Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016 as a fever dream

Here we are on the final day of this bizarre year but instead of celebrating, I'll be swigging cough syrup and popping aspirin and taking long, fevered naps. Yes: I'm sick. Fortunately, this wretched cough didn't strike until our final day visiting relatives in northern Ohio, but since we've been home I've done little more than cough and sleep. 

The cough syrup fogs my mind and I fear that attempting any profound thought about the year just passing will be impossible. Besides, what can I say about 2016 that I haven't already said before? Here, then, I offer highlights (and some low points) of my year:

In January I celebrated my 10-year blogiversary with an abecedary of reasons to keep blogging (here) and bought a sweater with zipaulettes or epaulippers (here). I photographed birds in Florida in January (here) and April (here) and May (here and here), which is three times the normal rate of visiting Florida but I had a good reason.

I said goodbye to my sweet mom (here) and hello to a new grandson (here) and tried to make sense of our circle-of-life summer (here). We welcomed the onslaught of  17-year cicadas (here)  and flipped the canoe in the Ohio River (here). Later, we took a left turn at Normalville (here) and enjoyed some R&R in southeastern Pennsylvania (here).  

I railed against writing as punishment (here) and the selfie stick as research tool (here) and lame introductions (here and here), and I wrote a sonnet to plagiarism (here). I tangled with imaginary mindless bureaucrats at the  Crisis Scheduling Service (here) and real ones at Frontier Communications (here).

Simon Newman of Mount St. Mary's recommended drowning and/or shooting the "cuddly bunnies" in our classes (here), but I found some other ways to engage students in learning: through interpretive maps (here), comedy (here), adding Bob Dylan to the syllabus (here), and making my students write for a real audience (here and here). Along the way, I read an extra 27,000 words of student writing (here). 

I gave a paper at a conference in Toronto (here) and later tried to explain my work to the nurse prepping me for a colonoscopy (here).  I wondered about degrees of evil in Catch-22 (here) and let a song transport me back in time to an annoying memory that turned into my second-most-popular post of the year (here).

I reviewed poetry by  James Massey (here) and celebrated the tasty casserole that is Winesburg, Indiana, by Michael Martone and a mess of other interesting writers (here).  I reviewed Ethan Canin's A Doubter's Almanac, which won me over in the end (here) and Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge, which did not (here). I reviewed two books bringing troubled childhood to vivid life: Kao Kalia Yang's The Latehomcomer and Robert Gipe's Trampoline (here). I found Don DeLillo's Zero K disappointing (here) but enjoyed Ian McEwan's Nutshell (here). And Hope Jahren's Lab Girl may have been the best book I read all year, but it also inspired my most popular post of the year (here).

After all that fuss and bother, the year ended on a quiet note: reading W.S. Merwin on my birthday (here) and decorating Christmas cookies with my granddaughter (here). And now come the cough and the sniffles and the long, fevered naps. Happy New Year! Now I think I'll go lie down. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Snippets of holiday cheer

Favorite Christmas gift: Fun and games with my kids and grandkids. That cast-iron casserole dish with the lid even I can't break runs a distant second, but nothing else comes close to the joy of putting together a jigsaw puzzle with my adult children on Christmas Eve or helping my granddaughter figure out her new binoculars (which she pronounce binoc-lee-ars), and when the grandson starts up his adorable laugh, everyone laughs with him.

Holiday serendipity: For weeks we've been hunting for my husband's birthday/Christmas gift--a new suit, badly needed. Nearby stores offered prom-worthy suits, suits apparently constructed from recycled Hefty trash bags, and wonderful suits marked way, way down to a price higher than our monthly mortgage payment. So here we are visiting relatives a hundred miles from home and we're looking for a place to get out of bitterly cold wind so we step into a tiny boutique, where I grab a jacket from the rack and tell my husband to try it on, and there it is: his new suit. Perfect fabric, perfect color, near-perfect fit, and a price we can manage--and they're willing to mail it to us at no extra charge after they do some minor alterations. "Seek and ye shall find" is one way to shop, but sometimes it works better to stop seeking and let it find ye.

Why I'm not sending any postcards this week: Normally we head to Florida the week after Christmas, but we went there three times last spring during my mother's decline, so we decided to stick closer to home. So here we are in the cold north, dashing from house to car to little boutique in an attempt to keep the cold wind from transforming us into Abominable Snowmen. My husband loves cold weather, but he's from here. I keep wishing we were walking on the beach--and not on the shores of Lake Erie. But at least we're getting to spend evenings with the grandkids. Their warmth is the best escape from winter's cold.  

Friday, December 23, 2016

Visions of sugarplums

It took two of us to roll out all the gingerbread cookie dough this morning: my granddaughter standing on a chair and rolling as hard as she could and me pressing down on the rolling pin just a little bit harder. I think we both worked up a sweat, but the result was a whole mess of bells, trees, snowmen, stars, and, of course, gingerbread men.

More hands pitched in on the decorating--because let's face it, you're never too old to decorate Christmas cookies. Little E decided that all the cookies she decorated needed a LOT of sprinkles, but her mom used individual sprinkles to make tiny carrot noses on the snowmen while a visiting friend put a colorful holiday sweater on a reindeer.

In the end an eclectic gathering of colorful cookies covered the table begging to be gobbled down. When the UPS truck made its trek up our driveway to deliver a package, I took a plate of cookies out to the driver, who handed me a package and said, "I think I'm getting the better gift." For me, though, but the greatest gift is the presence of family and friends willing to put their own special touches on a crop of creative cookies.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Never quibble with the person holding the needle

It's hard enough to explain to someone outside my field why I'm doing research on garbage in literature, but when the person asking the question is holding a needle and trying to stick it into my arm, it's hopeless. "You're doing what?" she'll ask and laugh so hard that the needle will slide right through the vein and pierce my elbow joint and come right out the other side.

Why would I even want to talk to the nurse about my research while she's trying to insert an IV? My blood vessels are notoriously uncooperative so I ought to shut up and make things as easy as possible, but it all started when she got to the part on the pre-colonoscopy questionnaire about whether I'd been out of the country in the past 30 days. I had to think back to exactly when I was in Toronto, and then she wanted to know why I was in Toronto, and I told her I was giving a paper at a conference, and she wanted to know what kind of paper, and I said something vague like "a report on my research," and then she wanted to know what kind of scientist I am, and then I said I'm an English professor, and she said she thought research was something scientists did so what could it possibly mean for an English professor to do research, and what am I supposed to say to that? "I'm working on a project on the portrayal of garbage in literature"? 

So I told her about the two post-9/11 novels I talked about in Toronto, with their portrayals of the tension between repulsion from and attraction to the ash from the falling towers, the fear of being showered in bits of other people's bodies linked with the increase in status that can arise from closeness to disaster, and she said "huh" and "oh" and "interesting," and then she said, "You have an accent. Are you from Minnesota?"

And I said, "No, I'm from Connecticut."

And she said, "But where are you from originally?

And I said, "Connecticut."

And she said, "No, I mean what state?"

I was in a state, all right, but I wouldn't want to specify what kind.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ooh and aah or retch and gag?

This morning I left the endoscopy center with a band-aid on my arm, a hunger in my belly, and, in my purse, four small photographs of the interior of my colon.

Want to see 'em? 

Neither do I. I don't know if my bowels are any more or less photogenic than any others, but frankly, my view on internal organs is that they're kept out of sight for a reason. 

Nevertheless there they are in living color: four views of my colon, including one of the inky-dinky polyp that the doctor efficiently removed. (Probably harmless.) What am I supposed to do with these photos, paste them in a scrapbook? Post 'em on Facebook so all my friends can ooh and aah? (Retch and gag is more likely.) Keep them as a precious reminder of an experience I'd rather forget?
The colonoscopy itself was not unpleasant, thanks to anesthesia. The last thing I remember is wishing someone would switch the radio to a station that wasn't playing "All I Want for Christmas is You," and then boom, there I was waking up in the recovery room after it was all over.

But the 24-hour span leading up to the colonoscopy--that was memorable, but not in a good way. I don't want to go into detail here, but trust me: they're not kidding when they say this regimen will "clean you out." No photographs of that part of the procedure exist, and if they did, I'd burn them.

Maybe that's what I'll do with my colonoscopy photos: ignite a little sacrificial pyre, sending every memory of the unpleasantness wafting to the skies. Goodbye, colonoscopy! And good riddance!   

Friday, December 16, 2016

That's one way to banish the craziness

I can pinpoint the moment when I realized I had totally lost my mind: when I saw the sentence describing how certain people "wok well with the Chinese" and for the life of me I couldn't figure out what was wrong with it. I mean, doesn't wok work really well in that sentence? (Except that it's supposed to be work.)

After a week of nearly non-stop grading, I no longer feel as if I can work the English language. Minor things take on inordinate importance: I see ect. instead of etc. and I want to stomp up and down on the paper and write FFFFFF!!! 

But that would be wrong--and the fact that I can make that judgment  suggests that I still have a little more mind left to lose, which is good because the grading isn't quite done yet. Fifteen final essay exams to grade and I'll be DONE. (If not done for.)

I saw a wok that made me awk,
an ect. that made me eek,
some commas that should take a walk
to the middle of next week.

I saw the letters dance, the words
assume bizarre positions.
And as for logic--it's absurd!

Such errant propositions!

I saw alot a lot and squawked
when affect stood for effect;
I huffed at stuff and it's' and clocked
a dozen other defects.

I've seen it all! I'd like to call
a halt to all this worry.
I know! I'll close my eyes and fall
asleep til January!

(But who will finish my grading?)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Final exams, fueled by muffins

I'm proctoring the final exam in my first-year composition class when a student comes up and asks to use the bathroom, but before I can say a word, he pulls out his smartphone and wallet and places them on my desk. 

I understand where this comes from--I've certainly proctored exams in which I wouldn't let students out of the room at all, or else I've confiscated their communication devices if they had too leave. This exam, though, is different: students have two and a half hours to write a complete essay in response to a prompt, drawing evidence from two short readings and the film we watched last week--but they are allowed to use any resources they can carry into the classroom. (Except for people: No, you may not carry your roommate into the room to write your paper for you.)

Only two students elected to write the essay out by hand; the rest brought their laptops. They may refer to notes, prior writing assignments, books, anything they've got on that laptop; the only rule is that they're not allowed to access anything online during the class period. I require them to turn their desks toward the back wall so I can see the screens, which may discourage them from seeking out online summaries, but realistically, I can't watch 20 computer screens constantly for two and a half hours, so anyone really determined to cheat could find a way. On the other hand, the prompt is so specific that they're unlikely to find any ready-made essays out there in Plagiarism Land, so cheating would be more trouble than just sitting down and writing the essay.

I told them before class, "If you need to use the rest room, go right ahead--you know where it is. If you need some juice or muffins, here they are at the front of the room. Just don't disturb your classmates." By this point in the semester, they know the value of keeping their nose to the grindstone, so there they sit, hard at work. You can just about see those little hamster-wheels in their brains whirling--if you could harness that power, you could light the world.

And yes, I bring juice and muffins for an 8:30 a.m. final--because they had to walk across campus in subfreezing temperature, and because I want them to think clearly for this exam even if they've been up all night studying and skipped breakfast. Also, they've worked really hard this semester and deserve a treat. Getting out of bed for an 8 a.m. first-year writing class for 15 long weeks (with very little absenteeism) is an accomplishment deserving of some sort of reward.

But where is my reward? Right here in this room, where fingers are flying across keyboards and ideas are flowing and the essays will soon be streaming in.

(And if there are leftover muffins, they'll make the grading go much more smoothly. Have one. Plenty for all!)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Two extra students, tons more work

I'm struggling through finals week and wondering why the grading burden feels so much greater than usual this semester and suddenly it hits me: those two extra seats added to first-year composition classes. True, two extra students can't make a huge difference in the amount of grading I'm doing this week, but let's look at what they've added to my reading, responding, and grading burden this semester:

15 reading responses  @ 400 words each = 6000 words per student 
x 2 students = 12,000 words

Two in-class essays @ 750 words each = 1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

Two drafts requiring extensive feedback @ 750 words each = 1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

Two papers @750 words each = 1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

One research draft requiring extensive feedback @ 1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

One research paper @1500 words
x 2 students = 3000 words

That adds up to 27,000 additional words of student writing for me to read and respond to this semester--if they wrote the bare minimum. It doesn't include one-on-one conferences (two required, more requested), in-class exercises (many), frantic e-mails requesting help, or two extra students to haul around on the library tour. 

That's a lot of work.

The good news is that the seat numbers for next semester have been restored to a more reasonable level. The bad news is that the people responsible for setting that number seem blissfully unaware of how big an impact two extra students can have in a writing-intensive class, so there's no guarantee that the number won't increase again in the future. 

One of these days we'll all be replaced by robots. Meanwhile, I've got 73 more papers and exams to grade.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Writing for a real audience, part 2: The results are in!

Last month I wrote (here) about my attempt to liven up my first-year writers' research papers by requiring them to write for a real audience: write a memo to the provost arguing that every Marietta College student should be required to engage in some common experience--take a class, learn a skill, take a field trip, whatever. Now the results are in and I couldn't be more pleased. 

The papers are about evenly split between those arguing that all students should take some sort of class (in personal finance, personal fitness, nutrition, or American government) and those arguing that students should share a specific experience (playing intramural sports, volunteering in the community, joining a fraternity, playing Scrabble to aid in language-learning). One student argued that all first-year students should be required to visit an art museum and write about the experience, which demonstrates an unusual awareness of the objectives of a liberal-arts education.

I had hoped that this assignment would inspire students to write with passion about matters important to them, and for the most part, they did. I had hoped that requiring them to write for a specific audience (the provost) would help them avoid the vagueness that enters so many first-year writers' research papers, and for the most part, it worked. (Okay, you really don't need to devote a whole paragraph to explaining the rules of Scrabble. I can guarantee the provost knows how to play.)

But the assignment also achieved an objective I hadn't thought about: all of these students expanded their understanding of how higher education works. I know this because I required them to consider and critique an opposing view, a common requirement for first-year research papers. I encountered the usual "how could anyone disagree with my great idea?" complaints, but I had a ready response: Count the costs. Every change to the curriculum will cost something, but how much and who will pay? I encouraged them to track down some numbers (Some may argue that my plan will be too costly to implement) and then show why the program is worthwhile despite the costs.

For some proposals, estimating costs was not too difficult. If you want to take the entire first-year class to a decent art museum, you figure out how many students can fit in a chartered bus and how many buses you'd need and how much it costs to get into the art museum and feed the students lunch and pay their leaders, and then you compare that number to the amount we spend sending the entire incoming class whitewater rafting and you've got a nice tidy argument.

Others were more difficult. I kept having conversations like this one:

Me: How many sections of the class will we need?
Student: [blank look]
Me: Well, are you planning to pile the entire first-year class into a great big auditorium and lecture at them, or do you need to break them up into smaller groups?
Student: I guess they should be in smaller groups--like 20 or 30 students.
Me: Okay, then you can easily estimate how many sections you'll need. Then you need to think about who will teach them.
Student: Oh, someone from the political science department can teach the class.
Me: Okay, so you're going to take someone from the political science program out of his regular classes to teach a bunch of sections of the class you're proposing. Who will teach the regular political science classes? 
Student: Well, maybe we can hire some new professors.
Me: How much will that cost?

That question always stumped them, but fortunately, they were highly motivated to find some answers. I showed the class how to locate data about Marietta College on our website and average salary data on the Chronicle's website (here). Some of them were befuddled by faculty ranks and assumed that "full" means "full-time," and some failed to consider specific disciplines and so assumed that the average incoming Assistant Professor of Political Science would earn the same amount as a tenured full professor of Petroleum Engineering, but those are minor points. I also didn't ask them to consider the cost of benefits or office space or any of the other miscellaneous items; I just wanted them to consider what it takes to hire a qualified person to teach a new class and then muster up evidence that the costs are nevertheless worthwhile.

And they did it. Some of their arguments are quite convincing while others are at least well constructed, showing signs of increased understanding of how higher education works and improved skill in writing persuasively for a real audience. Do any of their proposals have any hope of being approved? That would be up to the provost--and the general education task force and the curriculum committee and the full faculty in its role as keeper of the curriculum. But if I were the provost, I'd fight for some of these changes.

And then when I got tired of fighting, I'd relax with a good game of Scrabble. (Your move.)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Glitter litter

What happens when you take laundry out of the dryer without being aware that you've got glitter all over your clothes?

Well, the next time my husband puts on a dress shirt, he'll sparkle like a Christmas tree.

I didn't intend to buy wrapping paper encrusted with glitter, but it was pretty and on sale and nothing on the packaging screamed BEWARE OF GLITTER! So there I was yesterday wrapping a couple of gifts in the dining room, which we will now call the shining room--see how it sparkles! Glitter on the placemats, glitter on the trivets, glitter on the chairs and embedded in the floorboards. 

Glitter on my clothes, which I wore all over the house. Glitter on the sofa and in the bathroom and on the bedspread and glitter all over the clean laundry.

How could that little bit of glitter spread so far from its source? Glitter has an amazing ability to multiply and expand and adhere to everything so stubbornly that it's almost impossible to remove, and then when you think you've got it all cleaned up, there it is again, sparkling on the doorknob or the window or a computer keyboard. It's alive! Scientists ought to study glitter's reproductive processes so they can figure out how to stop its spread before the entire world drowns in a sea of glitter.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Reading Merwin on my birthday

On the morning of my birthday I'm reading poems by W.S. Merwin at 4 a.m., which is not the ideal time to be awake but if I'm awake anyway I may as well redeem the time, plus I have a whole new volume of Merwin to peruse because some wonderful member of my family is familiar with my Amazon wish-list. 

Merwin makes me read slowly and retrace my steps to try to locate the magic beneath the words. "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"--a fairy-tale retold or an interrogation of the story-telling process? Which is more real, the mundane world or the fairy tale that overlays ordinary life with mystery and wonder?

"On the Subject of Poetry" I have to read three times and then return again later to the variations on "in" in the second stanza, the closing line's subtle lament for an inexplicable world, and the third stanza's picture of a poet's work:
                                    He does not move
His feet nor so much as raise his head
For fear he should disturb the sound he hears
Like a pain without a cry, where he listens.
I want that passionate attention, that patient listening to a world grown more inexplicable by the minute. I looked this morning at the "year in review" video Facebook assembled from a year's posts and I found it sorely lacking; yes, I see those lovely photos of birds and grandchildren, but I note the gaps: the family crisis that will never make it to Facebook, the shocking murder of my daughter's high-school classmate, the weeks spent attending my mother's final illness and then the gaping wound left by her death.

This sends me to another Merwin poem: "Rain Light," which is worth reading in full (here). I hear reassurance in the voice of the mother who says, "I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right" and then directs the son's attention to the flowers, the sun, and the hills: "see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning."

I wonder what my students will make of that poem when they read it next semester. Maybe you have to be older than the federal speed limit and know some loss before Merwin's quiet poems can sear your soul and then pour healing balm on the wounds. I don't know what I would have made of Merwin at 20 years old, but at 55? He's just my speed.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Pet Peeve #8,742: repeating the prompt

I posed a question for my teacherly friends on Facebook because I really wanted to know: How do you react when a student repeats all or part of the prompt in the first paragraph of the essay--good thing/bad thing? And a colleague responded thus: "How do I react when a student repeats all or part of the prompt in the first paragraph of her or his essay? Although sometimes it can be a good thing, often it is a bad thing."

Ha! (See what he did there?)

I've railed against this practice in the past. I see some familiar sentences in the introduction to an essay and I say, "Those are my sentences! Write your own! And don't tell me what I already know!" But then students claim that they're just doing what they've been told to do: always repeat the prompt in the introduction.

I can imagine contexts in which this would be a fine idea. If you're writing under time pressure on an essay exam and the question asks about the principle products of Peru, it makes sense to transform the question into a statement and start right in on the principle products of Peru. But for an essay written outside of class with drafts and feedback, you've got time to ruminate on the prompt and spit out an original idea--or at least an unoriginal idea cloaked in original language.

But inevitably I get that student who not only repeats the prompt as the introduction to his paper but also restates it again in the conclusion, perhaps in reverse order, which means that two major paragraphs of his paper are constructed from sentences I wrote. A highly efficient way to write a paper! And this student is well equipped to succeed in the cut-and-paste world we've created for ourselves. 

So maybe I should stop screaming about students who steal my sentences and claim them as their own. (But I'll still reward such behavior with a Very Bad Grade--very quietly.)

Monday, December 05, 2016

When the exploding ducks come home to roost.

"I'm getting all my ducks in a row," said my student, "but unfortunately some of them keep trying to fly off and a few of them are exploding."

I know the feeling. This is the time of the semester when Exploding Duck Syndrome reaches epidemic proportions on campus.

And it's not just students: between now and Dec. 20, I have to read, respond to, and/or grade 116 separate drafts/papers/projects/exams/presentations, plus a handful of bonus assignments a few people may decide to turn in. Make it an even 120. If I could grade 10 each day I'd be home free, but I can't do that because of the way the deadlines are staggered--and I have no control over the final exam schedule, so don't blame me.

Of course I did this to myself, as usual. It's hard to get around requiring final research projects at the end of the semester. If the project is supposed to represent the culmination of the student's learning over the course of the semester, then it can't really be due in the third week of classes. The right time for final projects is right now, and the right time for finals is next week, which adds up to a whole flock of exploding ducks.

But what am I complaining about? All I have to do is grade 'em; my students are the ones doing the hard work. Those taking multiple literature classes are typing their little fingers off this week, walking around with dark rings under their eyes and wondering whether they'll have a single coherent thought left in their brains by the end of next week. At that point we'll all congratulate ourselves on surviving the Exploding Duck Syndrome epidemic, even if it leaves us all feeling like birdbrains.

Friday, December 02, 2016

Just what we need: more automated hand-holding

Yesterday I was among a group of faculty members previewing a new online student-success system that guarantees--GUARANTEES!--that it will improve student retention rates, which is tempting if true, but the whole thing feels so intrusive and Big Brotherish that it's one step away from providing every student with a personal robot to make sure he gets to class and then nags him to do his homework. Whether it's called Student SuccessWorks or GradeGuardPro or MyMomBot, that system is going to make someone a billionaire.

Which makes me wonder: If I provide some essential scripts for MyMomBot, will the inventor cut me in on the profits? Can't hurt to try:

[Gentle chimes.] Rise and shine, [insert name here]! I've laid out your clothes and ironed your socks, so you've got just enough time to dress, print out your paper,  and head to the dining hall before your 8:00 class! Press 1 to accept this reminder, 2 if you'd like just five more minutes of sleep, or 3 to indicate illness and initiate a call to MyDocBot.

[Rooster crowing.] I said rise and shine, [insert name here]! I see in my databank that you've already reached your quota of absences in your 8:00 class so missing another class will endanger your grade. We care about your success! If you get up right now, you've got just enough time to print out your paper and get to class if you skip breakfast! But I don't want you to go to class hungry--I am prepared to distribute a quick breakfast on the go. Press 1 for a granola bar, 2 for a banana, 3 for a hard-boiled egg.

[Foghorn.] Okay, no more messing around, [insert name here]! No time to lose if you don't want to lose more points in your 8:00 class! Don't even think about the socks I ironed for you--just roll out of bed, print out your paper, and dash into class a few minutes late. I'm prepared to issue an excuse to suit your need: press 1 for dead grandparent, 2 for computer virus, or 3 for roommate's suicide attempt. 

[Sirens.] Are you planning to get out of bed at all today, [insert name here]? We care about your success! But after all the time and money we've invested in your success, all you want to do is lie there like a bum. Don't you care about your future? Do you want to spend the rest of your life flipping burgers and living in your parents' basement? If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times--all we want is for you to be happy! But you'll never be happy if you fail freshman comp. So are you going to get out of bed on your own or do I have to drag you out? Press 1 for "drag me out," 2 for "pour cold water on my head," or 3 for -- wait, what are you doing? Put that sledgehammer down! We care about your success! We care about your success! We care about y----

And the rest is silence. 


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Random bullets of--squirrel!

Because we've reached that point in the semester was I saying? Oh yes: because all these interesting but utterly unbloggable crises keep walking into my office or ringing my phone, and because assignments keep piling up at the very same time that holiday events eat into my free time (whatever that is), and because--squirrel!--and just because, here are some random bullets of just can't think straight:

  • I have come to the conclusion that dealing with the surgery scheduler at my doctor's office is bad for my blood pressure. I've been trying to schedule a routine colonoscopy since April, but various obstacles have arisen and been dealt with in due course, with the result that I'm scheduled to undergo that delightful procedure on Dec. 19. But just now I got word that I will be charged a large fee for failing to show up for the procedure on an earlier date--a date the doctor had previously cancelled! Is it any wonder that I have the surgery scheduler's phone number on speed-dial?
  • In case you're wondering how I'm going to get my final grades in on Dec. 20 when my last final exams come in on Dec. 16 and I'm doing colonoscopy prep on Dec. 18 and the colonoscopy on Dec. 19, well, I'm wondering the same thing.
  • If I'd known that all it would take to change a student's life forever was to demonstrate how to format hanging indent in Microsoft Word, I would have done it weeks ago. (Which I did, but apparently some people weren't paying attention.)
  • And if you want to feel old, take a look at some of the things my students wrote about what was happening "back in the 1900s": women were not allowed to work outside the home and had to wear long dresses all the time; slavery had only recently been abolished; and poverty drove people to desperate measures to feed their families. Ah yes, back to the thrilling days of 1997, when everyone dressed like Granny Clampett and cooked road-kill possums for supper!
  • This morning on the way to work I heard Alvin and the Chipmunks singing "Christmas Don't Be Late" (click here), but at this point I'd like to request that Christmas just slow down and move a week or two into January. Whom shall I call to request that schedule change?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Missing a magical voice

Last night in the middle of a big confusing kerfuffle I was suddenly overcome by a desire to call my mom and find out what she'd have to say about the whole situation. But of course I didn't. No phone lines in the grave.

This doesn't happen often. Of course I think about my mother, especially at this time of year when I recall how she used to grill me for information about what sort of Christmas gift every member of my family might want, and then she would come through with the book I'd been longing for or maybe a nice warm sweater. Today, it's not the gifts I think of but the warmth in her voice when we talked on the phone. We lived 800 miles apart for most of my adult life, so we talked on the phone a lot.

Once upon a time my mom had a magical voice full of love and caring. Years ago when my daughter was a toddler, a 17-year-old girl driving a borrowed Firebird ran a stop sign and crashed into my car. I was bruised and shaken and my daughter screamed her head off until the police car pulled up with its flashing lights, stunning her into sudden silence. 

My car was totalled but I was fine--or at least that's what I kept telling myself. My husband was in the middle of grad-school final exams and couldn't be disturbed so I needed to deal with the insurance people and find a new used car quickly (with a toddler in tow), and I really didn't have time to be anything but fine so I held myself together for two full days. Then my mother called out of the blue just to chat. That's when I fell to pieces.

Sometimes I just need to talk to my mom--but how did she know?

If I could talk to my mom today, I'd talk to her as she was back then, before disease started eating away pieces of her personality, diminishing her ability to understand and communicate. But even at the end, when she was suffering so horribly, she kept trying to comfort the rest of us and take care of our needs. Lying on her back in the hospital bed, helpless, inert, she would look right at me and ask, "Can I get you anything?"

Last night I tried to channel that voice, to embody the warmth and caring while dealing with a different family member in crisis, but being far away from the situation made me feel helpless, as if my hands were tied. How did my mom manage to convey all that caring across the miles, across the years, across the phone lines? That's what I wanted to ask her. But, sadly, she's not taking calls.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Okay, so maybe I am a lemming

They tell me that today is Cyber Monday, but who gets to decide these things? If I officially declared this entire month No-Shopping-Vember, would anyone listen? Probably not, and yet apparently millions of people listen to the mysterious forces who have declared this Cyber Monday, the forces behind the Facebook ad that keeps telling me to go ahead and shop at work today because my boss is shopping online too! (A statement, by the way, that demonstrates utter lack of understanding of both business ethics and my boss.)

The only way Cyber Monday would tempt me would be if Amazon offered a Get-Out-of-Cyber-Monday Free card, but then I would have to indulge in Cyber Monday Madness to order it, which would defeat the purpose. 

Which is what, exactly? Why resist an activity that millions of cyber-shoppers find irresistible?

I don't resist online shopping. In fact, in the past week alone I have dedicated a significant number of minutes (not hours) to perusing my children's Amazon wish lists and oohing and aahing over all cute things at the Melissa and Doug Toys site. But I employ a similar shopping method both online and off: write a list; dash in and buy what I need; and then dash out again as quickly as possible without being distracted by shiny pretty things. Since this kind of shopping is incompatible with massive crowds, I've never shopped on Black Friday, even though I know this makes me un-American. (So sue me.)

What I resist is the herd instinct, that desire to shop simply because everyone else is doing it, lured by "deals" that really aren't that great. Here's an example: I love to visit the local shops on Small Business Saturday because they offer special sales and holiday snacks, and I always get a chance to chat with interesting people. However, I did not participate in the local promotion: buy something at 15 different downtown shops in one day and earn a gift card. Why not? I had only three items on my list and I do not know how to spread out three purchases over 15 different shops, especially since all three items were available in only one shop. To earn the gift card, I would have had to find some small thing to purchase in another 14 shops, many of them specializing in the kinds of gift items I resist. I do not need any more smelly candles or "primitive" crafts or festive flags to hang in my yard, and I'm not going to buy them for others just so I can earn a "free" gift card.

So I may be a crank and a Grinch and un-American to boot, but when it comes to shopping, I am not a lemming! Of course, scientists tell us that even lemmings aren't lemmings in the metaphorical sense either, so I'm in very good company. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

From creativity to cranberries--so many thanks!

Any litany of thankfulness this week must begin with the half dozen students who missed appointments with me on Monday and Tuesday, opening some unexpected grading time so  I wouldn't have to take any grading home with me for Thanksgiving break. Thanks, students!

I'm thankful too for the students whose talents have been on display these past few weeks--playing and singing and performing in a play and sharing their creative writing at our departmental reading last week. I love seeing them shine in so many areas outside the classroom, and I love it even more when they shine inside the classroom too.

I'm thankful for the aroma of ginger and cranberries filling my house as I made the annual batch of tart cranberry chutney, because even though we joined the in-laws to eat Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant, I can't enjoy the holiday season without a big bowl of chutney in my fridge and more to share with others.

For safe travels through the rain and family and friends gathered around the table I give thanks, and for a chance to tell my granddaughter stories and help her with her bath and help my grandson endure the hassle of an ear infection. For a son and daughter and son-in-law who make me proud and fill me with confidence about the future, and for a husband who puts up with me even when I'm so tired that cranky is my default mode, I'm forever thankful.

For cashew nuts and corduroy, for children's smiles and giggles, for seven years since my last chemotherapy session, for a big ugly chunk of debt fading away to nothing, for so many things I can't begin to count, I'm thankful today. (The challenge, of course, will be to carry that thankfulness forward to tomorrow.) 


Monday, November 21, 2016

Putting Dylan on the syllabus

It started off as a joke--honestly, I never really intended to put Bob Dylan on my American Lit Survey syllabus, Nobel Prize or no Nobel Prize. But as I was casting about for ways to revise the assignment for the poetry analysis paper to solve a particular problem, I had an epiphany--a crazy idea that just might work.

The problem is that my students are afraid of poetry. Not all poetry, of course, and not all students either, but the Survey class attracts many students seeking general education credit, who tend not to be poetry-lovers. In fact, if I were to calculate the ratio of poetry-haters to poetry-lovers in any given semester, I would never set foot back in the classroom.

For many students, hatred of poetry springs from an intense, crippling fear of getting the interpretation wrong, as if each poem carried a secret hidden meaning accessible only to the initiated, and the fear of missing this secret hidden meaning sends them scurrying to online sources promising to reveal the secret. The result is a pile of papers stuffed with thinly disguised paraphrase of cliches drawn from web sites. Depressing.

I want them to think about what poetry is, what it's made of, and what it can accomplish in the world, but instead they serve me a bland cliche casserole. How to engage them in the question of why poetry matters?

Enter Bob Dylan--and, for the sake of variety, Leonard Cohen, both much in the news lately. Here is the current draft of the American Lit Survey poetry paper prompt: 
When Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, many objected: "He's a songwriter, not a poet." Similarly, when songwriter Leonard Cohen died, many people mourned the passing of a "poet." This raises the question: What is a poet? And if a poet is someone who writes poems, then what is a poem?

This paper will require you to answer that question. First, pick either Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen as your test case, and then write an essay arguing that Dylan or Cohen is or is not a poet for reasons you will state. The successful essay will
  • articulate at least three specific criteria that characterize poetry;
  • provide examples from at least two works by Dylan or Cohen; and 
  • provide examples from two others poets on the syllabus (for contrast or support).
I hope that this assignment will drive students to think deeply about what constitutes poetry, and even if they want to argue that a poem is something that rhymes, that's just one point. They'll have to look more deeply for the others, and they'll have to find some point of comparison between Dylan or Cohen and other poets on the syllabus, like Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, or Li-Young Lee. 

If nothing else, I've given them something to argue about, and what could be better than a room full of student arguing about the nature of poetry?  

Friday, November 18, 2016

Is "comic jeremiad" a contradiction in terms?

What's the difference between a jeremiad and a rant?

The question arose in my comedy class yesterday as we discussed the efficacy of comedy in persuasion, using examples dealing with gun control, which isn't exactly a guffaw-inducing topic. We looked at some Onion articles ("NRA Calls for Teachers to Keep Loaded Gun Pointed at Class for Entire School Day") and Samantha Bee's impassioned response to the Orlando massacre (click here). 

I asked the students to think about an issue they feel strongly about and then decide which would be more likely to change their mind: a researched essay presenting reliable data or a humorous rant. Their responses were pretty evenly split, which can be read two ways: either comedy is a more effective persuader than I'd imagined or else students recognize the value of serious research.

One thing they agreed they would not find persuasive would be a jeremiad. Apparently nobody wants to be preached down to or condemned, but comedy makes a bitter message more palatable. So they want a funny jeremiad--does such a thing exist? 

(I think we call that a rant.)

I meant to rant and vent,
to cant 'til they'd repent,
to scorch them with a jeremiad--
But I made them laugh instead.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

A thankful Thursday

I'm not going to refer to this as a thankless job any more, thanks to the first-year composition student who thanked me this morning for making him write so much and get lots of feedback on his writing. "It's made me feel more confident in my writing," he said. 

I often hear the complaints, the whining from students who claim they've never had to write a paper so long!!! --Who think writing 1000 words each week is torture or wonder why they should have to read all those comments on their drafts. 

But then I see the subtle improvements in style and organization, the mastery of skills that were previously pretty rusty, the improved fluidity in approaching writing prompts. I'm convinced that writing a lot and getting frequent feedback makes a significant improvement in their writing skills, but it's not every day that a student recognizes the improvement.

And when he does, all I can do is say thanks right back. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On reading the room

A sea of blank looks accompanied by silence--how am I supposed to interpret that? Did you not understand? Were you even listening? Are you in there? Hello?

Then a wave a laughter fills the room. No problem interpreting laughter: You got it! You really got it!

Two students who always come to class together, sit together, leave together, suddenly start arriving separately and sitting on opposite sides of the room. Ooh, trouble in paradise? Better not draw attention to the rift--I wouldn't want anyone to run from the room in tears.

A student in the back eagerly nods and smiles--at some brilliant point I've just made or at something she sees on the smartphone cleverly hidden beneath the desk? I can't see enough to know. Call on her for comment? Absolutely--and this time she has something interesting to say about the topic at hand. Next time, who knows?

They keep me on my feet, these students, forcing me to constantly scan for meaning in their facial expressions and body language. Reading the room is one of those essential skills I never learned in grad school but had to develop through experience, always aware that as I'm trying to read my students, they're trying to read me as well. Sometimes we get it wrong without quite knowing why, but when we get it right, the class and I work together like an improvisation team, building a beautiful learning experience. 

And when we get it wrong? Well, there's always next time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Perplexed, picky, and persnickety

I'm sitting in my office waiting for a student who promised to come in and explain how all those pages of text from online sources ended up in his paper word-for-word without any quotation marks or citations, but the student is late, which is a good thing because it gives me a brief writing break but a bad thing because--seriously, dude, you beg for an appointment at an awkward time to seek mercy after committing obvious plagiarism? You'd better show up.

So I'm annoyed--angry, even--at the amount of time I'll have to spend tracking down the sources of the plagiarized passages, meeting with the student, filing the appropriate paperwork with the Provost's office, and no doubt listening to appeal after appeal before this incident gets put to rest. 

And I'm further annoyed at the way previous students' bad acts have inspired me to add new and persnickety requirements to assignment sheets until they become these immense lumbering agglomerations of prose longer than the assignment itself. A small example: in my first-year writing course, a library research assignment requires students to check a book out of our college library, summarize a chapter, evaluate its usefulness for their research, and write a proper citation. Students always question the most nit-picky detail of the assignment: no credit at all unless they show me the actual physical book.

That requirement arose in response to previous students who
  • wrote a summary of a chapter of a textbook from another class;
  • grabbed some random book they found lying around the dorm on the day the assignment was due;
  • delegated one member of the clique to check out a library book and write a summary that the rest of the group merely paraphrased;
  • wrote a summary based on a book review in a magazine; or
  • invented details about an imaginary book out of their clever little heads.
I could go on, but it's too depressing. At some point in the process I get to tell them, "I know it's not fair for you to have to work harder just because some student long ago discovered a clever way to game the system. Welcome to the real world!"

So today I sit here waiting for a student whose actions may inspire yet another persnickety paragraph to be added to an assignment sheet, when I would really prefer to congratulate the 19 other students who did not plagiarize but instead wrote papers that fulfill the requirements of the assignment, often elegantly and persuasively. I'd like to tell my recalcitrant student, "Go and do likewise." But first the student would have to show up. 


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Simply being, with grandkids and birds

I'm sitting by the big picture window with my four-month-old grandson on my lap, his head turning as he scans the room for interesting stuff, but then he looks outside and locks his eyes--on what? Does he see the bluejays tussling for the best spot at the feeder, the finches flitting around the thistle, the first junco of the season hopping in the grass? Or is he puzzling over the colorful maple leaves shaking in the wind? Whatever he sees, it has his full attention.

Then along comes big sister: "Grandma, I want to watch birds with you!" Fortunately, there's room at the window for all of us and plenty of birds to go around. But she doesn't stay for long. She is very, very busy serving invisible soup to a menagerie of stuffed animals, and then she wants to color and build a marble tower and play her uncle's drums.

This is what I like about spending time with my grandkids: I don't have to be smart or creative or reasonable or even coherent; I just have to be here. Sometimes that's about all I can manage, but fortunately, it's enough.
Grampa enjoying his sweeties.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Techless wonders

I thought my bag felt a little lighter than usual as I was walking toward my office this morning, and I soon realized why: no computer. Yes: I used my office laptop to take minutes at a meeting last evening and then took it home--and left it there. Oops.

Things I accomplished this morning without my computer:
  • filed a pile of miscellaneous paperwork in appropriate folders
  • tossed a pile of old exams into the shredder
  • put a pile of books back in their places on the shelves
  • proofread a pile of legal papers from my dad, trying to locate all the places where my phone number was incorrect (but at least they were consistent!)
  • wrote a letter (on paper! by hand!) to a former student, after searching through my desk drawer for a note card that said something other than "Thank you" or "In sympathy" (and now I wonder about that sympathy card: I clearly bought it intending to express sympathy, but to whom?)
  • turned toward the place where my computer normally sits at least a dozen times intending to write an email, only to once again realize that it wasn't there
Things I did not do this morning in the absence of my computer:
  • read email
  • write email
  • blog
  • read online news, blogs, or social media sites
  • correct the error on a rubric that led to a student's receiving an incorrect grade
  • locate my favorite version of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" to post on Facebook 
  • write up the minutes from last night's Faculty Council meeting (which took two and a half hours despite a limited agenda and once again raises the question: why can't six PhDs figure out how to conduct faculty governance in under two and a half hours a week?)
  • tap away at the computer keyboard while my first-year composition students practiced Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Paragraph
  • check my online schedule to make sure I can leave campus early today to prepare for the grandkids' visit

So all day I've been playing it by ear, flying by the seat of my pants, and trusting that the world will continue turning despite the absence of my laptop computer. And if it doesn't, I'm counting on you to let me know. (But not by email.)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Carrying on through the fog

Anyone want to talk about the weather? It's still out there, doing its daily thing. Hey, how about that fog this morning?

[Tap, tap--is this thing on?]

What about baseball? Sure, the season's over, but my guy Francisco Lindor got a gold glove! When will I be able to get a Lindor bobblehead to stand beside my Omar Vizquel? My team may have lost in the end, but there's always next season!


Let me tell you about my grandkids!

[Chirp, chirp.]

Okay, I've got nothing. Nothing to say about the election, and no words sufficient to comfort the student who fears for his family's safety at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric has been blessed by the masses. I can't even listen to the radio without wanting to yell. I'm just trying to keep calm and carry on through the fog. (Even if I can't find the words to talk about it.)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Existential Crisis 101

The student in front of me had two big problems: how to survive this semester and what to do with the whole rest of her life. I was able to help with the first problem but the second still needs work.  

Yes: we've reached that time in the semester when everyone seems to be suffering severe existential crises. I keep having students tell me they don't know why they're here, with here meaning in this class, in college, away from their family during rough times, or stuck in deep holes they've dug for themselves. I never took a class on how to deal with distraught students, but I know how to listen, when to offer the Kleenex box, and when to call the Counseling Center for an immediate intervention.

I worry more about the students who don't know they need help, or who know they need help but can't take the first step toward getting it. What do you do with a failing student who insists that everything is just peachy-keen and who resists my every attempt to alert him to impending doom? I confess that I may have raised my voice. Just a little. Okay, more than a little. I'm not proud of myself, but the situation called for something extreme, and if cursing isn't an option, maybe a little extra volume might get the point across.

But now I'm sitting quietly and waiting, between appointments, for the next crisis, Kleenex box at the ready and Counseling Center on speed-dial, but some of these messes require sturdier tools. 

Hand me a shovel, will you? It's time to start digging.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Hiking through history

If pressed, I could come up with a valid pedagogical reason for my class field trip yesterday, but mostly I just wanted to take my Honors students on a hike up the side of a hill on a beautiful fall afternoon.

The absence of cell-phone coverage at Mountwood Park was an asset--no Pokemons in those woods!--so they had no excuse not to listen when I asked them things: What's different about this tree? (The only tree blooming in November--witch hazel, source of pioneer medicines.) Why are we seeing a stone wall in the middle of dense woods? (Because this hasn't always been woods. Second-growth forest covering a former cow pasture.) Why are these ruins located at the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere? Why would anyone build a mansion way up here? (Because this hasn't always been the middle of nowhere; the ruins are evidence of the great wealth that flowed into the area during the first oil and gas boom in the late nineteenth century.)

My students recently finished reading Cold Mountain, in which Inman walks through autumn mountains much taller than this little foothill, moving silently to avoid capture by the Home Guard. As we hiked briskly over paths covered with dry leaves, we sounded like a herd of bison thundering past. "If we're Inman," I said, "We're dead."

But the cool fall air and strenuous uphill hike made us feel fully alive and invigorated, and that's as good a reason as any for a field trip. Maybe along the way we learned a little something about how to read layers of meaning on a landscape, but mostly we just enjoyed a nice autumn hike in the woods.  

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Running into the flames (and dragging my students behind me)

Putting a textbook on the syllabus without having first read it is risky, which is why I rarely do it. Next semester, though, I'm teaching Creative Nonfiction, a class in which it's important to get a taste of cutting-edge essays, so I went ahead and adopted The Best American Essays 2016 before the book was even in print. Now comes the moment of truth: I finally have the book in my hands and a few hours to kill. Will it work?
The writer has to be like the firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames, is to run straight into them. Your material feels too hot, too shameful, to even think about? Therefore you must write about it.
That's Jonathan Franzen in the Introduction, a rich and rewarding essay about the writing of essays. I normally wouldn't ask students to read the Introduction to an anthology, but in this case, it does exactly what I want from a reading assignment early in the semester. I haven't finished the book yet, but the essays I've read vary in style and substance but not in demonstrated willingness to take risks, to move beyond the stuffy constraints suggested by the very word essay

I knew I was taking a risk when I put the book on my syllabus, but in this case, it looks like the risk will pay off.