Friday, September 29, 2017

Tackling Shakespeare anxiety

On a day when I introduced one class to the joys of defenestration and led another through critique of the infamous Princess-Di-in-Hell argument, I nevertheless have to admit that the highlight of my day occurred in my comedy class this afternoon when a football player looked at a passage from a Shakespeare play and said, "This isn't so difficult."

We're starting A Comedy of Errors on Monday in a room mostly full of student-athletes taking the class for general education credit (plus a couple of ringers--two English majors!), and every time I've mentioned our upcoming foray into Shakespeare, I've heard groans. I feared that they'd all just read a quick summary online and not even try to read Shakespeare, so I decided to nip that plan in the bud by leading the class in a Shakespeare Anxiety Support Session.

First, I gave them some concrete tips on how to read a Shakespearean text, and then I broke them into groups and gave each group a chunk of the first scene of A Comedy of Errors. The groups had to read, look up words, come to a consensus on meaning, and then explain it to the rest of the class--not exactly innovative pedagogy, but helpful in a room full of guys who aren't afraid to try to tackle a 250-pound football player but who would rather hide in the locker room than read a Shakespeare play.

In the middle of their lively group discussions I heard the words that warmed my heart: "This isn't so difficult."

"Great!" I said. "Now that you've demonstrated your ability to read Shakespeare, you should be ready to tackle the rest of the text!" 

And maybe they will. If not, at least they've read that one passage. Score!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Pawpaws, part two: stuck on you

I thought I knew pawpaws pretty well. I mean, what's to know? They grow at the edge of the woods; we pick,  peel, and eat 'em and toss out the seeds, unless the resident husbandman wants to save the seeds to try to grow next spring. Whatever. I know they're delicious. What more do I need to know?

But I'd never tried cooking with pawpaws before, primarily because they tend to get gobbled up too quickly to become ingredients. But this year's crop is abundant and we can only peel and eat so many, so I found a recipe and set to work.

The recipe seemed simple enough: pawpaw pulp with eggs, sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, butter, salt, and baking powder, mixed in the right order, dumped in a buttered baking pan, and baked for 50 minutes. The texture resembles that of lemon bars but there's no crust, while the spices suggest pumpkin pie--but again, no crust. I can't report on finished flavor because it's still baking, but I can report that I now know one salient fact about pawpaws that had previously escaped my notice: they're sticky.

We're not talking moderately sticky. We're talking the kind of sticky that makes it hard to scrape all the mashed pulp out of the mixing bowl, and then if you happen to set that sticky bowl aside while assembling the remaining ingredients, the lingering pulp will turn gluey and adamantly resist removal from the bowl.

Not only that, but after washing all the preparation dishes, I've had to go back and wash my hands two or three more times because I can't get rid of that sticky feeling. My fingertips keep feeling like they want to stick to the keys--and now I wonder whether I got some pulp on my laptop keyboard. The pulp is thicker than glue and stickier than honey and it just won't go away.
But my house is now full of the comforting aroma of cinnamon, vanilla, and pawpaw, a scent that can linger as long as it wants. I just hope the dessert will stick around long enough to banish the memory of all that sticky pulp. 

(Pass the soap, would you? I can't get my fingers off the keys.)



Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Responding to "u"

When you read the first line of a student paper and notice that it spells the word you in two different ways in the same sentence (you and u), and then you look back in your files and notice that you marked that sentence on the draft and offered some very specific advice about how to revise, what do you do?

I had to step away from the papers for a few minutes this morning and think about other things. I had read two stellar papers right at the start, which pumped up my expectations for the rest of the class, and then I went straight for the paper that shows no signs of having been revised from its initial drafty form. Suddenly I'm feeling deflated.

Yes, we've reached Moment of Truth time in all my classes: the honeymoon period has been over for at least a week, and now I'm reading papers that sometimes fill me with hope for the human race and sometimes make me want to crawl into a dark cave and never come out. I prefer to focus on the first type of paper but I have to find a helpful way to respond to the second kind, beyond "Go back and read what I wrote on your draft." (Or maybe that should be "ur draft.")

I've been fortunate so far in that I've never seen much text-speak in student papers, and it wouldn't be a fatal error if the rest of the paper had some merit, but if sloppiness in spelling is accompanied by sloppiness in reasoning, that's a double whammy. But how do I communicate with a student who refuses to read what I write on his papers?

Maybe the grade will get his attention. Today's Moment of Truth: let your gpa fall too low and you won't be permitted to play your sport. (Or should that be "ur sport"?)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Suddenly, stinkbugs

Despite 90-degree weather here this week, autumn is making itself known in a number of ways: foggy mornings, colorful leaves, and the invasion of the stinkbugs.

I know others have been experiencing this invasive species for years, but they're fairly new in our area. They're ugly and annoying but harmless--they're just looking for a warm place to hunker down for the winter, so they find the cracks around doors and windows and crawl in, and then they spend the evening banging at the big front window. They like the south side of the house, so they gather in a few predictable places, where they're easy to catch and relocate (outside).

They would be easy to smash, too, but you don't want to do that unless you want to learn first-hand why they're called stinkbugs. A colleague of mine reports that her dog eats stinkbugs but the process of digestion does not eliminate the stink.

Last year we ejected a few from our house and the year before, even fewer; this year, though, we got after three or four every evening. And when I say "we," I refer, of course, to my husband, the resident remover of alien life forms. It's not that I'm afraid of bugs in the house, but I wouldn't want to deprive him of the thrill of the chase. 

His intrepid efforts this week ought to earn him a stinkbug trophy, but if I doubt that a taxidermist would be willing to tackle the project.


Friday, September 22, 2017

A+ in Mask-Juggling

In my office this week I have met with students sincerely attempting to improve their writing and others desperate to offer excuses about why their writing stinks, when sometimes it really doesn't. I have felt the need to inform students that due dates matter, that they are still responsible for the material even if they neglected to complete the reading assignments, and that "that" is not a verb--and I've had the pleasure of telling a very nervous student that he's a good writer regardless of what anyone may have told him in high school.

This week I have laid hands on students more than usual: a heartfelt hug to a student who is withdrawing for medical reasons, and a tug on a set of headphones that were preventing a student from being fully present in class. That incident could have gone very badly in a variety of ways, but in the moment I couldn't think of another way to get the student to take the quiz I was trying to hand him.

With one student I've expressed sympathy for a death in the family, and then with the next I've had to put on my Mean English Professor gaze and deliver a stern sermon on the importance of taking responsibility for one's actions. It's hard to shift from one persona to another in a short span of time--maybe I need a set of masks to make the switch more seamless. The problem is that I don't always know which Me the students need when they come into my office, and switching masks in the middle of a session might be awkward.

The hardest part of my week was meeting with a student facing a really serious and life-changing problem just a few minutes before class, an encounter that left me feeling bereft, but then I had to go and face a whole room full of students who needed a whole different Me of the non-bereft variety. Where can I find a Competent Teacher mask? 

But now office hours are over. Time to take off the mask, put my feet on the desk, and turn my attention to the next urgent task. (Close the door on the way out, would you?)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Foggy fall morning

I thought I saw the Eye of Sauron in our upper meadow this morning, but a closer look revealed a spider web smiling in the tall grass. Dense fog shrouded the meadow without dimming the yellow glow of goldenrod or the brilliance of the few leaves that have already turned red. I saw puny clusters of dark fruit hanging from wild grapevines while other sections of vine continued to send out tendrils curling into the unknown. Days like today make me appreciate a teaching schedule that keeps me away from campus on Thursdays--except of course for that one student who needs to meet with me and can't find another available time. Time to say goodbye to the foggy meadow and head to town.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ixnay on the athwray

Note to self: Who made you the Parking Police? Starting the day with a heated altercation over traffic laws is not a brilliant idea, even if the anger grows every time you see that particular colleague violate the one-way street sign until you feel as if you're going to explode. Releasing the pressure with a face-to-face encounter first thing in the morning is only going to sour the rest of the day--and on a day when you have a horde of first-year students coming to conferences, you can't afford to be sour.

So here I am in my office trying to think happy thoughts before my students start arriving. This is all I've got:
  • Language Log comments on the new Range Rover model called the Velar, which makes me wonder: will we ever see a Ford Fricative on the market? (Click here for a little linguistics humor--very little.)  
  • Speaking of language, if you missed Talk Like a Pirate Day, McSweeney's offers some other options (click here). Hey, I won't even have to practice for "Talk Like a Woman Who's Constantly Freezing at Work Day"!
  • In other language-related news, I could have made a real killing points-wise the other day if only Words With Friends would accept Pig-Latin. Ixnay on the ointspay!
Hmmm....this isn't working. Someone tell me something funny--or else! (What? I'm not even authorized to issue parking tickets, much less comedy tickets.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Of pawpaws and papers

On Saturday I had an encounter with a talking tree walking around the Pawpaw Festival (meaning the tree was walking, kind of a neat trick), along with a guy in a pawpaw suit. I sincerely hope the suit had a cooling system because it had to be hot inside that big wad of foam in relentless 80-degree sunshine.

The resident farmer has been wanting to learn how to transplant pawpaw saplings from the edge of our woods out to the meadow because they allegedly produce more fruit in full sun, so he attended a lecture on pawpaw husbandry while I wandered around looking at the craft booths, which were neither as abundant nor as interesting as they were the last time I was there. The children's play area looked great, though, which made me wish I'd had the forethought to bring a passel of children with me. Where are those grandkids when I need them? (Soon I'll have more--another grandchild on the way in March! I've told my daughter that Spring Break would be the ideal time to deliver, but we'll see whether the little one cooperates.)

On Sunday we went out with a bucket to our own pawpaw patch, which is producing plenty of fruit this year (unlike last year when a late freeze doomed the local pawpaw crop). We found only one fruit ripe enough to pick, but we'll check for more later in the week. It was a gorgeous day for a walk in the woods, with soft fall air bringing the promise of color and change.

The garden is winding down, which is kind of a relief because I've run out of interesting ways to prepare eggplant. Tomatoes and peppers are still producing abundantly, though. We've never had so many habanero peppers--we've given away at least a bushel and there are many more on the plants, while other types of peppers are ripening more slowly. I'm excited about getting some good pimento peppers, but I'll leave the ghost peppers to the resident masochist. 

But now I have to turn away from nature's abundance and devote myself to the heavy crop of student drafts I've been reaping. I hope I'll find some as juicy and sweet as a pawpaw or as pointed as a habanero pepper, but it wouldn't surprise me to find some papers that aren't quite ripe yet. Give 'em time--they'll mature.

Impossible to get photos without random children in them.

Pawpaw: ugly but delicious.

Fall color on the way!


Saturday, September 16, 2017

From autocorrect to epiphany

The other morning my phone told me to "get grace at nerdiness," which is either a Zen koan or a bizarre autocorrect error. I dutifully collected my colleague at the auto-repair shop but kept my eyes open for nerdiness all the while.

It's hard to keep my eyes open, though, when all I want to do is sleep. I figured out, finally, why I've had all the energy of a squashed pumpkin lately, and now I'm taking antibiotics for a rather unfortunate infection, along with a medication that I wouldn't want to take if I wore contacts because it can permanently stain them ORANGE, which at the moment is also the hue of some of my bodily fluids. I don't want to read the small print on this drug because if it's going to turn me into an Oompa-Loompa, I don't want to know about it. All I care about is the reduction in pain and the possibility that I might be able to sleep for more than two hours at a time, which may result in an increase in energy and concentration. I'll let you know in a day or two.

Meanwhile I'm enjoying a harmonic convergence of texts. My honors students have reached the part of The Odyssey when Odysseus's old nurse recognizes him by his scar, and my comedy students have reached the moment in A Horse Walks Into a Bar when the judge scribbles the name of Odysseus's nurse on a napkin at a comedy club to remind him of the importance of recognition, the magical epiphany of seeing through the mask to the inner person, and the fact that this recognition occurs through the revelation of a scar. Pain reveals the person: not a particularly funny concept, but in context, it's both deeply moving and amusing.

I'll tell you what, though: no one would have overlooked Odysseus if his pain had turned into an Oompa-Loompa. (Autocorrect that!) 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Building the infrastructure to teach a new text

The advantage of teaching a brand-new novel hot off the presses is that students won't be able to rely on online summaries and potted papers so they'll have to start from scratch with the text itself. The disadvantage is that I'm starting from scratch too.

True, I've read the book before and worked it into the first paper assignment, but I have none of the infrastructure I need to open a text to students. I'm reading the book again and marking up the pages, writing lecture notes and group-work prompts, thinking about exam questions, locating information about the author and his context. I have to anticipate areas of ignorance: Can I expect my students to know enough about the Holocaust, the recent history of Israel, or the 1956 Sinai Campaign? Will they know what a kibbutz is? What about the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock?

That's a lot to expect of students who thought a class on comic literature would be an easy way to get their general education credit, but there's more: David Grossman's A Horse Walks into a Bar is a deeply philosophical work, focusing on a stand-up comic struggling through a two-hour routine with an audience sitting in judgment. Alongside the jokes and clowning around, he raises questions about the problem of pain, about who is responsible for human suffering and whether dignity is possible in the face of injustice and loss. And what role does comedy play? The very existence of Holocaust jokes raises all kinds of interesting and uncomfortable questions.

This won't be an easy ride for any of us: while I'm scrambling to develop compelling lesson plans and class activities, my students are struggling to figure out why they're reading this often uncomfortable philosophical novel in a comedy class. 

At least I hope they are. Maybe they're frantically searching for online summaries and cursing me for choosing such a recent book. If they are, don't tell me--I don't want to know.



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Storm report: disruption and survival

After the storm, my dad reports that Irma's bark was worse than her bite, at least in his area: he stayed up all night listening to the wind and rain, but in the morning he found just a few limbs down and no major damage. He didn't even lose power, although his television and internet service were cut off. For those fortunate enough to escape the worst of the winds, the storm was just a brief disruption. (But we await word from one of my husband's aunts, who still lacks power and so far remains unreachable.)

A smaller disruption occurred last year when a new natural gas pipeline snaked its way through our rural area and across our road. After months of temporary road closures and big trucks making muddy messes, our road reverted to its usual sylvan quietness. But the area cleared for the new gas pipeline created a perfect corridor for deer to move from the woods down to the creek, so we see them there frequently. Yesterday a doe and two fawns were grazing there when I drove past, and I happened to have the camera in the car, so I stopped and shot a few photos. They seem unbothered by me as long as I stayed in the unmoving car, but the minute the car started moving, they bolted. Deer grazing out in the open in broad daylight: they'll quit that behavior as soon as hunting season starts. They won't even need an evacuation warning.


Saturday, September 09, 2017

Calm before the storm

Walking in perfect weather up the big horrible hill this morning, I found it difficult to believe in the devastating events taking place elsewhere: friends out west struggle to breathe in the midst of massive fires while my brother-in-law drives north to escape the path of Irma and my dad hunkers down at home in central Florida hoping the hurricane respects his personal space. In the midst of all this threat, it feels wrong to enjoy a pleasant stroll in the woods with nothing to worry me except the prospect of hip pain on the way down the hill.

I made the walk on Wednesday for the first time since I twisted my hip back in August, and it felt fine on the way up the hill but screamed all the way down. Today I fared better, with minor pain and just a little stiffness afterward. I realize that complaining about joint pain is a sure sign that I've joined the ranks of Pathetic Older Persons, but at the moment that's all I've got.

On Wednesday I saw kingfishers along the creek and a pileated woodpecker in the woods--and a good half-dozen deer boldly bounding through a meadow--but today the woods were quite and still. The neighbors' burros stood up close to the fence for a change, the babies skittering around like cartoon characters from an animated film called Bucky the Burro Goes for a Bounce while the adults stood stock-still, following Hopeful's progress with their eyes but ignoring me entirely. Apparently they don't perceive me as a threat.

Two weeks into the semester I treasure a weekend free of class preps and student papers. By this time next week, I'll be struggling through a tsunami of student drafts while wrangling with a pile of reading and committee work, but for this brief moment I intend to enjoy the peace and quiet as we all wait to see what new devastation might be heading our way.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Floaty foamy fun

I got to town early this morning and went downtown to look at the boats moored along the riverfront in anticipation of this weekend's Sternwheel Festival, and while I enjoyed the boats and the sunrise and the early-morning walk along the river, I found myself fascinated by another sort of floating vessel entirely.

Someone had dumped detergent in the downtown fountain, creating a mountain of foam that birthed foambergs and foamclouds and foamghosts that went floating through traffic and all along the riverfront. Foamghosts embraced fences while foambergs went barging into traffic without waiting for a crossing signal, and a little foamcloud floated up Front Street just above the roofs of cars.

I feel some sympathy for whoever is responsible for cleaning up the foamy mess, but I confess that I enjoyed watching the floaty foamy clouds cavorting in the morning light. Don't begrudge them their fun--they'll dissipate into nothingness long before the sternwheel races, and they'll miss the fireworks and funnelcakes entirely. Foam life may look like a breeze, but it doesn't last. 

So float on, foam. Float on. 

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Stagnation vs. freedom: an open letter on tenure

Dear Tom Hamilton,
I've wanted to write you a fan letter for years: your voice is the soundtrack of my summer, your radio play-by-play bringing the excitement of Cleveland Indians right into our home day after day throughout the long baseball season. I admire the enthusiasm and depth of information enlivening your analysis; I owe you a debt of gratitude for everything you've taught me about baseball. Now, though, it's time for me to teach you a thing or two about a topic dear to my heart.

Yesterday you were complaining about a certain umpire's lack of accuracy in calling balls and strikes, and you made a flippant comment about people who manage to keep their jobs long after they've ceased to perform them with proficiency--"like a tenured professor."


I realize that equating tenure with stagnation is so commonplace as to be a cliche, and, like most cliches, this one has some basis in truth. I'm sure we can all name teachers who slow or stop their development after achieving tenure, but if we tried, we could also name people in many other professions who simply phone it in after reaching a certain plateau of achievement. I'm sure you could think of sports broadcasters who have simply stopped trying after long service, but I don't see you ever doing that so let's not paint an entire profession with the same broad brush.

Where I teach, I'd be hard pressed to name a single tenured professor who does not give value for money; on the contrary, I can name dozens who keep innovating and expanding their skills throughout their teaching careers. Some may change focus after tenure, pouring more energy into teaching and service and less into research and publication, but as a general rule, I don't see my colleagues simply giving up on growth.

I'm tire of the cliche that associates tenure with stagnation. For me and my colleagues, what tenure truly means is freedom.

Here's an example: a colleague and I were talking this summer about how tenure and promotion have empowered us to take more risks in research and writing. Before this year I'd never had the guts to send an article to the top journal in my field, relying instead on "safe" publications where I could be reasonably sure of acceptance. Now that I no longer need to officially prove my worth, though, I'm willing to aim higher without fearing the impact of rejection. My colleague concurred: she's editing a collection of essays on a topic she wouldn't have tackled before tenure and promotion. Far from stagnating, we're stretching ourselves into new areas of research and writing, free to pursue our passions in scholarship and in teaching without fear that someone might look over our shoulders and tsk in disapproval.

The same is true in the classroom: I see tenured professors taking risks with new methods of pedagogy, new technology, new ways to structure curricula. Tenure feels like a stamp of approval: the institution trusts me to make learning happen, so I can take risks and try new methods--and if it doesn't work, I can try something else without fear of finding myself suddenly jobless.

Who benefits from this system? Students--who can take classes from seasoned professors authorized to keep innovating, freed to pursue the most effective ways to promote learning and expand their areas of expertise. Tenure makes academic freedom possible, and while it may also tempt some few faculty members to settle into stagnation, they are the exception rather than the rule.

So thanks, Tom, for all the pleasure you bring into my life, for your great knowledge of baseball and insight into the subtleties of the game. You have a great eye for balls and strikes, but on the topic of tenure, I'm afraid you've struck out.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Laboring on Labor Day again (again)

This is getting to be a bad habit.

I'm required to labor on Labor Day--but not too hard. While my blog takes a holiday, here are the Rules for Laboring on Labor Day that I published a few years ago:

1. Dress down. They can make me teach on Labor Day, but they can't make me dress up.

2. Pack your own picnic. No way I'm eating at my desk when the rest of the world is outside grilling burgers!

3. Don't begrudge the revelers their revels. The people who clean our bathrooms, make our photocopies, and answer our phones work hard for very little money and deserve every minute of their day off. I do not wish they were here working, but I do wish I could join them on their day off.

4. Office hours? Are you kidding me? No one comes to my office hours on a normal day, so what are the chances that anyone will show up on Labor Day?

5. Enjoy the commute. No public school = no school buses holding up traffic, no 20-mile-per-hour zones, and no teens racing around curves on country roads.

6. Be there. Nobody's fooled by the Labor Day flu; if my students are required to be in class on Labor Day, then I'm going to be there with them.

7. Don't try to explain it. I know we have reasons for teaching on Labor Day, and some of them may even be valid ("We can't shortchange Monday labs!"), but the real reason we teach on Labor Day is that we've never been sufficiently motivated to change it.  

Friday, September 01, 2017

Already needing a do-over

I started the week in pain, muddled through the middle while sniffling and sneezing, and ended it incommunicado. Can I get a do-over?

My plan to stay on top of work so I could focus on writing and research on Thursdays fell to pieces in the face of sleeplessness caused first by hip pain and then by a nose that wouldn't stop running. I rarely use sleep aids but I confess that twice this week I reached for the Nyquil. And then my home internet connection failed so I spent a good part of Thursday trying to get answers from Verizon guys, both face-to-face and on the phone.

Kudos to the Verizon guys: they were uniformly friendly and helpful, and they apologized profusely for my inability to make my new wifi hotspot work. A solution is in the mail, though, and they didn't even charge me for overnight delivery. If the new antenna doesn't work, my brilliant son-in-law is ready with Plan B. (Which, given everything else we've tried, is probably really something like Plan Q or R, but I choose to go with the less discouraging nomenclature.) 

Despite all that, I managed to spend a few hours Thursday afternoon wrapping up some research for the next big conference paper. It turns out that it's pretty easy to focus on books and note-taking when you have no Internet or cell-phone connection. No distractions! 

So the week was not a total loss: I've written notes, taught classes, read homework assignments, conferred repeatedly with Verizon guys, and even cooked up some delicious meals to ease our massive influx of garden vegetables. (Anyone who needs eggplant should just drop by my office today because we're overwhelmed.) Best of all, I'm not in pain and my nose is not running, although it's still glowing like a red beacon, lighting the way forward. Look out, weekend--here I come.