Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Some findings

First we found a parking space and then we found our bearings and then, in no particular order, we found John Wesley, live oaks draped with hanging moss, steep and narrow stone steps, the Savannah River, a shop full of hats, wasabi peanuts, gator gumbo, a bank willing to change a hundred-dollar bill (don't ask), a resplendent white wolfhound, a tree full of cormorants, gooey chocolate-caramel clusters, and our way back to the motel. Tomorrow morning we'll head off to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge to see what else we can find and then we're off to Florida. First, though, we'll find a way to ring in the new year. Welcome, 2014! I hope the new year finds you happy and healthy.    

Monday, December 30, 2013

On hiatus

How many able-bodied men does it take to disassemble a picket fence? 

Sounds like the setup to a joke, but I don't know the punchline. Today it took three men and a teen to remove a section of picket fence at a house my brother is renovating in North Carolina. My husband swung a sledgehammer and wielded a crowbar, which suits his vacation requirements just fine.

We left Ohio yesterday in a cold, drizzly downpour that threatened to turn into ice and snow, drove through more cold rain and wind down though West Virginia and Virginia and finally saw the sun for the first time all day as we were entering North Carolina. Today we're walking around in short sleeves while Ohio braces for an Arctic blast of ice, snow, and bone-chilling cold.

Tomorrow we'll head for Savannah and later in the week we'll dip down into Florida, where we'll see more relatives and old friends and the ocean and lakes and green growing things and birds. I brought a little work along with me, but none of it requires sledgehammers or crowbars so at this point I think I'll just chill out and enjoy the show.  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Busting out the syllabus

I've got my textbooks, my hot tea, and my laptop computer--time to bust out some syllabi and then noodle through some Moodling!

Spring classes don't start until January 13, but we're leaving for a long road trip Sunday and I'll get back to campus around January 8 with my brain and body still recovering from the long drive home, and then, of course, I have meetings. So unless I want to finish my syllabi on the road, today's the day. (And tomorrow too. But not Saturday. At some point I need to take down the Christmas tree and pack for the trip.)

Over the years I've streamlined my syllabus-construction process, but it's still more complicated than it ought to be. I like to keep my syllabi concise and simple, but by the time I add the whole page of required college policies (academic dishonesty, accommodations, academic probation blah blah blah), it's a monster. I resent being required to use the official college statements because they were written by someone utterly tone-deaf to the music of the language, but I'm a good little proffie so I do what I'm told. The rest of the syllabus, though, is MINE.

I've worked out some pretty effective ways to state important things on the syllabus, and I've saved all this syllabus boilerplate in one file that serves as a template that I can customize for each class. Nothing flashy, but I do like to set a tone for the semester from the very start, so I include some playful language and even a title at the top. (Honors Literature: Life is a Highway. Concepts of Place: Florida Frontiers. And so on.)

And then it all goes on Moodle. Here I probably make the process unnecessarily complex: our standard Moodle layout is annoyingly busy and ugly, so I take some extra steps to make my Moodle pages uncluttered and easy to follow. I don't just upload a bunch of files and hope students find the right one; instead, I create a separate block for each day of class and upload the files needed in that block, and then I hide all the blocks that aren't immediately relevant so students aren't overwhelmed with too much information.  And then I format the individual blocks uniformly, using font size and color to create a predictable pattern and flow. And all of this requires an incredible amount of clicking and typing and scrolling and clicking. 

Of course, I could just post the first few weeks of the semester and add the rest later, but I'm obsessive enough to require closure: I load up the whole semester now and open blocks as they become necessary. I'll thank myself in March when I'm so overwhelmed by grading that I don't have time to breathe, but today I'll be pushing that boulder up the mountain all day long and hoping it doesn't slip out of my grasp and go sliding back down again.

Copy, paste, customize. Click, type, scroll. Repeat repeat repeat. That's today in a nutshell--and probably tomorrow too. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Making a joyful noise

Days and days of gray skies, rain, and rising rivers have finally yielded again to winter. This morning we woke to a light dusting of snow and a temperature in the teens but we're enjoying the warmth of family holiday fun.

Tonight we'll hear our daughter sing O Holy Night solo at her church's Christmas Eve service, and two nights ago we enjoyed hearing the Little Drummer Boy play percussion for his church's Christmas Eve-Eve-Eve service. (I don't dare call my son The Little Drummer Boy to his face. For years now he's been the tallest person in the family and he doesn't even play The Little Drummer Boy, which is a good thing because how annoying.)

Yesterday, though, I enjoyed watching my adorable grandbaby help Grampa play Christmas songs on the piano and bang away at the baby xylophone (when she wasn't chewing on the mallet). She's definitely making a joyful noise, even if it's sometimes mixed with slobber. Joy to the world! (Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Crying over spilt something

If there's no point crying over spilt milk then there's certainly no point crying over spilt pilaf, even if that pilaf includes both white and wild rice and savory vegetables and mushrooms and even if it was in my favorite casserole dish that slipped right out of my hands and spilled all over the floor that I just mopped YESTERDAY and even if sharp ceramic shards scattered throughout the rice pilaf made it unsalvageable--but since there's no point crying over spilt pilaf, I must have been crying over something else.

I blame the phone call that came between the assembly of the pilaf and its ultimate disassembly on the floor. It was, in some ways, a long-awaited and welcome phone call from the mother of the woman who died in our creek last month (read it here). Since that traumatic night I've often thought of the family and wondered how they're doing, but my attempts to contact the survivors have been thwarted.

The caller proved two comforting facts: the little girl we rescued from shivering in the creek that night is fine, and her dead mother died instantly of blunt-force trauma rather than drowning, which means we'll no longer have to agonize over whether we could have saved her if we'd done things differently. So that's good. But we spoke for quite some time and it became clear that some lives defy comprehension and there's really not much we can do about that.

I would really like to see the little girl again, maybe even establish a relationship, but at this point the obstacles seem insurmountable. However, the family is planning to erect a roadside shrine in memory of their daughter and they promised to let us know when they're coming so we can have a chat. Maybe we'll figure out how to maintain a connection with a little girl who crashed into our lives out of nowhere and threatens to disappear once again into that same oblivion without leaving any mark.

The rice pilaf didn't leave any mark either, and the broken casserole is already out in the trash. Everything is entirely back to normal, so there's no call at all for tears. None whatsoever. So why do I need a Kleenex?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I wasn't even planning to READ my evaluations this fall!

For weeks--maybe even months, since about the third day of class--I've been predicting that a certain class would lambaste me on course evaluations this fall, but the evaluations came out yesterday and that class showered the love on me while another class that I enjoyed all semester long sent me a bitter Arctic blast. 

Well, part of the class did. The rest simply didn't respond. We've been doing course evaluations online for several years now but with little incentive, many students don't bother. The campus-wide response rate this fall was a little over 60 percent, and my classes had a 58 percent response rate, but that doesn't tell the whole story: my two literature classes had response rates closer to 70 percent, while the two freshman classes were closer to 50 percent.

What kind of student is more likely to respond? I've always assumed that angry students would be more motivated to express themselves on course evaluations, but I'm not seeing that this fall. Only half of my freshman writing students responded, but they seem to be the happy half: the numbers are the highest I've ever received in a freshman class, and the comments are uniformly positive, with one even calling my class his or her favorite. Freshman writing! That never happens.

Wait, the comments aren't entirely positive. Here's an endearing bit of advice: "If you want me to nitpick, I guess she sometimes sounds like she puts herself down a little when she talks, mostly because she doesn't seem to be confident with her technological know-how or lack thereof." Guilty as charged--but isn't it just cute?

My other freshman class had a similar response rate but more negative comments. The numbers are not bad, especially for a required freshman class, but they're lower than I would have expected considering how much I enjoyed that class. On a positive note, 100 percent of respondents agreed that my class improved their ability to analyze, which deserves a pat on the back, but the lowest marks appeared in response to the question on whether students feel comfortable asking questions in class. That's alarming, but at least it gives me something to work on!

Because let's face it: at this point in my career, course evaluations don't make much difference. Tenured full professor at a college with no post-tenure review means that I'll never again need to submit a portfolio testifying to my worth and responding to course evaluations, so I really don't even need to read them--except that I do. I need to know that 11 percent of students in a freshman class don't feel comfortable asking questions, and I also need to know that 100 percent of the respondents in my two literature classes approve of the job I'm doing and say things like this: "I felt like she treated us as equals, asking thought-provoking questions and taking our own thoughts seriously. She genuinely cares about us and wants us to learn and succeed. Loved going to class every day and didn't dread writing the papers."

That's the kind of comment that keeps me going to class even when it feels like things are going very badly. Would the non-respondents say the same thing, or would they raise concerns? Until we develop reliable mind-reading skills, we'll never know.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Deck the halls with guns & ammo

Quick holiday-shopping quiz: If you see a billboard urging you to "load up for the holidays," what is the ad pushing--eggnog, legos, or lumps of coal?

No, in this case Santa's sack is loaded with guns & ammo. Yes: a big billboard on my route to campus wants me to lock 'n' load for Christmas. Did the three wise men pack gold, frankincense, and guns? How vastly different A Christmas Carol would be if Scrooge had turned a bazooka on those visiting ghosts! Can we be certain that Santa's red coat doesn't hide a shoulder holster?

But that's not the only befuddling sign of the season. Today at the grocery store--just an ordinary chain store in a middling town on the not-very-wealthy edge of Appalachia--I saw a sign posted near the gift-card display: "Gift-card purchases totaling more than $10,000 must be cleared at the service desk."

Who buys $10,000 worth of gift cards at the same time? Nobody carries $10,000 in cash to the grocery store, so it would have to be someone with a credit card allowing that level of spending all at once--definitely not an English professor, in other words. 

Say you're a retired gent with too many grandchildren to keep track of and no clear conception of what sort of gifts they'd like, so you decide to give each imp a whole deck of gift cards, so you haul off several hundred of them. Or maybe you're an employer who wants to award employees bonuses in the form of gift cards so you need a whole sack all at once. I can imagine this happening occasionally, but often enough to justify posting a sign?

I didn't see any guns & ammo gift cards, so I guess I'll have to scratch that off my list.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A year in the Cloud

Twelve months after I welcomed my Kindle into my life, I've just downloaded my 50th book. Time to take stock. 

(Or maybe it's time to buy stock in the company--even if some of those downloads were free or cheap, it still looks like I've spent around $400 on e-books this year. Please remind me of that figure next time I complain about being broke.)

I read twenty-four books written by women, twenty-five by men, and one anthology embracing multitudes. Most of the authors are American, with a few exceptions (Clarice Lispector, Malcolm Lowry, Victor Hugo, Tan Twan Eng, Herman Koch, and the globetrotting adventuress Isabella Bird, among others). Three Canadians appear on the list: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Ruth Ozeki.

Authors who appear on my list more than once include Atwood, Bird, Eng, and Lispector along with David Foster Wallace, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Richard Russo, Barbara Kingsolver, and Carl Hiaasen. (I'm embarrassed to admit how many of Hiaasen's books I read this year, but he's tied for first place!)

Some of these were guilt reads: authors I ought to have read before but never got around to them, like Kingsolver, whose novels I found underwhelming and manipulative, and Malcolm Lowry, whose Under the Volcano knocked my socks off stylistically even though I dislike the characters. Other books were associated with my teaching or research: I needed to read Lucy Alibar's play Juicy and Delicious to prepare for the paper I gave at MMLA, and the two Margaret Atwood novels helped me answer students' questions about what happens after Oryx and Crake.

I look over the list and I see titles that spark no specific memories. Rebecca Lee's Bobcat and Other Stories? May have been interesting but I don't remember. Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic? I have some vague memories of a long road trip, a wedding, and Russo's usual dry wit, but plot and characters are moldering in some dark, dusty corner of my mind's attic.

Which books were most memorable? I've recommended Herman Koch's The Dinner to just about everyone I know this year. I read it through quickly the first time and then had to start over at the beginning again because I couldn't quite believe what Koch had accomplished and I wanted to track how he did it. An astounding novel, certainly the best I've read all year--and that's saying a lot when Faulkner is on the reading list!

Similarly impressive is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, a boundary-crossing novel assembled from fragments of overlooked history. The various narrative voices are engaging and believable, even if some of the plot twists are not.

Several novels gripped me for a time but don't claim any permanent devotion. Kate Atkinson's Life after Life and Emma Donoghue's Room are compelling tales told with originality and ingenuity, but I don't foresee reading them again. Odds against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich feels like a movie treatment rather than a fully developed fictional world, but it's entertaining and even profound in places. And Peter Carey's His Illegal Self ends just when it's getting interesting--I want to read the rest of the story! But I was utterly incapable of finishing The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, despite several attempts. I just can't care about her characters.

Several novels provided way too many characters to keep track of--and yet I couldn't put them down. Both David Foster Wallace novels fall in that category (Infinite Jest and The Pale King), along with The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, a sort of puzzle book that made me want to go back and read it again right away despite its brick-like length.

The advantage of reading on the Kindle, of course, is that a book the size of a brick weighs no more than a brief novella, but both can stake out similar plots of mental real estate. I read The Dinner in an afternoon--a novel that covers the course of a single meal shared by four people--but in my mind it feels just as weighty as Catton's sprawling, Dickensian The Luminaries.

One disadvantage of reading on the Kindle, of course, is that I've developed no mental image of these books as books. What do their covers look like? No clue. Does that matter? I don't know yet--but I do know that I have a terrible time remembering the authors and titles of books I read on the Kindle, perhaps because I don't see the books lying on the nightstand or stacked on the bookshelves. They live in the Cloud, a nebulous place where authors dead and alive rub shoulders--Faulkner and Atwood, Ozeki and Hiaasen--while their words and titles mingle and dance and dissolve like vapors. It's a nice place to visit, but I'm not sure I'd want to live there.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Don't sleet on my parade

Today I violated the first rule of Christmas-card preparation: don't lick all those envelopes yourself, and if you do have to lick them, don't do it on an empty stomach. Blech. What can get that glue taste out of my mouth?

Grading is done, grades are in, and so far I've had only two complaints (one accompanied by tears) and one very nice e-mail message from a student thanking me for helping him become a better writer. Neat. I saw a colleague in the line at the post office today and she was heading back to campus to finish grading after her long sojourn in that very long line, but I've mailed my last package and I'm ready to concentrate on the holidays.

I was not, however, ready to stand in the rain, wind, and sleet to watch a Christmas parade this morning, but I drove down the parade route just before it started (trying to get home before traffic came to a dead stop) and I saw plenty of parade-goers bundled up to the eyeballs and fighting to keep their umbrellas from blowing away--including Santa and Mrs. Claus, whose colorful umbrellas clashed badly with their festive attire.

I was following a jumbo pickup truck that was apparently associated with the parade. In the back of the truck stood a woman trying desperately to keep hold of a pop-up shelter that partly covered the truck bed--it looked like a good gust of wind could blow both the shelter and the woman right into my windshield. I would bet that standing in the back of a moving pickup truck is illegal even in West Virginia, but none of the many uniformed police officers who lined the parade route took any notice of the scofflaws. 

It looked like every police officer in Vienna, West Virginia, was standing along the parade route, and at the end of the line of parade floats stood a dozen or more fire trucks with lights and sirens blaring. Burglars and arsonists could have been wreaking havoc unhindered all over town, but maybe they decided to watch the parade instead.

I didn't. I don't get my holiday jollies from standing in the sleet and fighting to keep hold of an umbrella while homemade parade floats battered by wind and rain lumber past, so I went home and started writing cards and licking envelopes. Yum, glue! Why can't they make it taste like chocolate?


Friday, December 13, 2013

Long uphill slog followed by free-fall

At what point does the grading pile move from intimidating to manageable? When do I feel as if I've reached the peak and it's all downhill from here? With freshman essays, the magic number is 6: I'll postpone, procrastinate, and piddle around between papers until I have only 6 left, and then I'll grade one after another without a break until they're done.

I'm not there yet. When I look back at everything I've graded this week, I ought to feel as if the end is very near: one set of researched essays and one set of final essay exams in the novel class; a final essay exam in the Concepts of Nature class; and one set of synthesis essays and one set of final exams in Sports Literature. That's a huge pile of grading already done, but somehow the freshman essays loom like Mount Everest over my desk.

I've graded a few but I have 10 more left, and that's just enough to feel impossible. Compared to all the grading I've already done, how can 10 measly papers carry such weight? I'll never be able to slog through this mountain of essays! It simply can't be done!

But it can be done and it will be done because I'm going to do it. Just four more before I reach the magic number, and then it's downhill all the way. It's as easy as falling off a cliff!  

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lead us not into temptation...

I'm sitting in a classroom full of students who are busily scribbling on my last final exam of the semester (yes: it's the final final!), but it's not my usual classroom. A colleague and I switched rooms so I could put some space between students, some of whom have roaming-eye problems.

All their cell phones are sitting on the desk in front of me. (At least I hope that's all of them.) It's an early exam, so I brought in juice and muffins so no one will quit early because of hunger or refer to notes written on their own water bottles. And I asked a male colleague to make a sweep of the nearest men's room in case anyone has stashed a cashe of helpful notes or texts in there.

My students may think I'm cruel, but the way I see it, I'm taking these security measures to help them avoid temptation. They should thank me! (Dream on.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Best of times, worst of times

It was the best of essays--elegant writing, coherent argument, analysis that made me look at the text in a new way--but it arrived in the same pile as the worst of essays--clunky sentences, slippery reasoning, hackneyed analysis. In the next pile, the best of final exams (clear, concise, insightful) gets lost beneath the essay produced under time pressure by a student who thought "open book" meant "use your neighbor's notes."

Yes: it's finals week! I find myself alternately rejoicing and groaning, and sometimes the urge to run screaming from the room is almost overwhelming. I read a brilliant analysis focusing on two difficult novels by William Faulkner and I feel like practicing my acceptance speech for the World's Greatest Teacher award, and then in another essay I read an entire paragraph composed of correctly spelled words that say absolutely nothing and I wonder why I didn't pursue a more socially useful career, like garbage collecting.

The piles of papers and exams are dwindling, but not quickly enough. I'll be up to my ears in grading today and tomorrow and probably Friday too, up to my ears in the best of papers and worst of papers. I only hope I get more of the best and fewer of the worst!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Smells like lutefisk in here!

Definitely not impressed.

Today I shall celebrate my birthday by giving a final exam to a student who shares my birthday and grading a final paper by another student whose birthday is also today, and along the way I'll give a shout-out to a colleague whose birthday is also--you guessed it--today.
According to every freshperson's favorite reliable source (Wikipedia), today is also Anna's Day, the appropriate day to begin preparing lutefisk. I'm afraid lutefisk-preparation does not fit into today's schedule, unless I can do it in the classroom while my students write their exams. Today is apparently also Independence Day in Tanzania, National Heroes' Day in Antigua, and International Anti-Corruption Day. (I'll remind my students of the importance of independent thinking and ask them to be academic heroes by avoiding corruption on the final.)

Also celebrating birthdays today: gymnast McKayla Maroney (who is, presumably, not impressed), singer Imogen Heap, and Masako, the Crown Princess of Japan, who, when her husband ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne, will become Empress Consort. 

Also John Malkovich, Senator Tom Daschle, Dick Butkus, Beau Bridges, and Judi Dench. Redd Foxx! Put Judi Dench and Redd Foxx in a room--that's a conversation I'd like to hear. Kirk Douglas. Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West!). Emmett Kelly, the famous clown to whose son I once curtsied (here). Hermione Gingold. Joel Chandler Harris. And let us not forget John Milton. (Sing, heav'nly Muse!)

Not to mention Donny Osmond. I have written previously about my youthful infatuation with my co-birthday-mate (here), but Donny shares one important characteristic with almost everyone born on this date: whatever else he may accomplish, he will never be Empress Consort to the Chrysanthemum Throne. 

And neither will I, but that's okay. I'm happy to be me, because today I get to give a final exam that will knock my students' socks off--a joy Masako may never know. (But still McKayla is not impressed.)

Friday, December 06, 2013

The most blunderful time of the year!

It's the most blunderful time of the year!
They'll be there, their, and they're-ing,
contrasting, comparing,
and copy-and-pasting with verve;
they'll mix your/you're and do/due
and create quite a to-do
when they don't get the grade they "deserve"--

It's the slap-happiest season of all.
There'll be no thesis showing,
no qualms about throwing
in quotes without proper citation;
there'll be lame introductions
to papers constructed
entirely of vague generalizations--

Oh it's the most blunderful time,
it's the most blunderful time,
it's the most blunderful time of the year! 

(Everybody sing along! Feel free to add a verse!)

Thursday, December 05, 2013

What, you mean I was right all along?

This morning's classes left me wondering whether I ought to laugh, cry, or run screaming from the room, but I've calmed down enough to do a little reflecting on reflections.

For their final low-stakes writing assignment of the semester, I asked my freshman writing students to reflect on what they've learned about writing this semester, how their writing process has changed, and what they still need to know. Several students didn't turn in these reflection papers, consistent with their behavior throughout the semester, but those who did the brief assignment had all kinds of interesting things to say, from "No one ever told me how to evaluate sources before" to "this class helped me write better lab reports." (We don't do anything about lab reports. Not sure how that happened.)

The comment that showed up more often than any other concerned the regular writing assignments students have to do for my class. They write five formal essays (one in class under time pressure, the rest out of class with drafts), but they also complete frequent low-stakes writing assignments that aren't graded but accumulate points toward their homework score. On the first day of class I point out that they'll be writing, on average, about 1000 words each week for my class, which makes them gasp or roll their eyes or gripe about "busywork," but I also promise them that all that exercise will improve their writing not just in my class but in others. 

They never believe me--not at first. Today, though, I read their end-of-the-semester reflections and saw, over and over again, the same story: "I thought I would hate doing all that writing but then I started to enjoy it and it definitely made me a better writer." More than one even said something like this: "I hated writing before I took this class and I still hate it but I'm better at it."

I hate to say "I told you so," but I wish I could get these students to pass the word to my next freshman writing class!

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Summing up the semester

Classes aren't over yet but some of my students have definitely checked out--and so have I. Yes, I'm still planning meaningful learning experiences for my final three (count 'em, THREE) classes, and yes, I'm still meeting with students to discuss their drafts, and yes, I'll devote a great deal of time and energy to administering and grading final exams next week, but mentally I'm already moving on to next semester.

So before it slips away, here's a rundown on this alternately middling, maddening, and muddling-through semester:

Student I'll miss the most come January: our wonderful English-major exchange student who's returning to Brazil next week. Aside from being the only male in an upper-level lit class, he brings a lot of energy and interesting perspective into discussions of literature.

Student I'll miss the least: who's that guy who used to sit in the front row in that one class? He's still on the roster although I haven't seen him since Midterm. How can I miss someone I never really saw enough to know?

Most surprising student: sat in my office literally trembling in panic over the first essay assignment, earned the highest grade in the class on the last essay assignment, and gained enough confidence to become a significant voice in class discussions. 

Harmonic convergence of texts: discussing Don DeLillo's White Noise in one class just before beginning Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake in another. (Is the fear of death an essential element of humanity? What makes us human, anyway?)

Text I've taught before that I now find disappointing: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. The novel's flaws are much more visible now that I've read the two remaining novels in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood and Maddadam, which move away from science toward magic--and not in a good way. Okay, a worldwide epidemic wipes out the human race with the exception of a handful of plucky survivors, and three of those survivors--the only three women of childbearing age--are ex-girlfriends of one main character. What are the odds? And the plot twist involving the ability to communicate telepathically with pigs is just too ridiculous for words.

Text I've never taught before that I'll happily teach again: a tie--The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and On the Verge by Eric Overmyer. Both deal with the way preconceptions shape understanding of the Other, and both employ language in a way that fills me with delight. Students liked them too, although some found Overmyer difficult.  
Best pedagogical tool: That prezi I made for the Sports Lit class (see it here) helped structure class discussions and activities from the first day of class to the last as I kept urging my students to take the next step up that learning ladder. Many of them made it, albeit kicking and screaming all the way.

Most thought-provoking question from a student: "If postmodernism is over, what do we call what writers are doing right now?" That question could inspire a whole new literature course!

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

An empty apology

An apology ought to be a good thing, indicating a measure of remorse, humility, and acceptance of responsibility, but a certain type of apology makes me crazy. It usually comes in an e-mail message: "Dear prof. I won't be in class today because [insert lame excuse]. I apologize."

For what? A student's absence isn't going to break my heart, and if the student has missed a month of class already, apologies are the least of his concerns. Instead of apologies, I'd rather see some explanation of how he intends to keep up with the course material.

And then what am I supposed to do with that apology? Offer forgiveness? I'm not going to absolve the student from doing the work just because he said the magic word.

If he's determined to apologize, he ought to look in the mirror: "Self, I'm sorry I can't get my act together to make it to class. I apologize for consistently spending more time playing Grand Theft Auto than doing homework, and I resolve to lock up the liquor while working on my research paper. I'm willing to accept the consequences like a man and to take steps to improve my self-discipline." 

And then he ought to chain himself to his desk until the research paper is done.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Newfies loose chewed moose

I thought that the story couldn't get any stranger, and then I encountered the offhand mention of Cornea-Nibbling Parasites of Doom. It's a crazy world out there, folks! Read it and weep:

According to a whole mess of reliable sources (read the CBS News version here), two guys are just ambling along the beach in Newfoundland when they notice an eight-foot-long Greenland shark in the shallows struggling to consume a large chunk of moose. So they did what any right-thinking human being would do: run screaming into the woods.

I'm kidding. If they had run away, there wouldn't be any story. Instead, they decided to HELP the shark, which was trapped in the throes of a Thanksgiving cliche, having bitten off more than it could chew. (One expert, though, says the shark probably didn't need any help: it may have "just been enjoying a large meal," says Jeffrey Gallant, lead scientist at the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group, which raises an important question: what, precisely, is an Elasmobranch and where can I get one?)

So back to our two intrepid shark-rescuers, Derrick and Jeremy, who performed a modified Heimlich maneuver on the Greenland shark, tugging the hunk of moose flesh and hide out of the shark's mouth, at which point the shark, irate at being deprived of its dinner, gobbled both men down feet-first. 

Okay, I'm kidding again. Our guys shoved the eight-foot shark into water about three feet deep--the exact depth at which the Greenland shark loves to stalk its prey, except our Derrick and Jeremy must not have looked much like prey, or maybe the shark decided to eschew chewing on moose-loosing Newfie lunatics, but at any rate, the shark swam away.

But what about the Cornea-Nibbling Parasites of Doom? Ahem:

Greenland sharks are rarely seen on the northeast coast of Newfoundland. It is a lumbering bottom dweller that spends most of its long life blinded from parasites feeding on its corneas.

This would be a great place to insert some clever little moral about the predator becoming prey, but the very idea of Cornea-Nibbling Parasites of Doom makes me want to whimper in a dark closet with my hands firmly clapped over my eyes. If there's anything scarier than a shark that can swallow a moose, this is it!