Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Testing my problem-solving skills

A student came in my office and told me he needed to drop my physics class, and just for a moment I flashed on that common professorial nightmare--Wait, I'm supposed to be teaching physics?!! 

No, I'm not supposed to be teaching physics. The student was just a little confused. It's that kind of week: a steady stream of students coming in and out of my office or coming up to me after class with problems. I can handle the I need to drop your physics class problem pretty easily by directing the student to another office in another building on a completely different side of campus (Have fun walking over there in the sweltering heat!), but others present a bigger challenge. 

One wanted to drop a class and add a different one before the deadline, but it took us 20 minutes to find a class that's not closed and doesn't conflict with his current schedule. One wanted to borrow my book so he can photocopy tomorrow's reading while he waits for his book to arrive (Okay, but bring it back in 20 minutes or I'll set loose the dragon). And one wanted me to explain everything there is to know about the new MLA citation format in under 20 minutes (Just do your best and we'll work out the details over time).

By the way, here's a great way to induce pandemonium in a class full of Honors students or English majors or other perfectionists: tell them that MLA citation format has changed but some of their professors aren't aware of the changes, so that no matter which format they use, someone will think they're dead wrong. 

Yes, I am a cruel person, but there's one major cruelty I will not commit: I will not try to teach my students physics. (Except in my nightmares.)

Monday, August 29, 2016

More Monday mysteries

Three Laurens in one small class? What was going on 18 years ago to inspire so many parents to name their daughters Lauren?

What is this "brown meatballs on all sides"? A well-formed meatball should not have sides, unless you're talking about inside and outside, and what kind of idiot would try to brown the inside of a meatball?

Who thought it was a great idea to send out an e-mail saying that it was finally safe to turn my computer back on? How am I supposed to read the e-mail while my computer is off? Oh wait--they assume that everyone has a smartphone. Those of us who don't have smartphones will just keep sitting in front of our computers with the power off until the end of time.

Who can imagine a world without Gene Wilder? And how can I possibly revisit all those great roles while waiting for the meatballs to brown and the computer to come back on and the Laurens to explain themselves?  

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Gestations, distractions, horizons

Here's Lia Purpura on the connection between poetry and pregnancy:

A poem takes months or years to complete, to feel finished with, or to abandon entirely. Let's say from three to eighteen months. In that range of gestations, a poem can embody the way of the field mouse (23 days) and the way of the killer whale (517 days). Gestation as time taking what it needs to complete the loop of a head, the loop of an arm, the loopy diversions in the nephrons of the kidney. A loop of thought: I have in me a way of time-marking, with all its attendant fears and burgeonings. "This poem is going nowhere" until suddenly, one day--which is not one day but an accumulation of, say, 217--it pops or floods, is closer than it's been before.
And here she is on fruitful distraction:
Perhaps distraction at its most fruitful is a state of richest expectation; or distraction visits when we are most accepting of imposition: are willingly drawn far from routine, invited out of step and consistency and into a puzzle, a puzzlement. Is there a first step one takes then, in belief, in the hope that interruption has with it a gift, is not merely the undermining of intention? Here comes the world suggesting itself, in this form, in that form, and at each turn a chance to adopt it anew, to follow its roots down and routes in. 
And here she is on the hungry eye:
This gazing at my child is a kind of eating, it is that elementally nourishing. This looking is like green's effect on the eye, relaxing and spreading the rods and cones. The focus and release of a good stretch. That the eye has a sense of its travels, that it journeys out windows, casts over the repetitive spans of bridges, slips past the hair's-width locations of stations on radios, through laden supermarket shelves in search of the blue box, the red can, is a physical truth. The eye's endeavor is an ache and a want. The eye roams and sorts, classifies and knows, too, the far dream of the horizon, that line which isn't a place at all, but an idea about yearning, an idyll, an elsewhere. 
All this and more in her slim memoir Increase, published in 2000 but well worth a (re)visit. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

The things we carried

What I carried into the first-year seminar classroom this morning: a smiling face, a pile of syllabi, a class roster, a pen, a note-pad, a plan. On my back I carried a college logo polo shirt (navy blue) and, on my fingernails, navy blue polish--further evidence that there's a first time for everything.

I carried a modicum of confidence earned over long experience teaching the first-year seminar, mixed with some trepidation because this year I'm team-teaching for the first time ever. I've taught learning communities in which my class was linked with another, but that's very different from having another professor in the classroom with me all the time. I worry that I'll be too controlling or, alternately, that I'll go overboard in my attempt to avoid being controlling and let things slide into chaos.

I carried a sincere curiosity about my new students: Who are they? What do they care about? What makes them tick? But I also carried nagging concerns: How will I learn all their names? How will I inspire them to do all the reading? How will I help us to work as a community of scholars instead of a discrete jumble of disconnected isolates?

I carried a question to ask as I call roll--What makes you laugh?--and a desire to help students explore how comedy can build bridges or barriers between disparate groups, but I also carried (as I do in every comedy class) a concern about how we will manage those moments when someone takes offense.

I've done this before, I keep reminding myself. I can do it again.


What I carried out of the classroom this morning: A pile of papers, responses to questions about the summer common reading assignment. A list of names, some already matched with faces and characteristics (this one plays soccer; that one's an English major; this one thinks her Mom is the funniest person on the planet). A new respect for the bravery of brand-new students willing to open up their lives to a room full of strangers. A fresh reminder that appearances can be deceiving (She's a boxer?!). An appreciation for the universality of references to Scooby-Doo. 

I carried my pen, polo shirt, and blue fingernails out of the classroom and traded the pile of syllabi for the pile of papers, but I came out of the room a little lighter, convinced that this class is going to get along just fine. We can do this, I tell myself. We can carry this class--together.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It's not really about the chairs

I'm teaching my first class in just 48 hours and I'm up to my eyeballs in pre-semester planning, so if you'd looked in my office a few minutes ago you would have thought I was working very intently on projects of great importance. 

Fooled you.

I've been updating the photos on my desktop slideshow. Every five minutes a new photo pops up, so that I might close the file on a frustrating syllabus and suddenly come face-to-face with this:

Or this:

Or this:

And suddenly all that frustration just melts right away, at least for a moment.

Today I ran into a person who's bubbling with rage over the new Adirondack chairs I wrote about yesterday. I suppose I can understand the person's points: the chairs may be vandalized or stolen, and how can we justify spending money on something so frivolous while so many budgets go begging? 

I had a hard time coming up with a persuasive counterargument. It's true that the chairs are not cheap, but the cost is microscopic compared to some of our larger budget challenges. If you took the cost of the chairs and divided that amount among all the employees on campus, those few nickels and dimes wouldn't come close to the value of the pleasure we can get from sitting in the chairs and chatting with colleagues on a lovely autumn afternoon. 

That's probably the hidden Pollyanna in me coming out to play, but I can't help it: I like the chairs, in the same way that I like the little touches of beauty around campus, the flowers blooming in planters and the banners on the light poles. It's the same way I like my grandkids' photos popping up periodically as I move through my work. My grandson's photo can't give me a raise or make my work any easier, but it makes me smile and reminds me that there's a whole big world out there beyond the narrow boundaries of my job. 

It's a breath of fresh air, or a rest in a comfortable chair--an invitation to pause, take a breath, seek a fresh perspective. Who can put a pricetag on that?        

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

A place in the sun

In the early-morning sun I'm sitting in one of the brand-new Adirondack chairs on the lawn in front of the administration building, two chairs in the school's colors--navy blue and white--but I pick the blue chair because I'm wearing blue and I want to be invisible. It doesn't work: everyone who walks by wants to ask about the chairs.

The chairs have been here just a few days and we've been encouraged to try them out, but very few actually sit down in them. A colleague stops to chat but I can't look in his direction because the sun is shining right in my face, so he moves to stand between me and the sun and give my eyes a break. Then others stop and soon we're taking turns trying the chairs, two of us standing where we can keep the sun out of our colleagues' eyes. Sometimes that's what collegiality means: shielding our colleagues from the bright morning sun.

Later we walk around campus, nine of us, stopping to put our hands on each building and share in a word of prayer--for the building, the people who work there, the students, and the campus as a whole. It's an eclectic group of (mostly) faculty, representing different departments and disciplines and even different understandings of faith. Will prayer help? It's helping me, and sometimes that's what collegiality means: coming together to serve as a conduit for good on campus.

Next it's time for the annual fall convocation, our new president's first opportunity to address all the faculty, staff, and administration and set the tone for the new year. Last year's meeting was a horror show, full of wretched news about budget problems and staff cuts, with little hope on offer; this morning was a whole different story, full of laughter and excitement about how we'll get through our difficulties and come out the other side better, faster, stronger. 

They made me believe. The future's so bright we're gonna need shades! (Or helpful colleagues willing to stand in the light to shield our eyes.) 

Friday, August 19, 2016

The calm before the semester

"We have entered the season of fog," says the resident prognosticator, and he's right. In the morning sunflower blossoms rise like beacons above the fog-shrouded meadow, and I sit in the car at the end of our road waiting to turn left onto the highway, wondering what will come barrelling out of the fogbank ahead of me: a school bus, a tanker carrying fracking waste, or maybe nothing at all. 

Yesterday five deer, three does and two little spotted fawns, crossed the road in front of my car, calm as could be. Maybe the fog makes my car look less threatening, or maybe they know they don't have to worry about hunters for a few months yet. In the fog we coexist, quietly, briefly, and then they're gone, disappearing into the woods.

I strive to break through the fog and find sharp outlines, to know clearly where I'm going. A firm schedule calms me, even one that requires teaching at 8 a.m. and having a two-hour late-afternoon meeting every Thursday, my least favorite day of the week. Syllabi and assignment sheets printed neatly and stacked ready for distribution suggest that everything is under control, that the semester will unroll calmly, predictably. A clean desk and a to-do list that keeps shrinking, an inbox containing just a few straggling loose ends, a clear path forward--that's what makes the fall semester so inviting.

It can't last, of course. Things fall apart--the center cannot hold. The to-do list will grow, the desk get piled with papers and books, the inbox overflow with serious issues and petty demands. (And spam. Always spam.) Even syllabi are not inviolate: those reading schedules and policies that seem to clear and sharp right now will be overtaken by events and slowly morph into something less crisp, more chaotic.

But not today. Today everything sits clear and sharp and beautifully organized, denying the very existence of fog. How can confusion enter a room where the syllabi are stacked so neatly?

(If you're quiet, you can hear it creeping in on little cat feet.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

On the care and feeding of young scientists: Hope Jahren's "Lab Girl"

What kind of writer can pen a gripping, suspenseful, can't-put-the-book-down passage about watching moss grow?

Her name is Hope Jahren, and if you care about science, teaching, students, nature, trees, moss, or really terrific writing, you need to read her memoir, Lab Girl, a funny, moving, and insightful exploration of the growing conditions required to nurture great trees and great scientists.

Now a botanist with her own lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Jahren was born in rural Minnesota to Norwegian parents who mastered both science and silence. Her father, a biology professor at a local community college, and her mother, whose promising academic career was thwarted by midcentury gender norms, come across as emotionally distant and demanding perfectionists:

While I was a child, I assumed that the whole world acted like we did, and so it confused me when I moved out of state and met people who effortlessly gave each other the simple warmth and casual affection that I had craved for so long. I then had to learn to live in a world where when people don't talk to each other, it is because they don't know each other, not because they do.

The young Hope nevertheless flourished in her mother's garden and her father's lab. She describes the lab as home, refuge, playground, church, and castle; beakers and bunsen burners "were not kids' toys; they were serious things for grown-ups, but you were a special kid because your dad had that huge ring of keys, so you could play with the equipment anytime you went there with him, because he never, ever said no when you asked him to take it all out."

Although she "never heard a single story about a living female scientist, never met one or even saw one on television," young Hope found a home in her father's lab and strove to recover that sense of home in every new lab she entered or created. "People are like plants: they grow toward the light," she writes; "I chose science because science gave me what I needed--a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be."

But that sense of safety did not mean pursuing a career in science was either safe or easy. Jahren details her struggles with manic episodes, failed procedures, exploding equipment, inadequate funding, intransigent students, and with trying to maintain a research agenda while pregnant, all described in a style alternately playful and contemplative. Her joy in language (informed by a wide range of reading) makes her most mundane task seem like an adventure, and she can draw meaning out of the unfurling of a leaf or the symbiotic linking of fungus and root.

Jahren finds linkages everywhere she looks; indeed, the very structure of the book emphasizes the connections between plants and people. Long narrative chapters detailing events in Jahren's life alternate with very short chapters focusing on specific elements of plants--the seed, the root, the leaf. These short chapters are highly informative and lively; further, they echo important themes from the narrative chapters, suggesting a joyful symbiosis between the scientist and the object of study.   

"A seed knows how to wait," she writes at the beginning of one short chapter, and after she shows readers various seeds waiting to become what they will be, she ends the chapter on a philosophical note: "Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited."

It would be easy to focus on the more dramatic moments in the narrative--the bizarre encounter with monkeys, the van full of students sliding on the icy highway, the test-tubes full of samples seized by customs agents--but I am drawn to Jahren's frequent meditations on the nature of scientific inquiry. Once she visits a mentor who is retiring after a long career without having reached the end of his research:    
It was kind of tragic, I reflected, that we all spent our lives working but never really got good at our work, or even finished it. The purpose instead was for me to stand on the rock that he had thrown into the rushing river, bend down and claw another rock from the bottom, and then cast it down further and hope it would be a useful next step for some person with whom Providence might allow me to cross paths.
I am not a scientist but that image describes beautifully the work we do in the classroom, capturing the mingled futility and hope experienced by those of us wading in academic streams. 

Elsewhere Jahren considers the way her perception of her world changes with time and the necessity of finding a meaningful way to measure and record those changes. "Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life," she writes, adding, "It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more."

Young Hope has grown up and her father's lab has vanished, but in Lab Girl she records something important: how the growth of a scientist and the growth of a tree are not so different as they might first appear.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Not every Monday will be like this, right?

It's great to hear the sound of students hard at work in my building, even if at the moment it's just a small group of early-arrival international students working on their English skills. This morning one of them was walking up and down the hall outside my office carefully repeating the word redneck over and over. Practicing pronunciation, no doubt--but for what purpose? How often does the word redneck come up in an international student's summer coursework? It's a mystery.

Other mysteries: 

Who's supposed to get our departmental copier fixed before our new administrative assistant starts her duties? How will I get my syllabi copied before the onslaught?

With no building coordinator available to take complaints, whom do I notify when the departmental kitchenette loses power? What if I need to heat water for tea? I hope no one left anything perishable in the mini-fridge!

Why does the Chronicle of Higher Education have to publish all those depressing salary figures every August just when I'm preparing to pour body and soul into innovative and exhausting pedagogy? According to the current figures, my salary is about on target for an associate professor of English at a private four-year college, which would be great news if I were an associate professor. The full professor average salary is so far out of reach that it may as well be on Jupiter. Am I doomed to remain eternally below average?

Why do I have to start the week on such a negative note? Bring back my students! I need them to remind me why I'm here and to make me want to keep going despite the petty problems of a miserable Monday.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Chomping on lightbulbs

When my son-in-law got home from work this evening, my granddaughter gave him an important message: "Daddy, you have to eat some lightbulbs! They make you light up inside!"

He looked puzzled--and who wouldn't? What kind of person would teach a three-year-old that it's a good idea to eat lightbulbs?

That would be me.

In my defense, we're not talking about real lightbulbs but those tiny yellow lightbulb-shaped tomatoes that are so abundant in our garden right now. They're so bursting with juicy sweetness that they're guaranteed to make you light up, inside and out, as my granddaughter discovered when she started popping them into her mouth like candy. She would have eaten the whole quart if we hadn't insisted on saving a few for Daddy.

Growing tomatoes is like harvesting sunshine, but once you open your mouth and take a bite, there's no turning out the light.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Coulda been a contender

When will the Olympics offer events for the 99 percent of us who lack the training, time, and talent of Simone Biles or Michael Phelps? If there were a medal for crossing items off a to-do list, I know I'd be a contender. If the International Olympics Committee wants to encourage more people to be participants rather than couch potatoes, they should create events like these:

Cleanin' Jerk: Watch me tilt chairs, roll rugs, and shove a massive sofa out of the way so I can sweep the floors. (But will she stick the landing?)

Uneven Parallel Barriers: Contestants vie to be the first to emerge from the maddening health insurance obstacle course, designed by those devious experts at the International Denial of Claims Organization (IDCO). No medal has ever been awarded in this event because no one has ever made it all the way through the course.

Academic Pentathlon: Start with the Book-Boxing event, which requires relocating a professor's library to a new office two floors and three buildings away, and then move on to the Faculty Meeting Dash (first to make it to the comfy seats without spilling coffee wins!), then Committee Composition Whack-A-Mole (make sure every committee includes at least one competent worker bee and no more than three whiners), the Hoop-Jumping Tenure Course (miss that invisible hoop and you have to go back to adjuncting and start over), and the Final Grading Marathon. Extra style points for regalia that doesn't look as if it's been serving as bedding in the rhinoceros house at the zoo. 

Synchronized Storytelling: Put a three-year-old in your lap who demands that you tell a story about a big fish, and after you've spontaneously created a big fish story out of the blue, she demands a totally different story about a little fish, and then she wants one about girl and the fish going on a picnic with a capybara. How many stories can you invent? (I'd win this one hands down--but then, I've had a lot of practice) 

Turkey Dressage: Prepare a complete Thanksgiving dinner for an extended family of 16 people, being careful to avoid offending anyone's intolerance for gluten, lactose, peanuts, carbs, and libertarians.  

I don't know about you, but I'd watch events like these. In fact, I wouldn't even have to turn on the TV!   

Monday, August 08, 2016

Same old path, always new

Walking the same route over and over offers advantages and disadvantages. The chief disadvantage, of course, is repetition: every time I walk I see the same stretch of creek, the same meadow, same woods and cow pasture and donkey paddock, sometimes even the same cows and donkeys. 

The same dogs come barreling down the hill to bark the same old barks. The same leaning tree threatens to drop the same rotten limb on me, and the same types of beer cans pile up in the same inappropriate spot. Same old same old, every time.

And yet it's not the same, not entirely, not ever. Observing the same area through the years and seasons only deepens the wonder. How can the same stretch of woods that's dotted with tiny white bloodroot blossoms in the early spring produce a profusion of thigh-high jewelweed by midsummer? How can the creek that looks algae-green and sluggish in midsummer swell to carry whole trees downstream during floods? Why are the kingfishers so abundant one year but absent the next, and where do they go when they're gone?

Long-term exposure to the same stretch of road has made me sensitive to the subtlest of changes. I know when to listen for prairie warblers, where and when to look for tiny rue anemone blossoms, what to expect next week or next month. When did the last red-winged blackbird leave the area, and when will the juncos arrive? I could give you a pretty good estimate.

And then there are always surprises: the fox slinking across the road, wild turkeys chattering in the meadow, a snapping turtle near the creek. Familiarity makes the anomalies more obvious, begging further investigation. Why would a giant puffball mushroom crop up on a sunny slope during the hottest, driest month of the year? Oh, it's just a deflated soccer ball peeking up through the weeds. What is a deflated soccer ball doing alongside my road in the middle of nowhere? That's one of life's persistent mysteries.

When I'm away for a while and explore new areas, I always appreciate the change, but then it's exciting to come back to my usual route and see what's new: Joe Pye Weed and ironweed have reached new heights while I wasn't looking, and the donkey babies have been moved out of sight but there's an adorable new goat gamboling about. 

The same old tree still threatens to drop the same old limb on me, but hey--someone picked up the pile of beer cans! As I come to the end of the same old walk, a kingfisher chatters and flies along the creek, which is clear today and shallow enough to show striations on the underlying rock. 

Same old rocks. Same old water. Same old walk, but not the same, not entirely, not ever.


Friday, August 05, 2016

The perfect sandwich, plus or minus

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who realize that the ideal bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich requires no embellishments and those who don't. 

I am the first kind. My husband is the second. (Yes, we are a mixed marriage.)

This is the best time of year for the perfect BLT, as our garden has started producing excellent heirloom slicing tomatoes while the lettuce hasn't entirely gone to seed. Take a few slices of homemade bread, toast 'em, slather on some real mayonnaise, stack up the sliced tomato, lettuce, and bacon, and bite. The combination of crunchiness, juiciness, saltiness, and deliciosity is unbeatable--but hey, you don't need heirloom tomatoes and homemade bread to make it good. It's possible to make a perfectly good BLT with store-bought tomatoes and Wonder Bread--and yes, even Miracle Whip. As long as you have bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes, you've got it made.

I confess that I once ate a BLT with sliced avocado added, and it was good in its own way, but it wasn't a BLT. Call it a BLT Plus, but what's the point of that? The perfect sandwich doesn't need any Plus, so anything added has to detract from its perfection.

So you can imagine how I felt this evening as I watched my husband add sliced habanero peppers and ginger-cucumber relish to his BLT. He may have enjoyed the spicy, drippy mess, but I wouldn't call it a BLT. Maybe a BLT Minus. 

But that's okay. I practice strict tolerance when it comes to sandwich preferences: he can put whatever ridiculous thing he wants on his sandwich as long as my BLT remains pristine and untouched by additional ingredients. That way we're both happy, and if I persist in believing that I'm a little bit happier--that my sandwich is more virtuous than his--at least I'm not kicking his habaneros out of the house. 

So apparently it's possible to hold strong opposing beliefs on the important topic of sandwich construction and still act like civilized human beings. There may be hope for the human race after all. 

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Mauled at the mall

So we're in Columbus for a quick overnight trip, visiting a sick relative and doing a little retail therapy (upgrading my teaching wardrobe!), and we even caught the new Star Trek movie at a five-dollar matinee (and when was the last time you spent a mere five dollars to see a first-run film?), and things are going well except for the shopping part.

The problem is partly mine: it wouldn't be so difficult finding teaching clothes if I were a bit less pear-shaped, and shoes wouldn't be such a problem if my feet were shaped like pointy triangles instead of the Hindenburg. But part of the blame goes to clothing manufacturers, who think it's acceptable to charge $134 for a lightly embellished rayon tank top. Granted, it's a gorgeous sage color and it would look great with this incredible jacket I just bought, but the lower edge isn't even hemmed! It's just a raw edge dangling there to remind us peons that people who can afford to pay $134 for a rayon tank top are simply too cool for hems. 

Another blouse was absolutely lovely and nicely made in a fabric that did not feel as if it started its life in a polymer factory, but it cost nearly $150 and matches nothing I currently own. It was begging for a nice periwinkle skirt and jacket and matching pumps, but as far as I'm concerned, it will have to keep begging. (Have you visited a plus-size women's department lately? Apparently, women of size are supposed to wear black and--well, black. Brighter colors need not apply.)

And then when I finally found a cute, colorful suit in my size, I puzzled over when to wear it: the heavy fabric would be uncomfortable in warm weather, but the three-quarter sleeves would expose too much flesh in cold weather. It would be perfect for one or two transitional weeks in the fall, but who buys a suit that can be worn so rarely?

Not that I am bitter. After all, I did find that great jacket and another versatile blouse, and I finally managed to convince my husband that I'm not exaggerating when I tell him that I am capable of visiting a gigantic shoe store without finding more than three pairs in my size, all ugly. He was with me this time and now he knows why shoe-shopping makes me want to cut off my feet at the ankles and replace them with permanent roller-skates. 

Which might make it easier to zip around in a shopping mall the size of Schenectady, but have you ever tried to pull on a pair of pants over roller skates? That's a whole new level of annoying.