Monday, January 31, 2005

movie night

Am I the only person in America who didn't really like Napoleon Dynamite? (Well, no, I'm not, because Mark didn't like it either...) I mean, I get the attraction to the "geeky guy makes good" storyline, and the flat affect is--interesting, at least, for a while, but I found it hard to get really invested in the outcome of a story involving a guy who looked like he had his eyes closed half the time.

The next night we watched Gregory's Girl, which Nick dubbed "the worst movie ever made" because it was "no action, just kissing." That's a fair assessment from a seven-year-old, I suppose, but I thought it had pretty much the same storyline as ND, and I liked it a lot better. I especially liked the scene where the three girls hand off Gregory, one to another, until he ends up with one who actually liked him and whom he ends up liking as well. The cooperation between them was refreshing--unlike stereotypical depictions of competitive girls (you know, like Cinderella, or Mean Girls, that sort of thing). And it was sweet.

Maybe it was just my mood. Enlighten me, if there's something terrific I missed.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

banning the GSA

My daughter is in the Gay-Straight Alliance at her high school. She came home today upset about this bill, currently under consideration in our state legislature:Bill Tracking - 2005 session : "D. In the exercise of their authority to protect the well-being of students as recognized by federal law pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 4071 (f), local school boards providing equal access and fair opportunity to use school facilities or to distribute literature shall not allow such access or opportunity to use such school facilities or to distribute literature to any club or other group that is focused on supporting, assisting, or justifying any lifestyle involving sexual behavior."

OK, leaving aside the complete stupidity of the language of the bill (clubs that justify lifestyles involving sexual behavior? What about the 4H club? Does that count?), the point of the bill is to ban GSAs at public schools. So she and her friends spent their meeting time this afternoon writing to their representatives, encouraging them to oppose this ridiculous bill. (And the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, in a state that has already--yes--banned gay marriage.)

So. I'm really proud of her, and encourage you to take action as well, if you live in Virginia. You can do it here.

biology test update

Either I'm not a complete loser or, more likely, Mariah knew more than she thought: she got a 97 on that test that we were struggling over.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

it was bound to happen

I can't help Mariah with her homework any more. Today I "helped" her study for her biology final (postponed from last week because of snow days) by posing her old test questions. Since she got some of them wrong the first time around, and wasn't quite sure what the right answers were, I ended up googling chemiosmosis and acetyl-CoA. Apparently what we found helped, but the whole thing was pretty humiliating for me. I took high school biology in 12th grade (I took two languages up until that year, and my high school only required one lab science to graduate), and I never understood it either. It seemed to me that everything I needed to know wouldn't be explained until I took chemistry--which I never did. I chose a college based on the (lack of) requirements, and never took another science course.

I sometimes regret it, as when I'm unable to help Mariah, or to answer Nick's incessant questions. I wish I'd learned physics, for example. But I didn't really have the math skills.

I supposed this could all lead one to suggest that I don't really have the cognitive ability to do math or science. That's what Mariah tells me, channeling Lawrence Summers unwittingly. I'm not so sure. I was always actually pretty good at both math and science (I got good grades, anyway, even if I didn't always understand it). But I could never figure out why I should be interested. In a way, I think that's a failure of teaching--now, I can see why biology, and chemistry, and physics could be interesting, but at Mariah's age the idea was beyond me. I could "get" why books were interesting--they allowed me to experience things outside myself, to understand myself better, to explore emotions I wasn't really ready for (this concerns a lot of parents, but I'm glad I read romances before I got romantic, myself). A lot of this was my parents, too--neither of them is particularly interested in anything outside of the humanities, although my mother was good enough at science to at least start nursing school. (She quit when they got to patient care--she liked the book stuff better. Hmm.)

I also do think that I knew no one expected me--as a girl--to be good at this stuff, so I didn't bother. In many other ways I liked to upset people's expectations--I had aspirations to be the first woman priest in the Episcopal church, at one time, but I was too young--but I certainly didn't need to work at it with the math/science stuff. I also had a math teacher humiliate me once, though I don't know really how formative that was. He asked for a definition of "symmetrical," adding--as I already got my hand up--that people often said the human body was symmetrical. I offered, "perfect?" and he just looked at me and said, "Is your body perfect?" OK, it wasn't, but I'm not sure a male teacher should point that out to an eighth grade girl, in front of kids who were already disposed to tease her. Yeah, it wasn't pretty. But I think I was already ready to give up on math anyway.

Obviously there's a whole complex of things going on here: nature and nurture, cognition and conditioning. But I do wish I could be more helpful about the biology test.

Monday, January 24, 2005

snow (?) days

School let out early Wednesday because of the snow, and hasn't let back in again yet. It snowed Thursday, sure, a bit, and then Saturday we had an ice storm. But we've been out on the roads every day and it's not that bad, at least not where we are--but the kids are out of school again. Fourth day in a row, plus the weekend--too long for siblings to be in the house together (or too long for me?).

Nick has a playdate tomorrow, though, hallelujah! And the temp's supposed to be up in the 40s. Surely, surely, they'll go back to school Wednesday?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

movie night

A few weeks ago we (ok, Nick) decided we should have movie night on Friday nights. That's right, we would all sit down together and watch a movie. It's not easy satisfying two parents in their 40s, a 15-year-old girl, and a 7-year-old boy, but we thought we'd try. "Waking Ned Devine" worked, one weekend. The next weekend Mariah was at a friend's house and the three of us watched "Toy Story" for the first time in a long time, and I've got to say, it held up just fine. (I particularly enjoyed the video of Randy Newman and Lyle Lovett at the end...)

This weekend we did it on Saturday afternoon instead of Friday night. Mark and I went to an art opening (oh, yes, we know all the swells) on Friday, but Saturday it was icy out and we hunkered down with a video. An oldie from our vast "collection": "Midnight Run." Yes, the DeNiro/Grodin buddy movie from, what, the early nineties? Dated in many ways--no internet, no cellphones, smoking everywhere--it still made us laugh in all the ways it used to.

So, ok, it's rated "R." Mark had a little talk with Nick before the movie began. He said, "Nick, there are lots of words in this movie that you probably shouldn't use at school, because you would get in trouble." That was about it. Yes, the adjective of choice in the movie is f-ing. It comes up repeatedly, sometimes modified with "mother" (only the really bad guys say that, though--it's kind of cute.) But otherwise, really, it's a Road Runner/Coyote movie, writ large. So if you think car chases and explosions and repeated failures on the part of the pursuer are amusing--as Nick definitely does--it's really a winner. Of course it's not all car chases and explosions--there's also Charles Grodin offering life advice to Robert DeNiro, which is just funny on the face of it, you know? I don't think Nick got that part of it, but that's ok with me.

In fact, in some ways it was more fun to watch it with Nick. There's the great moment when DeNiro says to Grodin, "I got two words for you: Shut the f- up." And Nick goes, "Ha! That's really funny, because it was really four words!" See, when a seven-year-old explains the joke, it's definitely funnier.

What made me think of this was Becca's post about movies with kids. I'm not sure our choices would work for everyone--ok, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't--but I was pleasantly surprised to see how well they worked for us.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

snow day

Snow days in Richmond are funny. First, the weather guys start talking about possible snow a day or two ahead of time. 20% chance, they say. Maybe 40. So folks head out to the grocery store for milk and bread. (Why milk and bread? We don't know...)

Then nothing. Usually. Or maybe a little something. But often, nothing. Does this mean we won't trust the weather guys the next time, though? No, of course not. Anyone can make a mistake.

A couple of days ago they said, yes, maybe 40% chance of snow on Wednesday. And, for once, they were right. It started snowing at about 11:30. I was walking over to the Commons for lunch and it was pretty, just a little flurry. It started to stick, and that was nice. We'd heard there might be a dusting, less than an inch.

By the time lunch was over there was an inch where it had drifted, but really no more than a dusting most places. But the snow was still falling. By 2:00, the public schools had announced an early closing--half an hour early. What is the point of that? Everyone's schedule gets disrupted, and the cars and buses are still out on the road in the snow. But it's so much safer half an hour earlier, right? Sure. (I'm still trying to work that one out.)

Mark picked Nick up. His dentist's appointment had been cancelled anyway--they closed the office early because of the snow. Mariah only had a half day anyway because of exams, so she was already home (or, technically, at a friend's house, but whatever). I decided I couldn't make my late afternoon meeting, and still get home safely in time to have dinner and get out to an evening meeting, so I sent an e-mail saying I'd miss it. By the time my late class was over, though, that meeting--and the evening one--had been cancelled.

I left campus at about 4:30. The snow had stopped. There was maybe a little more than an inch piled up on my windshield. (By the way, there is a serious design flaw in my Jetta wagon. When you open the driver's door after it's snowed, all the snow falls IN to the car, right onto the driver's seat. Is this deliberate?)

The roads were slushy but passable on my way home. WIth evening activities cancelled we settled in for a quiet dinner. Mmm, pasta carbonara. (All dietary rules are suspended on snow days.) No more snow, though it's cold out.

So, to sum up, maybe an inch. Maybe a tad more. And, guess what? Both kids are off school tomorrow. Because? Apparently this city has no snow removal budget (or none to waste on an inch of snow) and if any roads into subdivisions are impassable, the buses can't run.

Luckily my classes don't meet on Thursdays. I guess I'm working at home tomorrow.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

I'm not the only one...

...annoyed by Caitlin Flanagan. Ayelet is, in this lovely snarky comment, and so is Ms. Magazine, in a nice piece by Hilary Frey. (OK, yes, Ayelet is really being snarky about David Brooks, which actually makes for a terrific two-fer.)

Sometimes I worry that I should quit subscribing to The New Yorker in protest over their hiring of Caitlin Flanagan as a staff writer. But then they publish something lovely like this week's piece by Margaret Talbot (a truly wonderful writer) about Hayao Miyazaki (and if you haven't seen My Neighbor Totoro yet, stop reading and put it on your netflix queue). Talbot did a Q&A about the piece here.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

new column

Here's my latest on children's lit and motherhood:
"Mother Love in Children's Literature"

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

grateful, even so...

For reasons I don't want to go into here, but that have nothing to do with teaching or what I think of as the real part of my job, I'm less than thrilled to be going back to work this semester. (Again, let me stress that the classes are great.)

But I have to say, there are advantages to the flexible schedule of college teaching. Yesterday Mariah's biology teacher decided she should go home early--he felt her forehead and reportedly said, "Jesus, Mariah, you're burning up! Go home!" Mark was able to head down to Petersburg and pick her up, because his classes were over for the day. Today, the school nurse from Nick's school called at around 11 with a similar message--he was coughing and seemed tired and "uncomfortable"--though, no fever. This time it was my turn--I don't teach on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Later today I head down to Petersburg early again, to get Mariah for a previously-scheduled doctor's appointment. I actually tried to get her to stay home--seeing as she'd been sick yesterday and had a doctor's appointment today--but she didn't want to miss school. So Nick will come with me to get her in an hour or so. In the meantime I'm sitting in my living room preparing tomorrow's classes (ok, yes, and blogging) instead of sitting in my office.

The downside of the flexible schedule is that you're never off work. There's always something you could be doing and you can do it pretty much anywhere. But today I'll take the trade-off. Check with me again after a couple of snow days, though--I may be feeling differently.

Monday, January 10, 2005

First day

I met my new students for the first time today. I already know a few of them in the upper division class, and one or two in the lower-level classes, but mostly they're all new and I'll spend the next couple of weeks trying desperately to learn 75 or so new names. And failing, inevitably, with a few. Partly it's the similarity--I have a basketball team's worth of Rebeccas, a brace of Amandas, etc. Partly it's me--I have trouble recalling the name of someone I've just been introduced to when there's only one, so dozens put a strain on the brain.

But I'll work at it, and I'll get them all by the end. Usually by midterms.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Bad Writing and its causes

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Essay: You Talkin' to Me?: " I CAME across the following sentence in a term paper recently. The student was about to describe how she had arrived at her conclusions. This is what she wrote: ''The following methodology was utilized.'' I see this kind of thing all the time. Not ''the following method was used''; not ever ''this is what I did.'' Like nearly all the students I've taught, this young woman has learned to believe that the English language does not have room for her. That it is a secret code known only to the initiated. That the language she speaks is uneducated, inferior and incorrect. Hence the corseted tone, the vocabulary that strains at sophistication, the way she absents herself from her own writing. This is a student who has been taught to worship the volcano god of Correct English."

I hope Deresiewicz is right, because if our students are really simply trying to be correct, they can perhaps be corrected. But more often I think such formulations ("the following methodology was utilized") combines two equally problematic but different issues. One is the student's impulse to try to sound "important," often scientific. "Methodology" sounds scientific, "method" or "technique" doesn't. Ditto "utilized." Maybe the difference between "Correct English" and "scientific language" isn't significant, though--both are (futile) attempts to sound like an "in" when you're not.

The other is a creeping problem in speech as well as written language, however, and it's the problem of agent-less prose. Who "utilized" those methods, anyway? The sentence is passive--the agent is obscured. Or, more actively: the student has obscured the agent, that is, herself. She used the methods, but she doesn't want to say "this is what I did" because then she has to take responsibility for it. "Mistakes were made" is the classic example of the agency-obscuring passive, but you see them everywhere: in advertising, PR, sociology articles, everywhere. When I (briefly) worked in marketing for a large conference hotel in the mid-eighties, I rewrote lots of their PR pieces to be more active. This had two effects, neither of which was appreciated by my bosses: it made the letters shorter, and it made them responsible. They asked me to change them back.

I can usually get creative writing students to rephrase their work more actively; they understand that they need to develop their own voices in their work, and that "who did what to whom" is important. It's much harder to get the literature students, or the composition students, to do this. They are trying to fill the requisite number of pages, and often they simply don't know who did what. Did Shakespeare create that effect, or is it just in the text? They are afraid to say "I"--I blame their high school English teachers, but it probably goes back further than that--so they simply leave the subject out. "The book was read." Blah.

Deresiewicz's essay is intriguing nonetheless, and I'm all for outing the prescriptivists as the snobbish protectors of their own privilege that they were/are. But, like so many problems, I think this one has multiple causes, and he's only identified one.

If Stanley Fish says it, is it true?

Chronicle Careers: 01/07/2005: "Announce a course with 'religion' in the title, and you will have an overflow population. Announce a lecture or panel on 'religion in our time' and you will have to hire a larger hall.

And those who come will not only be seeking knowledge; they will be seeking guidance and inspiration, and many of them will believe that religion -- one religion, many religions, religion in general -- will provide them.

Are we ready?

We had better be, because that is now where the action is. When Jacques Derrida died I was called by a reporter who wanted know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion."

I'm a bit chagrined by this piece, but also intrigued. Fish began his career as a Milton scholar, of course, and if no one else in English departments takes religion seriously, Milton scholars should. So perhaps this isn't surprising coming from him. But it's a bit surprising to me, because I find myself about to be "in" on the next big thing, apparently. I've never been there before, but my interests are increasingly taking me in the directions Fish suggests: taking religion seriously as "a candidate for the truth." Specifically, I'm trying to look at the ways in which children's literature tackles theological issues, and especially how children's literature and feminist theology may be mutually informing.

My best students over the past few years have been moving in the direction Fish outlines here, as have I. What's curious to me is why we're all here at once. Is cultural determinism true after all?

Thursday, January 06, 2005

books, books, books

I've written two book reviews in the last week, and read another book, Housekeeping, that I'm not reviewing but maybe should. What a wonderful, lyrical, novel! Why did I not discover it before?

Actually, I know the answer to that. It came out when I was in college, and in college and for many years afterward I read only books by dead people and genre fiction--pretty light stuff. When I wasn't studying I needed a break. Now I read more widely, I think (check my lists and see if you agree), and among other things I'm catching up on contemporary fiction.

I still read more children's literature than anything else, I think. I'm educating myself so I can teach it responsibly, for one thing. I've got big gaps to fill. I just made up my syllabus for this semester and I realize that there are no books between about 1910 and 1950, and again none from about then until the early 90s. There are books in those gaps that I'm familiar with but don't teach (especially the first gap), but there are also just lots of great books out there that I haven't read. I'm great on the 19th century, though, and pretty good on recent stuff, and a lot of the pre-1980 stuff that I do know just isn't that great, or doesn't fit my syllabus. Ideally, thought, I'd like to have things spread out a bit more, so I'm working on that as well as keeping up with new stuff. Luckily children's lit usually reads relatively quickly. Still, there's plenty to do.

Anyway, back to Housekeeping. I read it because I read terrific reviews of Gilead, and I wanted to know her other work first. So now I can read Gilead. When I find the time.

And a bit about one of the books I reviewed: I just finished From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography, and I am delighted to have finally gotten around to it! Cameron is intriguing both for her accomplishments (she was a fabulous photographer) and her associations (she was Virginia Woolf's great aunt, among other things). But I also want to adopt her as a role model because she didn't begin her photographic career until she was 48, after her six children were old enough that she could direct her energies elsewhere. This means I've still got a few years before I need to get started on my artistic career. I love late bloomers.

Monday, January 03, 2005

how cool is that?

Ayelet Waldman has this funny post about not feeling cool enough, and all I could think as I was reading it was "she chose the same template I did! How cool is that?"

OK, I'm totally lame. But really, if Ayelet Waldman isn't cool, what hope do the rest of us have?

(Did I mention that I interviewed her once? Twice, actually. For this piece. It was fun.)

a new year

All my favorite bloggers have been busy this week and I have not. Or, actually, I have, just not here. We celebrated Christmas, we traveled, we celebrated some more, we commiserated with my sister and family who had no luggage for a week (I won't mention that my pregnant sister fits quite nicely into several of my non-pregnant tops...), we had snow, we traveled some more, we ice-skated, we had New Year's Eve with friends, we drove home. The week in a sentence.

Oh, and the tsunami. It's just...unimaginable, really, even still. The numbers boggle the mind.

Somehow the fact that it happened during that liminal week between Christmas and New Year's, when it always feels like time has stopped and nothing can happen, seems even worse. As if it may too soon be forgotten as we all go back to school, work, our regular lives. It didn't erupt into the middle of our work days, as 9/11 did. It just--well, it just happened somewhere else, to someone else, to thousands of someone elses, and we are left helplessly donating to the Red Cross and imagining--weakly, vainly--the suffering. And hoping it will end.

Still, the turning of the year always leaves me hopeful. 2004 wasn't that great, as years go. For starters, we re-elected GWB, we tortured Iraqi prisoners, we failed to protect the environment or provide adequate health care to the poor or decent child care to pretty much anyone or any number of other things I'm forgetting right now. The first one was the worst, until the tsunami hit. I'm hoping 2005 will be better.