Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The First Casualty of This Holiday Season...

Yes, folks, the first casualty of this holiday season--for me, at least--is not just my trim waistline (which is, thanks to teacherly/New Orleans-y anxiety-whatnot, rather trim,)--but also my regular-ish maintenance of my blog.

I did just post some pics from the HCNA party last week (see http://www.helpholycross.org/,) Mom, if you are aching to see a little something from NOLA-life (although I'll see you in a couple of days, so I guess blog-reading probably isn't tops on your list,) but generally, I have been away from my computer for two reasons: 1) sleep-getting, and 2) holiday shopping.

I guess I could add a little NOLA-related comment here: Simon and I just went to a holiday party in Gentilly where our friends own a 50's-style ranch--very small, very cute, and now, very high. They qualified for funds to raise their house and have placed a wonderful screened-in porch and workspace underneath the eight-foot-high cinderblock stilts that now support their house.

I want stilts!

But I've learned that because our home is in a National Historic District, it is exempt from the whole house-raising-bit. I may be wrong, but I think this means that we can't even qualify for the money that's available for house-raising.

Now, I know that maintaining the historic-fabric of our home is a Big Deal--and it's a deal we've entered knowingly--but I would like to think that it'd be just as historically significant at eight-feet-high as it is now at three. There may be some purists out there who would disagree, but I am guessing that the house was raised in 1928 (after the 1927 flood) because of flooding, and while it's true that this was some man-made flooding, wouldn't raising the home simply be a reflection of a response to the post-K reality? I know it would alter the house, but I think that alteration would reflect the cataclysmic change wrought by Katrina, no?

No?

Well, anyways, Happy Holidays, all! We're off to ATL for some rest, some family-time, and some IKEA-shopping (yes, I know that it is SO "not green," but YOU try furnishing an 1800 square foot house in a city with nary a piece of furniture in the second-hand stores--and on two teachers' salaries. Pshaw!)

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Why couldn't I have been a MATH teacher (or something)?

If I were a math teacher (or a teacher of some subject involving Scantrons or multiple-choice tests), the end of the semester would be a much easier thing.

But I am an English teacher, and so at the end of every semester, I amass a pile of portfolios of student-writing the likes of which you've never seen.

Seriously. The picture doesn't do it justice. Maybe I should have piled the folders for maximum effect.

Just so you know, each of those folders (and that box-top is full of 'em) contains five essays, three of which are "new" to me (revised essays). In order to be eligible to have a revision considered for an extra grade, my students have to write "letters of reflection" to explain what they changed and why. So I read those, too. I also read their final "author's letter," which addresses their semester-long journey.

My point is, I have a heap o' reading and grading to do, and it's hard! (I'm not even going to try to omit the whiny tone. I wanna whine, dammit!)

But it's not the quantity that makes it difficult.

Wait, yes it is.

I mean that it's not only the quantity that makes the end-of-semester grading throw-down so difficult. It's also that I have to give it a grade, and doing that to my students' work--well sometimes it just about breaks my heart.

I spend a lot of one-on-one time with my students. I meet with each and every one of them for at least three conferences each semester. During that time, I try to establish "professional boundaries," but inevitably, tears fall, confessions are made, and I wind up playing the role of therapist/parent/friend to my students in addition to my role of teacher.

I'm working on a paper about some of this, actually. Since the storm, the confessions have become darker and more depressing (as you might imagine), and my own mood has plummeted, too. Professionals in the field have published plenty of advice for what to do in situations like these. I think they refer to the teacher-behavior that comes from our empathy for our students as "affect." They say that we should maintain a professional distance--that we should nod and go, "That must be hard for you," but then, wha-domp, slap that D on there, anyhow. After all, a D is a D is a D. Can't nothing be done about that!

But a D is not "just a D". I know it and my students know it. A "D" can determine whether or not they hang on to their scholarship-money, which can determine whether or not they stay in school, which can determine, well, a damn lot.

So when I get to the end of the semester and I see (as I so often do) that my D students--the ones I've grown to care about so much--haven't managed to pull it together, I feel awful! How could I have better served them? What could I have done differently?

Given my workload--and the nature of living here (or anywhere, I guess)--I'm not sure there's much I can do differently. I'm doing all I can do. I'm giving them as much of me as I can afford to give (and then some.) So I need to forgive myself for their failure. (Clearly, this is easier said than done.)

Because I want to give my failing-students a heads-up (so they re-work their schedules), I try to tackle the high-risk portfolios first. When I first start into the pile, I have energy and hope. My blue pen has ink, I have coffee, it's all good.

But today, several folders in, I found that I was taking on waaaay too much guilt. I was writing really long evaluation letters explaining why students had gotten the grades they did. This shouldn't happen, though. Right? I mean, my students should be prepared for the grades they'll get, and I shouldn't feel so guilt-stricken.

(Right?)

Yes, it's at times like these that I wish that I were a math teacher... or something, anything, else.

Do students make these confessions to math teachers? I doubt it. (Unless they're trying to explain their absences.) Do math teachers struggle over awarding grades? Probably not. Stick that thing in a Scantron machine and let it determine the fate, right?

Oh, sigh...

Maybe going to the neighborhood association meeting will make me feel better. I hope so!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Debate on the Make It Right Houses

I've been reading some of the comments posted on nola.com in response to the prospective designs for the Make It Right houses.

I feel conflicted about the houses.

The poster that really gets it for me:

Many of the designs presented here seem too caught up in a "modern" aesthetic or a signature design flourish that really has nothing to do with being green. A little humility would go a long way toward improving them.
Here, a poster echoes my feelings about the "Escape House" (though with a bit more vitriol):
Insulting. What did these guys do, look at the wreckage after the storm and say, "Hey, let's make brand new houses that look like they were just hit by a hurricane and landed on their inhabitants car," just so we could relive all the memories? This is what I mean when I say architects are in it more for themselves that the people of N.O. They should be ashamed of themselves for even submitting this monstrosity.
Poster "deadguy" writes:

There's one thing that we need to keep in mind and as cliche as it may be "Form follows function." Most of the designs neglect to address the function that the houses, specifically the entry, have played in this community for the past 100 years. The front porch of a shotgun house is a stage; a place to see and be seen, to socialize. It must be readily accessible and visible from all sides.

He's right; I'm thinking of the house with the walled-in computerized BBQ in the Adjaye design.

"Stunola" writes:

The designs are evocative, but not of New Orleans.

Exactly.

Then again, I agree with poster "jhgator1":
As for the aesthetics, they are not for everyone. However, i am a firm believer that New Orleans needs a breath of fresh air from a design standpoint. Yes, you can honor the past, but when you start copying it, all you will wind up with is just that....a cheap copy. People need to be a little more open minded when it comes to designing a new New Orleans. This mentality seems to creep into everything we do here.

I'm sure this comment is something we've all heard before..."that isn't how we do things here", or "this is how it has always been done". That mentality is what is holding us back in New Orleans.

See? I'm conflicted.

I wouldn't call all of the homes a "miss," but I do wonder about the process that was referred to repeatedly in the press conference--the process of "listening" to the residents. From the MIR's Vision Statement:

Make It Right has had the good fortune of meeting many such resilient families throughout the process of helping to rebuild the neighborhood.
What happened at those meetings? Were residents asked what they liked about their former homes? What they'd like to see in new ones? What they'd like not to see? When I was walking through the containers at the site two days ago, I noticed that there was nothing on display to highlight the process. Given the appearance of these homes (and of their "sterile" interiors populated by prim settees and a preponderance of bookshelves), I just can't see the results of a good hard "listen" in the designs.

What bothers me (again) is that the designers seem so resolutely convinced that good design can be accomplished only by credentialed architects. But never have I lived in a design that more accurately reflected ME than when I was given the license to create. I wonder how the homes would look had the designers first solicited drawings and specs from the homeowners.

Wouldn't it be nice to know that the homeowners really did have a say in the creation of the homes' function AND aesthetic?

How did the creative/creation process really take place? I wish MIR had made that more clear.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Making It Right (at our house and in the Lower 9)

I am oh-so proud to report that I have accomplished what I was afraid I'd never, ever accomplish: I've settled on a floorplan! As our historic consultant pointed out (during my long phase of obsessive floorplan-drawing), any shotgun house requires compromises in the floorplan, especially when you are trying to preserve the historic fabric of the home. Our compromise was that we couldn't get the kitchen in the back (where we'd initially wanted it) without creating a "useless" room up front (a "formal" dining room that would likely never get used.) So, the kitchen will be in the second room, dining in the first, a reading room/study will go next to the dining room, separated by a chimney, and the rear of the house (on the south side) will be comprised of a large "family room" with french doors onto the rear porch.

This weekend, we had an exciting meeting with Tracy Nelson (Gulf Coast Coordinator for Architecture for Humanity and a historic preservationist). We toured our home together and she schooled us in all kinds of interesting facts about our home. She thinks it's a great house (as does everyone who' s seen it, which makes us feel way better about making the sometimes-scary decision to buy in the Lower Ninth Ward). She oohed and aahed over its plaster walls (in the un-gutted right side,) its bead-board ceiling in the rear porch, which she said is likely original to the house, its ornate mantels and Eastlake doors, and the remnants of the wallpaper, which we discovered was backed by issues of the Times-Picayune dating back to 1927! Meeting with her made us realize just how lucky we are to own a house that's more than 100 years old, and made us think about doing right by the house in our renovation. So as we move forward, we will need to find ways of modernizing it to our standards that will simultaneously honor the home's history.

Speaking of homes and of "doing right," another exciting "visit" to our neighborhood this week came in the form of a press conference for Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation. The foundation hosted a party last night to celebrate the launching of The Pink Project, which Brad Pitt described as a sort of "social disobedience."


The Pink Project is comprised of 429 "base volumes" that are scattered throughout several blocks of the Lower Ninth Ward near the site of the levee breach. Those "case volumes" look like hot-pink boxes and upended-roofs, and their scattering is meant to represent the scattering of the lives and homes in the wake of the levee breach (which, I might mention, was the reason for the devastation of the Lower Ninth--not, as many seem to believe, the typical "flooding" one might associate with a hurricane. In other words, this was a manmade disaster, folks.) Between now and January 7th, a fundraising effort will take place, and as monies are raised, the homes will be "righted." Check Do check out the link at the bottom of this page. There, you can see just how interesting (and odd) this art installation is.

I walked around the site yesterday afternoon, and I ran into two national guardsmen, Sergeant James Clark and Specialist Caleb Christianson. Seargent Clark asked what the deal was with the pink stuff, and I tried my best to explain (and felt a little silly doing it.) When I'd finished, he said that he'd been stationed in the area in the days and weeks following the storm, and that the scattered structures reminded him a lot of what he'd seen then, "Only pink." (Then, Clark and Christianson confessed that they'd really come down because one of their peers had sent a picture of Angelina Jolie from his cellphone. Where could they find her, they wanted to know. Ah, yes...)

At the press conference, Brad Pitt acknowledged that people would probably be a bit, um, bemused by the choice of the color pink. He didn't choose it because of the "little pink houses" that John Mellancamp refers to (in his classic song about the un-attainability of the American Dream), nor did he choose it to represent a "pink elephant in the room" (the obvious destruction of the Lower Ninth Ward and its neglect at the hands of the republican administration.) He chose pink, he said, because it "screams the loudest."

And scream it does. When I first crossed the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, I was thrown by the sight of the hot pink structures where I'd become so accustomed to seeing overgrown green fields. It's an arresting sight, and I hope that it inspires folks to contribute so that families who've received so little assistance can, in fact, return.

Now, the houses, themselves--the real ones that have been designed by 13 architects--are not altogether "right" in my mind. All pay homage to the tradition of the New Orleans shotgun, but as I heard one architect say at the party last night, that comes more from the need to deal with the long and skinny shape of the lots than it does from any real tribute to the style.
Here, the MIR staff explains the philosophy that went into the homes' design:

Because local cultural influences gave rise to the pre-Katrina architecture so emblematic of the area, preserving that identity remains vital in reclaiming the spirit of the neighborhood. MIR’s goal is to join the history of this tradition with creative new architectural solutions mindful of environmental and personal safety concerns in order to encourage both the evolution of aesthetic distinctiveness and the conscientious awareness of natural surroundings.

I think some of the groups got a bit carried away with their, uh, "creative new architectural solutions." You can check out some of the other odd birds here.

This one is called The Escape House. Now, I may be wrond, but I don't think anyone wants to live in a house that looks quite literally broken like a stick (we've had enough of that, thank you). I also don't think anyone wants their home to perpetually remind them that they may need, one day, to "escape." Overall, it's just plain difficult to imagine some of these houses comprising the future landscape of New Orleans, but I am trying to have an open mind:

I asked a group of neighbors last night what they thought of the houses. "They're different," they said. I couldn't tell if they meant different-good or different-bad. When I asked, they said it was "all good."

"Anything to help us get out of these trailers," they said.

True that!

Still, as I wandered through the three shipping containers that had been set up to display the designs, I kept wondering why the architects had to move so darn far away from our architectural style. Why not do something off-the-wall with the "lacework" that adorns our homes? Why not give the house "shutter-wings"? It just seemed like they wanted so badly to make some sort of a design "statement," they'd forgotten we like our history, and we see our historic homes as representative of that history. A long and skinny house doesn't a shotgun make, and these homes ain't shotguns in any sense other than the long and skinny.

I did like this design, though. It's got our Easter-egg color going on, and looks closer to the traditional shotgun than any of the others did.



But did the designers of this interior really have our population in mind? The delicate settee and the wall of books smacks of wishful thinking more than it represents who we really are:

You know, I think the architects belong to the school of though that the head-dude subscribes to. When he (William McDonough) spoke at the press conference yesterday, he talked about how he lives in a house designed by Thomas Jefferson. "The only things listed on his tombstone are the things he designed," said McDonough. His boy T.J. "recorded his legacies--the things he left behind--not his activities." McDonough said that what we do fades while what we create lives on.

But doesn't this fly in the face of the whole "cradle to cradle" concept? I mean, shouldn't we be doing more and leaving behind less? I don't get it...

McDonough went on to talk about breaking design for the Make It Right houses "down to the molecule."

"Design" he said, "is the first symbol of human intention." (Wha-what?)

It represents "our intention toward each other as a species." (Hmmm.)

I felt as I listened (and as I've read more about The Team at Make It Right) as though these folks have become a bit bowled over by their philosophies, which was completely confirmed by this, which I read on the MIR site (regarding the Pink House Project):

The simple legibility of the pink monopoly house reassembled from smaller individual components intentionally focus attention onto the problematic of manageable scale, allowing the individual to physically participate within the installation in real time. Filmic concepts drive the narrative of the installation, framing the architectural development. The scenes within the assembly create emotive and informative storyboards containing specific perspective rich with history and memorialization...

The tangram serves as a conceptual overlay for Pink... The tangram is a Chinese dissection puzzle consisting of a square cut into five triangles, a square and a rhomboid, to be reassembled into different figures. These pieces, called tans, can be combined so as to form a great variety of other figures. Upon reassembly, multiple graphic identities emerge.

The idea of the tangram was translated into a three dimensional expression in Pink. At the installation's commencement, the individual components lay haphazard throughout the site. It is only over time and through donation that the cohesive volumes are reassembled. The overall cohesive form is a synthesized representation of traditional New Orleans housing typologies: the shotgun house and the Creole cottage.

Obviously, sorting through the pretentious language here is tough (and if this were a freshman essay, I would've told them to revise with a clearer sense of audience in mind). What is clear to me is that these guys are in love with an idea, and that they see the Make It Right project as an opportunity to make a statement.

Resident Valerie Schexnayder, who I ran into outside of her trailer yesterday, seemed to agree. She was appreciative of the project, but said, "They all got their statements." I could tell she was a woman tired of statements, (if not of her own, which she'd displayed on signs in front of her trailer.)

And that's what I saw the most of yesterday: a lot of interest in the statement, but a lot of confusion, too.

How, exactly, were these pink things going to help get folks home? And how on Earth was a house like this going to be someones Lower Ninth Ward home?
I guess what I'm saying is that it appears the hearts of Brad & co are in the right place, but there's just something about the "synthesized representations" of the prospective homes that was a little... insulting?

The computerized barbecue on the walled-in front yard of this house (we don't wall in our porches, people)... the blast-off aesthetic of the "escape house"... the rows and rows of books that each designer planted in their Jetsonian interiors... who did they think we were? Who do they think we are?

At the end of the day--even after a gleeful night filled with free wine and a performance by Jerry Lee Lewis, I couldn't help feeling like it was all a bit, well, wrong. I felt like the Make It Right project was--and is--a wonderful dose of hope. But it was someone else's hope, not ours, and I went home sad that we were once again being forced to take what we can get.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

We did it!

We bought a house!

Yes, we are now the proud owners of an 1800 square foot shotgun double in Holy Cross. Two afternoons ago, we met the sellers at the attorney's office and signed the next thirty years of our lives away. I signed and signed and signed until I got to the closing costs. Then, I signed and clenched my teeth. We could pay our rent for a year for what we paid in closing costs. And silly me, I thought those costs actually went toward the loan. Nooooooo. Gawd, that part was sickening.

In fact, I'm just really going to have to find ways of staying positive about money. The bid seems high, the loan seems high, the closing costs seem high, and until we are able to actually move into the house, our living expenses will be ridiculously high. As in 400% higher than they are now. So we need the contractor to work fast... and we've been told by everyone to go ahead and forget that idea.

But I want to stop thinking about all that negative stuff. I want to pick paint colors and furniture and fixtures. I want to landscape our backyard in my head. I want to swing on the imaginary swing I have hanging from the branch of our backyard's live oak tree. And most of all, I want to settled on a damn floor plan!

Simon's been making fun of me for pulling out the drawings I've made wherever I go. It is a little silly to ask so many people for opinions on floorplans, I guess. And the historic consultant we've hired to help manage the home-restoration thinks we need to hurry up and settle. But isn't the floorplan, like The Most Important Thing? I mean, we plan to live in this house forever, so we don't want to regret kitchen-placement, of all things.

I think I've already posted about this, which goes to show just how obsessed with floorplans I've become. But really, we need help deciding!

I know everyone wants to have these open floorplans these days, but I don't see why I'd want my kitchen to be in my living room. Kitchens are loud and messy, and living rooms are for reading and TV-watching. (My dad did point out, though, that we'd need to think about the arrival of kids, and in that sense, I guess having a kitchen-living combo would be good.)

Anyways, I'm going to shut up about that. But if anyone has a floorplan-issue related to your own house that you either love or hate, let me know. The consultant may push use to decide, but we can't afford to get this wrong.

I really just wanted to write to let folks know that we've bought the house and are now in the beginning stages of what promises to be an agonizingly long wait for the home's completion. (And I'm scared about money, too. But only parenthetically and only because I want to be able to furnish our home inexpensively and in an environmentally-sound way... that looks good.)

Back to meeting with my panicky students. Oh, the semester's end...

Monday, November 26, 2007

House Update

When I dressed this morning, I chose gray wool slacks and a silk and Lycra fuchsia blouse under a black fitted corduroy blazer. I looked lovely and grown-up, and it was all for what was supposed to be our house-closing.

ALAS! We have NOT closed, due to a glitch that I think can safely be blamed on the loan processor. Evidently, we needed to secure our builder's risk insurance 24 hours before closing (we were ready to show up with the paper work). Did anyone tell us that was the case? Why, no!

So we met with the owner today to draw up a joke-uva hand-written extension on the contract. Lucky for us, the owner is really nice and very understanding.

Closing is now slated for the same time tomorrow, but I think this time I'll go in jeans and a t-shirt.

In other house news... the great obsession over floorplans continues. An awkward side-entry makes the third of four rooms in our shotgun nearly-useless, and so that room will be "borrowed from" to create a guest bathroom. The debate: whether the kitchen should go in the rear, separated by a hallway from the front dining and living areas, or whether the family room should go in the rear, separated by a hallway from the front kitchen and dining areas. In most shotgun houses, the front room is a "parlor" that no one really uses, which makes the second room the first "real" one--but that also means that second room feels almost too exposed for a kitchen.

Argh. Our contractor wants us to hurry up and decide, and I know this probably ISN'T a big deal, but it feels like The Biggest Of Deals. I'd be grateful for advice...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Whoops!

Looks like I've neglected my blog... again. The problem? I've taken on too much, and am overextended.

I've agreed to be the website committee chair for the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, although I know next to nothing about websites. I guess in that sparsely-populated area, I am, right now, the big computery fish in their pond. HA!

So there's that. Then there's the Help Holy Cross blog, which I've promised to contribute to when I can. "When I can" feels like never, though, and I'm finding that the stories I'd like to cover can't get covered in a timely fashion because of other obligations...

Like house-buying, for instance, which has by now entered crazy-serious stage, wherein I meet with termite inspectors, structural engineers, call insurers, obsess over floorplans, email our loan officer daily, and generally feel like, "Holy kamoly, we are DOING THIS!"

Add to this: work. It's near the end of the semester, and so naturally my students are all collectively panicking. I don't ever want them to panic, but if they're going to, I don't know why they save it until the last minute--most of the students who are panicking now haven't gotten a non-panic-worthy grade so far this semester. I guess the whole revision-bit staves off panic until now. How can I make revision serve its purpose without its appearing to be a free pass to fail and then fix?

I guess it's too late now to talk about Waiting for Godot... is it?

I'd made that wonderful assignment. I'd had such a wonderful class. I was practically glowing with the idea of it, and then...

I couldn't get in. Nor could my students. I showed up more than an hour before ticket-issuing, got dutifully in line (a line that looked only marginally longer than the one I'd been in before--the one that got me in to see the play), and waited for an hour. Soon, a guy from Creativetime came over and said there was no way we'd be getting in. There were seats for 400, and that number had been reached a few folks before me.

Which doesn't explain how, when I decided to wait and got closer, I was told that there were only tickets for forty more people--and more than 80 people in front of me.

I checked out the "Gumbo Party" and noted that there was nowhere near 400 people in the reception, so something had to be up. A rumor began to circulate: there was a guest list, and we weren't on it. The woman behind me in line lived just a few blocks away and had lost her house; she wasn't on it. So who was?

When I saw Ann Pasternak, the director of Creativetime, apologizing to line-standers being turned away, I approached her. I told her that I thought she should know that a rumor was circulating that there was a "VIP list." She denied it, vehemently (and a little rudely, I might add). "The only people on our VIP list are national press, like the New Yorker and New York Times."

I had to wonder: if I were, say, the woman behind me in line and not myself, would she have brought up the New Yorker and New York Times?

She'd assumed that I cared about the national press--the same national press that swoops in whenever there's a "gumbo party" in the ghetto and calls it recovery. Bor-ring.

"I'm not accusing you of having a guest list," I explained. "I just thought you ought to know of the rumor."

She did explain that the actors had a guest list. Also, there was a list of organizations nearly a page long. I'm sure these volunteers managed to be VIPs, too (at least I hope so).

I explained that I'd built curriculum around the play. "Will you add an additional night, like last week's?" I asked.

"No," she said, again with the vehemence. "I'm at such a deficit with this project."

That's when I was like, "Okay, peace."

Deficit?! Sister wants to talk to someone who lives here about a deficit!?

Here's my real problem with her deficit:

Creativetime saw it more important to buy gallons of gumbo than to avoid said deficit. For the umpteenth time, people: we do not need you to feed us gumbo! Gumbo is expensive--all crabs and whatnot. Skip the freakin' gumbo!

Creativetime saw it more important to admit actor Isaiah Washington (of Gray's Anatomy and "fag"-mouthed fame) and his bevy of ladies to the play--on a VIP list--and to get his picture taken (for said national press) than to ensure locals were able to attend.

Creativetime also wanted so badly to appear to extend a hand to the communities that they prioritized free admission over widespread access (via additional performances). Free stuff is great--and many needed to take advantage of the free admission. Many more, however, didn't (Washington, for one) and could easily have "contributed" a few bones to ensure more widespread attendance.

Finally, Creativetime's Pasternak prioritized press coverage over public access. One might argue that they can't be blamed for that; after all, that same press coverage will keep their donors happy. But if their mission is genuine--and is geared toward providing access within the communities to site-specific art--those communities should have been priority number one, and I think there were better ways of handling the production than Pasternak's.

The truth is, I'm picking this bone because Ms. Pasternak was dismissive, and I think she was because she was making assumptions about who I am and what I value. Annoying.

The real, real truth is that I love, love, loved the play and think it needed to stay longer, and I am blaming Pasternak because she's an easy scapegoat for my cranky-crankness. I've been feeling this crankity-crankyness lots lately, and it's not Pasternak or some play that's doing it. It's the accumulation of it all.

So: I need a break, and I intend to take one. Happy Thanksgiving to all. You can read more pleasant and less self-absorbed whatnot at www.helpholycross.org.

Until I'm feeling more inspired AND have more time AND can cut it with the whining, I'm signing off (for a spell)...

Sarah

Friday, November 09, 2007

Preparing to wait (with my students) for Godot

I've just come from the Friday morning writing lab meeting with some of my freshman composition students.

Today, I decided to spend the 50-minute lab preparing them for seeing the Gentilly-area production of "Waiting for Godot." I realized that while the production rocked me to the core, my students may not be quite so willing to give themselves over to the ambiguity of the play. In fact, I had this vision of my students giggling with each other, eye-rolling, and then leaving before the second act, all "What the heck was THAT?!"

Before class began, I wrote a quotation from a recently-published (August, 2006) piece in the New Yorker: "Beckett's work can lay a strong claim to universality: not everyone has a God, but who doesn't have a Godot?"

When the students arrived, a few launched into excuses: "What if I can't go? I mean, some of us have to work."

I had to restrain myself. I mean, do they THINK I don't know about having to work?! Have I taught them NOTHING about audience-awareness?

Anyway, I explained that their final writing assignment would be to write an evaluation of something--a play, a movie, a restaurant, a book, an exhibit, a festival, this class, etc.--and that those who attended the play would have a built-in subject at their disposal. Those who couldn't would evaluate something else.

"But is that fair?" Christy asked.

Obviously, the question was rhetorical. What she meant to say was, "That's not FAIR!" I do have to applaud her for having enough awareness of her audience--enough self-restraint--to forego reverting to a straight-up whine.

"We'll use our common experience to talk specifically about writing an evaluation of the play," I explained, "but the tasks those who attend the play will engage in when writing their evaluations are no different from the ones you'll engage in."

Christy seemed placated, if not sure that it was, in fact, "fair."

Then, I passed out the play's program (last week, I'd been lucky to get my hands on one, so I made copies to distribute to my students--I figured reading star Wendell Pierce's bio would help inspire the nay-sayers to attend).

The students read paragraphs from the program's "Introduction" by Anne Pasternak, the President and Artistic Director of Creative Time:

"Creative Time is proud to present a site-specific outdoor production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, directed by Christopher McElroen [my student called him "Chris Mac-E"] of the Classical Theatre of Harlem with artistic direction by Paul Chan. More than a play, the project has evolved into a collaboration between local residents, artists, and community leaders on the subject of waiting. St in an intersection of the Lower Ninth Ward and a front yard in Gentilly, this production allows Beckett's play to contextualize the unfolding story of New Orleans as a controversial and renewing city."

We then read aloud the "Synopsis and Production History of Waiting for Godot":

"Two tramps meet on the side of the road. The two men remember that they are supposed to wait under a tree for a man named Godot. It appears they do not remember this man very well, but they think he was going to give them an answer to a question they don't know."

We also read about the play's many prison-stagings and its 1993 staging in war-torn Sarajevo ("war-torn" meant something to them, but Sarajevo didn't.) We talked about the play's 2006 production in Harlem, where rather than on a country road, Vladimir and Estragon waited atop a roof over water--like New Orleanians waiting for rescue after the storm.

"How do you think the staging in Gentilly will 'contextualize' the play?" I asked. "What does 'contextualize' mean, anyway?"

"To put into context," a student offered.

I then directed their attention to the quotation on the board: "Beckett's work can lay a strong claim to universality: not everyone has a God, but who doesn't have a Godot?"

"So," I said,"two tramps wait in Gentilly for a man named Godot who never comes. They think he is going to give them an answer to a question they don't know. Within the context of New Orleans, now, who is Godot, and what kind of answer are the men hoping for"?

"He's FEMA."

"He's the Road Home."

"He's their neighbors."

"They're hoping for help."

"For relief."

"For security."

Me: "Yes! But who was Godot for the prisoners in San Quentin?"

"The parole board."

"And who could it be if the two men are simply on a plain old, ambiguous country road on a darkened stage, with a twig of a tree? Who else could Godot be?"

"God?"

"Whoever."

"Intermission."

Laughter.

"The point is, the 'universality' means that the play can mean something to anyone--to everyone, because we all wait for something."

We then talked about Beckett, who explained at one point in his career that he felt a bit like the young girl Carl Jung mentioned in a lecture Beckett once attended, who "had never really been born." Beckett, author Benjamin Kunkel explains in his New Yorker piece, "Sam I Am," "was willing to confide to people throughout his life that he considered himself a similar case. The notion of an incomplete birth seemed to explain something of his feeling of unreality--many a Beckett character seems uncertain whether he really exists."

"What's that all about?" I asked. "Seems pretty absurd to me."

"Is that what he means by 'We are all born mad'?" Felecia asked, referring to a quotation from the play included before Beckett's biography in the program.

"What do you think?"

"Like, it's madness that we're here 'cuz we don't know why we're here?"

"Maybe so. Why don't we know we're here?"

"Because we're human!" yelled Blake from the back of the room.

"Yup! We sure are," I said. We talked about how maybe Beckett felt uncertain about whether he really existed because here he was, a human, but he didn't know why. We didn't ask to be born, after all. And given that truth--that we ARE but don't know WHY--what do we do with ourselves?

"We wait!"

"For what?" I asked.

"For Godot!"

"What's Godot got to give us?"

"We don't know!"

At this point, the absurd seemed to have taken over class, and we all broke down into a bit of "What THE?!!" But to me, it felt like an epiphany--like here we were, talking about art, about ourselves, and my students WEREN'T lost. They GOT it, ambiguity at all, and it was universal. It just made sense.

We ended class by reading Jarvis DeBerry's column from the T-P. One of my students said, when we were through, "Damn, that was good!" And, of course, I--the writing teacher--had to keep myself from cartwheeling: to hear a student say, "Damn, that was good" to a piece of writing!

As the students left, I distributed copies of Paul Chan's artist-statement (which has some remarkable similarlities in content to Susan Sontag's writing on her staging in Sarajevo), and Mapquest copies of the play's location. As the students filed on by, eye-rolling Christy stopped to say that she really wanted to go to the play, that was "on call" for work tonight and would try to go, but that she didn't want to go by herself. So, I've promised to meet Christy here on campus and to go to the play together. And really, I just can't wait. For real.

I can't wait to see the play again (this time I will hopefully hold myself together a little better!) I can't wait to stand in line with my students--to talk, to eat with them. I can't wait to sit next to Allie, who asked if she could ask me questiosn if she didn't "get it." I can't wait to see how my studentsabsorb the play--to see what they take from it. I promise to report on the experience, and to share more about how this play has impacted my teaching in this final unit of my freshman comp class.

Since I know most of you (Mom!) can't see the play, I recommend you watch this multi-media presentation on Nola.com. It was compiled using images and sounds from the night Simon and I attended the play.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Waiting for Godot


This weekend, Simon and I went down to the Lower Ninth Ward to see a wholly unique staging of Samuel Beckett's play, "Waiting for Godot," and I'm trying now to process the experience, which was--in a word--cathartic. (I like how Susan Sontag puts it in her piece reflecting on her 1993 staging of the play in Sarajevo: "In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art."--Yes: what she said.)

I think I can recall reading the play (maybe in high school?). I recall its being boring, and wondering, Dear God, why we were being made to read such a thing!?
In it, nothing happens. Two men simply wait "for Godot." Who Godot is, or why they are waiting for him, you--and they--aren't exactly sure. You just know that you are waiting.
It's that wait that fuels the play's tension, and, like waiting, the tension you (and the characters) feel is fueled at times by promise, at times by fear, at times by frustration, exuberance, anger, dread.
You aren't even sure if what you're waiting for is, well, worth waiting for.
Still, waiting is what you do because waiting is, it seems, all there is to do.

That feeling of an interminable wait with only a very ambiguous promise at its end (if a promise, at all) is a lot like what it feels to live in New Orleans right now.

And so, when we went to see "Waiting for Godot" in a performance staged outdoors--at a street corner in an utterly devastated area of the Lower Ninth Ward--we felt as though the play were uniquely ours, in spite of its being written in France in the late 1940s.

I found the play so moving, in fact, that I cried my way through most of Vladimir's second-act soliloquy. As the fall evening breeze sent waves through the knee-high grasses that blanketed the scenery, as the ships blinked and groaned on the Industrial Canal that was the backdrop, as the sky overhead enveloped and mocked us, I cried and cried and cried. Frankly, it was a little embarrassing. But when the spirit moves you, right? You got to move.

VLADIMIR:

Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!
(Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? (Estragon says nothing.) It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is
clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—

We are waiting, and yet we don't know what the wait will bring, or even if it will bring any
reward.

We'd heard that there was a big turnout for the play, so we arrived at 6:00, only to discover that the line was already two blocks long. No matter.

We waited.

For two hours.

Gumbo was served (and now my question is why, Dear GAWD, always the GUMBO?) Cans of Deeps Woods OFF were distributed to protect our delicate skin from the vast swarms of evening mosquitoes come in from Bayou Bienvenue. The Rebirth Brass Band played. I drank wine from a screwtop bottle in a plastic cup, and waited.

Finally, we were seated. In front of me, Isaiah something-or-other (Dr. Burke from Gray's anatomy). He had with him beautiful women, and the whole lot of them got up too many times to pee. Hollywood.

But in spite of the play's being of super-high quality (with Equity actors, a Classical Theatre of Harlem director, and Paul Chan--another high-tech New Yorker--at the helm), it felt as though it were meant for, and bred in our city. It was, quite literally, The Most Moving Theatre Experience I Have Ever Had. I mean, I felt as though I were witnessing something wholly unique--something really special. It felt like ART and HISTORY, all in caps. Oh, Dear God, it was moving...

(David Cuthbert of the Times Picayune wrote an excellent review of the play that gets it right.)

This coming weekend, the play will again be staged, this time in Gentilly. I'm not sure how it can possibly match the intensity fueled by the backdrop of the Lower Ninth Ward (the levee and its infamous breach lurking in the background, both literally and heavily in our memories), but I look froward to seeing the play again. If I knew people who had the kind of money that would allow them to hop on a plane to come down for the performance, I would say DO IT. But I don't.

So I will tell you about that staging, too.

I'm taking my students to see it on Friday. Lordy, I hope they get it. I hope they don't think, as I once did, Dear God, why this play? I hope they can see how Paul Chan and Creative Time has made this play just exactly ours.

I plan to share with them his artist's statement, which I hope, hope, hope they can appreciate (even if they don't entirely get the play). It's clear that New Orleans moved artist Paul Chan, and I am incredibly grateful to him for envisioning the project and bringing it to New Orleans.
Here's an excerpt of Paul Chan's artist statement:

"What surprised me about seeing the city for the first time was that, from seeing what was
right in front of me, I still couldn't put together a complete picture of New Orleans. I
expected comparative contrasts but not wholesale contradictions. Some neighborhoods,
like the one around Tulane, seemed virtually untouched by Katrina. But in the Lower
Ninth Ward and parts of Gentilly, the barren landscape brooded in silence. The streets
were empty. There was still debris in lots where houses once stood. I didn’t hear a single
bird."

"I have seen landscapes scarred by disasters of all sorts. In Baghdad, I saw kids playing
soccer barefoot on a wide boulevard and around the concrete rubble that came from US
troops shelling the buildings near the Tigris River. I thought I saw the same kids playing
in the ghost town known as downtown Detroit on a side street during an enormous labor
demonstration in 1999—with shoes but no shirts. Life wants to live, even if it’s on
broken concrete."

"New Orleans was different. The streets were still, as if time had been swept away along
with the houses. Friends said the city now looks like the backdrop for a bleak science
fiction movie. Waiting for a ride to pick me up after visiting with some Common Ground
volunteers who were gutting houses in the Lower Ninth, I realized it didn’t look like a
movie set, but the stage for a play I have seen many times. It was unmistakable. The
empty road. The bare tree leaning precariously to one side with just enough leaves to
make it respectable. The silence. What’s more, there was a terrible symmetry between the
reality of New Orleans post-Katrina and the essence of this play, which expresses in stark
eloquence the cruel and funny things people do while they wait: for help, for food, for
hope. It was uncanny. Standing there at the intersection of North Prieur and Reynes, I
suddenly found myself in the middle of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot."
...

“'If you want to do this, you got to spend the dime, and you got to spend the time,'
someone said to me. The idea of staging Godot in New Orleans, of using the natural
collaborative process of producing a play with the necessary give and take of working on
the streets in order to reimagine how art—as the form freedom takes without the use of
force—can become the opening to enter and engage the myriad dimensions of life lived
in the midst of ruin, without succumbing to the easy graces of reducing it to either
knowledge or illustration of that life, began to take shape in a way that became
unpredictable, which is to say, new. It is fashionable today (still?) to claim that there is
nothing new beyond our horizon of art, that everything worth doing has been done. But
this seems to me an altogether specious claim, for it ignores the vast undiscovered
country of things that ought to be undone. In these great times, the terror of action and
inaction shapes the burden of history. Perhaps the task of art today is to remake this
burden anew by suspending the seemingly inexorable order of things (which gives the
burden its weight) for the potential of a clearing to take place, so that we can see and feel
what is in fact worthless, and what is in truth worth renewing.

Waiting for Godot has been staged on Broadway (in 1956), at a prison (San Quentin), and
in the middle of a war (during the Siege of Sarajevo, directed by Susan Sontag). It is a
simple story, told in two acts, about two tramps (we have other names for them today)
waiting for someone named Godot, who never comes. In New Orleans in 2007, Godot is
legion and it is not difficult to recognize the city through the play. Here, the burden of the
new is to realize the play through the city.

Paul Chan
June 2007
New York City"

So, my friends, if you have money to get here to see it, DO!!!!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Weekend pictures from Holy Cross

When the weather is as positively perfect as it has been this weekend (dry, sunny, and in the seventies), Simon and I make our way to Holy Cross as often as we can. Yesterday we drove down to check in on our friend Mark, who's working on a home on the Jackson Barracks side of Holy Cross. While he and Simon talked shop, I swung on a swing set as the sunset.

Afterwards, we drove to our end of the neighborhood to see this lovely end to the day:

We met Mark for tapas at Mimi's in the Marigny, and watched from the balcony as a Halloween parade passed by on the street below. I was remembering two years ago, our first Halloween back, when the same parade occurred.

That year, the parade's Grand Marshall was dressed as "Katrina--That B*tch!" and the amicable and then very present National Guard joined in the fun.

We were losing power regularly back then, and just as the block party was really getting going, a transformer blew, and we were plunged into relative darkness--forced to toast Halloween by candlelight.

How odd that I am almost nostalgic for that time! Back when our hopes were still alive and the National Guard's presence felt like icing rather than necessity.

Our trips down to our future neighborhood are what give us hope, now. Today we took a camping table and some lawn chairs down to the levee to grade papers. We're both up to our ears in grading, as usual, and the task is never exactly fun. But, well, when you're setting looks like this, grading papers simply cannot suck:

That object on the horizon in the upper right is a massive freight ship--the kind of traffic we get to watch go by!

Later, we took a break from grading to walk down to the site of the Global Green Holy Cross Project. We noted that the material that we'll use for a radiant barrier in our attic covers all of the exterior walls on this house. That's some insulation!

Still, I hope that it begins to look a little less space-aged as it takes on more siding. In spite of its staying "true" to shotgun-style architecture (and energy-efficiency) in being a line of rooms (topped by another line), it's got some not-so-attractive features.

Like the hulking concrete whatnot with the metal antennae that supports the front roof. Uh, okay... That may have something "green" going for it, but we agreed that it's about as lovely as a pair of TV rabbit ears. Maybe we're just spoiled by some many lovely old New Orleans homes--like our own!


This week, we'll meet with the contractor, and hopefully finalize the layout and the financing. In the meantime, I'll be grading, and grading, and grading papers... so for now... Good night Holy Cross!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

And now for some lighter fare...

I've done it again.

I've neglected my blog for too long, and in the meantime, lots and lots has happened.

The problem: when so much has happened, the idea of writing about it overwhelms me.

For starters, Simon and I travelled to Atlanta to attend my brother's celebration of his marriage.

Also, the Holy Cross Planning Committee held a meeting and announced that our little cul-de-sac may one day become a through-street.

My oldest cat, Georgie, broke her paw.

And the house-buying has officially become a time-consuming, intimidating, paper-worky chore.

Because I don't particularly feel like delving into any of the above, I will instead share this picture of what may possibly be my second favorite sandwich of all time. It's a "BLT" made using a deep-fried softshell crab, Alan Benton's incredible Bacon, organic local lettuce, and buttery-crispy-soft-chewy bread. Oh, and a homemade aioli. Madness. Check out the fries, too. Them's some real fries, Belgian-style, in a paper cone. When I ate these goods, I thick with salt and happiness all day. You, too, can have one at Luke. The atmosphere is a bit too uptown for me, and not enough neighborhood-y. Also, the mini-ketchup is pretentious and wasteful.


But the sandwich...Also on my list of favorite sandwiches of all time:


1.) Cochon de lait po-boy (Walker's BBQ--at Jazz Fest)

2.) Vietnamese po-boy (Chargrilled chicken, with homemade mayo at Pho Tau Bay; the BEST fusion-food, IMO, EVER.)

3.) My mom's BLT (with Miracle Whip and peanut-butter; don't knock it until you've tried it!)--tied with Luke's BLT (for Mom's BLT's undeniably-strong nostalgia-factor).

4.) The fried shrimp po-boy with "Wow Sauce" from Verti Marte.

I have not yet had a burger worthy of listing here. I mean it. Some would say that Port of Call makes the best burgers, but I just don't get how a great burger can possibly be great if it is not accompanied by french fries. Impossible! Honestly, my favorite is probably Wendy's Jr. Cheeseburger Deluxe.

Anyway, I apologize to my vegetarian friends for this meat-heavy entry. Perhaps one reason I felt compelled to write it is that Simon and I have decided to cut pork out of our diet, and I am mourning BLTs. And the cochon de lait poboy...

We decided to cut out pork, and to cut down on our meat consumption in general because I learned that meat farming and corn-production are major contributors to our wetlands-loss. (I can't now find the original article where I read this.)

Any vegetarian readers eager to share a veggie sandwich recipe, by all means, do.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Lovely Weekend

There was lots to be happy about over the weekend, so I am trying to remember those things as another busy week at school begins.

Saturday was most memorable. Our dear friend Terrence had just moved back from Houston and he called to tell us on Friday. While I was down in Holy Cross at a website committee meeting (where I was somehow made chair of the committee !?!?! perhaps because my fellow members mistake having a blog with having a clue about the Web... sigh!), Simon picked up Terrence and brought him down to see what we hope will be our new house.

At the house, we met with members of the Emerging Green Builders--a group of young architects and environmental-y building people (I really MUST learn how to talk about this with some kind of authority)--who took a look at the house and gave us lots of advice about how to renovate in a way that would save energy (and money).

I'll have to admit, a lot of what was said kind of went in one ear and flew out the other. Because we are not in a position to handle the renovation on our own (and remain sane and married), we are asking our contractor to use affordable and sustainable measures as he renovates, and we are (perhaps naively) trusting that he will. Among the measures we'll take: following the recommendations of The Alliance for Affordable Energy (whenever feasible), including installing a radiant barrier in the attic, installing plenty of insulation, installing ceiling fans in order to avoid using "forced air" cooling whenever possible, and purchasing Energystar appliances.

The problem with all of this energy-stuff is, of course, that it costs money.

This, however, brings me to another happy lesson/moment from this weekend: I learned a lot more about the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development (or CSED), largely via the website committee meeting and a bit of research. (As part of the website-building plan, Dave Macaulay and friends have donated the URL [which is a website address]and the design for www.zerocarbonnola.org. The website will largely be the platform for the CSED, which is good, especially since a Google of "CSED" brings up far too many other CSED's. I'm looking forward to helping with putting together a more effective website than the current one, www.holycrossneighborhood.org, which is a rather rudimentary site right now that doesn't do the work of the CSED--or the neighborhood--justice, but which will... soon... soon!)

In a nutshell, the CSED is committed to helping Holy Cross become the first carbon-neutral neighborhood in America. Yes, really. Now you may see why I get the goosebumps when I think about/talk about/write about my future home. To think this is happening in New Orleans!

Anyway, I learned a bit more about my neighborhood's environmental commitment, and then I learned a but more about my future home, and then, Terrence and I drove down to the Delery Street Playground and swung on an excellent, if rusty, swingset. The sun was setting and the weather was incredible. The humid air had taken leave for the weekend, and swinging through that cool air with my friend Terrence with me, well, all just felt FINE. Terrence seemed happy to be home (although we are worried, worried, worried about his schooling), and I felt wonderful and light as air. When I got a call from a friend asking what we were up to, I said, "Swinging!" and then I explained my take on swinging and also skipping: it's nearly impossible to be down if you are swinging, really swinging (none of that melancholy scrubbing a foot around and staring at the ground) or when you are skipping. Try it!

To top off this wonderful weekend, the Saints won their game against the Seahawks last night, and I ate four Dove dark chocolates, drank a glass of Malbec, and slept well. I even dreamt of swimming competetively, as I did when I was young, and in my dream, I was the same kick-butt backstroker as I was way back when.

Today I was back at school, and back to my house-head (I feel as thought All Things House run through my mind nearly constantly these days). In between classes, I drew potential floor plans for our double-to-single shotgun conversion, obsessed over financing details that sound Greek to me, and made other house-obsessive attempts to ignore the mounting pile of literature papers I have to grade. I really do not know how people work full time while renovating a home... (and being married).

Now, back to the grind...

Friday, October 12, 2007

This week and whatnot

It has been an utterly exhausting week, and I have no one but myself to blame for that. Rather than ruining last weekend's house-buying excitement and gorge-fest with a slurry of paper-grading, I put it off. That meant that every minute of this week that I was not either in front of the class teaching, holding one-on-one conferences with my students, or getting some much-needed (but minimal) sleep, I was grading a student essay.

Luckily, I'd given them an assignment that produced some really wonderful writing.

The assignment asked students to inform a general academic audience of something they thought we should know. They were to choose a subject about which they already had a good deal of knowledge--one which wouldn't require the use of outside sources. In the early stages of generating topics, I had students coming to me and tearfully saying, "I don't know anything worth writing about."

My response: "P-SHAW!"

It is always a pleasure to explain to my writing students that the range of "worthy" subjects is limitless, and that in order to be worthy, it need not be lofty or weighty, a la Global Warming or Capital Punishment. I love watching the gears turn when I say that yes, they can write about the Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival or about their high school marching band (the topics of two of my favorite essays this time around.) And I love helping them craft essays-worth-reading from the material generated solely from what they already know.

So the content of the essays wasn't what exhausted me. What exhausted me were the sheer numbers of them that needed responses. I've worked and worked at developing methods to cut down on my response-time while also providing thoughtful, helpful comments, but inevitably I end up writing too much and spending too much time agonizing over how to strike just the right balance between praising what's good and giving 'em a necessary dose of tough love (read: this is good, but, well, this isn't.) I think what I find most difficult is that I want my students to understand not just what is wrong, but why it's wrong, and doing that succinctly is just plain difficult.

Another reason this week was so exhausting was that I held conferences with all of my composition students. I do this several times throughout the semester. One-on-one conferences with my students are the most productive aspect of my teaching, and my students seem to agree (nearly all of them mention them in their final evaluations of the course). But they are time-consuming and tiring.

Here's how my student-conferences work:

Several days before the conference, students hand in a paper. Before they do, I ask them to use out the handout on "Writing Standards" to award themselves a grade and to explain why they believe their paper deserves that grade. The self-evaluation is not an opportunity for them to convince me to give them that grade, and, in fact, I don't see their self-evaluation until the conference (when I have already responded and given the essays a grade based on my assessment.)

On the board, I write a list of items they need to bring to the conference: 1) A written self-evaluation of their most recently-submitted essay, 2) a draft of their current essay, and 3) a list of no more than three specific questions about their current essay. I find that making students come to the conferences with "homework" shows them that the conferences are not mere rap-sessions, but that they are, in fact, a vital part of the class, itself. (Back when I first started teaching, I met just once with my students, I didn't make conference assignments, and I took a much more casual approach to the time spent with them. As a result, I discovered my students didn't take them seriously, and that our time together was often chaotic and sometimes unproductive.)

At the beginning of each conference, I say hello and how are you and whatnot, and then I make the purpose of the conference clear: "The purpose of this conference is to discuss your last essay and to address any concerns you may have about your essay-in-progress." Announcing the purpose of the conference helps keep us on track and establishes a clear objective for our time together. It helps us get stuff done efficiently and effectively.

Then, with the student's previous, graded essay on the desk (between us), I ask them to get out their self-evaluation and tell me what grade they would give the essay and why. I have the Writing Standards taped to the desk (facing the student) to remind them that these are the criteria for their self-evaluation.

After they announce and explain their self-evaluation, I am able to assess their understanding of the criteria on the Writing Standards handout. Typically, they don't do very well with this the first time they meet ("I gave myself an A because I worked really hard") and so I point to the sheet and say, "Hmmm, I don't see 'A for Effort' here, so you're saying it's [insert criteria here]." When they admit that, well, they don't think their prose flows smoothly or that they have a clear thesis, I can then "lead them" to what I think is the correct assessment of their work by highlighting the language that most fits their work. While they are sometimes pretty bummed to discover that their work is, say, D-quality, instead, I am able to use the writing and grading standards to teach them what "development" really means. So I am able to use assessment not as a gate-keeping tool (which is how students typically perceive it), but as a teaching tool.

Anyways, I realize this likely does not interest many of you, dear readers, but I positively love holding conferences, in spite of just how tired I feel after having 30-something 15-minute conversations on similar subjects. There are typically tears from a few students, defiance from others (not surprisingly, the defiance usually comes from the less self-aware students), and a whole lotta epiphanies. It's pretty darn rewarding, is what I mean, so the exhaustion is a good kind. I finished my last conference an hour ago, and I feel, well, a little bit high from a week of learning more about my students and vice-versa. Whoo-hooo!

Also in happy news: I've been given a major vote of confidence by the Department via a new work assignment. I will now be the Coordinator of the Transfer Proficiency Exam. Because I am an unretained instructor, and a young-ish faculty member, being given this role means that they must see something in me. On the other hand, one could look at it and say, "Sounds to me like they're taking advantage of your non-retained status to pressure you to perform admin-work." I don't see it this way mostly because the offer was prefaced with a lengthy explanation of its not being a thinly-veiled "assignment," but a genuine offer. I took it. Because my primary interest with comp-rhet is assessment, coordinating one of the major assessment tools of our department will be a great learning experience for me. Now, if I could just decided whether or not I actually want to go for a PhD.

I met with the chair of the department about my interest in PhD programs two weeks ago, and he said that of course getting a PhD in a field that interests me would be a good thing, but that my interest in returning to UNO to out that PHD to work was risky. What if they didn't have an open line for a comp-rhet PhD when I was ready to return? How would I fare if I were then competing with a national pool of candidates for a similar position (especially if my degree were from an in-state school)?

He didn't say this, but I found myself wondering, "What if the school continues to go downhill in terms of enrollment and my instructorship is no longer available to me, either? Or worse, what if there's another urricane-hay and there's no Ew-Orleans-Nay to return to, at all?" Well, then I guess at least I'd have a degree that would make me an attractive candidate at other schools, especially since I haven't written a word of fiction in ages.

Oh, I am still right back where I was: not knowing what I want to do.

Complicating my confusion even more is my beloved Holy Cross. Last night was another Holy Cross Neighborhood Association meeting, and it was uplifting, as ever. I've volunteered to be on the website committee, and Simon and I will continue to work on the community garden. The more I get involved with the HCNA, the more that work feels like some of the most important work in my life. And if I am off getting a PhD for the next however-many-years, I won't be able to commit myself to the HCNA during this very-exciting time of rebuilding and change, change, change.

I guess that what is super-duper exhausting is this constant uncertainty. I'm always second-guessing myself in that big-picture way. I'm always feeling as though I'm doing too much, and then, of course, not nearly enough.

This week in my literature class, we were talking about Huck Finn and the impact of age on our ability to think freely and to be brave. Listening to my students, I realized that as we get older, we become less brave, not more. It's like we don't take the adventures--not because we don't think they aren't worthwhile, but because we are afraid that if we just embark, damn it, we are keenly aware of the potential for regret. What if we regret our choice? And then again, what if we regret our choice? It's paralyzing, this adulthood. I would like to return to the time when it was hope that informed my decisions instead of regret or fear.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Under Contract

Our offer was accepted! We are now under contract to buy the house pictured below. We are THRILLED and can't wait for the financing to be secured, the inspections to (hopefully) go smoothly, and work to begin.

Meanwhile, I've been trying my darndest to focus on grading student essays, but I keep finding myself compulsively drawing floor plans for a shotgun double conversion (to a single). It's addictive. Shotguns make for rather odd living spaces, so it's a real challenge to find ways of creating the kind of open floor plan we want, while still allowing for the kinds of spaces and through-ways we need. If anyone out there has converted a double to a single and has advice, please let me know!

We don't know what will happen with our deposit on 717--the PRC house we're still under contract to buy. The PRC, like everyone else, seems to be overworked and understaffed, so we haven't heard back from them about our decision to move three doors down. We figured it was important to move ahead, anyway, lest we risk losing that gem. We hope that if we find a buyer for the house, we can retain at least a portion of our deposit.

So if you know anyone who'd be interested in a beautiful single with an open-floor plan, a master suite (one of two bedrooms), two bathrooms, a large backyard and off street parking, let us know. Not only would you be getting a wonderful historic home (with a great story--oh, and a 50-year-old bird-of-paradise bush!), you'd also be getting US as neighbors! And I have documented that house's progress every step of the way, so you'd get pictures of its progress, too.

Now: must. grade. papers.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A New New Home


Simon and I just put in an offer on the double three doors down from our PRC-single shotgun. We had all kinds of advice--much of it conflicting--about whether to offer the full asking price or not. We heard that homeowners "never think they'll get their full asking price," so we should lowball. In cases where the prospective buyer has to get financing, though, we heard that a lowball offer may be risky; someone can always come along with cash and snatch it up... and we'd witnessed and heard about a lot of interest in that one house, so we know this was a big risk.


Ultimately, we decided that the right price was a fair one, and one that would get the house off the market and into our posession. Everyone who's seen this house has said that the house was, in fact, worth the asking price. So we offered that price, with an offer expiration of tomorrow at 5 pm, and we feel pretty darn confident that we will get it. Exciting!


The house is on a corner lot and gets lots of southern light. Today we were standing at the top of the levee and when we looked back down the street, we realized we could see our front window clear as day. So we'll be able to look out the window and watch the ships go by. It has a wonderful story, too; it was rolled back from the Industrial Canal when the Lock was put in, and its bargeboard construction tells us that it's been around since the late 1800's. It has lots of beautiful details like gingerbread trim and intact front window shutters. And it has a live oak tree in the backyard that will provide shade (in New Orleans, worth gold). I look up and see a perfect limb for a swing. Yay, swings!


Perhaps because we realized we were on the cusp of something really exciting--buying our first (and hopefully forever) home--Simon and I ate our way through the weekend. I'm talking, we ATE! We had Mexican at El Gato Negro on Friday, a BLT made with a deep-fried softshell crab at Luke for lunch yesterday, and roasted oysters, pickled mirliton and beets, deviled eggs, chicken and andouille gumbo, sweet potato bread pudding, and apple crisp at Cochon last night. Tonight: dinner at Bacchanal (where we were married). Now, if only I didn't have so many papers to grade...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Professional Crisis Numero Dos

Lately, my professional life has been on my mind. In calling it a "professional" life, I make it sound as though I do, in fact, feel like a "pro" at what I do. But even in my sixth year of teaching, I find that I am ever the student, and that I am ever searching for new ways of learning and new ways of doing my work.

Somehow, having a professional "crisis" feels exactly like the right thing to do once one is a year past thirty, a year past married, and months away from buying a new home. Everything else is rolling merrily right on along, what can one have a crisis about then (okay, besides living in a hurricane-ravaged city!): why, one's "professional life."

Here's the issue: in 2004, I got my M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I did well. Wrote a collection of short stories. Got distinction. Was praised by my peers and professors. Became a finalist for a fancy new-writers award that all in the fiction writerly-know have heard of. Attended the prestigious Breadloaf Writers' Conference. I was on my way to becoming a Real Writer, and I was okay with it.

Enter professional crisis Number One.

After I earned my MFA (and in fact while I was in the process of seeking it), I began to have this gnawing feeling that I didn't really want to be A Writer in the sense of the word. I don't do well with unstructured time. I don't like being alone for hours on end. I hate criticism. I hate self-promotion and the idea of marketing my art.

Plus, while at Breadloaf, I witnessed a professional community at "work," and I hated it: most of the "real writers" wanted nothing to do with their students. (I mean, there were cocktail parties paid for with my dollars, but I--a mere paying student--was not welcome.) Also, many of the Real Writers seemed both self-consciously insecure and unabashedly self-important: a bad combination. I was at a conference that was meant to inspire me, but it had quite the opposite effect. In spite of my having a few inspiring moments, I felt mostly like I didn't belong--and like I didn't want to. And then, on the last day of the conference (where my workshopped story was about a hurricane that misses New Orleans)--well, Katrina hit.

Since then, writing fiction has seemed ridiculous to me. It's possible I am making this declaration as some kind of avoidance technique. I'm good at that. So, I'll say instead that I don't believe that it writing fiction (post-K) is ridiculous--it's just that it no longer feels "right" to me.

Now, add to that first professional crisis the fact that I had begun to do what was, to me, previously unthinkable: I'd begun teaching.

Coming from a long line of English teachers (Mom--how many generations are we?), and being an adolescent well into my early twenties, I'd always said (to myself and out loud): "I'll never teach." I mean, the idea of it! It would be, like, becoming my mother! The horror!

But then, I stepped into the classroom for the first time in the Fall of 2001. And I. fell. in. love.

I'm talking, it was some epiphany-type sh*t. I felt "at home" as a teacher in a way I'd never felt before. I have felt the same ever since.

In fact, this professional crisis of mine (crisis Number Two) has nothing to do with my not liking what I do. I love what I do. It has to do with wanting to do what I do, better. It has to do with what I want to do not being particularly valued by my Ph.D-having colleagues (and by lit-teachers, in general). And it has to do with discovering the field of Composition and Rhetoric.

Comp-Rhet is essentially a field that supports the study of writing and communication (composition and rhetoric). I like how Andrea Lunsford defines rhetoric: "Rhetoric is the art, practice, and study of human communication." Composition, then, has to do with the creation of those texts. I'm into learning more about how we create the texts that we use to communicate--and particularly in how the political and social influence of assessment (or grading) influences students' ability to learn how to more effectively compose texts.

I know: it sounds boring. It's not.

So I have been thinking about going to get my PhD in comp-rhet. This would be a no-brainer were it not for one major hitch: I am stuck on New Orleans.

I mean, my loyalty to this city (as you, Mom, and my other three readers know well) is DOg-Ged! And from what I've learned about the hiring process, one who has earned her PhD locally does not get hired in said city. So one needs to leave in order to come back. And I ain't leavin'!

Speaking of leaving... I've just realized that I am running late for a meeting on recruitment for the UNO English Department. Will finish this post when I return... (Insert Jeopardy music or other Muzak here)...

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Well that was depressing. Evidently the enrollment numbers aren't good, and that's making our Chair nervous. So we spent an hour discussing recruitment activities: site visits. Department parties with readings. An essay contest. A raffle. Perhaps this means that it's an even better time for me to go pursue a PhD?

Okay, so say I decide that it is time to get the PhD. The issue is that I should probably be pursuing research and study based on the best programs available, and not based on geographical location. Additionally, if I actually get this degree, there are probably only limited opportunities for its use here in New Orleans. And, for whatever reason, institutions really do like to hire graduates that come from far afield. (I'm not sure why that is. Clancy Ratcliff writes about this on her blog, and what she has to say makes a lot of sense to me. She also happens to be a new member of the ULL comp-rhet faculty; and she's rad).

Anyways, the tentative plan is to apply to ULL for PhD in comp-rhet. Problem: I want to be candid about owning a house and having a husband in New Orleans, which will mean I will need to be candid about needing a teaching and coursework schedule that will allow me to finish my onsite study as quickly as possible. This will likely not make me attractive to them. Problem two: going to ULL may not make me an attractive candidate for hiring committees in New Orleans once I am done.

So what is a girl who wants to change career-gears, but who is, as I've said Dog-Ged-Dly attached to her city to do? And why do academic hiring committees--and particularly those in the comparatively low-paying field of English--make geographic location into such a taboo subject? What's with the need to hire from afar? Also, will my being frank about my needs mean that ULL will not want me to study there?

I certainly hope not. Because I will tell you one place that I DO NOT want to spend even two years of coursework (even if I am commuting): Baton Rouge (at LSU). Lafayette is charming and funky. Baton Rouge is a big ol' suburb with a terrible frat boy problem. Yuck!