Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday poetry challenge: time's slippage

The first week of classes has passed in a blur, but time seems to stop every afternoon as I wait out my office hours alone in the cavelike basement with no one stopping by. Five minutes of empty office-hour time seems to take an eternity to pass, while time in class goes by so quickly that I can't squeeze in everything we need to cover. How did time get so unreliable?

The weeks are racing quickly by
but afternoons stretch on
in twiddling thumbs and tedium,
slow-motion--then they're gone.

A thousand years are like a day,
a season like a slumber.
An hour in class just whizzes past,
but minutes like to lumber.

Its ticking sounds consistent, but
my clock is worthless--see, 
it cannot show what we all know:
Time's relativity.

That's my week in a nutshell--how about yours? I'd love to see some time-related musings in the comments!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Heeding my inner personal trainer

It's time to get up off your butt and go to the Rec Center. You know the weather's going to be lousy tonight so there's no chance you'll go for a walk. Besides, you promised to meet your colleague over there. Just go!

Ignore all those students milling about. They don't care how flabby you look in your gym clothes--in fact, they don't even see you. As far as students are concerned, you've entered into the invisible age.

Pay no attention to the scale in the corner. Well, okay, just once--step on the scale to see how you're doing, but then immediately put the results out of your mind.

Don't be afraid of the elliptical machine! It won't bite! It doesn't even care how long you've been neglecting the Rec Center. Just get up there and start stepping. 

You can stop after 20 minutes--but not before. Not five minutes early. Not even one minute early.

And you can't stop in the middle of a song, even if your 20 minutes are up and the current song is "The Boxer."

And you obviously can't stop until your heart rate drops into more normal range. So just keep stepping--but slowly.

There now. Don't you feel much better? Don't get too relaxed, though--time to walk the track! 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Doing my literary analysis happy-dance!

The very best moment of this morning's class occurred when a student asked a simple question: "Are we allowed to look up words?"

Yes! Please! Look up every single word if it will help you understand the poem!

This was in my Sports Literature class, which introduces firts-year students to the fine art of literary analysis. I wanted to hit them right off the bat with the important distinction between emotional and analytical responses to literature, but this group needs to take things in small steps, so over the summer I created a Prezi that dramatizes the process. And if this thing is working right, you can see it here:

My goal today was to kick them right off that very comfortable bottom step ("I feel, I can relate, It reminds me of the time...") and help them step up toward Understanding, so I showed them a short poem, put them in groups of three, asked them to work together to understand the poem, and then left the room for a few minutes. (Small-group discussion can be thwarted if the students feel as if I'm looming over them, so I often step out for a drink of water or a brief chat with a colleague.)

The minute I walked back into the classroom, a student threw his hand in the air and asked, "Are we allowed to look up words?"

I wanted to do my happy dance right there in the classroom. I even gave the class a one-time release from the no-cell-phone policy and encouraged them to look up any unfamiliar term, and within seconds I heard groups talking out which definition of eccentricity might apply to a poem about baseball and what the differences might be between errant, arrant, and aberrant.

It took a few minutes but they soon convinced me that they understood the poem, and they even started making some leaps toward analysis (which wasn't part of the lesson plan). Some of them even liked the poem--but not until they'd made the effort to understand it.

See, it doesn't take much for students to make me really happy. Sometimes all it takes is a simple question.  

Monday, August 26, 2013

Do I dare?

The peach has been sitting on the dining table for three or four days, looking uglier by the minute, mottled and split and entirely unappealing. First it was hard as a rock and then, as it softened, it attracted a swirl of fruit flies. Who would pick such an unlikely peach? Who would dare to eat it?

That was our entire peach harvest sitting on the table, this one peach. A peach tree we planted up the hill a few years ago finally started producing peaches this season, but they stayed small and hard and were eaten by deer and raccoons; the peach on the table, on the other hand, came from a tree we planted just a few months ago, a tiny sapling that had no business producing fruit.

And yet it did: it made one big, plump, ugly peach that we picked last week while it was still hard, and then it sat and waited for someone brave enough to take a bite.

This morning my husband cut up that peach, eviscerated the icky spots, removed the ugly peel, and sliced half of it into my breakfast cereal.

It was good. Really good--the sweetest, juiciest, most luscious peach I've ever eaten. A tree from which we expected nothing produced one perfect piece of fruit, and it was very good. 

If that peach suggests anything about the nature of my fall classes (which start today!), I'll be on the lookout for the unpromising student who hands in a peach of a paper--but I'll also keep a sharp eye out for the pit!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Unbeatable but unbloggable

Because communication breakdowns on campus have resulted in a series of ludicrous but unbloggable situations,

and because our campus continues to discriminate between men and women in petty but unbloggable ways,

and because a certain local official persists in embarrassing the community in an ignorant but unbloggable manner,

and because our two-month-long attempt to refinance our mortgage fell to pieces for unbloggable reasons involving violations of the laws of physics,

Here is a totally gratuitous photograph of a sunflower.

You're welcome.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My kind of personal assistant

This morning College Misery features a post on the growth of private consultants who do all the grunt-work for students trying to register for classes (read it here), while over at Slate Farhad Manjoo reveals that outsourcing his "most mundane personal tasks" to an online personal assistant (in India!) did not work out as well as he'd hoped (read it here).

Neither of these stories features the specialized kind of personal assistant I need today: someone to sit through six hours of meetings in my place. Call her a Personal Ass-sitter--someone who can sit patiently through any number of inane meetings, listen to the same three people make the same three points at every meeting, and nod brightly even when the information presented at this year's meeting is identical to the information presented at last year's meeting.

The ideal Personal Ass-sitter would occasionally offer clever comments that would reflect positively on my wit and wisdom, but I fear I might have to pay extra for this service. How many comments at how much per comment? We would have to negotiate a reasonable fee, but I stink at negotiation.

But hey, I can hire another personal assistant just to negotiate with my Personal Ass-sitter...and then a third personal assistant to negotiate with my negotiator, and eventually I would have to take on a second job just to pay all my personal assistants.

Maybe I could get a job as a Personal Ass-sitter! Oh wait, I already have that job.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Another many-meeting marathon

Meeting today from 3 to 4.

Three different meetings tomorrow from 10 to 1, 1:30 to 4, and 4 to 5.

Lunch with friends Thursday, hurrah!

Meeting Friday from 3 until the end of time.

Meetings Saturday (with new students!) from 9 to 1 (ish).

What, no meeting on Sunday? Somebody must have slipped up!

And then classes start for real on Monday....if I have any energy left after all those meetings.

Hunting (and sometimes gathering)

With few free days left before I have to step back into the classroom I've donned my hunter-gatherer boots, but I seem to be doing a lot of hunting and precious little gathering. 

I had invited my birding-and-botanizing friend out Sunday to go creek-stomping in search of kingfishers. "They've been really active lately," I told her. "I see them every day." So naturally the kingfishers were nowhere to be seen Sunday, even though we waded far upstream into their secluded areas. They were probably taking shelter from the persistent drizzle, which anyone with a working brain would have done at the time, but we just stomped on through the muddy water, sludge, and drizzle.

Yesterday I was more successful when I went hunting for classroom-worthy clothes, bagging a wonderful skirt, a blouse, and two sweaters, but I spent most of the day helping my husband with two other important searches: a computer to replace his ailing 12-year-old (!!) laptop and a used van to replace the one that exploded three weeks ago. We brought home no computer and no van, although we test-drove the perfect van at the perfect price. We just need to get a few financial things figured out before we actually buy anything, which means the perfect van might no longer be available. On the other hand, offers a wide field for hunting and gathering used cars, so one of these days we'll bag a beauty and bring it home.
Back home our gathering has been much more fruitful. Our corn is as high as an elephant's eye and absolutely delicious, so we've been eating it every day--sometimes two meals a day. Sweet-corn season doesn't last long but while it does, it's good to be a gatherer.  

Friday, August 16, 2013

Unnerving numbers

Three--count 'em, three. That's how many of my freshman students this fall are female. I have two freshman classes for a total of 29 students, only three of them female. Meanwhile, my two non-freshman classes have a total of 27 students, 19 of them female. Right: in my freshman classes, 10 percent of the students are female, while in the non-freshman classes, 70 percent are female. What's up with that?

Twelve months: that's how long I've been doing my best to love my basement office, and it's not working. I have plenty of space and everything I need to make my work space comfortable, but the more time I spend in here, the more glum I get. The problem, I think, is the dearth of natural light. Fluorescent lights plus a tiny dungeon window set near the ceiling = cavelike ambiance. What can I do about this? I suppose I can learn to love my office, but if a full year of trying won't do the trick, I'm not sure what will. Maybe I need to start holding office hours outdoors.

Three seconds: that's how long it took me to turn down an unexpected offer yesterday. Would I like to take a course release this fall in exchange for doing a bit of work for a particular program? No, I would not, partly because I've already completed my preparations for that class and partly for reasons I'd rather not reveal. The fact is that I've had my knees kicked out from under me too many times and I don't intend to take on any administrative work unless it's something I really want to do. (And yes, I do have in mind the "something" I'd really like to do, but the position does not actually exist at this time.)

Nine days until classes start! Three long required meetings/events next week plus several shorter auxiliary meetings. One more chance for Monday canoeing, and then 15 weeks until Christmas break. And the countdown begins....


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

To boldly go where no paper has gone before (without boldface!)

Dear not-yet-my-student,

You've offered me so many avenues for criticism that I don't quite know where to begin: you've sent me a paper and asked for my feedback even though classes haven't started yet and the paper is intended for a class I'm not teaching; you've addressed me by an inappropriate name; and you've put a red flag on your e-mail message as if it's the most important thing coming into my inbox, certainly far more important than those mortgage refinance documents or photos of my grandbaby.

But I'm not going to complain about all that. You were, after all, just following the suggestion of the minor administrator who told you to contact me and that I would be utterly delighted to read your paper and offer suggestions. I will certainly have a word or two with that administrator, but that's not your problem.

Your problem is boldface. And italics. And, sometimes, if you're really really excited about something, boldface and italics combined with quotation marks so I can't "POSSIBLY" ignore the very important thing you have to say.

Trust me: you don't want to start like this. First of all, if you boldface important words in every sentence, what will you do when a truly phenomenal idea comes around? It's only a small step from bold/italics/quotation marks to pulsing red flaming fonts accompanied by trumpet fanfare.

Second, promiscuous mingling of boldface, italics, and quotation marks indicates a lack of awareness of proper MLA formatting. Okay, I realize that you're just an incoming freshman and I can't expect you to know squat about MLA formatting, but here's a quick and dirty secret: MLA is boring. (Perhaps intentionally.) Anything that personalizes the format of your paper, that adds color and zest and individualized Ka-POW, is probably not allowed. Get used to dullness now and save yourself a world of grief. Heed the words of David Foster Wallace, who tells us in The Pale King that the ability to endure dullness is a form of power: "If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish."

Finally, using tricksy font treatments to emphasize words is the sluggard's way out. Careful writers emphasize important ideas by stating them in compelling ways, using precise words and arranging them cleverly in order to confer power. See how I put the word "power" at the end of the sentence? That position packs the kind of punch that can't be conferred by boldface, italics, quotation marks, or pulsing red flaming fonts accompanied by trumpet fanfare.

You are not yet my student but you will be soon, and the first lesson you'll need to learn is to resist the urge to boldface everything. Put some duct-tape over the B key if you need to, or if you're overwhelmed by the urge to boldface, sit on your hands and hum for a while. Let your words be bold and your syntax powerful, but let your fonts be boring.

Abnormal August

If I'd been carrying my camera this morning, I could have photographed two male kingfishers sitting on the same branch and then swooping off in a mad chattering chase, perhaps a territorial dispute. Normally, kingfishers flee before I can get close enough for a good shot, but this time they let me get really close before taking off--and of course, I didn't have the camera. 

Maybe they were confused by the weather. I know I was. No one told me we were going to have October this morning, so I had to walk really quickly in the shady spots, trying to get to the sun. August in Ohio is generally fairly predictable: oppressive heat, humidity, mosquitoes, thunderstorms, rinse and repeat. Today, though, the cool, crisp air felt like apple-picking-and-hayride weather and made me wonder where I've stashed my fall jacket.

Not that I'm complaining! However, it does seem a little ironic that the minute the air conditioning in my office building gets fixed, we no longer need it. And the cooler weather also reminds me that I'll soon be swamped with classes to prep and papers to grade. I look longingly after those fleeing kingfishers and wish I could join them, flying up the creek and chattering my fool head off.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

At home on the river

Lesson #1 of river paddling: downstream is easier. 

Of course every idiot knows this, but we're dealing with a river that resists easy access, so sometimes you have to paddle upstream to get where you want to go. The mighty Muskingum is known for its many low-head dams and its historic hand-operated locks, which draw tourists, fisherpeople, and campers but are less friendly to boaters. The dams are treacherous, especially for unpowered craft; last month when the river was at flood stage, a 17-foot fishing boat lost power and got swept over one of the dams. Two of the fishermen swam to safety but the third drowned. The river held on to his body for three days, and it's still holding on to his boat.

So we're not taking our canoe anywhere near the dams, and the hand-operated locks may be quaint but operators are on hand only a few weekends each year.
But the Muskingum is beautiful and very close to home and full of fish, so all summer we've been working our paddling skills up to river level and then waiting for the river to come down from flood stage. 

Finally conditions were right, so for the past two Mondays we've taken the canoe on the same stretch of the Muskingum: putting in at the boat launch across from the power plant just above Beverly, paddling upstream toward Luke Chute, and then paddling back downstream to where we started.

Last week we took a side-trip up a very quiet creek but this morning we just kept moving on upriver. It felt as if we were paddling miles and miles but distances are deceiving on water, and the length that took us two hours to paddle upstream took only 40 minutes going down. We worked really hard maneuvering the currents and the occasional wakes from powerboats, and when we were worn out, we pulled in to a secluded cove for a picnic.

And then we turned around and went back downstream, marveling over how quickly we moved past landmarks that had signified major accomplishments while paddling upstream--a landscape that had been moving past at ultra-slow speed suddenly slipped into fast-forward.

Which felt GREAT. All that hard paddling against the current gave way to a swift, easy slide downstream in a breeze that cooled our sweaty bodies. 

Downstream is like dessert--except the only way to get a second helping is to paddle upstream first.

Is it too late to consider an alternate career?

But I don't WANNA write syllabi! Don't wanna post essay prompts on Moodle, create handouts, or decorate my bulletin board!

Don't wanna type, write, think, or facilitate--especially facilitate.

Don't want no meetings. Don't wanna meet deadlines or submit documents to appropriate offices.

Why? Give me a corner to stand in and I'll echo Bartleby: I prefer not to. 

Today. Ask me again tomorrow.


Friday, August 09, 2013

To futility and beyond!

Thanks to sophisticated software, frequent backups, and redundant failsafes, it's really not all that easy to accidentally obliterate an entire day's work in one keystroke. Nevertheless, that's what I managed to do yesterday afternoon.

Don't ask me how I did it--it's too embarrassing. I was trying to work too quickly on too little sleep right in the middle of my stupidest part of the day when I realized almost instantly that I had accidentally deleted an entire course from our course management system after spending the better part of the day building that course from the ground up.

It was a beautiful course while it lasted and it's even more beautiful now that I've rebuilt it from scratch, but for a few hours there it was a vast desolate wasteland. But I was okay with that. In fact, I surveyed that wasteland with an utterly incongruous sense of peace.

For one thing, right now is the right time to do irrevocable damage to courses because no students are here to suffer the consequences and I have plenty of time to sweep the dust under the rug before they return. No need to panic or run around alarming our tech people--just breathe deeply and take some time to figure this out. 

Which I did.

Also, for the past few years I've been developing a profound appreciation for futility. Consider: on Monday we packed up all our canoeing gear and hauled the canoe a few miles up the Muskingum, and then we paddled up the river a short distance to the mouth of a pleasant little creek, paddled up the creek until it got too shallow and rocky, and then turned around and paddled right on back to where we'd started. We didn't catch any fish, take any decent photos, or even arrive anywhere significant; by any objective measure of accomplishment, it was an exercise in futility.

But I like futility. Futility is soothing, especially when accompanied by kingfishers. And so when I accidentally and irretrievably deleted my beautifully constructed course, I took a little mental trip up the river and cherished the moment. This is the magic of August: even if I end up in the middle of a vast desolate wasteland, it doesn't have to be the end of the world. 

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Doing the Find-a-New-Classroom Shuffle

There once was a time when I accepted my classroom assignments without a peep, making do with whatever inadequate arrangement I'd been given, but too many classroom disasters have made me more demanding. These days I look over all my classrooms weeks before the semester starts and then I lobby various offices to get my classes into appropriate rooms.

Way back before classrooms were equipped with DVD players, I taught a film class in a room that required me to get down on my hands and knees in front of the entire class and crawl under the desk every time I needed to insert a video. Last semester, though, when my film class was scheduled to meet in a room with great big windows and no effective way to block the sunshine and darken the room, I did the Find-a-New-Classroom Shuffle until I'd located a workable environment.

And another time I was scheduled to teach back-to-back classes in rooms on opposite ends of campus, and even though it's a small campus, I would have breezed into the second class winded and worried about getting the computer going and all my stuff set up for classroom activities. So I did the Shuffle again, this time begging the head of another program to allow me to use their empty rooms. 

Another time I taught a class of 18 students in an auditorium that seats over 100, which was awkward and annoying. This fall I'm scheduled to teach an upper-level seminar with only six students in a room that seats 40. It's not a horrible room, but I would really prefer one more intimate, so off I go to the Records office to find out what other rooms are available (none in my building!) and then off I Shuffle to several other buildings, trudging up and down flights of stairs and examining the few available rooms to see which one will work best.

I haven't found the right room for my small seminar class but I still have a week and a half to work it out. I know the people in charge of assigning classrooms do their best with limited resources and I suppose I ought to be grateful. If nothing else, I'm getting some extra exercise.

Hey, I wonder how many wellness points I can earn by doing the Find-a-New-Classroom Shuffle? Someone ought to start a Shufflecise class!

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Desperately seeking clever retorts

I've been driving my sleek indigo beauty for a month now and I've grown accustomed to hearing statements like this from my so-called friends: "I didn't recognize you in such a nice car!" Or, as a colleague told me yesterday: "I saw you getting out of your beautiful new car and it just looked SOOOOOO wrong."

I still haven't figured out what to say to that. It reminds me of the odd things people used to say when I lost all my hair to chemotherapy, like "Baldness suits you--it makes you look intelligent!"

What am I supposed to say? "Sorry, I prefer looking stupid"?

When I was bald I still thought of myself as a person with hair, and when I drove a series of rustbuckets I still thought of myself as the driver of a sleek indigo beauty; any appearances to the contrary were simply temporary setbacks. (And in the rustbucket realm, "temporary" stretched across two decades.) I can't blame my friends for their ignorance of the internal me, but I hope they get accustomed to my new wheels quickly--or else I'll have to come up with some clever retort.

Like what?

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

What students can learn from babies

I hear the complaint often, even from my own mouth: "I wish my students wouldn't act like such babies!" What we mean by this is "I wish they wouldn't whine and cry and gripe and act as if the universe revolves around their every little need!"

But in some ways, I wish my students would act more like babies. I realized this the other day as I watched my adorable granddaughter lunge toward her mother's shoe.

Baby push-ups strengthen those arms so they can reach!
It's nothing at all special--just an ordinary walking shoe--but baby E was fascinated by the criss-cross patterns of blue lines. She's not particularly mobile but she just kept lunging toward that shoe, reaching with her whole body as if that shoe held the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. (And it's not even a 42.) I admired her persistence: the shoe was just out of her reach and her arm control is still in Beta testing, but nothing was going to stop her from reaching out to satisfy her curiosity.

I wish more of my students would practice that kind of curiosity about how the world works, and I wish more of them would demonstrate that kind of persistence. Focus on the object of curiosity and lunge toward it with everything you've got! And if it's still out of reach, keep reaching! Go on--be a baby!

Just don't come crying to me with your dirty diapers! 

Friday, August 02, 2013

Wander, wonder

Fog socked in our little holler this morning as I set out for my morning walk and a startled a kingfisher flew chattering off into invisibility. The chill in the air felt more like autumn than August, but then I rounded the curve and walked up the hill and found bright sunshine on my shoulders again.

I love these walks in the early-morning stillness but a month from now everything will change. A school bus will rumble up the hill throwing up clouds of dust while pickup trucks full of sleepy teens zoom off toward the high school, but I won't be here to see it because I'll be teaching. I love teaching morning classes except that it makes morning walks difficult, and then the days will get shorter and colder and I'll do most of my walking in the gym.

Nothing wrong with the gym--it's quite nice and I always see pleasant people there--but there are no kingfishers in the gym, no spider webs glistening in the fog, and no faithful Hopeful hound at my side. Walking in the gym feels like an unpleasant obligation, while walking up the hill at home always brings some wonder into my life.

Why don't designers of gyms include wonder in the plans? I mean, aside from wondering how many times I've walked around this wretched track and how many more times I have to walk around it before I can earn a wellness point. Give me a track as big as all outdoors and I'll wander with wonder every day of the week.