Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Crouching pencil, hidden word

This morning I asked my Creative Nonfiction students to read the poem "The Unwritten," W. S. Merwin's appreciation of the power of the pencil, which begins thus:
Inside this pencil
crouch words that have never been written
never been spoken
never been taught
Later, Merwin concludes
It could be that there's only one word
and it's all we need
it's here in this pencil
every pencil in the world
is like this.
And the next words out of my mouth ought to have been "Pick up your pencils and write," but who these days carries a pencil? Consider the pencil a metaphor for whatever writing implements students prefer: part of my task as a writing teacher is to encourage students to pick up their pencils and release the words hiding inside, because maybe they're hiding a story no one else can tell, a story that can change the world or at least make it more bearable.

"Every pencil in the world / is like this," says Merwin, but I would add every pen and every keyboard and every bit of voice-activated software. We who teach writing have a responsibility to put pencils in the hand of students and help them free the hidden words crouching within in the vain hope that someday, somewhere everyone will be able to pick up their pencils and write. 

(Or pens, as the case may be.)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Who, me? Boring?

"I worked late last night and I'm pretty tired," said my student, "so try not to be boring."

"Try not to be boring?" I said.  "I'm an English professor. Boring comes with the territory. I've aced grad-school classes in being boring, from Introduction to Boredom to Theory of Boredom to Advanced Applied Boredom. Moreover, I've honed those boredom-inducing skills through many years of practice in the field until I can produce boredom effortlessly any day of the week with my eyes shut and both hands tied behind my back. If there were a boredom-inducing event at the Olympics, I'd be the captain of the team."

"Asking an English professor not to be boring," I continued, "is like asking a fish not to swim or a bird not to fly or a freshman not to repeat the prompt in the first sentence of the essay. It's written right there on my diploma--Summa cum Boring. Are you asking me to deny my birthright, my very reason for existing, just because you stayed up a little too late last night?"

"Never mind," he said, abashed. "Go ahead and be as boring as you want."

And so I did. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Constructing the syllabus: the agony, the ecstasy, the comedy

"Dying is easy--comedy is hard," said somebody I haven't been able to identify, but whoever it was ought to have added that writing a comedy syllabus is even harder.

I've taught several varieties of comedy classes, from a first-year seminar on comedy theory to an upper-level comedy writing workshop, but the syllabus that causes the most anguish is the sophomore-level literature course called Concepts of Comedy.

I created the course and I've taught it several times already, but every new version brings more difficult decisions. The problems are manifold: the course counts toward the English major but also fulfills two General Education requirements (literary analysis and writing proficiency), so it fills up with students who think the class will be an easy way to get those little L's and W's on their transcripts. I mean, how difficult could a comedy class be? They know comedy--they know every funny meme that drifts by on Facebook, and they've been watching funny movies ever since they learned how to bypass the parental controls on their parents' Netflix accounts.

And then they see the syllabus, which is sadly lacking in Facebook memes and funny movies. The class may watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail as part of the mock-heroic unit, but the syllabus suggests that what they'll mostly be doing is reading. Like, books and stories and plays and even, heaven help us, poems written by people they've never heard of or cared to read, like James Thurber and Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker and--gulp--William Shakespeare.

So the first day of class tends to be pretty awful, as students expecting an easy ride suddenly realize that they've signed up for a literature class and will therefore be expected to read literature. And the worst part is that they don't find most of the reading the least bit funny.

I can understand students who don't find Shakespeare funny: they lack the vocabulary and cultural background to understand the wordplay and allusions, and explaining doesn't always help. But I don't understand students who don't find Douglas Adams funny, or who dismiss The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy with tl;dr. 

Past versions of my Concepts of Comedy syllabus are littered with works I don't ever again want to expose to students, not because the books will harm the students but because the students' responses harm the books and break the teacher's heart. They've found Nathanael West depressing and Douglas Adams incomprehensible and Richard Russo boring (!) and Sherman Alexie both boring (!!) and juvenile, and what do you do with students who can't laugh at Sherman Alexie?

So now I'm thinking about the syllabus for this fall's version of the class, and I don't know what novel to assign. We must have a novel. Yes, we'll read a bunch of short stories and poems and a couple of plays, but at some point we need to submit to the discipline of reading a big fat book that helps to expand our understanding of comedy in literature and culture.

Russo's Straight Man works well because it deals directly with rhetorical use of comedy in the midst of a madcap, moving series of events in the life of an English professor, but it's getting dated and there's a bit of casual racism toward the end that gets less funny every time I read it--and besides, students prefer a protagonist they find "relatable," which, if it means anything, means "not an English professor."

They might prefer the protagonist of Robert Gipe's novel Trampoline, a high-school girl with a delightful narrative voice redolent of Appalachia, but students who found Alexie too "juvenile" won't like Gipe any better. It would be really interesting to pair Trampoline with Huckleberry Finn and compare how their youthful protagonists find a path through the hazards of a culture gone crazy, but then I'd have to devote significant amounts of class time to Huck Finn's racial baggage.

One advantage of a brand-new, low-profile novel like Trampoline: students won't be able to find summaries and pre-digested analyses online, so they'll just have to read it--even if they refuse to find funny.  

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Out of the no-cry zone

"I haven't made a student cry all year," said my colleague, and I said, "I could give you lessons."

I really don't intend to make students cry--and if I did, I'd be much more systematic, setting up specific quotas for each class (two weepers per week in freshman classes, for instance, and at least one full-blown existential crisis per semester for each student in the capstone). But think of the costs of mopping up all those emotional traumas--the tissues alone!

And besides, there are tears enough in the world; I don't feel any need to contribute to the deluge. 

But it happens.

My job occasionally requires me to give students bad news--about their writing skills, the consequences of plagiarism, the odds that they'll be able to pass my class--and many respond stoically while others turn on the waterworks. I can work with a student who cries and then calms down and gets back to work on the problem, but a student who wants to cry her way to a better grade makes me want to scream.

And then I get the occasional super-sensitive student who cannot accept constructive criticism on drafts, who interprets the mildest critique as a personal attack worthy of a toddler-sized tantrum. I want to tell them not to cry over split infinitives but instead to realize that detailed attention to a draft is a rare and valuable gift, but it's hard to be heard through all the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

I'd love to declare my office a no-cry zone, but sometimes tears are a perfectly appropriate response--like when a student drives me to tears. (I wonder if they're trying to reach a quota? Is someone giving extra credit for making professors cry?)


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Getting a little handsy

Actual conversation in class this morning:

Student: Is this going to be one of those write-until-your-hand-falls-off exams?

Me: Yes, and if you leave the room with both hands still attached, you fail.

Student: You ought to have a big basket by the door, and anyone who doesn't drop a hand in it gets an F.

Another student: And then you can hold out the basket and say, "Need a hand?"

(And they ask me why I love my job....)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Bubble, bubble, simile trouble

It's awkward comparisons day in Creative Nonfiction class! I get to share the most cringe-inducing simile ever perpetrated by a student ("the aroma of the hot cocoa spiraled like a staircase up her nose") along with some winners gleaned from professional writers:

As he advanced…all his fat bulbs rose and shook and fell separately with each step, in the manner of clustered soap-bubbles not yet released from the pipe through which they had been blown. --Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

The penguins tottered and clucked and dived, slipping off the habitat rocks like amiable hams but living under water like tuxedoed muscles. --Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
Norah Jones and her foot soldiers are organic, grass-fed artists taking back the castle from the injection-molded, poly-blend popbots. --Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker

If that's not enough, I'll introduce my students to some of the many random simile generating machines available online. High Coup Journal, for instance offers up these gems:

Disappointment is like a can of ravioli.
Irritation is like Canada.
Sadness is like a rainbow.
Confidence is like a school play.

Or we'll head over to WritingFix's Serendipitous Simile Generator:

His greed was like a swimming pool.
Her apathy was like a birdcage.
His generosity was like a toolshed.

WritingFix offers helpful advice for teachers and writers using the Serendipitous Simile Generator, such as this inspiring paragraph:

Here's a hint to make a more successful simile.  Try adding an adjective in front of the Interesting Noun you're given.  For example, if you're dealt "His love is like a swimming pool," change it to "His love is like a crowded swimming pool," or "His love is like a public swimming pool," or "His love is like a well-chlorinated swimming pool" before writing your description.  And have serendipitous fun!

(Why would love need to be chlorinated? Maybe it's a hunk o' germy love.)

These sites may be as disappointing as a can of ravioli, but I've got more nourishing food at my beck and call (and I'm not talking about swimming hams): my students' essays. For every student who assaults my nasal passages with a staircase, I've got three capable of serving up macaroni and cheese so comforting it's like "a hug in a bowl." Mm-mm good, and it doesn't even need to be chlorinated.


Friday, February 17, 2017

Faces of bafflement

Bafflement wears many faces, many of them on display in my literature classes this morning.

Sometimes bafflement looks like the tops of students' heads when they keep their eyes glued to the anthology and try to erase themselves from the room lest I call on them and ask what e.e. cummings was doing with those odd spacings and they haven't figured out the secret hidden meaning of "mud-luscious" or "puddle-wonderful" so they're afraid of saying something terribly wrong. 

But sometimes it looks more like red-faced students arguing with each other about whether the journey described in Eric Overmyer's On the Verge is real or imaginary (and what it might mean for a journey to be real in a work of the imagination) or whether the character Alexandra should be respected as a bold voyager into the unknown or reviled as an annoying ninny who would improve the play by falling down a crevasse and dying.

Sometimes bafflement sounds like the silence that greeted me this morning when I read aloud to my American Lit students e.e. cummings's "somewhere i have never traveled,gladly beyond" (here), that tender love poem inviting us to consider how the presence of the lover encloses the beloved within intimacy while opening the senses to new experience and understanding ("i do not know what it is about you that closes / and opens; only something in me understands / the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses"), and as I reached the closing lines of the poem that opens doors within my soul I heard a silence so deep that I feared raising my eyes from the page to see the bafflement written all over my students' blank faces.

And sometimes bafflement sounds like the laughter that comes when students accept the author's invitation to play with words, when they stop demanding that the play make sense and instead join in as it makes fun, stop worrying about whether "I repelled a rabid drooling grizzly bear with a series of piercing yodels" is a truth claim and simply revel in the rollicking words as the adventuresses bushwack their way through Terra Incognita.

The first kind bafflement draws inward and bars the door against the fear of disturbing the universe; the second throws wide the windows and reaches out a hand, willing to embrace an argument or laugh at a misunderstanding. I confess that I like the second kind better, but such openness is a rare gift, one that fortunately arrived this morning just in time to rescue me from the despair that crept in when I finished reading the cummings love poem and looked up and saw that the words that moved me nearly to tears had bounced off those blank faces and fallen silently to the floor, baffled.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

An end (I hope) to a watery saga

I'm wearing a new scent today: Eau de Clorox. Smells like I just stepped out of the deep end of a municipal swimming pool.

In fact, my whole house smells like that--for good reason. The well guys finally came back yesterday to do the final repairs on our well, get the water flowing to the apartment out at the garage, test the water, and dump a few jugs of Clorox down the well to sanitize the whole thing. "You don't want to do any laundry until that Clorox smell goes away," they said, and I decided this morning that maybe I should hold off also on washing my hair. (I've got enough streaks already, thank you very much.)

I knew the minute I drove up the driveway that the well guys had returned because their truck was gone. Last week they left behind a few odds and ends of tools and equipment plus a big red truck with drill rig attached, and the truck still sat there Monday and Tuesday, which seemed odd. I mean, a well guy might forget where he'd left that pipe wrench, but who forgets to retrieve a truck?

But it turns out that they had a really good excuse for delaying their return: the chief well guy suffered some kind of heart problem over the weekend. Apparently our cranky and incomprehensible well caused stressed for more people than just us. But now he's back in action and his truck is no longer parked in our driveway and the water is running and the whole house reeks of Clorox--but I'm willing to accept a little Eau de Clorox in exchange for clean, convenient running water.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Serious (theoretical) questions

So I'll be teaching a semester of Literary Theory next year and I have serious questions. 
1. If you teach grad students: what do you wish your students had learned about literary theory?
2. If you have taught a theory class: what works? What doesn't?
3. If you have taken a literary theory class: what was most helpful? Least helpful?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Battling gaps in a word-centric memory

This morning while driving to town I turned off the yammering radio voices and switched on the DVD playing songs of Ohio's songbirds. Our woods are already getting noisy, so it's time to reacquaint myself with the calls I've forgotten over the long silent season: Ah yes, orioles--will you return to your nesting tree this spring? And you, cerulean warblers--this year I'll know who you are when you pause to sing in my woods.

I don't know why I have such trouble remembering birdsong, but it's not the only thing that doesn't seem to sink very deeply into my memory. Yesterday at the bank I had to admit to the loan officer that I'm a word person so numbers don't always stick in my memory. What year did we buy our house? What was its most recent appraised value? What was the date of the most recent appraisal? Any responsible homeowner ought to have these numbers at the tip of her fingers, but I fumbled 'em. Time to look 'em up!

And then I've recently developed a new technique for remembering how many laps I've walked on the track at the rec center. You wouldn't think that would be so difficult--it's not as if I'm walking dozens of laps, so I ought to just count. But I just can't. I'll be in the middle of a lap, listening to happy music on the iPod, letting my mind wander wherever it wants, and when I hit the starting point again I can't remember whether this is my fifth time around or my sixth. 

But now I have a new method: I associate a word with each lap, and then I can run through the words to figure out how many I've walked. On the first lap I said Hi to Brian, so that's the Brian lap; I walked the second lap to the sound of a Michael Buble song, so that's the Buble lap. By the time I've finished the Brian, Buble, lift truck, lightbulb, and Debbie laps, I know where I am--but I don't know why it's so much easier for me to remember a series of unrelated words than a set of numbers arranged in order.

Not that it matters, really. I doubt that I'll ever face a life-or-death challenge that relies on my ability to remember how many laps I've walked at the gym or the date of our last house appraisal. But I'd really love to pass the birdsong test, if only because knowing their calls will help me see the birds, and seeing the birds brings such joy to my life. So hello again, Louisiana waterthrush. Happy to renew your acquaintance.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

One of these days this will just be another funny story (I hope)

Once again lesson plans imitate life: My creative nonfiction students have been working on gaining distance and perspective, considering events from various angles and telling the same story in different ways and for different purposes. The other day we read "The Lost Sister" by Joyce Carol Oates and marveled over her ability to convey a traumatic family experience with a light touch, with devastating impact. 

Distance is the key, I told my students: if I write about trauma while I'm in the middle of it, I'll produce a tear-jerker or a rant, which may be useful, but it may not be the most compelling way to tell the story. Wait a while--a month, a year, or, as in Oates's case, half a lifetime--and the story can become just about anything: poetry, memoir, even comedy. (Remember the formula: comedy = tragedy + time).

Which is why I'll be waiting awhile before I write any more about our water struggles: the roller-coaster ride through triumph and despair, the constant setbacks, the assurance that the well will work just fine until it stops working entirely, the coal sand clogging the water lines, the bills the bills the bills. It can wait. And it will need to wait because guess what I'm doing today? 

Cleaning my whole stinking house.

Yes: after two dry weeks, we have running water! The well guys were out there working in the bitter cold until close to 9:00 last night, and they'll have to come back Monday to pick up their drill rig and do some water testing, but meanwhile, we have water! We can't drink it until after it's tested, but I can't tell you how marvelous it feels to be able to flush toilets and wash hands. And dishes. And floors. And the whole stinking house.

Someday I'll look back on this and write....something or other. I couldn't hope to predict right now how this incident might strike me in a year's time, but I trust that I'll have something interesting to say after I gain a little perspective. Meanwhile, I'm cleaning up, flushed with joy and ready to scrub.