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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


"Insanely busy"

So, today I read an article in Newsweek about Paul Krugman, the liberal economist and Nobel Prize winner who has been criticizing the Obama administration's method of handling the economy. And I came across this description of Krugman:
He is, to be sure, insanely busy, producing two columns a week, teaching two courses and still writing books (his latest is "The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008"). He posts to his blog as many as six times a day.
This is almost exactly my own work-load: I am writing a column--not weekly, but it's still a job--for an online magazine, and I'm polishing up an academic article to send out soon. I am also working on and submitting fiction and poetry as I can manage it. I am teaching two courses--both writing classes, which come with a hefty grading load. And I am writing two books, one nonfiction and one fiction, as well as trying to adapt the latter as a graphic novel. And I'm posting to blogs--not six times a day or even six times a month, but between this blog and my activity on other sites, I'm doing a fair bit of writing.

And I do not feel "insanely busy"--in fact, I feel decadent, almost lazy.

Only a few months ago, I was sitting in department meetings at my former campus in Wisconsin, discussing the workload of the freshman composition teachers. To prepare for my end of the conversation, I started listing the work I did, and I figured out that, on average, I was working between 60 and 70 hours a week and reading the equivalent of 3,000 pages worth of writing, as well as writing another 1,200 pages or so, just to stay on top of the five classes--not two, five--that I was teaching. These figures did include some of the "professional development" work I was doing, reading articles related to teaching and academia, but this did not count the service work I was doing for the university, the time and effort I was volunteering to help writers who were not my students, the work I did for my position as faculty adviser for a fraternity, or the reading and writing I was doing on my own time, when the lines between pleasure and work become blurred. (I posted a similar entry on this subject back in May 2008.)

My old friends and former colleagues back in Wisconsin still work on this schedule, as do my friends in Texas, Indiana, Michigan, and Georgia. They still teach four or sometimes five classes--a semester, by the way, so we're talking about eight to ten classes a year--as well as volunteer, serve on committees, write, read, and then decide whether to sleep or try to enjoy themselves, because sometimes that's the decision they're left with.

That, Mr. Krugman, is "insanely busy."


A writer is a writer: on understanding and humility

Today my university hosted a panel discussion with the six authors who were shortlisted for this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF). I've long hungered for the kind of "visiting writer" experiences I used to enjoy in grad school at University of North Texas, and with this I had a chance to meet and listen to authors from traditions, cultures and a language completely outside my own, so of course I headed to campus on my day off and strode enthusiatically--and quite early--into the auditorium.

It turned out I'd passed the authors in the campus lobby on my way in, where they were meeting department and administrative officials, and with all the attention paid to hospitality and polite conversation here, they remained in the lobby for a while and the program started late. But once on stage, the set up looked comfortably familiar--the small couches, the little coffee tables with flowers and bottles of water, the podium at the side for all the requisite introductions--I could have been on any campus anywhere, and the familiarity of the scene was very relaxing. After a while, the visiting authors filed in ahead of their hosting professor and took their couches on the stage (as they were seated, from left to right):

What was different about this panel, however, was that the entire discussion was conducted in Arabic. The introductions, the requests for the students to shut off their cell phones (and the later demands for them to shush during the discussion), the initial remarks by each author, the Q&A that followed.... All of it was in Arabic, and though I am trying to pick up what little of the language I can manage, I only understood a single word: the oft-repeated shukran, "thank you."

Still, sitting there for the hour offered me an interesting opportunity to observe things I sometimes miss at English-language panels, to notice the mannerisms of the authors and the tone of the discussion and the physical reactions to audience questions. What I discovered was that, just like the setting, everything felt familiar. I recognized the authors' tones so immediately I could tell when they were speaking for each other and when they were speaking to the audience; I could guess in most cases when an author was speaking about craft in mechanical, skill-based terms and when an author was speaking about art in reverent, poetic terms; I could even predict in some instances when someone was telling a joke before the audience had a chance to laugh. It was amazing.

This became most evident during the Q&A, which consisted of only four questions because the questions and/or the answers were so lengthy. In some ways, it makes me wonder if such Q&A sessions, everywhere for all authors, are scripted, because while I couldn't understand the topics or the responses, I recognized the pattern: The questions began with a somewhat long question from a junior faculty member, who seemed a bit nervous but was thrilled to be speaking to these authors. But after her question, the authors all glanced at each other and, without waiting for a mic, announced a short, one-word answer, and the audience in turn laughed. (Tommy Franklin, I'm thinking of you at every panel you've been on, man!) The second question, by a more senior faculty member who seemed to have something to prove, went on for a good three minutes, more a speech than a question, and when he finished his comments, the panel all nodded and several said "Shukran" respectfully, making me think the faculty member had either praised their work effusively or else offered a lengthy critical analysis of some sort to which no one knew what to say other than, "Um, thanks?" The third question, also from a faculty member, was apparently more thoughtful, because while it was also long, it ellicited a very long response that took two (and a half) of the authors to answer. And, once they'd attempted to answer this question, the second guy--still with something to prove?--leaned forward in his chair and offered what sounded like a counterpoint of some sort, which in turn lauched all six authors into a lively discussion of that point and, as though to defuse the conversation, Mohammad Al-Bisatie ended with a joke. Finally, a student bravely stood and asked a question, which I assume had something to do with the nature of writers or the art of writing, because Yusuf Zaydan took the mic, leaned forward toward the audience, and began a long answer that was very different in tone from any of the previous comments--from his eye contact, his hand gestures, and the tone of his voice, I knew he was attempting to teach and to help all the young writers in the room.

But more amazing for me, personally, was the moment I realized I'd been humbled by the entire experience. I couldn't understand specifically what these authors were saying, and I cannot read their novels (translations are forthcoming and I look forward to reading them, because they sound fantastic), yet I recognized that I felt great respect for these authors simply because they are authors--not because they have published or because they were shortlisted for the Arab world's equivalent of the Booker Prize, but because they are writers, people who do what I do and value it at least as much as I do. But I wondered.... What if I do read their work and I discover they are all terrible writers? Would my respect diminish? It shouldn't. Yet I recall my recent, frequent rants about the low standards of popular fiction and my attacks on authors who do write work I don't regard as of high quality, what I have called "sloppy" or even "inexcusable," and I have to wonder, why did I denegrate those other, "lesser" authors?

Part of me wants to adhere to my own standards for fiction, even if those same standards often prevent me from sending out my own "subpar" writing, because I think art deserves to be as brilliant as it can be. But I realized today that my respect for writers stems primarily from the act, not the product, of writing. Take Stephenie Meyers Twilight series, for example, a collection of fiction I have not been shy about berating online. I have sometimes faulted Meyers herself for the poor quality of her novels, but while I stand by my assessment of the flaws in those books, I think now I have given Meyers an unfair shake. The work should have been better, and her editors and publishers should demand better writing, and the reading public should expect a higher standard, which doesn't mean all fiction must be complex but which does mean all fiction should attempt beauty as well as entertainment--in other words, we should not be entertained by art that is less than beautiful (and if you know me, you know that for me, beauty includes the horrific more often than it includes the benign, so I'm not calling for roses and happy endings here). But good or bad, trained or untrained, a writer's process is the same for all of us. Though her technique or her schedule or her imagination might be different from my own, I am sure Stephenie Meyers struggled with her stories just as I struggle with my own; I'm sure she both loves and loathes--remembers fondly and finds constant fault with--her writing just as I do my own. And a writer is a writer, whether a student, a teacher, a published author, a hack, a literary giant, a prize winner.... even in another language, they take delight in a world I recognize as my own, and I am proud to listen even when I don't understand.

* My apologies to Yusuf Zaydan, but I could not find any sites regarding his work as an author; I was only able to find sites mentioning his work as director of the Museum of Manuscripts in Egypt's Alexandria Library, but I am choosing here to focus on Mr. Yusuf's work as a writer, so I have not linked to them.


The English language

I have always enjoyed teaching English--especially freshman English--for many of the same reasons I love the English language in the first place: Students invariably introduce me to new ways of using (read: abusing) or interpreting the language. This has been true everywhere I've taught, regardless of demographic, though I admit I had more fun in Texas because Texans--who believe they live in "a whole other country"--often speak a different language than English. The regional dialects vary (linguists will tell you there are at least five distinct dialects in Texas), but the language itself is largely the same: A weird variation of English with heavy influences from the deep South, the Cajun of neighboring Louisiana, the "hillbilly" dialects from the Arkansas Ozarks, southwestern accents, and a combination of New Mexican Spanish, true Mexican Spanish, and "Tex-Mex" Spanish. Consequently, I would have students routinely and consistently swap spellings of "fill" and "feel," "sale" and "sell," or--incorrectly--"could have" and "could of," because they spell according to pronunciation; or I would see proudly intentional uses of the double conditional, as in "I might could of made it to class today if it hadn't of snowed a quarter inch."

But my favorite moments occur with genuine non-native speakers, because it is from them that I both learn more about English and discover new possibilities in English. They feel freer to experiment, and they frequently stumble across beautiful phrases. This is similar to my own experiences in a foreign language: As an undergraduate studying French, I was most praised--and won the "French student of the year" award--when writing poetry in French. I was neither a good poet nor a great French student (my conversational French was less than adequate), but turned loose in another language, I discovered a capacity for play and imagery that I found impossible in English, and my French professor adored my work.

Similarly, I have always loved the compositions of my non-native speakers, and now, teaching a class full of only non-native speakers (all are native Arabic speakers), I am delighting in the expressions and explanations of my students. For instance, the other day I learned--from my students, during a class discussion--that one of the most common grammatical errors they commit is the comma splice. They know this, yet they continue to fall into the error, because--as my students explained--they are translating from Arabic, and in Arabic, is it perfectly acceptable (perhaps necessary; I'm still learning the ins and outs of Arabic) to connect separate ideas with a phrase similar to "and, and." In Arabic, this signals a transition from one idea to another and so both connects and separates them, something akin to the semicolon in English but far more prevalent. Therefore, according to my students, the most logical translation is to link ideas with a comma, and they frequently forget about the period.

And then there are the constructions of syntax and the poetics of expression they casually drop into e-mails. Just today, for instance, a student e-mailed me a list of people she'd like to work with in small groups. One of her requests, she said, was based on her classmate's advanced understanding of the English language, but my student's means of explaining this was, "I can feel the strength of her language."

I can feel the strength of her language.

I love that she has made language into a tangible thing, something we can touch and flex, like a muscle--something we can literally "grasp." I love that she has made language into an atmosphere, something we can get a sense of, like emotion or tension filling a room, or like an odor (something else we describe as "strong"). And I love that she has an awareness of other students' grasp of language in comparison to her own. Native speakers back in the States frequently acknowledge the "good writers" in their classes as simply talented or smart, and either cleave to them in hopes of getting a better grade or distance themselves to avoid looking like "bad writers" in comparison. The same is likely true among non-native speakers as well, but it is refreshing to see in this student's e-mail an expression not only of genuine admiration (the e-mail goes on to say, "I like the way she expresses her ideas, which I recognize in class") but also of a desire to learn from her fellow student ("She is an interesting person to work with").

I think I might repeat these phrases to my students in class today: "I can feel the strength of your language. I like the way you express your ideas. You are all interesting people to work with!"