le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Monday, January 31, 2011


It seems that it's becoming all the rage to talk about empathy; John Green, when he spoke in Pittsburgh Friday night, opened his talk with some words about empathy. This is a good thing; I'm hardly going to fight against a call for greater empathy.

I would, however, like to point out that I have been talking and thinking and writing about empathy for quite some time now - at least since fall of 2009, when I know I explicitly mentioned it, more than once, in my childhood's books class. Probably longer, really, because in some ways empathy is a core aspect of my dissertation, which has been in the works since 2008 for way too long.

As a person who is perenially ahead of the trends - usually so far ahead that I just look like an unfashionable nerd-dork - I would just like to state for the record that I got in on this empathy thing before it was cool to talk about empathy.

Just like I started listening seriously to Radiohead before the masses did (way before OK Computer).
And I started wearing chuck taylor allstar high tops in junior high school, which for me was (good lord) circa 1990. I had to hunt all over for my first pair of chucks, which were dark green, and which I still own and on rare occasion, still wear. They bear the marks of adolescence, including the rubber edging being inked up and picked at, and a rather mortifying peace sign drawn on the rubber toe of one show. Thankfully, that has faded over time.

Anyway, I offer these tidbits of avant-garde behaviors as further support to my claim as an early-adopter of empathy advocacy. I don't claim priority, just early-adopter status.

That's all. When I have more energy, I need to write about E. Lockhart: the pseudofeminism of her books, and the trouble with the newest Ruby Oliver book.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Philip Pullman & public libraries

Today a link came down the pipeline to a speech Philip Pullman gave at an Oxfordshire local meeting about the region's public library funding.
I am a devotee of Philip Pullman, and had the incredible, amazing happy luck of actually meeting him in 2007. The His Dark Materials books have had an enormous impact on the way I read, the way I think, the way I think about books, Milton, children, teaching - everything. I am a committed fangirl, and I don't apologize for it (I don't fangrrrrl for too many things or people, so I feel I am allowed this one).

I am also a devotee of public libraries. Well, all libraries, really. But the public ones are the ones being pinched and pulled from both (or all) ends, and they're the ones that really do mean a lot.

Mr Pullman's speech talks both of the importance of the library to the child and to the adult. He talks of class difference, of the insultingly narrow view behind the idea that some magical squad of "volunteers" can just run everything. He talks of the faults of politicians and political appointees, and manages to deploy the adjective "Dickensian" in reference to one Eric Pickles (which is a Dickensian name if I ever heard one).

Public libraries in the United States and, evidently, England - if not elsewhere - are being pushed to their limits. Funding cuts coupled with increased demand and usage by the public equals overstretched resources. It's not just the nerdy, technophobic bibliophiles who are affected; it's the children whose parents make use of all the storytimes - for babies, for toddlers, for preschoolers. It's the groups who use the library for book clubs, for lectures, for discussions. The people who need the library to access the internet. The people who rely on librarians to help them find the information they need about taxes, about the law, about divorces and custody and dog licenses and geography and zip codes and how to become a hairdresser. The people - adult immigrants - who use the children's bookroom to practice or learn English. The people - adults - who use the libraries to learn to read, at all. The kids - of all ages, including teenagers - who spend their afterschool hours in the teen room of the local library (I have seen them do this in Pittsburgh - the teen room and reading/computer areas are never empty of teenagers). The adults like me who don't have enough money to buy all the books they want to read. The people who own e-readers and can now get e-books on loan through their library (the Pittsburgh library has e-books on lend that are compatible with what looks like every device except the kindle). The people who read music scores, who check out documentaries, who borrow music and movies and dvds of cooking shows.

Mr Pullman says it all far more intelligently and beautifully and affectingly than I can, which is why his remarks ought to be mandatory reading for everyone, especially people in town and county governments.One of the most profound comments on the function of public officials I have ever read comes here, in reference to the head of the county council:
"It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them."

Imagine that - a town board, a city council, a county legislature whose job is to protect services

His final sentences are really admonishments, reprimands. Though I have heard his voice, and know it doesn't really sound this way, I imagine these final words being spoken in a loud roar, a bronze-bells sound that stuns and deafens and moves the auditor:
"Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

teaching is hard work: a little-known fact about concentration

This semester, for the first time ever, I am teaching classes that are back-to-back. I have fifteen minutes between the two (which boils down to about six minutes of my own time - the end-of-class questions and comments always takes time, and usually the before-class moments involve solving someone's problem as well).  I've taught two classes on the same day before - one morning, one afternoon; once, I only had about an hour and a half between recitations (for the same class).
But fifteen minutes? shoot. that's nothing.

Each class is one hour and fifteen minutes in length. One, Representing Adolescence, is both a class I've taught before, and extremely familiar turf. I know my YA. The other, Myth & Folktale, is brand-new to me. And I am definitely a tourist in Myth & Folktale. But I've been working hard since late October to educate myself, and it's paying off (though next week, we start the ancient Greeks - Hesiod - and the real test begins).

The point of all this schedule talk is: I am exhausted when I leave school.
Because teaching is hard work.
Teachers, and the children of teachers (of which I am one), know this already.

It wasn't until a couple of summers ago that I realized just why class is so exhausting. I'd been teaching for at least two years by then; it was my third summer of teaching in the six-week intensive schedule (class twice a week, for 3 hours and fifteen minutes each day).
I was watching, on one of the last days, one of the girls fiddling with her phone, texting or checking messages, or something. Discussion was going on, and I was listening, but her phone was in a bright pink case and caught my eye. And in that moment I realized: when I'm teaching, there is NO daydreaming. No doodling. No checking messages. No working on my grocery list, or my To-Do list, or drawing pictures of cats and dinosaurs and bored stick figures while I listen to the professor or a classmate. When I'm teaching, my brain is entirely, entirely focused on the task at hand.

Usually, when we (people) do things, our brain is occupied, but there's room for a bit of multi-tasking. Cleaning and listening to music, for example. You can handily do both. Studying and listening to music, perhaps. I've had a couple of different kinds of jobs, including a Real Job as an Administrative Assistant at a national nonprofit, and I know how unlaserlike my focus was. You work for a bit, check some email, go to the bathroom. Get a drink. Work some more, while an acquaintance makes a face at you as she passes by. Set one task aside for another. Your mind can wander a little. In these here days of uber-connectivity and technology out your ears and twitter and facebook, the distractions are almost infinite.
It's not hard to find studies about this - a google search turned up a massive crop on productivity, distractions, etc. Whether distractions are good or bad, stress-inducing or stress-relieving, isn't the question here. The point is, it's likely that the average desk-job employee spends 20-25% of her workday NOT doing the work she's there to do - in other words, doing personal crap.
So much for "teachers work a shorter day."

See, in the classroom, there are no breaks to check facebook, or email. You can't put off your students, when they're there staring you in the face.

And to teach a discussion class - or even a lecture class - your brain has to be pretty close to 100% tuned in to what you're doing. You can't gaze out the window and drift away for a few seconds while a student is asking you a question. You have to be ON the whole time.
At first, I thought the tiring-ness of this was because I was new to teaching. But my parents - lifelong public school teachers, now retired - both said "nope. that never changes." It's always tiring, because the concentration required to maintain your class is tremendous.
And because every class is made up of different students, even if I'm teaching the same book for a second semester, it never becomes automatic or mechanized. There's never a point where I can detach my brain a little from what I'm doing, or saying. When the students talk, I need to be listening - and not just paying attention. I need to be processing their words and thinking as they speak how to respond. It's a little like the focus you need in a job interview - you cannot just start woolgathering while the HR person and the CEO ask you what you'll bring to the team.
So my three hours of teaching is three solid hours of work. Not 80, or 75% of three hours. It's every minute of that time.

Grading works the same way - you cannot actually grade writing and let your mind wander. So every minute of grading is a full minute devoted, not just 40 seconds. If my mind starts wandering, I have to stop work. You cannot effectively grade an essay if you've read six sentences with no idea of what you've actually read. there's no toggling back and forth. There's procrastination, of course, and the nice thing about grading is that you do that on your time frame (for instance, I don't have to show up anywhere at 8am to begin grading, and stay there until 5pm). I can start grading at 10pm and work until midnight. But those two hours? those are two solid hours of work.

One of the complaints, or criticisms, or snarks, leveled at teachers is "you don't work a full day" and "you get summers off."
The actual school day may be less than 8 hours, though many public schools require teachers to arrive well in advance of the students' arrival and the start time, so it's quite possible to spend close to 8 hours in the building. And you get a lunch break, and a work period (in which, as far as I can tell, most teachers spend their time doing work - grading, prepping, etc - and not checking facebook). But then you go home. And your bag is full of essays to read, tests to grade, texts to re-read for tomorrow, lessons to plan.
And again, a lot of that time - all the in-class time, and all the grading of writing - demands all of your focus and attention.
It's exhausting. It's draining.
But it's also, often, completely exhilarating - at least the classroom part is, at least for me - and that's what makes it worth while.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

what he says

From the very, very smart Philip Nel, a pithy summary and rejoinder about the study, publicized today, that claims college students aren't learning anything.

To quote from Nel's quoting from Inside higher ed, the study shows:
Students majoring in liberal arts fields see “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.” Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the smallest gains. (The authors note that this could be more a reflection of more-demanding reading and writing assignments, on average, in the liberal arts courses than of the substance of the material.)

I read this finding with joy this morning - my liberal-arts education, and my undergraduate liberal-arts college are exceedingly important to me. I would not be the brilliant and incisive (/end sarcasm /end hyperbole) reader and thinker I am today without them. I believe in the liberal arts education. It's nice to know that there are some at least quasi-scientific findings to back that up.

Of course, this tidbit gets buried in the ridiculous hyperbole of reportage: Nel quotes one article titled "University students learn next to nothing."

Go read Phil Nel's post. It's short and sweet, and says everything I would say much more intelligently and concisely. One thing my liberal-arts education didn't seem to successfully teach me is how to restrain my verbosity.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

a lack of interest

Short post, I hope, but a Call To Action!!

On Monday morning, the 2011 ALA Award Winners were announced. This is always an exciting moment for those of us who care about children's books. This year, I didn't have any real skin in the game (so to speak, borrowing the phrase from Merlin Mann), since I haven't read any of the Newbery or Caldecott nominees. But I will, eventually.

The big winners were Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (Newbery) and A Sick Day for Amos McGee, illustrated by Erin E. Stead (Caldecott). The complete list of winners and honor books is online, and is worth a look. I'll be hunting up the Newbery and Printz titles soon, though getting them through the library is always tricky after the awards are announced (an hour or two after the announcement, Moon Over Manifest had almost 50 holds on it for the Pittsburgh public library system).

The real reason for this post, however, is the very unwelcome news that NBC's Today show is breaking its 11-year tradition of inviting the Newbery & Caldecott winners on to the show the day after the announcement. Today evidently told YALSA, the young adult library organization that conducts the awards that they would not be hosting the award winners and a YALSA rep to discuss this year's winners, "citing a lack of interest and scheduling problems."


Are you kidding?

The Newbery and Caldecott awards are THE prizes in American children's literature. Winning either of these - but especially the Newbery - is a virtual guarantee that the book will never go out of print. Because so few adults spend enough time in the children's book world, the Newbery is a hugely important marker of quality - adults will choose Newbery titles as gifts for the children in their lives, based solely on the fact that the book is a Newbery winner. The bookstore where I worked, a Barnes & Noble, has a special section where Newbery winners are shelved. Most libraries I've been in either have a Newbery section, or lists of Newbery winners posted prominently.  Schools, districts and teachers will select Newbery books as part of their curricula.
Newbery winners are marked for life - for eternal life, in a way - as representative of the best of children's literature. They become the go-to set of books for younger readers.
In a country with something like 75 million children, it is hard to believe there is a "lack of interest" in books those children are almost certain to be exposed to.

But evidently, Today feels that scheduling and interest are amenable to Snooki Whatsherface from that televisual abomination, Jersey Shore. The lesson Today conveys is pretty clear: for all the lip service NBC and other media pay to concerns over education in the US, books and literacy will always be displaced by fake tans and low intelligence.

There's room in this world for Snooki and the Newbery books (alas, Snooki herself is not likely to know much about the Newberys), and Today ought to know better than to privilege one over the other. Especially in the current climate of anxiety and finger-pointing over the perceived failings of the American educational system.
The reason why education and intellectual achievement are devalued in this country isn't just because of poor parenting or bad teachers. It has a LOT to do with the culture at large, a culture to which the Today show is a huge contributor and reflector. Books don't matter, especially books for children, especially great books for children, is what Today's decision tells me. Being an exhibitionist tart with an artificial tan and no conspicuous skills or abilities gets you more attention than a book that will likely be read to and/or by millions of kids.

It's completely disheartening. And it's infuriating. I am composing an email to Today, and I may even follow it up with a real paper letter. I encourage other people who care about children's books, who care about literacy and education, who care about literature to also contact Today and let them know they have made a very poor decision.

You can email the Today show at: TODAY@nbcuni.com.
You can write to them by post at 30 Rockefeller Plaza New York, NY 10112.
You can place a telephone call to them at (212) 664-4602.

Let them know that there is, in fact, a great deal of interest in children's literature. Let them know that, by their failure to include the award winners and their books, the show is contributing directly to the culture that devalues education.

It'll only take a few minutes of your time, and who knows? Perhaps, if enough people contact them, Today will find room in their busy schedule of reality "stars" and celebrity gossip to squeeze in a piece on the books the children of America are going to be reading.