Saturday, January 30, 2010

Out of Step - More on Salinger

I really appreciate the comments people have made, thank you.

Several folks talked about being asked to identify with protagonists, though What Now? points out that she doesn't ask that of her high school students. So I was thinking about that, and trying to remember back to my high school experience.

I don't remember any of my HS English teachers pushing identification, to be honest. We read a very white, male canon. As I recall, my high school teachers included Dr. Vaughn, an African American woman who had the misfortune to teach me twice! Ms. Jackson, a young, quite hip white woman, and Mr. Robinson, an African American man. I'm guessing they didn't get a lot of choice in the curriculum.

I think they were pretty sophisticated teachers, and handled pretty big classes with a good deal more kindness than I certainly deserved.

So, why do I remember my high school English classes with such dissatisfaction?

I think I was just a cranky, unhappy in the most petty and boring ways teenager. Anything I was made to do, I pretty much resented. I liked band the things I chose more because I chose them than anything else.

And the more I thought about Salinger (which I think I read in Ms. Jackson's American lit course, as a junior), I wonder if the whole "oh, this is so risque" attitude didn't feel flat to me, since I grew up in an era and area where a high schooler running around NYC wasn't nearly as scary as Zodiac or the Manson family, nor as exotic as the Haight, nor as challenging to my basic ideas (white, middle class) as the Black Panthers. Disaffected in my world might mean the SLA, and wasn't something that seemed the least bit attractive to a white, middle class girl.

The kids who were angry at my school were angry at real things, racism especially (but also relieved not to be worried about the Vietnam draft); some of us, and I was one, were biding our time, knowing we'd go away to college soon and get out of the suburbs.

Also, New York didn't have my attention; it wasn't on my radar. I wonder if that's a regional or experience thing? I've still only been to NYC once. It's a great city, as is Tokyo, for example, but it's not my City.

So then I got to thinking about the books I was reading that really grabbed my imagination. And I realized that I read very much for plot and setting, and with absolutely no appreciation for style. Maybe that's why Hemingway didn't grab me? I wasn't ready to appreciate style? Would I enjoy the books for style more now?

I loved books such as Paddle to the Sea (I know, it's a kids's book, but still), Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain, Never Cry Wolf, In the Shadow of Man. I see a pattern here: I liked books that were about people striking out on their own, even though (or because) I had absolutely no wilderness experience. And I wasn't being told to identify with them, but was choosing to read and reread them because I did identify, and gender didn't much matter to me.

I was also starting to read books my neighbor suggested, Leon Uris, James Michener, big epic type books that took on more than a kid being cranky. Those books led me to Cancer Ward and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and those led me to The Gulag Archipelago (I know!) and into my depressive Russian lit era.

I think Holden Caulfield just couldn't compete with that sort of stuff in my adolescent imagination, and I certainly wasn't really aware of style or anything, so I wasn't "getting" his voice.

I wonder if, growing up in the suburbs, I felt an urge to turn one way or the other, toward urban or rural life, and at that time rural life seemed better? So my reading choices were often moving in a direction opposite to Holden's. (If so, that's amusing because now I'm more comfortable in urban settings, though I live in a semi-rural one.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

Decision 2010 - Snowshoe Edition

You're thinking this is some big thing. But it's not. It's probably not even the biggest decision I've made this month (though it might be).

I'm thinking about buying myself snow shoes. I think if I do, and stick them in the car with my skis, I'll use them the way I do my skis, which is fairly often and happily.

Here's one recommendation, which I can't find in my area: Denali A friend whose family member does ski patrol and snow rescue type stuff says they're great, and should work well for me. They're small and light, looks like. But they're not sold locally that I can find, so I'd have to do the internet purchase thing. (I'm an REI member, but there's no outlet near me. I don't want to drive 90 miles to go shopping.)

In the high techish area, these also seem to fit my needs: Tubbs Flex They flex, they're cool. They're available at a local medium box type store on sale, so about the same price as the ones before.

In the more traditional look area, but also seemingly appropriate to my needs: Tubbs Venture They're made by the same company as above, but an older sort of thing. Does that mean the new one is "untested" or that the old one has been surpassed. And really, truly, for my needs, would it matter one way or the other? They're available at a local bigger box store, not on sale, and more expensive. So probably out.

And finally, these are also fairly traditional ones: Atlas They're available at a truly local bike, ski, and stuff shop in the next town up the road, at about the price of the first two. It's the shop where I bought my skis, and I like them and their service.

All three companies seem to get good reviews on the web. All three seem to make good snowshoes, and all are comparable (basic snowshoeing needs covered). I'm not going up Everest (trust me on this), just goofing off in local parks, so I'm pretty sure whatever I get will be fine.


Edited to add: I finally got over my indecision and decided any of them would be fine for my needs and ordered the red ones (the first ones)!

Out of Step

I was watching PBS last night, and they had two white men on elegizing about J. D. Salinger.

I wonder, seeing some of the tributes, if I'm the only person who thought The Catcher in the Rye was a waste of my time in high school.

I have to admit, I haven't reread it since. Nor have I reread the Hemingway books that irritated me. I swear, I counted and he said on the first page of one book that it was raining six times. Six times. Yeah, I figured it out. It's raining. Six times.

It's not that I didn't read sexist stuff a-plenty back then (and now), but those books especially, just irritated me. I remember my friend Eric and I mocking tyhe BS slang. Being high schoolers, we just mocked and didn't really analyze our response to the book or characters. Retrospectively, for me, a lot of the response had to do with gender. Really, we were asked to identify with this privileged white male running around New York City in the 50s. But Eric was Chinese-American, so maybe his response had something to do with the racism I vaguely remember in the text? Maybe ours was the reaction of suburban kids for whom New York City was someplace unimaginable and (to be honest) just not that interesting compared to the city near us. Maybe ours was the reaction of kids who'd grown up in the 60s/70s and weren't nostalgic for the 50s?

And as long as I'm thinking back, I want to apologize to Ms. Jackson for being a rude teenaged idiot in class. I'd want to smack myself.

J.D. Salinger may have been a wonderful person (or not), but that book was pure torture for me.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


I had that really poor class discussion.

I chaired a meeting and did a clumsy job. Bleargh.

After work, I went around to a couple stores in town trying to look at snowshoes. One store has a couple of this type, and says they're far superior. Another store has a lot of another type (from the same company), and has never heard of the other type. The other store doesn't carry snow shoes anymore.

It's evidently time to buy swimsuits, not snowshoes, this despite the fact that the wind chill took us well below zero today.

And when I got home, I got the final (second) notice that despite my digging and yesterday's apparent okayness, my mail box isn't accessible enough, so I need to pick up my mail at the post office.

It's so cold outside that it's just... cold.

I think to the future, and I can't imagine surviving here another nearly 20 winters until I might be able to retire.

Fail: Discussion

I just tried to have a discussion with one of my classes that was absolutely ugh. Only a few people spoke, and I wasn't leading well, and just ugh.

Partly, it's the beginning of the semester thing where some people are intimidated now, but will be able to contribute in a week or two.

Partly it's the beginning of the semester thing where some people just aren't used to reading carefully yet, and so disagree with something the author didn't actually say, and want to talk about how wrong the author is, except s/he didn't say it anyway.

Partly the room is a really bad configuration for good discussion, and way crowded, so circling up isn't really an option. It's a long narrow configuration with a lot of bodies stuck in.

And partly I just stunk at leading today, despite being pretty well prepared.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Help, I've Lost my Vowels

Trying to teach students to read Middle English makes me acutely aware that I have a strong and "non-standard" accent as an English speaker ("Non-standard" compared to people who write pronunciation guides for Chaucer, anyway). I've "lost" a lot of vowel sounds, and since I don't say them, I'm never sure when I should be saying them in Middle English and such, if that makes sense. (Except when I say "lost" there I mean "I never had them in the first place.") And how to say them?

If I'm looking at an "a" and the book says to pronounce it like "father," but I don't say the same vowel in "father" that the writer of the book did, how do I say the vowel?

Here's an example. The Riverside gives two different ways of saying the a sound, one as in father (but fronted, what?), and one as in the German Mann. They both sound like the same vowel to me. Father, Mann (not Man in English; that's a different one for me). So how do I do the Middle English? I can't find the modern vowel, how do I find the 600 year old one?

Here's another one. There's an O that's supposed to sound like "broad" and a different O that's supposed to sound like "hot." But I don't pronounce those differently. (This is my cot/caught deficiency.)

I supposed I should be grateful that I do have pin/pen differences, or I'd have to specify a sewing pin or an ink pen at the store.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I Hate Winter

As you read this, you'll know exactly what a petty, self-centered so and so I am.

When I got home today, I got a form note from the postal delivery person (it's not an actual postal worker, because our mail is delivered by an independent contractor who drives a regular car around while he sits on the wrong side and drives half-assed) saying that my mail box wasn't accessible, and if I didn't fix it, they wouldn't deliver the mail any more.

The last time the city plow came through, it left a heavy berm of solid ice in the drive and along the road, a couple feet from the curb. (The mailbox top is even with the curb and chest high on me when I stand on the street in summer.)

So I spent about an hour and a half with my metal gardening shovel, trying to break the ice away, and then the show shovel and hands to move the chunks of ice off the road.

I don't know if it's adequate. You can see that I dug back about two feet and down about two feet, and about 12 feet long. (The box part is chest high when I stand on the street in the summer to get my mail.)

If it's not adequate, then the postal delivery person won't deliver mail to my house, and I'll have to go to the post office to pick it up. That's not actually so bad. I live in a small enough town that there's hardly ever much of a line at the post office. And I don't get much important mail, so it's not like I need daily mail.

Monday, January 25, 2010

First Day Follies

I had bad insomnia last night, even though I went to bed early-ish (10). And then I did the unthinkable, I turned off the alarm without getting up. Usually, I'm pretty good about not doing that, but I did it. And when I turned over, it was 7:30. So I hopped up, made caffeine, at breakfast, made lunch, showered, dressed and got myself to work by 8:08, just in time to get the very last parking space in the lot nearest my building.

I don't have class until 10, so it's not a matter of being late to class, but of having to haul heavy books (Riverside Chaucer, I'm looking at you!) from the car.

I've now completed my last minute fiddling with class folders, written an advising of the month club letter to my advisees, and written a committee thing.


I have an office near a corner, so I have three close neighbors, one of whom is a creative writer. Why is it that a certain subset of male creative writing students think they're beats, complete with berets and sexist attitudes, and ask me about my colleague's schedule, since apparently any woman in an office must perforce be a male's secretary? My creative writing colleague is neither a beat nor, to the best of my knowledge, deeply sexist.


I still get nervous before the first classes of the semester. I'm jittery now, with 19 minutes to go. I think there's some more mindless paperwork I can take care of.


I tried to get into the electronic roster to make myself an attendance page, but no such luck. It's down! Yay for computer problems!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Some Things Don't Make Sense

I've been setting up the course things for our on-line course system. I use this in a pretty limited way, generally to make copies of the syllabus and calendar available (in case someone loses his/hers) and putting up pdfs of special readings.

If you use the same pdf or other document from one semester to the next, you can transfer it. I tried that one time, and it didn't work at all. Then another time, I got one of the tech folks to walk me through it, and it worked. And this time, I did it myself. The transfer thing isn't intuitive at all, but I remembered enough from being walked through in the fall, so that was good.

I have access to my campus drive from home through a special thing that the campus computer wizzes helped me set up. (We have very helpful campus computer folks, for sure.) And I have all the syllabus and calendar files stored on the campus drive, since that's what I save things to on my work computer.

A little while ago, setting up the course things, I tried to upload the basic document files from the campus drive to the on-line delivery system. It seemed to download okay, but when I tried to open it, the computer gave me an error message saying it's unreadable. It's done this before, and I don't know why.

So I went in, saved the exact same file to my laptop hard drive, and uploaded the file from my hard drive to the on-line delivery system. And then I tested it, and it opened just fine.

I don't get why downloading one way would cause some weird unreadablity, and downloading twice would solve that. There must be a logical computer explanation, though.

But now everything's up and ready for Monday!

That's tomorrow. Wow, it's already here, isn't it?

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Why is it when I tell someone no thanks, I don't like beer, s/he inevitably tells me that I should either try this extra special super duper local brewery beer or that I should just drink it until I learn to like it.

I want to say, I'm closing 50 this year, do you really think I haven't tried more than one beer, and figured out that I don't like them, despite what beer lovers say?

And even more I want to ask: it tastes BAD to me; why would I want to learn to like it?

It's hard to imagine anyone since the discovery of sugar saying, "just try to eat more of this chocolate and you'll learn to like it." It's hard to imagine those words being said, isn't it? Or, "oh, if only you tried this other chocolate, you would like that."

That's because (with a little help from our friend sugar) chocolate tastes good. Beer, to me, does not.

It's not like I'm in someone's face telling them they can't drink beer or whatever; simply my statement that I don't want any makes people want to convince me to drink it.

No one ever needed to convince me to drink hot cocoa.

Why do beer drinkers feel the need to evangelize? What does it mean that people go out of their way to learn to drink something that tastes bad to them when they first drink it?

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Guy Walks into an Office

I'm in my office, just making sure things are set for Monday. My colleague in the next office is in, too, with his door closed, chatting to another colleague.

A man knocks on my colleague's door. The door opens, and the man steps in, saying something about how oh, he doesn't want to interrupt. But now he's in the room.

The second colleague excuses herself, and the man says he needs to talk to my colleague before the second day of classes. My colleague says he just got back to town and is busy, but will make an appointment for next week. And then man basically sits himself down and takes over the office.

Why do so many people just barge in like that? (You know it's not just this one man, right?)

(Yes, my colleague could have kicked him out, but not without being abruptly rude, and we know how that goes down with the evals and all.)

I Should Be...

...Home cleaning the house because there's that party tomorrow, and the house is becluttered.

...Writing the overdue abstract because it's overdue. Gah.

...Thinking about my classes actually happening because they will soon.

...Out playing in the snow because I need the exercise and sunlight, such as it is.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bookstore Follies

One of the little lessons I've learned about teaching: always check your books at the bookstore during the week before classes.

Here's how it goes. In, say, early October, the bookstore sends out requests for book orders, to be handed in by mid-October.

Sometime in December, I realize that I haven't ordered books yet, and order the ones that are easy, the ones for classes I've taught a fair bit or that don't have many books to order.

For Chaucer this term, I ordered AC Cawley's Everyman edition of The Canterbury Tales. It's cheap, it's got decent notes, and it's easy for students to carry around in overloaded backpacks.

Then in early January, I got around to ordering the more complicated orders, the ones involving different editions of plays. I gave up on a big Shakespeare anthology because it's too painfully heavy to carry around in backpacks with a couple 20 pound science texts.

So, today I went and checked my books. Shakespeare looks good; they notified me before that they were going to get one edition in only during the second week of classes, and I worked that into the syllabus, so it's no problem.

Comp is a mess, but all three of the texts I ordered are there, and we'll figure it out if necessary.

Chaucer is mostly okay. Mostly there are used and new editions of the Everyman. But there were also about 5 Penguin editions, in modern English translation with no notes. Oops!

Happily, the bookstore manager came and we chatted, and he pulled them off the shelf and told me to have any students who bought the wrong edition come in and exchange for the right one. So that should work out fine.

I'm extra glad I went and checked. I wonder how many of my students bought the Penguin, since it's smaller in size (and that's always appealing!).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Fake Medievalist in Action

Tonight was the first night of the Chaucer series.

I went over last Friday, and checked to make sure the technology would work with a couple of library staff folks. It took a couple because the hard-drive was iffy, and the tech person had to come give it a stern talking to. But it was working when I left.

I went early tonight, just to be sure, and the computer wasn't working at all. So much for the email I'd sent myself with links to pictures of Hengwrt and Ellesmere! So, I slapped my old Riverside on a copy machine and made copies of appropriate parts, and winged it. My timing was off, but the audience seemed good.

It's fun to talk to adults about lit. They sometimes get it in a fuller way than most young people, and that gives me hope that I'll get things more as I reread.

I'm wiped out. And happy.

We started out by talking a little about what we'd read (if any) of Chaucer, and I was sad to hear that several people had taken Chaucer in a nearby university (many years ago, now, judging by hair more grey than mine) and found the professor boring. How can you make Chaucer boring? I mean, I can't really conceive how it could be done. Think about "The Miller's Tale" or "The Franklin's Tale." How could you make them boring if you tried? And yet, I've heard that from a couple other folks in the past, about different schools.

I hope this group enjoyed the discussion. I talked more than I wanted to, and read aloud more than I thought I should (with quick translations and then focused discussion on a word or two). But a couple of the librarians I know who were at the reference desk said people coming out were happy and talked about what a great session it was. I hope so. (I chatted with the librarian upstairs about the technology a bit, just in case it gets worked out for next week.)

We talked about the General Prologue stuff, pilgrimages, Thomas Becket, frame narratives, quitting and the game, and the whole "it's not my fault, I have to tell you what the naughty guy said" aspect. Next week, we'll be doing "The Miller's Tale." Just thinking about "The Miller's Tale" excites me. It's sort of mental orgasm, knowing I'll be as surprised as ever when Nicholaus shouts for water, even though I know it's coming. Is there a better moment in literature?

It's times like this, having talked about an incredible piece of literature with people who are interested, when I most love teaching and I'm most happy that I'm here doing the work that I do. Grading and committee work I could leave in an instant, but this feeling I would miss dreadfully.

And now I'm going to bed. It was only an hour and a half, but I run on adrenaline, especially with something like a library series, where I'm less sure of myself and my audience than I am in a regular classroom, so I'm tuckered. (And I did ski for almost an hour today, and worked on syllabus stuff.) I don't know how school teachers teach for 6 or 7 hours in a day, and still manage to get up the next morning and do it all again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fake Medievalist

I'm doing a program for the local public library on several of The Canterbury Tales. I know, someone who's a real medievalist should do this, but here I am.

I finished working out a handout for the first night (on the General Prologue) that also sets up the next week (The Miller's Tale).

It's been fun reading up on recent (well, since I was in grad school, anyway) manuscript work on the tales. And that's also going to be helpful to me when the semester starts and I'm introducing the tales for my class. (It's not that we're going into depth about the manuscripts, but it's still helpful for me to learn stuff.)

Seven Things Meme

The Wayward Classicist tagged me for a meme. The idea is that we talk about seven things we haven't previously talked about in this venue.

1) Recently, one of my friends asked me which bar in town would be "my bar" if I had one, but I couldn't name one that I didn't know primarily because students get in trouble there or I pass it on the road. (My favorite name is one on the other side of town, near what used to be the edge of town, on what used to be a highway leading out of town, the "Last Chance." Our boundaries and highways have changed.)

2) I went snowshoing at a state park the other day, and there was a ranger doing the state park trail pass thing. She recognized me. So while I don't have a regular bar, I do, apparently, have a regular ranger. (I should have asked her name! She works the bike path sometimes during the summer.) I also have a new trail pass for the year.

3) I'm also recognized and treated like a regular at the blood donation center and the local food co-op.

4) I just got a new kitchen rug! My old one was fraying and worn, and looked like heck. The new one is softer, and has a red pattern. I chose red over blue because I figured I'm more likely to spill red than blue food. (The floor is cold and very hard tile, so a rug makes winter a tad more tolerable.)

5) I got the rug as part of my big redecoration thing. I also got two floor lamps, one for the living room, which is otherwise too dim to read in at night, and one for my office. My redecoration desire is totally done, and I still have to put together the two lamps.

6) The redecoration project started because I'm hosting a party this week. I'm both happy and nervous, but mostly happy for the reason (which has nothing to do with me at all). I'm nervous because I need to clean and host and all.

7) I came to campus to get work done, but instead I'm doing a blog post.

So, seven of you self-select and write your own seven things, please!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Alternative Career Tracks?

There's been a lot of discussion lately about job market issues. Tenured Radical started it by (in a response to Suburban Dean) suggesting some ways that academic departments might change. Others responded.

Historiann responds in brief, though her comment section discussion is very interesting.

Dr. Crazy talked about her experiences at a 4/4 job, and warns against idealizing those jobs or expecting tt folks who have them to feel guilty.

Clio Bluestocking talked about feeling lucky to have survived the market and gotten her job, though it doesn't offer tenure.

Sisyphus at Academic Cog does a great job talking about the difficulty of retraining issues, and also about thinking in broader terms.

I want to expand a bit on a comment I made to Sisyphus at Academic Cog, though it's also in response to reading some of the comments elsewhere. It's been an interesting discussion, and while I'd like to make real suggestions, the budgetary issues seem way too big for me. I don't know where to begin with the budget issues on my own campus, much less across all universities. Here goes: get more money; hire more people to tt or at least long term contracts instead of overusing cheap grad student labor; reduce PhD programs all around while making sure that "non-Ivy" students get equitable opportunities, and make sure that those programs provide solid funding, some teaching experience, and good career counseling. Oh, and world peace, potable water for all, no more polio.

When I'm queen of the world, things will be different. Until then, though...

I was struck in the comments by how many folks talked about their professors telling or not telling them various things. (I'm not blaming people for listening to their professors, but noticing it.) Professors of PhD programs are privileged in all sorts of ways, and certainly many seem incredibly wise and smart and all-knowing.

I returned to school via a community college, took a year there, decided I wanted to study more English, with an eye to writing or maybe teaching at a community college with an MA (because I had NO clue, except I knew the community college instructors I had were excellent and inspiring). I was allowed to enroll at a regional university program despite my less than inspiring undergrad grades as a biology major, and took a year of undergrad courses, basically doing the English major classes.

During the second part of that year, I did a presentation for a class, and afterwards, the professor said something about what a good job I did (thanks to my Peace Corps experience!) and how I should think about going on for a PhD program.

I'd never thought of a PhD program before. But here, a young, very smart and caring assistant prof suggested it. And when I talked to another prof I respected, she encouraged me, too. Neither thought to tell me how absolutely horrid the market was, though the assistant prof had just gotten her job. Nor did the other students in my GRE study group hear differently from the profs who were encouraging them.

So, yes, I believed. My professors encouraged me, and I believed. And I went on and eventually got lucky.

It was during my first year in a PhD program that I began hearing from more advanced grad students about the horrors of the job market. Later, yes, the faculty in the program talked about limiting grad enrollments, and did, at least for a couple years, reduce enrollments. They also talked about doing a better job with funding.

Here's what I want to offer to the discussion of alternative career tracks.

Students need to recognize that professors are flawed human beings. You may think we know about how to get jobs, but what we know is that we got a job. We may have some clues about how that happened, but our knowledge is really very, very limited. We may know about how our own hiring goes, but we probably don't know a lot about how other departments' hiring goes (broadly). We may know a couple people here and there, but I doubt most people know the ins and outs of other departments very well.

And we generally know even less about getting jobs outside of academia. Most tt faculty went to college or university, did really well, went to a grad program, did really well, and then got lucky enough to get a tt job. Few of us have worked in other fields extensively. (Yes, some have, but most haven't.)

We are flawed human beings who want to think that we made a good life decision to go to grad school, move across the country for a job far from family and friends, and so forth. Our ego may get in the way a bit when we see a student who seems "like us," who seems to love what we love and who is thinking about going on, becoming our academic offspring, so to speak.

But there are jobs out there that have nothing to do with academics that are meaningful and rewarding. Yes, jobs outside academia are tight right now, especially tight, all around. But our undergrads are managing to get interviews and opportunities. And academic jobs, while meaningful and rewarding, are not one hundred percent perfect, any more than other jobs.

How, then, do you go about preparing for and getting one of those jobs?

Get to the career center and look at what your school (or your alma mater) offers in terms of career counseling and help. My school, a smallish regional university, offers amazing resources. I had no clue about these sorts of resources when I was an undergrad or a grad student. (Seriously, my family's response to my job concerns was that I could always be a secretary until I got married. I rebelled and joined the Peace Corps, and never turned back.) It's only since I've been advising students and encouraging them to go to our career center that I've learned about the wealth of resources. There are people who are really good at helping our students find and apply for jobs, prepare for job interviews, and help them with career decisions. These people know way more about those things than I ever will.

Look at the ways that the AAC&U talks about the value of a liberal arts education. Those folks talk about the liberal arts as building skills, rather than being vocational. And we ask our undergrads to think about the skills they're building through classes, activities, projects, and such. At least, that's what I've been learning as an advisor. We don't tell students to talk about being a lit major, we tell students to talk about what they've learned and how what they've learned will help an employer. Here are some of the biggies:

Analyzing information and data (textual, numeric, graphic, etc)
Synthesizing information
Communicating (written, oral, etc)

Even if you're resistant, and aiming for the tenure track, thinking about your skills will help you when you talk about advising or teaching in interviews.

And if you take one of those other jobs, you can take comfort in knowing you're likely to change careers a couple of times, so if you don't like where you're starting, you're likely to find something else. That's how most peoples' careers work. You can also take comfort in knowing that you'll probably make a lot more money. Maybe you'll contribute to feeding people, or making sure the lights come on. Maybe you'll arrange aid to Haiti or help people find appropriate health insurance.

And yes, it may suck that you spent 8.4 years (on average) getting a PhD in English rather than earning money right away, but you'll also have incredibly well developed skills, way beyond what an undergrad probably has. You can research, analyze, write, teach, speak in crowds. And, nothing will take away the intense pleasure you'll have in knowing what you've learned.

Some people would say my taking time to volunteer in the Peace Corps was a waste. I didn't like slogging through mud, and changed fields from biology to (eventually) English. But I didn't waste my time. I learned so much; I became a better and different person in some ways, and became more comfortable with my old self in other ways. I mostly enjoyed the process, and I couldn't have gotten where I ended up without that process.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Facebook Weirdness

I mentioned here last month or so that I decided to do a facebook thing. So I did. I found some cousins and an uncle, reconnected with some college pals. I friended some of the folks I hang out with. I found a couple of Peace Corps friends.

And then I got a friend request from a student. I'd decided that I wasn't going to be posting pictures of my at wild drunken parties, mostly because I'm not much of a wild drunken party type. I'm more a late at the library type. And so I'd decided I'd accept friendship requests from co-workers and students.

The other day, I put up an old picture from my PCV days, and the student responded that I was "gorgeous." I have to be honest, I'm at best plain. I'm just not physically attractive, haven't been since I was a little kid. (I'm sure I got the Funny Looking Kid comment on the pediatrician's file.) I'm not putting myself down about this. Some of us have to be below average, you know? And that's where I put myself.

The thing is, the "gorgeous" comment felt totally weird and wrong to me, and I'm trying to figure out why.

I don't think, for example, that the friends I have who are administrators will get me fired.

I don't think my old college friends will suddenly think badly of me. Nor my Peace Corps friends, nor family.

But maybe it feels weird to be judged that way by a student? Is this a social status thing for me? If an old college friend had posted "gorgeous," I probably would have laughed. If my cousin or aunt had, I'd have known it was because we're family.

Is it because it feels so false and bullshitty?

Is it because I don't much respect the Lake Woebegon attitude that we're all just lovely and wonderful?

Friday, January 15, 2010


I just got back from a visitation. I've never been to a visitation before; I don't think they're part of my subculture of whiteness or something. Maybe they're regional?

The visitation was for the mother of one of our staff members; while our faculty tends to be drawn from afar, our staff folks (except for those who are partnered with faculty or administrators) tend to be local people who grew up in the area. Most are helpful and do their jobs well, and they can help folks from elsewhere figure things out around here. This staff member, though, is exceptional, and though I don't know her well, she's helped me find my way through some faculty duties with great generosity and kindness.

I didn't stay long, and I didn't go look in the casket. It seems like a weird idea to have the only time I see someone be in her casket, you know? And mostly, I wanted to let the staff person feel a bit supported in a difficult time.

I guess it's better to say awkwardly that you're sorry for someone's loss than not to say anything, right?

A Rough Start at College, Pt 2

I have a student who's facing suspension. The student got a note from the dean's office saying s/he is suspended but can write an appeal letter if s/he wants the appropriate deanling to reconsider the case. When the student emailed me, I realized that the student really had no sense of how to write the appeal. I'm guessing some students would know, but a lot wouldn't, especially first generation college students. So I thought I might be able to help a tad.

I'm only considering grade problem suspensions, here, though some of what I have to say may apply in other sorts of cases.

If you get one of these letters, you should start by sitting down with yourself and thinking about what happened. You might lie to a prof, and that's irritating, but if you lie to yourself, that's plain stupid. So be totally honest and think about why you had grade problems.

Next, consider if you really want to be in college, or if being suspended is a good chance for you to do something else for a year (or forever). If you don't want to be in college, do something else. There are lots of meaningful ways to spend your career or earn a living. Find one and try to do it well. Focus on making your live worth living. If that means getting a college education, fine. Maybe taking a year and going to a community college would work well for you. If so, do that.

If you decide that you want to appeal your suspension, read the suspension letter carefully, and see what the letter says in terms of an appeal process or reinstatement. If you want to go to that school, take those instructions seriously.

If you have an opportunity to write a letter appealing your suspension, view it as an opportunity. There's some person on the other end who's going to take time to read your letter, take time to review your record, maybe make a couple phone calls. Don't BS that person around.

Further, in all likelihood, that person wants you to succeed and wants an excuse to let you come back. That's how people in student services are. But, if you don't succeed, they may be held partly responsible, so they aren't just going to let you return for the fun of it.

When you're ready to write your letter, write down what you know about why you failed. Did you party too much? Did you get sick? Whatever it is, write it all down.

Now look at the list and think about how you can change the things that contributed to your failure. Can you change your living situation? Can you get yourself into a study group? Can you go to a math center? Write every idea you have down. If you have time, visit with your advisor or a tutoring center or whatever on campus, and see if they have ideas.

Now, again, be honest with yourself: are you willing to do what it takes to change the things that contributed to your failure? Can you make that commitment? Really? If not, then quit writing and do something else.

If so, then write down how you're going to change what you can change.

Then start drafting your letter. Have someone else give you feedback on your draft, preferably someone with a good deal of college experience.

Here's what I think the dean wants to see in the letter:

1) Yes, you take responsibility for the failure.
2) You have thought about why you failed; explain in short what you did (or what happened) that contributed to the failure.
3) You have thought about how to change what you can change, and have already taken some steps to make those changes. Explain in short what you've done so far.
4) You have thought about what further changes you will make once classes start, and can outline your plans.
5) A thank you for the opportunity to appeal the suspension, and an appreciation for someone taking the time to reconsider the suspension.

That's it, I think. That's what a dean wants to see. If the dean is convinced you can succeed, s/he may allow you to enroll again. S/he may suggest that you take specific steps to help yourself succeed. If the dean thinks you're not going to succeed, s/he won't allow you to enroll, but may give you suggestions to help you prepare to request reconsideration in another semester.

In either case, if you want to go to that school, take those suggestions seriously and follow through on them. Take your commitments to change seriously and follow through with them. You can't control a lot of things, obviously, but you can control some things.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Local News

The local news here is leading off the past couple of days with bits about local people who are in Haiti (local student on a church group trip, safe) or were in Haiti at some point (local person volunteering with a church group). Then they do a network feed on Haitian people.

It's totally weird that the news thinks that what's most important about the Haitian earthquake tragedy is that local visitors were there.

Dear local news: really, sometimes people from the upper midwest are not the center of the universe.

Do other areas of the country do this? I don't remember this sort of thing at all in the local news when I lived elsewhere. (Then again, they didn't have daily coverage of the local HS football training, either.)

A Bird in the Hand

I recently got some of my Peace Corps pictures digitized, so I thought I'd tell you a bit with some pictures:

When I moved to my site as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was the only PCV in the area, or so I thought, until I heard about R, who lived up the road about 15km. So I went to visit R on weekend, and was lucky to find him around. R was, well, odd. His site was an otherwised unused set of buildings from when an oil company thought they'd find oil right there, and things got a little developed, and then the oil wasn't there after all.

R's project (bats!) involved using mist nets, and so he'd also get birds in the nets. He'd put some of these birds in a big room with tree branches. Once I got to know R, I would go up on a weekend day and we'd go out to the mistnets and such. I learned a lot of cool stuff about birds and bats. At some point, I asked him and he said he'd give me one of the parrots from his room. I had to go back and arrange to make a cage (metal frame and chicken wire, and that was the ugliest cage ever), and then I went and got my small parrot (a conure, actually) and took it on the bus in a pillowcase. (The cage was huge and wouldn't have fit inside the bus.) R clipped her primaries on one side, so she couldn't fly. I called her Lacy, after the Doonesbury character. But that wasn't her name, of course. (I don't get when people "name" wild critters; you can call an animal whatever you want, but we people need to recognize that calling them something is for our convenience, and really not much to do with the wild animal at all.)

At the time, I was living in a boarding house, and there wasn't much for me to do in the evenings, so I spent a lot of time trying to tame the bird. And eventually, she (R thought she was female because of the way she behaved with the other birds in the room) became tame. So instead of living in the cage, she lived more on top of the cage or wherever she wanted to be in the room. (I put little branches inside and on top of the cage so she'd be able to climb around and move her feet into different positions and grip different diameters and all, and chew.) I covered the cage at night, and if she wanted to, she'd climb down and go in, but mostly she tucked her beak into a wing and slept on the branches on top.

It was about this time that I started experiencing the single most hedonistic wake up ever: she'd come over to my bed when it got light and get on my forehead and preen my eyelashes, one lash at a time. In case you've never experienced bird preening, and you're thinking, that beak! it could rip your skin to shreds! Yes, she could take out quite a chunk of flesh when she had a mind to. But her beak was warm, her tongue like a warm damp eraser, and when she preened my lashes, I could barely feel each lash being individually groomed. Talk about attention to detail. I probably had the best groomed lashes in human history.

Then, about eight months in, a couple more volunteers moved into town, and S (one of the new volunteers) and I decided to rent a house together (scandalizing the local US missionaries). We fairly quickly acquired a dog and a cat,* so the bird lived mostly in my room unless I was around. When I was around, she'd be with me riding around on my shoulder or exploring. She went to the store with me, did dishes, whatever. (That's Lacy supervising from the faucet.)

When she molted into new primaries, she could fly well again, but she pretty much stayed on my shoulder when we were out, except for one time when she ended up screaming in a tree til I climbed part way up and she hopped back onto my hand, grabbed my shirt as hard as she could and wouldn't let go for HOURS. (Usually, I'd flip her back to her cage every few minutes where she'd take a dump and then fly back to me, but she would have none of THAT on that day.)

Sometimes, the neighbors' bird would come walking over (its primaries were clipped), and the two would get into some serious preening. I don't know if parrots of different species hang out together in the wild or anything, but I've seen loose parrots of different species hanging out together in LA, and heard of them doing so in SF. (Were I to want to be a biologist now, I'd want to study parrot populations in urban US areas; are they breeding populations? What do they eat? How do they intermingle? It's just fascinating!) (That's gentian violet on my hands, not some scary disease. I'll tell you about the gentian violet another time.)

I didn't teach Lacy many "tricks." Other than getting used to being on a hand, a shoulder (a head, whatever) and learning to enjoy being groomed by a clumsy human, mostly, she thought of things she wanted to do and I worked around that. I learned to hide books (or anything else I didn't want chewed), and to wear a towel on my shoulder. I learned to give a proper under the wing massage. I learned to share whatever I was eating, though sharing chicken seemed a little weird at first (I realized it was no weirder than me eating another mammal, but still).

The one thing I taught her was to lie on her back in my hand. It was a stupid idea, but there you are. I was (and perhaps am still) stupid at times.

In my minimal experience with birds, I gather even the most finger friendly tend to want the fingers below them until they're ready to relax and get their neck groomed. They tend not to like their backs touched unless they're really in the mood (usually part of the under the wing massage, which could pretty much get Lacy totally in her happy place). So, to put my hand on her back (while she was on the other hand) was the first step. Then she let me turn her over with my other hand still in place, firmly gripped by her very strong feet. Finally, I could withdraw my other hand, and she'd lie for a moment, turning her feet a bit this way and that. But if there was the slightest noise, a noise that normally she'd barely notice, she'd be instantly in flight, maybe calling, and then on my shoulder holding firmly. (It's a bit blurry, but you get the idea. We're outside, and about 15km from where she was mist-netted. But by this time, I was her flock, so she hung out with me.)

*Today, I'm ashamed at how careless we were in getting Lacy, Kiddo (the dog) and Oliver (the cat). When we started, two years seemed like forever, but when it was time to go, it was in reality a very short amount of time. My roommate, S, was in country for a while longer than I, and got a new PCV roommate, who then took on Kiddo and Oliver. I'm not sure what happened to them after that.

How stupid and young I was. We took the precautions of getting rabies and distemper vaccines, but we didn't think about the long term.

When I was getting ready to leave, I looked into bringing Lacy back with me; she wasn't of an endangered or protected species, but she was wild caught, so from what I found out, she'd have had to stay in caged quarantine for about six months. I couldn't imagine leaving her alone in a cage for a week, much less for six months. She was strongly socialized with people by that time, used to being with someone a lot of the time.

So I gave her to another PCV who liked her lots and was responsible. But she got in a bit of trouble because he was in a restaurant with her one day and she flew into the kitchen and scared the cook, who got really mad at him. He decided to clip her wing again, so that he could take her to the restaurant and town as always. And then one day he came home from work to find no bird, only some feathers strewn about, and he thought one of the local cats had gotten in and caught her. And that's the last I know.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How to Help Haiti

I've been through two big earthquakes, but I was lucky enough in both cases to live in wealthy areas that have strict building codes which were amazingly effective in minimizing deaths from building collapses. Haiti isn't so lucky, of course; it's a poor country and now with the huge earthquake, the folks there could use some extra help. Michael Leddy, who blogs at Orange Crate Art, has put up some helpful resources here.

The US State Department has a page with resources.

The Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC has a page up with links, too.

Because of my regular contact with the local blood donation center, I think of the American Red Cross for such occasions. Here's a page they have up about how they're already working to help.

There are lots of aid organizations doing good work around the world. Peace Corps is my favorite, but they're not in Haiti. Feel free to share your favorite(s), and I'll be happy to add them to this page if they seem appropriate for helping Haiti at this time.


Edited to add:

Feel free to link, of course.

LenapeGirl suggests Doctors Without Borders. Here's the link.

Susan suggests Episcopal Relief and Development. Here's the link.

Dr.GunPowderPlot suggests Oxfam America. Here's the link.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Panic Mode

It struck me today, as I was making arrangements to meet with a local librarian to try out the technology for a library series I'm doing, PANIC! Gulp! EEP!

The library series starts next Wednesday, so I have just over a week to be fully prepared. I'll be talking with some community folks about Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, focusing first on the General Prologue, then "The Miller's Tale," "The Nun's Priest's Tale," and "The Franklin's Tale." It's basically Bardiac's favorite short Chaucer. The first day we'll talk about the GP, a little about the three pilgrims, a bit about pilgrimage, and a bit about the quitting game. I'm going to bring in some sound files of reading, and that's something I need to put together quickly.

I stopped by the Fort today (since I was there for a discussion of anti-racism) to ask the admin assistant for guidance about a committee I'm chairing this semester, and had a weird (not unpleasant, just unexpected) interaction with one of the administrative biggies. I made an appointment to talk to a deanling about the committee, since the admin assistant is out for a family thing for next week (after another anti-racism discussion).

I'm teaching Shakespeare for the first time since spring '07. That's two and a half years, and feels way too long. I'm sort of psyched and psyched out. I asked our new writing specialist for help in designing some assignments for writing for the class, and she's wonderful and gave me great help.

And then I'm teaching Chaucer again, The Canterbury Tales. I think most of the assignments I used last time worked well, and will need some tweaking, but not full out tweaking.

So why was I suddenly overwhelmed?


The anti-racism discussion was really good. They mix folks up so we've got some very theoretically informed folks, some staff folks with less reading knowledge, some folks from here, some from far away. It's really helpful for me to get a sense of how it was to grow up here, and especially how very different from my experience growing up far from here.

As a white person in the upper midwest who cares to work against racism, I have to recognize that I've had way more opportunities to know people of color, and yet mostly I socialize with other white folks. I socialize with faculty of color, but not much with people of color in the city or local area (and there are plenty). So why should someone with less opportunity do better?

We were discussing the Harry Reid comment, and commentaries in the media that make it sound like new information that African Americans who are lighter in color experience less intense racism at times. Is that really new information to most white folks? I remember learning that in grammar school, having it articulated, even.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


One of my friends and I went out snowshoing yesterday. My friend lives near a couple of big parks, so we started in one of them, and then after a bit, crossed the road to walk in the park next to the river. We were on the river bank, and could see that someone else had snowshoed on the river, and fairly recently. We thought for a bit about going and walking on the river ourselves, but neither of us knows much about ice stuff, so we decided not to. It seems like a bad time to go swimming, you know?

But, it's been well below zero for a good while here, since before Christmas except for one day when it got to a balmy 35 or so in December.

We walked along the bank, though, and it was beautiful, with the snow full of sparkly crystals, the sky blue, and the pine trees with just a bit of snow set off against their dark green. We walked up next to the boat ramp, where we saw that someone had driven a car or truck out onto the ice.

We figured any car was way heavier than we are, so we went down onto the ice. We brushed aside the snow to look at the ice; there were sort of little bubbles in there that gave an impression of depth, but who knows.

Gradually we grew confident enough to follow the other snowshoe tracks to a little island maybe 20 feet off the shore. It was funny how liberating and almost wild it felt to be out walking on a river, knowing that underneath us there's moving water.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Fudge Follies

When I was a kid, my Mom used to make the best fudge ever. She also made fudge sauce. You may think some store makes the best fudge but you'd be wrong.

I haven't had the fudge in years. Probably decades. She didn't make it often, even when I was a kid, but when she did, it was fudgasm.

Sometime before Christmas, I began thinking about trying to make some fudge, and asked for the recipe. My Mom revealed that she'd given me one of those cookbooks women's groups put together in the 60s and 70s to raise money, the Local Schoolhouse PTA Cookbook, that sort of thing. It turns out I have four of those from different fundraising things. And my brother does, too, she says. (I guess she was thinking ahead, eh?)

I didn't get around to trying to make fudge during finals, but I took the recipe book with me to my siblings, and it sounded appealing to all. So one evening my Sister-in-Law and I started making fudge. We read the directions, mixed the sugar, cocoa, and salt well, added the milk, and started heating, stirring occasionally. We were consulting and working together.

But apparently, we weren't doing it right, or so my Mom said, when she said, no, not like that, like this, here, let me show you. And she took over, with an assist from my sibling. My Sister-in-Law and I stood by, watching, and keeping out of the way.

It took me back to being a kid, and trying to do something in the kitchen, and being told, no, that's not right, let me show you, and then I'd stand around supposedly watching and lose interest. You might think, well, B, you should have stood your ground, but I learned quickly that if I stood my ground, I'd inevitably do something imperfect, and then I'd hear about that for a good long time. So I learned to not even bother to try. (It's a bad thing to learn.)

So I have a theory about cooking with kids. It's easy for me to have a theory, since I don't have kids to test it, but here it is: it should be okay for stuff to not turn out perfectly, especially the first few times. It should also be okay for there to be a bit of a mess, so long as blood is on the inside. Again, I don't have kids to test the theory.

Back at the ranch, the fudge turned out pretty soft, too soft to really cut, and more something you'd eat by the spoonful. Eating by the spoonful wasn't a problem for me. It still tasted really good.

Towards the end of my visit, when the previous fudge was gone, my Sister-in-Law and I decided to try again. Once again, we read the directions, got out stuff, and started following the directions. This time we even found a candy thermometer. We were doing fine, and then my sibling decided that no, we weren't actually doing fine, and that we should do something different, so he took over.

It's clear that one of us bred true, isn't it.

That time, the fudge came out like a rock. We had to break it with the edge of a heavy pan and stuff rather than trying to cut it with a knife. The good thing about fudge, though, is that even if it's totally hard, it's very water-soluble, so quite easy to clean up. And even rock hard, it dissolves in your mouth and still tastes pretty darned good.

And then I left and came home.

So, that first week home, I bought a quart of milk and decided to try making fudge myself, all by myself, so that if it didn't turn out well, I wouldn't have to hear about it. It was even softer than the first fudge over break, so soft that it didn't even hold its shape when you spooned some out. It still tasted good.

So, tonight I tried again. I thought I had it, but it's still too soft.


(But it tastes very good!)

Syllabus Hell

Sometimes it feels like writing a syllabus is an exercise in trying to prevent students from finding loopholes so that they can blame me for whatever goes wrong.

It's the "but you didn't say on the assignment sheet that we had to cite the text, so how can you grade me down for that?"

And, "but you didn't say I couldn't copy from S*notes to do the assignment, and it's too hard to do myself!"

Or, "but I emailed it to you before midnight, how could you count it late?"

So then I end up writing in the syllabus that I don't accept work by email but then there's a student who has a health issue and needs to email things and doesn't think I'll accept it, so I add a phrase about "without express permission," and before long, I'm handing out a 6 page syllabus that sounds like bad lawyer language and doesn't convey anything about how exciting it is to study Shakespeare. The next phase is that I cut out a bunch of the lawyer language, and try to get across my excitement about the texts, but them someone insists on handing in scrawled assignments and complains that I didn't tell them that they couldn't handwrite their work, and the legalistic stuff starts in again. And around I go.

But it doesn't matter, because even if I put in there that I don't accept emailed assignments, students still email me assignments because they don't remember seeing it on the syllabus or going over it the first day, and why would they, since it's an 8 page syllabus by that time.

And we're all supposed to tell students on EVERY syllabus what the goals of the school are. (Does anyone else have to do this?) Because somehow, if students know what the goals are, then they'll tell the assessment folks that yes, they know what the goals of the school are, as if somehow us telling them that they're supposed to learn critical thinking skills actually contributes in any way whatsoever to their actually learning critical thinking skills.

I wonder how much paper we collectively waste every semester with our goals statements? I'm less bothered that we put in statements about accomodating people with special needs or how to get help from the deans' office. But I hate the goals statements. At least no one is telling me I have to put a FERPA statement and a full explanation of their FERPA rights on every syllabus. (Just wait, though, some assessment person will read this and think, hey, what a great idea!)

I have one class pretty much done, calendar, syllabus, and all assignments.

I have another class partially done, calendar, assignments thought of but not written down. Syllabus can be partially canibalized.

I have another class hardly worked on. I got to the point in the calendar when I need to do a library day, and I don't want to have to totally rearrange things if the library can't do the day I've requested.

I have one big committee task done, two thank you letters (one more to do) and some office cleanup.

I wish it would warm up enough to make going outside minimally pleasant. (While it's in the teens, the wind chill makes it closer to 1F. That's minus 11 and minus 17 for the Celsius folks among us. Celsius always makes winter sound much tougher, doesn't it?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Good Day

I met with a new advisee today, someone coming back to school after messing up the first time and working for a couple of years in between. My experience with students who return a couple years after messing up is that they generally do quite well; they're focused and ready to work hard (or they wouldn't be coming back), and they've usually matured a bit. We had a nice talk and framed out the next couple of years with some room for exploration. I hope this student will kick ass, because my other returned-after-a-mess student is about to graduate with a nearly four-oh gpa in classes since the return.

After that, I cleaned up my shelves a bit (returning books to their regular places after a semester on the "in use for a class this semester" shelf) and putting some over in the free book area.

I wrote a couple of thank you letters to faculty folks who came to talk to my class this semester to help my students understand stuff I didn't know well. (In poetry and drama classes, I teach up through the 20th century, and that's a stretch for someone who thinks the world got a lot less fun when they closed the theaters in 1642.) I need to get better at these, and certainly need to make sure to do them every time. Anyone have a good structure for these? (They get cc'd to the appropriate department chair, too, of course, so they can't just be me saying, "thanks, you rock!") I still have one more to do, but forgot about it earlier.

Then a colleague and I went out snowshoing for a while in the fresh snow at a local park. It felt great, and tiring. The fresh snow resting on the pine and spruce trees was just lovely; it's like walking through a Christmas card, only way better.

I got home and realized that I had a good bit of digging to get my driveway clear, but I got bonus puppy therapy from my neighbors' dogs. Is there anything much better than dogs playing in fresh snow? One of the dogs is an aging golden, but in the snow, he must have felt just great, because he was running around having a great time.

All in all, it's been a good day, and now, it's 8pm, and I'm so ready to sleep.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The Uh Oh Sign

It's the sign you get from a student before classes begin that makes you realize this one's going to be trouble.

I don't know quite what it is about the email. In general, a student who emails ahead to get information about texts is just someone who wants to get the texts on-line. But then sometimes, there's this extra bit. And the extra bit doesn't quite go with what went before. And if that's how this student's class discussion skills work, things will be difficult, non-sequitors, extra commentary that doesn't have anything to do with the class discussion, that sort of thing.

Okay, I realize I sound like a jerk. Maybe you're thinking, eww, B doesn't like people with Asperger or something.

I don't know that I've ever had a student with Asperger syndrome. I've certainly had a few students who wouldn't stop making off-topic comments or who kept interrupting discussion or being rude to other students. It makes class way more work and way less fun.

Maybe I'm totally wrong about the email. Yeah, totally wrong. Watch, this student will turn out to be the delight of the semester!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


After starting with Goodwill packing, I decided to do a couple more projects today. I called and found a place that will digitize slides. As you can tell from the picture, I have a goodly number of slides, mostly from my Peace Corps days. (If you click on the picture, you can see a picture of the Maroon-tailed conure I lived with and the house we lived in, along with another volunteer, a dog, and a cat.)

I sorted through and chose some to have digitized, 83 in total, and a few photos as well (the piles on the right are the slides I've chosen to digitize). I'm really excited and will be posting some of these for fun.

I'd been thinking about doing this for a few years now, but was worried that the slides would have degraded badly. They seem to be in pretty good shape, though.


I moved the furniture in my bedroom around; I liked the way it was except that the dresser was in front of the heating vent, so the room was always way colder (in winter). I've got things arranged so there's nothing in front of the vent now, and I'm hoping that will make things a little more pleasant in there.


I finished Kingsolver's The Lacuna. The final 50 pages were the best, though the rest of the novel was really good. The final 50 pages bring things together beautifully and horrifically (the red scare thing) and wonderfully. I'm going to be recommending this one! Consider yourselves warned.

Next up: last year, my friend/colleague leng me Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water, and that's next up for me. I started it but got caught up in other things, so didn't get far. But now's the time.

Going to Goodwill

I dropped my landline yesterday and went cell phone. I think it should work out well for me. This morning, I collected the phones and answering machines and put them in boxes to take to the Goodwill.

Henry VIII as teapot decided to jump in. There's also a car toy now.

There are things that, although I might find them cute in stores, they just aren't my style and I don't want to dust around them. Henry VIII as teapot fits that description.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

A Rough Start at College

I got one of those emails today, from a student who had a rough start last semester and failed my class. The student wants to know how to do better next time around. I don't remember the particulars of this student's difficulties, but there are a couple basic problems a lot of first year students encounter. The good news is that a lot of these problems can be changed for the better.

The other good news is that most professors don't think a student who messes up the first term is a loser or stupid, or whatever. Most of us messed up at some point, and the rest of us have friends who messed up at times.

Here's my short list for doing better in college.

Go to class. I know it's hard to get up early, but being there is one key to doing well. Go prepared, take notes, review your notes after.

Do the homework. Even if it's not required or turned in, do the readings, work problem sets, whatever. This is especially important for language, math, and other classes where you build skills as you go. If there's language lab or a math lab, do your homework there, especially if you can get help easily.

Get help early and often. Your college or university almost certainly has tutoring available. Use it. Talk to your professors about your questions early. Most professors don't bite and aren't evil. Some of us are better explainers than others, but most of us will try.

Study in groups. Get connected with your classmates. Study with them, get to know them. Exchange phone and email information so that you can get notes if you miss class (or give your classmates help if they miss, too). One of the best tests of your knowledge is explaining things to someone else. Studying in groups helps you learn to explain, and so helps you learn.

Do the work. Read your assignments carefully and do them with attention and care. Small assignments add up to a lot over a semester, so take them seriously. Give yourself time to do your assignments well.

Those are my top five; what are yours?

Friday, January 01, 2010

Between Wars/Between Books

I often have three or four books "going" at a time. A book on CD in the car, a book on tape in the bedroom (for falling asleep), a book or articles for work (more than one when classes are in session), and a book for pleasure. I don't generally choose the CD or tape books with a lot of attention; mostly, I look for anything that's not a mystery or Brown-type conspiracy "thriller." (And in our local library, that leaves pretty slim pickings.)

I took a road trip to visit my sibling, which got me started on Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. I picked it up at the library, which is where I get my CDs and tapes, because I vaguely remember reading something by Waugh in my first 20th century British novel class, the same semester I fell in love with Shakespeare (and out of love with 20th century novels). It wasn't the fault of the novels, really, but I had three outstanding instructors that semester (for Shakespeare, Chaucer, and a criticism class) and two sexist nits (for the 20th century British novel and the 20th century American novel). I'm not quite sure what the Waugh we read for the class was; compared to other things, it didn't impress me much.

Brideshead Revisited (so far, I'm about halfway through the CDs I guess) is narrated by a WWII army officer, Charles, who's training in England, and goes with his company (I think that's the military designation) on train to a new training area, which he recognizes as Brideshead, an estate. He reminisces about his first encounters at Brideshead, and that leads him back through his years at Oxford (starting about 1923), friendship with Sebastian Flyte (the younger son of the owners of Brideshead). I'm at the point where Charles has fallen out with Sebastian's mother (Lady Marchmain), is studying art in France, and has just learned that the alcoholic Sebastian has escaped along the way to a "cure" in Germany.

(I have to admit, though I've read enough about servants to get the idea, I still can't quite grasp the lifestyle Waugh depicts, of adults out galavanting at all hours, hunting, sitting around, touring through Europe for months at a time.)

Thus, the novel so far is mostly between the wars, with WWI coming back through Lady Marchmain's reminiscences and writing about her brothers, all of whom died in the war, and Lord Marchmain's decision to remain on the continent after WWI. It's framed on the other side by Charles being an officer, though seemingly less than effective, training during WWII.

For Christmas, my sib and sister in law gave me a couple books, including Barbara Kingsolver's new Lacuna. Lacuna is told mostly through the diaries and writings of Harrison Shepherd, a Mexican American growing up between the wars. It begins in 1929, and follows the narrator through living with his mother in Mexico, going to a boarding school in Washington, DC for a bit, and then back living in Mexico and (at least at the part I'm at now) living first with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo's household (as a cook) and then working with Trotsky as a secretary. I'm about a third of the way through (it's 1939, so Trotsky hasn't been assassinated yet), so there's lots more to come.

But again, it's between the wars, influenced less openly by WWI so far, but through the Rivera and Trotsky involvement, deeply interested in the Bolshevik Revolution and fractures within socialist and communist movements. ***edited to add: There's also a section on the veterans "bonus" camps in DC in the 1932, when Great War vets were trying to get their promised bonus money for serving.***

As someone from the US (a USian?), I have to admit I know very little about Mexican history. I know a more British history (but not so much after 1660). Most of what I know about the period between the wars comes from Fred Astaire movies and books about the Great Depression. So I'm finding these two books interesting, not only for their very different takes on the period (upper class England and Europe vs working class Mexico) but also for the things that overlap, especially the interest in art (Charles is an artist, and the narrator of Lacuna works with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Each also depicts a wealthy household (or more) with servants, but from different angles.

Both books are also interested in how small moments can affect the world, chance meetings, a misplaced note, that sort of thing.

And finally, everyone in the books seems to have a lot of sex. (Hey, I'm a Shakespearean! I notice these things!)

So far, I'm enjoying both books. I liked Kingsolver's first couple of novels a lot; she seemed to have a light, feminist touch and a great sense of humor. This novel's a lot deeper and darker, but very well written. In a way, it feels sort of like some of Isabel Allende's works, in a sense of scale, and in another way, almost like Sandra Cisneros's ability to represent the borderland of Mexican and USian cultures and languages. The narrator's name is part of that. Early on he's "the boy," and then in the US school, Harry, and now Frida has given him the nickname "Insolito," which she shortens to "Soli." (Add accent marks.) I don't think Kingsolver's quite as easy with Spanish as Cisneros, but there's a sense of being in different languages and cultures that comes through pretty well.

Kingsolver is doing really interesting things here with the narrative through the diaries and other entries, and I'm really enjoying the way this text unfolds.

Here I am, reading my way into the new year. Happy New Years, all. I hope this one is better than the last for many people (because the last year, the last decade, have been miserable for much of the world).