Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Put a fork in it

A colleague popped into my office to say, "I feel as if I ought to be rushing to observe someone's teaching." I know the feeling: since September we've been serving on our college's tenure and promotion committee, meeting for two hours every Friday afternoon (with only a few breaks), but this week we won't be meeting because our work is DONE.

Or mostly done. We'll probably meet one more time to clean up a few details and do some prep work for next year's committee, but we are DONE reading portfolios, observing classes, discussing the merits of our colleagues' teaching, research, and service, and making sometimes difficult decisions about whom to recommend for tenure and promotion. With an unusually large group eligible this year, we all had to visit many classes during the fall semester--over 20 hours of observations per committee member, or close to 150 hours total.

We observed a lot of great teaching and now it's gratifying to see the Trustees affirm our work by granting tenure and promotion to some very worthy colleagues, but despite the rewards of serving on this committee, I have to admit that I'm delighted that our work is done. So many committees function ad nauseam without direction or focus, always nibbling away at issues without ever accomplishing much, so it's great to serve on a committee that can look back over a busy year and see tangible outcomes of all our hard work. Our work here is done. Time to move on. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The lunch that launched a memory

This morning I'm suddenly remembering the best bowl of soup I ever ate. It was something gumbo-esque, I think, with a tomato base and vegetables and some sort of meat. What made the soup great, though, was not inside the bowl.

I was sitting at an outdoor table at a cafe in Devonport, a brief ferry-ride from Auckland. It may have been my final day in Auckland, a day I'd spent mostly on foot, walking around the quaint seaside village and hiking around the cones of extinct volcanoes. It was July (what year? 2012 or 13?) and therefore winter, with a cold, damp breeze blasting roses into my cheeks from one direction while bright sunlight roasted me from another. 

I sat outside that small cafe resting my sore feet while sipping my soup and contemplating how far I'd come, not just walking all over Auckland but traveling across the world to give a paper at a conference and spend an extra week doing research on Maori literature and culture. I didn't need extinct volcanoes to tell me I wasn't in Ohio anymore.

Today I wish I could have some of that soup, or if not the soup itself then the sense of adventure that served as a side-dish. Living too complacently at the intersection of Love-My-Job Lane and Hate-My-Office Avenue, I want to escape to a place I've never seen, walk streets my feet don't know, feel unfamiliar breezes on my face, and drink my fill of soup that warms me inside and out.

Today's lunch is as forgettable as yesterday's, but it keeps me going until the time when I can find some more of that elusive Adventure Soup. Will someone please send the recipe?    


"I really want to argue something," says a voice from the back of the room. My students are in groups writing possible essay questions for an exam, each group choosing from a list of writing tasks (argue, compare, define, explain, and so on) and one group is arguing over whether their question should ask students to argue or discuss. It's a good question about questions--a meta-question! That's the kind of test preparation I like to see.

I've done this exercise before with mixed results: some students aim for questions they consider obvious or easy, like "compare text A with text B," but I tell them such vague questions generally produce superficial and unconvincing essays. I want them to design questions that will help them dig deeper into texts and show what they know, and so far, they're doing great.

I'm reminded of my Ph.D. comprehensive exams, when I had to submit my own questions to be mixed in with the other possible questions for each topic. I agonized over those questions, hoping they wouldn't appear lightweight next to the questions written by my committee, and I was delighted to see that they stood up to the test--and maybe that was part of the test. Writing good questions proved excellent preparation for writing the exams, and as a result, here I am, all these years later, asking my honors students to write their own test.

They wrote six questions and we looked at them as a class. I've promised to use one or two of them as the basis for their exam, tweaking the wording a bit to make them more clear or challenging, but I won't have to tweak much because they've written really good questions. 

"So does that mean we can skip the exam?"

Now it's time to argue. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The thaw I saw

For weeks we've been surrounded by the frozen stillness of winter white, but this morning we saw green and heard the sounds of water rushing down a hillside and felt the sun on our backs and suddenly believed that winter will not last forever. North-facing hillsides still show snow and ice, rapidly melting and filling our creek and the nearby rivers. Last night I drove home in the dark and was startled to look to my left and see a glassy sea alongside the highway where a cornfield ought to be, but our creek has dropped a few feet already so we're unlikely to see flooding unless we get a deluge. 

The morning sun striking ice made the cliffside sparkle as if spangled with sequins, but I couldn't capture the effect on camera any more than I could capture the sound of rushing water or the chatter of a pileated woodpecker flicking from tree to tree. The forecast calls for more snow and subzero temperatures next week, but this week's thaw provided a necessary respite from cabin fever, making the bleak midwinter a little more bearable.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

What poetry summaries leave out

I came out of class this morning joyful after leading a discussion of some poems by e.e. cummings, who once struck me as a lightweight but who seems to get more profound with age. (My age, not his.) Then I looked at some things students had written about cummings and recognized the stylistic hallmarks of the online summary, and I got a little annoyed. First, the very idea of summarizing a poem is ridiculous, since how a poem says is at least as important as what it says. Second, what these summaries say about what these poems say is simply insipid.

Let's look at an example. First, if you haven't seen it in a while, go look at cummings's poem "In Just--" (read it here). Got it? Okay, now here is the entire text of an online summary you can easily find via Google: "The poem In Just by EE Cummings is a poem about the season spring. It talks about how everything is fresh and new. People are happy that the weather is warmer, flowers are blooming, and kids can play outside."

Who would write a poem about that? Okay, maybe I wrote poems like that and maybe I even published one of them, but I was in the third grade at the time and I had not seen the horrors of World War I up close or spent time in a prisoner-of-war camp as cummings did. I do not teach poems written by third-graders and, thankfully, cummings did not write the kind of poem a third-grader would write. Go back to the poem and take a close look at the goat-footed balloon-man. What is he doing in the poem? What is he not doing in the summary? What else is missing from the summary? How about all those odd spaces, fused words, and uneven lines? If space mattered to cummings, shouldn't it matter to us? How is it possible to write anything about this poem without mentioning the typographical elements or the little lame balloon-man? I hear his whistle even now....

I think I helped my students hear that whistle in class today, but I fear for the ones who can't hear the difference between cummings's little lame balloon-man and the insipid online summary of the poem. Pity the busy monster studentunmindful--not!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The office is blowing in the wind

What season is it when you spot a member of the grounds crew using a leaf-blower in the snow?

I know what you're thinking: leaf-blower, snow-blower, same thing really. But no: he was not using the leaf-blower to blow snow but to blow leaves that have been buried under piles of snow for three weeks and are gradually being exposed as the snow melts. Perhaps you've already spotted the flaw in this plan, but if not, I'll give you a hint: when snow melts, where does the water go?

So here was this guy working really hard to try to dislodge leaves that have been squashed into sticky mulch when he could put the leaf-blower to better use warming up my office. For reasons no one has been able to explain, cold air is continually blowing from the ceiling vents in my office, making it colder than the surrounding offices and even the hallway. Someone standing on my desk with a leaf-blower could conceivably counteract the negative effect of all that cold air on my office's ambiance. I might have to wear earplugs to avoid the noise, but at least I would be a little less cold.

When the outdoor temperatures dipped below zero and then stayed there a while, my office was cozy and comfortable, but now it's actually colder in my office than outside. But hey, if I relocate my office to the great outdoors, that would be a great solution to my claustrophobia problem.

If you need me, follow the growl of distant leaf-blowers. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


You're not writing about that, are you?

Sure I am. Why not? It's a great story.

But you're angry. 

For a good reason!

You know it's a mistake to write while you're angry. 

Shut up. Go away.

You'll regret it later! And what if you have to apologize?

So? I've apologized before and it didn't kill me.

But you wouldn't have had to apologize if you'd listened to me!

Now you're really making me angry. 

Why do you have to complain all the time anyway? Don't you have something a little happier to write about?

What, like how I just totally smashed my students' love affair with Robert Frost? Hurray for me, turning bright-eyed optimists into bitter cynics!

What about the weather? You could write about the weather!

Warm air, sunshine, blah blah blah, but down here in my dungeon office I'm wrapped in a blanket and wishing I had a great big dog to keep my feet warm. 

Such a whiner. I'm sure you could find a bright side if you tried hard enough!

Sure, but writing about the bright side would reveal the outlines of the dark side as well. Casting sunshine on the matter would only draw attention to the shadows.

Stay away from the shadows! You can't write about the shadows!

Sure I can. Just watch--!!

Stop! You might embarrass someone!

Maybe they deserve to be embarrassed.

What, now you're handing out bad-behavior tickets? What are you, the self-appointed Chief of the Collegiality Police?

Go away and leave me alone!

Keep handing out those tickets and you'll know what it means to be alone--for good.

Shut up and let me write!

But not about that

Monday, February 17, 2014

Bouncing baby ba-ba-ba

I think my favorite part of the weekend occurred in a casual restaurant when my adorable granddaughter kept trying to communicate with the people at the next table, which was a real trick since her vocabulary consists primarily of babbling and blowing raspberries. She's a very social child, always eager to know anyone who wanders into her awareness, and people respond to her "ba-ba-ba" by talking back in that voice adults use with babies, a syrupy voice full of sparkles and sunshine, the vocal equivalent of a trip to the bouncy castle. I wouldn't want to hear that voice uninterrupted 24 hours a day, but after a week characterized by greater than normal levels of rancor, whining, and awkwardness, spending some bouncy time with a baby provides a welcome break.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Going forth empty-handed

Three times this week various commitments kept me on campus for 14 or more hours but now it's Friday the 14th and I'm going forth from here (after a two-hour meeting) with not a single student paper in my bag. I've prepped Monday's classes so I'm leaving books and laptop behind and going home for the weekend utterly empty-handed. 

Here's what I hope those empty hands will hold over the next two days:

my adorable granddaughter
a mug of spiced chai
some messy fish tacos
my camera equipped with its new/old lens
some dog treats during a walk with the hound
my Kindle full of books unrelated to classes
the Methodist hymnal
and did I mention my adorable granddaughter?

Empty hands--full heart! 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Just call me Prof Softie

I graded the exam promptly but didn't post the grades for three days. I wanted to think first about what why half the class bombed the exam and what, if anything, I ought to do about it.

That's three days of second-guessing myself (and third-guessing and fourth-guessing and on up to zillionth-guessing). On the one hand, the students had plenty of warning: a study of guide with sample questions, a list of essential vocabulary terms, even a repeated warning that "open book" does not mean "easy."

On the other hand, none of the students who bombed the exam have ever had classes from me before and seem to have been blind-sided by the number of questions and the amount of writing I expected from them. Many of them did well enough on the questions they answered but ran out of time to finish the exam, leaving whole pages blank.

Those blank pages included questions about concepts that will be foundational to our discussion for the rest of the semester, so I need to make sure the students understand those concepts. On the other other hand (picture me as the many-handed goddess Kali, only less ruthless and certainly less blue), I don't want to reward bad performance by offering extra credit on material they should have mastered for the exam.

But after three days of pondering I decided to give them a second chance. For each student who earned less than an A on the exam, I've created a personalized Second-Chance Quiz featuring one or two questions the student left blank on the exam. Their performance on the Second-Chance Quiz may improve their exam grade by up to 10 points, which for many of them will make the difference between failing and passing.

Is this solution fair? Probably not: students who earned an A on the exam don't get the chance to improve their scores, but on the other other other hand, they don't need it. I also fear that these students will expect similar second chances in the future, so I'll be careful to let them know that this is a one-time deal. I've already warned them that the Second-Chance Quiz is coming on Monday so they'd better spend the weekend mastering those concepts they skipped over on the exam, but those who don't bother may get nothing out of the exercise, which is fine.

I never grade on the curve and I rarely offer extra credit and I know I provided plenty of warning about what to expect on this exam, but even the students who've taken many exams from me before admitted that this one was especially daunting. On the one hand, giving them a second chance makes me feel like Professor Softie; on the other other other other hand, posting such a high percentage of horrible grades makes me feel like Kali the Avenger. Just for today, I prefer to put down the sword and let the pen prove its might. In the end, it all comes down to whether I can live with myself, and in this case, the pen wins--hands down.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cloudy with a chance of quagmires

So much of academic life is simply unbloggable--but not, as I've just discovered, unquaggleable. Let me explain:

Yesterday I was involved in an event that a colleague described as quagmiresque, and while it had its entertaining and even instructive moments, I don't dare write a single word about it publicly. So instead let's think about quagmires--which, according to our friend the Oxford English Dictionary, can serve as either noun or verb, although the verb form appears rarely and only in the passive voice, as in this example from a 1991 Vanity Fair article: "Paglia came under the gnomic spell of Bloom, a whirring mind quagmired in a pudding of flesh."

The OED traces quagmire to the obscure noun quag "a marshy or boggy spot" or the verb quag "to quake" (with its 19th-century variant quaggle, implying "to shake like a jelly"). The OED offers examples of quagmire as far back as 1566 and dates quagmirist  to 1609. There's a word you don't want to see on a resume!

Quagmire can refer to a bog either literal or figurative but Shakespeare may have intended it both ways in Henry VI, Part I when Talbot threatens, "Your hearts I'll stamp out with my horse's heels / and make a Quagmire of your mingled brains." I'm more fond, however, of the elegant simplicity of a sentence written by E. Hellowes in his 1575 translation of the Familiar Epistles of Anthony of Guevara. I've never read Anthony of Guevara's Familiar Epistles and I have no idea who E. Hellowes might have been, but I'd like to tell that Hellowes fellow Hello and congratulate him on his prescient description of the current state of academe: "There be so many quagmires, wherein to bee myred."

Quagmires to the right of me, quagmires to the left--here I am, stuck in the middle with a bunch of quagmirists. No wonder I'm quaking in my boots. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

A bouquet of midwinter birds

My daughter brought home a bouquet of flowers to fight the midwinter blues, but I'm enjoying my bouquet of birds, colorful enough to serve as an antidote to cabin fever. This time of year it's not uncommon to see thirty or forty birds twittering around our feeder stations all at once, with as many as a dozen cardinals sharply visible against the snow.  

Friday, February 07, 2014

Because science!

This just in: science has shown that people can't actually reach the horizon because it just keeps getting farther and farther away. (I read it in a paper so it must be true. On the other hand, it wasn't cited. Think I should ask for a citation?)

What burning question will science tackle next? Think of it:
  • The Neuroscience of Dreaming the Impossible Dream
  • Jam Tomorrow and Jam Yesterday but Never Jam Today: a Quantum Physics Approach
  • GPS Revolutionizes Over-the-Rainbow Studies

There must be more! Suggestions?

Bonus question: if Schrodinger's cat reached the horizon, how would we know?


A casualty of the Great Apostrophe War

When my grandchildren gather 'round my knee to ask "What did you do in the war, Granny?", I'll tell them I surrendered. Gave up. Waved the white flag and caved without so much as a squawk.

I'm referring, of course, to the Great Apostrophe War of 2014. I did not volunteer to fight in the GAW and neither was I recruited; I just sort of slid into it sideways, like a car on a patch of ice or flip-flops in a wet pasture studded with cow flops. (But this is February so let's stick with the ice image and forget about the cow flops. Don't even think about the cow flops. Forget I mentioned 'em.)

I was just sitting in my office minding my own business when suddenly, without warning, an e-mail message I was trying to send to faculty mailing list was returned, rejected by the moderator. Why? Because I had used an apostrophe correctly.

Of course it's not that simple. Do you wish someone a Happy Mother's Day, Mothers' Day, or Mothers Day? I would go for Mothers' Day because it's a day belonging to all mothers, but the rapid evacuation of apostrophes from pop culture seems to be moving us toward Mothers Day, which makes my brain hurt.

So I had to send this announcement out to all the faculty using a phrase like Mothers Day but I included an apostrophe, upon which my wrist was slapped by the Powers That Be, who have outlawed the apostrophe in this case. The line was drawn in the sand: remove the apostrophe or the message will not go through. 

But the message must go through! Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night nor apostrophes nor flip-flops nor cow flops (don't think about cow flops) nor the Powers That Be can prevent the message from penetrating the faculty listserv that nobody actually reads!

But "Shoot if you must this old gray head but spare my beloved apostrophe!" is exactly what I didn't say. One of my colleagues urged me to take a stand, rally the troops to my side, and refuse to bend before the ravening hordes of apostrophe-haters, but he apparently has a lot of time on his hands. My to-do list stretches from here to Saskatchewan and threatens to swallow whole my entire weekend if I don't start checking off tasks, so I caved in and rewrote the message without the apostrophe.

Soon thereafter, through the rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air there appeared on the faculty listserv a long message full of important information but the only thing I can see is something that isn't there--where the apostrophe ought to be is a blank spot waving like a white flag of surrender. Without intending to, I have become a casualty in the Great Apostrophe War. And I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less apostrophied--and that has made not a bit of difference.   

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The CSWSW kerfuffle

The Case of the Statue Wearing Skivvies at Wellesley (CSWSW) is probably not funny--not funny at all. In fact, I'm sure it's a Very Serious Matter for those who take such things very seriously, so those people should probably stop reading right now. Go ahead! Go read something more jargon-laced and leave the rest of us alone to chuckle guiltily amongst ourselves!

(Are they gone yet?)

So the situation, which has been dissected unto death elsewhere, is this: a statue called "Sleepwalker" by Tony Matelli has been erected outside a museum on Wellesley's campus to publicize an exhibit of the artist's work. The statue (go look at it!) portrays a sleepwalking man clad only in underwear. He looks kind of creepy, although not sexual-predator creepy or Zombie Apocalypse creepy--more like someone on the verge of letting a big wad of drool drip down onto your boots if you get too close. Then again, few of us look our best while sleepwalking, so maybe we should give the guy a break. He can't help how he looks! He's a statue!

"Sleepwalker" does not strike me as threatening, but I might respond differently if I suddenly spotted him over my shoulder on a dark night. More than 100 students have signed a petition protesting the statue because it makes them feel "unsafe" and it "steps over a line." (Ever try to persuade a sleepwalker to step over a line? Good luck! Not to mention that statues are not known for their mobility.)

I don't know just where I stand on the CSWSW kerfuffle--except I'm not inclined to stand too close. Wouldn't want him to drool all over my new boots. Will someone for heaven's sake give the man a blanket?!


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Reading currents, watching waves

First exam of the semester, first set of papers, first signs of cheating, first plagiarism case--yep, the honeymoon is over. The bright, hopeful faces that sparkled in classrooms on the first day have been replaced by the faces of those bleak workers shuffling to their underground caverns in Fritz Lang's Metropolis--and that's just the faculty!

Today I've been subjected to papers claiming that certain authors "utilize the use of" something or other, and all that usefulness makes me tired. Tomorrow I'll utilize the use of utilitarianism when my honors class examines Mark Twain's "Two Ways of Looking at a River," in which he explains how familiarity with the river inured him to its beauty. He concludes:
No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?
Well, doesn't he?

I've looked so long into the river of students passing through my classes that I see them too often as obstacles obstructing my progress toward pleasure or bright  shiny surfaces hiding dangerous currents. Taking the long view, though, the plagiarists and cheaters and grade-grubbing plodders leave tiny wakes on a wide river sparkling with beauty and power and grace. 

May the waves pass us by, may our crafts stay afloat, and may we never lose sight of the river.         

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Snowed in and not sorry

Control freak, right? So naturally I had crossed every t and dotted every i to prepare the itinerary of our visiting author: meeting with class at 10, lunch with creative writing students at noon, master class at 4, dinner with faculty at 5:30, open reading at 7:30 (extra credit opportunity!), reception and book-signing to follow. I even arranged for the bookstore to have a supply of books on hand to sell at the reading.

Somehow, in the midst of all that obsessive organizing, I neglected to arrange one important element: the weather.

Flash back 20 years; I'm leading some relatives on a tour of my favorite Lake Erie island in the height of summer, but the wind is blowing and spitting a light rain into our faces and I'm fielding complaints that it's too COLD and too WET and too FAR to walk, and I'm responding, as usual, by apologizing, repeatedly and earnestly, until someone, puzzled, asks me, "Why are you apologizing for the weather?"

Yesterday I tried really hard to avoid apologizing for the weather, but it couldn't be helped: as classes were first delayed and then cancelled, as the grounds crew tried valiantly to clear snow and make the campus safe, it became apparent that the weather was going to destroy my carefully-planned event. No public reading, no books to sell or sign, no meeting with cancelled classes--all buried under a mere six inches of wet snow.

It takes a tremendous amount of hubris, really, to apologize for the weather, as if a little more effort on my part could have ensured a warm, dry, cozy visit to the island. I suppose I really wanted to apologize for being a disappointing tour guide, for failing to anticipate my relatives' needs, for lacking an understanding of their physical limitations. "I'm sorry I'm such a sorry [relative]" is probably what I wanted to say, but who can say such a thing out loud? Better to project my flaws onto the weather; better to imply that I could have eased their discomfort if I'd only worked a little bit harder. Surely controlling the weather is not far outside my impressive powers! Surely next time I'll do better!

Yesterday's snow did not have the power to stop everything, however. The author was already here, and while I could not require students to attend an event when the campus was officially closed, I could certainly invite them. We ate lunch. We attended a master class. We enjoyed a great informal visit and some terrific insight into the writing process, both the author's and our own. In the end we flew an author across the country and paid a healthy stipend for a meeting with about eight students--but oh, what a great meeting! And what great weather, which closed us in and pushed us into a place where we could warm our hands on the fire burning deep below the surface of our stories.

I'd like to go back in time and rewind the tape, take back the apologies that cried out so pathetically for approval. I'm sorry that I focus so narrowly on my well-laid plans that I often overlook whatever the wind blows my way, from deep insights to small unexpected joys. I'm sorry that I put so much energy into being sorry. But I'm not sorry about the weather--then or now.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

A timeless trail

Sunshine and a welcome thaw sent us hiking up the hill behind our house, but instead of stopping at the fence line, we stepped across onto our neighbor's property. We know our neighbors won't mind the incursion, but we rarely cross that line because the steep wooded hillside is slippery in the spring, overgrown with brambles in the summer, and crawling with hunters in the fall.

Today, though, we tromped on up through the snow toward the curved tree that appears to mark the peak of the hill, but on arrival we found more hill rising beyond and a wide but neglected path winding through the trees along the ridge. A sign of ancient settlement, a hunter's path, or the right-of-way cleared for the gasline that runs through here somewhere? Whatever its source, we welcome the invitation to keep tromping through the snow.

A few green mossy spots push through the melting snow but aside from that, nothing seems alive or active up here. Hopeful dashes off after some tempting scent and then barks frantically up a tree, which fails, as usual, to persuade the squirrel to come down and play. We step over fresh deer tracks but can't keep silent enough to sneak up on them--but there they are, a big buck in front and three other deer following, all leaping deeper into the woods and out of sight. We walk the ridge until a dense tangle of fallen limbs blocks the path, turning us back toward home.

We slip and slide down the last steep drop to the fence line, grabbing onto trees to steady our descent. With a little work, we could create a path from our property up to the ridge, maybe clear out some underbrush and set some logs across the path to serve as steps, and then we'd have access to that trail year-round. Will our neighbors approve? Will it be worth the effort? Or will we other projects drive the memory of that ridgeline trail right out of our memory?

This may have been our first time walking the ridge trail, but I hope it won't be the last.