Thursday, April 27, 2017

Don't fail me now, fingers!

My finger started twitching in the middle of the Faculty Council meeting yesterday--the final Council meeting of  my two-year term, so I should have been celebrating a successful completion of a heavy service load, but it was my turn to take minutes so I had to focus on transcribing my colleagues' brilliant thoughts into notes on a Word document, which was hard to do after my finger started twitching.

My right index finger, of course--or, if you prefer, my point-and-click finger. That whole arm has been sore since Monday afternoon, when I did some weed-whacking for the first time this season, and since then I've been working my way through the usual end-of-the-semester pile of student prose, all online documents into which I insert comments by means of pointing and clicking and tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard. The result is a sore arm and a finger that keeps moving even when I want it to stop, not constantly but often enough to be annoying.

I've suffered this problem before and I know the solution: give the arm a rest! If I keep the shoulder away from the weed-eater and the finger away from the keyboard for a few days, the twitch will go away.

But that pile of papers isn't going to grade itself, and next week I'll have four sets of final exams to grade, not to mention all the pointing-and-clicking required for submitting grades and assessment data. This is a really bad time to be saddled with a wonky arm and twitchy finger. Give me a week to get all my end-of-semester stuff done and I'll be happy to give the arm  a rest, but meanwhile, I'm just going to have to carry on.

Unless I can find someone to carry me. Buddy, can you spare an arm? 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Another empty word I'd like to banish from student papers

The next student who tells me that a certain poem "has flow" is going to be beaten about the shoulders with a sack full of Deeper Meaning.

Rivers flow. Blood flows. Sentences flow--some of them--when they're constructed with precision. Lines of poetry may flow, but only when appropriate; sometimes lines of poetry prefer to stumble or fumble or jitterbug across the page. But okay, I get it: many lines of poetry are so smooth and lyrical that they flow pleasantly over the tongue, and many students seem to believe that "flow" is therefore the essential element that makes poetry poetry.

So poetry flows, but turn the verb into a noun and tell me that the poem "has flow" and I wonder whether the poem is suffering colon problems. Is it time to call the poetry doctor? 

"Flow," like "relatable," translates a student's subjective feeling into a handy term that appears to be pointing to specific characteristics of the poem without actually doing so. If "flow" is some substance a poem can possess, what does it look like and what is it made of? What contributes to that lyrical smoothness? How do the lines carry readers forward without interruption? Does "flow" grow out of punctuation (or the lack thereof) or sound or rhythm or some combination of elements? That's the level of detail I'd like to see in students' analyses, but instead they like to say the poem "has flow" and move on, as if they believe they've actually said something of substance.

And don't even get me started on "deeper meaning." Let's dabble in the shallows first--tell me how many end stops, how many commas, what sounds repeat, what images rise up off the page. Let's see how the words feel on our tongues, what they taste and smell and sound like--in fact, let's take the advice of Billy Collins's "Introduction to Poetry", which includes these lines:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
"We have ways to make you talk," they tell the poem, "so you may as well open up and tell us what you really mean." But when the poem keeps mum, the torturers round up the usual suspects--Relatable! Flow! Deeper meaning!--and toss them into their papers as if they explained everything.

These words explain nothing. They don't even try. They simply gesture toward some subjective experience while deflecting attention from the elements that create that experience, which is exactly the opposite of what I want from a poetry analysis. Nevertheless, that's the kind of analysis that is flowing into my inbox this week. 

Yes, my inbox has flow. (Maybe I should call the e-mail doctor?)

Monday, April 24, 2017

It wears me out just to watch them

Just in the past week, I've observed my students making beautiful music, explaining the inspiration behind their art, stealing bases on the baseball diamond, presenting posters about their research projects, organizing a massive public arts festival, painting children's faces, sketching raptors, tossing T-shirts, pushing pizzas, and generally putting every ounce of their considerable talent on public display, and I've marveled over their energy and wondered how they're still able to keep up with their coursework.

And yet they do. (Mostly. Exceptions are few enough to stand out.) Saturday morning at the Brick Streets Arts Bash I spent some time enjoying outdoor music downtown in cold, damp, windy weather not designed for lingering, and I finally had to seek an indoor event just to warm up and rest a bit. I was sitting in the warm theater getting ready to listen to the Escher String Quartet when I saw a student dashing up some steps to help the announcer with some essential task, and I thought, didn't I just see her on the other end of town, singing her heart out in the wind and cold?  Indeed I did, and I would see her in several other places throughout the day, each time bubbling with energy and ready to work--while I'm sitting in the warm theater letting the lovely music and warmth soothe me very close to the edge of sleep.

I might complain a little bit this week about having to grade all the papers I've assigned (note to self: no more papers due in the last week of classes!) or about all those exams I have to print out and proctor and grade next week, but most of my work right now is sedentary and indoors, requiring no running around in the wind and the rain, no defending a semester's work in front of a room full of intimidating faces, nothing much at stake beyond a pat on the back for turning in grades on time and submitting assessment reports. At this point everyone is so busy that no one would even notice if I did my job badly--and yet it takes every bit of energy I possess to get through these final weeks of the semester. If I had to do it while performing music or creating art or playing baseball, I think I would lie right down in the middle of campus and give up.

But my students are not giving up. (Well, mostly.) They're doing all the hard work of mastering course material while performing to the best of their abilities in so many different ways I can't even count. For that, they deserve to stand up and take a bow.

(And then sit right back down to work on that paper for my class.)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

This to-do list is for the birds

When I saw the item on my to-do list saying "id sparrows," I thought, great name for a garage band. But what kind of music would The Id Sparrows sing?

Of course the "id sparrows" note was reminding me to try to identify the various sparrows I saw on my morning bird walk today, but it's not easy. For most of my life, all sparrows looked pretty much alike to me, but I've slowly learned to recognize the ones that hang around our feeders: chipping sparrows are wren-sized and have little rusty caps and say "chip." House sparrows have a black bib. White-crowned sparrows' heads are crowned with elegant white stripes. 

But sparrow identification is more difficult in the woods, where the birds insist on sitting in trees where their distinguishing marks are obscured by little bits of leaf or twig. I look at my photos and look in my bird book and look back at my photos and wish I could backtrack and persuade that bird to turn around.

I'd probably have better luck getting The Id Sparrows to sing the Can't Name That Birdie Blues.

Make way for goslings

Tell me your name, sparrow!


Eastern Bluebird


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Further evidence that I'm an old softie

1. I took my class outside today--without being asked.

My creative nonfiction class is small (11 students) and it's a gorgeous morning--and besides, I've just about run out of things to teach them, so why not relax a little? We discussed a reading assignment and examined how comedy can be used to soften up readers and then smuggle in a serious point, and then they took turns reading their own short comic pieces aloud and laughing at each others' cleverness. We weren't even too terribly distracted by the noise of men working on a roof across the way or of the guy who cranked up a weed-whacker nearby.

(This is true: years ago I took a freshman comp class outside, first checking to make sure the coast was clear, and we were all sitting there on the lawn doing good work very diligently for about 20 minutes. Then the mowers showed up and started circling us like vultures. It is impossible to continue blithely conducting a class whilst being circled by ravenous lawnmowers.)

2. I've given that class Thursday as a research day, wink wink. All across campus, Friday classes are cancelled for our annual All Scholars Day, when students present the results of their research projects, but Thursday classes are supposed to meet as scheduled. However, many of the students in that class are giving presentations on Friday and they're all working on their final major project for my class (due next Monday), so no one's going to be paying any attention to anything I have to say on Thursday, even if I hadn't already run out of things to teach them. So they get a research day (may they use it wisely).

3. I'm offering small bits of extra credit in all my other classes. They have to work for those little bundles of bonus points (by attending All Scholars Day presentations and writing about what they've learned and how it relates to our class content, or by doing an extra assignment analyzing the films we'll be watching in class next week in particular ways), but for the desperate, any little bit helps and they're not particularly onerous to grade. It's even possible that they could (gasp!) learn something. Which, I think, is kind of the point.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Spring, surprising

pawpaw blossoms
I went out looking for jack-in-the-pulpit this morning in a patch of woods where I saw it a few years ago. Okay, maybe more than a few. Frankly, I don't remember how long it's been since I saw jack-in-the-pulpit growing in our woods, but I still go out there around this time every spring hoping to see it, and the trip is never wasted, even if I don't find what I'm looking for.

This morning I saw mayapples just beginning to poke out of the ground and unfurl their little green umbrellas. I saw tiny forests of stonecrop cropping up along the cliff face, delicate green fronds of solomon's seal dangling tiny buds beneath the stems, and more trilliums and trout lilies and bloodroot (done blooming) than I could have imagined.

Trees are blooming too, the maples and redbud putting on a show while velvety red-brown pawpaw blossoms hide inconspicuously along bare branches. And back there on the slope where the pawpaws grow, where I went in vain to look for jack-in-the-pulpit, I saw something I've never seen before: tiny twinleaf buds just barely emerged from the ground.

Later in the season, after the delicate white flowers have faded, the twinleaf will grow tall and spread showy leaves in clumps along that slope, where they're easy to see from the driveway. Now, though, they're barely visible unless you're right on top of 'em, tiny purply twin leaves folded tight alongside an insignificant white bud. If I go back tomorrow or Monday, I may see a blossom, but I'd better not delay too long because they don't last.

I saw poison ivy too, the first of the season, and garlic mustard and a well-hidden critter hole that tripped me up and nearly sent me sprawling down the hill. Spring is a double-edge sword, bringing threat alongside the beauty. This time it didn't bring me jack-in-the-pulpit, but there's still time to hope and search and stumble. And if I don't find what I'm looking for, I know I'll find something worth finding.

mayapple unfurling


twinleaf bud



Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dispatches from Death Week

Half of my students were missing this morning, and I can't say that I blame them--who wants to sit in a stuffy classroom and discuss two essays about death on such a gorgeous spring day? I'd rather be outdoors too, but I'm the one who assigned these essays and I'm going to have to lead my students through them, even if some of them would prefer not to. 

I'm not sure how this turned out to be Death Week in all my classes; I planned the syllabi separately and certainly did not intend to pile up all the morbidity in one big decaying lump. Yesterday's reading in Concepts of Nature stumbled over a rotting carcass and tomorrow's considers an entire landscape of decay, while in American Lit Survey we're reading Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art," a poem I last taught at this time last year while my mother lay dying.

Now I'm awaiting word from my dad on some recent health problems while trying to plan a trip to Florida that has been delayed twice by forces outside my control (and while Hurricane Matthew may have been more powerful, I'd rather weather a dozen hurricanes than ever again have to deal with customer service at Spirit Airlines), so naturally my Creative Nonfiction class today was all about death and its rituals.

We read the remarkable "Pyre" by Amitava Kumar alongside Thomas Lynch's incomparable essay "The Undertaking," in which he breathes new life into the cliche about one hand washing the other. I knew I would get weepy if I lingered too long in the final pages of that essay so I'd hoped to set the students loose to talk about it, but half of them were missing. It was just me and a few brave souls talking about how we make sense of death, how rituals help us translate trauma into narrative. 

My students wrote beautifully about rituals they've observed, mostly not morbid: the pre-game rituals of softball players, the orderly steps we take in getting our faces ready to meet the world, the delicate choreography involved in deciding when and whether to greet someone we sort-of know who is about to enter within "interaction distance." 

And I talked about the ad-hoc rituals that arise spontaneously when disaster strikes--the piles of flowers outside the dead celebrity's mansion, the teddy bears piled near the shooting scene, and the roadside memorials marking sites of tragic accidents. I showed my students pictures of the memorial marking the space where the woman died in our creek a few years ago (read it here), a sturdy sign her family erected just up the road from my driveway. The bobble-head whale, sparkly dolphins, and angels that glow in the dark remind me every time I see them that we all grieve in our own ways, some more colorfully than others.

And now I steel myself to teach "One Art" tomorrow. "The art of losing isn't hard to master," insists Elizabeth Bishop, but I'm not sure I agree. Just thinking about teaching that poem makes me tear up, suggesting that I haven't yet mastered the art of losing my mother. Then again, how can we possibly know how we'll handle the losses we have not yet faced? Maybe we won't know whether we've mastered the art of losing until we face our final loss, the last loss that erases all the rest. Maybe, as Bishop suggests, all the other losses are just practice.

But who wants to talk about such morbid stuff on a beautiful spring day? Let's go outside and look at the birds and the flowers and bubbling creek. There'll be time tomorrow to think about death. Today, I'm going to gaze in wonder upon a bright blue bobble-head whale.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

On the benefits of being known (a little bit)

This morning (early) I walked into a local coffee shop and the counter person recited my order exactly before I had a chance to open my mouth--medium chai latte with the house chai and skim milk in a mug--even though I haven't set foot in the place for the past three weeks.

It's true that I ordered that same drink roughly once a week for the first six weeks of the semester, but (a) I didn't always order it from the same person and (b) I haven't been in there, as I've mentioned, for three weeks.

This, I think, is one of the great things about being connected to a community: there's always someone who knows me, or at least a little bit of me. If I fail to enter that coffee shop ever again, that knowledge will eventually fade away, but for now I've established enough of a habit that the counter girl knows me as the woman who comes in early on Tuesday mornings, orders a medium chai latte with house chai and skim milk in a mug, and then sits in a comfy chair reading poetry for a half hour or so before going on her way.

Being known for a particular habit feels like having a place in the world. At 7:00 on a Tuesday morning, that's my arm chair, and I can greet the regulars and make some random chit-chat and feel that I belong.

Likewise when I walked the dog up the big horrible hill (in sudden heat) yesterday, I waved to every car that went by and I would have chatted with any neighbors if they'd been out and about. They know me as the woman who walks with the black mutt (although the mutt is walking a little more slowly these days), and if I'm out there without the mutt, I can count on someone to stop and ask if she's okay. 

It's different when I visit my dad's neighborhood in Florida. Traffic can be heavy even in the quiet neighborhoods so there's no point in waving at every car, but I do make a point of saying hello or good morning to anyone I happen to pass on foot--but the only people who ever respond have accents indicating they're not natives. They're outsiders in the neighborhood where I grew up--and at this point, so am I.

If I settled in and stayed a while they'd get to know me as the woman who always says good morning, but a two-week visit isn't long enough to make me real to anyone in that neighborhood. Here, however, I can miss my usual Tuesday morning ritual of chai latte and poetry in the local coffee shop for three whole weeks without fading entirely from local memory, which suggests that if you sit in the same spot often enough, it will eventually become your spot. (At least on Tuesday mornings.)  

Monday, April 10, 2017

Keep the fires burning

A student wrote on a reading quiz that "this poem set my soul on fire--in a good way," and let's not even think about what it would mean to set one's soul on fire in a bad way. Let's instead focus on the fact that this student gets it.

She gets the poem--her answer to the quiz question was thorough, specific, and illuminating--but she also gets it, the elusive quality that sends me pacing back and forth in front of a classroom reading long lines aloud and trying to make students hear--really hear--the truth and beauty bundled up within the poems and their ability to speak to the deepest part of our being. I tell them that poetry allows poets to say the unsayable and they look at me as if I'm speaking gibberish; I try to get them to see what Allen Ginsberg called "the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years" and my students look at me as if I've just asked them to bite into a chunk of rotting meat.

I always hope that the literature I teach will spark a fire in someone's soul, but it's an outcome I can't put on the syllabus and don't know how to assess. If only I could hold a thermometer up to students' souls at the beginning of the semester and again at the end and compare the measurements, I'd have solid evidence of the importance of exposing students to great literature. Lacking an accurate soul-fire thermometer, I have to go by what I see: that spark in a student's eyes as we discuss the poem, the sudden surge of interest in a particular author, or the occasional comment on a course evaluation or a quiz.

But even if I could provide objective evidence of measurable impacts on students' souls, I fear that the assessment people would pooh-pooh the data or that the general education task force would remind me that we're not in the business of setting students' souls on fire. What good will a fired-up soul do in the World of Work? Why, possessing a functioning soul might even impede students' career opportunities! Souls demand care and maintenance, which could distract from career goals, so maybe we would better serve our students by stomping out their soul-fires and sending them forth soulless, free of the need to nurture the interior life.

So it's good to know that once in a while a student gets it, that the experience of reading a poem that some find unintelligible or annoying or offensive or maybe not even very poetic can spark a fire deep inside that will burn long after the student has left my class. The poet spoke and the student heard and now our world will share a little more heat, a little more light. 

Friday, April 07, 2017

For the sake of a weed

Field horsetail, cone open to release spores
What kind of man is willing to lie down on a hard, bumpy road just to get a good angle for a photo of an easily overlooked weed?

My husband is that kind of man. Fortunately, our road is not well-traveled, and I was standing guard in case any cars disrupted the photo session.

We'd been out looking for spring wildflowers, taking advantage of a break in the rains to climb the slick hill across the way and get up close to dutchman's breeches, trilliums, and bloodroot. We found trout lilies blooming alongside the ramps next to our creek, and on the way back from the neighbor's hillside we kept our eyes open for field horsetail.

It's not a particularly photogenic plant in its early stages, looking like a bunch of little brown buds perched on slender, pale stalks only a few inches tall. They grow in the least likely place: the disturbed ground on the edge of the road, where loose gravel and tar mix with the thinnest topsoil. Up close they look like tiny forests of prehistoric trees, opening their cones to release spores that will later produce green summer shoots resembling miniature bamboo--until the county road crew comes along and mows it all down.

It's difficult, though, to get close enough for a good photo without kneeling or sitting or even lying down on that rough road-edge, and I suppose I could have done it myself, but my husband offered to lie down in the road and I didn't try to dissuade him. I'm perfectly willing to risk my life to take a photo of a weed, but if someone else wants an opportunity to do so, who am I to refuse the offer?

trout lily
trout lily

buckeyes sending out new growth


dutchman's breeches


dutchman's breeches



Tiny forest of field horsetail



Thursday, April 06, 2017

April: still cruel after all these years

Bloodroot, blooming!
If April is the cruellest month, it's doubly cruel in the academic world.

No one wants to sit inside grading papers when baseball season has started, when spring wildflowers are blooming and the warbler migration is heading our way. The skies clear and the sun shines and I'm stuck inside with a pile of exams scribbled frantically in handwriting I can't read.

April is when faculty committees and task forces suddenly realize that they have only a few weeks left to complete their tasks, so they panic and plan extra meetings and pile up reports and proposals that everyone has to read and respond to or complain about or protest or ignore, making all our hard work feel futile.

In April we pay taxes, coming face-to-face with the fact that our income hasn't improved for the past five lean years, and the Chronicle publishes its annual report on faculty salaries so that we can see just how far we've fallen behind our peers elsewhere. In April we count the years until retirement and wonder whether we'll ever be paid what we think we're worth, or else we fear that we're not worth any more than what we're getting paid. 

April is when we reward our illustrious students with prizes and banquets and scholarships and massive pats on the back, but it's also when the less illustrious students suddenly realize that they have only a few weeks to pull up those grades and finish those projects. Seniors who have succumbed to senioritis frantically pull themselves together so they can finish well, or at least finish.

In April, desperation gnaws at the edges of just about everything: If I can only get through this project, this proposal, this pile of papers, then maybe things will settle down and I'll start feeling human again. For some students, desperation inspires cheating or lying or obvious plagiarism, while others try to excel at absolutely everything and suffer meltdowns after weeks of little sleep.

If April is the busiest month, it's also the month that requires frequent mental-health breaks. I don't have time to go out and look at wildflowers with this big pile of grading on my desk, but if I don't go outside and let the fresh air blow away the frustration, I'll never get through the pile of grading. 

But April is also the month that makes me squirrel away little notes to myself about how I can make things better next year: Move that assignment a week earlier so it doesn't overlap with the one in that other class; add a catch-up day to the syllabus; take the class outside as soon as the weather allows. One of these days I'll figure out the formula to make April less gruelling. Today, though, I'll just have to put my head down and charge forward. 


Tuesday, April 04, 2017

On the care and feeding of writers, part eleventy-seven

The chief difference between writers and other people, says Lia Purpura, is that "writers write things down." The poet and essayist visited campus last Friday for a public reading and a Q&A with my creative nonfiction students, and today another writer shared her dynamic story with my class--Joy Frank-Collins, an alumna who parlayed her English major and some journalism experience into a career in public relations with a sideline in writing about baseball. As a writer, I could not resist writing some things down during those visits:

When Lia Purpura reads her work, the whole room leans forward, listening. Her essays sound like poetry and her poems carry massive backpacks full of meaning; she admits that the genres seem to be merging and wonders aloud whether "the tributaries will meet at some point in the future." 

Her poems are tributaries with tactile impact; she urges my students to pay attention to anything that makes them sit up and feel on fire, or that scratches an itch or tickles some obscure fancy. Later she talks about the time it takes for a piece of writing to "cure," as if it were a side of bacon or Virginia ham, and she urges them to learn to "build in enough time to let the thing sit and simmer." 

To overcome writer's block, she says, go for a walk--without a phone or iPad or earbuds or other devices. (I can't count the number of times I've urged students to do this, but somehow it means more coming from a "real" writer.) Take a note pad and pen, though, and write stuff down, says Purpura, because like any other craftsman, writers "have to pick stuff up to make things with."

I feel the rhythm of a southern waltz when she reads "Crape Myrtle": "in the morning / between us was nothing / but moments, magenta, / majestic." Now I want to plant a crape myrtle and watch it waltz in the breeze.

As we age, she says, we must find "strategies of remaining curious and remaining young" along with the willingness to take risks, to walk into situations or subjects in which know nothing but persist and make something of it. "The quest is to ask better questions," insists Purpura, "and the essay is the place where you can do that."

Like Lia Purpura, my former student Joy has mastered the art of marching into unfamiliar territory and asking great questions. She says her first job as an entry-level news reporter taught her three essential skills that have served her well throughout her career: writing concisely, writing quickly to meet deadlines, and learning how to learn enough about any topic to be able to explain it clearly to others. When she moved to public relations, the key to success lay in "having good ideas, being bold enough to bring them up to people, and hustling to get ideas noticed."

When students ask why she'd returned to college to complete her degree even though she had constructed a successful career without it, she takes us back to the time when she came to understand that her job wasn't exercising all of her creativity: "I realize that I need to revisit the writer in me--I need to feed my writer."

Which, I guess, is why we're here: bringing in "real" writers, urging students to listen and ask questions, giving them time to let ideas cure or simmer or tickle or hustle. We feed the writer, and then we wait to watch it grow.

Monday, April 03, 2017

A backward writing process

You're writing your essay backward, I tell my student, but I'm not sure she understands so I try to explain:

You're coming up with the points you want to make in your literary analysis and then going to the text to find a few quotes to toss in to support your points, which makes your essay vague and bland and superficial. 

Instead of starting with your ideas, start in the text--the poem, the play, the story you want to illuminate. Don't try to write about the whole thing. Choose a passage--a stanza, a scene, a bit of dialogue--or several passages linked by a common image or character or conflict or some other thread. 

And then before you write a thing, dig into that passage as if you're mining for gold. Look at the words, hear the rhythms and sounds, examine the metaphors and structural elements and every little thing about the passage until it speaks to you, I mean really speaks to you--not in the kinds of shallow cliches easily found in online summaries but in wordless meaning piercing deep into your soul. Only then should you start to write. 

If it's easy, you're doing it wrong. 

If every single sentence in your essay sounds like a clumsy paraphrase of an online summary, you're doing it wrong.

If I can't hear the text in your essay, you're doing it wrong.

If you're trying to write about a literary text before you have immersed yourself so deeply in the text that you feel as if you're drowning, you're doing it wrong.

She nods and smiles--she's getting it! And then she says, "Does this mean I should put in more quotes?"

And all I can think is Maybe this time I'm the one who's doing it wrong.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Everyone needs a friend like that

It's kind of ridiculous how excited I can get about finding a brand-new bloodroot blossom just emerging from the forest floor. They were so tiny we could easily have overlooked them beside the verdant foliage of dutchman's breeches and emerging trilliums, but once we spotted one bloodroot bud, others quickly came into view.

We'd clambered up a steep hillside into the wet woods, my birding-and-botanizing buddy and I. Climbing conditions were not great after an all-day rain and a cold, wet night, but this is our last chance to look for spring wildflowers locally before she moves to Minnesota on Monday. It's been a few years since my B&B buddy introduced me to bloodroot and trout lilies and taught me to distinguish between dutchman's breeches and squirrel corn, and if I tried to count up all the birds and flowers she's helped me see and know, we'd be here all day.

I can't count the number of times we've been out hiking somewhere and she's stopped suddenly and said, "Hear that?" It happened again this morning as we were walking down the driveway, and as usual, I had no idea what she was hearing. "There it is again--zee-zee-zee--could be a kinglet." But it was singing so softly and so high up in a tree that I couldn't see a thing except a brief stir of motion.

But I saw the bloodroot buds barely three inches above the forest floor, and I saw field horsetail and coltsfoot and dutchman's breeches and hepatica--and, of course, trilliums, just on the verge of blooming. We slipped and slid in the mud, trying not to trample tender spring shoots, and we came back feeling cold and wet but encouraged by the renewed emergence of beauty--a beauty I might have missed if I hadn't had a faithful friend to open my eyes.


Friday, March 31, 2017

Blazing a trail or stuck in a rut?

When I arrived at my building early this morning, I had to work my way around the guy who was pushing the big floor waxer around and around and around the halls. His T-shirt urged me to "Blaze a new trail," and I suddenly had this vision of thousands--no, millions of pioneers forging their way across the wilderness, floor-waxers leading the way. 

I expect to see many people wearing that same T-shirt this morning and I can tell you what it says on the back: Bring forth a Pioneer, the new slogan created by our branding consultants. Free T-shirts were distributed yesterday, with the promise of a dollar discount at the library cafe for anyone wearing the shirt today.

As a relatively compliant person willing to cheer for the home team, I had intended to wear the new shirt today, even though I need to look professional tonight when I introduce our visiting author. My plan was simple: wear the T-shirt for teaching this morning, blaze a trail to the cafe at noon to collect my dollar discount, and then change to a more professional blouse after lunch. 

So this morning I put the trail-blazing shirt on and stood in front of the mirror. It fits! The color looks decent on me! The neckline doesn't feel as if it's strangling me, although I would prefer a V-neck! So what's the problem?

The sleeves, of course. Short sleeves. It's too warm in the building to wear a long-sleeved shirt underneath, and I can't put on short sleeves for teaching freshmen without involuntarily remembering the time when a freshman class class ganged up on me to write hateful and juvenile comments on my course evaluations insisting that I be required to wear long-sleeved shirts in class because students are distracted and sickened by the big ugly hairy mole on my arm. (And the person serving as provost at the time thought the students had a good point and suggested that I get some expensive and unnecessary surgery.)

That was a long time ago. I still wear short sleeves on campus sometimes--to work out in the rec center (but those students don't write my course evaluations) or to teach upper-level classes full of students who might be expected to deal with bodily difference maturely. But for years I have avoided wearing short sleeves to teach first-year classes because even thinking about short sleeves brings back the pain of those course evaluations afresh.

So instead of blazing new trails today, I'm stuck in a bumpy rut of painful memory that leads down a dead-end road. (But at least I don't have to push a floor waxer ahead of me.)

Thursday, March 30, 2017

But how do they make it look so easy?

The hawk photos I posted on Facebook in the wee hours of the morning got liked almost immediately by several friends, making me wonder: why are we all out of bed at a time when any normal working person ought to be sound asleep?

I'm not even entirely certain why I was awake except that it was one of those nights when I kept waking up, disturbed by nightmares, house noises, and a sudden urgent need to check on one last detail for our departmental poetry reading tomorrow night. (Note to self: notify campus police that we have a public event Friday evening so they don't automatically lock the building at 5, displacing our entire audience--and if you think that's a petty concern, you're clearly not aware of our campus building access policies.)

So for whatever reason and no reason, I kept being awake (again), so I decided to take advantage of the fact that our inconsistent internet service tends to be strongest in the wee hours. The hawk photos I couldn't post before bedtime uploaded in a snap at 2 a.m.

Now that I'm facing a day full of teaching and meetings on about four hours of uneasy, interrupted sleep, I ought to just sit and stare at those photos and remember: clear blue sky, warm still air, spring birdcalls all around and a wooded slope covered in rue anemone. I'd set out last evening to hunt for bloodroot but found none, although I saw trillium leaves just starting to peek up through the leaves and some dutchman's breeches foliage (but no blooms). I saw a pileated woodpecker fly over and heard what may have been blue-gray gnatcatchers in the woods, and I caught a fleeting glimpse of our wood duck pair flying upstream above the creek.

And then I heard the hawks, a pair of them, circling right overhead, and in a moment I was watching their big lazy loops through the camera lens click click click and I was circling with them, and I didn't stop until I realized that if I kept circling with my eyes to the skies I was going to fall dizzily, butt-first, to the gravel drive.

I look at these hawks and wonder how they can make their complicated lives appear so smooth and effortless. Surely it can't be easy being a hawk; they're probably hard at work scanning for prey up there, so it's a mistake to interpret their circling as peaceful, meditative recreation. But just once I'd like my hectic life to look more like a series of smooth, lazy loops instead of a game of Whack-A-Mole.

Just let me get through the next two days--a day of teaching and meetings and stamping out fires and a day of teaching and hosting a visiting author--and then give me a day to live like a hawk, to circle the woods looking for small things that feed my soul. Or if nothing else, let me look at the photos.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

When teaching citation feels like an exercise in futility

I knew we had a problem when I heard myself saying, "I don't see any of you writing this down."

I was standing in front of my first-year composition class and I had just given my students a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: I'd graded their essays and found major problems with handling and citing sources, but instead of blanketing their world with D's and F's, I decided to make it a learning experience by allowing them to revise and resubmit. 

I had spent the first ten minutes of class reviewing the purpose of a Works Cited, reminding them that the word "Cited" means that they've actually used information from the source in the body of the paper and that if they have not done so, then the work cannot appear on the Works Cited. Further, I reminded them that they must provide sufficient information to allow a reader to locate the source, which I had tried to do with their sources, with limited success. Finally, I reinforced an important point we've talked about since the first week of the semester: quotations and paraphrases must be accurate. When I see a spelling error in a quotation allegedly drawn from a peer-reviewed academic journal article, that suggests some sloppiness in treatment of sources, but when I see a citation suggesting that a source deals with a particular topic that it does not even mention, that's academic dishonesty.

So I reviewed all these important concepts and urged them to look over their papers and revise any problems in treatment of sources and get them to me before this morning, when I planned to post the grades on the papers. 

And then I noticed that no one had been writing anything down. In fact, not a single student had even taken out a pen or a piece of paper.

How many students took advantage of this rare opportunity to avoid a disastrous grade?


And sadly, he was not the student who most needed to revise.

Talking. To. The. Wall.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Wood duck, whistling

I saw just a few scraggly early rue anemone blossoms this morning but not much else on the ground; however, there was a whole lot going on up in the trees. I found the patch of woods where the turkeys are hiding, heard pileated woodpeckers and towhees, and saw phoebes, red-winged blackbirds, finches, and all kinds of other birds. Best of all was the male wood duck sitting on a branch about 50 feet up in a sycamore tree next to the creek. He was whistling softly for a while before he flew off, and later I saw him fly back alongside a female. The tree where he was sitting has a hole about halfway up that looks like a perfect spot for a wood duck nest. Let's hope they use it!

(The pictures are horrible because of back-lighting, but at least you can see his elegant crest.)


Spring, finally

It was not the red-tailed hawk that flew just over my car when I turned up my road yesterday or the flicker that disappeared into the woods, and it wasn't even the turkey gobbling to its harem in the meadow last night that told me spring had finally arrived.

It was the mockingbird running through its repertoire just outside my bedroom window first thing this morning and the spring peepers down by the creek calling out Spring! Spring! Spring! But mostly it was the fact that the window was open, that the night was warm enough to merit opening up the house and hearing the turkeys and the mockingbirds and the spring peepers--and, yes, the hawk shrieking out by the edge of the woods and the sudden early cacophony of birds finding their spring voices.

I saw a bright red male cardinal offer a sunflower seed to a female the other day and I wondered what other signs of spring I'll find. This morning I'll go hunting for bloodroot and other early wildflowers. My photo files tell me that last year on March 27 I found spring beauties and rue anemone blooming here and trout lily leaves poking up at the edge of the meadow, but I didn't find the first bloodroot until April 1. What will I find today? Considering that the whole place was covered with snow a week ago, maybe nothing.

But that won't stop me from setting out to search. And that's the clearest sign of spring: the annual search to find its signs.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Entering the Empty Prose Zone

I read the phrase "inherit simplicity" and briefly thought what a nice heirloom to pass down before I realized that the context demanded "inherent simplicity." But at least in that case the intended meaning was obvious; later I read about a person who cast off all "implications," and I had to stare at the sentence for an embarrassingly long moment before realizing that the writer was looking for "inhibitions."

Yes, we have once again entered the realm of the not-quite-but-almost-right word, which is next-door neighbor to the black hole of tautology: "the character commodifies nature by turning nature into a commodity," or "the scenery is important to the way the performance of the play is performed," which raises the question: what happens to a performance that is not performed? The unperformed performance is not worth performing, or something like that.

Empty sentences written by students desperate to meet the word count: this is not the only problem that raises its ugly head at this point in the semester. Yesterday I was talking with a colleague whose students think she's doing some sort of magic when she identifies passages in their writing that are clearly plagiarized, as if recognizing sudden shifts in writing style were some sort of superpower. "I know they're not illiterate," she said, "but maybe they don't read and write enough to recognize that differences in style exist."

I think she's onto something: the tone-deaf sentences, the near impossibility of getting most students to feel rhythm in lines of poetry, the blindness to differences between writing styles, the willingness to grab words out of the thesaurus without any clear understanding of their meanings or connotations--all are signs of inadequate immersion in texts. Not text messages but real texts, big fat books and meaty articles written by skillful writers who know the difference between "implications" and "inhibitions."

If this is the wave of the future, the implications are frightening. Inherently.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When teaching is like talking to the wall

After bragging about the great stuff my students are reading and discussing, I encountered a class determined to do neither. It was like trying to teach a doorknob or a potted plant, an overstuffed sofa or a blob of Jello--or like teaching a stone to talk.

Which is the title of a great collection of essays by Annie Dillard published in 1982. My copy was a gift from one of my college professors, an immensely erudite gentleman who practiced great patience with his students even when we were uninformed about or uninterested in what he was trying to teach us. I wonder how often I sat like a blob of Jello in his classes, nose to the textbook and unwilling to open my mouth? 

He must have known that I'd have days like that too and that reading Annie Dillard would be good therapy. The first essay in the collection, "Living Like Weasels," urges readers to "grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you," but today I'm looking at the title essay, "Teaching a Stone to Talk," in which Dillard discusses a friend who spent a certain amount of time every day devoted to teaching a stone to talk. "Reports differ on precisely what he expects or wants the stone to say," writes Dillard, but the teaching required "sacrifice, the suppression of self-consciousness, and a certain precise tilt of the will, so that the will becomes transparent and hollow, a channel for the work."

A transparent and hollow channel does not gripe over whether the work is well received or appreciated or even understood, so in that way it's very much like teaching literature. But Dillard takes the topic in a different direction, musing on the messages we seek in nature. "Nature's silence is its one remark," she writes, "and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block." Given nature's silence, she continues, all we can do is witness the world around us and welcome its meaningless hum.

Which is great advice for a walk in the woods but not so great for a classroom full of students who really need to learn the stuff I'm trying to teach them. I am not here to merely witness their silence; I have to motivate them to read, to write, to think, to speak--even when they prefer to sit there like mute and immutable stones.   

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

And now she's talking to sequins

A single green sequin sits on the floor in my office, just below the chair where visitors sit. Who left behind that shiny sequin?

Was it the student seeking help on the paper due tomorrow, who admitted that he'd intended to work on it over break but forgot to take home power cord for his laptop computer and so put it off until today? He'd be more likely to leave behind a pork rind than a sequin.

What about the colleague who came in early this morning to ask a question and show me her new rubber duck? She was wearing spectacularly colorful socks but no sequins.

Then there was the student who plopped her backpack down in that spot and then proceeded to pull out one massive text after another--it seemed like a Mary Poppins backpack, capable of comfortably containing a floor lamp, a disco ball, and a Harley Davidson. The magic backpack could have accidentally disgorged a sequined ball gown big enough to clothe a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon portraying Miss Piggy.

Or maybe the sequin hitched a ride to my office on someone's shoe. Does it matter?

Whatever its source, I welcome the unexpected spot of color on an otherwise gray day. In fact, I ought to pick up  the sequin and save it for the next time I need to add a little sparkle to my life. But--where did it go? 

Maybe it walked out the same way it walked in. Good bye, little green sequin! May you bring a glint of light into someone else's life.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Feeding on the syllabus

We've reached the point in the semester when every class period provides an opportunity to share with students a sentence, stanza, or entire story that inspires me to employ the word "favorite" (although if they're all favorites then the word loses its meaning), to open their eyes to literary works that simultaneously provoke argument and awe.  

Today, for instance, my Concepts of Nature students discussed Louise Erdrich's story "Line of Credit," in which contractor Jack Mauser crows about his creative abilities--"I do things from plans. I make them real. I could build myself if I could get a guy that could design me"--only to have his hubris challenged by farmer Moen, who looks at the field of sunflowers that Mauser wants to transform into a housing development and says, "The more you fill it up the emptier it gets."

We had to chew on that concept a while: how can filling the land with houses make it emptier? Emptier of what? Why does it matter?

On Wednesday in American Lit Survey we'll look at Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" and interrogate that word "good," asking how accurately characters judge "goodness" and what happens when they're left without a leg to stand on, and then we'll look at Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith," in which Sergeant Nathan Marx returns from  Germany in the waning months of World War II with a heart hardened by the horrors of war but finds a softening beginning when an incident sparks a memory:
I felt within as though a hand had opened and was reaching down inside. It had to reach so very far to touch me. It had to reach past those days in the forests of Belgium and the dying I'd refused to weep over; past the nights in those German farmhouses whose books we'd burned to warm us, and which I couldn't bother to mourn; past those endless stretches when I'd shut off all softness I might feel for my fellows, and managed even to deny myself the posture of a conqueror--the swagger that I, as Jew, might well have worn as my boots whacked against the rubble of Munster, Braunschweig, and finally Berlin. 
I'm not a huge fan of Philip Roth but that last sentence feels delicious on the tongue (that half-rhyme of "warm" and "mourn"!) while packing in immense understanding of the human condition.

But will my students feel and understand what great stuff they're reading? I wonder how they'll take tomorrow's reading in Creative Nonfiction: "Whaling Out West" by Charles d'Ambrosio, who wastes no tenderness on the gray whales finds about as attractive as bridge abutments:
Gray whales don't look especially dirigible. You'd hate to have to park one. They have a lumpy crudeness of design, a banged-up body and a crimped ugly mouth and a dented snout, a color that seems to come from a supply of government surplus paint, and all around they have an unrefined and ancient and also untrustworthy aspect; they look like a mock-up of the kind of practice animals God was making in the early days, before he hit his artistic stride and started turning out wolves and apes and chipmunks; and they've got that useless megaton bigness, a gigantism that's pretty dramatic in a circus-freak way or like other types of colossi or prodigies, the sheer extravagant enormity of which inspire sublime fascination or wonder or fear, but don't register much at the refined and fragile end of the emotional spectrum that includes the various colors of love or tender or chummy feelings of any sort.
It's kind of amazing how he manages to convey a real affection for the animals while describing them as repellent. I love his massive baroque sentences that wander on and on effortlessly, making the short, simple sentences stand out so much more sharply, like "You'd hate to have to park one." Yes you would. Yes indeed.
I look ahead and see on my syllabi Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver, Billy Collins, Li-Young Lee, Jeff Vandermeer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Bishop, and more and more, and I want to thank my past self for arranging such a marvelous menu for my future self. So thanks, Past Me! I don't know whether my students will be quite so grateful, but at least I'll enjoy the feast of words.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Derek Walcott: An asterisk the size of the sea

Near the end of Derek Walcott's epic poem Omeros, the poet/narrator takes stock of his attempts to translate the history and people of St. Lucia into poetry, and he realizes the transience of his efforts:

I was an ant on the forehead of an atlas,
the stroke of one spidery palm on a cloud’s page,
an asterisk only.

I put an asterisk next to Omeros on my fall Honors Literature syllabus, uncertain whether to assign the book instead of Life of Pi; then I saw that Walcott had died today and I picked up Omeros again to find a fitting epitaph, and soon I was certain: I want to teach this book again, even if today's first-year students are ill equipped to understand it.

I've assigned "The Sea is History" and other short poems in the postcolonial literature class, but I encountered Walcott first through Omeros, which remains among my all-time favorite books, growing deeper and richer with each reading. I love the way the incidents wash up like waves, each adding a new layer of meaning, and I love the echoes of other works, from The Odyssey to Ulysses to Hamlet to Moby Dick to Heart of Darkness.  

But most of all I love the way Walcott weaves together so many stories to show the complexity of the history of one small wounded island: the rivalry between Hector and Achille over the love of Helen; Major Plunkett's attempt to unearth a lost history; Achille's dream-vision of a journey to Africa to encounter his ancestors; Hector's selling out the sea to drive tourists around in a taxi; and Ma Kilman's quest to cure Philoctete's suppurating wound, a cure combining emblems of the island's history: a plant grown from seed brought from Africa, a copper kettle reclaimed from a defunct sugar mill, an herbal litany intertwining obeah with Catholic liturgy.

The poet appears as a character within the epic, occasionally commenting on and questioning his own motives. In the first book, he encounters his father's ghost, who leads him to the harbor and reminds the poet how he used to watch women "climb / like ants up a white flower-pot, baskets of coal / balanced on their torchoned heads" to feed the engines of steam ships. The ghostly father gives his son a burden of his own:

                                           They walk, you write;

keep to that narrow causeway without looking down,
climbing in their footsteps, that slow, ancestral beat
of those used to climbing roads; your own work owes them

because the couplet of those multiplying feet
made your first rhymes. Look, they climb, and no one knows them;
they take their copper pittance, and your duty

from the time you watched them from your grandmother’s house
as a child wounded by their power and beauty
is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.

Many pages later, though, after the poet has sent his characters through hell and back, he wonders whether he is simply exploiting their pain for his own benefit. Seven Seas/Omeros, who serves as muse, reminds him that 

                                           there are two journeys
in every odyssey, one on worried water,

the other crouched and motionless, without noise.
For both, the ‘I’ is a mast; a desk is  a raft
for one, foaming with paper, and dipping the beak

0f a pen in its foam, while an actual craft
carries the other to cities where people speak
a different language, or look at him differently,

while the sun rises from the other direction
with its unsettling shadows, but the right journey
is motionless; as the sea moves round an island

that appears to be moving, love moves round the heart—
with encircling salt, and the slowly travelling hand
knows it returns to the port from which it must start.
Walcott kept returning to his home port throughout his poetry, reaching out in every direction to reel in all the world. No matter how many waves of meaning came washing in on his native shores, he consistently heeded the advice of the ghostly father in Omeros: "simplify / your life to one emblem, a sail leaving harbor // and a sail coming in." He leaves behind a legacy of poetry that will stand among the greatest of the ages, but he also leaves a hole the size of the sea in the hearts of his readers.