Not entirely unfortunate

Unfortunately, I did not get nearly enough sleep.

Fortunately, waking up early meant I got to campus in plenty of time to make copies for my first class, a process that (unfortunately) was more complicated than it used to be, thanks to unfortunate cost-cutting measures imposed by the Powers That Be.

Unfortunately, no deus ex machina prevented today’s main event.

Fortunately, I was teaching during it and was able to spend the morning communing with Great Minds from the past and thinking about topics I love, instead of being subjected to the news. I may spend a lot of time living far in the past, over the next few years, unless that deus shows up at some point.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t prepared my documents for annual evaluations. I spent the afternoon grading, instead, which might seem unfortunate except for the alternatives. I avoided the news successfully and felt like a wonderfully efficient and dedicated professor.

Fortunately, I have the weekend to do the damned evil documents. “Eval,” that should read, but thank you, autocorrect, that is a fortuitous correction.

Unfortunately, I have a considerable number of Life Stuff tasks that I would like to take care of this weekend, without facing up to what I have achieved in recent years. I have done those things I ought not to have done, and left undone those things I ought to have done, and there is no health in me—could I just write that in place of my scholarship report?

Fortunately, I have one truly awesome comment from a student evaluation of my teaching, which I can report on the teaching form: one of the most discerning and intelligent students it has ever been my pleasure to teach compared me to Minerva McGonagall. That made my day, week, and month. A small thing, but a definite consolation.

Preparing for class

No matter how many students there are, I have to prepare myself for these types:

The student who annoys me by passive-aggressive techniques (I don’t understand; I couldn’t find your office; I didn’t think to ask anyone . . . )

The student who thinks he (usually he) will annoy me with open insolence (much less annoying than the first type).

The one with ADD who tries hard but cannot get it together.

The one who is deeply distracted by family problems.

The first-generation student who has just transferred from a small community college, mid-year, and is completely overwhelmed by the size of LRU’s campus and bureaucracy.

The one who suffers from anxiety and/or depression.

The one who blows everyone else out of the water . . . how to keep this one engaged and energized without depressing or antagonizing the others?

The one who is super-smart and tragically under-prepared for college-level work.

The one who conscientiously does everything by the book, without ever showing any spark of creativity or insight, and gets frustrated because A’s are elusive.

The student who thinks it will be possible to get good grades by talking intelligently in class, and turns in half (at best) of the written work that actually gets graded.

The one who doesn’t have money for books and is reading outdated editions online, on an old phone that has a cracked screen or other problem.

On the whole, I’d rather deal with the annoying ones, because so many of the others are heart-breaking. Sometimes I know how their stories come out, though. One of the smart/underprepared ones I had a few years ago just graduated, for instance. There is hope.

Fluctuations

I know there are good reasons for students to add classes shortly before the semester starts, finances being one. Nonetheless, I really wish they’d pick classes near the start of the registration period and then just not tinker with their schedules, because numbers make a big difference to my planning.

If I just lectured and gave exams, sure, I wouldn’t care: I can lecture to ten people, or forty, or a hundred. The exam dates wouldn’t change, though format might, if I had to do all the grading myself, or with a TA who had to be trained in how to score essay answers.

But that’s not what I do. I’m an English professor; I teach skills. The classroom is already flipped. We practice reading closely, we test interpretations, we puzzle out what a poet means, what motivates a character, how a writer creates atmosphere and why that matters. We talk, or we work in groups and then talk. We write, and then read each other’s writing. I collect that writing and look it over and make comments. Students write more or less complex essays, with more or fewer required assignments preparing for those essays, depending on how much time I have for grading, which depends on how many students I have.

This semester, I would like to meet individually with my students to go over at least one of their papers, preferably the first one. I’m always willing to do this if anyone wants to, but mainly students don’t come to office hours. I’ve written before about the many differences between LRU and the “typical” residential campus that many people imagine when they think about “college.” I have a lot of returning students, and even those of traditional age often have jobs and family commitments that mean they’re on campus for classes and little else. They need to relieve the babysitter or interpret for Dad or take Grandma to the doctor. The library is a luxury and going to office hours isn’t even on the radar, which is why I want to see if I can get it there. That, and my own experience working in person with the translation team, last summer: the comments on my work, which it is always uncomfortable to read (I worked so hard and they don’t think it’s brilliant!), sound so different when delivered in a real live voice coming from a person I like and respect.

The more students I have, though, the harder it will be to fit their visits into holes in their and my schedule, and the more class time I would need to cut into in order to provide conference time for those who really can’t meet outside of class. It’s a good thing for the bean-counters, for the financial health of LRU, and for my stats as a teacher that the numbers are going up. But one of my classes has nearly doubled in size since the start of December, and that definitely affects my plans. What I can do with fifteen students is very different from what I can do with 30. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. Another class is still within tolerance for the kind of fun but professorial-labor-intensive research paper I’d like to have them do. But if I get five more students, I won’t be able to teach these particular skills, because they need a lot of one-on-one. A third class has been cancelled. In theory, of course, that means more time for the others, except that (a) since I got a research release in its place, I’m supposed to be writing, and (b) it does make a difference whether students are distributed across multiple classes (or sections) or all in a single class. Just because I’m now free at a certain time of day doesn’t mean my students are.

And if I had another week to go, I’d wait and see what happens. But I have to turn in syllabuses at the end of the day, and they’re supposed to give students a good, reliable outline of what we’ll be doing, and so I have to make some decisions, based on the current numbers, and then stick to them. Shall I gamble that a few people will drop the larger course? Or that there will be a few more adds between now and Wednesday morning?

Friday’s fortunately/unfortunately narration

This is really yesterday’s post, but I was traveling then.

Fortunately, I got to see the dawn. I do this fairly frequently, wherever I am, but it was especially pretty, with a pink glow over the mountains, reflected in the bay.

Unfortunately, it was my last day of that view.

Fortunately, I had time for one more walk on the beach, where I picked up a few pieces of pink quartz and white beach glass to remind me of the place.

Unfortunately, going down to the beach meant toiling up the hill one more time, afterwards.

Fortunately, I was able to recover with brunch on the balcony, watching bright yellow birds (goldfinches?) and bright blue ones (no idea) flashing through the trees, with the occasional dancing orange butterfly adding even more color interest.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of food left over.

Fortunately, that meant the feral cats on the corner got a feast.

Unfortunately, the taxi came earlier than we expected, and I was running up and down stairs communicating with the driver and letting in the rental agent, while Queen Joan was still getting dressed, and I still had lots of things to throw in my suitcase.

Fortunately, my Spanish was adequate to the task, the driver was patient, and everything got done.

Unfortunately, when we were in the taxi and jouncing to the airport, I couldn’t find my passport.

Fortunately, once we got to the airport and I could get to my suitcase, it was in the first place I looked, scooped up along with other to-be-packed items at the last minute.

Unfortunately, that meant I had to get on a plane and leave the tropical paradise.

Fortunately, I was looking forward to seeing Sir John and our cats, and I had a whole book to read that I’d saved for the trip home.

Unfortunately, there was an 80 degree drop in temperature between the place/time I left and the one where I arrived.

Fortunately, Sir John brought my down coat to meet me. I won’t say I was happier to see it than I was to see him, but I would have refused to leave the airport without it.

Unfortunately, in spite of all our added insulation, new windows, new curtains on the old windows, the replaced front door, and whatever other energy-related improvements I’m forgetting, our house still is fairly chilly, especially in the front room downstairs. I hate living in an old house, in this climate.

Fortunately, I was very successful in sticking to my complicated diet while I was gone (Queen Joan helped a lot, and taught me to cook some things I’d never tried before), so I’m feeling very well and tolerably energetic. If I can keep managing the diet, then I hope to have enough energy to sort out this house (file, give away, pack up, throw out, as necessary) and get it on the market this spring. We’ll see what happens, since of course I will also be teaching and I do not handle multiple tasks, or switching among them, especially well.

Unfortunately, my grad class for the spring (on a very cool and most excellent topic, which I was looking forward to teaching) was cancelled due to low enrollment, as I learned when I checked e-mail at the tropical airport.

Fortunately, oh very fortunately, I have been granted a research release in its place.

 

 

I fear change . . . and yet . . .

As people do around this time of year, I’ve been thinking about the coming year, what I want to work on, what’s on the schedule, what I hope for, and so on. I like the idea of a theme rather than resolutions, and as I was thinking over possible themes, one popped into my head. I wanted to resist it, to consider other themes, to find one I really liked and wanted to work with, but this one wouldn’t go away. I don’t especially care for this one, but it’s insisting that it is my theme for the year, will-I nill-I:

Change.

There are changes I hope for (selling the house that is wrong for us and moving to something that suits us better), and changes I fear, both specifically (friends retiring and no longer being part of my campus life) and more generally (political changes for the worse). Who knows what else may come, either in the train of known changes, according to the Law of Unintended Consequences, or just as part of life. I suppose it is some help to have notice, from my unconscious or the zeitgeist, that change will be coming. Maybe I can surf that wave rather than being pulled down by it.

And it has begun already. Not only did I spend the New Year in a place new to me, but this morning I placed a telephone call to my House representative, about the changes to rules proposed for the 2017 session. My representative is as blue as they come, so at first I thought (as I have been thinking), “Why bother?” and then I decided that I could at least express my enthusiastic support for his vote against weakening ethics oversight. I spoke to a human being, and said my piece. I hate telephone calls, but more will be necessary in the years to come, and practice will no doubt make them easier. I can’t remember the last time I contacted any elected official, and I am certain that the last time I did, it was in writing rather than by phone. But the vote is supposed to happen today, so I phoned.

Yay? And yet I so much wish that this were not necessary. As I move into this strange new world created by 11/9, I want to remember that my core values, the ideas that really matter to me, have to do with learning, education, the life of the mind. Yes, one needs certain conditions in order to have those things, and one must act to create those conditions. At the same time, strength of various kinds—personal, cultural, political—comes out of a focus on education, on thoughtfulness, on informed communication. I will continue to stand for these ideals, whatever changes come to pass.

New Year’s Eve

I’m enjoying a few days in the tropics with Queen Joan. We’re in the sort of place where most visitors suck up alcoholic drinks adorned with umbrellas, flowers, or fruit; get sunburned; and acquire a bunch of tourist tat to take home.

We’re doing things a bit differently. Neither of us can drink anymore, thanks to assorted health issues. Joan doesn’t do well in the sun, though she enjoys the warmth here. I’m a bit sturdier, but as the whitest of the white girls, I coat myself in #70 sunscreen before approaching a window, let alone going out. Also due to health issues, rather than eating out, we’re doing a lot of cooking.

We we both think back to our youth, and how different things were then. We met a little over 30 years ago. We could drink, and dance, and stay up all night. She went to India. I went to France. She visited me there on her way to Burkina Faso. In Paris, we cooked on a two-burner propane stove in my chambre de bonne, and she had a mattress on the floor, and that didn’t kill her back. We wouldn’t meet either of our husbands for some years yet, and while we had career ambitions, we didn’t know if they would be achievable. I’ve come much closer to achieving mine, though I said last night that I expected I’d do either much more or much less: I might not have got into grad school, or not finished, or not got a job, or not got tenure. Neither of us is quite sure how we wound up with the lives we have. Things happened, choices were made, and even when we got what we wanted, it turned out to be not quite what we had in mind.

But we are still here! We are alive, we are friends, we still travel together. We’re a long way from the mattress on the floor in Paris, and yet the spirit of that trip is with us. She drags me out of my stick-in-the-mud tendencies; I’ve had a lot of experiences, thanks to Joan, that I would not have had on my own (good ones).

So here’s to friendship, and survival, and continuing to have adventures even if they’re more low-key than they once were. We know what we were, and what we are, and there’s still some time for what we may yet be. I feel some trepidation about the year ahead, but in the meantime, there is this gentle tropical morning with the rustle of palm fronds sounding like rain. I wish you some of its peace and energy in the year to come.

Familles, je vous hais

So, more good news (not), this time from my side of the family: my oldest nephew and his wife are splitting up. These are my favorite people on my side, and I love their kids, and this was not a happy thing to hear on a Christmas where Sir John’s favorite relative isn’t speaking to him. I guess I can be glad mine are speaking to me, as well as grateful that Sir John and I are together, healthy, employed, and housed.

I’d tell 2016 not to let the door hit it on the way out, except that I expect in a few weeks, I’ll be begging 2016 to come back. It did, after all, contain half a sabbatical year, a trip to England, a couple of fun conferences, and the successful placement of the last chunk of the MMP. On the personal level, I’ve nothing much to complain of.

I also made Christmas calls to my other relations. Told one brother I’d had an essay accepted (not the journalist, who I knew would just talk about the number of articles he writes every day). Well. Bro #2 is a mucky-muck in his trade organization, so he writes and publishes an article every month in the trade publication. He has a tech writer or editor or something who puts together the framework, and then my brother re-writes so every sentence does what it should, because he is a better writer than the editor.

This is typical, and one of the reasons why I don’t see more of my family. I want to make it clear that I am not sneering at my brother for being in trade. He’s not only good at what he does, I can believe that he’s a better writer than the other person he’s dealing with. Writing and teaching are the family trades, at least in my branch, for a couple of generations now. What I mind is the complete lack of any attempt to understand the difference between what I do and what he does.

A few details on the MMP-1, since my brother didn’t ask: it contains over 14,000 words (a number that will grow when I revise further before publication) and 102 footnotes, it deals with multiple manuscript sources (one literary, at least five documentary), it involved extensive transcription from wills and other documents written in Latin and in secretary hand, it surveys critical literature in an area that is Not My Home Field, it included references to criticism read in a modern language not English, and the last round of readers’ reports included phrases such as “clear argument,” “very welcome,” “compelling” and “impressive.” Shoot, even its first rejection included the phrase “impressively well documented.”

Long ago, I decided that talking to most of my family was like teaching a pig to sing.* I suppose it’s only the sadness and uncertainty I feel about my nephew and his family that bring up all the rest of this nonsense. I should just let it go. Again. I have a partner, friends, and colleagues who get what I do and think it matters. That’s enough.

*It wastes your breath and annoys the pig.

A little peace and quiet

The run-up to Christmas can get strained around here (and how does that make us different from anyone else who celebrates Christmas?). Sir John’s family has birthdays and stuff to celebrate, so there are multiple gatherings. For me, Christmas week is flanked by the anniversaries of two significant deaths, so, in the years since those happened, I tend to want to stay home and be quiet. This year I’ve been better; I even had stirrings of celebratory feelings, such that the Christmas cards we received got lined up on the mantel, and I sent a few of my own.

But just when I’m more cheerful than usual, Sir John’s family suffers a spate of weirdness and re-shuffles itself. Usually the whole clan gets together for all the events. This year, due to Stuff, I thought we were going to have separate gatherings, with the Plain Speakers on one side and the Socially Correct At All Costs on the other. Instead, the Plain Speaker With Feels seceded from all the rest of us, and since Sir John didn’t feel like losing his whole family, we spent Christmas Eve with the Socially Correct chunk of the family. It was much quieter than usual, but at least we didn’t have to talk about feelings.

It was especially quiet for a moment after my mother-in-law mentioned that she’d be spending Christmas afternoon with the one With Feels. We thought that one wanted a year without any of the rest of us, just immediate descendants . . . I’m pretty sure you could have seen the exclamation points hovering over my head and Sir John’s. But we changed the subject and moved on.

So today will at least be normal, since we always spend Christmas quietly at home with the cats, recovering from the week’s uproar. I’ll go to the gym. Sometime after Sir John wakes up, there will be presents. I’ve done stockings from Sandy Claws. I will cook. We’ll read Christmas presents or watch some TV.

I hope that by next year either things will be back to normal or we can go visit my family, who have young ones. It’s more fun wrapping for children than for teenagers, who mainly want gift cards or money. I realized when wrapping our presents that I spent years stockpiling bags for odd-shaped presents, and now I don’t really need them any more!

If you need some peace and quiet today, I hope you get it. And if you’re enjoying a whirlwind of presents and family, more power to you.

Tempest-uous Spring Planning

I will be teaching The Tempest in the spring. I thought I had taught it sometime, maybe ten years back, and had some assignments to draw on. But as I search my files, it appears that I haven’t taught it since I was in graduate school.

Oh-kay. Well. I’m sure it will be fine. Advice would nonetheless be welcome. Even more welcome would be suggestions of one or more short stories with which I could pair the play: stories with thematic connections, or in which characters refer to The Tempest, or are acting in it, or reading it at school, something like that. My idea, if I can get a suitable story, is to read it first, in order to generate questions about its allusions that could be solved by reading the play itself. Thus, I’m not picky about genre. A story that belongs to the SF/fantasy genre, or aims at a YA audience, would be fine. Even fan-fic, so long as it’s tolerably literate and has a recognizable story structure.

Ideas? Anyone? Bueller?

Productive procrastination, or Working when Stupid

I’ve been sleeping poorly, again, which makes it difficult to focus during the day.

I know what’s wrong. My wonky ankle has been acting up, so I’m resting it, which means I’m not working out, which means I don’t sleep so well. This will pass. The ankle will improve, and I will work back up to a decent level of cardiovascular exercise, and all shall be well. In the meantime I try to do more yoga and other relaxing things before bed.

Anyway: what to do on a work day when I have stacks of (well, three) articles to revise, and I don’t feel like I can grasp my own arguments, let alone anyone else’s? Answer: write syllabi and plan spring classes. Tired and fuzzy-headed (or, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid) is the perfect state to work on these tasks. When I’m alert and intelligent, I get over-optimistic about wildly creative, innovative ideas that require lots of energy and a clear head to put into practice in the classroom, and I forget that I may not have those attributes on the future days when I will need them. When I’m tired, I recognize that bad days happen, and that it would be a good idea to re-use old assignments (tweaking as appropriate); to omit or re-schedule that reading that always needs Extra Energy and Enthusiasm!!!; and to leave some flex days on which I can either experiment with a new innovative assignment as a low-stakes, in-class activity so that I can work out potential problems with it, or else, if the flex day is a low-energy day, show a relevant movie or You-Tube clips with discussion of same.

Some more alert and intelligent Future Self will have to look over today’s plans to make sure I haven’t done anything really stupid, like putting all the wrong dates on the syllabus or scheduling two separate sets of readings for the same weeks. Even so, today I’ll get something useful done, and my Future Self will be glad to have a chunk of the work at least drafted.