Saturday, September 08, 2007

Turning Over a New Leaf

For various reasons, some spoken, some unspoken, it seemed time to make a fresh start. So, if you're interested, I'm over here now. Come on over.

My thanks to Blogger for providing me my first online plot. I will be pruning out this site to remove the dead wood and to retain what (I hope) will perennially endure (besides my fondness for variations on the word perennial).

Thank you, too, for visiting. I hope to see you over at Jardiniere, part deux.

On y va. . .

Friday, June 29, 2007

Garden Spot: Oxford Edition

Unlike my colleagues who have spent their time productively transcribing, taking care not to inspire the wrath of special collections librarians, my time here in England has been spent taking care of children, as we visit with their British relatives.

In a comment for the last post, Muse offered her favourite pub in Oxford, the Royal Oak on Woodstock Road. Thinking about her post, I realized I'm hard pressed to identify my own favourite, as many pubs have either changed hands or gone corporate (a sad development), and my criteria have shifted over the years, from quality of atmosphere -- and of the lager -- to the pub's capacity to accommodate my children (. . . so I can enjoy the atmosphere and the lager. Cue the Underworld, "Born Slippy": "Shouting lager, lager, lager, lager. . ."). In that respect, I suppose I do favour the Fishes -- off the beaten path, indeed off the Isis tow path, but with a super garden, climbing frame, and Aunt Sally pitch for the kids. A good time can be had by all.

Where children and an aging liver make pub crawls impracticable, garden tours are still in the offing. Though funny, showing Stroke around today, we did actually hit a couple of high-profile pubs: the King's Arms, across from the Bod and the Sheldonian Theatre (the pub where British academics go to see and be seen), and the Turf (known for its Bill Clinton apocrypha), with a quick stop in ye olde Bear as well. I trusted her to find the Eagle and Child herself (and thus the "famous pubs of Oxford" tour is about complete).

But as I haven't posted from my own garden for a while -- I reckon that bleeding heart has about petered out by now -- I submit to you some shots from today's meandering. Above you can see the garden outside Christ Church, as you head into the meadows. Below we have a magnificent row of lavender:

This last shot, taken in the private garden behind Christ Church, put me in mind of Andrew Marvell, so I follow it with "The Mower, Against Gardens."

LUXURIOUS man, to bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce,
And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,
Where Nature was most plain and pure.
He first inclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air,
And a more luscious earth for them did knead,
Which stupefied them while it fed.
The pink grew then as double as his mind ;
The nutriment did change the kind.
With strange perfumes he did the roses taint ;
And flowers themselves were taught to paint.
The tulip white did for complexion seek,
And learned to interline its cheek ;
Its onion root they then so high did hold,
That one was for a meadow sold :
Another world was searched through oceans new,
To find the marvel of Peru ;
And yet these rarities might be allowed
To man, that sovereign thing and proud,
Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
No plant now knew the stock from which it came ;
He grafts upon the wild the tame,
That the uncertain and adulterate fruit
Might put the palate in dispute.
His green seraglio has its eunuchs too,
Lest any tyrant him outdo ;
And in the cherry he does Nature vex,
To procreate without a sex.
'Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,
While the sweet fields do lie forgot,
Where willing Nature does to all dispense
A wild and fragrant innocence ;
And fauns and fairies do the meadows till
More by their presence than their skill.
Their statues polished by some ancient hand,
May to adorn the gardens stand ;
But, howsoe'er the figures do excel,
The Gods themselves with us do dwell.

Source: Luminarium.

If you don't hear from me, it means I am in Italy and without internet. Arrivederci!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Oxford Times

Ordinarily when I come to England we stay with my mother-in-law, in Iffley Village, Oxford (right above the Iffley locks, it's a short run down the Isis tow path to the Abingdon Road, at the Head of the River, then up to town). Beautiful.

This time, however, we're staying with brother-in-law somewhere in Cowley (having spent the day yesterday disoriented from jet lag -- minding the children seems to intensify it -- I'm not entirely sure of my coordinates yet). Said bro-in-law and wife are scads of fun, and have wifi (I think mum-in-law still has only BBC1 and 2 on the old "wireless": bless). So here I am, gumming up the interwebs up the road from where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile. I'll be showing Stroke that ring a little later (it's yer basic track; you gotta mentally cue the Chariots of Fire to get any gestalt from the experience).

But I realized that some early mod online greats are in the vicinity. Flavia? Muse? Anyone fancy a pint?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Sod it

Meet my magnificent bleeding heart:

Beauty, eh? At its peak it measured more than five feet across. Since then the blooms have fallen, and I'm waiting to see what happens once it goes dormant (i.e., bleeding hearts, like astilbe and other plants, wholly retire once they've bloomed). What will I do with that five-foot-square plot?

It’s odd, playing adoptive parent to someone else’s garden. That garden is mine now, of course, but I didn’t plant what is now finally emerging with confidence (from a soil less alkaline than my last patch of clay, though still far from acidic; which is to say, big blue hydrangeas? don’t count on it). Plants — and insects — are cropping up that I don’t recognize, and I’m having a hard time telling friend from foe at this point. Are those hardy geraniums I’m seeing in patches? Lovely; I hope so. Those fire engine-red beetles? The kids like them, but they don’t look too friendly, at least not to those asiatic lilies. And lo: asparagus! (That’s how it grows!? You don’t say.) And so forth. I’m resolved to play wait and see for some time, which is exciting, though I’m impatient: I’m ready to get busy and mix it up, make it mine.

I do find myself missing my old garden, wondering how it’s getting on, and what the new owners are doing with it. Did they cut back the butterfly bush? Are they training the clematis? Yes, I have even thought of driving past to see, were I to return (though that Chicago trip has now been deferred to December, as my MLA panel has been accepted).

For those who have been here for a while, you’ll remember that my old Garden Spot ran in a column in the sidebar, and featured photos from the Chicago garden. Much like moving from the US to Canada, the translation from Old Blogger to New initially did not go well: the move altered (irrevocably) much that I liked about my old template; I've had ongoing formatting problems; and, ironically, the new sidebar options (meant to simplify formatting for users) made doing the G-Spot column (which I used to work in, old-fashioned-like, inserting HTML into the template) more difficult. Somewhere in there there's a metaphor for emigrating.

I started scouting out new turf for Jardiniere, but since the bee and other recent developments, I've decided it's probably best to stay put and work through all of the transplant shock (a term for when plants experience a "growth check" upon being transplanted, but I trust you're with me here on the symbolism). This means that my garden posts will now be incorporated into the main frame: if you don't care about gardening, hopefully you'll find some digital respite resting your eye on the photos.

If you were reading last autumn, you know that I moved everything (which wasn’t much) from the two front east-facing beds to the side of the house — to clear that palette, as it were. I had intended to bury a blast of bulbs, but . . . well, if you were reading at all last autumn (there wasn’t much to read), you know not much happened other than emigrating, parenting, teaching, and dissertating, and I was fortunate to have accomplished any of that. (I just discovered the bulbs in a box in the garage.)

But this past spring, amid grading, road trips to Toronto and Montreal, remaining talks to give at Queen’s and some dreadful illness it took weeks to kick, I managed to make the rounds of a couple area nurseries and get started in the front beds. Measuring roughly 5′ x 20,' they border the front of our limestone house, so I’ve decided to work the grays and blues, accented with muted pinks and whites: delphinium (let’s hope they come back for me here!); foxglove; globe thistle; Russian sage; artimisia; campanula; phlox; salvia; iris; stonecrop (I love the variegated variety); perennial baby’s breath and miniature mums; and other assorted plants to make for a cool-themed herbaceous border. The plants are young (i.e., immature, aka relatively inexpensive), but they should fill in nicely in the years to come.

What is wood on our house is gray with white trim, so I potted all white annuals for the front porch: big chunky pansies (I find the small ones too mincing, and too unforgiving if you get behind on the deadheading); african daisies (the vanilla ones with the deep eggplant centres); creamy snapdragons; verbena; etc. As you can see, the annuals are fairly prosaic (again, aka affordable) — but all white and grouped together, they make a lovely soft statement against the gray.

Indeed it’s the first time that I’ve gardened white (and I’m pleased with it). My last house, in Illinois, was mustard brick, one of those midwest split-levels designed to look like the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. While there were a dozen such houses in our neighborhood (i.e., hardly one of a kind!), I worked the faux-prairie style as much as possible, and white didn’t work. I suppose it's only apt that it works so well here in the Great White North.

Here's my handiwork so far:

Beauty, eh?

By the way, they say that "summers in Kingston are the best." And they're right.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

My Tale of Two Cities

I've come to realize that, living where I do, I've inadvertently returned to the cartography of my childhood. Don't get me wrong: I live in another country (yet another post that's been on the potting bench for a while. . . I'll get to that request about "Canadianizing my vehicle," I promise). But just as I grew up in the exurbs of a small, prestigious university city, I now reside in a rural township east of Kingston and Queen's. Hop on I-95 in Connecticut, and you could head for Boston or New York City. Two hours either direction on 401, and I can be in Toronto or Montreal. I finally hit both in the past month or so, to two strikingly, and surprisingly, dissimilar experiences.

Sure, Toronto has the non-threatening, prosaic feel of a midwest American city, and Montreal is just so . . . French. In Toronto, I attended the annual meeting of the Canada Milton Seminar. In Montreal, I saw Arcade Fire in concert.

At one venue, the atmosphere was hot, the audience was on its feet, and you couldn't hear yourself for all the commotion. At the other, the attendees sat in stern and solemn silence, cool and reflective throughout the event.

You probably think the latter was the Milton conference, right?

Nooooo, mes amis, that seventeenth-century indie rocker John Milton has one serious, and spirited, fanbase.

While I "do early modern," I am not a "Miltonist"; I attended the Seminar to become more conversant in Milton studies, and to meet my new colleagues at the University of Toronto. I was nervous going in, as this gathering is a relatively intimate affair, and the in-jokes and asides traded over morning coffee confirmed that the Milton community is a pretty tight group. By the end of the day, however, these Renaissance scholars were dressing each other down in ways that would've made the fiercest Roman orator blanch.

Of course it's tempting to summon anti-academic truisms about battles fierce and stakes small, but it was captivating to see celebrated scholars so passionate about their subject that professorial politesse went the way of the Tudor bonnet. Given the way initial hugs and "how are you's" degenerated to finger-pointing and loud shouting across tables, I have come to call the event the "Milton Family Thanksgiving." (Which, as a staunch Puritan, Uncle John couldn't really mind, right? Of course, let's see if I'm ever invited back! Once a black sheep . . .).

As for the Arcade Fire show, I've never been so infuriated by a concert audience. While I feel critics did the band a disservice by overhyping them in ways that invited a backlash -- and I do think that Funeral is superior to Neon Bible -- the somber demeanour of this hometown, "neighborhood" crowd -- why I was determined to see this **particular show -- was, well, mystifying, verging on maddening. I confess that I abandoned all professorial politesse, trying to rouse at least a couple rows of Quebecois to their feet. (Maybe they sniffed out that I was American: they viewed me with cool and utter disdain.) Thankfully, my companion, though Canadian, was fully game and in good form: Stroke and I danced like fools to a tight and predictably talented set, as well as its -- sniff sniff, I'm still whimpering in disappointment -- sole encore.

Win, if you're listening: I don't blame you. I would've shoved that drumstick up 'is bleedin' arse. And the next time I make the drive (where "No Cars Go")?

I'm bringing some Miltonists.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Final round

Flavia has been busy being fabulous this past weekend, but I wanted to follow through on her comment about the spelling bee protesters, to remark how the protests held yearly at the national bee relate to disputes about spelling in early modern England.

The demonstrators outside the Washington Grand Hyatt represent the Simplified Spelling Society, which campaigns to replace our current orthography (or "right writing") with a strict phonetically-based spelling system (gotta luv the placards: "Enuf is enuf!" "Spelling shuud be lojical"). Promoting what it calls "the alphabetic principle," the society echoes several sixteenth-century humanists, such as Thomas Smith, John Hart, and William Bullokar, who sought either to amend or to replace the Roman alphabet we use with an alphabet in which each letter designates one, and only one, English speech sound.

(Everytime I write that last phrase I think of Monty Python's Life of Brian: "How much do you hate the Romans?" "A lot." Humanists in England didn't hate the Romans; to the contrary, they wanted to be just like them. As the Romans adapted the Greek alphabet to Latin, spelling reformers attempted to adapt the Roman alphabet to English.)

Here's a portion of Thomas Smith's reformed English alphabet (from De recta et emendata linguae anglicae scriptione, dialogus [1568]; from EEBO):

Far out, huh? Suffice to say that these early spelling protesters were unsuccessful, at least in reforming a scheme defined by systemic variation (i.e., we still spell some words phonetically, some according to etymology, some language of origin, etc.).

Where these reformers were successful, however, and why we owe to them the present-day spelling bee -- where their phonic-hooked descendants get their annual fix -- was in promoting the idea that everyone should conform to the same spelling. I have written how a spelling bee is only competitive, or suspenseful, when systemic irregularity is the rule, not the exception. Even more fundamentally, however, a spelling bee requires consensus that there are "correct" and "incorrect" spellings, and that correct spelling -- being a "good speller" -- is admirable and worthy of public reward. As these humanists sought for their crude and unruly language the rule and regularity of classical Latin and Greek, they saw an opportunity to distinguish themselves by making a contest out of correct spelling.

Somewhere along the line, though -- well, the lines got crossed, as reciting the letters of orthographically complex, even dubious, words became the index of mastery in the mother tongue, and parrotting the standard spelling of obscure terms became a mark of distinction and exceptionality. (It's a paradox, no doubt, though one we rarely think about; rather, we tend to displace our discomfiture at this sociolinguistic oddity on to the spelling bee contestants themselves . . . ) Historically speaking, the ends of humanist spelling reform, to advance to higher rounds of social status via language, far outlived its initial phonetic means, indeed "the alphabetic principle" (ding!).

Instead, as the reformers' newfangled alphabets gave way to other innovations, spelling reform inadvertently generated the texts we now regard (and admire) as the repositories of standard English. Realizing that noone would use his reformed orthography unless taught, John Hart writes what is arguably the first English textbook, A methode, or comfortable beginning for all unlearned, whereby they may bee taught to read English (1570; still, noone really buys it, except for one fabulous exception, Thomas Whythorne, who writes his autobiography in Hart's orthography; now there's a read!). Other schoolmasters object to the prospect of a new English alphabet, but see in English pedagogy -- that is, in the process of teaching English as a subject of learning (it had been known chiefly as a "mother" tongue, learned at home) -- a means to teach "uniform," or correct, English, indeed (chiefly) English spelling.

Writing his Elementarie (1582), Richard Mulcaster additionally proposes a book in which extant spellings could be "fixed," both corrected and stabilized, in print. Reprinted this year (yep, that's 2007!) by U of Chicago P, and reviewed here in Inside Higher Ed, Robert Cawdrey's A Table Alphabeticall (1604) usually gets the credit as the "first English dictionary," but this title is misleading. First, foreign language dictionaries -- i.e., Latin-English, French-English, etc. -- had been in print for some time, for the benefit of enterprising humanists and courtiers traveling abroad to the continent. Attempting to "define" "hard wordes in plaine English," Cawdrey's volume takes the model of the foreign language dictionaries, but applies it to the vernacular -- i.e., yielding an English-English dictionary -- effectively suggesting through translation how "learned" English comprises a second, or foreign, language. More than 20 years earlier, however, Mulcaster had printed a list of words expressly for the purpose of establishing the correct, or standard, spelling. Having printed what amounts to a "reference text," Mulcaster and his Elementarie get my humble nod for the "first dictionary."

Of course, some early modern dictionaries aspired to deviate from emergent standards in English. Appearing to flout the very process of language standardization, so-called "cant dictionaries" compiled terms in use by "rogues and vagabonds," the criminal underclass. You'd think that humanists would have applauded this exercise, having stomped out scholasticism by conceiving language not as divine dictation (the "word(s) of God"), but as the product of human, or social, consent. To the contrary, spelling reformers were among the most vocal in their contempt for cant "standards" and "reference texts." In Logonomia Anglica (1621), Alexander Gill writes:

Regarding that venomous and disgusting ulcer of our nation I am embarrassed to say anything at all. For that detestable scum of wandering vagabonds speak no proper dialect but a cant jargon which no punishment by law will ever repress, until its proponents are crucified by the magistrates, acting under a public edict. But since this entire jargon, together with the filthy language of criminals, has been described in a strange book, and because it offers no benefit to foreigners, I shall exclude it from my discussion. . . (104)

Feel "crucified" by English spelling? You should, if you're not mixing with the right crowd. (Again, with the Life of Brian: "Crucifixion or pardon?" "Pardon. . . nah, just kidding, crucifixion!") For Gill and other early English language zealots, the criminality of these "wandering vagabonds" lies as much in their deviation from legal codes as in their presumption to devise their own code of language. Make no mistake, Gill protests how "that detestable scum," in developing their own argot, filch humanists’ (newly acquired) jurisdiction in English.

With dictionaries now in print on everything from unix code to classic rock, we are accustomed to the idea that dictionaries translate arcane jargon into "other words" used more commonly in English. (See Bryan Curtis's piece in Slate on a recent variation of the "cant dictionary," Randy Kearse's Street Talk (2007), which Kearse wrote while in prison.) What endures in this conceit is the notion that there are "correct" and "incorrect" usages, that there's such a thing as right and wrong, and that there are stakes in choosing to conform and/or deviate (interestingly, I just learned that Richard Rorty has died: RIP, great pragmatist, and condolences to his friends, family, and followers).

What also endures is the competition among social groups to determine what qualifies as "correct" -- indeed, dems be da stakes, and it's in this light that we might view the Simplified Spelling Society (which bears the most unfortunate of acronyms; were ya thinkin about the letters there?). That is, by privileging their spelling system over that now in use, the, er, SSS proposes to challenge not only the ortho-lexicographic powers that be(e) -- aka Merriam-Webster, McGraw-Hill, etc. -- but also a society that, having deferred to humanist innovation in language, has publicly consented to the importance of correct spelling, enough to yearly, if often satirically, admire and reward it.

Guud luk!

With that offhand gesture, I conclude this year's series of posts related to this year's bee. (See you next year? Dunno.) I welcome the new readers who have come here as a result of this year's competition, and especially welcome their forthright expertise; by all means, stick around, keep me honest! (If my blog were a bee, I wouldn't have made it into the second round . . . ding! ding! ding!).

I would be lying, however, if I did not confess some distress, and not a little hand-wringing, over the considerable traffic (we're talking thousands at this point) generated by searches for Evan O'Dorney and autism. At first I was mystified, as the number of inquiries (and visitors) progressively increased while the bee itself began to recede. Conducting a few searches of my own, however, I realized that Evan's post-bee appearances (on CNN, the Today Show, the Jimmy Kimmel Show, etc.) prompted the surge.

I've been dismayed by the tenor of discussion on some of the online message boards. The venomous ignorance, about everything from spelling to autism to home schooling to, well, basic facts about adolescence, is enough to make you want to ferry your kids to a deserted island, far far far from the madding crowd. I'm grateful that none of that intemperance has appeared here, though, just as I was concerned about the propriety of my initial remarks, I have since worried that what I wrote functioned to fan the flames, by making a further spectacle of this impressive, though vulnerable (and who isn't at 13?), young man.

Now as ever, I wish Evan O'Dorney and his family all the best for the future, and, without getting too preachy (believe me, I know I tend to the ponderous!), I hope that this site has offered those searching, whether "neurotypical" or somewhere "on the spectrum," some resources for further research and reflection.

Next up (in no particular order): Horace's compendium of advice for grad students; my tales of Toronto and Montreal; decisions about Jardiniere (ach, I think I'll just do my gardening bit here); and I suppose I should say something about Sgt. Pepper . . .

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A New Start

This post is for the many readers who have been coming to this blog on a search for "Evan O'Dorney and autism" (or suchlike). As I wrote in both my conclusion to my live bee blog post as well as in the comment section, I am neither professionally qualified to diagnose Evan nor personally willing to render the kind of assessment (on the basis of a few minutes' observation, in exceptional circumstances) that Evan and his loving family may not be prepared to hear. (And for all we know, they're fully on board, and merely choosing not to lead with that information -- to which I say, fair play.)

Rather, I, like you (and all for our various reasons), need to learn more. No doubt our concern for and about Evan prompted these searches. But wherever his journey leads him -- to math camp, hours spent "expressing himself" at the piano, and hopefully time well-spent with family and friends -- we can all benefit from a little more understanding.

So here are some resources on Autistic Spectrum Disorder, sometimes known as Pervasive Developmental Disorder. As I confessed in a comment, I have not read all of these exhaustively (and again, am not professionally qualified to rank them). In selecting what to put here, I have prioritized those sites and resources that contain information related to the identification and diagnosis of autism as well as its treatment and other forms of support.

Given the context in which we're approaching this issue, it seems appropriate to start with some definitions. Here are links to the (US) National Institutes of Health, the (UK) National Association of Mental Health, and the Autism Society Canada, each of which give fairly comprehensive overviews of the condition (and its related conditions) as well as information on resources in each country.

As for books, I can recommend Quirky Kids (suggested by our neurologist back in Chicago), and a pamphlet called "Talkability: People Skills for Verbal Children on the Autism Spectrum," available through The Hanen Centre (and which came recommended by the speech therapist on my son's "team"). The former speaks more generally about kids with developmental disorders, and the latter gives practical advice for helping kids with autism "connect" in a day-to-day setting.

I have not read, but am interested in reading, the following: Ten Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew, and Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew; 1001 Great Ideas for Teaching and Raising Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders (which seems overwhelming, but would appear to appeal to Evan's interests in math!); and the work of Temple Grandin.

Resources online include Autism Inspiration and ABA Child (clearinghouses for information, materials, and strategies), The Autism Acceptance Project (which promotes public awareness about autism), and The Autistic Self-Advocacy Project (which provides resources and support for adults with autism).

If you live in Kingston or Ontario (I've got to help out my neighbours; after all, it's been plenty hard for us to learn the system here), there is the Autism Intervention Program at Pathways; the Play-Talk Program at the Child Development Centre at the Hotel Dieu; and if you have young children in need of pre-school or child care, Community Living Kingston will help support the program you select, and has an excellent resource handbook for "Services for Children with Special Needs." I have yet to check out Autism Ontario, and a new program called Leaps and Bounds.

Finally, it wouldn't be right for me not to point all of you to blogs, which, as with blogs generally, provide the salve of recognition and understanding (dare I say connection?) that professional sources may not supply. The Autism Hub claims to collect "the best of autism blogging" (though I have yet to spend decent time with it, to make the match that's right for me). I do hope to follow the recently launched Normal is Overrated, written by "Cody" (who also blogs at Cody's Journal), and as I noted, I am starting my own, but writing it anonymously (so get in touch -- there's an email link in the Profile -- if you'd like to follow it).

This list is just a start, but I hope it is helpful to you. I am grateful to any of you who write in with other resources, and grateful to Evan O'Dorney, too, for inspiring us all to learn a little bit more about ourselves and one another, indeed the many different ways we all learn and communicate.

Coming up: a post-bee wrap-up relating today's competition to debates about spelling in early modern England; and my contribution to Horace's compilation (at To Delight and Instruct) of advice posts to those either starting or considering grad school. He's collected a worthy crop so far, and to be commended to undertaking the task. It seems only apt for me to discuss (and I think I can say I am qualified here) grad school, academia, and family concerns (i.e., bearing and raising children). Even more apt? That I can't write that post right now . . . the kids are screaming!

More soon.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

What is the main idea of this paragraph?

And how does it relate to your thesis?

Sentence fragment. Nice choice of quote, but explicate it further: your reader won't understand it the way you do. This is a claim that requires analysis and evidence. Comma splice. Put your end-quote after the period. Nicely put. Put the page number in parentheses before the period. It's = it is. Very original idea. How does this paragraph relate to the last one? Don't add ideas: relate them. Unclear. Pair vivid subjects with active verbs. Omit needless words. Shrewd and astute.


Yes, we're all doing it.

Back soon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

More from the Virginia Tech English Department

I am reprinting from The Chronicle.

English Department Tries to Help Instructors and Students 'Get Their Bearings'

Blacksburg, Va. — Last semester, when Ross A. Alameddine came into Edward A. Weathers’s professional-writing class at Virginia Tech, Mr. Alameddine issued a challenge: “I’m going to be either an English major, business minor, or a French major, business minor,” he wrote in a note to the instructor the first day of class. “That decision depends on this class. No pressure.”

Mr. Alameddine liked the course enough to declare English his major earlier this semester. But when classes resume next week, he won’t be here to pursue that path. He was one of the 32 victims of Monday’s massacre.

Mr. Alameddine sat in the center of 12 students taking Kelly A. Pender’s technical-editing class this semester. Ms. Pender, an assistant professor of English, talked Wednesday morning about what would happen when her class resumes next Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

“Ross was the kind of student who you wanted to be there every day because he made the class work,” said Ms. Pender, 32, sitting in her office in Shanks Hall. “I’ve dealt with grief in my life, but I don’t know how the class will proceed.”

Nick J. Kocz, a graduate teaching assistant in the English department, also lost a student, Emily Hilscher, in one of the classes he teaches. She died in West Ambler Johnston Hall on Monday morning.

Carolyn Rude, chair of the department, is trying to help young professors and graduate teaching assistants deal with the final weeks of classes. She has asked the university to send a counselor to talk to them.

“We teach 6,000 students in any semester,” she says. “That’s why it matters what English does. We have 33 dead, but we have 26,000 or more trying to get their bearings and reclaim their lives.”

Some English professors have decided to leave it up to students whether to take the grade they have earned thus far or finish their last assignments.

“My students had their final paper due on the 22nd,” said Carlos Evia, an assistant professor of English. “That’s not going to happen. I can’t push them.”

Mr. Weathers, the instructor who taught Mr. Alameddine’s professional-writing course, feels the same way: “I don’t know how after all of this I can ask someone to do a paper on the history of the American penny, or the role of peanut butter in the American diet.”

Mr. Weathers feels a particular loss, since it was his class that persuaded Mr. Alameddine to major in English. Mr. Weathers plans to send the note Mr. Alameddine wrote him on that first day of class, and all of his other writings, back to his parents. — Robin Wilson

Other links related to the English faculty:

Chronicle forum: "The English department should have done more to prevent the VT massacre"

CNN: Cho's [Playwriting] Professor to Classmates: Don't Feel Guilty

Chronicle: Poet Nikki Giovanni's Address (audio)

Meanwhile, let's not forget engineering:

Chronicle: Questions Abound for a Homeless Engineering Department

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Mourning After

I am still too stunned by yesterday's events to offer any insight into them. I think we are all waiting for more information to help us make sense of the tragedy -- realizing what little sense there is to "make" of it (i.e., no matter what details might emerge).

I respond to the event on many levels, and through several different lenses -- as a parent, as a prof, and, naturally, as a citizen on this planet where violence is all too common, everyday.

It's as a prof that I write this particular post, in that I have been wondering what support the faculty community might give to the community at Virginia Tech. The fingerpointing is already well underway, and we can only hope that the blame game leads to insight, and not mere calumny. What role can and should faculty play here? I wonder.

I was mulling over this question (i.e., what can *I do?), when I went to the Chronicle and discovered this item, which I reprint below. It is *not how I answer my own question, not at all, though it does narrow the "role of faculty" generally down to English professors in particular, and the relationship we have with our students viz. their writing.

Student Was 'Troubled,' Says English Department Chair

Blacksburg, Va. — Cho Seung-Hui, the student responsible for yesterday’s mass killing at Virginia Tech, was a “troubled” student, said Carolyn Rude, chair of the university’s English department, today.

Within the past two years, she said, faculty members repeatedly reported their concern about things the 23-year-old student had written in his creative-writing courses.

The chair of the English department at the time, Lucinda Roy, passed those concerns along to administrators, Ms. Rude said.

“Enough faculty called it to the attention of the then-chair,” Ms. Rude said. She would not elaborate about what Mr. Cho had written, nor would she describe his behavior, saying she did not know him. —Robin Wilson

Many "troubling" questions here -- no answers, certainly. Your thoughts are welcome, on any of the above, but certainly on the question of what faculty might do.

Post-script, April 18: I understand that there are sites on Facebook to pay one's respects. I created a site, but found that while people visited, they were not posting, which I wholly understand; it did not feel right to leave the site up, though. We're all responding in our own ways.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Monday Mourning

Immense sadness at what has occurred at Virginia Tech today. Warmest thoughts to all of those affected by this grievous tragedy.

I am inescapably alarmed at how our nation's students are under perpetual attack.

April is the cruelest month.


Friday, April 06, 2007

"Tony" Scott, Renaissance Scholar

Perusing the news a little more leisurely this morning (see below), I had to chuckle at A.O. Scott's review of the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino double feature Grindhouse, in which Scott purrs that "I could listen to Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Tracie Thoms, two of the movie’s motor-mouthed heroines, talk through the whole three hours of 'Grindhouse,' read the phone book or recite 'The Faerie Queene' on tape in my Volvo in the middle of a traffic jam."

I trust you're familiar with the phone book. But if you don't know Edmund Spenser's epic The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), and would like to be in on the joke, allow me to introduce you to the Red Crosse Knight . . .

A gentle Knight was pricking on the plaine,
Y cladd in mightie armes and siluer shielde,
Wherein old dints of deepe wounds did remaine,
The cruell markes of many' a bloudy fielde;
Yet armes till that time did he neuer wield:
His angry steede did chide his foming bitt,
As much disdayning to the curbe to yield:
Full iolly knight he seemd, and faire did sitt,
As one for knightly giusts and fierce encounters fitt.

But on his brest a bloudie Crosse he bore,
The deare remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweete sake that glorious badge he wore,
And dead as liuing euer him ador'd:
Vpon his shield the like was also scor'd,
For soueraine hope, which in his helpe he had:
Right faithfull true he was in deede and word,
But of his cheere did seeme too solemne sad;
Yet nothing did he dread, but euer was ydrad.

Vpon a great aduenture he was bond,
That greatest Gloriana to him gaue,
That greatest Glorious Queene of Faerie lond,
To winne him worship, and her grace to haue,
Which of all earthly things he most did craue;
And euer as he rode, his hart did earne
To proue his puissance in battell braue
Vpon his foe, and his new force to learne;
Vpon his foe, a Dragon horrible and stearne.

A louely Ladie rode him faire beside,
Vpon a lowly Asse more white then snow,
Yet she much whiter, but the same did hide
Vnder a vele, that wimpled was full low,
And ouer all a blacke stole she did throw,
As one that inly mournd: so was she sad,
And heauie sat vpon her palfrey slow:
Seemed in heart some hidden care she had,
And by her in a line a milke white lambe she lad.

So pure and innocent, as that same lambe,
She was in life and euery vertuous lore,
And by descent from Royall lynage came
Of ancient Kings and Queenes, that had of yore
Their scepters stretcht from East to Westerne shore,
And all the world in their subiection held;
Till that infernall feend with foule vprore
Forwasted all their land, and them expeld:
Whom to auenge, she had this Knight from far compeld.

Behind her farre away a Dwarfe did lag,
That lasie seemd in being euer last,
Or wearied with bearing of her bag
Of needments at his backe. Thus as they past,
The day with cloudes was suddeine ouercast,
And angry Ioue an hideous storme of raine
Did poure into his Lemans lap so fast,
That euery wight to shrowd it did constrain,
And this faire couple eke to shroud themselues were fain.

. . .

Dead sexy.

To follow the RCK, Una, and the lowly Dwarfe on their adventures through Faerie lond, click here. . .

Rodriguez-Tarantino double-feature gore-fest? Pfft. Wander ahead to Errour's den, a couple of stanzas away, and you'll be reaching for the popcorn.

One for the Record Books, One from the Archives

Yesterday I delivered the last lecture of my first year as a tenure-track professor in Renaissance Poetry and Prose at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

My metaphor for teaching the past couple of weeks has been the Wolfe Island ferry, the vessel that takes passengers and vehicles from Kingston to Wolfe Island, one of the many residential islets in the Thousand Island region. Every day -- indeed the highlight of my day, every day -- I drive over the Rideau Canal across the Lasalle Causeway, the low-lying bridge connecting the "east side" of Kingston, the rural district on the St. Lawrence where I live, to the city's historic downtown. As Kingston Harbor lies next to the Causeway, I frequently witness the ferry making its way into the docks.

Heading into the final weeks of the course, I knew my job was to bring the ferry in, both squarely (i.e., coherently) and on time (i.e., having effectively covered Paradise Lost). Loading the single passengers (all those lyric poems and individual prose texts spanning the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries), the passenger vehicles (e.g., the sonnet sequences, epyllia), and the heavy-lifting equipment (the epics, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost) on to the vessel -- the syllabus -- is relatively easy compared to the day-to-day work of navigating the craft.

As I told Jim Lang at the Chronicle at the end of fall term, I fell behind schedule often enough to worry about my credibility when it came to the syllabus, even though I felt we typically fell behind for good reason -- that is, to pursue ideas that helped advance and fulfill the intellectual objectives of the course. This term (my courses are year-long), I knew I had to stay on schedule and help students hunt down those ideas ("since in a net I seek to hold the wind" -- Thomas Wyatt), and captain the ship a little more firmly.

I delivered, as best I could; a little shaky, but we pulled in. There was one more point I wanted to make about Adam, but come 12:50 yesterday, I knew where we had to be, with Adam and Eve, exiting Paradise:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through EDEN took thir solitarie way.

At the end, I thanked the students for their attention, for their hard work, and, most of all, for their ideas. They applauded -- loudly, vehemently, for some time.

I confess I felt unworthy, even embarrassed.

At this point, it's true that all I can see now are ideas for classroom activities that I didn't follow through on; the fact that I didn't stay up-to-date on my course website, as I'd hoped (and promised); the points I should have made in class, and didn't, or feel I didn't make well enough. Sure, I'm writing it all down, so as to revise for next year -- and yes, I am now wedded to the idea of syllabus as thesis, not contract.

And I'm also trying my best to take in my students' appreciation and acclaim, which was genuine and heartfelt, and which I would be a fool to disrespect. Queen's students are Canada's brightest, and they work damn hard, harder than I ever worked as an undergrad.

Rising this morning -- after little sleep tending to my feverish daughter all night -- I nonetheless had the leisure to spend a little more time reading the headlines than I usually would. Plugging through my "news and mags" bookmarks, I usually skip over the link to Harper's, which, until recently, has been a mere shell of a site, barely an ad for the current issue on newsstands.

Digital shell no more: the new online Harper's is fantastic, with links and archives going back to 1850, and I've been whiling away the morning hopping back and forth arbitrarily on the absurdly complete and user-friendly time line.

One of my first finds? The following piece, from February 1965, from the editor's column -- "The Editor's Easy Chair"; John Fischer then seated -- titled "Is there a teacher on the faculty?" As it speaks not only to the assessment of teaching in higher education (what I've been musing on for the past day, if not the past twenty-four weeks in my classroom), but also to concepts of academic labor and measures of our work (related to the academic blog discussion, recently reprised), I present an excerpt from Fischer's column here. . .

. . .

First, however, it may be useful to take a look at the reasons why so much college teaching is so poor.

The main reason, I am persuaded, is that we do not now have any objective, impersonal method to measure the quality of teaching. It is true that nearly everybody on the campus knows who are the good teachers and who the bad ones; but this information is acquired by a process of hearsay, student gossip, and osmosis. There is no solid, safe yardstick that a dean or department head can use to justify raising the pay of a good instructor, or firing a poor one. He dares not depend on his personal judgment, however sound it may be. That way lie recriminations, accusations of favoritism and injustice, and probably a fight with the American Association of University Professors, one of the most powerful of trade unions.

Consequently, in doling out rewards and punishments the administrator falls back on something that can be measured: research and publication. The number of column inches in learned journals, the pounds of books published, the foundation grants awarded, the prizes won -- Nobel, Bancroft, Guggenheim, or a dozen others -- these are tangible, indisputable tokens of some kind of academic achievement. (The quality of the research is hardly relevant. After all, an administrator isn't expected to be able to judge whether a finding in biochemistry is really significant, or whether yet another critical evaluation of Henry James adds anything to those already on the shelf.)

Now everybody will agree that research ought to be an important part of academic life. Ideally, we are told, research and teaching go hand-in-hand; the good professor adds to the store of knowledge at the same time he is dispensing it. In practice, alas, things seldom work out that way. So long as research alone pays off, in cash and fame, the temptation to scamp on teaching is almost irresistible. Hence the lectures delivered year after year from notes compiled a generation ago . . . the section men who conduct their classes with unconcealed distaste, begrudging every minute stolen from the lab. . . the perfunctory seminar, the brushed-off questions, the impatient stifling of a student's bothersome zeal. Indeed, human nature being what it is, we should be amazed that so many academics do sweat to teach the very best they can, ignoring self-interest for the sake of the young and their own sense of mission. These rare souls are the saving leaven which can make the college experience worthwhile (sometimes) in spite of everything. But they are bound to dwindle like the whooping crane if (in Dr. Logan Wilson's words) "the faculty itself regards relief from teaching as the chief reward for accomplishment, or as the highest status symbol."

It is idle, however, to rail against the publish-or-perish syndrome, with all its baleful effects, so long as publication itself is the only acceptable measure of achievement. A healthy balance between scholarship and teaching probably can never be restored until a reasonably objective yardstick is devised for testing -- and rewarding -- performance as a teacher. The difficulties are obvious; but, as we shall see, they may not be insuperable.

. . .

February 1965. . . plus ça change?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Let me redirect you

. . . if you're coming to this blog from this post on the Valve: I made plain here what I meant by my question at the MLA.

But let me make it clear, one more time: I do not in any way wish for THIS PARTICULAR blog to "count" in any way on MY PARTICULAR tenure file. Just so's you know. (Thanks.)

And if I sound defensive, it's surely because I'd like to be known as something other than "that woman Berube swatted at that MLA blog panel." Ironic, isn't it? That a question related to blogging and the construction of academic reputation would, through its summarial rejection, construct my academic reputation?

Indeed, it's ended up motivating me to get my journal submissions and book proposals in -- at the expense of this blog, of course -- so that I also can be known as, say, that early modern scholar who does interesting work on early English pedagogy and English letters. Who also happened to be swatted down by Michael Berube, for sure. But I'd like to change the lede.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Meet my son, the hot doctor

Last week was Queen's "reading week," a week off from classes during which, I was assured by my students, little reading is actually done. I did little reading myself and, I admit (for those who are still hanging around here), no writing (truth be told, I'm in a bit of a muddle, as Forster would say. But perhaps more on that another day).

We went to Mont Tremblant, in Quebec, for my first bona fide vacation (i.e., non-family-related travel) in seven years. I had learned to ski at a small hill near Tremblant -- called Gray Rocks -- when I was six years old, and looked forward to teaching my own children. My daughter, now six (I was pregnant with her during my last vacation), took to the slopes like a duck to water: smooth and determined. My four-year-old son, otherwise exceptionally athletic, presented something of a challenge.

When placed on a slippery incline bolted to two sleek boards, most humans will tend to, well . . . tense up. Not my boy. Ready to go. Loose as spaghetti. Built for speed. In development-speak, Oliver has "low danger awareness."

This means he has no fear.

Oliver also has a language disorder that makes it difficult for him to process speech -- in particular, to comprehend what is said to him and to respond appropriately, either through speech or behavior. Otherwise known as "listen to directions."

No matter how often I flanked my own skis in a snow plow (as a model), or got down on the ground and placed Ollie's skis in the same position, or put my verbal instructions in the most concrete terms possible, nothing was going to prevent that boy from going down the mountain as fast -- and potentially out of control -- as possible. Needless to say, I did not relish the prospect of peeling Ollie's dairy-soft skin from the bark of a mountain pine.

In a moment of inspiration (otherwise known as frustration), I physically engulfed my son from behind: I planted my skis outside his (his tips were linked by a "ski bra"), gripping his hips with my knees; fastened my poles as a horizontal bar in front of his chest; reached under his shoulders to grasp the poles in front of him, thus bracing him with my arms; and told Ollie to hang on to my poles. We skied together, as one, for the rest of the week.


Those who know Ollie know how naturally exuberant he is: the combination of the ongoing warmth and closeness of our two bodies and his unvarnished exhilaration at the free-sweeping movement downhill, well. . . where was Master Card to capture it? It was priceless (though admittedly facilitated by copious amounts of ibuprofen and apres-ski hot-tubbing).

Not surprisingly, my little thrill-seeker sought any opportunity to "take air." We skied on broad flat green runs the whole week, but even those trails have ravines on the edges where the adventuresome might divert briefly before popping back up, with a jump, back onto the main slope. Ollie took it upon himself to scan the trails for every such opportunity.

"So, you're a hotdogger, eh?" I chided him initially. "Ok, hotdogger, let's have fun." The squeals of delight when I would lift him up (most concerned to maintain total control, I was actually lifting him out of the jumps) were exquisite -- indescribable -- and I admit I indulged his (what I called) hotdogging.

At the end of the day, waiting for the shuttle van, we ran into someone we had met from the hotel, who was kind enough to strike up a conversation with my tyrolean tyro.

"So, Ollie, did you enjoy skiing today? Are you a good skier?"

"No, I'm not a good skier. I'm a hot doctor."

Work it out.