Friday, September 30, 2016

Too tired to write (so why am I writing?)

I could blame the thunder that made me sit straight up in bed and yell out "What just blew up?!" or I could blame the difficulty of settling back down to sleep after I'd determined that nothing had blown up or I could blame the nightmares about lizards and ants invading my bed or I could blame the Tana French murder mystery novel that wouldn't let go of my hands until close to midnight, but wherever I place the blame, the result is the same: I'm tired.

Not the kind of soul-crushing tiredness that accompanies those massive stacks of papers or the dizzying exhaustion after traveling long distances but the kind of tired that makes me tell my honors students, "Trust me: you don't want me grading those papers today. When my eyeballs start drifting shut, everything looks like an F."

I'm tired enough to put my head down on my desk and take a quick nap before class, even though my desk is about as warm and soft as an Antarctic ice floe.

I'm tired enough to cancel class if I were the type to cancel class, but I'm that annoying professor who kept teaching through chemotherapy, so I didn't cancel this morning's classes but instead powered through them.

But don't come looking for me in my office this afternoon. I intend to keep my eyes open just long enough to drive home, and after that--forget about it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Gaping holes in the new MLA Handbook

This morning I heard a hated phrase coming out of my mouth in class: "Because I said so." I don't want my students to carry me around throughout their lives to serve as the ultimate arbiter of where to place a comma or whether to italicize foreign words and phrases; far better for them to know how to use the MLA guide to look up answers to such questions.

Except the MLA guide--excuse me, the MLA Handbook, 8th edition--no longer covers these topics.

The new MLA has nothing whatever to say about the Oxford comma, the correct use of apostrophes, or how to format foreign words in a document, and if you want to know about margins, fonts, titles, and so on, you have to go to their online style center.

Now I like the new MLA style center (, and I appreciate the philosophy behind changes to MLA citation style even though it produces citations that look less like a sleek black tuxedo and more like the baggy old pants you wear to work in the garden. But what I lack is the ability to say "Because MLA says so" about certain topics.

So this morning when a student asked about the Oxford comma, we had to talk about context. "Intelligent people can disagree about comma placement," I told them, "so know your audience." Writing for publication? Look at the publication's house style sheet. Writing for a class? Ask the professor. Writing for my class? Put in the comma. Please. It pains me when it's missing.

Need to cite an authority? In the absence of a definitive statement in the MLA Handbook, just do it--because I said so.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Nothing I can do but hold the flashlight

I'm standing in the dark holding a flashlight for my son while he installs a new starter in his car. Bats are zipping past overhead but I hear no mosquitoes--too cool and dry. Feels like autumn finally arriving, a slight cooling and dampness in the air, and from the garden a whiff of decay. 

Holding a flashlight for my son is not how I'd planned to spend my evening, but after an exhausting 11-hour day on campus, I had nothing else important to do. Holding a flashlight is a mindless task--just aim it where his hands are working, shift to the socket set then over to the manual then back to the engine where he's trying to get the new air filter tucked in correctly then moving on to the battery.

Stars start coming out overhead, a nice treat after all those dark clouds looming all afternoon. We had hoped for rain since the creek has shrunk to  disconnected puddles, but the clouds moved on without releasing more than a few scattered drops. The dark surrounds us like a curtain except where the flashlight illuminates a little bit of engine.

"Over this way a little," he says, and I oblige. He's having trouble getting the battery bracket screwed down tight, too many shadows obscuring the essential bits. A few more shifts of the flashlight, a few turns of the screws, and everything is in place for a test--and the car starts right up on the first crank.

A job well done, we tell each other. He did the hard part and he has the greasy hands to show for it; I just stood there in the dark aiming the beam where it would be most helpful. But still I feel I have a stake in the purring of the engine, as if I've played an essential role in my son's movement into the future. When he was young I carried him and then I drove him around, but now I'm happy just to stand silently by and aim a beam of light where his hands need to work. 

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Nutshell: a ridiculous plot that really works

Imagine Elsinore as a bouncy castle and Hamlet tumbling and squirming against its deep red squishy walls--but then it's not Hamlet but some kind of travesty, good only for a few cheap laughs. 

Imagine Hamlet as a baby--but at that stage he has no father's murder to avenge, no self-awareness or ability to act independently.

Imagine Hamlet as an unborn child in his mother's womb, unwittingly overhearing his mother and uncle plot to murder his unsuspecting father--but what baby possesses the language and knowledge of the world to understand murder or exact revenge?

It's a ridiculous conceit, implausible except as farce. What kind of fool would try to turn such a bizarre plot into serious fiction?

Ian McEwen is that kind of fool, and the remarkable thing is this: it works. Nutshell is a gleaming little gem of a novel, fast-paced and suspenseful and sparkling with insight about flawed humanity.

The novel demands an instant suspension of disbelief but offers rewards in clever and elegant writing, McEwen's most poetic prose. Our narrator, the unborn and unnamed child, insists that he is not a blank slate but "a slippery, porous slate no schoolroom or cottage roof could find use for, a slate that writes upon itself as it grows by the day and becomes less blank. I count myself an innocent, but it seems I'm party to a plot."

The plot is hatched by Trudy and Claude, just one of many echoes of Hamlet, the play never mentioned but frequently evoked, starting with the epigraph that provides the novel's title: "Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space--were it not that I have bad dreams."

Our narrator recalls his first moment of awareness within the womb, the first fleeting idea that solidified within his developing brain: "[M]y idea was To be. or if not that, its grammatical variant, is. This was my aboriginal notion and here's the crux--is. Just that." But will he ever have a chance to be, an unwanted child destined to be sacrificed as part of the impending plot?

And what a plot! If an unborn child is the only witness to murder, how can he bring justice on the perpetrators? He has only contempt for clueless Claude, "Whose repeated remarks are a witless, thrustless dribble, whose impoverished sentences die like motherless chicks, cheaply fading....As a man he's a piece of work, a self-constructed device, a tool for hard deception." But his mother, too, has blood on her hands, causing our narrator to struggle to balance his hatred for her acts with his love for her person. "I wear my mother like a tight-fitting cap," he says, but he cannot remove that cap without removing his only source of comfort and nourishment.

It's a clever fetus that knows its own father and no fetus is cleverer than McEwen's narrator, but despite his cleverness, putting his plan into action poses challenges. "Between the conception of a deed and its acting out lies a tangle of hideous contingencies," he says, and those contingencies keep the suspense at a maximum until the end.

And what an end. Nutshell is a tiny book, readable in an afternoon, with a closing passage so satisfying I wanted to start over and read it again right away just so I could land on that moment one more time. Despite its macabre machinations, it's a joyful little book, abounding with energy and insight. Just don't try to explain the plot to anyone. Hamlet as an unborn child? Ridiculous.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

There's more to life than happy endings (and magic pixie dust)

There comes a point in every semester when a student wants to know why everything we read is so depressing, but usually it doesn't arrive quite this early.

I heard it most last spring in the postcolonial class: That movie we watched was such a downer. That story about the violence following Partition was so disturbing. Why do these poems have to be so serious?

And now I'm hearing the same complaints in my first-year seminar: Why are you making me read about disturbing history and injustice? Why can't something happy happen in these stories? Why so serious?

I never know what to say to these complaints. First, I challenge anyone to find a syllabus on which absolutely every reading can be characterized as depressing, even if we could agree on what that means, exactly. Life is difficult and injustice rampant so it shouldn't be surprising that our literature reflects those difficulties and shines a light on injustice, but even the readings students label depressing offer moments of transcendence or hope.

But really they're looking for happy endings. I think about the last time I saw a film in a movie theater; I first had to sit through twenty minutes of previews of films in which some unthinkable evil threatens to destroy everything we hold dear, but then along comes the latest superhero or superpower or magic spell to vanquish the evildoers, restore hope, and maybe even bring together the star-crossed lovers. In the end order is restored and everything gets neatly tied up, except for the occasional loose end left dangling until the sequel.

I don't know about your life, but my life doesn't work that way. I have no superheroes to call on, no magic to deploy; many of the strands of my life's plot resist clear resolution. Happiness pops up here and there but can't be beckoned at will, while deep meaning and comfort creep in during times of suffering and grief.

That's the kind of reality our current readings reflect, readings I find deeply moving and transcendently beautiful. If you're expecting some deus ex machina to swoop in and sprinkle magic pixie dust around to create a sparkly happy ending, then these readings are bound to disappoint--but depressing? I'm not feeling it. How can anyone be blue while surrounded by such beauty?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Into thin air

Because I've been teaching The Sound and the Fury and thus immersing myself and my students in that cacophony of amazing/annoying/irresistible voices--

And because I've been reading draft after freshman draft tackling similar topics with varying degrees of grace, elegance, and precision--

And because I've been sharing with my honors students Anne Lamott's excellent advice about silencing those squeaky-wheel voices in our heads that stand in the way of getting words down on the page--

And because we've reached the point in the semester when absolutely everyone wants a piece of me at every moment of the day, sometimes on opposite ends of campus at the same time--

I decided to turn off the radio in my car and drive home surrounded by silence, nothing but engine noise to disrupt my thoughts for 22 straight minutes.

It was great.

I'm not Faulkner so I won't try to recreate my stream of consciousness during that drive, but I know my thoughts returned again and again to the solo my daughter sang in church on Sunday about the balm in Gilead that makes the wounded whole, the wonder of seeing my little girl all grown up and spreading comfort through song, and I thought of those marvelous tree images in the last three books of Homer's Odyssey--the immovable bride-bed firmly rooted in place; the fruit trees given to the child as a promise of future production; the oar planted in the earth like a tree to mark the end of the hero's journey--and somehow that took me back to Faulkner and Dilsey's conviction that she has seen the beginning and the end, her search for a moment of thrumming quiet in that chaotic household, and her barely perceptible humming, one of the few intrusions of music into the text--

And I don't know what else I thought but I stopped thinking entirely when I turned onto my road and the red-tailed hawk swooped down and preceded my car up the hill through the woods and then it swooped upward and disappeared, taking all those voices into thin air.

And now I'm ready to enjoy my evening.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Rebooting a tried-and-true method

A student sits in front of me, draft in hand, adrift in the process of revision. "I get what you're saying," he says, "But how do I fix it?"

It's a question I'm hearing a lot these days as I'm requiring all of my first-year writing students to meet with me outside of class to talk about their drafts. I've moved away from requiring conferences in the past few years, primarily because I can provide much more detailed feedback on papers by inserting comments electronically. However, I can't guarantee that students read those comments, and neither can I be certain that they understand them.

So for this first major paper of the semester, I sent them comments and then set up required conferences, but I warned them first: "Don't come and see me without looking at my comments and those of your classmates. This is your chance to ask me questions, and it's my chance to ask you what progress you're making on revision."

So far, it's working. Every student has brought in specific questions, some of them easy to answer (what do you mean by "hanging indent"?) and others more challenging. The most common problem on this assignment is a tendency to grab quotes from the readings and drop them into the essay and then move on without providing any context or commentary, and I've had several students tell me, "I don't know how to do that." But that awareness gives us a good place to start, and by the time we're through, maybe the student has a better idea of how to proceed.

But here's the thing: no one asks those questions in class. Further, students rarely ask this kind of question via e-mail--perhaps because they postpone looking at my revision suggestions until just before the deadline for submitting the revised essay, and they know better than to frantically e-mail me at 3 a.m. the day the paper is due. (Well, most of them know better.)

So while they're learning a lesson about how to add depth to their writing, I'm learning a lesson about the value of one-on-one instruction. I will still send them comments electronically (because no one can read my handwriting!), but after this week, maybe they'll see the value in seeking assistance--and maybe I'll keep making conferences a part of our writing process. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Dispatches from SillyNameLand

I swear I didn't know it was loaded!
So I was introducing a class to The Sound and the Fury and a student didn't know how to interpret Damuddy.

"That's how the Compson kids say grandmother," I said.

"Huh," she said. "That's dumb."

Well yeah, but what name for grandmother doesn't sound dumb? I'm acquainted with a handful of intelligent and highly accomplished professional women who regularly have to answer to Mamaw, Meemaw, Mimi, and Nana.

And that's not all. The American Grandparents' Association suggests that some of us want to be called Mumsy or Momette, Neema or Soosa or Womba, Doodu or Moogy or PittyPat, Pebbles or Twinkles or Uddermudder. With those options, I'm happy to answer to plain old Grandma.

But whatever you call her, don't ever ask Grandma to hold your squirt gun unless you're itching to get wet.   

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

That Webster--always trying to butt in!

Suppose you're stuck in an elevator (or a dentist's waiting room, or a train station, or wherever) with a group of strangers and you think a little conversation would make the experience more pleasant, so you pipe up with what you hope is a brilliant opening line: "According to Webster's dictionary...."

I've already stopped listening. You might catch my attention with an erudite reference to etymology from the Oxford English Dictionary, but that's not what (some of) my students do: someone somewhere has told them that it's a great idea to start an essay with "According to Webster's dictionary," which makes me want to lie down. 

It wouldn't be so bad if they were defining terms I don't already know or illuminating some little-known origin of a word, but no: students who start with dictionary definitions almost always define common words that any reasonable person ought to know, offering no new insight. I have read papers opening with the dictionary definition of house and poetry and, today, science.

Imagine that you're on a blind date with the person of your dreams and you feel the need to quote the dictionary definition of the word house. That's fine if the person of your dreams is learning English and has requested your assistance understanding connotations of words; otherwise, you're about to go home alone.

I know what house means! Every conceivable audience for the paper knows what house means! If the dictionary definition doesn't tell me something new and unexpected about the meaning of house, what's the point?

I know what the point is: filling space on the page. But here's the thing: text that merely fills space without adding to a reader's understanding of the topic is not fulfilling the primary purpose of the paper and is therefore unlikely to rise to the top of the grading scale. So whoever is telling students that it's a great idea to start with "According to Webster's dictionary" needs to just stop right now. 

And if you don't know what stop means--well, you know where to look. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Interdisciplinarity for the win!

When we were divvying up the duties in our first-year seminar, my team-teaching partner and I decided to subvert expectations: the literature professor would lead discussion in the Natural Sciences part of the curriculum and the physics professor would lead discussion in the Arts and Humanities section, and we would take turns on Social Sciences where we're both out of our elements. We hoped to model methods of engagement with texts outside our fields, which requires us to develop teaching methods to help students engage with texts outside their comfort zones.

Last Thursday my team-teaching partner and I conferred after a difficult class and puzzled over how to get students to open their mouths during class discussions. "Something has to change," he said--and you know what? Something did.

This morning my team-teaching partner brought in a technique he uses all the time in physics classes--clickers. We were discussing a short story I've taught many times before without clickers, but he showed how clickers linked with the right kinds of questions and appropriate follow-up can ease students into pretty interesting discussion of literature. 

And then he had them write a bit, using a technique I'd introduced during the first week of class. And then he did some cold-calling to get students to respond, and when they still had trouble responding, he restated the question in a more compelling way. And then he tied it all up together in a way that felt inspiring.

We think about team-teaching as aimed at improving our students' learning experience, but from where I sit, it's bound to improve our teaching experiences as well. I see my colleague use a technique that has never occurred to me, and when it works, I wonder how I can adapt it; he sees me use an effective technique in class and later adapts it to his own needs. As iron sharpens iron, so one teacher sharpens another--and in the end, we all win.  

Monday, September 12, 2016

A brief respite from futility

My office shelves are stacked with books but one shelf stands out among the rest. No one coming in my office would notice anything particularly special about that row of books and academic journals, but sometimes when I'm at my desk feeling underappreciated or wondering whether anything I do here will make any difference in the world, whether all my careful lesson plans and comments on papers and meetings with students are just a bag of wind that will dissipate ultimately into the ether, when I seem to be stuck on a rickety escalator to nowhere with sleet splattering my face and ravenous wolves chomping at the machinery, when I can't even come up with an adequate metaphor to explain how futile I feel--that's when I look up at that row of books and journals and I remind myself that I might have had a good idea once in a while and that those good ideas will live on inside those pages, rubbing shoulders with other good ideas and enlightening readers for years to come. (Just don't remind me of how few people actually read academic writing. That's like turning up the volume on the wolves' howls.) 

Friday, September 09, 2016

But nothing rhymes with "faculty governance"!

Bardiac's marvelous comment about writing meeting minutes in verse sparked yet another fabulous idea: anyone who wants to petition a faculty committee must submit the request in verse.

It doesn't have to be good verse, but imagine how much more lively a committee meeting could be if petitioners had to state requests in the form of haiku:

My parking space is
occupied. Please make
violators move.

Or limericks:

There once was a dean who demanded
my budget be cut but expanded
his own. It's unjust!
Please tell him he must
stop being so darned underhanded.

Or singing the blues:

I've got the Inconsistent Language in the Faculty Constitution Blues.
Oh I've got the Inconsistent Language in the Faculty Constitution Blues.
If someone won't resolve this
Don't know what I'm gonna do.

Oh this line in section seven, it conflicts with one in section thirty-four.
I said this line in section seven conflicts with one in section thirty-four.
And when you get to subpoint B.3.ii
It just don't make sense anymore.  

I don't know about you, but I'd enjoy meetings full of verse--and if petitioners have to work a little harder to state their requests carefully and succinctly, meetings ought to be over much more quickly.

I realize that this plan discriminates against the rhythmically challenged and those incapable of finding a rhyme for governance, but that leaves the poets room to dominate the conversation for a change, no longer content to remain what Shelley called "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." What harm could it do to finally acknowledge the hidden poets dwelling amongst us?

Feel free to provide some sample petitions--in verse, of course!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Clearing a space for writing

Two weeks into the semester and I'm already failing to live up to expectations. My students are great and my classes are going well, but I'm not exercising or remembering to wear earrings or avoiding angry diatribes as much as I ought to. Worst of all, I'm not writing much--and I don't much like what I am writing.

On Sunday afternoon, for instance, a beautiful day when everyone I know was outside kayaking or hiking, I spent nearly two hours writing up the minutes from last week's Faculty Council meeting, perhaps the deadliest form of writing known to humankind. I can only hope that Council will have a less complicated meeting the next time it's my turn to take minutes.

I've dashed off plenty of e-mails (arranging an author visit, reminding students of course requirements, tracking down an errant textbook), but I've done precious little of the kind of writing that restores my soul. I've barely touched the draft of the conference paper I'm delivering next month, for instance, and I haven't written many blog posts or even a single silly limerick.

I tell my writing students to make regular time for writing in their busy lives--make a regular appointment so the Muse knows when to show up, and then sit and write whether you feel inspired or not. But last evening I came home after a late meeting intent on writing a brilliant blog post but got distracted by the presence of a census worker in my living room, a pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen, and a baseball game on the radio. By the time I'd found a free moment, my brain was tired.

Which is why I appreciate the Writing Refuge concept. It wasn't my brilliant idea, but I'm happy to be involved in making it happen: once a week a spacious classroom in the library is reserved for faculty members seeking a distraction-free place to write. I took my laptop over there on Tuesday, posted the Writing Refuge sign on the door, and sat down in the big empty room all by myself. At first I checked my e-mail and thought about grading a set of online quizzes--who would know that I wasn't writing? But then something about the dedication of a space to the act of writing made me set all that aside and get to work.

I opened the draft of my conference paper and surprised myself: it's farther along than I'd expected. Within minutes I was immersed in revision, carried forward by the flow of words, and when my hour was up, the feeling of accomplishment energized the rest of my afternoon. The draft is still a mess, but it's no longer a big scary mess; taming the beast, making it manageable, felt like success.

Today I'll start the day with exercise and I may remember to wear earrings, but I'm not making any promises about angry diatribes on another Faculty Council day. But one thing I will do: clear space for writing. Even if it's just a silly limerick.  

Monday, September 05, 2016

Not exactly the textbook method for pursuing a Ph.D.

A bunch of faculty members were sitting around chatting over our free lunch (provided to distract us from the fact that we were required to teach while the rest of the nation, including our immediate family members, were out enjoying a Monday holiday) when the topic turned somehow to the rigors of grad school. All those late nights in the library! All those papers! All that obsessive revision sparked by fear of disappointing our advisors! 

One of my junior colleagues asserted, "I wouldn't have the energy to do all that these days." And I did a little mental calculation and figured that my exhausted colleague is in her mid-thirties--about the age at which I started pursuing a Ph.D. while working a very demanding job and cooking and cleaning for my family and teaching confirmation classes and serving as an officer on the local chamber of commerce and taxiing my kids to children's choir and Cub Scouts and sleep-overs and just generally trying to have a life.

How did I ever do all that? The answer is simple: slowly. I earned my M.A. in the mid-eighties and then took seven years off to have babies, foster other people's babies, grow cabbages, try my hand at free-lance writing, and read everything I'd never had time to read in school. When my husband finally got transferred to a job close to a university that offered a Ph.D. in English and my younger child started kindergarten, I was ready to hit the books--slowly. 

Why did it take me six years to complete the Ph.D. when I'd started with M.A. in hand? Because I took one or two courses each semester, and even then they had to fit around my duties as a journalist. It was not unusual to spend three hours in a small seminar room tossing around concepts like performativity and metanarrative and heteronormativity and then get in my car and dash 20 miles down the highway so I could arrive at the village hall just in time to cover a meeting of the Board of Public Affairs, made up of three old farts whose idea of civil discourse was occasionally refraining from calling the sewer plant operator Baldy.

It was a strange and exhausting time that led me, at the tender age of 39, to my first tenure-track job, and here I am all these years later looking back and wondering how I did it. (Never mind the why. There is no reasonable answer to that question.) Could I do it again today? Not on your life--I don't have that kind of energy. 

But I have different kinds of energy instead. Think of all that work in grad school, gathering ideas and writing them up and defending and disseminating them--where do those old ideas go? My dissertation may be stashed in a cabinet somewhere, but the experience of writing it stored up vast reserves of skills and concepts I can draw on over and over as I design and teach my classes. Grad school may have worn me out, but it also built me up and set me off on a journey that gets more interesting every year.

I wouldn't want to have to start out on that journey again right now--I've come so far that the starting point has fallen over the far horizon. But if I have to labor on Labor Day, it's good to spend a moment appreciating the worth of the most exhausting labor. 

Just one moment, though. After that, it's time to get back to work.

Friday, September 02, 2016

A kick in the "but"

I know I've told this story before, but just try to stop me from telling it again: A long time ago at a university far, far away, I met with a first-year student to discuss her essay draft, which, as I recall, consisted of exactly four sentences. I said something like "You've made a good start, but--" and then proceeded to discuss all the things she would have to do in order to fulfill the requirements of the assignment. Then I sent her on her merry way, confident that she would work really hard and produce something that was, at the very least, an essay.

So you can imagine my surprise when, a week later, she turned in her revision, which consisted of those same four sentences--and nothing more.

When I asked why she hadn't revised her draft, she looked at me with a wounded expression and said, "You said it was good." And that's when I realized that she had never even heard all the stuff that came after but because she had stopped listening as soon as she heard good.

Good is a good word except when it's bad. "Good hit!" can refer to very different levels of performance depending on whether it's yelled by a doting parent at a Little League game or by a loyal fan at the World Series, but a player who never advances beyond the Little League meaning of good will never make it to the World Series. And then good is not always pure but often qualified: good try or good start or good, but are all useful as long as the student doesn't stop listening after good.  

I use the good, but kind of comment on student work all the time,  but I've learned to spend some time in class explaining how students should respond to these comments. The meaning of good depends upon context: a paragraph that is fine for a brief, low-stakes writing assignment might be underdeveloped or inadequate in a final version of a major essay, and a student who sees the phrase good title! and then ignores the revision suggestions I've inserted in the rest of the paper will inevitably be disappointed in the grade.

I also have to remind students that standards rise with time and exposure to new skills, so that writing that is good enough for the first weeks of a first-year class will be woefully inadequate by the 15th week--or, years later, in the senior capstone. An unqualified good on a senior capstone paper is a major accomplishment, while a good, but in first-year writing means it's time to get back to work.

Today I'll hand my first-year students a writing assignment on which the word good will appear in various contexts, and I'll allow them a few moments to bask in the glow of a job well done before I remind them to take a look at the other comments. Good, I'll tell them, is a good place to pause, but don't stop there unless you want your grade to come back and kick you in the but.