Archives For beware

I already hate myself for the impulse to write this post. I find few things more annoying than a short op-ed or whatever in the New York Times or whatever about the English Major or the Humanities or whatever and how they are disappearing or dwindling or whatever and how we should keep them around because they preserve our highest values and make us better people or whatever and how everyone (“everyone” here is defined as a bunch of sappy humanities people) weighs in with treacly, cliched supports or refutations or whatever.

But I’m an English professor; I just read Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker; I can hardly help myself.

Gopnik’s final sentences: “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.” Does this make anyone else throw up a little in their mouth? And then swallow it again, which is actually the worst part throwing up in the mouth. We’re human! How very profound!

Last month I met with my Dean, who, having reviewed The Numbers, observes that students are hot on Creative Writing. Writing of all sorts – creative writing, business writing, writing for the web – is where it’s at. Duh, I think. My creative writing colleagues (none of them tenure-track, btw) and I have been making this claim for years, begging for more money, more support, more staff. Students want to create, whether it’s stories, poems, or friggin’ web content. Some of them even want to write literary analyses, which is also creation, the creation of ideas and arguments and insights.

[Side note: Eminem is playing on my Pandora. Yes.]

The Dean seems to think that, just like at Pomona (where English majors are down to 1% of the student body), the English Major is dying. That everything is trending toward Writing.

One would think that I, as a creative writing prof, would be super excited to have the Dean seeing what I have been trying to tell the Dean since it was a different Dean I was talking to. And yes I am. Except I’m not saying that the English Major is irrelevant or dying. I’m just saying we need more support for writing, which is a growing component of the discipline. The problem, at least as I see, at least in my department, is that we have a disproportionate number of faculty teaching literature to faculty teaching writing.

But that doesn’t make the Literature classes irrelevant. One of my colleagues occasionally laments that our English Department, in terms of curriculum and staff, looks exactly like his undergraduate program in the 70s. I can see his point, and I do think English Departments can be shockingly conservative in their structures, especially when people are fighting for their jobs. But I’d argue that what happens INSIDE the classroom is WAYYYY (sorry, I’m shouting) different than what happened in the 70s, especially at Regional Campuses of State Universities, like ours.

[Now it’s Amy Winehouse “Back to Black.”]

My literature colleagues are pretty much all from Research One graduate schools (or, you know, Yale), and they all engage in complex, 50-shades-of-gray literary analysis, and they demand rigorous thinking and writing from our students. Thinking about things they (the students from small-town, northern Indiana) have experienced but not necessarily reflected on. Or about things they’ve not experienced, but that other people have. Or about things that other people have imagined and that suggest alternative ways about thinking about what the students have experienced. Then they have to analyze those textual representations, make connections to both experiences and other texts, make arguments about their relationship, and support those arguments with evidence.

Which is why I regularly make this claim: that English Majors are the smartest kids on campus.

I know it’s not new in the realm of defenses-of-the-English-Major to cite critical thinking as an important skill and outcome. And I know that some of this happened in the 70s in the wake of the radical 60s; it wasn’t all Literary Appreciation. And I know, as the Dean suggests, that most of our students don’t want to go on to graduate school; they just want a degree. I also know that, as everyone else suggests, it is stupid to go to grad school in English in this economy. But I also know, because I teach these students, because I WAS one of these students, that they have NO IDEA what they want to do or can do or what might be available to them if they pursue what they are passionate about.

[Lana del Ray on the Pandora now. “Blue Jeans” remix.]

I remember taking my daughter, who is now 17 but who was actually, impossibly, at one time 2 years old, to the park. Mt. Storm Park at the top of a hill overlooking the west side of Cincinnati. I was pushing her on the swing and she was squealing with glee or whatever. Then she met a friend at the park and they ran off to climb the jungle gym and throw mulch at each other. So I started talking to the mother of the other kid, who turned out to be the wife of an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, where I had just been accepted to grad school.

“Don’t do it,” she told me, referring to grad school. “It’s miserable and there are no jobs.”

This was 1999. They say the same thing today.

I had just quit my job and was so excited to start grad school I could hardly stand it. Who wanted a job? I was going to get to read and write and talk about reading and writing and meet other people who loved the same thing? I remember thinking, “Whatever, lady. Nothing can stop me.”

And nothing did. Not my family, who would have preferred that I have a ‘job’; not the lack of money; not the limited job prospects. And when I finished my MA and PhD and applied for jobs, I got offered not one but two. Even my friends who didn’t get them right away, eventually got jobs. I’m not saying academia always works like this, or that I don’t know people who got exploited on the adjunct track. And I’m certainly not saying that any of my mom-friends understood what the hell I was doing in grad school when my daughter clearly needed me to get from soccer practice to violin lessons. I’m just saying it’s Life, who the hell knows what will happen?

Dammit. I’ve lost track. I was surely going to say something profound about English Majors. Something even more profound than “We’re human.” But now I’ve gone on too long for a blog post. And I don’t even have any pictures!

[And now, no joke, on Pandora is a commercial for an online degree. The University is dead. Long live the Online University.]


Visiting Taliesin West

March 19, 2014 — 2 Comments

Frank Lloyd Wright built his winter home & studio, Taliesin West, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, with money from the Fallingwater commission. I was excited to see my book Liliane’s Balcony on a front table in the gift shop.


Wright drew on his Welsh background in naming Taliesin (in Spring Green, WI) and Taliesin West; taliesin means “shining brow.” Here are a few other pics from my visit.

Just saw this in the New York Times. I supposed they’d also destroy a Picasso painting if it was blocking a great view. (No, that reason actually has an aesthetic basis. They’d destroy a Picasso if it was blocking a great view that they could charge a lot of money to look through.)

Wright Masterwork Is Seen in a New Light: A Fight for Its Life

By Published: October 2, 2012

It’s hard to say which is more startling. That a developer in Phoenix could threaten — by Thursday, no less — to knock down a 1952 house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Or that the house has until now slipped under the radar, escaping the attention of most architectural historians, even though it is one of Wright’s great works, a spiral home for his son David.

Read the rest here:

Screenshot taken from NYT. Click image for link to slideshow.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with writing? And why do I care about this? Becausebecause, because . . .

I Am The Tenured Guy

April 25, 2012 — 6 Comments

It’s official: I’m tenured, I’m promoted. Look out.

The poet Jim Daniels visited IUSB over the weekend and gave a terrific reading. Jim has a series of poems called, “The Tenured Guy.” I opened one of Jim’s books that I bought after the reading so that I could type up a Tenured Guy poem here, and I just found this note:

Here’s a poem for your pocket today:

The Tenured Guy

I have smiled
and said hello in the hallways
I have lost sleep over brief exchanges
I have changed pants
just to pick up my mail
and I have gotten tenure.

I have kept my one good pair of shoes
and my corduroy sport coat in my office
just in case. I have nodded
at the names of authors
I have not and will never read
and I have gotten tenure.

I have kept my nose clean,
literally. I have sipped wine
at department parties and receptions
staying just long enough.
I have sat in the back at lectures
far enough away to really not hear
and I have nodded astutely.
I have never asked a question
or disagreed with anyone
in any of the long
Meetings of the Living Dead
and I have gotten tenure.

I have served on committees
with a smile, oh, always
with a smile. I have blended
into the beige paint
I have become the beige paint
subtly, so subtly
I’m not sure where
the paint stops and I begin.
I have gotten tenure
and it’s my own fault.

[read the rest (do!) in Show and Tell: New and Selected Poems by Jim Daniels, University of Wisconsin Press]

The Ides of March, Beware! (Better yet, Be Idle!)

Two years ago today, on the Ides of March, I started this blog.

Since I occasionally wrote interesting things back then but had almost no readers, many of my posts are buried in the sands of blog time. I thought I would look back at what I wrote and – to pile on the unrelated metaphors – do a bit of a highlights reel of old footage.

Last year’s anniversary post: On the importance of Idle Time
The Idle Ides of March (celebrating 1 blogging year) 
– Here I reflect on the importance of idle time; in fact I blame the idle time of spring break for leading me to start the blog in the first place. I quote liberally from Brenda Ueland’s lovely, quaint, inspiring book, If You Want to Write.

Interview Series with Writers

This past year I also started my author interview series, How to Become a Writer, and my interview with the poet Carrie Oeding got Freshly Pressed!

This connected me to lots of new readers, and several of my recent interviews (and another coming soon) have come directly from reader recommendations: Cila Warncke, Andrew Porter (thanks to Denise at San Antonio Tourist), and Donna Miscolta (thanks to Gemma at gemmaDalexander’s Crooked Road!). Donna Miscolta then recommended an upcoming interview with Anne Germanacos. Thanks to all!

Thoughts about academia in general and the Ph.D. in Creative Writing in particular

What is a Ph.D. in Creative Writing?

To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.

Why Intellectuals Need to Go Public

Why and how to become a writer

How to Become a Writer: Questionnaire – Ten questions for you to answer about yourself, your goals as a writer, your vision.

How to Become a Writer

Why Submit Work to Literary Magazines (only to get rejected over and over?)

How to Be a Writer: Discover a New Writer, pt. 1

How to Be a Writer: Writer a Fan Letter

How to Be a Writer: Copy a Passage

At the Notre Dame Women Writers’ Festival, a woman asks me and another writer:

“Okay, so do writers actually go through their writing looking for places to stick a symbol in?”

My dad reads my book and says:

“You’ll have to explain your symbols. I took a class on James Joyce in college, and everybody said how the apple meant this and that, but to me, the apple was just an apple.”

My daughter reports her take on To Kill a Mockingbird:

“I love it, but I don’t get all the symbols, I just read for the plot. I didn’t know that the dog that was killed was supposed to represent Tom Robinson. Oh wait, the dog’s name IS Tom Robinson! Duh!”

(Is the dog’s name Tom Robinson? I don’t recall.)

So: symbols. I forget that people still talk about them, look for them, try to figure them out. Huh.

It’s naive of me to express such surprise when I teach college students who are always searching for the ‘hidden meaning’ in a poem or story. Or always trying to hide the meaning in their own work. Where’s Waldo*?

In fact, the hiding and revealing of meaning may be the single most important tug-of-war my students and I engage in during a semester. They want hidden meanings; I want clarity.

Once I get clarity, I want layers. Layers of meaning!

Maybe we can think of hiding meaning as a squirrel hides a peanut. The giant Indiana squirrel buries the nut in my planter. The peanut is under the soil and the viewer sees something like this:

The peanut** is safely hidden.

In a workshop, the class will muse about all the things that MIGHT be in the soil:

Student A: I kinda think there’s a dollar in there.

Student B: But if you read the description of the planter, it’s clear that there’s a tuna can in there.

Student C: Then the first character starts talking about her chapstick, so I think the chapstick is in there.

Student Author: That’s it! You got it! It’s chapstick in the soil!

And everyone in class can sit back and relax – for the hidden meaning has been found.

But what if we imagine that a story or poem has multiple layers: flowers on the surface, roots in the topsoil, rocks deeper down, and even a different type of dirt deeper down. And what if the reader had a clear cross-section view of all the layers, and all the cool ways they connect:

Peanuts*** & more!

Clarity! Suddenly our layer of soil is revealed to have other layers, a whole interconnected system working together: the flowers on top stretch toward deeper, darker layers of soil, reaching downward toward rocks (er, peanuts)  – and upward toward air and light. Each element means something in relation to the other. None is hidden. All are out in the open, working together in a complex system.

Still, one wonders: is a peanut just a peanut? Does a peanut ever mean more than a peanut?

Sounds like a good topic for another post…tune in soon.


* I have hidden a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson in this question. Can you find it?

** ‘Peanut’ is a symbol for ‘meaning’.

*** By ‘peanuts’ I mean ‘rocks.’

Now I know how I got into this blogging situation: idle time.

Because here I am, after one full year of blogging, enjoying another idle Ides of March, and my mind is alive. It’s spring break, I’m in my jammies, and I’m not finishing final preparations for the class that I would usually be teaching in an hour. I’m not tired from having taught a grad class last night. And I’m not answering a million emails (oops! spoke too soon – my university email just made its little alert).

Brenda Ueland being idle

I’m invigorating myself with books like If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, which insists that everyone is original and talented and that there are other reasons for writing sonnets than to have them published in the Women’s Home Companion. Ueland says that to be creative, one should be:

idle, limp and alone for much of the time, as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination; it is letting in ideas.

With just a week of idle time, my imagination regenerates, and I get crazy ideas like, “I think I’ll start a blog!” That was a year ago over spring break.

One hope I had for the blog was that it would be a venue for me to pause and reflect now and again. As a famous writer* once said, “How do I know what I think until I write it?” I wanted the blog to help me figure out what I think about things by forcing me to articulate them to some sort of public. Otherwise, I have a bunch of unformed thoughts floating around my busy head. The blog would be like forced contemplation. Ueland quotes the philosopher Plotinus: “So there are men too feeble for contemplation.” I’m probably one of those men, which is why I need the blog to force me to do it.

Ueland equates idleness with big ideas, and busyness with little ideas:

So you see the imagination needs moodling,–long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.

The nervous running up and downstairs, from office to office, hits a bit too close to home. Something about academia (or surely any institution or business) can turn one into a busy, waltzing mouse full of little ideas. I feel it happening sometimes to me and my colleagues when our budget gets cut again and we’re told to stop making photocopies for the next two months and to consider holding a bake sale to pay for student writing awards.  Little, staccato ideas.

Ueland distinguishes between idleness that is a “complete slump” full of worry and fretting, and creative idleness:

…the dreamy idleness that children have, an idleness when you walk alone for a long, long time, or take a long, dreamy time at dressing, or lie in bed at night and thoughts come and go, or dig in a garden, or drive a car for many hours alone, or play the piano, or sew, or paint ALONE; or an idleness–and this is what I want you to do–where you sit with pencil and paper or before a typewriter quietly putting down what you happen to be thinking, that is creative idleness. With all my heart I tell you and reassure you: at such times you are being slowly filled and re-charged with warm imagination, with wonderful, living thoughts.

So, on this idle Ides of March, I warn you: Beware!

Beware long walks and long drives and other forms of idleness. They just may lead to big ideas.


* A quick google search of “How do I know what I think until I write it” suggests that this was said by E.M. Forster, Joan Didion, D.H. Lawrence, Richard Hugo, William Faulkner, and others. I thought it was Flannery O’Connor!