The U of All People psychology faculty comprises an idiosyncratic bunch of individuals, or, as the department chair recently put it, twenty-five different pains in the neck, though neck wasn’t the word used.
Professor Arnold distrusts all cognitive psychologists; Professor Baird won’t speak to Professor Cohn; Professor Handel perceives maternal rejection everywhere; Professor Garrett sits as far from Professor Rand as possible; Professor Llewen speaks only to certain individuals on certain days; Professor Abbott relies solely on reverse psychology; and all suspect each other’s motives.
Not surprisingly, the language in departmental meetings is difficult to read, even for veterans who’ve been teaching at U of All People for decades, and the proceedings really deserve a translation. In return for a modest travel voucher, the psycholinguist Martin Baffle has provided a rough equivalency chart for all future meetings:
Let’s come to order.
This meeting should’ve started 15 minutes ago.
Who’ll take notes?
I’m not doing it two months in a row.
We have five items on the agenda.
We’ll be lucky if we get past two.
You have the documents in front of you.
I see that none of you downloaded what I sent.
With all due respect ...
I’m about to be rude.
I have a question.
I have a comment.
I have issues with --
I can’t tell you how much this pisses me off.
Can you repeat that?
I need to buy some time.
What’s best for our students ...
What works for me ...
I’m a bit puzzled by ...
I hate ...
Do I hear a motion?
Will someone please save me?
Let’s send this back to the committee.
Let’s deep-six this baby.
Can we take this up next time?
I don’t have my minions here right now.
I have to leave early for another meeting.
I’m more important than you.
I’m sorry, but I have to pick up my son.
I have my priorities straight.
Do I see a hand?
As a point of procedure ...
No other way I can stop this.
If I may make a comment ...
Now that everyone else has had a say, I intend to drone on for as long as I like.
Shall we call the question?
Can we for Chrissake get on with this?
Paper ballots, please.
I see we don’t trust each other.
How about just a show of hands?
We’ll smoke ’em out.
Please, this is a private matter.
Back-channel all sniping e-mail.
As I recall, we do have a precedent for that ...
As the longest-standing faculty member in the room, I can make up anything before 1970.
We can decide this next matter in a hurry.
I hope no one’s read beyond page two.
That’s not what I said.
I wish I hadn’t said that.
Correct me if I’m wrong.
I know I’m right on this one.
Here are our recommendations.
Here are our demands.
To speak anecdotally ...
I haven’t a shred of evidence to back this up.
The administration may not agree with us on this one.
The provost wishes we were dead.
I don’t believe Professor Jones has had a chance to speak.
Stop marking papers, Jonesie.
We need to set up a committee.
We don’t want to talk about it now.
I’m just the moderator.
The buck starts here.
Let me remind you ...
I know you know I know you know.
I love talking about myself.
The dean has asked for our opinion.
He wants a rubber-stamp approval.
You have proxies?
But aren’t Professors Winthrop and Leighton dead?
The meeting is now adjourned.
Time for a drinkie.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
To: Dan Wyman, Director of Landscaping Services From: Lee Williams, Director of Four Rivers Residential College Date: Sept. 15
Hi Dan. Thanks for your recent e-mail about the benches in the courtyard of the Living Learning Center, which houses Four Rivers. I share your concern about the apparent damage being done to them. It does seem odd that the corners of the two benches next to each other are being carved or chewed up in some manner. I’ve not noticed this on other benches in the courtyard, and I’m not sure what could be causing this. I know that students in Four Rivers College who live here in the LLC tend to be a bit out of the mainstream of the rest of the university (though I don’t think they’d appreciate your phrase “grungy granola types”), but they are not really the “random vandalism” type. I’ll do a little investigation and see what I find. I’m afraid that we can’t provide staff to watch the benches all night, as you suggest, though I do realize they cost a lot of money.
To: Joe O’Malley, Living Learning Center Director From: Lee Date: Sept. 15
Hey Joe. I got a note from Dan Wyman about the benches in the courtyard. Have you noticed the way the corners of two of them have been chewed up or something? It’s weird. I’m wondering if a student has been shaving off pieces of the bench for some reason. Maybe one of the art projects in the Earth, Art and Me class? That would be odd, but no more odd than last semester’s giant mobile in the pine trees or the large hole Zach dug to demonstrate entropy, or whatever that was. What was that? Can you ask around the LLC and see if anyone knows anything? Thanks.
To: Dan Wyman, Joe O’Malley From: Lee Date: Sept. 19
I’ve identified the culprit. I came into the courtyard and found a large yellow Labrador retriever chewing away on the corner of one of the benches. His leash had been tied to a nearby sapling. Apparently his owner is taking a class here at the LLC and leaves him tied there. He seems to be a good dog. He stopped immediately when I yelled, “Hey!” and looked a bit chagrined, not unlike many of our students. He was wearing a collar with a tag that identified him as Bazzle, The Warrior King. It also listed his owner’s name. I will e-mail her and ask that she tie him up elsewhere.
To: Elise Anderson From: Lee Williams, Director of Four Rivers College Date: Sept. 19
Hello, Elise. I believe that you are the owner of Bazzle, the Warrior King. He’s a great dog, but it seems he’s taken a liking to the benches near the tree where you tie him up when you’re at the LLC, and he’s been chewing on the corners of them. Could you please tie him up elsewhere? Thanks.
To: Steven Porter, Chief of University Police From: Lee Williams, Director of Four Rivers College Date: Sept. 21
Hi Steve. I understand your concern about the dog your officer saw tied to a railing at the LLC. His owner is taking a class here. He’s well-behaved and quiet, unlike Werner the Weimaraner who barked incessantly last spring when he found himself in the same situation. Gosh, he was high-strung. Anyway, I know it’s campus policy that dogs not be left unattended, but ever since she moved him from the courtyard benches to the entry area where students typically hang out and smoke (yes, I know that’s against campus policy, too, but what can we do?), he’s rarely left alone. The students have taken a real shine to him. Can we just bend the rule a little? It’s only a couple of hours a week.
To: Dan Wyman, Director of Landscape Services From: Lee Date: Sept. 23
Hi again. Yeah, sorry about that. I’ll ask Bazzle’s owner to scoop his poop. Please express my apologies to the guy who mows the grass.
To: Elise Anderson, student From: Lee Williams Date: Sept. 23
Hi Elise. I appreciate your moving Bazzle’s waiting area away from the benches. Do you think you could either make sure he gets a good walk before you leave him, or perhaps make sure you clean up after him? I don’t want to antagonize the groundskeepers any more than we already have. And no, I don’t know who gave him the pepperoni pizza. I’ll ask around. Sorry about your car upholstery.
To: Joe O’Malley, LLC Director From: Lee Date: Sept. 27
Joe, could you please let the students know that they shouldn’t bring Bazzle, The Warrior King, inside the residence hall? I realize it was raining quite hard, but the housekeepers casually mentioned his presence to their supervisor who mentioned it to his supervisor who mentioned it to the director who just called me, and I think it’s important that we keep Bazzle under the radar because we’re violating about seven policies already just having him around. By the way, the monogrammed dog bed is very nice. I hope that wasn’t paid for with the money the students raised selling tofu empanadas. Thanks.
To: Justin Lane, LLC resident From: Lee Date: Sept. 28
Hi Justin. I understand you shared your pepperoni pizza with Bazzle, The Warrior King, which was really nice of you, but apparently not so nice for his delicate stomach. His owner said he barked, then barfed, in her car. He needs to stay outside and eat only what his owner provides. We need to be careful about drawing attention to his presence, or he may be banished from the LLC completely.
To: Steve Porter, Chief of University Police From: Lee Date: Sept. 30
Though it’s hard for me to imagine someone complaining about Bazzle, the Warrior King, who pretty much just sits and drools and watches the door while waiting for his owner to reappear, I do understand he’s not supposed to be there at all. I will ask his owner to stop bringing him with her. I will also ask Food Services to stop serving apple pie, and will make the LLC students turn in their Birkenstocks. Just kidding. But come on. He’s just a big old yellow Lab, trying to bring a little happiness to those around him.
To: Elise Anderson, student From: Lee Date: Sept. 30
Hi again. Well, it seems Bazzle, the Warrior King, has been ratted out, and we’ve been requested to abide by university policy to not have him left unattended while you’re in class. Sorry. He was a nice addition to the community, once students stopped feeding him pizza and he stopped using the lawn as a litterbox.
To: Justin, Sam, Jessica, Kate, LLC residents From: Lee Date: Oct. 2
While I really do appreciate your concern about Bazzle, the Warrior King’s situation, it’s just not okay to ignore university policy and let his owner leave him unattended. If you want to have her leave him with one of you, and you dog-sit during the class, that would be okay. Or if you want to address the policy itself, we can discuss appropriate ways to do that. Speaking of policies, could you take down the “Free Bazzle” banner that you’ve hung from the roof? It’s very nice, but you’re not supposed to be on the roof. Where’d you find a banner that big, anyway? I can read it from Route 12, and that’s about half a mile away.
To: Mary McQueen, Dean of Students From: Lee Date: Oct. 4
Hi Mary. No, I didn’t know about the permit for a demonstration that our students requested from your office. The “Free Bazzle” rally and t-shirt sale is not an official LLC event. And no, Bazzle is not the student who was suspended last semester. That was Basil, and he’s now living in an ashram in Asheville. On the brighter side, although this is the third demonstration up here this month, it’s the first one for which the students did seek a permit. Don’t you think that’s progress? Also, I’m sorry about you getting a call from the fire chief. I guess the student who was taking down the banner isn’t quite the Spider Man he thought he was. Please let the chief know I appreciate the rescue. Joe is meeting with Justin today to discuss possible sanctions.
To: Bob Thomas, International Student Adviser From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 5 Yes, I think there has been a little confusion. Bazzle, the Warrior King, is not a foreign student-in-exile seeking asylum in the United States. He’s a Labrador retriever with digestive problems. The rally is on Wednesday at noon. I will share your offer to speak at the rally with the students planning it.
To: Jason Easter, Reporter, Mountaintop Times From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 5
Yes, the students are planning another demonstration here at the LLC, and I guess I’m glad the students contacted you about media coverage. Perhaps we should just get you an office here. We’re thinking about getting one for the University attorney, whom the students now apparently have on speed-dial. No, I don’t think Bazzle will be speaking. You know he’s a dog, right? Just a dog with a taste for benches. The rally starts at noon, from what I’ve been told, and the Bazzle-Aid concert will begin at 4. I’ve heard they’ve booked fourteen bands and have about 20 vendors.
To: Samantha Reed, Fox News From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 6
He’s a dog!! He’s just a dog!! Bazzle, The Warrior King, is not in prison. He is not in exile. He’s a Labrador retriever in a red bandanna with bad breath, actually, and questionable dietary habits. Of course you are more than welcome to bring a film crew here, but isn’t there something more newsworthy than a yellow Lab who is simply canina non grata on our campus?
To: Henry Szymanski, Associate Provost From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 6
Hello, Dr. Szymanski. No, I didn’t know about the request our students sent to you to cancel classes during Bazzlepalooza. But if you think it’s a good idea, I’ll trust your judgment on this.
To: Elise Anderson, student From: Lee Date: Oct 6
Thanks for your note about your plans to take Bazzle to Knoxville. It seems like a good idea to let him live with your parents till you graduate in December. I’m sorry to hear that the stress of the attention has exacerbated his stomach troubles. I think I know how he feels.
To: Milton Brown, Sheriff From: Lee Williams Date: Oct. 7
Yes, from what I understand from the student planners, it’s very possible that the crowd will number in the thousands, now that the band Phish has announced that they will launch their reunion tour at the Free Bazzle rally. Sorry about this. But hey, you looked great on CNN last night. I like the haircut.
To: Dan Wyman, Director of Landscape Services From: Lee Date: Oct. 9
Now that things have quieted down after the rally/concert/riot, I’ve been able to take inventory around the LLC. We will definitely need to have the lawn re-seeded and about 30 replacement rhododendrons and azaleas planted. The “dog-friendly area” (boy, was that a bad idea) will probably require a backhoe to fill in the holes dug during the two-day event. And the benches are all gone. I think I saw two of them tied to the top of a VW microbus as it headed west on Route 12. I’m pretty sure they got the ones with the teeth marks.
Lee Burdette Williams
In a previous life, Lee Burdette Williams directed a residential college not unlike Four Rivers. She is now vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College (Mass.).
At U of All People, we’ve had a 5/5 teaching load for as long as we can remember, which means almost no time to spare for non-essentials like eating or breathing. And with class size capped at 75 students, many instructors crack under the strain of grading 700 lab reports or a quarter-ton of essays on the causes of the Civil War.
Within the ranks of the English department, however, is an astonishing anomaly: Professor N. F. Eckshul, last year’s winner of the More or Less Best Teacher of the Year award, seems to have a great deal of time to spare -- time he spends avoiding committee meetings and not publishing. The methods for his ultra-efficient pedagogy have remained obscure, since the last time he had a class observation was 20 years ago. But just this month, Professor Eckshul, announcing his retirement, has decided to share what he calls his Ten Teaching Commandments:
1. Break up the class into small groups that can “teach themselves.” Give each group a project: interpreting a text, writing a paragraph. This activity can use up anywhere from five minutes to the entire class period. Pretend to monitor the students’ progress by occasionally dropping by each group and making helpful suggestions, such as urging the students to listen to each other. Group presentations should take up any remaining class time.
2. Rather than giving students new assignments, which are hard to think up and evaluate, have the students work on a portfolio, consisting of material written and rewritten and re-rewritten, until the entire semester’s work consists of three perfect pieces suitable for framing. When students complain about the tedium of this sequence, sternly intone about the importance of the revision process.
3. Why correct the students’ work if you can get them to correct each other’s material? Set up a system of peer review, where one student, no matter how inept, reads and comments on another student’s work, and so on down the line. Have the students present their reviews in class. If this set-up leaves you with too much unused time, continue the process with a peer assessment of the peer reviews.
4. What student hasn’t thought on occasion, “Hey, I could be in front of the room, doing what the teacher’s doing”? Fine. Ask each student to lead one class “as an educational experience.” No need to prepare for that day. Just sit back and relax, but take care to furrow your brow occasionally and look as if you’re taking notes.
5. When giving exams, always give true-false, fill-ins, or multiple-choice tests, rather than complicate matters with messy interpretations that require time-consuming judgment calls when grading. Using Scantron forms can even eliminate your role in grading entirely while preserving an illusion of objectivity.
6. If you must assign final papers, don’t bother appending any comments, since students won’t bother picking them up from your locked office. If one or two tiresome students really want to look at how you marked their final work, warn loudly that angling for a better grade leads to an automatic markdown.
7. Grade inflation is here to stay -- embrace it! Giving A’s makes everyone feel good, as well as nullifying any complaints about unfair grading policies, discrimination, and even sexual harassment. Just as important: it’s far less work to mark an A paper than a C+ effort.
8. Make yourself as inaccessible as possible before and after class, as well as canceling office hours whenever possible. Just before any time slotted to meet with students, scribble something indecipherable on your door about attending a meeting or convention. And if students can be absent when sick, why can’t you? When really pressed, hint at “personal matters.”
9. Make sure that your first and last classes of the semester are null-content, or at least require no teaching. The initial class can be finessed by simply handing out the syllabus and course requirements and warning the students that there’ll be real work next week. The last class can be filled with anecdotes and reminiscences. During the semester, show a lot of videos.
10. Schedule review days before exams, after exams, at the end of a curriculum section, and any time you need a break from real teaching. If you still need a break after that, use PowerPoint.
Of course, David Galef would never, ever use the techniques described in this column, but what do you think? Please break into small groups and present your findings in the Comments Section.
At U of All People, we rarely get the kind of commencement speakers that draw headlines: no Hollywood film stars or Wall Street magnates, no First (or even Second) Ladies. When we invited our own college president, Rather Knott, we were turned down. Twice. Maybe this is why, for the past five years, the keynote speaker has been Provost Milt Toast, whose squeaky voice has become oddly reassuring, even as year after year he mispronounces graduation as “gradiation.”
But starting this year, we’d like to rectify the situation, especially since our students and alums are tired of hearing the same “go forth into the world and do no harm” speech from the last five occasions. (Also, Provost Toast has made it clear that he’ll be away this commencement, according to the seven memos he sent last week.) The problem is that we have, as always, no budget, so we have to rely on the kindness of strangers and presumed acquaintances in our little realm of academe. Here is our hastily composed short list of candidates:
Politician: Maybe we can’t invite someone like Nancy Pelosi or Al Gore, but we’ve got someone with senior statesman experience right in our backyard: Dan Minor, mayor of Burgh, the city 30 miles away from U of All People, and home of Sanding Belt Industries. Mayor Minor has been in his post for 20 years, largely uncontested, running on a tax-cut platform that’s reduced the Burgh school system to a one-room schoolhouse. Yet rumors of graft are largely unfounded, or at least unfindable, despite mayoral perks of a tennis court and private airstrip. A bonus: Minor is a 1980 UAP graduate, and though he’s never donated anything more than his annual class dues, he might kick in if we flatter him with an honorary degree in something or other.
Media personality: David Duchovny, Alicia Silverstone -- out of our league. Thank God for Summer Day, local TV weatherperson and occasional news anchor. With her trademark “stormy” hair and drizzle-proof smile, Summer has announced the weather on Channel 17 Cable through rain, shine, and those kidney-shaped hailstones we had last March. She’s the first person we tune in to every morning, and the one we look toward in times of doubt, such as when we’re planning a weekend at the beach. Inviting her would guarantee sunshine at commencement.
Business tycoon: Warren Buffett is never going to stand on our homemade proscenium stage and urge investment in the future. But we can rely on Woody Pohl, the owner of Sanding Belt Industries in Burgh. A mom ’n’ pop business that grew to over 50 employees during the '80s, tanked in the '90s, and was bailed out by Mayor Minor in a documents-sealed case, Sanding Belt remains a mainstay of the region. In 2007, when his son Tadd applied to UAP, Pohl donated three giant sanding conveyor belts to the UAP fitness center to be used as treadmills.
Writer: Toni Morrison and Derek Walcott aren’t in the cards. But probably for the price of a campus book-signing, we can get Art Manqué, the author of such semi-noted novels as Aha! and Bring Me a Fork. A fixture at the local Starbucks, Manqué can often can be seen walking his laptop along the slagged paths of the UAP campus while muttering what appears to be character dialogue. His second-to-last novel is set in UAP’s student cafeteria.
Doctor: Do people even know who today’s surgeon general is? Never mind Regina Benjamin or even C. Everett Koop. We’ve got Lotta Miles, M.D. Starting out as a cosmetologist two decades ago, Dr. Miles is now a plastic surgeon with a large regional practice (“Miles ahead of the rest!”), responsible for the look of an estimated 20 percent of our student bodies.
Scholar-educator: Harold Bloom is busy. Jacques Derrida is dead. But we’ve got the beloved teacher and trainer Thayer T. Rex, a mainstay of our Classics/Art/Phys. Ed. Department for over 35 years. The rumor about his retirement in 2008 never panned out, but having Professor Rex deliver a valedictory speech to the undergraduates might make him take a hint.
If none of these speakers accept, we have a video of Provost’s Toast’s speech from last year we might be able to use.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
When U of All People was founded back in 1970 (briefly losted in the foreclosure of 1987), little thought was given to its surroundings, the sleepy hamlet of Ennyville -- primarily because there was no Ennyville. The university itself emerged on 150 acres of reclaimed swampland, a federal land grant only in the sense that the government wanted to distance itself from a toxic sludge event that at the time was termed “accident at the plant.” But as the university grew from pontoons and quonset huts to potholed paths and faux Gothic halls in dire need of repair, the blind forces of capitalism have seen to the birth and growth of the town.
Ennyville started in 1975 with Sleep Here, a forty-room flea lodge built to accommodate the families of graduating students, campus guests, and sordid trysts. From there, it was a short series of steps to enterprises such as Mart’s Fuel Mart (“We’ll give you gas”) and Main Street Movie Theater (now Main Event, a performance space whose latest show was devoted to foot flogging, linked to the university art department). For obvious reasons, Ennyville has a close relationship to U of All People, or, as biology professor Jen Edix describes it, “the parasitism that exists between a nematode and the human intestine.” Other faculty have been less kind in their assessments. Yet Ennyville is careful to preserve a traditional college town air, if only to attract those at U of All People who consider themselves traditional or collegiate.
The Down Home Diner, housed in an authentic old railway car, remains a bit of a mystery, since no train service exists within 100 miles of Ennyville. Affectionately termed “the Roach Coach” by its clientele, Down Home has survived countless code violations, ranging from clogged grease traps to rodent droppings in the pantry. But the diner remains a favorite university hangout, particularly because so few options exist. And Down Home serves breakfast all day, especially for students whose idea of morning fare is French fries and gravy.
Perhaps in reaction to the dining venues on and off the campus, an upscale café called the Purple Plum does a brisk business in muffins, coffee, herbal tea, and more muffins. The school’s seven student vegans dine here. A 2003 foray into lunch business -- stuffed muffins with a choice of three fillings -- didn’t succeed, and now the Purple Plum is back to what it does best.
Charming Boutique #3 is the third incarnation of a candle and scented soap shop, whose owner in 1985 moved to the graveyard off Route 17. Chloe Retro, a recent graduate at the time, bought the business and turned it into Groovy Antiques, featuring items from the Sixties, such as giraffe-shaped bongs and peace signs made from barbed wire. Under new ownership after a drug raid, the store is now back to soap and candles, with a sideline in wobbly ceramics.
Wrecks-All Drugstore near Fraternity Row stocks what its customers need most, including a dozen brands of condoms and over-the-counter sedatives. Pharmacist “Pops” Popper aims to please, as he has for over twenty-five years, and also does a brisk backdoor business in what he vaguely refers to as “secondhand Rx.”
Boo Briar is the friendly proprietor of Boo’s, a liquor store that deals mainly in pint bottles. Open late, Boo’s has been deemed responsible for a large percentage of the DWI incidents around campus, but as Boo likes to joke, “Alcohol don’t kill people. It preserves ’em.”
Five houses of worship anchor the town, including the First Presbyterian church and two close Seconds. The Catholic church, Our Lady of Groaning, merges spiritual consolation with tutoring aid. “Haven’t got a prayer of passing the test?” reads the marquee sign. “We can help.” The Interfaith Chapel, recognizable by its defaced outdoor sculpture, is visited by no one.
The Swampland Bank (the name a nod to the college’s roots), offered free checking in the days when students still wrote checks, but now demands a minimum balance of $500 (with a creative option, still pending in court, for the equivalent in goods and services). The card slot in the ATM has been repeatedly jammed with super-glue since 2007, but the smashed security camera has shown nothing.
Of course, Ennyville does more than just cater to the buying patterns of students. The town boasted a population of 1,713 in the 2010 census and has learned to be self-sufficient (except in June, July, and August). The buildings around town house three second-rate doctors, an insurance-real estate-tax accountancy-law-and-carpentry firm, a nail salon staffed by illegal immigrants — even semi-affordable housing in a development called Kollege Rowe. In reciprocity, U of All People has reached out to Ennyville, offering a senior-citizen course-credit discount that amounts to $15.99, as well as free access to campus cultural events like Museum Night. The school also rents its 15,000-seat football stadium to local meetings of the Kiwanis Club.
Even the latest Omicron Upsilon prank, involving a gallon of sheep’s blood and the Interfaith Chapel, hasn’t done much to sour town-gown relations, after the fraternity paid an unnamed sum in restitution. As head of the local Chamber of Commerce, Len Meesum, puts it,“The love just keeps on coming.”
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
I am always working. If not at the office, then at home. And if not in front of a computer, then sitting on the couch with my nose buried in a book or a journal. And if not there, then riding around my yard on the lawnmower, reading the newspaper, or playing golf with friends.
Like most academics, I live the life of the mind, and wherever I go, my mind is there too: sifting through half-baked ideas; ruminating on the latest developments in my field; wondering if my 7-iron will take that tree out of play.
Unfortunately, my wife, Loren, doesn’t buy into this life of the mind thing, at least not completely. Sure, she understands that my job at the local college helps pay the bills, and she also understands that part of the job requires me to come up with ideas and write articles and books. But she has always been suspicious of my definition of work, and whether what I routinely call work should be considered working at all.
Loren has a profoundly materialist view of work. Some might say reductive. For her, work involves actually doing, well, work: something that can be seen and heard. She rejects the proposition that my mind is my office. (Or is it the other way around? My office is my mind? Which one sounds more impressive?) And she thinks the person who came up with that phrase is an idiot.
In graduate school, while writing my dissertation, I tried to convince her that writing should count as work. She agreed that typing on the keyboard, the act of putting words into sentences and paragraphs, counts as work. But she questioned whether the other nonsense I claimed was writing, like surfing the Internet, watching travel shows on TV, sitting in coffee shops, and drinking beer in the afternoon, was actually work. (In my defense, I never once claimed that my principal occupation at the time -- complaining about writing -- was work, even though my buddies, who were writing dissertations as well, assured me that it most definitely was.)
When I got my first job, I did most of my writing at the office. Loren believed that I was working because, well, I was working. I regularly brought home text for her to read and I managed to write a book and nearly two dozen guest columns for newspapers.
But recently, I’ve fallen back into my old habits. Just the other day, about a week before the fall semester began, Loren and I were working at home, she on a do-it-yourself project and me on a writing project. It was slow going that morning, and by about 11:00 a.m. I was ready for a break. I got up from the computer and sat down in the front room to read the newspaper. Loren was coming in and out of the house, taking measurements in the bathroom and cutting drywall in the garage. She passed by a couple of times without comment, but on the fourth trip I heard a low, Marge Simpson-esque grunt.
The sound caught my attention because Loren, like her mother before her, can communicate five or six different meanings with a grunt, depending on the modulation, ranging from mild annoyance to utter dismay. I thought the sound I heard that morning was on the mild end of the spectrum, so I kept on reading the paper.
Twenty minutes later, I went to see Loren’s progress in the bathroom.
“You’re annoying me,” she said before I could say a word, or even poke my head in and take a look around. “When I’m working, you can’t sit and read the paper where I can see you.” (In addition to her materialist view of work, Loren has a strict collaborative view of work as well. If she’s working, I must work. Or at least appear to work.)
I thought about debating her characterization of my morning activity, but quickly realized I could never convince her that reading the paper should count as work. “Okay,” I said, sheepishly returning to my computer.
Reading the paper that morning didn’t officially count as work, at least not in my house, but it did help me get some work done. That short break, and the distraction provided by other peoples’ ideas, helped me think about my project in a new, productive way.
And that’s the odd, surprising, and wonderful thing about the academic life, about the life of the mind. It often involves staring out the window or doing something else for a while -- putting our projects on hold for a couple hours so we can return to them later in the day, after our subconscious minds have had a chance to do a little work on them.
My marriage to a person who questions the life of the mind is actually quite good for me. It keeps me productive -- gotta keep those fingers tapping on the keyboard lest Loren think I’m looking at the Internet -- and it keeps me honest. I no longer confuse my golfing, reading, or Web surfing with actual work.
Tom Moriarty teaches writing and rhetoric at Salisbury University.
The student worker in our department office had messed up the committee report so that Page One was tucked between Pages Three and Five, and the last page was missing. A colleague of mine called this problem to her attention. “My bad!” she said cheerfully as she walked away.
A pause hung in the air. “Whatever happened to ‘I’m sorry’?” muttered the committee head, and we proceeded without the faulty report.
The phrase my bad, exported to the U.S. about a decade ago from Australia, has become a curse. Initially, it seemed a lighthearted way of claiming responsibility: not mea culpa, with its Catholic overtones of sinning and eventual forgiveness, but a slangy alternative. Turning bad into a noun was cute, if at first a bit grating, and it could apply to so many situations.
Chose the wrong textbook at the bookstore? My bad! Got caught plagiarizing your essay from Wikipedia? My bad! Forgot to attend class for the last two months? My bad!
It soon became clear that my bad wasn’t so much an acceptance of responsibility as shrugging it off. A rough translation of my bad these days might be “Okay, maybe I screwed up, but it’s no big deal, so stop pestering me.” And that’s simply not acceptable in many situations. It does matter that the assignment was late or that the homework wasn’t done at all. I’m still waiting for a follow-up like my good, to mean “I’ll make good on that.”
A companion phrase that emerged a few years ago plays on a simple tautology: It is what it is. In fact, it’s not as dumb as it sounds. It’s sometimes uttered with a fatalistic shrug, as in a summing-up of the campus cafeteria that serves inedible hamburgers, or in the wake of an administrative glitch that’s not going to get any better. Given American education’s ostensible reformist zeal, it even had a certain old world charm, an acknowledgment that certain situations were unchangeable, and that was life.
But the third or fourth time I heard it applied, I recognized it for what it was. “This copy machine is broken again!” screamed an assistant professor already late to class.
The secretary shrugged. “It is what it is.”
A more appropriate response would have been “I’ll call the repairman.” And since I also use that machine, I walked over and asked her to do just that.
"But it’s too late for her to get those copies made.”
“True. But it’ll help others. So call, okay?”
She twitched. “Whatever.”
Of course, whatever is the forebear for a lot of these blow-offs. Starting as a seemingly agreeable rejoinder (“Would you like to meet in my office or the seminar room?” “Whatever.”), it soon shifted to a fob-off (“I thought I told you the meeting was at three.” “Whatever”). The not-so-hidden meaning is “This is a stupid point to insist on, and don’t bother me.” Once on the lips of all sullen students, whatever seems to have lost popularity as middle-aged faculty members adopted it.
What’s new in this line? Keep your ears open for pretty much, as in “That pretty much sums it up.” Cut down to two words, its scope has broadened to include a wealth of sins: “Did you really blow off that research paper?” “Pretty much.” “Is that all you have to report?” “Pretty much.” It masks an avowal behind a laconic semi-affirmative.
My favorite, though, is Good luck with that! -- said with just enough edge for the hearer to suspect sarcasm but not be entirely sure, as in “I don’t really like English courses, but this semester I’m taking Shakespeare, Milton, and Modern Poetry.” “Good luck with that!” Or “I’ll have to finish my conference paper on the plane to New Orleans.” “Good luck with that!”
In fact, I heard it just the other day as a capper to someone who said he was trying to solve the longstanding parking problem at our university. In that particular instance, even I might have said, “It is what it is.”
David Galef is pretty much a professor of literature and creative writing or whatever at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.
If you plotted our town on one of those vintage maps that show important products, we’d be an ear of corn, a fat green soybean, and a little black mortarboard. Even within the perimeter of the campus, we have farms for teaching and research. On one of these, a dairy farm of 200 cows, we are living out our destiny as a land-grant institution.
Land-grant institutions, you will remember, came into being under the Morrill Act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Tracts of land were granted to loyal states; the state could sell the acreage to raise funds to establish a university. Land-grant universities were required to teach mechanical arts (engineering), agriculture, and, in a nod to the desperate reality of the Civil War, military tactics.
In the early days of our university, the student brigade rolled out its cannon and practiced artillery on the central quadrangle. When called to the Somme, they went. And now, once again, in our sleepy town, you can hear the booming sound of cannon fire.
The first night the booms woke me I figured that I had been reading too much nineteenth-century French history and had a very bad case of Napoleon on the brain. Once he settles in, he’s a bear to get rid of. But my husband grumpily assured me that I hadn’t imagined it. Someone was firing a large gun on our campus.
The neighbors had theories:
(1) Frat boys setting off fireworks. The originator of this theory grew up here, which is why he assumes that any nighttime phenomenon that can’t be otherwise explained must be caused by fraternities.
But frat boys, although they do operate inside a highly structured and hierarchical institution, don’t set off their fireworks at regular intervals.
(2) “Firing to get rid of the Canada geese,” my husband theorized. “There are too many of them around the ponds.” But weren’t the Canada geese sleeping at night?
At a dinner party that night our host admitted he was exhausted. Early in the morning he had finally called 911 and complained.
We all leaned forward. So what is it?
His eyes twinkled. “You know all those cows? And think of all the methane they produce… .” The university, the 911 operator had explained, responsibly trying to keep all that hot methane out of the biosphere, had installed a machine that processed the methane with a loud bang. Unfortunately the timer had malfunctioned and that was why it had gone off all night rather than during the day.
“University flatulence,” he chuckled. “We should have known.”
I liked all these theories. I pictured the frat boys setting off fireworks at timed intervals (they would probably have an app on their cellphones to keep track), the geese going elsewhere (good riddance!), and the methane from the dairy cows exploding with a bang. But like many appealing theories of ordinary life, all three were wrong.
The university once again has a cannon. And on that modest dairy farm, our land grant mission, our very destiny -- agriculture, military tactics, and engineering -- has finally come together to defend our land-granted soil. And just in time, too. The enemy is massed all around, lined up on the wires, waiting to attack. Wasn’t it Marx who said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce?
For the last two years flocks of crows have swooped down and pecked through the enormous rolls of corn stored in heavy plastic, causing rot and spoilage. Storing the feed corn for the coming year in giant plastic rolls is efficient and economical. Each plastic roll holds the equivalent of a sixty-foot silo and needs no maintenance. The farm tried netting over the plastic but the crows pecked through it. They tried poisoning, but neighbors complained about the crows keeling over in their yards, and the cruelty. So this year they have purchased a propane-powered nuisance cannon. At intervals it sets off a sonic boom of over one hundred decibels. Normally it goes off at random, regular intervals all day long. It went off all that sleepless night because someone forgot to turn it off.
Napoleon said that it was with artillery that you wage war and win battles. How he would have loved the university’s 21st-century weapon, the propane cannon. So portable! Blue and yellow plastic, a lightweight tripod, and 17,000 detonations from one small tank of fuel. Its only projectile is that now-familiar sonic boom. At least for now, the crows are in retreat.
Carol Spindel is an instructor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Submitted by Rob Weir on December 23, 2010 - 3:00am
I've just had one of those semesters in which one of my classes had just enough rotten eggs to jeopardize the barrel. You probably know the eggs in question, the ones suffering from SBS (Spoiled Brat Syndrome). Love that term. It was given to me by one of my students who got tired of hearing from peer whiners. SBS students are those who occasionally come to class, voice a few complaints about how (they’ve heard) you conduct it, insist that you personally take responsibility for improving their grades, register moral outrage when told that you intend to hold them to the same standards as lesser-deserving students, and then disappear for several more weeks.
I get through this kind of class because I’ve learned not to waste my time on SBS sufferers. (Seriously, there’s little you can do to please them, so don’t bother trying.) The end-of-semester problem is that our campuses practice the same one-person/one-vote democratic practices that muddy our civic lives. Everyone gets to fill out a class evaluation, whether they're Einstein or the campus idiot, a perfect attendee or a ghost, a hard worker or an SB. Alas, it only takes a few SBs to pull down your class evaluation scores. I’ve written before about what you should and should not take away from student evaluations. My relaxed views on these notwithstanding, this semester’s brush with SBS students aroused my sense of justice. It's just not fair that students get to evaluate us, but we don’t get to say our piece about them. In theory, of course, our grades are their evaluations, but as many on this site have noted, professors who break the institutional curve do so at their own peril. Let’s just say that C has become the new F and B is now the new C. I say it’s time to give profs parallel rights and allow them to evaluate their students. Distribute machine-scored bubble sheets and make the results on each student available campus wide. Heck, let’s even set up a Rate My Students website.
Based on my university's instructor evaluation form, here is a working draft of what one might look like. (Disclaimer: This test comes to you as a seasonal dose of seasonal humor and should not be construed as an exercise in cynicism. I truly love almost all of my students, even a few of the SBSers.)
1. The student was well-prepared for class. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Sometimes. d. Rarely. e. Have I ever seen this person?
2. The student actually reads directions before asking what they are. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Sometimes. d. Only if the directions appear in red, bold, and 48-point font. e. A new immaculate conception is more likely.
3. The student demonstrated that s/he actually opened assigned books. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. No, but student cruised some cool websites. d. Student didn’t buy the books, but did complain about their cost and the fact that I didn’t use them enough in class e. Read! What kind of tyrant would impose such an indignity?
4. The student used class time well. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Does catching up on sleep count? d. Perhaps, but it was at some out-of-class pursuit. e. Remind me again who this person is.
5. The student demonstrated a keen interest to learn. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Maybe once, but I could be wrong. d. ROTFL. e. Who?
6. The student looked at the syllabus at any point other than day one. a. Student always consulted it. b. Frequently. c. Not sure s/he is familiar with the term. d. Left it on the desk upon leaving the first class. e. Thinks it’s my job to call each night and remind him/her of assignments.
7. Student made valuable contributions to the class. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. S/he once gave a cold to several classmates. d. Class exchanges were acrimonious though there’s no way s/he could spell that word. e. Class contribution analogous to Cruella Deville's to animal rights.
8. Percentage of time student spent working vs. complaining about working. a. Never complained. b. Seldom complained. c. About 50/50. d. You’d have thought I was asking for both kidneys. e. Never stopped complaining, though one must admire student's consistency and persistence.
9. Percentage of classes student actually attended. a. 100 percent or nearly so. b. 75-90 percent. c. At least 50 percent. d. Peer nickname was “Caspar.” e. Do I really have a student by this name? Are you sure?
10. Student begins working on major assignments at least 12 hours in advance. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. It could have happened once, but I kind of doubt it. d. Did you say “in advance?” Hah, hah! That’s a good one. e. Are you under the misapprehension that this student actually handed in work?
11. Student has actually looked at things marked on returned papers other than the grade. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. Yes, s/he once remarked on the lovely shade of red splashed across the page. d. Stop! You’re killing me with these jokes. e. See 10e.
12. Student accepts responsibility for mistakes. a. Almost always. b. Frequently. c. S/he once apologized for spilling soda on my office carpet. d. Insists s/he is always misinterpreted. e. Student’s lawyer will not allow me to answer this question.
13. How much did this student learn in your course? a. Quite a lot. b. An average amount. c. A new idea may have sneaked in when student’s guard was down. d. Wouldn’t the student actually have to be in class for this to happen? e. A brain surgeon with a power drill couldn’t get into this student’s head.
14. Estimated hours per week this student devoted to your course. a. More than 10. b. 5 to 10. c. A good 15 minutes. Maybe. d. 2-3 nanoseconds. e. Do zombies study?
15. What is your overall assessment of this student? a. S/he is a stellar student, a credit to her/his family, and has a promising future. b. Student has room for improvement, but has the potential to do well. c. Student’s ability to moan and complain certainly ranks in the top 25 percent. d. My God! If this student is ever again in one of my classes please, please just shoot me. e. I had a better chance of marrying into the British royal family than seeing this student at any point during the semester.
16. What testing would you recommend to this student’s adviser that would help that adviser plan the student’s future? a. LSAT. b. GRE. c. Test for possible learning disabilities. d. Myers-Briggs personality test. e. An EEG.
Despite recent economic indicators, as U of All People President Buck Passer is fond of calling the current recession, building is still proceeding apace on campus. In God’s name, why? Because the funds were earmarked a long time ago; i.e., even though we’re down to our last piece of chalk in the classrooms, we’re going to have a state-of-the-art echo resonance chamber up soon, next to Old Classroom Quarters #3 (the one that makes odd groaning sounds in autumn because of shifts in the adjunct-faculty-operated heating system). As President Passer explained in his three-minute opening address this semester, “Architecture is sexy. Faculty salaries aren’t.” So, for the next five years, or until the moolah runs out, the U of All People campus will be alive with the cheerful roar of electric saws, cement mixers, and nail guns. Here are just a few of the current building projects:
The Tip Tapp School of Dance: named after alumnus George Tapp, whose latest trophy wife, Tip, wanted something more substantial than another house in the Hamptons. This 40,000â€‘square-foot facility will contain five soundproof rehearsal rooms, a 3,000-seat auditorium with a massive proscenium stage, and even a classroom. Cost: $22 million, $40,000 of which will go to recruit students for the new dance major and hire instructors to teach them.
Institute for Production: originally called the Institute for Melamine Production, or IMP, recently nicknamed “the white elephant.” The blueprint for this low-slung structure of laboratories with high-security access was sidelined after the Chinese melamine scandals and only recently received the go-ahead from President Passer. Now the plan is to renovate the old Chem Building and install truck access in the rear. “I’ve been told the money’s coming from a Hong Kong consortium, and that’s all I know” says head of Engineering Inyure Poquette. “Anyway, it’s safe to say we’ll be working to produce something or other.”
Bland Cafeteria: puzzling, since we already have three cafeterias, a café, a refectory, and two dining halls. But this is what the class of 1985 pooled its donations for: a 24/7 facility so that students pulling all-nighters need never go without munchies. Shaped like a giant pretzel and designed by the ecologically correct Swedish architectural firm ELOF, known for its innovative use of building materials, Bland will have its very walls made of hardened dough. “It is edible, theoretically,” says ELOF CEO Elof Elofsen, “and that is the point, yes?”
Raquette Dormitory for Legacies: designed specifically with future donations in mind, this 20-bed facility will house only those students whose parents pledge $1 million above tuition costs. Features include en-suite swimming pools, a mink-lined jewelry vault, butler services, a secret exit, and BMW transportation to and from classes.
Fromley Facility for Under-Represented Sports. Sack racing, Tiddlywinks, and pole chasing are just three of the sports that will be practiced here. No one knows who Fromley is, but President Passer (UAP ’91) has let it be known that he “practically invented” underwater soccer when he was a sophomore. Fromley will also house UAP’s champion thumb-wrestling team, the only one in the United States.
Dollar Parking Lot: named after Harold Dollar, the transportation mogul whose son lost the use of his second vehicle in a parking-related injury. This multi-level facility, capable of holding three hundred vehicles with convenient access to all campus facilities, was pulled at the last minute in favor of something sexier: the Dollar Raceway, five miles from campus.
David Galef is a professor of English and the creative writing program director at Montclair State University. He also writes dispatches from U of All People for Inside Higher Ed.