Wednesday, January 28, 2015

From drafty to droopy to drowning, and more!

I'm holding in my hot little hands the first pile of student drafts of the semester! Before I even look at them, I know what I'll find:

The drafty draft: A paper so full of holes that the argument seems to have leaked out.

The droopy draft: Starts off strong but can't hold up the argument past the first page.

The drowning draft: The argument gasps for breath beneath a sea of not entirely relevant contextual information stretching all the way back to the dawn of time.

The non-draft draft: A thesis statement and a list of points, or just a page full of quotes that could be useful in an analytical essay.

The master of misdirection draft: Tosses pretty colored balls in the air to distract from the fact that it doesn't actually do what the assignment requires.

The changing horses in midstream draft: Lays out a clear road map but then--wait, what was I talking about?

The "Say It with Flowers" draft: Grabs obscure, flowery terms from the thesaurus without regard for whether the selected words are appropriate for the task.

The "Oops, I sent the wrong draft!" draft: Submitted by a student who thinks a professor will believe that he went to the effort to write two versions of the paper, only one of which is plagiarized.

The invisible draft: "I'm sure I submitted it. There must be something wrong with Moodle."

The "Carry on!" draft: Original work, well organized, nicely written, with just a few areas needing improvement.

I wish I had more of the final type, but alas, the odds are against it.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Why keep playing the academic publishing game?

Several times during my mega-massive writing weekend I asked myself: Why am I doing this? What could possibly make such an onerous task worthwhile? Why keep playing the academic publishing game when the rewards are so meager?

There are rewards, of course--a good teaching job, tenure, promotion to full professor--but after all those rewards are won, what then? Why keep presenting conference papers and writing articles with no tangible rewards dangling on the horizon? I'm a tenured full professor with nothing to prove; I'm not on the job market and my institution doesn't offer any sort of merit pay. The most I can hope for is a pat on the back from my department chair in my annual review. So why keep playing the game?

The main reason, I suppose, is that it's fun. I enjoy reading new things, researching new approaches, and contributing to the scholarly conversation. The time may come when I want to slow down my pace, but as long as playing the game gives me pleasure, I won't hang up my cleats.

Nevertheless, I do understand the frustrations of those who don't see the point in continuing to work so hard with few tangible rewards, and for that reason I would favor the implementation of some kind of merit pay that recognizes scholarly accomplishments. An institution that expects faculty at all ranks to teach a 4/4 load should not be surprised when research and publication take a back seat to teaching, but we can surely do more to encourage and reward scholarship beyond the promise of tenure and promotion.

But I'm not grumbling. I love to research and write about literature and I'll keep doing it regardless of the meager rewards. However, the next time I read some angry screed about all those stale, unproductive, outdated senior faculty members who haven't learned anything new since the Johnson administration, I may have to find someone to kick.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A burst of writing: grueling but satisfying

In a massive burst of creative energy, this weekend I have revised a journal article, drafted the introduction to an article for an anthology, and written a brief formal analysis of a work of art for the art history class I'm taking. These grueling tasks provided three distinct types of pleasure.

First, the revision: as much as I hated to murder my darlings, I complied with the requests of the journal editors. I always worry about how much historical and critical context I should provide; I don't want the essay to get bogged down in a swamp of explanation, and I fear underestimating the intelligence of my readers. However, the editors wanted more so I gave them what they wanted. It was a painful experience but I'm satisfied with the result and relieved to be done with it. (I hope.)

Second, the introduction: the anthology essay is due in June but I read a book this week that provided the perfect setup for my analysis, so naturally I had to write it down before it fades into the quagmire of my swirling mind. Writing these two brief paragraphs gave me hope for the future of the project and made me happier than anything I've written all year. (Of course, the year is still young.)

Finally, the art history analysis: I really didn't need to do it since I'm auditing the class, and in fact the professor expressed some surprise when I mentioned that I was planning to write the paper. But writing the papers is the primary reason I'm taking the class! Of course I enjoy the lectures, readings, and class discussions on art and violence, and I really enjoy hearing what the students have to say about specific works of art; however, writing this paper forced me to look closely at a work of art and then look again and again, finding more detail and significance with each new viewing. This practice of looking delighted my senses and sent me to the page bubbling with ideas and insights. I don't know whether my analysis is any good, but the process of writing it was good for me and made me want to do more.

If I could write with this much discipline every weekend, I'd vastly improve my scholarly output; however, this level of production was possible only because I had no drafts to read, papers to grade, classes to prep, or committee meetings to organize. How many more weekends like this can I expect to experience? Not many. Certainly not enough.  

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Open wide, cupcake

Today I watched a man make tuna cupcakes while getting teeth drilled at the dentist's office.

Wait, scratch that. Let's start again:

Today, while getting my teeth drilled at the dentist's office, I watched a man make tuna cupcakes. On television, of course, and whoever invented the dentist-chair television ought to be sainted because what else are you going to do while getting teeth drilled or waiting for a new crown to be constructed or trying not to bite down on all the expensive equipment filling your mouth?

Since my dental work wiped out my lunch hour and left me with a mouth too numb to allow chewing, I decided to keep the television on the Food Network and enjoy a vicarious lunch while getting my teeth drilled. Now I don't have the Food Network (or any network) at home and thus had no conception that there could exist an entire series devoted to competitive cupcake-baking, but there it was, in living (sometimes garish) color: pineapple cupcakes, coconut cupcakes, German chocolate cupcakes with macadamia nut icing (!!), cupcakes topped with white chocolate seashells or fondant surfboards or caramelized chunks of Spam (!!!), and of course the infamous Ahi tuna cupcakes.

If anyone had told me that one day I would sit in the dentist's chair getting my teeth drilled while watching a man make tuna cupcakes, I would have scoffed. Today, though, the scoffing is over.

Now let the scarfing begin! Where can I find some cupcakes?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Playing the academic publishing game

So I've been shopping around various versions of this particular analytical essay to academic journals, but it's long and it veers markedly from the usual treatment of the topic so it kept getting rejected--until today. I found the perfect journal for this piece, sent it off, waited a mere two months, and got a glowing response from the journal's editor: They love it. They need it. They want it--as long as I'm willing to make a few small changes recommended by the referees. (Yay!)

Except those changes require me to mangle my favorite parts of the essay. (Boo!)

But on the other hand, no one else is going to publish this thing as is so I'd better just swallow my pride, cripple my creativity, and conform to their expectations so I can see this work (finally!) in print. (Yay!)

Except they're on a short deadline so they need the revisions by the end of next week. (Boo!)

Fortunately, I don't have a whole lot going on this weekend so I can devote a chunk of time to revising (Yay!) as long as I don't need to relax or goof off or have, say, a social life (Boo!).

So that's how I'll be spending my weekend: sacrificing the best parts of my essay (Boo!) just so I can finally get it out there into the scholarly conversation (Yay!). But you'd better believe I'll be keeping a copy of the original version--just in case I can someday interest a publisher in a book on the topic. (Yay!)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

When Homer meets Henry

This morning I tried to persuade a class to laugh at Homer's Odyssey and tomorrow I'll try to persuade another class to laugh at Henry James, but it ain't easy. One unfortunate effect  of their prior education is a tendency to see classic texts as forbidding fortresses of High Seriousness embracing obscure meanings and locking out any light, joy, or laughter. 

But seriously, folks: a big hairy one-eyed man-eating giant gets his eye poked out with a sharp stick and then flails about screaming "Nobody is killing me!"--and then Our Illustrious Hero describes how he escaped from the Cyclops by grabbing the belly of a ram and hugging it tight as it ambled out the door--and I'm not supposed to laugh?

And little Randolph Miller goes tearing about in an orderly European garden poking his long walking-stick into the trains of elegant ladies' dresses and then declares that his father is in a "better place" (meaning not heaven but Schenectady)--and I'm supposed to be so awed by the stately Jamesian prose that I'm expected to stifle my chuckles?

Come on, people--lighten up! Sure, Homer and Henry suffused their tales with serious questions about identity, fate, and the sources of suffering, but their writing gains strength by touching on the whole range of human experience and emotion. If we stand so in awe of these authors that we can't comprehend their lighter side, we're missing half of the meaning--and more than half of the fun.

Which makes me wonder: If Homer and Henry ever bump elbows in the authorial afterlife, how can either one get a word in edgewise?    

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wait, is it a circus or a train track?

I asked my colleague across the hall for a word--"Quick, what word am I thinking of?"--and he answered immediately: "Fart."

It wasn't the right answer but on the other hand maybe it was. I needed a laugh. I've been sitting at my desk trying to figure out how I can possibly be so swamped so early in such a great semester, with a (short) stack of papers to grade (already!) and a mass of meetings on and off all week, including some dental work but not, fortunately, jury duty. (I managed to sweet-talk my way out of jury duty calling the bailiff and moaning, politely, about my teeth.)

And so the circus begins: doing a little bit each day on a swirling mess of different projects and hoping it all adds up to something whole before the deadlines hit. My life is like that online train game: move the switches so the pink train gets to the pink station and then move them into an entirely different configuration to get the yellow train to the yellow station--but look out for the green train barreling down the tracks!

So far I'm doing it, one click at a time: prep class, teach class, write paper abstract, teach other class, order plane tickets for conference, prep other class, go to meeting, sweet-talk the bailiff, grade papers, prep another class--all the time keeping an eye out for whatever else comes barreling down the tracks. 

And if it's a fart, what can I do but laugh?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On beautiful violence

When people ask me why I'm sitting in on an upper-level art history class called "Art and Violence" this semester, I generally don't say "Because I'm still trying to resolve an argument that's been bugging me since grad school." It's much easier to say something vague like "The topic interests me"; anything close to the truth requires a quick trip back to a time when a grad-school professor put a book on the syllabus without having first read it himself.

I'm not entirely sure why he did that. He was a brand-new professor teaching his first graduate-level course and a senior faculty member in his department strongly urged him to put this book on the syllabus so he may have thought he had no choice, but for whatever reason, there the book sat like a bomb timed to go off in the fourth or fifth week of the semester.

The week before the book was due, the professor made a sheepish announcement: he hadn't read the book before; he'd assigned it under duress; he apologized in advance if anyone found it offensive and he wouldn't penalize students for failing to finish the book since he (the professor!) hadn't made it past page 57.

Of the 12 or 15 students in the class, how many admitted to having read the whole book? Two. The rest pronounced it offensive and appalling and horrific and proudly proclaimed that they couldn't possibly read past page 57.

The book was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Page 57 is where you'll find the dead-baby bush--an admittedly gruesome scene in a book full of gruesome scenes.

The class had an impassioned discussion of the ethics of making violence beautiful, and I found myself in the awkward position of defending a book that the professor had declared unreadable. I admitted that the violence was gruesome but argued that it served a larger purpose in McCarthy's exploration of the human condition, but it's really hard to make an argument about a book when only one other person in the room has read it all the way through. 

I've re-read the book several times since then and I still find it compelling (and beautiful!) despite the ugly behavior it describes, but I've never assigned it to an undergraduate classroom. I've assigned other books containing equally disturbing scenes, like Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and Jose Saramago's Blindness, and I would have no qualms about assigning McCarthy's novel The Road.

But not the movie. The movie gave me nightmares. In fact, I resist watching films portraying violence because they disturb my sleep and distress my soul--even when equally disturbing written portrayals of violence don't make me bat an eye.

I realize that there's something wrong with that attitude. If I have no ethical qualms about literature that makes beauty from violence, why do I shy away from visual portrayals of violence? If violence in literature can serve a larger purpose, why won't I allow violence in visual art to do the same thing? If I'm not horrified by the written description of the dead-baby bush, why would I refuse to watch it on film?

These are the topics I'd like to explore this semester, and I welcome the opportunity to do it in the company of people who know a whole lot more about art than I do. I want to learn things and think deeply about an interesting topic, and I hope it will enrich my teaching on those occasions when I introduce students to violent texts.

Like this morning, when my honors students begin discussing The Odyssey. Skewer those suitors, Odysseus! (Just don't ask me to watch the carnage on screen.)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Semester half full?

It was the best of semesters--full stop. I'm trying not to think of the second half of the sentence, but unfortunately, every wonderful thing about this semester is inexorably linked to a dark shadow.

I have a course release for research so I'm teaching only three classes--but that means I have to diligently work on that research project, which has a real and unbreakable deadline.

I'm teaching only three classes, but somehow I ended up with three horrible classrooms: two interior rooms with ugly pink plastic desks, mud-colored walls, and no windows, and one large sunny room housing the crankiest computer setup in the building.

My largest class has only 17 students, 11 of them women--but they all appear to be the same woman. Why can't a few of them dye their hair pink or something? I'll never learn to tell them apart!

I've given up requiring online reading responses because I got sick of spending so much time tracking down cheating, but I've replaced them with unannounced in-class reading responses--pop quizzes, in other words. I'm dropping the lowest two quiz grades so I don't have to allow make-ups, but I'll still be fielding plenty of excuses, requests for make-up quizzes, and complaints.

But let's not think about all that. Let's just focus on the best of semesters: only three classes! Two of them fairly small! All focusing on literature I love! What could possibly go wrong?  

Monday, January 12, 2015

Best syllabus ever!!!!!!!!!

If I redesigned my Survey of U.S. Literature class based entirely on complaints from previous classes, here's what it would look like:

Survey of Whatever U Like
Meets whenever U find it convenient. 

Required texts: Whatever U Like! Tweets, raps, viral memes--whatever U want to read/view/listen to!

Class participation: Register attendance by clicking the "like" button on Moodle--Whenever U Like! Discussion of students' feelings (no thoughts allowed!) will take place via Twitter using emoji, copy-and-paste, or Whatever U Like!

Evaluation: U are adults and therefore fully capable of evaluating Ur own performance in the class based on this simple grading scale:
  • Scanned all the texts and expressed feelings eloquently: A+
  • Scanned most of the texts and expressed feelings adequately: A
  • Scanned some of the texts and expressed feelings occasionally: A
  • Texts? What texts? Wait, was I in that class?: A-
Class capacity: Infinite--therefore capable of being a big money-maker for the college, since the class will not require classroom space, photocopying, or an instructor.

Looks like I've just written myself out of a job. Does this mean I get to retire early? 

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Teaching the Listicle Generation

I was startled recently to find my students in The New Yorker--not by name, of course, but the article opens wide a window into my students' values and thought processes.

In "The Virologist," Andrew Marantz explores the peculiar world of Emerson Spartz, the "King of Clickbait," a 27-year-old creator of online viral content.  "The ability to make things go viral felt like the closest thing we could get to having a human superpower," he says, but is he using that superpower for good? Let's take a look at the principles that seems to rule his sites:

  • Interesting is more important than true.
  • Popularity is more important than accuracy.
  • Short is better than long. 
  • Originality? Bah, humbug. Once it's out there, it belongs to everyone.
  • Feeling is more important than thinking.
  • Superficiality rules. If you can't say it in a bullet point and a photo, it's not worth saying.
  • Beauty is even more irrelevant than truth.
  • Virality = quality.
Although he calls himself "one of the most avid readers I know," Spartz doesn't read straight news, he says, because "It's conveyed in a very boring way" (or, as my students like to say, it's too dry.) Spartz's idea of quality? Clickbait headlines linked to illustrated lists stuffed with advertising. "The way we view the world," he says, "the ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it's quality. If someone wants to toil in obscurity, if that makes them happy, that's fine. Not everyone has to change the world." (Glad to know he approves of my life choices.)

The saddest line in the article, though, is this: "Asked to name the most beautiful prose he had read, he said, 'A beautiful book? I don't even know what that means.'"

And that's when I realized that he was speaking for my students. The way they look at me when I rave on and on about truth and beauty and originality and transcendence--they're a bunch of little Spartzes sitting in the desks, wondering when I'll shut up so they can go back to clicking on listicles full of plagiarized factoids masquerading as news.

And I'm trying to make them read Henry James? What was I thinking?!

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

If you don't like cute grandbaby stories, go read something else

Let's throw rocks in the creek!
When my granddaughter first learned to climb out of her crib, my daughter found her stacking diapers and clothes by the front door. Why? "Pack pack grandma grampa," she explained. She wanted to come and visit us!

Excuse me while I dance around the room and holler "Yes!"

My primary goal as a grandparent is quite simple: I want to have a relationship with my grandchildren. For reasons both complex and unbloggable, I never spent much time with my grandparents and my children never spent much time with theirs. From the moment my family started to grow and scatter, though, I was determined to break the family tradition of distance and discomfort.

And it seems to have worked. My granddaughter has been to our house often enough to know where to find things--toys and books and grampa's yellow flashlight--and she's even starting to distinguish amongst the various birds that come to the feeders. 

Now that she's climbing, though, I look at our house with different eyes, seeking out ways to encourage exploration while thwarting solitary wandering. It's what I always wanted for my own children: a long enough leash to let them wander freely plus a secure enough connection to draw them safely home.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Waving goodbye to the beach

I've been visiting with people who object to the beach: it's windy and wet and dirty and you get sand in your car, and besides, it's dangerous. There are sharks! Or you could cut your foot on a sharp shell or step on a manta ray. 

It's been a few years since I last stepped on a manta ray, but I've done it and lived to tell the story. I have also cut my foot on a sharp shell and bled all over my shoes--but again, still kicking. And what's a little sand in my car compared to the vast expanse of sand and waves at the beach?

In answer to the person who asked me why anyone would want to go to the beach in the middle of winter, here are my top ten reasons:

10. Cool weather = fewer people, mostly sturdy northerners who view anything above freezing as balmy.

9.  You can plop your towels down and leave your shoes and a bag full of stuff sitting on the sand while you dip your feet in the water and it's all still there when you get back.

8. Squadrons of pelicans skimming the waves at sunrise.

7. Sitting on the sand with a bird book and studying the differences between gulls and terns so they are no longer an amorphous blob of birdhood but start to distinguish themselves as individuals.

6. Watching tiny sandpipers, the Keystone Kops of shore birds, scampering away from an advancing wave.

5. The waves the waves the waves. Watching waves does something miraculous to my soul, and the sound soothes all tension.

4. Any book is twice as good when read on the beach.

3. The delight on my husband's face when he finally found a fully intact sand dollar.
2. Walking barefoot in the sand with my sweetie.

1. Waves + wind + sand + shells + birds + books + sweetie = sweetness and joy and warmth enough to get me through the long cold winter, or at least a good part of it.

We paid our final visit to the beach at sunrise this morning and then hit the road for the long drive home. We expect to see snow in the mountains tomorrow, but we'll still have sand underfoot to serve as a sort of reservoir of warmth as we journey north.