Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Signs and Signifiers in the Indianapolis Airport

I spent the week-end in Indiana, where we went for my husband's family reunion. I didn't mention it before we left, because I didn't want to announce to the Internet world that my house would be vacant. It doesn't take too many mouse clicks before you've got my address, after all. Would thieves go to that much trouble? I have no idea, but I try to minimize risks where I can.

I had an experience in the Indianapolis airport that I've never had before. I actually had to study the signs for the bathroom to determine which one was mine. I'm used to those old-fashioned designs, where the female wears what looks like a big triangle. From far away, you know which bathroom is yours.

On Friday, I had to actually doublecheck the written sign, just to be sure. Part of it was that the symbol sign was confusing--the same sign told us in symbols that there was both an entrance for the women's room (to the right) and the family bathroom (to the left).

I noticed that the woman's dress has been updated. She's no longer wearing a triangle. She's got on a much slimmer skirt with an asymmetrical hem. I started wondering about the person who designed the sign. Did the person do it just for the Indianapolis Airport? Or will we soon be seeing this more fashionable woman on signs throughout the world?

I thought back to graduate school, where we spent lots of time arguing about signs and signifiers, and other concepts that the outside world probably never spent much time pondering. And then I thought about my current life, where my fine graduate school education has gone to analyzing airport signs.

Well, my education has been useful in any number of ways, and not always in the ways I anticipated. I use this sentence whenever students complain about having to take English classes (and other classes they consider useless). I think that one of the advantages of a Liberal Arts education is that it gives our brains fine things to ponder so that we don't have to focus on whatever indignities we're enduring at the given time.

How interesting--as I write this, Madeleine Albright is talking on NPR about the pins that she wore and what they signified as she went about her duties as Secretary of State. You can read or listen here. And if you really want to know more, she's written a whole book.

Yes, signs and signifiers are all around us. That's why I became an English major, after all. I tend to see the world as a storehouse of symbols. My brain left me predisposed become either an English major or a theology major--I liked the English department professors better, and so I set off down this road, with nary a care for practical issues, like how I'd make a living. I assumed the world would end in a nuclear blast very shortly (it was the early to mid 80's, after all), and I wouldn't have to worry about mundane things, like a career.

Again, the beauty of a Liberal Arts education--whether we're dealing with mundane things, like our careers, or earth-shattering things, like the idea of catastrophic loss, our Liberal Arts education has given us the tools we need to deal with whatever we may face.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Does "Community" Look Like Your Community College?

After watching promos for Community for what felt like the whole summer, by the time I sat down to watch the show last night, I felt like I had already seen the show. I've taught English at lots of community colleges, both in South Florida and in South Carolina (in Columbia and Charleston), so I was interested to see how the community college would be depicted.

I found the Spanish teacher least believable. To be having that kind of meltdown so early in the term? And over student expectations of what an Asian person should be doing? What, is he a new teacher? Is he not used to this by now? Does he not see it as a teaching opportunity? And to get in people's faces--literally!--the way he did? To be abusive to students? At most community colleges, I suspect that such a hair-trigger teacher wouldn't last very long. If that kind of scene happened in a classroom, half those students would be in the offices of various administrators complaining.

I found the set of the show to be more like a research university or a small college. Everything looks clean and bright and new. Most community colleges were built in the 1960's, and with the exception of a new building here and there, those buildings haven't been updated much since (I'm leaving the gleaming buildings that the Health/Medical students have out of the equation). Where were the broken desks? The shabby, stained carpeting or ugly linoleum? Why did the outside scenes look like the vegetation had been manicured? Where were all the huddles of smoking students?

But what I found most unbelievable was that all these students seemed to have so much free time. They met in the library to study. They worked on a Spanish assignment half the night. They put together a protest about Guatemala--a protest which had students show up.

Most community colleges serve a very transient population. Students come for class and then dash away to their job--often several jobs. They might wish they had time for study groups and protests, but they don't. They have children that need care. They often have older relatives who need care. My community college students faced more obstacles than any other students I've ever seen--and they often managed to hold it all together.

I'm happy that people in government are finally seeing the importance of community colleges. I worry that this T.V. show won't, that it will all be fodder for a series of smirking jokes.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What Price Votes? (or book adoption?)

When I started my first full-time teaching job at a community college in South Carolina in 1992, we weren't allowed to accept any gifts or anything of any value at all. When book reps wanted to buy the department lunch or a box of donuts, we had to say no. If a student wanted to give us a gift, we were supposed to say, "I so appreciate the thought, but I can't accept this" (full disclosure: an older student crocheted an angel for the top of a Christmas tree for me, and I didn't have the heart to reject it).

Why this strict line? Because a few months earlier, several state legislators had been arrested for selling their votes. Many of them had sold their votes for under $1000. As a struggling grad student who shivered through the winter and sweated through the summer because I could only afford an electric bill that went so high, I'm not sure what shocked me most: the fact that legislators sold their votes or that they sold them so cheap.

In response to this scandal, the state legislature passed strict rules about what state employees could and could not accept. As a naive younger person, I assumed these rules would take care of the ethics problem.

Now, of course, I know that there are many different ways to cheat the system. Now I'm surprised when something so brazen as accepting money in cash makes headlines. Don't these people know how to hide their interests in blind trusts?

I have this on the brain because yesterday, some of our key local politicians were busted in an FBI sting. They, too, sold their votes or influence. They, too, accepted pitiful sums of money. Have these idiots not been paying attention? Don't they know that they'll be caught? I've been watching politicians arrested for this kind of thing since I was a little girl. If Richard Nixon couldn't get away with his crimes, what makes these people think that they will?

Hubris, I suppose. Or, more scary, the fact that so many people probably do get away with these ethics violations. Perhaps it should be more surprising that anyone is ever arrested at all.

And then, of course, there's the larger question. I'm always shocked at how little money is involved. So, let's play a game. If you were going to abandon your moral self and throw your ethics away, what would the price be?

It probably starts small. A free lunch here, a pair of tickets there. Before you know it, you're accepting cash in a bag that contains leftovers from lunch, as one of our school board members is accused of doing.

Perhaps those ethics rules that governed state employees way back in 1992 weren't so crazy after all.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Can This Business Model Survive?

A few weeks ago, I read a favorable review of the book Push Comes to Shove, by Wesley Brown. It sounded like an interesting book, but more than that, the publishing company had an interesting business model. They give their books away.

Yes, they give their books away. Even the shipping and handling is free. In return, they ask that recipients make a donation to a charity or a person in need and that they pass the book along when they're done. Concord Free Press calls it a generosity-based publishing model.

How can they afford to publish books? They don't pay their writers or designers. They keep their expenses low. They accept donations. They do a limited print run. They sell T-shirts.

I like the idea of community that they're trying to build. I like the idea of requesting that people donate to charity instead of to the press; they say their first book has generated over $40,000 in donations. I like the idea of keeping books moving through society. The website notes that most books are read, shelved, and spend the rest of their lives gathering dust.

They only publish novels, but I started wondering if this model could work for poetry. Most poets aren't going to make gobs of money off of their books--if in fact, we make any. Would we rather have that money given to a charity? Is it important to be able to choose the charity? We could argue that the contest model of poetry publishing is supporting a charity, but the charity is that book publisher or a journal. I'd be happier if the money went to Oxfam or Lutheran World Relief, or some other organization that's devoted to helping the poorest of the poor.

It would be easier for me to do self-promotion and book sales if I knew that my efforts were helping the poorest of the poor. But maybe that's just me. Actually, I don't have trouble with self-promotion. I'll go out and rustle up poetry readings. But I hate being the one who sells my books. I hate that question that someone inevitably asks, "Do you think your book is really worth this price?" I always say, "The publisher set that price." But the question leaves me feeling queasy.

It's similar to how I feel about my students, who are now paying about $1500 a course. It's hard for me to imagine that I know anything that would be worth that price. And they assume that all that money goes to me. They look at our school's full-time teaching load of 5 classes a quarter, 4 quarters a year, and at all the students sitting around them. Even the ones who are math deficient can figure out that we'd be making gobs of money if that $1500 a course came directly into our pockets.

Except, of course, that money doesn't go into our pockets. Likewise, with poets and other authors. People assume that all that money that a book costs goes directly to us. But it doesn't. That's why this book publishing experiment of Concord Free Press intrigues me so much.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Education Bubbles

If you're still interested in the future of higher education, here are some resources. This morning, on NPR's Marketplace Morning Report, Chris Farrell talked about the high student loan default rate, the dropping earnings rate that college graduates are experiencing, and the future of education. He says that a college degree used to be the equivalent of a hot growth stock, but now it's more similar to insurance--you don't want to be without it, but you want to be careful what you buy. Go here to listen. It's a short piece, but it seemed well-reasoned and thoughtful.

A bit more on the apocalyptic side is this story from Washington Monthly, which asks what happens when students can get all the classes they can complete for the low, low price of $99. The author, Kevin Carey, says, "In recent years, Americans have grown accustomed to living amid the smoking wreckage of various once-proud industries—automakers bankrupt, brand-name Wall Street banks in ruins, newspapers dying by the dozen. It’s tempting in such circumstances to take comfort in the seeming permanency of our colleges and universities, in the notion that our world-beating higher education system will reliably produce research and knowledge workers for decades to come. But this is an illusion. Colleges are caught in the same kind of debt-fueled price spiral that just blew up the real estate market. They’re also in the information business in a time when technology is driving down the cost of selling information to record, destabilizing lows."

It's important to mention that most people can still get a good undergraduate education for the price of a moderately priced new car--and there's still reason to hope that the education will outlast the car. And in many fields, we can't do the training online, at least not all of it: think of the medical field, for example. I think that we'll always have some form of higher education, but I think it's going through radical changes and won't resemble the college educations that many of us received. Good or bad? Still too early to say.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Julie and Julia and Kristin

I admit, I'm late to the movie Julie and Julia. I'm surprised that I managed to see it at all. I usually miss movies altogether, and I can't even remember which movies I wanted to see long enough to catch them on DVD when they're released months later.

But I did go see it on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and I loved it. Yes, I loved it. It made me want to go home and cook. It made me want to write down my recipes and perfect them into a cookbook that would change the world. It made me happy that I, too, have a gem of a spouse, like the two title characters did. It made me resolve to start greeting all my friends by saying, "My Darling Friend!," as Julia Child did in one scene.

O.K., I probably won't do that, but I might make Boeuf Bourguignon once the weather cools off enough to have the oven on for several hours. I won't cook my way through the book (no calf feet in my kitchen!), but I might return to it with renewed interest.

I was interested in the movie's depiction of women as creative people who have to remake themselves periodically--in fact, that seemed to be the movie's message about the world of work--we'll all have to reinvent ourselves periodically.

I was interested in the idea that each woman was adrift and found herself through cooking--and through writing about her cooking. I spent a lot of time thinking about how small changes in trajectory changed each woman's life so completely.

I had no idea that it took Julia Child so long to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The movie shows the multiple times that she had to make major revisions and how she coped with each twist. I loved the scene where she's thoroughly dejected--nice to see a bit of realism.

I have always thought of Julia Child as a cook and a television personality, but never really as a fellow writer. How nice to discover that side of her.

Was the movie a chick flick? I don't even know what that term means anymore. Many critics have pointed out that it's one of the few movies centered on women that doesn't focus on their romantic lives--very refreshing. Yet at the same time, these women are allowed to have healthy relationships as well as creative ambition--and they're not punished by horrible torture, dismemberment, or death. I loved the fact that Julia Child's body looks like a normal woman's body on the screen--a tall woman's body, but a body with a bosom, with hips, with a large behind--the kind of body one would have as one cooks with all that animal fat. I love the fact that her husband clearly desires her, well into their middle ages. I love that he sees her as a treasure, even as the society in which they live sees her as a bit of a freak.

Perhaps I won't wait for cooler weather to cook up something delicious that needs to stew for hours in the oven. Maybe I'll turn down the AC and heat up the kitchen. Maybe I can heat up my creativity by cooking too. I'm feeling anxious because I've spent the month of September writing an academic essay, instead of writing poems. Maybe cooking can gently correct my life's trajectory.

Friday, September 18, 2009

How to Use Your Liberal Arts Education

Last night, I went to see Rafe Esquith. What a treat. For those of you who don't know, Rafe Esquith is probably the most famous teacher of 5th grade in the world. He's been teaching some of the nation's poorest students for the past 25 years. How do I know they're poor? Every single student in the school is eligible for free breakfast and lunch. The students start out with many strikes against them: most of them don't speak English as their first language, and many of them have challenging home lives--and they experience a variety of challenging home lives, which makes it tough for the school.

Rafe Esquith travels with some of the children, and they performed for us. They did a program which combined speeches from a variety of Shakespeare's plays and rock and pop music--which they sang and played on the guitar and harmonica.

It's the kind of night that makes me feel like I've wasted my whole life, although I teach too, and when I taught English at a community college in South Carolina, I taught students coming out of some of the worst public schools in America (some years it was South Carolina, some years Mississippi).

It's the kind of night that made me think, Hey, I could teach 5th grade! In fact, watching those 5th graders last night, it seems like just the right job for someone with a Liberal Arts background: music, drama, Shakespeare--we can do it all!

Of course, watching Rafe Esquith, I firmly reminded myself that he makes it look easy, but he glosses over difficult stuff. Well, he doesn't gloss it over, but he doesn't dwell on it. He talks about the stupidity of standardized tests, but he cheerfully talks about ignoring them until test day arrives.

Sure, he can do that. He's Rafe Esquith. He can do whatever he likes. As a new elementary school teacher, if I could get a job (and that's a big IF in our county), I'd be subject to all kinds of lunacy.

I also felt uneasy watching him and realizing that I'm less a teacher these days, more of an administrator. I tell myself that my job is important--protecting my faculty and their students from as much lunacy as I can. But on nights like last night, it's tough to convince my idealistic side of that.

It was an inspiring night, even for those of us in the group who don't teach. Sitting in one of the best book stores in the U.S., hearing some of the greatest of Shakespeare's monologues, delivered by impassioned children, all for free: it's hard to beat that kind of night out!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Working, Writing, and William Carlos Williams

Today is the birthday of William Carlos Williams, a poet who worked as a doctor for his whole life.

Imagine that, a poet who didn't have an academic job. I always find these examples hopeful, especially when I read articles like this one in The Washington Post on Sunday. I've always worried that people in higher education are a bit like auto workers in the 70's, who are sowing the seeds of their demise, but they don't see it. This article argues, "Innovators have yet to tap the potential of the aggregator to change the way students earn a degree, making the education business today look like the news biz circa 1999."

The article goes on to show how the Internet will transform the way we think about college--soon, the days when college is a physical place where you go to get a degree will be over. The author notes, "Already, half of college graduates attend more than one school before graduation. Soon you'll see more Web sites that make it easy to take classes from a blend of different universities." It's not such a stretch, really: "Classes are increasingly taken credit by credit, instead of in bulk -- just as news is now read article by article."

It sounds like a great deal for students, in some ways, most notably convenience. But it's not likely to be so great a deal for educators.

I do mourn the loss of the kind of college experience I had, where I took a variety of classes and read so much that I'd never have a chance to read again. Plus, I was surrounded by people reading the same things, so we had all sorts of interesting conversations, both in the classroom and out of it. But even then, I knew that I was one of the last generations having that experience. It was just too expensive to be sustainable. Now, many of my students are working several jobs to pay for school--and they're taking on debt that they'll be repaying for decades once they're done.

I suspect humans always feel the loss of the past. Dale Favier has a great post about literary communities, past and present, and about reading audiences and the future of literature--I'm making it sound ponderously dull but it gave me great hope about writing. Here's a quote to whet your appetite: "There is simply no way that we could, or should, pare that number down to the small literary circles that used to make literary history. There will be no more Tennysons, because we are awash in Tennysons. There are half a dozen poets in my blogroll that I think are that good. Odds are they won't be in the Norton Anthology in the year 2050: those slots will be taken, as they are now, by the pets of academia -- good poets, some of them, no doubt: but to call them the good poets of the early 21st Century is simply delusionary. It doesn't work that way anymore. The floodgates are open, and we're swimming in poetry. If you want to be a literary Name, that's distressing. If you want to make a living by selling your poetry, God help you. But if you just want to read and write poetry, it's marvelous."

I feel the same way--it's marvelous time for poetry and a great time to be a poet, even if you can't earn your keep via poems. We live in a world where poets keep blogs and they'll often correspond with you if you write to them and often, you can participate in cool poetry projects, which means you might write a poem each day during the month of April or exchange poetry postcards or build intriguing constructions out of cardboard or bits or photo montages.

Maybe, eventually, I'll see all sorts of potential in the new ways of delivering higher education. Maybe by then, I'll have reinvented myself, so that I won't feel as threatened by the loss of my livelihood.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I blogged about the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies back in April, when I first heard about the book and thought it was an April Fool's joke. But no, it's a real book, and now I've read it. In fact, our school's book club discussed it yesterday.

Pride and Prejudice was never my favorite Jane Austen book. In fact, I never really liked it much at all. And I won't return to the zombie version to reread it, I confess. But the zombie version was fun--laugh out loud fun.

I was impressed with how seamlessly the author, Seth Grahame-Smith, wove the zombie plot in with the Jane Austen plot. I expected it to be more clumsy. But Grahame-Smith made those zombies seem natural. As I read, I had trouble remembering the original book (and much of the original book is still there, reportedly 85%).

I was also impressed with how the zombie theme dovetailed with Austen's original theme. Grahame-Smith stays true to Austen's analysis of class in British society. For example, the Bennet sisters train at a dojo in China, when everyone knows that the best training is done in Japan.

As I was reading, I wondered if non-English majors would get all the jokes, if they'd see the humor. I think there's a richness that might be missed if people don't understand the society that Austen is satirizing. But I don't know that one needs to be an English major to get that--our own society is fairly stratified, after all (more so, before the economic crash which threatens to transform us all into paupers).

At yesterday's book club, we had two English majors, one of whom loved the original Austen, and one who did not (me). We had a chef, who loved both the original and the zombie version. We had a sociologist who hated both.

And here's an interesting twist. I was the only native English speaker. The other English major is from India, and I can't keep track of all the languages she knows. The sociologist is German. The chef hails from Latin America. So, the ability to appreciate the book does not appear to be tied to English as a native language.

So, if you need some fluffy fun as you get ready for Halloween, this book might be just what you need. Put your snooty inner English major self aside, and get ready for a good laugh.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In Which I Return to Blogging and Contemplate Terrifying Unmentionables

Usually, I'm able to give a bit of a heads-up when I expect to be away from blogging. My sister and her 3 year old son were down for a visit this past week-end, but I thought I'd still be able to post now and then. After all, he sleeps a lot, and I'm usually up before the rest of the house. But it was not to be.

They're gone, and I'm back to blogging, even though I'm feeling sad, and I don't like it. My nephew is quite good at telling you about his emotional interior (that language, "I'm feeling this way and I feel that way about feeling this way," is his; it's taken me decades to get as in touch with my feelings as he is with his). I feel sad because he's gone and we had so much fun. I feel sad because Patrick Swayze died, and coupled with the death of John Hughes, I feel like chunks of my adolescence are gone for good. I'm 44 years old, so I'm not happy when people start dropping dead in their 50's, even if they had no impact on my life otherwise. At my back I always hear that winged chariot, but these days, I'm feeling the hot breath of the charioteer.

My nephew gives me all sorts of insight for how to beat those feelings. We spent nights whirling and dancing around the living room to various soundtracks (Grease is great for dancing, no surprise, but so is Godspell), as well as 80's music (that strong dance beat that I hated when hearing it on radios everywhere, also makes for great dancing). We sat in wet sand and built castles. We shot water at imaginary fires. We went to Taco Bell, where he was thrilled with cheap food. We ate bacon for breakfast every day. We had secret movie night, even in the daytime.

The only thing I would have done differently? We went to see Curious George at Books and Books down in Miami. In retrospect, I see how foolish I was. I had this vision of 10 kids, us, Curious George, looking through books, and eating in the cafe.

Ha! Double ha, ha! It was a mob scene. We were supposed to form 2 lines to have our pictures made with Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat, but the concept of 2 lines seemed impossible to these pushy, rude parents and their rambunctious children. It was horrible. I wanted to shout, "Would you behave this way if you were waiting to see Santa Clause?" They probably would. Of course, Santa travels with more elves to help keep everyone in line (literally and metaphorically).

But aside from that blip, it was a great week-end. Now I'll return to regular blogging. Later this week, I'll write up my thoughts on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I'll call your attention to an article that compares the college system in the U.S. to the state of the newspaper industry (it's not just me feeling panicky). There are certainly other issues I'll think about, both mentionable and unmentionable. Stay tuned!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Most Important Book Ever

It's rare to see a book reviewer declare that the book being reviewed is the most important one of the reviewer's career. But that's what Carolyn See concludes in her review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: "Half the Sky is a call to arms, a call for help, a call for contributions, but also a call for volunteers. It asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue. It does so with exquisitely crafted prose and sensationally interesting material. It provides us with a list of individual hospitals, schools and small charities so that we can contribute to, or at least inform ourselves about, this largely unknown world. I really do think this is one of the most important books I have ever reviewed. I may be wrong, but I don't think so."

Wow. The most important book ever. O.K., O.K., she qualifies: one of the most important. Still, I'll spend the rest of the day quantifying the books I've read. Which one would be the most important one ever?

Immediately, Our Bodies, Ourselves comes to mind. I discovered it in my college's library during my freshman year. It felt like a dangerous book to me. It talked so openly about sex and female bodies. It talked calmly about all the things that could go wrong and how one might right those things. It approached the human body from a health and wellness perspective. It had pictures. It had that 70's sense of earnestness and honesty that was immediately appealing. At first, I only read the book when nobody else was in the library--I didn't want to be caught reading it. As the year progressed, I grew in maturity to the point where I was able to actually check the book out of the library and read it openly.

I might list one of the books I read in my teens that convinced me to become vegetarian. Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet changed the way I thought about the issue of world hunger--and it taught me how to cook. But there were so many books that taught me to cook and taught me to think about the moral implications of food that it would be hard to list just one.

I could go on and on: books that taught me to be an athlete, books that taught me about spirituality in all its forms, books that taught me how to be a poet, how to be a literary critic (The Madwoman in the Attic is the most important book of literary criticism I ever read--no question), how to be an English teacher.

But a book that a literary critic (and talented author herself) says is the most important ever? I'll add it to the list. The excerpt in The New York Times magazine several weeks ago had me leaning that way. And I'll likely listen to the authors as they appeared on the Diane Rehm show yesterday (which means we can all hear the show; go here and scroll down).

I'm impressed with the authors' ability to remain hopeful in the midst of these horrific stories. Hope is a commodity we can all use, especially on this day which is an anniversary day of multiple horrors (the coup that led to Pinochet's rule in Chile in 1973, the most devastating hurricane to hit Hawaii in 1992, the terrorist attacks of 2001). I like the idea of having this day become a day of service, but for many of us, it's a work day. Still, we can carve out a bit of that spirit of service by reading books that remind us of the resilience of the human spirit.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Singing Our Songs of Innocence and Experience

My sister and her 3 year old son are coming tomorrow. I should be cleaning my house. When they came for a visit a year and a half ago, I scrubbed the house from top to bottom--I was terrified that my nephew would put something horrible in his mouth from some corner that I had forgotten to clean.

My sister has the only child who doesn't explore the world by tasting it. He doesn't put much of anything into his mouth. It's a struggle to get him to slow down long enough to eat.

So, much as I would like to have a house that's scrubbed from top to bottom, it's beginning to look like it won't happen. When they came before, I had a more flexible work schedule. Now my work schedule requires that I be in the office forat least 40 hours a week--so this year, I have much less time to clean.

We'll do the important stuff: vacuum, clean the bathrooms, that sort of thing. I don't want my readers to think I'm a total slattern.

My sister and nephew will be flying on Sept. 11. I'm not usually superstitious about these things, however I can't help but notice that date.

I'm thinking of Sept. 10, 2001. I went to teach my Romantic Lit class and we dove into Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. We had a rollicking discussion of what he meant by those terms, innocence and experience, and whether or not we'd rather live in the land of innocence (where we might be in danger, but too innocent to know) or experience.

Then we went home and the next day, Sept. 11, we watched the Towers burn and fall, over and over again in an endless news loop.

I know that many poets (as well as other writers and artists) spent the rest of that autumn wrestling with how their art fit into this new world. I went to several poetry readings where people tested out their Sept. 11 poems. I've only written one poem that references the event, but I tried to make it about larger issues, the Blakeian issue of innocence and experience.

My poem "Rites of Passage" begins with these lines: "My students flock to me / on this day of fear and falling buildings." It ends with these stanzas:

Perhaps this is the final deflowering
that waits for them at midlife,
after they’ve weathered several crises.
Buildings that seemed solid
will sift into dust,
astronauts will fall from the sky,
whole civilizations will be slaughtered
in the amount of time
it takes a fascist to organize forces.

The sad truth that I do not reveal
to my scared students:
a day when only several thousand lives are lost
to catastrophe is not as calamitous
as it could be,
as it will be.

Not very cheery, is it? But not every poem needs to end with cheerful breeziness.

So, today, as I go to work and afterwards try to get my house a bit more presentable, I'll think about those issues of innocence and experience. I love my nephew for many reasons, but I especially love how he teaches me a lot about radical acceptance. He's not judging me for those 20-30 pounds that I can't seem to lose and keep lost. He doesn't hear me sing and notice the off notes. We dance and twirl around the room and I know he's not saying, "Doesn't she realize how ridiculous she looks?" He's just so happy to be with us and to have adults who will play with him. I would like to cultivate that sense of innocence in myself.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Sweetness of Fudge and the Death of Allusion

On Labor Day, I went to several get-togethers--that's just the kind of social butterfly I am. Actually, my friend had 2 different get-togethers at her house, so I made one big pan of fudge. At the later get-together, the one where boys were allowed, one of the males ate a piece of my fudge, made a face like he'd bitten into something bitter and nasty, and said, "My, it's sweet." He said it with extreme distaste, like sweetness is a bad thing. He took another nibble and wrinkled his nose. "It's very sweet."

Well, yes, it's fudge. That's the whole nature of fudge, is it not? What kind of world are we living in, when people react to sweet fudge like they're eating dog poo?

My wonderful husband, on the other hand, licked the plate when we tested the fudge on Sunday night and said in a swoony voice, "It tastes like Christmas!" Yes, yes, it does, because we generally only make it once a year outside of Christmas.

This whole encounter made me think of definitions and metaphors and the implications for poetry. If we live in a world where sweetness is bad, I've got lots of metaphors I need to think about. I've already revisited bread as a metaphor, once everybody went on these ridiculous carb-free diets. I revisited the metaphor, and I decided to stick with the metaphor. Bread as nourishment goes way back--who am I to tinker with that metaphor? If anti-sweet freaks interpret my poems the wrong way, well, I'll learn to live with that.

It reminds me of how many allusions are lost to us as writers. Once we could assume that everyone had a basic understanding of the Bible, a basic understanding of Greek mythology, and a basic understanding of at least some of the literary classics, like Shakespeare. Now we make that assumption at our peril. I'll keep making those allusions--with the understanding that some of my poems will require explanatory notes, once they're part of a larger collection. That's cool. My students have prepared me for this need.

But what kind of Orwellian world are we living in where sweet is bad, where fudge is bad because it's sweet?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Is My Field Sustainable?

On this Labor Day, my thoughts turn to my labor. I've been a teacher and now I'm an administrator at the college level. When I first started in my field, I assumed that I had chosen a field that was similar to gerontology. I thought that people would always need to go to school. I didn't foresee all the technology that might make the delivery of that education make me, the human in front of the classroom, obsolete.

I'm roughly halfway through my career life, so maybe I can hold on and keep reinventing myself. That was my thought a year ago, before the economic meltdown of the Fall of 2008. Now, I wonder how many people will continue to pay astronomical amounts for an education. If you're wondering why education costs so much, see this article in The New York Times. This article seems to say that people will continue to pay for community colleges and state universities, which are more affordable than private schools. Right now, I'm at a private school, so that's only some amount of comfort.

Of course, the affordability question doesn't address the appropriation of our work. With online classes proliferating, how long before administrators decide that teachers are expendable. The faculty at the University of Illinois just managed to defeat an attempt to take their syllabi and course materials to create a new batch of online management classes taught by adjuncts (for those of you outside of academia, read cheap labor without benefits).

In her post, the blogger Historiann reminds us that the attempt to steal our work may not always be so obvious: "Oh, and one more thing: think twice before you post your syllabi and PowerPoint slides on-line, friends, even (or especially?) if it’s just through a software program or server at your own university and/or visible only to your students. Just because they don’t pay us well doesn’t mean our work doesn’t have value. It’s a jungle out there."

So, on this Labor Day, which celebrates the American Labor Movement and all the gains made for a more humane workplace, it's worth thinking about how much we may be backsliding. It's also worth thinking about what a jobless recovery means for the future (the editorial page of The Washington Post has several articles on that topic today, as does the front page of The New York Times--I'm not going to link to them because they depressed me too much). Will the day come when we'd be grateful for bosses who abuse us because at least we're getting paid?

Ah, Karl Marx, where are you when we need you?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Poetry Reading (not mine) in One Week at Broward College

For those of you who live in the South Florida area, don't miss a great poetry reading a week from today. Two of my favorite local poets, Barbra Nightingale and Denise Duhamel, will be reading at the South campus of Broward College (in the 72nd block of Pines Boulevard--just before University Drive if you're driving from the east, and just after University Drive if you're driving from the west). Both women have had great books published this year, so if you can make the reading, you're in for a treat. I will likely not make the reading, since my sister and three year old nephew will be visiting us this week-end.

So, briefly, in one spot, the details: Denise Duhamel and Barbra Nightingale will read their poems on Saturday, September 12, 2009 at the South campus of Broward College in the Southern Breeze Dining Room. The reading starts at 8 p.m. Since they'll be signing books, I imagine that their books will be available for purchase--and after hearing them read, you'll want to buy their books (so bring cash or check or an ATM card that you can use for a small fee at the machine in the dining room).

Friday, September 4, 2009

Would You Colonize Mars If You Couldn't Come Back to Earth?

This story in The New York Times earlier this week made me think of space travel, Mars, and a great writing prompt I used to give to first year students.

Years ago, I heard the statistic that 60% of people in a poll said that they would go colonize Mars, even if going to Mars meant that they could never come back to Earth. The news story that gave me that statistic said that getting to Mars is no problem and even colonizing Mars, while challenging, is feasible--but taking enough fuel to get home to Earth makes the project impossible. My first thought: why would anyone want to colonize Mars if it meant leaving Earth forever?

Well, plenty of people apparently. When I told my students about the news story and asked them if they'd go, about 30% of my students said that they'd leave tomorrow if they could. I'm sure that some of them would leave because they're on the run from bad families and grim pasts--but I think most of them would go for the adventure of it all.

When I was younger, I read about colonists, and I assumed, usually rightly, that the Old World must have been pretty bad for people to risk that voyage. And in case you're tempted to romanticize what life would have been like for those colonists once they got to the New World, read Toni Morrison's A Mercy. No book I've ever read shows the precariousness of that life as well as she does (go on, read the book--it's short).

For those of you starting a new academic year and needing writing prompts for your students, the question in my blog post title makes a great prompt. I've gotten great essays from people who would leave and from people who would refuse. It's a novel way to help people ponder what they value. And for those of you who like to give students something to read so that they have something to respond to, I'd think that article in The New York Times would make a great one.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Many Meanings of a Cell

A poem of mine, "Lectio," is up at the current issue of The Innisfree Poetry Journal, an online journal. Go here to read it.

I got the idea for this poem when I was last at Mepkin Abbey. I read a brochure that asked us to consider turning our cell phones off--not just to vibrate, but completely off. The word cell leapt off the page, and I immediately thought of the biological definition. Since I was at an abbey, I also thought of the definition associated with monasteries and abbeys. This poem was one of those that came easily to me. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Glory Days

This morning in Spin class, we cycled merrily down imaginary roads with Bruce Springsteen singing "Glory Days." Even though the song lyrics are kind of sad, that song brings a smile to my face. It reminds me of Fall 1984, when Springsteen's Born in the USA was the back drop to everything I did. I arrived at college for my Sophomore year, I went to Wal-Mart, and I bought a fan (unairconditioned dorms--who would tolerate such a thing now?) and Born in the USA.

My friend Russell decided we should run the Carolina Marathon in February, and so we started training. All went well, very well, for the first month or so, while we still had plenty of daylight. And then?

Well, I wrote a poem about it, and I titled it after that Springsteen song. I love the last stanza, which I think captures the sadness, which may just really be a bit of wistful nostalgia, of the Springsteen song. I'm pasting it below for your reading enjoyment. It was published last year in Sport Literate.

Glory Days

Russell lays down the challenge, and I take it.
A marathon? Sure, how hard can it be?
We have a six month schedule and long lit
days early in that fall semester.
When we aren’t out there logging miles,
we’re in the car, scouting new routes.

We challenge each other. I force him to face
the splendor of early morning; he runs beside
me far beyond my capacity. We run
holes in our shoes, the campus odd couple.

But summer can’t last forever. Autumn drops
a blanket in the distance. Never enough daylight.
Russell breaks a bone, I contract bronchitis,
and our glory days end. He limps; I hack.
He looks like a shell-shocked soldier,
and I sound like a TB victim.

Sometimes, late at night, when I can’t sleep,
I drift back to that little college town
where I last felt invincible.
I let the early autumn sun shine
on me, and I trace that route, even the hills,
which memory, time, and distance never flatten.
I run in that pre-dawn bliss,
blessedly ignorant of my mortal frailties,
and all the pitfalls ahead in the gathering gloom.
Just for a moment, I slip back in time,
hours until my first class, with nothing better
to do than run mile after mile, bathed
in sweat and oxygen drenched conversation.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Will Your Thesis Come Back to Haunt You?

We've all heard the horror stories about people's ill-considered Facebook photos or blog postings that come to the attention of a possible boss or college admissions officer and sink a candidate. But what about that thesis that you wrote long ago for your M.A. or M.S. degree?

I've been following the story of one of Virginia's candidates for governor, who wrote a thesis twenty years ago. If it had the experience of most theses, no one looked at it after it was submitted and accepted. Until now, of course.

This thesis has some conservative views, which probably shouldn't surprise us, since it's the M.A. thesis of the Republican candidate who wrote it for a graduate degree from Regent University, a Christian conservative institution founded by Pat Robertson. In his thesis, he wrote that working women threaten the traditional family. If you define the traditional family as including a mom at home, you'd have to agree with him. No shock there. In that thesis, he also expressed his shock at the idea of non-married people having access to birth control, sadness over the purging of religion from the schools, opposition to homosexuality: all the standard, ultra-conservative viewpoints.

I confess that I haven't read his thesis. My life is short, and my reading time constrained. I read about it in this story in The Washington Post. There was also a story on Sunday.

The candidate, Robert McDonnell, says his views have changed. Perhaps.

I started to think about my own M.A. thesis, which set about to prove that James Joyce was not anti-female, but instead had created female characters which were realistic and fully realized. We've now had several decades of feminist Joyce scholarship, so this view doesn't seem particularly radical, but at the time, there were only a few feminist scholars working on Joyce--ah, the road not taken.

I think about my Ph.D. dissertation, which set about to prove that work that has been considered to be part of the Gothic tradition actually had some serious points to make about domestic violence and the desperate status of women in patriarchal society. I'm still proud of that dissertation, although when I read it now, I see that I stretched some of the evidence to make a point here or there.

You might ask why, if I was proud of it, I never went back to make it into a book. I was proud of it, but I had written as much as I had to say on the subject. I thought it worked well as a dissertation, but to turn it into a book would require another 150 pages at least, and I just didn't have enough material.

To be honest, I had also started a job with a 5-5-4 teaching load at a community college, and working to turn my dissertation into a book just didn't interest me. It wasn't a matter of time management. I wrote a novel during that first year of teaching. I wanted to turn my attention to creative writing, and that's what I did.

Occasionally, I've returned to literary scholarship. When I do, part of my brain is thrilled to be analyzing literature again. Part of my brain is annoyed that I'm using valuable time to do literary scholarship, when we could be assembling a book of poems or sending out manuscripts or writing new poems.

When I first started blogging, I worried about the ways that blogging might come back to haunt me, particularly if I ever wanted a different job. I think it's good to be cautious about what one posts on the Internet. And as the case of the gubernatorial candidate shows us, nothing we write and release into the world is ever really gone. Well, maybe there's a poem of mine in an obscure literary magazine here and there that would be gone forever if I wasn't here to keep track.

And here's an interesting question: if I did run for public office, would my poems come back to haunt me? I can see where a blog post here and there might, if an intrepid reporter had time to wade through them all. But would my poems torpedo my chances at election? Would yours?