Saturday, January 29, 2005

Odysseus and Ulysses

Odysseus, in Book 10 of Stanley Lombardo's Odyssey:

"We're in a really tight spot."
Ulysses Everett McGill, trapped in the burning barn in O Brother, Where Art Thou?:
"We're in a tight spot."
Stanley Lombardo thinks it's a coincidence. If so, it's a wonderful one, with the translator's American idiom turning up in a movie that itself translates Homer's story into an American one.

Don't eat the yellow snow

Somehow I think that Odysseus (engineer of a clever exit from Polyphemus' cave) would be impressed by this guy:

A Slovak man trapped in his car under an avalanche freed himself by drinking 60 bottles of beer and urinating on the snow to melt it.

Rescue teams found Richard Kral drunk and staggering along a mountain path four days after his Audi car was buried in the Slovak Tatra mountains. He told them that after the avalanche, he had opened his car window and tried to dig his way out. But as he dug with his hands, he realised the snow would fill his car before he managed to break through.

He had 60 half-litre bottles of beer in his car as he was going on holiday, and after cracking one open to think about the problem he realised he could urinate on the snow to melt it, local media reported.
Click here to see the full article.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Higher Ed., Inc.

From "Higher Ed., Inc.," by James B. Twitchell:

Hardly anyone in Higher Ed, Inc., cares about what is taught, because that is not our charge. We are not in the business of transmitting what E. D. Hirsch would call cultural literacy; nor are we in the business of teaching the difference between the right word and the almost right word, as Mark Twain might have thought important. We’re in the business of creating a total environment, delivering an experience, gaining satisfied customers, and applying the "smart" stamp when they head for the exits. The classroom reflects this. Our real business is being transacted elsewhere on campus.
Click here for the full article.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Post-It note update

I knew it was too good to be true. My friend Martha Lhamon writes

Sorry to tell you that I've been shopping with post-it notes on my wallet, and then on the shopping cart, and then dropped in the trash on the way out--for years.
So I'm not the inventor of this shopping strategy (not that I really thought I was).

But now I know how Homer Simpson felt when he discovered that Thomas Edison was the inventor of the six-legged chair.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Getting organized with simple tools, part 1

Teaching involves keeping track of countless smaller tasks--look up this word, check this quote in French, type this handout, make this assignment, write a letter of recommendation, get stuff xeroxed, check the library reserve list, come in at 4:15 for a meeting, add this link to the blog; many larger tasks--read the next ten chapters, make the final exam; and countless pieces of paper (for me, quizzes alone are 225 pieces of paper a week).

Over the past few months I've been experimenting with different ways to stay organized. What got me started was reading about and then reading a book by David Allen, Getting Things Done. I've yet to really put GTD into practice (it's like the organizing equivalent of extreme sports). What I've come to realize though is that getting things done depends to a great degree on getting the right tools, the "right" tools being simply the ones that work best for you. Here are some helpful suggestions about finding tools that will work well for you.

Links » Getting organized with simple tools: Part 2, 3, 4, 5

Getting organized . . . part 2

Consider a datebook. Paper is endlessly formattable--you can use different color inks, boxes, and underlining to keep track of things. If your stuff for a day is going to overflow the allotted space, you can use a Post-It note to accommodate the overflow.

If you're sick of standard student planners and spiral bindings, you might want to look at The Daily Planner, a great source of datebooks and other stationery items. Datebooks from Exacompta, Letts, and Quo Vadis are especially well-designed (and not very expensive). Bookstores and office-supply stores are also good sources. Just buying a datebook that you really like can inspire you to stay more organized.

If you have many meetings and appointments to keep track of, choose a datebook that breaks the day into hours. If not, choose something more flexible, with blank or ruled pages to write on. And choose something that you can easily carry with you.

One obvious but very useful suggestion: Don't use a datebook only to keep track of appointments and meetings and due dates. Use it to list the things you need to do and when you're going to do them. A running to-do list can make a great difference in keeping up with your responsibilities. (Much better than turning the page and suddenly seeing that there's a paper due--something that you wrote in a week ago and forgot about.)

One way to make a genuinely useful to-do list is by breaking down a project into small, do-able parts. Not write research paper but go to library to find sources, organize by call number, read first five and take notes, finish other sources, organize stuff on computer, check bibliography format, and so on. Write research paper isn't really a do-able task for anyone. But all of the above are very do-able, and they give you the satisfaction of crossing things off and making progress. (This general strategy is a major theme in David Allen's book; the example is mine.)

One more thing--use your datebook as a backup for phone numbers. (Many datebooks have pages for addresses in the back.) When a cell-phone goes on the blink and you can't get to your numbers, you'll be glad that you have a paper backup.

Links » Getting organized with simple tools: Part 1, 3, 4, 5

Getting organized . . . part 3

Here's an alternative to the conventional datebook: Use a small notebook.

I've recently become hooked on Moleskine ("moleskin") notebooks. It's really pronounced "mohl a skeen a," but if you ask for them by that name, you're liable to get funny looks. These are beautifully made notebooks, with oilcloth covers, acid-free paper, an expanding pocket in the back (great place to keep receipts, etc.), a ribbon to mark your place, and an elastic band to keep the book closed. Moleskines come in various sizes, with ruled, squared, or blank pages. You can find Moleskines at Amazon, in Borders stores, and in art-supply and stationery stores.

The hype for Moleskines is a bit much (the maker's claims that van Gogh and Hemingway used these very notebooks are somewhat fanciful), but the notebooks themselves are wonderful things. They're more flexible than datebooks, as you can divide up the pages in any way you like. I'm currently using a Moleskine to keep track of to-do items, a half-page per day. It almost goes without saying that this sort of notebook is ideal if you keep a journal.

If you browse on-line, you'll find a whole world of happy people devoted to Moleskines. Look, for instance, at Moleskinerie, at Journalismo, or at this post from the blog 43 Folders. Reading such stuff makes me realize that no matter how nerdy I might think I am, I still have a long way to go.

Links » Getting organized with simple tools: Part 1, 2, 4, 5

Getting organized . . . part 4

Here's an alternative to paper-based organizing: use a Palm.

A Palm gadget can be a tremendously useful tool. (I take the superiority of the Palm to the Pocket PC for granted; if you want some arguments one way or the other, you can easily find them on-line.)

The great advantage of a Palm gadget over paper is depth. That little slab of metal and plastic holds a datebook that stretches for years into the past and future, an address book that can be organized into multiple categories of your design, to-do lists (also in multiple categories of your design), a notepad, and so on. There are countless add-on programs, many of them free, almost all of them tiny and almost instantly downloadable. And the Palm syncs its content with your computer, so you always have a backup. If you use Outlook, a Palm will sync with that, or you can use the Palm Desktop (which comes with the Palm). You can, of course, also work with Outlook or the Palm Desktop and sync its content to the Palm.

To me a Palm is really a digital Swiss Army knife. I've used my Palm to write Microsoft Word documents, tune my guitar, store web pages and photos, store Adobe files, keep syllabi and course schedules, and keep track of books and records and movies to look for. The only real disadvantage of the Palm is that putting stuff in and taking stuff out is not as immediate as it is with paper. You know what I mean if you've ever seen someone "jot down" a phone number in a Palm--paper is a lot quicker. And you can't quite thumb through Palm pages in the way that you can thumb through pages in a datebook. But writing with a Palm stylus or the on-screen keyboard is not very difficult, and the tradeoff in speed might be far outweighed by the many ways in which a Palm can be useful.

Links » Getting organized with simple tools: Part 1, 2, 3, 5

Getting organized . . . part 5

Finally, here are analog and digital tools together.

Post-It notes are almost too obvious to suggest. But here are a couple of less obvious ways to use them:

Keep a few on the inside of a notebook cover, on the back pages of a datebook, and so on. You now have an always accessible way to mark pages, leave notes on doors, and so on.

Use them for grocery shopping. Write your list on a Post-It and stick it on your wallet. When you get to the store, stick the Post-It to the handle of your shopping cart. When you're done, throw the Post-It in the trash.

I first thought to manage a shopping list in this way a couple of weeks ago. It seems so obvious! But I've never seen anyone else do it (my wife assures me that, yes, I have invented this way of shopping). It's a great way to keep your hands free and not have to wonder what aisle you left your list in.

Digital notes are also quite handy on your computer screen. There are several programs that create them; I like the free program ATnotes, which comes with a little desktop calendar too. You can use digital notes to keep track of things that are important to everyone in the house ("Return dvds by Thursday") and to make a running grocery list ("Buy salt"--because who remembers to buy salt?).

You can also use digital notes to keep track of chores. Say that four people are taking turns with the dishes. Make a note with the days of the week in a vertical column and, next to it, another note with the dish-doers' names in a column (repeat the names several times). Now, if you move the note with the names up and down, you have a perpetual calendar and no question as to whose night it is to do dishes. As you may suspect, this system is in use en mi casa.

You can also use digital notes to keep useful and inspiring words on your desktop, which isn't a bad thing to do if you're trying to get things done. (I have words from the Tao and from Aristotle on my desktop as I'm typing.)

So there are five simple tools. Except for the Palm, they can be had for relatively little money, and they might help a lot in your efforts to get and stay organized. Find what works best for you, keep your tools available, so that you can really use them, and get things done!

Links » Getting organized with simple tools: Part 1, 2, 3, 4

How to improve writing (no. 3 in a series)

Today's example, a newspaper headline, reporting on the lack of student attendance at a One Book, One Campus discussion:

One Book draws less than one student
The writer has made a very common mistake by confusing less with fewer. The distinction is really simple: fewer applies to individual items; less applies to quantities. For instance,
Fewer than half the residents returned the survey.

There are fewer good bookstores than there used to be.

We used less than half the flour to make the bread.

Put in less sugar.
My guess is that signs for express checkout lanes--"less than 20 items"--have done a lot to foster the fewer/less mistake.

But even if you change less to fewer, our headline would still be awkward. The writer is clearly aiming for comic effect, but what does "fewer than one" mean? A less awkward headline might have been
One Book, No Students
One Book, Not One Student
Too bad that it wasn't possible to write "One Book draws overflow student crowd." That's a headline I'd like to see.

Link » Other How to improve writing posts, via

Monday, January 24, 2005

More Paris Review interviews

3703 students: These have us covered for the next two weeks--

Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, both interviewed by the poet Donald Hall.
There is no Paris Review interview with H.D. (or if there is, it's not listed on the website).

January 24

[W + (D-d)] x TQ
        M x NA
That's the formula a British researcher has used to determine that January 24 is the most depressing day of the year (at least in the British Isles). Here's an article to explain.

Psychologist Cliff Arnall (Doctor Arnall), the creator of this formula, seems like a good candidate for an Ig Nobel Prize. (I just nominated him.)

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Good advice on looking at art

I learned from Joe that the first thing to do when looking at a work of art was to do just that--look. Let your eyes take in what is in front of them. Look at a picture from different distances. Look away and then look back, but, since each picture suggests a visual starting point in it, choose a different point each time you look. At this stage, try not to have any thoughts about the work, such as where it fits in the artist's oeuvre or in art history or social history. You can do that later. If you allow such thoughts at this point, they will distance you from your seeing. And so Joe's comments at an exhibition would be of the "Look at that red" variety, when the very thing I had overlooked was the fact that red was the star--perhaps the raison d'être--of the picture. . . . For me Joe's visual perceptions were literally eye-opening.
From Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard, by Ron Padgett (Coffee House Press, 2004). Joe Brainard, American painter, is also known as the author of I Remember. Ron Padgett, American poet, is the author of many books--poems, translations, and memoirs. He and Brainard met and became friends in high school, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Friday, January 21, 2005


Those were the words (all caps) on the cardboard displays filled with copies of Troy.

Thanks to my son Ben, who has a fine eye for the incongruous and spotted this example in Walmart.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Frost interview

3703 students: The esteemed Paris Review is making all its interviews available on-line. You can find the PR interview with Robert Frost here, as a downloadable Adobe file.

Many of the best-known Paris Review interviews are collected in the paperback series Writers at Work. To make all the interviews available, for free, is a gesture of tremendous good will and generosity. Thank you, Paris Review.

Patriarchal names

From an article in today's New York Times:

The gesture to the mothers of France seemed to shake the sacred pillar of patriarchy.

New Year's Day quietly ushered in a change in France's law on last names. It abolished the centuries-old obligation that parents give the patronymic, or name of the father, to their children.

That means that a couple will now be able to give its newborn baby either the mother's last name, the father's last name or both names in the order the parents choose.

A "societal disruption," another proof that fathers are being forced "to renounce one by one the attributes of what used to be called their familial power," complained an editorial in Le Figaro, the center-right daily.

"This reform--we decree it silliness without a name," said a right-wing Roman Catholic newspaper, La Croix, in an editorial, calling the change a boon for genealogists, a nightmare for notaries.

Names are serious indicators of status in a country like France.
3009 students: You (who are now reading a poem about Odysseus, son of Laertes, and Telelmachus, son of Odysseus) can read the whole article here.

[Scroll down this page to "Two Actresses" to learn how to access Times articles.]


"It's a great class. You never have to open a book. All you have to do is show up."

In the bank (overheard by a friend): "Tell the professor that I'm in Indianapolis and that the roads are really bad."

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Roads not taken

3703 students: If you have some time, look at "What If...," a page devoted to mapping out (with some hilarity) alternative paths in life.

Another reason not to be called "Doctor"

Laura L. Callahan was very proud of her Ph.D. When she received it a few years ago, she promptly rewrote her official biography to highlight the academic accomplishment, referring to it not once or twice but nine times in a single-page summary of her career. And she never let her employees at the Labor Department, where she served as deputy chief information officer, forget it, even demanding that they call her "Doctor."
From an article on diploma mills and the widespread problem of phony academic credentials among government employees. "Doctor" Callahan made it to the position of deputy chief information officer in the Department of Homeland Security before being forced to resign.

Two actresses

For anyone checking in from last semester--

Ruth Warrick (Emily, the first Mrs. Kane in Citizen Kane) and Virginia Mayo (Marie Derry in The Best Years of Our Lives) just died. The links are to the obituaries in the New York Times.

[Reminder: To read articles from the New York Times, type mediajunkie for both your name and password. At, you can find passwords for many free sites that require registration.]

Monday, January 17, 2005

Stanley Lombardo interview

3009 students: You can find the text of an interview with Stanley Lombardo in this issue of Jacket, an on-line poetry magazine.

Much of what's said might not click, but I think that anyone who's started reading Homer can pick up something from this interview. Students who've read the interview after reading Homer for a while have told me that they wish they had read it when they started reading Homer.

Jacket, the home of this interview, is edited and published by John Tranter in Australia.

Odysseus and odium

From the word-a-day list offered by

odium (O-dee-uhm) noun

1. Hatred accompanied by contempt.
2. A state of infamy or disgrace.

[From Latin odium (hatred), from odisse (to hate). Ultimately from Indo-European root od- (to hate) that is also the source of the words hate, annoy, noisome, and ennui.]

Friday, January 14, 2005


Here's a link to the most-requested materials at the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University.

You'll find texts and audio clips (Acrobat, Quicktime, and Realmedia) of "Letter from Birmingham Jail," "I Have a Dream," King's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "Beyond Vietnam," and "I've Been to the Mountaintop."

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

How to improve writing (no. 2 in a series)

From an invitation to an evening of financial aid information:

This is open to all studetns and parents that are going to be attending in the fall and to those that have decided to further their education elsewhere.
It's always good to avoid this alone--it's a weak word and often vague in its reference (and here I thank Jim Doyle, James P. Doyle, Dr. Doyle, who called me on this when I was a college freshman).

Studetns is a reminder to always use a spellchecker. Though it can't substitute for proofreading, it'll at least find some typos.

Who not that is appropriate for people.

The real problem here though is that the writer hasn't read the sentence carefully--it's students who'll be attending in the fall, not their parents. An improved version might read as follows:
This evening is open to students who will be attending in the fall, students who have decided to further their education elsewhere, and all parents.
Link » Other How to improve writing posts, via

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Kenneth Koch

3703 students: You can read about the author of Making Your Own Days in this issue of Jacket, an on-line magazine of contemporary poetry (the on-line magazine, really). The piece by Charles North is probably the best place to start. Don't miss the link to "Popeye and William Blake Fight to the Death," a recording of a spontaneous collaboration between Koch and Allen Ginsberg (in front of a standing-room-only audience). Koch's quick wit in coming up with rhymes is almost scary.

Koch's exuberance is evident even in his handwriting, as you can see here.

Monday, January 10, 2005


Once I figured out how to spell this word (which came up in my 9:00 Myth and Culture class), it was pretty easy to find its origins on-line. From

Main Entry: capeesh
Part of Speech: interjection
Definition: do you understand?
Example: I will call you when dinner is ready. Capeesh?
Etymology: Italian capisce "understand"
Source: Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English, Preview Edition (v 0.9.5)
And from
What they're actually saying is "coppish" (kuh-PEESH, also sometimes spelled "capeesh"), which is definitely not Welsh (too many vowels, just for starters). It's Italian-American slang for "understand." "Coppish" comes from the Italian word "capisce," based on the verb "capire," meaning "to understand," and can be used as either a question or an answer. Like many dialect words born in immigrant communities, "coppish" affirms a bond between the speaker and listener. "Coppish?" thus often really means, "I know you understand, because you're one of us." And the reply "Coppish!" means "You bet, no problem, you can count on me."


How to e-mail a professor

[By a professor, for students. As of January 2013, this post has been visited by more than 400,000 readers, from Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia And Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burma, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Estonia, Ethiopia, the Faroe Islands, Fiji, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Guam, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Lithuania, Macau, Macedonia, Malaysia, Maldives, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territory, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sudan, Swaziland, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, Vietnam, the Virgin Islands, and Zimbabwe. Welcome, everyone.]

I've read enough e-mails to know that many college students could benefit from some guidelines for writing an e-mail to a professor. Here they are:

Write from your college or university e-mail account. That immediately lets your professor see that your e-mail is legitimate and not spam. The cryptic or cutesy or salacious personal e-mail address that might be okay when you send an e-mail to a friend is not appropriate when you're writing to a professor.

Include the course number in your subject line. "Question about 3009 assignment" is clear and sounds genuine, while "a question" looks like spam. "Question about English assignment" or "question about assignment," without identifying the class you're in, may leave your professor with the chore of figuring that out. For someone teaching large lecture classes, that might mean reading through hundreds of names on rosters. But even for a professor with smaller classes, it's a drag to get an e-mail that merely says "I'm in your English class and need the assignment." All your English professor's classes are English classes; she or he still needs to know which one is yours.

Consider, in light of this advice, the following examples:

An e-mail from "qtpie2005" with the subject line "question."

An e-mail from a university account with the subject line "question about English 2011 essay."
Which one looks legitimate? Which one looks like spam?

Think about what you're saying. Most students are not accustomed to writing to their professors. Here are some ways to do it well:
Choose an appropriate greeting. "Hi/Hello Professor [Blank]" is always appropriate. Substitute "Dear" and you've ended up writing a letter; leave out "Hi" and your tone is too brusque.

Avoid rote apologies for missing class. Most professors are tired of hearing those standard apologies and acts of contrition. If you missed class because of some especially serious or sad circumstances, it might be better to mention that in person than in an e-mail.

Ask politely. "Could you e-mail me the page numbers for the next reading? Thanks!" is a lot better than "I need the assignment."

Proofread what you've written. You want your e-mail to show you in the best possible light.

Sign with your full name, course number, and meeting time.

        Maggie Simpson
        English 3703, MWF 10:00

Signing is an obvious courtesy, and it eliminates the need for stilted self-identification ("I am a student in your such-and-such class").
One don't, and one last do:

Don't send unexpected attachments. It's bad form. Attaching an essay with a request that your professor look it over is very bad form. Arrange to meet your professor during office hours or by appointment instead. It's especially bad form to send an e-mail that says "I won't be in class today," with a paper or some other coursework attached. Think about it: Your professor is supposed to print out your essay because you're not coming to class?

When you get a reply, say thanks. Just hit Reply and say "Thanks," or a little bit more if that's appropriate. The old subject line (which will now have a "Re:" in front) will make the context clear. I don't think that you need to include a greeting with a short reply, at least not if you refer to your professor in your reply. And you don't need to identify yourself by course number and meeting time again.

Many e-mail messages end up never reaching their intended recipients, for reasons of human and technological error, so it's always appropriate to acknowledge that someone's message got through. It's also plain courtesy to say thanks. (Your professor will remember it too.) When you reply, you should delete almost everything of your professor's reply (quoting everything is rarely appropriate in e-mail). Leave just enough to make the original context clear.

So what would a good e-mail to a professor look like?
Hi Professor Leddy,

I'm working on my essay on William Carlos Williams and I'm not sure what to make of the last stanza of "Spring and All." I'm stuck trying to figure out what "It" is. Do you have a suggestion? Thanks!

Maggie Simpson
Eng 3703, MWF 10:00
And a subsequent note of thanks:
> "It" is most likely spring, or life itself. But have you
> looked up "quicken"? That'll probably make
> "It" much clearer.

It sure did. Thanks for your help, Professor.

Maggie Simpson
[How to e-mail a professor is licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 License. Revised September 26 and October 29, 2005; February 4, 2006. ]

More useful stuff for students:
Beware of the saurus
Granularity for students
How to answer a question in class
How to be a student a professor will remember (for the right reasons)
How to do well on a final exam
How to do horribly on a final exam
How to punctuate a sentence
How to punctuate more sentences
How to talk to a professor
How to unstuff a sentence
Is this honor society legitimate?
Rule 7
Seeing professors clearly
Slow down and read
Study = hard work
Syllabus week
Yo, professor!
And for professors:
How to e-mail a student
And if you want to read the most recent posts on Orange Crate Art, here's the front page.

[Some further thoughts: I'm astonished by the amount of interest in this post--over 1,600 visits in the past two days. Then again, there really isn't anything very similar on-line--or if there is, I haven't found it--so if what I've written is useful, well, I'm happy.

My one purpose in writing these guidelines was to help college students write to their professors with greater ease and maturity and a better sense of audience (instead of "i am a student in your class"). They're guidelines for writing to a professor, any professor, in the absence of other guidelines. And they're meant to keep the e-mailer in the high esteem of any professor to whom he or she is writing.

Most of the reasoning behind the guidelines is omitted for concision. But I'll elaborate a little here. Why, for instance, write from a university account? A professor filtering spam will almost certainly also have a filter to okay mail from addresses from her or his "edu." So if you want your mail to get through, an "edu" account is a smart choice. Many schools require students to use those accounts for official school business already. Writing from an appropriate address is smart practice for the future too. (I always say something when I see a tacky or juvenile e-mail address on an otherwise polished student résumé.)

Why say "Hi/Hello Professor [Blank]?" Well, what should a student call a professor? Some people like "Doctor"; some don't. Some people don't have a doctorate. Some people don't explain any of that to students. There was a great piece in the Chronicle about this subject not long ago--"What Should We Call the Professor?" Professor, in the absence of any other guidelines, seems like a good choice.

Having received many telegraphic one-sentence e-mails, often with no greeting, no thank-you, and no signature, I find them weirdly depersonalized: "I need the assignment." I do think a question is better, better even than a polite "Please send the assignment," because the question is more conversational, more human. (But if a student e-mails me and says "I need the assignment," I send it.)

Why sign with your name, class, and meeting time? It's a courtesy, yes, but it also avoids the awkward "My name is . . . , and I am a student in your such-and-such class," all of which is taken care of in the signature. It occurs to me that "My name is . . . , and I am a student in . . ." is telling evidence of the unfamiliarity of e-mail as a way for students to communicate with professors.

I appreciate the point several commenters have made about a follow-up thank-you being unneeded. Still, a lot of e-mail doesn't get through, and the follow-up, to my mind, closes the loop. Many people do a follow-up by using the subject line to say thanks, often followed by the abbreviation "eom" (end of message). That seemed to me too arcane to recommend. But I do like the idea of closing the loop by saying yes, I got it, thanks.

I hope that this post leads to much more talking on the part of professors and students about communicating by e-mail. All reports from the business world point to enormous problems of clarity, correctness, and decorum with e-mail writing. Maybe things can start to go better in college.

Added September 30, 2005; revised October 29, 2005.]

On the relevance of the classics

At Chicago's Wilbur Wright College, where the majority of students are immigrants, nonwhite, or both, Professor Bruce Gans runs a successful Great Books Curriculum, with an enrollment of about 900. Students in this program, compared with their schoolmates, greatly improve their writing skills, have far higher graduation rates, and are better prepared to transfer to four-year colleges. Meanwhile, Earl Shorris has developed the Clemente Course, a classical curriculum aimed specifically at people living in poverty. His first syllabus ranged from Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and Thucydides' Peloponnesian War to William Blake and D. H. Lawrence. And yes, Plato is intensely relevant to former drug addicts. "Those of us in the grip of addiction use this process to rethink our lives," one student explains. "Socrates makes clear that you have to have the courage to examine yourself and to stand up for something. A lot of us have justified our weaknesses for too long a time."
From an essay by Jonathan Rose, "The Classics in the Slums."

Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Saturday night quesadillas

Another adventure in cooking. To make this dish you'll need

2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 large green pepper (or 2 smaller ones)
1 small package of mushrooms
1 bunch green onions (scallions)
1 packet fajita mix
shredded cheese
8 soft tortillas (1 package)
olive oil
sour cream
hot (not sweet) paprika
For less drama, do all the chopping before beginning to cook. And preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

1. Cut the chicken into small pieces (larger than a caramel square, smaller than a ping-pong ball). The easiest way to do this work is with a cleaver (whack!) or a very sharp knife. Be careful! Watch the way people cut and chop on cooking shows--they keep their fingers curled under and in, not splayed out where the knife can get them.

2. Begin cooking the chicken in a large pan with a little olive oil, medium heat.

3. When the chicken begins to get a little brown, add some mushrooms (about half the package), chopped into small pieces, and let things cook a while.

4. Add the green pepper, chopped into small pieces, and let things cook a while.

5. Mix a packet of fajita seasoning with the necessary amount of water and add to the pan.

6. Let everything cook for a while. The vegetables and the water (duh!) will keep everything from overcooking and drying out. Your pan should be bubbling and steaming as the green pepper is pulverized.

7. To make a quesadilla, put some of the chicken-mushroom-pepper on a soft tortilla. Add some shredded cheese (the 3- or 4-cheese combinations are good) and some salsa. Cover with another soft tortilla and let it sit in the oven for a few minutes. (Not too long!)

8. When the quesadilla is out of the oven, cover the top tortilla with a some sour cream and a light sprinkling of hot paprika. Then garnish generously with chopped green onions (scallions). (The sour cream will help the scallions stay in place.)

9. Serve with salsa and applesauce on the side. (That's the way they do it at What's Cookin' in Charleston, IL.)

Is applesauce a traditional Mexican or Tex-Mex garnish? I have no idea.

Two pounds of chicken should be enough for four large quesadillas (one package of tortillas), which will easily feed four or five people.

[An earlier post has more adventures in cooking.]