Monday, March 31, 2014

Bury me not in the old Harley

When I die (not that I'm planning to do it anytime soon), please don't put me in a coffin covered with money or shaped like a duck (see them here) and don't bury me atop a Harley-Davidson (here) or any other vehicle, no matter how beloved. Don't put me in a pine box either--I'm too claustrophobic for boxes. I prefer to be cremated and have my ashes spread where trilliums grow, and if someone will read Wendell Berry's poem "The Peace of Wild Things," I'll be happy.

I'm thinking of this now because of two recent essays my Creative Nonfiction class discussed: "The Washing" by Reshma Memon Yaqub and "Building a Funeral" by Joni Tevis. Tevis offers a backstage look at the funeral industry, from the banal cliches of pre-need sales pitches to the varieties of gravestone gewgaws. She ends with a plea to whoever eventually plans her funeral: "Do what you can and hope that when your time comes, someone will do the same for you and for those who stand around the hole in the ground, looking in."

A similar appeal lies at the heart of Yaqub's "The Washing" (read it here), an account of one woman's experience of ritually washing a stranger's body before burial. In the end, the dead woman's body is wrapped in cotton until it resembles "a wrapped gift," but Yaqub makes it clear that the gift of community is born out of a group of hands working together silently in respect for both body and soul.    

One hand washing another: this image is evoked beautifully in "The Undertaking," in which poet/undertaker Thomas Lynch portrays the beauty of communal connections in funeral practices but also keeps repeating the refrain "The dead don't care." And it's true: the funeral is for the survivors, not the carcass, so if someone slips up and forgets to sprinkle me on the trilliums, I won't be demanding a refund.

But if you put plastic flowers on my grave, I swear I'll find a way to come back and haunt you!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Know the words! Know all the words!

Last month I agonized over what to do about an exam that flattened more than half of the class, and I finally gave them a second chance to show their stuff (read it here). This worked well, but I was eager to see whether the class would come to the next exam more prepared or slack off, hoping for another second chance.

The second exam was a little shorter than the first but it was also not open-book, and the results were encouraging. I saw fewer blank spaces, more depth and breadth in responses, and more evidence of careful preparation. And the grades were better too, representing a reasonable spread rather than the stark split I saw last time.

However, one question tripped up a small but significant number of students, who all interpreted it the same (wrong) way. The question asked for three characteristics of local color writing, with examples from a particular author's works. Now we had referred to the characteristics of local color writing repeatedly in class and the students could easily find those characteristics listed on a presentation linked to Moodle, but a bunch of students listed not three characteristics but three characters. As a result, a question that should have been a no-brainer was marked wrong more than any other question on the exam.

Years ago a test question tripped up a bunch of students who interpreted enable as unable, which made the question (and their responses!) incoherent. Honestly, I wasn't trying to trick anyone; enable was the right word for the context, and it never occurred to me that students wouldn't recognize the word. Now here we are in the same situation: if I'd known that (some) students weren't familiar with characteristics, I would have explained the term in class. They never told me. I never knew.

Now I know. What do I do? I can't take the time in class to define every single word I use, and I refuse to speak entirely in monosyllables. One of the characteristics of my character is an unwillingness to insult my students' intelligence by defining terms they ought to already know.

But what do I do when they don't?   

Friday, March 28, 2014

A little sunshine (on a cloudy day)

I'm sitting in my classroom watching my students frantically scribble responses to exam questions, my throat sore and raw and my brain overwrought from the effects of running from class to meeting to class, when someone softly knocks on the door. It is the English department secretary with a cup of hot tea. Just what I needed. Give the woman a raise! (Except there's nothing left in the budget, so never mind.)

Rough week, rotten weather, too many meetings and too much committee-produced prose: it's time to bring a little sunshine into the situation so I won't be glum all weekend. So as I sip my tea, I turn aside from everything that's dragging me down and consider what in these dark days can make me smile:

  • that adorable video of my grandbaby walking 
  • a working group that knows how to work well as a group
  • teaching Raymond Carver's "Cathedral," with its lovely and unexpected moment of transcendence at the end 
  • the bowl of Dove chocolates in a colleague's office 
  • watching my Creative Nonfiction students write themselves to the edge of the cliff and then jump off and find their parachutes
  • the impending approach of baseball season, canoeing season, and giving-awards-to-deserving-students season
  • being here (still!) and doing what I love (most of the time) with people who (usually) don't annoy me too much
  • the end of the exam--and the beginning of the weekend

Suddenly it's so bright in here I'm gonna need shades.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

(Im)mobile homes

"So how many of you have lived in a mobile home?"

I was leading my Florida Lit class in a discussion of Judith Rodriguez's poem "Adult Mobile Homes" (read it here) with its image of infant mobile homes dreaming of pulling up stakes and heading to the land of their dreams--Florida!--when it occurred to me that some students might have never enjoyed an interior view of a mobile home. So I asked how many have lived in mobile homes, and my hand was the only one that went into the air.

"Come on, step up, you're in good company," I said, but still, my hand remained alone in the air. 

I've known mobile homes! My soul has grown deep like the mobile homes that sheltered me through grad-school poverty and early parenthood. My daughter's first nursery was in a mobile home squeezed between seminary and railroad track, and when the trains went through, they may as well have been roaring through our front door. 

At the time I didn't associate the mobile home park with poverty so much as with discipline--a whole bunch of raggedy tin cans stuffed full of grad students intent upon a goal. It was a place to live between stages of life, when we were just passing through grad school before heading off for jobs and the future. Like the infant mobile homes in Rodriguez's poem, we were eager to pull up stakes and start rolling down the highway.

None of my students have had that experience, and maybe that's a good thing, but living in mobile homes is just another item to add to the list of experiences my students can't comprehend, like dialing a telephone, consulting a print copy of the MLA International Bibliography, or putting a 45 on a record player. Which makes me feel like the adult mobile homes in the final stanza of Rodriguez's poem: tired, crumbling, tow-gears rusted, so old they're no longer mobile. 

Don't mind me. I'll just sit over here in the corner rusting.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

So needy!

Life is rough, but right at this moment all I really need to make me happy is a plastic spoon. (It's hard to eat yogurt with a fork, even lusciously thick Greek yogurt studded with peach chunks) It would be nice, too, if those snowflakes I just saw falling from the sky were hallucinations or tricks of the light. That's not much to ask, is it? Just a plastic spoon and no more snow until winter.

Well, maybe a few more names on my advising schedule would be nice, so I don't end up with a sudden rush of advisees demanding my immediate attention at the very last possible moment. And while we're at it, I really really need some sort of printed release form to hand to advisees who insist upon postponing important requirements until "later" or dropping down to 10 hours "because Coach said it would be okay." I want them to sign something saying, essentially, "I'm shooting myself in the foot against my advisor's better judgment, and I hereby promise that I will not come crawling to her begging for bandages or looking for a crutch."

So that's it: spoon, no snow, names, form. 

And warmth. I'm tired of winter sweaters, and my sweaters look tired of winter too. 

And tractor repairs. The disabled tractor interrupts my view of the crocuses blooming under the sweet gum tree, and that's simply not acceptable. I need to see crocuses!

And massive enrollments this fall so we don't have to cut any more positions or classes or break any more hearts.

And more English majors and students who love reading and writing and thinking. 

And repairs to the slumping part of my road, where it looks as if the whole hillside is waiting for just the right moment to slide into the creek. 

But lacking all that, at this point I'd be happy with a spoon. 


Monday, March 24, 2014


Over at Lingua Franca we have an article explaining the sudden popularity of the semicolon tattoo, which serves, apparently, as either  a warning against attempting suicide or a celebration of having survived a suicide attempt--because a suicide occurs when a sentence isn't ready for a full stop.

And then over at Facebook we have pictures of one of my students getting a semicolon tattoo.

So what am I supposed to do with that?

Over here I have a rich delicious brownie. I know exactly what to do with that. (Someone ought to plaster the brownie package with semicolons.) 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A place in the sun

A chill wind makes sitting outside just a little uncomfortable, but I spent most of the week stuck inside gloomy rooms so today I intend to grab a place in the sun, even if the glare makes my computer screen practically unreadable. The pile of work I brought home this weekend looms menacingly over my every waking moment, but there's no reason I can't grade papers outside. 

Except for that breeze that just blew through--brrr! The thermometer says 60 but the wind feels colder. My navy fleece pullover absorbs the sun's heat, but it's no match for the sharp gusts of wind. 

From my deck I can hear the sounds of the creek below the bluff, where we saw four mergansers this morning, and from the distance comes the chattering of the pileated woodpecker I saw earlier. Phoebes, chickadees, and mourning doves add their distinctive voices to the conversation, a symphony of birdsong that could soothe me to sleep while the buzzards spiraling slowly over the meadow threaten to mesmerize me.  

So the sharp wind does its duty, keeping me awake so I can grade this pile of papers and then draft a grant request. Carry on, wind! Blow out the cobwebs and keep me alert!   

Friday, March 21, 2014

Doing a loop-de-loop

Once I lived inside the loop, connected closely to all the networks of power, a heady and exhilarating place to be until the network gets zapped with a zillion volts.

For a few years now I've relished being outside the loop, perceiving campus decision-making only as an echo of distant thunder. It's calm out here in the desert, quiet enough to allow me to hear little beyond the thumping of my own heartbeat, and one rarely sees anvils falling from the sky.

But even out here in the desert there are dangers. Ignorance is bliss until the anvil squashes you, and then it's too late to care. I keep learning important things long after the information could be useful, or else those distant echoes get garbled by the time they reach me and I'm miffed because I can't get the story straight.

What I need is a compromise situation: far enough outside the loop to avoid electrocution, but far enough in so I know when to expect falling anvils. Is it too late to make a mid-loop correction? 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Go ask ALICE

I'm feeling my way feebly around my office this morning after suffering disturbed sleep and nightmares last night, for which I blame ALICE.

How can a mere acronym keep me awake at night? When it's the acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate, my options in the case of an active shooter in my classroom. I attended ALICE training late yesterday afternoon so now I am fully equipped to throw tennis balls at an armed intruder (provided that I happen to have a handful of tennis balls handy at the time) or to stab an armed intruded in the neck with a pencil (if anyone in the classroom still carries pencils) or to slam a stapler against a window to break it and allow egress (except I don't carry a stapler and the windows in my building run tight in the hips).

While I am delighted that our campus police provide this vivid and intensive training, it saddens me that it is deemed necessary. ALICE makes me feel both more safe and less safe--more safe because I now know what to do when a deranged student pulls a gun out of his backpack, but less safe after hearing the variety of ways things can go horribly, terribly wrong. I've learned that some of my colleagues keep ropes handy in case they need to flee upper-story offices, but those of us in the basement would need extension ladders to reach our dungeon windows, and where can I keep a ladder without tripping over it every time I get up?

Mostly I don't like to think of my students or colleagues as potential murderers. The gears of academe are lubricated by the oil of trust, but viewing others as armed maniacs throws a wrench into the works. That's not the way I want to imagine my little world.

But that is the world we live in, nevertheless, so I guess I'm glad to be prepared. I notice, however, that most of the women in my department have taken ALICE training while the men have not. I suppose that means they're relying on us to rescue them. If we're ever in the middle of a bloody emergency and they come crawling to me begging for help, I intend to tell them, "Don't look at me. Go ask ALICE." 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Where's the line for the lifeboats?

In a two-hour meeting crammed full of numbers, bullet points, facts, and data, the most memorable statement came from a frustrated colleague: "It feels like we're taking on water and tossing things overboard without stopping to evaluate whether we'll need them again in the future."

That's the kind of metaphor that can get people moving--but not necessarily in the right direction. Our campus has for years been guided by strategic plans built on a foundation of data but shaped by controlling metaphors. First, we learned "To Thrive in the Flood Plain," a plan that admitted the serious challenges of living in an environment subject to sudden disasters and set forth a series of steps guiding us not just to survive but to thrive. It must have worked because our next strategic plan led us to "Higher Ground," outlining steps to strengthen our resilience.

Where do we go from here? In the absence of a clear vision that can move us to action, we're likely to latch on to the first compelling metaphor that comes our way, even if it makes some of us a little seasick or inspires others to abandon ship. Numbers, bullet points, facts, and data will take us only so far, but a really effective metaphor can put wind in our sails and maybe, just maybe, some firm ground beneath our feet.            

Spring break breakdown

Last week I walked six miles in short sleeves, sweating profusely in 70-degree weather, but this morning I had to bundle up in boots, coat, and gloves to brush two inches of snow off my car.

Last week I spent my mornings writing and revising an academic essay, so focused that I forgot about lunch; today I'll dash from class to office to meeting to class without enough free time to focus on any one task for more than a few minutes.

Yep, still the cutest baby on the planet.
Last week I was sitting on the sofa when my adorable granddaughter toddled over, plopped her favorite book in my lap, and then held out her hands to be picked up and read to; today I'll hear students complaining because I expected them to read over Spring Break.

Last week I discussed literature, language, and life with a grad-school friend over a leisurely lunch, but today I'll sit alone in my basement office struggling to read committee-constructed prose while wolfing down whatever quick lunch I can rustle up in this culinary wasteland.

Spring Break is over. Back to the old grind!   


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Some limbs chopped off the family tree

After four days of bright sunshine, the sky today is gray and bleak and the rain just won't quit--weather made to order for a campus coping with sudden staff cuts.

We knew the cuts were coming but we couldn't guess who or when. Unsatisfactory enrollment figures led to sharp reductions in operating budgets last semester, and some staff members who have quit or retired have not been replaced. Still, this week's cuts were painful--especially for those who were let go.

All morning I've been hearing people greet each other with "So glad you're still here!" The faculty were mostly spared except for some adjuncts and one-year appointments, but those of us who have served as contingent faculty share their pain. This is a small campus in rural Appalachia; finding qualified adjuncts isn't always an easy task, so we tend to get attached to those we find, treating them as colleagues. When they're cut, we hurt, and we wonder about the future impact. How many courses will be cut? How many seats will be added to required courses? 

Similarly, we rely on the faithful work of those who clean our offices, tend our grounds, fix our computers, and staff our administrative offices, so when they get cut, those who remain carry an extra workload. We're a family here; we've celebrated birthdays, toasted accomplishments, and carried burdens with each other, so when suddenly a bunch of limbs get chopped off the family tree, we feel their pain.

Those of us who remain are torn: we know the cuts were necessary and we're relieved that we were spared, but we can't look at the sudden blank places on campus without feeling phantom pain in our missing limbs. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Spring shows up for a break

I couldn't figure out why my building was so empty Friday morning until I stepped outside and saw that sudden sunshine had called everyone outdoors. We couldn't get enough of it Saturday and after a long walk we were inspired to wash every car the hose could reach. I could have stayed out there all day if I hadn't had papers to grade and midterm grades to post, but now the grading is done and I am officially on Spring Break. Good thing someone invited Spring to the party!

How will I spend my break? I'll spend the next two or three days expanding a conference paper into a journal article, and then I'll reward myself with a short trip north for some grandparenting time. The writing is going well so far, but the joy of academic writing can't keep me from venturing out to see what blows in on the spring breeze. 

Towhees, red-winged blackbirds, and eastern bluebirds are back in abundance, and yesterday during my walk I spotted a pair of hooded mergansers swimming in our creek. They flew off upstream just out of sight so I crossed the property line and trespassed in our neighbors' hay meadow, which is still mostly brown and mucky from snowmelt, and while I carefully picked my way as quietly as possible toward the mergansers, I saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers climbing up either side of a tree trunk. Woodpeckers to the left of me, mergansers to the right--and right up the middle runs Hopeful, scaring them all away.

Good thing the dog can't scare away Spring!

Thursday, March 06, 2014

I shouldn't have to say this again, but someone wasn't listening!

1. "Works Cited" means what it says: a list of works that you have actually cited within your paper. There's a reason it's not called "Works Assigned" or "Works Vaguely Referred To" or "Works I May Have Heard My Professor Say Something about But Never Actually Opened Or Read." 

2. There is another way to start a sentence aside from "there is"; in fact, there are many other ways. Learn some verbs! More than one!

3. "Similar in some ways and different in others" is just boring. Don't bore me. I'm not happy when I'm bored, and you don't want unhappy hands controlling the gradebook. 

4. If I tell you a certain idea needs further development, I'm not asking you to restate the same idea three different ways without adding anything. That's not development; that's the written equivalent of a needle stuck in the same groove on a record. (I know you don't know what I'm talking about but I can't currently retrieve a more effective metaphor from my drivel-drenched brain.)

5. Plot summary is not analysis, and summarizing what I said in class is not even close to analysis, but if you're going to write an entire paper summarizing something I said in class, please get it right. Better yet, read the book! You might like it if you give it a try.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Zipping my lip (because I'm not Gordon Lish)

What can I say to my Creative Writing students? They're writing marvelous stuff and offering terrific suggestions during workshops, making all the points I would have made if I hadn't zipped my lip. By the time they're done, I have little left to say but "Carry on."

My writing workshop is very different from the one Carla Blumenkranz describes in "Seduce the Whole World: Gordon Lish's Workshop" (read it here). The legendary Lish "asked students to write to seduce him," explains Blumenkranz, and "if he really liked what you were doing, he might sleep with you, or he might publish your book."

That's not happening in my class,  and not just because I have no power to publish anyone's books and I cherish certain moral standards that disallow sleeping with students. I want my writing students to lure reluctant readers into their essays, but any seduction that takes place is strictly metaphorical. Of course, I'm not Gordon Lish, who, according to Blumenkranz, liked to keep his students off balance:
He created a situation in which each student had to approach him, like a stranger at a party or a bar, to see if she could catch his attention. Lish shot down these nervous suitors one by one, not even bothering to hear out the pickup lines they fretted over. Then he shifted in an instant to a masculine role: talking endlessly, enacting his charisma, awing his listeners into submission.
Again, not happening in my class. A writing workshop is where we work on writing, so if I'm "talking endlessly," something is wrong. I like to set them loose on a task and then get out of their way and let them run with it, which doesn't leave much room for "enacting charisma" or "awing listeners into submission." If they're going to be in awe of anything, it should be the power of words.

Lish seemed to love the aura of authority conferred by the professorial role, but I'm happiest in my writing classes when I'm sitting quietly as my students carefully read each other's work and offer insightful suggestions about how to improve. If they leave me little so say, so what? I may control the gradebook, but ultimately, they're not writing for me. They're writing because they are writers.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Is that your paper or the remains of your lunch?

Would I lie to a student in writing? Of course not. That would be wrong and awful and very, very bad. Nevertheless I confess that this morning I kept inserting this comment into certain students' drafts: "I'm sure you can find more about this in your notes from class."

It could be true. Some of my students take copious notes--I've seen them! But others, sadly, never crack open a notebook or pick up a pen in class. Some don't bring the textbook to class, and I'm afraid to ask whether they've bothered to open the book or, indeed, buy it. 

(You should have seen the blank looks on the faces of my students yesterday when I said that of course I expect them to do a bunch of reading over break: "You carry a book with you everywhere you go, right? So when you're stuck in a traffic jam or waiting at the dentist's office or standing in line at the bank you can read a few pages, right? Of course you do! Right?")

Some students sit through class after class with nothing on the desk in front of them except an early lunch. I suppose it's possible that a really dedicated student could gnaw some pretty good notes into the crust of a chicken finger, but I'm not betting any money on it.

So now I'm not surprised to be receiving papers that show no sign that the writer has digested anything from our class readings and discussions (except lunch). "You might find the phrase 'objective correlative' helpful here," I write. "I'm sure you can find it in your class notes."

Sure. Right. Look for it next to the chicken fingers.

Wild weekend, with white

What's all that white stuff?
I don't know which was more exciting: the Great Raccoon Rumble, the Sunday Morning Sing-Along, or the Monday Morning Massacre. Together they made for a pretty wild weekend.

The Great Raccoon Rumble occurred Sunday afternoon when everyone except me was taking a nap, so when my adorable grandbaby woke up and started chattering, I took her to the front window to look over a world covered with white. We were having a fascinating conversation regarding the activity around the birdfeeders ("Look, birds!" "Ta!" "Birds!" "Ah!" and so on) when I noticed just outside the front door a blur of fur that soon resolved itself into a raccoon.

It's unusual enough to see a raccoon in the daytime, but to see one right up on the porch is even stranger. I assume it was attracted by the birdseed, but soon our thrilling repartee ("Look, raccoon!" "Ta!" "Raccoon!" "Ah!") alerted the rest of the family, and then before you know it they were all out there wielding various weapons to try to scare away a raccoon that seemed set on staying. My son-in-law hit it with the slingshot a few times while my husband went scurrying around for the air-rifle, but by then the dog had discovered the intruder and had the situation well in hand. End result: dead raccoon, which we sincerely hope was not rabid.

The afternoon naps followed the Sunday Morning Sing-Along, which took place at two country churches suffering very low attendance. Only the most intrepid travelers braved the sloppy weather, which moved through various stages of rain, sleet, snow, and ice as the day wore on. I stood in the first service holding my granddaughter while my daughter held the hymnal and we all tried to sing, and soon little Lizzie joined us in her own special way ("Aaaah! Taaah!") while trying to turn the pages, close the book, climb over my shoulders, flop over backward, and otherwise infuse youthful energy into the situation.

I thought of the times when I used to attend two or three services every Sunday morning with my husband in the pulpit and me in the back pew with a two-year-old and an infant at my side and rarely any helping hand. I may have missed some important points in the sermon, but singing with babies makes my heart happy even when they don't know the words. My granddaughter is a girl on the move, much like her mother at that age, so while my daughter sang a lovely solo while I sat and held her squirming child (who added her own sound effects to the special number), it felt familiar, like coming home.

But then they left last night to go back to their own home and I watched the weather and waited for news, which arrived at 5:30 this morning: no classes before 10 a.m. and a Level II Snow Emergency, well deserved considering the ice hiding under that layer of snow all over the roads. I'm sure my American Lit Survey class appreciated the day off, but I'm struggling to adjust the syllabus so we can cover the material in a meaningful way. 

I could postpone the midterm exam until after spring break--but who wants to take an exam at 9 a.m. on the day after break? Instead, I'll opt to  give the midterm on Friday as scheduled but axe something from the reading list, and at this point the only options are William Faulkner's "Barn Burning" or Ernest Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." How can I delete either one of those from an American Lit Survey? I've only recently made peace with  chopping Henry James!

Finally I figured out a way to make my Monday Morning Massacre slightly less bloody: we'll discuss Hemingway in class on Wednesday and leave Faulkner alone. I'll chop Faulkner out of the required questions on the midterm but include him in an optional question, and I'll encourage students to discuss "Barn Burning" in online reading comments (since they were supposed to have read the story for this morning's class anyway). And I'll let Faulkner and James commiserate in the Authorial Afterlife, wherever that may be.

I'll tell my students to use their snow day wisely, but I'm just enjoying a little extra time to recover from my wild weekend. Snow--aaah!