Archive for January, 2008

browsing the stacks

January 11, 2008

In a recent job interview, one of the committee members asked me: “What have you read lately—that doesn’t have to do with rhetoric or composition?”  I answered honestly, even though I recognized the dilemma inherent in the question.  If I admit to reading books for pleasure, that might leave the impression that I’m not dedicated to finishing my dissertation.  If I don’t, I might appear to be somewhat narrow and, dare I say it, dull.  Everyone knows that person who’s singularly focused on her or his own work and is therefore prone to stultify otherwise interesting conversations.

So, I went for broke and talked briefly about two books I’ve read recently:  Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Megan Marshall’s AMAZING biography The Peabody Sisters.  I highly recommend both, for what it’s worth.

What I didn’t tell the committee is exactly how much outside reading I do.  I’m in a book club—a dirty little secret for someone who’s ABD–and I’m forever hearing about (and sometimes succumbing to) tempting new publications.

(Follow me a minute more as I make this turn…)

I was in the library on Wednesday, on the third floor where the British and American literature is held, and I remembered that I wanted to borrow my next book club book (Atonement, Ian McEwan) rather than buy it.  I’ve been lately trying to stop buying fiction that is easily available at the library.  Anyway, I started browsing the PRs and PSs (yes, I know the call numbers, and yes, I know this fact cements my status as a total nerd.) and on the way my eye caught the title Arrowsmith, a novel by Sinclair Lewis that won the 1926 Pulitzer.  I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long, long time.  I loved Main Street, and I loved Babbitt even more.  Needless to say, I haven’t been disappointed by Arrowsmith—I can’t put it down.

This morning in the shower I was reflecting on the series of events that brought me to the book.  While I did not set out to find the book, I was delighted to be reminded of it while browsing the stacks.  I only hesitated a second before grabbing it and continuing my search for Atonement, rationalizing that I could burn through two books just as easily as one.  Several questions emerged in the middle of these thoughts, none of which have answers. 

Has the new electronic catalog system (as opposed to card catalogs) impeded our ability to browse?  In some card catalogs, the books were arranged in the order in which they appeared in groups on the shelf, so as you were looking for one book, you might stumble upon others of interest.

Has our “drive-thru” lifestyle (or what Russell and I call “in out nobody hurt”) obliterated our willingness to spend more than 1o minutes searching for a book?  (Full disclosure: ordinarily, I would have used the library catalog to find the exact call number to retrieve Atonement but I was too lazy to go down and up three flights of stairs to the computers so I browsed.)

Do people even check books out from the library anymore?  Does anyone read anything besides Oprah’s book club choice, conveniently available at Barnes and Noble?

Okay, back to the ten thousand letters of recommendation I agreed to write.  Oy.


sow’s ear=silk purse?

January 8, 2008

In the past two months, I’ve received a greater than usual number of requests from students to force-add one of my classes.  Currently, the class cap is set at 23 (too high for a writing class, but that’s a subject for another post) and both of my classes are full, but that hasn’t prevented 12 students from emailing to ask if I will add them to my roster.  I’m teaching at two relatively popular times, a fact I’m certain brought the majority of the requests.

I should point out that I am not permitted to add anyone to my classes until the second week of the semester.  Until that point, the Director of Composition or the Chair of Undergraduate Studies performs all of the force-adds for first-year writing courses and introductory literature course—doing so ensures even enrollment numbers across sections, of course.  And I agree with this system wholeheartedly.  At the school where I earned my MA, we could do our own force adds and one semester I ended up with 28 and 29 students in my classes.  I had trouble saying no when confronted directly by students.  I was young(er) and (more) naive then.

Anyway, many of these email requests were modest and considerate; the students presented their cases politely and then inquired into my force-add policy.  However, other requests came across as annoying, petulant, whiny, or self-important.  For example, one student informed me that her schedule was almost exactly the way she wanted it and if she could only have my class then everything would be perfect.  Another informed me that her schedule was really, really tight and that mine was the only class English class she could fit.  A third student “heard I was cool” and didn’t want to have a bad experience in English because she didn’t enjoy writing.  Maybe I’m jaded, but I can’t help but hear a subtext in each of these responses—“I don’t want to have English three days a week”; “I don’t want to get up before 10:00”; “I want a TA, not a professor—they’re easier.”  I had one student try to lie her way into my class–“the secretary told me it was okay for you to force add me into your class, so where should I bring my slip?”  I don’t think so.

My favorite, though, was one young lady who, when she wrote, wanted to know the titles of the books I am teaching, a summary of my pedagogical practices, especially how much writing I require, and what the overarching “theme” of the course will be.  It was hard to keep my tone even when I responded.  Seriously, I don’t audition for students.  I wrote back, as politely as I could muster, telling her the names of the books and informing her that my students and I do A LOT of writing—probably 1 1/2 to 2 times as much as other classes.  On the subject of the “theme,” I reminded her that all readers bring their own interpretations to the texts they read and suggested that I would be remiss if I forced my own ideas about a text onto her.  I haven’t heard from her since.


All of these emails came back to me today as I sat down to write up the course goals and requirements for my syllabus.  As I drafted an overview of the materials and assignments, I realized that I truly believed what I had told the student about defining a theme.  When I revisited my reading selections (both longer texts and shorter readings), I discovered that any number of themes might emerge and that I didn’t want to limit my students’ imagination.  I know that other teachers use short titles to indicate the focus of their reading—“Monsters and Madness,” for example, “Women and Violence,” “Travel Writing”—but I decided that my original tag was entirely too limiting.

I also decided that the final short writing assignment for the semester will ask students (and me—I’m writing with them again this semester) to identify a theme that emerged in their own reading and thinking during the semester.

I’m not exactly certain where this post is headed, but it seemed worthwhile to acknowledge that my frustration with one particularly precocious student email prompted me to rethink my approach to my writing courses this semester.  So, thanks, obnoxious emailer!


January 3, 2008

You know in paper towel commercials when they drop a square over a puddle of blue water and the towel wicks up the entire cup or quart or whatever and, when lifted, reveals a completely dry surface?

That’s how my skin has been absorbing lotion in the past three days.  This morning when I performed my daily regimen on my face, I thought I heard a sound akin to watering the soil around a really dry plant, or sucking the last sip of a pop through a straw. 

The weather has been very cold and dry in Cincinnati.  Our radiator heat ain’t helping, either.  I should buy stock in Nivea.

should be “on pencils and needles”

January 2, 2008

A friend responded to my crossword puzzle picture  (below) by congratulating me for doing the puzzle in pen.  My first reaction was:  I wish I used pen, but I lack the derring-do.

Then I realized that, unless I’m taking notes or drafting something, I NEVER use pen.  I always use pencil.  I use pen when I jot down a to-do list or a grocery list, when I annotate my own writing, when I write letters and notes to friends (but in the event of an error I either a.) tear up the letter and start again or b.) make a box of ink over the mistake and move on [and then only if I’m writing to a friend or family member.])  In other words, pen is for when I don’t care about mistakes.

As I sat down this evening to work the crossword—in pencil—a student paper from this year sprang to mind.  He wrote an entry (as part of an autoethnography) about the way that pencils “hide” the mistakes/thinking a writer does in a way that pen can’t.  Said another way, the revisions and reworkings of an essay, or letter or notes or whatever, are visible when the writer uses a pen.  He argued that, in terms of the writing process, pen is actually a better medium because mistakes have to be addressed and acknowledged.

And he has a great point!  I use pencil when I want it to be perfect.  I use a mechanical pencil (Alvin Draft/Matic 0.5) and a Staedtler Mars eraser (leaves nary a trace of lead).  More importantly, when I read and respond to student papers, I only use pencil.  Heaven forbid I should make a spelling error or want to go back and edit my comments.  It occurred to me then (as it does now) that this practice doesn’t square with my stated beliefs about writing, teaching, or revealing my process to my students.

Anyway, something to think on.

What do you all use?  Pens?  Pencils?  And for what?

Back to my crossword, which will be pristine when finished…just how I like it!

(By the way, yesterday’s post was written on January 1st around 6:30, but I didn’t have the time set correctly.  As I hit “Publish” the time here is 6:39 pm.  I hope I’ve corrected that setting…)

after the final no

January 2, 2008

Even with the knowledge that New Year’s Day is a constructed marker of time, the symbolic turning over of one year for another always inspires me to reassess my life and my goals.  I also know the practice of making resolutions is both cheesy and contrived, but I don’t care:  every year I choose a few things to “work on” for the year.

As I look back on 2007, I can’t help but feel disappointed.  I had really hoped to shake off the malaise and sluggishness I felt in 2006, but it never really happened.  Maybe my expectations were too high?  I don’t know.  Bad metaphor aside, the last two years have been a treadmill–lots of running, lots of sweat, lots of work, but not much in the way of forward progress.  Truth be told, I’m not even certain I remember my resolutions from last year.  I know I wanted to concentrate on being “present,” more aware of my surroundings in a given moment.  Maybe the treadmill came as a result?  Maybe living too much in the present denies one the incentive to accomplish one’s goals?  I don’t know that, either.

Anyway, this year’s resolutions feel more firm, more tangible.  Some of them are small, daily goals, like this one:

new year's resolution

And this one:

wound tight

And this:

favorite things

Um, yeah, to drink more red wine, to repot (in more attractive containers) my indoor plants, to knit more and to use nicer yarns, and to take more pictures…

Other goals are less concrete, less material, but no less important:  to avoid the cynicism that comes with an election year, to reduce or eliminate interactions with toxic people, to have more confidence in my writing, to be generous and compassionate with myself.

(That last one is a bit abstract, but I can still work on it over time.)

Anyway, I want 2008 to be a year of substance.** 

Also, I know I’ve referenced Wallace Steven’s poem “The Well Dressed Man with a Beard” in the past.  It’s just such a great poem.  It gives me hope every time I read it.

**I’m aware of the flaws in a term like “substance” (thank you, Kenneth Burke) but I wanted a word that implies “heft,” “product,” “touchable,” and “mass.”