One ritual of the start of the academic year is the release of Beloit College's annual "mindset list," which aims to help professors understand what their new freshmen experienced (and didn't) growing up. While some items on the list are, of course, related to technology, many reflect the cultural and political world views of today's 18-year-olds. The list was created by Tom McBride, the Keefer Professor of the Humanities at Beloit, and Ron Nief, the former public affairs director.
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-
I come highly
Paid to say:
Listen to these
And try to show
You’re the gen-
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.
Go for gusto.
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.
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?
May God bless you.
David Galef is happily employed as an English professor at Montclair State University, not, thankfully, at U of All People.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
About.com 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.