Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Teaching a tiny class (with lots of help)

Let's just go ahead and admit that my first-year writing course this semester is a little odd, and not just because it's really small. The class started off just slightly smaller than usual, but then during the first week a bunch of students dropped, either because the syllabus scared them away or they couldn't deal with first-year writing at 8 a.m. The result is a first-year writing course comprising only four students.

Now I've taught upper-level courses with a handful of students, but that's not unusual considering our small cohort of English majors. And I've taught a first-year writing class with seven or eight students before, but never four. In any other year, the class would be cancelled and the students distributed into other sections, but this is an odd year all around (for reasons I don't need to go into here) and small sections are, in general, not being cancelled.

And then there is the matter of my teaching assistant.

She's an intern, actually: a senior English major planning to go to grad school in rhetoric and composition. In her final semester, she wanted to serve in our departmental internship that places a student in a first-year writing class to observe, learn, assist with grading, and occasionally teach. The internship was approved last semester and I was delighted to welcome my intern  to work with my class--not knowing, of course, that she would be working with only four students. So now we have four students being taught by a full professor and a teaching assistant, which promises lots of individual attention. If they don't end the semester as the finest writers on campus, they're just not trying.

I really could have used a teaching assistant last semester when I taught a class of 20 first-year writing students, but I'll take whatever I can get. She's been observing the class for two weeks now and just presented her first lesson, which went really well--she even got Silent Guy to join the discussion! I guess it's not surprising that our students have really good rapport with each other, but what happens if that falls apart? Any big emotional upset dividing these students will make the class very uncomfortable.

For now, though, my four students have perfect attendance and are a real joy to teach, and my teaching assistant serves admirably. I intend to enjoy this class thoroughly, because the unusual conditions that produced this strange situation are unlikely to arise again. Next semester I'll no doubt be scrambling to keep up with a room full of demanding freshpersons, but for today, I'll relish the fact that I have to respond to only four first-year drafts this week. Four: for an even number, it's a little odd.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Out of the case study, into the world

In Richard Russo's 1997 novel Straight Man, the main character has to ask his secretary what a "sexual harassment luncheon" might be. What a quaint, simple time that was! (Well, ignorant too.) These days we don't get lunch with our mandatory sexual harassment training; instead, we sit in our offices alone and move, at fits and starts, through an online course involving case studies, institutional policy statements, and pop quizzes. 

It's a relatively painless method compared to the first sexual harassment training I attended, which still lives on in campus legend. This was a big group event where we watched brief case studies on video and then discussed them, and even 15 years later people still talk about the case with the female faculty member asking a male student to climb up on a chair and retrieve something from a high shelf so she can say, "I'm just enjoying the view!" Try saying that line to anyone who's been here awhile and wait for the guffaws.

But here's the peculiar thing about that first training: every single sexual harasser in those case studies was--how shall I put this?--a person of size. Yes: the videos were careful to spread the blame out among various genders, races, and ethnicities, but the overwhelming message was that fat people are harassers. (Which ought to make it easier to avoid them, but that does not seem to be the way it works outside of case studies.)

The current training was, as I said, relatively painless, and the cases were much more realistic, providing very clear guidance on what to do and say if a student reveals painful information. (Hint: don't say "Was he fat? Because my training taught me that fat people are harassers.") Real life rarely runs as smoothly as the case studies, but I feel more equipped to deal with whatever walks into my office--and I even earned a spiffy little Certificate of Completion to hang on my wall. (I think I'll hang it way up high so I can sit down here and enjoy the view.)

Friday, January 27, 2017

Let the little children come

This week I keep encountering memorable children, from the irrepressible Randolph--the boisterous boy sucking on sugar cubes and stabbing ladies' dresses with his walking stick in Henry James's "Daisy Miller"--to the woodsy girl Sylvy in Sara Orne Jewett's "A White Heron," a shy creature who climbs a tall pine tree to seek knowledge but then pays a high price for keeping nature's secrets. My Creative Nonfiction class will soon contemplate another memorable child in Brian Doyle's delightful essay "The Wonder of the Look on Her Face" (click here), where an inquisitive child who loves to write reminds us of the importance of a really good pen and negates any excuses we may have for not writing.

But of all the children, real or imagined, that I've encountered this week, none has been more therapeutic than a very brief video my daughter posted on Facebook of my granddaughter making my grandson laugh. It's so simple you don't have to see it (which is good because I can't embed it in here anyway): he's sitting in the high chair and she ducks down and then pops up to say BOO, and he laughs his little head off while waving his arms ecstatically.

I could watch this all day long. It's certainly the best thing that's popped up in my Facebook feed all week, and it's good therapy: A laughing child will not solve any of the problems facing us these days, but a dose of joy helps counteract the caustic anger suffusing social media and public discourse.

Some days I want to be like Randolph, speaking my mind while boldly tearing into the social fabric; on other days I pursue Sylvy's quiet contemplation, despite the costs. Doyle's creative interlocutor makes me want to pick up a pen (and it doesn't even have to be a really good pen) and write with abandon, but at the end of a week when classes and committee meetings have pulled the plug on my store of energy, what I need is a healthy dose of glee. Today I'm grateful for the children in my life who bring me what I need. (Even if some of them are imaginary.)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

MTM and the purpose of comedy

Every time I teach a comedy class, I challenge my students to tackle a big question: What is comedy for? We consider how comedy can glue together social groups (or exclude the unwanted), how it can shine a light on ridiculous ideas to expose hard truths or persuade people to take action. But we also explore comedy's close relationship to tragedy: How does laughter help us cope with the horrors of the human condition?

I could trot out some heavy-duty jargon-infested comedy theory here, but instead I'll quote that noted expert, Lou Grant: Laughter is "a release, a kind of defense mechanism. It's like whistling in a graveyard. You laugh at something that scares you. We laugh at death because we know death will have the last laugh on us."

This quote occurs, of course, not in an article in a scholarly journal but in my favorite episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, "Chuckles Bites the Dust." Now I grew up watching Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards charging pluckily into a new life and a new job where she had to work twice as hard as her colleagues to prove that she could play the game with the big boys (who were mostly little boys trying to cast big shadows). She showed a generation of young women that pursuing a career was possible, that we didn't have to shelve our smiles or our sense of humor to get ahead in the cutthroat world of work.

So I loved Mary and wanted to emulate her ability to pick herself up after every pratfall. This ability is on display in "Chuckles Bites the Dust," when Mary plays the voice of reason trying to persuade her colleagues that there's nothing funny about the death of Chuckles the Clown; later, though, in the funeral scene, her wordless attempt to control her emotions reveals the power of comedy to bring painful emotions to the surface (see it here). Those emotions may spill out messily and at an inopportune moment, but whatever happens, our Mary will find a way to cope.

Even after all these years I can't watch this scene without laughing, but now I also want to cry. (Can someone pass a tissue?)   

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A break in the clouds

I saw the moon this morning, a tiny silver smile in the sky, and I stopped to smile back. It's been a while since we've seen the moon or the stars or anything in the sky but a wet gray blanket of clouds. We scurry around campus shrouded under umbrellas, following labyrinthine paths to avoid puddles, wishing the temperature would suddenly drop about 20 degrees so we could be snowed in.

At least that's what I wish. An acquaintance who breeds dogs complains that the mild winter will result in a massive flea and tick problem later in the year, but I'm more concerned about my sinuses, which never really clear up until we get a hard freeze--and if it's accompanied by a foot of snow, so much the better. Let's sequester the allergens under the snow and we'll all breathe more easily.

I remind myself that winter's not over yet, that a sharp cold snap generally strikes right around Easter, so it's not too late to hope for a blizzard, or at least a serious freeze. But for today I'm just happy to reacquaint myself with the moon, which continues to shine in the night sky even when we can't see it, when our view is obstructed by gloomy gray cloud cover.

Good night, moon. It's good to see you smiling again.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Straight to the dead-letter office

Another semester, another round of Letters I Won't Be Sending Any Time Soon:

To the student wearing the cologne so strong that it lingers in the hallway long after you've left: If people hold their breath and ease away from you as you walk down the hall, it's not because we don't like you; it's just really hard to breathe when your cologne is actively capturing every oxygen molecule in the building and holding it hostage. Is there no one close enough to let you know that your presence is as pleasant as can of Raid sprayed straight in the face?

To the colleague who finally guilted me into going back to work out at the Rec Center: Thanks so much for inspiring me to stand in front of my locker looking clueless as I tried to remember the clever mnemonic device for my locker combination. I know it starts with "Seventy-Six Trombones," but the numbers on my lock don't go up to 76 so it took me a while to figure out where to go from there.

To the person driving the red pickup truck in front of me last Saturday: I'll remember you always, not just because you were carrying in the bed of your truck the ugliest sofa I've ever seen (garish velvet in orange, red, green, and gold), but because after I'd followed you straight through town on my way to the car wash Saturday morning, and after I'd taken some time to wash all the winter gunk and bird blessings off my car and vacuum the rugs and clean the dashboard, I pulled out of the car wash and found myself following you again, all the way through town in the other direction. (Unless there are two sofas that ugly in the world, which doesn't seem likely.) Nothing personal, but I hope you're not going to make this a habit. That sofa makes my eyeballs explode.

Friday, January 20, 2017

On Howells and the power of gatekeepers

Today in American Lit Survey I told the thrilling story of William Dean Howells, the self-educated nobody from the howling Ohio wilderness who wrote a campaign biography of an upstart presidential candidate named Abe Lincoln and, as a reward, was appointed American consul to Venice, where he sat out the Civil War educating himself in art and music and history and culture and parlaying that experience into writing that earned the attention of the patrician gatekeepers of American publishing, who welcomed Howells into their fold and eased him eventually into a position as arbiter of American literary tastes--Howells, the hick from the sticks who threw open the doors of literary magazines to a broad diversity of writers, welcoming the voices of women and minorities and residents of every region of the country.

I tell this story every time I teach the class (condensing and simplifying and no doubt leaving out important elements) because here in the midwestern flyover states Howells feels like one of us, but also because it's important for students to think about the power of the gatekeepers who determine which authors get published, how certain voices get to stand for American literature while others are ignored or marginalized or silenced. He had his limitations and his crotchets, but Howells staked out new territory for American literature, enraging European readers by claiming that American authors need not bow down to European masters but could stand side-by-side with Thackeray and Dickens without being ashamed. He supported struggling writers with money and encouragement and publication, welcoming into the literary canon authors as diverse as Charles Chesnutt, Sara Orne Jewett, Mark Twain, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Henry James. He knew that America's strength lies in its diversity, its ability to nurture divergent voices that mingle to create harmony or cacophony or whatever the situation requires.

But most of all he shoved open the gates and welcomed in new and neglected writers because he understood that no single voice can speak for all of us--a message that resonates today, nearly 100 years after Howells's death.  

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Mama told me not to put holes in my ears

I challenged my creative nonfiction students to dig a hole with words, so I ought to try digging one myself--but what kind of hole? Follow the White Rabbit through a portal to a dream world (curiouser and curiouser), or follow a ditch-digger with hands dirty with the earth he shifts from one place to another day after day after day? What could possibly connect the roustabouts drilling deep into local shale formations and the surgeon who cut a hole in my abdomen to remove diseased organs? And what about the guy who so long ago drilled holes in my ears, slowly and painfully, because I so desperately wanted pierced ears?

I'd waited a long time to experience that pain. All my friends in school had pierced ears, but my parents didn't see the point of paying good money to get new holes poked in one's body just for the sake of adornment. For months (years?) I employed my best persuasive techniques, possibly including whining and tears, to convince them that I was mature enough to make my own decisions about ear-piercing, and finally my parents told me I could get my ears pierced when I turned 13 if I paid for the procedure myself.

So I saved up my meager allowance and pooled my birthday money and took my treasure to a store at the mall that offered cheap piercings--not a real jewelry store but a little shop full of the kinds of chintzy sparkly things that appeal to 13-year-old girls.

Now my friends who'd had their ears pierced told me it wouldn't hurt. "They just load the earring into this little gun and shoot it into your ear," they said. "You won't feel a thing."

Well, the store where I got my ears pierced had not yet adopted the little earring gun technology. They used a needle. (I assume that it was clean and that they'd been trained properly, but what do I know?) The sales clerk sat me in a chair right next to the entrance to the store and pushed the needle through one earlobe and then through the other--slowly, painfully, in full view of every single person who happened to be sauntering past that store.

I felt like a circus sideshow: "See the living flesh pierced with swords and daggers! Feel her pain, watch her agony!" I was in agony all right but I didn't cry--couldn't cry, with all those people watching--couldn't admit that I was experiencing anything other than delight. I was finally getting my ears pierced, finally joining the ranks of women willing to make painful spectacles of themselves for the sake of beauty! Big girls don't cry, even when total strangers walk right up close to watch sharp needles drilling holes in their earlobes. Slowly.

When it was over I went home with earlobes adorned with modest gold balls, but I don't recall whether I ever told my parents what a painful process I'd endured. I wouldn't want to admit that maybe they'd been right, a little bit--that getting holes drilled in my ears just because "everyone else is getting them" is a little ridiculous and, to be honest, the opposite of mature. I was just happy to finally be pierced like my friends, and to look forward to the next big step--when the holes in my earlobes healed up enough to allow me to switch from tiny posts to the big dangly hoops and dazzlers that seemed to be the ultimate in womanly sophistication.

I still have holes in my earlobes but I'm not wearing earrings today. Some days I remember to pause before the jewelry box and root through the options to find something sparkly to complete my outfit, but more often I forget. I'll carry the holes on my body always, but I prefer to keep the pain and public spectacle buried within the caverns of memory.

Until one day something inspires me to start digging.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Emily Dickinson writes about college basketball (sort of)

"It makes more sense if it's 'March Madness,'" said my student, and he had a point. In Emily Dickinson's poem "Much madness is divinest sense," she describes how the concepts of "sense" and "madness" change with time, with the majority determining what counts as sensible at any given moment. 

Which, as my student pointed out, is exactly what happens with March Madness: If you're surrounded by people constantly yammering about their brackets, it's easy to see them as lacking sense; meanwhile, those caught up in bracketology see the non-participants as mad. 

And what happens when a bracketologist sits down at the lunch table with a bunch of people who don't care about college basketball, or vice versa? When the majority is empowered to determine what counts as "sense," then outliers can be deemed "dangerous / and handled with a Chain."

So "March Madness is divinest sense"--if only Emily had known!

Put one word in front of the other

I checked and re-checked every word, shifted a sentence around to make it flow more smoothly, edited for nuance and then hit "send," and only then did the realization hit: I just put more time, energy, and passion into a three-sentence e-mail expressing (righteous!) indignation than I've put into any other writing project this month.

That's not an auspicious way to start a new year. I can offer plenty of excuses: I've been sick; I can't think straight when I'm on drugs; the weather is depressing; after I teach, all I want to do is sleep. But the fact is that I just haven't made writing a priority.

I've got plenty to work on: revising a journal article, expanding a conference paper, taking the next step on the big multi-year writing project, even occasional blogging. I wrote about half of my thank-you notes for Christmas gifts and then gave up, for no good reason other than being tired. This does not sound like me at all. What have I done to myself?

The passion I felt on writing that petty e-mail yesterday served as a wake-up call, making me wonder why I'm wasting so much energy on relatively insignificant matters when I could be tackling a pile of serious work, work that I used to find engaging and challenging but that now simply seems to loom threateningly like the dark clouds that have recently dominated our days.

I know from experience that the best cure for writing malaise is simply to write--and not just irate e-mails. So it's time to put the cough syrup aside, ignore the awful weather, and simply get back to work, word by word. Starting now. 

Well, maybe after my morning classes....


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

But how do I assess 'awe'?

In Lia Purpura's essay "There Are Things Awry Here" from her collection Rough Likeness, she describes the difficulty of teaching students writing: "I walk into class thinking Really I have nothing to say to these people, the proper study of writing is reading, is well-managed awe, desire to make a thing, stamina for finishing, adoration of language..." 

This strikes me as the ideal statement of purpose for my creative nonfiction class, which met for the first time this morning. I can offer my students opportunities to read and write, but how do I teach them awe, desire, stamina, and adoration? Where do these essential skills fit into the crowded syllabus, and how am I supposed to assess them?

Nevertheless I allowed this quote to shape the start of our semester together, which is appropriate since Lia Purpura will be visiting campus to work with this class and do a public reading in March. I'm in awe already, and I desire to inspire my class to make great things and finish them, with proper respect for the wonders of words. This is going to be a great semester! (If I can just survive this first difficult week....)   

Monday, January 16, 2017

Climbing every mountain (in a mere 15 weeks)

On the first day of class I ask my Concepts of Nature students to answer the roll call with something that interests them about nature. "I like to hunt," says one, and another says "I like mountains." Then it's "mountains and water," then "mountains and snow." 

Several say they like colors--of flowers and trees, of sunrise and sunset, of changing seasons. One says "I like raptors" and I tell her about the hawks and eagles I see on my daily drive along the river.

I tell the mountain-lovers that we'll soon be following Thoreau up Mount Ktaadn and Isabella Bird up a Hawaiian volcano, following John Muir into a wind-storm in the forest and Norman Maclean into some of the best fly-fishing waters in the world. We'll let William Cullen Bryant introduce us to the blue of the fringed gentian and W.S. Merwin show us the wonders of rare and precious native Hawaiian trees.

I wish we could take a field trip to all these places, all the times our authors will show us this semester, but that would require a lifetime of rambling. We have a mere 15 weeks to climb these rigorous and challenging mountains, so we'd better get moving. Let's open our books and get ready to see the world. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Please may I have a whole new January? This one's broken.

I worked just hard enough on campus today to convince myself that I'm absolutely unprepared for classes to start next Monday. Earlier this week I copied my syllabi, prepared the first-day activities, set up my class Moodle pages, and prepared as much as I usually prepare, but today I spent a mere 30 minutes leading faculty in a discussion and then I had to go home and lie down to recover my strength.

Not only am I tired of being sick, but I'm tired of hearing myself talk about how sick I've been and I'm tired of thinking about being sick and I'm tired of wondering when I'm going to be done being sick. I'm not coughing so much any more and I'm sleeping much better, but my ears are still so stuffed up that every conversation sounds like it's coming from the bottom of a deep well and my head feels disconnected from the rest of my body. I may appear to be fully present and accounted for, but it takes every ounce of concentration to figure out what people are saying and to keep my head from floating off into the atmosphere like a lost helium balloon.

So today I faked my way through a pedagogy discussion and I fear that I'll be doing the same in all four classes next week: speak with an artificial sparkle in my voice and look lively while internally scrambling to hold body and soul together. Of course, I've got three days to recover fully before classes begin. Maybe by Monday I'll be a whole new person and all this January crud will be a dim and distant memory. Or maybe the whole week will be a train wreck followed by a dumpster fire followed by scenes out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road

However next week turns out, I think I'll be happy to write off the first two weeks of January as a dead loss. Let's just forget this ever happened and move on, okay? Preferably without coughing.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Eagle season

Here we are nine days into the new year and I've already seen three eagles, or the same eagle three different times. This morning I stopped by the lock at the crack of dawn in hopes of seeing eagles but saw nothing but seagulls, but then on the way home I stopped to gawk at a great big bald eagle in what we've come to call "the eagle spot": a tree on the west side of the Muskingum just across from Bear Creek Road.  It flew off, of course, the minute I got the camera out, but wow, what a beautiful bird. Now let's hope it wasn't just visiting!

Fulfilling our National Coughing Quota

After spending more than a week in a drug-induced haze characterized by coughing, sleeping, coughing, nose-blowing, and coughing, I've returned to campus to prep for the start of classes next week, and so far I've made it through an entire morning without utterly collapsing. At this point staying upright is a major accomplishment. ("What did you do at work today, sweetheart?" "I didn't end up flat on my back on the floor." "Well done you! Gold star!")

Along with remaining upright, I've managed to make some photocopies, write a letter of recommendation, and clear the detritus of fall semester off my desk. And I've discovered some interesting things. 

For instance, I've found two people who are not coughing. Two! They may well be the only non-coughers in the entire county at this point, but on the other hand, they might just start coughing the minute I turn my back. We've definitely done our part to fulfill the National Coughing Quota this year. Time for someone else to step up and take a turn.

And I have discovered the source of all Namibians. Well, not all Namibians, but I've found the source of the computer glitch that resulted in every single student in my spring classes being listed as hailing from Namibia: in a column on our course management system designed to list the student's nationality, some brilliant person(s) (not me) inserted "NA," meaning "Not Applicable." Except the course management system thinks "NA" means Namibia, which explains the sudden glut of Namibians in my classes. I'm a Namibian; you're a Namibian; we are all Namibians.

Now if someone can figure out how to send all this coughing to Namibia, we'll be sitting pretty.  

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Nebulizers on "stun"

"I don't like your breath sounds," said the doctor, and what I wanted to say in reply was, "You don't like my breath sounds? How do you think I feel about 'em? Every exhalation sounds like a creaky horror-flick door slowly opening  wider to reveal the great green mucilaginous Phlegm Monster reaching out its slimy tentacles to invade every last inch of your bronchial tubes. How am I supposed to sleep with a chest full of B-movie sound effects?"

But I lacked the strength, so I said "oh" and she said "Let's put you on a nebulizer." And so I was nebulized, which sounds like something Marvin the Martian would try to do to Bugs Bunny, except he would aim the silly thing the wrong way and end up nebulizing his own little adorable self into oblivion. 

I've been battling the Phlegm Monster for five days now, along with half the county if the line at the walk-in clinic is any indication. Last night was the breaking point, when I realized I simply couldn't take another all-night cough fest. The good news is that it's not pneumonia. "Just bronchitis," said the doctor, but I'll bet she'd skip the "just" if she had to spend one night grappling with my breath sounds.  The bad news is that there's nothing much to do for it beyond rest, fluids, and an inhaler when the cough gets unbearable. 

So here I sit--nebulized, resting, drinking fluids, and getting diddly squat done. And the cough? It could last another week or more. Yes! Another week in the company of the Phlegm Monster! May as well get some popcorn so you can sit back and enjoy the show.

Monday, January 02, 2017

A winter feast of color and light

On a fog-shrouded morning, when a cold gray blanket locks the world in misery and throws away the key, the cheerful voice of my granddaughter reaches out from the middle of last week: "Grampa, can you read to me more about bell peppers?"

She has a room full of charming children's books but he'd been reading to her out of a seed catalog--descriptions of carrots and kale, seedless watermelons, tomatoes glowing with summer sunshine--and she'd been eating it up. The pictures alone could sustain large family through a Siberian winter, but Grampa's warm voice reading about bell peppers adds a nourishing broth, seasoned with our granddaughter's questions.

This is why seed companies send out catalogs in the bleak midwinter, just at the moment when we've forgotten that the sun ever shone on us, that the warm earth ever sent forth hopeful green sprouts or garish purple eggplants or carrots that can only be described as carrot-colored. All the rich colors that fled our environs with the arrival of winter have taken refuge in the seed catalog, where they tantalize us with the promise of spring's return.

Those bell peppers! Green ones and yellow and orange and red--who wouldn't want to feast her little eyes on such bounty? Look at this bunch of hybrid purple carrots and you can smell warm earth, feel its grit on your hands. Parsnips! Rhubarb! Kohlrabi! Sugar snap peas! They make me want to go out and start digging right now, even though we've had little success growing peas here.

Seed catalogs make us believe: that winter won't last, that color will come back, that someday we will once again hold a red ripe tomato in our hands and bite down and taste every ounce of sunshine that made it grow. So read to us more about bell peppers, Grampa.  Feed us from the seed catalog--all of us--until we can eat no more.