RETIREMENT! sort of…

I’m taking a sabbatical from teaching, but since it is a self-imposed sabbatical and not a real sabbatical in thacademic sense I choose to call it “retirement“, a word which makes my husband crinkly, both from lack of income and from sheer finality of it.

He worries that my vision of it is this.


Sabbatical or a sabbatical (from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a “ceasing”) is a rest from work, or a break, often lasting from two months to a year. The concept of sabbatical has a source in shmita, described several places in theBible (Leviticus 25, for example, where there is a commandment to desist from working the fields in the seventh year). In the strict sense, therefore, a sabbatical lasts a year. Some universities and other institutional employers of scientists, physicians, and/or academics offer the opportunity to qualify for paid sabbatical as an employee benefit, called sabbatical leave.

While I think of my vision of retirement as

frenzy writer

My college is not offering a sabbatical leave, nor did I request one. The goal is to spend more time on my own work (many months had passed since I had written a poem) and spend more time with my two young children while traveling with husband. Much of November will be spent in Boston.

Did I mention there are 606 emails in my inbox? 206 of which are unopened.

Today was officially ‘day one’ of my-so-called-retirement (the phrase husband affectionately uses).

As you suspectthere was some sleeping late (I had to live up to husband’s vision just a bit)… then…

realized that having spent 5 years in the classroom AND raising the children AND managing a house and rental properties AND freelance writing and editing that I’ve done a rather shitty job of all (teaching the exception) so today is all about personal/household management.

Today’s goal is to go from 606 inbox emails to 400. There are 206 purposefully unopened, unanswered emails (that I don’t want to open due to subject title), and I’m going to answer today (though many will begin with… “I am so sorry to not get back to you sooner…”).  Most are difficult topics to tackle (sister and mom related, friends in Boston who are struggling emotionally, telling writers that I can’t/won’t edit their new work and why) 

Later this week I hope to actually schedule my 2 year overdue mammogram, find my driver’s license, get the dogs their shots (also 2 years overdue), get an eye exam (5 years was last one and I can barely see to drive), a pap smear (3 years overdue), and find a contractor for our sagging roof before we have a leak.

Next week is firewalling for writing projects.

Yours in productivity, 


My brain places the words in the work

My students have completed their oral history assignments.  They are long works. Transcribed voices stretching several pages.

At the beginning of the semester there were shorter assignments.  500 words. 750 words. 2 pages. 1 page… Full of mistakes.  Words missing, tortured syntax, sentences that were, simply, not sentences. Typos.

This work. Oral history. Several pages. No errors. I asked the class, why is this so?

“There is a pressure to respect the words of the interviewee.”  This echoes sentiment from the final rationales last year.  “I value and respect that someone actually gave me her time and I want to honor that by creating a work that showcases the words of this person.”

“My worst nightmare,” noted one student, “is to misquote.”

Equally significant. —- “In my own writing I know what I’m trying to say, so my brain places it in.”  This student can read past the missing word, filling in the gaps, as she knows her work.


Once, on a resume. The word “realty” is misspelled as “reality” and the interviewer asks, “so what do you know about reality.”  Suspecting one of these “big picture” questions the candidate falters.  “Reality is a complex situation. Does God exist?  What are the layers of reality?  Who is to know if what I see as the color of red, for instance, is what you see…”

“What the hell are you talking about?”  asked the interviewer.  “It says on your resume that you worked for a reality company.”

“Oh,” Red faced.  “That’s a typo.”


I am fond of telling my students that I could misspell my name and not see it.  (I do this to help them feel better, but really could just be undermining confidence in their professor).  I encourage writing groups.  I encourage peer tutors.  I encourage a second set of eyes.

We do often “place in” the words that we think are there. We know our work.  We are intimately familiar with the characters, and feel that we do not need to place them on the page. “Of course the main character is a salamander.  How could the reader not see that?” We are left frustrated.  No one “gets” my work. But I would suggest that it is not the reader’s responsibility to flesh out what is missing.

The challenge is when the reader places in different words than the ones the author intends.

“stir up the animals” the role of media in terrorist suspects

Today we discussed the role of the media in light of the Boston Marathon bombings (full disclosure, my husband works in Boston. His office is feet from the finish line, which is now a crime scene, so Tuesday was a rough day to teach.  I find that coming to the classroom helps me process, and I find such joy here).

One student noted that it was irresponsible for the media to release suspect ethnicities and possibly incite hatred until the facts were correct.  This marries with our recent discussion of Hearst and Pulitzer and yellow journalism and muckraking.


As I drove to work the DJs were screaming.  I was tuned to a station coming out of South Carolina and a woman was accusing the DJ of hate mongering as the DJ was repeating news he heard on CNN about the ethic background of a suspect.  The DJ yelled that he was simply repeating what CNN said.

It is notable that The FBI made no mention of the men’s height, weight or age range and would not discuss the men’s ethnicity. “It would be inappropriate to comment on the ethnicity of the men because it could lead people down the wrong path potentially,” said FBI agent Greg Comcowich, a spokesman for the Boston FBI office.

Yet, a source confirmed to on Tuesday April 16th that “the person of interest is a 20-year-old Saudi. His Facebook page identifies him as a current or former student at the New England School of English. He is believed to have entered the country on a student visa. The source stressed that Alharbi is a person of interest, not a suspect, and said he suffered serious injuries in the explosion.”

Damage done.  Posts on the website FrontPageMag include comments inciting hatred against Saudi Arabians.

The problem is that in the digital age, you can’t take back an accusation.  One false bit of information on a media outlet is repeated on blogs and facebook and twitter until it becomes the Truth.  When an apology is made or a retraction, it does not filter down to those levels. The original supposition remains true in many eyes.

I’ve always put muckrakers on a pedestal.  I believe in the media as the 4th estate and as blogs as the 5th estate.  We hold the powerful accountable.  We help break news, but we should not be making the news. One famous quote is that reporters are the only people other than emergency responders who run towards the crises. But, in the urgency to report, to scoop, to inform are we doing a disservice to say “It is believed that….”

So, what does the media do?  Do we wait until all sources are verified?  Roosevelt tempered his praise for muckrakers with this. “Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.”

Mencken was famous for wanting to “stir up the animals” and he said that “a newspaper should tell the truth, however unpleasant.”  Agreed, but when does the truth become the truth and not speculation? Can we harm an individual or group by releasing speculation and can we harm an individual or group but withholding speculation?

accidental porn

This week we have been discussing the role of truth in journalism.  We explored D’Agata and James Frey and Mike Daisy.  We listened to the NPR interview with fact checker Jim Fingal and D’Agata and we had a generous discussion on the role of truth versus facts. And, of course we needed to include, Stephen Glass, famous as a journalist who made up entire sources, stories etc.  Here is the handy chart, borrowed from Slate, that we looked at in class.


The Stephen Glass story was made into a movie.  I recall it was called Broken Glass or Shattered Glass or some such. So, I checked IMBD, found Broken Glass, and began to play the trailer.  About 5 seconds into the trailer the students were saying, “uh, Lockie, I don’t think this is the correct movie.”  Splashed up on the big media screen was not a newsroom with Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass defending his sources. Instead it was clearly a bedroom scene.  Nothing too steamy, just an arm and some sheets, but clearly not a newsroom. The IMBD description of Broken Glass reads:

“Through seven bottles of cursed wine, we follow the journey of Valentina, a beautiful artist living in Berlin. With a sordid history of sexual and physical abuse, and having been caught in the arms of her female lover by her wealthy, overbearing mother, Val is forced to make a choice: to live a “normal” life, or be forever cut off – financially and emotionally. She concedes to her mother’s ultimatum, and pursues a heterosexual relationship to appease her, only to catch her new boyfriend in bed with another man. Her inability to cope with her life triggers her repressed male alter-ego to emerge and take over.”

While the IMBD description of Scattered Glass (Which I discovered is the trailer I should have been showing) reads:

“The true story of a young journalist who fell from grace when it was found he had fabricated over half of his articles.”

I was red-faced for the balance of class. We did eventually play the correct trailer, but as one student left the classroom he said, “I’m going to tell my friends you made us watch porn.”

Not my best teaching moment but I bet they remember who Stephen Glass is now.

The Quadrangle of Discomfort

Flashback one semester

The college I teach at is very small. Think 900ish students. As such, the community is quite insular (not in a negative way).  The nature of the college (a triad of work, service and academics) further strengthens community ties. The students study together, pull weeds on the farm together, play together, dine together, spend weekends on service learning trips.  There are assigned dorms, but few seem to be in the correct room. The intensity with which the lives of the students are entwined is apparent in their essays, their class comments, the way a student hugs another student after a peer review.

Thus, sometimes it may be difficult to assign peer rotation of papers, especially in a nonfiction class.  Especially when the first assignment is a bio, an exercise in self-exploration.

“I’ll call it the quadrangle of discomfort,” says one student.  He has grabbed a dry erase marker and is drawing a diagram on my whiteboard.  Class is dismissed, and I’ve turned on WERS, streaming live from Boston, my old college radio station.  The student stands at the board, creating a geometric pattern as the Foo Fighters blare out over the classroom speakers,

“Do you have any other colored markers?” he asks.

I hand him red and green to add to his blue.

When he is complete it looks like an awkward pentagram, a Venn on steroids.  There are loops and squares. I’m still uncertain what he is drawing.

“Okay, Professor Hunter,” he says.  He is one of the few who insists on calling me simply “Professor Hunter” and not by my first name.  I’ve had this student in two classes already.  I know him well.  It’s fun to see him at the board, mimicking my job.

“What you have done,” he continues, “is assign these personal bios in the worst possible peer rotation.”

This is not the first time an uncomfortable peer rotation has happened.  One of my first years here brought a similar situation.  A student had grabbed a sheet of paper or napkin and detailed how the peers I had assigned had all been very close, but that the relationships were in flux, were currently strained or evolving.  That time it was a trio, and the student had drawn similar lines, but nothing as complex as the diagram now on my whiteboard.

Peer rotation is my nightmare.  When I earned my MFA, apparently, all of my math skills evaporated. In went Hemingway and Lahiri; out went macroeconomics. In went Winesburg Ohio and San Lorenzo; out went fractions. I am faced with creating a rotation for my students so that they do not have the same peer read their work more than once a semester.  I was happy with the foursome that I chose.  It was one of the first days, so I just lumped four students together into a peer group.

My student continues to explain his problem.  “Of these four students, you assigned two who were rooming together but then she dated his friend, and then she moved out and now he is with….” He is pointing to his drawing of overlapping circles and lines. The drama that has unfolded is, apparently, intense.

“Well then,” I say.  “You will certainly be able to have the…”  Here, I struggle with the word.  “Backstory to read one another’s work.”  I smile and add “Have fun with it!”


So many terrible wonderful stories


As we explore political commentary in my media class, I ask my students to have a daily diet of news. NPR, BBC, HuffPo, conservative talk radio, NYT, Esquire politics blog. As long as it is news. I want them to read, absorb, challenge, gain passion.  I hope this becomes a lifelong habit, exploring the world.

logo-foxnews-update               bbc-logo

We will explore “the fictional current that flows beneath the stream of reality.”
-Gay Talese
In order to discover that fictional current, we need to seek out competing opinions…but first, we need to find a story, just one, that will create enough passion to want to seek out more.
As I went around the classroom, asking what news the students had discovered, I was met with a few tidbits.  Certainly, the meteor and the Pope were discussed. And, a few students found some off-the-beaten-path-news.  We had a small impassioned discussion about recent comments made by an Alabama representative.  The class was engaged… but not on fire.
Cut to a peer review.  As students broke into pairs to review their recent community narratives, one student came over to my desk, laptop open, clearly excited.  She showed me a story, and we scrolled to the comments.  There was an air of can-you-believe-this in her tone, and then she said something that every professor of media longs to hear.
“There are so many wonderful, terrible statements in the news today.  I had a hard time picking just one.”
There. Engaged. Passionate.  Ready to write.
So, my assignment for Thursday was for all of my students to arrive
having found “wonderful, terrible” stories.

Why we write…the final musings

The last installment of comments from my students in a college media class when asked “Why do you write?”

1. “When I interview people they give their story to me. I must tell it.”

2. “I’m a lucid dreamer. Writing accumulates in my room. Writing helps me get my words out…any way other than speaking. People in my head write their own story.”

3. “Writing is my way of giving myself purpose.”

4. “I write to articulate my experiences.”