Sunday, November 15, 2009


It's a well-known fact that people with PhDs have no common sense. It has something to do with spending too much time in dark rooms with books, and something else to do with idealism and ivory towers. Anyway, I'm here to reinforce that little stereotype with a story.

A young kid showed up at our door on Friday. He was wearing skinny jeans and dirty converse shoes and some nondescript t-shirt. He was probably in his mid-20s and he stood, pigeon toed, and fidgeted through a speech he'd clearly practiced. He was a junior at UF, he said, and was raising money to study with a BBC TV program we recognized. He didn't want money directly, though; he would be funded if he convinced people to purchase a certain number of books for a children's literacy program. He showed me a brochure I was too busy to examine closely; we were on our way out for the evening.

At this point in Pigeon-Toed's speech, I began to hear sirens. They sounded like fire engines and they got louder and louder, trying to blot out the kid's voice. But I remembered growing up in Linden -- the capital of small town USA --, and how hard it was to fundraise, and how people always helped me out when I needed to go on a school-related trip. Andrew seemed to think the guy was OK and he has much better sense than I do. So the kid gave us his name, pointed to his house, took our check, gave us a receipt for tracking our book order, and disappeared.

By this point the sirens had dulled. Instead, I felt a gnawing in my gut that translated to "wrongwrongwrongwrongwrong."

Fast-forward to one day later. That same gnawing chewed my husband out of sleep at 2 AM. His city-boy instincts finally kicked in. He searched the internet for the scam, and there was the boy's canned speech, the general description of the types of scammers who engage in this scheme, and all of the actions people had taken to try to stop the criminals.

The rest of what happened isn't important. We put a stop payment on the check and signed up for fraud monitoring, since this crook now had our bank account number. He never got the money.

But it taught me a lesson I'd hoped never to learn about trusting young faces and supporting people's endeavors in hard times. It also taught me something frightening about the state of the economy; what kind of a person has such a hard time that he decides to show his face to the people he's robbing? What WON'T a person like that do? And why, in heaven's name, didn't I know any better?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cacoethes Scribendi

I am a hypocritical composition teacher. Let me explain why.

I tell my students that I believe anyone can develop the fervor for writing, when really I believe I was born with a hunger to do it. This impulse used to be called cacoethes scribendi, often erroneously translated "the urge to write." While it's true scribendi means to write, cacoethes is more akin to madness than inspiration. I could no more ignore the impulse to write as I could to eat or breathe, and trying to explain that to people required to take a composition class has always seemed silly, if not strange and overtly sentimental.

I tell my students that six sources is enough for a research paper when I truly believe that scholars are born with a fire located in the center of their bodies that tells them when they can begin losing themselves in books and tells them again when they can stop and write. I don't read to get to know a subject better. I sink my teeth into subjects like a rabid dog tears into his last meal. I want to rip open every last bit of the subject before I put pen to paper and God help anybody who tries to stand in my way.

I tell my students the best work is carefully outlined and prepared when I secretly write like a woman possessed, letting the pages come out of me like some kind of sickness. When I'm done, I always think of Anne Bradstreet, not because I come anywhere close to her sense of irony or wit, but because she compared her finished product to a monstrous child, hideous when shown to the light of the world.

Sometimes I wonder how I could share this kind of thing with my own composition students without making them suggest that I belong in an asylum. How do you tell people who so desire structure, who want you to show them the steps to becoming a better writer, that it's an urge in the back of your mind or a fire in your core, and that, when you listen to your instincts, they'll take you farther than any composition textbook ever could?