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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Yesterday, Outdoors, Near Home

Sarah above the creek at meadow's edge
We got outdoors yesterday, but Sarah didn’t do a lot of running. With a sharp ice crust on the snow, she stepped carefully, exercising her nose instead of her legs, smelling the ground as if working on some great mystery that had passed that way before us. I did a lot of stopping myself, exercising my eyes and experimenting with my camera.

Ice-covered popple branches

Looking south along orchard aisle

Ice on cherry branch, wooded hill behind

Monday, January 28, 2013

Of Snow, Ice, and Dogs

Cherry orchard in January

We have been getting serious winter this month, and it is both a relief and a vexation. It’s a relief to everyone because snow means eventual snowmelt, and that means at least some amelioration of low water levels in the Great Lakes. It’s also a relief to farmers and all of us dependent on the local economy, because no one wants a repeat of last year’s lost fruit season.

We've been making it in and out so far,

although driving has been exciting!
And yet, who ever welcomes the arrival of freezing rain? That’s what we’ve got today, and radio announcements tell of school and other closings all across Michigan’s northern lower peninsula. Weather won’t get in the way of my plan to stay home and do some housework, and it will be a good day to read and to write letters. I’m not sure about outdoor adventures with Sarah, though. She loves romping and exploring in the snow, but I can just imagine the look of shocked disbelief on her face if I were to suggest a long expedition to the woods in freezing rain. She’s up for fun but not for being cold and miserable!

Queen of the Mountain
More about dogs? Okay. Saturday’s warmer temperatures and sunshine lured Mary and Nike out for a walk in Northport, and when they stopped in at the bookstore to pick up Mary’s order, I couldn’t resist grabbing my camera. What a stately visitor!

Visiting Royalty!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Visiting Fictional Worlds in January

My introduction to M. J. Rose was with the novel, The Book of Fragrance, much of it set in Paris. With her new work of fiction, Seduction, once again Rose seduces readers with a journey of exploration into the mysteries of mind and time. We walk beaches and descend into caves on the Isle of Jersey. Traveling to the past, we sit in seance with Victor Hugo as he tries desperately to make contact with his drowned daughter. Do you believe in ghosts? This novel will suspend your disbelief and hold you enthralled.

What I Was, by Meg Rosoff, took me by surprise. The slim volume opens with an unhappy young boy, going off to yet another English boarding school, anticipating yet another academic and social failure. When a new relationship blooms to change his life forever, it isn’t the one you expect—and you certainly don’t anticipate where it will go. Like Seduction, What I Was is set in the United Kingdom, the latter on England’s rocky coast.

What can I say—what do I need to say—about Alexander McCall Smith’s Miracle at Speedy Motors, another in the series of books about Mma Ramotswe of Botswana’s fictional Ladies #1 Detective Agency? These stories never disappoint me. I love my visits to Botswana’s world of red earth and bush tea, and I enter completely into Precious Ramotswe’s investigations and home life. She is not perfect, and sometimes her errors embarrass her, but she is a good, kind, thoughtful, and strong person. Her beloved father would be very proud of her!

The Land of Green Plums, by Herta Müller, brought a radical shift in mood, as I moved from sunny, democratic Botswana to find myself in bleak Romania under a harsh dictatorship permeating every institution, every place of work, and every personal relationship. The best future the young people can hope for is escape. The style and chronology of the novel are disorienting, probably intentionally so. I was halfway through before I “found my feet,” and even then the going wasn’t easy but was well worth the effort.

Then there was The Hour I First Believed, by Wally Lamb. Put off by the length of Lamb’s novels, I had never read one before but something about this one—maybe the title—drew me in. Beginning with the actual shooting at Columbine High School, Lamb takes his fictional narrator, a high school teacher, back to childhood and forward years after the event, exploring different kinds of violence, what it means to feel like an outsider, family secrets, marital and family relationships, disturbed adolescents, post-traumatic stress, women’s prisons, and so much more that I know the list begins to sound like a sociology textbook, but believe me, it reads like real people living real lives, and everyone I know who’s read it says the same. For the first 200 pages you wonder if you’ll be able to read on much longer—how can you stand to keep going???--and then you are so caught up that you can hardly put the book down to attend to your own life, wanting to know what is going to happen to Caelum, Maureen, Velvet, and every incidental character whose life intersects with theirs.

And now, the novel I’m reading at present: Very unlike any of these others, The Son of Marietta, by Johan Fabricius, published in 1936, opens with a group of “players” (actors) traveling in horse-drawn coaches across central Italy in late fall. They stop at an inn in a provincial cathedral town. One of the women with the troupe has a baby but is unable to nurse the crying child, and after the landlord’s wife offers her own breast the child is left behind, with a little money, and grows up in the public house. Later, for a few years, the girl Marietta takes refuge in a convent, and there the new bishop finds her and takes her into his own home, first as help to his housekeeper, then as his almost-adopted daughter, and—then? I am about a quarter of the way through the book, and the main character, he of the title, has not yet appeared on the scene. This is not a fast-moving story. And yet the portraits are well drawn, and the situations, though far from modern, are very recognizably human, so I am not at all impatient. It is a luxurious escape on cold winter nights, a good excuse to go to bed early!

Have you read any good novels lately?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Winter's Subtle Palette

Up North, the outdoor world in January verges on monochromatic. Bright yellow, green, and red colors appear only on signs (and, in the city, traffic lights), while in fields and woods the soft dun color of a dry, rustling beech leaf is almost shocking against the white of snow and black tracery of bare branches. The picture at left was taken before there was snow on the ground, so use your imagination to subtract that much brown, and see what remains.

(You can also click here for images of dun-colored horses and information on what causes the coloring and its variations.)

Several recent new offerings at Dog Ears Books sport covers with subtle palette colors:

NEW COLLECTED POEMS, by Wendell Berry (hardcover with jacket, $30)

THE RIVER SWIMMER (two novellas), by Jim Harrison (hardcover with jacket, $25)

THE GEOARCHAEOLOGY OF LAKE MICHIGAN COASTAL DUNES, by William A. Lovis Alan F. Arbogast, & G. William Monaghan (softcover, large format, $35.95)

Now in paperback: THE WINDWARD SHORE: A WINTER ON THE GREAT LAKES, by Jerry Dennis (pb, $16.95)

Friday was my sister's birthday. What did I send her? Recall that I am a bookseller and that we are a family of readers! Can I be more specific? Not without spoiling the surprise, in case the package hasn’t reached her yet. Were the cover colors bright or subtle? Definitely subtle. Will she find the book boring? Not on your life! It will transport her to a place she'd like to be....

Thursday, January 24, 2013

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Writers, story-tellers, song-writers, and artists are among those who are asked this question, and often they have no more clue than anyone else. “What made me think of that?” one might muse. Is the creative mind simply more open, more receptive, to its own emerging phantasms? Where do our dreams come from—and where they go when we wake?

How about more practical ideas—an idea for a new business or even an idea about what would be good or bad legislation for Michigan or the United States?

The deeply held ideas we call our “beliefs”? Where do they come from? From our parents, our education, television, friends, the Internet, newspapers, politicians, “spokespeople,” the air we breathe, our own independent philosophical investigations? What think you?
The best public relations is invisible. While it’s easy to spot advertising—the stuff that blatantly urges you to go buy something—PR subtly convinces you to change the way you think. Advertising urges you to do something now; PR is patient. Advertisers pay for the time and space devoted to their messages. Good PR usually gets free media space because it is presented as unbiased information.
 - Wendell Potter, Deadly Spin: An Insurance Company Insider Speaks Out on How Corporate PR Is Killing Health Care and Deceiving Americans (Bloomsbury Press, 2010)
Read that last sentence again, please. Here, I’ll repeat it: “Good PR usually gets free media space because it is presented as unbiased information [emphasis added]. So what our politicians tell us, what we hear and read in news media, what we pass along to each other, and even our own belief-forming thought—all that is constantly being shaped by well-bankrolled, behind-the-scenes forces. Now please look again at the subtitle: This is more than a book about the health care so-called “debate,” and the author is more than just another pundit urging his opinion on you. Wendell Potter worked for 25 years in public relations.

This book is also a lot more than just another exposé. The author tells of a very personal journey, beginning with his parents’ and his own origin in a poor rural Appalachian mountain community. He also traces from its origins the development of public relations in this country—who first came up with it, where the first college class was taught, what kind of ethics restrained early practitioners, and where PR has come in less than a hundred years. For example, “crisis management” was first developed by Ivy Lee, cofounder of the Parker & Lee agency in New York, who counteracted bad publicity about industrial massacres and strike-breaking with carefully written and distributed press releases. Press releases, he discovered, did reporters’ jobs for them, and reporters were happy to hand in a release rather than investigating a story for themselves.

A contemporary of Lee, Edward Bernays, enterprising son of Jewish parents, Potter tells us, is “generally credited with coining the term ‘public relations counselor.’” It was Bernays who came up with a wildly successful campaign to attract more women to smoking cigarettes, equating smoking with equality and calling cigarettes “torches of freedom.” Why do I mention his Jewish heritage? Because according to a citation Potter’s to Bernays’s autobiography, in 1933 the noted public relations counselor was disturbed to be told by a guest in his home, a guest who had recently been a guest in the home of Joseph Goebbels, that Goebbels had “at least one of Bernays’s books” on his shelves. Hitler’s use of slogans and manipulation to move crowds was well know, also, and Potter says that Bernays “fretted publicly about ethics later in his life.”
Looking back, he said that had he known the dangers of tobacco, he would not have accepted the American Tobacco account. “No reputable public relations organization would today accept a cigarette account since their cancer-causing effects have been proven,” he wrote in 1986. Also late in life, Bernays appealed to the PRSA [Public Relations Society of America] to police its ranks, arguing that circumstances allowed unethical behavior without any sanctions, legal or otherwise. “There are no standards,” he said.
“No standards.” What does that mean? Anything goes. There are, you may object, legal limits, but let’s look closer at that idea, too.

As Americans, we treasure our freedom of speech. At the same time, we hold onto the idea that “what’s good for General Motors,” i.e., more generally, Big Business, is good for us all. Enter a new American entity, the front group. A front group is created by PR people but not identified with an affiliation to any particular corporation or political party. PR people begin with focus groups, private citizen volunteers, and they test phrases with these groups to see what responses are evoked by certain words and phrases. Say that you find, as PR folks did, that the phrase “government takeover” generates a high fear response. A front group is then organized under some intentionally vague name, chosen because the words have positive focus group response. A website is set up, and the “group” begins to issue statements warning about, say, “a government takeover” of health care. The phony group also buys advertising but never in the name of the industry or any particular business or corporation: the point of PR is to make it look like some group of public- and like-minded citizens just got together in a grassroots kind of way.

Here’s a personal backtrack: I remember in the 1970s when my employer, Western Michigan University, announced that we were going to be given a choice between our old, traditional insurance and a new health maintenance organization (HMO). What surprised me was the high correlation of features shared by the HMO alternative and “socialized medicine” as the fear-mongers had presented it. Why, I wondered, were these features (e.g., limited list of approved health care providers) nightmare outrages if part of a government program but reasonable and desirable if offered by a for-profit private company? I have never had a satisfactory answer to the question. Only slogans come back: “government takeover” and “socialized medicine” vs. “the American way.”
The best example of the industry’s secrecy is the medical-loss ratio, which, as I mentioned previously, is the measurement of the share of premium spent on actual health care. The trend since Clinton’s plan failed has been unmistakable. In 1993, the leading insurers used about 95 percent of premium dollars on medical benefits, according to the consulting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers. The merger wave and the new philosophy about health insurance pushed MLRs down sharply, so that by 2007 the number was 81 percent. By contrast, Medicare has consistently had a ratio greater than 97 percent since 1993.
What Americans pay in and what they get back: that’s what the MLR measures, and there are the numbers. What about increasing health care costs and inflation in general?
If the [insurance] industry had chosen to raise premiums at the exact pace that it increased spending on health care from 2000 to 2008, insurers would still have made substantial profits without pushing millions of people to go without health benefits. But during those years, insurers raised family premiums 2.5 times faster than the rate of medical inflation, 3.3 times faster than that of wages, and 4.6 times faster than that of general inflation.
Insurance was costing more at the same time that those buying it were getting less, and many could not afford to buy it at all.

The picture that emerges in this book is the clear subversion of the democratic process, but Potter’s examination of the insurance industry (“Industry”? What do they make? Why is every business these days called an “industry” and every income-generating plan called a “product”?) is one case study in a much larger economic development. We all recognize that politics is rife with public relations specialists, doing all they can to shape candidates to our fears and desires. The greater truth is that every important issue that comes before those politicians, once they are in office, has also been manipulated in similar ways. What do “the people” really want? Which voices are theirs? Have we all been hoodwinked before we even open our mouths?

For example, one justly deep fear of the American people has always been the invasion of personal privacy by government. Is the parallel to socialized medicine and HMO’s obvious to you? The greatest threats to the privacy of Americans here at the beginning of the 21st century, as far as I can see, come not from our government but from private interests against which the government is able to offer little protection. Again, please look up your own sources on privacy and data mining. Do you view your concerns for privacy and for freedom as contradictory?

In 1963, in his justly famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. warned of “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” in the struggle for human rights, insisting that the present was a time of “fierce urgency.” For Wendell Potter, the present is a time of fierce urgency in the war of independent thinking against public relations. The problem is that the enemy is invisible. We have already been infiltrated. We may even be unknowingly complicit, unpaid soldiers on a side we never chose.

Potter does not tar all PR with the same brush. Like any tool, PR can be and is often used in the service of good. He does, however, end his introduction with these words:
...I believe that unless we do fight back—and with urgency—the twenty-first century will be dominated by the retrenchment of democracy and the unbridled growth of corporate power, enabled by increasingly unchallenged propaganda.
Who were “Citizens United”? Did you unite with them? Isn’t it ironic that putting the government of the United States up for sale was accomplished without any need for a bloody coup, that it was put on the auction block by our own Supreme Court (three dissenting), reasoning on principle?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Second Time in a Row

No, I haven't given up writing for this blog, but yes, I'm sending you elsewhere again today. What are your interests and concerns? Because you know what mine are, and this interview with Winona LaDuke touches on so many of them I don't want to excerpt from what she says, because it's all worth reading.

I'm very happy that Northport's summer Farmers Market has grown to be one of the most successful in Leelanau County. Northport has a new wind turbine, too, leading the way in Leelanau County for its investment in renewable, self-sufficient energy. As important as either of these initiatives, in my view, is the fact that recent local meetings looking to the future are bringing back together white and Native American community members. This is particularly important given Northport's unique history, the community having been founded by Chief Peter Waukazoo and Reverend George Smith.

There is a long way to go, but every journey begins with the first steps.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Don't Read My Blog Today

Today is the national holiday to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Please take time today to read about and remember his life. It is important to keep all of Dr. King's dream alive--equality for all Americans, an end to poverty, and peace for the entire world.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Variety is the Spice of My Bookshop

As a bookseller in northern Michigan, offering both new and used titles, with most of my walk-in trade coming in July and August, I naturally give Michigan books and authors my highest level of attention. But ever since I first began to stock new books, as well, I’ve tried to keep my eyes open to titles that go beyond our state, into areas that fascinate me and will, I hope, attract the attention of my bookstore customers. My own interests are eclectic, and I think that helps me connect to customers with different interests.

In that light, below is a very, very abbreviated sample of books I’ve ordered for stock in the last few weeks. As you can see, they range from Buddhist through outdoor, nature, animals, and travel, to parenting and children’s and illustrated books, with a couple modern classics in the list.

BUDDHIST ANIMAL WISDOM STORIES, by Mark W. McGinnis, illustrated by author (oversized hc with jacket - $19.95)

DRAWN TOGETHER, by Aline & R. Crumb (oversized hc with jacket - $49.95)


IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, by Maurice Sendak, illustrated by author (25th anniversary addition, hc with jacket, $17.95)


OWLS, by Marianne Taylor (oversized hc with jacket - $35)


THE SHEEP BOOK: A HANDBOOK FOR THE MODERN SHEPHERD, Revised and Updated, by Ron Parker (pb - $24.95)

TUVA OR BUST! RICHARD FEYNMAN’S LAST JOURNEY, by Ralph Leighton (pb – $17.95)

WHAT MAKES YOU not A BUDDHIST, by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse (pb - $15.95)

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, by Maurice Sendak, illustrated by author (hc with jacket, $17.95)

WINTER: FIVE WINDOWS ON THE SEASON, by Adam Gopnik (pb - $19.95)

What do you think of my hand-picked inventory? Which would you pick up for a closer look?

Through the year, in every season, you will also find at Dog Ears Books fiction, poetry, cookbooks, and history. We have a strong science section of used books, and equally strong sections in religion and in philosophy. There are fine bindings and first and signed editions for the collector, but the reader who wants a paperback mystery for bathtub or beach won’t be disappointed, either. What we don’t have in stock, I will happily special-order for you.

One new book I could not resist ordering for the holiday season, a book yet to leave the bookstore to find its first real home, is Fair Culture, by Harold Lee Miller. This oversized paperback volume of photographs captures beautifully the quintessential rural Midwest of my childhood, a world that continues to exist.
In August 2005 Harold Lee Miller, a nationally known photographer with offices in Indianapolis and New York, started a series of photographs of 4-H participants at the poultry and rabbit barns of the Indiana State Fair. Over the past few years, Miller expanded his project to include people and activity from fairs held in Jackson, Elkhart, Dubois, Delaware, Washington, Owen, Monroe, Knox, Jay, and Marion counties. The photographs depict people and their horses, sheep, cows, as well as life on the midway and other activities associated with this Hoosier summer pastime.
Did you grow up in the Midwest? Love the world of the county fair? Do you still? It’s all here in these delightful and evocative pages.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

January Daze: This, That, and Another Thing or Two

Aripeka Evening
Younger Sarah in a Warmer Season
No, we are not in Florida, but we were looking at old photos of winters past one recent Sunday morning, and the one seemed worth sharing again. We also looked at some cute old pictures of Sarah, and I took David on a virtual tour of my trip to Arizona last spring.

January seems to be a time for looking back, but for the present, please note winter hours at top right. New book orders will be taken through Saturdays of each week, with orders going on the following Monday in order to arrive by the end of that week.

Now, a few other timely topics in brief.

January Special at Bookstore

“This” is a special offer at Dog Ears Books, good for as long as supplies last. Buy our $9 book bag (the beautiful canvas one featured in the right-hand column) along with a $15 calendar (Leelanau Township scenes by Karen Casebeer, also over there on the right), and the price for the two items together, a $24 value,will be a bargain $20 + tax. Your calendar and bag will remind you on a daily basis of your local community and what every person means to its success, and you’ll feel good every time you use the bag and don’t have to take paper or plastic. I’ll have a different special in the month of February, so stay tuned. Because --

It's Winter—and (Almost) Everyone Wants Money

“That” is money, so if you don’t want to read this section, scroll down to the next.

People who don’t write letters don’t enjoy picking up mail, either, I’ve noticed. For them, an empty mailbox is good news: “No bills!” Having grown up in a letter-writing family, my heart is always light with hope as I turn the key to see what waits within, and often there is something delightful. Letters and cards and postcards from friends, along with seed catalogs, are always welcome, as are, my readers will recall, the little typed notes from that anonymous mystery poet, “H.” One Saturday morning I received a beautiful New Year’s card from one of my favorite publishers, who addressed me on the envelope as “The Excellent and Incomparable” and who included a handwritten personal note inside. That made my day! The next week there was a handwritten letter from a friend, and she had enclosed a tea bag, too, since we couldn’t be sitting down at a table together. My heart was warmed!

But most of what has filled the box lately has been mail from businesses and organizations looking for money. Everyone, it seems, has a hand outstretched. I don’t take the importuning personally. It can’t be personal, because if they knew my life at all they’d realize they’re barking up the wrong tree when looking to me for money in January.

Of course, it isn’t the “wrong tree” when it comes to bills. Bills must be paid. Phone bills, electric bills, sewer bills, tax bills, bookstore bills, credit card bills, propane bills, etcetera, etcetera. There are no medical bills in the mail because everyone from hospital to dentist now demands payment at time of service or beforehand, and there are no cable or “dish” bills because we opted out of television years ago, but there are still plenty of bills. More than enough.

What I call the “wrong tree” mail is that asking either for charitable donations or subscriptions or looking to me as a new customer for whatever product or service someone is trying to sell. Thank you, I made my December donations, and that’s all I can do for now, both because of the aforementioned pesky bills and because in our household we can’t seem to break the habit of regular meals. During most of the year, I make charitable donations in the form of memorials, as occasions arise.

I’ve renewed my subscription to Book Source Magazine and am a new subscriber to the London Review of Books, because they offered me a fabulous deal. New York Review of Books subscription has run out, but a friend and I will exchange London and New York, so we’ll both have the benefit of both. As for making a decision about health insurance based on advertising that comes in the mail, how foolish would I have to be? And people who want to sell me advertising or offer themselves as paid consultants to my business—sorry! Wrong tree!

A Couple Backward Glances at the Blog

As we sink into winter, a couple of my old posts bobbed up. They don’t appear on the all-time greatest hits of Books in Northport, but they’re things I enjoyed putting together, and a few readers either discovered or revisited them last week. The first addresses the question of the relation of “blogging” to “writing,” and that post engendered a pretty lively conversation when it first appeared. The other, on fiction, essays, criticism, etc., was in itself almost a review of a couple of books that gave me plenty of food for thought.

Where We’re Going, Will We Need Roads?

Ah, yes, you guessed it: I’m not thinking about roads but about the ever-uncertain future of printed books and actual, physical, “bricks-&-mortar” bookstores. Here’s a recent contribution to thoughts about it all. The writer says there is evidence that the disappearance of bookstores lowers the market demand even for e-books and means that fewer books will be read in any form. Once again, my mantra: I’m here now, I’m here now, I’m here now.... And isn’t “now” all we ever truly have?

January 2013: Sarah at edge of woods

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Up Early to Write Myself

I wake in the night--or what my mother calls “the wee hours of the morning”--and find myself writing a blog post in my head. The blog has become my confessional, although there is so much that I never say in it. It has become an obsession. It is photo album, memory book, diary, reading record, a place to think through ideas and issues. Through it I escape the bounds of time and space. In it I am free. Mine will never be a “blog of note,” with thousands of readers, but even so it has more daily readers than my bookstore has customers, and so I turn from the anxiety of bookselling to the comforts of the blogging.

Other times I wake with fictional characters in my head. Perhaps they are thinking silent thoughts (I hear them) or talking to each other (I hear them), or maybe they’re going about their working lives, striving and stumbling along the way (I see them and feel for them). In my imagining mind they are very real. I can only see a few minutes ahead in their lives until I sit down and begin writing, and then those lives unroll. Their struggles are real to me, but they are not my struggles, and so with them, writing their lives, I am free.

Too often I come awake in a wash of pointless worry, swamped before dawn with awareness of crises, personal and global, present and impending. David beside me, Sarah at our feet, I am not even there in the warm refuge of bed but scrabbling to keep my hold on some cold, treacherous mountainside, my feet slipping and rocks tumbling all about me, or on Linda Ronstadt’s “heart like a wheel,” that little “boat out on mid-ocean,” about to capsize in a storm.

Is it too early to get up and turn on lights and make coffee and pull out lines of visible words from the chaos and confusion in my head?

Monday, January 14, 2013

My On-and-Off Teaching Career, Part II

Although I found my feet, so to speak, in teaching my own classes as a graduate student (see Part I of these reminiscences, only if interested), my first junior college experience as an adjunct instructor meant starting all over again. Gone was the support group of other graduate students. Gone also was the comfortable familiarity of an office and phone shared with four other graduate students: as an adjunct I was a stranger in a strange land, with not so much as a coat hook to call my own! From the parking lot to the classroom, with a stop in the department office to pick up messages and mail and to make any copies I might need for class, then back to the parking lot, carrying my “office” with me, I went, feeling—at first--almost invisible and hardly part of the world around me.

I won’t say that the first class I taught as an adjunct was a disaster, but it wasn’t good. Brought in at the last minute, I inherited textbook and syllabus from the faculty member originally been assigned that section, so the whole structure of the class was someone else’s, not mine, and I let the materials dictate the content of each session. Not good. That initial error continued through the semester as students and I force-marched through consecutive chapters of an introductory textbook, all of us uninspired and the students overwhelmed by too much material in too little time.

Things improved markedly in subsequent semesters. Still “homeless” in terms of an office, I did get to choose my own textbooks from then on, and that change improved every aspect of my classes. I don’t recall when I had the idea of starting Intro to Ethics with the Golden Rule rather than with Plato, but that helped, too. My reasoning was that the Golden Rule should be familiar to my students, common background cultural knowledge, and so we would be starting from home ground, as one does when setting out on any travels to new territory. The first day launched the class almost immediately into discussion, which was good; when asked to write one-sentence formulations of the G.R., however, half the students unintentionally threw me a curve ball. Although they’d heard of the G.R. all their lives, many of them understood it as conditional, as in one student’s “Be nice to someone if they’re nice to you.” I was glad I’d asked the question so the confusion could be addressed and (for most of them--sigh!) banished!

Survey classes in philosophy tend to be narrowly Western in scope, and starting Intro to Ethics with the Golden Rule, in addition to launching us from somewhat familiar ground, also let me bring in Confucius and Hillel. There was a wide range of ages among my community college students, but their backgrounds were otherwise fairly homogeneous, so the Golden Rule was, for me, a wedge to let in (I hoped) a bit more the world. 

Students from age 17 (high school seniors taking college classes) to late middle age initially responded to practical questions of ethics, as most of us do, with whatever beliefs they brought with them to class. My task was not to change their minds but to encourage them to explore more deeply both their own convictions and other points of view. When questions of crime and punishment came under discussion, for instance, my students automatically imagined themselves and/or their children (present or future) as victims of crime, never as perpetrators. Every murderer also has parents, but their considerations of punishment never addressed that unhappy reality. There I needed a different wedge, and one that served other purposes, as well.

High school teachers and college instructors across the country worry about cheating and plagiarism. There’s one concern. Another concern in teaching theories of ethics is making them more than theories to memorize. And finally, coming back to the homogeneity of background among my students, there is the question of taking perspectives other than that of one’s own life. One way I addressed all three concerns came at the end of the class. The final was an essay, written in the classroom on exam day, and it was permissible, even encouraged, that the students use their books and all class notes. There were two or three topics from which they were to choose one and write for the entire period. Here is one of my all-time favorite essay exam topics: “You are a parent whose child has been accused of murder. You have the choice of Thomas Hobbes or John Locke as your child’s lawyer. Which one do you choose, and why?”

Different semesters brought different pleasures and challenges. Dedicated, knowledge-hungry students stood out from those merely needing credits. On the other hand, one semester there were two young men—not, fortunately, in the same section—who were both convinced, despite their lack of background, inability to listen to points of view of other students, and, in the case of one, a dismaying failure of logic, in the other, a disinclination to turn in assignments--that they, not I, should be leading the class. That was a difficult semester. Looking back over the years, I see that what we graduate students first observed when teaching two sections of the same class remained true always: every class has its own personality, its own conglomerate identity, unlike any other. The material and assignments may be the same, the building, and even the classroom, but the individuals who make up the class will assure that each class is itself a unique individual. Quite fascinating! And at the end of a rough semester, reassuring.

One year I was asked to teach in the summer session. (I cannot resist here a parenthetical note: sessions are named, here in northern Michigan, "Spring," "Early Summer," "Summer," and "Fall." "Spring" begins in January and runs until May. Someone's PR idea? Pretending winter doesn't exist Up North?) Summer sessions at our community college run for eight weeks rather than the sixteen weeks of the usual semester, and so my morning section ran from something like 9 a.m. to noon. That may not be the exact hours—my point is that it was a long class period, longer than any class I’d ever taught, and before our first meeting I wondered how we would ever fill that much time productively and keep everyone awake. Turned out there was no problem. Turned out one of the most enjoyable classes I ever taught. In some ways, it was the peak experience of my on-and-off teaching career.

The class was Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas, a required class for students in nursing, law enforcement, and business. In this course it was even more important that the readings and classroom experience provide practical tools with which to address dilemmas students would face later in life and in their careers. Learning to listen to others with views different from their own was one such tool. Investigating their own views on specific topics in depth was another. There was also, almost always, a need to gather more information on a topic.

The long class period proved a real boon. In a 50-minute class, too often discussion on a topic is just warming up when the bell rings. Not a problem in a 3-hour class. Isn’t three hours an awfully long time to sit in one room, though? We didn’t just sit. In three hours there is plenty of time to shift gears, to move from mini-lecture to class discussion to small group work, and there is also time to take a 10-minute break and move out into the hallways, visit the restroom, get a cup of coffee, and chat. Of the 16 class meetings we had that summer, only twice were the students ready to leave at the end of the time period. Fourteen times they wanted to stay longer! The capstone of the course, after two teams did extensive research, was a debate, at the end of which a guest came to visit the class, someone who had experience with the topic they had debated. It was reality, not just theory—life, not just a class. And we all enjoyed ourselves immensely.

A lull followed in my teaching life, as I was very busy with my bookstore and doing as much as possible to bootstrap that little operation to higher levels. Then one year a regular faculty member died unexpectedly, and I was called in again to teach a couple sections of one of his (Dilemmas) class. Imagine my surprise this time around to be assigned an office of my own! Nominally, it was a shared office, but the other instructor was only there twice, as she taught her classes online. An office! A door and a key! A window! A desk and a computer and a telephone and a couple of bookshelves! It was Spartan in appearance but luxury to me! I could post office hours on my own door and see students in my own office rather than in the snack bar. My classroom was in the same (new) building as my office.

The office was a happy, welcome change. Other changes were a bit nerve-wracking. All communications from administration to faculty now came by e-mail, as did most communications from students, and everyone seemed to expect that instructors would be sitting at computers receiving e-mails seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Students wanted to e-mail in their assignments. They wanted personal and near-immediate responses from the instructor as to what they had missed when absent. (Hint to students: Never ask, implying a possibility that nothing worthwhile or important occurred in an entire class period, “Did I miss anything?” The train kept moving without you on it.) I’ve read that instructors who teach online rather than in a classroom spend much more time on the various aspects of their teaching, and I can well believe it. It goes along with e-mail and now texting and other forms of communication: the more instantaneous sending messages becomes, the greater the expectation that replies will also be instantaneous, that everyone is "on call" at all times.

But my teaching was in a classroom, and it was good to be there again. The classroom part of teaching is the best. Meeting with students, reading their papers, talking with them about their work—that’s good, too. I also enjoyed preparing for class—thinking through my plan for each session and how to connect meaningful assignments to lectures and assigned reading. Grading? No one likes grading. No one. (Agree or disagree?)

I know people who teach online classes and have been asked if I would ever want to do that. No, it isn’t me, and quite honestly I don’t see how it can be philosophy, either. Formal logic, sure. Mathematics, no problem. But so much of philosophy is argument—and by that I don’t mean people shouting at each other but learning to listen and hear each other and addressing each other’s questions and concerns and finding ways to express their own in such a way that they will be heard and understood. It requires practice, and it requires courage. Ethics in particular applies to how human beings live together, at work and in community. Meeting face to face brings all that to life.

Last September on vacation in the U.P., going to Marquette to visit a friend, we drove through the campus of Northern Michigan University, and I realized for the first time that I have moved into a new phase of life. It used to be that visiting a campus would start me thinking about being a student there and what that might be like. Later, for a few years, I saw each campus through the eyes of a prospective graduate student. In more recent years I’d look around and wonder how it would be to teach there. Now I don’t imagine myself at all on a new campus. It isn’t my world any more. I'm only passing through.

I had my college and university experience--as a student, a graduate student, a graduate assistant, and as an instructor. There were some bad patches along the way, but overall they were good years. I learned a lot about the world and about myself and am glad I had that time. But I don’t see more teaching philosophy in my future. It’s someone else’s turn now. --Is it yours?

Friday, January 11, 2013

In Counting-Blessings Mode

There are so many, every day! From health and love and companionship to the chance to see horses almost every day on my way to work. My work itself is a blessing, as is everything that and everyone who makes it possible. So today, my gratitude and love--

To every person who has ever purchased from Dog Ears books, in person or by mail.

To every author who has appeared in my bookstore over the years, in all its different locations, to do a reading and to sign books.

To my regular bookstore customers--bless your hearts!

To all readers of my blog, regular or casual, whether you ever comment or not.

To friends and blog readers who have read my short stories, whether or not I even know who you are.

To those who gave me comments on stories, either on the blog or by e-mail or in person, for going the extra mile.

To everyone who shops regularly in Northport and who contributes in any way to the vitality of our village. That's a lot of people!

This is only a very partial list. I will be counting my blessings on a regular basis from now on—not here on the blog, in public, all the time, but to myself, for sure. Every day. My life is very blessed, and I don’t want to forget it. And I want you all to know how much I appreciate YOU!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My On-and-Off Teaching Career, Part I

Reading the book about introverts (see previous post), I was reminded of my experience teaching college classes in philosophy. It’s something I never did fulltime, and there were years when I didn’t do it at all, but still, over time, it was an experience in which I learned and grew along with my students, and I’ve been thinking about how it was that a “shy” person might lead a class and do it well.

As a graduate student, my first “teaching” experience was as an assistant responsible for helping professors grade papers written by students in their large lecture classes. Those of us grading papers worked alone and almost never had direct contact with students whose papers we graded. We worked behind the scenes, which you can see is often the perfect introvert position. One incident, however, stands out in my memory.

A student wrote to the professor to complain about her grade, certain that the reason she had received less than an A (I believe the grade assigned was B+) was that the graduate student grading her paper didn’t agree with her conclusion. The professor, a quiet man whose policy was to give all his students, graduate and undergraduate, minimum advice and maximum autonomy didn’t tell me what to say but asked me to write a response to the student’s written complaint. It was a delicate situation and the first serious challenge to what little “authority” my position held. 

My written reply assured the student that she had been graded on the quality of her argument alone, with no reference to my opinions on the subject. The problem  was that the example she had chosen for support undermined rather than supported her conclusion. The rest of her argument was excellent, as was her articulation of it. I reminded her that all her other work for the class had been A work and said there was no reason to believe it would not be excellent for the rest of the semester. I predicted an A for the course for her, based on her overall performance up to that point.

The next time the lecture class met, I had butterflies in my stomach. How had the student taken my explanation of her grade? Would she pursue her complaint? Would the professor be happy with the way I had handled the situation? The incident had a very happy ending. The professor could not have been more pleased, and the student, attentive in the front row, looked happy and confident. Her major was pre-law, so my explanation had satisfied her, and I think she learned something from that one B+.

From grading I went on to leading small discussion sections that met once a week.  In the large lecture hall, there was no time for questions, so discussion sections were set up to compensate and to give students an opportunity to converse on the week’s topics.

Finally, I had the opportunity to “teach my own classes,” as we grad students put it—and as it really was. At large universities, undergraduate classes offered in smaller than huge lecture sections are often taught by advanced graduate students. (Course listings that say “Staff” rather than having a particular professor’s name attached will usually be taught by an adjunct (temporary; term) faculty member, a postdoctoral fellow, or an advanced graduate student. Some will be disappointing, others excellent, but this is true of classes taught by senior faculty, also, isn’t it?) At this level, we were given an opportunity to choose our own textbooks and write our own syllabi. Courses I taught at this level were intro to philosophy; intro to ethics; philosophy and public policy; and introduction to logic. Logic gave me the most initial anxiety. Public policy was the class I most enjoyed.

Logic? Me? Oh, the shock when that assignment was handed down! The first time I’d signed up for logic as an undergraduate, I’d dropped it halfway through the semester—the only class I ever dropped in my entire academic career! I managed to get through it on my second try, with a different professor (it’s amazing how a subject as apparently cut-and-dried can be so different from one professor to another, depending on their particular interests in the subject), but can still recall the many nights I went to bed metaphorically banging my head against the wall to understand “only if.” “If “ was no problem; “if only” was no problem; “if and only if” was a piece of cake; but “only if” gave my brain fits. Will you believe that understanding came to me in a dream?

Well, they say that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. My best day in logic class was when one of the male students skeptically asked me if I was “sure” about an argument form I’d told the class was a fallacy. I remember how good it felt not to have a sudden sick feeling at the student’s challenge but to be able to say calmly, “Don’t take my word for it. Do the truth table.” There is no arguing with truth tables! In fact, this is one of the joys of “arguments” in formal logic: they are like mathematical demonstrations. A friend from a country that had been torn by civil war told me that following the conflict all the philosophy students wanted to work in formal logic, because arguments about “the good life” were just too frightening, and they didn’t want to end up in prison.

So you can see right away that philosophy and public policy would have been avoided like the plague by students in my friend’s native country. Here in the U.S., at the university where I taught, however, the subject held a lot of interest. How did I teach it? In order that everyone in class have a common background vocabulary and principles with which to work—and because it was, after all, an undergraduate class in philosophy--we spent the first half of the semester reading John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Many of my students were not thrilled with this work. A couple of them, dragging through what to them was archaic language, asked jokingly one day if we could read the work “in translation,” and from then on I asked that all students come to class with a written list of the numbered paragraphs assigned for that day, along with a one-sentence summary of each paragraph. The results were excellent. The students were fully capable of understanding the ideas but had to think about them, not just let their eyes skitter down the page. Sometimes there would be a paragraph that a lot of people had trouble with, but the trouble was obvious from the sentence summaries, and we could address the confusion together. Discussions were good, too. There was disagreement and argument, but it was focused, thanks to the common reading.

In the second half of the semester, we took a new and different direction. The class divided into groups (three? four? five? I no longer remember), and for the remaining weeks each group would work as a team. Each team was to imagine itself as a village or town council, and each individual was to give himself or herself a specific character. Characters and towns were to be imagined in detail: How old are you? Are you single, married, childless or a parent? What kind of work do you do? What are your personal beliefs? What is the population of your town? Describe its economic base, demographics, and history. What is important to the citizens of this place? Then a proposal was brought before each town council: Should the town have a public, tax-supported day care facility? Within each group, members were to argue for their positions in character, and at the end of the semester each group would present its conclusion and rationale for the conclusion.

The group exercise half of the class was a huge success. As an introvert myself, I’d seldom been comfortable working in groups—preferred to work on my own—but I’d realized that many students relished working together, and the class was for their benefit, not mine. There must have been introverts as well as extroverts in the class, but—and maybe it was the size of the groups or the fact that they’d already had weeks together in the same room—everyone seemed to find a comfort zone in which to work. They enjoyed having an opportunity to bring imagination into play, and they appreciated getting to know one another in the process. When it came time for final presentations, those were very impressive. Each group, as I’d hoped it would, had taken on a unique,well-rounded identity, and the conclusion each group reached was consistent with that identity.

I’ve read that citizen groups, at whatever level, can more easily come to agreement on a practical question than on a question of principle. Certainly my students, in their roles as town council members, appealed to principles in part, but they also paid attention to the real needs of their respective towns. And when there was argument over principle, they had—thanks to Locke—a common vocabulary and background against which to frame their disagreement.

Introverts had the initial comfort of working alone and subsequent opportunity to voice their thoughts in the safety of a group smaller than the entire classroom, while extroverts had a chance to energize the group process and to shine as presenters. I don’t recall anyone who was unhappy with the class.

I’m thinking back on classroom teaching because getting up in front of a roomful of people is a challenge for an introvert, and it’s interesting for me to think back on my experiences in light of insights provided by Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. One reason I think I grew confident at the front a classroom was that the authority of my position meant I didn’t have to compete with extroverts for attention. It was my class. And one of the strengths I believe I brought to the classroom was I was a good listener, not just a star performer. I could see when someone didn’t understand something or had a thought to share, even when that student might be sitting quietly, and I could help the students hear each other, too, not just try to out-shout each other.

Later teaching as an adjunct was both similar to and different from my teaching as a graduate student, but that I’ll save for Part II.