Saturday, December 28, 2013


I have just come back from a glorious walk along the creek bank; when the weather gods and goddesses give you days like today and yesterday, it's a reminder  to find at least half an hour where you walk and feel inside your body, letting your senses and muscles do all the work of living, your senses and muscles reminding you of the moment you are living in.  Clearly, I've been reading too much, getting ready for next term. At first, I simply admired the light, which was coming through thin cirrus clouds, so that only the thickest branches of the trees cast soft striated blue shadows on the white counterpane of the creek bed.  Then I watched as a father went right down on his belly as he pushed his children down into the bowl where children go to sled.  Except he picked himself up and walked away and his white hair suggested he probably wasn't their father--just a kind stranger doing a favour for a couple of kids who wanted to slide down the hill really fast.  Farther down the creek bank, Florence Stratton's guerilla hollyhocks are resting under the snow, the seeds getting ready to flower once again.  A Great Pyrenees, whose owner says he's nothing but a big suck, wanted to put his paws on my shoulder and have a face to face chat.  On my way back, I simply stood at the edge of the bowl, watching and listening as the children screamed and yelped and wheedled in colourful chaos.

The holidays help me live in the present in quite another way by making  me feel grateful for my life, for Veronica and Bill, most intently, but also for a wonderful circle of friends, for quirky, loving (and sometimes maddening) parents who remain powerful memories, for my sister who shares her quilting passions with me.  That gratitude can quickly spread to being grateful for living in Canada; for not being a woman living in Pakistan, Egypt, or Afghanistan; for the weather we have here in Saskatchewan; for having electricity; for not being a Ukrainian journalist; for the cat who is sitting on my lap; for the Christmas tree--somehow a manageable Christmas tree gets smaller each year--with the promising little lights Bill ensures are on each morning when I wake up.

On Boxing Day evening, Bill and I went for our annual "sparkle tour," a tradition he's created for us, though I'm the one with the mental map that tells us where we'll find the most homes decorated with lights.  There is something intimate about driving slowly along in the dark on winter roads, talking desultorily about this and that--whatever comes into one's mind as one drives down streets that are unknown to us for most of the year.  We create our own coziness in the car.  At the same time, people have left their curtains open to reveal their Christmas trees, so we're invited into all kinds of lives--a group of eight or ten at dinner in a very modern house on Robinson, a slightly stooped older woman in her kitchen making tea.  I am so aware of many, many other lives that I will never live.  I love my old house on College, but I'm aware that I'll never live in a minimal modern space, that I'll never have a house on the edge of the creek bank with a western view of the sunsets.  Life is drawing itself around me, like a heavy, fur-lined cloak, and I had better pay attention.

I am not making any New Year's resolutions this January.  I usually do, finding some small way I can make my life better or easier.  I am waiting for July 1, the first day of my retired life, to make resolutions.   Though I already have lists and plans.  I have a small blank book with titles of books to read.  I plan on making bread on Fridays and soup on Sunday or Monday.  I can't even count the number of quilts I want to make, but the list of those is started in my planning book, where snippets of fabrics have been fastened.  Most importantly, however, there is all the writing I am eager to delve into.  Last night, having finished re-reading Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault, I got out the notebook I use to keep track of ideas for Soul Weather, and spent an hour or so thinking about what I have come to call "unsmiling novels," those that not only do not make us laugh out loud occasionally, but that do not provoke a smile in the reader at a funny or joyful moment.  I thought about the tone of these novels, about the intelligent voices the writers create, about how profound they are, about how they take themselves quite seriously--as do their readers.  I'm not sure the world they create is my world:  I could not go, as Jean does in The Winter Vault, an entire year without joy and laughter.  I would feel dishonest, as if I were dissing life.  And with my fur-lined cloak around me, I am sure that life is not for dissing.  So I'm oddly grateful that I have two books to finish before I start again on Soul Weather.  I have a lot more thinking to do.

Actually, I have made one resolution--if you can call it that.  Because this is what I do every January and every September:  I am determined to find the curiosity and intelligence in my two classes and foster it as best I can.  I am going to "find out where my students are and take them farther," as I have said to myself at the beginnings of terms for years and years.  I have been teaching for 37 years.  Now is not the time to abandon one's principles.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Open Letter to Politicians, University Administrators, and Teachers

I envied mathematicians last week.  Canada's ranking in the Program for International Student Assessment scores has fallen, prompting whole pages in The Globe and Mail to be filled with discussions about the importance of mathematical knowledge and skill to our nation's economy, productivity, and innovation.  PISA also checks students' knowledge of science and reading; if our scores drop there as well, we can expect to read more commentary about why the "discovery" approach to scientific knowledge forces students to invent the wheel again and again.  But PISA makes no attempt, apparently, to discover whether students can write.

I'm not going to wax eloquent (today) about why we should all be reading, or tell you what wonderful things your brain does when you read.  I'm not going to extol the virtues of imaginative literature and tell you how it entertains us, helps us consider our response to the myriad ethical difficulties of being human, lets us inside the minds and experiences of people who are entirely different.  I want to talk about clear prose.

A policy that addresses homelessness.  How to make chicken soup.  The story of your child's first sand castle, decorated with seashells and seaweed. (Imagine your cell phone drowned.)  Information about medications for your high blood pressure.  All laws; all social policy.  Goals for city planning.  Thoughts for a new widow or for someone living with cancer.  An argument for saving the habitat of an endangered species.

We need clear writing.  There are numerous theories about why civilizations decline.  My favourite is that they cut down all the trees and had no more materials to build houses or keep warm--an extreme version of mismanaged resources.  But what happens to the quality of life, the innovation and imagination, the communication of a culture, the way it considers its values if clear prose is neither taught nor valued?  Do we give all communication to the adman?

"Ah," you will have said by now.  "It's the end of term and she's gotten cranky."  Actually, my students tell me that I'm one of the few profs who hasn't gotten cranky, though they're not impressed with their marks.  I would have told you that I had the best job in the world until I returned from my sabbatical in 2011. There I found, even in my Jane Austen class, the seeds of what I have come to call "The 2008 Generation."  Somewhere in the midst of their impressionable adolescence, what is now being called "The Great Recession" (clear prose?) hit.  Their parents, in a new riff on an old edict, pointed their fingers at their children and said "You go to University and get a job."  The result is that students are much more concerned with ends (marks) than means (clear writing); in a corollary to their parents' expectations, they now say "I want to come talk to you about my grade."   That's what every student who wanted to see me about an essay this term said.  Not "I want to come talk to you about my paper," which at least assumes that we'll talk about the paper's strengths and weaknesses and consider how they can approach the next essay more effectively.

The 2008 Generation has also moved through a school system that has focussed relentlessly on their self-esteem.  Though the kids themselves laugh at this and think they've kind of had a free ride, they are wrong on a couple of counts.  One is that there were fewer official, academic repercussions associated with not learning; the flip side of this is that they've got a lot to learn before they become adults and citizens.  The other is that, despite their ability to see through the school system, they don't see the dark shadow of their self-esteem:  the assumption that it's so fragile that they must be protected from failure.  Consequently, their response to the marks they get in university doesn't help them grow.  If they have been protected from criticism, it must be because criticism is always a personal judgement, whereas it's really just information about where they are on their way to understanding the world and expressing that understanding.  Psychologists (you can thank Katherine Arbuthnott again) tell us that these are the two basic ways students react to criticism.  The student who thinks it is a personal judgement is stuck; little learning comes out of that defensiveness.  The person who sees it as information can turn that information to good use and learn from it.  Let me be clear; I'm not advocating raw, unbridled criticism.  I always tell my students what part of their essay is working well and what they can do to improve their work.  Rigour doesn't have to be mean. On the other hand, I think the citizens of Saskatchewan pay me in part to be rigorous, to be honest.

There are other interesting habits of The 2008 Generation.  They go missing from class for a week in the middle of the term, emailing from Acapulco or the Bahamas that a family vacation was planned months ago and could I send them the next assignment.  They ask for extensions on essays because they haven't finished reading the novel they were supposed to write about.  Meanwhile, in class we have moved on to the next novel.  They mangle their language and say things they really don't mean.  A colleague of mine reported that one student in his class had defined "stereotype" in such a way that it sounded like she believed there were good reasons for things like racism or sexism or homophobia to be seen as stereotypes.  In fact, the English Department's end of term munching and drinking devolved--for the first time in my 23 years--into a complaint session.  Everyone had a story about the worst essay they'd ever seen in an upper level class, the story of someone who disappeared, the story of someone who rarely attended, did none of the assignments, and then showed up for the final.  We all shake our heads and say that our marking is taking us about 50% longer. (I think I've found the reason our students find us cranky.)

When Ken Coates talked about the future of the humanities last February, he said we're taking in about 25% too many students.  I suspect we are.  I suspect that we have to.  As provincial governments across the country pay a smaller and smaller percentage of the costs of running a university, we need more students' tuition.  At the same time, this is a worrying trend.  I'll tell you my own story of just one of my worst essays (disguised as much as I can while still giving you enough information to understand my point).  The essay was worth 35% of the final mark and was not for a first-year class.  The student wrote four paragraphs:  an introduction that wasn't bad; a paragraph that simply said the same thing over and over without citing evidence for why her assertions were true; a second paragraph where s/he did cite evidence from the text, but mis-attributed it, thus assigning opinions and attitudes to the wrong characters.  A summary conclusion followed, telling me (in case I had forgotten) what she'd written about.  More and more of us in our complaints note that quite a few students, like this one, metaphorically fail to show up.

As a society, we're thinking hard about where  to invest our limited resources.  One metric being used to consider how much to invest in universities cites the economic value of a university education, in terms of ends, not means.  These researchers do not care whether a person's life has been enriched by four years of study, four years of being urged to be curious, four years of wallowing in the wonder of knowledge.  They want to know how a university education effects the student's ability to earn a living.  But if some of our students aren't even showing up, their failure to earn a middle-class living doesn't represent a failure of their education.  Something has gone badly wrong before they arrived at our doors, and we need to figure out what that was.  Something in the schools?  Something in the values of the larger culture?  Something in the shift to a wired world of texts and emails and Google?  Whatever it is, that something is being blamed on us and used to suggest that because we're not doing our job we need less money, not more.

In the week that I've been thinking about this post, while I marked exams and read late papers, I found myself wanting to restore the value of excellence and elitism.  But I kept coming up against the fact that neither of those words said quite what I meant.  I don't really want the university to become an elite institution; such desire suggests that some people are more deserving than others, where it's really a matter of suitability and inclination.  Every person needs to feel the cloak of their human dignity furled about them; then we can consider the value of an institution suited to a particular turn of mind that our culture needs.  I need my mechanic and the cheerful young men and women who renovated my kitchen and built a new garage.  I need the baker who makes my bread and the farmer who grows the grain.  But I also need--we also need--and we should not be ashamed about it--people who want to think deeply and clearly about fundamentals:  the fundamentals of what we know about our world and our universe, our society and our psyches, and people who express that knowledge in good clear prose.

"Excellent" and "awesome" and "brilliant" are all words that have been co-opted, so instead of excellence I think I'm going to wish for clarity.  Clear prose is fundamental to a society that feels and plans and hopes and regrets and resolves to do better.  Might not transparency in prose lead to transparency in politics?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Memory's layers; memory's hallways

Veronica is the person in our family who reads the most speculative fiction, so last night I asked her, while we were getting ready to make tea to drink in front of the newly-decorated Christmas tree, if she could think of a work that had a doorway opening to the past that could only be opened on certain days or certain times of the year.  Certainly, I know about the doorways to other worlds in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Root Cellar, but I wondered if there was a literary precedent for what I experience this time of year.

"Would you like to try a new kind of tea?" I asked her.  "I bought you too many stocking stuffers."


"Then hand me my watch."

Veronica laughed.  "That's a non sequitur if I've ever heard one."

My mother was the queen of the witty, whimsical non sequitur.  So it was as if I had just opened the doorway to find her going about her life in a kind of timeless space that the dead occupy.  Here they simply hang around obligingly, waiting for us to stumble on them again to remember something we had forgotten or had not given its proper place in our portraits of them.

Most times of the year, memory seems to be like a lake--in winter, like a frozen lake.  You look down through a layer of thick ice that distorts what's below, but if you concentrate you can see the fish moving about slowly, see the weeds waving in an invisible current.  You know that below this there is the sea bed; on the prairies, which was twice an inland sea, this layer of sediment can be quite thick.  And beneath that is the earth's crust, though you can only say the words:  you can't quite describe what it is.  

Occasionally, in the weeks leading up to the solstice and to Christmas, for example, or in the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination or in the days after Nelson Mandela's death, this metaphor seems to turn ninety degrees, so that memory is at  not a lake but a hallway with many, many doors.  In 1985, I saw James Dickey at the Modern Language Association Conference in Chicago, which is always held between Christmas and New Years; he looked like a large workman and had an impressive set of keys dangling from a chain fastened at his belt. Though that was twenty-eight years ago, I remember thinking that all those keys were just right; he seemed to me to be a kind of guide to the underworld, someone who had the keys to rooms we might--or might not--like to look into.

I don't think our memories are on high alert just because of the archaeology of the boxes of Christmas decorations, though that was in play again this year. Veronica pointed to two tear-drop-shaped glass decorations with turquoise liquid in them and said she couldn't remember any Christmases without these on the tree.  These and a couple of glass balls come from Christmas in Boston, when my first husband and I searched the shops around Harvard Yard for decorations for our tiny tree.  We left it for a couple of days to make a quick trip to Michigan and returned to find it contorted and misshapen for lack of water; I still find the memory disturbing.  I'm also very aware of the absence of a large glass ball given to me by my mother:  one year we didn't have the tree solidly in the stand, and Bill and Veronica stood in terrified paralysis while the newly-decorated tree slowly lurched forward, breaking many--but not all--of the glass ornaments.  I have no memory of this; I must have been cooking.

I think it's the darkness, the short days, that prompt us to reflect and remember, as if sunshine and warmth are for living and long dark evenings are for re-living.  The picture above is my attempt to capture the yard light on snowy trees through a frost-covered window.  I haven't quite gotten it right. Like memory, it is layered, though the layers aren't quite in sync.  And we never get memory quite right either.  As often as not, there's a shadow in the corner that we're not paying attention to.  Or the clarity with which we suddenly see someone is overwhelmed by our own shadows.