Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pulling a David Shields

David Shields, for those of you who may be reading and who don't know, is a modern writer who is particularly interested in resisting genre-identification. This is only tertiarily related to my discussion and here's how. Once, at a conference where Shields had been asked to speak - I don't know what he was supposed to talk about - I think it was about genre bending or why it's not useful to categorize writing. Either way, that's not what Shields did. Instead of asking us to reconsider what it meant to write when the contract with the reader is torn to pieces or telling us the invention of the wheel is not the point at all, here's what he did.

Shields stood up, pulled out a small notebook, and in a small voice said, "These are the books you should read." He then proceeded to list off the names of hundred book titles and their authors. There was no banter in between, no discussion of why. No context whatsover. When he was done, he walked away from the podium and off the stage.

In a word, it was brilliant.

I think about that experience with Shields quite a lot and yesterday, I got to see someone pull a David Shields again.

The situation was as follows: I was honored by one of my students with an invitation to a luncheon acknowledging my impact on his life. These events are always somewhat nerve-inducing things, though they are most definitely an honor and a privilege. I really dig the student who invited me; he's easily one of the five smartest students I've ever been lucky enough to have in a classroom and he and I still communicate via e-mail or during the occasional campus run-in. So this is all to say, I was looking forward to the lunch.

Here's how it unfolded: 1) my student did not show up, and 2) the keynote pulled a David Shields. I was highly entertained on both counts. First, you should know that this student will probably show up next Monday certain that he has the right time and date. Second, you should know that I would listen to someone pulling a David Shields any day of the week.

The keynote was one Dr. Heffernan of the English Department here at UT. This is noteworthy as this was not an English Department event. The group putting on the lunch asked Dr. Heffernan to speak about the history of the university or about leadership. Did Dr. Heffernan do this? No, no, he did not.

Instead, Dr. Heffernan spoke for a little over a half hour about how the human body produces sound. He discussed plosives, and phonemes, and passive vocabularies (mine is over 70,000), and the epiglottis, and neanderthals, and collective speech, and on and on and on and on.

It was beyond fabulous. I was deeply enraptured with him after the first 30 seconds of his speech. I didn't want to look around to see how the chemistry, business, and mathematics students and faculty were taking in the talk. Dr. Heffernan didn't care and neither did I.

When his rambling, disorganized, yet engrossing talk was done, or rather, when it fell off the precipice of time and courtesy, he walked away from the podium and sat down in his seat. There was a silence in the room that I wanted to fill with wild applause. I wanted to applaud his lack of preparation for this specific audience, his certain belief that his subject had universal appeal, and his general moxie. So I did, and those around me joined in in a sort of shellshocked way.

But really, isn't this precisely what a speaker should do? Shouldn't they leave us in a state of shock and awe? Wouldn't it be awesome if every speech ended with jaws collectively dropped and with that uncomfortable confusion that is the precursor to a new way of thinking?

Bravo, Dr. Heffernan. You've inspired me to reconsider several lesson plans/lectures for my upcoming summer class. I too will pull a David Shields, leaving my listeners disoriented, bewildered, and hopefully, in the case of at least one or two of them, altered.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Duck Duck Goose

Around these parts, Duck Duck Goose is more than a game. It's bloodsport. In Knoxville (and other southern cities), Duck Duck Goose is a consignment event that is not for the faint of heart. Everything a child could need from age zero to teen is available at Duck Duck Goose for cheap. My husband, who is clever and handsome and very forgiving of how much I just spent, calls it legal looting. It is. Women come with strollers as machines-of-war, giant tanks that make those of us who have come with conveniently condensable bags shudder and quake.

Really, it's not that bad. It's more that everyone is so incredibly focused. The ones with the strollers also have their children with them which makes me wildly empathetic for the parent-come-warrior and seriously sympathetic for the child who WILL meltdown and who will be clocked by an errant bag at some point in the day.

I love it. It's Black Friday only it happens several times a year. I've been looking forward to it for far too long and of course, I spent too much, but here's all the awesomely awesome stuff I got:

30 articles of clothing (shorts, shirts, pjs, hats - including Atticus's crawfish outfit to wear one month from today)
5 pairs of shoes (including Keens and Stride Rites)
1 eight foot pool (snap-set, new)
1 Radio Flyer tricycle (Fold-up with handle)
1 Fisher Price Pull Dog
1 Fisher Price Little People Garage with Elevator
1 Viewmaster Reel Case with 33 Reels
1 Tonka Ambulance
1 Discovery Channel Viewmaster
1 Little Tikes Riding Toy
1 Toy Story Racetrack
1 Little Tikes Train
1 Playskool Train and Tractor

I won't tell you how much I spent, but I will say this, I got a whole hell of a lot for the money I paid. And I cannot wait for Atticus to wake up to play with his new tricycle!

Personally, I wish Duck Duck Goose was every day; Both my husband and my bank account, however, are glad it is not.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The End of Life is the Phone Interview

When I was too young to understand it, I read Thoreau's quote,

"The end of life is education."

And it deeply resonated with me - so deeply in fact that I luxuriated in degree after degree of higher education to be where I am now with two Master's degrees. (No PhD for me. The MFA was enough).

But lately, my confidence in how I have pursued (or more accurately, meandered toward) the philosophy of Thoreau's quote has come into question. I've begun to doubt what I'm doing or again, more accurately, the ability to which I am doing it. I don't want to read theory. (I know, I know ... no one does, except some people actually do). I can't use the buzzwords. My memory increasingly fails me. All that education is awash in the daily activities of my life. Most days I would rather clean the floors than reread some Faulknerian work. And let's be honest, Faulkner rules.

The catalyst for this moment of doubt is a recent phone interview. I, of the almost negligible social phobias, suffer from a particularly version of catatonia, or maybe its opposite - logorrhea - when it comes to phone interviews. I ramble, I lose thoughts, I inarticulate, I search and search for answers that extinguish in my head like mean clouds of smoke as I approach them.

A bad phone interview does not mean one is in the wrong field except for the importance of the phone interview in this field. They're mandatory. They're the gatekeepers to get the jobs that keep us in books. They're the entranceway to that whole Thoreau-ian end of life thing. I don't know how to get in front of my nerves in that situation and it bothers me that so much weight is carried by such an artificial, nerve-wrecking social context.

This is not to say that I'm wildly better in face-to-face interviews. No, wait. Yes, I am. We all are probably as phone interviews - generally conducted with three or more interviewers - are all dependent on us knowing when to speak, when the interviewer is done speaking, and how our answers are being received in the absence of the visual cues we so depend on as social reinforcement.

So this is all to say:

Dear university for which I would very much like to work, please let me move past the phone interview. I promise to be charming, articulate, and all together very likable and impressive during a campus interview. I will not fidget or pace. I will not race through incoherent monologues that never get anywhere near the appropriate responses.

In short, I will be the intelligent and lovely person I have spent the last thirty-six years becoming. I promise. I'm a gifted and smart teacher, not that you'd know it from the babbling idiot I become on the phone.

Here's what I do know with confidence: Thoreau was wrong. The end of life is the phone interview.