Friday, March 16, 2018

Conservation, consternation, and a really bad cold

No posts all week! I must be having a wild and crazy Spring Break!

Except no, I'm not. It's true that I had a great lunch with an old grad-school friend on Monday and went on a snowy hike with the grandson on Tuesday morning, but since Tuesday afternoon I've been tethered to a box of tissues and bumbling around through a haze of antihistamines. Why do I have to get sick just when things start getting interesting?

Wednesday was a total loss. On Thursday I felt energetic enough to go to my office (where the heat was working, unlike at home, where the temperature hovered just over 60 degrees all day) and worked very hard for a few hours and then came home and collapsed.

Today I needed to restock my supply of tissues but I didn't want to go all the way to Marietta, so I headed a few miles up the Muskingum to my namesake town of Beverly and tried not to sneeze all over the grocery store. But the weather was gorgeous and I was determined to stay outside and enjoy the crisp sunshine, so I drove a little further upriver, past the defunct coal-fired power plant that's slowly being disassembled, and turned left on the pot-holiest highway in the county to visit the Luke Chute Conservation Area, which I've driven past many times without ever stopping to see what's there.

What's there is a 60-acre plot criss-crossed with trails that run down a ravine, through woods and grassland, down to the river and alongside a creek. I heard song sparrows and flickers accompanied by the constant roar of water crashing over the low-head dam, and I saw water swirling past an island and puffy white clouds marching across the sky, accompanied by steam from the natural-gas-fired power plant on the hill across the river.

It was impossible to walk far, though, without being aware that around here conservation is necessarily linked with reclamation. Around the edges of the conservation area are ruins of abandoned buildings, and even the deep woods provide ample evidence that the area was long inhabited by residents who suffered no qualms about tossing their beer cans and old appliances over the edge of a ravine.

Luke Chute Conservation Area is managed by the Friends of the Lower Muskingum River, a group I recently joined because I've been an unofficial friend of the Muskingum for nearly 20 years and I thought it was high time to make our friendship official. It's clear that they have a big job on their hands "protecting and restoring land in the lower Muskingum watershed," and when they gear up again this spring, I'm looking forward to lending a hand.

But first I've got to get over this cold. Excuse me while I sneeze a few dozen times. (Good thing germs don't travel over the Internet.)

Trees bring beauty even in gray winter.

The path down the ravine.

Seriously, who thinks this is a good idea?

Power plant just visible in the upper right corner.

My river!

Luke Chute dam

Who does this? Why?

Pipe sticking up in the middle of woods. No idea.

The ruins of....something. Again, no idea.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Waxwing invasion

Proof positive that you don't have to live in the woods to see interesting birds: this afternoon on a walk through my daughter's suburban neighborhood in northern Ohio, we saw a whole flock of cedar waxwings feeding on berries in a tree. Beautiful! 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Sometimes it feels like the whole world is whirling

Yesterday I constructed a class discussion that built toward comprehension of immanence, transcendence, and performativity; today I constructed a Lego house with rooms for all kinds of little creatures and built a helipad on top.

Yesterday I responded to student drafts with such diligence that my rapid reading pace made my head spin; today I watched the whole world whirl around a little girl discovering the joys of a twirly skirt.

Yesterday I collected enough midterm exams and reading assignments to carry me clear through Spring Break; today I carried a step-stool and screwdriver to help my daughter prepare the nursery for the arrival of the new grandbaby.

Yesterday I steered my car through snow and wind and semi-trucks while turkey vultures circled overhead; today I steered my grandson through a maze of games and Lego blocks while bouncy balls erupted out of nowhere.

Yesterday I did my job well and earned my keep; today I keep laughing so hard that I don't even notice how hard I'm working--and I don't intend to stop as long as Spring Break lasts.

I made that dress for my daughter, decades ago.


Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Because babies run on their own special schedules

Lately I've been issuing a caveat with every commitment I make: Sure, I'll come to the meeting, provided that my daughter doesn't go into labor on that day. Or sure, I'll observe your class, provided that my daughter doesn't go into labor on that day. I'm constantly looking ahead on my syllabi and trying to figure out which classes could be cancelled or moved online temporarily or which colleague could cover for me if I get called away. 

The other day a colleague objected--"But isn't this your third grandchild?" As if to say, "What's the big deal? You've done this before." But this is the first time I've had a third grandchild, which is enough to make me pretty excited. I want to be there, just as I was there when the first two arrived on the scene. (And no, I don't need to be in the room where it happens, but nearby would be nice.)

Of course the first two had the foresight to be born during summer break, when I could drop everything and drive two hours north without much thought and then stay around as long as I could be helpful. Two years ago my husband and I enjoyed taking our granddaughter out kite-flying while her brother was easing his way into the world, and then we got to take her in to meet her new sibling, a priceless moment I wouldn't trade for anything.

This time, though, the baby is due in the middle of the semester, so I can't just leave at the drop of a hat. I have promised my students that I won't leave town for Spring Break until I've sent them comments on all their drafts, but mentally I added provided that my daughter isn't in labor. How can I pay attention to comma splices while my offspring is experiencing the joys and pains of childbirth?

I have done my part: I've encouraged my daughter to give birth this weekend so I'll be able to spend all of Spring Break helping out, and she said she'll do her best, but ultimately, we don't hold the reins in this situation. Babies arrive when they arrive, and if I happen to be in the middle of a class discussion on Allen Ginsberg when it happens, I'll just have to carry on and try not to howl.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Because nobody reads on weekends, or weekdays, or weeknights, or, apparently, ever

Today I collected a reading quiz that offered a very refreshing answer: "I didn't do the reading." I wish I could give him an A for honesty, especially after wading through long rambling paragraphs of vague nothingness on other quizzes. 

Where did all that empty blather come from? It was pretty easy to track it down. I'd posted just the introductory chapters of a certain work on our course management system, and the quiz asked students to answer a question and support their position with two specific examples from those chapters. 

It was easy to tell who had done the reading because their examples were specific, relevant, and clearly drawn from today's reading. But that was just a handful of students. The rest rambled on at length without saying much; some offered no examples at all or examples so vague as to be meaningless ("she learns a lot from the trials of growing up"), while others offered specific examples of events that happen later in the book.

But wait: I gave them only the first couple of chapters; where did they come up with examples from later in the book? I doubt that all these students got so interested in the topic that they went and dug up the complete text of a fairly obscure book in order to read it over the weekend. No, I'm pretty sure they're relying on online summaries.

This makes me crazy. I mean, it's not even a long or difficult text, just a few short chapters of lively, engaging writing, and it looks as if more than half of the class didn't even bother trying. A student in another class told me it's unreasonable to expect students to read over the weekend because they have so many other things to do, but in that case maybe they could download the text early and read it before the weekend hits--a fluid time period since many students start the festivities on Thursday night.

So today in class the few of us who had done the reading enjoyed a free-wheeling discussion of a terrific text, but I'm not sure what the rest of the students thought they were doing there. And now that I've read their reading quizzes, I have to wonder what I'm doing there. This is a literature class! If I can't motivate my students to perform the most basic task essential to understanding literature--reading the text--then what do I think I'm accomplishing?

Friday, March 02, 2018

Nothing weird about Brittany Wagner

I heard an ad on the radio this morning for nitrogen-infused coffee, which is only about the third-weirdest thing I've experienced this week. The weirdest thing I've heard all week is Weird Al Yankovic's "Hamilton Polka" (listen here), which made me smile until I thought my face would break in half. 

And the second-weirdest thing? Having lunch with a reality TV star.

That's right: yesterday I had lunch with Brittany Wagner, star of the first two seasons of Last Chance U (on Netflix). I told the lunch organizer that I'd never seen the show, and she said, "That's okay--neither have I." I did a little online noodling to get a grasp of what Ms. Wagner does, but I still felt like the imposter in the room. 

Ms. Wagner was on campus to meet with various groups about engaging athletes in academics, so about a dozen of us--students, faculty, staff--chatted with her at lunch. She mostly focused on the students present, all of whom got hugs and selfies, but after the students left for class, she talked with the rest of us for quite some time about our advising system and offered some suggestions on how to fix it.

I'm not gonna lie: the label "reality TV star" led me to believe I'd be listening to a lightweight, but I was pleasantly surprised. Brittany Wagner knows her stuff, and she's a terrific listener and an enthusiastic speaker brimming with great ideas. Have I become a fangirl? Maybe so, but there are worse things to be. I mean, I could be the kind of person who drinks nitrogen-infused coffee while dancing to the Hamilton polka, right?

Nah. There's such a thing as too weird.


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Midweek whimsy; or, everybody do the Diphthong Swing!

The flood fizzled out. Everything is going swimmingly. What's left to write about?

  • I walked past a sign on campus pointing the way to a Phonics Dance. What is a Phonics Dance? Will earnest teachers attired in letter sweaters join hands to do the Diphthong Swing? And most importantly, why wasn't I invited?
  • Speaking of reading, I am taking the extremely rare step today of cancelling a reading assignment. I knew the reading list for my Literary Theory class was ambitious, and we've reached the point in the semester when a little trimming would open up some space for working on writing. So I'm cutting Friday's reading assignment in half. I would expect the class to rise in spontaneous applause if they weren't too exhausted to stand up. 
  • And speaking of applause, I had a great time applauding my deserving colleagues who received honors at our annual Founders' Day event two weeks ago, but I also appreciate finally getting a chance to reveal exciting news I've known about for a while now: starting this fall, I'll be sitting in the William R. and Marie Adamson Flesher Chair in the Humanities. It's an entirely honorary position carrying a little pot of faculty development funds, but it feels fantastic to have earned the respect of my colleagues.
  • Finally, I have in my hands a card entitling the bearer to a free coffee beverage at the library cafe. Today I'll hand it to the student whose morning quota of caffeine ended up all over the floor of my classroom the other day, and at the same time I'll remind myself once again not to shimmy too close to students' desks lest I dislodge their essential beverages. If anyone ever makes a rule barring klutzes from classrooms, I'll be out of a job.
(Hey, do you think that's why I didn't get invited to the Phonics Dance?)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Another entry in the Academic Olympics

Today's top Olympic event is Synchronized Coffee-Cleaning, in which two students toss a roll of paper towels back and forth as they attempt to clean up a massive coffee spill all over the classroom floor. Watch those paper towels fly! Uh-oh, looks like the spillage is creeping toward a classmate's backpack! Will they soak up the whole spill before running out of paper towels?

Wait--one student has broken free! She's running to the bathroom for more paper towels! They're wiping, they're swiping, they're tossing soaking paper towels into the trash can--and they're through! The floor is clear! And not a spot of coffee on their shoes--they'll get extra points for style!

I, on the other hand, am walking around the rest of the day in shoes that smell like coffee. I was not involved in the cleanup, thankfully, but I was standing right there collecting reading quizzes when the coffee spilled, and in fact it's entirely possible that my hip accidentally nudged the desk enough to send the coffee flying before the student ever had a chance to take a sip. I'm going to have to treat my student to another massive coffee drink to make up for it.

Best moment of the morning: the student actually managed to contribute meaningfully to class discussion--of Faulkner (!)--while wiping up the spilled coffee. And the crowd goes wild!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Watching the water rise (again)

I've just read Frank Bruni's excellent article describing how he's coping with sudden blindness in one eye, in which he quotes filmmaker Joseph Lovett: "you cannot spend your life preparing for future losses." But that's what we're doing this weekend as the rain falls and the rivers rise and we watch the forecast and wait to see how much damage lies ahead.

Didn't we just have a flood last week? Yes, we did, especially in the cities along the Ohio River, but the waters receded quickly and it and were not nearly as damaging as previous floods. (I'm looking at you, 2004!) Our creek stayed within bounds while the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers rose; some streets in Marietta were flooded and my friend who owns a gift shop in the historic district had volunteers helping her move all her merchandise upstairs.

Now just a week later she's doing it again, and the forecasts are calling for a much more widespread flood--or not, depending on a variety of factors. We woke this morning to the sound of a downpour and thought here it comes--but then the rain stopped and our creek stayed within its banks.

Our creek's name is Big Run, a bit of a misnomer for a meandering brook that's usually shallow enough to wade across; in the heat of the summer, it's often reduced to disconnected puddles. When Big Run swells to flood stage, though, it's frightening.

On Thursday I was afraid the creek would wash out the end of our driveway, which has happened before--twice the first year we moved in (2004!) and once more since then. Our normally quiet creek roared up into the neighbor's hay-meadow, moved toward our pepper patch, sent waves licking at the edge of our driveway, and looked like it was going to cover the road in several spots. 

And then the rain stopped and the water fell and here we are again, two days later, waiting for the flood.

I don't know why I keep looking at forecasts, which change by the minute: by noon Monday the Ohio River will reach 41 or 42 or 44 feet, which was the height of the devastating 2004 flood, or no it won't, it will stay below 40 feet or barely hit the mid-30s. Each shift of a few inches suggests a different future: campus will be closed or classes will proceed as usual, only with fewer parking spaces; downtown businesses will return to normal on Tuesday as if nothing had happened, or the entire downtown district will be afloat and we'll all spend next week pitching in to clean up the mess.

Either way, there's nothing we can do about it now but wait and watch and listen for the roaring that tells us our creek has reached its limit and is about to burst out of its banks. I'm hopeful: so far the rain has not been nearly as abundant as forecasts predicted, so I'm preparing to teach Monday's classes on the assumption that our road won't be under water. But who knows? We'll find a way to cope with whatever losses lie ahead; meanwhile, it's time to live.

Thursday morning--the view from my bridge.

The neighbor's bridge under water, and the creek becoming a lake.

water in woods

the creek creeping u into our meadow on the right

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Tara Westover gets Educated

As a young girl growing up in a family living off the grid on an Idaho mountain, Tara Westover was convinced that all kinds of external forces were intent upon her destruction--the FBI, the Illuminati, public school teachers, doctors, people who shop on Sundays--but only after she left that world did she realize that the greatest threats to her sanity and survival arose from inside her family circle.

In Educated: A Memoir, Westover presents the gripping story of her harrowing childhood,  her eventual escape from her family's home, and her pursuit of education and an independent identity. The youngest of seven children, Westover realized at the tender age of 7 that her family was different from those of other children, who rode the big yellow bus to school while she stayed home to absorb whatever education she could pick up from parents too distracted to provide any consistent instruction. And that's not the only isolating factor:
Dad worries that the Government will force us to go [to school] but it can't, because it doesn't know about us. Four of my parents' seven children don't have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we've never set foot in a classroom. When I am nine, I will be issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth, but at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist.

Of course, I did exist. I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. I spend my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating supplies. When the World of Men failed, my family would continue on, unaffected.

This tension between the need to remain invisible and the growing child's desire to assert her own identity lies at the heart of this compelling book. She absorbs conflicting lessons from her father, who develops his own personal version of Mormonism based on individual revelation, and from her mother, who sometimes helps her sneak around her father's strictures, although she and her mother generally pay a high price for such intransigence. 

From a young age, Westover is taught that she exists only to marry, have children, and  submit to the men in her life, starting with her father, whose word is law and whose will is rock; however, she also starts seeing signs that he might not be as infallible as he claims. For instance, her father pushes her mother into becoming an unlicensed midwife, even though he believes women should not work. "I suppose he thought it was all right for Mother to be paid for midwifing, because it undermined the Government," she writes. "Also, we needed the money."

While other children are going to school and learning to read and write, young Tara is put to work sorting scrap metals in her father's junkyard--a dangerous place that maims and injures nearly everyone in the family at various times. Her father believes that wearing gloves or other protective gear will slow down the work,  and he also tends to fling heavy iron cylinders or sharp chunks of corrugated aluminum around without any awareness that Tara is directly in their path. At one point she says to him, "Don't throw them here! I'm here!"

But Westover's father seems particularly unaware of the presence of those closest to them, constantly putting them into danger. When he brings home a massive steel-cutting device called the Shear, he sends one of his children after another to work with it even after they keep getting injured, and since the family does not believe in seeking medical care, the inevitable injuries get treated at home, where Westover's mother treats deep cuts and third-degree burns with homemade herbal salves and tinctures--and no pain-killers.

There are moments of transcendence--when she sings the lead in a community musical or spends hours exploring the beauties of the mountain--but too often these bright spots are followed by pain, poverty, harsh labor, and, eventually, physical and emotional abuse. Tara falls victim to an older brother's sadism, but when he shoves her to the floor and begins to strangle her, she can't even call out to her mother in the next room--and isn't quite sure that her mother would help. 

When the grown-up Tara eventually confronts the family about her brother's bullying, they refuse to believe her and instead circle the wagons to protect the reputation of the bully. Westover presents a vivid and emotionally wrenching picture of a dysfunctional family warped and twisted by the irrational will of a brutal control freak, which makes her eventual escape even more remarkable.

Education provides the only escape route, but it's not an easy road, and she finds herself woefully ill-equipped for college, both academically and socially. She doesn't recognize the word "Holocaust" and so looks it up online, which reveals to her the huge gaps in her hit-or-miss self-education. She doesn't know how to apply for a government grant or how to go to the dentist or how to get along with roommates who don't dress as modestly as she does, and she has been so brainwashed to distrust anyone from outside her immediate family that she cannot bring herself to ask for or accept help. And when she compares her childhood to that of others, she is consumed by shame and cannot begin to share her pain.

Later, while working on her PhD at Cambridge, Westover overcomes her shame enough to start telling stories about her bizarre childhood, and only then does she understand the source of her shame:

It wasn't that I hadn't studied in a marble conservatory, or that my father wasn't a diplomat. It wasn't that Dad was half out of his mind, or that Mother followed him. It had come from having a father who shoved me toward the chomping blades of the Shear, instead of pulling me away from them. It had come from those moments on the floor, from knowing that Mother was in the next room, closing her eyes and ears to me, and choosing, for that moment, not to be my mother at all.

And so she finds herself alone, isolated from a family that nearly destroyed her and then refused to accept the part they played in her pain. In this passage you can hear the small girl calling to her careless father: "Don't throw that here! I'm here!"

She's here in living color in Educated, which opens up a world that feels simultaneously exotic and familiar. Her voice is so engaging that I didn't want the book to end, but I suspect we'll be hearing more from Tara Westover. It would take more than the FBI and the Illuminati and all her father's fears to silence a voice this strong.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A taste of spring in the middle of winter

So nice to walk across campus and see students, faculty, and staff members sauntering around eating ice-cream cones, listening to music, chatting, sitting on benches and studying in a most sociable fashion--in shorts and T-shirts!

I'm trying to remember the last time we saw any sunshine and I'm coming up blank. Last week was cold, wet, and gray all day every day. Three days ago I drove to campus for a basketball game and had to walk through ice-melt and slush to get to my car, and then I drove home with thoroughly wet feet on a highway surrounded by water where water does not normally appear. Trust me: you don't want to know what it's like to drive uphill on snow-covered mud.

Yesterday parking lots on the low end of campus were still flooded and my lot on the upper end filled up before 8 a.m., so I parked all day in a two-hour spot. Thankfully, the parking police announced that they wouldn't be ticketing anyone for on-street parking since some downtown streets were still flooded and there simply wasn't enough parking available anywhere.
After all that cold dark mess, today we suddenly have sunshine, blue sky, and a delightful soft breeze. The flood waters have receded and clean-up efforts are going well, but now we look at the forecast and see another huge mass of wetness heading our way. Maybe the storm will pass us by and the rivers will have a chance to fall to a less threatening level, or maybe we're on the cusp of another disaster.

I refuse to think about it. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it--as long as it's not under water.  

Friday, February 16, 2018

From Prufrock to whooping cranes to a silent, gentle snooze

This morning I taught "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" to a group of students intent upon illustrating the line "like a patient etherized upon a table": lots of blank looks, not much alertness. Of course it's not a young person's poem, and the oppressive gray weather and overly warm classroom didn't help. I would have appreciated a nap myself.

Conditions weren't much better in Florida Lit, where we joined Jody and Penny at the fishing hole where they encounter the dance of the whooping cranes:
The dancers raised their wings and lifted their feet, first one and then the other. They sank their heads deep in their snowy breasts, lifted them and then sank them again. They moved soundlessly, part awkwardness, part grace. ...The birds were reflected in the clear marsh water. Sixteen white shadows reflected the motions. The evening breeze moved across the saw-grass. It bowed and fluttered. The water rippled. The setting sun lay rosy on the white bodies. Magic birds were dancing in a mystic marsh....
I read this passage aloud and then pointed out that it's different from other encounters with wild animals so far in the book. Other animals are predator or prey, portrayed as either a threat to the family's survival or as meat. "So if Jody and Penny are so desperate for food," I asked my class, "Why don't they kill some cranes and take 'em home for supper?"

No response.

"Come on, they've just been discussing the law of the jungle, the need to eat or be eaten. Shouldn't they skip the awe-filled observation and bag a bird?"


"And what's with all the 'magic birds' and 'mystic marsh' stuff? What makes these birds so special?"

Finally, a brave student works up the courage to respond: "You're the one who likes birds."

Well alrighty then! We'll assume that Rawlings wrote this passage to appeal to those few peculiar people among us who like birds, and that way everyone else can go back to sleep. I'll just stand up here mouthing meaningless blather about nothing in particular while everyone else succumbs to gentle slumber...until human voices wake us, and we drown.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

What would Marjory do?

Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived to be 108 years old, and she never stopped fighting for justice--for minorities, for women, for children, for the land itself. In her 90s she appeared in a hearing where she was the lone voice opposing a plan to drain a portion of the Everglades in Dade County, and when she was booed, she reportedly responded, "Can't you boo any louder than that?"

"Look, I'm an old lady," she said. "I've been here since eight o'clock. It's now eleven. I've got all night, and I'm used to the heat." She persisted--and the county commissioners cancelled their plan to drain the wetland.

In her youth she fought for women's right to vote and later she worked to provide safe drinking water to residents of Miami's segregated slums. She fought to improve conditions for Florida's migrant workers and to provide them legal services, and she fought to earn her voice as a writer in the predominantly male world of journalism.

But her most sustained and intense fight was her decades-long campaign to protect south Florida's waterways, especially the Everglades, from overdevelopment, drainage, and pollution. In her 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass, she elegantly portrays the wonders of the massive wetlands that had long been viewed as a barrier to development. Where others saw a virulent swamp, Douglas saw beauty:
The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slowly moving, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades. It is a river of grass.
Her research for River of Grass led her to look beneath the surface, to consider the peculiar geology of south Florida, the interdependence of fragile species in the wetland's unique ecosystems, and the natural cycles of rain and drought that could transform lush green growth into kindling:
The saw-grass stands drying to old gold and rustling faintly, ready, if there is a spark anywhere, to burst into those boiling red flames which crackle even at a great distance like a vast frying pan, giving off rolling clouds of heavy cream-colored smoke, shadowed with mauve by day and by night mile-high pillars of roily tangerine and orange light. The fires move crackling outward as the winds blow them, black widening rings where slow embers burn and smolder down into the fibrous masses of the thousand-year-old peat.

Then the spring rains put out the fires with their light moving tread, like the tread of the running deer, and the year of rainy season and of dry season has made its round again.
In River of Grass, the Everglades emerges as a character in itself, a misunderstood but fascinating entity with a complex history and an uncertain future. Douglas was among the first to proclaim that the destruction of the Everglades by drainage or pollution would be a disaster for the state as a whole, to see the health of wetlands as a harbinger for the health of the nation. "The Everglades is a test," she once said. "If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet."

Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived 108 years but, thankfully, not long enough to see a school carrying her name polluted by senseless violence and bloodshed. She saw environmentalism as a practical way to care for the weakest among us, claiming that providing clean water and clean air demonstrates our love and concern for children and those marginalized by poverty or other problems. When we love the land, we love our children, and if we fail to pass that test, our children bear the wounds of our neglect.

Today we face another kind of test: can we develop a sensible, workable plan to keep the most lethal weapons out of the hands of murderers? If we can't pass this test, we don't deserve to keep the planet.

As I hear more painful details about the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I mourn for the families and I mourn for the victims and I mourn for a culture that can't find a way to make these shootings stop, but I also mourn for Marjory. She doesn't deserve this, I tell myself, and neither do we.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

No curtain calls in academe

Now here's the downside of spending a whole weekend putting together new teaching materials, as I did recently: When I was done giving this massive brilliant presentation in my Florida Lit class yesterday, I looked at my students and saw the same blank looks I see most days and I wondered Why aren't they applauding?

I didn't waste much time wondering, though, because of course they're not applauding: I've just given them a whole bunch of new stuff to learn, and even if the material was accompanied by photographs and engaging stories, it's still work. I wouldn't expect a child to applaud a new list of household chores even if it was beautifully formatted in rhyming couplets and accompanied by fireworks, so why would I expect my students to applaud my little academic song-and-dance?

But I performed so well!

Right, and there's the problem: this lecture was pretty much a one-person performance, without much participation by students except for note-taking (and, in one case, sleeping). I don't often teach that way, but we were starting a new unit and I needed to provide some necessary context and introduce essential concepts that will inform our discussion, and while I can congratulate myself on presenting it in an interesting way, it was still 40 minutes of me standing in front of the class yammering away.

I didn't stand still, of course. I'm not capable of talking for more than a minute without waving my arms around and moving around the room, which may be why I was so exhausted at the end. At one point I used the word "peripatetic" and, suspecting that my students would find it unfamiliar, I said, "I shall now become peripatetic right before your very eyes," and I did. And then of course I defined the word.

After the lecture I put my students to work applying some of the concepts to their reading assignment, which worked well enough, and then they were out the door and I moved on to the next class, but all afternoon I felt a lack, a sense of longing for something I'd lost without even know what was missing. After all that work and an exhausting performance, I'd really like a round of applause, a pat on the back, or even a small nod indicating a modicum of understanding. 

Instead, I sit in my office facing a pile of papers to grade and I take a moment to tell myself Well done, you. Now get back to work. Accompanied by the sound of one  hand clapping.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

On (not) coutenancing error

A student wrote about an author who provides "a perfect Segway" into a new topic, and suddenly I found myself imagining Henry James zipping around Rye on a two-wheeled personal transport device, if James could be said to do anything zippily. Would he hop curbs and go airborne? I'd pay money to see that. Someday when someone finally has the foresight to open up a Henry James theme park, we'll all zip around on Segways along paths as complex as James's labyrinthine sentences, paths that keep promising to lead to a satisfactory destination--Gilbert Osmond's Passive-Aggressive Gift Shop, say, or Fanny Assingham's Mad Teacups--but somehow fail to finally arrive.

How long before Segway overtakes segue as an alternate spelling? Maybe the student never saw the word segue in print or saw it without knowing its pronunciation. Another student wrote that he had never seen the word countenance before, which made me sad. How can anyone be expected to understand Theodore Roethke's great poem "My Papa's Waltz" without understanding the meaning of countenance in the line "My mother's countenance / could not unfrown itself"?  (And where is the not-unfrowny-face emoji?)

My countenance fell when I saw that another student had formatted the date incorrectly in the heading of his paper, using one of those little nd, rd, or st dealies that make MLA tsk. Surely I marked that on his draft, I told myself, but then I checked the draft to be sure, and no, I did not mark the error on the draft because it wasn't there. That's right: he formatted the date correctly on the draft but then changed it to make it wrong on the final paper. Why?

And before you ask why I get all picky about formatting the date correctly in the heading, here's my thinking: if it's wrong in the draft, I mark it and insert a comment; if it's still wrong in the revised essay, that immediately lets me know that the student either hasn't  read my comments on the draft or doesn't care. Either way, helpful to know.

But then here's a student who didn't need to change the format of the date but did it anyway and thus introduced error into his paper. Who told him to change the format? I didn't do it, and he didn't see it on the sample papers I provided. Is someone giving bad advice during peer review? If so, how shall I address the problem? 

That's too much for my tired brain right now. I need to grade the rest of these papers, but first I need to find a way to smoothly shift from one topic to another. Where's that Segway when I need it?


Tuesday, February 06, 2018

On proof-texting, periodization, and any old poem

I thought I'd fallen into an e.e. cummings poem this morning when a student tried to attribute a certain idea to "Any poem by Campbell McGrath." I'm reading drafts in the Florida Lit class and the prompt required them to choose "Any poem by Campbell McGrath," but most students correctly interpreted this as requiring them to write about a specific poem. Any poem lived in a pretty how anthology--no, it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

I'm fighting a tendency toward proof-texting in these papers: students are picking quotes out of context without taking into account the larger purpose of the piece, which leads to incomplete or misleading readings. Uncritically quote a portion of a line that appears to laud Minnie Mouse in a poem brutally critiquing commodification and your argument will stand on extremely flimsy evidence.

I saw something similar in last week's American Lit survey drafts, suggesting that we need to do more class work on depth of analysis. But on those drafts I also had to keep reminding students that Henry James, Kate Chopin, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and their contemporaries do not fall into the category "Early American Literature" and did not write in "Old English."

Maybe I should make them read some actual Old English. Any poem lived in a pretty hwaet anthology--nope, not feeling it.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Not slacking off (except when I am)

Sometimes the syllabi align in amazing ways: over the weekend I prepared to teach three Harlem Renaissance authors in Literary Theory, prepared an extensive presentation on the friendship between Zora Neale Hurston and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings for Florida Lit, and prepared a short presentation and handout on the Harlem Renaissance for American Lit Survey.

Aside from the coincidence in subject matter, I'm a little impressed that I spent that much time preparing new teaching materials even for a class that I've taught many times before. I've taught Hurston so many times that I ought to be able to phone it in, but apparently I'm allergic to slacking off.

Except when I'm not. Today my department met to work on next year's course schedules, which will include a significant change in the way we teach first-year composition, thanks to the recent approval of a new General Education curriculum. I'm mostly in favor of the changes but when it became clear that we'll still need one section of the "old" version of the class this fall, I jumped all over it with both feet. 

It's not that I don't want to change how I teach composition--I just don't want to do it right now. I'm teaching only one semester next year thanks to my spring 2019 sabbatical, which means I'll be teaching only one section of composition all year, and I just don't feel like reinventing my tried-and-true methods for the sake of only one section.

After the meeting I ran into a retired colleague at the grocery store, and he asked how long until I'll be able to retire. For years I said I'd never be able to pay off enough of our horrible debts to ever be able to retire, but careful husbandry and a little help from unexpected sources have eliminated enough debt to make retirement appear possible within the next eight or ten years.

And now I feel myself slowing down, still trying new things in class and putting tons of energy into updating my pedagogy, but I an increasingly unwilling to hop up and volunteer to  pilot the next new thing or revamp a tried-and-true course. Let someone else be the pioneer for a change. I'm happy to watch from the sidelines. I can catch up with the changes later on, but for now I need to hang back until I've caught my breath.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Author of my own onslaught

Who brought on this onslaught
of papers and tests?
Who sent out abundant
e-mails and requests? 

Who piled up the powerpoint
slides and the quizzes?
Who multiplied meetings?
Who offered the whiz-kids

enriching experiences
outside of class?

Who wrote this danged syllabus?
Who let this thing pass?

Who scheduled assignments
to arrive all at once?
Who authored this onslaught?
(That was me. What a dunce.)  

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Overshadowed by "umbrage"; or, you learn something old every day

My student wanted to know what umbrage meant in a poem by Wordsworth, and although I know what umbrage means in the phrase to take umbrage, I took umbrage over the use of the word in these lines describing the earth beneath a grove of yew trees:
                                              a pillared shade,
Upon whose grassless floor of red-brown hue,
By sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged
"It looks like umbrage is being used as a color word," I said, "but that doesn't make sense."

"You could Google it," my student said, and so we did, and you'll never guess what we found: umbrage survives in common use today only in phrases like to take umbrage, but in the past it carried a whole host of usages as a term relating to shadow. The OED lists dozens of citations for umbrage meaning shadow or shade, alongside figurative uses meaning a feeling of suspicion or doubt or even a suspicion, hint, inkling, or slight idea. I had no inkling that an umbrage could be an inkling.

I was even more surprised to find that umbrage was once used as a verb with meanings like to shade or shadow, or to overshadow, or even to disguise, as in this example from the OED: 
1675   R. Burthogge Cavsa Dei 312   If she mentioned others, it was by way of caution, only to secure her self, and Umbrage what she said that it might down the better.
Apparently, just a spoonful of umbrage makes the medicine go down. But the woman above may have found her match in a young gallant described under the meaning to give a pretext for:

1689   E. Hickeringill Speech Without-doors 35   Like that young Gallant, studying what he should see in her [sc. an old woman] to Vmbrage the fondness of his Embraces.
So umbrage leads us into the shadows, where women shade their meanings to make them more palatable while young men invent pretexts to embrace older women. That's pretty far from today's meaning, but not far from Wordsworth's usage to describe the shade under a grove of yew trees--the kind of umbrageous place that could provide cover for all kinds of shady behavior.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

After passionate debate, a path forward

I think my favorite moment at the faculty meeting last night occurred when a colleague who is not a native English speaker struggled to produce the phrase "throw out the baby with the bathwater" and colleagues from all departments and divisions of campus and from every side of the conflict chimed in to help her out. See? We know how to work together!

This was the fourth and, thankfully, the last in a series of very long faculty meetings (most lasting two or more hours) in which we've been debating a proposal to make sweeping changes to the General Education curriculum. Depending on whom you ask, the new curriculum is either The End of the World as We Know It or The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread. After all those meetings and all those hours of (mostly civil) debate, the Sliced Bread party prevailed, although not by much.

In the end I was more interested in the process of the debate than in the final vote. Yes, we'll have to make some changes to adjust to the new curriculum, and our department will need to start working on a new minor and perhaps discover some other ways to engage students outside the major, but we can handle that. What impressed me is that we survived some pretty passionate debate without losing respect for each other.

Lots of faculty members spoke--from untenured newbies to grizzled veterans of the curriculum wars. Most spoke succinctly and to the purpose. The Faculty Chair and his assistants from Council kept the debate orderly and civil, assuring that no single voice dominated and that those who wanted to speak could be heard.

And they were heard. There was some very intense listening going on in that room, and even when remarks got a little heated, no one was rude or dismissive. It does us good as a faculty, I think, to hear how much our colleagues on all sides care about our duty to provide a meaningful education for our students, and nothing happened at any of those meetings that will prevent us from working well together in the future.

Aside from a few minor tweaks, this is the first major revision of our General Education curriculum since around 2001, when I was the untenured newbie uncertain whether I could contribute anything to the debate. I don't recall much about those meetings, but I could name some colleagues so incensed by the result that they stopped speaking to each other--permanently. 

But I won't. Because life goes on, you know? Times change, curricula change, committee appointments change, and we will all have to keep working with each other regardless of which side of the debate we favored. This time, though, I think we can do it.    

Monday, January 29, 2018

A paean to bad poetry

If you'd walked past my Literary Theory class at the right time today, you might have heard me reading aloud stanzas from James Whitcomb Riley's dreadful poem "The Happy Little Cripple," or William McGonagall's tone-deaf take on "The Tay Bridge Disaster," or midwestern poet Lillian E. Curtis's ode to "The Potato," which begins thus:

What on this wide earth,
That is made, or does by nature grow,
Is more homely, yet more beautiful,
Than the useful Potato?

What would this world full of people do,
Rich and poor, high and low,
Were it not for this little-thought-of
But very necessary Potato?

Curtis claims that the homely potato improves on acquaintance, but the poem, sadly, does not.

Why read bad poetry? We've been reading Hume on taste and Burke on the sublime and Schiller on the power of fine art to develop character, and I wanted students to get some practice in putting their principles to work. What makes great poetry great? To tackle the question, I decided we needed to experience some not-so-great poetry by poets who once enjoyed a healthy readership. 

And so I read them some sentimental drivel, and then we looked at a short poem by Wordsworth ("I Travelled among Unknown Men") alongside James McIntyre's "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese", that which there is no poem more cheesy. We quickly agreed that the Wordsworth poem was "better," but then it took quite a while to pin down the principles informing our judgment. If there are universal principles determining the worth of a poem, why can't we articulate them? Are these principles purely personal, or are they constructed anew by each community of readers? Or is the whole idea of universal principles bogus?

It was a lively discussion, full of laughter and passion and philosophical concepts, but the cheese poem made me hungry, not to mention the paean to the potato. Put those two poems together and you'll have a feast you won't soon forget.

Friday, January 26, 2018

So demanding!

What I need today is a helicopter, not to elevate me above the nasty potholes along my commute because the potholes have been filled, but they haven't added edge lines to the highway yet so driving to work in the pitch dark is an act of faith--I'm never sure whether I'm in my lane or getting ready to drive into the river. A helicopter would be just the thing.

A helicopter and a few more hours of sleep--that's all I need to be happy. Woke up with a splitting headache around 3 a.m. and had trouble getting back to sleep, so  here I sit trying very hard not to fall asleep in my office before my 9 a.m. class. Sleep would help, sleep and a helicopter.

Sleep and a helicopter and a tutor, not for me but for some students who are struggling to understand the readings in Literary Theory and asked me whether any tutoring would be available on campus. I doubt that we have anyone in the tutoring center who has ever taken this class since it hasn't been offered for a few years, so I'm working on putting together a workshop on strategies for reading difficult texts, except every time I think about it, my eyelids start drooping. Sleep would help. And a helicopter. And a tutor.

And some more time, some extra hours in the day to meet the needs of students who are uncertain how to approach writing the draft due next week. They asked if I could set up some extra peer-review time outside of class and I am happy to do so, but next week I have a bunch of evening meetings so it's not easy to find a time that suits everyone. The calendar is full of potholes and obstacles, and the road ahead is unclear, and I need someone competent to wipe away all these problems and deal with it.

A personal assistant! That would be just the ticket. But don't bother applying unless you can fly a helicopter, tutor Literary Theory, and manufacture more time in the day while I take a nap.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

"Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars"

From "The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction":
I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.
So, when I came to write science-fiction novels, I came lugging this great heavy sack of stuff, my carrier bag full of wimps and klutzes, and tiny grains of things smaller than a mustard seed, and intricately woven nets which when laboriously unknotted are seen to contain one blue pebble, an imperturbably functioning chronometer telling the time on another world, and a mouse's skull; full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions; full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don't understand. 
Science fiction properly conceived, like all serious fiction, however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack, this belly of the universe, this womb of things to be and tomb of things that were, this unending story. In it, as in all fiction there is room enough to keep even Man where he belongs, in his place in the scheme of things; there is time enough to gather plenty of wild oats and sow them too, and sing to little Oom, and listen to Ool's joke, and watch newts, and still the story isn't over. Still there are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag of stars.
Nobody says it better. Rest in peace, Ursula K. LeGuin.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

New text, new class, new challenges

At 9 a.m. I teach from a Norton anthology so old that the pages have gone all soft, and some are falling out or so scribbled-on they're barely readable--but if I want to find a specific passage, I know exactly where to look.

At 1 p.m. I teach from a brand-new Norton anthology so pristine that the spine crackles when I open the book and the pages still have that new-book smell, but I've never taught these texts before so I can't always put my finger on the specific passage I seek.

Teaching from a new text poses certain challenges, but a new text in a class I've never taught before raises a whole new set of issues. This is the situation in my Literary Theory class, which is going well so far--but we're only a week into the semester. 

The class was taught for ages by a colleague who retired a few years ago and is no longer in the area, so I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder to tell me I'm doing it all wrong. Further, it fulfills no General Education requirement and isn't even required for the English major, although it's strongly recommended for students planning to go to grad school and those seeking certification to teach high school English. This results in a small cadre of students (nine), all English majors and all interested in teaching or graduate study, and they're all motivated to maintain a high gpa. Further, they know each other from other classes so they're comfortable asking questions. I can't imagine a more congenial situation in which to teach a class for the first time.

When I planned the syllabus, I thought long and hard about what these students need from the class. They need to be familiar with important ideas associated with specific literary theorists and they need to be able to put concepts in conversation with each other, so that means they'll take a few exams (three). But they also need practice in applying theories to specific literary works, which means they need to write some papers (five, roughly a paper every three weeks).  Since it's not a Writing Proficiency course, we don't have to devote time in class to peer review of drafts, but they realize the value of getting feedback on their writing so I've encouraged them to meet outside of class for that. So far, so good.

But these students are in the class because they're interested in graduate study or teaching, which means they need to know how to explain ideas to others and how to engage others in meaningful discussion, so I added a set of assignments requiring students to serve as discussion leaders for specific works. Twice over the course of the semester, once before Spring Break and once after, each student will briefly introduce a text and then guide the rest of the class through a discussion of that text. I gave them a list of texts and asked them to rank their top three, and I was able to give most of the students their top choice. (The only wrinkle arose when three of them wanted to lead the discussion of Freud, but that was resolved without resorting to fisticuffs.)

On the date assigned, the student has to come to class equipped with written questions, so we spent some time last week talking about what makes a good discussion question and practiced writing some; however, I've reminded them that sometimes the best discussions veer sharply away from our best-laid plans, so they'll have to demonstrate their ability to guide a discussion even when it doesn't follow the rules. I've also encouraged them to support each other by responding to questions (and, if necessary, to bribe their classmates), but based on what I've observed so far, I don't believe they'll have a problem getting the class to talk.

In fact, my students' careful reading of the texts has come in very handy when I'm struggling to locate a specific passage in a book so new that all the pages all look alike. I'm up there fumbling through the pages and asking where the author says some interesting thing, and sure enough a student jumps in and tells me a page number. 

That's my kind of class. I knew there had to be an advantage to teaching from a brand-new book that sometimes makes me feel a little lost: if we're all a little lost sometimes, we can all learn the benefits of helping each other out, taking turns leading the way toward enlightenment.  

Monday, January 22, 2018

Smiles by the miles

My daughter and I are sitting on the floor playing keep-away with the imps--rolling a ball past my grandson, who runs around shrieking "Bat-ball! Bat-ball!", and tossing another ball over the head of my granddaughter, who screams with joy when she catches it--and all that laughter hits me like a stimulant. I can feel brain cells waking up, no longer sleepy from the two-hour drive, and the big rolling belly laughs feel like a whole-body workout. 

There's nothing like a visit with the grandkids to remind me that I don't get enough laughter in my daily life. I feed on the kids' silliness, knowing that I'll soon have to go home and deal with serious issues, like course preps and grocery shopping and doing our taxes, which is more likely to make me laugh than cry.

I need a laugh--a big, helpless, all-consuming belly laugh--and I'm not getting it from the pile of reading quizzes on my desk. What my office really needs right now, then, is a mess of little imps running around and being silly--but I don't believe I can get them from the office supply store, and if I could, the College would never approve the purchase order. 

Think he's enjoying his swimming lesson?

Instant snowman kit. Some assembly required.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Will someone please help me dig out of this mess?

Guy shows up to class in shorts and I want to tell him, "Dude, it's 6 degrees outside! Put on some clothes!" But then I remind myself that he's dressed appropriately for the classroom, which is so beastly hot that I've been teaching with the windows open.

Am I going to complain about the weather again? Seems like all I ever talk about lately is the weather or local road conditions. Fun fact: two of the city's snowplows are out of commission just when they're most needed, making the brick streets even more treacherous than usual. 

And here's an even more fun fact: before Christmas, the state started a resurfacing project on a stretch of highway that I drive every day; they got as far as scraping off the surface of the road before the snow fell and the salt-trucks spread salt all over that rough subsurface, and then we had a brief thaw and a ton of rain and a sudden freeze, and now that 15-mile stretch of highway is pretty much Pothole City. Every day I face a challenge: drive on the slushy, icy spots or barrel right through the potholes? Making a frequently traveled highway virtually undriveable: my tax dollars at work!

But on the plus side, the snow drives birds to seek a more steady source of seeds, so they're all over our feeders all day long--tons of juncos plus one solitary towhee that doesn't get along well with the juncos, and then we'll sometimes have a dozen or more cardinals out there all at once, providing frequent bursts of scarlet against the white winter landscape. 

The even better news is that I don't have to go to campus today, so I'm working from home, where the temperature regulator on the wood burner is on the fritz so the house is holding a pretty steady temperature of 62 degrees. So it looks like I just can't get away from complaining about the weather.

But seriously, folks: I ought to celebrate my 12-year blogiversary by writing about something more interesting than the weather, but I'm going to need a little help. Put a topic in the comments--any topic, large or small--and I promise to write something about it before the end of the month. I can't guarantee that I'll say something profound or life-changing, but at least we'll distract ourselves from the massive pile of winter that's burying us alive.