Anhinga, avocet, bald eagle, black vulture, black-billed cuckoo, coot, cormorant, great egret, snowy egret, white egret, reddish egret, great blue heron, little blue heron, tricolor heron, green heron, white ibis, glossy ibis, northern shoveler, roseate spoonbill, white pelican, wood stork...I'm sure I'm forgetting someone important. While our Florida vacation has been full of delights, nothing has made me happier than communing with roseate spoonbills.
People ask me sometimes why I keep toys in my office. Do I study them? (No.) Do I keep them around in case a small child visits my office? (That might be the official reason, but unofficially, no.) Do I use them to distract students from despair over a B-minus? (While I do encourage students to give the Potato-Heads makeovers, no again.)
Why do I keep Mr. Potato Head in my office? And why the little Bugs Bunny bendy figure and Buzz Lightyear and a Slinky and a miniature Etch-A-Sketch?
Because I like them, that's why. I realize that I long ago reached the age when unironic admiration of plastic bendy figures becomes unacceptable, but I'm not ashamed to say that I still like toys.
And I'm not the only one. On Christmas Day seven adults gathered to watch my granddaughter open her presents, and at some point during the day each one of those adults ended up on the floor playing with toys. The pink kinetic sand was quite popular, but the magnetic building blocks were a big hit as well, and I certainly succumbed to the charm of the moveable magnetic barnyard-animal stickers.
It wasn't purely child's play, either. You could just about see the gears working in my granddaughter's head as she experimented with the properties of kinetic sand, but the adults had to find more formal answers: What is it made of? Why does it behave that way? Let's look it up! And suddenly we were engaged in a lively holiday discussion of non-Newtonian solids whilst squishing slimy pink goo between our fingers.
Sure, toys are educational, and we can pat ourselves on the back for buying things that encourage inquiry and creative play. But the main reason to keep toys handy is much simpler: I like toys.
And maybe that's why it's so much fun to have small children around: they give me a guilt-free excuse to get down on the floor and play.
No, really--it was a very dark night made much darker by a small localized power outage so that our little country church sat nearly invisible next to a pitch-black parking area where parishioners, most of them elderly, would soon be arriving for the Christmas Eve service. How would we get everyone into the church without any broken hips? And how would we sing without lights to illuminate the hymnals?
In the beginning there were flashlights, many of them. You'd be surprised how many people carry tiny flashlights on their key-rings or larger ones in their cars. The flashlights helped everyone find their way to the sanctuary, which we lit up with as many candles as we could find (probably violating some kind of fire code). Everyone kept their coats on and huddled close together to share their warmth and light, which wasn't entirely necessary since everyone knows most of the common Christmas carols by heart.
A parishioner led the singing to spare the pastor's voice, which was barely there. He kept the message short--a brief reminder about the importance of sharing the light--and then closed with a prayer that was dramatically punctuated by a sudden violent swoosh of thunder and lightning, rain battering the windows and wind gusts blowing around anything that wasn't nailed down.
And then it was over. Those with flashlights guided the rest while a few of us blew out all the candles, one by one--except for the light we carried inside, a light that can't be extinguished by a dark and stormy night.
For a week we've been tormenting my husband about his big birthday surprise. All he knew was that he had to keep the whole day clear, but when he asked other questions, we kept offering tantalizing hints: "You'll need some scuba gear. And an elephant gun. And a yak. And a badminton racket. Oh, and you'd better find some ballet slippers in your size."
When the day came, though, he found everything he needed in an envelope from our son: two tickets to a professional hockey game--tonight! The Columbus Blue Jackets are having a pretty exciting season, so off they'll go to cheer them on.
Because we all need a little a little distraction during that too-brief hiatus between turning in the final grades and reading our course evaluations:
Do you have a burning need to eat toast displaying your own image? How about some practice doing acupuncture on a plastic pig? Dave Barry can tell you where to get them (here).
In "The Regift of the Magi," the Three Wise Men becomes the Three Suspicious Loiterers (here).
Robbing Frosty's grave in "Climate-Change Christmas Carols" (here).
Was that the sound of failure or the sound of learning? An interview with Adam Savage of Mythbusters (here).
Gift suggestions: every English professor--or any kind of professor--on your gift list needs some of these "Citation Needed" stickers from xkcd (here). Except there aren't enough of these in the world to meet the needs of our students.
At the stroke of midnight the Ghost of Christmas Past barged into my room and shoved a sheaf of legal papers into my face.
"What's this?" I asked.
"I thought we had an agreement!" she growled, wiping drops of sweat from a faintly mustachioed upper lip. "It says right here on the contract: You give your heart and soul to make Christmas beautiful for everyone, no matter the cost, and I don't have to come here during the busy holiday season and harangue you in the middle of the night."
I rolled my eyes. "Been there, done that," I said. "Now go away and let me sleep."
"Just a cotton-picking minute," she said. "You may have done amazing things in the past--"
"May have?" I asked. "Since when is baking 14 dozen cookies 'may have'? And what about the year I sewed a dozen costumes for the children's Christmas program and successfully wrapped both a sandbox and a wheelbarrow?"
"Yeah yeah whatever, next you'll go on and on about all those Christmas letters with their cutesy little family photos--and by the way, while we're on the subject, why didn't you write a Christmas letter this year? Why no outdoor lights on the house? Why no cookies in tins all over the kitchen? And what's with all those orders for gift baskets from Harry and David?"
"Tired? You don't know from tired. Try knocking on the door of every Scrooge on the planet and listening to his whinging--'Everyone else got to spend Christmas with their families but I had to stay in the schoolroom by myself'--Whah whah whah. Tired is no excuse."
"But I've been sick! And busy! And no one reads those stupid letters--hey, stop that!"
She'd rolled up the sheaf of papers and bonked me on the nose--hard. "Stupid? You don't know from stupid. Try looking into a magic hat and seeing all these sickly-sweet holiday scenes in soft focus while panpipes play gently in the background. It's enough to turn your stomach."
"So why do it?"
"Because it's Christmas! And if you can't send sentimental slop to your friends and loved ones at Christmas, when are you going to do it?"
I had to admit that she had a point. Suddenly scenes from past Christmases flashed before my eyes in soft focus, with panpipes playing: the hours spent stirring fudge on the stove, licking envelopes, baking little loaves of cranberry nut bread for my colleagues, rolling and cutting and baking and frosting cookies, sewing matching holiday outfits for the children, sending my friends and loved ones gifts hand-made with love. Surveying the vast landscape of Christmases past filled me with warm feelings of love and joy followed by the intense desire to kick my past self firmly in the shins and yell "Stop! You're setting the bar too high! One day you won't have the energy to do all this and you'll spend the entire holiday season feeling guilty!"
But it turns out that making physical contact with a past version of yourself makes time go all wibbly-wobbly. Something fizzled like a small appliance shorting out and when the smoke cleared, I was alone. The Ghost of Christmas Past had disappeared, leaving behind only the faint scent of flatulence. (I blame the figgy pudding.)
I'd like to say that the visit from the Ghost left me a better, stronger, more generous person, but I would be lying. I was snoring within minutes, and while it's true that visions of sugarplums were dancing in my head, I took comfort in knowing that if any real sugarplums were to end up at my house, someone else would have to make them.
Dear nasty little microbes currently colonizing my lungs, I really owe you a big round of applause: you've avoided the Forbidden Zone for the entire semester. Thanks to your admirable self-control, I didn't miss a single class session because of illness for 15 weeks, and I was able to enjoy concerts and meetings without causing a ruckus with my coughing.
But all that changed last week when you decided that it was time to mobilize. Thanks to your efficiency, I went from glowing good health to Total Sinus Impaction overnight, and then you started invading my lungs.
I have to admire your sense of timing. After all, it doesn't really matter if I'm up all night coughing right now since I don't have any classes to teach in the morning, and I'm fully capable of plodding through piles of final papers despite that annoying tickle in the back of my throat. If I occasionally have to stop to cough up a bit of lung, it only makes me appreciate my decision to accept final papers electronically--at least my violent coughing fits aren't propelling nastiness all over my students' papers.
It's possible that the cough-syrup-and-antihistamine haze may affect my clarity of thought, but grading slowly and deliberately seems to offset that problem. Of course, you've slowed me down enough to make the grading stretch over an entire weekend that I'd hoped to devote to other things, but I persevered through the coughing and the grading is now done.
Now it's time to get started on the Eight Million Things I Need to Do before Christmas list, but here's the thing: I can't breathe. Well, okay, that's an exaggeration; most of the time I can breathe pretty well, but when a coughing fit hits, I'm pretty much incapacitated--I can't even keep my eyes open, which pretty much rules out driving anywhere.
So here I sit, ready to plunge into my winter break and start enjoying non-teaching-related activities, but all I can do is sit and drink hot tea. And cough. I've gotten really good at that.
The good news is that the coughing fits are coming farther apart today, so there's hope that they may end soon. Soon I'll be bidding farewell to all you nasty little microbes, and as much as I've appreciated your efficiency and power, I can't say I'm sorry to see you leave. Your commitment to colonizing the damp recesses of my nasal passages and lungs suggests some real affection on your part, but if you really care, you'll do one simple thing: lose my address and forget you ever knew me.
So goodbye! It's been real! Don't let the door hit you on the way out!
What bothers me, as I respond to my students' last-minute requests for feedback on their drafts before they turn in final papers, is not so much that they seem unfamiliar with common conventions of punctuation and spelling but that they don't seem to care. Sure, if I make a big deal about it they'll insert an apostrophe to indicate possession, but they make it clear that they're just humoring me, submitting to my stodgy and outmoded standards just for the sake of the grade. For my students, I realize, punctuation is becoming a dead language.
Which is unfortunate, because punctuation can impart clarity and elegance to complex ideas--and besides, it's not that difficult. I sympathize with students whose texting habits have made punctuation seem superfluous, but I firmly believe that anyone capable of learning to operate a smartphone or play Angry Birds is capable of learning how to use apostrophes to form possessives or semicolons to link sentences.
I admit that I'm on shaky ground here since I don't own a smartphone and I've never actually played Angry Birds, so I found a web site offering a tutorial called "How to Play Angry Birds" (see it here). "It's a simple game to learn," promises the site, "but mastering it takes time and practice," which could also be said of punctuation. The site breaks down the mastery of Angry Birds into 13 easy steps (with pictures!). I can break down the formation of possessives into two easy steps, or three if you break the second into two:
1. To form a possessive of a singular noun, write the noun and add 's. 2. To form a possessive of a plural noun, write the noun's plural form; if it ends in s, add an apostrophe, and if not, add 's.
See? Two steps versus 13. Why, then, am I regularly called upon to instruct college students--even senior English majors--on the formation of possessives? And why do I have to repeat the lesson for the same students when they reappear in other classes later? Why don't they take the time to master these two simple rules and practice them until they can form possessives in their sleep?
Here, in a nutshell, is the rule for using semicolons: semicolons connect two complete sentences. Yes, there are other uses involving phrases in series, but for most students, this one rule will serve all their semicolon-related needs. However, half the time when I suggest that a student needs a semicolon, what ends up appearing is a colon--so not only do they not know when to use a semicolon; they don't even know what a semicolon is.
I'm tired of hearing myself say this, but listen: it's not that difficult! If only punctuation were as addictive as Angry Birds...hey, there's a get-rich-quick scheme! Time to invent an app that bombards nouns with apostrophes and sentences with semicolons to earn points and to avoid the wrath of the Angry English Professors.
But then students would find a way to hack the game and before you know it we'd have an epidemic of Angry English Professors being battered to bloody death by weaponized semicolons.
When I left the house this morning, my sweet husband was sitting at the dining table rolling Play-Doh with our granddaughter and I really wanted to stay home and cancel this morning's final exam. I'm sure my students wouldn't have been disappointed. But duty calls so here I am watching my Sports Lit students scribble furiously on their finals.
"Any questions before I hand out the exam?" I asked, and a student said, "Are we allowed to sing you 'Happy Birthday'?" Not exactly the question I was expecting, but I'll take it.
Last night my husband and I went out to dinner and I was surprised to find my son and daughter and granddaughter awaiting us at the restaurant. What a terrific birthday surprise! Great food and great company followed by some great playtime: we cut a door and window into a gigantic box to make a rudimentary house just the right size for Little Miss Adorable. Later, after the exam and our departmental holiday lunch and a meeting, I'll go home and play some more. I really ought to take some exams home to grade this evening, but I'm not sure they can compete with the overwhelming cuteness filling my house. Grading can wait. It's time to play!
Keyboards click--are you listening? students' mistakes are glistening all over their drafts-- they're making me laugh, Chalking up a fall semester's end. It's a strain to keep reading Their inane claims are pleading for textual support-- I read 'em and snort, Chalking up a fall semester's end. Maybe on the exam they'll build a strawman only to rhetorically knock him down! I'll read all their essays and say "Oh, man! I never knew such brilliance was around!"
More exams pile higher-- Later I'll build a fire and burn 'em to ash, then southward I'll dash, Chalking up a fall semester's end.
Your computer crashed again? What a coincidence! It crashed last time you had a draft due, and the time before that too! In fact, every time you've had a draft due in my class, your computer has mysteriously crashed just as you were getting ready to save the file and you've had to turn in whatever mess you could throw together in the five minutes before class. Quite an amazing computer you've got there, correctly predicting the worst possible time to crash. Does it do this trick for all of your classes or just for mine?
Student: Can you tell me how to fix my paper? Me: Sure! What have you done since I sent you suggestions on your draft two weeks ago? Student: Nothing. Me: So what do you want from me today? Student: Tell me how to make my paper better. Me: Well, first you could do the things I suggested when I responded to your draft TWO WEEKS AGO. Student: Can you tell me again?
No, you may not borrow my book to use on the open-book essay exam. I don't care why you don't have the book--whether you've already sold it back to the bookstore or never bought it in the first place--but no, you can't use mine. The syllabus clearly states that you will need the textbook on the final exam and I've mentioned that fact in class repeatedly, so don't pretend you didn't know. And no, you may not share a book with a classmate during the exam. You may use your own book. If you don't have one, may I commend to your attention a remarkable institution: the library.
Is there any uglier phrase in the English language than "assessment instrument"?
I exposed my first-year students to an assessment instrument today, stretching them on the rack until their joints snapped and their eyes popped out.
No wait, that's not right....I made them use #2 pencils to fill in bubbles on a bubble sheet in response to multiple-choice questions designed to measure their skills in a variety of writing-related tasks, not including actual writing. I don't make any secret of my dislike for this particular assessment instrument, so while they were bubbling away, I read the results of a different type of assessment.
It's the final homework assignment of the semester, the final piece of low-stakes writing before the high-stakes research paper is due, and this time I asked them to write a brief essay reflecting on what they've learned about writing this semester and how much more they need to learn. Even though this reflection essay is worth only five points, they generally produce a fairly polished example of their writing skills, which I can compare to their earliest writing in the class in order to see improvement.
But I also enjoy reading their feedback about which elements of the course have made a difference in their writing. They gripe and whine about being required to write, on average, 1000 words each week for my class, but many of them admit in their reflection essays that those frequent writing assignments (with feedback) improve their writing skills and increase their confidence more than anything else in the class.
Only two students mentioned the textbook and how its templates helped them structure their writing more effectively. This accords with what I've seen on papers throughout the semester: the students who benefit most by the textbook's templates are the more competent writers, while others just can't manage to translate templates in a book into coherent sentences in their own writing.
Several students mentioned how much they've learned about research and citation, and one even used the magic phrase "critical thinking," which made me want to pump my fists in the air (except I didn't want to disturb their bubbling). One even name-checked the reference librarian who introduced the class to the online catalog, which, says the student, changed her life.
I don't fool myself into thinking that my first-year students adore my class or that I've changed all their lives forever--after all, they wrote this reflection essay for credit, with names attached, knowing I'll be grading their final research papers next week, so they're not going to throw me under the bus. But the quality of their writing and the elements they highlight suggest that we've moved them at least a little way down the road toward writing competence.
When was the last time you received the gift of nothing? I'm not talking about random nothingness but a big wad of nothingness just where an annoying thing used to sit--in my case, a car. My son's car. The nonfunctioning car that hasn't run for months except to run the crock-pot (read it here).
I don't remember just how long it's been since my son replaced the dead car with a real live reliable car, and I know he made an effort to sell the old car but no one was interested in a 21-year-old nonfunctioning car that looked as if it had been painted by a colorblind uncle suffering from serious tremors. I don't know, maybe that Minnie Mouse applique on the passenger-side sun visor scared buyers away, but the car just sat there in front of my house reminding me, every time I saw it, that we live in Appalachia, where having a car carcass in the front yard is de rigueur.
But finally my son gave up on selling the car and junked it, which posed a slight problem: how to get a car to the junkyard when it (the car, not the junkyard) lacks a license plate? His ingenious solution: map a route that follows the narrowest, twistiest country roads, emerging onto the highway only when the junkyard is in spitting distance, and get someone (his dad) to follow him in another car in case the nonfunctioning one gives up the ghost for good. And so Sir Stephen and the Grey Knight made their royal progress through country lanes and o'er gravel paths until they arrived at yon junkyard, where they traded the car to the knackers for a sack of magic beans, or something like that.
And now every time I look at the spot in the driveway where the car carcass once sat, I see the most wonderful gift I could ever imagine: a great big chunk of empty space. Absence: it makes the heart grow fonder.
I conducted an experiment in the Comedy class this semester and I wasn't sure whether to call it a success until I sat down to grade this pile of reading quizzes I've been avoiding since last Monday. The truth is in the quizzing, and this time it's a happy truth: they got it--they really got it.
The experiment arose accidentally while I was assembling the reading list: because we had Sherman Alexie coming to campus this fall, I wanted students to read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is much shorter than the novel I used last time I taught the class, so I ended up with a week's worth of class sessions with no reading assignments. I recalled the most common complaints from students last time I taught the class: "This isn't funny--when can we read something we like?"
I wondered what would happen if I gave the students a chance to choose some readings--but I wouldn't want to hand the entire semester over to them becauseI feared they would delete Don Quijote in favor of "Mean Tweets."
But why not give them a few days? I left those days blank on the syllabus and asked students to submit short readings or brief audio or video clips (no more than 5 minutes), which I then arranged into a reasonable order and posted on the course management system. On the days devoted to those readings and clips, students had to explain what principles of comedy were illustrated by their submissions.
I feared that I'd have to deal with a pile of obscene video clips or lame Facebook memes, but no: they came through with an eclectic and interesting variety of material. We watched some Mean Tweets, but we also read an excerpt from Jonathan Tropper's novel This Is Where I Leave You, watched Chris Farley parody motivational speakers, laughed as Steve Carell drove a car into a lake (because his gps told him to), listened to Uncle Ruckus explain what slavery was really like, and sang along to the Angry Browns Fans' Christmas Album. It was an absolute hoot.
But did we learn anything? The quizzes I've just graded asked students to return to a principle we discussed in the first week of the semester--"A shared joke is a shared world"--and write about what sort of shared world two of the student submissions suggested. And you know what? They did great. They correctly employed analytical vocabulary we've been developing all semester long, and they demonstrated critical thinking skills as they examined the values conveyed by various submissions.
I worry a lot about that class, because most of the students are taking it for General Education credit and aren't terribly committed to literary analysis. Will they take away any useful skills or concepts, or will they forget everything the minute they see that little L on their transcripts? This assignment suggests that if nothing else, they can think critically about the comedy they encounter in their everyday lives. Also, if the gps says drive into the lake, don't.
Long before dawn I was lying in bed when I heard the distinct sound of a snowplow scraping down the road--and then, a few minutes later, going back the other way--and I knew right away that this would be a good day. And lo, it came to pass that by midmorning this puffy pink snow-bunny was helping me pull her sled up a slight hill and then sliding down with a "whee!" And when our cheeks had turned rosy and our mittens were crusted with snow-clumps, we went inside for cookies and milk and some fun piano time with Grampa. What am I thankful for this year? It's hard to count that high with mittens on.
In the few weeks since I last saw her, my granddaughter has mastered the imperative mood. "Dump it!" she says, and then she grabs the bin of toys and dumps it. "Read book!" she says, and I read her a book. "Cookie--want it!" she says, and I give her a cookie. That's what grandma is for--or, rather, Gamma, which is what she calls me. I am happy to be that Greek letter.
This morning we colored pictures, played peek-a-boo, and wandered out in the cold to visit the neighbors' chickens, which is a lot more fun than anything I've done on campus lately. At sushi lunch she begged for chopsticks to mimic the rest of us, but it turns out that stabbing sticky rice with a chopstick is not the most efficient way to get it to your mouth.
But that's okay. Save a few skills to learn later, right? And while she's learning to master her world, she provides plenty of free entertainment for the rest of us.
Five years ago this week, after I'd finished my final chemotherapy session, I asked my oncologist what to expect next and he said, "We watch you." And he has: through five years of periodic CT scans, blood tests, and checkups, he's faithfully manned the lookout post to watch for any hint that those nasty little cancer cells might be massing for invasion, but today we're done watching. Last week's tests came up totally clear, so I don't need to do any more follow-ups. As much as I appreciate my wonderful oncologist, I'm hoping that I never have to see him again--professionally, anyway. Time to close up the lookout post and head on home happily because all the watching is over.
Grading a pile of freshman papers at this point in the semester really should not make me feel like a complete and utter failure as a human being. After all, a few of the papers demonstrate an impressive ability to appeal to readers, assemble an argument, and employ evidence effectively to support that argument, and a few others reveal significant improvement in writing skills. I ought to focus on those instead of the others.
Oh, the others.
You don't want to know about the others.
Did they badly paraphrase whole paragraphs from sources and then tack on the barest hint of a citation at the end? Yes they did.
Did they copy and paste from an online source without even bothering to change the font so that the copied material fairly screams "Search me!"? You know they did.
Did they mangle their in-text citations and Works Cited listings in so many incomprehensible ways that it's virtually impossible to detect which source is actually being referred to at any given moment? Of course they did.
Did they upload the wrong paper to the course management system? Don't even get me started.
This isn't even the final paper of the semester; these students have one more opportunity to prove to me that all the work we've been doing all semester long has actually made some sort of impact on their skills. Maybe it's not too late! Maybe they'll all spend Thanksgiving break working extra-hard to make sure the final paper is a resounding success!
And maybe I've got cranberry sauce where my brains should be.
Any professor on campus can tell you exactly how many Monday classes remain on the schedule before finals week and exactly how many student assignments we'll need to grade before it's all over and exactly how many long horrible meetings stand between us and sanity, and it makes us a little giddy. Today, for instance, is Penultimate Friday: since we have next Friday off for Thanksgiving break, today's classes are the second-to-last Friday classes I'll teach before finals. This calls for a celebration!
When we proffies go a-stumbling 'cross the campus in a daze all distracted and a-mumbling, "Just a few more bleeping days,"
When the steaming stacks of papers fill our minds with undelight but we cheer and cut fine capers when one student learns to cite,
When the calendar confronts us with its dwindling stock of days, then we pray for no more dunces in our Penultimate Friday way.
Here's the situation: The paper is due tomorrow and you've already read and responded to student drafts a week ago. A student whose draft was barely there asks you to look over another draft just in case he missed anything. You quickly skim his draft, note tremendous improvement except for a few format and grammar problems, and then get the sinking feeling that part of this work was copied and pasted from somewhere else. How do you respond?
1. Google the suspicious passage, locate the online source, and tell the student he's getting an F on the paper and you're writing him up for plagiarism.
2. Google the suspicious passage, locate the online source, and warn the student that he'd better rewrite the plagiarized sections before submitting the paper for grading.
3. Send the student an e-mail (paper trail!) reminding him of the importance of properly punctuating and citing sources and suggesting that if he has unintentionally (!) copied and pasted from online sources without proper punctuation and citation, he will get an F on the paper. Then Google the suspicious passage, locate the online source, and wait for the student to submit the paper for grading so you can pounce on the plagiarized passages and give him his well-deserved F.
Some sub-points to consider: a. Would the level of the course affect your answer? (First-year vs. sophomore vs. upper-level?) b. Would the time of year affect your answer? (First major assignment vs. final paper?) c. Would your previous experience with the student affect your answer? (Reliable but rushed student vs. committed slacker?)
I know how I would deal with this because I've just done one of these three things this week, but one of the occupational hazards of thinking for a living is that I never stop second-guessing myself. So let me know what you would do and then I'll share what I actually did.
We've reached my favorite part of the African-American Literature syllabus--Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days--and this morning we considered what an ordinary working person has to do to become a mythic hero. Why, for instance, isn't anyone writing a song about Dr. Hogue, the mythic English professor?
"Because she didn't die with a red pen in her hand" is the obvious answer, but that doesn't mean I don't deserve a folk song. I work my brain at least as hard as John Henry worked his body, so where's my statue? Where's my legend? Where's my postage stamp? Who will write the song about the thesis-driving woman drilling holes into mountains of prose to let the train of truth steam on through? "It's only heroic if you die doing it," said a student, and that's one of the central paradoxes of Whitehead's novel. His main character, J., recalls seeing a filmstrip on the John Henry myth back in elementary school and wishes he could have asked his teacher a question: "Mrs. Goodwin, why did he have to die in the end? Mrs. Goodwin, if he beat the steam engine, why did he have to die? Did he win or lose?" I ask myself sometimes whether I'm winning or losing. I drill right through one mountain of papers and another rises up to take its place, so it's hard to see whether I'm getting any closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. If the entire mountain collapses and buries me, will anyone even notice?
Days like today, though, I've shoved the mountain aside to spend some time discussing fascinating literature with students eager to play with ideas. It may not be the stuff of myth, but all the same, it feels like winning.
It's not every day that the college president name-checks Captain Kangaroo at a faculty meeting, but on a Monday full of odd moments, that one was just the tip of the oddness iceberg. There was the extremely large man with earbuds in his ears who fell asleep in his chair in the waiting room at the hospital so that this petite young woman in a scrubs who came to fetch him for his tests had to find a way to wake him up: pull out the earbuds so he can hear or just poke him? What part of an extremely large stranger's anatomy would you poke to wake him up if you didn't want to startle him into falling off his chair or injuring someone?
And then another young woman in scrubs told me she always gets the needle in right the first time but left me with THREE separate bruises on two different arms, for an average of 1.5 bruises per arm. "You'll feel a little stick," she said just before she drove a needle right through my vein and out the other side. "Is it still hurting?" she asked. "It shouldn't still be hurting." Eight hours later, it's still hurting.
There was the sudden blinding snow that made my six-block drive from the hospital to campus treacherous and persuaded me to leave my umbrella in the car so that I was totally unprepared just seconds later when the snow turned to big fat cold raindrops.
Then there was the first-year student who e-mailed me to insist that he doesn't need to use any sources for his research paper because he's writing about a topic he knows so well that he doesn't need sources. I've heard a lot of amazing excuses from students but I think this is the first time a freshperson has claimed to be the world's expert on a complex problem of contemporary life. Clearly someone doesn't understand the assignment.
Then the meeting in which we reviewed survey data showing that our students claim that they're not writing drafts (on what planet?) and they're not doing the reading (no surprise) and they're not talking to other students outside of class (what?) so it's no surprise that they claim to rarely learn to think differently about anything.
And then the other meeting--the one that invoked the name of Captain Kangaroo, whose gentle antics would probably appear moronic to the Sesame Street generation. I loved Captain Kangaroo! And I loved Bunny Rabbit and Dancing Bear and especially Mr. Moose, who made ping-pong balls fall from the ceiling for no apparent reason. I don't recall ever wondering whether some ordinary guy might be manipulating those puppets just out of sight, but apparently there was such a guy name Cosmo Allegretti, and I would love him just for having such a great name and for being Mr. Moose if I hadn't just learned that he, sadly, died just about a year ago but not before arranging a generous bequest to his alma mater, which would be the college where I teach.
Mr. Moose saves the day! It just doesn't get any odder than that.
After the reading, one of my first-year students bounced up all bubbly and said, "Dr. Hogue! That was great! I didn't know you could write!"
It was intended as a compliment and I took it that way, but that last line rankles a bit. Didn't know I could WRITE?!! Writing is who I am. Writing is what I do. But I suppose I can't blame a student who has seen my writing only in the margins of papers, where's it's not easy to wax poetic:
This comma splice just isn't nice. Don't make me read this sentence twice.
To make a splash, please use a dash.
I was of three minds, like a sentence in which there are three verb tenses.
No, my marginal comments are too blunt and fragmentary to sound at all lyrical; they're less like poetry than like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. The same must be true of my colleague the poet who is diligently trying to teach my Sports Lit students how to write coherent sentences. Last week one of our shared students said, "I didn't know Dr. A was a poet!" And I had to point out that he's not just a poet but an excellent poet whose work appeared in the Best American Poetry 2013 anthology. Didn't know he was a POET?!!
I suppose it's difficult for students to see us as more than critics of their writing, correctors of their errors, but maybe that's our fault. Last night at the end of the student reading sponsored by the English Department, after students had shared their essays and short fiction and poetry, three of us who teach creative writing classes shared short works of our own, something we haven't done in quite some time. I always enjoy hearing my colleagues' work, but most of all I enjoy showing students that we who teach writing actually know a thing or two about how language works.
But the glow of the spotlight won't last. Today I face a pile of student drafts, and as much as I'd like to, I can't possibly pour vast amounts of creativity into marginal comments:
The apparition of a thesis in the intro-- Pablum on a wet, black void.
Whose words these are I think I know; Their house is Wikipedia, so You will not see me reading more. I'll just write down an F and go.
"Commas are the plastic wrap that divide one package of pre-washed salad greens from another....Cutting up our food, they infantilize us."
So said Gordon C.F. Bearn last night in a lecture on "Punctuation in Gertrude Stein and Wittgenstein: Legacies of William James, MD." Bearn, a philosophy professor at Lehigh University, was referring to Stein's attitude toward punctuation when he took us all on a mental excursion to the produce department.
Stein, of course, died too soon to welcome the era of pre-wrapped, pre-washed salad greens, but one wonders how warmly she would have welcomed that innovation. Salad, she wrote, is "a winning cake," but that doesn't tell us whether the cake should be constructed from a head of iceberg, a leaf of romaine, or a bag of spring greens. (No word on Wittgenstein's views on the topic.)
A Permanent Record! That's what I need--for my students.
Remember back in elementary school when teachers threatened that if you misbehaved you'd earn a black mark in your Permanent Record? I pictured horrified teachers and principals hovering over a manila folder in which was written, in bleeding red ink, "Runs with scissors!" The fear of earning a permanent blot on the Permanent Record discouraged many a schoolchild from committing acts of mayhem.
Why don't college students have a Permanent Record? Of course we keep records on their academic progress and infractions of the student code, but those records are scattered amongst various offices and collect only limited types of data--and, moreover, those records are hardly permanent. I'd like a Permanent Record that haunts a student forever.
Picture this: the student has applied for his dream job, the job that would make his heart sing, his bank account burgeon, and his student loans vanish overnight, and he's reached the final stage in the screening process when the interviewer says, "Let's take a look at your Permanent Record. Hmm....it says here you're an expert at manipulating other students to do the lion's share in group work but that you always manage to take the credit. Just the person we need in this office! Welcome, brother!"
Okay, that didn't go the way I'd expected. What if potential girlfriends could check a guy's Permanent Record before agreeing to take the relationship to the next level? "It says here that you're an arrogant prick. No news to me. Your place or mine?"
Again, not the result I was looking for. Suppose our student is in the final stages of applying for a mortgage for his first house but before he can sign on the dotted line, the loan officer checks his Permanent Record: "I see that you generally perform the minimal amount of work necessary to earn a passing grade, turning assignments in at the last possible moment and barely squeaking through difficult classes. Sounds like a guy who can get his mortgage payments in on time! We're good to go!"
Well, okay, but eventually this slacker will end up at the Pearly Gates and Saint Peter will gaze down at his Permanent Record and say, "I see that you once admitted to your academic advisor that it didn't matter what classes you took as long as you remained eligible for financial aid." And then Peter will sigh, rub his forehead, and say, "I'm sorry, but rules are rules. I don't want to let you through the gates, but you've earned just enough heavenly credits to remain eligible, so in you go!"
Maybe a Permanent Record isn't such a great idea after all.
A student pointed to a phrase in a reading assignment--je ne sais quoi--and asked me what it meant. I performed an exaggerated Gallic shrug and said, "I don't know what."
"Well, okay, then I guess I can look it up."
It took a little while to unravel that misunderstanding, the latest in a long line of misunderstandings in my classes, most of which remind me of the ever-increasing age gap between myself and my students. Here are some things my students found utterly unfamiliar in recent classes:
The Cold War.
"Fran" as a unisex name. (The fact that my parents are Francis and Frances may make me especially sensitive to this issue, but seriously: they've never heard of a woman named Fran before?)
Chuck Yeager (despite the fact that his name is attached to an airport just down the highway).
The fact that The Godfather was a book before it was a movie.
Schadenfreude. "Not with a bang but a whimper." And that's how I'll go out one day, carrying immense amounts of increasingly irrelevant knowledge in my woefully overcrowded brain.
Sometimes I feel the need to unleash a harangue and let it run around the classroom for a little while before locking it securely back in its cage. Today's harangue went something like this:
If you were taking a multiple-choice math test and realized that all you needed to do to pass was to get 60 out of 100 answers correct, would you answer 60 questions and then put down your pen? Probably not, but let's say you did that and got all 60 questions right. Congratulations! You've done the minimum you needed to do to pass! Enjoy your D-!
But if doing the minimum required to pass the math test earns a D-, why do you assume that doing the minimum required to complete a writing assignment should earn an A--or, at the very least, a B+? If the assignment requires at least three reputable sources and you use exactly three reputable sources but still don't have enough evidence to support your claims, you may be disappointed to find a D- at the top of your paper. But don't come crying to me about the injustice of it all. If you do minimal work, you'll get a minimal grade. Enjoy your D-!
Now let's corral that harangue and lock him back in the cage. We wouldn't want him to get loose and wreak havoc all over campus. Watch out--he bites!
I'm trying to make my Concepts of Comedy students think about the human condition but they sit there staring blankly at my well-conceived questions, so it's time to bring some Vogonity into the classroom. No, I'm not planning to read them any Vogon poetry, but I'm giving them some group work with questions like these:
1. The Vogons are
coming! The Vogons are coming!
Those repellant aliens want to destroy Earth to make room
for an interstellar bypass. Fortunately, you have penetrated the Vogons’
massive bureaucratic labyrinth and you now wait in line to submit a form
claiming that the human race is worth preserving—however, only one type of
evidence is admissible. Argue that the human race is worth preserving based entirely on evidence from Fran Lebowitz's "Better Read than Dead" and Woody Allen's "A Look at Organized Crime."
2. Greetings, Vogons!
You’re just trying to do your job, clearing away an
insignificant little planet called Earth to make room for an interstellar
bypass, but those pesky little Earthlings have filed documents claiming that
the human race is worth preserving. You could just read them some Vogon poetry
and drive them all to suicide, but instead you employ the vast labyrinthine
Vogon bureaucracy to reject their claims for sound reasons. Demonstrate that the human race is worthy of destruction based entirely on evidence from Tom Wolfe's "The Secret Vice" and Ian Frazier's "Laws Concerning Food and Drink."
Will my students step up to the challenge? Will they recognize the Vogon reference or sit there scratching their heads? Does it matter? Only time will tell. Ask me tomorrow after class.