Two Compliments in One Week

Two nice bits of feedback this week, which are rare enough in the academic-writing life.

First, someone emailed me about The Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics, which was my first big project after grad school, back in the early 1990s.

I am a fan of medieval history and refer to it on a regular basis. As other books get read and put back upstairs, the Encyclopedia stays downstairs, because I continue not to be able to keep the early Christianities clear in my mind.

Wow. And guess what, I cannot always keep them clear either.

That book was not written for love but for money — a friend was acquisitions editor for the original publisher, ABC-Clio, and one day when I was in Denver, he took me to lunch and gave me the “What can you write for us?” speech.

I won’t say it is a great book or a classic or anything, but it did make money and it did get me over the hump to where I was writing for an audience, not writing for my professors.

Then on Wednesday I went to the nearest PetsMart store for dog food and sunflower seeds (wild bird food). The store manager came to help out by serving as a cashier since the check-out line was growing.

He majored in English and took my rhetoric class a few years ago. I was in his line in the store, and when I came to the counter, he started telling me how useful the class had been, how he still uses some of the concepts of classical rhetoric when he does training classes, and so on.

Be still, my heart. If you want to make your old professors happy, tell them that you use (or at least occasionally think about) what they taught.

Plaques and Gold Medals

Once when he was awarded a gold medal for his poetry, Robert Graves later took it to a jeweler and discovered that it was not gold at all.

He got an essay out of the experience, at least, turning the experience into a metaphor for true poetic gold as opposed to gilded base metal or pinchbeck. Graves had very definite ideas about what constituted “true poetry.”

Wednesday I was on the list of honorees for a campus-wide awards luncheon, but as I was coming down with the godawful head cold that led me to cancel my classes for the rest of the week, I skipped it.

I went instead to my office, took care of various matters–at the end of the academic year, we are always hit with requests for recommendation letters for various jobs, internships, and graduate schools–and eventually went home. I did not want to sit sniffling and sneezing at a big table, almost unable to talk.

As I left my office to go home and to bed, I encountered a student who was looking for me. She had brought my plaques–one of them 5×7 inches, the other one 8×10 inches. Each bore a pseudo-metallic plastic face plate with pseudo-gilt highlights bearing such sentiments as “In honor of your retirement.” The smaller was for my 15 years of service, apparently. (Technically, I did not retire–I quit.)

So somebody wasted the taxpayers’ money down at the trophy shop in the strip mall. Am I supposed to hang them on the wall of my study at home and contemplate them?

By contrast, when we had the departmental joint retirement (that word again) party for two senior colleagues and myself last Saturday night, my colleagues gave me gift cards for Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Bam! No more Amazon.com wish list. Thanks, everyone!

But, geez … plaques.

So I thought I could pry off the face plates and use them as display bases for some other project.

On closer examination, however, I saw that they were merely made from some kind of pressboard with a plastic wood-grain veneer. So they cannot be sanded or refinished.

Maybe there is a metaphor there too, but I am going to leave it alone for now.

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The Dream and the Job

In the dream last night I was at some kind of Protestant Christian youth camp, headed by the stereotypical big, extroverted, 30-something youth minister.

A teenaged girl was supposed to be baptized, but the minister had to leave suddenly, so he asked me to baptize her. His request presented two problems:

1. I did not know how this denomination performed the ceremony. 2. Would a baptism by Pagan me be valid anyway?

I shoved issue #2 aside while searching for the book—a sort of combination prayer book and textbook—that would tell me how to perform it. I remember looking up “baptism” in the index: there were multiple page references.

As dreams do, this one trailed off with no clear resolution. The girl was not feeling well and wanted to postpone the baptism—or something.

The deam revealed its meaning, I think, in one detail: my English department colleague J. was in the dream. He was one of the camp counselors. He did not play a part in the dream-plot, but I saw him waiting in line at the camp dining hall.

The dream is not about religion but about my teaching career, which will end (at least for now) when my resignation takes effect at the end of spring semester.

J. is one of the younger professors. He and I have talked about his taking over some of my minor administrative chores and also my office, which is nicer than his (windows!) and more convenient to the classrooms that we both use. In that sense, perhaps, he is “waiting in line.”

J. is a strong classroom teacher. A former Marine, he sometimes impersonates his drill instructors in the first-year composition classroom, but in a light-hearted way that the students appreciate. (I don’t know that he does it in his critical-theory classes, but maybe I should eavesdrop more.)

As for me, I need to look up whether “burnout” is one word or two. The zest is gone, although I am still looking forward to the spring nature-writing class. Right now, I have a folder full of essays from my creative-nonfiction class to critique. Those students all have some writing talent and their pieces are interesting to read , but I have to flog myself into actually writing the comments on them that they expect. On some level, I am not a “believer” anymore.

Ironically, I am probably looser and more at ease in class now than I ever was, knowing that I have the freedom of the short-timer. Maybe I learned something about how to teach writing in the last fifteen years. But now my time for research and writing is worth more to me than it was fifteen years ago.

The Wind that Shakes the Pine Trees

It’s a sunny day with a brisk wind blowing. Pine needles are in the air. M. and I both slept in a little last night after returning at midnight from one of the Spanish Peaks International Celtic Music Festival concerts.

We went to one last year too, to hear Kim Robertson’s harp and to watch Jerry O’Sullivan fight the uilleann pipes and win.

It’s truly a little odd to hear stars of the Celtic music scene play in the old coal-mining town of Walsenburg, which is definitely in the non-fashionable part of Colorado, for all that they are trying to promote it now as “gateway to the Southwest.”

Last night the harpist was Lynn Saoirse, while Seamus Connolly played fiddle and emceed. Add cellist Abby Newton, her fiddler daughter Rosie, Connolly’s Maine neighbor Kevin McElroy, John Mullen, and the duo of Kim McKee and Ken Willson, who have moved to the area and whom my Celtic music-loving colleague wants to bring to campus.

Now: house-cleaning, cabin-cleaning, desk-cleaning, and somewhere I there I have to read essays from my creative-nonfiction class.

Empty classrooms

Classes are over; only finals week remains. That means a lot of sitting in my office in a suddenly quiet building, reading papers and portfolios.

In his memoir Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, the literary critic Paul Fussell writes,

When deserted by students, classrooms are dead in a way no other public spaces are. . . . College students are so fresh, so noisy, and so beautiful that their absence from empty classrooms is unignorably melodramatic and touching. They and their charming loquacity pass, but the room is silent, and it remains, in its permanence and anonymity making its ironic comment: “You young people will grow old; your hopes and certainties alike will fade away; your vigor and beauty will vanish; you will be replaced by others like you, equally self-certain and self-concerned.”

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Vulnerability in the Classroom-2

My earlier post.

This issue has taken off in academic circles. Engineering professor Barbara Oakley writes an op-ed in the New York Times, ending with

In other words, most of the broad social “lessons” we are being told we must learn from the Virginia Tech shootings have little to do with what allowed the horrors to occur. This is about evil, and about how our universities are able to deal with it as a literary subject but not as a fact of life. Can administrators and deans really continue to leave professors and other college personnel to deal with deeply disturbed students on their own, with only pencils in their defense?

Law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh asks questions about self defense:

What, though, is the argument against allowing professors and other university staff to possess weapons, if they choose? (Assume the professors lack criminal records, and assume they go through whatever testing and modest training is required to get a concealed carry permit, or perhaps even some extra training.) One argument is that it’s just dangerous for law-abiding citizens to have weapons, because they’ll start shooting over arguments or fender-benders. But that’s precisely the argument that has been rejected by the 38 states that allow any law-abiding citizen to get a concealed carry license (or, in 2 of the 38 states, to carry without a license).

I’ve also heard some arguments that suggest universities are different because they are places for reasoning, not violence: They should be gun-free zones (except of course for university police officers and security guards, who for some reason don’t count) because that’s needed to create the proper climate of peaceful inquiry. But the sad fact is that you can’t make a university into a gun-free zone. Mad killers can bring guns, and use them, regardless of what policies you announce.

The Combat Philosopher fears that administrations will just implement heavy-handed “security” measures:

It is also quite likely that there will be new provisions made, in a bid by the administration to enhance campus security. In all likelihood, these provisions will be burdensome and work against the free flow of people and ideas that makes campus life vibrant. Would you be inclined to return to your office, or lab of an evening if you had to run a gauntlet of security?

On my campus, the new director of counseling (not the person I mentioned earlier) writes a campus-wide email:

If you encounter a person who you believe to be a risk to you or someone else and wish to discuss your concern with someone at the Student Counseling Center, we will help you evaluate the level of threat.

That is fine, but the problem is the conflict between student privacy laws and warning the instructor. If I have a deaf student, for instance, he or she will show up with a letter from the Disability Center explaining his or her needs, such as an interpretor. But no one tells you if you have a mentally disturbed student in your class–or what to do about it. You are left to figure it out on your own. In a big class, you might never know.

What usually happens is described by The Phantom Professor:

It’s a common strategy for dealing with troubled and troubling students: Just get ’em through the department. Do whatever it takes, but don’t cause problems or invite legal hassles by leaning too hard on him. Is he still paying his tuition? Then just deal with it. He’ll be gone next year. Shut up and deal with it.

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The Student is Psycho–What Then?

Dr. Helen Smith continues blogging on the problems of dealing with “time bomb” students.

I had one such experience, and it illustrates how difficult it is for universities to deal with them.

She was a “non-traditional” (30-something) student in one of my upper-division nonfiction writing classes. One day she brought in for workshopping an article about Satanists in our city. It was all very 1980s “satanic panic” stuff, only a decade later.

But the stunning part was that she accused an education professor at our university of being the local Satanic leader. He not only knew where the bodies were buried, she claimed, he had put some of them in the ground himself.

And not one of the mass comm. majors in the room suggested that this might, possibly, be libelous. I suppose they were waiting for me. And I let her go (“Very interesting . . um. . . who’s next.”) I faced bad writing before, but not 24-caret craziness.

After class I went straight to the office of one of the senior people in my department who mentored me. “What do I do?” I asked her. “Tell [Dept. Chairman],” she said.

I went to his office with a copy of the satanism article. He already knew about the student, knew that she did not have both oars in the water, and that she had been kicked out of the teacher-training program by Education Professor. She had been allowed to change her major to English. He suggested talking to the counseling office, and that was all he could offer.

I ended up in a surreal conversation with the director of student counseling, who was also well-acquainted with Nutcase Student. Her response went something like this:

“Because of privacy rules, I cannot discuss a particular case. However, if I knew that a student was behaving that way, and if I knew that she had a psychiatrist in the city, I might possibly suggest to that psychiatrist that her medications be adjusted.”

I called Education Professor at home and got his wife instead. She was seriously concerned that Nutcase Student was stalking her husband and also that he did not recognize the danger. When I spoke to him, he did try to downplay the situation.

Time passed. Nutcase stopped coming to my class, for which I was thankful.

Then I had a call from the provost’s secretary. (The provost is the university official in charge of academic affairs.)

It turned out that Nutcase Student had shown up at Education Professor’s door about 2 a.m. with a knife. She was arrested and spent some time in jail. All faculty members who had had contact with her were being notified that she was now back on the street. And did I want a university security guard to sit in on my class?

I said no. And Nutcase never returned. But when the call came, it was late afternoon, and I felt very alone in my office on the long, echoing corridor.

She was no Cho Seung-Hui. But the pattern was there:

The violence-prone individual is more likely to have enduring personality pathology, such as a paranoid, schizoid, narcissistic, or antisocial personality, and a long history of difficult interpersonal relationships. He may ruminate about perceived slights or injustices for months or even years.

The counseling office cannot help someone who does not want help. Faculty members get no more advice beyond, “Be careful.” And, ironically, the advent of new psychotropic medications mean that more mentally disturbed people can sign up for higher education. They can get government-guaranteed loans too, just like the rest of the students.

Dr. Helen ends up regarding this as a civil rights issue–for university staff and other students.