Humor/whimsy

Reading Flaubert and More in Belize

Spring 2006 was a difficult time in the department. At first, people weren’t speaking to each other; then, the halls were simply empty. I don’t know where most of my colleagues were hiding out. I frequented the medical school cafeteria, where you could count the people not wearing scrubs on one hand -- me and four others.

The whole university was in upheaval. Top administrators were dropping like flies. I had four campus visits for other jobs and came in second for each. I spent May and June finishing proofs for a book I had translated from French to English and revisions to an article on gorillas, Dian Fossey, and excrement. A friend was told her contract in the department would not be renewed for budgetary reasons, although the official story was that no one was to be laid off. I read Jared Diamond’s Collapse and saw the Al Gore movie. Hope was fading. I applied for another job and came in third. I’m tenured, a full professor, but in this type of climate no one feels safe. Or at least, no one feels happy.

I was tired of coming up with synonyms for excrement:  waste, shit, dung, the abject, poop, caca, number two. The editor of the British journal that accepted the article wrote me that foax is the singular of feces. The local school board announced that my daughter’s elementary school will close for budgetary reasons. Amazon.com informed me that it couldn't send me the books for my fall classes because my university credit card had been rejected. I scanned the job ads and then booked us on a three-week vacation to Belize. I packed two paperbacks that I already owned, Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet for a graduate course, and François Mauriac’s Thérèse Desqueyroux for an undergrad course on crime in French literature.

My husband insisted we go light -- each of us would have a backpack -- so I wore my new Keen sandals and packed three pairs of shorts, four tank tops, one long-sleeved shirt, and minimal toiletry items. I got a bikini wax, a dose of antibiotics, and a hepatitis A shot. My daughter, Lucy, settled on three small stuffies and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in the series by C.S. Lewis. My husband packed a relief map of Belize and said we should think of retiring there. Lucy breathed easy when I told her that they speak English in Belize (she had been traumatized by the French public school system while we lived there on a sabbatical). We took two planes to Cancun and a bus to Belize. I had set up an automatic e-mail reply that stated I would be back shortly before classes started and that I would not have regular access to e-mail in the interim. The Israeli-Hezbollah war began.

It was incongruous reading Bouvard et Pécuchet while riding on old American school buses in Belize. With the radio blaring two songs -- one about “de subway” and the other insisting “déme más gasolina” -- I read about the Frenchmen who were amassing a personal museum from medieval church fragments. Flaubert was mocking them. I mixed up the names, for Bouvard seemed more of a Pécuchet and vice versa. They had bought a farm to escape Paris. We passed by the Mennonite settlement of Shipyard. A very large Spiderman piñata occupied its own seat.

I plowed through B et P on the balcony of a hotel in Orange Walk at dawn, unable to sleep due to the time change. A Baptist missionary from Kentucky joined me on the balcony and talked of feeding the poor kids in town. We saw Mayan ruins and our guide talked of the destruction of Orange Walk due to crack cocaine. The hotel room was miniscule and not ventilated. Every evening the Orange Walk drum corps and baton team practiced across the street in a lot by the Shell station. We moved on to San Ignacio, in the Cayo District, and to a lodge in the village of Bullet Tree.

At Cohune Palms we had a thatched cabana for a week. The river was too flooded for swimming and canoeing, but Lucy and my husband went caving and I took her to Tikal, across the border in Guatemala. I had gotten a bladder infection in Orange Walk and had begun my antibiotics. I had also bought two rounds of Cipro over the counter for $8, just in case. Prescient of me, since the infection continued. I checked my e-mail. More fly droppings. No response from the last job I had applied for.

Bevin, from Idaho, ran the lodge with her Rastafarian husband, Mike. She was 10 years younger than me and in the “library” I found a version of Short Story Masterpieces that came out in the mid-80s and that had a completely different set of stories than the edition I had read in high school. Mine had Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress,” Saki’s “The Open Window,” and Fitzgerald’s “Winter Dreams,” still one of my favorites. Hers had Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” I read it in a hammock and tried not to let the wilted pages get away from each other. A fer-de-lance viper snake curled up on a chair on Bevin and Mike’s porch, inches from their daughter and mine. Workers killed it with a machete.

The only other tourist with Lucy and me on the trip to Tikal was Will, an American undergraduate at the University of Houston, in Belize to study HIV. He had taken Mythology 101 in the spring and was happy to tell Lucy the story of the Titans, again and again. He had to tell it twice at lunch and twice on the way back to Cayo. Lucy was in awe. By the second telling she was asking pointed questions and Will was inventing answers that incorporated the Mayan cosmology, laid out in the Popul Voh, which he was reading. Back at Cohune Palms I read Vance Bourjaily’s “The Amish Farmer.”

We took a bus on the Hummingbird Highway to Stann Creek, where the Garifuna population has a drum center in Hopkins. We sat outside our cabana and watched neighbors empty their trash onto the beach at sunset; papers fluttered in the wind. The hotel owner cut green coconuts with a machete and Lucy drank the juice. Trash made its way over, like fall leaves that are not bagged and make it into the neighbors’ yards. Buses always had their doors open and plastic bottles and wrappers made their way to the front and slipped out. We took a bus to Belize City and then a boat to Caye (pronounced KEY) Caulker.

Less expensive than Ambergris Caye, which we were told was built entirely on drug money, and more laid back, Caye Caulker was a small island of three main dirt roads, with golf carts instead of cars. We stayed a week in a small cabana back from the beach, rented bikes, and slept through the sizzling middle of the day. Lucy got to know the neighborhood children and five of them formed a gang:  Lucy, the only girl but who is often mistaken for a boy; Kemar, an independent and unreliable Creole, also eight; Christian, a cheerful Mestizo six-year-old; Christian’s younger brother, who remained unnamed and had to be carried up and down ladders and trees; and “Fat Boy,” who insisted on being called by his nickname. They collected and ate coco plums and craboo berries, played on the rundown elementary school’s swings and slide, climbed fences and trees, and established a clubhouse in an abandoned beach shack. Lucy’s favorite moment was being chased from a yard by an old man who yelled “Git!  Git!” By day three, she was determined that we would live forever on the island. She wore her McDonalds Happy Meal Pirates of the Caribbean bandana, a shark-tooth necklace, and carried a big stick. Fire ants laid claim to the gang’s bare feet and Fat Boy told her she would die from them. Christian, trying to cheer her, reminded her that her parents would die long before her. She returned to the cabana in tears.

The sun was stronger than I’d ever felt it. I read Thérèse Raquin and nodded off.  I soon tired of reggae music and the Creole spoken by Rastafarians, peppered with the F-word every two seconds. The “beach” was a small bit of sand bordered by a concrete wall that had tumbled during the last hurricane. Thirst was ever present; the bottled water, rum and lime juice, and Belikins (Belizean beer) couldn’t or wouldn’t quench it. I had finished the first round of Cipro, began the second, and bought a third round, terrified of that stinging feeling in my private area while bouncing on a bus. We headed to the Zoo and Monkey Bay.

We were the only guests at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary; our accommodations included latrines, hammocks, and mosquito netting around the beds, but no fans. We continued to remind ourselves that one does not flush toilet paper anywhere in Belize, here in particular because the excrement is used, in the form of methane gas, for cooking. I was back, knee-high, in primate foax. I imagined myself as Dian Fossey, always wet, always dirty, always itchy. Our rooms opened onto a “library” filled with books about herbal remedies, Mayan culture, and sustainable ecology, as well as fiction left by former interns. I abandoned Thérèse Raquin. I knew how it would end:  not with a bang, but with a whimper characterized by the moaning of wind through pine trees.

I read Phillip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case, about a murderer found many years after his crime. A theme was emerging, from “A Good Man is Hard To Find,” to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” to Leonard Michaels’ “Murderers” and O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” the later of which I found in a collection of stories in Monkey Bay:  criminal men (a nice contrast to would-be husband killer Thérèse), from a safe cracker to murderers and rapists. I thought of my father, also a criminal, although never a rapist or murderer. Robbery, drugs. When he could go back and forth between Miami and Cuba he was fine; once Cuba was closed off he had no outlet for urges that would put him in prison in the States. I’ve always felt odd, an academic with an uneducated and imprisoned father, a father who had joined the three branches of the military under three aliases and was once thrown off a navy ship in the middle of the sea for cheating at poker. In the end, he was found in a Dade County motel room, his gun by his side.

I found a Stephen King collection and more short stories. I had checked my e-mail at Caulker and knew it was best to dream away the rest of the summer. And then I had a very real excuse for not leaving the hammock:  my left foot was the size of a football. On our second day in Monkey Bay we set out with Manolo, the camp manager, to St. Herman’s Cave and Blue Hole National Park. Finally, a trek that almost satisfied Lucy, who had imagined we would be working our way through jungle with machetes, killing off coral snakes that dropped from vines. It was wet, muddy, thick, and green. Fat orange and black centipedes crossed our tracks and hidden birds screamed above. We climbed up and then down, then up again, to get to a look-out tower after trekking through the submerged darkness of the cave. I began to step down an incline and murmured to Lucy, “Careful here, it’s slippery.” I saw my Keen sandal -- God love ‘em -- actually bend completely back as my foot slipped forward. I was astounded at the flexibility of the sole, which sprung back into place. At the same time, I vaguely realized that if the sole had bent back then so had my foot, like an accordion breathing in and out.

I crawled to the hammock on the veranda and read William Saroyan’s “Summer of the Beautiful White Horse” out loud, again and again, to Lucy. We laughed at the antics of the children and the grouchy uncle. We did a jigsaw puzzle. Rainy season finally descended and it rained bullets, night and day. Our passports curled into odd shapes on the shelf. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s binding melted away and the pages blew over the drenched savannah. I read a chapter on Ted Bundy in a book about serial killers.

My husband discovered a bot fly larva dwelling in his inner left thigh. After Manolo told us about his own experience -- seis en la cabeza -- he prepared the ointment. If it wasn’t effective, Julio would come by and use his special fingernail. A bot fly’s lifespan is singularly short and sad: its egg is deposited by a mosquito and grows in its host’s body; after about six weeks it falls to the ground and pupates. My husband had a parasite in his thigh and an odd (and new) large patch of dark skin running from his neck to his scalp, like a map of Belize. I had 276 bites, mostly from mosquitoes, a swollen ankle, and a lingering bladder infection. Lucy had a pink fungal rash on her stomach, shoulders, and thighs. I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Poe’s “Hop-Frog.”

When we rode back through Orange Walk the town didn’t look half bad. In the States, I rushed -- as much as I could -- to prepare my syllabi. The doctor did X-rays and gave me a handicapped tag for my car. The gynecologist looked at me in disbelief and told me to get off the antibiotics and focus on something else. We watched as our bites faded with each day that passed. JonBenet’s killer had maybe been found; two serial killers had maybe been found in Phoenix. Non-parasitic administrators have replaced the bot flies and I have a line on a good job for next year. We won’t decide on retirement just yet.

Author/s: 
Fleur LaDouleur
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a university in the Midwest.

Still Waiting to Be Consulted

Those of us in the humanities were reminded recently of our place in the universe. Here's the deal: When space was handed out, we were out having coffee and lost our place in line to ... wandering cognitive scientists. But the coffee was good and gave us a chance to ponder yet again what we thought were the very serious questions: Was Heidegger a Nazi? Was Manet an Impressionist or was that Monet? Is the universe -- oops, the university -- in ruins?  We learned on August 24, however, that a decision of importance to those interested in knowledge in general was made without our input and that -- on top of it all -- this decision involved shrinking the available space in the university -- oops, the universe -- allotted to humanistic endeavors. Is this gerrymandering? You bet. And Pluto's out. We're down from nine to eight in our naming rights, and that's what humanists do -- we name things.

I was prepared to research this decision. Before going to Belize last summer, I had taken my daughter, Lucy, to the Kennedy Space Center and we had bought a book about space. Find the Constellations was written by H.A. Rey and published first in 1954. You might remember that H.A. Rey was the illustrator of the Curious George series, which his wife, Margret Rey, penned. In fact, one of the Curious George stories has George blast off into space ( Curious George Gets a Medal). H.A. was an amateur astronomer so he wrote and illustrated this guide to the wandering planets for children. Here's what it says in the index, under "Pluto":  "Planet Pluto discovered as recently as 1930." Here is how the planet is described: "Ninth, and so far, last of the planets; 3,700 million miles from Sun; only about 1,400 miles across. One moon. His trip around Sun takes almost 250 Earth-years. Don't go there unless you are equipped to stand a cold of about 400 degrees below." You don't have to be a literary critic to see that Rey was promising ("so far") that even more planets would eventually be discovered.

I needed to check more sources, so I consulted Lucy's bookshelf. Here's what 1,001 Facts About Space, published in 2002, has to say about Pluto: "The most distant of all the planets, Pluto is the least understood." And here's what Dogs in Space (1993), by Nancy Coffelt, has to say: "There is very little light on Pluto. Dogs in space are far from the Sun. They are very near the edge of the Solar System, where it is cold and dark and lonely." Coffelt claims that dogs like it in space because there are no cats there -- but the dogs cramped on Pluto don't look too happy. I had learned that Pluto was small, dark, cold, lonely, and misunderstood. Was this why scientists were cavalierly jettisoning it?

I turned to the Internet and found that the body of scientists responsible for the momentous decision is called the International Astronomical Union. This organization has 8,858 members. The Modern Language Association, by contrast, has "over" 30,000 members (notice which number is more precise). Clearly, democracy was not at work. I read the IAU resolutions that were passed in August. They apparently come from what is known as the "Planet Definition Committee" (I'm not kidding). Resolution 6A creates a "new class of objects for which Pluto is the prototype" and which are called (see Resolution 6B) "plutonian objects." We are told that astronomers chose the term "plutonian" instead of "pluton" after checking with geologists. I also found out that "plutonians" are really just a sub-category of "trans-Newtonian objects." In a footnote, we read that "An IAU process will be established to assign borderline objects into either dwarf planets and [sic?] other categories." How can I get elected to the borderline objects committee?

Just when you think you are a humanist finished with playing with language for the day you discover another doosy. The IAU states that one of the main reasons for no longer considering Pluto a "classical" planet but a "dwarf" planet is that Pluto "has not cleared the neighborhood of its orbit." WOW.  Neighborhood -- are we talking community here? What does Pluto need to clear its neighborhood of, exactly? I see racial overtones looming.

My colleagues in Classics are pissed, with Latinists especially up in arms. You've got the Sun at one end of the solar system -- is anyone going to mess with the designation of "the" Sun as a sun? -- so it was proper, even poetic, to have H-E-double-toothpicks at the other end, where it's really dark and lonely and cold (pace the idea of burning in Hades). Now we have, hmmm ... the Sun (let's rename it Apollo) at one end and Uranus?, Neptune? -- who can really keep them straight? -- at the other. What's next? Should we replace all the names of planets or pieces of rock out there with numbers and rely on the mathematicians to keep track of them? Are the nice stories of lions and tigers and bears going to Pluto in a hand-basket also? On that note, should we pretend there is really no hell and that our parents invented it so we would do our homework?

When I was a graduate student in the humanities I had a boyfriend who was in physics. I was pretty proud to be dating a "theorist," a word that all us would-be literary theorists liked to say as often as possible. He was odd in a good way with some odd-in-a-bad-way friends, and even though it didn't work out I've always had a crush on the discipline of physics. I can report, however, that he once told me very seriously that his professors believed they were the ones answering "the big questions" and that he had bought into this. In other words, anyone else's questions just weren't as big. Even history's.  Even philosophy's. Being in a humanistic discipline that doesn't attain to such heights, I marveled at the chutzpah. In any event, I think this goes a long way toward explaining why Pluto has suddenly been cut down to size: physicists and astronomers don't only want to reserve the big questions (Where do we come from? What are we? What's going on? -- to quote Gauguin, or maybe Joyce Carol Oates) for themselves, they want to demote celestial bodies. The universe is a big chess game and someone's got to move the pieces, they imagine. (You have probably noticed that all physicists play chess.)

Finally, as a baby-boomer -- and therefore as a tenured radical -- I bring, along with my humanities baby-boomer colleagues, a perspective on Pluto's demise that may be traced to German Romanticism and all that crying over the ruins of Greece and Rome: I loved Pluto. I loved having nine planets because I could then divide them into threes. This was not only a good mnemonic device, it looked pretty. Dividing eight into fours or twos does not come natural. I also liked the recognition of the outsider, the little guy, the underdog. As children, we liked the fact that Pluto was always dark and always cold, like the spooky closet in our rooms. No matter how many times we mixed up Jupiter and Neptune and Mercury and Saturn, we knew that Pluto was there, at the end of the line, the caboose of the solar system. I know many people of my generation who would much rather have seen a man walk on Pluto than on the Moon, even if it took him 2,000 light years to get there and even if he never came back.

Other recent decisions in the scientific community have also been pushed through committees without the input of the humanities. As everyone knows, any bona fide humanist reads The New Yorker. The bona fide among you will recall a recent article in that magazine on the "Fields Medal," the big shot medal in mathematics (we thought it was the Nobel Prize -- wrong again). According to The New Yorker, this Fields Medal business could lead to increased global warming, as Russian and Chinese scholars duke it out. (By the way, the Russian guy, who lives with his mother and has no friends, sounds suspiciously like a humanist). I am not saying that if someone from, say, modern languages and literatures had been on the committee that world peace would be ensured; I am saying that that person could have communicated in the native tongues to help sort out misunderstandings -- translation is, after all, just another way of naming things.

There's another science decision that has a human aspect, but about which we have been, again, not consulted. I refer to President Bush's insane desire to get a man back on the Moon by the end of the decade and (presumably) a different guy on Mars by the end of some other decade. I know a bit about this controversy and here's what I've been able to gather: Bush is a humanist; most scientists aren't. Hmmm ... make that Bush is a media hog, most scientists aren't. I've read a lot about the history of humans going into space and I know that the friction between scientists who want to do science in space and guys who want to do road trips there has been around at least since Eisenhower. Scientists, in other words, want to learn about space; the other guys want to go there. It's kind of like Galileo and Newton debating Lewis and Clark. Now, if I truly believed that sending a guy to the Moon and to Mars would actually yield something -- say, the discovery of a lost Munch painting or the Holy Grail (to get Dan Brown off our humanist backs) -- then I might be all for it. What we do know scientists will find there, however, is in the end excruciatingly boring:  sand, dust, rocks, evidence that a bazillion years ago there was water, rocks, Jesus' face on the side of a cliff, more rocks. And although some of the snippets thought up by the Apollo astronauts to describe their experiences on the Moon could be termed poetic -- "It was so empty, man" -- most showed no sign of poetic impulse, or even a poetic pulse -- "My wonker stings, too, man." If they'd send humanists to the Moon it might be a different story, but they won't. They haven't even sent a woman or a person of color of color. When NASA had the chance to send an old person to space they sent Glenn and he had already been there! Hello? Or should I say Hell-o?

I'd like to end with Georges Méliès, who started the whole "film the Moon" craze. Méliès was a wonderful silent film director and he was French. That gave him all kinds of license. He made two short films that are of interest here: A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Eclipse (1907). In the latter film, the Sun (a woman) and the Moon (a man) flirt with each other to the point of undergoing some kind of climax, that is, eclipse. It's pretty racy. In A Trip to the Moon, a fat rocket catapults into the cheesy Man in the Moon and this is a good scene for teaching students the phrase "phallic symbol." W.E.B. Dubois is famous for having written in the early 1900s that the question of the century would be the color line; Méliès revealed the second major question, the goings-on on the Moon. Some would have it that in the 21st century we are past the color line; they are, unfortunately, wrong. Others would like to believe we are done with the Moon; they are, unfortunately, wrong. But we do seem to be done with the nine planet consortium.

Returning to nomenclature, I wonder the following: Can we take the name Pluto and give it to the Moon? Other planets' moons have names -- why can't ours? Or how about Charon? That was the name of Pluto's moon, but since Pluto is no longer a planet Charon has been recategorized as a "satellite" of Pluto. Can I get on the committee that decides these things? Who's on the committee on committees for the IAU? Will this count as "professional service"? Will I get a boost in salary?

Not in this universe -- oops, university.

Author/s: 
Fleur LaDouleur
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.

Decisions and Revisions

For years, the terms early decision and early action have meant binding and non-binding college acceptances before the usual notification date. With Harvard striking down its early admissions system, and other universities scurrying to follow, these old labels have become suspect -- even though, as recent articles have shown, universities may still practice some forms of early acceptance.

What schools really need now, though, is an end-run around the old terms. Here are some proposals now on the table at admissions offices across the country:

   oily admissions: for those acceptances with a certain slimy feel, necessary to the school’s financial welfare but best not to discuss. May derive from Texas-based alums who kick in oil company money to expedite the acceptance of their kids to business school.

   eerie admissions: a term meant to cover those unaccountable acceptances, such as the athletic scholarship extended to the chess whiz, or the offer made to a high school student with no extracurricular activities.

    only admissions: the new, no-frills form of acceptance, without any fat welcome packet or additional literature sent through the mail; the academic equivalent of an airline e-ticket.

    early submissions: a label for those eager beaver applicants who just can’t wait 'til fall of their senior year in high school and start bombarding colleges with material as early as July.

    yearly remissions: not technically an admissions matter, but these represent the annual tithing from wealthy graduates who will one day expect their offspring to apply to and be accepted by their alma maters.

    early revisions: this curious term signifies that percentage of accepted students who , well before the deadline, decide that they want to matriculate elsewhere.

    late action: a polite term for what used to be called the waiting list, or those applicants who have no reasonable hope of getting in unless someone else opts out.

    early faction: any admitted students likely to become a cohesive group, such as the College Republicans.

    proactive admissions: the new term for offers extended ahead of time to athletes who’ll be snapped up by other schools if another day goes by.

    early derision: a cover for those admitted students who in retrospect were ludicrous choices, such as those with bad debts or probation officers.

     easy submissives and early emissions: don’t go there.

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
galef@olemiss.edu

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Correcting With the Code

It was Friday morning and the weekend was not off to a great start. My husband woke up with lymph nodes the size of golf balls. I had a head cold and an earache. My daughter Lucy had nothing and went to school. A few hours later, my head was even cloudier and my husband’s nodes were tennis balls. We were tired of lying next to each other in bed, moaning for no good reason, so I moved the tennis ball nodes out of my way and I got on the phone. The doctor’s receptionist said they don’t work Friday afternoons (how nice), but that my husband needed to get moving to the urgent care center. He drove himself, his cantaloupes hanging down, the sound of Girl Scouts singing “Do your Ears Hang Low” filling his head.

I had invited a group over to discuss the imminent closing of our local elementary school. Some of us were meeting for the first time. We were white middle-class women, so it took a while with the introductions. The women went into great detail about what last name they were currently using, why it was/was not the same as their husbands’, and how none of their children had the same last name as them nor even as each other. As if it was all by accident but at the same time purposefully progressive. After about half an hour of that, we got down to business, and were only interrupted every once in a while by the hostess sneezing into the biscotti and someone whispering “gross -- but isn’t she a college professor?” I found the “but” amusing.

After the group left, I wondered why I hadn’t heard from my husband -- was he dead in some ravine? At Target? Catching a matinee of Little Miss Sunshine? I knew that no matter which of these options was the answer, he would not call to tell me (he’s like that, self-effacing). I would have to do some work to find out what was going on. I called the urgent care facility and they said he was just leaving the doctor’s office and, yes, they would tell him to call me, which he didn’t. I pulled the blanket over my head on the couch and worried that I should be grading student compositions.

But all I wanted to read was the “people in the news” section of the paper, with its tales of Britney’s black hair and Tom Cruise’s postpartum depression. Reminding myself that I am in fact a college professor, I looked in the back of The New Yorker and tried, as every week, to come up with a line for the “cartoon caption contest.” As with every week, I came up blank. I went back to the local paper and read a letter to the editor about how the women who wanted the elementary school to stay open were acting like “unruly toddlers.” And they couldn’t even be identified because they kept changing their last names.

I turned back to the French compositions and my correction Code, which I have been using for 20 years. A is for accent (wrong one, needed, not needed); INT is for interrogative (wrong, needed, not needed—you get it); ORTH is for spelling mistake; SG/PL is for change singular to plural or vice versa; PAS CLAIR is for really, really, not clear; and MOT is for find a different word, please. After all these years, I can do this with my eyes shut, and that’s what I did. 

But it was boring. I goofed around on the Internet, where I found that one scholar has the following to say about the usefulness of correction Codes: “Most students expect and value the feedback they receive in writing, and research has shown that there seems to be a connection between active correction of errors and improvement in writing skills.” I was equally pleased to find that “corrections place an importance on what is corrected,” for I myself have been doing this for years without realizing that it was a pedagogically sound practice.

I felt very pleased with my innate sense of pedagogically correct corrections. My own general impression is that students think that a “Code” is somehow modern, a type of technology even, making of composition writing a science. If A is B and C is D, then what is X? Should be a no-brainer. Thus, the teacher is exempt from accusations of being fuzzy, vague, and subjective about grading, that is, doing grading the humanities way. With science on my side, I sloshed through another composition.

My husband finally returned and recounted how worried everyone at the clinic had been, how many tests and IVs he had had, and in the end how many prescriptions he needed to get filled. No one at the clinic knew anything about what was going on with him, but it was Friday afternoon and they wanted to go home. By Saturday morning, his cantaloupes had devolved into lemons; my cloudy brain had devolved into Styrofoam. I drank tea and slowly battled my way through three compositions. “DEM” is for demonstrative adjective or pronoun (your choice). Then there’s “M” for verb mode. “Mal” (maladroit, awkward) is the least understood and usually ignored by students. When I corrected their revisions, I would have to decode their misunderstandings of the Code.

On Saturday afternoon, my husband took Lucy to horseback riding and they came back with a kitten. I was expecting this; in fact, I told Lucy she could keep a kitten if she promised not to quit Girl Scouts (after the sit-upon incident of a few weekends ago at Camp Hickiwawa -- if y ou read Fleur faithfully you’ll get this -- it was hard to keep her enthusiasm up). There she was, this eight-week-old tiny ball of white and gray fluff, already attacking our only armchair and already pooping indiscriminately. And the fleas. We gave her a flea shampoo and that provoked my husband to cite a cause for his neckline balls: He had had a leftover bot-fly from our August trip to Belize. It had been living in his skull for a while, quite a while, until he got sick of it a few days previously in the middle of the night and cut it out of his head with very sharp instruments. Then, unfortunately, he forgot Manolo’s (director of the Monkey Bay Wildlife Refuge -- again, try to read Fleur regularly) warnings and took a few showers with his special anti-dandruff medicated shampoo. It’s a real no-no to take a shower within three days of removing a cranial bot-fly; the water and soap sneak into the cavity vacated by the larvae and just sit there, ready to infect. Why the infection would move down to the neckline and form Monkey Bay balls is anyone’s guess.

I hadn’t had have to teach Friday, fortunately, but I had received my share of bizzarro academic e-mails, which I now read through. In response to a fairly straightforward recounting of some fairly obvious facts to the members of a department committee, I received a memo that accused me of making “strange allegations”: “Professor LaDouleur clearly knows nit of which she speaketh. She maybe was at the Macke machine when that decision was forced.”

Now, I’m the kind of academic old-timer who doesn’t mind at all accusations of making “false” allegations -- that comes with the territory. But “strange”? Was this like alien strange? X-Files strange? Kinky sex strange? And what were all these other borrowings from a Rosetta Stone that I couldn’t read? -- “nit”? “Macke machine”?  (I didn’t even know our building HAD one!)

I decided this colleague must be speaking in Code, so I turned to my composition folder. PRON REL (relative pronoun); VOIX (active not passive; passive not active); MM (word missing) -- I found no references to “nit” and Macke machines (could that be MM?). I wished I had this guy’s Code. Maybe there was a link to it from the department homepage. Nope. I finally printed it out and underlined “nit” and wrote “ORTH” over it. I underlined “speaketh” and wrote “OLD ENGL” on top, thus inventing for the first time in 20 years a new entry for the Code. I underlined “forced” and wrote “UN CH” (unusual choice) above -- another new entry -- and I underlined “strange” and wrote “SEX?/ALIEN?” I gave the composition -- oops, e-mail -- a C-, because it was only midway through the semester and I figured my colleague had ample time to catch up to the level of the rest of the class.

Some students don’t appreciate the Code because they find my chosen symbols to be inane. Accents (A) are part of spelling (ORTH), as I’ve always said to them -- so why have a separate symbol that confuses everything? V is hard to distinguish from CONJ (conjugation) and T (verb  tense), especially late at night over a 12th bowl of cereal (I tell them I understand, because I read an article about how college students really love cereal).

But I can’t change after all these years. I never had a secret handwriting when I was a child, although I certainly had many not-nice secrets I could have written down, and the Code was standing in for that. If I changed it, I would be changing my past, falsifying my secrets, using adjectives for adverbs and vice versa (ADJ/ADV). No, I wouldn’t correct their compositions on-line with red computer “tracking” ink. No, I wouldn’t use numbers instead of abbreviations in my Code. I was old, and I was tired; maybe I was even strange. They’d have to wait for me to retire to be moved into the 21st century, when Codes will surely come under fire, friendly fire in the Culture Wars.

The kitten, which Lucy insisted we call “Kitten,” still had a few fleas after her bath, but we told Lucy that was to be expected. A lesson in life, it turned out. We would do another wash, and then maybe another, and then just live with it until she was old enough to wear a collar and join the fat cats on the block. By Monday morning, the kitten knew where to poop, my head was clear, my compositions graded (most got C-), and my husband’s neck as smooth as a just-mowed lawn. 20 compositions, 30 fleas, and one bot-fly down, I thought; not a bad score for a weekend. And a really cute fuzz ball to look at. I chose a turtleneck with a triple collar to protect my neck from the fleas of academic life and set out for the office.

Author/s: 
Fleur LaDouleur
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.

A Modest Proposal on the Draft and Higher Education

It is indeed a rare and wonderful thing when the interests of seemingly disparate institutions coalesce and the members thereof can join forces to advance a hitherto unrealized common cause. But such is the opportunity that the officials of the Bush administration and we in the academy find ourselves facing today.

The Department of Defense finds itself desperately short of troops with which to sustain what promises to be a long and increasingly unpopular, inconclusive war in Iraq. The Department of Education finds itself suddenly alarmed by the relatively low percentage of Americans pursuing postsecondary education compared to the rate of participation in other countries. American colleges and universities find themselves bucking the current demographic trend such that some of them are lowering standards as they compete for fewer and fewer students.

The answer to all these problems, it seems to me, is as simple as remembering back to the last time we were fighting an unpopular war far away for reasons we couldn’t quite understand, the 1960s. Colleges and universities were bursting at the seams with more students than they could handle, and the sky seemed to be the limit for the expansion of programs and the hiring of new faculty members. What did we have going for us then in the American academy that we don’t have now? We had a Selective Service System -- a draft -- that until 1971 featured a calculated system of deferments for college and graduate school.

We need to restore that system today -- the most significant refinement being that, in keeping with today’s more enlightened sensibility, today’s draft would extend to young women as well as men. The advantages would be obvious and undeniable.

The Department of Defense would have more than enough fresh troops with which to “stay the course.” This should satisfy the critics on the right and the left who would use the current exhaustion of the all-volunteer military as an excuse to “cut and run.” The number of college deferments would remain relatively low compared to the number of young people available, especially if we made deferment contingent upon maintaining a passing grade-point average. We could even make deferment contingent on enrolling in programs that lend themselves to the kinds of assessment approved of by the Spellings commission -- if those classics and philosophy departments want to hold on to their students, they’ll come around to believe everything can be measured in tests or your post-graduation income.

Patriotic appeals and current threat levels notwithstanding, the prospect of being drawn into a shooting war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Iran, will continue to appeal to a limited spectrum of American youth. Matriculation and retention rates in American colleges and universities, then, are likely to soar, thereby alleviating one concern of the Secretary of Education and her Commission. We are also likely to see a war dividend in terms of increased accountability, as students and faculty alike face a clear and present incentive to assess and document student learning. (Obviously, the deferments would only be granted to those enrolled at places whose accreditors endorsed the commission’s approach.)

The sudden surplus of applicants, moreover, will force colleges to become more selective. This will greatly reduce, or even obviate, the need for remedial  courses. And it will help ensure that graduates do not exhibit the sort of deficiencies in basic skills likewise noted as one of our national embarrassments in the Higher Education Commission’s recent report.

Carefully considered, in fact, this scheme would seem to present no serious disadvantages, unless it be urged that the liberal sentiments and ideals associated with higher education are incongruous with the prosecution of a war. To date, however, we have witnessed remarkably little dissent and protest directed toward the war from academic quarters. It is therefore safe to assume that we in the academy have outgrown our narrow principles and that we’re not likely to suffer the sort of paroxysms that tore campuses apart during the Vietnam era.

As for myself, I have nothing to gain or lose in proposing this scheme. I already served in Vietnam, I am within five years of retirement, and my one child is finished with college and beyond draft age. My only objective is to do my part, as a loyal American, to help the President out of a tight spot and to point the way toward a brave new era of academic and governmental cooperation.

Author/s: 
Edward F. Palm
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Edward F. Palm is dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College, in Bremerton, Wash.

Double Haiku on MLA Interviewing

Drinking half moon night
Career candidates awake
Morning thwap, thwap, thwap

Twinkling here and there
Helicopters fly like stars
Of English commerce

Author/s: 
Will Hochman
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Will Hochman is associate professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University.

Out With the Old

It took nine months, like birthing a baby, but it finally happened: Out with the old and in with the new. Our department chairperson -- formally known as The Evil One and now known as “Who?” -- was given the boot toward the end of 2006. Now, I’m the kind of academic who generally supports department chairpersons (I’ve had six in my time), even if I find them to be flaky, slow, uncreative, or fidgety. I figure, it’s a tough job (I know because I did it for a few years), so why not just go with the flow? After all, someone’s got to do it and there’s no reason to think anyone would be better than the one currently doing it. But there is, I discovered along with some of my colleagues last year, reason to think there might be someone worse.

Let’s just say this guy was imported with a new dean (who got booted himself last summer) and that he had no real business running a humanities department, or a Starbucks, or a Mr. Coffee machine. Example: He did not know or care how many credit hours constitute a course in this country and kept counting half-credits, all so that he could teach two -- instead of three -- hours a week. Example: He wanted to keep on part-time lecturers who supported him, whether we needed them or not. This led to us offering a range of languages that had been declared dead long before by the Modern Language Association. If he heard a lumberjack speaking Sasquatch in the woods, he’d hire that person, tell him to use the communicative method, and then give him a list of the three students who signed up for the course. Example: When I first met the chair he asked me why a colleague spent so much time in Madrid. When I slyly mentioned that she was doing research there he replied, “Oh, no she’s not!  She must be having an affair!” Final example: When the review committee discussed a colleague’s writing on political regimes in the third world, the chair blurted out “he keeps using the term ‘perverse’ [perverse government, state, etc.] -- and he doesn’t even mean it in an erotic way! You’ve read Georges Bataille, right? -- Now that’s perverted!” Need I say more?

Well, it took some time to get where we wanted to go, even after the axed dean found himself hanging out in the campus Chicken Delight instead of wheeling and dealing in elevators and at urinals. The new interim dean wanted to look over all the evidence that had been submitted to get rid of our chair, interview everyone, and read some Bataille. In the meantime, our chair assigned one of his minions to redo the department bulletin boards, which led to the removal of Fleur’s study abroad brochures. I was miffed. Eventually, I nailed one in and it was left there -- a testimony to the crucifixion we were all undergoing, a piece of glossy paper flapping in the weary wind of the dry, stale, second floor hallway.

After many meetings and many documents read and reread, the interim dean did the right thing and announced the end of the regime. When he asked me who I could suggest to lead the department over the next few months, while we “renewed our commitment to each other” (read: called off the death squads), I could spit out only two words: MAN ... SCIENCE. Yep, I wanted a guy in charge, a guy from the sciences. And preferably the hard sciences; the harder the better, in fact. Life scientists would be too much like humanists, interested in preserving things and feelings and signs of carbon-based life -- no way.

I’m sure you are saying to yourself: Well, Fleur, I know you are a humanist, so why a scientist? And if you know how to read between the lines, you are also saying: Well, Fleur, I know you are a feminist, so why the “y” chromosome? Here’s Y: I want some peace. Let’s face it, humanists will try to get any other humanist, even one in Falkland Island studies, on their side. We are, after all, political animals. We know that the university is political because we made it that way and we aren’t about to depoliticize it and look at things “objectively.” But for a few months, I was convinced, we needed the objective eye, the kind that would look at the registrar’s home page and see whole, even if odd, numbers under “credits.” And why a guy, you ask? Let’s face it, I may be a feminist but I’m not an idiot. I know that the world is run by two kinds of people: sexists and people pretending not to be sexists. There is basically no one in my department, including the women, who will respect a female chair the way s/he respects a male one. When I was chair people said things like “she must have had a fight with her husband” to explain why I suggested that people occasionally publish in refereed journals; when a man is chair they say “that’s because he’s a real man -- oops, scholar.”

So we ended up, as I suggested, with an interim chair who is also the chair of a science department. (I am keeping the name of the department to myself, for anonymity’s sake. Let’s just say it’s a pretty hard science). He’s only been chair for a few weeks, but significant changes have taken effect: The bulletin board has been put under the care of the department secretary, who yanked out the nail with the department hammer and nicely pinned up my brochures; all hires for next year have been put on hold as we determine which languages are actually dead and which are truly modern; there has been a ban on more than two (female) faculty members occupying one bathroom stall at the same time while snickering; and, e-mail is being used to convey information, not to create new myths of Biblical proportions. And something else has changed: Along with the smoking ban in bars in the state in which I live, people have stopped blowing hot air down the hall. We can now breathe. And I say, let’s drink to that.

But now Fleur wants to get personal, because it is true, in fact, that I had had an argument with my husband just before I declared the need to publish in refereed journals. And just as the department has changed chairs, Fleur is seeking to change partners -- seeking at least an interim, shall we say. Not that I’ve booted the guy; he’s a nice guy, and the father of Lucy, after all. But it was time, in 2006, to admit that we could not renew our commitment and that no trip to Belize can heal pathologies of our own creation (see Fleur on family vacations). I moved out -- long story, let’s not go there -- and have temporary digs in a very large house. I’m living like a grad student and just found out I can only check books out of the campus library for three months at a time. I have a miniature refrigerator but I’m thinking, hey, all of Europe lives this way and some of those people have families! And I have a huge walk-in closet, in the huge bathroom, where Lucy has set up a secret fort where we sometimes sit and have girl talk until 9:30 p.m.

Not long after I moved out -- say within 48 hours -- I decided I’d need a date for New Year’s this year. Celebrating the demise of Pluto (see Fleur on the booted planet) -- oops, of the chair -- at a colleague’s house would not be enough; I needed to celebrate big time. Now, I could write a whole column on single women in their late 40s trying to find true love on campus -- couldn’t we all? But for now I’ll just cut to the chase: Yahoo Personals. Yep, it’s cheap and it doesn’t require you to be officially divorced, as does E-Harmony. You can look at 1,000 guys and decide for yourself if they would fit in at a party to celebrate the downfall of a departmental regime. I personally was not looking for an academic, although my good friend Mira kept insisting I would not be happy until I found one (I disagree), but I did insist on a few things: He must have a college degree, he must have a full-time job, he must be liberal (that is, pretend not to be a sexist), and he must be able to dress himself. This narrowed the field down from 1,000 to 27.

Of those 27, I eliminated several whose introductions to themselves were scary. One began by insisting “If you got problems or drama, stay clear of me.” OK. Another wrote that he was looking for a “lady who knows how to act like a lady.” Tautological. Next. At least five claimed they were “teddy bears.” Not going there. In the end, I was contacted by three virtual guys. The first wrote “Hey -- I like your profile. I’m on again with my on-and-off again girlfriend right now, but when we’re off again I’ll write you and we can go out.” Intriguing, I thought -- if only he were available. Another wrote “I like NPR two; let’s grab a coffee.” Promptly corrected with the code (ORTH; see Fleur on codes). The third wrote “You are making me dizzy. Is it you? I can’t think straight.” Gotta be meth, I thought.

Then it hit me:  MAN ... SCIENCE. Why wasn’t I using the fail-proof technique that had recently worked so well at work? So I wrote to a guy with a degree and a job in a hard science; he looked quite young in his photo, yet quite possible, in the grand scheme of the possible. And the rest is history, as we say in the humanities. In other words, I had a date for New Year’s Eve and it was not with a professor, it was with -- hold onto your seats, ladies and teddy bears of the Academy -- a race car engineer. Yep, this guy designs race cars. I can hear all my humanities colleagues, men, women, and in-between, crying out “Cool!” Yep, from a cultural studies, postmodernist, fin-de-siècle, party-like-it’s-1999 stance, that is definitely a cool job. It doesn’t pay as much as being a department chair, but you don’t get booted as often. I raced home the next day at a slick 40 miles per hour, anticipating date number two. Ring in the new.

Author/s: 
Fleur LaDouleur
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.

Chaos Theory

With some dreams, you don't need to consult Freud to understand the element of wish-fulfilment. A case in point is one that my wife occasionally reports. It doesn't take much interpretation to know that, when she has it, I have been pushing my luck.

In it, she makes a pleasant discovery: Our apartment turns out to have an extra room. Somehow we have overlooked it, all these years. It is large, brightly lit, and completely empty.

In other words: No stacks of magazines and newspapers on any surface. No row of books on the windowsill in the living room, waiting to be shelved whenever I get around to it. No jewel cases for CDs accumulating near the stereo. The well-being of our cats is not menaced by towering piles of JSTOR printouts and photocopies that have been (momentarily!) relocated from my study to the kitchen table for sorting.

That empty room is a refuge. Then she wakes up.

And then it is time to ensure domestic tranquility, by any means necessary. I make a quick, decisive march through the long-deferred process of sorting, purging, filing, and reshelving. But there is always a certain residue of clutter that won't go away -- material that proves resistant to any order I can impose. Hence my technique of "throw it all in a box, then find a place for the box."

Freud might have had something to say about the situation, after all. It sure does feel like a symptom of something.                                       

In part, it's an effect of working at home, in a tiny study. Some of the contents tend to escape, from time to time. Then it's hard to round them back up.

But according to A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman ( just published by Little, Brown), there is more to it than that. A clean desk really does signify an empty mind. "Office messiness tends to increase sharply with increasing education, increasing salary, and increasing experience," they write, based on studies that I am inclined to accept without reservation.

Abrahamson is a professor of management at Columbia University's business school; his co-author is a business and science journalist. Their book belongs to a genre that has become popular in recent years: the pop social-science survey, intended for people who fly business class. Other examples include Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, and Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.

In each case, the volume will boil down a few technical papers by economists and psychologists, mix in a bunch of anecdotes and real-life problems, then shape the result into new management wisdom for the business professional. These books are discussed at management retreats. The quality of them varies quite a bit -- but as a genre, they are by no means the worst titles competing for the executive niche market. Reading them is more educational than watching Tom Friedman brutalize an extended metaphor, anyway.

One surprising thing about A Perfect Mess is that it is, in part, a polemic. It takes aim at the working assumptions of a new breed of consultants: the folks who belong to the National Association of Professional Organizers, which had more than 3,000 members as of 2005. (At that point, its membership had doubled over the previous 18 months. Its Web site now claims "close to 4,000 members.")

Thanks to NAPO, January is now Get Organized Month. I am willing to bet that they are also behind the recent appearance of a new kind of reality TV program, in which a team of organizers and designers descend upon a messy home and transform it -- mostly by throwing mounds of stuff away. At least two such shows are now on cable. I have seen a few episodes, and find them terrifying, but that does not represent the opinion of our entire household.

"An entire industry of sorts has sprung up," write Abrahamson and Freedman, "picking up steam over the past decade, to nurture the notion that if only we were more organized with our possessions, time, and resources, we would be more content and successful, and our companies and institutions would be more effective."

A multi-billion dollar market has emerged for videos, seminars, and consultants who "all purvey some variation on the theme of straightening up, rearranging, acquiring highly effective habits, planning your day/week/life, restructuring organizations, and rigidly standardizing processes."

The default setting of this industry's rhetoric tends to be "transformative," as Abrahamson and Freedman put it, "if not miraculous." But it all comes to a set of variations on some fairly obvious points:

"Throw out and give away a bunch of stuff. Put the rest on shelves. Set up a tightly scheduled calender. Repeat.” Also, you should probably buy more wastebaskets."

What is missing from the propaganda of the declutterification movement, according to A Perfect Mess, is any consideration of the costs versus the benefits of organization. (I have attempted to make this argument many times, but never so cogently.)

Simply put, apparent disorder often contains an implicit structure. The traffic of pedestrians on a sidewalk looks like a chaotic swarm, but its flow is more lawful, more organized, than it might look. A degree of randomness in a system can actually have the effect of maximizing its efficiency. Neatness is not a typical feature of the creative process. Cognitive leaps tend to involve a certain amount of scruffy thinking.

"In particular," Abrahamson and Freedman write, "academia is an unrestrained haven of the messy workspace, so much so that faculty and colleges and universities often behave as if they've been told their reputation will grow in direct proportion to piles on and around their desks. One Columbia university professor's office has gradually become so densely packed with towers of papers and books that the school finally assigned him a second office so that students could meet with him in relative comfort and safety. When Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economics professor Robert Fogel found his desk becoming massively piled, he simply installed a second desk behind him that now competes in towering clutter with the first. His colleague at the school, chemist Stephen Berry, recipient of a MacArthur 'genius' grant award, works among a landscape of 18-inch-high piles which have harbored individual documents for as long as two decades."

What to the naked eye looks like a messy desk may, in fact, be "a surprisingly sophisticated informal filing system that offers far more efficiency and flexibility than a filing cabinet could possibly provide," write Abrahamson and Freedman. "Messy desk owners typically, for example, have separate piles for urgent, less-urgent, and non-urgent documents."

A good point, that. But trouble comes when there is no more room for separate piles. They bleed into one another, or start to fall down, or both. By that point, using the desktop to create a new document is kind of impractical.

"As the mess grows, the rate at which the advantages grow tends to slow and eventually trail off," the authors write. "Meanwhile the rate at which the disadvantages accumulate will eventually start to take off...."

Well, you don't say. It's a fine balance you have to keep, then. It's as if there's a "tipping point" to your "perfect mess," almost.

"A formal analysis of any system's multi-dimensionally optimized mess levels would be a formidable task," note Abrahamson and Freedman. "Suffice it to say you're better off just playing around with mess and seeing what happens."

Thanks, guys. Lots of us were doing that already, actually. But it's good to have a thoughtful account of why it is a good idea. That is why A Perfect Mess will be assigned reading for clients attending seminars on my "throw everything in a box" technique.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

The Terrorist Threat Index

For years, the field of political science at U. of All People has attracted failed economists and cast-offs from the philosophy and psychology departments. Not surprisingly, poli sci ranked only with the music department in its near-poverty-line salaries. Only in recent years, with the university administration insisting that its faculty demonstrate the utility of their discipline, has political science rallied, marketing its services to the U.S. government as everything from policy analysis to quick-fix government solutions.

As with the success of any department, much of it is traceable to an active chair, in this instance Dr. Terrence Temerity, now in his third year at the helm. Under Temerity, a cadre of professors last year set up a consulting firm called Wonks 4 Hire, focusing on issues of national security. And with the Department of Homeland Security in flux over the pending shift in Iraq policy, W4H saw its opportunity, offering a more nuanced alert system than the clumsy old code yellow, orange, and red..

To galvanize today’s voters for the troops increase, argued an internal memo (mistakenly e-mailed to REPLY ALL from Dr. Temerity’s office, then leaked to the campus newspaper, Hey U), domestic terrorist threats have got to appear imminent. It’s not how endangered the country is but how unsafe people feel. Borrowing from psychology, mathematics and weather forecasting’s Temperature Humidity Index, W4H has come up with the TTI, or Terrorist Threat Index. Here are out-takes from the memo in garbled form from the student-run newspaper.

*****

On a scale that starts at 90, the TTI formula is 100 x Q / .37 + D, where Q = some Quotient counted in decimals, and D = a vague feeling of Doom, but really the whole thing depends on mood, depending on “news” carefully leaked by the U.S. administration.

90: nothing major in the newspaper headlines, just genocide in far-off places like Darfur. People can enjoy a drink after work without feeling as if the swarthy guy in the next booth is taking notes on their conversation. The administration can bide its time.

92: some terrorist group in Indonesia or Sri Lanka attacks a group of tourists that includes Americans. People think of blindfolded hostages and reconsider their summer vacation plans. The administration should issue a statement about the domino theory and hope that people will forget about Afghanistan.

94: another report of a suicide bombing in Iraq, with the premonition that this could happen in the U.S. People at traffic lights may glance uneasily at the panel truck in the next lane, wondering what’s in the back. Time for the administration to push through a bill for stringing yellow-and-black DANGER tape all across our borders.

96: an anniversary marks a tragic death that happened last year with the implication that it could happen again today. The administration must use this opportunity to pass a counter-terrorist act that also sanctions clear-cut logging in Seattle.

98: a new look at Saddam Hussein’s diary for 2002 shows that he intended to acquire weapons of mass destruction from Mars. Time to make an argument in Congress that Americans need to hold on to their assault rifles in case the war gets carried to U.S. shores.

100: morning news reveals a plot to bomb the Washington, D.C., subway system using explosives fashioned from old bottle tops and motor oil. Better not commute to work today. The administration delivers an “I told you so” speech and can then order up 20,000 more troops.

Government official [name deleted] should be quite pleased with the scale and its potential applications. After the provost receives his percentage of the payment, this just might be a banner year for internal grants awarded to the political science department. Who knows? This could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Onward,

TT

Author/s: 
David Galef
Author's email: 
dgalef@olemiss.edu

David Galef is a professor of English and administrator of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the University of Mississippi. His latest books are the novel How to Cope with Suburban Stress and the co-edited fiction anthology 20 over 40.

Grad School: A Primer

A is for Anxiety. Who are you, Derrida?

B is for the Bore you are, to all but Ma and Pa.

C is for the Coin you drop on Copies you deface,

D for the Despair you feel, producing at this pace.

E is for the Energy you wasted all these years,

F for Fraud, for Failure, Fake, whatever, these are tears.

G is for the Game you play, imagining you'll finish,

H for Harry Potter. You fancy games of Quiddich.

I's for Isolation, you're alone in this you know?

J for all the Joy you'll feel in this Hell when it snows.

K is for the grade you'd give, to see that student sob,

L for Lucky, like you'll be, to ever Land a job.

M is for the Money you'd be rolling in by now,

N for all the Notes you lost, although you're not sure how.

O is for the wailing, which continues in your sleep,

P for all the Pressure, which you handle [BLEEP] [BLEEP] [BLEEP].

Q is for the Questions, all the dumb ones that you ask,

R for the Revisions, Resubmissions in your past.*

T is for the Time spent, reading this instead of that,

U for Unproductive, like the time spent with your cat.

V is for the Virtues you can always cultivate,

When you have a real life. At some undetermined date.

X is for the ones you love, but avoid for your cause,

Y for you, you you you you, and working without pause.

Z is for the Žižek, he's really rad, I hear,

And now you know, Grad ABCs, who here wants more beer?

* S is for the Shit you inevitably leave out, or maybe for how stupid, you feel foot firm in mouth.

Author/s: 
Scott Eric Kaufman
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

 

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