Friday, February 27, 2015

Name games

It's my own fault, of course: If I'd told the visiting poet how to spell my name, then I wouldn't have ended up with two wonderful books inscribed to "Beth." 

Not that there's anything wrong with Beth. Some of my best friends are Beth! But until I officially change my name to Betherly, I am not Beth (or Bess or Betty or Barb or Maeve or any of the other names I've been called).

Only under
extreme duress
would I respond
to "Hello, Bess!"

To be called "Bet" 
is not a thing
that makes my heart
begin to sing.

Both Betty Boop
and Betty White
can keep their names
Get my name right!

The Beths I've known
have been just fine.
But "Beth" (the name)
just isn't mine. 

Your best bet, friend,
I do confess,
is not to call me
Beth or Bess

or Bet or Barb
or even Maeve. 
I'll stick with Bev
right to the grave.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Choose your adventure!

Hike in the Grand Canyon or look at Grand Canyon wallpaper.
Gaze at a Monet waterlily painting right up close or look at a reproduction on a postage stamp.
Hear your favorite song performed by your favorite artist or by a twelve-year-old doing karaoke.

Most of us would choose the adventure that brings us face-to-face with the real thing, which makes me wonder why so many students read online summaries of literature instead of encountering the actual text. Why read a prosaic, tepid, watered-down version instead of the work itself in all its glory?

I've ranted on this before both in and out of class, but I've never found an effective way to persuade students that they're cheating themselves out of amazing adventures. When asked why they prefer online summaries, they mention textbook costs or time management problems or other priorities, but what it comes down to is that online summaries are easier. 

Right, but here's the thing: Looking at wallpaper is certainly easier than hiking in the Grand Canyon, but only a fool would claim that the experiences are equally valuable. Likewise great art: it's easier to get hold of a postage stamp, but how much is lost in the reproduction? The pale reflection of the thing simply cannot recreate the experience of the thing itself.

My students don't seem to feel any sense of loss when they avoid reading literature. After all, they're getting a quick and easy rundown of the important characters, plot elements, and themes in the book. What could they possibly be missing?

They're missing everything that distinguishes the real thing from its shadow: intensity of color, integrity of line, clarity of voice; the sweat that results from an uphill slog, the quickening that occurs when a sight touches the soul, the stirring that inspires creativity.

Why would anyone forego that kind of adventure in favor of a postage-stamp-sized experience? And what can I do to persuade them to stop?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Doing what works--works

Some unseen force in the textbook-writing industry decrees that every writing text must include some variation on this statement: You have to find the method that works for you. I immediately want to dial up Captain Obvious to report a cop-out, but then I recall that I gave that same advice to one of my own students just last week. It's true--you do have to find the method that works for you--but the problem arises in how we understand that word works.

Context matters. The method that enables E.L. James to write Fifty Shades of Gray will not necessarily serve the student attempting to write a research paper for a first-year composition class, and telling certain lazy students do what works for you sounds like permission to do nothing--or to plagiarize. (Which, lest we forget, helps students develop the time management skills that they need to succeed in the world of work.)

First-year writers in composition class need to find the method that works to demonstrate mastery of certain conventions of academic writing. A student comfortable with sub-par performance might smile and say "It works for me!" But it may not work to produce the desired grade. 

Upper-level classes are different. With first-year writers, I tend to issue directives: you must put the parentheses here; you must properly integrate and punctuate quotations from sources; your thesis statement should follow one of these helpful models. Advanced writers get gentle nudges: try this clause at the beginning of the sentence and see how it changes the emphasis; consider more vivid verbs here and see how they impact meaning and rhythm; have you thought about switching these two points around? Give it a try and see what works. It's like the difference between giving a preschooler a coloring book (Color inside the lines!) and giving an older child a blank canvas and a bunch of paint.

Do what works for you works best for writers who know enough about writing to know what works best. In that way, it's like much writing advice: most useful for those who don't need it.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Frosty morning

Who can complain about the cold when it makes this much beauty?

(I can--but just for the moment, I won't.)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Powerless to avoid cabin fever

Cabin fever? Don't get me started!

With schools closed and churches closed and every possible fun weekend activity postponed because of ice all over the roads, with the hubby stuck inside because there's no work in this weather, with appliances suddenly failing and pipes freezing and power outages and cold cold cold, there's just no escape. 

I thought that going to work today would be a welcome break from the cabin fever--and it was, until the power went out all over campus and then came back on in certain places, not including the bathrooms in our building. No heat, no light, no bathrooms, no internet.

So I came home, where here I sit contemplating the birds at the feeders and the work on my laptop. On the way home I saw a pair of eagles, one diving and lifting a fish from one of the few spots where the river is not frozen solid. Do they have antifreeze in their feet or what? If I were an eagle I'll bet I wouldn't get cabin fever at all.

(But what about the fish-breath problem?)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lights-out links

Last night as I tossed and turned and tried to stay warm and stop worrying about whether the pipes would freeze, I kept asking myself, "What could be worse than suffering a power outage on the coldest night of the year?"

Lots of things could be worse. Like, for instance, suffering a power outage on the coldest night of the year without the benefit of a house and a bed and lots of warm blankets. At least we're not homeless! And the power came back on after five cold, dark hours! And the pipes didn't freeze! And even if I feel a little less than rested today, I know I'm better off than some people I could mention. Time to count my blessings:

I'm not currently "camping out in line with half the population of the United States in the dead of winter to register [my] outrage," so I don't have to worry about whether the Federal Department of Outrage will reject my attempts to document my ire. (Click here to read it in McSweeney's.)

I've never had to eat any of the cakes pictured here, which is a good thing because they make my head explode.

When one of my favorite academic blogs asks readers "How do raises work where you work?" I laugh bitterly and say, "Raises? What raises?" But: at least I don't work at Wal-Mart. Or the Federal Department of Outrage. Or the Harlan City (Kentucky) police department, which addressed the winter weather outrage by putting out an APB for Queen Elsa of Arendelle. Or our power company, which fielded calls from a large number of the 4000 local people who were without power and sent workers out in the dead of night when temperatures were in the single digits to try to persuade the hamsters to start running on those big wheels again.

Wait, now I know what could be worse than suffering a power outage on the coldest night of the year--being responsible for fixing it. Three cheers for those guys, whoever they are. I hope they're sitting someplace warm and enjoying a nice hot cup of something wonderful, which is exactly what I intend to do as soon as the temperature in my kitchen rises above 50. Until then, I'm staying under the covers.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Music that mends the cracks

When composer Jake Runestad addressed an audience of mostly students last night, the first thing he pointed out was that he is not dead. The word composer, he said, might evoke in their minds an image of some long-dead European dude with wild hair and an unpronounceable name, but no: if Runestad is any indication, today's composers wear hip suits and use mousse and emphasize the joy of playing with music.

Runestad's talk, punctuated by glorious performances of some of his works by our college's concert choir, provided abundant evidence that the liberal arts continue to feed spirits even in our hectic information age. His creative process requires mastery of the technological tools that put notes on the page, but those notes spring from long stretches of time devoted to studying and internalizing texts. Most of the works performed last night were settings of poetic works by poets as different as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Wendell Berry--a setting of "The Peace of Wild Things" that made me want to lie down and die right now so the choir can sing it at my funeral.

Runestad draws on works of both established and lesser-known authors; "Dreams of the Fallen," his new work for orchestra, piano, and choir, sets to music poetry by Iraq war veteran Brian Turner. By far my favorite, though, is "We Can Mend the Sky," a choral work based on poetry written by young Somali immigrants to the U.S. (Click here to listen.) The piece opens on a dramatic note, with drums and shifting rhythms creating tension, but it then moves toward a solo expressing deep yearning for peace before developing into a rousing chorus proclaiming "If we come together, we can mend a crack in the sky" performed so joyfully that it made me believe.  

The students, of course, had the most fun singing Runestad's popular "Nyon Nyon," a work composed entirely of gibberish and allowing accomplished singers to break out their amusing mouth-noises. Runestad explained that he wrote that piece as a college student because he just wanted to play around with words and sounds and music. His playfulness, of course, is grounded in a deep understanding of how music works, a willingness to delve into texts until they become a part of his psyche, and an ability to employ technological tools to disseminate the results.

I hope my students heard that message, and I hope they will pursue that highly informed and creative play. But more than that, I hope they will listen to the music and know that the arts are not any more dead than is Jake Runestad.   

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

This weather is for the birds

Thick mist rising from the river frosts limbs of trees and makes them sparkle in the morning light. On days like these my morning commute would be a lovely winter drive if it weren't so doggone treacherous.

I delayed leaving the house as long as I could this morning, hoping in vain to see a snowplow on my road. When I finally left I had to follow a single set of tire marks breaking through the snow, paying no attention to proper lanes but simply following what appeared to be the road. The state highway was more visible but still slippery, but the river--I wish I could tell you how beautiful my river looks on a cold morning when golden sunshine touches the icy silver water.

I swung around by the dam to see if any eagles were out but didn't see any and didn't get out to take photos because of the cold. I realize that others have it worse--at least traffic is still moving here! But getting out of the car when the temperature reads six below zero is not my idea of a good time.

Yesterday a flock of cardinals frequented our bird feeders, with as many as a dozen at a time crowding the feeding station and more waiting on the limbs of the nearby maple tree. I suppose the snow has made their usual sources of food less available, and while I'm happy to see brightening up our winter landscape, I'm not going outside to join them. Why brave the cold when I can watch them comfortably from inside my nice warm house?

Now if only I could get my students to agree to have class at my house....

Monday, February 16, 2015

The allure of allusion

There's nothing like teaching a text for a umpteen-millionth time only to discover that you've been overlooking an important allusion--so important, in fact, that it's mentioned on online cheat sites. First I'm congratulating myself for noticing this interesting allusion and then I'm kicking myself for being the last person on the planet to have noticed it, or maybe I've noticed it before and forgotten it utterly. Such are the trials of the aging professor.

Not that my students would notice. Today in two classes I found myself urging students to spot interesting allusions and failing utterly, primarily because the students haven't read the works alluded to or they don't see how they're relevant. 

"Who's read Moby Dick?" I ask, and how many hands shoot into the air? 


"Who's read Frankenstein?" 

One student! Great! 

"Who's read Cormac McCarthy? Walt Whitman? John chapter 12?"

We're clearly not getting anywhere with this discussion.

One of the things I love about teaching literature is the ability to make connections across broad stretches of time and space, to suddenly discover the Garden of Eden and the problem of pain springing up in the middle of a nineteenth-century short story, to unearth monsters or heroes in contemporary poetry and find their close relatives in The Odyssey. This is the experience I wish for all my students: to overhear longstanding conversations conducted across the centuries between authors as distant and different as Stephen Crane and Herman Melville, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman, Andrew Grace and Homer.

And if they listen long and hard enough, maybe one day they'll be able to talk back.     

Friday, February 13, 2015

An ice walk

She loves to play in water--even when it's frozen.

I ought to be tackling that big pile of papers this afternoon and also prepping Monday's classes, doing some committee work, and outlining the next phase of my big writing project, but instead I'm taking Hopeful for a walk in the snow. 

Not a long walk--it's too stinking cold and my walking shoes leak. But the forecast for this weekend calls for single-digit temperatures plus high winds and snow, which is perfect weather for staying inside with a big pile of papers to grade. Today, though, I decided to get out and stomp round in the snow while the sun is still shining. 

Chickadees and juncos and a lone hairy woodpecker flock around the birdfeeders but the woods down by the creek remain silent and still. Ice forms unevenly on the creek, creating constellations of protruding rocks and channels edged by feathery fronds and swooping curves. Occasionally I hear a crack and a splash as another chunk of ice drops off into the water. I love to watch little air bubbles skittering beneath the thin ice, but I suspect that by Sunday the creek will be frozen solid again.
Islands in the stream.

My ears are cold and my feet are numb and I can't hang out in the ice-world forever, so in I go to get warm and dry and stare some more at that pile of papers.   

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The little darlings identify another valuable life skill

I'm reading Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It (McCabe, Butterfield, and Trevino  2012) but I'm making slow progress because I keep getting hung up on this point that keeps coming up:

Many students today simply do not consider cut-and-paste plagiarism from the Internet or written sources to be cheating, so when asked in a survey on 'cheating' whether they have engaged in this behavior, many simply say no--even if they have. As noted earlier in the chapter, in their open-ended comments, many explain that they answered this way because, when they engaged in one of these behaviors, it simply wasn't cheating. (58-59)
And what reasons do students offer to explain why their cheating doesn't really qualify as cheating? They rationalize: "they didn't have enough time to do the assignment and had no choice; the assignment had little learning value or was unfair; or using the Internet in this was is effective time management--a skill that will serve them well in the real world when they graduate" (59-60).

So what we have here is a bunch of students who see cheating as a valuable life skill. If that's true, then maybe we ought to start teaching more effective plagiarism skills. Cheating 101--the class that prepares students for a life of rationalization.

How will I ever finish the book when I can't stop banging my head against the wall?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Clap along!

At a time when academe is awash with doom and gloom, it feels wrong to be so happy. And yet I am. Why?

My classes are going well, with a dearth of deadwood and lots of fun discussion of literature, and I'm even excited about reading the papers my students are producing (although I have to wonder what madness inspired me to require all of my classes to submit papers in the same week).

My committee work is challenging, but we're all working together well to achieve some very specific and important tasks that will have an impact on the campus for a long time to come.

My research projects are progressing nicely and sparking ideas for new avenues of research that will lead into some really exciting places. 

And best of all, I'm getting lots of happy grandma time with a sweet little girl who loves to play with words.

So while I'm aware that the future looks gloomy for higher education as a whole as well as for my particular discipline, I can't help feeling happy and hopeful. (But I'd better not say it too loud lest anvils start falling from the sky.)

Sunday, February 08, 2015

F gets an A+

"Some fish for words from shore while to go wading in up to their chins through a torrent of bone-chilling diamond, knife raised," writes Franz Wright in a prose poem called, simply, "Spell," although I don't know whether the title is intended as a command or an incantation. The poem appears in Wright's 2013 collection F, which the poet suggests refers both to his name and his "grade in life." However you spell it, F is a remarkable achievement.

Never one to fish for words from shore, Wright plunges deep into the river of life, raises his knife, and pulls from the torrent creatures both mundane and fantastic. The long poem "Entries of the Cell" assembles dreamlike fragments:
There are spots in the sea, depths where light ceases to penetrate, a painless, dreamless and shatterproof sleep holy to horrible workers: the ones who'll appear in our place after we've fallen storming the walls of the Kingdom.
From these blue depths the poet draws monsters and demons, evokes fears of mortality and shame and meaninglessness, but embraces beauty within alienation:
This blue world.

Unattainable--stranger than dying,

by what, what unmerited blessing, were we allowed to come here and to see it, as in a dream, or with eyes of flesh, what difference?

Death row born and bred, and yet

This blue world,

my stranger...
Into this strangeness Wright introduces his familiars: family, nature, words. The tender "Learning to Read" borrows a line from the poem "The Blessing" by Franz Wright's father James Wright, but F bends J's line to emphasize that breaking a fragile body does not always lead to blossoming. Anyone interested in the anxiety of influence might find further fodder in "Peach Tree" when F evokes the title of J's breakout poetry collection, The Branch Will Not Break, but F more directly addresses his family relationships in "Postcard 2," which includes a cryptic message from his famous father: "The blizzard I visit your city disguised as will never arrive and never be over."

For a collection redolent of the scent of the graveyard, F remains warm with light and life. In "Crumpled-Up Note Blowing Away," the poet proclaims, 
But I've said all that
I had to say.
In writing.
I've signed my name.
It's death's move.
And yet the poem doesn't accept this end but moves on through two more stanzas, ending with the poet sitting at the train station awaiting death's move while the sun shines brightly on his back. Another poem, "The Composer," introduces a character who marries mortality with art: "Awareness of existing in a universe where death is real came to him in the form of music." The soul, says Wright, is "a stranger in this world," but it does not lack tools for making beauty.

This tender sympathy for the human condition comes through most clearly in "Leave Me Hidden," which starts on a sardonic note of disgust for popular culture but soon moves into lyrical wonder over unexpected grace. Wandering into the woods and pressing his hands against a tree's "hugely magnified / fingerprint," the poet feels 
a heartbeat, vast, silently
booming there deep in
my hidden leaves, blessed
motherworld, personal
underworld, thank you

thank you.
For Franz Wright, motherworld and underworld remain eternally tangled, but reading his poems allows readers to plunge into the bone-chilling river of human existence and emerge with a new understanding of suffering linked with a mouth full of thank you.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

News from the rock face

I paid a visit this morning to the cliff across from our house. From a distance the rock appears static and stable, but up close it tells a different story: tiny fissures deepen into fractures and chasms where water freezes and thaws and propels large chunks of rock down the slope.

Recent rockfalls expose fresh surfaces glowing with subtle swirls of color, while older rock weathers gray and brown and eventually becomes colonized by lichens and liverwort and tiny climbing vines. In the spring I've seen phoebes making nests in the thick vegetation, and high above the cliff face stand tall trees offering habitat for squirrels, chipmunks, and many kinds of birds. At the highest point is a hawk's nest, currently vacant. Will the hawks return this spring? Will the hillside once again host a den of foxes?

Down below we watch the changing profile of our own Old Man of the Mountain, whose nose has become more chiseled over the years and his eyes more sunken. A new fissure makes him looks as if he's about to open his mouth and speak, but what would he say? Every time I see him, he reminds me that time, which turns the hardest rock to dust, creates beauty even through decay.    

Thursday, February 05, 2015

No apologies for popularity

At a meeting the word popular insinuates itself into the discussion with a sneer, carrying baggage traceable to junior high school: we unpopular types may have denigrated the pretensions of the popular kids, but only because we secretly coveted their social successes.

When it comes to getting butts into classroom seats, the word popular is fraught with competing concerns. We hear rumors of classes that attract students by giving them what they want--good grades for little work--and we roll our eyes and reject the model. We don't want the kind of popularity that arises from a sacrifice of rigor.

But make no mistake: we definitely want butts in seats, because in the current academic climate, classes with low enrollments are in danger of cancellation. We want to be popular without being pushovers. What can make a rigorous class attractive to picky students?

Versatility. Students look at our many course offerings and wonder, "What can this course do for me?" A course required for a major may be essential to students within that major, but what if it can also fulfill a General Education requirement without loss of rigor? Or what if it can fulfill two General Education requirements plus serve as an elective in a minor? Teaching GE courses requires a little extra work to align the course with the campus assessment program, but if it gets butts in seats, it's worth it.

Variety. A few years ago a gifted English major told me she was switching to another program for several reasons, but partly because it seemed as if she was doing the same kinds of things over and over in her literature classes. Ouch. We all have our particular strengths as teachers, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to stretch beyond those strengths by relying on a variety of pedagogical methods, challenging students with different types of assignments, and taking risks in the classroom even if they threaten our carefully imposed order.

Vigor. I know it seems counterintuitive, but comments on student evaluations suggest that students want to engage actively with interesting ideas and activities. They don't want to passively absorb material that seems moribund; instead, they want to get up and get their hands dirty, toss ideas around the room and see what they can make of it. Creating a lively and vigorous class is messy work that may require professors to get comfortable with chaos, but it helps learning happen.

No learning happens in a class that gets cancelled, so I'm not ashamed to say that I'm devoted to making my classes popular--without sacrificing rigor or becoming a pushover. It's a lot of work--but also a lot more fun than having classes cancelled. 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Drop and give me 50!

My writing students might sometimes think I'm a drill sergeant when I force them to write and write and keep on writing, but I rarely get a chance to apply these skills to my colleagues. In May, though, I'll crank up my drill-sergeant credentials and put some colleagues through their paces when our Faculty Publishing Group offers its first-ever Academic Writing Boot Camp.

The idea is simple: for three days, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., faculty members will gather to give their summer writing projects a kick-start. Each day's activities will include writing sprints intended to get the juices flowing, extended writing time to get massive amounts of words on the page, and feedback on portions of the writing project.

This is my first time leading an effort like this but I hope not the last. I've already planned some helpful activities but I need more. Here's where you can help: if you've ever been involved in a faculty writing workshop like this one, what was most helpful? What was least helpful? If you've never been involved in this kind of activity, what would attract you to the workshop? What kind of activities would most effectively support your writing efforts?

I welcome suggestions in the comments. That's right: I want you to drop and give me 50! (Words.)  

Monday, February 02, 2015

Beyond making sense

This morning I was briefly tempted to give my American Lit Survey class a reading quiz consisting of one question: "Briefly summarize the plot of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons." It's an absurd question, of course, but it would very efficiently distinguish between those who had done the reading ("Plot? What plot?") and those who had not (a whole page of b.s.).

Instead I asked for the students' impressions of Stein's work, and their universal complaint was "It doesn't make sense." 

"Okay," I said. "But what else besides sense can a literary work make?"

And that was the start of an interesting discussion.

I've never taught Stein before and I'm still not sure that teaching Stein in a 50-minute class lies within the realm of possibility, but I led my students through the part of Tender Buttons excerpted in the anthology and helped them to fumble toward understanding of the tenets of modernism. A few times they asked me to explicate specific lines and I had to admit that I didn't have a clue, something that would have frightened me earlier in my teaching career.

Back then I thought that the teacher was the person who had all the answers; these days, on the other hand, I'm content to be the person who has all the questions and helps guides students toward some of the answers. Sometimes we make sense. Other times, like today, we create a mind-blowing experience.    

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Bloop, bloop goes the blog

Anyone who asks about my wonderful family weekend is likely to hear about snow angels and sushi and silly songs, but I probably won't mention the primary topic of conversation in my granddaughter's household right now: poop.

It's an important topic, especially when the little one is still mastering the intricacies of using the potty. I don't want to go into a lot of detail here lest anyone happens to be reading this over lunch, but let's just say this: poop happens, but not always in the right time and place. Fortunately, young parents trying to gently guide their toddlers have many resources on hand to help, and if there's a grandma handy, then she'll gladly do her part as well. 

Which is why I spent a lot of time this weekend reading my granddaughter books about poop.

I won't attempt a full-scale review of these books because, frankly, I'm trying really hard to delete them from my memory. There's the board book in which a gender-neutral baby says "Bye-bye, diaper!" and hears a "Tinkle, tinkle, toot" before reaching my granddaughter's favorite page: "Undies!" 

Then there's a book full of animal parents asking their offspring whether they've pooped, while young readers get the thrill of lifting little flaps to find things that are definitely not poop until, finally, they lift the right flap and say, "There's the poop!"

And I'm not going to even describe the action in a book euphoniously titled "Bloop, bloop goes the poop." Really, it's all there in the title.

I am delighted to be a part of my granddaughter's life and share this important developmental milestone with her, but nevertheless I'm looking forward to the day when we can put the poop books behind us and move on to more exciting topics. How will we get to know Pooh if we're stuck on poop?