Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Benjamin Franklin

"Great beauty, great strength, and great riches are really and
truly of no great use; a right heart exceeds all."

Benjamin Franklin
(1706-1790, American Scientist, Publisher, Diplomat)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Note to self: buy more chocolate in December...

A funny article about how giving students chocolate before they fill out evaluations leads to higher marks for teachers. Check it out. I love that the article makes it clear that the researcher giving out the chocolate said it was "leftover from a function" and the students still gave higher marks.

"'Here we have something that has absolutely nothing to do with the course,' Youmans said. 'It's a stranger that gave them some candy right before their evaluations. And that stranger pushed their evaluations up a lot. That's the rub.'"

Sunday, October 21, 2007


"He that does good to another, does good also to himself, not only
in the consequences, but in the act; for the consciousness of
well-doing is, in itself, ample reward."

(ca. 4 B.C.-65 A.D., Roman Philosopher)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

We'll miss you, Joe

Joe Torre has turned down an offer to return to manage the Yankees next year. I am a bit surprised by this exact turn of events--I didn't figure he would be back, but I didn't think he'd get an offer from Steinbrenner and company at all.

I think the world of Joe Torre. He seems like an excellent guy with classic NY roots and a great work ethic. He made the Yankees the most dominant team in baseball over the twelve years he managed the team. He brought home all of those World Series titles and helped players like Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera become Yankee icons.

But I also felt it was probably time for Torre to go. Let's face it--the team needs to shake things up. I am not saying their recent lack of play-off success is Torre's fault, but when things aren't working in an organization, you've got to make some changes. Besides, isn't it best for Torre to leave now, when most Yankee fans still love him like crazy?

Now, let's flash back to some happier times: that amazing World Series victory in 1996. I clearly remember watching the deciding game at my friend Robin's apartment. I know Amber was there, and I think Heather and Allison were, too. (Amber or Heather--does that sound right?) I also remember calling a certain fella I was hopelessly in love with for most of my college career under the guise of celebrating the win. (He would always tease me about my love for the Yankees.)

And there were so many memorable moments from the season and the game: Torre's brother recovering from a heart transplant, (another brother, Rocco, had died earlier in the year), his sister the nun getting her students to pray for the Yanks to win, Jim Leyritz with big hits in key spots (I always loved him and that distinctive bat twirl before he took a swing), Wade Boggs riding a horse around the stadium. Awesome stuff.

Another great Torre-era memory for me? A drive with my dad during the 1998 series. I was home in NY for Fall Break from Roanoke and we had gone over to Tara and Jeff's house (my sister and brother-in-law) to watch the early innings of Game One against the San Diego Padres. The Yankees were down 5-2 when we decided to head back to Rocky Point. As we drove down the dark stretch of Rocky Point/Yaphank Road and listening to the game on the radio, we didn't say much--we were both bummed out about the score.

Then Chuck Knoblauch came to the plate with two runners on and hit a three-run homer. Even today, clear as day, I remember my dad slowing the car down and giving me a high-five in celebration. Yes, it sounds like a cliche, but it really was a special moment for us. (It only got better when Tino Martinez, another one of my all-time favorites, hit a grand slam in that same inning.) Honestly, for me it was a magical moment. And that's what Torre's Yankees gave to so many fans for so many years--so many amazing moments.

For so many fans, Joe Torre was the heart of the Yankees during this recent great run (and I am including recent seasons: World Series wins or not--the Yankees are a dominant team). So, I'll miss him next season, even if it is time for him and the team to move on.

Here's a nice article SI.com has reposted about that 1996 series. Check out this one, too.

UPDATE: ESPN will rebroadcast four great Torre-era games, including two that I mentioned above. You can read about them here.

What killed Edgar Allan Poe?

An interesting article/theory here from author Matthew Pearl, who wrote the popular Dante Club, (I haven't read it, but my friend Rita says it's quite good), and more recently, The Poe Shadow (haven't read that either). In a nutshell, Pearl raises the possibility (not entirely original to him), that a brain tumor was responsible. Now for some totally cool and totally gross quotations from the heart (brain?) of the article:

"...the articles confirmed that Mr. Poe’s body had been exhumed, 26 years after his death, so that his coffin could be moved to a more prominent place at the front of the cemetery.

More to the point, a few of the articles suggested that the great man’s brain had been visible to onlookers during the procedure.

The first of these was an undated letter to the editor of The Baltimore Gazette, which claimed that 'a medical gentleman' had seen 'that the brain of the poet Poe, on the opening of his grave … was in an almost perfect state of preservation,' and that 'the cerebral mass, as seen through the base of the skull, evidenced no signs of disintegration or decay, though, of course, it is somewhat diminished in size.'

The second was an 1878 article in the St. Louis Republican, noting that 'the sexton who attended to the removal of the poet’s body' had lifted the head during the exhumation and reported seeing the brain '[rattling] around inside just like a lump of mud.' The sexton reportedly thought that 'the brain had dried and hardened in the skull.'

'What I realized was, if that was the case, it would be the only physical evidence we have of what Poe’s condition was at his time of death,' Mr. Pearl said.

Intrigued, Mr. Pearl asked a coroner for an expert opinion. 'I read her the description,' Mr. Pearl said, 'and she said, "Well, that person is just wrong. Unless you embalm the body, the brain is the first thing to liquefy. There’s no way it would still be there 25 years later."'"

The Poe Museum in Richmond (my old home--at least for one year) has a pretty interesting exhibit about what might have killed Poe in their "Death Room." Yes--it's totally cheesy and creepy at the same time--a rare feat for a museum.

Most people who study Poe or have an interest in this issue seem to agree that we'll never have a definitive answer, but that we'll still keep asking the questions. Why? Well, I think it has something to do with our endless fascination for the man himself, something I wrote about in this earlier post.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Feminism and Romance

A conversation I have with some of my students every semester:

Young female student: "I'm not a feminist or anything, but..."
Me: "Well, do you believe in equal pay for equal work?"
Young female student: "Yes."
Me: "Do you believe you should have all the same rights as a man?"
Young female student: "Ummm...yeah."
Me: "Then I'm sorry--you're a feminist."
[Here's where the student usually laughs or thinks I am just crazy. Here's also where I take the time to point out that by this definition, many of the guys in the class are also feminists. They seem uncomfortable with this. I try to tell them that they shouldn't be--girls love guys who are all about girl power.]

Anyway, maybe I should bring this study to the attention of every young female student I have who claims she isn't a "feminist," as if the only kinds of feminists out there are bra-burners, male-haters or, as one of my students put it the other day, "big hairy lesbians." (Freshman can be so poetic sometimes.) In a nutshell:

"They found that having a feminist partner was linked to healthier heterosexual relationships for women. Men with feminist partners also reported both more stable relationships and greater sexual satisfaction. According to these results, feminism does not predict poor romantic relationships, in fact quite the opposite."

Translation: feminsts have better sex and healthier relationships--and their partners are happier, too. This shouldn't surprise us: a woman with a good sense of self-worth interested in a relationship based on equality (with a partner who feels the same way) is in a great position to have a successful relationship, especially compared to women who feel inferior to or submissive towards their partners.

Hey--this might be my most "adult" post yet. So I suppose I should add a disclaimer: I'm just reporting facts, not endorsing any actions. That's just in case my family--especially my parents--ever reads this blog. No worries, Mom and Dad, my own options for testing this hypothesis has been severely limited during my grad-school/job-search/new-faculty/only-slightly-voluntary "man sabbatical" (a term I borrowed from my friend Gretchen).

I've got a theory...it must be corporate kill joys..

If you don't recognize my paraphrasing of the lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer's totally amazing musical episode, "Once More with Feeling," then maybe this isn't the post for you. But I'll put it up there nonetheless. Check out this story from CNN.com about how a Buffy sing-along (ala Rocky Horror Picture Show) has been killed by the folks at Twentieth-Century Fox.

How much fun would I have had at one of these showings? Folks, you can't even begin to imagine. After all, it would have combined so many of my favorite things, include all things Buffy and musicals. So sad.

Hmm...you know what would make me happy? Embedding a clip from one of my favorite parts of the episode: Xander and Anya singing, "I'll Never Tell."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Francis Bacon

"If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a
citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island, cut off from
other lands, but a continent that joins to them."

Francis Bacon
(1561-1626, Philosopher, Essayist, Statesman)

Friday, October 12, 2007

How to grade 70 midterms and 50 papers with 2 demanding cats...

Some of you know that I often make myself stay up in my office working until pretty late in the day. There are plenty of good reasons for this: I am less easily distracted here by TV or the phone, I feel better about myself if I get home later in the day having accomplished a whole lot, I keep a lot of my reference materials in my office at school. There is, of course, another reason that I am often much more productive at school versus at home: Bing and Wes. Whenever I have my work laid out at home, they are never far from it, reminding me of how I should be spending my time with them.

The photographic evidence:

Here's my oh-so-important, if-I-lost-it-my-life-would-be-derailed schoolbag. (Seriously, I keep everything from my wallet to my ipod to my flash drive to my datebook to stacks of important papers.) So, when I am working from home, I am always taking things in and out of it. It's no coincidence, then, that the boys often chose to cuddle up right next to it.

This shot (and the one following it) are from last weekend when I was switching back and forth between grading English 101 papers and making a study guide for my English 204 classes. I was sitting on the couch, with my legs stretched out in front of me on the coffee table. (Don't judge: it's my house and I can put my feet on my own darn coffee table.) I had my lap desk on my lap (duh) with the 204 anthology and some papers on it and my computer on the table. Next to me were stacks of 101 essays. Not exactly the kind of space that says, "You know what we've got room for here? A cat!" But that didn't stop Wes, who climbed right on that stack of papers and made himself comfortable. (Fortunately, I had my camera on the sidetable next to me, so I could capture these incriminating shots.) His face cracks me up here--I guess he doesn't like what he's reading: the Puritan poet Edward Taylor. That's too bad, although my students feel the same way.

Later that same evening, Bing also made himself comfortable on my work. Don't let his pose fool you here. He might look like he's being helpful and offering some proofreading advice, but just a few seconds later, he stretched out even more, displacing my neat stack of papers. He couldn't have been more pleased with himself.

Anyway, last night I was bound and determined to get some serious grading done from the comfort of my own living room while watching Thursday night TV. (By the way, anyone watch "Ugly Betty" last night? How awesome was it? That show just cracks me up--what a nice way to spend an hour after a long day.) I could tell, though, by the way the boys were circling, that I might be in for a repeat of last weekend's pleas for attention. My solution? Drug them up!

I whipped out the Cosmic Catnip. This stuff is amazing. At the very sound of the tub opening, the cats come charging over, like heroin addicts at a methadone clinic (or so I've heard). I gave each of them a little bowl of the sweet sweet nip, and let them go to town.

Now this is a pre-"ultimate drugged out craziness" shot (after all, my purpose in giving them the nip was to get work done, so hanging around and doing a photo shoot would have been counter-productive), but even still, you can see the effects starting. I love how Wes has his arms around the bowl. Bing is already doing that slightly-high "dude, what's that over there?" thing. (He's really staring at nothing.)

So off to work I went. And about 30 minutes later, I was still happily working while the fellas had worn themselves out.

Bing in a "cat loaf" position.

Wes all tuckered out. (I think he might be the cutest sleeping cat I've ever seen--seriously, he sleeps "cute"--all the time.)

So does this make me a bad cat-mom? Vogel said it's like giving a baby cough syrup to make it stop crying. Oh well. Mama's gotta make the money to buy the catnip, so I am sure Bing and Wes understand...

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Midterm week...

Piles of grading in front of me--stacks that will only grow bigger.
Numbers to crunch and equations to work out (who said English majors don't use math?)
Students on edge.

Yup--it's midterm week.

Here's a little something that makes me smile when I feel a bit overwhelmed: the Daily Dickinson website. Today's poem isn't exactly a shiny happy offering (how many Dickinson poems really are?), but there is this little gem from Goethe that the blogger has included in a posting from a few days ago:

"One ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words. "

Thursday, October 4, 2007

"But I will still kill you."

Remember this post from a couple of weeks ago? It would work really well on passiveaggressivenotes.com, a website I've just added to my "Other fun/interesting sites" column on the right. Here's one of my favorites:

You can read some more about this note (and people's hilarious comments) here.

Who's up for a road trip?

One of my dream road trip destinations is Concord, Massachusetts. Yeah, I know that makes me even more of an English nerd, but let's face it, for a nineteenth-century Americanist like myself, there are few destinations more exciting. This lovely post from Bluestalking Reader captures one of the reasons I am so eager to go.

FYI: This blogger, Lisa, also has a nice post about a visit to the Mark Twain house, which I wrote about visiting in a post this past summer. She also has lots of cool posts about banned books, another interest of mine.

"Advice To College Students: Don't Major in English"

From seemingly out of nowhere comes this attack on English departments across the nation. Now it's nothing to get too worked up about on the surface--seems to me that Schlafly is going for shock value here and little more, but it is hard to let a comment like this pass without notice: " That's why it was no surprise that Cho Seung-Hui, the murderer of 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech, was an English major." What a ridiculous assertion--one that the author doesn't even attempt to support in her column. This kind of discourse--where the barbed attack, the killer soundbite becomes the whole story--makes me genuinely sad. And it comes from both sides of the political spectrum.

Beyond that, though, she is simply wrong. When I heard that Cho Seung-Hui was an English major, I was more surprised than anything else. Yes, maybe that says something about how proud I am of my discipline, but I stand by that assertion. Let me take this point a bit further: to imply that English courses made this kid a murderer is so crazy and anti-intellectual that the author should be ashamed. In addition, as we look back on this tragic event and wonder what could have been done to prevent it, please note that it was his English teachers who made the most attempts to help him--to do something to stop him. See here and here for articles discussing their attempts. An English class, where students are free to discuss their ideas and their interpretations of texts and writings, is one of the few spaces where this kind of realization can happen. Yes, in this case, their efforts didn't work, but not for lack of trying.

And here's where I get really idealistic, I suppose: Schlafly implies that an English major that asks students to read newer additions to the curriculum (including, horror of horrors--works by women and minorities!) is a waste of time and money. She couldn't be more wrong. An English major that continues to embrace both the classics (however you want to define them) but also pays attention to shifting critical and cultural debates--that isn't afraid to adjust as attitudes change--is precisely the kind of degree that can change the world. Those who know me well know that I am far from a left-wing radical--about as far away as you can be and still be in a humanities branch of academia. But you cannot tell me that classes I've taught with titles like "Creepy Literature" and "Shocking and Scandalous Nineteenth-Century Literature" aren't worth teaching--that they don't teach students about what makes a text worth reading and how we can use literature to understand ourselves, our history, our world, and the people around us. To me, there's nothing inherently political about that--nothing left-wing or liberal about it.

Furthermore, it's equally ridiculous to act as if the traditional canon isn't also full of violence, alienation, and questions about race, sex, sexuality, and class. Ever really read Shakespeare, Phyllis? Chaucer's "Wife of Bath"? Isn't she a model of good family values! How about Whitman? Or Thoreau? And how about those ancient Greeks?

Okay--I could go on and on, but I'll stop for now. In a little while, I have to go teach my English 204 class. On the agenda for today, Henry Louis Gates' Colored People, a fascinating memoir about growing up black in West Virginia in the 1950s, written by one of the leading academics in the world today. Wonder how Schlafly would feel about that...

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Carl Sandburg

"I glory in this world of men and women, torn with troubles, yet
living on to love and laugh through it all."

Carl Sandburg
(1878-1967, American Poet)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

I could have written this...

...because this is about all the Spanish I know, despite what my transcripts might indicate. Don't tell--I don't want to lose my degree. Anyway, here is "The One Semester Spanish Love Song."

Emily Dickinson, air quotes, and a blog

I just got done teaching a section of my English 204 class. On the schedule for the day: Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson days always make me happy--even when after only ten minutes or so it is pretty clear that most of the class didn't read closely enough, if at all. Anyway, one of the poems we discussed was this perfect and witty four-liner:

"Faith" in a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see--
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency

It's a fantastic poem about how we feel just fine about our faith until a moment of crisis, when believing without seeing isn't very easy. So here I am trying to explain this to my class. With Dickinson (especially for beginners) a line by line reading tends to work best. And this kind of close attention can be very rewarding with a poet like Dickinson, who does so many interesting things with punctuation, capitalization, italics, and yes, even quotation marks.

Anyway, here I am, starting at the beginning, and asking students what we should think about Dickinson putting quotation marks around "Faith" in that first line. I met with that familiar wall of silence. So I tried another strategy, asking them what it means when we put "air quotes" around something we are saying. And Lord help me, all I could think of were dirty examples: "He and I were 'studying' all night long," "I'm really good at 'anatomy.'" [This supports Vogel's theory that I am the dirtiest teacher she knows. I don't think this is true, by the way.] The students, of course, got a big kick out of that. Beyond the laughs, though, they started to see the point--the quotation marks actually often indicate that we should take the word to mean something very different than what it would mean without them. They began to see the subversive value of those quotation marks. So what Dickinson is calling "Faith" isn't really faith at all. Once we got this down, they were able to grasp the rest of the poem much more easily.

This whole story (perhaps only interesting to nerds like myself) illustrates so well why Dickinson is an invaluable resource for teaching English. She makes us realize the differences that dashes, italics, and exclamation points make. And she does it in ways that students understand. Consider the closing lines of "After great pain, a formal feeling comes--":

As freezing persons, recollect the Snow--
First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--

In this poem (one of my favorites), Dickinson is writing about a pain (the death of a loved one, a great loss) so severe that it threatens to destroy the sufferer. She creates that powerful and haunting image of freezing to death in these last lines--of the eventual slipping away into unconsciousness and death. The dash therefore, is such a perfect way to end the poem. I asked my students, "Why a dash? Why not a period?" And they got it: it implies that drifting off, that lack of a clean, neat, and definite ending. They understood why. This can even open doors to discussions of editing and editions, always a contentious topic in Dickinson studies. And all of this is possible at an undergraduate, non-major level. Awesome.

All of this also reminded me of a kind of silly blog I recently discovered: The "blog" of "unnecessary" quotation marks. It's really quite funny and worth visiting.

Monday, October 1, 2007

"No facebooking!"

I found myself using the words from this post's title today in my English 101 class before I let my students do some work on their essays. Our classroom has computers in the back, which is great in a lot of ways, but also problematic. After all, it's hard to make sure all 25 students are using class time to actually work on their papers and not spending it on Facebook, myspace, or even checking email. Anyway, as I heard myself turn the name of that popular website into a verb, I recalled this recent article from the Kane County Chronicle, out of Kane County, Illinois. (The link came to me in a weekly email from the NCTE.)

In short, the article is about how corporate names work their way into our language, as we "Netflix" movies, "google" our old classmates, and "Mapquest" directions. The article quotes Denis Baron, a professor at the University of Illinois, who explains, “This is one of the ways that language naturally works...Common inventions, technologies and products become embedded in the language and extend their use to other areas. That’s how language changes and spreads.” For me, this is one of the aspects of language that makes it so exciting and so much fun to study. The article also quotes a Scott Osmundson (and, in a bit of poor writing, I think, it doesn't explain who he is and why we should care about his opinion), who sounds a bit afraid of such changes: “We’re starting to lose the English language,” Osmundson said. “Especially with texting and how people abbreviate words now.” I can understand some of the apprehension here, but we aren't "losing" the language--it was never this static, contained entity.

Another interesting issue to consider: what do corporations gain from such linguistic turns. As Baron suggests, it isn't always good:
“It’s tricky for [corporations],” Baron said. “They want the names of their products to be on everybody’s lips, but they don’t want it to be used as a generic [word]. They don’t want all tissues to be Kleenex.”

This last line made me laugh out loud:
“My friend just ‘Googled’ herself,” said Woods, 25. “That’s weird.”