Thursday, April 30, 2009

Great despite the evidence

The A.V. Club staff has had an interesting e-mail conversation today, sparked by a reader question that we'll be answering this Friday: What pop culture figure gets a lifetime pass? Who will you always respect, no matter how far they fall?

I won't reveal any of our answers. But John Travolta came up as an example of someone for whom an argument might be made, although it would be a shaky one.

Back and forth we went, trying to decide if Travolta had enough greatness in his career to earn a pass. The negatives immediately came to mind: Look Who's Talking (the trilogy!), Battlefield Earth. And many more. But it's amazing how easy it was to use those disasters to dismiss some of the really solid -- even transcendent -- work found in his filmography. Pulp Fiction was generally held to be unassailable. But what about Saturday Night Fever (a movie I just showed to my film class)? Get Shorty, a wonderful comic performance? Blow Out, one of the cleverest of the De Palma pastiches? Heck, even if you hate Grease and Michael, try to separate Travolta's performance from the movie around it.

It's always interesting to get the staff together, because there is a surprising diversity of opinions on what we all know to be true. Anyone who suggests that movie X or album Y is obvious schlock -- and, more importantly, assumes that everyone in the conversation is going to agree -- soon finds themselves embroiled in an argument they didn't expect to be having.

The question made me realize, though, just how soft a touch I am. Or maybe it's loyalty. If a filmmaker, actor, musician, writer, or artist does work I love, it's very difficult for them to lose me completely. I'll wait forever for a return to form -- for the genius that I once saw, and can't quite believe is gone forever, to reappear.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Local interest

Archer's spelling words this week were themed around our state. He seems mostly interested in them as representations of certain larger groupings, as you'll see.
  1. When at a carwash, your car should be in natural mode.
  2. Do you see pine trees in beaches?
  3. There are many different kinds of deer.
  4. A honeybee is a kind of bee.
  5. An appleblossom is usually seen in appletrees.
  6. Arkansas is the 25th state.
  7. A diamond is a shape and a gem.
  8. A mockingbird is a bird.
  9. Do you want to milk a cow?
  10. Our flag has 25 white stars and 4 blue stars.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Tuesday and Wednesday nights have taken on a different meaning in my town this spring. We have an Idol in the hunt. Kris Allen hails from Conway, Arkansas and is a student at my university. And to almost everyone's surprise -- since he was not pegged as a front-runner in the early episodes and made it to the voting rounds with hardly any camera time -- he's in the top five on American Idol.

As the number of contestants has gotten smaller, the Kris Allen fan apparatus here in Conway has gotten more elaborate. From viewing parties at local student hangouts, to events hosted by the campus dining service, to a giant throwdown in the basketball arena with thousands of people and an MTV camera crew.

That's where Noel was tonight. Last week he had the bright idea that if Kris hung on, he would report on the hometown Idol madness for the A.V. Club. So after dinner he strolled over to the Farris Center and sat in the stands surrounded by little kids, college students, and townspeople of every description. The local newspaper handed out official Kris Allen fan banners and slapped stickers on the entrants. Supporters came prepared with T-shirts. Chic-Fil-A broke out the cow costumes.

I'm about to watch the performance on TiVo delay -- the same one Noel watched live on the giant screen. And even though I've been an avid Idol watcher for a long time, I never thought I'd get caught up in the hometown hype. But here I am getting stupid excited, not just because he's one of ours, but because he's got a chance. I've been transformed into a fan.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A matter of taste

I've never read the Newberry Award winning book Because of Winn-Dixie (by the same author as The Tale of Desperaux!) or seen the 2005 movie (directed by Wayne Wang!). Apparently Archer's class did both. I really like this writing assignment his teacher came up with, and his answer isn't bad either.
In the story Because of Winn-Dixie, the Littmus Lozenge tasted both sweet and sad. Describe what it might taste like to you. Then draw a picture.

My litmuss lozenge tastes like root beer & strawberry & something sad. My something sad is melted ice cream. Ice melts and turns into water, and I love ice cream. I love chocolate the most. It's sad when my ice melts. Is it sad when your ice cream melts?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Weekend accomplishments

  1. Assembled a three-shelf bookcase for Cady Gray's room.
  2. Reported on the manufacturer's web site that left panel A was broken in the other three-shelf bookcase that I had hoped to assemble.
  3. Finished my first (probably not last) Flippants.
  4. Wore said Flippants to church.
  5. Took kids to playground.
  6. Endured kids yelling to each other over walkie talkies: " ARE YOU EVEN LISTENING TO ME?! "
  7. Marveled at my new 4 GB compact flash card. Almost 2000 photographs on the highest resolution of which my camera is capable. $13.50.
  8. Wrote today's blog post, about leftover yarn and oversized sandals, at Toxophily.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

On ice

What I learned at the Disney On Ice show this afternoon:
  • I get all emotional at The Little Mermaid even when it's being performed by skaters in glittery costumes.
  • Lilo & Stitch doesn't translate well to the rink.
  • You can't go wrong with giant inflatables.
  • Cady Gray thinks Prince Eric can't kiss Ariel because she can't talk.
  • Flying Darling children make me nervous. I wanted to stop the show to double-check their rigging.
  • The zamboni that came out between acts was not Disney-themed.
  • Concessionaires roamed the aisles yelling "Cotton candy! Flounder hats!"
  • Archer amused himself by keeping track of how many characters were on the ice and how many were backstage.
  • Grown-up Nala on ice is kinda hot.
  • I wish there were a pill I could take that would turn me into someone who knows how to skate.

Friday, April 24, 2009

On the other side

This week, my unit achieved something remarkable -- and something that's been a long time coming. For the last four years, we've been engaged in a conversation, an argument, a discussion -- whatever you want to call it -- about our status on campus. Back in 2005, the faculty senate expressed concern about the notion of interdisciplinary faculty when our tenure guidelines came up for ratification. Since then, with varying degrees of intensity, the faculty has been talking about how to staff the Honors College.

Last week there was a heartstopping setback when agreed-upon faculty handbook language was questioned by the senate. But this week, with only hours to spare to get the resolution on all the appropriate agendas to be ratified before the academic year's end, modifed language was finally approved.

It's impossible to describe here the roller-coaster ride that I've been on for the last four years. Tenure is an arcane academic notion. But it's central to a full-fledged academic enterprise. Without tenure, we are unable to attract and retain quality faculty. Without tenure, we're vulnerable to changing political winds. Without tenure, there's a conspicuous absence of the university's vote of confidence in the academic program or its staff.

The process of getting it back -- because it was actually given to us at one point by administrative fiat but then limited by faculty governance -- was, to quote a faculty senator this week, "byzantine." It was not always clear to anyone the issues at stake. Senate sessions came and went, apparently unable to compel their successors to exit the holding pattern. Public meetings had to be held. The terms of the debate and the values that governed it shifted month to month.

But whatever problems might exist with the eventual compromise solution -- as yet untested in real life -- there's a very important victory in this moment. At times over the last several years, it's not always been clear that the faculty at my institution wants my academic unit to exist. Our founding (and the addition of dedicated faculty) seemed to be thought by some to be tainted by connection to unpopular administrations. We consistently encounter misunderstandings -- sometimes outright misinformation -- about our purposes and procedures when we talk to folks from other departments. There have been deep valleys in the last few years where we believed we were in a struggle for survival.

This past year, as the search for a way to recover our tenure came to a head, we were heartened to discover that the faculty as a whole demanded a solution, because they believed the Honors College must continue and must be able to have its own faculty. They would not allow the process to fail, fraught with pitfalls and posturing and old wounds as it might be. In the end there were no voices raised to demand the extinction of interdisciplinarity on campus. The value of what we do was affirmed. The perspective of the process shifted from a desire to curb unwarranted license, to the desire to institutionalize the health of a vital campus resource.

When the senate finally passed the tenure language yesterday, sending it to the Board of Trustees just under the deadline for the last meeting of the year, there was celebration in our offices. The long fight was over. And although there were serious compromises whose import has yet to be fully understood, we had achieved something unprecedented in our history: acceptance as full partners in the common faculty enterprise. It's not a status I'm ever likely to take for granted, not after decades on probation and four years in limbo.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

New broom

It's spring cleaning week here at the homestead. And although it wasn't my idea, and I really haven't done anything to help, I heartily approve of the results.

Both Noel and I are pack rats. We accumulate stuff at an alarming rate, accelerated by our occupations and avocations. Noel gets dozens of CDs and DVDs in the mail every week. I buy yarn. The kids collect little prizes or toys from various crane machines and kiddie-meal purveyors around town. And while it's difficult for me to throw things away when there's still any value left in them, it's equally difficult for me to find a way to get them out of the house without throwing them away.

Periodically Noel has to make a purge. His philosophy is that if I don't notice it's gone, I didn't need it in the first place. It's just the attitude that's needed, because the clutter in our home takes a mental, physical, and spiritual toll on me. Even though there's a hypothetical moment somewhere in my future where I'm disappointed that we don't still have something I thought we'd kept, there's a very real, concrete present moment in which every glance around the room is more peaceful and calm because I don't see clutter angrifying up the place. I think it's a good tradeoff -- or at least, I try to calm my anxiety during the purge by reminding myself that it's a good tradeoff.

After a hard week in the trenches, my boss is taking a mental health day tomorrow. He told me that he's planning to spend it spreading mulch on his backyard landscaping. It's a job he's hired out the last two years. But this year, he's doing it himself because it's an accomplishment he can have control over. That's something that's often missing in our middle-management jobs in academia. And while Noel probably gets more of that kind of satisfaction in his job as a freelance writer -- although getting paid can be a struggle sometimes -- he's probably prone to seek the same kind of accomplishment in his physical surroundings. I just enjoy the fruits of his labor. Knowing how hard it would be for me to get up the gumption and discipline to do it myself makes me appreciate it all the more.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Another Wednesday -- another set of Archer's spelling sentences!
  1. Spring is a flower season.
  2. You need water to grow plants.
  3. Never go under hurdles.
  4. Try to push the bar over the line. [This is a reference to Wii Fit lunges. --Ed.]
  5. If you practice, you get better.
  6. "Sister of a lifetime" may be powerful. [I don't understand this one at all. --Ed.]
  7. Does everyone have a brother?
  8. "Are You My Mother?" is a book level 1.6 and .5 pts. [A reference to his Advanced Reading program. --Ed.]
  9. A father is a dad.
  10. After recess, we have lunch.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April in Conway

It's getting on toward the high season here in Conway -- a potent combination of college and high school graduations seasoned with the local festival, Toad Suck Daze.

Anything that happens annually suggests comparisons with years past. And this year, the comparison is quite favorable. When I think of May graduations, I remember sweltering in my heavy academic robes while waiting outside for the processional. When I think of Toad Suck Daze, I remember sunscreen and the desperate search for the fresh-squeezed lemonade concession.

It's usually hot around the first of May, is what I'm saying. Temperatures begin to climb toward the top end of the eighties and the low end of the nineties. The brief perfection of spring gives way with alarming celerity to the endurance test of summer.

I hate to jinx it, but this spring has been an extended delight. For nearly two months, temperatures have been in the sixties and seventies. The brilliant green of new leaves on the hardwoods, the near-embarrassing voluptuousness of azaleas and dogwoods and hydrangeas, the endless cerulean blue of the clear sky -- day after day we've enjoyed them in perfect comfort.

Hope begins to strengthen that the long vigil of soaker hoses and three-digit highs will hold off for a while longer. That the children will not return from Toad Suck Daze coated with sunblock mixed with sweat. That the ten-minute walk from my house to the basketball arena where graduation is held will be breezy and pleasant. That I might not even bother to shed my velvet hat on the way home.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bedtime conversations

While tucking in Cady Gray, whose bedtime reading is coloring books:

CG: Mom, I was just looking at my Littlest Pet Shop workbook!
Me: Do you know who got that for you?
CG: Who?
Me: I did. And do you know why?
CG: Why?
Me: Because I thought you would like it.
CG: And I was also looking at my Hello Kitty workbook that you got for me.
Me: Do you know why I got it for you?
CG: Because you know that I love Hello Kitty, and you know that I love math. And you thought that if you added them together, there would be a Hello Kitty math workbook that would be something perfect for me.

While tucking in Archer, whose bedtime reading is the Wii instruction manual:

AA: Mom, what kind of Wii rooter do we have?
Me: You mean router? R-O-U-T-E-R?
AA: Yeah, router.
Me: We don't have one.
AA: Why don't we have one?
Me: Because we don't need one.
AA: How do you connect the Wii to the internet?
Me: I don't know, but your dad did it.
AA: Do we have a wired or a wireless network?
Me: We have a wireless network.
AA: (to himself, as I turn off the light and close the door) OK, a wireless network ...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pick your disaster

The news that science fiction writer J.G. Ballard died today brought back a flood of memories. In my childhood, and all through my early teen years, I was fortunate enough to be given the run of a relatively large municipal library whenever I asked. My methodology was to scan the shelves of science fiction for the thickest and most imposing volumes, then carry as many of them home as I could. Among those books sometime around 1980 was The Wind From Nowhere, Ballard's first published work. His name became indelibly linked for me to creative and terrifying ways of imagining the end of the world, a connection that The Drowned World did nothing, as I recall, to alter.

I must have been a glutton for punishment, because I kept on pulling these apocalypses off the shelf whenever I could find them. Nature's End by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka was a particular horror that stuck with me. I backtracked to Streiber's Warday, and then was utterly confused by his New Age-y turn forward in Communion (although that cover portrait of an alien gray seemed to stare at me for weeks whenever I closed my eyes).

Why do these stories of environmental catastrophe and nuclear holocaust haunt me? Why did I seek them out so eagerly when they scarred me so indelibly? I can no longer remember the details of the stories, just their images of endless wind, suffocating smog, inescapable radiation. Such is their hold on me that I cannot fly into LAX or hear the phrase "inversion" spoken by a weatherperson without being transported into Streiber and Kunetka's vision of an atmosphere rendered inert by the unfettered proliferation of pavement.

I now avoid talk of ecological disaster as avidly as I used to seek it out. Back then, those fictions were so detailed as to seem inevitable. Now, when I can't help but worry about the ways we're destroying our life support system, I take some comfort in the unpredictability that made those particular prophecies fail.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Usually when I post something that my son has done, I attempt to mask my pride in his intelligence and capabilities under a veneer of psychological curiosity. But tonight you'll have to forgive me. I'm just plain proud.

Archer showed an interest in music notation last year, and we got him a beginning piano book for Christmas. He started taking once-weekly half-hour lessons at my university's community school of music in late January.

This afternoon he participated in his first recital. He played two songs from his primer. Even though a huge clap of thunder drowned out the first notes of his second song, he never wavered. It was -- dare I say -- perfect.

It's been evident for a long time that Archer doesn't suffer from stage fright. The trouble is that you don't know if he graps the seriousness of the occasion. I worried all week that he would treat it like practice. But no. He sat quietly while the other students played. He strode to the piano and played confidently. And when it was done, his huge smile showed that he knew he had done something to be proud of.

[Video titles by Noel. Let this be lesson to you: Spellcheck before you encode.]

Friday, April 17, 2009

The new normal

Like most universities around the country, my institution is facing a fiscal crisis. But unlike those other universities, we are not being hit by the worldwide recession. It's not a matter of our endowment losing its value. It's not a result of state budgets in freefall. No, our financial troubles come from years of mismanagement, obfuscation, and minor lawbreaking here and there.

But it's real nonetheless. And this week my unit found out what it meant for us: a cut in scholarship dollars that will force us to move some of the funds we've managed to squirrel away in our salad days into student programs.

It could have been a lot worse. But fortunately for us, it's just bad enough to force a complete re-evaluation of our priorities. No longer will we be able to support every faculty or administration proposal that simply sounds like a good idea. Now we will have to choose between good ideas. And the basis for that choice must be our mission. Becoming more conscious of our mission is a good consequence of not having money to throw around.

We'll also have to make more thorough use of the time-, labor-, and money-saving technologies that are available to us. When there's excess cash and capacity, employees and faculty, to some extent, can choose how they want to work. Not everyone has to work at maximum efficiency; if some have ways of teaching or mentoring that they prefer, they can be accommodated. Not anymore. Because now, we need everyone's full productivity. If they used to spend 85% of their time on classroom processes and 15% on other kinds of work in the unit, we need them to use the tools available to cut down on that classroom time, because we need more of their workday to be spent on the other things we do, the things that make us different from the rest of the departments on campus -- where an 85-15 ratio might be perfectly acceptable.

These changes won't be easy. Some projects and principles that are important to individual members of the department will probably go by the wayside. We will end up spending time on things that are low priorities for us personally, because the unit as a whole needs our energies there. Over time, we'll each end up re-evaluating our individual relationships to the college and its goals.

And that's a chance for clarity. Despite the pain it entails, I think we need to seize it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The revolution is not a tea party

I've talked with a number of colleagues and students about the frustration I expressed in this post a few days ago. And a couple of cogent thoughts -- okay, one metaphor and one cogent thought -- have emerged from those discussions.
  • The way my students use language in their everyday writing for me is natural, unstudied, instinctual. It's the language they learned at their mothers' breasts. So why does it become like material translated from English to Japanese to Swedish back to English when they write in the context of a formal paper? I think it's like social behavior. We all learn very early how to act at the dinner table. In a few years, we don't have to think about it anymore -- it comes naturally. But imagine that you get invited to a tea party with the Queen of England. In your anxiety over the alien formality of that occasion, it's not just the new points of etiquette that you don't know -- it's the stuff you adhere to purely by reflex in other situations. You don't just agonize over bowing and using proper address; you also stumble over taking a cake from the plate or stirring sugar into your teacup. The distance you perceive between the everyday manners that suffice in normal life, and the extreme and unknown points of behavior necessary for tea with the Queen, make you forget how to act according to those everyday manners. You also forget to treat the occasion as essential communal. Instead, you anxiously place it in the category of ritual. The focus becomes scrupulous behavior rather than making a connection with another human being. In the same way, faced with the formal academic essay, students become so paralyzed by the mysterious and exacting nature of the assignment -- as unconnected to the writing they do so naturally every day as the royal audience is to coffee with friends -- that they forget how to write a simple sentence. They also forget to treat the occasion as essentially communicative. Instead, they see it as a hurdle to be passed, a hole to be filled, a minefield of potential errors to be tiptoed through.

  • Why is it, then, that the twice-weekly journals I get from those same students contain such good writing? It occurs to me that the medium in which they are writing may provide a clue. When they write journals to me, they go to an online community and start a new thread. The entire apparatus of the technology is geared toward conversation. No one posts on such a system without wanting to be read, expecting to be read. The structural orientation of the medium is toward communication; the reader is inevitably anticipated in the writing process. What about the medium of the word processor? I contend that the message of this technology is entirely different. For the novice writer, the reader is not felt to be present. The blank page invites monologue, not dialogue. I know that seasoned writers don't experience it this way, but I'm not talking about seasoned writers. I'm talking about young people who write constantly, but almost always in those media of dialogue and conversation. How would such a person respond to the blank page and the blinking cursor? Would they intuitively write to communicate? Does the technology invite such an approach -- does it structurally encourage it? Or does it create the hole to be filled, the echo chamber of one's own voice, the absence of anyone else -- of an audience -- whose comprehension needs to be taken into account?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Archer the Bunny

From Archer's folder today:

Bunny Business

Pretend you are a bunny. Answer each question using a complete sentence.

1. What kind of bunny are you? I am a red bunny with white spots.

2. Where do you live? I live in a house with a TV and a Wii.

3. What do you look like? I look like a strong bunny that weighs about 50 lbs.

4. What are three things you like to eat? The three things I like to eat are: pizza, carrots, and ham-and-cheese wraps.

5. What is your home like? It's like a 1-story hotel.

6. How do you spend your days? All day, I play Wii Fit, and look at the forecast.

7. How do you spend your nights? All night, I read and listen to 91.3 FM.

8. What is the best thing about being a bunny? The best thing about being a bunny is sleeping.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Notes from all over

Herewith an update on matters large and small that have gone unnoticed in this space while I was ranting about writing and updating my knitting blog.
  • We have a new roof. The house has been painted. And even though there's plenty more to do to get this place shipshape, I feel like a semi-responsible homeowner for the first time in years.
  • Easter means video of the kids' many, many egg hunts. Easter also means deviled eggs, my all-time favorite food. If there are any deviled-egg-eating contests out there, I believe I could be a serious contender.
  • My favorite Wii Fit activity is rhythm boxing. It's a little pathetic how proud I am when the trainer gives me a grudging "Nice job" at the end.
  • Like most places, our university is trying to do more with less -- actually, to live within its means for the first time in years. That's causing stress and frustration in our unit as we deal with cuts that can seem short-sighted and arbitrary. In that environment, a simple e-mail from another department head promising to consider a change in the way we share resources gives me a lift quite out of proportion to the potential for meaningful results.

Monday, April 13, 2009

All right, let's do it together

Today's post about knitting, washing, and washing again is at Toxophily.

And yesterday's post here about academic writing and its discontents drew a lot of interest. I've responded to some of the comments, so stop by and continue the conversation if you're so inclined.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A crank's lament

Dear students:

Right around now, the last few of you are retrieving your term papers from our virtual classroom. And I imagine that you're reading my irascible comments with sinking hearts. Your pristine margins are littered with scrawls: "wrong word," "unclear," "awkward," "redundant," "superfluous," "SIMPLIFY!" As the pages scroll past, the handwriting becomes increasingly erratic. Exclamation points and underlining appear more frequently. The comments at the end contain almost no encouragement and much disappointment.

It's clear that your papers have been the victim of a cranky, belligerent professor, one whose frustration over unmet standards has gotten the better of her. That professor is me.

Yes, I marked your essays with increasing agitation. Yes, I became angrier, as the page count mounted, at missing commas and run-on sentences and empty phraseology like "the fact that," as if you should have learned from your opening mistakes and ended better than you started. Yes, the exercise of correcting your grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure indeed struck me as a waste of my time, considering that it was aimed at such accomplished students with such a keen interest in ideas, and considering the woeful state of basic composition pedagogy that it revealed.

And I'm here to apologize for my wrathful pen. Because I don't think it's your fault that your papers were dreadful. I think it's mine. And I think it's my profession's.

All semester you've been writing for me. And it's been wonderful. Almost none of the faults of these essays have been in evidence in your previous writing. Responding online to prompts that asked you to reflect on your texts and on ideas related to them, encouraged to free-write without revision and with no attention to the formal structures of the essay, you've been eloquence incarnate. Your ideas have shone through simple, clear language. You've used words appropriately. Your passion and thought process have been crystal clear. I've read you all semester with such joy and interest that your writing has all but disappeared for me. Instead, it's like we've been communicating mind to mind.

Yet faced with a blank word processing document, your name and my name and the course title and the date left-justified at the top, you've turned into incompetents. Did you suddenly lose your ability to write?

No, of course not. What happened was that the form of the academic essay snapped handcuffs on you. Instead of being taught to think in high school, you were taught to "write." That meant introductions and five point outlines and transitions and formal, useless phrases intended to make your sentences more varied and complex.

What you do every week for me in those journals, you don't think of as writing. That's why it's so good, so natural, so transparent a window into your minds. As soon as we give you a writing assignment, though, the prison door snaps shut. Writing becomes labor. Thoughts struggle to escape the format, and fail. Language is tortured beyond recognition. Meaning dies, suffocated by the airless vacuum of the academic essay.

You need to learn to produce these papers. Most of you are going on to graduate school; you'll be cranking them out for years to come. But we've gone at it completely backwards. We've made writing into essay production. What you do so well in your tweets, on your blogs, on Facebook, on our online community, even in the weekly journals you send me, we have related not at all to what we're asking you to do come term paper time. We've squandered your strength as writers by not teaching you to harness it for that arcane, convention-bound, largely irrelevant form called the academic essay. Instead of showing you how well you write in the genres that come naturally to you, and then gently and gradually placing our unnatural mold around you so that you can fill it with meaning, we demand that you fill the essay bucket over and over again before you've even found your voice. Is it any wonder that you have become adept at producing padded, repetitive, completely unnatural drivel, just to get the slop up to the rim?

And so, beloved students, to atone for my hostile remarks on your papers, I'll make you a promise. With your help, I'll stop making the production of academic essays into the culmination of each succeeding semester. Course by course, we'll strike a blow against the outdated hegemony of this ivory-tower-bound genre. Maybe then, we can start over and learn how to produce them when needed, beyond our current myopia about the aesthetic superiority and universal relevence of the form.

Yours for progress and clarity,


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Warmer hugs

Today's post about miniaturization as a route to daughter delight is at Toxophily.

By far my children's favorite cheapo prize for skeeball or duck pond type games is the little plastic ice cream cone where the foam "scoop" pops out when you push a button. Cady Gray calls it an "ice punch." I truly felt we had entered an important phase of American parenting when the kids were having an "ice punch fight" in the back seat on the way home from the library's Easter carnival.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Did you hear the one about ...

You might wonder why I feature Archer's work here so often, and Cady Gray's so rarely. Of course it's mostly because Archer is writing much more frequently than Cady Gray. I'm sure I'll have many adorable and precocious samples of her thought processes to share in the years to come.

But it's also because Archer's mind is something alien to me. Whenever he gives us a hint of what makes sense to him, I'm fascinated.

In 2007, music critic Tim Page wrote an essay in the New Yorker about his Asperger's syndrome. I'll never forget the second grade report on a field trip to Boston that he reproduces in his introduction, a seemingly willful refusal to conform to the assignment that he says angered his teacher.
Well, we went to Boston, Massachusetts through the town of Warrenville, Connecticut on Route 44A. It was very pretty and there was a church that reminded me of pictures of Russia from our book that is published by Time-Life. We arrived in Boston at 9:17. At 11 we went on a big tour of Boston on Gray Line 43, made by the Superior Bus Company like School Bus Six, which goes down Hunting Lodge Road where Maria lives and then on to Separatist Road and then to South Eagleville before it comes to our school. We saw lots of good things like the Boston Massacre site. The tour ended at 1:05. Before I knew it we were going home. We went through Warrenville again but it was too dark to see much. A few days later it was Easter. We got a cuckoo clock.
At least Archer's teacher didn't scrawl "See me!" on this paper he brought home. But tell me if it doesn't remind you of something.

My 2009 Spring Break
written and illustrated by Archer

During Spring Break I gone to my mom's school. She teaches there in room 402. I gone in these rooms: 306B, 303, and 302. In the library I gone in room 221. 221 -- I looked for books. 302 -- I practiced for my piano lesson. 303, I had dry erase board time. 306B -- I had workbook time.

In the same vein, here's a joke Archer wrote that I found quite funny -- which may indicate that I've been living with him for too long.
My Favorite April Fool's Joke

Knock knock.
Who's there?
238A who?
238A as a number!
But then there are the flashes of normalcy -- or at least the kind that Archer can simulate. They tug at my heartstrings.
by Archer

Roses are red,
violets are blue,
as you know,
I love you.
You care,
you share.
I love you
like a dove.
We might fall in love.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Water, basin, towel

This evening I delivered the sermon at St. Peter's Maundy Thursday service. This is the moment in the liturgical year when we perform what in mainstream Christianity is the orphan sacrament: foot-washing, a command of Jesus attested only in the Gospel of John.

My thoughts about ritual, Christian unity, and the Anglican tradition are here, if you're interested.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Information should be free -- or at least cheap

Wired reported recently on a Kindle owners' revolt. Angry that what they believe is the promise of $9.99 Kindle books has not always been kept, some have taken to using Amazon's product tagging system to label Kindle items that cost more with the phrase "9 99boycott."

What's interesting about this little exercise in consumer power is that it would be hard to imagine it happening with printed books -- paper between covers. A physical book is an object. We accept that it has costs. We're used to being charged for objects. When a textbook costs a hundred dollars, we complain. But we would never think of demanding that textbooks in general shouldn't be more than fifty dollars. Some books are big, some are small; some are hardcover, some are paperback. Some are in great demand, others sell only a few copies. All those factors, we agree, should contribute to setting the price.

But when you take the physical factors out -- when you reduce a book to pure information, discarding what we have to admit are features extraneous to its core purpose -- the notion of cost, and therefore of appropriate price, becomes somewhat different. With e-books, it's almost as cheap to sell a million as it is to sell one. No paper or cardboard to buy, no ink, no shipping. Sure, there's still authorial and editorial costs, and demand (although no supply) has a role to play.

Yet people feel a different relationship to information than they do to things. Namely, they feel like they have a right to it. We're willing to pay for information, but we don't want to be gouged. A song costs 99 cents. A book costs $9.99. Sure, these are prices that were originally handed down to us by those first offering the product, but we know that you can't fancy up an e-book by adding a camera or a bottle opener. It is what it is, and there's no reason to jack up the price. Once we get a sense of what it's worth to the people selling it, all the power shifts to us.

In short, we've been empowered -- or is it liberated? -- by the shift from a physical medium to a purely informational one. It didn't have to be that way, but because of the way the Internet grew and the passions of the people who kept it out of hierarchical and corporate hands, here we are. Kinda makes me feel ... optimistic.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Goodbye, snow

In honor of the end of cold weather, here's an acrostic poem Archer wrote in school a few weeks ago. The letters spelling WINTER were provided from him down the left-hand side of the page.

Winter Poetry
by Archer

With some
Ice skates
Now you are ready for winter,
Early to skate -- we're not
Ready yet! We have to wait 'til winter.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Facebook-dum and Tweetle-dee

Since Twitter has hit the media in a big way in the past few months, we've heard a lot of handwringing about how it's the end of western civilization, a canary in the coal mine of literary decline.

It's useless to point out that the same doomsday scenarios were posited for texting, blogging, emoticons, the internet in general -- even, if you go back far enough and ask a professor who was present, word processing (as opposed to typewriters; revising as you go was thought to be antithetical to the writing process). The latest scourge is always uniquely disastrous.

And yet, as a person who Twitters and reads the tweets of many interesting, deep, and witty people, I see a different side. A tweet is a genre. It is a particular set of restrictions and conventions, like all genres. And like all genres, there are good tweets and bad tweets. There are even, dare I say it, great tweets.

If it helps, think of it as a haiku. No one thinks the short, observation character of haiku makes them a breeding ground for terrible writing and thinking. The best tweets have a haiku-like quality, in fact. And speaking from experience and admiration, it's dadblamed difficult to compose a really good tweet -- to fit a novel thought or witty juxtaposition into 140 characters. When I manage it (earning "retweets" by followers I don't even know), I'm justly proud. When I see it done, I'm sometimes in awe.

The immediate prior boogeyman for our horrified betters was Facebook. I've mentioned before that I'm on Facebook, but I'm not a denizen. Facebook does some things very well.

But here's why academia and the intelligentsia should think about Twitter and Facebook differently. Facebook (like MySpace and Friendster before it, only in more interesting and diverse ways) is an identity game. On Facebook, you collect characteristics (favorite media, favorite quotes), affiliations (Wish Ron Paul A Happy Birthday, Sig Eps Who Hate The New New Facebook Layout), and of course, friends. It's all about defining who you are, in an ever-expanding mosaic.

Twitter is a communications game. It takes the idea of a short piece of self-expression, originally tied to one's status or current activities (and pioneered by Facebook in that form), and divorces it from all the identity pieces. On Twitter, you are what you say. Say it better, funnier, more poignantly, to more people who are thought to be smart or entertaining or interesting, and the light you cast onto the Twitterverse brightens.

I think many people are worried about social networking as essentially identity play. To divorce repute from actual accomplishment, they feel, is worrisome. If that's the problem, then Twitter simply doesn't fall into the same category. On Twitter, people are not being or relating or associating. They are writing.

Maybe it's just the people I follow, but that's about as far from a sign of the apocalypse for my traditional academic values as I can imagine.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I'm at the airport in Montreal waiting for my flight to Chicago, which will be followed, if all goes well, by the flight to Little Rock. I should be home by 11 pm local time, as long as there are no delays or cancellations. [There were delays. --Ed.]

What an interesting trip it has been. While I was looking forward to the interesting and potentially productive work that the board was to take up, my recent positive experiences with a couple of excellent committees was imparting a rosy tint to the whole. I had forgotten about the various issues that tended to hamper the effectiveness of other groups. Some breakthroughs were made on those front, yet I'm inclined to believe that structural problems remain that will continue to block us until they are dealt with directly.

On the other hand, Montreal -- cold, rainy, windy, snowy Montreal in early April -- won my heart. I was head over heels for the city and its people, and I can't wait to return for the AAR's annual meeting in November. To give just a single example, I was warmly welcomed and grandly feted by one of our valued commenters on the A.V. Club, a lovely and lively young woman who goes by the online sobriquet of Phel. When she learned through my Twitter feed that I was visiting the city, she immediately issued a friendly invitation to meet her for drinks and conversation, and as a fellow knitter (yet another pleasant surprise), she passed along invaluable information on downtown yarn shops that I will spend a happy half-day exploring in toto when I return.

I have learned much from some of the wise people that our director so frequently invites to advise us and thus brings so fortuitously into our acquaintance. And as you may have already surmised from the style of this entry, somewhat more verbose and elaborate than usual, I finished Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Au revoir, Montreal!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Function and its dyscontents

Things are getting pretty bad when you have to hire a consultant to come in and tell the governors what's wrong with their governing structure, don't you think?

Actually, maybe that should be a more regular occurrence. Sure, the organization for which I'm currently serving as director, the board of which made a decision a few years ago that profoundly alienated the membership, needs help with its administrative culture, shall we say. There's no doubt about that.

Since I've been involved in the leadership, though -- just after this decision was made and as the fallout was raining down -- there's been a lot of introspection. And outside consultants have been brought in to talk about vision and governance, and all the stuff you'd imagine would fatten the pockets of business parasites.

It's been nothing short of amazing, though, what these people have brought to our attention. The problems you can't solve are the ones you can't name. And what these people do is say: "I've observed you govern for the past six hours, and you only acknowledged each other's points in discussion twice."

Every organization thinks it's unique. We have a culture that nobody could understand except from the inside. But it's almost never true. There are groups facing similar tasks and structured in similar ways. What can we learn from them? It's criminally easy to think of reasons why their example doesn't apply to us. It's a lot harder to admit that our particular dysfunction may be typical -- and therefore tractable.

Maybe it all comes down to the sad fact that we prefer our problems to be singular and chronic. It prevents us from having to take responsibility to fix them. At least someone has stood up in front and pointed them out. Now to see whether we've really heard them -- or whether, in the best academic tradition, we will compliment the messenger on his presentation and return to our comfortable complaints.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hard labor

Anybody who is a member of a board of directors or occupies an administrative position in almost any organization these days is in the same boat. It's time to face fiscal realities but at the same time try to move forward into the future.

This weekend, that's what we'll be trying to do in Montreal. In this opulent hotel, surrounded by a beautiful city and an attentive staff, we're looking at very difficult decisions.

Yet at the same time, they're very easy. Because first, there are really no alternatives to them, besides mortgaging our future and crippling our mission. We're in the fortunate situation, actually, of having a few places to go where making changes means enhancing the long-term health of the organization, because they are changes that are going to be made at some point anyway -- and the sooner the better.

And second, they're easy because without them, we're spending money on plugging a hole rather than investing to meet the needs of the new reality. Each decision, considered by itself, is painful. Each decision, though, considered in terms of our responsibility to the organization's viability, is easy. And as soon as people see that, the unanimity is quite remarkable.

I'm no financial wizard. I'm indifferent at balancing my own checkbook (now that online banking does it for me). I wouldn't know a net unrealized gain or loss from a hole in the ground. So I'm so fortunate to have the opportunity to be tutored by people not only of great expertise, but of uncommon wisdom. My confidence in the plan we on the Finance Committee are recommending tomorrow is solid. Best of all, it seems to be a way, at least in some areas, to turn a crisis into an opening for needed change -- and exciting opportunity. So even though there might be some fireworks when people are brought face to face with the stark numbers (especially the ones in parentheses), I'm looking forward to seeing the nods around the table as what we can see -- ten and twenty years down the road, that is, not just the roadkill at our feet -- becomes visible to everyone.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


After a refreshingly uneventful travel day, I arrived in Montreal shortly after 4 pm eastern. And my chief observation flying in and driving to the city center? Spring has not yet arrived in the north. All the grass is brown. The trees are bare. The river is littered with sheets of ice. Every building has a dirty pile of snow next to it.

Yet after dinner tonight, walking back in the still-warm evening with the city lights a-glitter, I became filled with excitement. This is a beautiful place, and I can't wait to come here in November for the annual meeting.

Tomorrow starts the round of all-day confabs with my colleagues: agendas, motions, discussions, plans, conflict, resolution. I have very little free time built into my schedule. But if I step outside on a clear night and look at the figures of the twelve apostles lining the facade of the cathedral right next door, silhouetted against the illuminated windows of the high-rises all around, I'm sure I will be rejuvenated.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

On the road again

Another short but eventful week at work leads to another early departure tomorrow for Montreal. I'll start my meetings Thursday evening, at dinner, and continue almost straight through to Sunday noon.

Even though I'm ready to settle back into the semester (with only a few weeks of classes left, it's about time), I'm still looking forward to this week's travel. The destination is a wonderful hotel in a wonderful city, and we have important work to do while we're there. Amazingly, I'm not terribly behind with my students' work; it helps that their major papers are not due until next week at the earliest.

Here's hoping for a smooth getaway tomorrow (bad thunderstorms in the forecast, but I'm crossing my fingers that it won't delay me), an uneventful crossing of the border, and time to think, read, knit, and prepare for the tasks ahead of me.