Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Links for the mid-grading break

I'm not even halfway through my grading pile and I'm already tired of seeing infer used where imply is needed and wondering why students like to lengthen analysis into analyzation while shortening adaptation to adaption. Time for a break! 'Tis the season for mid-grading break links:

1. If Dave Barry's annual holiday gift guide doesn't make you laugh, your sense of humor has fled the territory (click here). Now I'm desperately trying to figure out who on my list needs a Barry Manilow coloring book; Dave Barry suggests giving it to a young adult who refuses to move out of the house:
Imagine the look on some lucky young person’s face when he or she unwraps this item, along with a pack of crayons (not included) and you say, quote: “If you think this Barry Manilow coloring book is exciting, just wait until you hear his music!” Then you turn on your stereo system (not included) and the room fills with the scintillating sounds of “Copacabana” or one of the many other Barry Manilow hits from the past two centuries. Pretty soon that young person will develop an appreciation for good music. Either that, or that young person will move out of your house. Either way is good.

Read more here:
I don't know about the Man-Bun Ken Doll or the Star Wars lightsaber barbecue tongs, but maybe we can get some Shakespeare insult bandages for our department office! 

2. Everyone's twittering about Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Person" in the New Yorker (read it here), a bit of short fiction about a train-wreck of a relationship (if you can call it a relationship). Days after reading the story, I finally realized who it reminded me of: Henry James. 

There is nothing the least bit Jamesian about Roupenian's style, but James pioneered the kind of limited perspective she employs, and like Roupenian's main character, James's protagonists make unfortunate relationship decisions based on inadequate information. If Winterbourne could have stalked Daisy on Facebook instead of relying on rabid gossip, he  would still have dismissed her as nothing more than a "pretty American flirt" (just as Roupenian's Robert dismisses Margot, except Robert uses more pungent language). Similarly, Isabel Archer prefigures Margot when she ignores all her misgivings about Gilbert Osmond, filling in the gaps in his character with her own romantic inventions. The difference, of course, is that Margot escapes after one horrible date while Isabel is stuck with Osmond forever.

3. I don't have a whole lot to say about Julie Beck's "The Secret Life of 'Um'" (read it here), except, um, yeah. If using a lot of vocal filler suggests that one is "really playing an important role in the smooth operation of the conversation machine," then I'm well equipped to keep the gears turning.

4. Nina Handler's essay "Facing My Own Extinction" made me very sad (read it here), dealing as it does with a college's decision to discontinue the English major. But this paragraph especially struck me:
The belletristic tradition is obsolete, and those who once imparted the art of rhetoric now strive to teach basic literacy. English, once a backbone of the university’s structure, has become a little-used organ with only vestigial value — the appendix of academia.
The "appendix of academia"! I'm feeling it: nobody quite understands why we still exist, so it's easy to suggest surgical removal. It hasn't happened here but many of us who teach in English departments can hear the surgeon scrubbing up in the next room and fear that it's only a matter of time before we end up on the operating-room floor.

But not today. Today we have work to do, like trying to explain to a student why infer and imply are not interchangeable. It's a tough job, but, um, somebody has to keep the wheels turning. (Maybe some Barry Manilow will help...)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

There are many aspects of grading that can be analyzed

"You do a really great job weaving quotations seamlessly into your sentences," I just wrote on a student's paper. Clumsiness with quote integration is endemic to first-year papers, so when someone integrates quotes elegantly, it's time to pass out the gold stars.

I'm seeing evidence of haste on many of these papers, which is peculiar because they had plenty of time to seek help and revise the draft. Last Friday a student told me that he had failed to look at my comments on his draft until late the night before it was due, so it was only then that he realized that I'd accidentally sent him another student's draft and comments. Oops. My mistake, of course, but then if he'd looked at the file a little earlier, he could have asked me to send him the right document. 

Apparently he was distracted. So am I. In fact, these marathon grading sessions make me eager to grasp at any distraction that happens to flit past. I assigned all these papers so I have to grade 'em, but my goodness I wish I could put some of them off until, say, January. Of 2027.

But here I sit dutifully reading one paper after another after another, puzzling over peculiar punctuation, trying to untangle incoherent prose, wondering where a student ever learned that a great way to start a paper is to write something like "There are many aspects of literature that can be analyzed." When I'm drowning in drivel, an elegantly crafted sentence arrives like a lifeboat, buoying my spirits and inspiring me to keep reading. 

Let's hope I see a lot more such sentences; otherwise, I'll be ending the semester with an excess of gold stars and nowhere to stick them.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Remembrance of libraries past

A student came to me with a great idea. He was showing me the scholarly article he'd received in his e-mail inbox via interlibrary loan, and he said, "Why don't they have a place where all these articles were printed out and we could go read them right away instead of waiting for them to come to our e-mail?"

What a concept--a whole building dedicated to collecting texts and making them available to students! We could call it--a library! And it could have a big room dedicated to print copies of academic journals! Sort of like what we have in our own beloved library, except we don't have nearly enough space for all the specialized journals students might need, so we could go back to the days when dedicated students would drive two or three hours across the state to a whopping big academic library and then spend hours and hours in the dusty stacks photocopying articles from academic journals, only to drive back home to read them!

And if starting up an institution like that would be too much trouble, we could build a time machine and send my student back a few decades to research his paper. He'll be begging to return home within minutes, but how will he ever reach us? He'll never find a cell-phone signal!

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Adventures in refrigerator recycling

When the Fridge Collection Dude (hereafter FCD) called last night to say that he would like to pick up our refrigerator earlier than the time originally promised, I was delighted. I've been wanting to go out stalking that snowy owl again, which I can't do if I'm sitting around between 10 and 2 waiting for the FCD to show up and haul away my fridge. So I said sure, how early, and he said between 6:00 and 6:30.


....on a Saturday.

....that also happens to be (1) the day after the end of an exhausting semester and (2) my birthday. 

But sure, I said, we get up early, go ahead and try to find my driveway in the pre-dawn darkness, and if you have trouble, give us a call, except that you'll have to backtrack a mile or two to find any cell-phone reception.

So this morning we got up early enough to clear the last few things out of the fridge and prepare for a week of fridgeless living, and we were dressed, fed, and ready to answer the phone when it rang around 6. I expected to hear the voice of the FCD explaining that he couldn't find my driveway, but no: this was an entirely different FCD, who explained that last night's FCD got called away for a sudden family emergency and had to dump his work on this new FCD, who sounded as if he'd just crawled out of bed himself and was clearly in no position to pick up our refrigerator at 6 a.m., so he'd come by later, between 9 and 1.

Well what could I say? I'm not going to physically haul this FCD out of bed and drag him out here to pick up our fridge, so instead I guess I'll sit around enjoying the morning. One of the advantages of cleaning out the fridge is that you sometimes find things you'd forgotten about, which explains the pawpaw smoothie I enjoyed for my birthday breakfast. The sun is starting to illuminate a frosty world outside, and the dog is bumbling about wearing the Cone of Shame--she had a skin growth surgically removed yesterday but seems to be recovering just fine. I have a pot of hot tea, an unread magazine, and a clear view of the birdfeeders out front, and if I get tired of all that excitement, I can always grade some papers. What more could I possibly want?

(Besides, of course, the absence of refrigerator.)

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Night Stories: Illuminating absence

I thought I was being a little extravagant when I bought myself a hardback book for $45, but then I looked for other books by the same author and I found only one, selling for $1,827.93. (Plus $3.99 for shipping!) So I guess my Linden Frederick collection will remain limited to one book.

But what a book! Linden Frederick is a New England artist, and Night Stories: Fifteen Paintings and the Stories they Inspired is exactly what the title says: 15 of his paintings accompanied by short stories (and a one-act play) written by contemporary authors as diverse as Ann Patchett, Dennis Lehane, Louise Erdrich, and Richard Russo.

I was initially attracted by the art. From his home base is in Maine, Linden Frederick allows his eye to roam across small-town America, producing austere images reminiscent of Edward Hopper's Night Hawks. Though his paintings generally lack human figures, Frederick's night scenes of dimly lit vacant lots, isolated gas stations, and silent houses hint at lives barely imagined. The cover image, Offramp, invites viewers to travel further down the highway or follow the offramp into some forgotten community where lonely people lead lives of quiet desperation.

The night sky is a brooding presence in many of these paintings, its rich shades of blue, green, and gray often pierced by unexpected points of light. In Downstairs, a hulking mass of house crowds the left side of the frame, but our eyes are drawn to the lower edge, where a brightly lit basement window suggests the presence of vibrant life. Vacant Lot presents a greeny-blue night sky so murky it seems to be drowning the planet, but some sort of ordinary life survives in a tiny house where a car drives into a well-lit garage.

In 50 Percent, a one-story house seems squeezed between bands of darkness, as if it is being swallowed up by earth and sky, but large windows reveal a group of women dressed in candy-colored prom dresses. On closer inspection, the festive women resolve into mannequins. A commercial sign shines blankly on the right side, suggesting that this is some sort of business, but in the absence of words, the meaning of the assemblage of mannequins remains a mystery.

Lois Lowry fills that absence with a story called "Vital Signs." The stories in this volume reverse the usual process: instead of finding an artist to illustrate a text, Linden Frederick found a bunch of authors to create stories suggested by his paintings. Lowry imagines a group of retired men trying to play a prank on one of their own but instead coming face to face with the power of loneliness and loss. 

Ted Tally's one-act drama "Repair" closes with a reminder that "Some things can't be fixed," even by an honest mechanic, and many of these stories features lives so broken that the possibility of redemption does not even enter the picture; nevertheless, light shines through the murky depths of the human condition. In "Ice," Andre Dubus opens the doors of a cold, lonely convenience store to reveal the beating heart of passion, and in "Downstairs," Richard Russo takes us inside that dark, hulking house, where a glimmer of life lingers in the midst of despair and death. In Dennis Lehane's "Offramp," a cynical U.S. Marshal on the verge of retirement takes a brief detour toward compassion, while Joshua Ferris's "Maniacs" follows a teen boy through an idle summer vacation; the story throbs with youthful energy that leads the boy headlong into dangerous terrain.  

Louise Erdrich's "Green Acres" takes a turn into uncanny territory, though it begins normally enough:
The house was a soothing color and the streets had pleasant names--Joy Street, Lydia Street, Crystal Way--the names of the developer's wife and daughters. There were also echoes of the old farm--Hereford and Holstein Streets and Jersey Trail. The breeds of the animals that once had grazed the subdivided fields. Our cabin house was at the end of Angus Avenue. Which had the ring of happiness, I thought, pregnant. It had the feel of the address a family would refer to one day with nostalgia.
This pastoral setting soon turns strange, though, in a way that will resonate with any nursing mother who has felt a kinship with cows. Erdrich's brief story dramatizes what happens when we attempt to transform forces of nature into comforting nostalgic images: nature does not forget. It may take a while, but eventually, the cows will come home.

At $45 for a hardback beautiful enough to grace any civilized coffee table, Night Stories would make a great gift for the literary-and-artsy people in your life, but it's currently listed as "temporarily out of stock" at Amazon, and if you want something else by Linden Frederick, you'll have to fork over $1,827.93. (Plus shipping!) But you can view images of some of his paintings here, and who knows, maybe they'll inspire you to write your own story. Imagine the hearts that beat behind those dark walls and within those dimly lit landscapes. I know the people who live in these paintings--and so do you.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Only one calling bird, but it's a doozy


I really should be sitting in my office right now, I thought as I scrambled along a muddy hillside in the rain, trying desperately to keep my camera dry while gusts of wind kept whipping my umbrella around. I should be back at work, quietly awaiting visits from my hordes of students who have papers due this week and may need a little last-minute advice. If I'd stayed on campus, I wouldn't have wet feet and muddy shoes! 

But I wouldn't have seen a snowy owl either, and that was definitely worth an adventure with rotten weather.

Word went out over the weekend that snowy owls had been spotted nearby, rare visitors to this area. I get a lot of these e-mail alerts from the local birding group, which is mostly made up of retired people with time on their hands;  they can squawk about cattle egrets 20 miles upriver all they want but if I'm in class, I'm not going anywhere--and if I do manage to scrape together enough daylight to drive to some remote area to look for a rare bird, it's bound to be gone before I get there. That's how I missed the unusual visitation of sandhill cranes a few years ago, and cattle egrets last weekend, and snowy owls yesterday.

But today I'm not teaching, merely holding office hours for students who seem universally uninterested in assistance on their final papers. I'll have a pile of grading later in the week but this morning I devoted a few hours to fiddling with next semester's syllabi, utterly uninterrupted.

So when the e-mail alert arrived telling me that a snowy owl was hanging out atop a light pole ten miles down the Interstate, I first rejoiced that I still had my camera in the office (because I'd used it yesterday to take pictures of a department event) and then grabbed the keys and hopped in the car. I didn't even leave a note on the door. What would it say? "Gone owling"?

The owl was exactly where the e-mail said it would be, just sitting on top of that lightpole as if it ruled the world. Getting close enough to take a decent photo was a problem, though, since I'm not stupid enough to stand in the middle of the Interstate with all those trucks zooming past at 70 miles an hour. Gray sky, limited light, cold rain, and sudden gusts of wind all combined to make the photography conditions less than ideal.

But the owl seemed unbothered. At first it looked motionless as a lump of dirty snow, but then its head swivelled my way and I knew I'd found a treasure. My first snowy owl in the wild! And it was a good thing I went when I did, because by the time I'd packed up my camera and turned my car around, the owl was gone.

Later in the week I'll be complaining about the pile of end-of-semester grading that will hound my every waking hour, keeping me tied to work all day and long into the night, but today I'm rejoicing over the rare combination of circumstances that allowed me to walk away in the middle of the day to visit a majestic bird. If any students complain that I wasn't in my office during office hours, I'll have to explain that sometimes there's nothing to do but answer when nature calls. (Even if you have to get your feet wet.)


Sunday, December 03, 2017

A moving story with too many steps

My daughter reports that she walked more than 15,000 steps and climbed 31 flights of stairs yesterday while moving into her new house, and I don't doubt it but I wish she'd sit down and put her feet up for a little while. She is, after all, pregnant. It's time to let someone else do the hard work! But I know how difficult that can be.

It was nearly 30 years ago that we moved houses while I was eight and a half months pregnant. I wouldn't have chosen just that date to move all our belongings halfway across the state, but at the time our lives were ruled by the Methodist hierarchy, which determined a single moving day for all pastoral families living in parsonages. It makes perfect sense: the previous pastor moves out of the parsonage one one day so that the new pastor can move in on the next, and if any painting or repair needs to be done in the interim, everyone just has to stay out of the way.

We moved houses under this system every two or three years and usually it worked well enough, but if you have a choice, I do not recommend moving while heavily pregnant and accompanied by a two-year-old.

The good news is that we didn't have quite as much stuff back then. Our kitchen was still full of wedding gifts in pretty good repair and our bookshelves were overstuffed, but we had no drum sets or giant boxes of Legos or dining tables capable of seating twelve, and we had only one or two desks instead of the six or eight we currently possess. 

I'd been teaching the occasional adult education class at the local community college but at the time of the move I was unemployed, so I had spent about a month packing up everything we owned: pack a box, change a diaper; pack a box, take a nap; pack a box, sit down and put my feet up for a while. Of course I wasn't supposed to be doing any heavy lifting, but sometimes boxes needed to be moved and, lacking servants, my choice was to wait until my husband got home from work or do it myself. I didn't have a Fitbit so I can't tell you how many steps I walked or stairs I climbed or boxes I moved, but I'm sure it was way too many.

The worst part was when moving day arrived and I had to watch other people manhandle my things. Moving out was not too bad but then we got to the new house and people I didn't even know kept telling me, "Sit down and rest! I'll unpack this for you," or "You just sit there and tell me where you want this." 

It's hard work sitting idly while everyone around you is carrying things and unpacking boxes, and it's much easier to put things where I want them myself than to try to explain my preferences to a total stranger. As helpful as church members may be, I don't necessarily want them unpacking my ratty old nightgowns or sorting my underwear.

The new house had no air conditioning and the summer heat was brutal, so eventually we found my daughter's swimsuit and filled up the little plastic kiddie pool, where she romped in the cold water while I soaked my tired, swollen feet and tried not to think about the chaos inside the house. I was supposed to be taking it easy, but I can't just sit back while there's work to be done. In fact, the only person in the family who was really taking it easy was my unborn son, who was so comfortable in utero that he decided to stay there a little longer than he should have and was eventually wrenched into the world two weeks late, shrivelled, scrawny, and gray.

After all the times we've moved, I understand his reluctance to shift homes: why disrupt a reasonably comfortable home, endure the pain and chaos of relocating, and then suffer all the trials and indignities of getting accustomed to a new place? Better to just stay in the womb!

Except we can't. We have to stretch our legs, expand our horizons, boldly go where no baby has gone before. Sometimes we just have to pack up and move. I just wish I could find a way to save my daughter a few of those steps.

Friday, December 01, 2017

So apparently this hasn't been a complete waste of time

This morning I congratulated my composition students for completing the final reading response of the semester. "Now don't you all feel like better writers?" I asked, and a few of them said "Yes."

It's always nice to pause for a moment at the end of the semester and remind students of how much they've accomplished. Sure, they still have to revise their researched essay and write the final exam, but they're through with everything else--all those reading and writing assignments, all those in-class exercises, all that research. (Well, some of them will need to do a little more research as they revise, but in theory, they're done.)

And they are better writers--every single one of them. Not perfect, certainly, but every student in that class has moved from point A to point B, while some have progressed much further up the alphabet. 

The improvements are visible in the reading responses I collected today: at the beginning of the semester, any set of papers from that class would feature massive variety in line spacing, margins, and other elements of format, but today they all look pretty much identical. Earlier papers would include no quotes or quotes dropped in without proper punctuation or citation, but today's papers demonstrate an admirable uniformity in ability to integrate, punctuate, and cite quotes. The ideas expressed are still those of 18-year-olds, but at this point they've read enough to know a little bit more than they did at the start, or perhaps to have gained an awareness of just how much they don't know.

"I'm going to enjoy reading these papers," I told them, and I will. They're not perfect, but they provide concrete evidence that the 14 weeks we've spent working so hard have not been wasted. Good has been done here! Let's pause and give ourselves a pat on the back. (And then get back to work.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

When "It Is What It Is" is what it is

It's not every day that PowerPoint wakes me up before 4 a.m., but such, apparently, is the life of an academic. In this very intense dream, I was creating a PowerPoint presentation about existentialism, and some part of my subconscious mind felt it was very important that I wake up and write down the title of the presentation, which I dutifully did. The title that seemed so brilliant at 4 a.m. looks less compelling in the light of day: "Existentialism: It Is What It Is."

I guess I've got existentialism on my mind because I've been talking about absurdism in the comedy class in preparation for viewing The Lobster next week. It's not very funny except when it's hysterically funny, but I predict that I'll be the only one laughing. My students will sit there with this wide-eyed gaze and an expression that says "What the--?" Bear in mind that many of these students sat stone-faced during large swaths of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If Monty Python can't make them laugh, then The Lobster has no chance whatsoever.

But never mind that: a little absurdity seems appropriate at this point in the semester, when we drink existential angst with our morning coffee. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Why go to all this fuss and bother to try to stuff wisdom and truth into the brains of students looking for an easy A? I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas! If I were a lobster, I wouldn't have to worry about trying to explain absurdism to hungover general education students, and I wouldn't wake up in the wee hours from intense PowerPoint dreams.

But this is the life I've chosen. It is what it is. I must go on. I can't go on. I'm going on.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Meeting with Mr. Nothing

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas always feel like a slow slog uphill through mud, with "Jingle Bell Rock" on the soundtrack. I look at my calendar for the next month and I see way too many things: concerts and papers to grade and finals and capstone presentations and shopping and wrapping and decorating and packing for a trip, plus dealing with the prospect of a week or more without a refrigerator right in the middle of holiday baking season. (The schedules got messed up and the new fridge got put on backorder and will be delivered probably around Dec. 18 but I can't get the rebate from the power company unless they pick up the old fridge on Dec. 9, so I will lose the old fridge on my birthday and gain the new one on our anniversary and simply live without a fridge for the intervening week, unless the schedule gets screwed up again, in which case I give up.)

What I don't see when I look at the calendar is a whole lot of nothing. I'd like to scatter swaths of nothing over the coming month, minutes or hours or days when I'm not required to go anywhere in particular or respond to anyone's urgent demands. I need to make a date with nothing, make nothing enough of a priority to post it on my calendar, but then when someone asks me what I'm doing on that date and I say "Nothing," they'll say, "Then I guess you'll have time to deal with this," and they'll hand me a big nasty mess of something.

So I need to disguise my spots of nothing with a code name, the way Algernon did in The Importance of Being Earnest when he begged out of commitments by claiming the need to visit an imaginary invalid named Bunbury. I don't believe I could convincingly create a Bunbury, but imaginary meetings might work. "I have a meeting" sounds plausible and so boring that it will spark few questions, because who wants to deal with the boring details of other people's boring meetings? And even if someone feels compelled to ask what I'll be doing at my meeting, "Oh, nothing much" will work because it perfectly describes the content of so many meetings.

No one needs to know that my meetings will be with Mr. Nothing. So don't tell, okay? It's just between you and me.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Seeing beyond black and white

A long time ago when I worked for a newspaper that printed only black and white photos, I grew so accustomed to envisioning my world in black and white that color photos started looking garish and chintzy. Now, though, it's the black and white photos that look odd.

I've been enjoying all the black and white photos showing up in my photo feed, but I was reluctant to participate at first because, frankly, I've never taken black and white photos with my current camera and I didn't know how to make it happen. But then my daughter challenged me and so I decided to figure it out, which took some time: reading the small print in the camera's instruction manual, fiddling with non-intuitive menus, trying out various lighting situations, looking for interesting subjects. My B&W days are so far behind me that I've lost the ability to visualize how various scenes will look when color is removed, so I ended up with a lot of photos that look muddy and dull. 

Further, all this emphasis on B&W occurred while the grandkids were visiting for four days and carrying light, color, and energy into every room of the house and out the door. How could I content myself taking sedate B&W photos without people in them when those colorful little balls of energy were careening through the house?

And the other thing that bothered me about the B&W photo challenge is that I wasn't allowed to write anything about the photos. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a  good photo makes me want to put a few words together in response. But the rules of the B&W photos challenge are clear: no people, no pets, no explanations. I don't know who makes these rules and I don't know what happens to scofflaws, but in the spirit of cooperation, I dutifully posted my B&W photos on Facebook, one per day, and wrote not a word.

They're a strange group of photos. If they reveal anything about my life, they suggest that I'm obsessed with wood, I'm content to live with imperfection, and I like interesting patterns and textures. All true, but the photos leave out an awful lot that I care about (like people and pets and colors), and the challenge itself stripped me of my reliance on words. It was an uncomfortable experience all around, but it made me look at my surroundings differently and realize that I've lost a skill that once served me well.

I could get it back. Give me some time and a whole lot of opportunities and I'll be seeing the world in black and white all over again--but after spending a week looking closely at B&W photos, I'm eager to return to living color.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

This is what a real break feels like

I looked out the window this morning and watched birds at the front feeders, which may not sound particularly exciting except that this time of year I rarely see my yard in the daylight--it's dark when I leave home in the morning and dark again when I get home. And then to  be able to just sit down with a cup of hot tea and look idly out the window at the birds is doubly wonderful.

I brought no work home with me for Thanksgiving break--no reading quizzes, no drafts, no papers to grade. I'm even caught up on my course preparations. Last night I fiddled a bit with next semester's syllabi, but it was pretty low-pressure fiddling. It feels strange not to be buried under a crush of work, but I'm going to enjoy it while I can because all my students are turning in drafts or papers over the next two weeks, and then I'll have final exams. Beware the end-of-semester onslaught!

For the next four days, though, I intend to forget about classes entirely and enjoy being a grandma. The little imps will be here this evening (with their parents, of course) so I've been cleaning and cooking in preparation for doing Thanksgiving our way. The resident grillmeister will smoke two turkeys all night long, and if you're wondering why seven people need two full-sized turkeys, so am I. (Trying to clear out the deep-freeze!)

I've put together the pumpkin cookies, pumpkin rolls, and fruit salad already and I have a pile of sweet potatoes from the garden ready to cook tomorrow morning, along with dressing and all the usual Thanksgiving trimmings. I've even bought all the things I need to help the grandkids make cute candy little turkeys out of Vanilla Wafers, chocolate-covered cherries, and candy corn. (I'll post photos.)

We're going to make a mess, all of us together--a turkey-smoking, frosting-smearing, tater-tossing mess--but as long as it's a joyful mess, everyone will end up with an A+. (As long as someone else does the grading. I'm on break!)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Yes, I'm torturing my first-years again. So sue me.

My first-year students trade papers so they can offer suggestions on each other's drafts and the first thing I hear is "Geez, she wrote a book!" Number one, no she didn't, and number two, who says a long paper is necessarily a bad thing? (Probably the same people who convinced Microsoft Word that a long sentence is an error requiring correction.)

I don't expect my first-year students to write books or even chapters, and in fact I often warn them that the thesis statement they've drafted would require a whole book to cover in any detail so they'd be better off narrowing their focus. On the other hand, if I ask for a 1500-word paper, I expect something more than a paragraph, and if the topic requires further evidence, then I'm delighted when the student exceeds the minimum word count. The papers that make me crazy are those that reach the minimum and then quickly tack on an "In conclusion" to bring the whole topic to an abrupt and unsatisfying end.

The purpose of the word count, I keep telling them, is to inspire writers to make every word count. They've heard this often enough to be able to recite it along with me, often accompanied by undisguised eye-rolling. 

What they don't know is that it takes more skill to cover a topic thoroughly in a short space than to ramble on. "A really careful and concise writer can achieve this goal in 1500 words," I tell them, "but the rest of you will need more." 

They don't believe me. They'd be happy if I asked them to produce a PowerPoint slide listing bullet points, and then they'd try to negotiate the number of bullet points down from six to three or two, so being asked to read and respond to a draft five or six pages long must feel incredibly unjust. 

And if reading a five-page paper feels as onerous as reading a book, how do they respond when I ask them to read an actual book? Trust me: you don't want to know.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Soup or sabbatical?

Just got back from a mad dash on foot across town--well, not technically all the way across town but four blocks away, and a very cold four blocks it was with a brisk wind blowing straight into my face all the way there and pushing me forward on the way back, and then of course I had to get my eyes dilated and then try not to cough all over my eye doctor while he was shining very bright lights in my eyes to determine whether my retina is detaching, which it isn't so hurrah hurrah but as I walked back to campus in the cold everything was a total blur from the drops and the bright lights so I consoled myself with the promise of a bowl of hot soup at the library cafe but when I got there there was no soup, not just NO SOUP FOR YOU but NO SOUP AT ALL, on a cold day when I'd been coughing and dashing through the wind and working up a pretty good appetite so I ordered my favorite wrap even though it's overpriced and not as comforting as hot soup on a cold day and then I had to take it right back to my office because I have student appointments all afternoon even though Thursday is supposed to be my staying-home-and-writing day (except for next Thursday, which is cooking-turkey-and-all-the-trimmings-for-the-whole-stinking-family day, and the following Thursday, which is waiting-for-delivery-of-the-new-refrigerator day), but my freshman seminar students need some one-on-one time because of problems with their research projects so I promised to make some time available today, which I have done, and don't even ask me how many of those students failed to show up for their scheduled appointments this morning because it's too depressing to think about, but the good news, and the essential point of this whole rambling screed in case you were wondering, is that I've just learned that my proposal to take a sabbatical in Spring 2019 has been APPROVED and in my book a semester's sabbatical beats a bowl of hot soup any day of the week, even a day as cold, blurry, and ridiculous as this one.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Getting what's going around

Last week as I listened to my students coughing their way through an exam, I wondered how many viruses they would turn in with their test papers. I now know the answer: enough to make me sick for days and days and days. (Frankly, given the amount of coughing going on in that room, hand sanitizer wouldn't have put a dent in the problem. To contain that kind of outbreak, you'd need nothing less than napalm.)

My weekend was a dead loss: coughing, sleeping, coughing, sleeping, blowing through a whole box of tissues. On Sunday I never even left the house. Felt a little better on Monday, well enough to teach my classes as long as I carried tissues everywhere I went, but I'm not sure any of us got much out of the experience. 

I don't teach on Tuesdays so this morning I cancelled my office hours, slept until nearly 7 (!), lounged around coughing and drinking hot fluids all morning, and parked myself in a sunny spot on the sofa to respond to student drafts. The bright sunshine made my laptop screen hard to read, but I could feel the sunshine driving the sickness out of my body and I just couldn't move away.

Now I'm on campus again for some afternoon meetings. I could have gone to two meetings this morning but decided they could proceed just as well without me. I'm not carrying tissues and, at the moment, I'm not coughing. Tomorrow I expect to be pretty much back to normal, whatever that means. Soon this whole sorry incident will fade into the dim and distant reaches of memory, where it can't hurt anyone any more. (Because napalm lives there and kills all the germs.)

Monday, November 13, 2017

A hands-off exercise

Today I encouraged my comedy students not to destroy the world. 

"This is a thought experiment," I reminded them. "You're just supposed to argue that humanity should or should not be destroyed on the basis of evidence from three comic texts."

Silence. Puzzled looks. More silence.

"There is no hands-on lab component to this exercise," I added, "so if any of you go out of this room and actually destroy the world, you'll get an F on the assignment."

One guy grins: "We'll all get the big F." A little laughter. Very little.

And so I drop the philosophical speculation for a moment and show clip from Catch-22, when Yossarian gets a medal while naked. We talk about meaning and values and meaninglessness and despair, and then I pop the big question: "If life is meaningless and the only response is despair, why make a movie?"

Lightbulbs begin to glimmer dimly over a few heads. Very dim. Very few. Doing philosophy in a comedy class is a tough sell on a bleak Monday afternoon, but if nothing else, I may have left them too stunned to even think about going out and destroying the world.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Sick of exams already

What's with all the coughing? Sounds like someone's trying to hack up a lung, and those two guys seem to be coughing a call-and-response. Some sort of code? 

Oh look, the first cougher wants to go out for a drink of water. Sure sounds like he needs one, but is this just a ploy to allow him to look at his notes? 

How would I distinguish between a real cough and a fake cough? I don't generally bring a stethoscope to class, and I did not get a PhD in literature so I could become the Cough Police.

And now the other coughing guy is nonchalantly leaving the room without a word. Maybe he wants to look up that important bit of video on the course management system. Too bad I closed those links five minutes ago.

Only 20 minutes in and one student is already turning in his paper. Does he realize that there are questions on both sides of the page?

Now the coughing guys want to rummage in their backpacks for tissues. What if a clever student prepared a box of tissues with notes written in tiny print on each one? And then what if the professor felt a sneeze coming on and reached for the student's tissues?  (No, I don't want to be the tissue police either.)

40 minutes in and only a few students are left. None of them are coughing, sneezing, blowing their noses, or asking to leave the room. They're just writing. That's what I like to see.

Now I have a big stack of exams sitting on the desk, all of them thoroughly coughed on. How many germs can fit on the head of a pen? Now I'm suddenly hoping that all those coughs were fake. (If I find a chunk of lung on any of those papers, I quit.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Pay it backward!

Lately I've been longing for a time machine, not so that I can kill Hitler or repair my past mistakes but because I'd like to contribute to the equitable distribution of good news over time.

For years at my college we've been wading through one pile of bad news after another, but now that we're experiencing a surfeit of good news, I'd like to spread some of it back in time to cheer up my past self. For instance, when the provost tells us that the college now has money to send our whole department to a conference, I want to grab a pile of that cash and take it back to 2003 and tell myself, "You know those conferences costs the college can't afford to cover? Maybe this will help."

Or I could travel three or four years back when some bad health insurance news felt like a kick in the gut, and I'd like to tell myself, "Just hold on for a few years and all this pain and anguish will dissipate in the wake of a more humane solution."

Or I'd visit a Faculty Council meeting during the bad old days when every week we had to deal with further evidence of administrative incompetence and I would tell myself, "Courage! It won't always be like this. One of these days you'll work under a team of highly competent administrators who make you happy to work here."

Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining about all the good college news; in fact, I'm ready to embrace the next wave as soon as it arrives. I just wish I could take it back in time to lighten the load we were all carrying during the dark times. With a time machine, I could spread the joy. Just let me pay it backward!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Ode on advising

I'm tired of hearing advisees say,
"I want an easy class, okay?"
Or "I can't take a class at 8!"
Or " 3 p.m.? That's way too late."
Or "I hate science!" Or "Man alive,
no math for me! It gives me hives!"
Or "Someone said that teacher's mean."
Or "Physics stinks." Or "I have seen
that teacher's syllabus and I refuse
to take a class from him." Or "Lose
the speech class, I can't talk
in front of folks." Or "I would balk
to take a literature class from you."
There's nothing left. What shall we do?

If every class that I propose
Produces choruses of NOs,
It makes me wish I could advise, 
"Go flip some burgers, fry some fries,
and come back when you want to work
at learning." But I'm not a jerk,
and so we meet again, again,
again, until we finally pen
a schedule full of classes that
won't make them scream. (I tip my hat
at anyone who can do more.)
But before I send them out the door,
there's one more lever left to pull--
Oops, it's too late! That class is full!

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Another thing they never warned me about in grad school

Of the following nightmares, only one actually happened in waking life. Can you tell which one?

1. Snakes under the bed.

2. Baseball team raising a racket in the closet and refusing to leave no matter how much I scream.

3. Seventeen years' worth of assessment data falling down a deep well while I frantically lunge over the lip of the well but fail to snag the reams of papers fluttering into the abyss.

4. Giving a presentation on my research in a hotel meeting room separated by a thin divider from a ballroom in which some sort of auction is taking place, led by an auctioneer with a voice that could crush granite at 40 paces.

Yes: I have presented a talk on my research to an audience of my peers while being shouted down by an auctioneer. He had a microphone and sound system. I did not. Nevertheless, my message got through, stretching the Teacher Voice to its fullest potential.

For my next trick, I'll deliver a talk while swinging from a trapeze in a circus tent crowded with toddlers. But I draw the line at wearing a tutu. Full academic regalia for me, else how will I maintain my dignity? 

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Partly cloudy with a chance of cynicism

Lately every time I sit down to write in this space, a little nagging voice tells me, "If you can't say something nice...." And then I close the window to avoid a cynicism explosion, which would be totally not my fault since cynicism is in the air right now--literally, if I am to believe a student paper stating that "global warming will have a cynical effect." If the climate itself can get cynical, then what hope is there for mere mortals?

The problem right now is that it's raining contempt. Not everywhere--just in one class and just from one corner of the class. I'm not naming names, but if students' contempt for education were made of quarters, I'd be on my way to Tahiti right now instead of shivering under a shawl in my office. I have definitely reached my quota on student contempt, with six weeks of the semester still ahead.

But on the other hand, I'm reading a set of first-year essays that demonstrate massive improvement over the previous set. Either a whole bunch of students took some serious time to polish their drafts or else we're looking at a tsunami of purchased papers, which I sincerely hope is not the case.

So apparently I can say something nice: my first-year students rock!  (Well, some of them, anyway.)   

Monday, October 30, 2017

Playing catch-up in the admissions arms race

I haven't worked an admissions event in several years, so yesterday when I manned the English Department information table, I was shocked--shocked, I tell you!--at advances other departments have made in the battle to attract students.

It's an admissions arms race out there: one department offered candy, while another offered candy AND pens, and the next provided imprinted cups full of candy and pens. Some tables featured massive displays of colorful photographs of students doing exciting things in and out of the classroom, while others offered photos AND videos that looked professionally produced. One prof dressed like a mad scientist while another donned a gigantic hat resembling the one worn by our college mascot. The biggest crowd, though, gathered around a fraternity's colorful display--not to read their informational materials but  to pet the dog.

I looked at the table in front of me and saw folders full of printed materials about the English major and stacks of copies of our college literary magazine. No photos, no video, no costumes, no candy, no pets. Clearly, the English Department needs to step up its game--but how?

I brainstormed a bit with the English major who was helping to (wo)man the table (which attracted a total of TWO prospective majors). Sure, we could post some photos or get someone more technologically advanced that I am to produce a video, and we could even order pens or cups or t-shirts or jump drives or kruggerands advertising the department, but we would still be way behind in the admissions arms race. 

Costumes? I suppose we could dress up like famous authors, but I'm not sure the mournful face of Edgar Allan Poe is the best lure for prospective students.

Pets? My dog is uncivilized and most of my colleagues have cats, but I suppose we could come up with a goldfish. Name him Moby Dick. That'll bring in the crowds!

Finally, it hit me: the prospective students who stop at our table always want to know what they can do with an English major, and I thought of a great way to show them. We'll ask our director of tutoring services to hang some silks from the ceiling and demonstrate the acro-yoga skills she teaches, and then when she's drawn a sufficient crowd, she can talk about the advantages of pursuing dual majors in English and biology and how much she loves the job her major led her to. Then we can invite the prospective students to pet the goldfish and hand them each a kruggerand imprinted with the college logo. That should get some attention!

Then I'll hand them a folder full of printed materials about the major, and that's when they'll all turn and walk away--because, let's face it, nobody wants to be forced to actually read things.

So maybe my plan needs work. I'm accepting suggestions! (And kruggerands too, if you have a few to spare.)

Thursday, October 26, 2017

From book to film and back again

The disadvantage of showing a film for students starting at 8 p.m. is that I get all keyed up keeping myself awake to drive home in the middle of the night and then I can't calm down enough to fall asleep easily, so good thing I don't have to teach this morning. On the other hand, the great thing about showing a film for students is hearing their spontaneous responses: 

"That's not how it happened in the book!" 

"Why did they change that scene?" 

"They left out the best part!" 

"Too much emphasis on the romance."

And my favorite: "Where's the bear? It's not Cold Mountain without the bear!"

I've been teaching Cold Mountain in my Honors Odysseys class for years but I've never shown the whole film in class for the very reasons mentioned above. This year's group really wanted to see it, though, so I arranged an out-of-class showing, and while they enjoyed the film as a film, they agreed that it leaves out much of what gives the novel depth: the philosophical musings about the problem of pain, the painstakingly slow development of characters over time, the preacher's brief but compelling moment of redemption, and, of course, the bear.

Meanwhile, in my comedy class yesterday we were discussing the small chunk of Don Quixote I'd assigned (and it appeared that most of the students had read at least some of it), so I showed the tilting-at-windmills clip from Man of La Mancha. I was surprised to learn that none of my students had ever seen or heard of the film, although I probably shouldn't be surprised since it hasn't aged particularly well. I took along my Don Quixote and Sancho Panza figurines to serve as our inspiration and started the discussion by pointing out that the pedestals the characters stand on are shaped like books, which led smoothly into a discussion of metafiction that eventually sparked the question, "If reading books can drive people crazy, what are we doing here?"

What I'm doing here today is sitting around in my pajamas long past the time when I'm usually in class and then donning my rusty English Prof armor to do battle with a pile of student papers.(If I ever follow Don Quixote over the edge into insanity, don't blame the books--blame the student papers.)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017


The highlight of my day arrived in the hallway after class when a student--not an English major!--asked me to briefly explain postmodernism; he listened attentively, asked great follow-up questions, and seemed to understand--and then expressed interest in taking another literature class even though he doesn't need one to graduate. I walked away feeling competent, quick-witted, and ready to tackle any challenge.

That's not how I felt later when I tripped over an errant piece of office furniture and fell flat on my face in front of my first-year seminar students. Even while I was insisting "I'm fine, I'm fine" (I'm not fine), I wanted to kick myself for being such a klutz, and I would still do so if I could find a part of my body that wasn't already hurting.

It wouldn't have happened, of course, if I hadn't been trying to do too many things at once. I used to be pretty good at multitasking, but yesterday I spent 14 hours on campus with only one break from work and by the time I got to the point last evening when I had promised to show an out-of-class movie for my students, my multitasking skills had been thoroughly depleted. Further, this is the time in the semester when the tank empties out pretty quickly, and as I look ahead, it will only get worse: advising appointments and evening meetings crowd my schedule for the next two weeks. In fact, today is the only day this week when I can foresee leaving campus before 5.

And so when I'm told that we need to be doing more to help our students succeed, I want to lie back down on the floor and cry. If I can't competently do what I already need to do, how can I possibly do more?

I know I sound like a stick-in-the-mud, especially since I've always been among the early adopters of new methods and programs. When learning communities were supposed to transport our students to new heights of engagement, I hopped on board the learning communities bus and did my best to keep it running, and I've been involved in teaching and sometimes helping to design every iteration of our freshman seminar. I have assessed and workshopped and engaged enough to fill up thousands of Buzzword Bingo cards, and I've continued to teach learning communities even after the stipend was reduced to a pittance.

But I've reached my limit. My schedule is filled to bursting, my patience is worn to shreds, and  my ability to remain upright in front of my classes has taken a beating. Pile one more demand on my back and I'm likely to fall to the floor--and next time I may not be so quick to get back up again. I can explain postmodernism from a prone position if the need arises--just be careful not to walk all over me.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A small-scale color season

The weather gurus tell us that we had too much rain at the wrong time, or not enough rain at the right time, resulting in a fall color season characterized by hillsides shifting straight from green to brown with just a few splashes of yellow or red in between. If fall color will be rare this year, I thought I'd better find some before it all fades away.

Just outside the house I saw orange in the air everywhere--Asian ladybeetles flittering around looking for warm places to winter. They're preferable to what we smelled in the air this morning: burnt plastics from a factory fire more than 20 miles away. Fortunately, by noon a shift in the weather had pushed the stink away.

The upper meadow smells of rotting leaves and bristles with many shades of brown, from milkweed pods bursting and dried teasels rustling in the breeze. A few spots of color--orange oak leaf, purple brambles, bright red berries, and a lone violet blossom, rare in October. Down in the garden orange flashes warn of heat--ghost peppers and habaneros still ripening beneath the green leaves. The woods offer up a few yellow and orange trees, and two tiny pinkish leaves nestle among the verdant green on a rotting log.

The show is not particularly spectacular and would be easy to overlook, but they're better than nothing. Better enjoy them while we can!

Friday, October 20, 2017

How would you grade a great weekend?

"Have a great weekend," I told my students, "And that's an order. I'll be grading your weekend on Monday."

But how would I do that? Compose a rubric measuring how many hours students spent studying, drafting, learning their lessons? Frankly, some of my students really need to walk away from the books and go outside for while.

They could wear little digital video cameras all weekend to record their activities and then do a presentation in class on Monday--"My Weekend and Welcome to It"--but that's a Panopticon I'd prefer not to enter. 

Or I could ask them to write an essay reflecting on what makes a weekend great and how their  weekends measured up to their own standards of greatness, but that sounds like a excellent way to wreck a student's weekend. I know that all the cool profs are requiring students to write metacognitive reflection essays about, essentially, everything, but at some point they'll have nothing to reflect on but the writing of reflection essays, which is way too meta for me.

I want my students to keep learning outside the classroom but I also want them to rest and recreate and renew themselves so they can learn more in the classroom. If I really had to grade my students' weekends, I'd have to base the grades on how prepared they are to tackle new challenges on Monday morning. Wide awake and ready to discuss the reading? A+. Dozing at the desk and unable to  respond to the simplest questions? D-. How they achieved those conditions is really not my concern.

(One day I'll write an essay reflecting on why I resist asking students to reflect on the writing of reflection essays, but right now I'm all out of meta.)

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!