Tuesday, April 26, 2011


"I know this is late, but will you take it anyway?"  It's not typed. It's handwritten on raggedy-ass notebook paper with those edges that make it impossible for me to keep papers straight. I try to look sympathetic.

"I don't accept late work." My student glares at me.

"I was at the doctor."
"Are you alright? You're not contagious?" I feign fear and back away a step or two. My student is probably fine. The next student asks me to accept his late paper; almost a week late.
"My Grandma died." Mine died too and I didn't miss any work. We all grieve in our own ways.  His grandma dies twice a year: once before Thanksgiving and once the week before Spring Break.
"My internet was down."
"I didn't know it was due."
"My computer died!"
"My free subscription to Word 2010 ended and now I can't open it."
And my personal favorite: "You let turn last week's in late" (uh, no I didn't).
All of these earn the same response from me.  I am sympathetic.  I wish I could help, really I do, but I don't move boundaries for anyone unless they are either a) having a baby in front of me and I see a leg or something, or b) their academic advisor/veterans dude calls me or c) they just found a conjoined twin on their leg and it's going to take more than a week to have that little problem taken care of.  I'm still waiting for c to happen. Don't ask me about a.

After all, don't we all just want to be an exception to the rule?

I am not without compassion: students may miss up to an entire week of school with no adverse effect, provided they keep up with the work. I don't repeat class discussion and I don't accept late papers.  Athletes who have to be gone still have to turn their stuff in on time.  These parameters, contingencies and guidelines are all laid out in the syllabus and I do not protect my students from their consequences. I also do not ask for protection when I do stupid things.  I do stupid things all of the time, I just don't ask to be let out of it.

Those boundaries aren't in place for my students.  They are there for me.  I'm drawing a line in the sand and saying that this line shall not be crossed.  Sometimes I wish I had Gandalf and a giant sword, beard and Balroc to protect me and yell "You shall not pass!!"  because indeed, a student shall not pass without towing the line.  In some ways, I do.  I have a second, professional social networking page so that I can interact with my students.

One student skipped class on Monday.  He posted the following on my wall: "I didn't go to your class today.  Can I turn in my reflection and bring my items to you Wednesday?"

Another student replied on my behalf: "No!!! It was your responsibility to get to class and get that stuff turned in, what about all the other kids who turned their stuff in on time? Are you better than them?? Do rules not apply to you?? Why should you be able to slack off and not get punished for it? And another thing, if you're gonna ask for something you should go to her office during her office hours and talk to her face to face, not thru facebook. Teach him responsibility Mrs Dieu!!"

I couldn't just let that go, so I replied as well: "I name [Student's Name] as the Composition Bouncer.  Forever!"

I know that I'm not alone in the setting and enforcement of boundaries. Others want clear boundaries too.  But here's the thing I know about human nature: If you draw a line in the sand, someone just has got to got to got to fucking cross it.  It calls to them.  It's a guarantee that if I declare an absolute, someone has to break it. Let's take my friend Leah, for instance.  I freaking adore her and her writing.  But she is impulsive and loves to break societal rules and, you know, sorta push boundaries.  I think that secretly, she wants to get caught, to know where the absolute boundary lies, to see where she cannot push past.  I hope she doesn't die looking for that. But part of me really hopes that she just keeps pushing those boundaries because I'm the same exact way. Minus all of the drugs, illegal shit and uh, ok, minus anything that isn't particularly acceptable, like breaking stuff.  She's short and funny and I'm tall and needlessly academic.  But you get the idea- I'm totally Miss Rebelwithoutaclue. 

The boundaries I care about most are the ones I set around me.  I have a certain level of behavior towards myself that I expect from others and when they cross lines and make me uncomfortable, it's my job to enforce my own boundaries.  Before that happens, though, it's really my job to clearly communicate those expectations.  Let me give an example.  I love punctuality in others.  I need routine and dependability and someone who tips well and doesn't go on a stupid power trip with the wait staff at a restaurant. I like it when people are faithful, kind to animals and can carry on a conversation just like a human being.

I especially like a schedule.  If we make plans, my little brain only wants to do that thing.  I remember some poor date of mine who wanted to spontaneously change the plans we had made for that night.  And he was five minutes late.  Seriously, this is a problem with me. We were en route for the activity and he just wanted to change that.  For many people, this is not a problem.  Given enough time to recalibrate, I could have been ok with it.  But no, no time to ponder, consider wardrobe, or get my head in the right direction.

I could have said "No, I think we should follow the plan."
I could have said "Yeah, maybe we could do that other thing another time."
I did not say "I'm not really comfortable with that."

I said "Fine." And the night ended in disaster.  I can't even remember that poor guy's name but I do know that I never spoke to him again.  Seriously, who shows up five minutes late without letting me know he's going to be fucking late?

Yes, I am aware that I'm crazy.

I also try to always do what I say I'm going to do.  Because of this, I am reluctant to commit to things unless I'm sure I can do them.

When someone crosses a boundary that they and I both know I have set in place, I have choices to make.  The first and most healthful choice is to reiterate my own position and enforce the boundary.  No harm, no foul; all is well.  My second choice is to silently cut the person to pieces and live with a transgression that they may or may not care that they have committed. I'd expect them to do it again, too.  I do so enjoy pouting and resentment. The third choice is to accept the behavior, take responsibility for my part in allowing that boundary to be crossed and either re-think that rule I have made or enforcing it more consistently next time.

It's a wonder that I'm still single.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Haven't I Said This Before?

Lashanda Armstrong, Susan Smith and Andrea Yates all had a commonality: Each mother drowned their children. For Lashanda, it was driving her minivan into the Hudson river and killing all inside, including herself and three of her four young children.  Her oldest son was able to escape and go for help. For Susan Smith, it was strapping her two toddlers into their car seats and releasing the brake on their car, watching as it sank into a lake in Union, South Carolina. She blamed "a black man", saying that she had been carjacked at an intersection, and kept up the ruse for nine days.  Racial profiling, anyone? For Andrea Yates, it was the denial of her extreme mental illness and hallucinations and a doctor who took her off of her medicine two days before she drowned her five children in a bathtub, saying "Think positive thoughts". She had told her mother-in-law several times that she filled the bathtub with water "in case I need it". In the first two cases, the women were described as good moms who would never do anything harmful. In Andrea Yates' case, let's face it: there were many many warning signs that were flat-out ignored by her husband, his family, their loony pastor (who might just be as culpable as Andrea) and mental health professionals.

As I reflect on these tragedies, I wonder how it would be possible for a woman to find herself in such an impossible situation.  I remember growing up that we moved early and often, and that there was little permanence to our residences.  Things happen in families; bad things, tragic things and events from which one might never recover.  In my mom's case, it was the loss of her husband, leaving her with three young children and another on the way.  What kept her from becoming a homicidal maniac?  What keeps any woman from doing the same?

I'm not sure I know. But I have a few ideas.
My niece Jessica and Me
Janis showing Britton her new tattoo

For the record, I love my mom.  She's a lot tougher than you might imagine a sixty-five year-old woman could be.  She is not well educated and she is certainly not well-off. But my mom can do things- practical things- which will forever escape me.  For instance, she can knit, crochet and quilt.  She can make clothing. She is a decent photographer and in my younger years, made beautiful stained-glass objects, including a lampshade and several window hangers.  She and my step-dad taught me how to skin and process a deer.

My mom had support her whole life. Not so much financial support, but emotional.  She was able to count on other women when her plans and ideas went astray.  My dad's sister, Lorraine, was there when my dad was killed.  They had spent years together raising children- Aunt Rain (as we call her) had four of her own, and only one boy out of eight). Eventually, my mom moved "home", to Dayton and had others to count on; aunts and female cousins and some high school friends.  She made friends along the way, too. Currently, my mom lives in Joseph, Oregon, with her husband, and spends time with her women friends and she also visits my sister in Dayton, because they are the ones who keep her sane.

I want to know where the women were in the lives of Lashanda, Susan and Andrea.  There is no mention of Andrea having women friends or even an intervention by her own mother.  Susan's mom betrayed her.  When Susan's step-father molested her, he was only required to leave the house for one night.  Then Susan's mother brought him home, saying she would rather sacrifice her child for her husband.  He continued to rape her for years and years afterwards.  Susan didn't have female friends- other women were merely competition.  Of Lashanda I know nothing.  I suspect, however, that for whatever reason, she didn't have many women to rely on or trust.

Did we not used to band together as women to spend time working and talking and raising children together? I remember camping and family reunions and friendships~ many of which still continue today from when I was a child.  I do know where my friends are.  They serve different purposes in my life. Sometimes my women friends and I plot the takeover of the world.  Sometimes we complain and listen to each other's problems (then plot the overthrow of the world).  Sometimes we just go have fun and be silly and other times we buckle down and work our asses off together to accomplish more and keep each other focused.  We talk about the men in our lives.  Yes, men, we talk about you!  But it's not what you think.  Ok, sometimes it is what you think.  But not all of the time.  Not all of my female friends are heterosexual, and we still talk about men- but also about women and people in general. And women talk about politics and how the world might be a better place. We inspire each other and act as that safety valve for letting off steam when circumstances (even those of our own doing) make life a daily pressure cooker. My friends remind me to be gentle with myself and that I am worth taking care of.

Shelly and Mindie
This is not to say that I don't have important male friendships in my life.  I do. I have a number of healthy friendships with men.  One of my favorite men is my first cousin, Christian.  It's nice to have a shared family history and to speak frankly to one another without fear of hurting each other's feelings. It's good to have someone call me on my bullshit. Men need other men too, for the purpose of community and yes, even an emotional connection so that when things go bad (or good), you know that someone has your back. I'm not certain how those things work but I believe there is hunting or sports involved, plus a little beer and a ton of Brut cologne.  Or Old Spice.

Mindie and Kat
Orinda and Me- friends since 1986
Perhaps if more people had healthy same-sex friendships and a feeling of connection and belonging, there would be less pain in the world.  My life is made better by the friends I have made and kept up with, most especially my women friends.  For me, this is one of the factors, one of the things that makes a difference between the Lashonda Armstrongs, Susan Smiths, and Andrea Yates' of the world and the rest who do not commit violent acts. It's not the only thing, but community and belonging are important components of mental health.  So today instead of grading papers, I'm going to go to Norman and Oklahoma City and catch up with some friends.
Family! My cousin Chryssee, her daughter (my "niece") Allie, and my Grandma


Monday, April 11, 2011

Peace, Pulp Fiction and Big Trouble in Little China

I go a long way in search of peace.  I create peace whenever possible.  I am sometimes rewarded big time with peaceful moments, small and quiet, that stop my heart and the blood rushing quickly from my heart.  This weekend, I drove two hours to Tulsa to meet my good friends the Hargraves.  We've been friends for almost ten years now and sometimes go on vacation together.  I earned my black belt in Kempo from their martial arts school and taught Kempo and yoga in the same place for some time as well. These are good friends and I love to spend holidays and birthdays with them.  They have a lovely old three-story Victorian home in Eureka Springs.  Beautiful weekend home on a street close to the historic Crescent hotel.  I jog or walk up there every time I get a chance to vacation with my friends.  And in this house I have my own bedroom and a balcony that overlooks the Ozark mountains.  In the mornings, Patricia and I have coffee out there and talk about life and the universe and everything.  So I drove to Tulsa to meet them, jumped in the truck with Patricia, Carter and their two corgi's and a long-haired orange Tabby cat named "Krispy" and we drove another three hours to Eureka Springs.

It was worth it. I had one of those peaceful moments on Saturday morning.  I woke up and the sun was out.  It was early and I knew I could go back to sleep.  I inhaled and stretched with only one thought on my mind: I am in Eureka Springs.  The day is mine.  This will be as lovely as all of our other trips.  We are going to walk and shop and talk and visit and laugh and eat Indian food.  Life is so good. Ah, heck.  That may be more than one thought, but that series of thoughts led up to the really great thought and, well, you get the idea.  Life is good.

It was good. It was better than good; it was wonderful.  We ate at Mr. Bill's three times.  If you ever get the chance, go visit his restaurant.  The New Delhi Cafe is an award winning local and regional favorite.  Mr. Bill has his spices shipped directly from his Aunt in India to his door. For breakfast I recommend "Pat's Special".  For lunch, the buffet, of course.  There is nothing like it from sag to his amazing tiki marsala and the mango lassie drink special.  Pretty much to die for.  Dinner is samosas and strawberry/mango margaritas.  And a taxi home.

I can hardly think of anything that would disrupt such happiness.  Good friends, good food, a festive atmosphere in a beautiful mountain artist colony...all was perfect.  Except for that one niggling thought that haunted me.


Yes, I caught another plagiarist last week.  It keeps me up at night.  It's like this: I spend my professional life teaching.  I put in my soul, my compassion, my intellect, my integrity into what I do.  I do it because I love it and I strive to be a model of the way I'd like people to behave.  Not always on time per se, but ready and willing and honest.  Above all, at least not lying.  You know?  And then once in awhile, a student sort of metaphorically moseys up to me and urinates in my ear.  Because that's what he or she thinks of my life and everything I'm trying to do.  Because whatever bull-fuckin-shit they are doing is so much more important than figuring out how to form compound and complex sentences into a coherent argument that just happens to be correctly cited.  Because, you know, hanging out until 2 a.m. and drinking/fucking/giggling/snorting/smoking is going to get them much farther in life and will also contribute to the well-being of themselves and their community.

Now, there seem to be a few kinds of plagiarists.  The easy ones to spot are the cut-and-pasters who just don't know better. Their handiwork is obvious  You give them a simple spelling test and say "hey, what the hell is wrong with you?!" and they learn the difference between plagiarism and citations.  Maybe in high school nobody taught them what plagiarism is.  I teach what plagiarism is and how to avoid it but maybe they missed that day (eyeroll).
Then there is the desperate plagiarist.  They have overloaded themselves with classes this semester.  They work two jobs and have kids or parents to care for.  They are trying to eat an elephant in two bites.  Also easy to spot and easy to correct.
Finally is the "I'm smarter than you" plagiarist.  There are two sub-categories of this typer of cheater; those who get caught and those who don't.  Of those who do not get caught, I must say "Kudos", for you are obviously smarter than I am and your lazy ass will be supported throughout your career by your mom or some unlucky secretary who does all of your work.  Shame on you, you asshat. Then there is the cheater who thinks they are smarter than I am, but alas, they have miscalculated.  It may not be the first time you have plagiarized, but this is the first time that I have caught you.

And you must pay.

I have a rich fantasy life and in it, I am sometimes Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction, played by Samuel L. Jackson.  I also have his amazing afro with sideburns and chops and a suit and a giant pistol that I point at plagiarists and say "Do I look like a bitch to you?!"
Student: "Wha...what?"
Me: (throwing a red-marked term paper at them) "I said, do I look like a bitch to you?!"
Student: "Nnnoo."
Me: "Then you are you trying to fuck me like a bitch?!"
Student: "What?!"
Me: (cocking gun) "Say what again!"
Student: (pees pants) "What?!"

There is no trick to catching people when they cheat.  There is no real secret here. People have strategies.  Some use the turnitin website and I find that to be somewhat effective if unnecessary.  Others don't care so much and don't check at all.  They are overwhelmed with the sheer number of students.  Indeed, the most students I have ever had is 125, which I enjoyed last semester.  And I knew their names too.  How I do it is by asking students on the first few days to write an autobiography- something short and personal that only they would be able to write. From that I know them and their writing voice.  I know the kinds of words they would know and not know and later, when formal writing comes out, if they go too far from that, I start checking for plagiarism.  How do I check? Well, that part is a secret.  Did you ever watch the move "Big Trouble In Little China"? It has Kurt Russell in it as a truck driver named Jack who starts in a card game (double or nothing, Jack) and gets wrapped up in the magic of Chinatown San Francisco.  When asked to explain how he managed a particularly incredible feat, he answered "You know, it's all in the reflexes".  I'm gonna go with that.

For the record, I considered describing the gimp scene with a scimitar and a ball gag because sometimes I'm also Bruce Willis' character Butch.  Sigh. It never really happens that way in real life.  I have to somehow do this professionally.  So I make people uncomfortable by telling stories. True stories.

Did I tell you about the time that one of my students at that large research university in Oklahoma plagiarized a paper?  I read it and it was out of character for his voice. It was also wooden and contained elements of analysis I did not ask for in his assignment.  This is another reason I like writing unique assignments.  So I confronted him and showed him the website from which he had stolen the information.
The student became indignant.  He insisted that he actually stole it from his friend's blog on that very subject.  I said that no, the original source was the one I showed him and that his friend had also stolen the material and passed it off as her own.  He said he felt betrayed.  I said "How do you think I feel?".  No effect, of course.  His punishment was that he couldn't get an A in the class, which he fought for the remaining 12 weeks of the semester despite the smirk on his face and his determination to show me that he had learned his lesson and that I should forgive his indiscretion.  I am only forgiving to a point and allowing that student to remain in the class was a pretty big deal already.

It doesn't always go that way.  My last offender came to my office hours and spent an hour figuring out his mistake using the reference book.  After that, he came to have me check his work prior to turning it in and he did so well, I had him teach more citation stuff to the class.  I am proud of him and his efforts.

So yes, during my rest and relaxation, I took time to brood, to contemplate, to plot the demise of my latest plagiarizer. I suspect that this person has been doing it for awhile.  That's all I will say about that except that I'm thinking of punishment using a chainsaw and an Al Pacino voice: Say hello to my little friend.    

Good thing I have had a few moments of peace.  And some amazing food.  My friend Victor Rojas-Jordi, who is from Tenerife, the Canary Islands (a Spanish territory), used to eat at my house all of the time.  When his parents came to take him home, the came to share a meal with me.  They did not speak English and my Spanish was much better then.  We had tinto, tapas and paella and sobremesa, a tradition they shared that I like to keep.  Once the food has been eaten and the coffee poured, everyone sits around the table and talks for awhile.  Dishes will get done and there is time for that later.  The important thing is that we are all together and we share a few moments of conversation.

I remembered that this weekend.  The important thing was in that moment of talking, laughing, catching up and making happy plans, of enjoying what life had to offer, the dishes I would do and the plagiarists I would torture had no place.  I am so glad I remembered. I came out of my comfy little shell a bit too.

But have no fear, friends.  Tomorrow, Jules and his sideburns of doom will make his appearance.  And if my victim tries to wriggle away? As they say, It's all in the reflexes. Triple or nothing, Jack.