Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hallway Hello from Professor Emeritus

Some professors are big hallway talkers, and others zip on by with a curt nod. I think that, although I'd like to deny it, I am a hallway person. I swear, it just clears my head to do a quick lap or two (the grad student offices smell sometimes, honest). Still, I had to laugh when, reviewing Gregory Semenza's Graduate Study for the 21st Century, I discovered that his classification of academic department 'types' lists grad students right alongside the Faculty-Hall Talkers.

(Segue into content of blog)

Yesterday I spied the most notorious "zipper" of the department, my theory professor last spring. I prepared to aim a nod in his direction and finish my lap, but then I realized he was stopped in the doorway waiting to speak to me. He wanted to talk to me about one of my answers from the final exam, and commend me on my performance. He had already done so in his email response last May, which was why I was surprised that he was handing out the real live "attaboy." If I had a tail, I woulda wagged it. Instead, I just shook my hind end awkwardly (note to self, stop shaking your hind end awkwardy in public).

I thought I'd share it. I feel kinda bad that only about 3 sentences from my essay actually dealt with the subject matter in an academic sense, and those are an awkward, crammed-in coupla sentences. The exam called for a description of the sublime in our own experience, backed by the definitions from the readings of Kant/Burke/Wordsworth. Keep in mind, when the writing is choppy and awkward, that it was a timed exam. Keep in mind, when the writing is smooth and clever, that it was a timed exam.

Enough with the disclaimers...(clears throat):

I had never really been on a ferry or a boat before, especially not for more than a quick trip across Lake Erie—and then, it was during the day, and my mother was with me the whole time. Usually, in those short little treks, we would have to park our car in the lot and then board the vessel. This time, we drove into the ferry and parked in one of the three humongous carports deep in its underbelly. It was nighttime, and so the lights from inside the ship shone outward into the dark. I couldn’t see the water, but the salty smell pricked in my nose and I could hear waves lapping against the ship. We were going to cross the Atlantic ocean between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The trip would take nine hours, overnight. It seemed as if we were in a hotel on water—what with the bad carpeting (I mean, where do people get those patterns?), lounges where people sat watching movies, a restaurant and a bar. There weren’t any luxury suites where I was headed, though. The beds were more like barracks. My poor mom and grandpa had to share a bunkbed. I lay there on the top bunk, my nose hardly a foot from the ceiling, and listened while the general clutter of people settling in died down and faded into a rumble of deep breathing, and a few occasional snorts.

I climbed out of bed and began to wander the ferry. The people at the bar were enjoying themselves and mortifying the waitstaff. The movie lounge was playing the same movie again, and there was a couple doing something there that they should have been doing back in the bunk (though it was just about as public in the barracks).

Bored and tired--but curious--I began to snoop. I found a back staircase where my footsteps echoed jarringly against the clanking metal, and eventually, somehow, found myself on the deck of the ship. When the door swung shut behind me with a loud clang, terror gripped me: I was alone on the deck of the ship, it was far past midnight. My mother didn't know where I was. Taking a few cautious steps forward, my fingers found the ship’s cold railing. I slowly exhaled as I took in my surroundings. Fifteen years later, I don’t think I’ve ever completely taken in that sight.

Black. Complete, utter blackness—surrounding me on all sides. I couldn’t tell where the ocean stopped and the sky started, or where the sky stopped and the ocean started. The stars glared fiercely as I had never seen them do on land. I suddenly understood the constellations, carrying on the lives and legends for eternity from within the stars. I suddenly--finally--understood God’s promise to Abraham, that these stars were his children, and so was I.

I didn’t dare look over the edge of the boat, I didn’t have to. I knew that the water beneath me went as deep down as they sky above me went up, and I was there, puny, balancing between the two—what was keeping me from just falling off? Which end was up? This moment altered my understanding of the universe. For the first time, I knew myself as infinitesimally small, and absolutely frail. My fear emanated from a part of me that I didn’t know existed, a deep primal instinct of sensory perception, and I perceived fear. When these big shot Romantic poets talk about the sublime, I am in their number. I had experienced the sublime long before I ever knew such a thing existed. Now, as a graduate student, I read Kant and Burke when they talk about the sublime and I understand them on a deeply intrinsic level. When I emerged on the deck of the ship and saw the gaping blackness, I experienced what Burke did. I understood the sublime as Kant determines it as well, in his enumeration of it as boundless, and of extensive quantity: never had I known the stars so well, and that there were so many. His sublime involves reason insofar as it pertains to morality, human purpose, dignity and endurance in life. Seeing the night like that for the first time was like seeing the planet naked, and my entire worldview shifted at that moment. The foundation of the sublime is in ourselves, and in our attitude. I took ahold of that moment and made it sublime by my interaction with it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My biggest regret: I said "yada yada" too much today.

I meant well when I got out of bed this morning, I really did. But the day was reluctant to play along. In the end, I felt triumphant--I mean, it was the first day, after all. I made it through.

First: Work. I was standing patiently, listening to my boss's instructions for a special therapy on a patient. This patient, whom I have known for some time, studies me for a moment then says, "Well, you must be well adjusted to married life--you sure do listen well."

Second: School. I got one of my first doses of outright competitive rudeness. I mentioned that I was dreading a class. Although I was referring only to its time slot (it is a late seminar), a young lady asks, "Oh, you don't like that it's old ?" I couldn't help getting ye olde vibe that she thought I couldn't handle *gasp* 17th century poetry. Ergh. I'm not a grad school grudge holder, and I don't think I can measure my worth by comparing how far back my literary tastes lie, but I couldn't help following her question with a very direct, "Where were you when we were studying Chaucer?"

Third: The mail on the counter. My suspicions were confirmed that I should take the GRE again. I mean, don't get me wrong--it was a'ight. But just that. A'ight. I had certainly hoped to do better on the analytical writing section.

All in all, it was a pretty good first day--I mean, I didn't black out. Once I was in the classroom teaching, the lights turned on and the performance began (I never considered myself a class clown until I was the one teaching the class:). The crowning achievement was my epiphany on the way home for a very fun and challenging opening assignment for my Comp II class (to replace the rather bland and insecure one I had initially considered).

Now I fear nothing. I have a plan!

Friday, August 22, 2008

New beginnings, new classes and interesting encounters

I was "oriented" today. My syllabacuses were OKed. As far as my beginning composition class is concerned, I feel quite confident: this is my third time teaching it. Obviously, this in no way makes me an expert, but it certainly allows for some easier breathing compared to my second class, which I am teaching this semester for the first time. As of yet--despite a summer's worth of discussion with various family members and other teachers-- I still don't feel that I have any great ideas. I will do my best, and will always be at least a coupla steps ahead of my students. Aside from that, I got nuthin.

I need to realize that at this point in my teaching career, not everything I do in my classroom is going to be uber creative and completely original. While of course that is my goal, I need to worry about being efficient before I worry about becoming Ms. Frizzle (best teacher ever). It's going to take a few tries to taylor my assignments, finding out what works best along the way. Aside from that, my biggest enemy is confidence. What if I fail? What if someone walks away from my class thinking, wtf? I can't wait to talk to myself four months from now, to see what I have learned, and to see if I've figured it out or not!

I mentioned, in casual conversation with one of the faculty members (as casual as a conversation with a faculty member can be), that I found her syllabus and class structure helpful in preparing my own. I figured it might be an opportunity to hear her philosophy on the class itself, and the approach she uses with her students. Boy, I got more than I bargained for. She immediately invited me to one of her online forums--and not just via email: she took me to her office, had me sit down and sign in, and made sure that I was on her list. I learned very quickly that there is nothing casual about this woman. She is intense. Her career history is fascinating, and when I congratulated her on the book she had published that day, she shrugged, "Yeah, I've got two that came out today." I couldn't help but laugh at her deadpan tone.

It seemed very apparent that she was trying to take care of me, and so I wondered how clearly it is written on my face that I'm pretty much clueless as to how to go about this class. I appreciate her generosity with her time, as one thing I've learned in grad school is to be mindful of people's schedules. No, no, I'm hanging out in her sooper posh office while she recommends all kinds of sites and assignments. I was simply overwhelmed, and couldn't help wondering what I'd done to land myself in her good graces! I'm not one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, however, and know that I have found myself a powerful mentor for my teaching in the coming year.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I went in with two personalities. One me said, you've got this in the bag; the other me said, you can always take it again. It was a lot less intimidating than going in to the LSAT--no 100 yard long line curling about in the lobby, no thumbprint. Just a couple of chairs and some smiling, helpful faces at the counter. Nonchalant. Go ahead, take your silly test.

I can't really just go in my sweats, though it may be the comfortable route. Casual chic suits me better for these occasions. So, I went in my "new" jeans. See, I got a few pairs from my sister-in-law last May that I had to bend laws of physics to fit into. A few carrots and push ups later, they're my new comfy jeans. A feeling of accomplishment, just by getting dressed. I'm already winning.

I love that they give me ear plugs and giant headphones--I felt like I was gearing up at the shooting gallery (my dad will be proud). How did I do? Well, instead of feeling like crying with shame at the end of it, I felt like laughing at my own ridiculousness-trying to pummel through 8th grade algebra. I felt like one of those really awkward little kid ballerinas, you know--those ones who scrunch up their hands and shoulders into something vaguely reminiscent of first position. That's what I look like trying to do math. A giraffe with strep throat. I could go on. When I told my friend my quantitative score, she straight up laughed at me. So the ridiculousness wasn't just me.

Verbal? A'ight. Just a'ight. I'll wait to see my percentile writing before I decide to take it again. Writing section? I thought I made some very compelling arguments and analyses...whether the graders feel the same remains to be seen. The hard part is over though. Now I know the staff, I know the layout. I can even bring my own earplugs--actually no, they probably wouldn't allow that.

And just for the record, I must be a glutton for punishment because I went to the dentist's office right after the test. Or I might just be sick, because my dentist office's staff always cheers me up. I love those gals (Note: these are not the evil wenches from the oral surgeon's office). They tell me to take more yoga because my jaws won't unclench, and now I have to get some weird "bite plate" thing. They said I can't just use an athletic mouthguard. (I asked).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Things coming up

OK, OK, so the school year is looming closer and closer. It is my third year in a two year program. I feel like a fossil. A very young fossil with a lot to learn, but a fossil nonetheless. This was the plan from the beginning, but as it nears the end of things, it's harder to deal with. Watching my peers embark on career paths and enter into phD programs is difficult. I didn't attend their graduation because I couldn't help but feel left out--those are the kids I should have walked with (and, because I'm not completely emo, I'll add that I got some overtime for the shift that made me miss the ceremony. What's more important in the long run is that I showed up at the parties with booze). As it stands, the group I will graduate with is primarily rhet/comp, the majority of them slightly older than me, most of them with families. I get along with all of them, but can't help feeling slightly separated and yeah, a lil lonely.

And that's enough feeling sorry for myself. I am in a program with some great students who, because they specialize in the rhet/comp area, are more knowledgable in the teaching/grading aspect of things. I have a lot to learn from them--not just in the academic arena, but in the how-to-manage-a-family-at-the-same-time arena. Furthermore, I chose to do three years in this program from the getgo, so no reason to look down at my feet now. I plan to attack this year with as much energy as I have previously. I mean, heck--I've got a light load this coming semester. Two classes? Compared to my usual four? Bring it! Although (for the record) I will also busy myself with:

--teaching a whole new class, Comp 2, in addition to a completely revamped and web-assisted Comp 1
--applying to phD programs--I have seven in mind at this point (any input as to whether this is enough?)
--working on, if not completing, my Master's paper--hopefully as my writing sample to said phD programs.
--working on, of course, my personal statement: Why am I doing this to myself?
--working in a medical office, under my new title. In addition, I have become the office's primary transcriptionist (I told them I would no longer settle to be the "other" transciptionist. I am no one's mistress).
--performing in a few dance venues locally, in September and December--likely offering some choreography of my own (this will entail about 6-8 hrs per week, more so as things near the performance. My dance friends always laugh at me b/c I grade papers backstage. My family is horrified that I have finally become my mother, the woman famous for grading papers at red lights:)