Monday, September 28, 2009

Publication: Word for / Word

I've got some poems up here.

Sing a Song of Rhet Comp

Today my students turned in their first batch of essays. I call this: the stack of doom.

They'll hurt you, and desert you

And take your soul if you let them

Oh, but don't you let them

Consider me steeled against essays that begin, “In all of today’s society…” I won’t even let my mandatory class about the pedagogy of the dialectic of the rhetoric get to me. A pox on the discourse community!

Here is another difference between MFA and PhD. I watch the first years scramble around, saying silly things like they “can’t make lunch” because they have to “prepare.” O, first years. If higher education has taught me anything, it’s that lunch is the best part.

Today, after three years of musing on the problem with Comp, my answer today is this: by trying to appeal to everyone and teach everything it appeals to no one and teaches nothing. Fresh Comp should be eliminated and other profs forced to assign some writing instead of grading via Scantron. Writing should be part of coursework — so students have something to write about.

Wait, isn't that how a little school called Cambridge operates?

I took a Monday morning appointment for the Gyn at student health to get out of my Rhet/Comp graduate class this morning. And here I sit next to a vat of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer. I might try some grading. Or not.

I need The Clapper As Seen on TV for my inside.

Soul off. Soul on.

Soul off. Soul on.

Comp is difficult to distance because the subject is near my heart, yet killing it. I have no illusion that in nine weeks I can prepare young minds for the rest of their college coursework. What? NO. And furthermore, it’s wrong of the university to put this guilt trip on me. I’m Catholic and that’s not playing fair. I see the guilt on the faces of my fellow TAs as we are lectured on our grave responsibility. The Facebook updates about how they stayed up all night doing homework. It’s so easy to make the good girls and boys feel bad. Know what? If the U really cared it would pay real teachers to teach, not throw twenty somethings in front of a classroom and hope for the best. They wouldn't prepare us by assigning articles published in 1980 about the History of the Sentence.

Strangely enough, I see that comp instructors are often the best a student gets. We’re not tenured, rifling through the same lecture notes. We love lunch and therefore we can still love. But for how long?

I don’t want you anymore

Cause you took my joy

I don’t want you anymore

You took my joy

You took my joy

I want it back

You took my joy

I want it back

The jumping through academic hoops wears a soul down. Don’t you let them.

All I want in life is to be that awesome visiting writer . The problem is my students could throw me a freaking parade at the end of this quarter and cite that parade in the correct MLA format and I would be no closer to my dream job. It’s all in my pubs. And that’s the weird part, how a creative writing professor in the eyes of the U isn’t any different from any other discipline.

Or perish.

Friday, September 25, 2009

George Saunders Says Exactly the Right Thing. Again.

Another documentary to put on the list: Vernon Lott, "Bad Writing." Trailer link here.

Or, just read this quote by George Saunders,"As far as I'm concerned bad writing is always about a falseness. It's about the writer's real view of the world and her tendency to articulate it being out of sync in some way. So it's basically a dishonesty that comes from an under-confidence in the idea that what you actually are is good enough."

And yes, George Saunders is the visiting writer this spring at the Ohio University Spring Literary Festival.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Basement: Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

Coinciding with my one-year anniversary as a gainfully employed person, for the second time in as long, the ceiling of my office is spewing dank water from the Forestry department's critter freezers. As I drink my first cup of coffee, getting ready to proof some course descriptions for the winter quarter, I can't help but think about what could have been. And yet, all those other possibilities--legislative work, perpetual academic life, teaching, Florida, the glamorous life of schlepping coffee--seem like pale fantasies. This life, the one that starts every workday in a dusty basement lit not by windows but a bank of flourescent lights, is wholly appropriate. This is the Rome to which all roads inevitably lead.

All that's left to do is reach up and give my Affirmation Ball (HR's take on the Magic 8-Ball, bright yellow and bearing the countenance of a happy face) a shake. Today's affirmation? "Half Full!"

Sunday, September 20, 2009

PhD Inbox: A True Story

Dear K, our records indicate you have yet to view your bill from the bursar. If you have viewed your bill please disregard this email.

Dear K, in addition to your regular course hours, please add ghost hours, and 590.

Dear K, don't forget to add 591 in addition to 590.

Dear K, 591 is incorrect you need to add 591 B.

Dear K, Please drop 591, which is now called 591 A because of 591 B.

Dear K, Again, a reminder to drop 591 A and add 591 B.

Dear K, Go back to 591 A.

Dear K, 863 was a terrible mistake and all records of 863 have been eradicated.

And we updated the syllabus. Please note that the readings for 9/21 are now the readings for 9/23 and the readings for 9/23 are for today. Reflect in your journal.

The two meanings of rhetoric:

  1. The art of persuasion.
  2. Bombast.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

When the Food Jars Come to Haunt

After some belabored breaths, I had to close the kitchen cabinet for fear the two--three!--opened, half consumed, year old peanut butter jars would jump from their shelf to meet their due demise. In two weeks, it's moving time. We leave the apartment that stuffy hot and bitter cold and, occasionally, perfect breezes, built. We leave the apartment for a less expensive, more convenient option 10 miles closer to work. We leave the neighborhood gentrifying around us, the fusion Mexican restaurants and funky hair salons (my, what $45 can buy you), and swap one interchangeable chain coffee place on the corner for another on a Rogers Park corner.

We're not moving that far, but we're moving again. Make this my 7th move in as many years. We gain a view of the lake, a used bookstore, a free shuttle to work. I'll save time in the existential wasteland of commuting. At the same time, I'll loose the carpool time with my excellent carpool buddy. Or, I'll miss the absence of human sound on the nearly full 8am train car, watching the newspaper readers and head-drooping nappers as they default into quiet and calm.

We're leaving the back door that was kicked in, despite the deadbolt's mighty hold, on move-in day. Tony, blessed building manager Tony, had no choice but to do this, when faced with the prospect of trying each key on the telephone-pole-thick loop of unlabeled keys that went to locks that were locks no more. This is the apartment that came with a 2 x 4 to fortify the same back door. This is the apartment whose walls crumbled down to brick after a particularly relentless rainstorm one year ago this October. This was the glorious apartment T & I drove straight for, delirious from days on the road from Montana. Where the UHaul would stop, nobody knew. This is the apartment where staying immobile under a blanket in the midday cold of winter meant survival of the extremities at the expense of a productive writing day. The building's heat timer knew nobody would be home, because, why, this was the workday hour! Here, we pounded out cover letters off and on for eight months. Here I tended to write desperately voiced poetry about consumerism and then forced myself to stop deferring to tropes, even if the cold and the din of city brought these ideas by the fistful. The Carl Sandburg city "under the terrible burden of destiny, laughing as a young man laughs," bringing these images.

What we wished to consume was the tiny offering this city could afford us. Thanks for the free pesticide spray under our sinks once a month, landlord. Thanks for the sheet of ice out back, you, building manager, would break up with a sledge hammer every few days rather than fix the leaky roof drain. Thank you neighbor children enamored with our two cats, meeting us at the fence line to pet them through the links.

So I do it all again for one more year, marking time with the lease. This time, we have stairs with a bum step on the second story landing. We have a mantle. How very stately, this bathroom window painted shut. I can only hope we'll have the threat of rats and soggy walls just like last time. We'll have the breeze and light like last time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Then and Now: MFA v. PhD So Far

It's hard in these first weeks of my PhD to not think back to those first weeks of my MFA. Part of me admits an emptiness. Athens, Ohio, is a good place than people swear by, and I like it, I do, but it's not Montana. I love you Montana. And I will continue to drive with your expired tags on my car until the Ohio DMV carts me away.

And I miss my friends. I miss stumbling around Higgins, the intrepid forays into remote Montana bars, the nervous sweat of that first workshop table as we wondered if this MFA meant we could really be writers. I have talked to other MFAs and Post Traumatic MFA Disorder is a candidate for the DSM IV. It's taken me a year to level out.

This time around the giddy factor is way lower. When I got my call from Judy I was floating for about six months. The call from Ohio was more of a relief. I had somewhere to go before seeking employment from Lucky Dogs.

And stranger, somewhere along the way, I suspect with all the moving, I lost my social phobia and became reasonably well-adjusted at meeting new people. Say whaaa??? Or maybe the last year just completely broke me. I have given up so utterly, so completely that now life can begin.

People always said I seemed happy and confident but it was a painted shell, I swear. Maybe the smile on my face finally froze that way. I'm still absorbing the shock of this transition. The problem now is that most writers and academics are all socially malformed. This occurred to me at the last get together, as we stood eyes shifting, gripping plastic cups of Yellowtail Chardonnay. But at least I know now if someone acts snarky, or self-absorbed, or incapable of looking me in the eye, that this has nothing to do with me and more to do with did somebody forget their Lexipro today?

O, writers.

Socially adjusted or no, don't worry. I'm not about to chant the Kappa Gamma pledge. I'm still in search of the pariah smokers, and the person (yes, you there, hiding in the study) scraping the inside of her arm with a pin. These people shall always be my true loves.

It IS nice coming into a program with some success. If anyone tries to get snooty I can wave the Fall Gettysburg Review in their pinched little sorry face. For my MFA, I felt much more like I had to prove that I belonged. In quiet moments, alone, I feared my acceptance was a total fluke. I shook for weeks in fear my first workshop submission and couldn't look at my typewritten responses for weeks after.

I feel pretty seasoned now. Leathery, even. As I watch first years scurry to recreate the Fresh Comp wheel, I know I will simply churn through the syllabus so I can get home to write. The irony being, now that I'm relaxed in front of my students instead of hyperventilating in a paper bag, that I'm more popular teaching rhetoric than I ever was showing movies.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

P is for PhD

This post will be short, since it is about the first week of school, and how I have too much to do. I believe the lovely Trina Burke recently posted on this meta-dilemma of blogging. How long can I justify writing about how I don't have time to write?

I'm in the basement of the Ellis building in the computer lab. As a PhDer, I have an office with a computer that I only share with two other people, but apparently a past MAer downloaded so much porn the anti-virusware exploded.

Tech support has been called and Formula 409 wipes applied.

First week:

So far, I notice in the PhD that teaching comp is easier. Not easy. But "er." I am more prepared for what I must face. Ohio U students (seem to be) more prepared for college life than Montana kids in from the tundra. Although, I could be forgetting the hopes I had before...the first essay. So far I have received three legible emails which inspires encouragement.

I am pleased to report I do not have to teach the personal essay. No papers on hiking trips, frat boy jamborees and Keystone Lite! Yes, the personal essay is hard, and I'm glad the comp director recognizes that having it as the "easy first assignment is a bad idea.

Monday, September 7, 2009

P is for Publication!

Hey my story, "The Law of Meat" is out in the fall '09 The Gettysburg Review. My first fiction pub. Yay! And there's a picture of a tiger!

For any fellow classmates out there this is a revision of the creepy babysitter story from the fall '07 Canty workshop.

The website is down so if you are my mother or my two friends I co-write this blog with and wish to purchase the issue, TGR's number is (717) 337-6770, or email

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Poet Bloggers, or Why I Haven't Had Much To Say

There's an interesting discussion on the topic of poet bloggers going on over at Hayden's Ferry Review. Darren Morris wonders whether poet's blogs detract from readers' experiences of their work while Sandra Beasley notes that her creative life is on a "different plane" from her personal life, which is another way, I guess, of agreeing with Morris' assertion that we poets who blog hope readers will be able to "erect a partition" between our blogs and our poems.

Morris and Beasley make great points. However, it is the fear of what Morris articulates in his post, the TMI cloud, that has kept my blogging to a minimum over the past couple of months. Does anyone really need to know the details of my trip to Eastern Europe? Is there anything worthwhile that can be gleaned from my bitchy overanalysis of the 2-day chapbook rejection I just received?

Occasionally I have insightful things to say and occasionally I say them. Ideally, everything I write here would be considered, well-written, and a vibrant addition to the discourse surrounding contemporary poetry. Or a funny-as-hell send-up of the ridiculousness of contemporary poetry. Or something. Or not. Maybe, ideally, my most concerted writing effort would be spent on my poetry.

Beasley writes, "You’re not doing things right unless you’re getting on someone’s nerves. Unless you’re an anesthesiologist." It's a clever statement, but I have to take issue. Anyone who's ever taken in the flame sessions that pass for comments on Harriet is familiar with the effects of this approach to blogging. The definition of "right" is up for debate, of course, but the idea that a good argument = emotional disturbance is tied up in our American obsession with polemics and self-identification via ideas. That is, Love me, love my ideas. Hate my statements, hate my person. Which is dangerously close to Know the poet, know the poem and vice versa.

Anyhoo, I'm still grappling with it all. I will continue to grapple. I will continue to blog as I grapple. I will continue to write poems.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Uncensored Confessions of an MFA TA

Two years ago I wrote an article for Poets and Writers on life as a teaching assistant. I am back in TA Camp for my PhD program, and while some things are different, even more stays the same. This post is my original draft, the one nixed by the editors in favor of the more conservative approach on the website today.

This account reflects the experiences of one MFA Teaching Assistant. Individual results may vary.

March 2006 – The Phone Message

“…We would like to offer you full TA ship to attend our program next year...”

Price is Right theme! Tequila! Throw down! You like me! Go to bars and accept offers of free cocktails from friends. Feign modesty. “Oh, I wouldn’t say talented so much as fortunate. It’s all so subjective.”

The Bottom Line

I will teach one section of Freshman Composition, 3 hours a week, in return for a stipend of $9000 and tuition waver. I also required to enroll in a one-credit (but two hour a week) teacher training course. I must arrive a week early for a five day teacher training.

TA Camp: Day One (Getting to Know You)

Enter classroom. Here sits my future writing community. They have been instructed to answer the question, “If you were a vegetable which one would you be?”

“Asparagus,” perky mod brunette says. “Because I’m a superfood!”

Many rolled in town the night before. They are day old cabbage. One guy wrote on his placard, "Grizzly ‘Rassler.”

I arrived fairly confident. Within an hour I am terrified. I am doomed to fail. Recursive process? Dialectical thinking? Whaaa???I look around. Everyone’s face is inscrutable. We are indeed professionals, I realize. Professionals at acting like we understand, or that we might understand. At least, no one can definitively prove we don’t understand. This is how we have earned the right to higher education.

Over lunch at the hippie sandwich shop I ask. “So was anyone else, like, confused?” By confused I mean completely freaking out. I pick a sprout out of my tooth. No one responds. Pros. Every one of them.


The first three chapters of the Freshmen Comp text, The Curious Writer by Bruce Ballenger. One TA tells me she has already read it. She ordered the book earlier this summer. I make a mental note to make friends with this person. Panicked, I turn around and ask a day old cabbage if he read the book.

“Errr. Uhhh. What book?” I notice a Band Aid on his face. Fiction writer.

The Curious Writer by Bruce Ballenger

Chapter One: Writing as Inquiry. The writing process is likened to traveling between a mountain and a sea. Swimming in the sea is creative thinking, a churning activity. Then we climb on the mountain and reflect upon our creation. Then we plunge back in the water.

Chapter Two: Reading as Inquiry. Prof Ballenger is way hung up on his ex-girlfriend Jan.

Chapter Three: Ways of Inquiring. The way to inquiring is to inquire through Symphonic Inquiry. Collect. Explore. Focus. Explain. Collect. Focus. Evaluate. Draft. Reflect. Explore. Focus. Collect. Re-Explore. Re-Focus. Re-Evaluate. Re-Draft. Re-Reflect.

TA Camp – Day Five

Three days from now, I will be standing in front of a classroom, a room of eyes staring. I have NO IDEA what I will do. All I have learned is how to attend TA camp. I know to substitute “teaching method” for “pedagogy,” “paper” for “inquiry project,” and “grading sheet” for “rubric.”

Today, returning TAs come to interact. They are a grizzled, world weary bunch.

“Oh yeah,” one guy says “Did I ever tell you what I did to that kid with the iPod?”

The minute we are alone I clutch his Popeye arm. “Tell me what to do on the first day,” I beg. “I mean, what do you do? And please, please don’t answer me with begin to engage in the Spirit of Inquiry.”

“I play Two Truths and One Lie. It’s a good icebreaker.”

“What about having the students interview one another?” asks another TA.

“Then I get confused who is who.”

“True. All I know is I hate ‘if you were a vegetable what would it be?’”the other TA says.

If I were a vegetable I would be an eggplant. All seeds and pulp with very little meat, delicious if prepared correctly, and disgusting if not.

First Day Teaching

My fate is upon me. I am “Mz. Ferguson” — middle-aged and covered in cat hair. I tried to dress up but I look like a homeless librarian, my hair worse. I didn’t make it as a rock star. The business collapsed. I’ve never fully recovered from a love affair in my twenties. I’ve waited tables for twenty years. Break glass in case of emergency: English teacher.

I am allowed 1000 copies from the English Department copier for the semester, and have already used 178 of them Xeoroxing the syllabus. After “Two Truths and One Lie,” which takes all of ten minutes, the entire class stares out the window. Can we go yet, can we go yet, can we go yet their faces chant. Papers rustle.

Two Weeks In

I can’t forge the connection between dialectical thinking, recursivity and the eighteen-year-old mind. I remember when I was a freshmen, flashing back to a morning I woke up on a fraternity bathroom floor, my fur-coated eye opening to a single black pubic hair curled on the tile.

In Class Peer Review Workshop

I have typed up a page and a half of workshop questions for my students. With italics, bold fonts and bullet points I format the guidelines, carefully wording open ended questions. I write in all caps on the board, and send a classroom email. Read each paper carefully and give careful consideration to the questions below.

Five minutes in everyone looks up. The class has come to a simultaneous conclusion about everyone’s paper in the entire room: It was good. They liked it.


Twenty-four binders are stacked before me. Each contains “Inquiry Project #1: The Personal Essay — My Literacy History.” Students were instructed to “relay a personal memory that demonstrates an experience you had with the power of language.”

I take out my first paper, trembling a little.

My student writes about drinking and driving through the Montana wilderness to Led Zeppelin. Two full pages are dedicated to a shenanigan involving a sparkler, three cases of Kokanee, Going to California and a moose skull.

“Try connecting this experience to a greater issue,” I write. “What is the greater significance of your SUV and Kashmir?”

Later, I look at the clock. I have spent almost two hours on my comment sheet. My comment page is longer than the essay.

Twenty-three more.

In Class Freewrite

“What did everyone think of the reading last night?”

“When the Marxist educational theorist Friere states teachers should not lecture, and students should construct their own educational revolution, what did you think of that?”



I call a random name from my gradebook.


“Why I gotta write? I’m going to major in accounting.”

“Nicholas. What I’m hearing is that you don’t care and you just want a Hummer?”

He nods.

“Without wisdom, wealth is just money.” Since I started teaching, I burp Chinese cookie fortunes. “Anyone else?”

A girl waves a sheet of paper.


“I came here on a soccer scholarship. I have to leave early today. Here’s my note.” She throws it on the desk and leaves.

I see a hand. A volunteer!


“Like, no offense, but how old are you? 50?”

Lesson Plans

A poet is screening the entire series of Twin Peaks. For the final paper each student will answer the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Band-Aid man says he is guiding his students to their totem animal.

Comp 101

Movie Day! Grizzly Man. The class will discuss how the director, Werner Herzog, controls the narrative, and the ethical complications of his decisions.

I’m a technology toad, so even though I had planned certain scenes, I end up with Timothy Treadwell pointing at bear poop for a full ten minutes.

“Oh my gosh! It was just in her butt and it's still warm! This is a gift from Miss Chocolate!” gushes Timothy.

“Class, what do you make of the rhetorical choices of director Wernor Herzog here?”


The Op-Eds – Or Three Main Reasons Teaching Freshman Comp is Hurting my Writing And the World

Half the class argues for the legalization of marijuana. The other half vehemently opposes stem cell research on migrants.

Great readers make great writers, but what am I reading?

First of all, renduncy is repeating itself.

Furthermore, everyone knows that.

Its’ common sense.

In conclusion, bad writing is hurting not only me, but all of the city, the state, the nation and the world.

Student/Teacher Conference

“I noticed that for your personal essay you did not write a literacy essay but a book report on Old Yeller.”

“Yeah. That book was really personal to me.”

“Yes, but how did Old Yeller­­ relay a personal memory that demonstrates an experience you had with the power of language?”

“Why do you hate Old Yeller?”

“I don’t. It’s just instead of a summary of the book; I need to know the impact this book had on you and your thoughts on engaging rhetorically with the world. What do you think that was?”

He thinks. He thinks really hard.

“What do I have to do to pass?”

A hundred bucks and a bottle of single malt Scotch.

Final Grades

The few truly deserving A’s are easy, then I hand out more A minuses than I should. From there I move on to the “B plus/God Bless” strategy, finishing up with Cs, and a few Fs, for those I didn’t see the last three weeks of class.

I give one D. After an hour of internal debate, I pass the guy who wrote the Old Yeller book report.