Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A flood of disasters

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A delicious little lesson plan

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Time's winged chariots hit a speed-bump

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

My deubiquitization project

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Smiles on the sidewalk

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

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

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


Friday, August 18, 2017

Eyes on the ibis

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

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

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



Thursday, August 17, 2017

Gone caving

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

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

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

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

Steep stairs down into Whispering Cave

Tree root shaped like a J!

Can't get the whole cave in the frame.

Down in the gorge

Lower falls--not much water

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

My start-of-semester security blanket

A student once asked me whether I have a handout on everything, and I was tempted to respond with Yes I do--or if I don't, I can make one.

The good news is that I no longer have to keep hard copies of all those handouts on file, which explains why I no longer need two big filing cabinets in my office. The bad news is that I have so many handouts saved in files on my computer that I don't always remember where to find the one I need right now.

I have folders full of handouts for specific classes and other folders for handouts I use in multiple classes, sometimes in various versions. Some file folders have other file folders embedded inside, each embedding leading into a black hole of more and more files. If I haven't taught a class for a while, I have to go through all the folders just to see what's in there. Sometimes I'm surprised by what I find (My, how clever I am!) and sometimes just befuddled (What was I thinking?).

I'd be lost without my Find function, and it really helps to give files screamingly obvious names. A special version updated to meet the needs of a specific class gets an abbreviation for the semester at the beginning of the name (f17 thesis powerpoint), but the rest of the name has to communicate clearly across time to Future Stupid Me, who isn't going to have any idea what f17tp might mean. 

I rarely delete a handout entirely, even if it seems hopelessly out of date. I may move it to an Archive folder, but it'll still be sitting there when old format standards or certain types of writing prompts come back into style.

All those handouts near at hand pile up like a security blanket to soothe the start-of-semester jitters. I may not know when I'll need every single one of these handouts, but it's good to know that when I need them, they'll be there.  

Files for just one class.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Can literature put the brakes on racism?

A long time ago while working on my dissertation, I had to hold my nose and read a bunch of virulently racist literature dating from the early 20th century, like Thomas Dixon's novels The Leopard's Spots and The Clansman, which inspired the film Birth of a Nation. Dixon promoted the one-drop rule, portrayed white southerners as genteel aristocrats being victimized by invading northerners and angry ex-slaves, and described African Americans as subhuman beasts. Pretty awful stuff.

I had to read Dixon to understand his influence on other authors I was examining, especially Gene Stratton Porter, the gentle nature writer from Indiana noted for woodsy romances like Girl of the Limberlost. Her racism and xenophobia simmer in the background of her Indiana novels but step securely into the center in Her Father's Daughter, set in California, where the author had moved in order to make movies. The villain in Her Father's Daughter is a recent Japanese immigrant described as resembling a plant--so not even worthy of animal status, much less human. When a female character pushes this villain off a cliff to his death, readers are supposed to cheer. What could this character have done to merit such treatment? He lied about his age so he could get a high-school education. 

Her Father's Daughter was a failure for a variety of reasons, not least being Stratton Porter's insertion of recipes and tidy lessons about home economics, which made the novel half Suzy Homemaker, half racist tract. But her other novels were massive best-sellers, and so were Thomas Dixon's.

But that was 100 years ago. Surely their ideas have died out by now?

The photos of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last weekend reveal a bunch of twentysomething white guys who would look right at home in my classes; in fact, the man who rammed his car into a crowd of protestors was a 20-year-old from Ohio. Will I be seeing these men in my classes--or are they already there but I haven't noticed?

I don't encounter much overt racism in my classes. Okay, there was that one time when a student loudly announced that Title IX had been "invented by President Clinton to screw white guys out of a chance to row," a statement wrong on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start. (When I asked for his sources, he said, "Everybody knows that." No, I'm not making this up.)

And once a student made a flippant xenophobic comment in class, but the other students called her out before I even had a chance to pick my jaw up off the floor. If a student made a more explicit appeal to white supremacist ideas, what would I say? What's the best way to call out racism without shutting down discussion? 

What I'd like to tell them is this: Thomas Dixon is dead and so are his ideas. We're not going back to 1905 or 1918 or 1950. Open your eyes and get to know the complexities of the people around you, the wonders of a world that's wide enough for many types of people. In fact, that's the underlying message behind every syllabus I write: Look at how many different ways there are to be human. 

But maybe that message is too subtle for our trying times. I look at the faces of those men in Charlottesville and I wonder what steered them so wrong and whether reading a semester's worth of literature would make a difference in their entrenched ideas. A hundred years ago  popular literature promoted white supremacy, so I hope literature can play a part in combating the same ideas today. If I didn't believe literature could change minds, I would stop teaching--but how effective is literature at stopping cars from ramming into protestors?

Friday, August 11, 2017

So simple it's complicated

My brother was maybe 12 years old when he bought a used canoe with his lawn-mowing money. He paid something like $50--so, not a great canoe. We lived in Florida a few blocks from a lake, so he and his fishing buddies would carry the canoe down to the lake and come back, sometimes, with a fish or two. It was an easy and harmless way for young guys to burn off their summer energy.

But imagine how much more complicated it would have been if they'd had to take along a horse.

Not in the canoe, of course--what kind of idiot would put a horse in a canoe? But what if the only way you could get to the lake was by horse and buggy? 

This morning we saw three Amish boys--maybe 14 or 15 years old--launching a canoe and two kayaks in a quiet cove at the upper reaches of Salt Fork Lake, and their launch process was considerably more complicated than ours, primarily because we don't travel with horses.

We'd chosen that particular launching place because of its remoteness from civilization; it offered a parking area but no boat ramp, just a grassy spot leading into shallow water. We paddled in the early mist without seeing a soul except one guy fishing from a bridge, and then when we headed back to our launching spot, we saw the two black Amish buggies with two bright blue kayaks and a green canoe strapped on the backs.

We pulled in to shore as they unhitched the horses, and their responded to our greetings by offering to buy our canoe. (Not for sale!) They seemed quietly competent as they took care of their horses, buggies, boats, and fishing gear. We're pretty efficient at strapping the canoe to the top of the van, but by the time we were done, the three Amish boys had silently disappeared in their boats while the horses stood near the woods, sedately chewing.

People like to call the Amish lifestyle "simple," but that feels a little reductive. Paddling a canoe on still water is pretty simple, and fishing from a canoe can be simple unless the fish has a lot of fight. I've never found managing horses simple, but then I wasn't raised alongside them. Strapping canoes to a horse-drawn buggy and driving it down narrow country roads...well, with enough practice it might feel simple enough, but all those simple parts add up to an incredibly complex endeavor. How many 15-year-olds would be able to pull off that feat without breaking a sweat?

And I thought my life was complicated! At least I don't have to take along horses when I canoe. 

Our launch site.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Paddling among the egrets

This morning for the first time all year I took the camera out in the canoe, which I would not have done yesterday when we spent the afternoon fighting waterskiers' wakes. We're spending a couple of days at Salt Fork State Park, just an hour from home but a nice getaway before the semester begins. Yesterday we paddled in a more populous part of the lake, but early this morning we drove to a boat launch at a no-wake zone and explored the upper reaches and backwaters scented by lotus blossoms, where great blue herons and great egrets perched in trees or swooped majestically over the water. We had the lake to ourselves for over an hour, but then storm clouds started moving in and the wind picked up. Time to head for shore and leave behind the birds. (But not their pictures.)

Morning stiillness

Storm rolling in.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Not in my wildest dreams

There's a knock at my office door so I open it even though I'm wearing my rattiest nightgown, and there I find a well-dressed woman who tells me she'll be observing my class to determine whether I qualify for our biggest teaching prize and we'd better hurry if we want to start on time, but I can't go to class until I find my bathrobe and then I can't find my class roster and it's only the second day of class so I won't know anyone's name and I can't find the right textbooks so I grab a random stack of outdated Norton anthologies and hustle up the steps to the classroom, where all my students are sitting on the floor because someone has taken away all the desks, so the observer sits on the windowsill rolling her eyes while I try to get the computer booted up and the projector turned on and then realize that I can't even pull up any course material online because I haven't posted anything on Moodle, and the observer is so disgusted with my miserable pedagogy that she comes to the front of the room and starts teaching my class just to show me how it's done.

And do you want to know the only thing that bothers me about this nightmare scenario? I keep berating myself for not wearing a nicer nightgown to class

Thursday, August 03, 2017

A well-hidden superpower

I was trying to tell a colleague about a book I read last week (The Limits of Critique by Rita Felski, a lively, insightful, thought-provoking critique of critique that offers a clear path out of the labyrinth) but I got flummoxed by this response: You read a book in a week? I wish I could read a whole book in a week.

What am I supposed to say to that? I'm certainly not going to admit that I read not one but three books last week or that this is not such an unusual feat. I can't help it: I'm a compulsive reader with a freakish ability to read really quickly with full comprehension.

That's not the kind of superpower most people seek. In fact, Mild-mannered English professor saves the world by exercising her power to read really, really quickly is the plot of no action movie ever. Once you get past elementary school, there are no more gold stars for reading quickly, and you'll never see a reality show reward a contestant's ability to breeze through the pages of Remembrance of Things Past.

Granted, my ability to read quickly without sacrificing comprehension allowed me to earn a Ph.D. while working as a journalist and raising small children, but otherwise, it's a superpower that rarely earns respect and therefore remains well hidden. Nevertheless I'm certain that others of my freakish ilk exist out there somewhere, readers whose fingers blister from turning pages so quickly, who view a blurry world through eyes that insist on staying focused on reading-distance. Ye shall know them by their squints.

If you're out there, please: read Rita Felski's book The Limits of Critique and then get back to me so we can discuss it, preferably by tomorrow. Monday at the very latest.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

When the room demands writing

A colleague walks into a small conference room and says to the rest of us, "Greetings, writers!" Only three of us are in the room so far, but it's early. This is our penultimate Writing Wednesday, a weekly opportunity for colleagues to gather for a few hours in a quiet room in the library and simply write. 

There's no formal structure or programming. We chat a little before we get started and we often go out to lunch afterward, but usually it's just two or three or five faculty members tap-tapping away at their laptop keyboards. Sometimes we send each other drafts of our articles for feedback, but all that reading and responding happens outside the room, because our time here is reserved for writing.

I know some people can't write in a group, but somehow, I find it easier to remain focused on the task at hand when I'm writing in the midst of my colleagues. No one is checking my work, so I could be sitting over in my corner playing FreeCell for all my colleagues know, but something about the space and the company demands that I keep writing. 

In this room I have written big chunks of the article that I sent off to a journal last month, and since then I've been working on a conference paper proposal and a sabbatical proposal. And now I'm writing this blog post! That's not really what I'd intended, but look, we're only 20 minutes into our writing time. I'll post this and then get down to doing what the room demands: writing--in a hurry before the summer runs out! 

Next week is our final Writing Wednesday, and we'd love to keep it going through the school year but it's really difficult to find a common time. But that doesn't mean I won't try. After all, if we are writers, then we'd better focus on making time to write.