Thursday, March 31, 2016

Seeking a still spot in the maelstrom

Some years ago (2003, I think it was) I attended a conference on the Poetics of Exile, where a discussion of what exile means led someone (a poet, I think) to state that exile means experiencing your mother's death via long-distance phone call. 

I'm not in exile and my mother is not quite on the point of death, but she's dealing with a pretty serious diagnosis and difficult treatments so I'm spending a lot of time on the phone trying to figure out how she's doing and what I ought to do and when would be the best time to travel to Florida and how I'll get there (my mechanic just told me this morning, "You've gotten about every possible bit of use out of these brakes"), so it's not surprising that suddenly my blood pressure is higher than it's been for the past decade and my doctor wants to schedule a round of time-consuming tests while I'm in the middle of working ahead on my class preps so that if I have to leave suddenly, I'll leave behind a reasonable plan for getting my students through the rest of the semester.

Trust me: none of this is particularly fun. I feel helpless a dozen times every day. I've been gratified by my colleagues' offers to cover my classes and I'm pretty confident that at some point a clear path forward will reveal itself, but meanwhile, I'm trying to just do my job in the midst of the maelstrom. Some days it works well; others not so much.

I want to follow Wendell Berry into "The Peace of Wild Things," the woodland beasts "who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief." I want to find rest by still water.

But I have meetings all afternoon and drafts to read and a plagiarism case to investigate and at some point I'll need to get some groceries and clean the bathrooms and retrieve my car (with new brakes!) and wrap a gift and I don't know what else. 

So tomorrow I'm giving myself the afternoon off. My 1:00 class isn't meeting, so I intend to walk away from whatever work remains and find a place near woods and water where no one can find me and turn off my phone and be still. One afternoon of voluntary exile may not fix anything, but if it helps me endure these difficult weeks, then it's worth every minute.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Anyone lived in a pretty how town (but never went to grad school)

Recently a colleague in a STEM field was describing the difficulty of finding qualified experts to teach a particular upper-level course, and it never occurred to me to ask, "Can't anyone in your department teach that?" I've been around academe long enough to know that every field has its areas of expertise and while most of us could, in a pinch, teach an intro-level course outside that area, those upper-level specialized courses require a level of expertise not possessed by everyone.

So it's always surprising to be reminded that others don't necessarily share that understanding. Years ago we had a provost who wanted us to search for someone who could teach anything, but good luck finding that universally qualified person. Maybe it's a mistake for graduate programs to insist on turning out scholars with expertise in specific areas, but on the other hand, how long would you have to stay in grad school to become an expert in everything?

And now that my own department is working on ways to staff certain courses in the coming years, I'm hearing that same annoying question that I've refused to ask others: "Can't anyone in your department teach that course?"

The problem is that anyone doesn't work here. Instead, we are an eclectic collection of someones who have worked long and hard to develop expertise in specific areas, and while we're all committed to lifelong learning and willing to stretch outside our comfort zones, it would be ridiculous to expect any of us to develop full-blown scholarly expertise in an entirely different area in our "free time."

Maybe somewhere there's an academic discipline in which anyone can teach everything, but until that condition becomes universal, we'll continue to rely upon that highly qualified someone to teach that special something so necessary to our students.      

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Another reason I won't be retiring any time soon

One of these days when I finally retire the college will cancel classes so everyone can celebrate Bev Day, which will feature poetry slams, doggerel duels, and a massive all-campus Scrabble tournament followed by a cruise on the river with great food and speeches of appreciation from students I've inspired and colleagues I've mentored.

I'm dreaming, of course. For one thing, every time I pay a visit to the money in my retirement plan, it laughs a cruel laugh and says "dream on." For another, I stink at goodbyes and shrink from gratitude. Just yesterday, for instance, a student came to my office to thank me for all kinds of interesting things, but I just wanted to hide under my desk. I'm supposed to be the word expert, but put me in front of a beloved student at Commencement and all I can do is mutter cliches and make a quick escape.

And then I cry. It doesn't take much to move me to the edge of tears--a great line of poetry, a picture of my granddaugher, even a really well-made car commercial--but a room full of people trying to say "So long and thanks for all the fish" will reduce me to a blubbering moron with a face that looks like a raw, oozing wound.

So I sympathize with colleagues who resist the hoopla and just ease silently from the scene. I'd like to be able to just walk away and hope that I've left a mark, but it makes it hard on those left behind, who would really appreciate a chance to offer a final hurrah. 

So here's my compromise position: when (if?) I finally retire, I'd like all the hoopla the college can muster, but I'd like to put on a Cloak of Invisibility so I can enjoy the fun without being noticed. I'll ask my colleagues over in Physics to get to work on that whole invisibility thing--surely they'll have time to perfect it by the time I can afford to retire.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Dash away all!

One student needs to be told--repeatedly, on every paper--that dashes are like Tabasco sauce: a little bit goes a long way. Another asks--out loud, in front of everyone--"What's a dash?" (And she's not kidding.)

And then there are the punctuation avoiders, students who pile word on word and phrase on phrase without a shadow of a hint of a comma and who approach the semicolon as if it were about to bite them and who have to be reminded that a question should end in a question mark and who even sometimes forget to put an end stop at the end of the sentence as if it could go on eternally and infinitely and neverendingly and lots of other synonyms students like to find in the handy thesaurus they keep always open on the laptop screen to allow easy access to words that are often right but frequently only almost right and sometimes dead wrong and when will this sentence ever end and what was I talking about anyway?!

Ah yes: punctuation! It's a beautiful thing. I'm not going to mourn its imminent demise as long as I see commas deployed elegantly in the occasional paper, but it's really difficult to teach proper use of the dash to students who've never seen one--and don't even get me started on the colon. Once (this is true) I detected a case of plagiarism after a student used a colon correctly, such a rare occurrence that it put me on my guard. When I encourage a student to use a semicolon to connect complete sentences, half of the time I get either a colon connecting sentences or a semicolon connecting dependent clauses. (And if you know why that's funny, you are a certified grammar nerd.)

Hyphens (not dashes!) do one kind of job,
virgules (or slashes) another.
Ellipses replace the deleted words.

(Students ask--to my face--"Why bother?")

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Mail-merge gone mad!

From today's Columbus Dispatch
Ohio State University wanted to reassure 17,000 accepted applicants that they won't be lost in the crowd at an institution with 50,000-plus undergraduates.

The problem: The postcards they sent out all had wrong first and/or middle names for the prospective students.

Dear prospective student:
Please accept my personal apology for the computer error that mangled your name in a recent mailing. We are well aware that no sensible person would name a child Pataskala--unless that is your actual name, in which case please accept my personal apology for ridiculing your given name.  (Although if your name really is Pataskala, maybe you ought to ask your parents for an apology along with regular sessions with a good therapist).

In addition, we are heartily sorry that the salutation "Dear Potential Moneybags" slipped past our skilled proofreaders. They'd been out to a long lunch celebrating Evelyn's divorce from that no-account scumbag Earl, and they may have been less than diligent in their duties. Nothing personal! Such an error is unlikely to occur in the future thanks to a strict "no long lunch" rule and a revolution in Evelyn's outlook now that she's moving in with her new soul mate, Pataskala.

And you know that part of the message where we encouraged you to enroll in our Children of Convicted Sex Offenders support group? Sorry! We don't actually have a CCSO support group, but you can play an important part in creating this vital resource by pledging to donate $75 per month in perpetuity, for which you will receive as a thank-you gift one "Barely Legal" pinup calendar.

Finally, I want to assure you that our skilled IT people have repaired the glitch that scrambled some information on previous mailings so such an error will not be repeated. We are fully committed to making each student feel welcomed and appreciated as an individual human being, and that means you. So please give us another chance to woo you, Wapakoneta!

(Unless your name is Pataskala, in which case see paragraph 1.)

Brutus Blackeye  

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Put the cash on the barrel-head

It was the typical faculty gripe-fest about students who don't value their time in class, who applaud when you let them out five minutes early and have multiple orgasms of joy when you have to cancel class, as if they don't realize that a cancelled class means they're getting less than they paid for, and so on and so on yadda yadda yadda, when someone came up with a brilliant idea: Maybe they'd value their time in class more if they had to pay in full up front. 

Imagine how it would spice up the matriculation ceremony if students had to walk through the center of campus pushing wheelbarrows full of greenbacks! Or if students had to swipe a credit-card reader every time they came through the door of a classroom--think how cheated they'd feel if we let them out early!

I don't know how such a system would handle my student who comes in five minutes early, sets his backpack down on his chair, and then steps out to do whatever he does--phone call? cigarette break? rest room?--only to return to class three minutes after we've started. "I wasn't late," he insists, pointing to his backpack. (Maybe his backpack should get the credit for the work he's missed.)

Monday, March 21, 2016

I don't know where to put this so I'll just leave it right here.

You know you live in the sticks when the local newspaper can be relied upon to include a spelling error in an article about the regional spelling bee. This time they misspelled the.

A student e-mailed to ask whether adding subtopic X will improve his paper. "It depends on what you do with it," I told him, and then I offered some suggestions. I don't know what he can do until he writes, but he doesn't want to write until I tell him whether his writing will be good enough. I don't see a way out of this impasse.  

Rambling? Just a bit, but you'd be rambling too if you'd had the kind of day I've had. I'm lucky I still remember how to spell the.

I didn't intend to hit that bunny this morning--honest! It just ran out in front of me in a thick fog. At least it wasn't carrying a basket of colored eggs. (Wait, bunnies carry baskets of eggs? Who thought that was a viable plan?)

Didn't get the summer research grant I applied for. Nuts. Now I'll have to find a different way to motivate my summer work. Maybe I'll lay in a supply of little gold stars.

A friend recently posted a bunch of photos from our church youth group events when I was in ninth and tenth grade, and every time I appear, I'm happy. This does not accord with my memories of adolescence, which are full of loneliness, despair, and self-loathing. Either the pictures lie or I'm an expert at viewing life through mud-colored glasses.
That would be me.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac: Our fathers, ourselves

I was mentally composing an impassioned rant about the last quarter of Ethan Canin's A Doubter's Almanac, grumbling under my breath that I wished a certain character would would for heaven's sake just hurry up and die, and then a single line in the final chapter absolutely floored me: "I remember being happy."

It's not a particularly impressive line, but when it arrives in the final chapter of a book devoted to characters who seem determined to make each other unhappy, the line is both surprising and oddly believable--but you'll have to read the book to find out why.

I often teach Canin's short story "The Year of Getting to Know Us," in which a rebellious teen struggles to assimilate unpleasant knowledge about his distant and intractable father. Toward the end the dad is giving his son a rare golf lesson when the dad says, "You don't have to get to know me because one day you're going to grow up and then you're going to be me." Tragically, he's right.

A Doubter's Almanac covers similar territory in much greater detail, introducing brilliant but tortured mathematician Milo Andret first through his own eyes and then through those of his son, Hans, who knows his father well enough to know he doesn't want to grow up to be him but can't seem to stop himself. In Canin's hands the characters come to life in all their--well, I wouldn't exactly call it glory. "Ignorance and wounded shrieking" is Milo's assessment of the human condition, which about covers the tenor of the book.

And yet it's a compelling and skillfully crafted novel. Milo holds his own alongside a long line of Professors Behaving Badly--move over, Thomas H. Chippering, Moses Herzog, and William Henry "Lucky Hank" Devereaux Jr.--with the exception of his total absence of humor. The humorless boy who carves an elaborate chain from a chunk of tree stump only to hide it carefully away ("he'd long wanted to produce something worthy of concealing") becomes the humorless adult so single-mindedly devoted to his worthy goals that he alienates anyone who gets in his way and even some who don't.

Which makes that moment of happiness in the final chapter so much more remarkable. The novel could easily have turned into an extended rant about horrible fathering, but Canin knows that no son would be so obsessed with a father who didn't have some redeeming qualities, and he also knows that memory is fickle and a child determined to hate his father would have to intentionally block out those fleeting moments of happiness.

Hans believes that he has escaped his father's obsessions with solving great mathematical mysteries, but he merely transposes his father's obsessions to a different field, turning algorithms into ready money by peddling "the shadow of the prediction of risk" on Wall Street. He and his father hunt for different types of treasure, but Milo recognizes in Hans a similar obsession with the pursuit itself:
We'll always be in chase. In chase of the next question, which we're usually familiar with because it was the answer to the previous one. Everything builds. Increment upon increment....The trick is accumulating the steps, each one so trivial that it can be comprehended by the crippled thing we call the mind.
A Doubter's Almanac builds its case against Milo Andret step by excruciating step but then, surprisingly, turns back and starts tearing those steps down. In the end Canin provides no bright moment of redemption, but he does allow us to turn away from the "ignorance and wounded shrieking" long enough to hear a refreshing note of joyful laughter.

Friday, March 18, 2016

All aboard the Interpretive Map Express!

How do you draw a map of chaos?

My Postcolonial Lit students just completed their second Interpretive Map assignment, which requires them to map out the locations in a piece of literature in a way that illuminates contexts or themes. For this assignment, they could choose to map out a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri, a chapter from Salman Rushdie's Shame, or a short story by Krishan Chander. Nearly half of them chose the Chander story.

It must have looked like an easy pick, especially compared to the Rushdie chapters with their rapid shifts in place and time. For instance, two students mapped out Rushdie's "Mother Country," one as an ever-evolving labyrinth with no clear way out, the other as a set of clearly defined steps in which the paths multiply and meander toward chaos.

Those who chose Chander, however, may have thought that "Peshawar Express" would make for easy mapping, since it's narrated by a train carrying Hindu refugees fleeing the newly-created Pakistan immediately after the 1947 Partition. The story traces events of senseless bloodshed, violence, and hatred, but on the other hand, how hard could it be to map out the route of a train?

Pretty hard. "Peshawar Express" offers many names of places, but students couldn't always tell whether those place names referred to cities or regions, and names of unfamiliar landmarks left them scratching their heads. They also discovered the fluidity of geography: names changes; routes vary; borders move. No two maps of the train's route looked quite the same.

One map showed a very clear route for the train but then down in the little box in the corner of the map, where you would expect to see an explanation of symbols or demographic data, I found a list of the number of people killed or at each point on the route and the method of killing. The juxtaposition of cold, hard data with brutal bloodshed was positively chilling and effectively evoked the mood of the story.

When we were learning about the massacres surrounding Partition, a student asked, "Why haven't we heard about this before?" Good question! One student said drawing the map made him sad because it made him aware once again of how much we don't know about the pain of others, while looking at how his classmates chose to map out the stories made him realize that "we pick and choose our history."

I told them when we started this that every map is an interpretation--an act of picking and choosing what matters and deciding how to represent those things visually. I'm not sure they believed me at first, but now? They've boarded the train and set out on the route, even if it leans pretty close to chaos. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Flood stage

Easy to see it's spring around here.

Floods of water over the dam, floods of student projects all over my desk.

It sounded like such a good idea when I created the assignment, but now I'm treading water.

(But at least I'm in good company.)

Come on in! The water's fine!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Ohio becomes a verb (again)

I can't believe it's been a full four years since I wrote the following post. So much has changed in the past four years--but not Ohio's voting stickers! I'm wearing one today.
Sometimes the best part of voting is getting the little sticker. This year, though, the sticker is nearly as incomprehensible as the ballot.

If you squint, you can just about make that the red Ohio looks sort of vaguely like a lopsided angular warped heart, which makes this "I Heart Voting." But if your eyes are worn out from trying to make sense of the ballot, the sticker looks like "I Ohio Voting," which makes sense as long as Ohio is a verb, or "I Lopsided Angular Warped Heart Voting," which makes no sense at all.

Who came up with this idea? Exhaustive research (of the first Google entry that popped up) reveals that this sticker design was the result of a statewide contest, earning 38 percent of the vote--and the first runner-up received 37 percent (see all the contenders here). The Ohio Secretary of State thinks all Ohioans should wear the sticker as a "badge of honor," but you'll notice he didn't call it a badge of grammar or logic or comprehensibility.

But okay: I'll wear my sticker as a badge of honor even if today I didn't particularly heart voting. This election season has been making my heart feel squeezed and stomped on and warped into lopsided shapes, and if that's what the sticker is trying to say, I'm all for it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

All publicity is good publicity (even when it's incomplete)

So my school was in the news over the weekend, and the results are about what you'd expect: pleasant but incomplete. NPR reporters may be thorough, but they don't talk fast enough to squeeze the whole story into a brief report.
A few weeks ago Noah Adams spent a day on campus interviewing a whole mess of people and on Saturday his report aired on All Things Considered (click here). A few of our students said intelligent things about the challenges of pursuing a Petroleum Engineering degree when the oil industry is not hiring, and some faculty members suggested that the decline in the petroleum industry is not the end of the world. However, a casual reader or listener could easily fall into the misconception that the Petro program defines Marietta College, especially since the only nod to the rest of the school is this brief statement: "The petro students are required to take history, philosophy, writing and communication courses, which may give them a leg up in shifting career choices."

Three cheers for the humanities! We exist to help Petro students remain employable in difficult times! (What's wrong with this picture?)

I suppose we're not the only campus on which one big flashy major overshadows other valuable programs, and I certainly appreciate the Petro program's ability to bring in talented students to fill general education classes. We've benefited during the Petro program's boom times, and we stand with them during the inevitable busts

Also, I can't blame NPR for assuming that the impact of oil prices on education would be interesting to listeners. It doesn't make national news when an English or history major has trouble finding a job, but Petro majors are doing exactly what the zeitgeist demands--pursuing a vocational program in a STEM field--but suddenly find doors to employment closing in their faces. That's a story! 

Once in a while, though, it would be nice to be known for something more than the Petro program. Year after year, decade after decade, we crank out students who pursue meaningful careers as doctors, lawyers, librarians, journalists, teachers, actors, accountants, entrepreneurs, and even the occasional academic, but what gets national coverage? Petro majors who fear that they won't find jobs.

But at least they have that liberal arts foundation to fall back on! Petroleum engineers who can write ought to be more employable than those who can't. (And if they want some advice on how to parlay their writing skill into a meaningful career, they ought to get advice from an English major.) 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Stepping in the same sea (oceans apart)

Five years ago today I sat on a beach near Carmel, California, sharing a picnic lunch with my California Literature class and watching the waves. We weren't the only ones keeping watch: news had been trickling in all morning about the Fukushima tsunami and fears that a similar wave would hit the Pacific coast.

We'd been gallivanting around San Francisco, Monterey, Salinas, and Carmel all week, learning about California literature at places important to California's writers. We'd spent the morning at Robinson Jeffers's house in Carmel and planned to picnic at Point Lobos, but tsunami warnings closed that park so we perched on a dune at another beach and carefully watched the crashing waves.

This was the last day of our week-long sojourn, which was educational and exhausting and exhilarating all at once. All morning we'd been fielding calls from concerned friends and family; my colleague who helped chaperon the trip has relatives in Japan, so our relaxing picnic was accompanied by an undercurrent of distress. With Walt Whitman we were "Facing West from California's Shores," looking toward "the house of maternity, the land of migrations" as the beginning and end of all our striving, "the circle almost circled."

We felt our closeness to the land across the sea, the same Pacific waters lapping at our feet carrying death and devastation to Japan, but of course we also felt our distance. We were safe, picnicking quietly high above the waves, while others just across the way were being swept to oblivion.

All that week we'd been, like Whitman, "Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound" and finding things we hadn't known we were searching for. Three of those students later returned to California for work or play and one worked for a while near Carmel and considers it her second home. I look back to that trip as my most rewarding teaching moment and I wonder whether I'll ever again pull off anything close to the learning experiences we found at Jack London's ranch or City Lights Books or Muir Woods or Hawk Tower.

Hawk Tower: built by hand by Robinson Jeffers, a poet who viewed building with stone and building with words as springing from the same impulse--the desire to create something that outlasts our meager existence:
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun
Die blind, his heart blackening:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey of peace in old poems.

We had our time in the sun; we enjoyed our sandwiches and poetry by the Pacific, grateful for the presence of peace but knowing that no ocean can completely separate us from the suffering of others. Today we remember the suffering and pray that they find peace.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Writing: reward or punishment?

Yesterday I was reading an article on Inside Higher Ed (here!) about a student who was found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to write a 500-word essay, and this morning I read another called "The Economy of Cheating" (here) that rationalized cheating in a case in which a prof "has inflicted an assignment of a 1,500-word paper on her students." I'll let others argue about the complexities of college sexual assault cases and academic dishonesty; I got hung up on that word inflicted and I wondered: who thinks it's a great idea to teach college students that writing is punishment?

Taken together, these articles demonstrate how colleges simultaneously value and devalue the writing process. On the one hand, the writing process is so powerful that it can somehow compensate for sexual assault; on the other, the writing process is so worthless that students would be better off outsourcing their term papers. Put the two together and we'll have rapists outsourcing their punishments. 

To me, being "sentenced" to write would be like having a doctor prescribe daily doses of ice cream, but I realize that others find writing more daunting. Imagine the outcry, though, if colleges everywhere started "sentencing" students to do math as punishment! Why not force the rapist to do a statistical analysis on, say, the impact of binge-drinking on college sexual assault? Or, to push the question to more ridiculous lengths, why not force the miscreant to compose a song or conduct a chemistry experiment or translate 500 lines of Latin?

Because learning should not be treated as punishment is the obvious answer, but then why do so many people find nothing odd about assigning writing as punishment--or, excuse me, inflicting writing on students?

In "The Economy of Cheating," Carol Poster hints at the misunderstanding that got us into this pickle:
Realistically, it makes perfect sense for a student to outsource production of papers or exam answers to experts, just as a shoe company might outsource production of shoes. If the point is to produce a thing -- whether a shoe or term paper -- as well and efficiently as possible, the principle of specialization of labor applies.
But that's a big "If." What if the point is not to produce a thing but to engage students in a process? What if the process itself can be transformative? A student who submits a stellar paper in which he played no part but to pay the outsourcing fee has learned nothing, while the one who struggles to find sources, to assemble them into a coherent argument, and to revise her writing in response to feedback may not produce a perfect paper, but she's learned something that can't be quantified or outsourced. She's learned, at least a little bit, to function like a writer.

And that's not a punishment--it's a reward, even if the student doesn't recognize its value immediately. And if writing is a reward, then it's exactly the wrong thing to be offering to rapists.       

Monday, March 07, 2016

Taking refuge with anteaters and cellists (but not both at once)

The anteater in the rain forest at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo looks like a little like an oversized raccoon that's been run through a wringer washer and placed on stilts--in other words, not like a raccoon at all. It moves like a mechanical wind-up toy, snuffling its muzzle along the ground in front and dragging a big brushy tail behind. 

We couldn't get enough of the anteater today, or of the porcupine or tamarins or turtles. My granddaughter sat on one side of a thick pane of glass counting the sharp pointy teeth of a gharial floating in water on the other side, a scene that would be far less soothing if the glass were absent. 

The rain forest was hot and steamy and full of exotic animal smells and sounds, a welcome refuge from the chilly wind outside. Yesterday, though, we heard brilliant birdcalls in a far more civilized location: inside an elaborate Lutheran church, where my daughter's choir sang "Little Birds" by Eric Whitacre, a song requiring the whistling of birdcalls. The excellent acoustics magnified those high-pitched calls so that if you closed your eyes, you might think you were in a tropical rainforest, despite the absence of anteaters and the presence of a cellist playing pizzicato.

In what context might anteaters and cellists coexist? Wherever it is, I want to be there, with or without pizzicato.


Saturday, March 05, 2016

Starting spring break by finishing a project

Two years is a long time to spend redecorating a 10x14 room, but there were complications.
The color scheme was inspired by a painting called "Blue Heron" by one of my colleagues (right), but achieving that scheme was more difficult than you might imagine. I wrote (here!) about my travails at the paint counter and the stumble that left me covered with paint, but painting was just the first step. Other steps took more effort (clearing out the closets, filling the mouse hole, buying curtains and linens and a lamp), but nothing took longer than deciding what to do about the bed: Buy ourselves a new bed and put our old one in the guest room or buy a new but smaller bed for the guest room? Put the old futon in storage or in the other spare room--and then what to do with the twin bed in the other room? We juggled the options for more than a year before I finally took the plunge.

This morning we assembled the nightstand and hung the last two pictures in the guest room, and it's so pretty it makes me want to be a guest in my own house. My colleague's painting, some photos of birds, a new reading lamp and plenty of books join a brand-new bed that's never been slept on. Who wants to try it first?
The finished product

Friday, March 04, 2016

The duty of creativity

If you're a creative person, says composer Abbie Betinis, "It's not just a nice thing to be--it's your job, and the world needs it."

What the world needs is more Abbie Betinis. 
Earlier this week, the young composer appeared with our college's concert choir to discuss the works they were performing and the creative process that led her to compose those works. She pinpointed nine essential characteristics for pursuing the creative life: duty, necessity, persistence, lateral thinking, brain rest, vulnerability, optimism, a sense of play, and daring. Persistence, she said, "helps make the ground fertile for creativity," while optimism provides a way in to the creative world when we tell ourselves "No matter what happens, I'm gonna do it!"

The young composer's love for the canon form was on beautiful display in "Lumen" and "Be Like the Bird" (click here for a sample) as she explained how the canon form allows her to put "the extemporaneousness of play into a fixed form." The canon's spare lines provide harmonic support for each other as they go along, spreading from a simple point to spread out into rich textures that build and grow; in this, she said, canons are like people:  "We all get to support each other--we get to be the harmony for someone else's melody." 

What a gift! But the gift goes on only if others take up Abbie Betinis's challenge to embrace with daring a creative life.   

Thursday, March 03, 2016

When good news and bad news go hand-in-hand

Good news: The cashier noticed that I'd left a twenty dollar bill sitting on the counter when I left the store, and being an honorable person, she tracked me down and called me up so I can retrieve it. 
Bad news: It's a 30-mile round trip to a store I wouldn't otherwise need to visit this week.

Good news: Thanks to a grocery-store discount, I filled up my car with gas at 99 cents per gallon this morning, which makes that 30-mile round trip more palatable.
Bad news: Low gas prices keep kicking our Petroleum Engineering program in the butt, exacerbating the enrollment crisis and making the entire campus gloomy.

Good news: I'll escape campus gloom for a Spring Break visit to my adorable granddaughter next week.
Bad news: While I'm enjoying my granddaughter's company, I'll have to squelch the sense of guilt over not being in Florida with my ailing mother, who may or may not be out of the hospital soonish.

So I'm having a kind of up-and-down week, looking forward to fun while lumbering under a load of unpleasantness. But at least a tree didn't fall on my car while I was driving this week! This happened to a colleague, who now considers himself either the unluckiest guy on earth (because what are the odds of driving under a tree just as it's falling?) or the luckiest (because what are the odds of walking away from an accident like that uninjured?). 

Lucky/unlucky, good news/bad news, glee/grief--sometimes it's hard to find the point where one ends and the other begins, but for now, I'm considering any day on which a tree doesn't fall on me a good day. And if I'm twenty dollars richer at the end, so much the better.  

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Exploring the wilderness of sound

This morning I was listening to ravens singing in Sitka, Alaska, and then I zipped on over to the Maldives to listen to some raucous street music followed by the sound of rushing wind. That wind recording is labelled "Charming rush of wind" with the added tag "Make me happy," so apparently someone in the Maldives is really excited about the kind of wind that would send me rushing for cover. 

How am I listening to the sounds of daily life all over the world--and why? I was just following a rabbit trail.

My journey was inspired by an assignment for a faculty learning community that has been discussing how to promote integrative learning: follow a rabbit trail to learn about something you don't know anything about and see where you end up, and then report back to the group on what you learned and how you might apply that knowledge.

My rabbit trail started while I was reading an article in Ecotone by Kathryn Miles. "Mapping the Bottom of the World" discusses scientists' attempts to understand earthquakes by studying their sounds--not the sounds of bridges splitting and buildings falling but the sounds produced deep underground when tectonic plates strike and slip, sounds mostly undetectable by the human ear. The article includes a quote from geophysicist JT Bullitt:
The physical world is talking to us all the time, but most of the sounds are largely inaudible to our ears. There's this huge wilderness of sound inside the Earth and on the surface of the Earth, and we're just not paying attention to it. How can we possibly know what's really going on?
Great question! I decided to explore this "huge wilderness of sound," but first I had to learn some terms: biophony, sounds produced by living things; anthrophony, sounds produced by people and man-made things (from music to machines); geophony, sounds produced by the earth itself (wind, rain, earthquakes). Noodling around online to find out more led me to Purdue University's Center for Global Soundscapes, which runs the Record the Earth project (find it here).

Record the Earth offers a smartphone app allowing people all over the world to upload snippets of sound, but lacking a smartphone, I went straight to the "map" tab and found a world map dotted with numbers, each linked to recordings of soundscapes in a specific place and time. The recordings can be sorted in various ways and most are tagged to connect the sounds with moods, so that I can learn that a recording of frogs, birds, and insects twittering in Costa Rica made someone feel both curious and stressful, or that traffic and crashing surf made someone very happy in Wellington, New Zealand.

I don't know why I find this site so fascinating, but I do. Every time someone complains about how hard it is to sleep in the countryside because the birds are so loud in the morning, I am reminded of how much trouble I have sleeping in cities because of the sounds of sirens wailing all night or the garbage trucks banging through alleys in the morning. I don't need to watch The Birds to know that the birdsongs that delight me fill others with dread, which suggests that human responses to sounds are complex and unpredictable.

What can I do with this knowledge? Listening to soundscapes from all over the world might make me more attentive to the sounds that surround me, and scientists suggest that studying soundscapes can lead to important insights about the health of an ecosystem. (I learned that by following my rabbit trail.) Maybe I could use the Record the Earth project in a class--the nature writing course or the Concepts of Nature literature class, where students could be encouraged to listen to sounds from all over the world and draw conclusions about relationships between sound and the sense of connection to place. Or maybe I could ask them to map their personal soundscapes or ask their grandparents about the sounds they recall from their youth that they don't hear anymore, and then write about what that wilderness of sound is saying to us.

Or maybe I'll just sit here clicking on dots: Library sounds! Bird songs! Rain! It's a whole world of sound waiting to be explored. Who's listening?