about civil disobedience remains clear and compelling. If the "machine of government" produces injustice, says Thoreau, the citizen has three choices: wait for the machine to wear out; consider whether "the remedy would be worse than the evil"; or "Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine."

Thoreau was willing to throw his body into the gears of the machine, sacrificing his own comfort for his cause; he didn't drag his neighbors to jail with him or inscribe a painful message on the bodies of random strangers. That's why Thoreau's message still earns our attention even if we disagree. The bomber who hides behind technology to toss strangers' bodies into the machine may in fact be trying to send a message, but the only message listeners will remember is one of horror and hatred and incomprehensible evil.

Need to send a message? Words work better than bombs, cost less, and last forever, as Robinson Jeffers reminds us in "To the Stone-Cutters":

For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind and blacken to the heart:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Spring drama

There's nothing more ordinary than the Ohio Buckeye, a tree growing abundantly all around our woods, and yet in spring you wouldn't believe the drama: shiny pink buds the size of a coin purse form on the ends of bare brown sticks, and then the buds burst and spew forth fine, feathery pinky-green leaves that force their way forward into festoons of greenery. And it's happening right out there in public where anyone can watch! I almost want to avert my eyes from the raw naked drama.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Blossom time

Tiny white blossom
poking from the cold ground: why
must you fade so soon?

Dutchman's breeches

Rue anemone


Friday, April 12, 2013

Move on. Nothing to see here.

Another day, another postcard from a former student saying "Your class changed my life." I taught that class two years ago and so far half of those students have gone on record lauding the class as a life-changing experience.

I mentioned this during my encounter with Admissions yesterday in reference to declining enrollments in humanities courses and majors. I wanted to know how we can get the word out to prospective students that these classes can change their lives.

Short answer: we can't. Prospective students (and the parents who foot the bill) seek a clear path toward secure employment, not a nebulous promise about changed lives. And then what if we promise to change lives and don't deliver? 

The more disturbing answer, though, occurred to me while teaching Richard Russo's Straight Man. The main character's wife, Lily, comes from a working-class background and is the first in her family to go to college, which changes her life so much that she and her father seem to be speaking different languages. Education inserts a wedge between Lily and Angelo, changing her in ways that he finds appalling.

Maybe the "change your life" message won't sell because prospective students are perfectly happy with their lives the way they are, or maybe parents want their children to return from college more employable but otherwise unchanged. Maybe the prospect that my class can change their lives sounds like a threat, one small part of the vast left-wing conspiracy to destroy the youth of America. Ooh, scary.

And so we keep it a secret, a silent time-bomb ticking beneath the desks or a delayed-action drug wafting through the classroom ventilation system. Sometimes the effects aren't apparent for years, which explains the long line of postcards saying "Your class changed my life." 

Shh! Don't tell! We wouldn't want to spoil the conspiracy.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A classless visit

I was delivering a well-reasoned harangue to a person in the Admissions Office--never mind about what--when a surprising fact disrupted my rhetoric, and I still can't quite wrap my mind around it. I was wondering why visiting prospective students don't ever visit my classes anymore and the Admissions person explained: "They don't want to visit classes."

What? A high school student considering investing tens of thousands of dollars in an institution of higher education would prefer not to know what goes on in the classroom? I see them visiting the rec center and the library, the cafeteria and the dorms, but they don't want to visit any classes? How can they make informed decisions about education?

Maybe that question answers itself--in which case I really don't want to know the answer.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A wellness program that raises my blood pressure

By the time I got to the blood-pressure station at our employee wellness program health screening, I was so angry that my blood pressure was at least 20 points higher than usual. Why does our new wellness program  annoy me so much more than our old one?

First, because the new wellness program treats us not like individuals but like members of a group, and a particularly stupid group at that. Case in point: I haven't been to the emergency room in at least 15 years, but I still had to watch a long boring video about why it's a bad idea to use the emergency room for routine health problems. I know treating us as a group is a cost-saving measure, but I resent being lumped together with the guy who runs to the emergency room every time he gets jock itch.

Second, because the new wellness program feels intrusive. All my health screening info is going into a database where it will be stored in a way that my employer will not be able to link with my name. (So they say.) And then the wellness program will draw on that database to offer individualized suggestions for improving my wellness, probably in the form of more videos telling me, for instance, that it would be a good idea to lose some weight. (Like, duh.) If it starts sending hectoring e-mails, they're going straight to the Spam folder.

Third, because it is the cancer survivor's lot in life to be subjected to medical test after medical test until the end of time. I had blood work done last summer for my annual checkup with my GP, last August for our (old) employee wellness program, and last November for my annual cancer follow-up, and now I'm supposed to get more blood tests done for our new employee wellness program? That's too many tests.

Finally, because it's April, the cruelest month on the academic calendar. Every hour I spend sitting in a doctor's waiting room awaiting tests or standing in line to get my blood pressure checked at the health screening is an hour I'm not spending grading papers, prepping classes, or advising students. The crunch is on: with only a few weeks left in the semester, every spare minute is crammed with multiple responsibilities. I would be happy to show up for a health screening in August when the whole year stretches out before me, but April is always already impossible.

I keep reminding myself that the wellness program is supposed to make me healthier and happier, but getting angry about it just raises my blood pressure. Maybe it's time to step back, take a few deep breaths, and chill out. Think of the wellness program as a nagging parent: "I'm doing this for your own good, dear. You'll thank me for it someday." 

Okay, that just made it worse.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Why every campus needs a Squirrel Wrangler

A brilliant student told me today that when she was visiting campuses to decide which to attend, she always knew where to find the English department: look for the oldest-looking building on campus, the one desperately in need of a facelift, new furniture, and technology. 

No surprise there, but another criterion floored me: watch the squirrels. "The friendlier and fatter the squirrels, the nicer the people," she said, "but every time I saw lean, vicious-looking, unfriendly squirrels, the people were unfriendly."

It's clear, then, that what every campus needs is a Squirrel-Cam feeding images of fat, friendly squirrels to the college website. Of course some campuses might require a total Squirellectomy to replace their lean, mean squirrels with more robust specimens, and then what if the squirrels won't perform for the camera? I foresee the day when every campus will employ an official Squirrel Wrangler. 

Where will we find personnel adept at managing the needs of squirrely, inattentive, uncooperative creatures? I recommend the English department.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Soft landing

This, today, represents me: coming in for a landing on campus, ready to get my feet wet in the classrooms, keeping an eye peeled for lurking gators. Yep. That's me all over.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Conference conclusions

Three days after I gave my paper, I still get a thrill when I think of a particular comment from someone who heard it. "I liked your paper," she said. "It was fun."

Fun? There's nothing fun about the typical academic conference paper, a jargon-bloated blast of rhetoric delivered at breakneck pace by someone who can't bear the thought of cutting a single word and so must speak so quickly to squeeze it all in that the ideas speed past too quickly for my ears to grab 'em.

Many presenters try to add a little zing to presentations with technology, but the same scholars who can't cut any words from their papers tend to overstuff their PowerPoint presentations. Adding jokes, video clips, and zooming text to a vapid paper isn't going to make it any less vapid.

Nothing against tech. I'd rather watch a well-constructed PowerPoint presentation than listen to a clumsy reader stumble through a written manuscript, but often we get the worst of both worlds: too much text on the slides; too little depth in the concepts.

I didn't use any bells and whistles for this presentation--no PowerPoint, no swooping Prezi, no clips or handouts or visual aides, just me at the front of the room with a handful of words. I read parts of my paper--the intro and some important points I didn't want to get wrong--but I knew my paper was too long so I skipped whole paragraphs and instead briefly summarized them off the cuff. 

But I did make people laugh. It wasn't a particularly funny topic, but if I see an opportunity to sum up an important point with a concise one-liner, I'll take it. The laughter confirmed that people were listening, and the discussion afterward confirmed that they got the point.

So what is my point? Partly I'm writing this to kill an hour while I await my connecting flight home--I'm afraid that if I stop thinking, I'll fall asleep and miss my boarding call. But partly I want to remind myself that this trip to Savannah was not just another time-wasting junket: I delivered a paper that made people laugh while it made them think, and at this point in my career, that's a good day's work. 

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Savannah is for the birds

Things I should have taken along with me on my long solitary hike in the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge today:

1. Sunscreen.

2. Hat.

3. Mosquito repellant.

4. More than one water bottle.

5. A porta-pottie. (Staying hydrated has its consequences.)

6. Cell phone. (I mean, what if that snake had attacked instead of slithering away? Or what if I'd slipped on the mud and broken both legs? By the time someone stumbled upon my sorry carcass, I'd be gator meat.) 

7. Lunch.

8. Bird book.

9. An extra pair of shoes and socks.

Despite these minor oversights, I emerged with wet feet, sunburned face and arms, sore legs, exactly two mosquito bites, and more than 200 photos, some of them pretty exciting. Yellow-rumped warblers! Three kinds of herons! A tree full of wood storks! I wish I could pack all those birds up and take them home--but considering how poorly I packed for this trip, maybe not.


Friday, April 05, 2013

Reaching my limits

Number of conference sessions I can attend back-to-back before I need to take a break from listening: 2 sessions or 7 papers, whichever comes first.

Number of times I can hear the phrase "hegemonic normative masculinity" before I want to run screaming from the room: way fewer than the approximately 27 times the phrase appeared in one paper yesterday. 

Number of truly wretched presentations I've attended so far: 2.

Number of papers that inspired interesting ideas for my own research or teaching: 3. 

Number of times my heart leaps up when I see a boat moving smoothly past the windows of the conference hotel: depends on the size of the boat.

Number of hours I've been in Savannah without seeing the sun: 38.

Price of a single granola bar in the hotel shop: $3. 

Price of a whole box of granola bars at the grocery story I visited yesterday: $3.

You do the math. 


Thursday, April 04, 2013

Screaming carpets, flying chairs

My first thought when I walked into the conference room was, "How will anyone hear my presentation when the carpet is screaming so loudly?" But once I got up there and started talking, the carpet disappeared. All I saw were the words in front of me and the appreciative faces of the listeners.

At least they looked appreciative. It's hard to tell. There was some good discussion afterward, but no one got up and did The Wave or threw chairs or anything. Maybe they should. Maybe some of us should start a trend of less ambiguous responses to conference papers. A little chair-tossing can be downright therapeutic.

So let's give it a try, shall we? You first.

Conference karma

How long does it take to move from "what a terrific hotel room!" to "what a dump!" I suppose it depends on what I had to go through to get there.

My room is really lovely now that I've got the wireless access figured out and found the coffee and determined that the bathroom exhaust fan isn't coming on no matter how many times I press that button. I don't need six pillows, but who's complaining? Well, I could use a little more warmth, but the concierge probably can't do much about the weather.

The trip was uneventful and, at times, even pleasant. My flights were mostly on time, and I had aisle seats on both. The crying baby in front of me was too adorable to be annoying, and besides, there's no point in getting annoyed by crying babies on airplanes because what are ya gonna do--toss him out the window? 

I had a great chat with a fellow conference-attendee at one airport and an even greater chat with my seat-mate on the flight to Savannah. He was the perfect seat-mate: friendly and interesting while on the ground, nose in a book while in the air--and he gave me some great local insight on places to see in and around Savannah. 

Of course I can't see anything yet because the sky is dark and overcast. Sunshine is in the forecast tomorrow, but today looks just dreadful. Whose brilliant idea was it to schedule eight concurrent conference sessions at 8 a.m. in a hotel where it's impossible to find a simple breakfast for under twelve dollars? I should have brought some granola bars.

My session is at 1:30 this afternoon and I'm as ready as I'll ever be, so I could skip the 8:00 session, but here's the thing: I've given papers at those wretched early-morning sessions and I know how lonely they can be. There's nothing worse that getting up at the crack of dawn, dressing your professional best, and showing up at 8 a.m. ready to knock the socks off the audience, only to discover that the audience decided to stay in bed. So I'll attend an 8:00 panel just to build up some good conference karma.

First, though, I've got to find some breakfast. Will someone please fax me a bagel?  

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Mapping the internal journey

Speaking of souls: today in my Honors class we finished Cold Mountain, and I pointed out that the book refers frequently to maps of physical journeys while showing us characters' internal journeys. I broke them up into groups of 2, handed them large sheets of card stock, and set each group to work diagramming a specific character's development. 

Their maps were amazing--colorful, intricate, evocative, insightful--and their explanations of the maps enriched our understanding of the novel. I almost hate to leave this book behind, but it's time to take the next step in our semester-long journey. Coming up: The Namesake. I can hardly wait to see where this journey leads.

Inman's inner journey.

On reading and being read

I told my Honors students I would be giving a paper at a conference later this week and they wanted to know what it was about, so I told them. And then I heard a question I've never heard a student ask before: Can we read it?

And why shouldn't my students read my conference paper? It's actually relevant to what they're studying, which isn't always the case. And so today I made a few semi-final edits to the paper (the final edits come when I deliver the talk) and posted it on Moodle.

I was, frankly, a little nervous, mostly because I don't want my students to see in my writing things I complain about in theirs--too many weak linking verbs, for instance, or insufficient grounding in the scholarly conversation. I've explained to them the difference between a conference paper and a journal article, but as I was editing, I kept wanting to insert little explanatory notes about why I was doing what I was doing. 

I read my students' work all the time but now the tables are turned: it's time for my students to read me, and it feels really strange.

Monday, April 01, 2013

What we talk about when we talk about literature

It's not unusual for me to say, at the end of a class discussion, "Well, that's it for today. Any questions? Problems with readings, assignments, meaning-of-life issues?"

I get questions on readings and assignments but rarely on meaning-of-life issues. I can think of several possible reasons for this:

1. Students don't think about the meaning of life.
2. If they think about the meaning of life, they don't do it in a literature class.
3. If they think about the meaning of life in a literature class, they don't believe I would have any answers--especially in the final 10 seconds of class.

But if we can't think about the meaning of life in a literature class, where can we think about it? 

Don't laugh. I'm really wondering: where do students these days go to seek answers for big questions, like what are we doing here, is there any justice in the universe, and what is my place in the world?

It seems obvious to me that such questions would come up when we talk about literature, but it does not seem so obvious to my students. Recently, for instance, I asked students to analyze what certain works suggest about the human condition, and many of them were puzzled: What does that mean, "the human condition"? What can literature possibly have to say about what it means to be human? What does it mean to be human? And so on.

It occurred to me this morning that one reason I'm comfortable tackling big questions in class is that I graduated from a college that required chapel attendance three times a week. 

Now required chapel sounds hopelessly old-school and out of touch, and it's certainly true that I sometimes struggled to stay awake through some of the less inspiring messages. But here's the thing: chapel pushed us to form connections between what was going on in our classrooms and what was going on in our souls. 

That's an old-fashioned concept, the soul. I'm not sure my students think much about whether they have souls or what it means to have a soul or, for that matter, what it means if the soul is simply a comforting story we tell ourselves to make our lives meaningful.  Is the exam going to ask about the nature of the soul? Then why talk about it in class?

But I teach literature because I believe it matters, because stories are a culture's way of talking about itself, because literature illuminates paths we might otherwise not have considered following. The best literature speaks to the soul and nudges us to examine those meaning-of-life issues, and that's why I keep asking the big questions.

I'm not claiming to possess the big answers, but I do enjoy creating a space where the questions can arise.