Monday, September 24, 2018

Attack of the killer syllabi!

Sometimes it feels as if my syllabi are ganging up on me, conspiring to inundate me with the most demanding reading, prepping, and grading all at the same time--but then I remember who's responsible for writing those syllabi. If I'm running as fast as I can just to keep up, I have no one to blame but myself.

Maybe all this grading will go more quickly if I switch to a different chair, or maybe the exam will be easier to write in a larger font with narrower margins. Some of my students believe in this kind of magical thinking, and apparently there's something to it because every student sitting in the center row in one of my classes received a well-earned A on the first major essay. None of them, however, tried the bigger-font trick. Last week I read a draft written in 14-point type with two-inch margins all around and extra space between paragraphs, but I must have said something persuasive to the writer because I don't see any sign of such trickery in the revised essays. 

In fact I'm mighty pleased with my classes so far: five weeks in and I'm not tearing my hair out to any significant degree. One student had to leave campus because of a health problem, which made me sad but I'm confident he'll be back eventually; another is struggling to figure out how to submit papers in a format I can open, but we can work through that. Most of them seem to be doing most of the reading, and many are engaging in class discussions. They're not all earning A's, but neither do they all expect to. No complaints so far.

I had expected a complaint from a student who decisively bombed the first essay. I agonized over grading that paper, worried that the grade would cause the student to drop the class and resolve never to take another literature class--or, worse, suffer a breakdown and start kicking puppies. But then the next time he came into the classroom, he came up to me with a grin and said, "I wrote that paper 30 minutes before class. I'll do better next time."

So it's all good. Sure, I'm up to my eyeballs in quizzes and papers to grade and I have more drafts coming in Wednesday and an exam to write by Friday, plus I need to get caught up on the mowing (except it's raining again) and I just killed another weed-eater (my third, I think) and the house could use a good scouring and eye fatigue is causing my left eyelid to twitch violently at the least opportune moments, but I can't complain that the syllabus is working me too hard because it's doing exactly what I told it to do, and doing it very well indeed.

(Hey, do you suppose switching to a bigger font will make my eyelid stop twitching?)

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Bubbles to soothe the savage beast

It was already a busy week thanks to students turning in drafts in every class, but add an extra 300 miles of driving and some bonus grandparenting on top of the normal craziness and you get one exhausted grandma--so spending some time on Saturday morning sitting on the front porch watching the grandkids blow bubbles was just about my speed.

I don't know how many thousands of extra people are in Jackson this weekend for the annual apple festival, but everywhere we've been has been loud, crowded, and redolent of fried fair food. We weren't downtown during the busiest part of the fair, but I still started feeling that internal gripping panic that accompanies massive roiling crowds. The grandkids enjoyed the ice cream and a few of the tamer rides, although they found the Fun Slide a little more exciting than they'd expected. 

Now my house is full of napping people, and I've half a mind to join them. Soon they'll wake up and the whole three-ring circus will start up again, but we're well stocked with apple pie, and if that won't keep the wild animals happy, we can always break out the bubbles.

  








 

Monday, September 17, 2018

A sticky (but delicious) lesson

Some of my students who are studying Appalachia had never tasted pawpaws before, so today I brought some, picked from my woods, and peeled them right there in class so they could get a taste of a treat that grows wild all around them. I've encountered many other gaps in students' knowledge, but rarely can they be repaired so easily--and deliciously. 

I had more trouble this morning trying to teach a student how to save a document as a Word file and attach it to an email message, but I was hampered by the fact that I was trying to explain the process via email. For the first time I have multiple first-year students who are a  shaky on email use and who claim they've never used Word, so I'm getting documents in all kinds of crazy formats and often with filenames like "Document 1" or "Untitled." Wish I could give them a magic pill that would endow them with word-processing and emailing skills because I can't spend a lot of time on that in first-year composition, or how will we ever get to semicolons? 

Poor semicolons! Don't even get me started on the dying art of punctuation.

On the plus side, my postcolonial students were enlightened enough to spot the rampant sexism in a clip from a James Bond film today, so if they don't know how to use a semicolon, at least they know how to spot creepiness. Which skill will be more practical in real life? (Man shall not live on semicolons alone--or woman either.)

I'd like to lament the loss of skills that seem to be slipping away before my eyes, but who has time to cry when there are papers to grade? Instead, I'll grab a pawpaw and carry on, repairing the gaps I'm able to fill and trusting that others will fill the rest.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Seeing the world at 60 miles per hour

"So what is the drive to Jackson like?" they ask me, and I'm always tempted to reply, "It's, like, 90 minutes." What can I say about the drive I've become accustomed to making twice a week? It's like a lot of other drives in rural southern Ohio: an hour and a half on a four-lane divided highway through rolling hills, not particularly dramatic but pleasing all the same.

I follow the Ohio River west out of Marietta, sometimes seeing coal barges and other boats or watching a parade of fluffy white clouds reflected on the water. Later I leave behind the mighty Ohio for a series of ever diminishing waterways: I cross the Hocking River three or four times and Raccoon Creek three times within a mile, then Little Raccoon Creek, barely visible from the road even at flood stage. The long stretch of the Hocking River that runs along the edge of Athens looks tame and lifeless, but sometimes I catch a glimpse of a heron or some geese or ducks. Turkey vultures and hawks frequently circle overhead and there's never a shortage of roadkill.

What do I look at for three hours a week? The wide road snaking past trees and more trees, chemical factories and trucking depots along the river, campgrounds and fish ponds and Ohio University's airstrip, where I once matched speeds with a landing plane so that it looked as if it was hovering motionless in midair. I pass a dollhouse-like structure purported to be the smallest functioning church in Ohio, and later I pass a much larger church surrounded by 30 or 40 American flags on poles, though I've never seen any signs of life at either place. 

I pass cell towers and cattails nodding above a wetland, a phalanx of red tractors begging for buyers, a storage site for fracking waste and a row of tiny square houses, the last remnants of a company town once housing coal miners. I pass cemeteries and cornfields and the back side of a strip of big-box stores, but mostly I see trees and hills and then more hills and trees until I reach Jackson, where I have several options: if I need groceries, I take the road straight through town with its thick Friday-night traffic waiting impatiently at a million traffic lights, but I prefer the less traveled route, a twisty back road that takes me off the highway and leads past decaying country houses, a defunct rail yard, and big empty brick buildings of uncertain provenance. I like to follow the little creek that runs along the road until I reach town, where a few right turns take me to my weekend home.

The route offers nothing much to write home about, no majestic cliff faces or waterfalls or breathtaking vistas; it's just a smooth, easy ride through nice enough terrain. And yet I like it, especially after I enter Jackson County, where there's little traffic and the road seems to wend onward through hills and trees forever. What's the trip like? It's about like that, only moreso. 





 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Why I keep teaching 9/11 literature

This morning I wondered as I walked to my office why the flag outside was half-staff, and it took a while before it hit me: Sept. 11. Of course. A day to remember.

Even my senior students are unlikely to have formed clear memories of that day, which explains the response I received when I told some English majors that I'm thinking about focusing next year's capstone class on 9/11 literature. "That would be great," she said, "because I really don't know a whole lot about it."

I remember walking into the department office and hearing the secretary say, "We're under attack!" Her husband had called to tell her about the planes hitting the towers, but I'd been teaching a class in total ignorance of the events. Soon you could see clusters of people gathering around every screen on campus, watching in grim silence as the towers fell. 

I don't remember much about the next day or the next or how we got through the week and the rest of the semester, but somehow we did because that's what we do. It would have been difficult to imagine at the time that the attacks would, in a few short years, inspire enough literature to fill a syllabus, from The Submission to Falling Man to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and even, yes, Amiri Baraka's incendiary poem "Somebody Blew Up America." And, later, "The Beard" by Amit Majmudar. And Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers. And, more subtly, Ian McEwen's novel Saturday, where the attacks fall into the deep background to spawn a web of fear. 

And now the attacks themselves have fallen into the deep background, predating my first-year students' earliest memories. I'm happy for them, in a way: they don't have to carry the pain of that horrible day throughout their lives. I envy their ability to look at the flag at half-staff and feel not a twinge of pain. Which is why, I think, it's time to teach a class that focuses entirely on literature responding to that horrific event: they need to know what forces helped form the world we see today and to feel its impact on the imaginative lives of writers.

Someday I'll be like Walt Whitman in "The Wound Dresser," an old poet responding to young people's demands for stories of war and glory, a poet who pours out painful memories "While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on, / So soon what is over is forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand." Resisting the urge to pretty up war and transform its horrors into abstract concepts, Whitman rips off the bandage and shows readers head wounds and amputations, rotting limbs and men too far gone to cry out in pain:
I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
For Whitman, the wound still bleeds and cries out to be shared with those who never felt that pain, but it also sparks the flame of creativity, suggesting that poetry plays a role in both opening wounds and healing them. A poet can beat the drum that calls for war, but Whitman found a different role: "To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead." This, too, is what 9/11 literature can do: to witness, to watch, and somehow to soothe.

 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Lost in familiar territory

I got lost on the way to class this morning--not physically, of course. All my classes this semester meet in the same classroom just upstairs from my office, so if I ever lose my way to that room, you'll know I've totally lost it.

No, I got lost mentally. Just for a moment I had to pause in the hallway and ask myself Now what class am I getting ready to teach? This despite the fact that I was carrying a great big Norton Anthology of African-American Literature in my arms. 

I blame the spider, or the weather, or the dog, or all of the above. The spider arrived in my living room yesterday afternoon, marching across the rug as if it owned the place and temporarily taking away my power of speech. It was big--really big. I don't remember ever seeing a spider that big inside the house before, and there I sat with no shoes on and no desire to get any closer to stomp it. Fortunately, my son was there, with shoes and pretty good aim, resulting in a squashed spider. 

First, though, I had to take a photo with my phone. (No way I was letting that thing stay alive long enough to let me go fetch the camera bag.) If the red diamond on the carpet is four inches long, how big is the spider? (I can't look at the photo long enough to do the math.)



But the spider was not the least of my worries yesterday afternoon. We've had rain pretty constantly since Saturday morning and I kept getting flash flood warnings, so I was concerned about whether I'd have another water-related driveway disaster like the flood last spring. How would I deal with a washed-out driveway while my husband's out of town? Asking my son to toss a shoe at it won't help.

I kept stomping down the driveway through puddles to check the water level last night but it stayed within bounds. Then late last night the dog starting barking hysterically at some invisible invader and I heard a huge crash from outside and I had to go investigate. In the dark. In the pouring rain. Trying to wend my way around puddles and mud without fumbling my flashlight, umbrella, and car keys, which I did not realize I'd dropped into a puddle until I was ready to leave for work this morning.

And I never found the source of the crashing noise or the cause of the dog's frantic barking.  Neither did I find a way to calm my brain down enough to get any decent sleep. Between the bug dreams and the flood dreams and the why is she barking dreams, I tossed and turned all night.

So this morning I was a little lost. I don't know how long I spent searching for my car keys before I found them in that puddle, but I made it to work on time and taught my classes without falling on my face.Now classes are over and the spider is dead and the driveway remains above water, but still the rain continues to fall.

Friday, September 07, 2018

On the need for monsters

Because my honors students are reading about Odysseus's encounters with various mythical beasts, I introduced them this morning in Dave Lucas's poem "Lake Erie Monster," which addresses a variety of modern monsters reputed to live in "lacustrine / fresh depths / ... a family to obsess / so many would-be Ahabs / in crytozoology labs."

The poem, from Lucas's excellent collection Weather, plays with words in delightful ways, rhyming "amaranth" with "coelacanth" and "behemoth" with "mammoth."  I mean, just finding a coelacanth in a poem is exciting enough, but when was the last time you observed a successful attempt to rhyme anything with "Latin nomenclature"? 

But despite the playfulness, the poem asks a serious question: If all attempts to scientifically verify the existence of such monsters result in failure, "Why, then, / would-be leviathan, / do we insist on you?" In other words, why do we need monsters?

It's easy to see why Homer needed monsters: to dramatize the heroics of Odysseus. But I like to imagine Odysseus as some random guy who came back from war ten years later than all his friends and immediately encountered an angry wife saying "Okay, buster, where've you been for the past ten years? And you'd better make it good!" How many monsters arise out of the need to provide an alibi or point a finger of blame away from oneself?

My students talked about the lure of mystery and the need to know that there are things we don't know, a need also echoed in Lucas's poem. Monsters retain that sense of mystery, though, only as long as they remain elusive, so Lucas urges the Lake Erie Monster to "Swim, loom aloof / from any hint of proof." Doubters may skim the surface of the waters scoffing at mystery, but the poem gives the final word to the unknown monsters that linger in the dark depths where they can continue to "Hulk, reign, lurk."

Personally, I prefer my monsters to lurk in poems--which is a great reason to read Dave Lucas's poetry. I'd like to be in the room when all the literary monsters get together to talk about their encounters. with human beings: Do Scylla and Charybdis fight over the comfy chair while Grendel's Mother passes around a tray of severed arms? Somebody needs to write that poem.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Sing a song of gym class

News flash: "Negative memories of gym class may impact adults' lifestyle....Thirty-four percent of respondents reported feeling embarrassed by their childhood PE experience....People's gym-class memories 'had some degree of influence on their self-perception and ... the degree of their sedentariness' ...."

Let us sing a song of gym-class badness, a litany of humiliations that still burn decades later:

That time in the kickball game when by some miracle I made it to first base but then did not know what to do when I got there so my helpful classmates screamed at me to Tag up! Tag up! Tag up! but I did not know the meaning of the phrase and instead got tagged out and my helpful classmates let me know how they felt about my foolishness. Loudly.

Getting picked last for every team, of course, because while my classmates were experts in running, kicking, and hitting, my areas of expertise were tripping, falling, and closing my eyes whenever a ball came near my face. And then that brilliant gym teacher decided that students would take turns being captain and worked her way down the roll book as I waited patiently at the end of the alphabet, confident that I would finally get a chance to be the one doing the choosing instead of the one not chosen, and then when she'd reached my end of the alphabet the gym teacher skipped my name and went back to the top of the roll.

Not that I am bitter.

Let us glance over the casual humiliations of the locker room and focus on that instrument of human torture, the one-piece gym suit, a shapeless item in jersey knit that required wearers to fit the entire body through the neck-hole, and if you can show me someone whose neck size equals her hip size then you've found the only person capable of wearing that particular gym suit. The overstretched neck would stretch and sag and droop while the shorts would ride up and bunch just where you didn't want them to bunch, and since this was in Florida and I was fat, I sweated a lot during gym class, so by the end of the week the gym suit emitted odor rays capable of melting eyeballs at 30 paces. 

And seriously: horizontal stripes? Whose thought that was a great idea?

Why did I take beginning tennis three different times? Because I couldn't hit the ball. Why did I quit golf lessons after the first day of class? Because I couldn't hit the ball and the teacher wouldn't let anyone go inside until everyone had hit three golf balls so they all stood there watching me not hit the balls. Why did I allow my membership to lapse at that one gym? Communal showers--are you kidding me? And those kids who couldn't stop staring at my scars!

I could go on, but who wants to dwell on all that awfulness? If I must sing the song of gym-class badness, I'll do it while walking the track at the rec center, where nobody tells me to tag up and I don't have to wear a horrible gym suit and I don't get picked last because I'm not on a team. Forget the litany of humiliation--I'm going for a walk.

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The hazards of living (almost) alone

Driving home after a busy day crowded with work, students, meetings, and constant demands, I relish the thought of arriving at my empty house and enjoying the quiet, eating a light supper and reading a good book, maybe listening to the Cleveland Indians game on the radio, cherishing the knowledge that no one will be there to ask anything of me.

But then I walk in the door and realize I'm not alone: I'm sharing the house with a Very Bad Smell that lurks underfoot like a slovenly roommate. It doesn't take long to sniff out the source: inside the potato bin, where some potatoes have rotted.

Here is one of the hazards of living (mostly) alone: I don't cook or eat enough to keep up with the fresh produce, so things occasionally rot. Someone will need to remove the stinky, mushy potatoes and then clean out the bin, which appears to be developing its own ecosystem. No use looking around for volunteers: it's all on me.

Similarly, this morning the dog started barking frantically at a particular spot on the front porch. Who will go out and see what foul beast she's cornered there? That would be me--but I'd better grab the broom first and sweep away the spider that insists on building a web across my front door every night. When I finally get out there, I see nothing worth barking at except a swarm of ants emerging from a new crack in the porch, which does not make me happy but I have to wonder why the dog is so hysterical about a bunch of ants. Did some other small beastie get scared away before I got out the door? We do get snakes out there, but she never seems to care about them, and neither do I since they help control the mouse population.

Mice! That's what I dread about winter: as soon as the nights get cold, the mice will start looking for warm winter lodgings, and then I'm likely to catch a few in the mousetraps in the kitchen. Unless the mice happen to get caught on the one day a week when my husband is here, I'll have to be in charge of emptying the traps (yuck) and then re-setting them (ouch!). It's a chore that can't be postponed (speaking of Very Bad Smells), but a dead rodent in a trap that can pinch me is not what I really feel like facing first thing in the morning. 

I've proven that I can manage on my own as long as I'm well and truly alone, but I'm less adept when my space is invaded by mice or ants or Very Bad Smells. If only I could find a way to put the invaders to work! The snakes can eat the mice and the dog can bark at the ants but who will harness the Very Bad Smell?