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.   

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Show me a hero (but only if he does windows)

Today a colleague was described as downright heroic because he has to teach four preps this semester. I shared this remarkable accomplishment with another colleague, who emitted a hollow laugh. Like me, he teaches four preps every semester, except that right now he's teaching an overload, bringing him up to five preps. I don't know if that makes us heroes or suckers.

(I really don't mind four preps. I'd rather teach four different classes than two sections of the same class, primarily because I hate to repeat myself--and besides, so many others regularly teach many preps that it hardly feels heroic.)

But the point is that even teaching four preps is not enough to make me feel heroic this week. I'm buried under grading and committee meetings and course preps so I end the work day exhausted and wanting to go home, but then I remember what's waiting for me at home: dirty dishes that we can't wash, sweaty workout clothes that stink up the laundry room, dirty toilets that we can't clean or flush because we still don't have running water after 11 days. It's hard to feel heroic when you walk in the door of your house and get slapped in the face by the stink of unflushed toilets.

It's true that we are coping fairly well, maybe semi-heroically. Lots of friends have opened their hearts and homes (and bathrooms) to us, and we've managed to keep a lid on (most of) the chaos, but everything just takes a little bit more time and advance planning. I've learned that it's not a great idea to leave two baskets of dirty laundry sitting in my car for eight hours on a sunny day (quick, where's my car air freshener?), and I've grown accustomed to taking an extra towel to campus so I can shower at the rec center.

But today was the worst. The absolute worst. The stinkingest, suckiest, kick-in-the-guttiest worst day of this entire ordeal. It was supposed to be the best day because the well specialist was scheduled to come out and fix the well, so I should have come home to clean, fresh, abundant running water. Instead, I came home to the news that the well guy got unavoidably detained on another job and won't be here until tomorrow, and also, by the way, oops they forgot to mention that I have to be prepared to pay them $2000 before they start work. Surprise!

And this was absolutely infuriating because last week the well guy had promised (1) that they would send an estimate well in advance; (2) that we would have to make a small deposit before they could start work; and (3) that we could set up payments for the rest of the bill. So you can imagine how delighted I was to be told that I have to scrounge around under the sofa cushions to see if someone dropped a spare two grand down there--by tomorrow morning!

"Heroes don't cry" I told myself as I dialed the number for the well guy's company, where a very pleasant young woman said oh yeah they, like, forgot about that whole small deposit promise and maybe we can work something out as long as we can pay, like, $500 in advance. Like, tomorrow. Which, fortunately, we can, like, do.

But now here I am at the end of an extremely exhausting day in which I have run through the full range of emotions from hope to anger to panic to despair so that instead of feeling like a hero, I feel like someone who needs a hero. Calgon, take me away! (Where's Mr. Clean when I need him?)

Monday, February 06, 2017

Giving a student a backstage pass

"I don't tell my students this," I tell my student--but she's a special student, the intern serving as teaching assistant in my first-year writing class, and if her goal is to understand the tricks of the trade, I'm going to have to reveal a few of them. 

Today I showed her my special grading rubric, the one with the pull-down menus that allow me to click on certain comments I need over and over, like "great thesis!" or "more plot summary than analysis" or "choppy--too many short, simple sentences." After I've clicked on the relevant canned comments for a particular paper and added more individualized comments as needed, I save the rubric as a pdf and send it to the student, who doesn't need to know about my pull-down menus.

I've also admitted that one reason I require students to write interesting titles on their essays is so that I'll always have something positive to say from the start ("Great title!"), and I've revealed the existence of the Necessities Drawer in my desk. "Every teacher has a place to put the stuff she needs to get through the semester," I told her; "only the contents differ." (Cough drops, eye drops, antihistamines, plastic spoons, granola bars, chapstick....)

If teaching is a performance, then my teaching assistant needs to learn how it works from backstage, all the props and illusions and preparations that make the show look effortless. Showing her how the magic trick works may minimize the glamor of the profession, but how else will she learn to make her own magic?

Besides, I'm not in it for the glamor. I'm in it for the granola bars.

Friday, February 03, 2017

When the workshop runs like a well-oiled machine

I sat and watched my Creative Nonfiction class critique drafts this week and told myself, "This is how a writing workshop is supposed to work." I brought a list of things I wanted to point out in each draft, but by the time all the students had had their say, they'd made all my points and even more. Great! Their diligence freed me up to ask big-picture questions like "What happens if we throw the whole thing into present tense?" or "What are the pros and cons of using real people's names here?" or even "How do we feel about the title?"

Critique of drafts is where a workshop class stands or falls. Each class has a different chemistry, and students bring different skill levels to the table; if one or two students can't offer or receive constructive criticism, if they get belligerent or defensive or argue or cry, they can put a damper on free discussion of writing. 

So I was a little nervous at the beginning of the week and then a  student admitted that he finds it harder to critique nonfiction than fiction because he feels that he's critiquing people's lives. So we talked about this a little bit: we pour ourselves into our writing, but my writing is not me and your writing is not you and if we can't separate our writing from ourselves, we're in for a world of hurt. A few times over the course of the week a student would say something like "I feel like a heel for saying this," but we had no tears or trauma or running from the room.

And their suggestions were fantastic--specific, insightful, encouraging, creative. When a workshop is running well, it develops its own jargon, its own in-jokes that serve both to lighten the tone and to build cohesion in the class. Before this week none of my students would have recognized the phrase "three-dot essay," but now it's part of our shared vocabulary--and don't even ask them about "a hug in a bowl" unless you want to hear some guffaws.

The best kind of writing workshop should take the teaching out of my hands, setting students loose to provide all the feedback needed to help each other become better writers. My role is to create the circumstances in which this can happen--and then sit back and watch it work.