Packing up

It’s the eve of my last day as a member of the faculty at Missouri University of Science & Technology. I’ve been packing up my office so that the new chair, Dr. Kristine Swenson, can move in. My family has lived in the same house for nearly 35 years, so I don’t have recent experiences of moving. I’d forgotten the reflections aroused by sorting and boxing papers, files, letters, books, manuscripts . . . a long list of types of items.

A good part of the things from my file cabinets will go to the university archives; a fair number will be left for Dr. Swenson to use. A small number, fewer than I’d expected, are coming home with me. Riffling through a folder of letters 25 or 30 years old is unsettling, partially because of the dust in them, more because of the memories of people and events. Much of my correspondence is with other writers, poets, editors, and teachers. These letters will go to the archives to be cataloged and will be available for scholarly research.

Part of the archives will be the issues of Christianity and Literature when I was poetry editor (1975-1983). Correspondence with the poets and my own records will also be there. When I first encountered C&L, it was a wire-stitched (stapled) newsletter with a lot of energy. I saw it go to perfect-binding and glossy paper. (Not that changes in format were my doing!)

I have had many books in my office; there are fewer now. I’ve been giving away books to colleagues, friends, students, and family members. Those that are left will go either to Reader’s Corner, the ones that that business will buy, to my library at home, or . . . I’m not sure where else, but certainly elsewhere.

My files, drafts of poems, and correspondence have been almost entirely electronic for twenty years. How do electronic files relate to archiving? Going through a mass of old email or document files would be less personal and engaging than digging out papers that I haven’t touched for years.

“And zero at the bone”

The title phrase comes from a poem Emily Dickinson wrote about suddenly encountering a snake while walking in tall grass. It’s always resonated with me because I had the same experience more than once, encountering a variety of snakes, including rattlers, in the grasses of the Kansas Flint Hills.

“Zero at the bone” also seems appropriate to the week ending today. We’ve had some very cold temperatures accompanied by dangerous wind chills. At the same time, this week opened the spring semester here at Missouri S&T. Starting a new semester is somewhat like taking off in a jetliner: there are some jolts and shakes, a bit of nervousness, but also the excitement of beginning a new journey, of meeting new people.

Speaking for myself, the new semester is off to a good start. I’m teaching World Literature I, from the beginnings to the Renaissance. The beginnings go way back to Sumerian and Akkadian syllabary script inscribed on clay tablets, Gilgamesh, in other words. This is one of my favorite courses, so it’s appropriate as the last course I expect to teach at S&T.

My retirement is scheduled for 1 July 2009, so this is not only my last semester to teach but also my last as chair. I hope to post more frequent entries here in these last few months, so come on back!

Is It Autumn Yet?

Any reader of literature, especially poetry, soon becomes aware of the importance of the seasons of the year in expressions of human experience. The seasons may be the four of the moderate zones or the two or three seasons of tropic zones. For instance, in Indian poetry, the rainy (monsoon) season is the time of love affairs since the heavy rains rule out most other activities. A contemporary poem expresses the traditional theme well.
I began writing this entry on August 2. which is close to the beginning of autumn in some traditional schemes of the seasons. Typically, I’m returning to it on August 9. The temperatures have cooled down, and there’s a scent of autumn in the air. (For my nose at any rate.)
So, has autumn begun? That depends on where you live and whose definitions of the seasons you use. In Japan’s tradition, it is indeed autumn now. The "season word" (kigo) is an important part of the traditional haiku.
An article on Wikipedia discusses various scientific and cultural aspects of the seasons across the world. Of especial interest to lovers of literature is the discussion of traditional seasons. Perhaps you have wondered why, if the solstice in June is the beginning of summer, midsummer’s eve is a little earlier in June, the middle of the season illogically preceding its beginning.
Contemporary climate changes are affecting the literary seasons, as discussed in an article in The Telegraph. At the end of the article, a list of natural phenomena associated with spring shows a common poetic interest with Japanese culture.
The point finally is that the boundaries of the seasons — when they begin and end — are human constructs, depending on climate and culture.

[Read more…]

Education in Winter

We’re experiencing our third winter storm of the year — with sleet mostly, but also a little snow. The sleet verges on freezing rain. What happens at Missouri University of Science & Technology when we have icy, slushy streets and sidewalks, with more sleet falling as I type?
Many faculty and some students live where it’s dangerous or impossible to drive to campus. Walking, too, is hazardous when everything is coated with ice. It’s fairly quiet in the department this morning, although I’ve seen four faculty members, and talked with three or four students. The department’s administrative assistant, Linda Sands, lives several miles out in the country amid hills that, when the roady is iced over, make driving very hazardous. She’s not here today.
The quiet and relatively few people are somewhat disconcerting. It’s almost lonely.
I drove to campus, as I usually do, although I live within a 15 minute walk. I have walked to campus in worse weather than this, but . . . perhaps I have more (or less) sense.

[Read more…]

Which Is the Real Story?

Recently, my wife and I watched again Peter Jackson‘s films of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien‘s masterwork. Now, we are watching the films with the director’s, producers’, and writers’ commentaries. The question that immediately arises when one watches a movie based on a book that one loves is whether the movie does the novel justice. Does the movie tell the same story as the novel?
We have enjoyed the story of The Lord of the Rings in three media: Tolkien’s novel, Jackson’s film, and the BBC’s radio production. I have read, viewed, and listened to each of these many times. Is the story the same in each medium?
The answer is "No," if by "the same," one means that the movie and the novel are identical in each detail. Given the differences between a film and a book, it is impossible that the two be identical.
The answer is "Yes," if by the "the same," one means that the movie and the novel tell the "same story," however different the two may be in detail. For The Lord of the Rings, my judgment is that Peter Jackson does tell the same story as does Tolkien. For that matter, the BBC’s radio production also tells the same story.
Consider this possibility: the "real" Story lies behind any particular telling of the story in any medium. While we can consider Tolkien’s novel to be the canonical (authoritative) version of the Story of the destruction of the One Ring, the other versions can still tell the Story, although different in detail from the canonical version.
The BBC radio production is very close textually to the novel. (Ian Holm plays Frodo in this version, and, of course, he plays Bilbo in Jackson’s films.) But the radio version omits the Old Forest, Bombadil, and the Barrow Downs just as does Jackson’s film. Like most readers of the novel, my wife and I both delight in Tom Bombadil and Goldberry; yet I understand why someone telling the Story in a different medium would omit them.)
An analogy for the relationship of Jackson’s films to the novel: we can see the films (and the radio production) as remixes of the novel, just as musicians remix songs and albums. Actually, musicians may release a song in versions of different lengths; in such a case, do we ask which version is the "real" song? Really, we decide which version we prefer. Realistically, isn’t that what people do with novels and movies based on them?
Here’s a last question, which I only mention: how much can a version (or remix) of a story change it without making it a different story? It’s a question that I and the students of a course in the fantastic in literature and film discussed without arriving at any kind of definite answer. The answer is surely up to the individual.

Taking a Break

Thanksgiving break started officially this weekend, a landmark eagerly awaited. For some it started earlier, sometime last week. Friday, the campus population was down quite a bit — the boisterous voices, the standing, sitting, slouched students crowded in the hall, waiting for class . . .
Yesterday morning (Saturday), I walked downtown to get my hair cut, prepared to go for a coffee if the barbershop were full. It wasn’t. Very few cars were parked along Pine Street; there were hardly any pedestrians. A cool sunny November morning and nobody around. Several thousand students gone, the town grows quiet. Of course, faculty leave as well as students. I’m one of those grinds who doesn’t leave but sticks around to try to catch up.
The title of this entry, "Taking a Break," might refer to the fact it’s been three weeks since I posted here. I hadn’t realized so much time had passed — not a deliberate break, either, just busyness and distraction.
Whatever you do over this week, I hope it’s fun and relaxing.

Harry Potter and the Sea of Stories

I’ve finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s a quick read, although I had to do it in numerous short sessions — 10 minutes, 15, maybe 20 wedged between other, more necessary things.
Summer school is finishing up; the fall semester doesn’t start for a little over two weeks; the halls are pretty empty. So I’m going to reflect a little on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (HPDH). Thee’s a mild SPOILER, so you may want to stop here. PDH is the last of a series of seven novels. (A series of seven novels must be a septology.) Seven, as you know, is one of the main symbolic numbers. More devoted Potter scholars than I can figure out the significance of that.
Human stories make up a tree or a sea, depending on your preference in metaphors. I’ve modelled the title of this post on the title of Salman Rushdie‘s novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. J. K. Rowling has drawn heavily on the human heritage of story for these books. My response to the first book, like that of other readers, was that she hadn’t done much more than pull imagery and themes from a variety of stories, not all of them really compatible. Rowling’s skill with plot and appealing characters carried me past that response.
In book seven, Rowling goes deeper than the folk story motifs of giants and witches and enchanted objects, deeper than the "school story" genre into which HPDH fits. In some of the scenes, she reaches mythopoeic, archetypal depths — the depths at which our deepest fears, anxieties, and joys are rooted. The scene in which Harry and Ron retrieve the Sword of Gryffendor from a frozen pond, having been lead there by a phantasmal doe — that scene is worthy of stories as ancient as The Mahabharata, The Odyssey, or Gilgamesh. Spenser‘s Red Cross Knight could’ve made that recovery. (The link to the Knight opens a PDF file of Book III of The Faerie Queene.
HPDH doesn’t sustain that level of mythic intensity throughout, but there are enough instances to give the story strength and depth.

"On Wikipedia Nobody Knows You’re an Idiot"

I’m still committed to posting two entries a week, at about noon on Wednesday and Sunday. (I may go to one a week when the fall semester starts.) Eating lunch, I realized I didn’t have an entry ready for today, and no topic sprang to mind easily; so, here’s a brief comment on a topic that lots of us think about.
How does the hardy web-surfer know which site is reliable and which is pure hokum? There’s problem a spectrum from completely reliable to utter hokum, but how does one know where a particular web page lies on the spectrum?
I’m not sure I can answer my own question, so if you have ideas about reliable web sites or techniques that can help rate them, please share them in a comment. I promise to post comments that address the issue without flaming or obnoxious language.
I used "Wikipedia" in the title for this post because that’s the site many first think of. I was visiting a freshman composition class that was discussing research. When the teacher asked where students would look for information, the first thing several said was "Wikipedia." I use Wikipedia myself; I’ve found it a useful source of information I want students to have. But when I use it that way, I know something about the topic and (hope) I would recognize hokum.
What if you don’t know anything about a topic you need to research? Consult several sources — even printed books and journals. Talk to someone who is knowledgeable. It takes some effort to learn something.
But suppose I hear a story on the news that piques my interest; I don’t want to do a lot of research to discover whether the assertion I heard is reliable or hokum. As the presidential campaign season begins, there are a number of questionable statements. How can I sort them out? Does anyone have an idea?

Lessons for the Chair

Those who’ve known me for awhile may be surprised that I’m department chair. I’m as surprised as anyone. I said more than once that I never wanted to be chair. But now I am and have been for 18 months.
How am I finding it? Different than I had thought. Not as hard in some ways, harder in others. Truth to tell, I find rewards and satisfactions as chair. (Frustrations and perplexities too, of course.) I have learned a lot of how things work: things like managing the budget, scheduling courses, working with development, hiring faculty, recruiting students, and much else. Many of those procedures are changing under the new system, which takes effect today, 1 July 2007.
But this entry is not about the daily details of managing the department or the new organization of the campus. It is about some basic lessons I’m learning as chair.
Here’s a brief list of some important lessons. Most people probably already know them. I would’ve acknowledged them back in the pre-chair past. They are much different from my current perspective.

  1. It’s never done. I’ll never finish everything. I may complete—I’d better!—this task or that, but there will always be more to do, an indefinite queue of "doables." When I am chair no longer, there will still be things undone. Can’t be avoided.
    Knowing that everything will never be done—that I can never sit back at 4:30 and say, "Nothing else to do; see what comes in tomorrow," that knowledge is a relief. I can do what is immediate, then what is intermediate, and then, maybe, the distant. I’ll always have something to do tomorrow.
  2. I’m not alone. It’s heartening to find that I’m not the only chair who feels he/she doesn’t know everything and seeks to find the right procedure and the right information. My fellow chairs are more knowledgeable and competent than I, and I learn from them. I also find their uncertainties reassuring in the face of my own. If I don’t know everything, that’s okay.

And? I’m finding that I can do the job and find satisfaction in it. The department I chair is a good department: talented teachers, productive researchers, involved students. I can’t take credit for their achievements, but I can help them achieve.

"A Sight in Camp . . . "

encampment.png On June 2, Phelps County celebrated its sesquicentennial—its 150th anniversary. Among the celebratory events was a group of Civil War reenactors portraying Union troops from St. Louis. They camped next to the original county courthouse, as Union troops camped here in the 1860s, using the courthouse for a hospital among other things.
How is this event connected with the University and with the Department of English and Technical Communication? The university is located in Phelps County; the department teaches literature of the Civil War period. As an example, here is the first stanza from a poem in Walt Whitman‘s Drum Taps:

"A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
"As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
"As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
"Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
"Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
"Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all."

Living across the street from the old courthouse, in a house where Union officers were quartered, I’m moved to awaken and find the encampment across the street. An event like this reenactment brings images of the past into the present, just as does Whitman’s poem and as a literature class does.