Living in the past

“The reading of jestbooks could be, and was, justified on the ground that they were pills to purge melancholy and thus (since the Elizabethans were firm believers in psychosomatic medicine) could improve one’s physical health. Similarly, because the reading of history was recommended as perfectly safe and useful, it was possible to take up with a clear conscience any book, however fantastic, that had the word ‘history’ displayed on its title page.” Richard Altick,  The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public, 1800-1900 (1957; rpt. Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1998), 42.

It’s the same principle as looking at photographs of kittens, and supports me in reading history as escape/distraction. I would like to urge my favorite sci-fi/fantasy writers to subtitle their works with “A history of . . . .” Would it work just to write in my own sub-titles? “An alternative history of Regency England.” “A History of Riverside.” “A History of the Hidden Land.”


Three hours after I went to bed last night, the bedroom smoke detector started chirping about its low battery.

Since Sir John was still up, I called him, and he came and replaced the battery. No one had to stumble groggily around the house, and only one of us had sleep disturbed by the incident.

It’s quite useful being on different schedules.

Random bullets of only-barely-coping

*I always think I’m prepared for things, or as prepared as I can be, and then the thing happens and I’m not prepared. I know this about myself. And the nature of the not-prepared always surprises me.

*I really want to stay home and not go out or talk to anyone and just work on jigsaw puzzles. It’s a psychological defense mechanism, creating order from chaos.

*My evil/eval documents are still overdue. Really must get them in today.

*I have already identified most of the heart-breaking types of students listed in this post. So far, the plain annoying types are hiding or non-existent. We’ll see.

*My wonky ankle is being really wonky again. Besides the obvious (strained it again), I think it also doesn’t like the chilly damp weather we’ve been having, and I think I may be getting some referred pain from further up the same leg. All this going on at once makes it hard to figure out what is best to do for it. I’m getting cranky from lack of vigorous exercise, but the ankle needs to be rested.

*Reina and Basement Cat remain at odds. Do we have to put everyone on Prozac?

*I know why I loaded myself with grading short assignments in the first two weeks of classes: to convince students that they can’t just coast and then pull an all-nighter to write an incoherent five-page paper in week 5 of the semester. I want them to learn decent work habits early on, and to stay engaged with the material via frequent assignments. OK, pedagogically sound, and look what a good teacher I am . . . only, couldn’t I have had some compassion for myself and care for my workload? What was I thinking? That I really am Minerva McGonagall and have a Time-Turner? Or that I’m the Dowager Duchess and have servants?

*It’s not going to get any earlier. Just get started. Suck Less. Choose the practice freely.

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.


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:


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.