Monday, February 25, 2008

How to kill the love of art....

One of my least pleasant job duties--fortunately not one that I have to carry out very often--is to evaluate the work of instructors-in-trouble: teachers with poor classroom management strategies, difficulties communicating with students, and, in some cases, an insufficient grasp of the material they're supposed to be teaching. Usually I observe writing and literature teachers; today, though, I sat in on an introductory art history course.

When a writing teacher doesn't know what s/he is doing--and it's clear that s/he hasn't benefited from the coaching that has taken place before I came on the scene--part of me feels angry. Good writing instruction is *so* important to the success of college students. I *hate* to see students being cheated out of a decent writing course.

I wasn't prepared for my response to the very, very weak teaching I witnessed today: in addition to feeling angry, I felt sad and tired. The teacher I observed today read directly from the textbook and still managed to get basic history facts wrong. Worse than that, the teacher asked only yes/no and fill-in-the-blank questions, and created no opportunities for students to talk about what they were seeing.

The one thought that kept coming to me was that this was probably the only art course that most of those students would ever get to take. What if this soporific, misleading semester completely dampens their interest in looking at, thinking about, or making art?


Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Clear Night for Seeing Less of our Moon

Both of the kids were *way* excited to see last night's lunar eclipse. Astrid's class had spent the previous two days learning the phases of the moon, chanting songs and hearing "legends"/"leyendas" about the moon, and painting pictures of what they thought the eclipse would look like. Elliot may not have known as much about it as Astrid did, but a newspaper article posted on the door of Astrid's school gave him the viewing times--which, in turn, helped him figure out just how diligent he'd need to be with his spelling homework if he wanted to be allowed to moongaze.

Of course, it was all of 10 degrees Fahrenheit last night in Chicago, so moongazing was perhaps not as romantic as it might have been on other nights (unless you're Elliot, for whom there is nothing as thrilling as the nighttime sky....except, possibly, for sundown at a baseball game when his team is ahead).

Our neighbor and four of her kids, ages eight to two, were wrapped in blankets and snuggling on the sidewalk when we came out. Astrid, somewhat surprisingly, agreed to share her store of moon lore with Rose, Agnes, R.J., and Joey. She sounded confident, even when she was pronouncing words like "legend" (our two families had a brief discussion of "what a legend is," and even got into the epistemological status of myth. I love talking philosophy with children!). We spent about ten minutes looking at the eclipse as it was just getting underway, and then went in to warm up for about 20 minutes. We came out for another 10 minutes, at which point it was past Astrid's bedtime. Elliot and I went out once more after another 20 minute warmup. Once Astrid was finally asleep, Terry got to get outside to see the moon just past the point of the full eclipse. Sitting outside in such cold weather got me really, really sleepy, and I slept well.

The first thing Elliot wanted to talk about this morning--again, no shock here--was the eclipse, and how many of his classmates were likely to have seen it. Every time we get to see something special in the sky, he stores the experience more or less permanently; he seems to get nothing but pleasure from remembering those times.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

6 Word Memoir Meme

I was tagged today by kt40, who in turn had been tagged by Breathing Easy, who got invited in by bookbabie , who asked her to join a 6 word memoir meme fashioned after Not Quite What I was Expecting: Six Word Memoirs by Famous and Obscure Writers by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser. If you’re up for it, here are the rules:

1. Write a six word memoir

2. Post it on your blog and include a visual illustration or photo if you’d like

3. Link to the person that tagged you in your post and to the original post if possible so the meme can be tracked as it travels across the blogosphere

4. Tag five more blogs with links

5. Leave a comment on the tagged blogs with an invitation to play.

This is mine:

"I ate the seeds--why not?"

I don't actually eat apple seeds. However, people who know me very well, and some more or less random strangers, may know that, back when I was a graduate student, I decided to eat my own contact lenses. I had just gotten a new pair, and I thought to myself, "What's the weirdest thing someone might do with two tiny pieces of plastic that cost $350?" Then I chewed them up and swallowed them.

I wasn't thinking about the contact lenses when my six-word memoir came to me--those six words are literally the first thing that came to me when I read kt40's invitation--but it's not too far off from how I live. When it comes to art, eating, and making statements, I'm sort of impulsive. (No, I don't know what the contact lens statement was supposed to be; that's one of the difficulties with my kind of impulsiveness. Believe me, I wasn't trying to pull a Vito Acconci-style bit of performance art.)

The two images that I put together to illustrate my memoir come from photographer E. West (her flickr name is "Muffet"--take a look at her beautiful photos!) and freeparking (he has an amazing collection of vintage family photos). (If I'd been at home instead of my office, I coulda used things like paper, paint, and my camera. Because I am creating art at work--shame--I had to rely on the Microsoft Paint program. Still, the results are sort of fun.)

I'm tagging Whole Cloth Designs, Endlessly Rocking, and Arby McDarby Behind the Lens.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Baby time, Big Girl time

I've been reading All Buttoned Up, a blog I came across while reading my sweet brother's blog, Endlessly Rocking (every time I try to type the name of his blog, my fingers choose to type "Englishly"---makes me wonder how many times a day I must type the word "English"--my job has become a physical part of my being!).

Two things in All Buttoned Up caught my eye, one profound, and one completely not profound. First, the profound: there's a beautiful baby in Melissa's house, which reminded me so much of the early baby days in our house (those were totally pre-blog days--I'm not sure I would have been awake, alert, or in any frame of mind to blog back when Elliot or Astrid were three months old). Reading about intense chocolate cravings, strange sleep patterns, and the seemingly small tasks that take on Herculean proportions during early baby days made me smile. Of course, as I was trying to read about the sweet challenges of life in Melissa's house, I had a slightly grimy, constantly hungry, veryveryvery busy five-year-old hovering over me. In the space of 20 minutes, I got to intervene in two arguments about which North American animals are biggest (Elliot and Astrid were watching a Spanish-language show called "Reino Animal"), explain why pastrami sandwiches and gum are not typical fare at 8:30 a.m., show Astrid how to draft a pattern for a fleece Pokemon creature, get a bagel and a cup of milk for her, facilitate critical interpretation of a Chuck E. Cheese commercial, prevent her from using a black Sharpie marker on her face, tell a story about how her maternal grandmother once stalked some bison in Oklahoma....There's probably stuff I'm forgetting.

How do I blog now, I'm wondering? All stages of parenting present sweet challenges, I suppose.

The unprofound thing I liked seeing in Melissa's blog was the same IKEA fabric I've been using to make Astrid's jumpers and potholders for various family members. I always feel cheerful when I see that fabric--it feels like a friend! I can imagine a tiny secret sisterhood of people around the world who have an item of clothing made out of that fabric. They'd be able to recognize each other from a mile away.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Very close to home

I was getting ready to teach my Thursday evening class when I got email from my sister in Boston, mentioning the Northern Illinois University shooting, and checking to be sure that we were OK. Of course, DeKalb is an hour and a half away from us, but I completely understood her need to check in. I turned on NPR, since I didn't actually know anything about what was happening, and that's when the dread started to flood over me.

It's strange to me how a college classroom can simultaneously feel like the safest and least safe place in the world. I love and respect my students so much; once we get to know each other, I almost always feel like the hours I spend talking with them each week are some of my happiest, most intense, and most productive. When students pick up the loose ends of a conversation from the previous week, and use what they've been mulling over during that time in order to create new knowledge about a new set of problems, I feel how precious a simultaneously intimate and open place like a college classroom can be. I remember my own experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student, and I am so happy to be able to create similar spaces for my students. Many of them, I know, will remember their times the way I remember mine.

At the same time, I feel sometimes feel vulnerable--not just emotionally, but physically--when I'm sitting or standing in front of a group of students. I remember how shocked and frightened I was, back when I had my first teaching job in southwestern Oklahoma, to hear some of my students boast to me that they *always came to class armed*. I've had my share of students who blamed me or other teachers about low grades, or who had complicated problems that seemed to affect how they functioned when they were on campus or in my classes. I know that all workplaces, and all public spaces, sometimes feel like there's a bad wind swirling around, and that most of us feel scared at least once in a while. I feel quite scared lately.

After we spent the first five minutes of class discussing the afternoon's events at NIU, my students and I turned (with some relief) to our discussion of Alcott's Little Women--a novel in which family life is bittersweetly flavored by the uncertainty of war and the certainty of personal loss and disappointment. One student said that he had been inclined to find all of Alcott's domestic detail--the cooking, cleaning, knitting, and sewing--a bit boring, until he had tried, the morning before, to sew a button onto his jacket. "It took me an hour!" he said. "I have a lot more respect for those women now." I smiled as I looked down and remembered that my blouse, skirt, and jacket were all handmade (though not the way that Jo March and her sisters made their clothes!). I didn't point out what I had just noticed (partly because I wasn't happy with how the jacket fit, and I didn't want to draw attention to it!), but I asked students to raise their hands if they'd never sewn a button onto a shirt or jacket. More than a third of them sheepishly admitted that they didn't know how; a couple of them said that when they lose a button, they just throw the shirt away. "Here's some homework, then: sew a button on something this week--preferably on something you'd really like to wear again." Some of them giggled, and some of them groaned, and probably none of them will do it. But I don't think I was the only one who felt happy talking about the little tasks that help us keep our things together, especially when we see how easy it is for everyday worlds to fall apart.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Celebrating Five Years of Astrid

Today is Astrid's 5th birthday. She's still young enough that each birthday brings back visceral memories of the day she came into our world: I had the flu, and was having nebulizer treatments in between contractions. (They didn't help much.) We had an unmedicated water birth; without the heat from the water, I'm not sure I could have done it unmedicated, as the little girl came very quickly, and I felt like a watermelon split down the middle. (At one point, I announced to Terry and the two midwives that I would not be able to complete the task, as I was about to expire.) In the days after Elliot's birth (during which I did accept some help with pain), I felt like Wonder Woman; after Astrid's, I felt sheepish for making so much noise (a completely bizarre response, as her birth felt twice as painful as Elliot's, and happened twice as fast).

Now that Astrid's 5, I again feel like Wonder Woman, as she has presented challenges that we never had with Elliot, and has demanded a degree of connectedness from all of us that we weren't entirely prepared for. (Consider her early nicknames: half the time we called her Cozy Kitty, because she was so deliciously snuggly [and still is], while the rest of the time, she cried so much that we called her Disastrid. Once she was a toddler, she could be Sweetiepie Space Girl *and* The Red Menace in the space of a half hour.) While she still has tough moments (and days), she also grows more clever, more creative, more curious--and more beloved--every day.

So it's a very happy day for all of us. Happy Birthday, Astrid!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Does this count as Procrastination?

I'm completely enjoying a recent book by Judd Stitziel called Fashioning Socialism: Clothing, Politics and Consumer Culture in East Germany (Berg 2005). I picked it up at the public library when I was gathering sources for my current work on the rhetoric of women's plus-size sewing. There *are* a few references to clothing for big women (or, as the GDR's Institute for Clothing Culture called them, "stronger," "full-figured," and "chubby" women), but mostly the book details the ongoing dialogue between the East German government and the people who had to wear the (mostly shoddy) clothes put out by state-owned factories in the decades between the end of WW II and 1990. The disconnects between policy-makers, manufacturers, and consumers are fascinating: government officials had carefully-theorized approaches to the production and marketing of clothing, and they really wanted the public to look charitably on their efforts. But the manufacturers had awful materials to work with, and there was little economic incentive for them to make clothes that people actually wanted to wear, given that they were rewarded for high production rather than for satisfying consumers' needs. Piles and piles of never-worn clothes accumulated in East German warehouses, with more constantly being produced, while the majority of consumers could not find seasonally-appropriate shoes or outerwear that they could afford. Many moments in Stitziel's book make me think about similarly weird scenarios that I've seen documented in TV shows and websites about North Korea---for example, the impeccably neat "Traffic Girls" directing the movement of cars, whether the cars are there or not.

It's usually a bad sign for my scholarship when I get caught up in reading that's only tangentially related to the work I'm supposed to be the time I got distracted by an economic study of the origins of the Federal Reserve System (back when I was writing my dissertation, which had *absolutely nothing to do with the Federal Reserve*), or the time when I got obsessed with Henry Ford's anti-semitism and the archeology of Manhattan privies (actually, that time wasn't so bad, as I was hugely pregnant with Astrid and couldn't concentrate on "real" work at all). At times like these, I feel like Curious George....I can just hear The Man with the Yellow Hat call out to me as I step into the library: "Now, be a good little monkey." Ninety minutes later I walk out with three books I actually need and four that I just can't resist.

I guess it's fortunate that I don't care too much for novel-reading in my "spare time" (I know-- this is a scandalous admission, as I am a college English professor), because if I did, I'd probably never get any work done. I don't feel so bad if I read a chapter or two of a book on economics or history and then get back to the stuff I'm supposed to be doing.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

No more broccoli, ever

OK: If you are a good parent who makes a point of offering healthy, brightly-colored vegetables and fruits at every meal, and who is not above making rules about the necessity of *at least trying* each healthy food, beware that when your children get the stomach virus that *is* going around, and that will soon be in *your* neighborhood (if it isn't already there), YOU will be looking at those healthy, bright-colored food items in all kinds of unwelcome places, probably for at least three days after serving them.

Both Astrid and Elliot are sick. Astrid has a tender tummy, so we're used to the monthly barf-fest, and we've got some good middle-of-the-night strategies for cleaning up and getting everyone back into a bed (even if it's not the bed they usually rest in). Elliot, on the other hand, has a stomach of steel, so when he gets sick, we know we're dealing with an especially devious little virus, and we do find ourselves a bit at loose ends. Worse than that, it's disorienting to confront an ashen, dimple-free, floppy fellow, when we're used to his merry eyes and bone-dry sense of humor. We are counting the minutes till our Elliot is back in form.

Interestingly, while Elliot is usually a stoic, relatively cheerful patient, and Astrid is quite expressive about her discomforts, this time around, Astrid has been every bit as cheerful as her brother. Last night, for instance, I enjoyed five hours of "Chatty Cathy on the Potty," as Astrid reenacted her favorite Pokemon battles while perched perkily on the toilet. Even though I had to prop my head on my hands to stay awake, I couldn't help loving her spunk. I should be so cheerful when my intestines are turning inside out....

We've had no end of snow in Chicago for the past week. During a three-day break between tummy bugs (or maybe it's the same bug--I don't know), Astrid and her dad got to build a super-cool snow fort in the backyard. I love the look on Astrid's face---she's very proud of what she and Terry accomplished in less than a half an hour. She was equally excited when she saw, the next morning, that overnight rain had melted away most of their work.