In Lieu of a Graduation Speech

At U of All People, we don’t have the cachet or bucks to draw a big-name commencement speaker. Like so many other schools of the third water, we call on local politicians and businesspeople, some alum who runs a charity, or an announcer at a cable network. But this year, no one rose to the bait: an honorarium of $50 and lunch in the president’s room. One after another declined with thanks (some without thanks), to the point where we were desperate.

So we called the English department, figuring that one of the faculty there could produce an eloquent speech. “I understand that some of them even write a little poetry on the side,” added Provost Finkh in one of his futile attempts at jocularity.

And that’s how we ended up with Professor Ernest Twistwhistle. Though a longtime specialist in Victorian satirical funeral sermons, Professor Twistwhistle is also a self-described amateur versifier. He said he’d be happy to declaim at the commencement ceremony, though he made the provost up the deal to $75 and dinner at the Sizzler. Below is the full text of his speech. Most members of the campus community remain divided over its intent.


“My Address to the Undergraduates, May 17, 2011, Mainly in Trochaic and Iambic Dimeter”

On this grad-
Uation day,
I come highly
Paid to say:

Listen to these
And try to show
Some gratitude.

You’re the gen-
Eration that
Will soon get its
First crack at bat.

Go forth in
The world and make
One big splash.
Don’t be a fake.

Don’t just sit
There on the fence.
The difference.

Go for gusto.
Seek romance.
Make a fuss.
And take a chance.

To look at you
Makes me feel old,
And I don’t want
To seem a scold,

But don’t become
A lazy slob.
It’s tough out there.
You’ll need a job.

The future may
Seem bleak, I know,
Yet do not reap
Until you sow.

Try to give
More than you get.
Never make
A sucker bet.

Be firm of purpose.
Do not drift,
The race not won
Just by the swift.

Now, what else can
I yawn that’s true?
Only this:
May God bless you.

David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.

The Academe Awards

Members of the other academy offer their Oscar endorsements.

The Punctuation Follies

It’s that time of year -- when I can barely force myself to read another student paper. Holiday garlands dazzle and lights blink on and off at the corner of my eye as I drag myself to classes. Some people garner the spirit and energy to wear colorful scarves and festive jewelry while I favor drab, jumbo sweaters and a slush-colored coat. Some even pencil in social events while I can barely muster the energy to take a nap and momentarily forget the flurry of grading that awaits me. Such a strategy of deferment might work for barely an hour -- at which point I will wake up and resume my worrying.

It is as if the entire world reflects one shimmering exclamation point, but the top line (of mine) has fallen off.

And yes, it’s that time of year when I will procrastinate in any way possible, such as meditating on the role of punctuation in society (the type of big picture question we relish in universities) instead of attending to pressing matters close at hand. These include the 100+ final papers, some filled with punctuation glitches and glorious ideas, chillin’ -- literally -- on the passenger seat in the car.

In writing this section alone, I have indulged in sundry dashes and hyphens, commas and periods, apostrophes and parentheses, each releasing a spurt of dopamine in my brain as I type. I just might be addicted to writing, but I have never met anyone addicted to grading. Each mark of punctuation tumbles forth, wayward or deliberate.

Yes, I know the punctuation rules, thanks to memorizing a grammar book in the halcyon days of graduate school (pedagogy not yet refined, pre-composition and rhetoric era). We live in enlightened, rushed times. Punctuation rules? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Let the follies begin

Like many adjunct faculty members, I seek ways to intertwine teaching and learning. I rankle at ongoing debates and announcements of studies questioning whether adjuncts “keep up” or even (?) damage the learning of students. I do my part to stage a protest. As “digital literacy” is a buzzword, and I read an article just this past week attacking venerable, authoritarian strategies such as asking for Times Roman 12 pt. type and one-inch margins for student papers, I put myself to the test. No slouch, I know that I should engage with the rich linguistic environment around me.

As much time as punctuation demands from a writing teacher, the world at large seems to get by largely without it. I make a mental note of its absence on street signs and business signs. Even respected institutions have nary a punctuation mark.

I push harder to enhance my visual acuity and insight. I see that a discount store has lost its apostrophe. I wonder if anyone has reported it missing. Was it a casualty of a recent hailstorm? The omission adds to the power of the pun if I read the store’s name backwards. After a long day of teaching, subsisting on coffee and carbohydrates, it can be hard to keep my eyes in focus. Reading backwards feels quite natural, and we all have heard that tired adage that it can be a good way to proofread.

The store’s name is Marcs. The apostrophe’s demise is long overdue; whats mine is yours. Scram.

Money talks

I stop at a drive-thru for more sugar and caffeine to fuel this rant, only to find that the cost of a cookie is posted as $ .45 c. Alas, the cent sign doesn’t even appear on my modern keyboard anymore, perhaps because nothing is that cheap. I strive to decipher the feuding symbols on the sign. If indeed the dollar sign is not extraneous, that means I can get two cookies for under a penny, ten for less than a nickel, and 200 (more than enough for my students in the final week) for just one dollar. That could definitely sweeten the deal as students fill out their course evaluations.

No, wait. If it’s really 45 cents, two cookies times 100 students equals $45. I’d better pass.

(No hugs)

When I even begin to entertain the thought that housecleaning looks preferable to grading, it’s definitely time for winter break. I have grown attached to a cardboard box that brought me desk copies early in the semester proclaiming HANDLE WITH CARE on the outside. Clearly, the printer could have softened this harsh message with parentheses. No frills, though, in the cut-throat world of textbook publishing.

The box, incidentally, is filled with fluffy, white beads that resemble popcorn -- or a stockpile of apostrophes and commas. Note to self: Explore the possibility of edible punctuation as a teaching tool in basic writing class. In the meantime, the disputes between the underscore and italics may rage on even as things remain staidly predictable for brackets. They remain a necessity to stiffly interject what the writer didn’t say but the scholar can interpolate. Or what the humor writer hastily taped [sic] that needs immediate clarification.

And as for those curly, curvy brackets, just call them the Rorschach on your keyboard. Students will only use them by mistake, and no one really knows what they’re for. To me, they resemble the profiles of figure skaters or, perhaps, recent contestants on Dancing with the Stars.

Don’t humor her

My own dance (or orchestrated stumble) with punctuation has a long history. As a continuing education instructor for several years, I gently roused professionals frozen with fear of English with jokes about grammar and punctuation in an effort to make a dry subject come to life and to reassure them that such arcane knowledge was indeed attainable. Among my low-tech teaching tools at the time was a set of poster boards filled with oversized punctuation marks. I crafted them lovingly with standard markers. I once left this set of cards on campus – and they were never returned. I took this as confirmation that their value, even brilliance, as unique works of art may be cherished for future generations. Unless, of course, they ended up in a landfill.

At one seminar for mental health professionals, I reviewed the oft-misused semicolon as a troubled entity. It might be thought of as a period with an inferiority complex or a comma with delusions of grandeur. I spoke their language; they spoke mine.

And turning the clock back further (keeping with the spirit of the season), as a youngster I once spent the better part of a day typing slashes and parens on a manual typewriter, creating what I thought was a stunning holiday card. My mother looked at it wearily and said: “Someone got up at 6 a.m. today and thought of that already.”

Moral: Get up earlier before your punctuation tricks are stolen.

Now u Turn

This just in: the planets are now properly aligned to usher in the brave new world of texting. This has profound implication for the future of punctuation, perhaps even heralding its oblivion. How do I know? In two student papers this term (double the number of last year at this time), the word “u” was boldly uttered, perfect in its insignificance … “u” in its aching loneliness, describing precisely the state of my soul. It is like an infant’s gaping mouth, with no pacifier. A scholar of E.E. Cummings at least through my master’s, whose little “i” was admittedly ahead of its time, I now can ponder the ungainly second person.

Thinking of this, I note while driving that a very important sign to my right could be easily corrupted with a scrawled in “w,” thus becoming: “Now U Turn” -- and thus creating chaos. I am not the person to perform such a prank; I am at times hesitant to even breathe on student papers (lest my presence squelch a genius), let alone mark on them.

To sticklers who might point out that I have digressed from my thesis on punctuation follies, I concur. However, I compare punctuation marks with traffic signals in some classes, a sentiment echoed by Pico Iyer in his classic, “In Praise of the Humble Comma.”

Close enough. And let’s just hope it never gets so far that emoticons slither their way onto traffic signs.

Dash -- the untold story -- and other seasonal follies

Mr. Willard, my ninth-grade English teacher, is responsible for turning me on to the dash at an impressionable age. Whereas another teacher would have just x-ed them out, he fostered my lifelong habit. It’s a staple of my writing, in case anyone is still with me now. In Mr. Willard’s honor, do use the dash liberally if you do take the pains to send cards.

Thinking of you –

has that beautiful openness to suggest that the relationship, however superficial, may mature in the future.

As busy teachers transition from grading to greeting, some might also consider the possibilities of the asterisk, well-established as a snowflake look-alike. Check the font size that works best; to liven up holiday greetings, sprinkle them liberally. Each one is the same if you type, so protest against the tyranny of individuality while saving time and expense on cards. ***Winter greetings.***

From our house to yours…

As a writer and teacher, I know that I should not play favorites among punctuation marks; the others may rebel. But – truth be told – the ellipsis is my favorite. Three little dots . . . and the reader must do all the work. That’s masterful. Turn them sidewise, and you have the beginning of a little snowman, one that will never melt. Use it to save time. Or for that matter, employ the colon: it’s like a little pair of eyes, turned sidewise. Either mark can be appropriate if you are uncertain of someone’s faith tradition and do not want to err. Happy: Or, alternatively, Merry . . . Let the recipient decide.

If I could give each reader a small gift, it would be a little box, neatly wrapped, with 100 exclamation points inside. Remember, that is your entire allotment for a lifetime. Use them sparingly. In one of the last student presentations of the semester, I learned that Hemingway reportedly compared the exclamation point with laughing at your own jokes. Don’t do that. And don’t waste sixteen on the announcement for the faculty potluck or party. You’ll only have 84 left!

Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.

My Dog Is My Agent

How to get a dog an agent? Should I get an agent for my dog?

These days, one can Google almost anything. But life has taken me in another direction entirely.

My dog is my agent.

In the doggy-dog world of professional writing -- an expression I read in a student paper well over 20 years ago -- I crave a faithful friend, a nudge, a noodge, a confidante, an advocate.

And fortunately, I live with mine.

Some people might counter that it takes a human agent to help a writer move from obscurity to renown. I beg to differ. I sit at the feet of my master. Her name is Robin, she weighs twenty pounds soaking wet and she is ahead of me 100 percent.

Good author-agent relationships can last a lifetime. Robin has already given me seven years in the single year I have owned her. Talk about giving more than you get. Through thick and thin, high and low, sun and shadow, dry food and table scraps, Robin has been there.

She demands no fee other than feed, food, fodder. Her tastes are simple.

She has taught me to cherish the basics -- eschewing (that’s not chewing) hype in favor of substance. She is my double, my right-hand paw. She offers the stability of four legs when I struggle on two -- and walks on two when she wants to meet me eye to eye. Or, in her case, eye to navel. And, at the same time, she prevents me from the navel-gazing self-absorption, even narcissism, to which writers can fall prey.

If I risk taking myself too seriously, she will ground me in the present: demand to go out, to come in, to go out again. She brings me back to the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, without which my higher aspirations will topple.

Not long ago, we were on a walk at dusk, and my agent spit out a frog. It all happened so fast; I did not know at first what happened. I looked down and saw two tiny black eyes looking up at me. A mole? A vole? Robin intuitively knew that this venue was not for her. But she sampled it. She took a risk.

That savvy frog played dead for a few minutes, then hopped away, marveling at the inner light and voice that said: “It was not your time yet.”

As a writer, I learn deep truths from such encounters.

Another thing that makes Robin an excellent agent is that she has never eaten, destroyed or defaced any of my manuscripts, although she has sniffed most of them. If a piece is ready to go, she nudges me with her nose. If it needs more revision, she nudges me with her nose. Some might say that she just wants her nose scratched.

But I know that the message is, as author Natalie Goldberg, in the aptly titled Writing Down the Bones, puts it, “go further.”

If someone rejects my work and I seem dejected, my wise agent speaks mainly with her eyes. “I may not read much, but I think as humans go, you are more than adequate,” she beams from across the room.

Then she may circle around, acting out with her whole body the mandala of the publishing process -- even of life itself -- and take a well-deserved break.

She forces me, likewise, to take a break from that odd box that I stare into for hours on end and the tablet I pound with my claws, risking permanent damage. She usually keeps her distance as I write but perhaps will come close if I play a soulful ballad to comfort myself -- something along the lines of Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer.” My agent has a sentimental streak and shows great forbearance if I tease her (only a little) by playing barking sounds from the box. She is concerned with my overall and immediate welfare, not just ultimate rewards.

At such moments, she will jump in my lap, with her swishing tail that clears away any rough drafts that have stopped halfway to the ground on the pyramid of papers in my office. They were not ready for publication anyway.

Robin has the style I lack; a good agent needs that, too. I may resort to wearing a sweaty gray T-shirt underneath a brown, cotton jumper, pale pink socks and clogs -- but she remains fresh and elegant, with glossy brown fur, sparkling white teeth that need no enhancement and permanent high heels. A high-protein diet keeps her slim, and she has perfected a growl that surprises those who think they can take advantage of her/us.

A Brittany spaniel-labrador-terrier lineage allows for her roving spirit, nose for news and show-me attitude. She epitomizes research passion, and the day she broke free to swim through an icy creek in pursuit of deer, I learned to never give up. She just might have a novel in her.

Favoring a clean life and with habits any writer seeking longevity might emulate, Robin only drinks water and -- rarely -- milk.

And she needs no prodding to support me in my writing. How does she do it? She runs toward me enthusiastically when I approach, she begs to accompany me on interviews and research trips, and she never has a cross word. Dang, I must be good.

A dog/agent named after a bird also offers a degree of symbolism. Robins are known for stunning blue eggs, but my Robin will lay no egg -- nor will I. She would never abandon me to run down the street alone, as I did as a child who believed that if I ran fast enough, I would fly with the birds. And yet, if I do take off on an imaginative whim, as poet James Dillet Freeman put it in his moving, inspirational poem that was taken to the moon, she too will “be there.”

Robin knows that I have potential -- she knows it in her bones, even if she has eaten most of them. She does not harbor a gnawing doubt. No, if she’s gnawing anything of mine, it’s because she likes it.

Other lessons from the master:

  • Aim high. Don’t let that chattering squirrel intimidate you. Self-doubt is for puppies. You just might make it up the tree if you keep jumping on two legs.
  • Know your place: In the presence of superior talent, back down.
  • If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Leave your calling card around the neighborhood.
  • Communicate nonverbally. A well-timed tilt of the head can elicit important information.

Not bad advice for a dog who shrank at her own reflection when I brought her home from the pound.

I do not know if psychologist Carl Rogers had a dog as an agent, but “unconditional positive regard” emanates from Robin’s heart. She does not care about my breath or how deep are the shadows under my eyes. She will guard me vociferously from anyone who could distract me from writing -- the mail carrier, for example.

Amateur psychologists still reading might marvel: “Classic projection. She puts on her dog her own aspirations, even complexes.” To this, Robin delicately ponders the origin of the phrase “pooh-pooh.” It’s well-known in the canine world that Sigmund Freud himself, stroking his dachshund one afternoon while mulling over the mysteries of human nature and the English language, rearranged the dozen letters of I-SEE-DOG-GRO[W]-UP to create his ID-EGO-SUPEREGO paradigm that rocked the world. advises me that “A good agent will help edit your book, get it into the hands of receptive editors, and make sure that you get the best possible deal.”

Indeed, Robin will help me trim the deadwood from my writing. The sooner I do that, the sooner she can go out. She will accompany me on any journey -- over land, sea and cyberspace -- as I hunt for editors, readers, the right word.

And she will not settle. She has taught me to wait, and wait, and wait in pursuit of that single moment of inspiration.

With an agent like that, I cannot lose.

Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.

Proud to Be a Pedant

Scholar reflects on a career trying to teach and enforce "the Queen's English." Bonus: a double limerick.

British Exam Howlers

One student has inadvertently invented a new name for the phenomenon: "Confusionism."

In fact, the third-year student had intended to refer to the system of philosophical and ethical teachings founded by the Chinese philosopher Confucius.

Proving that they are just as fallible as all those to have gone before them, students' comical cock-ups have been revealed in entries to Times Higher Education's "exam howlers" competition 2010.

Test Your Fund Raising Ethics

Like most other professionals, college fund raisers -- and those of us who teach them -- adhere to a strict code of ethics. Two of our main associations, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Association of Fundraising Professionals, publish standards to guide our decisions and behavior. Yet these codes are generalizations, telling us only in the broadest terms what is and isn’t acceptable practice.

Ethical decisions, of course, are made when facing specific situations. With that in mind, I’ve devised the following quiz that fund raisers can use to judge morals, or lack thereof, among staff members, job applicants and potential volunteers -- after first testing themselves.

1. You’re about to start your day of prospect meetings in New York City and decide that your best mode of transportation is a taxi. Does this momentarily give you pause because…

A. You realize you can save your institution about $50 by taking the subway or bus;
B. You’re afraid of running your travel expenses over budget; or
C. You can’t stomach pulling two Gs rounding Fifth Avenue?

2. While conducting research on a prospective donor, you learn that he was recently divorced. Knowing that divorce proceedings are often available as public records, do you…

A. Dive in hoping to find any relevant nuggets of asset information or financial obligations;
B. Resist the temptation and avoid treading on his privacy; or
C. Laugh yourself silly for even considering option B?

3. You want to audit your development operation, and one of your trustees suggests engaging a consulting firm with which he’s affiliated. Do you…

A. Politely decline, citing conflict of interest implications;
B. Tell other trustees, hoping they’ll intervene; or
C. Try to keep a straight face while thanking him for his offer of pro bono services?

4. A donor tells you he wants to make a seven-figure gift to establish an academic program that you know the provost doesn’t want. Do you…

A. Decline the money;
B. Redirect the donor’s attention to more pressing campus priorities; or
C. Tell the provost it’s easier to find a provost than a wealthy donor?

5. An elderly woman offers to make a gift that you know is beyond her financial means. Should you…

A. Divulge that you know she can’t afford to make such a commitment;
B. Suggest you instead make an arrangement in her best interests; or
C. Hope her children don’t find out before the ink dries?

6. You recently named your library for a donor who has since been indicted for insider trading and money laundering and is probably heading to jail. Should you…

A. Return the money and remove the name from the library;
B. Keep the money, leave the name, and hope for no bad publicity; or
C. Suggest the donor instead name the business school?

7. The timetable on your challenge grant has expired and you still haven’t matched every dollar. Should you…

A. Ask for an extension;
B. Call it a day and return the unmatched portion; or
C. Announce victory, thanking the Human Fund for putting you over the top?

8. You’re on the phone with a freelance grant writer who wants to be paid a percentage of the grant funds his proposals attract. Do you…

A. Decline, pointing out that this arrangement flies in the face of conventional standards;
B. Accept, figuring that 90 percent of something is better than 100 percent of nothing; or
C. Tell him you think the program officer will be confused when he sees “sleaze” in the line-item budget?

9. A faculty member wants to use grant funds for the history department’s holiday party. Do you…

A. Appeal to his better judgment;
B. Tell him it’s his call and he’ll have to fudge the numbers afterwards; or
C. Tell him you prefer mushrooms and sausage, but no anchovies?

10. A potential donor wants you to provide a tax receipt valuing a gift-in-kind much higher than its actual worth. Should you…

A. Ask him to provide an independent appraisal and award gift credit for that amount;
B. Decline the offer and avoid any potentially prickly situation; or
C. Tell your brother that his ’88 Vee-Dub isn’t worth a damn anyway?

11. A local journalist calls to ask, off the record, who that “anonymous” million-dollar donor really is. Should you…

A. Protect the donor’s identity at all costs;
B. Tell her “off the record” who it is and swear her to secrecy; or
C. Whisper it’s Paris Hilton and watch the fun ensue?

12. You’re about to interview a candidate and notice that his résumé lists an M.B.A. from the “Princeton School of Business.” Do you…

A. Confront the candidate during the interview and point out that Princeton has no such school;
B. Ask about the courses he took while studying for his MBA; or
C. Reveal during the conversation that you attended Princeton’s law school?

13. You’ve reached the end of a grant-funded program and there’s money left over. Do you…

A. Return the balance to the foundation, along with the final report;
B. Ask the foundation if you can use the money to begin the project’s next phase; or
C. Bring your biggest stein to the history department’s holiday party?

14. In a fit of self-indulgence, you raid the hotel minibar while on the road visiting donors. Do you…

A. Pay the tab yourself;
B. Ask for a non-itemized hotel bill; or
C. Focus the accountant’s attention on the “adult movies” charges?

15. Your golf foursome includes the board chair, who fudges handicaps to ensure you’ll win the annual charity tournament. Do you…

A. Lecture him about sportsmanship;
B. Squeal to the event organizer; or
C. Proudly accept your third “Sandbaggers of the Year” award?

Bonus. Your newest board member takes this quiz and circles C for almost every answer. Do you…

A. Share the results and your concerns with the president;
B. Organize an intervention involving other board members; or
C. Thank him for his generous campaign gift and remind him of the vastness of gray areas?

Mark J. Drozdowski is executive in residence at Bay Path College in Longmeadow, Mass., where he teaches in the Higher Education Administration and Nonprofit Management & Philanthropy graduate programs.

A Dish Best Served Cold

It was during my job interview here at Stovetop College that I first heard about the quirky little tradition that makes us unusual, and to be honest, it was a real selling point for me, being a populist kind of history professor looking for her first tenure-track job. As I walked across the Lawn, I was thinking about the conversation in which my soon-to-be-department chair had told me about it, three short years ago.

"Yes,” she said. “It’s an oddity. I believe we’re the only college in America, maybe the world, that tenures its food services workers.”

At first, I thought I hadn’t heard her correctly. But as she went on to explain the history of this arrangement, I found myself charmed by this small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere.

As the story goes, she told me, we had an alumnus who, through some smart investing in a California tech firm, had accumulated an enormous fortune. But then, being in California and all, this fellow, whose name was Edgar H. Carson, converted to Buddhism and decided to give it all away. Since Stovetop was apparently near and dear to his heart, he offered a gift -- $75 million up front, and another million a year in perpetuity, to do whatever the college wanted. The endowment at the time was around $20 million, so this was pretty unbelievable.

Carson attached one string. It seems that when he was a student here in the ‘60s, he was keenly disappointed in one particular professor who often missed class, showed up drunk, and harassed the women in the class -- the whole nine yards. When Carson, who at the time was just a sophomore, approached the department chair to complain, he was told, “There’s really nothing I can do. He has tenure.”

So Carson vowed that, if given the chance, he would rid Stovetop of tenure and, in doing so, assure future students that such faculty would not be able to make them miserable.

Of course, in 1985, when he offered the gift with the stipulation that tenure be abolished, the president told him we could never do such a thing. But $75 million! Imagine turning that down! Carson offered a compromise, which the president, without a second thought as to the consequences, accepted: tenure food services employees in addition to faculty.

Why? It turned out Carson had worked in the dining hall for three years, and felt that our food services employees, of whom he had grown very fond, were treated quite badly by the institution. One particular dishwasher, an older woman who occasionally invited Carson to join her family for Sunday dinner, was fired in an effort to appease an unhappy student who also worked there -- itself a long story.

And so here was Stovetop College, with a beautiful rec center, state-of-the-art technology, well-paid faculty…and tenured and tenure-track food services employees.

I couldn’t possibly pass up an opportunity to work at such an innovative (and well-off) institution, and so I accepted Stovetop’s offer of employment without hesitation, imagining a career of teaching capable students in well-equipped classrooms at the heart of maybe the most egalitarian college community in America.

Or so I thought.

It was a rainy April afternoon as I made my way across campus to a meeting of the Food Services Tenure Review Committee (FSTRC). I had been appointed to the committee at the start of my second year at Stovetop, no doubt due to my effusive appreciation of the whole idea. I was thrilled then, but after two years on this committee, found myself counting the days until the end of my three-year term.

Let me put it this way. You know the saying about faculty infighting? “The knives are so sharp because the stakes are so low”? Well, on the FSTRC, “sharp knives” is not a metaphor.

One of the stipulations demanded by the committee that designed the entire process of awarding tenure to food services employees was that a faculty member would always serve on the FSTRC, ostensibly to assure some “academic” quality control, and that was why I took my seat at the conference room table.

I poured a cup of fresh-brewed shade-grown Costa Rican coffee from the carafe in front of me, and snatched some fresh-baked Danish almond anisette cookies off one of the platters in the center of the table (obviously, these meetings always had the best meeting snacks on campus, given that, as dictated in the Food Services Tenure Manual, the director of food services and three tenured food service employees -- a cook, a line server, and a dish engineer, among others -- sat on the committee).

“We’re all here,” the director, Steve, said. “Why don’t we get started on the agenda?” He passed out a summary of the career accomplishments of two food services workers: Roberta, a line server, and Albert, a cook. Both Roberta and Albert had been in their positions for six years, and their egg timers of tenure were about to ding.

I swallowed a bite of cookie and sighed deeply as the battle commenced.

I used to believe that Edgar H. Carson had never really understood the ins and outs of higher education, academic life, “guaranteed lifetime employment,” and all the nuanced subterfuge of faculty politics, and that it was out of naiveté that he had offered his compromise.

But now I realize that Carson understood more than any of us exactly what a system of tenure could render in an otherwise humble organization like food services. I realize now that back in 1985, Carson still harbored a 20-year old grudge against a professor and the institution that was powerless to hold that instructor accountable, and that Carson’s very clever form of revenge was to subject us to more misery than any college, even a small, private, wealthy liberal arts college, deserves.

“Let’s start with Roberta,” Steve said, and pulled her thick tenure file from his briefcase. “You should have reviewed the material already. Solid recommendations from the other line servers. Student evals are stellar,” he continued, reading from the file. " ‘Roberta’s portions are always fair… she always greets me enthusiastically… she laughs at our jokes about mystery meat, unlike some line servers who get really defensive… she never lectures about eating vegetables, which I appreciate, because I hate lectures.’ ”

He went on. “Three solid letters from external reviewers that attest to the quality of her work. Apparently, she has a real knack for switching out food pans at the right moment, and when she presented a paper on this topic at a regional conference, it was standing-room-only and received rave reviews. She’s also written two articles, with one more in press, on plate presentation. This one, ‘Ratio, Proportion, Nutrition: A Postmodern Analysis of the Balanced Look/Balanced Meal Argument,’ was published in the American Food Services Personnel’s leading journal, which has only a nine percent acceptance rate.

“A recommendation from the head server concurs with all of this, with a special note that Roberta has always shown exceptional banquet leadership, taking on the difficult chafing dish role.

“Are there any concerns about Roberta at all? I mean, this is as solid a file as we get.”

“I have a question, Steve,” said Allison, Stovetop’s personnel director. “We’ve got five current tenured line servers, and two more come up next year. If we tenure Roberta, we’ll be looking at a department that’s 75 percent tenured with two more possibles next spring. Do you really want that a department that’s that heavily tenured?“

“Damn it, Allison!” It was Ned, the dish engineer rep. “We go through this every meeting! You can’t punish someone just because you’ve made bad decisions about others in the past. She deserves tenure! She’s not the problem. The problem is the wimps who served on this committee before us who capitulated and politicked and buckled under pressure and tenured two servers who should not have been.”

“It’s true,” I said. “And now we pay the price every day at lunch when our Tater Tots roll off our plates because they’re not well-placed and our green bean casserole juices run into our fish sticks.”

Allison shuddered and then glared at me. “Don’t go there, please. But you’re right, Ned. I understand that. It’s just that tenuring Roberta leaves little flexibility within the department to hire in the future, and I think that shifting enrollments might require us to hire more counter staff for the Taco Bell in the Student Union. And I’m not sure she’s willing to retool herself. She’s very committed to line serving, and that’s fast becoming too narrow a field. Sure, she goes deep. But we need broad.”

More discussion ensued, but after 45 minutes, Steve called for a vote. Roberta was awarded tenure by a 6-3 vote. Barring any unexpected interference from the provost (who, just last year, overturned us on a mealcard checker who had apparently lied on her C.V. -- who knew? The case is now in the courts), Roberta could look forward to a lifetime of serving students.

Now I was the one who shuddered. She would be working shoulder-to-shoulder with two tenured line servers who were miserable in their jobs but unable to get hired elsewhere, were woefully out-of-date on current food serving technique and research, and invested the majority of their energy in sabotaging the authority of both the head of serving and the Food Services director. They were a pathetic pair of institutional critics who, in faculty parlance, would be called “dead wood.” In food services, though, they’re known as “salad spinners.”

The discussion then turned to Albert. “Look,” said Ned, tearing open four packs of sugar and dumping them into his coffee, “this is a no-brainer. Albert’s a good guy, the students like him, we all like him. But he’s phyllo-dough thin in the research area, and like it or not, that matters here.”

“Oh come on!” yelled Ramon, the cook rep. “He’s doing some great things with four-cheese lasagna!”

“Four cheese?” countered Lou, the server rep who up until then had been silent. “Cooks at our peer institutions are offering up seven, sometimes eight cheese lasagnas, as well as alternative ravioli fillings -- portabello mushrooms, tofu, which Albert won’t touch -- ‘too trendy,’ he told me. Four cheese lasagna? That is so ‘90s.”

“Except that one of the cheeses is asiago,” defended Ramon. “No one else is working with asiago in institutional food services. Look, the thing you have to understand is that sometimes research needs time to gestate. I don’t think we can fully anticipate the impact that Albert’s work might have in five years … 10 years. Besides, he’s been incredibly loyal to this college. He comes to football games!”

“We don’t tenure on loyalty, Ramon!” insisted Steve. “That leads to mediocrity. You know what you call a college with loyal, but mediocre staff? Underenrolled!” No one said so, but we were all thinking of another school in our state, Aloe Vera College, a tiny Catholic college that had suffered a trichinosis outbreak due to careless kitchen techniques. That slippery slope led to AVC’s loss of accreditation three years later, and ultimately to their current enrollment crisis. It was a scenario we could all imagine happening if we were careless in our decisions.

The afternoon was late, and Steve ended up tabling the discussion of Albert’s file for the night, after we agreed to meet at 7 a.m. the next day. I silently cursed at the prospect of yet another meeting of this committee, an assignment that sucks up more time than my own research. And when my tenure decision comes, will this work matter to anyone on that committee? I have my doubts.

I grabbed one last cookie and made my way back across the Lawn. The sun had set below the ridge of Stovetop Mountain off to the west. Some students ambled by on their way to the dining hall. “Hi Professor!” they called out. I smiled at them, knowing that because of our battles in the FSTRC, or maybe in spite of them, a good dinner, well-served on clean plates, awaited them.

And I thought, too, of Edgar H. Carson. Carson died last summer, and I read in the college’s alumni magazine (Stovetop Stuffings -- not one of our best ideas) that Carson was known for his biting sense of humor and creative approach to seemingly intractable problems. No doubt about that, I said to myself.

Though we enjoyed the fruits of his generous gift, he had taken one of our most sacred institutions, tenure, and skewered it like lamb on a kabob. The joke, we all knew, but never admitted out loud, was on us.

Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College (Mass.), which is a very long distance from Stovetop College.

Cassoulet and Leadership

Before I became a college president, I enjoyed cooking for family and friends. Many of most well-liked recipes were reflective of holidays – brisket, sweet potato casserole, turkey stuffing. I also made a quality spaghetti sauce and my lasagna wasn’t too shabby either. Fruit soup was another specialty, and I had a gift for salads of any sort. Desserts were not my forte but I made pretty tasty brownies and chocolate chip cookies.

I always made extras”of everything, and people left our home with containers filled with the evening’s leftovers. I am a big believer that breaking bread with others creates important bonds. With leftovers, the warmth of a wonderful evening carries into the next day.

Now that I am president of Southern Vermont College, we entertain in our home all the time but my cooking for guests has come to a virtual standstill. With a full schedule, I barely get home in time for the events themselves. Then, there is the wee problem of food shopping – I rarely have time to go to the supermarket or smaller specialty shops (something I love to do). As much as I would like to cook for college guests, I am missing the most important ingredient: time.

I recently saw the movie “Julie and Julia” (starring Meryl Streep as a wonderful Julia Child). I smiled and laughed and cried. There was the sensuality of the cooking process and the gracious dinners for friends and associates that followed a day of cooking. There was competitive zeal of Julia chopping onions and Julie’s failed boeuf Bourguignon. While Julia was saddened by her lack of children, I saw her cooking as evidence of her creativity and her book and television show as her link to a new generation. Julie’s struggles with her mother – who did not believe in her – were played out in the kitchen as she conquered her fears: think lobsters and ducks.

The day after I saw the movie, we welcomed 50 college staff to our home. It was a lovely catered event to launch the start of the academic year. People seemed to be enjoying themselves. I gave a toast to the upcoming year and the importance of everyone there helping our students to succeed. All was proceeding swimmingly until one guest asked, with a wink in his eye, whether I had spent all day cooking since the food was so good.

Pause. It was like a stab in my heart, no doubt exacerbated by the movie. No, I had not cooked. I silently rushed through a list of what I had actually done that day instead of cooking: met with a prospective donor, greeted new SVC students and their parents, talked to the provost about both online hybrid courses and faculty development, visited our new Healthcare Simulation Laboratory, welcomed returning SVC Mountaineer athletes for the pre-season, and conferred with our new athletic director about our fall sports and the New England Collegiate Conference.

Two things followed.

First, I offered to bring the staff member who made the quip some matzo ball soup when next I made it. He seemed pleased. (He shouldn’t expect it before winter.)

Second, I reflected on the event at our home and realized that while I may not literally be cooking for guests in our home, I am still cooking. I am finding and blending ingredients; I am measuring and adding spices; I am helping create and shape an institution and those within it. At the end of the day, food cooking is all about producing something remarkably wonderful. That’s what leading a college is about too – producing something remarkable, including students who will be the leaders of tomorrow.

The recipe for that is even more complicated than Julia Child’s recipe for cassoulet, and the product is equally, if not more, delicious.

Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College.

Clutter and Cheese Croissants

Ah, summer. The time to catch up on tasks neglected during the school year. I don’t lack good intentions, so I make a goal to throw away a few nonessentials every day. There’s just one little problem.

“My name is Maria, and I am a packrat.”

An archaeologist excavating an ancient site could not be working much harder than I am as I sort out papers, books, magazines and miscellany that have accumulated in my home office. Despite the stress of doing so, I must push against my natural tendency to collect. I must grit my teeth and sort, pitch and reminisce.

The Truth?

The truth is that I love the printed word in all its variegated forms, from classic literature to third-class mail. I love it too much, and I never know when I might want to read something again. Or order coffee from a company I never heard of before. But I don’t live in the Library of Congress or a print shop. I’m in a four-bedroom colonial shared with my husband and son, heaven help them.

I wish I could say it is just the home office that is, if I may gently suggest, messy. There is also the dining room table, under the table, and around the table. Plastic files. Folders on wheels. Brief cases. Canvas bags. Both of my clothes closets have just a little spillover on the floor. Writing stuff. Teaching stuff. Writing stuff. Teaching stuff. I have tucked some things in the piano bench. I once made the mistake of putting papers in my clothes’ drawers. My husband and son did an emergency maneuver of dumping them into several trash bags. That made the point.

The Excuses

Call hoarding what you will (collecting, storing, keeping): I’ve got it bad. I ache for the past, and how can I remember it without mementos? But it’s not just sentiment. I’ve got logical reasons. I have three part-time teaching positions but inconsistent office space. A career counselor friend of mine believes that I have a “spatial memory”; I know what I have by seeing it out in front of me, somewhere, and am not much helped by file folders, filing cabinets, and organizers.

Going back to childhood, I had the reverse example of my parents, who were immigrants and able to pitch and sort at will, bringing their key worldly possessions thousands of miles in just two jumbo trunks stored in the attic. I often meditated on those trunks and have probably overreacted, accumulating enough to fill the equivalent of those trunks in the past year alone. But above all, everything I save has words on it. All it takes is a glance at the words to be transported backward or forward in time, wherever the text wants me to go. That is a feeling hard to surrender.

Until recently, my purse was full of Post-it notes I use for quick reference, and I will not swear that former purses tucked into various closets are totally empty. You never know when I’ll feel like changing my purse on a whim … and that movie ticket stub might find its way to a memorabilia scrapbook … or I might need just a few more cents to give exact change to a harried clerk as I buy a cup of coffee to fuel an all-night purge of papers. But the purge of files usually turns into a merge.

A Darling Definition

So what exactly is a packrat? In a town with a renowned natural history museum and a wonderful metropolitan park system, I lazily turn to Wikipedia. Immediately, I feel less alone in the universe. There are 22 species of packrat listed and it’s also known as a trade rat or wood rat. I’m walking prouder already.

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Rodentia
Superfamily: Muroidea
Family: Cricetidae
Subfamily: Neotominae
Tribe: Neotomini
Genus: Neotoma

Or in my case:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: None
Superfamily: Yes
Family: Yes
Subfamily: Yes
Tribe: Jewish
Genius: Yes

A Daring Discovery

We have much in common, the pack rat and I:

“In houses, pack rats are active nocturnally, searching for food and nest material. A peculiar characteristic is that if they find something they want, they will drop what they are currently carrying, for example a piece of cactus, and ‘trade’ it for the new item. They are particularly fond of shiny objects, leading to tales of rats swapping jewelry for a stone. They can also be quite vocal and boisterous, sounding at times as if a ‘family rift’ is taking place.”

Family rift: Yes, I’m married to a very neat guy who doesn’t have an extra piece of paper anywhere in his den and periodically loses his patience with his fuzzy spouse. Nocturnal: Affirmative. Married to a morning person. Searching for food: Indeed, I snack at night, especially during those quiet hours when I labor to peel layers of stuff off the dining room table. Incidentally, I do prefer even costume jewelry to a stone, but I’ve been known to collect a few stones. In a fit of generosity, I gave my memoir-writing class semi-precious stone hearts I ordered from a catalog that I wish I had kept because I am nostalgic to order the complete set again. Pitching leads to great problems.

Driven to Distraction

“A pack rat ‘midden’ is the nest of a pack rat.” Could a car be considered a nest? That is a cozy, preferable to the term my husband once used -- “rough draft wagon” -- referring to my proclivity for transporting student papers in their variant versions back and forth. “Due to a number of factors, pack rat middens may preserve the materials incorporated into it up to 40,000 years” [read: miles]. This can yield valuable knowledge of the past. I guess that’s what I’m hoping for. If you ever need a 1984 Writers Market, call me.

If Only

If only I had possessed the innate organizational instinct to create a scrapbook of my son’s art from his early years (he is now 16). I would have had to begin long ago. I thought I’d be in the mood to organize when my son was small. That was before I found that once he no longer had a crib, he wouldn’t be napping. And that I’d rather be playing with him and helping his own habits of collecting (plastic animals, stuffed animals, Pokemon cards, books, art supplies, whatever). He has outgrown his need for these things. I have not.

The Sublime

Who needs scrapbooks when the whole house is a packrat’s den? Like most writers, I have portfolios of my work, arranged and rearranged periodically. But narrowing the pedestrian aisles (please walk mindfully if you visit) is the work that has not yet made it to the portfolio and the extra copies of some work that has.…

Why do I have so much stuff? Some of the papers are work-related from various writing and editing jobs, now represented as just a line or two on the C.V. I save back-up, what led to a finished product. I’m process oriented. And then there are the handouts I’m forever tweaking for my students. And students’ writing. And the extra readings I love to share. And the extra copies of whatever, as I’d like to save at least a few trees in my lifetime. And student evaluations. And samples of good writing. And self-help materials. Inspirational articles. Science News. Tricycle, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Reform Judaism, and because I am ecumenically inclined, Daily Word, Unity Magazine, UU (Unitarian Universalist) World, Natural Solutions, Quill, to name about one fifth of the publications I read regularly.

The Ridiculous

There is nothing like a move or two to put a dent in knowing what is where. I undertook one such move as a dewy-eyed newlywed from my mother’s house to an apartment with my spouse who, as yet, did not know what he had gotten into. Six years later, a move from that apartment to a house had among its surprises the unexpected discovery of the box of cheese croissants left over from my wedding reception’s buffet. We always wondered where they went, and as starving graduate students, every leftover counted. Surprise! They had been somehow placed with other wedding mementos in a durable, airtight, cardboard box. They were intact, just waxy to the touch. (Don’t worry, I did pitch them.)

A Silver Lining

Some genuine treasures have emerged in excavations, such as a book I read over and over in my teens: Conversations: Christian and Buddhist. I found a precious handwritten account of Army life by one of my community memoir students now deceased; looking at the words makes me remember in an instant this man’s wit and grace. I see an assessment sheet in my own graphite printing assigned by an ambitious fourth grade teacher who had us rank our fellow classmates who had given oral reports. I find (and then misplace again) a postlude in my loopy fountain-pen script that I wrote in the seventh grade in response to a story about a young Native American who must decide whether to accept an out-of-town offer of education or to stay on the reservation. The last two items survived various moves since childhood.

Teaching About the Real World

Because I have an artistic side and liked the layout and design of invitations to benefits that were held three months ago, they might be saved. Samples of effective marketing writing and advertising might come in handy when my students are in the persuasion unit. Who says college teachers live in an ivory tower? I’m a teacher who recently got an idea about how to teach the sentence fragment while cutting up a box that had held teabags over the recycle bin. The cut-up box got rerouted to a new incarnation into the classroom. Temporarily. Now it’s in a plastic bag of teaching essentials somewhere on the dining room table.

Collecting Acronyms

The headline in a Suite 101 online article on organizing impertinently asks me: “Do you have hoard and clutter syndrome?” Yes, add HCS to the list of acronyms that describe me. Meyers-Briggs personality lingo pegs me as INFP (an introverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving type). Maybe it’s attention-deficit disorder, ADD, that makes me loathe filing. Perhaps my hoarding is suggestive of OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) rather than a charming personal quirk. On the brighter side, I do have an M.A. in English, and I’m working on an L.P.C. in a program accredited by CACREP. I’m a proud member of SPJ (Society of Professional Journalists) and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English).

The Truth

By the way, don’t believe the rumor my husband has shared with visitors that my home office still has sample student papers from my first year of teaching, 1982. I threw them away in the great purge of 2006.

Maria Shine Stewart teaches, writes and eludes the fire marshal in South Euclid, Ohio.


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