Perhaps it's simply the season--the lethargy and inertia that emerges in the heat of summer--or maybe it's the specter of change in the work environment that shadows my teaching life these days, but I can't seem to get much done today. To paraphrase (badly) Bob Dylan, I ain't goin' nowhere.
In the first place, it's getting hot. In a house without central air conditioning, temperatures over 100 can be debilitating--even when some of the rooms have window units that keep them cool enough. These days we're only using two rooms--the bedroom and the study. We'd probably leave the bedroom out of the equation, except at night, but we have an old cat (18 years) who doesn't like to come downstairs. The other three feline members of the family occupy open window sills and the grate where an old heating unit used to be housed, but which is now simply open to the space under the house. The attic fans pull cool air up through it, and at least one cat can be found lounging on it all day. The dogs stay in the study where we do most of our work, and which is curtained off with a portière from the rest of the house so they can still run out and bark at the mail carrier and any passing dogs or baby strollers that have the effrontery to use the sidewalk in front. I've jacked the thermostat on the units up to 83, which is quite comfortable, but it's really hard to get any work done in any other part of the house.
The summer quarter is in full swing, and my students are, so far, engaging and hard-working; but the department in which I teach is bereft of a director at the moment, and the search for a new one entails a certain amount of angst among the affected faculty. Because ours is a proprietary school, run by a corporation interested in its profit margin, we tremble at the notion of being saddled with martinet fixated on assessment and student retention, rather than on the problems of teaching the liberal arts in an institution that tries hard not to be seen as a trade school, but is still ambivalent about the necessity of what we do. While all this is going on, I'm spending most of my non-teaching time revising lectures to make them more visually exciting in order to combat student prejudices against history courses. The past just isn't immediately relevant to these guys, so I have to show them how cool it all really is--in 100 images or fewer per week.
But even the rather pleasurable task of finding some new images for my upcoming Vienna Secession/Art Nouveau lecture hasn't been enough to stave off entropy, and I was busy procrastinating this morning (by playing with my new printer/scanner, reading today's New York Times online, and sorting through my image library). In the Times I ran into a review of Ammon Shea's new book, Reading the OED--about reading through the entire Oxford English Dictionary. Since noodling through my compact edition of the OED is one of my favorite ways to ploiter ("work to little purpose"--a word mentioned in Nicholson Baker's article), I enjoyed both reading the review and checking out Shea's minimalist web page.
Later, while revisiting my image library (which is, as it turns out, enormous--about 5000 strong), I ran across the results of a workshop my students used to do at midterm. Before, that is, the assessment regime caught up with me and I had to start administering exams to gauge their progress on course objectives. At any rate, the assigned task involved setting up a still life patterned after an impressionist or post-impressionist painting, taking a digital photograph of the results, and then manipulating the photo back into an image in the style of a nineteenth-century art movement. It was always fun, and the results were often brilliant; and now I'm thinking of making it a segment of the exam.
The still-lifes were usually patterned on works by Paul Cézanne or Vincent van Gogh, and usually involved plates of fruit, pitchers or glasses, and table cloths. But at one point I brought in my hiking boots and a copy of van Gogh's painting of his shoes--made philosophically notorious by Martin Heidegger's essay, The Origin of the Work of Art. I've used some of the results to illustrate this post--and included Wikipedia's image of the painting here for comparison.
Just this week I have been newly amazed with the creativity our students muster, especially in light of tight deadlines, heavy work-loads, and an accelerated program. While sitting in on a colleague's course in Conceptual Typography, I have spent the last three weeks (four hours per week) trying to keep up with these kids, and not doing a very good job of it. The software is difficult for an old fart (Adobe Illustrator and In Design, neither of which I had even opened before the course began), the assignments are challenging (although rather fun), and the students' solutions are always far more creative and energetic than mine are. Still, I can see how what I'm trying to teach them can help them to ground their creativity and perhaps make some new connections.
So now, having completed my ploitering for the day, I'm inspired to get back to work on the lecture. At least until the sun hits the west windows and I'm forced to close the shades and retire from the heat with a cold beer in front of the A/C.
Image credits: Midterm workshop in History of Art and Design II, Summer 2006: Amy Saunders, Brent Hollon, Lucy Miron, [Vincent van Gogh], and Tiffany Obenhaus. Click on the images for larger views that show them off quite a bit better than the thumbnails do.