Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Lengthy Relationship

One of my students recently proposed that marijuana should be the drug of choice among older teens providing that they stay off the roads and remain at home with only a few friends. This topic could work if the evidence is plentiful and if the writer anticipates counterarguments from his/her audience early within the essay. It isn’t an argument that I would encourage personally because I think the teen years are a time when one develops intellectually, physically, emotionally, and socially, and adding something like marijuana complicates the process and prevents that growth from developing as it should.

Marijuana used to be my drug of choice. As an undergraduate, I usually smoked marijuana on Friday evenings as a way of relaxing and rewarding myself for getting through another week of college. Not having a car, nearby relatives, or many friends when I was living in Wichita, I mostly kept to myself and remained in my duplex apartment. On Saturday nights, instead of getting stoned while watching television or listening to music, I usually studied, worked on an essay due in one of my literature classes, or worked on a poem for one of my creative writing classes until about 10:00 p.m. Then, as I sat at the kitchen table with my work spread in front of me, I added marijuana to my pipe or rolled a joint and used that time to reflect on what I had been doing, eventually adding a record to the stereo.

Marijuana provided a way to relax, offering moments of peace, reflection, amusement, and discovery. I often gained a new appreciation for music, finding pleasure in Jan Garbarek, Michael Urbaniak, and Zappa (particularly “Big Swifty” from Waka/Jawaka), for example. I often dreamed of a rural landscape where I could escape from the noise of Wichita and where I could seclude myself with a woman.

I had experimented with drugs when I was younger, beginning in the Air Force. During the Vietnam era, psychedelic drugs held a strong allure for many of us. I regularly smoked hashish while stationed in England. Easier to find than marijuana, hashish could be picked up in Cambridge or London; an ounce of hashish from Afghanistan cost the equivalent of $30. Once in Cambridge, I exchanged four cartons of American cigarettes, Marlboros mostly, for hashish. As an impulsive and impressionable young man, I also took psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD on more than a few occasions. I eventually got so strung out that coming up with the words to say anything became extremely hard; it was as though I had become the person that Robert Lowell in “Waking in the Blue” refers to as “more cut off from words than a seal.” Tripping lost whatever pleasure it once provided after my first six months in England. My own lack of sexual experience became magnified during my altered states of consciousness, causing me to imagine that others were aware of my inexperience as I heard voices and saw gestures that seemingly related directly to me.

My first Christmas in England was spent on amphetamines. When my flight chief brought baked goods out to those of us guarding the F100’s on alert status, I was standing outside of my gate shack, delighting in the falling snow and unaware of the cold. My flight chief seemed surprised that I wasn’t hungry and refused any of the cookies and candy he offered.

This experimentation with drugs developed again, but to a lesser degree, when I was living in northcentral Kansas after the Air Force and attending a local community college. I took another psychedelic named Hawaiian woodrose one Friday night that first semester. A couple of friends also introduced me to cocaine, which I ended up trying a few times. One of the local dealers of marijuana had gotten busted and raised the money to pay for his lawyer by selling cocaine, which seemingly flooded the town during my first November there.

Having learned firsthand the ravages of experimentation, and having gained an understanding of what risks I subjected myself to by taking psychedelics, amphetamines, and cocaine, I opted to make marijuana my drug of choice and to forgo any further experimentation with drugs. This decision didn’t suddenly result in moderate indulgence. I continued to smoke marijuana almost every day during the next two semesters and again when I moved to Wichita with the goal of working and achieving Kansas resident status, thereby reducing the cost of college tuition.

Over the years, I went through extended periods without marijuana. My return to college, three years after I dropped out, wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given up marijuana for a couple of years. It took that time for me to realize how much I wanted to study poetry in college. I was reading poets like Norman Dubie, Pamela Stewart, and Dave Smith and came to realize how much I needed to know about poetry and about writing before I could compose better poems.

My absence of writing skills became especially prominent when I bombed a literary analysis/research paper written for a class in Romantic and Victorian poetry during my first semester at Wichita State. That much more of my attention had to be devoted toward my studies if I wanted to remain in college.

Smoking marijuana remained an occasional part of my life when I left Wichita for Connecticut, after earning my BA, and when I returned to Kansas to live in Manhattan and earn a Master of Arts, and when I taught English in Lawrence and Kansas City. I ultimately quit when my only source of supply left the area. The desire to continue that habit wasn’t strong enough to seek out a different, and probably a far riskier, connection elsewhere. I also finally managed to quit smoking cigarettes, a twenty year habit as well, after more than a few unsuccessful attempts.

Sometimes I remember, nostalgically, my quiet evenings with marijuana. It isn’t something that I want to pursue anymore. There are so many more risks associated with marijuana. It isn’t only me that I have to worry about now. I have also invested too much time, effort, and money in pursuing my career to suddenly let it be tossed aside.

I dread the day when and if I should find a baggie of marijuana in my son’s room. What can I say to prevent him from continuing to smoke it when he spits back, “But dad you did it.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Long Hard Slog

Handling the demands of teaching doesn’t get any easier, regardless of how much experience one has gained. This last semester, which ended for me on Wednesday morning, proved particularly difficult. I approached the grading of each set of essays with dread and took longer than I should have in returning the grades and my comments to the students. The writing assignments in the second-semester composition course, for example, are more exacting and require that I give attention to not only how the student constructed his/her argument but also how well the student incorporated sources and acknowledged them. I usually made my way through the expressive and referential essays in the first-semester course fairly quickly and preferred that course when I first started teaching. Administrators would be more sympathetic to the workload in second-semester composition courses if the number of students allowed in any one course were set at, say, twelve, about half of the current size at the institution where I teach.

Each semester I emphasize paraphrasing, integrating quotations, avoiding plagiarism, documenting sources, and providing the bibliographic information, using MLA style, on the Works Cited page. Some students learn the conventions of academic writing quickly; other students think it is possible to simply add the author or title of the source in parentheses at the end of a paragraph and that that marker signifies having used that source at some point within the paragraph. Even at the end of the semester, when the student had shown otherwise in the previous essays, the student reverts to that weird form of documentation when writing the so-called research paper. High school classes would prepare students for college if the conventions of academic writing were in place even then.

This semester proved to be the semester for plagiarism as well. Students when summarizing lifted entire sentences and added them without quotations marks and without documentation. The class had addressed the distinction between paraphrasing and quoting and the essential elements of a summary (brevity, objectivity, and using one's own words, for example). These students apparently don’t realize that I have used the textbook for several semesters, have grown familiar with the essays and can identify passages taken from one of the essays, and keep the textbook open when I read their work, referring to the text when necessary. One student when evaluating a movie used an essay that someone in New York had written and had posted as an example of an essay about film in a graduate course. I guess students don’t realize how easily theft can be identified when using the Internet. If they can find the essay, using Google, then I can find the essay as well and probably with less effort. I have to admit that I was stumped when the student who had used the plagiarized evaluation turned in a research paper addressing the nursing shortage. I recognized that the essay was written in APA style, but I couldn’t find the exact essay online. My success rate was higher when a student addressed a summer reading program in California. It turned out that the student hadn’t changed a word.

Overall, getting to the point where I could add up the points and figure out grades was a long hard slog. I was up several nights in a row and caught about five hours of sleep after my son left for school. Anyone driving by my house would have seen the light visible through the blinds and curtains covering my office window until the early morning night after night. It was mostly me and the computer and the occasional horns of freight trains and the rain on the roof.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sgt. Frederick Wyllyams

Recently, a few visitors to my blog have been looking for information about Frederick Wyllyams, the Eton graduate who had emigrated to this country and earned the rank of sergeant in the American Army before he died outside of Fort Wallace in 1867.

One essay assignment in my second-semester composition course, and one that I have since discontinued, required that the students research someone who had died. The students had the option of researching a family member; another option required that the students choose someone buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery and research the person, beginning with the date of death. Occasionally, if students were stumped in their research, and if they could prove how thoroughly they had conducted the research, despite the absence of information, they could show, as a third option, what steps they took in their research and what information they managed to discover.

A few students during the four years that I used this research assignment chose to investigate Frederick Wyllyams. None of their research revealed why Wyllyams’ wasn’t given a commission or why he decided to enlist in the Army. But there are a few detailed sources describing Frederick Wyllyams’ death and mutilation. Captain Albert Barnitz provides a first-person account of the skirmish outside Fort Wallace, which is located on the western edge of present-day Kansas, a bit south of I-70. Barnitz in his letter to his wife laments the loss of several troopers and expresses a particular fondness for Sgt. Wyllyams. Dr. Bell, who was accompanying a railroad survey party and was visiting Fort Wallace during the summer of 1867, attributes Wyllyam’s mutilations to the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Arapahoes in his article in Harper’s . (Additional information about the conflict appears here and here .)

One reason I think that Wyllyams continues to attract attention is the historical evidence of his death, including the photographic evidence that Dr. Bell took of Wyllyams’ naked body. A copy of this picture appears in Leo E. Oliva’s Fort Wallace: Sentinel on the Smoky Hill Trail; a much smaller copy of this picture appears at this link .

Many of my students have tried to limit the conflict between the Native Americans and the Euro-Americans to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, perhaps because of the myth that Libby Custer created about her husband and because of the many movies that have glorified that particular historical event. A student versed in history comes to recognize how complex our relations were with the native peoples on the Great Plains and how often our relations were punctuated by violence. There weren’t any heroes; there were only participants in a lengthy clash of cultures.

Someone growing up in Kansas may think that the place is boring. It’s true that the public schools in their sanitized version of the state’s history don’t generate much student interest. In actuality, a trip to Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery and an examination of some of the soldiers buried there can provide insight into the government’s policy toward Native Americans after Kansas was opened up to white settlement and can enhance an appreciation of the region when traveling west across the state on I-70.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Reflection on Blogs and Blogging

I have been looking for blogs addressing adjunct teaching for my blogroll. One of the few I've found, Invisible Adjunct , went dormant two years ago. There are plenty of blogs created by academics, many of whom use their real names, but what they describe isn't part of my experience since I'm not on the tenure track and don't know that I'll ever get there. I'm also interested in locating other interesting blogs, that is, something other than a daily report of one’s life.

From what I’ve noticed, there seems to be more women than men who blog. I can’t draw any generalizations regarding the reason for such a gender disparity. Female bloggers, I’ve noticed, also generate a lot of traffic, particularly if they reveal intimate details that appeal to those voyeurs who seem to find satisfaction at knowing when Lucky Lucky Star and her husband have had sex or when she gives her husband oral sex because of what he did to earn it. Some things are best left private. Most of all, I‘ve noticed how young many bloggers are. I remember when I was 28, and I certainly don’t want to relive that year.

Since I’ve added the Site Meter that appears lower on the page, I discovered that people in other countries have been using my blog as a resource. When someone in Poland googles Michal Urbaniak, when someone in England googles Frederick Wyllyams, when someone in Japan googles the Bothy Band, my blog comes up in their search engine. That recognition, even though the visitor doesn’t explore my other pages, makes me very happy. I can’t think of many other reasons to maintain a blog than to address some of those things that interest me or that I know something about and to have someone else utilize the material when conducting a search for information. Having regular readers who post comments occasionally is a special kind of pleasure, particularly since I haven’t succumbed to describing my sex life in detail, and lets me know that more than the occasional visitor cares about what I post, no matter how quirky or how odd the subject.