Thursday, October 27, 2011

Marking Midterms vs. Writing a Novel

I'm in the middle of Study Week. This means I can stay home and mark, and stay home and work on my novel about the bootlegger. Here's my comparison of these two activities, based on the last four days:

Marking                                                    Writing a Novel

- Comes with some multiple choice                - Long written answers only

- Mostly know what I am looking for               - Don't know what I'm looking for until I find it.
                                                                        (Even then....)

- Rubrics                                                       - Coffee

- Second-guessing? Quite a lot                        - Second-guessing? Don't make me laugh

- Inspires desire to procrastinate                    - Inspires desire to procrastinate

- Can be used as a procrastination                 - Never used as a procrastination tool
   tool to ward off writing                                  to ward off anything. Except maybe death.
                                                                       (And even that...)

- Grueling                                                     - Grueling

- Exhausted when finished                             - Energized when finished

- Feels like it takes forever                            - Takes forever

- I have to do it                                             - I don't know why I have to do it

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Marking Blog

9:35 a.m. Well, it's raining. That helps. Today's allotment: 21 midterms, 25 reflections.

Pre-marking ritual: make coffee, put on marking boots (beautiful John Fluevogs that trigger an old injury if I walk too far in them, now only good for sitting in, hence "marking boots"), turn on classical music, arrange flowers on desk, apply lip gloss (a technique I learned from writing the novel: pretend it's a date). Sit in rickety chair. Begin.

10:30 a.m. 10 midterms done. Lowest mark: 20%. Think about the ethics of saying to this student, "You don't have the language skills yet to take this course. Whoever promoted you did you no favours." Think about the ethics of NOT saying this. Heave sigh, go back to midterms.

10:35. Mark one midterm. Stop, get out tool box, fix chair. Wish for Allen key that fixes language problems. Better yet: wish for that chair in The Matrix so we could just upload grammar through a port in the back of the head.

11:24. 11 midterms done. Highest mark: 96%. Time for a snack.

11:39. Count the reflections. Still 25. Change music to swing. Change pens.

1:02. The reflections are actually essays, but I try not to call them that because the word essay elicits waves of despair and protest from my students, followed by the inevitable question about the number of paragraphs required, which elicits a wave of despair in me. The five-paragraph form has been beaten into their heads so thoroughly that they can't think around it. Instead of an engaging in an essai, an attempt to figure something out, they've been taught to manufacture three points, whatever the question, cram them into a thesis, insert them into three body paragraphs, and repeat them in a conclusion.

1:05. Google how to write a five paragraph essay: 1,150,000 results. But what's wrong with the five paragraph essay gets 941,000 results. Hope is a thing with feathers! (16,700,000 results).

1:15. 15 reflections left. Change of locale required. Pack papers, pen. Apply more lip gloss. Aroma Espresso Bar, here I come.

3:20. Effects of coffee and espresso brownie not strong enough to counteract marking lethargy. Four reflections left. Fighting off sleep. Must. Keep. Marking.

4:40. Put down pen. Pour glass of wine. Open The Marriage Plot. Breathe.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Flock of Hawks

Walking home this afternoon, just before the rain lets loose, I stop to watch nine or ten hawks wheeling and circling far above the treetops. What is the term for a flock of hawks? Do hawks even travel in flocks? Note to self: look this up. Also: why do flocks of birds seem so ominous? (Hitchcock aside.)

Research Results

According to the internet, hawks do travel in flocks. A flock of hawks is a cast or a kettle or an aerie.

However, (also according to the internet), what I saw was probably a flock of turkey vultures. A flock of turkey vultures on the ground is called a venue. In the air, it's a kettle. (If you want to know how to get rid of OR attract vultures, the Turkey Vulture Society webpage has answers for you.)

Also: a bunch of emus is called a mob. Obviously, I did not see a mob of emus on the way home.

On why flocks of birds seem so ominous, Google's first return (of 128,000) was a quote from The Fellowship of the Ring: "in the air, flocks of birds had been circling, black against the pale sky." Not an answer to my question, but yeah, exactly.

Everything is more compelling when I have 150 midterms and essays to mark.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dopamine, Serotonin and Gilgamesh

Spent the whole of spin class this morning thinking about addiction and Gilgamesh. I just finished Marc Lewis’s gripping Memoir of an Addicted Brain, which goes beyond the usual downward-spiral story to include the latest findings from neuroscience.  Dr. Lewis is a developmental neuroscientist and professor of psychology, and his descriptions of how various substances affect the brain at the level of the neuron are very helpful in explaining why addicts continue to do that one thing that fucks them up and fucks them over, over and over.

Lewis shows how drugs “talk to the brain in its own language” – the language of chemicals.  What struck me as most tragic is the extreme limiting that happens in the brain as more and more neurons are recruited to focus on the one substance charged with providing pleasure, warmth, comfort, satisfaction and meaning.

Lewis writes, “That’s what’s so insidious, so toxic, about addiction. The neural traffic routes get more and more constrained, thanks to the sculpting -- the shaping and pruning – of synapses.... There are fewer routes to take with each replay of the fundamental story line.”

He points out that what happens in the brain then happens in the mind. “The brain doesn’t really parallel the mind,” he writes. “That would be a misnomer, a poetic approximation. It’s the other way around: the mind parallels the brain. The way the brain works – the biological laws of synaptic sculpting and neurochemical enhancement, each reinforcing the other – are what constrict the addict’s mind, his behaviour, his hopes, his dreams.”

So other possible pleasures become hollow, meaningless. All the other things that cause the neurotransmitters of motivation, comfort and joy to be released in a non-addicted brain, all the other things that create meaning and sparkle and connection in daily life, are gutted, drained, rendered inert.

A job well done. A friend well met. Finishing spin class without falling off the bike. A croissant. All the ordinary, unremarkable, untranslatable pleasures of daily life. All useless to the addict’s brain.   

In my myth class, we’re reading Stephen Mitchell’s excellent version of Gilgamesh. In his intense grief over the death of his dearest friend, Gilgamesh embarks on a desperate quest to find eternal life. He meets a tavern-keeper, Shiduri, who tells him his quest will fail and he will die, but she also tells him how to live:

Humans are born, they live, then they die,
that is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.

Gilgamesh cannot hear the wisdom in her words because, like an addict, he is fixated on one (futile) thing. And in truth, the wisdom isn't in the saying or hearing of the words; it can only be felt in the living of them. 

I believe in the intelligence of evolution (not to be confused with Intelligent Design), in the three-billion-year wisdom of the cell, in all its crazy dazzling proliferations, its million billion trillion developments and orchestrations, and in its in-built limits, including senescence. Addiction, it seems, wrecks a life because it abuses the wisdom of the cell, stripping all the thousand potential connections and joys out of daily living, and reducing the possibility of pleasure to one thing that, really, no long provides any.

Works Cited (and highly recommended!)
Lewis, Marc. Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2011. Amazon. Web. 4 Oct. 2011

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004: 168-169. Print.