Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

What Have You Learned From Your Students So Far?

It’s the third week of teaching here, which means the window for painlessly adding or dropping classes is over.  The syllabus we spent our time arranging, thinking about, imagining, scheduling, is our musical score, our contract, our travel guide. We have the students we’re going to have for the rest of the term. 

Now come the tests of all of that. My students are beginning to push back in small ways against the requirements of the first big essay assignment. I’m getting the occasional email with the “I had a question about the assignment…,””Would it be okay if…?,” or “What format do you require?” Sometimes the answer is Check the syllabus; sometimes it’s that sounds interesting; sometimes it’s a longer exam plantation of what I was thinking a student should practice in the piece. 

The texts, which looked so promising in the summer, so full of life and potential, have become blocks of utilitarian weight, things to be talked about, explicated, worked through, struggled with. God, they have to be re-read!, second-guessed, frisked for triggers and difficulties, inspected for deficiencies. Everything has now become The Work. Everything now will be expected to contribute to The Class, The Goal, The Product. 

Mostly, that’s perfectly fine, and as it should be. But I was thinking the other day of the kind of anxiety that descends upon us teachers about now because of that quiet pressure that will surround everything we’ll do from now on. So many of my friends have gotten sick, reported “nervous breakdowns” (not the real kind, of course, but that kind of anxiety that’s been waking us up in the middle of the night), and just generally become grumpy, prone to one word answers, lingering in public places, asking everyone How are you doing? 

I’m in a department that loves to “conceptualize” everything we do. It leads to some amazing teaching but it’s also fucking exhausting right now. It implies that everything is conceptualiz-able, and implies that it can be controlled or sculpted ahead of time if only the instructor is smart enough, the concept rigorous enough. “Rigorous” is an important word in our department too. 

But now is the time when that the hopefully irresistible force of the syllabus meets the possibly immovable object of the class. Which one will change? If you’ve taught for a while, you know the answer is both, but even if you’ve taught for fifty years, you can’t always predict how or where or when or why. It becomes part of the joy to see what happens. 

If you’ve a new teacher, it can be terrifying because you don’t yet know that you can handle whatever happens. When I started, as I’ve said elsewhere, I thought I had to keep control over everything. It took a few years before I realized I could survive even when everything I’d planned went wrong. I learned to do something fairly simple: I turned and asked the students what was going on for them. 

And if I called on the most quiet student first, I could usually get to the heart of the trouble. And there are many kinds of trouble that can be going on: for freshmen now homesickness is setting in, the full import of their multiple class work is setting in, illnesses are beginning to sweep through the dorms (listen for the sniffling during in-class writing sessions!), they are struggling with their identities, majors, love lives, social lives, alcohol consumption.  It can also be, in even the advanced classes, that the students need to adjust to the requirements you’re making on their abilities to read, write, think, speak, and imagine. 

So, what if you shift down your expectations a bit? What if instead of covering three things that day in class, you cover one thing? What if you ask them to write instead of talk? Or vice versa? 

I sometimes think that any teacher training program ought to include lessons in improvisation the way any theater program will, because much of what any teacher does is perform.  You might have then at least one resource if a class plan fails horribly. I also think it wouldn’t be a bad idea if teachers took some time to actually talk to their students, which many often do, afraid that asking questions might lead to an unproductive intimacy or a diversion from the syllabus which is so over-scheduled that to divert from it is to almost guarantee an unrecoverable disaster to The Product. 

It’s hard to believe that a bad class doesn’t mean the end of your teaching career. I think that every time I’ve had one. Oh, it’s over. I’ll never be able to face them again.  I had the same problem with dating early on. And with friendships. And with publishing (if a journal rejected poems I sent, I never sent again!). Over time, with experience, I learned that things fall apart and you can almost always find a way to make things come back together. Maybe it’s just a change of approach. Maybe it just needs a conversation with a friend or colleague, so you get out of yourself.  It might take a little time. If things go really bad, you always let the class go early; almost nothing will earn you more points with the students than letting them out. Very often, one of them will email you later to say, “you know, I’ve been thinking…”


Establishing Authority: Finding a Teaching Persona–some notes for new TAs

Hi all,

I haven’t blogged in a while because I’ve been working on a number of projects, including getting my life back after my wonderful time in Scotland, which, while truly wonderful, also screwed with my normal schedule for fall preparations. I still have some work to do on my syllabi but otherwise I’m pretty much caught up now. One of the things I’m doing this year is serving as a member of CEAT which is our acronym for the Committee for the Evaluation and Advancement of Teaching here at Pitt. We work with graduate students who will be teaching Seminar in Composition for the first time. We just had our orientation week, aimed at helping the graduate students get a sense of what they’ll be doing as they enter into the conversation about writing and teaching here, which is a serious and deep and complicated one.

One of the things we wanted to talk about to the teachers was establishing your authority in your classroom, and once I finished my notes, I thought I might use them as a blog post and so cover up the lack of a blog posts the last month. I know many people who are out there teaching, maybe for the first time, maybe for the hundredth time, and these would be helpful to the first or these might provide an occasion for the latter to add their own experiences and exercises and advice.

Good luck to everybody!


Notes of Establishing your Authority in the Classroom

In the largest sense, something to think about here is what authority might look like or sound like to you. Think about your best teachers. How did they establish their authority? why did you pay attention to them? Do they have methods can you borrow from? Make a list of things that you liked as a student.

In terms of practical ways, dress: Are you a three piece suit teacher? Are you a polo and khakis teacher? You don’t want to be either too casual or too uncomfortable. A light armor of business casual is good enough for me. I believe in basically having a uniform look every class so I fade away as a spectacle. Generally, choose a spectrum of comfort for yourself and play with it a little to see which one you might feel most comfortable in.

In terms of personality, I’d also urge staying cool and move toward warmer and take your time. There will be a terrible temptation to become warm very quickly and you might resist that for a little while, at least until you know everyone’s name without the attendance sheet, which I recommend doing as soon as you can. You may be the first professor to actually know their names this term. You may be the only one to know their names all year. That is a powerful thing, and will go a long way toward giving you some respect. Remember they want to feel as if they and the subject are being treated respectfully, not tyrannically or over-casually. If you can figure out that balance for yourself, you’ll go a long way toward finding your teaching persona.


Some related practical advice and warning about keeping your authority intact on Social Media as a Teacher: I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and I blog on WordPress. One of the great effects of social media is that it breaks down certain social walls and allows conversations between people who might not otherwise know or feel they are allowed to talk to each other. It has made me connections with other people that have really enriched my life.

BUT It is a leveling technology; it can create false intimacies that will undermine your authority. You don’t want to be social with your students. You also don’t want to be reachable all the time to the students; they get really nervous sometimes and will not necessarily have the inner restraints not to want to chat with you at all hours of the day. Don’t give them the chance to turn to you for every little question they might have. They get your email but not your phone number, too, by the way.

So, my social media rules: I don’t ever friend or accept friend requests from undergraduates. Never. Graduate students, because I don’t usually teach graduate students, are fine. It is in general inappropriate to friend anyone you will need to give a grade to or may be in a position to grade. It is also inappropriate to quote from student work at any time on social media, so never do that. Even if you think you’re praising them. General questions about teaching are okay to talk about with friends, of course, but be careful to keep questions as neutral as you can. Don’t call students (or your fellow colleagues) idiots or brats or sexist or racist or homophobes; they may very well be, but everyone here is learning and trying out ideas and discarding ideas and becoming new people, and although it can sometimes sound like it’s complaint we live on here, it is really hope and curiosity and possibility. In general, deal with your own questions on your own wall or account or blog but especially leave the students out of it.

It is hard sometimes; you will get exhausted and frustrated by teaching and you might despair or want to scream to somebody to get the frustration or panic off your chest. And there is always social media for us to turn to. Resist. Raise a firewall against it. This is a good time to pick up a journal and write it all out. NOTE: I will always have free journals in my office if you need one. This is a time to actually talk to real people, face-to-face, not to your social group who might not have any idea what you’re doing but will have all sorts of ideas about what you should do about it. Facebook cannot hug you or buy you a coffee or hand you a Kleenex the way a colleague who has gone through the same damned problem can.

Personally, because I’ve seen this happening more and more lately, I’d also suggest you resist turning to the hivemind of Facebook every time you have a question in your teaching, for answers or for “more suggestions for reading about how to deal with….whatever.” That is one of the great uses of social media but it is also a danger—that we stop thinking for ourselves, that we constantly ask others for suggestions and figure out how to address the questions that will come up for us in our own classrooms on our own. You’re going to face problems that are incredibly local and weird to your class and how you deal with them will form your authority to teach. That is exciting from where I stand, having done that for almost three decades, but I understand if it feel terrifying to those of you who might not have done it before. But, trust me, you will. You’ll be great.


You don’t expect yourself to have all the right or correct answers to everything.

You should know when there are real answers to things. Like your attendance expectations. Students may ask you how you grade and how will you answer? Be transparent as you can about what is important to you. Students will be appreciative. Know why you’re asking them to write this particular assignment, what the goals are, that there isn’t a single way to get there but what the important things to work on are if things become unclear. The difficulty with being clear about your expectations and then sticking to them is that the first part can be easy because you’ll have a list of things to read to them the first day and you can refer to that if any questions come up, but, when a student comes to you after missing a number of classes that put her over the absence limit, and she begins to cry or plead or call you and your rules unfair, it can be hard to stick by your rules. Similarly in class, if you’re going to ask people to comment on things in class but then you don’t let them talk, your authority can suffer. Students do not like to be let down, but they do want to be surprised that writing can be interesting.

Most of them have read and love reading, but they come in skeptical of this class, of us, of the purpose of having to write in an academic context. They are right to feel all of that, I think. It’s our job to help them see the possibilities. Because, ideally, we love to write, we think writing and reading are great, we know how much fantastic thinking and feeling and life-changing work is out there, we will embody our enthusiasm about writing and reading and thinking. They want to see adults who believe such craziness, which is why they’ve come to college in the first place. I hope you believe in those things for all our sakes.


When I was beginning, I was very much the nervous introvert, and I wanted to be liked too much. I think I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself to control everything, which is what I thought I had to be, forgetting of course that almost none of my favorite teachers were like that. I thought I needed to map out every second and therefore I left no time for actual discussion. Some people can get away with that, and can do beautiful jobs. But when I did that and asked a student a question and got an answer I wasn’t expecting, I didn’t know what to do. I went completely blank, like an actor forgetting his lines.  It turned out that the improvisation I had to do after that was actually what my students needed. They needed conversation, which is after all mostly improvisation. Conversations don’t happen in a too tightly controlled classroom.  Leave yourself some room.

Keep in mind that a certain amount of vulnerability can be helpful. You can say you don’t know something if you don’t know something. It’s a good model to be truthful. If your students know that you’re a writer too, that you work on poems, stories, essays, reviews, a dissertation, and if you can occasionally bring your shared sense of the difficulty of writing well into the classroom, you can encourage quite a lot of fellow sympathy and empathy among the members of the class. Don’t talk about your work very much. I will say that if I’m giving a reading that term, I often invite the students so they can get a sense of what I do.

So think about where your strengths as a person are. I’m interested in people, I’m a good listener, and I’m genuinely curious about what other people make of a shared text. I’m also genuinely interested in the work of writing, of the process of it, and I have quite a lot of information about how different writers have gone about the work. What I learned to do is to blend that basic self with a kind of self who can also shepherd that basic self’s bad habits. For example, I wander off topic easily and joyfully. I still get stunned sometimes and lose my train of thought if a student comes up with a reading that seems to come out of left field.

Questions for your journals: Five minutes: Make a list of what your strengths are, what you’re already good at—talking to groups, working with individuals, whatever you already know or feel pretty confident about.

Then make a similar list of things where you do not feel like an authority (or would have trouble presenting yourself as an authority, with any authority). Or sources of anxiety for you. These are things to talk to other people about.

Time Management:

You may at first want to put a lot of time into teaching, especially if you haven’t done it before. It takes a little while for some people to get the rhythm of teaching into your nervous system. It can be frustrating but by doing it more and more, you’ll get it. I’ll speak here a bit as a writer: Be gentle on yourself as you go through this process. I recommend setting aside some time during the week that is regular where you can write and read as you need. You will need that to keep your sanity and yourself grounded. It’s the reason you’re here, and it won’t help you at all if you spend all your time on your student writing and none at all on your own. Be prepared to find your own writing changing, sometimes radically, because of what you’re teaching. Follow the impulses out. Teaching can be immensely enriching to your writing life! But you have to do both of them in order for them to enrich each other.

You may want to simply give yourself some small deadlines-X pages a week, one story a month. Generally your workshops should give you those deadlines. Keep a journal if you don’t think you’re able to create anything directly. Maybe you can only make a paragraph of description or dialogue or make a list of writers you want to read. Maybe you can only manage to write a poem by your favorite poet into your journal. Do that then. Don’t think you have to get all your papers done immediately—you can decide to grade 4 or 5 papers a day (Brenda) or to only do two a day. I do most of my grading on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in a coffeehouse. I grade for a couple of hours, write for a couple of hours, and then go home, walk the dog, read, watch tv, listen to my husband talk about crazy things that have happened to him at work. I also try to write when I can, usually the mornings I’m not teaching. That has made a very good schedule for me.

The important thing for me is this: be gentle on yourself and do what you can. If you feel overwhelmed, come to my office or one of the faculty’s office, and we will give you a writing prompt.

Think about your time management abilities: Are you someone who tends to wait to do all your work in one huge chunk in one or two days or someone who can work over smaller chunks over a week? Where in your current schedule can you find a little time, even if it’s only twenty minutes, to write in a journal, outline a paper idea, describe a character?

You’ll be fine. Remember to breathe.  The mantra is something like this: Be generous and breathe; all the rest is commentary.

Eating Offal: notes from Scotland

I tried the Haggis; it wasn’t bad, although, because it’s made of ground sheep offal (read: anatomical parts no one wants to visibly eat) mixed with oats and spices, all non-Scots expect it to be bizarre, awful-tasting. It’s at once a joke and a test, a question I wanted answered early about myself. The texture was a little strange to me, not being brought up on minced meat, but it was not unlike those meatloaves the cook has put just a little too much bread into.

There were a number of things that turned out to be, if not a complete pleasure, not as bad as I’d thought. The problem was always in my imagination, never on my actual tongue. 

I tried both freshly opened oysters and scallops (as in: I was on the boat I saw the fisherman’s hand use the knife to pry open the shells and then cut “free” the life (called euphemistically “the meat”) inside from its life), and as I tipped the shell into my mouth, I was surprised that the goopy sliminess I imagined (as in: a snort of snot, a squirt of jizz) didn’t exist and instead they possessed a density any slightly salted steak might have. 

Too late I tried the Cullen Skink, a sort of stew of fresh haddock and potatoes which I then could not get enough of, because I knew the word Skink as a salamander and I had a hard time swallowing lizard, never mind that skink means in Scots a shin or knuckle of beef and laterally a soup made from bits. No question: the best bowl was on the Isle of Arran, in an excellent small bistro called Fiddlers, which is where I finally ordered it, if only just to say I’d tried it. After that, I wanted it every time I sat down.

Carrots and potatoes and, oh holy of holy root vegetables!, parsnips. Baked, buttered, carmelized, fried, dauphinoise (mixed with cheese and cream), the quiet good of the earth, the too-often rejected. 

The sticky toffee pudding was in fact a piece of sponge cake made with dates and drenched with caramel or butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream. Pudding, that word haunted by puddles and mud and thick goos. That I hesitated ordering this even once because I thought I knew what pudding meant haunts me still. 

Pitt In Edinburgh: a dictionary 

It’s finally raining in Edinburgh. We were warned it might be constantly raining or misty or precipitating in some way, but we’ve had wonderful weather, somewhere between 50 to 75 most days. Some days have been glorious sunny and bright, some have been more overcast, but this is really the first day of the kind of rain I was expecting. It’s almost a relief. We’ve also had two full days off from our schedule of museums, buildings, and trips. 

The students’ entries at the class blog have been building up, creating, I hope, a sense of how this trip is making them think differently, reconsider their expectations and stereotypes of The Scots, and challenge themselves to be braver. If you’re interested, click on Pitt In Edinburgh and you can read what they’ve been doing for the last few months.  This week and weekend, they’ll be writing and publishing an Edinburgh Dictionary–short pieces that revolve around an encounter that starts with a particular letter. 

Writing Prompt


It’s been a long week. Here are some of the highlights:

Trips to the National Museum of Scotland, to the Museum of Edinburgh, a climb up Arthur’s Seat and a visit to Holyrood Palace. We’ve learned to hop busses, developed a set of landmarks, grown more comfortable in the city. It does take time to make mistakes, try new things, not take one’s self so seriously. I’m finding myself chatting with one of the cashiers at the university cafeteria now. She’s a generous woman, quick to laugh, to put a stranger at ease. 

We’ve had so much to do beside teaching that I’ve let the blog go for a bit. I’ve been learning to use Notability for making comments, working with students on their pieces for our blog at After teaching, after the visits to museums and hikes around town, I’ve gone home exhausted. Sometimes after dinner, I have enough strength or willpower to make comments on student work. 

This weekend, we spent in Skye, at a beautiful hostel where we were the sole inhabitants. We saw some castles on Friday on our way to the hostel, toured the island of Skye, with its fairy pools and fairy glens and a variety of sights, most of which we couldn’t see because of clouds. This morning we went out with a fisherman for scallops, tasting fresh ones from the loch, then ones sautéed in garlic and olive oil. Then we headed to Loch Ness for a boat ride on that monstrously dark body of water, then a quick trip to Culloden and the Clava Cairns to appease some of the kids who are addicted to the show Outlander and hoped to touch a standing stone on the Summer Solstice and disappear into the past. Almost every place we’ve gone has had an entrance to the fairy world somewhere nearby. The students and we professors have all looked longingly into the cracks in stones, listened hard for the sound of fairy musics. 

I write this one road home, tired and happy and full of admiration for Scotland, largely because of our guide Nory, who has been driving us around and telling us wonderful stories about Scotland’s history. Cuihlain and (Ska ha? ) , the Old Man of Storr, billy McKrinnon(?), and the whole saga of the Scots from Robert da Bruce to Culloden. He tells the stories with passion and humor, and it’s been really lovely to be a listener. I’d like to really read the Celtic myths, which I haven’t really read since I was a child. Ossian, Seamus McCrae, fairies, kelpies, and the underground kingdoms. I’d forgotten the richness of the stories, how they knit the place together. In the end, although we’ve done some wonderful things, it’s been the stories that have been the country we traveled through. 

Everyone’s ready to get back to their comforts in Edinburgh, but we’ve also been changed by the stories and the histories, the ruins, the beautiful lochs, fishermen, musicians, shaggy cows, sunstars, fairy streams and black lakes. Each monster makes us more interesting. What mountains and forests will we carry back to our comfortable beds, our familiar haunts? Every education requires some space to dream in. We want to dream now. 

Identities: an alphabet

There’s an animal one I can’t quite shake and frankly love to feel steal over me sometimes when I’m out walking in the woods, bent over a stream turning over shale for salamanders. There’s still a boy identity who hates to be interrupted from his silences, who likes candy, who may kill me.  I want to say there’s a dog-self, although that would be taking on only the characteristics I like (greater awareness for example) without taking on the burden of the ones I don’t (less life) or can’t imagine, something Jamelle Bouie, in a Slate piece on the recent controversy surrounding Rachel Dolezal, points out and which has now gotten me thinking.  Sometimes an electrical self wakes me up in the middle of the night to look at the moon.  I often think I am female culturally, or do I only lean toward what seems stereotypically female–listening, waiting, being invisible until needed; I trust women so much more than men, having been raised by and saved by women primarily.  In terms of gender-identity, I have never had a strong biological or psychological urge to inhabit another gender than male, so I seem squarely cismale, a word autocorrect wanted to make “dismal”. H is for Hawk is a recent bestseller in which a woman projects onto a bird many things her own self seems unable to maneuver otherwise. What part of the self is hard-wired, is impossible to hide or hood? The homosexual in me knew itself early, I would say.  I, I, I, the mind goes on thinking, as if the self were a vertical stick instead of a dammed stream. A number of people in my neighborhood call me by my dog’s name, and often I feel surprised that my name is legally Jeffrey, but there I am, it is. I have killed innumerable ants, wasps, spiders, centipedes, slugs and some part of myself was glad for it. There is a self who–how can I say this?–enjoys lying. Sometimes I feel the urge to say, “Once, a man did a terrible thing to me.” Or to whisper, “I am not who you think I am.” That self gets so tired of people interrupting or not paying attention; it is hard to nothing to speak of, to be a lacuna. At the same time there’s a firmly middle class self that reminds me of that dream of a safe and liberating retirement everyone around me growing up imagined as the greatest good. Is there a night-self, out of which the vampire is the introvert’s form and the werewolf is the extrovert’s? What about the self who climbed trees because my last name suggests we might have come out of them once?  There’s the poetic self (And is that the same as an identity?) who pesters and delights me with jokes, whispers, incantations for turning one thing into another. I think of most of my selves as queer at the core, even if I don’t dance quite as freely in public anymore. My racial identity is Caucasian, and so hard to hold and see, it being more often called White and hard to tell from the rational, the normal, the insufferably right. Do I have a spiritual self anymore? Not a religious one for sure. I prefer the Buddhist and Taoist and not the rule-bound desert apocalyptics. I prefer Alice Walker’s version of church in The Color Purple, as a place where everyone brings their God, not where reports to one who is Only. There’s a teacherly self who brings home the bacon, who has paid for the car, a house, impossibly it sometimes seems out of a mixture of listening and talking to strangers about words. Some days I forget myself in him. Who am I. Who do the students imagine I am? I mostly love my (is it even my?) unconscious self that often leaves me presents in journals, in scraps of paper I find days later, in dreams where men who are shadows, shadowy, dark, often appear. Of my violences, I must admit there have been some, a self who has surprised and ashamed me at least five times, rising as suddenly through some depth as a shark to attack. I fear him. My writerly self is more professional, a careerist bastard sometimes who mopes about rejections and can’t wait to publish acceptances, who fumes and envies, throws money away on contests whose winners he hates, who is waiting for all the work to pay off with what? What will be enough? Once on a bus in England, eighteen, surrounded by brown faces in that country where I had not expected to be different, I was choked with fear; I had to get off immediately, walking the rest of the way to my destination. What else but a half-conscious xenophobic self?  There’s a self who just yawned at that, bored and ready to sneak away, unable to stay awake when threatened or cornered. There is also that self I call Zero, who is always awake, who keeps one eye always on the nothing to come, who keeps count, who throws dice, calculates odds, whose breathing I hear even at parties, like the filming of ice. 


“…the most interesting travel has nothing to do with cruise lines and restaurants. It involves entry into worlds other than your own. You don’t have to go very far to do that,” says Adam Hochschild in his essay “Travel Writing.”

I’ve gone pretty far, though. I’m at present sitting in a Costa Coffee off Princes Street waiting for Waterstones to open so I can look at who’s who among the Scottish writers. Or maybe I mean, I can get a sense of what’s up with them. I’ve got a few writers to look for already–Kathleen Jaime whose essays I want more of, James Robertson’s book 365, which is a collection of short stories he wrote, one a day for a year, that mix myths, tales, history, and the present (or so I’ve been told), and a book I’ve forgotten the name of but have been seeing all over town lately–its cover has a woman and a bear afloat in a round boat. 

I’m drinking a chai latte, which I accepted although I’d ordered a caffe latte. My voice is still thin here, small, nervous, afraid of mistakes. I’m grateful to get the chai, since I like it just as well. Outside, it may or may not rain. Big gray Scottish clouds have been curdled the horizon that yesterday was pure blue. The threat of rain makes me want to stay in and sleep, but I did that a bit yesterday to burn out the last vestiges of jet lag and the work of the first week of classes and hikes through the city. There are things to see.

I am glad to say I now have one circle of Edinburgh geography in my head. If I leave the apartment and turn left and keep walking a bit, I run into the main shopping district, Princes Street, and if I turn right after the Walter Scott Memorial, I can be in Old Town and the Royal Mile (which our great guide for The Book Lover’s Tour, Allan Foster, referred to as the Tartan Ghetto), and which if I turn here or there leads me to a number of useful stores and cafes, and off of which there’s a right turn that takes me to the University of Edinburgh grounds with its bookstores and green spaces. Another turn takes me almost directly back to the apartment. As if I’ve made a journey around the world. Really, it’s a circle of comforts. 

Part of the work I’m trying to get students to do is to push out from what’s comfortable to write about and think about. This past week, we’ve worked on the uses of description, making self-inventories, and practicing associative thinking. They’ve all been writing both consciously and unconsciously about places where a thing or place opens up a world of possibilities. No doubt this is due to all the fantasies they’ve read or seen–Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe, Outlanders, Highlander, James Bond–which haunt this city. Some of them have been surprised at the things that have appeared as they wrote.

I don’t believe in the idea that art must always shock or disturb. There are arts that return us to ourselves in ways not necessarily conservative or nostalgic. There are arts that can re sharpen us when we’ve grown dull from a lack of challenge. The shock might be how far away we’ve grown from our original goals, I suppose. Not all art needs to outrage or court controversy to be powerful. One student wrote about a fern growing, as many plants do here, in a crack in a concrete wall. He leaned into that small plant’s struggle to survive and smelled an enormous forest. 

On Being Foreign


I could have taken the familiar path, but this morning, taking Sven Birkerts’ lead in his book of personal essays about walking, The Other Walk, I turned left instead of right. I had an interest in finding the path down to the canal where I’d seen a canal boat cruising on our first day here. It was also, I said to myself as if I needed any further justification, a quicker way for me to get to the dorms where our students were staying. It was filled with moored canal boats, each painted in bright colors, with mysterious names. I wonder if I may have lived on one in of my other lives I may have lived on one I have such an attraction. A couple were out sitting, drinking coffee, on the deck of their canal when I walked by; I wanted to stop and ask them questions but chickened out. The day was blue above us, the water soothing, and I didn’t want to interrupt their peace. I imagine they must have to fend off jealous land lubbers’ questions all the time.


I was joking in class that suddenly yesterday, while I was walking around, I was seized by a confusion: where do my hands go when I walk here? It didn’t feel right in my pockets or did it feel natural to just let them swing free as I walked. I started looking around to see what men in this culture do. I also realized that at home, I never do this, never look at where the hands go. It’s these kinds of shocks that we can make use of as starting points for inquiry, I told the students. I read them Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shock of Teapots”. We talked about light, doorknobs, coins, and many other things. 


We wrote lists our first class. I started with Kimiko Hahn’s piece “Firsts in No Particular Order,” and made our own lists of first times, which could be anything: first words, first disillusionments, and even first sexual experiences and how Hahn implies rather than bares everything. Only the word “rug burn” gives it away. Something about finesse, the way a word or face or flash of lightning can deepen everything you thought you knew.


The young man who took my order at Starbucks, where I sit now, is outside waiting off the tables, which are black and already growing hot in the sunlight. He sprays them and then wipes quickly. Immediately, steam rises off of them. No one else notices it, but I do. Would I have noticed such a thing at home? Would I have stared at it until it disappeared, been so surprised at first and, then, more deeply, fascinated? 

Edinburgh: eating and exhausted

1. I have now tried haggis, black sausage, and crannachan. 

2. Of course I was so exhausted that I forgot to bring my camera, so there are no photos. You’ll have to take my word for it.

3. The feared haggis came to me as deep fried, with a honey and chili sauce, and it was good. Now, I can drop another fear. 

4. We ate at the Royal MacGregor in Old Town, which is the oldest part of the city, cobbled streets, bagpipes, cashmere and tartan stores everywhere.

5. The black sausage came with the pork and it was good, too, darkly rich with the taste of liver maybe. 

6. Both haggis and the sausage are the result of grinding lesser loved meats with grains like oatmeal and spices. It was crumbly, I’d say, rather than muscly, not for me a dish on its own but it added an interesting layer of texture to the pork.

7. I was so tired I forgot my camera. Around me, the students were taking pictures they were posting to their friends. The whole dinner was a present our guides Rebecca and Rachel, who moved our time-stunned bodies and minds through the first difficult day.

8. To say I felt like ground meat mixed with oatmeal would not be a lie. 

9. How many days had I been awake, I kept wondering? I’d woke up on one continent at eight am, gotten on an airplane at 5 pm, watched two movies in the cramped dark of a United Airlines cabin–Jupiter Ascending and Guardians of the Galaxy–, eaten dinner ther, fallen asleep maybe for an hour until one of my fellow passengers opened up his window shade in what should have been my deep night. Huge sunlight surged into the space. My brain twitched back on and has stayed on for good until about 9:30 tonight, when I slept. Two hours later I woke up, read the Internet, and decided I’d better write about the day or days I’ve traveled through. 

10. Tomorrow we begin teaching. I was luckily awake enough to snap two photos of the view out the windows of our classroom at Edinburgh Napier University. 


11. The landscape around us is beautiful. The city is old, stone, and green. The streets wind like intestines. I want less to teach than to set the students loose and tell them to come back with stories, images, mysteries, words we can write about. My class’s project is going to be to start an Edinburgh Dictionary of sorts.
12. The weather was blustery but warm, the sunshine steady and strong. We walked and walked from the really beautiful student housing to the classrooms, to the apartment where Mark and I unpacked at last. My feet hurt. I stunk with the nervous and excited perspiration of how many days of travel?

13. Just before dinner tonight, I ran into a Superdrug drugstore for razors and deodorant and toothpaste and completely forgot to buy shampoo. I half expected to speak another language for all the miles I travelled, but no, the cashier was perfectly understandable. She took the money I gave her. She gave me change back, which I threw into my pocket to look at later like mysterious stones plucked out of a stream. 

14. I forgot to mention the crannachan, which was dessert. Raspberries, whipped cream, oatmeal, honey, whisky, what’s not to like? I needed up eating two because one of the students was as excited by it as I was and gave me his. Here’s a recipe: crannachan. This time I didn’t get the Sticky Toffee Pudding, but next time I definitely will.

15. Tomorrow I intend to take more photos. It’s just that I hardly know what to look at next. I’m still trying to remember to look right for traffic. 


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