Summer Progress I; A Call for Help with Details

So here I am, embarking on the summer of Finishing This Novel. Finals are over, grades are entered, and now I have a reprieve from one kind of work; now it is time to push myself through the Other Work. I want a finished manuscript by August. But things keep getting more and more complicated: history, architecture, plot threads, character’s emotions yet to be discovered.

I’m taking inspiration from my friend Stephanie; her first novel is coming out this December. I am so proud of her. I know she has called herself lazy before, but truly she has remarkable self-discipline. I am going to mooch off her and give you a great list of links and books On Writing.

I’m deep in research, as I have been. I have a very lengthy list of Facts to Check and Details to Figure Out. The main part of This Novel takes place in 1988, a chunk in 1966, 1972, and 1945. We are on a grand estate on a icy New England Island, just barely pre-MilliVanilli.

Dear Readers,

Please help me with 1945. I’d appreciate any book and website recommendations, as well as any other information. What type of medication(s) would be prescribed for respiratory problems/distress in 1945—did they have inhalers back then? Pills? What kind of wedding cake was popular in 1945? What were some popular party foods from the 40s?


Drowning in Details

Oates on Grief, Teaching, Pursuit

Joyce Carol Oates’ essay, “I Am Sorry to Inform You,” in the 2010 The Atlantic fiction issue is a moving examination of loss, grief, and life. Oates discusses losing her husband of 48 years, Raymond Smith. This essay made me love Oates even more, and the level of truth, painful truth, she articulates gives the reader affirmation and new words. Oates speaks what many of us cannot articulate. This examination of grief, life, and profession is a comfort. And I find the below photo, by Eva Haggdahl, to be simply beautiful.

The Long Haul

Why were folks a bit grumpy in grad school? At least, this is how I remember it. A department sans graduate students is downright peachy. This has nothing to do with the individual personalities and everything to do with individuals not being stressed to the gills about a million things. Graduate students in the Humanities deal with a lot of crap–that’s a vague descriptor, but trying to describe some of the complicated issues a graduate student might face would make most folks’ eyes glaze over.

Patricia Cohen, in “The Long-Haul Degree” in the New York Times, explains some of the problems, including the “more than nine years” on average to complete a degree, dissertating, “patching together a mix of grants and wages for helping teach undergraduate courses–a job that eats into research time,” and ultimately facing a bad job market with an increased number of adjunct positions and a receding amount of tenure-track plus benefits type jobs. So, back to the cause of grad school mania, malaise, or grumpiness. Patricia Cohen writes,

Louis Menand, an English professor at Harvard and another longtime critic of the Ph.D. production process, notes: “Lives are warped because of the length and uncertainty of the doctoral education process.” In his new book, “The Marketplace of Ideas,” he writes, “Put in less personal terms, there is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get.”

I like Menand’s phrases “lives are warped” and “social inefficiency.” Cohen highlights problems with the system of financing, the proposal of broadening research options for degree candidates, and the changing job market. This is a must read for anyone who is currently in, has been in, or is planning to enroll in a graduate program in the Humanities.

On Language: Part II

On Grammar Girl in the Classroom

I love Grammar Girl.  While driving, I used to enjoy hearing the occasional Grammar Girl podcast on NPR; this was back when podcast was a brand new word. Now, Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, has since penned Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl.

One thing I love about Grammar Girl is the conversational tone of her pieces; the listener doesn’t feel like he’s being scolded. Also, Grammar Girl uses cultural references, song lyrics, cartoons, and humor to entertain. Remembering why a Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones line is grammatically correct or incorrect serves the same purpose as a mnemonic device and leaves a deeper imprint. (That is, if you aren’t too young to know the music.)

Incorporating Grammar Girl podcasts into the college composition classroom works. Every classroom I use has the computer-internet-projector-audio set-up. So, it is easy to pull up the website and play a podcast. I usually present the Grammar Girl version of a concept a week or so after the textbook-type lesson has come up in lecture. I don’t rigidly pre-plan specific grammar lessons, but there are topics that need to be addressed in every 1101 course.

Grammar Girl topics include such titles as “Which Versus That” and “Myself.” Not surprisingly, the most popular tips are “Affect Versus Effect,” “Lay Versus Lie,” and “Who Versus Whom.”

The best part? The opening music is 100% cheese. The music is cheesy, the jokes are cheesy, the cartoons are cheesy, but it works and it is, for once, not exclusively my cheesiness. It is nice to sit back for four minutes, with my students, and become a listener to another professional; the dialogue opens up. After listening to and discussing a Grammar Girl episode, students are likely to voice more questions about language, questions they may have before ignored because they thought the questions were stupid or that they were simply doomed to not ever get it.

Once students see that real people are phoning/emailing the Dr. Drew of language and voicing their questions and complaining about their insecurities, accessibility happens. It’s not as saucy as Loveline, but the objective is the same: demystify…

These concepts are no longer mystifying things that you have to get ‘right’ in order to get an ‘A’ on a paper in that one class. These concepts are things that exist in our language, which is part of everything, so we may as well ask questions and investigate and try to figure it all out. These concepts are not things to hate. These concepts are not things to patently not get.

On Language: Part I

Here is a fantastic NSFC (Not Safe for Classroom) illustration of Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling over at The Oatmeal.

I, by no means, consider myself a grammarian. Oh, wait, but I’m the composition teacher, right? Right. Which means I can’t get away with ignoring my ignorance. That worked for a while; in grad school I would not, did not, register for graduate level English Grammar. Can you imagine such a course? I mean, such a course assumes you have been studying principles of grammar for the previous sixteen or so years of your life. I felt out of the loop.

To this day, I cannot remember one grammar lesson, a real-life scene of grammar instruction, from K-12 school. I blame this on the overcrowded public schools I attended. They were “good” schools on paper, but there were so many of us they had to chop us into groups for instruction. I remember being immediately shuffled into the top ‘reading group’ in kindergarten because I could already read; kindergarten is the first time I experienced boredom outside my house. In eighth grade I was one of six students, out of a class of about three hundred and fifty, in an accelerated English course. By that point I could read and write well enough, and still didn’t know anything about mechanics or grammar–or, at least how to talk about such things. Eighth-grade English consisted of reading really good books, talking about them, and playing many games of hearts. I never once had to diagram a sentence.  

Several things have encouraged me to tackle this previously avoided subject: one, the most base human desire not to embarrass myself; two, my partner; three, to excel at writing instruction. One is self-explanatory, and it ties into two. My partner’s education varies from mine; he had a militaristic education in principles of grammar, among other things. I can’t count the number of times some curious soul at a party has asked me something along the lines of what is up with the whole split infinitive thing? and I’m like, go ask that guy, he knows. I often ask him for writing advice. I still do silly things on paper. We all have bad habits. The fact that I am a writing instructor does not exclude me from misplacing modifiers, flinging around clichés, or committing other various sins of weak writing. This is what revision is for–for fixing things that are not quite as they should be, not the clearest and most precise.

In “On Language: Part II” I will express my love for Grammar Girl, as well as outline how I use Grammar Girl in the composition classroom.

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