Wednesday, May 2, 2012


The semester is over -- and with it, I'm experiencing the usual mixture of exhaustion and helplessness.  The number of students at our universities who don't have a language map is truly appalling.  I just finished assigning grades (some of them very low, many of them accompanied by phrases like "Use complete sentences" or "Nouns and verbs have to agree," or "Don't just make lists" or "You need to run to the Learning Center and learn how to write an essay," or "Where are the readings?" or, worst of all, " I can't follow this at all") and I just don't know what will ever come of it.  I perhaps need a good, stiff scotch or some such libation.  Too bad I don't drink.  How can a civilization survive without language?  It really IS all that we have between us.  It's how we generate ideas, inventions, paradigm shifts, relationships, meanings -- on and on.  One young woman in the lower-division class, without the slightest hint of hostility, told me that my job (in her experience) ought to be simply to reward her for attending every day.  I'm sure that is what happened in high school.  I should add that this particular student came from a pretty-good suburban high school.  The best students in the class were four very hard-working African-American students in the front row.  They didn't get an A between them.  But learning occurred, lots of it.  And they went off to the writing center when I told them to do so -- no protests.  The protests come from the other students who think that university is a kind of holding action against change, an avenue to wealth without risking any part of what they are when they first walk in the door.  That's why some of them, the intractible ones, sit in the back row with arms crossed, or simply play with cell phones.

Now, some part could be me, of course.  I'm an old fart.  I think that university SHOULD be hard.  Nobody ever told me that it would be a piece of cake, that I'd always be happy, never be made unhappy with books and writing.  Something has changed, and I wonder now whether I should remain much longer.  I do NOT want to leave on a sour note.  I won every teaching award the university offers -- and -- what has it come to?  The salvation comes in upper division, by the way.  But it's SO damned sad.  The high schools should be shut down, retrained (without ticky-box tests), and reopened with teachers who are free to teach.

So I'm going to drive to the Shepherd's Harvest Festival in Lake Elmo, Minnesota, in two weeks -- instead of the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival -- in part because I want to hug my neice and my oldest historical friend, Julie -- but also because the Minnesota festival has a larger number of vendors that I've not yet met.  It will be a necessary trip -- time to recharge batteries, to look at the gnarled, gorgeous landscape of once-glaciated Wisconsin, the sculpted St Croix River valley just as Wisconsin gives way to Minnesota, the glories of Grand Avenue in St Paul (the city of my birth -- a kind of nativity scene...) where the Bibelot Shop still exists, with its gathering of wonderful objects to touch and try on.  I'm fatter than I was when I was last there, so the try-ons will be fewer.  But -- down the street is the incredible Cafe Latte, and one of the best knit shops in the state.

Life does move on.  I will complete the book that's almost done -- the one people have been waiting for me to finish for a few years now -- and I will knit.  I have sweaters in my head.  I only hope that life will go on for those unfortunate, deprived, illiterate students.  There must be a terrifying stillness in their heads.  WIthout language, there can be only silence -- or perhaps its opposite, a kind of dissonant, inchoate noise signifying nothing.



  1. I work for the government and I know what you mean. The people who come in, looking for our "services" is nauseating. Who is giving anything to ME?

  2. Well, I'm not sure what you mean. If you mean that we should be giving them nothing, that's not right either. I worry about what these students are capable of learning without any language skills, what that will mean for America's future, and whether they understand that getting ahead can mean being unhappy, even miserable, with lots of sleepless nights, less time on the internet, and so on. It's all very sad. svb