Friday, November 30, 2007

Farewell to NaBloPoMo 2007

It may seem that not much changed here at UTC Headquarters during NaBloPoMo. I posted every day, just like I always do. There were stories about stuff the kids said and did. I blathered on about teaching and technology and process theology. I documented my travel and succumbed to the occasional meme.

But I was aware that some of those visiting me were also NaBloPoMoing, and I felt a kind of responsibility born of that kinship. I stole some of their ideas, they stole some of mine. I watched with interest as they struggled with the challenge of daily posting, and figured out for themselves how the process differs from their previous experience of blogging. I don't know if any of them will continue, as I did after my first NaBloPoMo in 2006, but I imagine many have discovered something new about themselves or their writing or their blogs, as I did (and still do).

There's still a big honkin' piece of unfinished business for the month, and that's the cache of unanswered questions. I admit -- many of those questions were daunting. I took a look at them each evening when I came home without a blog topic, and usually they seemed beyond my energy, time, or ability to think of something enlightening to say. (Behold the disadvantage of blogging after a full day's work; unless I had worked up a passion about some potential post during the day, often my highest ambition for the day's post was to get it written, up, and over with.)

But I appreciate my readers too much to let those questions wither away and die after their NaBloPoMo. So I hereby pledge to answer every single question, even the really hard ones, before 2007 is over.

But not tonight. Too tired, and too ready to get the weekend underway with TV on the DVR and learning to cable without a needle for holiday knitting. And so NaBloPoMo ends as it began.

Instead, let me ask you a question: If you did NaBloPoMo, what did you learn about yourself, your writing, or your blog -- if anything?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Warning: big words

I use Google Docs as my word processor for most writing I do. Occasionally when I'm checking my word count, I also glance at the reading level scores that are provided along with all the other statistics about my document. They're consistently in the 13-16 grade range -- college level.

These scores calculate characters per word, words per sentence, syllables per word, and similar measures. In the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease formula, for example, easy-to-read texts score in the nineties and difficult texts score in the twenties. Reader's Digest has a readability index of about 62, according to the Wikipedia page on the Flesch-Kincaid method. The Harvard Law Review usually tests in the low 30's. My latest book review for the A.V. Club scored 30.69.

Now I assume that I'm writing for people with a college education. But does that mean that I shouldn't try to write on a more accessible level? Part of it is my preferred style of long sentences that accumulate detail, examples, appositives, and lists snowball-fashion as they roll to their conclusions. Part of it is my penchant for shoving together words and phrases to make new descriptors out of old parts.

I don't think my usual style is just academic obscurantism. There is a conventional rhythm to academic writing that I can switch on and off depending on what kind of text I'm working on, and I admit to enjoying the precision and sophistication of that language at its best. But there are complicated ideas that can only be properly qualified and correlated in terminology that's far from ordinary speech.

I can write more simply when needed. The Flesch reading ease scores of the answers I provide for "Ask The A.V. Club" are in the 60's; those are more casual and less compressed pieces of writing than my reviews. Toxophily scores as "junior high school" on the same test linked above; I write more conversationally in that setting and about that subject.

Do your readability scores differ by topic, audience, or setting? Do you think that, like some government agencies, we should all try to write for an eighth-grade reader?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Camera obscura

New post at Toxophily: sky-blue socks!

This morning I had my trusty Canon Powershot S400 in my purse, and I took it out when I got to work and turned it on. This is what I saw on the screen:

Or something like that anyway, only pinker and blobbier. Well, nuts. I love this camera, purchased in March 2004. I guess you can't expect these gadgets to last forever. Let me just check Google to see if there's any hope of repair ...

Hey, has a post from somebody with a pink streaky display, and the response says that it's a CCD failure (the imaging chip inside the camera), and that Canon has a service bulletin promising a fix whether in or out of warranty. Let me just call that 800 number. Computer answers, I navigate to the repair area and tell them my product. The computer transfers me to "our Virginia call center" (a pointed jab at overseas outsourcing), and then I'm told that "all our representatives are busy." Par for the course.

But wait! The computer is telling me that if I punch in my number and say my name, they'll call me back in "9 to 15 minutes" when it's my turn. OK, I'll give that a shot. Back to work, and ten minutes later, Larry in Virginia has called me up and is joking about the pink blobs being a new feature to spark my creativity. Clearly he's not being paid by the call, since he carefully explains the whole return process to me and takes my information.

A while later, I get an e-mail from Canon Customer Care with an attachment -- already filled out with the serial number and shipping address I gave Larry -- for me to print out and put in the box with my camera. Hot on its heels came an e-mail from UPS with a link to my prepaid shipping label for printing and affixing to my package.

That's right -- not only are they fixing my three-and-a-half year old camera for free, but they're paying for the shipping there and back. Combine that with the terrific experience I had with the telephone service, and my day went from "oh no, my camera's dead!" to "wow, I'm getting a free repair!" in no time flat.

Canon, say hello to your customer for life.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ever since Diderot

Noel discovered some months back that he had a giant man-crush on Ken Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy! champion. Ken's blog, Confessions of a Trivial Mind, reveals something quite different from the trivia geek or socially-stunted dork one might expect would be the type to win 74 Jeopardy! games in a row. Number one: Terrific, writer. Number two: A passion for film, and astoundingly astute taste in same. Number three: Opinions about the broader culture that show good sense, rather than its much-vaunted populist cousin, "common sense."

I can love Ken Jennings in a much more heterosexual way than my hubby, albeit for the same reasons. And every time I catch up with his blog, he gives me another reason to fall head over heels. Take this post on Wikipedia, prompted by a sensationalist story from Pennsylvania about a few secondary and higher-ed faculty members who discourage use of the collaborative encyclopedia.

Few topics in academic circles raise my hackles more than Wikipedia. My colleagues almost without exception have a knee-jerk reaction to mention of the site: mouths turn down, tongues cluck, eyebrows raise. We're all supposed to commiserate with each other about the sorry state of the world where any yahoo can edit a compendium of knowledge, and where our students are too stupid (or too lazy) to realize (or care) that it's all a pack of lies.

I can rarely stop myself from butting into any conversation anyway -- being a know-it-all is one of my many character flaws -- but I take it as a personal mission never to let negative stereotypes about Wikipedia go unchallenged. "Actually," I pipe up, "a 2005 study by the journal Nature found that Wikipedia was almost as accurate as the Encyclopedia Brittanica. And of course it's much more up to date, not to mention including much more information about topics in popular culture and current events."

Heads generally turn. "But anyone can change it," someone usually points out. "You don't have to be an expert to write an article in Wikipedia, or change one that's already there. There are no editors, no oversight. Nobody should be using it as a source."

"True, anyone can edit it, and there aren't official arbiters of content," I respond. "But an unofficial group of people, many of whom are experts and nearly all of whom are committed to the project for the common good, maintain the site and weed out bad or unverified information. The vast majority of edits on the site are done by a tiny percentage of those using it. It's simply not true that everyone who stops by sprays graffiti all over the site -- in fact, only a few do, and others almost always come along and clean it up."

"But I do agree with you about one thing. Nobody should be using it as a source -- nobody should be citing its articles in a research paper. It's just like any other encyclopedia -- a starting point for research, not a stopping point. Would you let your students cite the Encyclopedia Brittanica in a research paper?" I ask. My colleagues usually shake their heads begrudgingly. "Exactly," I say. "There's no reason to single out Wikipedia as a bad source; in fact, it does what it's designed to do perfectly well, like all its encyclopedia cousins, and better than some. And that's to give a reasonable overview of the subject, a quick source for dates or lists, and a bibliography one can follow for more in-depth and specialized information."

I've had some version of this conversation -- usually a less one-sided, more contentious one -- at least a dozen times in the past year, at gatherings of faculty in my institution, at workshops and conferences, at dinners, on planes. Not once have I encountered as reasonable, as open-minded, or as sensible a perspective in my conversation partners as the one Ken provides in this blog entry. I wish I could make it required reading for everyone in education.

I ranted recently about how little my fellow academics trust people in general, and Web 2.0 in particular. Hey, why bother getting a Ph.D. if Joe Podunk's thoughts on any given subject are going to be given as much weight as yours? But that's a caricature of collaborative technologies that harness the wisdom of crowds. It's not survival of the most popular, or validation of every vandalistic impulse found in the human id. It's not even democracy. It's the aggregation of expertise far beyond the traditional academic realm -- without excluding that realm. (Wikipedia entries on academic subjects typically cite the standard works in the field, and are often informally moderated by folks with the pertinent degree.)

And of course, our irrational hatred of Wikipedia has everything to do with elitism. We all use it, after all -- but we don't think our students are smart enough to use it, too. We think their poor credulous minds will be unable to distinguish between good uses of the tool and using it to murder Shakespeare or butcher the law of relativity. Let me ask this: Whose fault is it if our students can't figure out what tool to use for what purpose? Whose fault is it if they don't know how to tell a credible piece of information from crankery? We'd rather ban power tools than risk our apprentices nicking their fingers, and so we create for them an artificial world where everybody does research as if it were still 1975. And we think that training with hand saws and drill bits is preparing them for a job as a twenty-first century carpenter.

How did I know how many Jeopardy! games Ken Jennings won? You guess.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The secret life of telephones

All my blog energy this evening, following a vestry meeting that lasted more than three hours, went into my How I Met Your Mother blog on the T.V. Club. So here's an Archer story that happened during my trip to San Diego, as told in an e-mail by Noel:

Archer came out of his room just now to retrieve his bucket of good-of-gold stickers, and found that I'd placed the phone inside the bucket and that a good-as-gold was stuck to the phone.

Archer: (smiling wryly) You already got a good-as-gold stuck on the phone.

Me: Do phones deserve a good-as-gold?

Archer: (firmly, still smiling) No!

Me: But what if a phone does a really good job paying attention in art class?

Archer: (smile fading, pointing at me) Phones help you call. They do not get good-as-golds.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Leftover heaven

I spent my teenage years at one of Chattanooga's exclusive prep schools. And I spent the greater proportion of those years somewhat overweight. The connection between those two facts was the school cafeteria, a daily dose of culinary delights that bore little resemblance to the steam trays and lunchrooms most high schoolers remember. The chef churned out unlimited quantities of classic Southern cooking that did a number on my waistline for six years. Whenever I need to convey to someone how different this experience was from the norm, I tell them about the trays of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies that would be brought out midway through the lunch period, steaming hot, and left on the dessert tables for us to grab as many as we wanted. That and the icebox chocolate cream pies.

But my very favorite dish at the GPS cafeteria was the turkey divan. At the time I had no idea what made this broccoli, turkey, and white sauce dish so transcendent. It was served in small bowls, and one bowl was never enough for me -- I would wait until the line had disappeared toward the end of the period and go back for seconds and thirds. Something in the gratined finishing of the dish, the slightly crispy texture of the top and the unidentifiable tangy bite of the sauce, bespoke love and pure pleasure to me.

God bless my fellow Bruiser and best bud Doc Thelma. She posted the recipe, Noel made it with some of the remains of my brined turkey tonight, and I enjoyed not just my portion but most of Cady Gray's as well. The secret ingredient? A hint of curry in that white sauce. It was exactly as I remembered it, and only required a warm Toll House cookie to complete my personal flashback to 1982.

Doc, if you can unearth the construction of that Bright School graham-cracker-and-chocolate frosting dessert that I loved at age seven, I believe I can die happy.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

How do you knooooow?

Noel and I took advantage of the presence of Grandma Libby and Grandpa Alex to go out for dinner and a movie tonight, a break from the non-stop childcare Noel's been enduring since last Saturday and my own travel-related disconnects. We went to see Enchanted, which gave me the 1.5 steps extra beyond the Disney-princess-in-the-real-world premise I was looking for, allowing me to ignore the ridiculous CGI overkill of the ending and the all-thought-stopped-at-the-premise framework that came wrapped around the entertaining parts. Most importantly, it gives me an excuse to answer Eric's question:

How did you and Noel meet?

Well, I was in Athens, Georgia, getting my master's degree and indulging some minor rock-and-roll dreams. Noel was getting his B.A. in journalism and writing for the Red and Black. Both of us helped program the university's extensive film series. I don't remember the exact moment we met, but I was an avid reader of his back-page Friday column of entertainment picks, and he was a frequent audience member at my band's shows.

It wasn't until mere weeks before Noel's graduation that we socialized together for the first time -- and that was a party with a group, not a date. I totally flubbed what should have been our first date by never following up on my suggestion that we go see Casablanca together, thus ruining a great story we could have told in future years. Instead, I've got this unwieldy tale of shared interests, gradual friendship, and a romance that didn't blossom until we started exchanging letters after Noel moved back to Nashville.

What I'd really like is a rewritten "how we met" story that will entertain our children and grandchildren, and look good in the notice of our golden wedding anniversary celebration in the newspaper of the future (whatever that may be). My mom tells us how my dad used to hitchhike from Knoxville to Chattanooga every weekend. I don't think that the time Noel drove up to Charlottesville in an ice storm and wrecked his brand new car really has the same romantic ring.

So I'm soliciting your help, internet. Can you refashion any elements of our rather prosaic real-life tale into an enhanced version 2.0? And if not, do you at least have another question for me -- one that maybe will have a more entertaining answer? (Not your fault, Eric -- you had no way of knowing.)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Only 33 shopping days left

The Christmas shopping season officially began today, complete with wall-to-wall coverage on the news networks and a bunch of sale announcement e-mails landing in my inbox. Time for my annual confrontation with my shopping demons.

I have shopping problems. My desire to buy, give, and own the perfect stylish gifts collides with my crippling buyer's remorse. This leads to a lot more window shopping, second-guessing, making and forgetting brilliant plans, and basically trying to cram a lifetime of meaning into one purchase.

This year I'm making two gifts for the basic family units, which means that I only have 18/21 of the anxiety of a normal year. What I'd like to do is commit to an overall strategy -- like buying handmade, or buying fair trade -- and stick to it for every gift I buy. But every time I try that, there's somebody that I just can't fit in, and then the whole thing is blown and I'm back to flitting here and rushing there with no boundaries to give my shopping some shape and direction.

Maybe I need to tap the wisdom of those who have a better relationship with the consumer society and the Christmas imperative. What method do you use to get your shopping done without losing your mind or feeling completely inadequate to the task?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Give thanks

This holiday I give thanks for:

  1. The fact that I am not a day-after-Thanksgiving shopper. 4 am this year, the crazy loons.
  2. Ravelry. And Jess and Casey.
  3. Alton Brown's brined turkey recipe.
  4. 7 pm bedtimes for the kids.
  5. Clarity.
  6. Google (for Reader, Docs, Notebook, etc., etc.)
  7. Sandy.
  8. Kids who grow up even though you think you never want them to change, blossoming into unforeseen vistas of personality.
  9. Noel's lucrative freelance gigs.
  10. Rumors of a Mac tablet.
  11. Moleskine journals.
  12. Screener season.
  13. BookMooch.
  14. Noro Kureyon.
  15. Koigu Painters Palette Premium Merino.
  16. The A.V. Club T.V. Club.
  17. Ken Jennings and his blog.
  18. The Criterion Collection edition of Days of Heaven.
  19. TiVo. Someday we'll have you back in our lives full time, we promise.
  20. Handknit socks. There's no such thing as a bad day when you're wearing handknit socks.
  21. My readers. I don't know why you show up day after day, but I'm glad you do.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Process and progress

Emmett asks:

I wonder if you've worked at reading "Process and Reality" for its own sake, as a book that has its own, extra-theological purpose?

Did you feel it necessary to understand process philosophy as a whole, or did you abstract from it what was immediately relevant to theology?

The book to which he's referring is Alfred North Whitehead's magnum opus, a massive and famously dense systematic metaphysics. It's by far the least readable of Whitehead's works, which are for the most part quite accessible. In most of his books, Whitehead tended to write essays and chapters in response to particular problems, linking them together gradually to make a limited number of theoretical points, but staying connected to the examples and situations that prompted the exploration.

But in PR, as Whitehead scholars call it, almost nothing is connected to reality as we know it. The prose is dense with jargon -- actual occasion, prehension, nexus, eternal object, consequent nature. There are no examples. Every so often Whitehead will give a short discourse on other philosophers treated related ideas, but mostly it's chapter after chapter of philosophical heavy lifting comparable to Kant for sheer opacity.

Emmett, PR isn't for reading. It's for reference. Ideas that Whitehead tries out in Science And The Modern World or Adventures Of Ideas get constructed robustly in PR, defined and polished and placed in the matrix of all the other ideas. But the only way to find out why those ideas got created at all is to be introduced to them in the less speculative, more grounded works.

I tend to read the first and last chapters of PR straight through. The rest I work like a jigsaw puzzle, moving the pieces around and ignoring the ones that aren't part of the picture I'm currently working on. Or maybe like a textbook, studying the word lists and doing the exercises to try to get the one point that matters right at the moment.

In answer to your other question, I think it's a mistake to try to extract from PR only the theological content (which is concentrated in the last chapter and mentioned briefly in a few other places in the text). Understanding process philosophy as a whole is important, although I don't claim to have mastered it; nevertheless, I continue to try because I don't want to sin against Whitehead by failing to understand him as he presents himself, rather than as I might want to make him useful for my projects.

There are many -- perhaps most -- who are better at reading and using PR. But since you're asking me, I'd say you need a guide, for sure. I was first led through PR by my mentor Will Power, at the University of Georgia; then more systematically by the late Langdon Gilkey, at the University of Virginia. While I had already struggled through much of it myself in both cases, knowledgeable teachers gave me context that allowed me to situate the metaphysical solution in relation to the problems it was designed to solve. Everything makes more sense when it is nested in a network of relationships -- an observation Whitehead would certainly appreciate.

Thanks for the question, Emmett -- hope you came back to read it. For the rest of you, please forgive this brief foray into the more technical and less generally relevant (or interesting) aspects of my academic specialty. You're welcome to cleanse your palette by submitting a question of your own!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Home meme

After just fourteen hours of pre-Thanksgiving air travel, I'm home. Good opportunity to wimp out and do a meme.

I was tagged for the ABC meme by Doc Thelma. The rules:

List a word that describes you for every letter of the alphabet. Offer as much or as little explanation as you wish. Please keep the words positive and feel free to get creative.

A: Arminian
B: Barthian (can I use a theological term for every letter, do you think?)
C: Corrector (like Ted)
D: Disorganized
E: Eloquent (occasionally)
F: Fair (I sunburn at the drop of an SPF)
G: Groovin' (on a Sunday afternoon)
H: Homebody
I: Imaginative (well, I like to think I am)
J: Jorges (my mother's maiden name)
K: Knitter
L: Laundress (I do the clothes washing in the family)
M: Mac-owning, Mac-loving
N: Nosy
O: Optically challenged
P: Poetic
Q: Questioning
R: Raveler
S: Safety-conscious
T: Technophile
U: Uncertain
V: Voracious eater
W: Whiteheadian
X: eXtravagance-averse
Y: Youthful
Z: Zappos-coveting

I tag anybody who's almost out of ideas as NaBloPoMo limps to an end!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sacred treasure

I stood in a hushed, darkened gallery, the voice of a female singer chanting faintly in Middle Eastern rhythms seeping down from speakers in the ceiling. Before me were four dark, oval pieces of leather, about three inches high, suspended between plates of glass in a tilted display case. Tiny Aramaic characters were inscribed on the fragments, although they could barely be discerned against the age-darkened hide. It was as if the tips of four giant fingers had pushed against the window between our worlds.

The pieces of leather were parts of the Targum of Job, an Aramaic translation of the biblical book of Job that was one of hundreds of texts found in clay storage jars buried in caves near the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea Scrolls (or, as scholars call them, the Qumran texts) were written, collected, and stored by a Jewish sect readying itself for the Messianic age, which was imminent. The members expected two Messiahs -- a king and a priest -- and they developed an elaborate community rule that classified adherents in terms of the stages of purification they had reached. One of their major activities, it seems, was gathering and copying sacred texts. Some were parts of what became the Hebrew Bible; some were later relegated to apocryphal or secondary status; some were specific to the Qumran group; and some were completely lost to history after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Of all the upheavals and quantum leaps in the study of Judaism and Christianity, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls by a shepherd in 1947 ranks as one of the greatest, if not the greatest. At a single stroke the age of the oldest manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible was pushed back several centuries. Even more significantly, for the first time there was copious material evidence about the existence, way of life, and beliefs of a Jewish sect expecting the Messiah(s), at odds with the official Judaism of its time (Qumranites held that the Temple was defiled, and maintained pure rituals until the true Temple cult could be restored), and contemporaneous with the Jesus movement. Suddenly, instead of appearing in 30 C.E. as a unique and unprecedented revelation, the texts and ideas of the early church about Jesus could be seen in a context of intense disputes and sectarian schisms in turn-of-the-era Judaism. Suddenly, the scribes who copied Jewish texts emerged with stunning human personality: the one who wrote flowing, beautiful paleo-Hebrew, the one who left an erasure mark on the Job Targum fragment after a mistake, the one who inadvertently left out a word in the books of Samuel and had to squeeze it in above the line.

As I peered down into the case containing the fragments of Samuel, I was overwhelmed with emotion. I thought back to the Codex Sinaiticus that I witnessed in Washington, D.C. last year. These fragile letters were messages from a mysterious, alien ancient past to our time -- unintended messages, but a communication nonetheless. They force us to see our religious and scriptural commitments in relation to the beliefs and practices, no less (and probably much more) intense, thorough, and devout than our own, of people to whom these documents meant something related but quite strange and skewed from what they have come to mean to us. To be in their presence is to feel the compass shift, to realize that it may be our canon, interpretation, and eschatology that is off true -- or that the whole notion of one unerring tradition persisting into our time may be unlikely to the point of absurdity.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Villani Heuristic

I got through my session and paper presentation this morning with only the usual technical anxieties, and it was well received (all my laugh lines got laughs). Then it was playtime.

This is the gull that eyed me sourly as I ate my crab cakes on the pier.

A kite demonstration on the Embarcadero.

The Port of San Diego was sponsoring a family day, complete with patio seating and board games.

Adam Villani and his charming bride Jen swept me away for a whirlwind tour of the greater San Diego metropolitan area. After fish tacos, we went over to the Hotel del Coronado, where
The Stunt Man was filmed.

Those tiny dots are surfers off the shore at La Jolla.

For our second food stop, we went to Hodad's in Ocean Beach for classic diner fare.

Here's the mouthwatering burger I enjoyed.

Thanks for the enlightening day and indulgent companionship, Adam and Jen!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

It's official

Three days is the most I can go without experiencing debilitating Children Missing Syndrome.* Oh, I missed the kids off and on Thursday and Friday -- when I saw little tots playing in the park or ordering off the Lil' Sailors menu at the local fish house. But today the same sights made me want to double over in pain. As if they were punishing me at my lowest possible moment, Cady Gray and Archer were too distracted to talk to Mommy on the phone when I called just after their dinner -- all I got were a few non sequiturs and an unceremonious handing the phone back to Dad.

Three more days to go.

Here's what happened today:

It was another gorgeous morning.

I had a great Italian lunch al fresco in the Gaslamp District.

Petco Park was about a block away.

I finished a pair of socks.

Tomorrow: I invade the Society for Biblical Literature. Also: The real truth about Adam Villani, Gentleman.

*Not to be confused with Missing Children Syndrome, which requires immediately intervention by the authorities.

Friday, November 16, 2007


A couple of years ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell's profile of Cesar Milan, star of HBO's The Dog Whisperer. Tonight I flipped to HBO on the hotel TV (we don't get any pay channels at home) and there was Cesar. It was the first time I'd seen the show -- and I was instantly hooked. I could watch all night. It's something about the wonderment exhibited by the dog owners, suddenly seeking their Sheltie riding in the car without barking incessantly, or their pit bull mix lying next to a rabbit without trying to kill it. And it's Cesar himself -- his unstudied presence on camera, his complete confidence and control over the conversation. He's like one of those horrible TV psychics, but without the act. He doesn't come off like a showman at all, but he's doing the same thing -- controlling the scenario completely, framing it how he wants it framed.

I always do this on trips -- gorge myself on a marathon of some show I never watch, approaching the end of an hour in the anxiety that they're not going to give me another one. More! More! More!

Today's post is over at Toxophily, where there are pictures of socks and shoes in San Diego.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

On the dock of the bay

Turns out my stress didn't end when I got to the airport this morning -- the travel agency did not actually book my itinerary, so I had no e-ticket waiting for me when I got there, which was an unpleasant surprise. (The way travel gets done at my university is that the department secretary works out an itinerary with the travel agency and gives them the university's "ghost" credit card number to reserve it, simultaneously starting a purchase order and requisition up through the approval process. Once the requisition has been approved by the highest office in line, then the university travel office is supposed to contact the travel agency and actually pay them, thereby finally booking the ticket officially. Somewhere along the way somebody missed a step.)

So I paid about $1500 for a $500 round-trip ticket to San Diego this morning, which made me mad. (On the positive side, I got the exact same itinerary that had been reserved two months ago -- all four flights. Kind of amazing, really.) The second flight today was delayed by an hour because the plane had been diverted two legs earlier for an inflight medical emergency, landing in St. Louis before going on to Austin where it was originally headed.

But you know what? This made it all better:

A cozy room at the Marriott Hotel and Marina ...

... with a balcony view.

It was 78 degrees, so I went for a swim.

When I floated on my back, this is what I saw.

The restorative powers of a sunset walk along the bay ...

... cannot be overestimated.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In the air again

Last night I dreamed that I got up nice and early, drove to the airport in plenty of time to make my 10 am flight, and was strolling toward security when I suddenly realized: I had forgotten to pack my suitcase. I had put my pashmina in it, but nothing else. So there I was approaching the security line and thinking: It's okay, I'll just buy everything when I get there. But I have nothing! I realized. No shoes, no underwear, nothing. I can't go to California with absolutely nothing. I don't have the time or money to buy a whole wardrobe for five days. I have to go back home and get clothes, even though it's going to make it really hard to make the flight.

So I went back out to the parking lot, but my car didn't seem to be where I had left it. I'm walking around in the parking lot looking for my car, getting more and more frantic as I realize there's no way this is going to work out. And I wake up.

This dream has a simple meaning. I'm going to San Diego in the morning, and I'm anxious about it. Will I leave in time, will I remember everything, what will go wrong? Traveling stress-free, for me, is getting all that anxiety out in the open ahead of time. That makes me over-prepare and triple-check everything. When I actually leave, so the theory goes, I have no worries because I've got a big built-in safety net.

Well, not exactly. But I'm usually able to let go of my need to control everything once I get to the airport. After that, it's all out of my hands, and I'm just along for the ride. In this case, I'm along for the ride to the American Academy of Religion annual meeting, preceded by the day-long Board of Directors meeting (my first), highlighted by a presentation to the Society of Biblical Literature on recent portrayals of biblical women on film, and culminating in a visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls at the San Diego Natural History Museum. If I prepare correctly and keep the stress under control, it's going to be an excellent trip.

Tomorrow I'll return to your questions, so if you've got any more, fire away. See you on the West Coast.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

On doing and teaching

Rick asks:

for an aspiring teacher, would you please offer your thoughts on the statement: "those who can't do, teach."

Happy to. Unfortunately, it's sometimes true. But to my mind, if you're not doing, you have no business teaching.

I think the saying is usually applied to people who can't cut it in the real world, and so retreat to the supposedly safe world of academia, where they don't have to produce anything but can criticize their students' efforts to do so. The premise is that the competition in the world of business or work is too hot for these mediocre folks to handle, and that by teaching they are able to avoid these challenges.

I'm sure such teachers exist. But, at least at the university level, I've become convinced that they are the exception, and that whenever possible they should not be given teaching positions.

What does "doing" mean at the university level? It means performing to an audience of your peers the skills you are teaching to your students. In most cases, that's publishing and presenting at scholarly conferences. You are submitting your work for extramural evaluation, and in doing so, you are being judged in the same way you judge your students. If your work is not up to the standard to be accepted for publication by peer-refereed journals, or to be accepted at a conference prestigious enough to be selective, perhaps you are not skilled or knowledgeable enough to teach -- at least, that is the premise of these requirements for faculty promotion and tenure.

But beyond the results of these evaluations of quality, it's important to realize that the collaborative nature of the scholarly enterprise must be performed by the teacher, not just taught as an obligation to students. Students are expected to submit their work to be evaluated, the idea being that they will benefit and learn from getting feedback, from being accountable to someone other than themselves. A university teacher who is not a scholar -- who is not submitting his work to be evaluated, who is not demonstrating in performance a belief that he needs to get feedback for his own benefit and learning, who does not want to be accountable to the community of those in the same field -- is trying to make his students play by rules he does not want applied to himself.

My thinking about university teaching has increasingly moved in the direction of performance and extramural accountability. I want my students writing blogs so that they are responsible to a vast, unknown audience outside the classroom. I want them writing together, depending on each other, and having their work made public, to get them out of their isolated heads and their belief in their own heroic powers to create or fail to create alone. And I don't want to ask them to do anything I'm not doing myself -- blogging, collaborative writing, making my work public to an audience of my peers and beyond. I don't do those things because I have mastered them (with the implication that those who are learning should not be expected to do those things as an apprentice). I do them because they keep me accountable to others, enable me to move beyond what I could do alone, check my ideas and methods against those that are standard in my field, and contribute to the ongoing conversation in the areas where I presume to transmit ideas and methods to the next generation.

Some parts of the university have made performance and extramural evaluation into standard processes for undergraduates -- but they are the parts that are less traditional and most threatening to the old university ideal: business, the arts, athletics. I'm a believer in those traditional academic methods and subject matter, but I also recognize that their insularity can provide non-performing teachers with immunity from being discovered as those who "can't do." The performance of scholarship becomes a kind of game to students and faculty alike -- a hoop that has to be jumped through but isn't integral to the job, an assignment rather than an identity. The increasing reliance on non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty, those who are not expected to publish and present (perform and be evaluated outside one's own institution), threatens to make these processes seem auxiliary to teaching, separate from it, disposable or optional.

In reality, they are crucial, and students who are not taught by someone undergoing them are experiencing hypocrisy at best, and being shortchanged at worst.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Reading to write

Stevie asks:
What's your favorite book that isn't about theology?
I like that you assume that my favorite books are all about theology. After all, I know accountants would just curl up with the tax code if they weren't forced away from it by family members worried about their mental health. No, I kid theology because I love theology, but it's not always my preferred leisure reading. (Although just this past month I devoured James Kugel's How To Read The Bible at every spare moment as if it were a page-turning mystery.)

I have a soft spot for epic, heroic fantasy, and I'm not sure why. After all, as a teenager I was into hard science fiction -- the harder the better. (One of the books I read to tatters during those years was Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg, about tiny flat sentient creatures living on the surface of a neutron star who careen through full lives so quickly that it would be almost impossible for a human observer to recognize their intelligence.) I read LotR and Piers Anthony and so forth during this time -- one of my high school friends was more into fantasy than I was, and I piggy-backed off of her -- but it was the plausible and technological future worlds that held my interest.

In college I used to ride my bike about five miles from campus to a used book store, where I engaged in the reverse-pyramid scheme of used paperbacks -- buy 'em for half price, sell 'em back for 2 for 1 credit, meaning that every book I bought could be traded in for one quarter of a future book. I don't know why I picked up Sheepfarmer's Daughter on one of my trips -- maybe it was because it was the first volume of a trilogy. (I tend to overrate getting in on the ground floor.) To the best of my recollection I wasn't reading any fantasy at the time -- even my SF phase was largely behind me. (Actually, somewhat to my shame, I was reading a lot of Regency period romance novels, a genre I still find irresistible.)

What can I say? From the very first pages, I met a heroine who was almost exactly what I needed. She craved adventure and chafed under structure, before she learned to appreciate it. She was always on the verge of being misunderstood, but fair-minded and thoughtful superiors managed to give her what she needed. She was favored of destiny, but could not think of herself as particularly good or accomplished. She made impossible choices, and struggled to bring good out of evil. She approached the world with what she knew how to do best, and hoped with all her heart that it would meet the challenge.

I wanted to be Paksenarrion. I still do. Her trilogy, collected as The Deed of Paksenarrion, is my favorite book. I return to it every year to remind myself how to be a hero, and why it doesn't require any extra measure of self-knowledge or self-confidence or moral uprightness. Paks helps me to believe that there's enough in me, when combined with what's good on earth and in heaven, to do what needs to be done.

I know it's not a very prestigious or literary choice for my favorite book. Believe me, when I pick it up on a yearly basis -- or teach it to students, occasionally -- I approach it with trepidation. What if I open it up and find that my admiration has been misplaced, that it's trash and poorly written and clumsily plotted and unbelievably characterized? But every year it is just as beautiful -- as human, as suspenseful, as inspiring, as nuanced -- and students have fallen in love with it, too, validating my affection.

I wish I could plow through the conference paper I'm writing, the final exams I'm planning, the syllabi I'm constructing, the journal articles and encyclopedia articles that are waiting for my attention, in a 72-hour Red Bull-fueled marathon of work. And then do nothing but read about Paksenarrion during my trip to San Diego. A sojourn with this soldier would rejuvenate me, as it always does, for the missions I undertake in my own journey through life.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


We pause in our regularly scheduled NaBloPoMo reader question column for a check on Archer's mathematical progress.

I do not have a mental facility for algebra -- I pretty much always have to work it out on paper. So in most of the examples below, I didn't know ahead of time what the answers were -- I just checked Archer's answers after he provided them.

This morning, Archer asked about the final score of the UCA game last night (they shoot off a cannon in the stadium every time the home team scores, and since that's only about a seven-minute walk from our house, he spends the evening being constantly reminded about the game). I looked it up online and found that it was UCA 35, Stephen Austin 23.

"What combination of touchdowns, extra points, and field goals did we make to get 35?" I asked.

"Five touchdowns," he answered. "How many extra points?" "Five. A touchdown and extra point is 6+1," he said.

"Now what combination of touchdowns, extra points, and field goals made 23?" I challenged.

"Two touchdowns," he said.

"How many extra points?" "Two."

"How many field goals?" Triumphantly: "Three."

I added it up: 14 + 9 = 23. Yep.

While I was working it out, Archer was making up his own scores, and one of them was 62. I asked him if he could figure out how many of each kind of score went into that.

"You could do ten touchdowns with no extra points and one field goal, but that would be 63," he tried. "Maybe we could go down to nine touchdowns with no extra points and two field goals, but that's 63 too."

"Try some touchdowns with extra points," I suggested. (Even with my atrophied math skills, I knew that getting some single-points in there to allow for something other than multiples of three was the key to the answer.

"If we go down to eight touchdowns with extra points, that's 56 points, and then three field goals makes 62!" he reckoned.

Okay, now for the test. I went to to find another real score he could work on. The first one on the ticker was Louisiana Tech 10, LSU 58.

"How do you make 10 out of touchdowns, extra points, and field goals?" I asked.

"One touchdown, one extra point, one field goal," he answered promptly.

"How about 58?"

He thought for just a moment. "Seven touchdowns with extra points, one touchdown with no extra point, and one field goal."

I think he's grasped the concept.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Family business

Mandy asks:
I would like to know what influences your family has had on you to bring you to where you are today. You have shared some in the past about growing up, etc. but what do you bring to the table now from interactions with parents, siblings and others.
Your question gives me a great excuse to write about my dad. Thanks.

I'm the only daughter out of three children, and from the beginning, I gather, I was daddy's girl. Some of my most cherished memories are fall Saturdays in my preteen years, when I hopped in the truck with Dad and drove the thirty miles out of town to our farm property. Sometimes all three of us kids went, but sometimes it was just me. We'd care for our dwarf fruit trees, pick blackberries, drag hay out of the barn for the cows, and listen to Tennessee football on the portable radio. And on the way back, I could usually persuade Dad to stop for an Icee at the drive-thru Golden Gallon, a convenience store concept that still fascinates me (there was no store per se, just two large coolers intersected by a six-foot hallway; the attendant slid back the door, you told her what you wanted, and she handed it out to you).

My dad always told me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, and I never thought to question that assertion. When I think of "supportive" parents, I picture clapping and cheering on the sidelines, or serious discussions about life options. With my dad, it wasn't any particular demonstration -- it was just an easygoing confidence that sent the unmistakable message that everything would work out (another of his favorite maxims). When my dad was proud of me -- which he would say with a chuckle, as if it were a joke that he even had to say it out loud -- I was on top of the world.

He also gave me the curiosity about the world that led me into academia and continues to motivate me every day. Dad liked to show me how things work, but he also wasn't afraid to wonder about what he didn't know. After all of us kids graduated college, he turned over the family business to one of his long-time employees and became a high school history teacher. Even though he only got to do that for a few years before retirement, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. It's a striking occurrence that all three of his children went into education -- two college professors, and the founder/headmaster of a private school.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to ask Dad some questions about his young adulthood. I learned for the first time that he had no desire to go into the business that his father had started, a brokerage that bought fruits and vegetables from agribusiness and sold them to Chattanooga grocery stories. His two younger brothers, however, weren't bound for the business, either, and my grandfather made a deal with Dad -- if he took a job in the Wayne L. Bowman company to learn the ropes, he'd get support setting up housekeeping with my mom. Dad agreed, majored in accounting, became a CPA, and dutifully went back to Chattanooga to take his place as the heir apparent.

I was stunned by Dad's frankness about this detour in his life. It occurred to me that my success rested on advantages I'd been given in my upbringing that were directly tied to this compromise in my father's dreams. He made a very good living, and none of us ever set foot in public schools. We went to the exclusive prep schools that paved our way to college scholarships and graduate school. I never thought of us as rich -- that label was reserved for my classmates with doctor or lawyer fathers, the ones who lived in exclusive neighborhoods on Lookout or Signal Mountains -- but we were well enough off to give us kids everything we needed to jumpstart our dreams. And remember, Dad always said we could do whatever we wanted, so those dreams were absolutely unlimited.

I believe I've taken with me throughout my life that unconditional support, that essential optimism, and that confidence that comes from always having someone who understands. Even when my dad and I disagree, and we certainly do disagree on a great deal, I know he agrees that I have to figure it out for myself, and that he respects my efforts. As the years go by and students come and go from my classroom, I see very few who have that kind of relationship with their parents, and I am ever more grateful for the way my dad has made my life possible.

Thanks so much for the question, Mandy. Who's got another?

Friday, November 9, 2007


Derek (oh so kindly) asks:

I majored in photojournalism. And though I don't work in that area now, I can always seem to find metaphors that track back to that. Web design is like photojournalism because it's all about eye tracking and telling stories visually, etc.

So my question is, what life lessons have you taken from studying theology?

This is one I'd love to hear all my readers address on their blogs.

I decided that I needed to study Christianity because my first academic classes in the subject, taken my sophomore year of college, revealed an entirely different world from the faith that I thought I knew. The study of Christian history, doctrine, and theology became as urgent to me as breathing, because I could not hope to understand myself, my times, my family, my community, and most of all, my past, without the help of scholarship and academia.

As much as the specifics of the field, then, it's that sense of a hidden world waiting to be illuminated that has infected my entire outlook on life. I believe that reality is complex but knowable, that the truth lies in history and must be checked against human experience, that the traditions that give shape and direction to our lives are rich tapestries of long-forgotten meanings -- problems, solutions, and human responses that represent deep aquifers of virgin, untapped resources to help us know ourselves and our times.

The realization that most of what we believe comes to us and is transmitted by us in ancient codes whose frameworks of plausibility have long since crumbled leads me to search for new ways to express the insights of those ancients -- the experiences of community and transcendence that they called the gods. Yet those traditions, foreign and incomprehensible as they may be, inhere in our own times and lives in powerful ways, never to be fully left behind or updated.

The lesson I take from theology is that meaning never stands still. If it is grasped once, it slips away in the next moment, as a new situation demands new thought. Theology is the constant reinterpretation and reconfiguration of that tapestry of experiences of meaning. It does not change because it has failed in the past, or because it is striving toward completion, but because every new experience demands its reconsideration and revision. We build and we never stop building; as rooms become uninhabitable we move on to new ones. Occasionally we return to the ruins to sift through the remains and understand those that lived there, maybe taking something back to our time.

The lesson I take from theology is that originalism is an empty pursuit, an illusion. There is nothing in the beginning; everything starts in progress. To try to discover what it all was at the first moment is to chase a phantom.

The lesson I take from theology is that we search together, and we find veracity in our meanings alone. Only if we fail to attempt communication, or forget that our seeming uniformity hides inexhaustible diversity, can we be untrue to the human quest.

The lesson I take from theology is that we will never be done searching. There will always be new insights and the mandate to discard what is no longer meaningful. I enter the conversation already in progress, listen long enough to get some of the gist, participate, then leave with the discussion still ongoing. The most important contribution I can make is to say what I have to say honestly and clearly, demonstrating as best I can that I am not deluded about my part, but am determined nonetheless not to lose this opportunity.

The lesson I take from theology is that the future is open, that hope is the greatest of all virtues, and that God is bigger than my religion, our shared past, and our finite human future. The lesson I take from theology is that every moment of beauty, creativity, and heart-piercing truth expresses the nature of reality better than all the entropy, cruelty, and paralyzing indifference the universe will ever muster. The lesson I take from theology is that all will not be lost.

Thanks for the question, Derek. Who has another one?

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Playing favorites

Well. Y'all don't toss softballs, do you?

Today's question comes from Katie J., who asks:
For you, what makes a favorite student a favorite student? Are you ever surprised by who your favorites are? (Don't tell me you don't have favorites--I won't believe you.)
You're right, of course. I do have favorite students, and I'm usually not shy about admitting it. That might seem strange, but the subject usually comes up when a colleague asks about a particular student. "Oh, I absolutely love her. She's one of my favorites," I'll often enthuse.

But I've been accused on and in course evaluations -- only a couple of times in eight years, but every negative comment rankles -- of favoritism. It happened last spring, I believe; one of my evaluations stated that I gave breaks to my favorite students, implying that I was easier on them or paid less attention to others. That was a shock to me because the class in question was small (ten students) and I had been particularly happy with how much personal attention and individual praise I'd been able to lavish on everyone.

In the context of the whole evaluation, it became clear that the complaint really had to do with my failure to stop a few outspoken students from implying that others had less taste, or that their taste was superior. (This was the class on pop culture criticism that I premiere last semester.) The commenter interpreted the lack of censure coming from me as favoritism toward them, and presumably felt that if different class members had displayed this behavior, I would have called them down. Of course, from my point of view, the situation was quite different; while I did like the students in question, I actually became annoyed with their attitude in this class, and they ended less in my favor than they began, while others rose in my estimation. My laissez-faire approach to their discourse, however, had everything to do with the robust nature of the class discussion. In such an intimate setting, I felt confident that their behavior was indicting itself. I rarely missed a chance to question their blanket dismissals of genres or artists that they felt were beneath notice. But since that questioning was conducted in the spirit of inquiry and consciousness-raising rather than with authoritarian judgment, I suppose, the student who registered the complaint did not feel that the violators had been sufficiently humbled.

Yes, we all have favorites. My favorites are the ones who know what they don't know, and are driven to find out. A welcoming attitude toward the world, a wide-eyed wonder in the face of its riches, a determination to develop the discerning capacity to make use of what is found -- these are the stances that endear a student to me.

And yes, it's sometimes surprising who becomes my favorite. Usually I know from the very first time I meet a student. There's a spark to which I instantly respond, a spark of curiosity and eagerness. Most of the time I can count on those student to become the ones who always meet my eyes in class, who can't wait to ask a question or try out an idea. And most of the time, they don't lose that drive for discovery, although they might get fatigued with some particular approaches or processes to which their undergraduate course of study subjects them.

The surprises are the ones who start off scared, shy, or intimidated, then blossom into fearless seekers sometime after they arrive. There are the ones who can't seem to shake a fading dream or a misspent path -- who have always thought they wanted to be pharmacists, or who get married as a way to cling to a relationship that's going south -- and then once they find their way beyond whatever mistake has been dragging them down, turn out to be more dedicated to the liberation that education promises than any of their fellows. And a very few, maybe the most special ones of all, who start out as arrogant bastards bent on showing me how little they need guidance or instruction, and by some miracle develop the virtues of humility and graciousness before they leave my purview.

I think what I mean by "favorite," nearly always, are the ones I can treat as my colleagues. That's our aim with all our students, but it's the ones who earn and grasp that trust early who really stand out. And maybe that's why I didn't crack the whip the way that student who accused me of playing favorites wanted me to. It's been a long time since I wanted to exert my professorial authority to do anything but set a tone, a structure, an expectation, leaving the students responsible to each other more so than to me. The only way such collegiality can emerge is if room is left for it. And although it may be the population with which I have the good fortune to work as much as the methods by which we work together, I have to say that it happens quite often. I am surrounded by my favorites, more and more of them as the years go on. I don't think it's that we happen to be recruiting more students of the type I tend to like, although that may be true. I think it's because the kinds of classes I'm inviting them to build with me tend to elicit the attitudes, pursuits, and relationships that I find attractive.

Thanks for the question, Katie. Who's next?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Why do I never wear a hat?

I've spent the last week or so, it seems, writing somewhat cagily about issues at my job, problems with colleagues, matters of purely theoretical academic interest, and it's nice that a few of you are still reading.

It's time, though, to find out what you want me to write about. So taking a cue from my new hero Derek, I'm taking requests. Leave me a question or topic in the comments, and I'll do my best to address as many of them as possible this month. Don't be shy -- what have you always wanted to know about the enigma that is Donna? (Or about the faceless proprietor of the blogspace you happen to have wandered into by mistake.)

My advice? Get to know me!

P.S. Malcolm's back!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The only constant

When I arrived at my first teaching job, fresh out of grad school, I was pretty sure what kind of teacher I wanted to be. I wanted to do what I knew I was good at: lecturing. I was (and am) a dynamic lecturer. I conveyed ideas and facts and theories with passion. I made them all fit together. I made them interesting. I always got compliments on my lecturing, from students and faculty alike. So I couldn't wait to stand up in front of my very own college class and dazzle the undergraduates.

I knew I'd have to lead discussions as well, and I was confident I could do it. I was surprised to find out that I wasn't as good at that. Taking myself out of the spotlight and inviting other contributions made me nervous and uncomfortable. I wasn't in control of the class, and therefore other people could drop the ball and it would all go downhill. I couldn't figure out how to make students believe I really wanted their input -- because I didn't really want it.

It was my good fortune, therefore, to be hired by one of the few places in academia that wanted professors to shut up and students to speak up. When I discovered on the job that I wasn't good at seminar facilitation and that my instinctual response to a seminar that wasn't working was to lecture as much as possible, I agonized over it with my boss, who told me to reboot the class entirely and trust that the students would help build it anew. When I heard about a project-based approach to a venerable core class that would be unlike anything either I or the students had experienced, I fought it for a few meetings, then wholeheartedly embraced it, because it would take me away from what I was comfortable with and knew I was good at. When one of my colleagues introduced me to collaborative writing and editing, I jumped at it and integrated it into all my classes, for the express reason that it prevented me from exercising control over the process or the product. I came to see the ideal professorial role as essentially deist: set up the structure to allow for trust and collaboration, provide the resources, and get out of the way.

And it's undeniable that my conversion to this model took place because it is the opposite of what comes naturally to me, the opposite of my training and talents. I suppose I don't feel like I'm learning unless I'm doing something different from what I've already mastered -- and I don't know that I'll ever master this collaborative, project-based classroom because it cuts against the grain of the whole academic establishment that formed me and in which I learned to excel. Furthermore, the reason I wanted to be an academic, I've come to believe, is equal parts the desire to convey a vital viewpoint on the world and the desire never to stop being a student. So that eternal-learning part of me prevents me from settling down in the routines that I've gotten good at.

It's taken me awhile to discover this truth about myself. My perverse need to avoid doing what I'm good at, and to force myself to do what I'm not good at, is hard for me to explain. Yet it's implicated in another surprising discovery I made recently.

I hesitated when I was asked to become an administrator. Once I committed to becoming an academic, my highest ambition was to teach and write. Why would I want to leave the classroom to toil behind the scenes? I took the job with some trepidation, and over the years, I've often wished that I could undo it.

But I realized over the weekend, in Denver, that the best part of my job is no longer being in the classroom and seeing the light dawn in a student's eyes. The best part of my job is meeting with my fellow administrators.

It would be hard for me to imagine a more unexpected turn of events. But it's true -- I feel more alive, more creative, more energized, more empowered when talking with them than I do in any other part of my work. The classroom (the seminar classroom, not the lecture hall!) is number two, but administrative work with my colleagues has it clearly beat.

I think that has something to do with the collaboration I've come to appreciate in the classroom. The traditional academic (in the humanities, at least) aspires to be a solitary genius, creating learning by the force of his personality and expertise in the classroom and achieving acclaim for feats of insight in his single-author publications. Yet I now see fulfillment in my work as something I cannot engineer alone. The magic that happens when my administrative colleagues and I create, criticize, think through, dream, and come to understand, is something that is not my potential, but ours. The realization is all the more stunning for being completely unprecedented in my personality or experience.

I wonder what alien animal I'll become next?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Call the man

Whenever something at the house requires the attention of a professional -- lawn care, electrical work, plumbing, repair of any kind -- our mantra is "Call the man!"

This phrase stems from one of the very best episodes of one of our very favorite television shows, The Andy Griffith Show. "Bargain Day" (1964) features Aunt Bee buying 150 pounds of meat because she can't pass up the price, then having to deal with a freezer that won't work. Embarrassed by her scheme gone awry, she refuses to swallow her pride long enough to call a repairman, prompting Andy to plead with her, in ever more exasperated tones, "Call the man!"

The ubiquity of this phrase in our household parlance leads me to privately transform it in ways that venture increasingly far from the referent. While I was gone to Denver, Noel contacted an electrician (to fix our walk-in closet light fixture) and the guy who sold us our windows (to fix a sliding door that wouldn't latch). Both came today and did their thing. I caught myself thinking about the event as "an orgy of man-calling," a locution that is probably best not uttered aloud.

By the way, if you search for "andy griffith" on YouTube, you get a surprising number of home videos of cockatiels who've been taught to whistle the show's theme.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Denver roundup

Back from the conference on another flight plagued with delays -- including a 45 minute wait for luggage -- and I'm still abuzz over some of the realizations that impressed themselves upon me in the last two days.

In some ways you go to these conferences to be inspired, to have moments of clarity. Surrounded by those engaged in the same discipline or work as you, carrying on a ceaseless back-channel chat in your head as they make their presentations, complaining or bonding with your colleagues over drinks or dinner or waiting for a session to start, gauging the temperature of new acquaintances to see whether they are revolutionaries or reactionaries. It's impossible not to figure out some stuff. The problems that are confusing, intractable muck day to day become clear categories and corresponding programs of action.

Of course, when you go back, you lose some of that clarity. After two days talking intensely with my administrative team about the direction we're trying to take the program, we tend to think we've come to some agreement about how to frame problems and where to look for solutions. But back in the muck, it's harder to carry out those plans. People, and one's obligations toward them, get in the way.

The realization about which I'm most conflicted is that there are two kinds of people in my field: those who are willing to consider radical change, and those who will always find a reason to resist and refuse. We educators are not supposed to believe that some people are ineducable. But perhaps at some point, and for some personalities, they are. The unfortunate fact about Honors education is that comparably few people get into it because of a deep compatability of their aims with its values. Instead, they are asked by their university administrations to take the job -- administrations that know little and care less about those values, and have no opinion on how best to achieve them (other than to do so as cheaply as possible). That's not a recipe for matching up innovators and student-centered folk with Honors programs. The reasons universities ask certain folks to take charge of Honors have much more to do with who's at hand, who's available, and who can be persuaded than with what Honors is all about.

And so we end up with some people floundering to find out what Honors means and how to get it done, and others content with the murky, fuzzy, marshmallow buzzwords that are the only descriptors with any hope of being applied to the diversity of programs, aims, values, reasons for being, and structures that call themselves Honors. And not many with any vision for making its inchoate promises concrete, and then making them real.

To consign some of my colleagues to the outer darkness, giving up hope that they can be persuaded to embrace rigor and revolution, cuts against the grain. And yet in the room listening to Derek Powazek's electric presentation -- hearing him challenge academics to truly empower their students rather than preserving their own authority and privilege -- it was abundantly clear that there was a deep divide in the room. On one side -- the students, who knew exactly what he was talking about and were thrilled to hear someone saying something real and challenging to the educational establishment, and a few of us maverick academics who want to turn the structure on its head and bring it out of its pre-war romantic obsession with cults of personality and control over information. On the other -- the rest of the professoriate, aghast at the idea of trusting the masses, bemoaning the death of the canon (again), worried for their power and their jobs.

And yet, as loath as I am to see that divide as real, there's a gulf in my own faculty that's hard to deny. I'm beyond the point of believing it can be bridged, and now I'm just wondering how it should be dealt with. I'm not sure my like-minded colleagues are at that point with me, and part of my ongoing roller-coaster ride is thinking that they have made their camp in what I see as the real world, only to find out that they're back on the other side trying to change people that can't be changed.

At this point, the realizations and the clarity of purpose that came with them are still fresh in my mind. I'm going to enjoy them while I can, before they get obscured by the day-to-day confusion that will get us all off track until the next conference.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Some lessons we apparently haven't learned

  • If you are an expert in educational technology, you should know better than to put 300 words of text on a powerpoint slide for us to read while you also want us to be listening to you.
  • You might want to plug your computer in for your presentation so it doesn't shut down in the middle.

  • Pointedly, the student presentation on Powerpoint that immediately follows these technical difficulties points out how uninspiring and distracting it is when a professor has to spend time fiddling with and apologizing for the technology before giving the lecture.

  • The same student presentation mentions the distracting and unnerving cell-phone-ringing-in-the-classroom phenomenon -- commenting ironically on the white-haired professor in the front row half an hour earlier who not only dug out his ringing cell phone during the presentation, but answered it without leaving his seat.

  • It's really hard to believe -- and disheartening -- that after the wowzer keynote presentation by Derek Powazek on harnessing the power of online community, we have a presentation about why a course should use online discussions followed by one about how not to use Powerpoint. During two successive presentations that really pushed the envelope about how to develop the rhetoric of student empowerment into a reality -- Rick and Phil's visions of a disintermediated, collaborative Honors 2025 followed by Derek's evangelism for the wisdom of crowds and the transformation of passive audiences into creators and organizers -- the response was overwhelmingly fearful. Students need lectures! This will devalue the great books! Web-based voting and ranking systems reduce truth to a popularity contest! We spent our careers becoming experts and now we're going to be rendered redundant! Now in the presentations in the paper session that follows, we're back where people are comfortable ... tools rather than ideas, widgets rather than structures, how-to's rather than why-to's. We've got to keep pushing on this. It's not about what program to use or what plug-in to buy -- it's about how technology provides a medium that shapes, for good or ill depending on how intentional you are, your community's participation in your mission. It's about how technology sends a message about your values and goals. It's about getting rid of the layer of unfulfilled or contradictory rhetoric between your community and their educational experience.

  • My favorite part of my job is my discussions with my fellow administrators, Phil and Rick. (My second favorite part is being in the classroom with students. My third favorite part is realizing that something I said to a student made a difference in their work or their life.) We are three people excited about doing more for students, infecting the whole university with our passions, thinking big, imagining new structures, reinventing existing traditions. Together we are ready and eager to make it all real. My least favorite part of my job is dealing with people who dig in their heels and don't want to change anything. People who are skeptical of anything new, automatically. People who would rather rehash past debates and explain how everything went wrong than think about what to do next. People who'd rather not hear about the mission of their institution because it might indict their teaching and practice as out of step with the mission, or worse (and this absolutely happens) in direct contradiction to that mission. My intense dislike for dealing with this attitude is a problem for me -- because my academic colleagues by nature are very conservative and independent. They do not want to be told what to do, and they do not want to change what they do. That attitude is on full display here at NCHC, as evidenced by the last bullet. And so I have roller-coastered from euphoria at Derek's magnetic, arresting, and wholly inspiring presentation, to crushing despair at the petty, rudimentary, and unreflective information (if you can call it that) that people here are so much more comfortable with. Unfortunately, without a structure for this organization and its meeting that puts those values of innovation, rigor, and challenge front and center in every aspect, we'll continue to be a feel-good weekend with a big party where everybody gets patted on the back for having "Honors" attached to their titles, and nobody has to submit to any tough questions about what that means.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Stuff I've learned in Denver

  • I can now knit without using my right-hand fingers to pull the thread through -- in other words, I really can "pick" continental-style. I practiced it all the way here. Then I noticed that my "picked" rows were looser than my usual gauge. After a little more practice I learned to keep my tension up. Such experimentation made the endless rows of stockingette on the foot of B2B sock #2 seem downright adventurous.
  • After weeks of not much A.V. Club writing, I've suddenly got a bunch of stuff up on the site. I guess it was inevitable that my review of Stephen Colbert's I Am America (And So Can You!) would get a bunch of comments. But 118 (at the time of this writing) somewhat exceeded my expectations. I'm the sole proprietor of the Words section this week, since the other review is my two-week's-delayed writeup of A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically.
  • Maybe it's the upscale margaritas from tonight's awesome Tamayo dinner talking, but I have a modest proposal to increase retention among high-ability college freshmen. Number one: Abolish the pre-med program. Number two: Ban dating. (Or as Rick put it more philosophically: Avoid attachment.) Number three: Well, it's not my idea, but Phil suggested not allowing prayer. Not sure what he was going for there. But three rules are better than two, so I'll go along with it, although I'm not sure it's going to have a measurable or positive effect.
  • My roommate Whit is reading Chuck Klosterman IV. Can I pick 'em, or what?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Leaving on a jet plane

Sitting at the Little Rock airport, marveling at the free wireless and convenient laptop recharge stations, and looking forward to a non-stop flight to Denver leaving in a few hours -- it's the perfect time to embark upon NaBloPoMo '07.

I first heard about National Blog Posting Month last year*, when some students of mine were eagerly taking on the challenge of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Now I've known for many years -- since junior high -- that I cannot write fiction. I'm helpless at characterization and flummoxed by dialogue. My attempts all come out like earnest monologues, because the characters aren't just sides of me -- every one of them is all of me, so they're all the same, just having schizophrenic Socratic pseudo-conversations with themselves. NaBloPoMo seemed like an act of solidarity with my fiction-enabled students that didn't require me to formulate plot, something I'd have no more idea how to do than disarm a nuclear bomb (and which would produce almost as much stress).

I found out along the way that I didn't have nearly as much understanding of how to blog as I thought I did. But doing it helped to me learn. When I finished the month of daily posting, I decided to keep going. And I haven't stopped since.

I guess that means that technically, I'm doing NaBloPoMo again, since it's November and I'm still committed to blogging every day. Lately I've felt a bit under the gun in my blogging -- pressed for time, unable to think of interesting things to write about, inordinately proud of myself when I do any writing more strenuous than composing captions to pictures of my kids. (See: previous post.) So I'm hoping NaBloPoMo will provide an occasion to recommit to dailyblogging and remind myself how it's transformed me.

On the other hand (and right now I'm painfully aware that I'm committing the cardinal blogging sin of blogging about blogging), it's been depressing to cruise the NaBloPoMo board on Ravelry and see the participant's ideas of what constitutes good blogging topics. Please, no more weeks with "Friday Photos" and "Tuesday Tidbits." We all succumb to the meme temptation every once in a while -- no harm, no foul. But to post the equivalent of a meme -- an arbitrary post theme -- every day of the week seems to me to be the height of creative bankruptcy. If you must do a series or start a theme (and I've done my share, and will again), make it your own and commit to it only at your own discretion. Is it just me, folks? When I see a "Friday Photo" or a "Thursday Thoughts" post pop up on Google Reader, I can't scroll past it fast enough. It's like you've stuck your blog into a box and refuse to let it out.

Maybe it's a structure that helps give people the courage to post, so I probably shouldn't knock it for the timid dailyblogger. We all need structures to kickstart our creativity. But for me, the blog is the structure. It's not a blank page -- it's a blog. There are a limited number of uses for which it is well designed -- collections of links and commentary, personal reflection on matters of general interest, reporting on project progress, meditations on matters in one's profession, practicing writing to a broad and unknown audience. Sure, people can use blogs in innovative ways. But these are the natural genres to which the medium is suited. Isn't that enough structure to get us started? Do we really need the crutch of "I'll write about weeding my garden every Wednesday" to get words on paper? If we do, how do we expect to attract and hold the attention of readers, for whom such ticky-tacky boxes are more likely to inspire sighs of "not again" than excitement?

It's all in how it's done, that's true. I know online chat hosts and bloggers whose periodic theme days were eagerly anticipated (Carolyn Hax's wedding chats once every few months come to mind). And maybe that's another difference -- every so often rather than Every Damnable Day.

Please forgive me, fellow NaBloPoMoers, if I have just trashed the plan that got you excited about blogging every day. I would only urge you to remember your readers (you do want some, don't you?). And cut me the tiniest bit of slack for my first curmudgeonly NaBloPoMo post -- I'm heading to Denver and I already want to be on the way back.

*I've been telling people for weeks that I've been posting daily since 2005. It just doesn't seem possible that (1) I've only been dailyblogging for one year, and (2) I started knitting so soon after I started dailyblogging. But now that I think about it, there's some sense to it -- knitting gave me a few posts back in the early days when I was pretty strapped for daily ideas, until I felt guilty about it and moved it to its own blog. So take my "young whippersnappers with no idea how to dailyblog harrumph harrumph" grumbling with a touch of skepticism.