Wednesday, August 29, 2007

thus far ...

-- I like teaching Agamemnon, but then I've already done it twice, and this year someone has uploaded an entire production to YouTube. Woo hoo instant lesson plan!

-- I'm not sure how I feel about teaching Beowulf. This is my first time, and I haven't studied it since my first year in grad school. My sense is that today's class felt a little flat and disjointed, despite all the pretty pictures of items from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and I'm still struggling to frame provocative discussion questions. (Then, too, it's damned hard to talk about the poem when the students have only read a third of it.) Those of you who have taught it before, what's worked for you?

-- There are only three men in the Brit Lit class and only three women in freshman comp. Well, there might be a fourth, but she hasn't shown up yet. I'm not sure I like either of these ratios (though two of the best comp classes I've taught in the past have had only three or four guys); that sort of thing makes a class feel unbalanced, somehow.

-- I am SO not used to the two-hour marathon comp class. Yikes, what do you do with that? Out of desperation, I ended up passing out a bunch of index cards midway through the first hour and asked the students to write down any questions they had about the class -- anonymously. Somewhat to my surprise, this worked like a charm -- all but two of them asked something, and they were mostly good questions, stuff that I'd forgotten to clarify on the syllabus. I should do this again. I hope I remember. Unfortunately, most of them said they didn't like to write (this was one of the questions I asked them to address in the diagnostic essay). This could be a very long semester indeed. Or I could convert them. I hope I convert them.

So yeah, over the hump, less than half of the first week to go.

Monday, August 27, 2007

First day of classes...

An acceptable first day. Not a brilliant first day. I probably shouldn't have decided to spend the last half-hour before class reading research about student evaluations, because damn, that stuff makes you feel like there's a lot riding on the first day. It also makes you feel totally inadequate if you're a not-very-expressive introvert who has difficulty pulling off comedy or dynamism in front of a crowd of strangers.

Right, so trying not to think about research on student evaluations, or about the thread on the Chronicle forums last week where there was a general consensus that letting class out early on the first day is Bad, Bad, Bad. Trying, also, not to think about the fact that I'm a VAP in a department that will be running a tenure-track search this year, and so this is in effect a six- or seven-month-long interview. Or about the fact that I totally forgot to tell the Brit Lit class to read the introduction to Beowulf in the Norton anthology and not just the text itself. Oh, and I lent my anthology to a student whose financial aid didn't come through in time for her to buy books, and I fear I may never see it again. Eeep.

It will get better. It will get a great deal better as early as Wednesday, when people will have actually read the texts and we can talk about them. Still, I would like for just once in my life to have a first day that isn't dead awkward and doesn't make me feel like an impostor (though I have no rational reason to believe that the students will think I am an impostor, and I need to remember that).

In other news: I dislike whiteboards. I've bought my own markers because the ones at school barely write, but really, what's the matter with good old-fashioned chalk?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Went to New City this morning with a bunch of students and a couple of other faculty to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. Apparently this is required for first-year students, part of freshman orientation. I'm not entirely down with the concept of mandatory volunteering (isn't that some sort of oxymoron?), but it is a neat idea. I didn't really have a clue what I was doing, so I just did what people told me to, but I helped plant some trees and inventory the building equipment, and put down lots and lots of sod. They were just about finished with the houses (families moving in this afternoon), so there were just the yards left to do. Amazing how much difference a little sod and a few bushes can make -- it turns the place from a construction site into a real yard more or less instantly.

Overheard, from one freshman guy to an older volunteer: "Why do people do this when they don't have to?" OK, maybe not everybody thinks it's a neat idea.

Approximately forty-two hours left until I teach my first class here. Eeep!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

New Faculty Orientation

There was free food, and lots of it. This is always a desirable trait in an orientation.


There should, however, be bingo cards. Seriously. It would be a lot easier to stay awake if you got to check off a space every time somebody said, "New SLAC is just like a family!" or "... College, I mean University." (New SLAC has technically just become New SLAU, although I'm going to go on calling it New SLAC because I'm a contrarian. Besides, the Beloved Alma Mater is three times as big and still calls itself a college, although the Beloved Alma Mater has never been one to allow minor incidents such as the American Revolution to force a name change, so it might not be the best example.)


We got to Process in Regalia for opening convocation. This is still a novelty to me, so I enjoyed it, although Lord knows those costumes were designed for medieval Europe and not the southern end of the Midwest in the middle of August. Still, there is something irresistably charming about being paid to dress up like you're at a Renaissance Faire from time to time. Of course, one could always just get a job at a Renaissance Faire and skip the Ph.D. Damn, why didn't I think of that nine years ago?


Just before convocation, in the little anteroom where people put on their robes and leave shoulder bags and such baggage, an older gentleman whom I don't know approaches me.

"Are you going to carry the mace?"

"What? Er, no. Not that I know of."

"Oh. Are you going to make a speech, then?"

"Dear Lord, I certainly hope not!" (A speech? No one told me anything about a speech. Are they in the habit of tapping junior faculty for surprise convocation speeches? Um, help?)

All Becomes Clear when the convocation itself is in session, with an undergrad carrying the mace, and another one making a speech. I guess I should have put the robes on sooner, because they do at least make it clear that I must be over twenty-seven and probably closer to thirty; apparently I can't rely on my face alone to give this impression.


Convocation began and ended with a prayer. Having attended public schools from kindergarten straight through grad school, and having no particular religious faith of my own, I wasn't sure how I felt about this; but this seems to be the right sort of Christian-affiliated school, the kind that respects its employees' freedom to believe and teach as they choose and channels its religious mission into doing some good in the world. I'm probably going to join one of the groups doing volunteer-ish stuff in the community on Saturday, and I think, on the whole, that I will like it here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

beginning-of-semester stuff

Have finished this semester's syllabi. Six pages of fine print. Five pages of fine print. Another six pages of fine print. I know this is mostly down to the fact that I've finally gotten organized and included detailed directions for the written assignments in the syllabus, instead of making them up at the last minute, but it still feels slightly excessive.

I had a vague recollection that most of my undergrad profs just handed us a list of readings and dates, but now that I think about it, this isn't strictly accurate -- or rather, they typically handed out other stuff with the list of readings and dates. Favorite Undergrad Prof Ever had a six-page document full of guidelines for writing papers, ending with a page-long rant on Why Grades Serve the System and Not the Students. I've adapted and imitated freely, although I don't think I could bring off the bits that could only have been written by an old New Yorker with tenure and an attitude ("You would have to be a fool, in any case, to think you had to tell me that Shakespeare's first name is William...") I kept the grading rant, or rather wrote my own gentler Southern hippie-chick version, complete with quotations from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe it is better to front-load one's philosophy, opinions, and quirks, even if it takes six pages to do it. Students have a right to know what they're getting into.

So much for the two literature classes. For the comp class I have the luxury of actually assigning a chunk of ZatAoMM a bit later in the semester, as well as a charming article that appeared in the Washington Post in 1993, Robert Day's "The ABCs of Enlightenment." I was a senior in high school when it came out, and my AP English teacher liked it so much that he ran off copies for the whole class. (He was an older guy with a cop mustache who referred to the entire Romantic movement as "a load of crap," and he pissed me off no end by giving me a C on a paper because I said Clytemnestra was the most sympathetic character in the Oresteia. He was also the most brilliant teacher I've ever had the privilege of seeing in action. I'm not a worthy successor, and the prospect of teaching the Oresteia next week brings that home acutely. But I like sharing the article when I can.)

Anyway, some excerpts:

Alphabets. In themselves they are interesting. So is college interesting in itself: as in learning for its own sake. You don't need to go to the Career Placement Office your first week on campus. Yes, you'll want a job when you graduate. But you'll need an education first, and the kind of education that awaits you will light up the job search in ways you cannot now imagine. If you think you need to be something by the time you graduate, tell youself you want to be enlightened. If you don't know what enlightened means (exactly), look it up (do that now to get in practice for those term papers). You might also want to keep the idea of enlightenment (or the 18th-century European philosophy of the same name) in mind: It's a good North Star for any student lost in a sea of academic requirements.

In the meantime, did you know that the world "alphabet" is a combination of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta -- thus, in Greek, "alphabet" stands for the whole collection of Greek letters, just as our "ABCs stands for A through Z -- not to mention a number of other concepts of completion. Language is lovely. The history of language is inexhaustably lovely. Trust me. I am your first professor.


French. Did you pick a college or university that does not require a foreign language? Then require it of yourself. Whose education is it, anyway? Bsides, how do you expect to spend August in Paris if you don't know "une fleur" from "une mauvaise herbe"? Miss Stein (at 27 rue de Fleurus) would be disappointed.


Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles Founded Mainly on the Materials Collected by the Philological Society. It was the poet W. H. Auden's favorite book. You might get over a fascination for alphabets, but no well-educated person ever gets over a fascination for dictionaries. Keep one open in your dorm room at all times.


Question. Of course. And often.


Why? Almost always a good question.


Zeal. Somewhere I read a definition of a student as a person in zealous and voluntary pursuit of language. That's you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On bread, and other foodstuffs

I went to Panera this morning. Mmm, good bread. I haven't had any since I left University of Basketball town, where we had a co-op that made terrific bread (and terrific scones, and cherry-almond tarts and ... yum.) It's funny how you take little stuff like that for granted, until it's gone.

So far, much of the stuff I miss about U. of B. Town is food-related -- milk and ice cream from the local dairy, the Middle Eastern deli where you get an enormous plate of food for $6.99, the Mexican place with six different kinds of homemade salsa, barbecue. I found another dairy here that sells milk in glass bottles, and there's a place in New City that can satisfy the falafel cravings, but I don't think there's much to be done about the barbecue. It's really the department pig pickin' that I miss, because there's nothing like sitting out under the stars with a bottle of bourbon and the smell of slow-cooking pig in the air.

Come to think about it, memories of my favorite places are nearly always intertwined with memories of food -- nothing says "childhood beach vacations" to me like corn on the cob and fresh tomatoes and a whole heap of blue crabs with Old Bay. And studying abroad? All about the paella and oranges and the Serrano ham and oh my God, the coffee. I've been back to Spain twice since then, and just going to the bar for a sandwich brought the memories flooding back. Good stuff.

I'm sure I'll miss a lot of little things when (and if) I move away from here, but I don't know what they are yet.

So yeah, food, a good thing, especially when shared with other people. Don't you agree?

Thursday, August 9, 2007


I have an office! It's all mine! It's not the one that it looked like I was going to get when I visited in June, because apparently the department has been playing Musical Offices, but this one has a view of trees too, so it's all good. They are dogwoods, and they will be pretty in the spring.

There's still a bunch of stuff left over from the previous occupant -- some files with student work, a bunch of literature anthologies and a science fiction novel that looks like it might be interesting, and a Canadian flag over the door (I may have to do something about that). The computer is his, too, and so far it refuses to acknowledge me as its new mistress. The A/C window unit is entirely too feeble to make a dent in the heat. Still ... office! My own!

I've been thinking a bit about office doors. Back when I was an undergrad, I used to like to look at them when I signed on for a class so I could get a feel for the instructor's personality. One of my favorite profs had Doonesbury cartoons about grade inflation. I went back for a visit in February and they were still there -- a little older and yellower, and they had been very yellow even when I was a freshman. The children's lit specialist in my grad department had a brightly colored poster titled "Telling About Books," with lots of happy multiracial children lounging around reading, and a list of questions: "Who was your favorite character? Which picture in the book do you like best? How did you feel about the end of the story?" Ah, if only things stayed that simple...

So anyway, I think office doors are important, for the same reason that the title of a paper is important -- you don't want your office to be the equivalent of one of those freshman essays entitled "Analyzation of a Poem" or "Essay #3." So I thought I'd do what one of my office-mates did when I was in grad school, and put up poetry. There needs to be more public poetry in the world. I've been going for a universities-and-teaching theme, like this:

In a Classroom
By Adrienne Rich

Talking of poetry, hauling the books
arm-full to the table where the heads
bend or gaze upward, listening, reading aloud,
talking of consonants, elision,
caught in the how, oblivious of why:
I look in your face, Jude,
neither frowning nor nodding,
opaque in the slant of dust-motes over the table:
a presence like a stone, if a stone were thinking
What I cannot say, is me. For that I came.

And like this:

Turning Thirty, I Contemplate Students Bicycling Home
By Rita Dove

This is the weather of change
and clear light. This is
weather on its B side,
askew, that propels
the legs of young men
in tight jeans wheeling
through the tired, wise
spring. Crickets too
awake in choirs
out of sight, although
I imagine we see
the same thing
and for a long way.

This, then, weather
to start over.
Evening rustles
her skirts of sulky
organza. Skin
prickles, defining
what is and shall not be....

How private
the complaint of these
green hills.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

And the moving saga continues!

Typing this in the library at New SLAC because as of Sunday I have furniture, but as of yesterday I don't have electricity. (Long story, involving the stupidity of the local power company and an apparent misunderstanding on the part of my landlord.) Good thing I didn't throw all those candles out before I moved. I actually did toast marshmallows this time, over the candles, because there really isn't anything else to do once it gets too dark to read or write, and if I remember nothing else from the Girl Scouts, I do remember how to make s'mores.

It's also about a hundred degrees out. Well, if I could live in a college dorm in southern Virginia without AC, I can do it again. (Of course, we DID have fans in college. Grumble. I tried sleeping with the window open, but it didn't really help.)

This sort of thing does give one renewed respect for one's ancestors, who got along not only without electricity, but without running water and matches and ice chests and all manner of things. And managed to write Beowulf and Hamlet while they were at it. (Well, OK, the vast vast majority of them didn't write anything of the sort, but after an evening of trying to write by candlelight, I'm very impressed that anybody did.)

Talking of Beowulf, I should probably re-read it before I have to teach it. More later.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

more moving notes

-- There seem to be cottontail rabbits everywhere. Hoppity hop hop. I don't know whether it's a Midwest thing, a New SLAC Town thing, or simply a consequence of the fact that my coffeemaker is with the movers and I have to walk four blocks to the mini-mart to get my morning fix. Maybe I would have seen rabbits all the time in University of Basketball Town if I had been going out for seven o' clock in the morning walks on a regular basis.

-- The farmer's market here? Many different shades of awesome. Of course it's an hour-long train-and-bus ride or a thirty-minute drive into the city, and I miss being able to drive five minutes to the Next Town Over from University of Basketball Town on Saturday mornings and get my fresh tomatoes and pecan pie. They seem to be a bit less fussed about selling only local products than they were back home. At least, I don't think pineapples grow around here, but if the vendors are going to give me free samples of pineapple I am not going to complain. Also, I tried pork rinds for the first time, but wasn't particularly impressed one way or the other. (However, I had a Ren drama prof in grad school who suggested bringing in pork rinds the day we read Bartholomew Fair, and it's nice to know where to get them, in case I decide to do that in the drama class. Assuming that we do get around to reading Bartholomew Fair, of course [it's on the syllabus, but I think that will be the play we drop if we run out of time, because I'm nervous about teaching it].)

-- One of my new colleagues stopped by on Friday and invited me to Faculty Poker Night, a.k.a. Clean the Newbie out of Her Spare Change Night. Hmm. Clearly I am going to have to improve my game if I'm sticking around. (Dammit, why couldn't it have been bridge, or spades, or Trivial Pursuit?) Regardless, they seem like very nice people, and I do hope I end up sticking around -- I feel like I really lucked into this job, because if it weren't for the whole one-year visiting thing, it would be just about perfect. (There's a certain amount of survivor guilt involved, though -- I took Ph.D. comps in Ren lit with two other people, and I think I'm the only one with a full-time job in the field right now; one ran out of funding and has yet to finish his dissertation, and the other couldn't do a full job search last year because of truly horrible, tragic personal circumstances. And I can't shake the feeling that they're both more deserving people than I am; I'm a bit of a slacker, truthfully, and I didn't really get my professional stuff together until the job market scared me into doing something. Probably better not to think too much about this.)

Cripes, how did I ever get onto that subject? Right, well, anyway, I'm settling in, and the movers should be here with some actual furniture later today.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

In New SLAC town...

So I moved out of the old apartment and flew to New City on Tuesday, bought a new car on Wednesday and drove out to New SLAC town, and now I'm camping out on an air mattress in an apartment with no furniture. I feel like I should be toasting marshmallows or something.

There's not a lot to do around here except take the metrotrain into New City, which is what I did today. I went to the zoo, which might have been something of a tactical error on a 90-degree day, but I didn't think about that until I was already there. Oh well. The penguin house was nice and frosty inside. And there was a baby elephant that was too cute for words. I got kind of lost on the way back, but it's all good because nearly all the buses go to one metrotrain station or another. I think I will go and see Major New City Landmark tomorrow and explore from there, unless the movers show up. I guess I ought to get a driver's license and register to vote and all that, not to mention checking out my new office, but the zoo sounded like more fun.

The new car is all bright red and zippy. I'm still getting used to her. The old one was a sedate old brown station wagon, which was probably -- to be honest -- more suited to my usual style of driving, which is distinctly old-ladyish.

Really weird being in a house with no books. I should get a library card, too (though I don't know how much good it will do, because the library in New SLAC Town is tiny. I've got a certain affection for tiny libraries, because there used to be several in the town where I grew up, and I spent a long hot summer when I was eighteen crushing on one of the librarians, but I hope there are some bigger ones affiliated with this one.)

More later, as I settle in.