the dig list

It’s time for one of my periodic lists of stuff I dig right now.

  1. Music with close vocal harmonies. Throughout the past week, I have been listening to two bands whose music showcases the capabilities of the male voice in harmony with others. One is Queen. Have you ever noticed–well, I’m sure you have; I’m stating the obvious here–that if you stripped away the wailing guitars, many of their songs would make wonderful barbershop quartet numbers? The other band is Lord Huron, whose moody music conjures the lowering darkness of an overcast autumn day–specifically, of clouds gathering over a lake, probably Lake Huron. (Some of their songs reference lakes too.) Their harmonies are tiiiiiight (in two senses of the word).
  2. The Pickwick Papers. I decided that while I’m reading Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens, I’m going to watch, in order of novel publication, my collection of BBC Dickens adaptations. Saturday and Sunday, I watched the 1985 Pickwick Papers miniseries. I can’t put my finger on what’s so delightful about watching rotund middle-aged men act like adult children and get into the same tight spots (figuratively and sometimes literally) over and over again, but maybe it’s that in this novel and only this novel within Dickens’ repertoire, everyone is so genuinely good-hearted. Even the blood-sucking lawyers Dodson and Fogg are ultimately harmless. Pickwick and his friends triumph because they choose to believe the best about everyone. Maybe that’s not the way the world really works, but it’s something to strive for. Watching this mini-series is kind of like watching Parks and Recreation, which manages to be hilarious even while being refreshingly un-cynical. All the duels, lawsuits, and other confrontations in Pickwick are funny in the same way that it’s funny when the other characters make fun of Jerry on Parks and Rec. They’re like little kids trying to be mean but succeeding only in being cute.
  3. Fazoli’s. Okay, look. It may not be “authentic Italian food,” though I’m not sure that phrase really means much in America, where we’ve adopted Italian cuisine as one of our own and enacted tons of bizarrely creative, often successful variations on it. (I mean, just look at pizza.) But I ordered a Caesar side salad, baked ziti, breadsticks, and a blood orange Italian ice online, picked it up, and was back home within half an hour. It was faster than flying to Sicily. And it was good.
  4. Peer review day. One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is to walk around the classroom and briefly engage with pairs of students as they read and constructively critique each other’s papers. My short attention span appreciates the short interactions, and instead of standing in front of a classroom babbling until my throat hurts, I get to swoop in, answer questions and sound very knowledgeable, and move on to the next group. All kidding aside (not kidding about that stuff, though), peer review can be a great instructional strategy, teaching students the important life skills of reflection and of giving feedback without being vague or unkind. Fortunately, I’m teaching two writing classes and have lots of peer review days to look forward to this semester.

What are you digging right now? Let me know if the comments.

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back to school

Today was the first day of classes at my new institution. Last time I wrote about the first day of classes, I wrote about being so scatterbrained that I could barely organize my thoughts for a blog post. While I wasn’t exactly a chilled-out guru sitting on a mountaintop in mountain pose with a cup of green tea today, I was considerably more focused and less stressed because now teaching is my entire job, not something I try to fit in around meetings and administrative tasks.

It’s an unusually hot day in western Michigan, and this morning it was raining, so my office has been a little damp all day. But at least it has air conditioning, unlike the room where I taught this afternoon. (There were fans blowing, but only the students who sat in the back of the room got to benefit from those, I realized when I went over to talk to one of them after class.) I like to wear a cardigan while teaching because of the pockets, so there was sweat actually dripping down my back and my legs after about an hour of class. On the positive side, my classroom has windows, and it also has an upright piano, which I doubt we’ll ever use, but it looks cool to have in the background. Actually, maybe I’ll see if any of my students can bang out a rendition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on October 31, when we have the Reformation/All Saints Day party that I really did schedule on the syllabus. (It may end up being a Halloween party as well, but I wanted to get a sense of who my students are before I start foisting pagan celebrations upon them.)

All classes here are 90 minutes long, and I was worried about filling that much time on intro day, but I neatly rounded out the first hour by taking attendance and rambling about myself, the syllabus, and the textbooks (I am a champion rambler), and then I had my students write a literacy narrative during the remaining half-hour. I’d read about literacy narratives in composition journals–apparently they are rather passe now–but I had never assigned one myself. My off-the-cuff version of the assignment probably didn’t exactly conform to the standards of the genre, but not only did it use up a good chunk of class time; reading the results also taught me quite a bit about my students as writers and readers (e.g. several of them are Harry Potter fans; some lack confidence about writing, and all of them have decent handwriting)–and my students got a 10-point completion grade. Win, win, win.

Eleven of my twelve students are women, so I promised the token male student I would not single him out in class. All but two are brand new freshmen, though a couple of them have parents who work at the university and/or took pre-term classes, which means they probably know more about this school than I do. Still, they all looked sincere and eager to learn, many of them were taking notes during my course introduction (and I didn’t penalize them for doing so, like Snape did to Harry Potter), and one of them asked approximately ten questions during the syllabus review. She apologized for having so many questions, but I thanked her and told her that others probably had the same questions. The best student feedback I received today, though, probably wasn’t meant for my ears. Before class, I heard one of the students saying to the person next to her, “I’m so excited about this class.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a student say that about a freshman writing class. I wonder if she still felt the same way after class.

I wrote a brief note on each student’s literacy narrative, and in many of them, I asked the student to talk with me about something–not incorrect grammar or ineffective transitions, but Harry Potter, creative writing, or some other such enjoyable topic. I hope they will come see me, even the ones who are shy about their writing or terrified about starting college. Especially those ones.

I don’t have any classes tomorrow, so I’ll have time to prepare for my Wednesday classes, which I think are in a room with air conditioning. Every time I walk into a class for the first time, I’m nervous that I’ll be met with faces that are judgmental, sarcastic, or completely checked out, and occasionally that happens, but most of my students really want to be in college. I just hope that after sitting through my class on day 1, they want to stay.

celebrate good times

My sister got married on Sunday, so I would like to write a blog post about the profound meaning of celebration. Unfortunately, I am exhausted from the wedding (the early-morning hair appointment, the frequent unbidden weeping throughout the day, the dancing), but also from the drive from western Pennsylvania to my new home in western Michigan the morning after the wedding and the effort since then to carve into the mountain of furniture and boxes that resulted from the condensing of a three-bedroom house into the two-room (plus bathroom) apartment where I am living until my home in Virginia sells and I can buy a new one. And now I’m sure you feel exhausted from reading that grammatically correct but epically long sentence.

So I’m just going to make a couple of observations about celebration and hope they make sense. While I’ll be focusing mainly on the wedding in these remarks, I also want to note that I participated in a celebration of another kind on Friday when one of my online students successfully defended her master’s thesis in a conference call with her committee, of which I was the chair. Witnessing this victory got the weekend off to a celebratory start!

  1. Celebrations can be hard work. Although I was my sister’s maid of honor, I live relatively far away and so did not participate in much of the logistical preparation for the wedding. I know my sister and mom put many hours of work into acquiring decor, putting everything into labeled boxes for the wedding coordinator to set out, and taking care of innumerable other tasks. The result was gorgeous–my sister has great taste, and it showed in both the ceremony and the reception. As I mentioned earlier, the day of the wedding, though joyful, was also hard work–I know the bridesmaids will testify along with me to the difficulty of standing on chunky gravel in thin shoes throughout the ceremony, and I know the groomsmen were sweating in their long sleeves and vests. (I realize that sentence sounds silly, but it’s true! Outdoor weddings are beautiful but no picnic!)
  2. And then there’s the emotional labor. The bride and groom are marking a major life change, so they’re undergoing massive emotional stress (the good kind–eustress) that probably doesn’t really hit them until the honeymoon. But there’s also emotional labor for the others involved. My immediate family members and myself were surprised by how hard we were hit by the realization that Sarah was joining a new family and things would never be quite the same again. That night in the hotel room, which I had shared with Sarah the two previous nights, I kept bursting into tears when I saw something that reminded me of her. It was kind of ridiculous–I had to remind myself that she hadn’t died. There are other sources of emotional stress too: the worry that things aren’t going to go exactly as planned, the sadness of remembering family members who did not live to see the occasion, and the melancholy that many single people experience at weddings, wondering whether they will ever have their own. (I’ll be honest; I felt that a little bit.)

Well, shoot. I didn’t mean for this to be such a depressing post! I guess I was just trying to process why I feel so incredibly drained right now, because I know it’s not just from driving the Ohio Turnpike for hours (although that is rather soul-sucking) and moving boxes around. I am very happy for my sister and her new husband, and for my thesis student, and I’m happy about the new beginnings I’m celebrating in my own life. Celebrations are wonderful; I’m just thankful we don’t have to have them every day!

Unite my heart

Yesterday, I was looking at some notes from a solitude retreat I took last August. At the time, I was feeling overcommitted and distracted, and I was trying to decide which of the good things in my life were helping me to glorify God by living a fulfilled life and which were not. So during the retreat (which took the form of a solo hike), I spent some time praying for focus and looking at scripture about having an undivided heart. Let me quote a few of the notes I took at the top of the mountain:

Today’s theme: asking God for focus. I feel like my mind is scattered among tasks and passions and I’m not giving my best to any of it (or truly enjoying any of it). I’ve often said that God’s promise of wisdom in James 1 is one of the only places in Scripture where God promises something without any qualification (e.g. You must be an Israelite). But that isn’t true–the qualification is that you must ask without doubting–“because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (Jas. 1:6-8). (I didn’t do a very good job clarifying this in my original notes, but the key word there for my purposes is “double-minded.” God’s gift of wisdom comes to those who are single-minded.)

“Be thou my vision” = Be thou my focus?

This mountain is a good place to be thinking about perspective. The birds are flying below where I’m sitting right now.

Ps. 86:11–“Teach me your way, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (KJV–“Unite my heart to fear thy name.”)

Then follows a discussion of things I was going to quit and other things I was going to commit to instead (almost none of which really happened) and a list of things I needed wisdom about, most of which are no longer relevant (which I guess is an answer to prayer?).

This deep desire to be single-minded and united in heart, to be able to focus on one thing and stop my mind from racing down crossroads, is one reason–perhaps the greatest reason–why I decided to “quit everything” (the title, incidentally, of a Dawes song I’ve been thinking about a lot) and move to a new state where my only commitment, so far, is to my job (which is only three days a week this fall!). I’ve been describing this move as “hitting reboot on my life”–a cheesy metaphor, I know, but it’s what this feels like to me.

We’ve been talking about this united heart thing for a long time in Christian circles. I remember I used to feel so guilty when we would sing that song that goes “Give me one pure and holy passion, give me one magnificent obsession”–until I realized that the song is a prayer, not a declaration that we already have one pure and holy passion (“Hey, God. Check this out.”). But I think the secular world is also beginning to articulate the deep discomfort we feel when we are distracted, inattentive, and trying to justify our place in the world by showing all the different ways in which we can contribute. Lately, we have been seeing data about how multitasking is bad for productivity, studies about “flow” (the phenomenon, named by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, of getting caught up in a fulfilling task), and radical suggestions for strategies like putting our phones away during face-to-face conversations. As is so often the case, the Bible gave us a really good idea thousands of years ago, and we’re just starting to get it.

I know that having a heart singly focused on God is not the same thing as eliminating distractions and getting in the zone while completing a fulfilling task. But the two confirm the same truth: We were created to serve one master, to do one thing really well, to have one ruling passion under which all of our other passions are ordered. We were created to have a united heart.

I quit my job.

Today is my official last day at my current job, a position that has given me incredible experience, educational advancement, challenges for personal growth, and colleagues who have become my friends. And really good pay to boot! I went to college to be an English teacher, but after graduating I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for a high school classroom. (I would have been eaten alive, and I don’t mean by zombies.) So I went to college, part 2, to be a person who studies literature and puts off getting a real job a little longer. During my first year in grad school, I was a graduate student assistant, which those of you who have done anything similar know essentially means a hard-working, poorly-compensated instructor. (But we wouldn’t trade that experience for the world!) During that year, I realized that I enjoyed teaching college students–they were a little bit more mature and motivated than high school students, and I only had to see them 1-3 times per week, for about an hour at a time!

During my second year in grad school, though, I accepted a full-time staff position in the Graduate Writing Center. I took it because I was flattered to be offered it (by my thesis chair, to whom I owe both my career path for the past 10 years and my interest in Victorian literature) and because the pay and working conditions sounded better. I started as the instructor for a graduate-level basic writing course (I was teaching grad students before I had finished my master’s—talk about imposter syndrome!); two years later, I became the director of the Graduate Writing Center, and eventually I became the director of nearly all of our university’s tutoring services. I had never intended to go into writing center work (which is a field of its own, a vibrant and growing one), but I professionalized myself into the field: reading the major journals, attending conferences, getting involved in organizations, and learning to speak the writing center language. All along, though, I was still thinking of myself as a teacher, picking up courses even though my eventual faculty contract didn’t require me to teach (even though this made me crazy busy) and trying to stay current in the fields I would be teaching. When it came time to get my Ph.D., I didn’t go for a degree in writing center studies, nor even composition, but literature and criticism. The degree wasn’t practical for my job, but it was practical for the career in teaching that I still believed I would have.

As time went by, I received advancement opportunities, leadership experience, and pay increases for which I was (and still am) grateful. But trying to have both my administrative career and a teaching career on the side was making me crazy, and often it was my “real” job as the tutoring center director that suffered. I knew I should give something up, but while the classes were where my passion truly lay, the administrative work was where most of my pay and all of my benefits came from. And, let me be clear, I didn’t hate that work. It just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

So a couple of years ago, I started applying for jobs elsewhere–not just in other schools, but in other states, where I could hit “reboot” on my life, reassessing things that were cluttering up my schedule and my mental space–not just professionally, but personally. And just last month, I received a job offer that would allow me to do so, and I took it. For the first time in my academic career, I won’t be a director of anything; I’ll just be a plain professor (well, associate professor). And I’m very happy about that.

I’m not sure what this will mean for my plans to rebrand this as a Hufflepuff leadership blog, since I won’t be in a leadership position anymore except insofar that all teachers are leaders in a sense. I’m thinking about making it more of a (sometimes Hufflepuff) emotional intelligence blog, which is basically what it has been recently. I’d still like to use my fictional characters Patrick Weasley and Becky Weasley, and maybe even Sam Larson, who appeared last week. As always, I am open to your suggestions.

As Bilbo Baggins once said (in the movie The Hobbit; please don’t hate me for quoting it), “I’m going on an adventure!” I’m glad you, my readers, will be adventuring with me.

Children’s Literature Conference!

I’m here at Shenandoah University’s 33rd Annual Children’s Literature Conference in Winchester, VA. Specifically, I’m here in the dorm room (complete with inconveniently tall beds) that I’m sharing with my friend and conference veteran Allison Scoles (look for her picture book blog starting later this year!). Now that we’re three days into the conference, I want to give you a recap of what I’ve heard so far.

Monday: First, there was a power outage, and everybody freaked out, but the show went on. (Someone actually quoted P.T. Barnum, with proper attribution.) Our first presenter, Laurie Ann Thompson, author of books for young activists such as Emmanuel’s Dream and Be a Changemaker, bravely gave her presentation in a dark, stuffy auditorium. Her description of her middle school experience was what stood out to me most. I wish I’d written it down, but basically she said that she’d tried to be as unremarkable as she could–invisible, if possible–in order to avoid unwanted attention. I can understand that desire, and I think many people can. She also spoke of her career in software engineering prior to becoming a writer; this became a theme of at least the first couple of days of the conference: very few people follow a simple trajectory from childhood dreams to school to being a famous writer.

The power came back on right as Matthew Holm, the illustrator of the Babymouse and Squish books (his sister, Jennifer L. Holm, writes the text), was about to speak. This was a good thing, because he did a bit of sketching during his presentation. Confession: On Tuesday, I noticed that his sketch (of Squish the amoeba looking a little bit like Harry Potter) was still on the easel, so I sneaked up to the platform at the end of the day and took it. Why? Because it’s original artwork, because I love Harry Potter (“Really? You love Harry Potter?”), and because I think I have a little bit of a crush on Matthew Holm. I mean, he’s an adorable nerd with an infectious laugh who draws comics for a living, and who’s happy doing that even though he knows he’s probably never going to win a Caldecott. Also, during his roundtable session, he gamely answered a whole string of questions I asked about how a comic book illustrator would behave during the zombie apocalypse. I asked these for research purposes. (Seriously, the main character of my zombie story is a comics creator.)

After lunch, we heard from Ryan Higgins, author and illustrator of Mother Bruce, its sequels, and other picture books that draw from the comic tradition. He mostly told embarrassing stories from his life in a sheepish voice, but he also gave us what appeared to be a very detailed (though he claimed it was rushed) demonstration of how he uses an app called Procreate (snicker snicker) to draw Bruce, the cranky bear. I enjoyed seeing some of his juvenilia (including an illustrated joke book–I think I made one of those as a child too, or at least a page of one) and learning about his influences–from Calvin and Hobbes to his grumpy yet nurturing grandpa.

The last presenter on Monday was John Schumacher, or Mr. Schu, a former school librarian, now blogger, professor, and Scholastic ambassador, whose enthusiasm and energy make me feel exhausted just watching him. He referred to himself as the “Oprah of books” because he kept giving away books to people just because they waved their hands in the air. I guess he likes to see his enthusiasm mirrored! He mostly told stories about kids’ responses to books, some of which were quite emotional. It was an inspiring conclusion to the first day, but I felt like I needed to take a nap afterward.

Okay, I’ve done it again–my post is already long, and I’ve only done one day. On day two, we heard from some heavy hitters (three Newbery winners and someone who’s probably going to win a Caldecott one day), so I’ll save them, along with the equally awesome day three, for a later post. I suppose I should give you a “takeaway” from the conference thus far. Well, it’s been more reinforcing than revelatory for me. The presenters have been speaking about how children need to see themselves represented in books, to learn empathy through books, and to choose books they want to read. I already knew all that. But hearing each of the presenters explain these concepts in their own way and illustrate them through their own lives has been endlessly fascinating. I’m ready for day four (well, after a good night’s sleep in my weirdly tall dorm bed).

a chat with our Hogwarts prefect on leadership styles

Today, our favorite Hufflepuff prefect, Patrick Weasley (read about him here), is taking some time away from studying for his N.E.W.T. exams to chat with me about leadership styles.

Me: Patrick, you’ve said before that you don’t feel like your leadership style is very active. What do you mean by that?

Patrick: Well, other than when we do the Hufflepuff History lectures, I’m really not up in front of people that often. I’m not really into organizing group events or dropping in for visits when people are studying or trying to get ready for bed. That’s just not my style; I feel like I’m bothering people if I do that kind of stuff. But it’s amazing how often the younger students, especially, will come find me when I’m doing my own homework or relaxing. I kind of have “office hours” out in the common room–I don’t advertise them, but a lot of times I’ll be writing an essay or whatever, and a first-year will come tell me he’s homesick or somebody in one of his classes is being mean to him. Or her. Or they might just want help with homework. And we talk for a little while, or we go to the kitchens and see if the house-elves have a piece of cake we can take.

Me: So the answer to all problems is cake?

Patrick: Well, kind of. [laughs] I mean, there’s a reason why there’s that saying about tea and sympathy. Drinking tea, or eating cake, by yourself is okay, but it’s even better when you share it with someone who has the patience to just sit there and listen to you for a little while. Or a long while, if necessary. And I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest at this…

Me: You’re pretty good, from what I hear.

Patrick: It’s not that hard, though. [embarrassed laughter]

Me: It is hard, though! Listening can be exhausting. I know this from personal experience. But what about those times when being available and willing to listen doesn’t really address the problem–when you have to confront someone?

Patrick: I haaaaate it. I think this is the real reason why I’m in Hufflepuff! I never understood why Gryffindors and Slytherins seem to enjoy conflict. Conflict makes me want to hide under a rock.

Me: And eat cake?

Patrick: Yeah, for sure! But as much as I hate conflict, I’ve seen what happens when people avoid confronting each other about stuff. Roommates get bitter and quit talking to each other; people carry around all this worry about how so-and-so probably hates them…

Me: I’ve seen that too. It’s ugly. But I just realized something: You’ve conflated the word “confrontation” with the word “conflict.” I do it too; that’s why I didn’t even notice until now. Confrontation–facing misunderstandings head-on–doesn’t always lead to conflict, does it?

Patrick: You’re right; it doesn’t. Sometimes it leads to really great conversations. I’ve even seen it lead to friendships. But getting past that initial awkwardness and fear–that’s really hard. I don’t think it’ll ever be easy for me. I just have to trust that the other person is a human being who’s as willing to listen and understand as I am. Most of the time I’m right; if I’m wrong, and the person is a jerk–

Me: That does happen sometimes!

Patrick: Or if we just can’t see eye-to-eye…at least we tried. And it’s helped me to be braver, or whatever. And maybe it’s helped the other person in some way that I can’t see yet.

Me: Patrick Weasley, you’re a very wise young man. I should let you get back to your studying.

Patrick: It was nice to have a break. Before you go, we should go check the kitchens and see if there’s any cake.

Me: Definitely.

Stay tuned for more leadership discussions with Patrick, as well as his aunt Becky, Hogwarts professor and Hufflepuff alum!