Monday, April 30, 2007

Point to Point Navigation

I am what might politely be termed "directionally challenged." This means that, although I can read a map, I am usually lost, especially if someone's idea of giving directions is "go north two blocks and turn west." Say what? How would I know which way west is?

Thus when people tell me that they've driven into (to use joe's system of naming) Big City Like No Other or Windy City or the Land of the Bean and the Cod to see a show, an exhibit at the museum, etc., my impulse is more to ask "what route did you take?" and "where did you find a place to park?" than about the exhibit itself.

Due to frequent trips there, though, I can almost navigate around City Where Every Major Street Ends in a Bridge without getting too lost or without hurtling across a bridge into another city (and sometimes into another state). I would like to think this is because I know the streets, but after I took the wrong exit on a recent trip (i.e., not the one that Google Maps told me to take), I was able to get to the hotel by thinking to myself, "I must be close, because the trees look right." And I did get there, all because the trees looked right.

This doesn't bode well for taking up orienteering as a hobby, but did I ever feel as though I'd accomplished something once I got to my destination!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Anyone have some ruby slippers?

I am at a conference, and I *so* want to be home. Classes are over, and all that's left is a mountain of grading and a big heap of writing to do. Oh, and maybe something I *want* to do for a change: put some tomato plants in the garden to feed my addiction. For me, tomatoes = the crack of vegetables.

Here, I'm pretty much done. Paper presented? Check. Chaired a session? Check. All that's left is a meeting at which I have to speak informally, so I guess I have to stay.

But if I had a pair of ruby slippers, I'd be clicking them three times and channeling Dorothy.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Short observation: your tax dollars at work

Dear State Representative,

Why does the road between East Nowhere and Palookaville widen out to three lanes going in the same direction? Does the blowing of tumbleweeds and sagebrush across the road close one lane from time to time? Do the cattle trucks really need to speed shoulder to shoulder between East Nowhere and Palookaville? Is there a reason why this road gets the Autobahn treatment while the road from U town to Big City is a two-lane road?

Are you going after the "Bridge to Nowhere" vote? Are you in cahoots with Ted Stevens?


Your constitutent

How to tell if the writing is going well

If the kitchen is clean, right down to those portions of the stove that have to be cleaned with toothpicks . . .

And the microwave is so clean that it has no signs of ever being used . . .

And the rugs all have tracks from the vacuum cleaner . . .

Then the answer is no. No, it's not going well.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Poetic justice

Message yesterday from Stu Dent (to borrow Profgrrrl's pseudonym for them):

"Hi, I'm sorry I haven't been in class for a while but I've been very sick. Here is my paper."

Stu Dent didn't make it to class today, either.

Today, as I'm walking into the library, I see Stu Dent walking jauntily down the hall, not looking a bit sick.

I said hello and gave him The Look. He did have the grace to look embarrassed.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

OT: A whistleblower at the FDA saves dogs' lives

At a time when US pet food companies are importing tainted materials to put into pet food, here's a story about Victoria Hampshire, a vet who was demoted and nearly fired from her job at the FDA for trying to protect dogs from an unsafe medicine:

Almost 500 dogs had died after taking Proheart 6 — surpassing all competitors combined.

But Wyeth was known for strongly defending its drugs from claims of harm. . . .
Many vets also liked replacing pills with the twice-a-year shot, which put heartworm prevention back into their hands. One vet with ties to Wyeth lectured colleagues about seizing on Proheart 6 as a “hook” to pull in healthy pets for profitable regular exams.

. . .
[Hampshire] was sent to an interim FDA office job within the capability of “anybody with half a brain,” she says. She didn’t know where the investigation would lead. She didn’t know who might be bent on ruining her career, but she looked for a better job somewhere. She saw — or imagined — warning signs and potential enemies everywhere. She hoped for protection from members of Congress she contacted.

. . .

In June 2005, a Wyeth manager made a sales call at an Alabama veterinary practice, where he openly blamed Hampshire for the Proheart 6 recall, according to a confidential letter written by a vet there to the FDA. The Wyeth employee boasted that the company had her investigated by private detectives, and she had been “taken care of,” according to the letter obtained by The Associated Press. He then predicted the drug’s swift return to market.

Read the whole thing; it has a happy ending.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

WebCT and Blackboard: Feed me!

Last year, I wondered what the much-touted/much-reviled WebCT and Blackboard merger might mean for faculty who're forced to use them.

Well, the name has changed, but you'll be glad to know that the two are still instructing us in patience and voluntary simplicity by means of repeated frustrations.

In trying to get my online summer course ready (and avoid grading papers), I worked in WebCT/Blackboard this morning. Here's the process: A pop-up box tells me I need something something new Java something. I dutifully try to download it. "Failure to save to directory," it then tells me. I try again. And again. And again. I try the online install and the download install. Same result, whether I'm using my favorite (Firefox) or the Browser of Gates (IE).

Whatever this Java plugin is, the new and not improved WebCT/Blackboard is hungry for it, for it emits a pleading pop-up box every single time I click on a page. I've discovered that I can rack up about 14 pop-up boxes before I have to close them all and start again.

It's a little like trying to type in the midst of a nest of hungry birds.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Glad it is the weekend? You bet.

This is the kind of day it's been: I called Business X to fight with them (or really to inquire politely) about an error they'd made. I got voicemail and decided to leave a phone message with my phone number.

"Hello, this is Undine Lastname, and I'm calling about Y problem. You can call me at . . . at . . . "

Yes, dear readers, I could not remember my phone number. The number I have had for several years--eleven, to be exact.

I think I'll quit while I'm ahead.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Joining the media boycott

MaggieMay is disgusted with the media's treatment of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, and I don't blame her. What should be respectful and a celebration of the life of the victims has turned instead into a circus.

I rarely watch television news at all, so when I turned to CNN and MSNBC to get some information this week, I was--well, dismayed would be a polite term for it.
  • I saw blonde newstwits (Nancy something and another one who'd had a lot of plastic surgery) interrupting Nikki Giovanni by inserting banal comments into Giovanni's discussion of the situation.
  • I saw two young men remembering their friend, now gone, and celebrating his accomplishments and life, only to be cut off by the male newstwit asking, "How did you feel about the shooter's video?" They told him that they were there to celebrate their friend's life and were not going to talk about that (good for them!).
  • Above all, I saw endless, endless footage of the murderer, granting him the triumph that he would have wished, while a long, self-serving screed by the president of NBC explained how careful they were not to give the shooter the triumph that he would have wished.

    I'm with Maggie May. "Disgusted" about covers it.
  • Monday, April 16, 2007

    No words

    From the New York Times:
    At least 33 people were killed today on the campus of Virginia Tech in what appears to be the deadliest shooting rampage in American history, according to federal law-enforcement officials. Many of the victims were students shot in a dorm and a classroom building.

    Words are inadequate.

    Sunday, April 15, 2007

    Perils of Advising

    Scene: my office.

    A student comes to the door. She is red-eyed, hacking, wheezing, and having frequent recourse to a woefully inadequate and well-used Kleenex.

    She: "I'm sorry I'm late. It's just that I'm really, really sick."

    Me: "It looks as though you don't feel too well today. Do you have your schedule made up? Would you like some Vitamin C drops?"

    She: "Here it is"--and draws out a crumpled index card that has obviously been keeping company in her bookbag with the aforementioned Kleenex.

    We get through the advising session. The next student comes by.

    Next student: "Hi! I think that person before was sick. I saw you take out the hand sanitizer and clean your hands. Everybody in my dorm is sick, so be careful when you collect the papers next week."

    So my secret is out. I keep a hidden bottle of Purell (66.2% alcohol, or something like that) in my desk drawer. Like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe with a bottle of rye, I have thus become a closet user of alcohol to fend off the world, albeit in a much less fun way than Marlowe seemed to manage.

    Friday, April 13, 2007

    Feet of clay

    As in most grad classes, the students in mine this semester read criticism as well as the primary texts. We read some purely theoretical pieces, too, but since the students have already had whole classes in theory, the secondary readings tend to use theory more as a lens for interpretation. In choosing the secondary readings, I didn't do a "greatest hits" approach but tried instead to provide a mix: some classic or essential pieces on the work, articles from a variety of critical perspectives, very recent articles, and articles that are representative of the critical discourse on the primary work. I don't set out to give them bad articles, but some "representative" articles may be more workmanlike than stellar.

    It's been interesting to see the class's progression from a more hesitant to a more confident engagement with these secondary texts. Some of them are written by The Greats (and anyone who doesn't think academia has a star system is kidding herself), and sometimes it's entirely clear why certain analyses are classics. Some aren't called classics but are clearly excellent work on the text.

    The students have also become a lot more adept at critiquing the weaknesses in a piece, however, and that's even better. They're able to spot flaws in logic or an interpretation that's simply a point-by-point application of Theory A to Text B, without much illumination of either.

    On a couple of occasions lately, they've also discovered errors in the article. By errors, I mean attributing whole long speeches on which the author's interpretation rests to an entirely different character in the primary work. Think something like this: "King Lear enters the stage carrying the dead body of his beloved daughter Goneril" or "'From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee' cries Ishmael as he strikes at Moby-Dick." And this is in Prestigious Journal A and Prestigious Journal B.

    Okay, so Homer nods, and so do academics and their editors. It'd be nice if errors wouldn't happen, but they do, and so finding this stuff is good in two ways:

    It teaches students that they, too, are full participants in this process and that the Great Gods of Academe can have feet of clay without necessarily losing their crowns.

    And, in the immortal words of Joe E. Brown in Some Like it Hot, it shows them that "Nobody's perfect."

    technorati tag:

    Thursday, April 12, 2007

    Quick update

    Done with the short essay (3000 words), and a big thanks to Chaser for getting me moving.

    Friday, April 06, 2007


    Yesterday I had a conversation with an advisee that went something like this (as run through the era/field anonymizer):

    Me: And in that course in the fall, we'll be studying Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Eliot, among others.

    Student: I'm not sure who they are, but I've read Lady Audley's Secret in another course; will we be studying Mary Elizabeth Braddon?

    Or, for Americanists:

    Me: We'll be reading Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others.
    Student: I'm not sure who they are, but I've read Harriet Wilson and Dan DeQuille. Will we read them, too?

    Well, the answer would be "yes, we'll be reading them, too" in both scenarios, but it was interesting to see that authors whom scholars regularly designate as "little known" had been taught in classes (sometimes in two or three successive classes) while the "famous" and supposedly canonical authors didn't register a blip on the student's radar.

    I consider this progress. Yet I also want students to read it all--the supposedly great and (formerly?) famous as well as the recently rediscovered and newly canonized. But how can you do it all?

    Tuesday, April 03, 2007


    One way to know it's spring is that people from the visit office or grad office call and ask if a prospective (accepted) student can come to visit your class.

    I've always said yes, although to judge by the effusive thanks sent my way, this isn't a universal reaction on the part of colleagues. Having a visitor can be a little awkward, since the class dynamics are pretty well set by this point in the semester, but hey, I'm not empanelling a grand jury here; it's a public space, and we ought to open it up for something like this. Not everyone feels this way, though; I've known people who've refused to share a syllabus with someone in the department even when the class was a widely taught service class.

    So there's always a little drama: will the visitor make everyone shine, or will everyone clam up so that I'm doing my best Ben Stein impersonation? More to the point, will we scare off this person for good or make him or her decide that this is the place of his or her dreams?

    I don't know how the visitor felt about it, but the class was great: people making connections, sharing insights, pointing out things in the text and criticism--in other words, talking and learning in an exciting way. It was a good class. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the visitor sharpened us up, but maybe the change did us good. Oh, and if the visitor decides to attend? That's just gravy.

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    Monday, April 02, 2007

    True confessions: Five books I haven't read

    After seeing Lennard Davis's article "Huckleberry Who?" at Paper Chaser, I decided that full disclosure was in order. Has this ever been a meme? It should be. I give you herewith five books I've never read:

    1. The Lord of the Rings. Comment: Yes, I failed to read this trilogy at a time when everyone was reading it. No, I haven't seen the movie(s), either.
    2. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook. Comment: I got so bored hearing people talk about this one that I never read it. Shorter Golden Notebook, based on interminable conversations in which people talked about it: Anna Wulf (or is it Martha Quest?) is oppressed by men and domesticity, finds self.
    3. Anything Harry Potter. I did see one of the movies, though.
    4. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
    5. Shakespeare's Cymbaline

    Davis says that Pierre Bayard "admits to giving lectures on books he hasn't bothered to read." How did he get away with that, and what's that magic pixie dust he used to do it?

    Service, service, service

    This isn't traditional service--no meetings are involved--but I've done nothing since Friday but knock down and cross off list items. Write letters. Spend too many hours doing a newsletter (a responsibility and a true time suck that I plan to hand off very soon to someone else). Respond to requests. Write reports. Respond to e-mails. Update information for class. Read submissions for awards and grants. Prepare for class, including a lot of reading since this is a new work.

    Profgrrrl has a post saying that she envies her students, who get to read interesting things while she writes reports, and Paper Chaser wants someone to race her to the finish line on a piece of writing for Friday so she'll get some writing done. I might take her up on that.