Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Month: December, 2014

The New World, Again

One of the ways we know we’re alive is by making resolutions. The dead don’t do it. They have no reason to change. Like the vast majority of politicians, they are what they are. They don’t think; therefore they are not. (Although how they manage to haunt so many people and make guest appearances on so many cable-related ghost-hunting shows is beyond me.)

It’s possible we have to make resolutions in order to live. We resolve after so much dissolving, after undergoing the depression-inducing losses of daylight in December, the draining kin-work of two or three holidays, the awful mall crowds, the terrors of wrapping and gift-giving, the fears of bankruptcy for months afterward. It might be a survival mechanism to say, I must change my life. Resolutions mean we want to live, that we still have direction, hope. It might be a way to reassert our weird individual selves in the face of so much pressure to be constantly inoffensive, which requires one has only generalized feelings, simplified good or evil/right or wrong imaginations, as well as frequent and ridiculous outrages about trifles as well as numbing silences about big problems. Resolutions might be a way of re-organizing a frightened self so it can reach out and engage with others, with a new way to see itself.

We will eat more fruits and vegetables and less, much, much less processed food.

We will make more dinners and sit down together at the table and talk instead of using GrubHub to get dinner delivered, and then eat said dinner out of plastic containers on separate TV tables while watching said TV and texting friends simultaneously.

We will watch less TV and read more books.

We will be online less and read more books and newspapers and magazines.

We will stop reading on our iPads at night before going to bed so we can sleep better.

We will stop saying yes to every request so we can sleep better.

We will work out more, drink more water, watch our weight. And guard our basic bodily responsibilities better.

We will save money for trips instead of wasting it on cigarettes or fast food or cafe au laits we could just as easily make at home.

We will save money for trips instead of spending it on impulse technology like Apple and Amazon and drive-throughs.

We will take buses more and the cars less.

We will lessen our exposure to distraction, debt, and depression.

We will click on fewer stupid headlines like The Ten Things Every Man Should Know About Women.

We will not comment on articles until we’ve actually read and thought about them for 24 hours.

We will not waste our energies on trolls online, at work, or in our families.

We will not believe any video clip is without a politics or that every poster knows about

We will not donate to what we don’t really care about. We will donate more to what we do.

We’ll be more charitable with our time if not our money.

And if the “will” in these resolutions so far is too hard to commit to, then resolve in a different mode:

We can resolve to learn to see doubt as a check and a balance on the brain’s executive functions and not act like a miniature version of our current stalled government. And its fears and cautions don’t have to keep us from taking executive action.

We might resolve not to take everything any voice or actual person personally.

We could might resolve not to dismiss any thing that happens just because it doesn’t happen to us personally.

We could resolve to listen better, without defending ourselves.

We can resolve to ask ourselves seriously what we’re afraid of when we find ourselves defending rather than listening.

We can resolve to study more science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature and art so that our interior lives are given the fullest range of human choice, voice, form.

Maybe this can be the year we will begin fewer sentences with “I feel that..” when what we mean is “It’s a fact that…” and we’re just trying not to hurt someone’s feelings.

We will finally find a good therapist. We will leave the situations we dread and resolve to search out alternatives.

We can resolve to find friends we can talk to regularly. We can resolve to find new friends if the old friends are only able to vent about their own problems.

We resolve to read more books by people who don’t look like us, who are from distant countries, or who lived more than a hundred years ago.

We resolve not to rely only on family and friends who can sabotage growth sometimes and to seek out unbiased advice.

We can even stop writing out resolutions in the form of simple sentences and embrace the complex, the compound, the compound-complex.

We can resolve to try to stop solving everything with simple sentences.

We resolve to commit to practicing some art-discipline, even if it’s only writing a pangram every day, even if it seems silly or useless for days on end, because one day an unexpected question might appear out of the zaniness and jerk you back awake.

We can resolve to ask the creatures we’re afraid of in our dreams for their true names. We can resolve to believe each one of them wants to be noticed. Each one is trying to protect its own dream of you.

It’s a new year, why not be plural with the strange instead of crowded with the same?

We can resolve to trust the strange, to travel, to read, to walk somewhere new.

We can resolve to head toward what we don’t know yet. Inside or outside of us.

With liberty and justice. We can resolve to not see those two things as separate.

December: looking back

Being able to think back in time is the true gift, I think, at Christmas. Not everyone can do it, or can bear it. Children can’t do it very well; they don’t yet have enough material. (Well, some do, the ones who have had to learn to keep track of their environment because the adults around them seem unable to do it.) I know some adults too who avoid the idea of looking back, believing that it can only result in tears, shame, needless discomfort. So much of Christmas is geared toward delighting children with promise of what’s to come that what goes on meanwhile inside adults can get missed or even dismissed as “grinchiness” or “exhaustion” or “a failure of the heart to open,” if you’re a new agey type.

We should be spending our time thinking back, I want to argue. We adults are supposed to be exhausted. The darkness of the day helps exhaust us, slows us down, turns us inward, thins the walls we’ve spent the year shoring up. We’ve spent the whole year doing our jobs to the best of our abilities, paying our bills, worrying about our retirement prospects, trying to steer our own and our families’ lives amidst the constant pressures of the year’s economic, cultural, international, and personal currents. We never know if the decisions we’ve made have succeeded until decades pass, when we see the results of investments and divestments we’ve made. At the end of the year, in order to make sure there has been at least one clear, measurable success, one moment of happiness, we spend ourselves out. Adults’ deep presents are the expectations that twinkle in our children’s eyes.

Occasionally we get the present-buying right for partners and parents and actually surprise them, but generally, since we’ve been giving each other little presents all year long (helping out with laundry, the kids, keeping the boat steady), the desultory gifts of socks or perfumes or gift cards we give on Christmas represent the more difficult love to articulate–the love of each other’s ordinariness, which becomes more and more keen the older we get. We reward each other’s stability, which is what we depend on the more the world feels unstable.

To get my mother in her last years nothing but my company for Christmas was a sign that I’d been paying attention to her evolution away from the material. I knew she didn’t want more stuff. Instead, we made dinner together. She shared her recipes for things. I showed her that I knew enough now to take care of myself and her too. We made each other laugh until we ran out of breath. We argued with each other. We agreed completely about politics. That intimacy was the sweetest gift we gave each other. That was Christmas, our only debt to each other.

The Christmas after she died was quiet. I drank tea from her mug. I made the traditional dinner, which we’d made the year before. I’m sure I cried but I didn’t cry much. Her death hadn’t killed me, as I was sure it would. In fact, against all propriety, I felt freed to do and say whatever I wanted. I hadn’t even realized how in little ways I’d been holding myself back for her sake. After a year and a half of worrying about her death, my own life showed up again. Some part of me began planning books with a energy that surprised me. I had friends whose love became even more sweet to me. And of course it didn’t hurt to have received from her enough money to make me feel “safe,” at least economically.

This is my first Christmas with my husband. At the beginning of this year, as Facebook reminded me recently, I announced I was ready to date again. 9 months later, I was married. That we found each other, that we fit so well together despite many differences, seems to be evidence that the world is open, is surprising, is still wild at its core. He has been full of Christmas excitement, and although I resisted it at first, it’s been surprising to me how infectious it’s been. In fact, I look back at this year with a kind of hopeful wonder. I made some new friends via dating apps, including one really amazing artist. I got married. That wasn’t supposed to happen not so long ago. A new chapbook of poems came out. My essays, which I thought were probably unreadable to others, have been getting published and have slowly turned into a book of prose I’ll send out next year.

He put them together, out of plastic branches and fairy lights, but I’m now usually the one who plugs in our tree and then the mantle and window wreaths at night. Sometimes when he’s asleep upstairs and I’m (as I often am) unaccountably awake, I come downstairs and turn it all on. I wonder how I ever lived without it.

The Old Farts: Some Notes

Grades submitted.

And immediately I felt worried about the number of A’s I’d given. Within a few minutes of my posting that I was done, a friend of mine texted me saying she also felt nervous about the number of A’s she’s giving.

Do you feel they’re deserved? I texted.

She wrote back:They worked really hard and all of them improved, even the seemingly hopeless ones. Plus attendance was almost spotless for the class overall. Then she added:

I feel haunted by the old farts in the department.


The Old Farts in the department are not many but in a couple of meetings lately have been ardent in their belief that the number of A’s is inversely related to the quality of teaching. The Old Farts, I will also say, are all in the Literature part of the English department. They are all, at least right now, white, straight men over sixty.  They are in many ways very good colleagues, are often themselves terrific teachers of their particular subjects, and always show up for committee meetings without complaining about it. There are many things about the Old Farts that we might all imitate. They take pride in what they do.

What makes them Old Farts is where their thinking has calcified.  The one idea they keep repeating is that grade inflation is everywhere and must be stamped out. The Old Farts rely on some science, in fact one study usually, that they say shows that there’s a clear connection between students evaluations of teachers and grades received. The easy formulation is this: bad teachers give high grades to mediocre students to avoid being evaluated badly by the students.  Bad can mean “insecure” or “lazy” or “ill-prepared,” depending on which Fart is talking about it.

At a meeting to renew some Nontenurestream faculty this term, a couple of the Old Farts held forth at length about the Overall Evaluation Scores of nearly everyone who was discussed. They didn’t say anything, that I remembered, about the syllabi submitted, the fact that some of the faculty being discussed taught across programs (in composition and writing, or writing and literature and composition), whether they were teaching required or elective courses, to non-majors or majors. They were, in the middle of an English Department, arguing solely by the numbers. If they had been the sole voices for renewal or non-renewal, not one of the folks up for renewal, folks who had, by and large, put a phenomenal amount of work into designing syllabi, working closely with students, inventing classes, forging collaborations between programs, and doing as much if not more committee work than many tenure-stream faculty, not one of the folks would have been renewed.

No one interrupted them because no one wanted to say, Um, you sound crazy. Because a) they weren’t crazy ordinarily, and because b) we don’t like generally to confront bad thinking directly (much better to let it exhaust itself like a child with a temper tantrum). And I suppose I can’t use the word “crazy” anymore, one of the signs of my own Old Farthood. I probably shouldn’t use it here when what I really mean is “fixated” or “narrowly obsessed”. This, despite the fact that none of the Old Farts has ever talked to any of the people up for renewal.  Neither do they teach in any of the programs the candidates taught in, so they had no idea of the pedagogies involved.

Eventually, the rest of us who knew the colleagues involved, who had seen them teach, had read their materials, had taught similar classes, managed to talk one of the Old Farts into a kind of submission: he admitted that he didn’t know these people and that he was convinced by his colleagues that he couldn’t judge based solely on their evaluation numbers.  I’m still not sure how they voted in the end.


I don’t want to give the impression that the Old Farts form a majority of my colleagues. My department is in many ways like a big family, in which you know and like most of the people, know very well and trust a dozen, and try to avoid a handful. It’s an astonishingly diverse group. I don’t even know how to talk to some of my colleagues who have very specialized knowledge. I’m not sure who reads their writing/research, why that scholarship is important. I trust that it is. Like poets, my guess is that literary scholars feel lucky to have jobs reading and writing, and teaching both to young people at a major university that gives us many, many benefits. If there isn’t an editorial every other month about the death of literary scholarship, as there is about poetry’s death, I suspect it’s because literary scholarship has fallen so far below the radar of cultural importance that no one has noticed its disappearance. We go on together, believing in the power of words as best we can. Every so often, when I have a question about Anglo Saxon prosody, I remind myself that I have an actual colleague who can speak it, who turns out to be an expert on the very thing I wondered about. We have a brilliant happy moment when our lives intersect. She, in turn, asks me if poets are still writing in Anglo Saxon measures, and I make copies of the contemporary examples I know of.  I hand her poems. Happiness!

All of that said, I would never assume that I could make an informed decision, based on her student responses only, whether my colleague should be renewed or promoted.


I went looking on the internet for WH Auden’s School for Poets plan. I know it’s in a book of his essays, maybe the The Dyer’s Hand, which I don’t have at hand right now. I remember his main idea was to teach technical stuff on one hand, and the weirder work of being responsible to Life on the other, culminating in the rule that every student would be expected to raise a domestic animal and/or a garden, an idea I’ve always loved.

What I found was this, from Michael Newman’s Interview with Auden in the Paris Review:


Have you ever taught writing?


No, I never have. If I had to “teach poetry,” which, thank God, I don’t, I would concentrate on prosody, rhetoric, philology, and learning poems by heart. I may be quite wrong, but I don’t see what can be learned except purely technical things—what a sonnet is, something about prosody. If you did have a poetic academy, the subjects should be quite different—natural history, history, theology, all kinds of other things. When I’ve been at colleges, I’ve always insisted on giving ordinary academic courses—on the eighteenth century, or Romanticism. True, it’s wonderful what the colleges have done as patrons of the artists. But the artists should agree not to have anything to do with contemporary literature. If they take academic positions, they should do academic work, and the further they get away from the kind of thing that directly affects what they’re writing, the better. They should teach the eighteenth century or something that won’t interfere with their work and yet earn them a living. To teach creative writing—I think that’s dangerous. The only possibility I can conceive of is an apprentice system like those they had in the Renaissance—where a poet who was very busy got students to finish his poems for him. Then you’d really be teaching, and you’d be responsible, of course, since the results would go out under the poet’s name.


I think a lot of Old Farts would agree with Auden’s nervous anxiety here. Writing, nevermind the Creative kind, still seems dangerous to believe in as a discipline. The grades are an easy place to point to as proof. It’s unfair to the students, I’ve heard people say, to get them to believe that they’re geniuses or better than they are. The idea is that the world will crush them, and that we should spare them that embarrassment and recommend they train in something useful. It always makes me too sad for the speaker to respond. (Nevermind that in our current situation, turning away the writing students would capsize the department; the only programs with positive or non-negative enrollments are in Creative and Professional Writing.) According to at least one university planning meeting I went to recently (called an “environmental scan” to give you a sense of how far into abstraction the marketing/planning world has disappeared into its own (rabbit)hole…) the generation we’ll be dealing with, a generation the marketers are calling Generation Z, are all about “making” things, jumping in, inventing, as opposed to Generation Y, who were apparently about “Reading” first, being cautious. They might be more motivated, in other words, in classes that give them room to make and invent. How are we preparing for that?

I don’t know. There is a lot of confusing research around grade inflation. I wish I could say that it’s simply a silly idea, but treating that one idea as if it’s the only correct indicator of whether a colleague is a good or bad teacher can lead to some not silly results–the loss of one’s job, with all the attendant benefits. For the record, I don’t have any problem at all with refusing to renew someone who is in fact not doing a good job, but I wouldn’t do it based on one indicator, and certainly not a simple set of numbers. I’d read the materials. I’d look at the student responses. I’d look at his or her service record. I’d look at the expectations of the job, which don’t spell out a percentage of A’s because that would be ridiculous, even robotic.  If we’re turning inhuman in the Humanities, we’ve already lost the very thing we can offer.

At that marketing meeting we were told Generation Z is used to working on screens, and so seem to be ripe for those who’d like to move all of us faculty online, EXCEPT that in survey after survey, the vast majority said they wanted to come work face-to-face with teachers.  When I suggested that we market ourselves as a place where students can do the really radical thing–work with actual human beings–the marketing team laughed. I think it was the laughter of people who’d just realized they were running too hard, too desperately to keep up with the future someone else had imagined for them. It was the laugh, I wanted to think anyway, of air escaping a very frightened bubble. I don’t remember if any of them wrote it down, by which I mean, typed it into their computers.

Auden tells the interviewer another thing that I found interesting, a thing I hadn’t known about him:

“I came to America in ’39. I lived first in Brooklyn Heights, then taught for a while in Ann Arbor, then at Swarthmore. I did a stint in the army, with the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey. The army didn’t like our report at all because we proved that, in spite of all of our bombing of Germany, their weapons production didn’t go down until after they had lost the war. It’s the same in North Vietnam—the bombing does no good. But you know how army people are. They don’t like to hear things that run contrary to what they’ve thought”.

December: some notes

So much has happened in the last few months for me to process into words. Much of it is simply anger. Some of it is anxiety. Both of those feelings make my body want to sleep because they feel so overwhelming.  Any big, full emotions take time to process into thought, action, direction. I distrust large events, which can so quickly turn into disasters, and which are prone to being used by a few cowards as covers for destruction, on one hand, and which are prone to being completely misinterpreted by the media. I took part in marches for gay rights in the city and the nation during the nineties, and I remember well the energy and excitement I felt then, the sense that so many other people were involved in and cared about those rights.

It bothers me that I haven’t taken to the streets with the Ferguson marchers or the marchers more lately protesting the absence of any indictment over Eric Garner’s death by chokehold. The refusal of the justice system to take up the question of police violence toward people of color is threatening its integrity in, it seems to me, similar ways to the the Catholic Church’s refusal to take up for decades, maybe centuries, the question of priests’ abuse of children. Or colleges’ refusal to deal in any kind of real way with rape on campus. What else? Domestic violence. The environment.

I think in many ways my own body’s urge to just sleep is probably related to the way institutions, upon finding out that something painful is happening within them, close ranks so quickly. Or the way that totalitarian regimes, upon finding out that some of their citizens are taking to the streets, always blame foreigners for the unrest, or they talk about some small minority, who may indeed have been pushed to the breaking point where they can no longer breathe, who is airing some minor grievance the government is “already looking into,” but never actually do.

It’s frustrating to see so much of it, to feel as if it is everywhere.  Governments blame the people whose houses and land they are destroying for making the destruction necessary or prudent or in the national interest. Groups of fundamentalists torture and murder and rob groups of people who can’t fight back, and if those groups do fight back, the angry retaliation is enormous and will be blamed on the victims for not converting, for simply living lives that are other than whatever scriptures they want to use to justify the need for horror.

It’s tempting to say we have no moral conscience anymore, but even as I began to write that very sentence, I had to remind myself that people of moral conscience have been around during every war. It’s tempting to fall into the sleep of despair at that.

And yet, what else is there to do but to say over and over that what is happening in so many places is wrong and needs to be fixed or dismantled? I feel the small, still voice of responsibility in my body again. I think many of my fellow citizens do too. I hear it in voice cracks, in eyes tired of scanning the news, in hands and knees that can’t stay still for long.  People of good heart, we have to stand up and refuse to go to sleep in our comfortable beds. The country, all of our country, needs us to step up to podium and say that we see what’s going on–that the police and the  military are becoming confused, that our fellow citizens are getting confused with the enemy, are being demonized unfairly and are being killed in that split second the police and other people with guns have to make a decision to shoot or not shoot another human being, that what our fellow citizens are asking for is not something they “should” fix themselves, in “their own communities”.  We need to be present and listen to the stories that keep coming out, that form an impossible to deny narrative of violence done very often in our name, which is sometimes the name of “law and order” and sometimes the name of “the greater good,” which we need to be skeptical of, lest great evil be done in those names as it has been in the past.

Don’t go to sleep. If you can’t walk or march, you can write your representatives. You can send money to the Ferguson library, to Occupy movement, to a place who might be able to turn your money into help. If you can’t write, you can pay attention at least, and be kind to your neighbors, the stranger who asks for directions. That is no mean feat. At the very least, you can refuse to reach for the tv remote, refuse the voice that says, God, I am so tired of hearing about X and Y. You can at least listen a little longer than did yesterday. Think of it as spiritual practice if it helps, if you think that, after all this, what you do here will determine where you’ll be located next.

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