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My first manuscript for ENG-207 (#1017)

Topics/tags: Autobiographical, long

We workshopped three pieces in The Craft of Creative Nonfiction today. One was mine. To give you a similar experience to my peers’, I am providing you with the manuscript more-or-less as they received it [1]. In the coming days, I expect to post an annotated version and, perhaps, the kinds of comments I would have made if someone else had written it and I was responsible for the response.

We get two or three minutes at the end of the workshop to ask the class questions. You can find one of my questions toward the end of this musing, after the piece.

Office Hours

There’s a board outside the door. The board contains an unexpected variety of ephemera: a piece of cloth reading Faculty for Self-Gov, a colorful 8.5x11 inch sheet of paper saying Safe Space, an envelope full of Title IX resource cards, a reproduction of Zoe Leonard’s I want a president, a Daniel Pinkwater standardized test (on it, a student has scrawled I took this!), the ubiquitous No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor, cartoons by Keith Knight and Gary Trudeau, a manifesto that suggests As citizens and computer scientists we are obligated to assess and understand the impacts of computing on society, a photograph of a faculty member in a Tigger outfit, the cover of a book entitled Experiments in Java.

The first thing you notice as you enter the room is the sheer volume of books. Or the oriental carpet, incongruous. A red stapler. The paper, piled everywhere—on the table, on the desk, on chairs, on that carpet—piles, on piles, on piles. Some playing cards, alone and in decks. Vases full of flowers at both ends of the desk. A drill from a dentist’s office. Paintings and photos, displayed on high and at angles. A Barbie® doll. What appear to be two red, deflated, soccer balls, perched on a shelf. Candy wrappers. A green plant, overflowing the top of the file cabinet by the door. A slab of marble. Your exam, carelessly strewn but nonetheless sitting patiently on the table, awaiting discussion.

You deflect, or perhaps I do. The large round stone, filled with holes, perched on the shelf? A fossilized whale bone, or so my mother told me, found beachcombing on the Vineyard in the early 1970’s, back when we still went to the Vineyard. The Tang Horse, perched on its fading box, displayed proudly on the too-high window sill? Mom was invited to give a speech in China soon after it opened to the west; she brought that back. A giant, hand-painted, uneven, somewhat oval, orange smiley face, tacked to the south wall, and only visible once you sit down at the table? One of my kids made that; it makes me happy. Which child? I’m not sure. Six garish pink boxes labeled What’s your point? One of my favorite alums helped design that game, a hybrid of an improv activity and a PowerPoint presentation with a previously unseen deck. Those red, appetizing, glossy, deflated, substantial, soccer balls? I took sculpture during my last sabbatical. One of my fellow students cast them. I think they left Grinnell for architecture school after that semester. In any case, I liked their work and they were willing to share. I may have traded them a few of the half-pyramids (more precisely, Lower half, horizontally bisected square pyramid with 45° slope) that I sawed, molded, formed, and cast. Another peer’s piece lies on the floor outside the office. Perhaps you noticed it.

The questions continue. The stack of keyboards, piled in the corner? ITS was going to throw them away. I thought I’d pry off the keys and use them for an art project. I’ve since had the good fortune to visit an exhibit of Elias Sime’s work at the Wellin. Now, I may be too humbled to start. The slab of marble? Rescued from the discard pile when the sculpture near East Campus was made. The mailbox face? Trash picked when the bookstore was closing; I recall Kington making a joke when he saw me in the dumpster. In any case, I appreciate the aesthetics and its ties to a Grinnell of old. The unassembled boxes, leaning against one of the many bookshelves? I’m moving offices, a smaller space.

Some items seem somehow detached from the sentiments expressed in the signs tacked outside the office. Why the plastic, perky, unnatural and unachievable representation of the female figure? You think, It’s somewhat creepy that an adult has that doll in their office, still in the packaging. I explain that it’s Computer Engineer Barbie® and I bought it because I appreciated the effort to encourage young women to consider careers in computing. Plus, Computer Engineer Barbie® has Tux on her shelf. Libre! I hate the children’s book they released at the same time, a book which completely undermines the doll’s positive message about women and computing. I prefer the feminist remix, which I have somewhere else in the office, but pull up on my computer instead. You think, They’ve said way too much about this doll, or at least have too rehearsed an explanation. Perhaps creepy is right.

You ask about the flowers and plants. I must admit that they are plastic. But they do brighten up the place. Once upon a time, an alum, having recalled them, brought me a live plant. It died within the month. Its corpse remains on the window sill. Naturally.

An inspirational poster labeled Challenges reminds you of your high-school guidance counselor’s office. Surely college faculty would be more sophisticated than that. Then you read the underlying message: I expected times like this – but I never thought they’d be so bad, so long, and so frequent. You empathize, but continue to wish your faculty would exhibit more sophistication.

Is that large framed poster containing a large photograph of a metal object also intended to inspire? And why is the glass cracked at the bottom? You lean closer to read, and learn that it quotes Bishop Desmond Tutu, We don’t want our chains made more bearable; we want our chains removed. Perhaps you’ve heard that quote already. Liberated. You also learn that the accompany photograph is by Reginald L. Jackson, Ph.D. and is entitled The Shackle. Is it appropriate for me to have such a poster? Have I appropriated? You don’t want to ask such questions. I notice your puzzlement and point you to the plate in the lower-right-hand corner: Presented by Community Change, Inc. to Dr. Freda Rebelsky in appreciation for a lifetime commitment to racial justice. Interesting.

You glance back at the table. Your eye strays to a page of hand-written hieroglyphs, seemingly scrawled by a left-handed doctor after three consecutive nights of call, failing to notice their pen is running out of ink. You decipher some sentences. The first two read: You enter the office, and query about Klein’s bottle. They regard your question, and respond using Magritte’s Pipe. Your brain speaks critiques—first quietly, then louder, then unbearably—critiques echoing from a small classroom in the northwest corner of a cottage on the southeast corner of campus, from one or more rooms up the stairs from that classroom, from a seemingly comfortable living room down the hall, from a Methodist temple to writing promiscuous in its spirituality, from a seemingly quiet oasis of wisdom deep in the belly of a hog butcher, from a metaphorical Little Red Schoolhouse in a large lecture hall in a faux-Gothic cathedral of knowledge in the pit of that butcher’s belly, from a desk or small round table with but two or three people gathered around.

Too much symmetry makes this piece seem like it’s written by a computer. Know your audience. Explain; not everyone will understand your terms. Vary your sentence length. Vary your sentence structure. Eschew obfuscation. This piece is sophomoric, perhaps even puerile. Ambiguity! Don’t feel compelled to use the second person just because that’s from the most recent piece you read. Fewer adverbs! Infuse your objects with meaning while acknowledging their provisionality. Don’t feel like you have to fit everything in. Ambiguity! My two-year-old daughter, in the crib, could write better than this. Don’t use the word interesting. Know your genre; place is not memoir. There are at least twenty basic sentence structures; learn more than one. Even competent writers struggle to make meta-writing seem natural. Thank you for this piece, it will serve as a useful example of habits other students should avoid. Ambiguity!

You ignore the voices. You ignore the voices. You ignore the voices, but they insist on being heard, raising new points, finding additional flaws, encouraging the author, encouraging you to ignore the obvious power dynamic in the room and share their words with me. You grab a fidget from the table to quiet the voices lest you speak their truths. They insist that you address at least one of the critiques, at least to yourself, before they fade.

You enter … They regard. They enter … I regard. I enter … You regard. Phil enters … Prof. R regards. Student enters … Professor regards. Ashley enters … I regard. Professor enters … Student regards. The combinations are nearly endless.

You settle on You and I for reasons you enumerate. That quiets the voices, at least for a time. But why haven’t I done the same? Unlike the president, who you’ve heard avoided writing courses in his B.S., M.D., M.B.A., and Ph.D. (so many letters!), I seem to embrace writing. I must hear similar voices. We’ve been through that, that experience of detailed critiques. You’re tempted to suggest changes. But this is not our fate. The power differential is too great; comments seem too risky. You search for something else to say. You consider the volumes around you.

Have I read them all? I’ve finished a few, perused parts of many more, rely on the rest as references, save some that serve to support students. From Barbie to Mortal Combat: Gender and Computer Games? That’s there because many of my students want to write about computer games and I know it serves as a good resource. Or, more precisely, it once served as a good resource; gender and gaming has changed significantly in the past decade. A biography of Hallie Flanagan? Most students don’t know that Grinnell’s Flanagan theatre was named after her. I appreciate a quote from Harry Hopkins near the beginning, President Main taught us the value of the arts, and the WPA will reflect that value. That’s what made America great. Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective? I am enamored of his concepts, want to live within those conceptual walls. Experiments in Java? No, it’s not an anthropology text; it’s a CS lab manual I wrote in the distant past. I wish my publisher had chosen cover art that embraced that ambiguity.

You page through the lab manual. Computers are precise. Computers are organized. Computers expect humans to be organized. Zeros and ones, neatly categorized. Computers will not abide ambiguity or subtlety or disorder. How to explain the space which faces you?

Some peers have told you that they’ve heard me say that I’ve tried to make my office look like the typical dorm room so that students feel at home. You ask anyway. I might tell you that it’s an art installation, in progress, entitled Entropy, for reasons that I consider obvious. Or perhaps I’ll say it’s a scientific study, in progress; is there really a difference? Speaking of studies, I might pull one out from a stack (always organized) and show you that researchers discovered that some people can achieve clarity only by filling their lives with distractions; sensory overload forces them to focus. Are you convinced? Perhaps not. You’ve watched enough TV to know that there’s a more obvious answer: Hoarder. You don’t know that buried deep—somewhere amidst the piles of papers, or perhaps tucked in one of the books or under a tchotchke—is an article that says that students become more comfortable when they can find an object in the room to fixate on, ask about, or use to initiate an extended conversation.

Now you’re ready to discuss the exam.

Since I think the title shapes how people read a piece, at the end of class, I distributed a questionaire for my fellow students to indicate a title preference. I’m sharing it with you, too. I’ve added one title suggested in class [2].

Which of the following titles would you suggest? Please select one or more.

  • A remarkable lack of self-control
  • Ambiguity
  • Apophenia (The experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data)
  • CW: Academic feedback
  • Fredric Brown’s only mainstream novel
  • Hoarder (I would drop the italicized word from the last page)
  • June 17, 1882
  • Lineage
  • Office hours
  • Privilege
  • Student/Professor
  • Thank you for your feedback
  • Unclear!
  • Welcome to my lair
  • Other:

Postscript: Can you identify the song lyrics? I didn’t expect the students to, but only one of my same-age colleagues did. When we last listened to a version of this song, Michelle didn’t know it.

[1] I’ve reformatted for the Web and corrected one or two typos in the original. Otherwise, it’s effectively the same piece.

[2] I won’t tell you which it is.

Version 1.0 released 2020-02-13.

Version 1.0.2 of 2020-02-13.