Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Nothing to write home about...

What if my students wrote letters home about today's classes?

Dear Mom and Dad,
This morning in my freshman comp we talked about goose rectums.  We read an essay about the Berkeley Pit copper mine in Butte, Montana, which is full of water polluted with all kinds of nasty stuff. It's kind of pretty, but you wouldn't want to drink it. We read that a flock of geese landed on the polluted water and then when they took off again, they evacuated their bowels and released a microorganism that grew into a film on the water. "Goose poop had made the pit come alive," said the article. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've heard an English professor mention goose rectums in class, so I thought you'd want to know about it.
Joe Q. Freshperson

Dear Mom and Dad,
Today in my honors literature class I drew a hand turkey, just the way we used to do it in elementary school: trace around the hand to make feathers and add a beak and feet. It was neat! We were drawing maps to illustrate important points in the development of a character in Cold Mountain, and our group thought the turkey incident was pretty important. Another group drew a rattlesnake that looked like a French horn, and we talked about what kind of instruments we'd like played at our funerals. We also drew pants. I wish we could do this every day instead of all that heavy reading! I miss elementary school! Please may I go back to third grade?
Your straight-A student

Yo wassup?
College is crazy. Watching a movie about some old dead dude with a funny mustache, Chaplain or something, ain't even in color. You paid money for this? When u bringing me home?

Dear Grandma,
You wouldn't believe the short videos we watched in my comic literature class today! We've been reading all these boring stories by famous people I've never heard of like Thurber and Cervantes, but today we watched videos chosen by students, who had to talk about the theories of comedy illustrated by the videos. It was so much more fun than reading, like, Shakespeare! First we watched a video by a comic making fun of grandmothers--not that there's anything wrong with grandmothers. Some of my best friends are grandmothers! 👧 Then there was the one called "Show Me Your"--never mind. And the one about the dead kid and the rape and the Silly String--um, what do you think about the weather we've been having? Anything exciting happening in the nursing home? I can't wait to see you and tell you all the neat stuff I've been learning!  (Well, maybe not all of it....)
Your grandkid

Maybe it's just as well that they don't write letters....  

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Score one for the humanities

It was one of those days when I really ought to have been given a prize for refraining from throwing any students out the window: a bleak, damp, cold Monday morning when three freshman classes before noon just felt like too many freshmen, when an entire class expressed ignorance of a major assignment we've been talking about for two weeks, when a student asked a question so ridiculous that I didn't even have to answer because the rest of the class rose up as one to respond--loudly.  The kind of morning that makes me wonder why I didn't pursue a career in welding or glass-blowing or bead-sorting or anything involving inanimate objects that can't talk back (which is a pretty good description of a few of my students yesterday)--the kind of day, in other words, that makes me wonder why I keep banging my head against the same brick wall semester after semester. 

And then I opened an e-mail from a student--not even a current student but a student I taught a few years ago, who later transferred to another school. So I haven't seen or heard from this student for three years and I probably haven't thought about him either, but here he is suddenly in my inbox thanking me for urging him to pursue an English major.

It took me a few minutes to remember this kid, but he included a few clues in the message and then it all came flooding back: a student determined to pursue a major in engineering even though he hated his intro-level engineering classes, who wrote elegant papers analyzing literature with a depth of insight rarely seen in freshman writing, the kind of insight that screams "English major." I remember meeting with him to hear him list all the reasons he hated engineering but felt that he had to major in it anyway, and I remember urging him to major in English or, if that wasn't possible, to take as many courses as he could in the humanities and try to squeeze in an English minor.

All these anguished meetings may have felt like a total waste of time three years ago, but today I have in my inbox a message explaining that he's sick of engineering and wants to pursue his passion, so he's switching his major to English, even though this will delay his graduation by three semesters. "Engineering has never been my passion," he writes, adding, "Already, I feel much happier thinking about studying something more enjoyable."

In the midst of a chorus of complaints about how unreasonable I am to expect students to find six sources in only three weeks or to read a five-page story before Wednesday's class even though it's incredibly boring, consisting, as it does, of too many big words, I celebrate a student who applies the word "enjoyable" to the study of literature. Please send me more of those students! Otherwise, one of these days I won't be able to stop myself from throwing someone out the window.

Friday, October 13, 2017

From one frontier to another

On the same day that I flew home from Florida, I found that my home landline was once again out of service, so within a few hours I moved from lauding Frontier Airlines to complaining to Frontier Communications. But now the phone is working again after a mere three days of silence, which is much swifter service than we've received in the past. I find that mentioning my willingness to file a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio tends to get Frontier's attention, but I only know that because I've had to deal with this same problem so many times. 

On the other hand, my house didn't burn down this week, and neither was it hit by a hurricane, earthquake, flood, or zombie apocalypse, so what do I have to complain about, really? Okay, so the van rental for my field trip got messed up, but then nearly all of my students realized (after much finagling to find a workable date) that they had better things to do and wouldn't be able to go on the field trip anyway, so I cancelled it. Sure, they'll miss a valuable educational experience, but on the plus side, I'll have some unexpected free time Sunday afternoon. Maybe I'll take myself on a field trip and try to see some fall color.

And I can be grateful that I can still see, after dealing with a vision problem that resulted in two optometric appointments in two days and a whole lot of prodding, measuring, and testing of my eyeballs. I have had my corneas poked with a wand. I have stared intently at bright shimmery blue lights while listening to shrieking lasers. I have viewed detailed photographs of the inside of my eyeball, which looks about how you'd expect. Now I'm awaiting results of tests while being reassured that the current problem probably won't get any worse--but if I see something that looks like a rain of black pepper or a dark curtain closing over my vision, I'm supposed to call my eye guy right away.

I just hope he's more reliable than Frontier (Communications) and gets me where I need to be as efficiently as Frontier (Airlines). 


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Enlightened at the library

"How many of you have ever checked out a book from our library?" I asked my first-year seminar students this morning, and only one responded: "I haven't checked out a library book since second grade."

And this, dear reader, is why you could have seen me leading two of my first-year classes on a lively tour through the library this morning, once at 8 a.m. and again at 11. I show them how to make the stacks move, where to find reference books and bound periodicals and DVDs, and how to check out materials, but I also introduce them to a reference librarian--"They live on questions, so if you don't toss them a question once in a while, they'll shrivel up and die right here in the library." 

I like to take them up to the top floor and show them the giant yellow light fixture and say, "This is the light of knowledge shining down on you. When you get stressed out, come up here, lie on the floor, look up at the big yellow sun, and take some deep breaths while you bask in the glow of enlightenment." (Yes, they give me funny looks, but so what? If a little goofiness will make them remember their library tour, I'll get goofy.)

I take them down to the basement and explain the value of a cell-phone-free study zone, and then they spend 15 or 20 minutes in Special Collections, looking at some fun materials our stellar Special Collections director has laid out: letters written by George Washington and Ben Franklin, the hand-written journal of one of our earliest African-American students, a collection of early photographs of the college. David McCullough has been spending some time down there doing research for his next book, but he's not on campus this week--but if my students encounter him, they will at least have a clue who he is.

In the end I require them to use the online library catalog to find a book of interest to them and check it out, and then I sit by the circulation desk to make sure they do it. I can't be sure they'll read the books, but now none of my first-year students will be able to say they haven't checked out a library book since second grade. 

The sun, the sun!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"Give your future self a gift," they said, and so I did

A four-day break before midterm in the fall semester usually provides me just enough time to get caught up on grading and class preps and maybe take some long walks or visit the grandkids. This time, though, I went further afield without taking any work with me, which means I had to work like a maniac last week to clear the decks.

Not much sleep any night last week, thanks to piles of papers and essays to grade. Only a few hours of sleep Friday night because I had to listen to the 13-inning Indians game (!), which got me all wound up, and then I had to get up at 3:30 the next morning to drive to the Cleveland airport in time for my flight out to Florida--and not much sleep last night because I had to get up at 4:30 to get to the airport for my flight back to Ohio.

But in between, I had a blast. No papers to grade, no classes to prep, just a few days to stay with my dad while my daughter and son-in-law and grandkids were visiting. I got to visit an old friend, visit my mother's grave, and watch the grandkids race around the house while shrieking with laughter, but the highlight had to be spending a day with my daughter and granddaughter at Sea World. 

When I lived in Florida, I always had friends working at the theme parks who were happy to help me get in free, so it's always a little painful to have to pay the full ticket price. But then the first thing we encountered when we got in the park was the dolphin nursery, where my granddaughter  raced to the window and starting making friends with young dolphins right away. Her delight was worth every penny we paid for the ticket.

I watched her work up the nerve to touch a baby shark's tail, ride a child-sized roller coaster, and climb a high rope bridge at a playground; I heard her laugh with delight as dolphins and whales leapt high in the air, saw her waddle like a penguin and ride a squid on the carousel. We visited injured manatees and learned what dangers the gentle creatures face, and we marveled at sharks swimming over our heads, rays in a shallow tank ready to be touched and fed, and flamingos standing so still they looked like statues.

I came home bone-tired and ready to collapse and thankful that I didn't find a pile of grading waiting for me. I want to go back and thank my past self for giving my present self a gift of a few grading-free days, but at the moment I'm too tired to go hunting for a time machine. 

We saw ibises everywhere.

White pelican, up close and personal.

They look like statues or stuffed toys.

Touching a baby shark


Thursday, October 05, 2017

Midweek madness

When I catch myself writing an e-mail message beginning "Dear Essay, I have attached your April," it's time to take a break from responding to student papers, so I walk up the hall to the department office to get an aspirin, and along the way I overhear a colleague loudly telling her class that "young boys are nuclear bombs!"

And I wonder: has the entire world gone mad or just my little corner of the world? 

My students have given me some marvelous gifts this week, including a couple of great names for Shakespeare-inflected garage bands: "The Switching Antipholuses" and "Syracusan Doppelgangers." They've presented material in class with panache and professionalism, and some of them wrote some really stellar papers. 

But (you knew there was a but, right?) this week I have been called upon to explain an analytical term that we have been using in class since the first week of the semester, a term that students have been quizzed and tested on repeatedly, and I've been compelled to read short response papers from students who think the best way to analyze the work of a visiting author is to complain that he uses too many big words. (Apparently "casserole" counts as a big word.) 

Right now my brain is swimming with ripe little words, many of which I do not care to utter aloud. I'd like to go out for a walk to clear my head, but first I need my colleague to explain that whole young boys = nuclear bombs thing. If I'm in danger of running into a ticking time bomb, I'd like to be sure I have the proper equipment to defuse the danger.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Fifty shades of blue (heron)

I've been wishing I could rewind the tape to a conversation I had with a student last week, but I'm afraid a week's worth of thinking hasn't offered any better answer than the sorry one I gave. The student asked me how I can "justify" considering Cold Mountain literature since, in the student's considered opinion, it's simply "The Civil War version of Fifty Shades of Grey." I mumbled something about the beauty of the language and Frazier's exploration of the human condition, and I suppose I should be grateful that I refrained from sputtering on about the word justify or asking what the heck she's doing reading Fifty freaking Shades of Grey.

I know where the student's coming from: brand-spanking-new freshperson trying to protect her virgin eyeballs from anything untoward, but I fear this will end up like the time I taught Jose Saramago's Blindness and a student wrote a long comment on my course evaluations excoriating me for forcing students to read pornography. (Which Blindness isn't--not by any stretch of the imagination.) 

Among the many ways in which Cold Mountain differs from Fifty Shades of Grey is the sheer number of sex scenes: two in Cold Mountain, both fairly discreet. In fact, one of the sex scenes reminds me of the "Squeal like a pig" scene in Deliverance: more terrifying than titillating. But then if you stretch your definition of sex scenes, you might come up with a third--the story Stobrod tells about Ruby's mother being ravished by a great blue heron:
The tale Ruby's mother told, as recounted by Stobrod, was that the heron strode up on its long back-hinged legs and looked her eye to eye. She claimed, Stobrod said, that the look was unmistakable, not open to but one interpretation. She turned and ran, but the heron chased her into the house, where, as she hunkered on hands and knees trying to squeeze under the bedstead to hide, the heron came upon her from behind. She described what ensued as like a flogging of dreadful scope.
"A flogging of dreadful scope"--if that's all it takes to make Cold Mountain is the Civil War version of Fifty Shades of Grey, then all I can say is, guilty as charged.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

A pumpkin-spiced grading break

Some weekends are made for grading papers, prepping classes, and getting caught up on the laundry, but this was not one of those weekends. On Friday I told my students that I probably wouldn't be grading their papers over the weekend unless my visiting grandkids were willing to help. My granddaughter would have been happy to draw a pumpkin on someone's paper, but I don't know how to translate a pumpkin into a grade.

We saw a few pumpkins at Sweetapple Farm, but apparently the local crop isn't particularly abundant this year. We hiked through a corn maze in flawless fall weather, hugged a straw-bale minion and picked a million paw-paws (or maybe slightly fewer), ate chili and went to church and read not quite a million Shel Silverstein poems. We watched our grandson turn salt-shakers into percussion instruments, attempt to eat his weight in Kool-Whip, and practice stepping up onto the hearth and back down again, each time uttering a close approximation of "up!" and "down!" and then pausing for applause.

Now they're gone and the house is quiet. The papers still need grading and I probably ought to think about laundry and dishes and tomorrow's classes, but frankly, I'd rather hug a minion--but since I don't have a minion nearby, I think I'll just chuckle at the memory.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Tackling Shakespeare anxiety

On a day when I introduced one class to the joys of defenestration and led another through critique of the infamous Princess-Di-in-Hell argument, I nevertheless have to admit that the highlight of my day occurred in my comedy class this afternoon when a football player looked at a passage from a Shakespeare play and said, "This isn't so difficult."

We're starting A Comedy of Errors on Monday in a room mostly full of student-athletes taking the class for general education credit (plus a couple of ringers--two English majors!), and every time I've mentioned our upcoming foray into Shakespeare, I've heard groans. I feared that they'd all just read a quick summary online and not even try to read Shakespeare, so I decided to nip that plan in the bud by leading the class in a Shakespeare Anxiety Support Session.

First, I gave them some concrete tips on how to read a Shakespearean text, and then I broke them into groups and gave each group a chunk of the first scene of A Comedy of Errors. The groups had to read, look up words, come to a consensus on meaning, and then explain it to the rest of the class--not exactly innovative pedagogy, but helpful in a room full of guys who aren't afraid to try to tackle a 250-pound football player but who would rather hide in the locker room than read a Shakespeare play.

In the middle of their lively group discussions I heard the words that warmed my heart: "This isn't so difficult."

"Great!" I said. "Now that you've demonstrated your ability to read Shakespeare, you should be ready to tackle the rest of the text!" 

And maybe they will. If not, at least they've read that one passage. Score!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Pawpaws, part two: stuck on you

I thought I knew pawpaws pretty well. I mean, what's to know? They grow at the edge of the woods; we pick,  peel, and eat 'em and toss out the seeds, unless the resident husbandman wants to save the seeds to try to grow next spring. Whatever. I know they're delicious. What more do I need to know?

But I'd never tried cooking with pawpaws before, primarily because they tend to get gobbled up too quickly to become ingredients. But this year's crop is abundant and we can only peel and eat so many, so I found a recipe and set to work.

The recipe seemed simple enough: pawpaw pulp with eggs, sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, butter, salt, and baking powder, mixed in the right order, dumped in a buttered baking pan, and baked for 50 minutes. The texture resembles that of lemon bars but there's no crust, while the spices suggest pumpkin pie--but again, no crust. I can't report on finished flavor because it's still baking, but I can report that I now know one salient fact about pawpaws that had previously escaped my notice: they're sticky.

We're not talking moderately sticky. We're talking the kind of sticky that makes it hard to scrape all the mashed pulp out of the mixing bowl, and then if you happen to set that sticky bowl aside while assembling the remaining ingredients, the lingering pulp will turn gluey and adamantly resist removal from the bowl.

Not only that, but after washing all the preparation dishes, I've had to go back and wash my hands two or three more times because I can't get rid of that sticky feeling. My fingertips keep feeling like they want to stick to the keys--and now I wonder whether I got some pulp on my laptop keyboard. The pulp is thicker than glue and stickier than honey and it just won't go away.
But my house is now full of the comforting aroma of cinnamon, vanilla, and pawpaw, a scent that can linger as long as it wants. I just hope the dessert will stick around long enough to banish the memory of all that sticky pulp. 

(Pass the soap, would you? I can't get my fingers off the keys.)



Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Responding to "u"

When you read the first line of a student paper and notice that it spells the word you in two different ways in the same sentence (you and u), and then you look back in your files and notice that you marked that sentence on the draft and offered some very specific advice about how to revise, what do you do?

I had to step away from the papers for a few minutes this morning and think about other things. I had read two stellar papers right at the start, which pumped up my expectations for the rest of the class, and then I went straight for the paper that shows no signs of having been revised from its initial drafty form. Suddenly I'm feeling deflated.

Yes, we've reached Moment of Truth time in all my classes: the honeymoon period has been over for at least a week, and now I'm reading papers that sometimes fill me with hope for the human race and sometimes make me want to crawl into a dark cave and never come out. I prefer to focus on the first type of paper but I have to find a helpful way to respond to the second kind, beyond "Go back and read what I wrote on your draft." (Or maybe that should be "ur draft.")

I've been fortunate so far in that I've never seen much text-speak in student papers, and it wouldn't be a fatal error if the rest of the paper had some merit, but if sloppiness in spelling is accompanied by sloppiness in reasoning, that's a double whammy. But how do I communicate with a student who refuses to read what I write on his papers?

Maybe the grade will get his attention. Today's Moment of Truth: let your gpa fall too low and you won't be permitted to play your sport. (Or should that be "ur sport"?)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Suddenly, stinkbugs

Despite 90-degree weather here this week, autumn is making itself known in a number of ways: foggy mornings, colorful leaves, and the invasion of the stinkbugs.

I know others have been experiencing this invasive species for years, but they're fairly new in our area. They're ugly and annoying but harmless--they're just looking for a warm place to hunker down for the winter, so they find the cracks around doors and windows and crawl in, and then they spend the evening banging at the big front window. They like the south side of the house, so they gather in a few predictable places, where they're easy to catch and relocate (outside).

They would be easy to smash, too, but you don't want to do that unless you want to learn first-hand why they're called stinkbugs. A colleague of mine reports that her dog eats stinkbugs but the process of digestion does not eliminate the stink.

Last year we ejected a few from our house and the year before, even fewer; this year, though, we got after three or four every evening. And when I say "we," I refer, of course, to my husband, the resident remover of alien life forms. It's not that I'm afraid of bugs in the house, but I wouldn't want to deprive him of the thrill of the chase. 

His intrepid efforts this week ought to earn him a stinkbug trophy, but if I doubt that a taxidermist would be willing to tackle the project.


Friday, September 22, 2017

A+ in Mask-Juggling

In my office this week I have met with students sincerely attempting to improve their writing and others desperate to offer excuses about why their writing stinks, when sometimes it really doesn't. I have felt the need to inform students that due dates matter, that they are still responsible for the material even if they neglected to complete the reading assignments, and that "that" is not a verb--and I've had the pleasure of telling a very nervous student that he's a good writer regardless of what anyone may have told him in high school.

This week I have laid hands on students more than usual: a heartfelt hug to a student who is withdrawing for medical reasons, and a tug on a set of headphones that were preventing a student from being fully present in class. That incident could have gone very badly in a variety of ways, but in the moment I couldn't think of another way to get the student to take the quiz I was trying to hand him.

With one student I've expressed sympathy for a death in the family, and then with the next I've had to put on my Mean English Professor gaze and deliver a stern sermon on the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions. It's hard to shift from one persona to another in a short span of time--maybe I need a set of masks to make the switch more seamless. The problem is that I don't always know which Me the students need when they come into my office, and switching masks in the middle of a session might be awkward.

The hardest part of my week was meeting with a student facing a really serious and life-changing problem just a few minutes before class, an encounter that left me feeling bereft, but then I had to go and face a whole room full of students who needed a whole different Me of the non-bereft variety. Where can I find a Competent Teacher mask? 

But now office hours are over. Time to take off the mask, put my feet on the desk, and turn my attention to the next urgent task. (Close the door on the way out, would you?)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Foggy fall morning

I thought I saw the Eye of Sauron in our upper meadow this morning, but a closer look revealed a spider web smiling in the tall grass. Dense fog shrouded the meadow without dimming the yellow glow of goldenrod or the brilliance of the few leaves that have already turned red. I saw puny clusters of dark fruit hanging from wild grapevines while other sections of vine continued to send out tendrils curling into the unknown. Days like today make me appreciate a teaching schedule that keeps me away from campus on Thursdays--except of course for that one student who needs to meet with me and can't find another available time. Time to say goodbye to the foggy meadow and head to town.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ixnay on the athwray

Note to self: Who made you the Parking Police? Starting the day with a heated altercation over traffic laws is not a brilliant idea, even if the anger grows every time you see that particular colleague violate the one-way street sign until you feel as if you're going to explode. Releasing the pressure with a face-to-face encounter first thing in the morning is only going to sour the rest of the day--and on a day when you have a horde of first-year students coming to conferences, you can't afford to be sour.

So here I am in my office trying to think happy thoughts before my students start arriving. This is all I've got:
  • Language Log comments on the new Range Rover model called the Velar, which makes me wonder: will we ever see a Ford Fricative on the market? (Click here for a little linguistics humor--very little.)  
  • Speaking of language, if you missed Talk Like a Pirate Day, McSweeney's offers some other options (click here). Hey, I won't even have to practice for "Talk Like a Woman Who's Constantly Freezing at Work Day"!
  • In other language-related news, I could have made a real killing points-wise the other day if only Words With Friends would accept Pig-Latin. Ixnay on the ointspay!
Hmmm....this isn't working. Someone tell me something funny--or else! (What? I'm not even authorized to issue parking tickets, much less comedy tickets.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Of pawpaws and papers

On Saturday I had an encounter with a talking tree walking around the Pawpaw Festival (meaning the tree was walking, kind of a neat trick), along with a guy in a pawpaw suit. I sincerely hope the suit had a cooling system because it had to be hot inside that big wad of foam in relentless 80-degree sunshine.

The resident farmer has been wanting to learn how to transplant pawpaw saplings from the edge of our woods out to the meadow because they allegedly produce more fruit in full sun, so he attended a lecture on pawpaw husbandry while I wandered around looking at the craft booths, which were neither as abundant nor as interesting as they were the last time I was there. The children's play area looked great, though, which made me wish I'd had the forethought to bring a passel of children with me. Where are those grandkids when I need them? (Soon I'll have more--another grandchild on the way in March! I've told my daughter that Spring Break would be the ideal time to deliver, but we'll see whether the little one cooperates.)

On Sunday we went out with a bucket to our own pawpaw patch, which is producing plenty of fruit this year (unlike last year when a late freeze doomed the local pawpaw crop). We found only one fruit ripe enough to pick, but we'll check for more later in the week. It was a gorgeous day for a walk in the woods, with soft fall air bringing the promise of color and change.

The garden is winding down, which is kind of a relief because I've run out of interesting ways to prepare eggplant. Tomatoes and peppers are still producing abundantly, though. We've never had so many habanero peppers--we've given away at least a bushel and there are many more on the plants, while other types of peppers are ripening more slowly. I'm excited about getting some good pimento peppers, but I'll leave the ghost peppers to the resident masochist. 

But now I have to turn away from nature's abundance and devote myself to the heavy crop of student drafts I've been reaping. I hope I'll find some as juicy and sweet as a pawpaw or as pointed as a habanero pepper, but it wouldn't surprise me to find some papers that aren't quite ripe yet. Give 'em time--they'll mature.

Impossible to get photos without random children in them.

Pawpaw: ugly but delicious.

Fall color on the way!


Saturday, September 16, 2017

From autocorrect to epiphany

The other morning my phone told me to "get grace at nerdiness," which is either a Zen koan or a bizarre autocorrect error. I dutifully collected my colleague at the auto-repair shop but kept my eyes open for nerdiness all the while.

It's hard to keep my eyes open, though, when all I want to do is sleep. I figured out, finally, why I've had all the energy of a squashed pumpkin lately, and now I'm taking antibiotics for a rather unfortunate infection, along with a medication that I wouldn't want to take if I wore contacts because it can permanently stain them ORANGE, which at the moment is also the hue of some of my bodily fluids. I don't want to read the small print on this drug because if it's going to turn me into an Oompa-Loompa, I don't want to know about it. All I care about is the reduction in pain and the possibility that I might be able to sleep for more than two hours at a time, which may result in an increase in energy and concentration. I'll let you know in a day or two.

Meanwhile I'm enjoying a harmonic convergence of texts. My honors students have reached the part of The Odyssey when Odysseus's old nurse recognizes him by his scar, and my comedy students have reached the moment in A Horse Walks Into a Bar when the judge scribbles the name of Odysseus's nurse on a napkin at a comedy club to remind him of the importance of recognition, the magical epiphany of seeing through the mask to the inner person, and the fact that this recognition occurs through the revelation of a scar. Pain reveals the person: not a particularly funny concept, but in context, it's both deeply moving and amusing.

I'll tell you what, though: no one would have overlooked Odysseus if his pain had turned into an Oompa-Loompa. (Autocorrect that!) 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Building the infrastructure to teach a new text

The advantage of teaching a brand-new novel hot off the presses is that students won't be able to rely on online summaries and potted papers so they'll have to start from scratch with the text itself. The disadvantage is that I'm starting from scratch too.

True, I've read the book before and worked it into the first paper assignment, but I have none of the infrastructure I need to open a text to students. I'm reading the book again and marking up the pages, writing lecture notes and group-work prompts, thinking about exam questions, locating information about the author and his context. I have to anticipate areas of ignorance: Can I expect my students to know enough about the Holocaust, the recent history of Israel, or the 1956 Sinai Campaign? Will they know what a kibbutz is? What about the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock?

That's a lot to expect of students who thought a class on comic literature would be an easy way to get their general education credit, but there's more: David Grossman's A Horse Walks into a Bar is a deeply philosophical work, focusing on a stand-up comic struggling through a two-hour routine with an audience sitting in judgment. Alongside the jokes and clowning around, he raises questions about the problem of pain, about who is responsible for human suffering and whether dignity is possible in the face of injustice and loss. And what role does comedy play? The very existence of Holocaust jokes raises all kinds of interesting and uncomfortable questions.

This won't be an easy ride for any of us: while I'm scrambling to develop compelling lesson plans and class activities, my students are struggling to figure out why they're reading this often uncomfortable philosophical novel in a comedy class. 

At least I hope they are. Maybe they're frantically searching for online summaries and cursing me for choosing such a recent book. If they are, don't tell me--I don't want to know.



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Storm report: disruption and survival

After the storm, my dad reports that Irma's bark was worse than her bite, at least in his area: he stayed up all night listening to the wind and rain, but in the morning he found just a few limbs down and no major damage. He didn't even lose power, although his television and internet service were cut off. For those fortunate enough to escape the worst of the winds, the storm was just a brief disruption. (But we await word from one of my husband's aunts, who still lacks power and so far remains unreachable.)

A smaller disruption occurred last year when a new natural gas pipeline snaked its way through our rural area and across our road. After months of temporary road closures and big trucks making muddy messes, our road reverted to its usual sylvan quietness. But the area cleared for the new gas pipeline created a perfect corridor for deer to move from the woods down to the creek, so we see them there frequently. Yesterday a doe and two fawns were grazing there when I drove past, and I happened to have the camera in the car, so I stopped and shot a few photos. They seem unbothered by me as long as I stayed in the unmoving car, but the minute the car started moving, they bolted. Deer grazing out in the open in broad daylight: they'll quit that behavior as soon as hunting season starts. They won't even need an evacuation warning.


Saturday, September 09, 2017

Calm before the storm

Walking in perfect weather up the big horrible hill this morning, I found it difficult to believe in the devastating events taking place elsewhere: friends out west struggle to breathe in the midst of massive fires while my brother-in-law drives north to escape the path of Irma and my dad hunkers down at home in central Florida hoping the hurricane respects his personal space. In the midst of all this threat, it feels wrong to enjoy a pleasant stroll in the woods with nothing to worry me except the prospect of hip pain on the way down the hill.

I made the walk on Wednesday for the first time since I twisted my hip back in August, and it felt fine on the way up the hill but screamed all the way down. Today I fared better, with minor pain and just a little stiffness afterward. I realize that complaining about joint pain is a sure sign that I've joined the ranks of Pathetic Older Persons, but at the moment that's all I've got.

On Wednesday I saw kingfishers along the creek and a pileated woodpecker in the woods--and a good half-dozen deer boldly bounding through a meadow--but today the woods were quite and still. The neighbors' burros stood up close to the fence for a change, the babies skittering around like cartoon characters from an animated film called Bucky the Burro Goes for a Bounce while the adults stood stock-still, following Hopeful's progress with their eyes but ignoring me entirely. Apparently they don't perceive me as a threat.

Two weeks into the semester I treasure a weekend free of class preps and student papers. By this time next week, I'll be struggling through a tsunami of student drafts while wrangling with a pile of reading and committee work, but for this brief moment I intend to enjoy the peace and quiet as we all wait to see what new devastation might be heading our way.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Floaty foamy fun

I got to town early this morning and went downtown to look at the boats moored along the riverfront in anticipation of this weekend's Sternwheel Festival, and while I enjoyed the boats and the sunrise and the early-morning walk along the river, I found myself fascinated by another sort of floating vessel entirely.

Someone had dumped detergent in the downtown fountain, creating a mountain of foam that birthed foambergs and foamclouds and foamghosts that went floating through traffic and all along the riverfront. Foamghosts embraced fences while foambergs went barging into traffic without waiting for a crossing signal, and a little foamcloud floated up Front Street just above the roofs of cars.

I feel some sympathy for whoever is responsible for cleaning up the foamy mess, but I confess that I enjoyed watching the floaty foamy clouds cavorting in the morning light. Don't begrudge them their fun--they'll dissipate into nothingness long before the sternwheel races, and they'll miss the fireworks and funnelcakes entirely. Foam life may look like a breeze, but it doesn't last. 

So float on, foam. Float on. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Stagnation vs. freedom: an open letter on tenure

Dear Tom Hamilton,
I've wanted to write you a fan letter for years: your voice is the soundtrack of my summer, your radio play-by-play bringing the excitement of Cleveland Indians right into our home day after day throughout the long baseball season. I admire the enthusiasm and depth of information enlivening your analysis; I owe you a debt of gratitude for everything you've taught me about baseball. Now, though, it's time for me to teach you a thing or two about a topic dear to my heart.

Yesterday you were complaining about a certain umpire's lack of accuracy in calling balls and strikes, and you made a flippant comment about people who manage to keep their jobs long after they've ceased to perform them with proficiency--"like a tenured professor."


I realize that equating tenure with stagnation is so commonplace as to be a cliche, and, like most cliches, this one has some basis in truth. I'm sure we can all name teachers who slow or stop their development after achieving tenure, but if we tried, we could also name people in many other professions who simply phone it in after reaching a certain plateau of achievement. I'm sure you could think of sports broadcasters who have simply stopped trying after long service, but I don't see you ever doing that so let's not paint an entire profession with the same broad brush.

Where I teach, I'd be hard pressed to name a single tenured professor who does not give value for money; on the contrary, I can name dozens who keep innovating and expanding their skills throughout their teaching careers. Some may change focus after tenure, pouring more energy into teaching and service and less into research and publication, but as a general rule, I don't see my colleagues simply giving up on growth.

I'm tire of the cliche that associates tenure with stagnation. For me and my colleagues, what tenure truly means is freedom.

Here's an example: a colleague and I were talking this summer about how tenure and promotion have empowered us to take more risks in research and writing. Before this year I'd never had the guts to send an article to the top journal in my field, relying instead on "safe" publications where I could be reasonably sure of acceptance. Now that I no longer need to officially prove my worth, though, I'm willing to aim higher without fearing the impact of rejection. My colleague concurred: she's editing a collection of essays on a topic she wouldn't have tackled before tenure and promotion. Far from stagnating, we're stretching ourselves into new areas of research and writing, free to pursue our passions in scholarship and in teaching without fear that someone might look over our shoulders and tsk in disapproval.

The same is true in the classroom: I see tenured professors taking risks with new methods of pedagogy, new technology, new ways to structure curricula. Tenure feels like a stamp of approval: the institution trusts me to make learning happen, so I can take risks and try new methods--and if it doesn't work, I can try something else without fear of finding myself suddenly jobless.

Who benefits from this system? Students--who can take classes from seasoned professors authorized to keep innovating, freed to pursue the most effective ways to promote learning and expand their areas of expertise. Tenure makes academic freedom possible, and while it may also tempt some few faculty members to settle into stagnation, they are the exception rather than the rule.

So thanks, Tom, for all the pleasure you bring into my life, for your great knowledge of baseball and insight into the subtleties of the game. You have a great eye for balls and strikes, but on the topic of tenure, I'm afraid you've struck out.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Laboring on Labor Day again (again)

This is getting to be a bad habit.

I'm required to labor on Labor Day--but not too hard. While my blog takes a holiday, here are the Rules for Laboring on Labor Day that I published a few years ago:

1. Dress down. They can make me teach on Labor Day, but they can't make me dress up.

2. Pack your own picnic. No way I'm eating at my desk when the rest of the world is outside grilling burgers!

3. Don't begrudge the revelers their revels. The people who clean our bathrooms, make our photocopies, and answer our phones work hard for very little money and deserve every minute of their day off. I do not wish they were here working, but I do wish I could join them on their day off.

4. Office hours? Are you kidding me? No one comes to my office hours on a normal day, so what are the chances that anyone will show up on Labor Day?

5. Enjoy the commute. No public school = no school buses holding up traffic, no 20-mile-per-hour zones, and no teens racing around curves on country roads.

6. Be there. Nobody's fooled by the Labor Day flu; if my students are required to be in class on Labor Day, then I'm going to be there with them.

7. Don't try to explain it. I know we have reasons for teaching on Labor Day, and some of them may even be valid ("We can't shortchange Monday labs!"), but the real reason we teach on Labor Day is that we've never been sufficiently motivated to change it.  

Friday, September 01, 2017

Already needing a do-over

I started the week in pain, muddled through the middle while sniffling and sneezing, and ended it incommunicado. Can I get a do-over?

My plan to stay on top of work so I could focus on writing and research on Thursdays fell to pieces in the face of sleeplessness caused first by hip pain and then by a nose that wouldn't stop running. I rarely use sleep aids but I confess that twice this week I reached for the Nyquil. And then my home internet connection failed so I spent a good part of Thursday trying to get answers from Verizon guys, both face-to-face and on the phone.

Kudos to the Verizon guys: they were uniformly friendly and helpful, and they apologized profusely for my inability to make my new wifi hotspot work. A solution is in the mail, though, and they didn't even charge me for overnight delivery. If the new antenna doesn't work, my brilliant son-in-law is ready with Plan B. (Which, given everything else we've tried, is probably really something like Plan Q or R, but I choose to go with the less discouraging nomenclature.) 

Despite all that, I managed to spend a few hours Thursday afternoon wrapping up some research for the next big conference paper. It turns out that it's pretty easy to focus on books and note-taking when you have no Internet or cell-phone connection. No distractions! 

So the week was not a total loss: I've written notes, taught classes, read homework assignments, conferred repeatedly with Verizon guys, and even cooked up some delicious meals to ease our massive influx of garden vegetables. (Anyone who needs eggplant should just drop by my office today because we're overwhelmed.) Best of all, I'm not in pain and my nose is not running, although it's still glowing like a red beacon, lighting the way forward. Look out, weekend--here I come.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A flood of disasters

I have survived the Photocopypocalypse, the e-mail server Snafu-A-Rama, and, yesterday, the onslaught of Austins. (Three Austins in one class? How will I ever tell them apart?) But despite this thrilling demonstration of personal resilience, this morning I was nearly flattened by the morning news.

I blame first-week-of-class jitters: I haven't been able to sleep past 4 a.m. for days, so I'm a little emotionally fragile. When stories of suffering and struggle from Houston came on the morning news, I felt the tears welling up unbidden, which was not a great thing since I was trying to drive down a busy highway at the time.

I heard the story about the furniture-store owner in Houston who opened his doors to flood victims and sent out delivery trucks to rescue stranded residents and deliver them to the store, where he's hosting what he called a "slumber party on steroids" (click here). I was reminded of the time my family hunkered down in a house surrounded by water during the floods that followed Hurricane Agnes in 1972--great fun for us kids who were allowed to camp out in sleeping bags on the living-room floor, but not so great for those whose homes, cars, or lives were washed away.

Yesterday the price of gas increased by 20 cents per gallon here, but if that's the limit of Harvey's local reach, I think we'll survive. However, as soon as I arrived at the office, I went online and made a donation to aid relief efforts, because no matter how far we are from today's disaster, we may find ourselves in the middle of tomorrow's. And besides, donations are always more effective than tears.

(If you're interested, the New York Times offers links to relief organizations and to a site that will help you avoid scams: click here.)  

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A delicious little lesson plan

I've been having great fun with my grandkids this weekend, so my four-year-old granddaughter wanted to know why I had to leave. "I have to teach on Monday," I told her, and she said, "Can I help?" She offered to tell my students a story about pyramids and then hand out oranges and root beer for snack time, because "all the kids like oranges and root beer."

Sadly, I'm going to have to put her lesson plan on hold for the moment and focus on all that first-day-of class stuff we all know and love: syllabi, attendance policies, due dates, a little in-class writing so they can show me their skills. We might be able to squeeze oranges and root beer in the lesson plan one of these days but I don't see a spot for the pyramids.

But I'd finished all my prep work before leaving for the weekend anyway, so I was able to put teaching aside and focus on learning some non-academic things, like how to make my grandson laugh (drop a plastic pig down his shirt) and what's the best way to experience the massively loud horn of a big rig when you're a small person sitting in the cab (with hands over ears). We took the little ones to a Touch-A-Truck event, which allowed them to climb inside fire engines and school buses and all kinds of other trucks, and they even got to sit inside a helicopter and pretend to make it fly. Add great weather and a bouncy house and free hot dogs and pizza and popsicles that turn your whole mouth blue and you've got a perfect day.

I look at this photo of my granddaughter sliding down the bouncy slide and I think, that's how I want to approach this semester: fearlessly, joyfully, with utter abandon

And maybe, one day, with oranges and root beer too.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Time's winged chariots hit a speed-bump

I don't need a calendar to remind me of the passage of time--I just have to notice how long I wait to turn left onto the state highway in the morning and how hard it is to find a parking space on my end of campus. After a long, slow summer, everyone is in a hurry to get back to work.

Yesterday I greeted yet another former student who is now a faculty member here. That makes four of my former students who are now my colleagues. It seems like I just had these students in class last week--how did they have time to get advanced degrees while I wasn't looking? Oh, and another former student of mine has been teaching at another college long enough to get tenure. Didn't she just graduate a few blinks ago?

My dog reminds me of the passage of time by studiously ignoring the rabbits nibbling clover in our front yard. In her youth she chased every living creature that transgressed on her territory,  but yesterday we whistled and pointed to draw her attention to the interlopers while she looked up at us with a bored expression that said, "Don't bother me. Ignoring rabbits is hard work. I need a nap." 

Yes, we are all getting older, except the students, who are getting younger every year. A horde of them will descend on campus for Matriculation this afternoon, and I'll be there to watch them bounding like bunnies up to the front to sign on the dotted line. So much energy! I'll shuffle in my regalia and try to look alive during the speeches, because while this may be my 17th Matriculation, it's their first and they deserve a lively welcome. So I'll ignore my aching tooth and sore hip and desperate need for a nap and clap with the rest of my colleagues, each clap welcoming the presence of new students while closing the door on another chunk of passing time.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

My deubiquitization project

"You're ubiquitous on this campus," said a brand-new colleague this morning, and for the moment she's right: I'm serving as a new-faculty mentor, so I've been spending a lot of time mingling with the newbies. 

But one of my projects this semester is to reduce my ubiquity. I've finished my term on Faculty Council so I won't be in the middle of campus controversies (hurrah!), and my teaching schedule leaves every Thursday free. Further, my Thursday office hours are listed as "by appointment only."

That doesn't make Thursday a day off--I'll still have my full load of grading and four preps--but do I have to do all that on campus? Why not work from home one day a week? Or, better yet, organize my time so I can devote the day to research and writing projects. That would be a treat!

The thing is, I've always hated Thursdays, a day of low energy and little motivation. If I can make Thursdays a little less unbearable by introducing some variety to my schedule and putting pleasant tasks on that day, maybe Thursday can become a day to look forward to instead of dread.

It's worth a try. So I'll start the semester staying away from the office on Thursdays and see whether that helps me get through the week with sanity intact. If nothing else, it will certainly reduce my ubiquity.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Smiles on the sidewalk

I spent some time this afternoon milling about amongst a crowd of people working very hard to avoid looking directly at the sun. From babies in strollers to grampas tottering around on canes, everyone was trying out various ways to see the sun without really looking at it: they stood in lines to peer through telescopes provided by our college astronomers, looked at images reflected in cereal boxes, plastered protective lenses over their eyes to look up and see the sun being slowly eaten by the moon. 

We didn't get the full effect here--the sun was roughly 86 percent obscured--but I remember an earlier eclipse back in my grad-school days, when I was walking across a parking lot oblivious to my surroundings and suddenly this massive cold shadow swooped across the world. I understood then why people sometimes scream when they experience a full eclipse, but today's viewing party was purely festive, a time for college and community to come together in awe.

As I walked back to my office, a colleague pointed out what looked like little crescent moons all over the lawn. Here was the image of the eclipsed sun reflecting through the trees to paint smiles all over the sidewalks. Neat! And a totally safe way to view the eclipse.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Eyes on the ibis

When the clerk at the photo counter handed over an enlargement of one of my bird photos yesterday, she said, "I don't know what it is, but I know it's free."

Yes! That sense of freedom is one reason I have an 8x10 of this glossy ibis hanging in the living room at home. I took the photo in Florida in May, on a day so clear and bright that everything ended up overexposed. It's kind of a strange photo--weird color combination, peculiar composition, wonky exposure--but of all the photos on my walls, this is the one my eye seeks out many times every day. And now I have another print hanging on the wall in my office, where I can glance up and feel that freedom flapping in on glossy wings. 

Let the students charge in and the papers pile up--I'm keeping my eyes on the ibis.



Thursday, August 17, 2017

Gone caving

It feels a little ridiculous to tell people we're going hiking to a new cave when there's nothing new about it. The walls and rock layers at Whispering Cave show signs of eons of weathering and erosion, and intrepid hikers willing to go off the beaten path have been able to get to it forever. What's new is the trail, recently opened in Hocking Hills State Park, that allows (and encourages!) anyone to visit Whispering Cave.

Well, it's not accessible to everyone. The trail winds more than half a mile beyond Old Man's Cave, through the gorge, over a swinging bridge, and up a steep hillside studded with roots begging to trip you up. I managed the rough parts with help from my husband, but even his steady hand couldn't help me on the swinging bridge, which induced vertigo within seconds. On the way back, I skipped the bridge and waded through the creek. (Pretty shallow this time of year, so no problem.) 

Along the way we saw massive rocks topped with ferns, moss, and lichens, rocks in various shades of orange, brown, green, gray, and black weathered in honeycomb patterns or ridged striations, and we heard pileated woodpeckers and hermit thrushes. At the end of the trail we found a cave too wide to fit comfortably into a photo, offering a cool resting-place under a sloping ceiling that loomed and sparkled.

We've been hiking Hocking Hills for twenty years, on and off, but every time the experience is a little different: bridges get washed out and paths re-routed, and you never know what you'll find blooming or whether you'll see butterflies or birds or other forms of wildlife. The light in the gorges changes by the minute, making the trees glow golden one minute and highlighting a rock that looks like a ship the next. Always something new to see--in the midst of something very, very old.

Steep stairs down into Whispering Cave

Tree root shaped like a J!

Can't get the whole cave in the frame.

Down in the gorge

Lower falls--not much water