Monday, November 30, 2015

Now that's a kick in the assessment

It's probably a bad idea to write a final exam on a day when half of my students skipped class.

I'm sure they all had really good reasons for skipping class today. I'm sure the fact that today is the first day back after Thanksgiving break and the first day of deer-hunting season has nothing to do with their absence. I should give them the benefit of the doubt. 

Or else I should give them the benefit of my twisted ability to produce absolutely brutal final exam questions that they can't possibly answer if they skipped today's class. Or would that be too--I don't know--medieval?

No, medieval would involve thumb-screws or exam papers suffused with plague virus. I'm just tempted to toss some puppy treats to the students who actually showed up while leaving the class-skippers out in the cold. 

But wait: an exam's purpose should be neither to punish nor to reward but to assess student learning. Or so I'm told. And I suppose I believe it most days.

But on a day when half of my students skipped class? I'd like to give them all a good sharp kick right in the assessment.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the virtues of big fat novels

Everyone loves a four-day weekend, right? But for a reader, a four-day weekend without a book to read would be torture.

So I made sure to bring home two books to carry me through the Thanksgiving holiday: a scholarly tome I thought might be helpful for a class I'll be teaching soon (but quickly convinced me that it won't be helpful at all) and a big fat collection of mini-essays that came highly recommended (despite the fact that they're so tedious and precious that I gave up after 60 pages). So there I was at the dawn of a four-day weekend with no new books to read.

Of course I have papers to grade, classes to prep, and syllabi to write, and of course I had a house full of people for part of the Thanksgiving break, but at some point the houseguests all left and I can't grade papers 24 hours a day. I need a book. 

But I have a Kindle! First I ordered a short new novel that purports to be amusing: Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt. Reviews suggested that deWitt might be the bastard lovechild of Flann O'Brien and Italo Calvino, which sounded interesting. The novel, sadly, isn't. It's a light bit of frippery that bored more than amused me. But at least it was short! There's nothing worse than a long bad novel.

A long good novel was really what I needed, something that could grip my interest for days on end without taxing the exhausted brain cells too strenuously. I could re-read any of the honking big novels loading up my bookshelves, but sometimes the mind needs something new, even when the pocketbook is running short. For this there is one great solution: all those neglected fiction classics available at no charge for the Kindle. I'd recently enjoyed Vanity Fair (which I first read at age 14 or 15, far too early to understand its nuances), so I decided to take another stab at Thackeray. Which is how I ended up starting Pendennis.

The great thing about reading a long good novel is that I don't have to worry about finding another book to read for days, maybe weeks. I can dip into Pendennis with delight for a few minutes or an hour, secure in the knowledge that the book will still be there beckoning next time I have a gap in my busy days. A great big fat delightful novel is a doorway to another world, and it makes me happy to know that I can step through that door and that world will still be there.

Until it isn't. The worst thing about a big fat novel is when it's over. The door closes, leaving me on the outside, lost and wandering.

The cure? Another big fat novel. 


Friday, November 27, 2015

Non-black Friday

After the annual smoking of the turkey, mashing of the potatoes, and baking of the pies; after the raucous conversation around the tables and the long walk in the woods to work off that second slice of pumpkin cheesecake; and after all the giggles with the girlie who loves to play with tractors and who can charm a crowd simply by asking for more vegetables ("Grampa, may you pass me some brussels sprouts, please?"), it's time for Blah Friday.

I'm aware that others celebrate the day after Thanksgiving by fighting the ravening hordes at the nearest Wal-Mart or outlet mall, but for me, a noisy crowd is the opposite of what I need right now. After all the Thanksgiving guests have left, I sit in our quiet house and sink lazily into the silence as if it were a cushy chair, and I loaf. I may have a book or a pile of grading in front of my face, but mostly I'm resting both body and mind, content as a cat curled up in a shaft of sunlight. 

Boring? Maybe, but I rather enjoy a little boredom after all the potato-peeling and dishwashing I've been doing. I'm resting my back, so call it Back Friday; the dishes are done, so it's No More Stack Friday; there's leftover dessert in the kitchen, so it's Black(berry) Pie Day. 

One of these people is only pretending to sleep.
And Thanksgiving reminds me that there's nothing I lack--nothing really important in the long term, and those unimportant needs that press on me the rest of the year can't possibly satisfy anyway. So today in my house it's No-Lack Friday--and if there's nothing I lack, why go shopping?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Thankful for what I won't be doing this week

Things I'll definitely be doing this week: grading papers, shopping for groceries, playing with my granddaughter, making pumpkin cheesecake, and serving a turkey and all the Thanksgiving trimmings for family and friends. Plus dishes--someone has to wash the dishes. Maybe take in a local Christmas parade. And I predict some napping.

Things I won't be doing this week for the first time since 2009: driving around in circles at the hospital's parking garage,  spending time in medical waiting rooms, getting poked with needles, having vials of blood rudely removed from my body, drinking horrible gluey "smoothies," trying to lie still with a needle in my arm and my arms over my head while listening to commands issued by a whirring machine with horrible bedside manner, and then tensely awaiting test results.

That's right: six years after my final round of chemotherapy, I'm free of the need for medical monitoring. 

I don't know about anyone else, but that's enough to make me thankful.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Maybe someone forget to pay the punctuation bill

Commenting on drafts would be much easier if I could stop looking for patterns where they obviously aren't or seeking reason behind random sloppiness:

Why did this student put quotation marks around two titles but not the third? Did the rest of the quotation marks elope with the ampersand? 

Why is the character's name capitalized roughly three-quarters of the time? Did it find the stress of being a proper noun so exhausting that it had to lie down and rest for a paragraph or two before standing upright again?

Why would a student consistently place commas precisely where they are least necessary? Or did he load a shotgun with commas, point it at the paper, and pull the trigger? 

And why does the next paper eschew commas in favor of dashes? Who does she think she is--Emily Dickinson?!

I look for patterns so that I can diagnose the problem and prescribe an antidote (so maybe I should be reading through a stethoscope), but lately I find myself  thwarted. I think I see the beginning of a pattern (he's putting commas after 'and' and 'but') but then it falls to pieces (wait, here's an 'and' surrounded by commas, and here's a 'but' with no punctuation whatsoever). 

My mistake, I think, is in assuming that students are always making conscious choices about their writing and if I just uncover the flawed reasoning behind those choices, I'll be able to fix it. But what if reason has nothing to do with it? What if they're too tired or busy or drunk or distracted to notice little details like punctuation and capitalization? What if they simply don't care?

I'm seeing a constellation of errors and trying to connect the dots, but I fear that they're as random as the stars and equally inaccessible. (So maybe I should be reading through a telescope.)  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Let 'em eat pie!

It's Friday Pie Day because pie heals all ills (according to our new provost), but today is also Penultimate Friday--the second-to-last Friday classes of the semester--and I for one am ready to celebrate. I'll teach three classes on Monday and then a full week after Thanksgiving, but despite the mountain of grading I'll need to drill through, I'm seeing some glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel. It's an oddly shaped shaft of light, like a wedge--or a piece of pie. It's Penultimate Friday! Let 'em eat pie!

Pie makes so many things better--even poetry:

Let us go then, you and I
and fetch ourselves a piece of pie. 


How do I love pie?
It would require all the digits of pi to count the ways.

Two pies diverged in a yellow wood
and I ate them.

Because I could not stop for pie--
it kindly stopped for me--
banana cream and pumpkin pie--


The pie comes in
on little crust feet.

It sits looking
so sweet and enticing
in silent splendor
and then it's gone.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Too much and not enough

This is the week of too much and not enough:

Too much tension; not enough sleep.

Too many drafts to read and too little few eyeballs on the ground, or on the page, or wherever.

Too many excuses and too many tears and so few time machines.

Too many petty little details to prepare for a Big Event, plus one big messy detail that dwarfs all others and will probably remain unresolved until the very last minute.

Too many meetings. 

Too many awkward silences at meetings plus one big beautiful eloquent silence at just the right moment. 

Too much everything. Not enough everything else.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris rising

"What I saw first of all," recalls James Thurber in "The First Time I saw Paris," "was one outflung hand of France as cold and limp as a dead man's." 

This was November 13, 1918, and young Thurber had made a difficult sea journey to serve as a code clerk at the Paris Peace Conference. He continues: "I know now that French towns don't die, that France has the durability of history itself, but I was only twenty-three then, and seasick, and I had never been so far from Ohio before." 

His first sight on land was a line of "desolate men, a detachment of German prisoners being marched along a street, in mechanical step, without expression in their eyes, like men coming from no past and moving toward no future." Soon, though Thurber and his fellow code clerks arrived in Paris, "the veritable capital city of Beginning." The city was coming back to life after the long, bloody slog through the War to End War, and Paris "was costumed like a wide-screen Technicolor operetta, the uniforms of a score of nations forming a king of restless, out-of-step finale." 

All was not revelry and joy, however; Thurber took a tour through battlefields with a friend searching for souvenirs and cemeteries: 
In our trek through the battlefields, with the smell of death still in the air, the ruined and shattered country scarred with ammunition dumps and crashed planes, we came upon the small temporary cemeteries arranged by the Graves Registration Service, each with a small American flag, such as the children of Paris waved at President Wilson, nailed to a post and faded by the rain and wintry weather. In one of these cemeteries my companion, a Tennessee youth, only a little taller than five feet, began singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" with his hat over his heart, and went on singing it in a sudden downpour of rain, for the anthem, once started, must be finished.
Thurber's visit occurred nearly 100 years ago, when France lay scarred and wounded but still capable of resurrection. A visit that began with a vision of death had been transformed into a celebration of life and hope:

Paris, City of Light and of occasional Darkness, sometimes in the winter rain seeming wrought of monolithic stones, and then, in the early days of its wondrous and special pearly light, appearing to float in mid-air like a mirage city in the Empire of Imagination, fragile and magical, has had many a premature requiem sung for the repose of its soul by nervous writers or gloomy historians who believe it is dying or dead and can never rise again. Paris, nonetheless, goes right on rising out of war, ultimatum, occupation, domestic upheaval, cabinet crises, international tension, and dark prophecy, as it has been in the habit of doing since its residents first saw the menacing glitter of Roman shields many centuries ago.
 Of course, Thurber arrived in Paris at the end of something awful; what would he write today in the midst of a very different kind of conflict? I don't know, but I hold on to his image of a city that goes right on rising--despite the forces that would try in vain to hold it down.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Here's mud in your eye

If you're trying to create a work of art by throwing wads of mud at a wall (and let's not even get started on why you might want to do such a thing), you could draw the design first and toss the mud inside the lines or you could toss the mud first and draw the design around them afterward--but either way, the lines give shape and purpose to the random splats.

I've seen students draft papers using either method: create a clear, compelling, specific thesis statement and then arrange the points in the argument to fit within the lines, or toss a bunch of semi-related ideas on the page and then go back and write a thesis that specifies the connection. A diligent writer committed to revision can make either method work, so part of my task as a writing teacher is to figure out what kinds of writers I have in the room and guide them toward success.

Me? I'm a little of both: in the early stages of a project, I'll toss a bunch of ideas against the wall and see what sticks, but as soon as the ultimate shape of the essay starts revealing itself, I draw the lines and write the thesis. It will surely get revised along the way, but I need structure to guide my writing.

But what can I do when students want to toss a bunch of mud clods against the wall, draw a vague, squiggly, illegible line around them, and then declare the work a masterpiece? I offer suggestions on drafts and require revision and I frequently offer sample thesis statements to serve as models, but I can't do the thinking for them

Which is why it's so hard to answer the question "What should my thesis say?" If a student has put in the thinking required to determine how various ideas are related and has a sense of purpose, the question is simply asking for help putting that purpose into words. I worry, though, about the other kind of student, who hasn't done the thinking and doesn't have a clue about connections, and if I ask what purpose the essay is pursuing, the response is something like "I want to get a good grade." (Don't we all! But what does your paper want to accomplish?)  

Some days I wear out my eyeballs staring at clods of mud thrown randomly at a wall--but when someone finally draws a line around it and reveals the design, all I can do is applaud.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

My tiny time machine

The chocolate sphere in my hand may look like a malted milk ball to you, but to me it's a tiny time machine: I pop the chocolate treat into my mouth and suddenly I'm transported back to the early 1980s, when my college newspaper staff held a weekly layout marathon fueled by diet colas, grapes, and a big bag of malted milk balls.

Those were the days of manual layout, when we would use scissors to cut typeset sheets into long strips of copy, run them through a waxer, and then lay them out on paper ruled to indicate columns and inches. 

We were armed with sharp exactos, metal rulers, and copy rollers but it still took a while; we often worked well past midnight on a Tuesday, which made Wednesday classes a bit hazy. Mistakes could be costly. Run the copy through the waxer upside-down and you'd spend the next 20 minutes carefully scraping wax off text. A dull exacto blade could tear and wrinkle the copy, while a sharp blade might veer off track, slicing through words or even flesh.

Sometimes staffers didn't show up, leaving the rest of us to do their work as well as our own. Sometimes they showed up eager to argue about issues that seemed really important at the time: When does a music review become newsworthy enough to go on the front page? How much detail do we provide about a student's suicide so we can tell the truth without sensationalizing the gory act? Where is the fine line between reasoned critique and ad hominem attack? 

The work and the talk were different every week but one thing remained constant: diet cola, grapes, and malted milk balls. The big challenge was keeping drips and dirty fingers off the strips of copy, but somehow we managed, most of the time.

These days most college journalists lay out pages electronically; they may have some of the same debates we had 30 years ago but I'll be they wouldn't know what to do with a waxer, an exacto, or a long strip of copy. But give them a bag of malted milk balls and they'll know where to put them. Student journalism: dedicated to truth, justice, and the American way, and, like many other labor-intensive group endeavors, fueled by chocolate.    

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Reverie while quibbling over Robert's Rules of Order

At least we can be reasonably sure that no one in the room is carrying a gun.

At least we can sit in a clean, well-lighted space surrounded by all the hallmarks of civilization--desks and chairs, shelves full of books, computer terminals where students sit working on research papers, and even if they just appear to be working on research papers but are actually sending snarky e-mails or shopping for ski gear or playing Candy Crush Saga, at least they're doing it quietly and maintaining order, because that's what we're all about here--order, specifically Robert's Rules of Order, which attempt to provide structure and civility to our assemblies but sometimes feel like a straitjacket, particularly when things go a bit out of whack.

It's a first-world problem, I realize, to have to spend long afternoon hours struggling to submit our messy problems to Robert's Rules of Order in a way that remains faithful to both the letter and the spirit of the law, but at least we are free to disagree about the application of certain elements of Robert's Rules of Order without worrying about being silenced or imprisoned or beaten or dragged out of our nice comfy classroom to face a pink slip or a firing squad or public disgrace and humiliation.

So while a million other tasks call out for my attention, I'll sit here engaging in gentle debate about the finer points of Robert's Rules of Order because it's a sign that our civilization is still functioning, that despite any chaos that might be crashing down around us, we still believe in order and the value of listening and the freedom to disagree.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Controversy at a committee meeting: what color M&M's do you eat first?

We're academics, right? Some consider us know-it-alls, so confident in our areas of expertise that we feel authorized to issue pronouncements on just about everything--including the proper way to consume M&M's.

I separate them by color and then eat the smallest color group first, but my esteemed colleague from the math department told me today that I'm doing it backward. 

"You have to eat the largest color group first and save the smallest for last," he says, "because the groups with fewer M&M's are more scarce and therefore more valuable."

"No, I have to eat the smallest group first and leave the biggest group for last," I insist, but when he asks why I deflect attention to the other side of the table, where a historian is eating animal crackers without first separating them into species. 

"I don't even know what species some of these are supposed to be," he says, which is a valid complaint--in fact, I'm not sure why animal crackers are called crackers when they're clearly butter cookies.

But back to the point: when eating animal crackers, I have to separate them by species and then eat the broken ones first, the ones missing legs or heads or chunks of torso.

"To put them out of their misery," says the mathematician with a smile. Yes! Of course! We may disagree on the proper way to eat M&M's, but we're in total agreement on the necessity of eating the maimed animal crackers first.

Meanwhile, our colleague from the counseling center sits at the other side of the table looking blank, as if she might be surreptitiously taking notes for a study on Consumption Compulsions of College Professor. But what does she know? She hasn't even sorted her animal crackers!

Friday, November 06, 2015

Incest, insects--what's the big deal?

I read a line about "incest-eating bats" and an invisible portal opens into the Zone of the Almost-Right Word, that mysterious locale where conscious and conscience are confused, where people are oppressed based not on their ethnicity but on their ethicality, where issues arouse public sediment while people who say one thing but do another are described as hippocratic in nature.

It's not a bad place to spend some time on a quiet Friday afternoon. I close the door, turn down the lights, and reach deep into the recesses of my filing cabinet to draw out my secret stash: a list of lines from papers written by long-gone students whose names I may have forgotten but whose words come back periodically to make me giggle. Here I give you a little tale drawn from that timeless collection:

In the Zone of the Almost-Right Word lived a tireless champagne for human rights who so admired that great philanthropist Albert Schweitzer that he kept begging and pleating for money from family and friends so he could immolate his hero by going to Africa to immunize the beknighted natives, but despite his pleas, they were not suede.  So he went on KickStarter and stirred up enough public sediment to finance his way across the sea and, ultimately, stumbled right into the middle of a gorilla war. Refusing to renounce his commitment to immunizing individuals regardless of ethic group, he became a prisoner of conscious, biding his time in his rank cell by doing calisthenics until the day when, tragically, he slipped on incest and hit his head on the floor. He spent his few remaining days in a deep comma, utterly unaware that the armies had declared a crease fire

And there, my friends, we shall leave him.   
(It's a sad story, but, like many tales from the Zone of the Almost-Right Word, it can be interrupted in many ways.)

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

92 cents from freedom!

Blogger JaneB writes today about the Trivial Dismals (great name for a rock band?) while Bardiac is wrapped up in Dismay--yes, it is that time of the semester when everything's coming up bleakness. Yesterday I had lunch with a colleague who kept urging the rest of us to "say something positive!" I had to think pretty hard to come up with this: I paid off my husband's van! But I still have two more payments on the transmission--and this morning when I checked in with online banking, I noticed that it still shows a 92-cent balance on the van loan. So let's celebrate the fact that I now own most of a van, minus 92 cents and a chunk of transmission!

Many of the things that make me feel dismal are indeed pretty trivial: driving home in the dark, difficulty in planning a class field trip, a spousal contretemps over the best place to plug in a computer--and don't forget the 92 cents I still owe on that van. Such trials! Who has suffered as I suffer?

But one reason I rail so against the trivial dismals is that there's so little I can do about the non-trivial ones. I look at course listings and want to weep over enrollment numbers, but fixing that problem is way outside my pay grade. I've done my meager part to fight a particularly painful element of the coming increase in our health insurance costs and I just can't stand to keep banging my head against that wall. Faculty cuts, budget cuts, leadership problems--we're doing our best here, but it's really difficult living in limbo in the midst of problems we're powerless to solve.

So I complain about those 92 cents. Such injustice! The whole point of paying the van off early was so that we'll have someplace to live in case we go bankrupt and lose the house, and now a measly 92 cents stands in the way! Excuse me while I stomp across the room and slam some doors.

Monday, November 02, 2015

When greatness offsets mediocrity

One of the rare blessings of teaching college students is that every once in a while I get to be present at the birth of greatness, and sometimes I even get to assist. That happened recently when a student gave a presentation and then led the class in a discussion that left me beaming silently in the back of the room. "What you have is a rare gift," I told the student, "but that means you have a responsibility to develop that gift and use it to make the world a better place." (I'm allowed to say such sappy things because who else is in a position to do so?)

I'm basking in the afterglow of that class as I try to deal with some less rewarding student-centered experiences: the complaining student who tracked in a carpet of dried leaves all over my office floor; the promising student who turned in an uncharacteristically inadequate paper and then dropped off the face of the earth; the consistently tardy student who laughed and said, "I'm only five or ten minutes late most days!" Somehow, that doesn't make it better.

For anyone with a tendency to crash and burn, this is the time to do it--but this is also the time when I'm seeing some hard work pay off in improved writing, interesting research, and compelling presentations. While the crash-and-burners generally require more one-on-one attention, more grief and anguish and patience and work, the other students provide an energy boost just by walking in the room.

And then when I get that rare student who can move the class to a whole different level--it just doesn't get any better than that.