Monday, October 31, 2005


When I was a senior in high school, one of my friends hated our physics teacher. One of the rules in his class was that food and beverages were not allowed. It was a science classroom, and experiments were conducted there. Eating and drinking was simply not safe. But it was the first class of the morning, and my friend was tired at 7:30 in the morning. So one day she brought a 20 oz. bottle of Mountain Dew to class. The teacher took it and dumped it out in the sink at the front of the classroom, in front of everyone. It was probably an overdramatic way of handling the situation, but he was really just enforcing his rule. She hated him for the rest of the year.

So I have first-hand experience of how sensitive and fickle students can be, and I hate not being liked. I've come to terms with the idea that, as a teacher, being liked isn't really my job. It's more important to stick to my policies. But I'm a writing teacher, and I think most students do their best writing for teachers they don't hate. But I may have made a student hate me today. It wasn't entirely my fault, though.

A woman in my class emailed me about a week ago, to tell me that her grandpa had died and she was going to miss a week of class. We had a paper due last Tuesday, and she asked if she could email it to me. I told her that I was sorry to hear about her grandpa, and that she should definitely email me her essay. But I had to receive it by Tuesday, because my policy is not to accept any late assignments, no matter how valid the reason for missing class.

I didn't hear from her until today. Today she emailed me her paper, with a note that said another instructor told her that she should turn the paper in to me late, "due to the circumstances." I promptly replied that I still could not accept the essay, but that she would have a chance to turn it in at the end of the semester, when I give everyone a chance to either revise or make up one essay. I also mentioned that it is my prerogative, not any other instructor's, to decide whether I will accept late work in my class. In her next email, she told me that her other instructor told her to try to hand the essay in, and "if it wasn't accepted, to let them know, and they would take care of it" for her.

So now I'm left to wonder what that means. In the immortal words of Beavis, "Are you threatening me?" This will in no way damage her grade in the class, and I can defend my decision completely and confidently. I'm not punishing her for making grieving for her grandfather and being with her family during a hard time a higher priority than writing an essay for me. I allow students to make up one essay so that they have the freedom to do exactly that.

I'm actually not upset with her; I'm mildly irritated that she complained about me to another instructor instead of making an appeal directly to me, but that's where it ends. I won't hold it against her. The other instructor is the one who's grating my cheese. He's stepped out of his (or her) classroom and into mine, where he (or she) is undermining my authority despite not knowing all the details of the situation. I've become the bad guy because some professor can't mind his (or her) own beeswax.

I hope this other professor approaches me about this. I'd love to explain things, plainly and respectfully.

Of course, the damage has already been done. That student is probably already determined to hate me for the rest of the semester. It's too bad. Her writing has been good so far.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Writer's block

In one of her essays on writing, Octavia E. Butler says something like "Inspiration is nice, but persistence is more reliable." I find that thought empowering. But also shaming. It reduces "writer's block" to a weak excuse for not trying hard enough.

She also advises that writers should write for at least an hour every day, whether they feel like it or not. So I'm trying it. It's the first thing I've done the last few mornings. And it's been working. The story I'm working on for my thesis is filling out, and I've been feeling really good about myself.

And now today. I have a pretty good idea of where I want to take the story, but I'm at one of those aggravating in-between spots. How do I move gracefully from where I am to where I'm headed? So I've been sitting here for the last half hour, pondering and not typing. I suppose that's my whole problem. When in doubt, it's most effective to write everything down. The awful stuff can be deleted later. Instead, I write nothing and hope for something magical to happen inside my head. Eventually, that magical something probably will happen. But if it happened while I was sitting here waiting for it, I'd be amazed. It's much more likely to happen tomorrow, or next Wednesday, or in January.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


White chocolate mocha latte. I probably shouldn't have spent the 3 dollars, but I've been tired all the time for a couple of days. I was an insomniac for two weeks, wheezing and overconscious of my breathing. Stress. Now that my body has acknowledged that it needs more than five hours of sleep in a night, it's making up for lost fatigue, cramping all of the sleepiness it missed over the last weeks into a few days.

Eric will shake his head at me later: bodies don't really work like that.

I feel much better today than yesterday. I've come to peace with the idea that if I don't get into my one PhD program, I can take a year off. It's okay. I'm in such a hurry to be done with school that I'm closing myself off to other opportunities. If I took a year off, maybe I'd allow myself the time to write fiction. I'm younger than most of the people I know who are entering PhD programs in the next couple of years. I'm not worried that I wouldn't go back to school.

I'm also not so worried that I won't get into the school I've chosen. It's a good school, but it's not Ivy League. And I know I'm qualified. Is this cockiness? Cockiness is confidence, blended. Isn't it? Blended with disregard for others, or ignorance, or stupidity. (The stupidity of only applying to one school, while systematically ignoring the possibility of rejection?) Hmmm. But I was talking with a professor today. I asked him if he would write a letter of recommendation for me, and he said he would be "honored" and would write a "stellar" recommendation. That I'm one of the best writers he's ever had in a class. It's hearing things like that that has made me confident.

But I feel bad about sharing that, like I'm bragging about how great I am. My students read an essay a couple of weeks ago, by Barbara Ehrenreich: "What I've Learned from Men: Lessons for a Full-Grown Feminist." She claims that women are culturally programmed to downplay their achievements, whereas men will unabashedly draw attention to their hard work and intelligence. I think that's an interesting issue: is it bad etiquette to admit that I'm good at something? Just because men get away with it doesn't mean it's not annoying.

On my list of reasons for applying to more than one school, not wishing to seem cocky is up pretty high.

The truth is, I really want to start working on my PhD next year. I'll accept the prospect of taking a year off if I don't get into the school I'm applying to, and maybe it will turn out to be the best thing for me. But I don't expect to be happy about it, at least initially. If I really thought I might not be accepted, I'd apply to more schools, just to have a safety net. But I can't keep myself from thinking that the extra 300 dollars I would spend on application fees and the GRE subject test would just be wasted. And I don't need the stress of taking an additional test. I hate feeling like I felt last night.

So one school, one application. Deep breath. Jump.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


I'm actually more stressed out now than I was three hours ago. Other schools require the GRE English subject test in addition to the general test. And it's more expensive than the general test. Universities have no sympathy for the broke.



I think that pretty much sums up my life today. I'm working on so many things that I had to put "call Grandma" on my To Do list. I feel bad about that, like I'm reducing my grandma to a task I have to complete. But it's not like that. During the day, I'm working on school-related things and I don't slow down enough to think about phone calls to grandmas until late at night. And grandmas, no matter how much they love you, rarely appreciate midnight phone calls.

So aside from calling my grandma, the best thing about today was hearing that my thesis proposal, which I actually managed to write, is "excellent." Yay! Now I just have to continue working on the story that I'll excerpt my writing sample from (my thesis is an academic/creative hybrid: part critical essay, part collection of short stories). And I have to write the bibliography, but I'm sort of looking forward to it. It's sick, I know that. But I like bibliographies. They appeal to my inner neat freak: all of that knowledge, summed up trimly in individual entries and alphabetized. I never allow myself to write a bibliography until a paper is completely finished. It borders on ritualistic.

But even the best thing about today (which is a pretty major thing: I'm getting three credits for that proposal) is overshadowed by the stress of realizing, too late really, that I'm probably being overconfident by only applying to one PhD program. See, I only applied to one undergraduate school, one MA program. I know what I want, and I'm kind of used to getting it. But all of a sudden, now that application deadlines are looming and I'm taking my GRE a little too late to make some school's deadlines, I'm not so sure that I'll get what I want this time. The wheel of fortune can flip me upside down at any time, right? I guess I'll have to try to find at least three good schools that it isn't too late to apply to. And I'll try to maintain my confidence. I'm a hard worker, and that's reflected in my GPA. My academic writing has helped me earn the respect of some professors with pretty high standards.

But still...

Ever feel like you might physically choke on your stress?


Sunday, October 23, 2005

As in life...

Blood, that is. Not blood and gore. Blood and life. Literature is kind of my life right now. Kind of always has been. And always will be, I guess.

But I'm not one of those crazy lonely people who is only capable of interacting with books. I have a boyfriend of five and a half years, two cats, a family that I love. And friends. Literature is life for some of them, too.

I'm working on my MA in English now, and onto the PhD next year. I teach a writing class. I think I'd rather teach literature, but it's okay. I'm still having fun.

I'm supposed to be writing a thesis proposal right this minute. I wrote out a couple of pages, quickly and badly. Now comes the hard part: sorting through it, refining it. Making it sound like I might know what I'm talking about. I'm feeling kind of discouraged at the moment, like I always do early in a project. There are usually a couple of days during which I suspect that I have nothing original to add to the topic I've chosen, that I will only be futilely rearranging what others have said, trying to pass it off as a thought I actually had. Eventually, with a flash of light and the scratching of a pen, I get over it and find the precise angle that will allow me to wedge my own thoughts into the wall of writing already out there. That's what usually happens, anyway.

Today I thought, "This is hard. I think I'll start a blog."