Thursday, March 23, 2017

Entering the Empty Prose Zone

I read the phrase "inherit simplicity" and briefly thought what a nice heirloom to pass down before I realized that the context demanded "inherent simplicity." But at least in that case the intended meaning was obvious; later I read about a person who cast off all "implications," and I had to stare at the sentence for an embarrassingly long moment before realizing that the writer was looking for "inhibitions."

Yes, we have once again entered the realm of the not-quite-but-almost-right word, which is next-door neighbor to the black hole of tautology: "the character commodifies nature by turning nature into a commodity," or "the scenery is important to the way the performance of the play is performed," which raises the question: what happens to a performance that is not performed? The unperformed performance is not worth performing, or something like that.

Empty sentences written by students desperate to meet the word count: this is not the only problem that raises its ugly head at this point in the semester. Yesterday I was talking with a colleague whose students think she's doing some sort of magic when she identifies passages in their writing that are clearly plagiarized, as if recognizing sudden shifts in writing style were some sort of superpower. "I know they're not illiterate," she said, "but maybe they don't read and write enough to recognize that differences in style exist."

I think she's onto something: the tone-deaf sentences, the near impossibility of getting most students to feel rhythm in lines of poetry, the blindness to differences between writing styles, the willingness to grab words out of the thesaurus without any clear understanding of their meanings or connotations--all are signs of inadequate immersion in texts. Not text messages but real texts, big fat books and meaty articles written by skillful writers who know the difference between "implications" and "inhibitions."

If this is the wave of the future, the implications are frightening. Inherently.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When teaching is like talking to the wall

After bragging about the great stuff my students are reading and discussing, I encountered a class determined to do neither. It was like trying to teach a doorknob or a potted plant, an overstuffed sofa or a blob of Jello--or like teaching a stone to talk.

Which is the title of a great collection of essays by Annie Dillard published in 1982. My copy was a gift from one of my college professors, an immensely erudite gentleman who practiced great patience with his students even when we were uninformed about or uninterested in what he was trying to teach us. I wonder how often I sat like a blob of Jello in his classes, nose to the textbook and unwilling to open my mouth? 

He must have known that I'd have days like that too and that reading Annie Dillard would be good therapy. The first essay in the collection, "Living Like Weasels," urges readers to "grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you," but today I'm looking at the title essay, "Teaching a Stone to Talk," in which Dillard discusses a friend who spent a certain amount of time every day devoted to teaching a stone to talk. "Reports differ on precisely what he expects or wants the stone to say," writes Dillard, but the teaching required "sacrifice, the suppression of self-consciousness, and a certain precise tilt of the will, so that the will becomes transparent and hollow, a channel for the work."

A transparent and hollow channel does not gripe over whether the work is well received or appreciated or even understood, so in that way it's very much like teaching literature. But Dillard takes the topic in a different direction, musing on the messages we seek in nature. "Nature's silence is its one remark," she writes, "and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block." Given nature's silence, she continues, all we can do is witness the world around us and welcome its meaningless hum.

Which is great advice for a walk in the woods but not so great for a classroom full of students who really need to learn the stuff I'm trying to teach them. I am not here to merely witness their silence; I have to motivate them to read, to write, to think, to speak--even when they prefer to sit there like mute and immutable stones.   

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

And now she's talking to sequins

A single green sequin sits on the floor in my office, just below the chair where visitors sit. Who left behind that shiny sequin?

Was it the student seeking help on the paper due tomorrow, who admitted that he'd intended to work on it over break but forgot to take home power cord for his laptop computer and so put it off until today? He'd be more likely to leave behind a pork rind than a sequin.

What about the colleague who came in early this morning to ask a question and show me her new rubber duck? She was wearing spectacularly colorful socks but no sequins.

Then there was the student who plopped her backpack down in that spot and then proceeded to pull out one massive text after another--it seemed like a Mary Poppins backpack, capable of comfortably containing a floor lamp, a disco ball, and a Harley Davidson. The magic backpack could have accidentally disgorged a sequined ball gown big enough to clothe a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon portraying Miss Piggy.

Or maybe the sequin hitched a ride to my office on someone's shoe. Does it matter?

Whatever its source, I welcome the unexpected spot of color on an otherwise gray day. In fact, I ought to pick up  the sequin and save it for the next time I need to add a little sparkle to my life. But--where did it go? 

Maybe it walked out the same way it walked in. Good bye, little green sequin! May you bring a glint of light into someone else's life.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Feeding on the syllabus

We've reached the point in the semester when every class period provides an opportunity to share with students a sentence, stanza, or entire story that inspires me to employ the word "favorite" (although if they're all favorites then the word loses its meaning), to open their eyes to literary works that simultaneously provoke argument and awe.  

Today, for instance, my Concepts of Nature students discussed Louise Erdrich's story "Line of Credit," in which contractor Jack Mauser crows about his creative abilities--"I do things from plans. I make them real. I could build myself if I could get a guy that could design me"--only to have his hubris challenged by farmer Moen, who looks at the field of sunflowers that Mauser wants to transform into a housing development and says, "The more you fill it up the emptier it gets."

We had to chew on that concept a while: how can filling the land with houses make it emptier? Emptier of what? Why does it matter?

On Wednesday in American Lit Survey we'll look at Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People" and interrogate that word "good," asking how accurately characters judge "goodness" and what happens when they're left without a leg to stand on, and then we'll look at Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith," in which Sergeant Nathan Marx returns from  Germany in the waning months of World War II with a heart hardened by the horrors of war but finds a softening beginning when an incident sparks a memory:
I felt within as though a hand had opened and was reaching down inside. It had to reach so very far to touch me. It had to reach past those days in the forests of Belgium and the dying I'd refused to weep over; past the nights in those German farmhouses whose books we'd burned to warm us, and which I couldn't bother to mourn; past those endless stretches when I'd shut off all softness I might feel for my fellows, and managed even to deny myself the posture of a conqueror--the swagger that I, as Jew, might well have worn as my boots whacked against the rubble of Munster, Braunschweig, and finally Berlin. 
I'm not a huge fan of Philip Roth but that last sentence feels delicious on the tongue (that half-rhyme of "warm" and "mourn"!) while packing in immense understanding of the human condition.

But will my students feel and understand what great stuff they're reading? I wonder how they'll take tomorrow's reading in Creative Nonfiction: "Whaling Out West" by Charles d'Ambrosio, who wastes no tenderness on the gray whales finds about as attractive as bridge abutments:
Gray whales don't look especially dirigible. You'd hate to have to park one. They have a lumpy crudeness of design, a banged-up body and a crimped ugly mouth and a dented snout, a color that seems to come from a supply of government surplus paint, and all around they have an unrefined and ancient and also untrustworthy aspect; they look like a mock-up of the kind of practice animals God was making in the early days, before he hit his artistic stride and started turning out wolves and apes and chipmunks; and they've got that useless megaton bigness, a gigantism that's pretty dramatic in a circus-freak way or like other types of colossi or prodigies, the sheer extravagant enormity of which inspire sublime fascination or wonder or fear, but don't register much at the refined and fragile end of the emotional spectrum that includes the various colors of love or tender or chummy feelings of any sort.
It's kind of amazing how he manages to convey a real affection for the animals while describing them as repellent. I love his massive baroque sentences that wander on and on effortlessly, making the short, simple sentences stand out so much more sharply, like "You'd hate to have to park one." Yes you would. Yes indeed.
 
I look ahead and see on my syllabi Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver, Billy Collins, Li-Young Lee, Jeff Vandermeer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Bishop, and more and more, and I want to thank my past self for arranging such a marvelous menu for my future self. So thanks, Past Me! I don't know whether my students will be quite so grateful, but at least I'll enjoy the feast of words.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Derek Walcott: An asterisk the size of the sea

Near the end of Derek Walcott's epic poem Omeros, the poet/narrator takes stock of his attempts to translate the history and people of St. Lucia into poetry, and he realizes the transience of his efforts:

I was an ant on the forehead of an atlas,
the stroke of one spidery palm on a cloud’s page,
an asterisk only.

I put an asterisk next to Omeros on my fall Honors Literature syllabus, uncertain whether to assign the book instead of Life of Pi; then I saw that Walcott had died today and I picked up Omeros again to find a fitting epitaph, and soon I was certain: I want to teach this book again, even if today's first-year students are ill equipped to understand it.

I've assigned "The Sea is History" and other short poems in the postcolonial literature class, but I encountered Walcott first through Omeros, which remains among my all-time favorite books, growing deeper and richer with each reading. I love the way the incidents wash up like waves, each adding a new layer of meaning, and I love the echoes of other works, from The Odyssey to Ulysses to Hamlet to Moby Dick to Heart of Darkness.  

But most of all I love the way Walcott weaves together so many stories to show the complexity of the history of one small wounded island: the rivalry between Hector and Achille over the love of Helen; Major Plunkett's attempt to unearth a lost history; Achille's dream-vision of a journey to Africa to encounter his ancestors; Hector's selling out the sea to drive tourists around in a taxi; and Ma Kilman's quest to cure Philoctete's suppurating wound, a cure combining emblems of the island's history: a plant grown from seed brought from Africa, a copper kettle reclaimed from a defunct sugar mill, an herbal litany intertwining obeah with Catholic liturgy.

The poet appears as a character within the epic, occasionally commenting on and questioning his own motives. In the first book, he encounters his father's ghost, who leads him to the harbor and reminds the poet how he used to watch women "climb / like ants up a white flower-pot, baskets of coal / balanced on their torchoned heads" to feed the engines of steam ships. The ghostly father gives his son a burden of his own:

                                           They walk, you write;

keep to that narrow causeway without looking down,
climbing in their footsteps, that slow, ancestral beat
of those used to climbing roads; your own work owes them

because the couplet of those multiplying feet
made your first rhymes. Look, they climb, and no one knows them;
they take their copper pittance, and your duty

from the time you watched them from your grandmother’s house
as a child wounded by their power and beauty
is the chance you now have, to give those feet a voice.

Many pages later, though, after the poet has sent his characters through hell and back, he wonders whether he is simply exploiting their pain for his own benefit. Seven Seas/Omeros, who serves as muse, reminds him that 

                                           there are two journeys
in every odyssey, one on worried water,

the other crouched and motionless, without noise.
For both, the ‘I’ is a mast; a desk is  a raft
for one, foaming with paper, and dipping the beak

0f a pen in its foam, while an actual craft
carries the other to cities where people speak
a different language, or look at him differently,

while the sun rises from the other direction
with its unsettling shadows, but the right journey
is motionless; as the sea moves round an island

that appears to be moving, love moves round the heart—
with encircling salt, and the slowly travelling hand
knows it returns to the port from which it must start.
Walcott kept returning to his home port throughout his poetry, reaching out in every direction to reel in all the world. No matter how many waves of meaning came washing in on his native shores, he consistently heeded the advice of the ghostly father in Omeros: "simplify / your life to one emblem, a sail leaving harbor // and a sail coming in." He leaves behind a legacy of poetry that will stand among the greatest of the ages, but he also leaves a hole the size of the sea in the hearts of his readers.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

But I don't even own a bikini!

What would you consider a "typical Spring Break activity"?

I'm asking because I recently had to clear up a misconception cherished by a (not very close) relative, who thought my thwarted trip to Florida would be devoted not to visiting my ailing father but instead to participating in "typical Spring Break activities." Did she think I was planning to appear in a Girls Gone Wild video or get plastered and dive off a hotel balcony?

Most professors of my acquaintance spend Spring Break grading piles of papers, prepping classes, and perhaps grabbing a few free days to devote to advancing their scholarly research and writing. The three Spring Breaks I've spent chaperoning students on trips were strictly atypical; normally it's all about spending a few days visiting family and then getting caught up on work. One year I painted a room over Spring Break, but again, that's hardly typical.

In fact, as I look back over the years, the one constant, the only activity guaranteed to appear in every Spring Break, is work. And in fact that's how I plan to spend the final days of my break, now that I'm home again: work, work, and work.

Typical.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The silver bird flies

Stripes of pink sky peek out between blue-gray clouds: sunrise over the Akron airport. Meanwhile in The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen is heading north through Nepal: 
A luminous mountain morning. Mist and fire smoke, sun shafts and dark ravines: a peak of Annapurna poises on soft clouds. In fresh light, to the peeping of baby chickens, we take breakfast in the village tea house, and are under way well before seven.
We set out before 4:30 this morning, my daughter (still in pajamas) dropping me off at the Akron airport for an early flight to Florida, where sunshine and happiness await. But they'll have to keep waiting because not long after I'd checked my bag and made my way through security, the flight was cancelled. "Sick flight attendant" was the excuse, but it did not appease the angry people who'd braved early-morning 20-degree temperatures to seek warmth and enlightenment in Orlando.
A child dragging bent useless legs is crawling up the hill outside the village. Nose to the stones, goat dung, and muddy trickles, she pulls herself along like a broken cricket. We falter, ashamed of our strong step, and noticing this, she gazes up, clear-eyed, without resentment--it seems much worse that she is pretty.
I feel sorry for the ticket agents forced to deliver the news of the cancellation; it's not their fault, but as the face of the airline, they'll soak up the anger that soon fills the terminal like an airborne toxic cloud soiling everything it touches.
Pine, rhododendron, barberry. Down mountain fields, a path of stones flows like mercury in the sunlight; even the huts have roofs of silver slates The path winds around the mountain to the bottom of the pine forest. ... This is the way of foot travel in Nepal, steeply up and steeply down the labyrinthine valleys. The down is hardest on the legs and feet, which jam at the knees....
Other flights are available, but not from here--not today. One flight leaves from Youngstown and another from Pittsburgh, both costing a fortune but nevertheless filling up quickly. A couple taking their two small children on their first visit to Disney World grab the last remaining seats on a flight to Atlanta with a later connection to Orlando. I could have shoved ahead of them, but that would make me a monster. Besides, I've been to Disney World.
Today we have been walking for ten hours; there are signs of blisters. Gyaltsen, who is carrying my backpack, is somewhat far behind, and since I have no sneakers in my rucksack, I walk barefoot. My feet are still tough from the past summer, and the paths are mostly rain-softened, for we have descended once again into a lowland. 
What about tomorrow morning? I could leave a day late and still enjoy some Florida sunshine, but oops, tomorrow's flight is already filling up and a winter storm threatens to cover the area with ice and snow late tonight. Looks like I'm staying in Ohio.
Eyes to the ground, alert for sticks and stones, I can admire a cocoa-colored wood frog and the pale lavender-blue winged blossoms of the orchid tree (Bauhinia) and the warm loaf left by a buffalo, deposited calmly from the look of it and even, perhaps, in contemplation.
The cloud of anger spreads and grows denser; I have to walk away, to find a less toxic place to wait. I hesitate to call my daughter, who is no doubt enjoying a little snooze after our early-morning drive, but even more I really hate to call Dad and tell him I can't find a way to get to Florida this week. He'll be disappointed. So will I.
But since the encounter with the crawling child, I look at paradise askance. Along the Modir, my feet are hurt by sharp rock shale, and where we make camp in the village of Gijan, we pick off leeches; while taking rice supper in a local hut, GS investigates wetness in his sneaker and finds it full of his own blood.
But I'll survive this disappointment. An impending storm and a few more days with my grandkids means sledding, maybe, and snowmen, snow angels, snowballs, and hot cocoa. I'll watch my grandson test the strength of his legs, help my granddaughter build a blanket fort in the living room. I'll feed on their laughter.
The mountain sky is bare--wind, wind, and cold. Because of the cold, the Tamangs squashed into the Sherpas' tent, but in the night gusts, the tent collapsed, and at daybreak all are singing from beneath it.
I have a long morning of phone calls ahead, joining a long queue of disappointed passengers trying to find refunds or new flights, and I won't persuade the airline to refund the full cost of my trip before waiting more than an hour listening to hold music so horrible that whoever selected it ought to be sentenced to two weeks in a small cell with a toddler and a drum.
In the glory of sunrise, spiderwebs glitter and greenfinches in October gold bound from pine to shining pine. Pony bells and joyous whistling; young children and animals jump as if come to life.
But it's a new day in Akron and the sunrise over the parking lot paints pink streaks on the sky. They call this a terminal, but the journey is far from over. Where will the path lead? For now, it leads as far as possible from the toxic cloud of anger. 
With the first sun rays we come down into still forest of gnarled birch and dark stiff firs. Through light filtered by the straying lichens, a silver bird flies to a cedar,  fanning crimsoned wings on the sunny bark. Then it is gone, leaving behind a vague longing, a sad emptiness.
 

Friday, March 10, 2017

On the brink of Spring Break

I dreamed I was reading a book called Great Movie Moans Ranked and Rated, and then I woke up disappointed that it didn't exist. (Trust me: I've Googled. Google thinks I'm looking for Great Movie Moana.)

Not much blogging this week because (1) we finally had some gorgeous sunny weather so I took two afternoons off (after a major meeting was cancelled) to spend some time in the woods with the dog and with a friend with binoculars and birds; and (2) I've been working like a maniac (not a moaniac) so I won't have to take grading with me on Spring Break, but last night I finished the last massive pile of papers so all I have to do now is teach three classes this morning and I'm outta here, first for a weekend with the grandkids and then flying to Florida on Monday to visit my dad (for the first time since Mom's funeral last May). 

Florida! Sunshine, old friends, the Raptor Center, nesting egrets, long walks. Also, our college softball team is playing all next week not far from Dad's house, so I hope to see some of my students in action on the field.

But today's classes may be difficult because a student died suddenly yesterday (of natural causes), and while I didn't know him, I'm sure some of my students did. On a campus this small, any tragedy causes trauma and I'm never certain how to handle it in class: moment of silence? Brief writing time to process feelings? Ignore it altogether and focus on the work at hand? (Not sure that's possible.) Fortunately, this kind of thing doesn't happen often.

Not much blogging next week because I'm flying on a cheap no-frills flight and can't take both my camera bag and my computer bag and frankly I'd rather have the camera. Four days away from the computer! That's what I call a vacation.    

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

A totally meh Monday

I want to call yesterday The Mother of All Mondays, but I'd just be tempting fate to slap me down with a Monday to blot out every awful Monday ever: You think that was a bad Monday? I'll show you how bad Monday can be!

And what do I have to complain about, anyway? So the weather was bad and all of us with barometers for brains were suffering from the same dull headache. So I couldn't get my words to work right in class and kept stumbling against the desk while fumbling for the right page. So I left my keys in my office--not my car keys, which are on a separate ring, but the key ring holding my office and house keys, which I did not realize I'd left behind until I was standing at my front door unable to get in out of the rain, and the door that is normally so loose that a stiff breeze can blow it open chose just that moment to refuse to budge, and the credit-card trick that usually works just destroyed my credit card without opening the door, and, to top it all off, nobody had accidentally left any of the other doors unlocked, which is pretty unusual because normally at least one of us can be counted on to go off and leave half of the doors unlocked and the lights blaring like neon signs saying "Welcome burglars! Come on in!" (Not that they'd find anything worth stealing.)

So as much as it felt like The Mother of All Mondays, it was really kind of a meh Monday: annoying, but not quite bad enough to merit superlatives or inspire rants. It was the Rodney Dangerfield of Mondays: just can't get no respect. But here's the good news: the next Monday I meet will occur during Spring Break! No one can say meh to that kind of Monday.  

Thursday, March 02, 2017

What if this is as good as it gets?

The high point of the film As Good As It Gets occurs when the Jack Nicholson character tells his favorite waitress, "You make me want to be a better man."

I'm not Jack Nicholson, but I have a student this semester who makes me want to be a better teacher.

Often it's the poor students who push me to improve: Why isn't she getting this? Should I explain it another way, or come up with an activity that will make it more clear? And hey, maybe the whole class could benefit from that activity.... 

Poor students can reveal where I need to improve, but this semester I have an amazing student whose reading, writing, and analytical skills are so advanced that I frequently want to apologize for the elementary level of class discussion, and I keep asking myself: How can I lift the rest of the class to a higher level? Should I ask different kinds of questions or come up with an activity that will press them to excel?

I dream of the day when I can teach a classroom full of the kind of excellent student who makes me want to be a better teacher, especially during a week when I've been rendered speechless by a colleague who told me our students shouldn't be required to take literature classes because they get plenty of literature in high school and what can we offer that's any different

I tell myself that my colleague is wrong, that what we do here stretches students in ways they've never dreamed of in high school, but what if I'm deluding myself? What if he's right? What if literary analysis is an unnecessary skill that will soon go the way of the dinosaur and foreign language study? In other words, What if this is as good as it gets?

Then I have only two options: quit and find another way to earn a living (I could always go back to waitressing!) or keep teaching the students we have and hope they keep inspiring me to be a better teacher.

For today, I'm choosing plan B. I'm not making any promises about tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Storm warnings

My American Lit students were busily writing an exam this morning when suddenly everyone's cell phones started shrieking as if to announce the impending apocalypse. I suppose I should be grateful that the college has an automated system to warn everyone when disaster threatens, but it's a little jarring when all those warnings erupt at once in a quiet room full of students stressed out over an exam. 

This time the message warned that severe weather was on the way--which, oddly enough, we already knew, since we could see out the windows: black sky looming, trees whipping in the wind, rain battering the windows while thunder rumbled and boomed and sirens screamed past the building.

But the warning told us that the storm carried the potential for tornadoes, and if that potential turned actual, we would be advised to "shelter in place," which for my class would require going down two flights of stairs to the basement, bringing the exam to a sudden (and sodden) end. I don't know many students who could write coherent prose about Wallace Stevens while rushing down two flights of stairs in fear of tornadoes.

"Keep writing," I told them, "and if we have to move, I'll let you know."

But the potential tornadoes did not materialize. My students finished the exam, and now the sky has brightened to light gray; the rain has paused and the sirens are silent. However, the weather report suggests that another band of storms is heading our way, but one thing the weather report won't reveal: Will the storms be severe enough to rescue me from the deluge of grading inundating my desk?