Thursday, August 30, 2007

Like Riding a Bike?

Is writing like riding a bike? Once you learn how, you can always remember how to keep your balance? I wrote a poem once about this - same title as I recall - and if I can figure out how to attach a file here I'll do that. But John Lemuel's essay "Like Writing a Bike" seems to argue that bike riding - a physical skill - is easier overall than writing. In describing his summer of simultaneously teaching his daughter to ride a bike successfully with less successful efforts to help a student finish an incomplete writing course in order to graduate, Lemuel illustrates some of the challenges in helping another take initiative. We sometimes talk about student agency, letting students voice their opinions, encouraging them to voice opinions, helping them figure out what their opinions are and how to articulate them and realize that their voice matters. Sometimes it feels like we are fighting an uphill battle (sisyphean task?) - yet as my friend Michael says about his own Sisyphean Task, and quoting Sartre in his wonderful - and finished! - thesis about the blogosphere (about which more later), the task is the joy of the journey, not a frustration at never arriving. I'm not sure I've paraphrased this right, so maybe Michael will jump in to clarify.

Because I love adding photos, here is one from


Liberal Arts

For the last two years that we have used the 5th edition of Sticks and Stones, a collection of student essays, I have found that the essay "Liberal Arts: A Practical View" by Mark Jackson, to be very helpful in getting first year students at OSU to think about what we might mean by the term Liberal Arts, especially because the majority of our students are NOT liberal arts majors but rather majoring in science-math-engineering-ag science etc. The question of "What's Liberal? And why arts?" is discussed by Drew University president Robert Weisbuch in his essay about several summer vacations reading, talking, and musing on teaching. He says:

In fact, there is so much to know about everything -- about musical composition, baseball, gemology, wine, lyric poetry, and, yes, even television.

A sense and a sampling of that plenitude struck me that first summer as one definition of a liberal-arts education. The liberal arts do not occur in nature or in culture. They are the academic organization of knowledge and learning, but they are the free spirit of inquiry more than they are a set of topics or fields. Our job, as educators, is to thrill our charges with a sense of that plenitude and with some experiencing of specific worlds of it.
I totally agree that our job is to arouse enthusiasm amongst our students for the vast realm of knowledge and how we can add to it. However, his definition changes the following summer when his reading group disagreed about a book on "Listening to the Other." Weisbuch then quotes Hannah Arendt:

I recalled the comment by Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, that "the more people's standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel or think in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking, and the more valid my final conclusion, my opinion." To reach a conclusion, she must first see things from every perspective, including those foreign and even, and especially, opposed to her own gut reactions.

That summer, the island taught me that the liberal arts are the opposition to talk radio, to fanaticism of all kinds, including our own, that another characterization of the liberal arts consists not in wonder worlds alone but in a cherishing and empathic practice of difference. The notion of reaching beyond the self is the liberal arts.

And again, I agree with this characterization of being open. In fact OSU's motto is "Open Minds" - which sometimes is seen as a "liberal agenda" - though with the word Liberal used politically. (I remind students that in the phrase "liberal arts" the word liberal means "free" as in the free Romans - therefore middle class or wealthier elite - free / at leisure / to study, as contrasted to the slaves with no leisure to study who learned crafts - carpentry, metal work, etc - an early version of Vocational Ed? This is a point that Weisbuch seems not to get or at least overlooks.)

Weisbuch goes on to explain his next insight:
My liberal-arts epiphany the following summer came not from reading but from staring out at the lake on a cloudy day and thinking about the previous sentences from the previous summer. It occurred to me that thought isn't enough -- that if the kind of education we practice is meant to connect us to others, it should include something more active, more worldly.
And that's right - ideally we are not ivory tower hermit scholars / the romantic image of the writer alone.

Finally, Weisbuch concludes:

On this dreamy lake, though, as the wind picks up to carry away such frivolous thoughts, the answer comes to me. Instead of adding on something, imagining anew, we simply do what the liberal arts are all too good at doing, and exile what does not belong. This liberal-arts education thing? From now on, how about we just call it college? And anything else isn't. That's all. Let it sink in. But taking together my five summers of desultory thought, I have a final one. Let us make certain, when we say college as we once said liberal arts, that we don't describe an island. The mainland calls. We are equipped.

We are equipped and I hope we are equipping our students with critical thinking and interactive participation in socially constructed knowledge - something that Web 2.0 makes much easier. At any event, at the end of a cooler summer and looking toward classes starting in 3 weeks, it is good to recall exactly what it is we liberal arts educators try to do.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

So much to write about - never enough time!

In my role as "filter" here's a great article by David Oliver Relin from Sunday's Oregonian about the work of educators to bring about world peace "Waging War Against Ignorance." This is what we do in all our classes.

And here's another on the indirect effect of war "What it Costs Us" in terms of coal miner's lives lost - by Jeff Goodell from the Washington Post. I didn't know that so much coal was used. Here in Oregon we feel smug about our renewable energy - wind, water etc (though I'm not too happy about the new plan for Wave Farms off Florence - I'll find the link and add it)

So far, many of my blog posts are like items in a curio cabinet - what my friend and colleague Michael calls a "Wunderkammer" - items of interest (to me?) but that don't spark much discussion. Too much "writer-based" - that is, things I find interesting. Not enough attention to what others might find interesting?

Other times I share items from the news that seem important, such as these above. So far my posts haven't sparked much interaction from the public. Maybe I need to write more in a way that engages others. Or maybe readers just don't feel like jumping in. Maybe we are all tired this summer.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Teaching Part Time

Many of our grad students look forward to teaching writing full time at community colleges once they have their MAs and MFAs, despite Oregon's poor funding situation for higher education right now. The tight funding means that community colleges continue to hire more part time faculty than tenure line faculty, because that's cheaper. But a new report described by — Scott Jaschik from Inside Higher Ed on student retention shows that the higher the percentage of full-time faculty, the better the student retention rate.
While the use of adjuncts is widespread and growing in all sectors of higher education, it is particularly prevalent at two-year institutions. In many cases, community colleges seek out part-timers who are professionals in various fields to teach career-related courses. But community colleges also fill many sections (a majority in some subject areas on some campuses) with part timers. Administrators frequently say that given their institutions’ enrollment growth and tight budgets, they have little choice.
Here's another excerpt on the article from Laura's blog on the subject. I wonder if this new study will have the effect of changing hiring patterns.

When I taught part-time at Rogue Community College in southern Oregon, the percentage of part-time faculty in the Humanities department was 70%. We all loved what we were doing and worked really hard and longed for tenured positions, which were not open. We used to say that if the part-time faculty went on strike, the college would have to close. Everyone admitted that the situation was not the best, but the tight budgets kept everything going the same, year after year.



My friend Paula has just started a lovely blog Random Reading with some thoughts on poetry, which inspired me to send her the heartbreaking poem by Donald Hall "Names of Horses" and a recommendation for poems by Jane Kenyon starting with "Otherwise" (from the book Otherwise). In addition, I have greatly enjoyed Hall's nature memoir Seasons at Eagle Pond about their rural life in New Hampshire. Here's a great resource to start off with Hall and Kenyon. I had forgotten that Hall was poet laureate, but I knew of Kenyon's translations of Anna Ahkmatova's work.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

For crying out loud, shouldn't poetry be above stereotyping?

Recently, at the National Poetry Out Loud contest, Amanda Fernandez won with her recitations of three poems. Fernandez, representing the District of Columbia as a graduate of Duke Ellington High School, recited Wilfred Owen's masterful anti-war poem "Dulce et Decorem Est," Sterling Brown's "celebration of rural black culture" "Ma Rainey" and Anne Sexton's "Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward." Fernandez was happy to win but unhappy that the media focused entirely on the 2nd poem, ignoring issues of war or womanhood to typecast her as the poet of race.

In her article in the Washington Post, Fernandez says:
Even though all three poems I recited had something important to say, the media reduced me from the complex person I am to a one-dimensional figure by repeatedly discussing my reading of just one -- the poem about race.
She continues:
Why weren't they interested in my political views about young men and women dying in war, as expressed in the first poem? Why didn't they see me as a woman -- not a black woman, but a woman -- as reflected in the third poem about the tough choices that women face?

Everyone overlooked those two poems. I've become known solely for the poem about race.

The power of poetry to evoke emotion and share the human condition should be exactly opposed to perpetuating stereotypes. Fernandez's powerful editorial reveals her sadness as well as her anger at the reaction.

Photo shows 2007 Poetry Out Loud National Champion Amanda Fernandez with John Barr and Dana Gioia.

Labels: , ,

Signs of Fall

It seems a bit early, but already the autumn crocus or Colchichum are coming up at the base of our walnut tree. Every year in the same place, they push up through dirt as dried as adobe (though last night's rain may have helped) and bloom.

Labels: ,

Friday, August 17, 2007

Election year rhetoric - Barmedical

One day some years ago I was reading my old dictionary (1968 Random House) and I discovered at the top of a page the word "barmecidal" which intrigued me, especially after I read the definition:
Plentiful or abundant in appearance only; illusory: a Barmecidal feast.

[After Barmecide, a nobleman in The Arabian Nights, who served an imaginary feast to a beggar.] [see the link too]
Immediately, I could see possibilities to use in political debate and elections: "My opponent's health care plan is barmecidal!" It sounds serious - and really, it is serious considering the scandal in health care coverage - but I doubt this will catch on. Most likely, this is just one my habit of loving words (is this philology?).


Libraries - thriving and diving

Today's New York Times reports that the library in Queens, despite tight funding is flourishing. Francis X. Cline in "A Most Bookish Borough" reports that the library is so popular that patrons are lined up before the staff even arrives. By contrast, southern Oregon's Jackson and Josephine counties closed their libraries due to funding cuts by the federal government for lost timber revenue. According to Meredith May's article, this is the largest library closure in the US. Loss of libraries is especially serious in the rural counties, May reports:

I wish we could call FEMA; this feels like a natural disaster to me," said Ted Stark, interim library director for Jackson County.

"Libraries are so much more than just libraries in rural areas. This is where all the town meetings are held, where all the kids come after school, where everything -- everything -- happens," he said. Indeed, today;s libraries have evolved from merely loaning out books to providing Internet access, reading hour for babies, community meeting centers and art galleries.

This raises again the digital divide between the haves and the haves-not and sets back our students.

Labels: ,

Thursday, August 16, 2007


One of my students quoted Lars Eighner saying that his popular essay "On DumpsterDiving" had become a chestnut.

the essay "On Dumpster Diving" became an instant chestnut, being reprinted in a half dozen college literature texts, several literary anthologies, and numerous periodicals including Harper's Magazine, [According to Lars Eignner's CV]
I asked the student to explain that statement, which would have been very easy. For example, "Online Etymology Dictionary"defines chestnut (final definition) as:
Slang sense of "venerable joke or story" is from 1886, probably from a joke (first recorded 1888) based on an oft-repeated story in which a chestnut tree figures. The key part of the 1888 citation is:
"When suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork-tree --"
"A chestnut, Captain; a chestnut."
"Bah! booby, I say a cork-tree!"
"A chestnut," reiterates Pablo. "I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale these twenty-seven times."
And I was disappointed that my student didn't find this. Oh well.

ps: Here's a picture of a chestnut from

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Word of the Day -- Stochastic

So, there I was reading a critique of PowerPoint, as the ubiquitous software that makes everyone fall asleep (PowerPoint Karaoke - which I thought was just the habit of reading the slides aloud as if the audience was illiterate, but apparently it's a real (?) game/technique to train people by giving them a random ("stochastic"?) presentation to deliver sight-unseen) or dumb or dead (see Edward Tufte's critiques), and I found a reference, ironic, to stochastic, which sent me to -- where else? - Wikipedia, where I discover that stochastic means "random" or "taking a guess or stab or aim at."


Monday, August 13, 2007

Library Anxiety

A few weeks ago I posted on an article about Google by Gideon Haigh. Rereading it last night, I focussed on the notion of Library Anxiety, as Haigh explains it:

Looking for information when one does not know where to start can be awkward, even embarrassing. For the last twenty years, psychologists have been studying a condition called ‘library anxiety’. In the seminal two-year study of six thousand students at University of Tennessee twenty years ago, Constance Mellon found that a sizeable majority experienced anxiety while working in libraries, causing “interfering responses” in their researching. As one respondent confessed: “When I first entered the library, I was terrified. I didn’t know where anything was located or even who to ask to get some help. It was like being in a foreign country and unable to speak the language.”

Tony Onwuegbuzie, an associate professor at the University of South Florida whose Library Anxiety (2004) is now the benchmark text on the phobia ["The Impact of Information Technology on Library Anxiety"], began his researches as a statistical enquiry, but found the journals kept by respondents to his first survey remarkably compelling: “Even people who would have been only slightly anxious were far more likely simply to give up if they encountered a problem with research. Say if they could not get parking, they might go around once then turn around and go home, because they were looking for an excuse not to go in the first place. Another common experience was going to the library, finding that the resource they wanted to use had other people using it, then blaming the library, thinking it was a horrible place, and using that as a basis for avoiding it in future. People were amazingly honest. They’d report having gone home and had a fight with their spouse or partner because of the frustration the library had caused them, which suggested these feelings are really deeply felt.” Onwuegbuzie’s subsequent studies at five American campuses suggest that up to 45% of students experience some kind of panic, learned helplessness or mental disarray in libraries. “As instructors, we tend to assume they have library skills, and proper search skills,” he says. “That’s not a good assumption. If they haven’t been taught, where would they learn? In fact, Constance Mellon showed very early that it’s something people hide, tending to assume that everyone else is competent but them.”

So, when we hear students say they don't need to come to our library classes because "they have done research before" - we may want to consider that this resistance may be partly (unconsciously) due to library anxiety. And this is something to share with our new graduate teaching assistants as well.

Selling Clever Art

This article by Kathleen Conroy called "Blog Art" from yesterday's USA Weekend had great illustrations in print. The "Loquacious Pliers" by J. Matt Miller posted Jan 29, 2007 (scroll way down the site-it's near the bottom), is quite witty and has been sold already, though prints are available to buy. I like his still lifes of tools and vegetables, less so the flowers. Apparently using one's blog to sell paintings direct to the public is indeed the way to go. Conroy quotes Miller:
He prefers to paint objects with human characteristics, like the whimsical pliers above. Miller isn't surprised by the popularity of blog art. "In this age of computers, machines and mass production, the appeal of original, one-of-a-kind artwork is growing phenomenally," he says.

Who is Kandiess Mikkelson ?

This story by Jennifer Moody from yesterday's Albany (Or) paper about the problems plaguing a Kandiess Mikkelson, a woman who has lost some of her identity papers along with her memory (from a car accident), touched me.

If anyone reads this and has any information, it would be great to let someone know. The article has a blog post at the end for leaving ideas.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Content Monitoring

On Fridays in the summer term, we have no classes and therefore a bit more time to read the news and think. Here's what I found this morning about recent (and frankly, not at all surprising though of course disappointing) censorship in a recent Pearl Jam concert in Chicago. An article by Martyn Warwick titled "AT&T moves from carrier to censor" (possibly European judging by the spelling and date system) which reveals that AT&T have admitted to cutting some lyrics critical of President Bush. Minutes before this, I was just telling a student about Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me, so reports of whitewashing of events are nothing new. Just think of the Potemkin villages, which Wikipedia says were largely fiction. Whitewash and eyewash - ever the strategy to put a good face on the facts.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Spam and more Spam

Growing up in Washington DC I first knew Spam as the Hormel meat that my father often ate for breakfast fried like sausage or bacon or Scrapple (an East Coast treat for sure - the directions don't sound pretty but it tastes very good). Note: (This Spam link is hilarious - there is a Spammobile and a Spam fan club! Imagine.)

Only later did Monty Python make their Spam skit. And now of course we have Spam everywhere. I enjoyed an interesting article in recent (August 2007) New Yorker by Michael Specter and when searching for a link to post here I found another, earlier New Yorker piece (Feb 2003), on the same subject by James Gleick.

My father was a great New Yorker fan, so the circle is complete!

Labels: , ,

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Everything IS Miscellaneous

My friend Paula, the librarian, sent me a link to an excellent, funny, philosophical, thought-provoking 57-minute video of a presentation by David Weinberger on his new book Everything is Miscellaneous, in which Weinberger explains how taxonomies such as Aristotle's or the Dewey decimal system which are necessary for physical objects such as books which cannot physically be in two places at once, are incredibly limiting cognitively, and especially now when digitally any piece of information can indeed be in more than one place at a time, in fact in an infinite number of places. Therefore, Weinberger prefers tagging systems such as because they allow us to put the "same leaf on many branches." Of course this concept of how to file things appeals largely to those of us who are categorized (limited binary!) in the Myers-Briggs system as "P" personalty types who are forever revising and reviewing. If I had a transcript of this video I would quote. If I knew how to post the video directly, I would, but the link is above.

ps: I forgot to tag or label this post!