Wednesday, November 29, 2017

When "It Is What It Is" is what it is

It's not every day that PowerPoint wakes me up before 4 a.m., but such, apparently, is the life of an academic. In this very intense dream, I was creating a PowerPoint presentation about existentialism, and some part of my subconscious mind felt it was very important that I wake up and write down the title of the presentation, which I dutifully did. The title that seemed so brilliant at 4 a.m. looks less compelling in the light of day: "Existentialism: It Is What It Is."

I guess I've got existentialism on my mind because I've been talking about absurdism in the comedy class in preparation for viewing The Lobster next week. It's not very funny except when it's hysterically funny, but I predict that I'll be the only one laughing. My students will sit there with this wide-eyed gaze and an expression that says "What the--?" Bear in mind that many of these students sat stone-faced during large swaths of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If Monty Python can't make them laugh, then The Lobster has no chance whatsoever.

But never mind that: a little absurdity seems appropriate at this point in the semester, when we drink existential angst with our morning coffee. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Why go to all this fuss and bother to try to stuff wisdom and truth into the brains of students looking for an easy A? I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling across the floors of silent seas! If I were a lobster, I wouldn't have to worry about trying to explain absurdism to hungover general education students, and I wouldn't wake up in the wee hours from intense PowerPoint dreams.

But this is the life I've chosen. It is what it is. I must go on. I can't go on. I'm going on.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Meeting with Mr. Nothing

The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas always feel like a slow slog uphill through mud, with "Jingle Bell Rock" on the soundtrack. I look at my calendar for the next month and I see way too many things: concerts and papers to grade and finals and capstone presentations and shopping and wrapping and decorating and packing for a trip, plus dealing with the prospect of a week or more without a refrigerator right in the middle of holiday baking season. (The schedules got messed up and the new fridge got put on backorder and will be delivered probably around Dec. 18 but I can't get the rebate from the power company unless they pick up the old fridge on Dec. 9, so I will lose the old fridge on my birthday and gain the new one on our anniversary and simply live without a fridge for the intervening week, unless the schedule gets screwed up again, in which case I give up.)

What I don't see when I look at the calendar is a whole lot of nothing. I'd like to scatter swaths of nothing over the coming month, minutes or hours or days when I'm not required to go anywhere in particular or respond to anyone's urgent demands. I need to make a date with nothing, make nothing enough of a priority to post it on my calendar, but then when someone asks me what I'm doing on that date and I say "Nothing," they'll say, "Then I guess you'll have time to deal with this," and they'll hand me a big nasty mess of something.

So I need to disguise my spots of nothing with a code name, the way Algernon did in The Importance of Being Earnest when he begged out of commitments by claiming the need to visit an imaginary invalid named Bunbury. I don't believe I could convincingly create a Bunbury, but imaginary meetings might work. "I have a meeting" sounds plausible and so boring that it will spark few questions, because who wants to deal with the boring details of other people's boring meetings? And even if someone feels compelled to ask what I'll be doing at my meeting, "Oh, nothing much" will work because it perfectly describes the content of so many meetings.

No one needs to know that my meetings will be with Mr. Nothing. So don't tell, okay? It's just between you and me.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Seeing beyond black and white

A long time ago when I worked for a newspaper that printed only black and white photos, I grew so accustomed to envisioning my world in black and white that color photos started looking garish and chintzy. Now, though, it's the black and white photos that look odd.

I've been enjoying all the black and white photos showing up in my photo feed, but I was reluctant to participate at first because, frankly, I've never taken black and white photos with my current camera and I didn't know how to make it happen. But then my daughter challenged me and so I decided to figure it out, which took some time: reading the small print in the camera's instruction manual, fiddling with non-intuitive menus, trying out various lighting situations, looking for interesting subjects. My B&W days are so far behind me that I've lost the ability to visualize how various scenes will look when color is removed, so I ended up with a lot of photos that look muddy and dull. 

Further, all this emphasis on B&W occurred while the grandkids were visiting for four days and carrying light, color, and energy into every room of the house and out the door. How could I content myself taking sedate B&W photos without people in them when those colorful little balls of energy were careening through the house?

And the other thing that bothered me about the B&W photo challenge is that I wasn't allowed to write anything about the photos. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a  good photo makes me want to put a few words together in response. But the rules of the B&W photos challenge are clear: no people, no pets, no explanations. I don't know who makes these rules and I don't know what happens to scofflaws, but in the spirit of cooperation, I dutifully posted my B&W photos on Facebook, one per day, and wrote not a word.

They're a strange group of photos. If they reveal anything about my life, they suggest that I'm obsessed with wood, I'm content to live with imperfection, and I like interesting patterns and textures. All true, but the photos leave out an awful lot that I care about (like people and pets and colors), and the challenge itself stripped me of my reliance on words. It was an uncomfortable experience all around, but it made me look at my surroundings differently and realize that I've lost a skill that once served me well.

I could get it back. Give me some time and a whole lot of opportunities and I'll be seeing the world in black and white all over again--but after spending a week looking closely at B&W photos, I'm eager to return to living color.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

This is what a real break feels like

I looked out the window this morning and watched birds at the front feeders, which may not sound particularly exciting except that this time of year I rarely see my yard in the daylight--it's dark when I leave home in the morning and dark again when I get home. And then to  be able to just sit down with a cup of hot tea and look idly out the window at the birds is doubly wonderful.

I brought no work home with me for Thanksgiving break--no reading quizzes, no drafts, no papers to grade. I'm even caught up on my course preparations. Last night I fiddled a bit with next semester's syllabi, but it was pretty low-pressure fiddling. It feels strange not to be buried under a crush of work, but I'm going to enjoy it while I can because all my students are turning in drafts or papers over the next two weeks, and then I'll have final exams. Beware the end-of-semester onslaught!

For the next four days, though, I intend to forget about classes entirely and enjoy being a grandma. The little imps will be here this evening (with their parents, of course) so I've been cleaning and cooking in preparation for doing Thanksgiving our way. The resident grillmeister will smoke two turkeys all night long, and if you're wondering why seven people need two full-sized turkeys, so am I. (Trying to clear out the deep-freeze!)

I've put together the pumpkin cookies, pumpkin rolls, and fruit salad already and I have a pile of sweet potatoes from the garden ready to cook tomorrow morning, along with dressing and all the usual Thanksgiving trimmings. I've even bought all the things I need to help the grandkids make cute candy little turkeys out of Vanilla Wafers, chocolate-covered cherries, and candy corn. (I'll post photos.)

We're going to make a mess, all of us together--a turkey-smoking, frosting-smearing, tater-tossing mess--but as long as it's a joyful mess, everyone will end up with an A+. (As long as someone else does the grading. I'm on break!)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Yes, I'm torturing my first-years again. So sue me.

My first-year students trade papers so they can offer suggestions on each other's drafts and the first thing I hear is "Geez, she wrote a book!" Number one, no she didn't, and number two, who says a long paper is necessarily a bad thing? (Probably the same people who convinced Microsoft Word that a long sentence is an error requiring correction.)

I don't expect my first-year students to write books or even chapters, and in fact I often warn them that the thesis statement they've drafted would require a whole book to cover in any detail so they'd be better off narrowing their focus. On the other hand, if I ask for a 1500-word paper, I expect something more than a paragraph, and if the topic requires further evidence, then I'm delighted when the student exceeds the minimum word count. The papers that make me crazy are those that reach the minimum and then quickly tack on an "In conclusion" to bring the whole topic to an abrupt and unsatisfying end.

The purpose of the word count, I keep telling them, is to inspire writers to make every word count. They've heard this often enough to be able to recite it along with me, often accompanied by undisguised eye-rolling. 

What they don't know is that it takes more skill to cover a topic thoroughly in a short space than to ramble on. "A really careful and concise writer can achieve this goal in 1500 words," I tell them, "but the rest of you will need more." 

They don't believe me. They'd be happy if I asked them to produce a PowerPoint slide listing bullet points, and then they'd try to negotiate the number of bullet points down from six to three or two, so being asked to read and respond to a draft five or six pages long must feel incredibly unjust. 

And if reading a five-page paper feels as onerous as reading a book, how do they respond when I ask them to read an actual book? Trust me: you don't want to know.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Soup or sabbatical?

Just got back from a mad dash on foot across town--well, not technically all the way across town but four blocks away, and a very cold four blocks it was with a brisk wind blowing straight into my face all the way there and pushing me forward on the way back, and then of course I had to get my eyes dilated and then try not to cough all over my eye doctor while he was shining very bright lights in my eyes to determine whether my retina is detaching, which it isn't so hurrah hurrah but as I walked back to campus in the cold everything was a total blur from the drops and the bright lights so I consoled myself with the promise of a bowl of hot soup at the library cafe but when I got there there was no soup, not just NO SOUP FOR YOU but NO SOUP AT ALL, on a cold day when I'd been coughing and dashing through the wind and working up a pretty good appetite so I ordered my favorite wrap even though it's overpriced and not as comforting as hot soup on a cold day and then I had to take it right back to my office because I have student appointments all afternoon even though Thursday is supposed to be my staying-home-and-writing day (except for next Thursday, which is cooking-turkey-and-all-the-trimmings-for-the-whole-stinking-family day, and the following Thursday, which is waiting-for-delivery-of-the-new-refrigerator day), but my freshman seminar students need some one-on-one time because of problems with their research projects so I promised to make some time available today, which I have done, and don't even ask me how many of those students failed to show up for their scheduled appointments this morning because it's too depressing to think about, but the good news, and the essential point of this whole rambling screed in case you were wondering, is that I've just learned that my proposal to take a sabbatical in Spring 2019 has been APPROVED and in my book a semester's sabbatical beats a bowl of hot soup any day of the week, even a day as cold, blurry, and ridiculous as this one.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Getting what's going around

Last week as I listened to my students coughing their way through an exam, I wondered how many viruses they would turn in with their test papers. I now know the answer: enough to make me sick for days and days and days. (Frankly, given the amount of coughing going on in that room, hand sanitizer wouldn't have put a dent in the problem. To contain that kind of outbreak, you'd need nothing less than napalm.)

My weekend was a dead loss: coughing, sleeping, coughing, sleeping, blowing through a whole box of tissues. On Sunday I never even left the house. Felt a little better on Monday, well enough to teach my classes as long as I carried tissues everywhere I went, but I'm not sure any of us got much out of the experience. 

I don't teach on Tuesdays so this morning I cancelled my office hours, slept until nearly 7 (!), lounged around coughing and drinking hot fluids all morning, and parked myself in a sunny spot on the sofa to respond to student drafts. The bright sunshine made my laptop screen hard to read, but I could feel the sunshine driving the sickness out of my body and I just couldn't move away.

Now I'm on campus again for some afternoon meetings. I could have gone to two meetings this morning but decided they could proceed just as well without me. I'm not carrying tissues and, at the moment, I'm not coughing. Tomorrow I expect to be pretty much back to normal, whatever that means. Soon this whole sorry incident will fade into the dim and distant reaches of memory, where it can't hurt anyone any more. (Because napalm lives there and kills all the germs.)

Monday, November 13, 2017

A hands-off exercise

Today I encouraged my comedy students not to destroy the world. 

"This is a thought experiment," I reminded them. "You're just supposed to argue that humanity should or should not be destroyed on the basis of evidence from three comic texts."

Silence. Puzzled looks. More silence.

"There is no hands-on lab component to this exercise," I added, "so if any of you go out of this room and actually destroy the world, you'll get an F on the assignment."

One guy grins: "We'll all get the big F." A little laughter. Very little.

And so I drop the philosophical speculation for a moment and show clip from Catch-22, when Yossarian gets a medal while naked. We talk about meaning and values and meaninglessness and despair, and then I pop the big question: "If life is meaningless and the only response is despair, why make a movie?"

Lightbulbs begin to glimmer dimly over a few heads. Very dim. Very few. Doing philosophy in a comedy class is a tough sell on a bleak Monday afternoon, but if nothing else, I may have left them too stunned to even think about going out and destroying the world.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Sick of exams already

What's with all the coughing? Sounds like someone's trying to hack up a lung, and those two guys seem to be coughing a call-and-response. Some sort of code? 

Oh look, the first cougher wants to go out for a drink of water. Sure sounds like he needs one, but is this just a ploy to allow him to look at his notes? 

How would I distinguish between a real cough and a fake cough? I don't generally bring a stethoscope to class, and I did not get a PhD in literature so I could become the Cough Police.

And now the other coughing guy is nonchalantly leaving the room without a word. Maybe he wants to look up that important bit of video on the course management system. Too bad I closed those links five minutes ago.

Only 20 minutes in and one student is already turning in his paper. Does he realize that there are questions on both sides of the page?

Now the coughing guys want to rummage in their backpacks for tissues. What if a clever student prepared a box of tissues with notes written in tiny print on each one? And then what if the professor felt a sneeze coming on and reached for the student's tissues?  (No, I don't want to be the tissue police either.)

40 minutes in and only a few students are left. None of them are coughing, sneezing, blowing their noses, or asking to leave the room. They're just writing. That's what I like to see.

Now I have a big stack of exams sitting on the desk, all of them thoroughly coughed on. How many germs can fit on the head of a pen? Now I'm suddenly hoping that all those coughs were fake. (If I find a chunk of lung on any of those papers, I quit.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Pay it backward!

Lately I've been longing for a time machine, not so that I can kill Hitler or repair my past mistakes but because I'd like to contribute to the equitable distribution of good news over time.

For years at my college we've been wading through one pile of bad news after another, but now that we're experiencing a surfeit of good news, I'd like to spread some of it back in time to cheer up my past self. For instance, when the provost tells us that the college now has money to send our whole department to a conference, I want to grab a pile of that cash and take it back to 2003 and tell myself, "You know those conferences costs the college can't afford to cover? Maybe this will help."

Or I could travel three or four years back when some bad health insurance news felt like a kick in the gut, and I'd like to tell myself, "Just hold on for a few years and all this pain and anguish will dissipate in the wake of a more humane solution."

Or I'd visit a Faculty Council meeting during the bad old days when every week we had to deal with further evidence of administrative incompetence and I would tell myself, "Courage! It won't always be like this. One of these days you'll work under a team of highly competent administrators who make you happy to work here."

Don't get me wrong: I'm not complaining about all the good college news; in fact, I'm ready to embrace the next wave as soon as it arrives. I just wish I could take it back in time to lighten the load we were all carrying during the dark times. With a time machine, I could spread the joy. Just let me pay it backward!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Ode on advising

I'm tired of hearing advisees say,
"I want an easy class, okay?"
Or "I can't take a class at 8!"
Or " 3 p.m.? That's way too late."
Or "I hate science!" Or "Man alive,
no math for me! It gives me hives!"
Or "Someone said that teacher's mean."
Or "Physics stinks." Or "I have seen
that teacher's syllabus and I refuse
to take a class from him." Or "Lose
the speech class, I can't talk
in front of folks." Or "I would balk
to take a literature class from you."
There's nothing left. What shall we do?

If every class that I propose
Produces choruses of NOs,
It makes me wish I could advise, 
"Go flip some burgers, fry some fries,
and come back when you want to work
at learning." But I'm not a jerk,
and so we meet again, again,
again, until we finally pen
a schedule full of classes that
won't make them scream. (I tip my hat
at anyone who can do more.)
But before I send them out the door,
there's one more lever left to pull--
Oops, it's too late! That class is full!

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Another thing they never warned me about in grad school

Of the following nightmares, only one actually happened in waking life. Can you tell which one?

1. Snakes under the bed.

2. Baseball team raising a racket in the closet and refusing to leave no matter how much I scream.

3. Seventeen years' worth of assessment data falling down a deep well while I frantically lunge over the lip of the well but fail to snag the reams of papers fluttering into the abyss.

4. Giving a presentation on my research in a hotel meeting room separated by a thin divider from a ballroom in which some sort of auction is taking place, led by an auctioneer with a voice that could crush granite at 40 paces.

Yes: I have presented a talk on my research to an audience of my peers while being shouted down by an auctioneer. He had a microphone and sound system. I did not. Nevertheless, my message got through, stretching the Teacher Voice to its fullest potential.

For my next trick, I'll deliver a talk while swinging from a trapeze in a circus tent crowded with toddlers. But I draw the line at wearing a tutu. Full academic regalia for me, else how will I maintain my dignity? 

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Partly cloudy with a chance of cynicism

Lately every time I sit down to write in this space, a little nagging voice tells me, "If you can't say something nice...." And then I close the window to avoid a cynicism explosion, which would be totally not my fault since cynicism is in the air right now--literally, if I am to believe a student paper stating that "global warming will have a cynical effect." If the climate itself can get cynical, then what hope is there for mere mortals?

The problem right now is that it's raining contempt. Not everywhere--just in one class and just from one corner of the class. I'm not naming names, but if students' contempt for education were made of quarters, I'd be on my way to Tahiti right now instead of shivering under a shawl in my office. I have definitely reached my quota on student contempt, with six weeks of the semester still ahead.

But on the other hand, I'm reading a set of first-year essays that demonstrate massive improvement over the previous set. Either a whole bunch of students took some serious time to polish their drafts or else we're looking at a tsunami of purchased papers, which I sincerely hope is not the case.

So apparently I can say something nice: my first-year students rock!  (Well, some of them, anyway.)