Life lessons

Cardboard robot

In my first-year writing classes, I typically start with five minutes of freewriting. Since some folks don’t know where to start when they set pen to paper or fingers to keys, I use a random word generator to give students a nudge if they need it.

The fish listened intently to what the frogs had to say.

Frog fountain

Today, I realized the random word generator I use also has a random sentence generator. According to the FAQ on that page, the sentences are not computer-generated; instead, the site draws from a database of human-authored sentences. (It isn’t clear where these sentences come from, although the FAQ says it’s possible to “donate” your own sentences to their database.)

Pat ordered a ghost pepper pie.

Now serving beer and wine...with pie?

Next week, a handful of my Framingham State colleagues and I will start planning this year’s retreat for first-year writing instructors. The topic of this year’s retreat will be the impact of ChatGPT and large-language models (LLMs) in composition classrooms. Although much of the media coverage of LLMs focuses on plagiarism and cheating, I’m equally interested in the ways tools such as ChatGPT can be used ethically, as a way to kickstart (not replace) creative and critical thinking.

I used to live in my neighbor’s fishpond, but the aesthetic wasn’t to my taste.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Earlier this week, I heard an NPR story in which a college student described the ways he uses ChatGPT as a brainstorming tool in his academic work. In a textual analysis of The Iliad, for example, he used ChatGPT to generate possible thesis statements, then he chose a thesis he agreed with and asked ChatGPT to write an outline. Given that outline, he went back to the text to find illustrative quotes, then he wrote his own paragraphs to flesh out the argument, creating an essay that would be difficult to flag using existing plagiarism-detection tools.

Carol drank the blood as if she were a vampire.

No more interviews with vampires.

Using ChatGPT to write an entire essay is clearly wrong, but is it wrong to use LLMs to help with brainstorming, organization, or other composition tasks? I had an international student this past semester tell me he uses ChatGPT to correct the grammar of his essays, for example, and I (personally) don’t have a problem with that. Is relying upon spell- or grammar-check (or hiring an editor) unethical? What about tools such as Grammarly and auto-correct? Does every single idea in a given essay have to come from your own brain, or is it okay to use a random word generator or quick Google search to jumpstart your thinking?

The fifty mannequin heads floating in the pool kind of freaked them out.

Mannequin heads

We encourage students to ask their professors and writing tutors for help, and we know students sometimes ask their friends, roommates, or even parents to read their essays. How many brilliant essays started as thought-provoking conversations where multiple people contributed ideas? Does asking for help or conferring with peers count as cheating? If asking a human for help is okay, why is collaborating with a computer different?

I can’t believe this is the eighth time I’m smashing open my piggy bank on the same day!

Trojan Piggybank

When it comes to the impact of LLMs in the first-year writing classroom, I have more questions than answers. I know tools such as ChatGPT are here to stay, and I know this generation of students will use generative AI in the workplace of the future. Given those realities, teaching students how to use technology responsibly and transparently is more helpful than banning technology outright. Sometimes allowing (and admitting) the randomness of real life leads to something creative and curious.

Be curious!

Although I myself wrote these paragraphs (with occasional grammar and usage corrections from Google Docs), I did not write the random sentences in between.

Reflective heron

On Thursday night, I went to the Zen Center to teach the meditation intro class, then I stayed for the weekly Dharma talk and Q&A. A man sitting behind me asked the Senior Dharma Teacher about his first meditation retreat, beginning his question with a sheepish admission: “It didn’t go how I expected.”

False Solomon's seal

Immediately other long-time practitioners and I erupted into laughter: yes, indeed! Retreats never go how you expected, because life never goes as expected. As the man sitting behind me described how he’d hoped the week after retreat to go smoothly with plenty of time to practice, but instead his time had been frittered away with unplanned obligations, I smiled and nodded. Been there, done (and continue to do) that.

Highbush blueberry

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades this past Monday, then I had hoped for a gentle reentry into Summer leisure. Instead, I’ve spent the week checking off to-dos, some planned and others unanticipated.

Canada mayflower

This week I had a routine mammogram (check), scheduled eye exams for later in the summer (check), and found, booked appointments with, and completed seemingly endless new-patient intake forms for a new dentist (check, check, check). I made a list of summer tasks–so many things to clean, weed out, or organize–and I started filling my calendar with Zen Center obligations, weekend outings with J, and a July trip to visit family in Ohio.


All of those tasks were expected–things I’ve been meaning to do for months, but were delayed until the end of the semester, when I’d have more time. What I didn’t expect, however, was for the heating element on the dishwasher to die–a repair I’ll schedule next week–or for Roxy to eat an entire leather leash yesterday, necessitating an emergency trip to the vet for x-rays today. Who would expect a dog who has never been a chewer to suddenly develop an appetite for leather?


Tomorrow J and I have tickets to a Connecticut Sun game–plans we’d made months ago–but whether or not we go is contingent on the state of Roxy’s digestion. Will she vomit chunks of leather like she did this morning, meaning a return trip to the vet, or will the special food they prescribed help everything “come out in the end” quite literally?

Heron and goose

Only time will tell. In the meantime, I never expected I’d spend this morning sifting through dog vomit, looking for chewed bits of leather, and I never would have predicted that now I’d prefer to find bits of leather in Roxy’s poop instead.

Webster Woods

Today’s photos are from a short walk I took at Hammond Pond Reservation after Monday morning’s mammogram, before the week turned hectic.

Honeysuckle buds

It’s the last week of classes at Babson and the penultimate week at Framingham State, and I’m beyond ready for the semester to be done. There comes a time every semester when you run out of things to teach. Students have their final project guidelines, and I have told them (repeatedly) what they need to do to complete those projects. Now it’s time for my students to do (or not do) the things I’ve told them.

This weekend I posted my last big batch of rough draft feedback; today and tomorrow I’ll post several smaller batches. In class this week and next, I’ll read students’ work and offer more feedback as they revise, and my email inbox will ebb and flow with a steady pulse of students sending drafts for yet more feedback. The last few weeks of the semester are a repetitive ritual of me reading drafts, making comments, then sending students off to Do The Thing they need to do, which is think more deeply then revise accordingly.

In this sense, being a college writing instructor is more akin to coaching than teaching. Yes, I can share my knowledge and experience as someone who has spent more time reading, researching, writing, and revising than my students have been alive, but ultimately I can’t write my students’ papers for them. Instead, I sit on the proverbial sidelines and try to direct, correct, and encourage. Okay, team: here’s what I want you to do. Now, go out there and do it.

Bloodroot surrounded by pachysandra

My Comp I students are starting to write their final “Theory of Writing” project, and to prepare I’ve asked them to read novelist Zadie Smith talking about the craft of writing. In her essay, Smith describes something she calls OPD, or Obsessive Perspective Disorder, which she faces whenever she starts a new novel and has to figure out what perspective to tell the story from.

Since my students aren’t writing novels, I’ve asked them to consider any writing obsessions they might have: do they always write about family or food or work or sports? I obsessively write about time: how much I have, how much I need, how quickly it’s passing, or what I plan or want to do with it. Some people crave money or drugs or food or sex: what I want, always, is more time.

As a writer, I’m obsessed with what I call Time Travel, where I compare what I’m doing today, this week, this month, or this year with what I did at the same time back then. Yesterday, for example, I shot a photo of bloodroot, just as I did almost exactly one year ago; the year before that, we had April snow flurries. My blog, handwritten journal, photo archive, and social media posts all allow me to look back and compare Now and Then. The passage of time–like sand through the hourglass–fascinates me in an almost hypnotic way.

As I age, I realize I’ve always been an Old Soul. Young people tend to see time as an infinite resource, but I’ve never fallen for that trap. I’ve always known that time is short; I’ve always known our lives are wending their inevitable way toward death. For me, writing is like creating a personal time capsule: I tell myself that someday in the future, I’ll want to look back on the person I was today. Recording is a way of remembering, and remembering is how we briefly hold onto a series of seconds as they silently slip away.

Stone labyrinth

Because I track weekly goals rather than New Year’s resolutions, every Monday morning is a chance to check and reset. On Saturday, I drove to Northampton, MA to walk and share lunch and cocktails with A (not her real initial), and on Sunday morning I gave interviews at the Zen Center. Both outings were soul-nourishing, but spending time away from my desk means I fell behind with both blogging and grading.

This is, I’ve learned, how every semester goes. You make good progress, then something interrupts your stride.

Every semester, I warn students about the Week 5 doldrums: the start of what I call the Dark Night of the Semester, when the honeymoon period of a new term wears off and work starts to pile up. During Spring semester, there’s also a phenomenon I call Week 11 lethargy. Spring Break is over, and the end of the semester is more than a month away: too long to start counting days.

Spring is sort of here, but not really: the ground is bare of snow, and there are scattered crocuses and daffodils making a brave appearance. But right here, right now, we’re stuck between Spring and Summer Breaks, with nothing but the present moment (and our looming to-do lists) to entertain us.

It’s the time of the semester when we muddle in the middle, both students and instructors alike, waiting for a someday, eventually, that will come only after we finish all the work in the interim.


Today my Spring Break ends, as all things eventually do. I didn’t do as much grading as I would have liked–I never do–but I feel well-rested and…serene? Content? Ready to return to teaching? I suppose this is all any Spring Break can hope to accomplish: a pause to rest and reset.

I did a little of everything I enjoy this Spring Break: I read and walked and spent time with J and the pets. I went to Tower Hill with a friend and to the Museum of Fine Arts on my own. I went to the Zen Center and realized (again) how helpful and productive I will be when I (eventually) retire and have more time to go to practice and teach meditation: all the good stuff that gets squeezed to the margins or entirely blotted out when I’m busy Making a Living.

This has been the puzzle–my own personal kong’an–my entire adult life: how do you find the time and energy for Living while you are Making a Living? I haven’t solved that puzzle, but I’m learning to live with it. I’m learning how to sit with the question, as we Zennies like to say.

During my early adulthood, my perpetual puzzle was reconciling Zen and Christianity–was I Christian, Buddhist, or what? After approximately a decade of resting and wrestling with that conundrum–the task of my twenties–I finally gave up trying to answer the question. Am I Christian or Buddhist or both? Somehow, I just am who I am, and the need to sort, categorize, or label fell away along the way.

The task of my thirties was my divorce: who am I and how will I survive in the world if I’m not the perfect wife of my youthful idealism? This, too, is a question that didn’t get solved as much as dissolved: after a while, you stop wondering why you didn’t fit into the box of your own expectations. Eventually, you throw out the box.

The task of my forties was re-marriage and re-entry. Just because one coat didn’t fit doesn’t mean you give up wearing coats. Marrying J meant moving back to Massachusetts, where I’d gone to graduate school before moving to New Hampshire. My grad school and first-marriage days were sustained by the hope of becoming tenured faculty somewhere, someday. In my twenties and thirties, I had hopes for the moon, and in my forties I realized I’d fallen into a different kind of career that still managed to pay the bills.

Halfway through my fifties, I’m reconciling Living and Making a Living: what Buddhists call Right Livelihood. This particular balancing act will be, I suspect, the task of a lifetime.

Mannequin heads

It’s been more than three years since I’ve sung the Evening Bell Chant at the Cambridge Zen Center: yet another practice interrupted by the pandemic. But when three attendees at last night’s meditation intro class asked to hear the temple bell, I decided to show them the bell the best way I could, and that was by hitting it.

The Evening Bell Chant is a short–two- or three-minute–solo chant sung at the beginning of evening practice by someone who accompanies themselves on the big brass bell that sits like a tank in one corner of the Dharma room. It is my favorite chant, either to sing or listen to, largely because of the bell itself, which reverberates with a thrumming pulse. That sound spreads throughout the room–there is no missing or mistaking the bell when it is struck–and when you are the one hitting the bell with a worn wooden mallet, those vibrations thrum through your entire body. You hit the bell, but it feels like your own body is ringing.

The lyrics to the Evening Bell Chant are in Korean, with a translation in the back of the chanting book. The sound of the bell, those lyrics explain, cuts off thinking, and the sound of the bell coupled with the mantra repeated three times at the end Destroy Hell.

Hearing the sound of the bell,
all thinking is cut off,
Wisdom grows;
enlightenment appears;
hell is left behind.
The three worlds are transcended.
Vowing to become Buddha
and save all people.
The mantra of shattering hell:
om ga-ra ji-ya sa-ba-ha
om ga-ra ji-ya sa-ba-ha
om ga-ra ji-ya sa-ba-ha

Usually when I sing the Evening Bell Chant, I have to keep one eye on a laminated printout with the lyrics and pattern of hits in LARGE PRINT: there’s nothing worse than forgetting your lines or literally missing a (bell) beat when an entire Dharma room is listening. But last night, as soon as I sat on the cushion and picked up the mallet, the words came back like muscle memory. It was as if the bell itself were singing the words.

Allure, an orchid exhibition

Yesterday, A (not her real initial) and I met at the New England Botanical Garden at Tower Hill for their annual orchid show, followed by lunch at our go-to place for ice cream and fried seafood.

Orchid cascade

I arrived at Tower Hill about fifteen minutes early and found a quiet corner outside the Orangerie to read. At any given moment on any given day, all I want is the time and spaciousness to read uninterrupted: a simple pleasure to sustain a busy life.

After we looked at orchids and art and before we talked over fried scallops, French fries, and onion rings, A and I walked the woods at Tower Hill, the trails a patchwork of snow, hardpack, and mud. Whereas the indoor conservatory was thronged with people admiring a panorama of orchids, A and I had the woodsy trails nearly to ourselves, trees in winter being drab and ordinary next to the splendor and allure of hothouse flowers.

A and I braved the modest climb (listed as “difficult” on the indoor trail map) up stone steps to the top of Tower Hill, where we saw Wachusett Reservoir framed in a palette of winter grays. We talked of being Women of a Certain Age, where you can still climb rocky paths but let younger hikers go ahead as you carefully pick your way up and (especially) down woodsy inclines, mindful of things you didn’t consider when you were younger, like asthma and osteoporosis and the potentially dire outcomes of a twisted ankle.

Wachusett Reservoir from Tower Hill

Over lunch, A and I talked of reaching a point where we have virtually no more fucks left to give, the ambitions of youth giving way to more practical concerns. Orchids are pretty in their prime, but forest trees last ages, growing gnarly, gray, and increasingly rooted and immovable. I’ve reached the time in my life where I am more like a tree than an orchid.

Allure, an orchid exhibition

CLICK HERE for more photos from yesterday’s trip to Tower Hill. Enjoy!

Writing robot

Yesterday at a Babson Writing Program meeting, my colleagues and I had an engaging conversation about AI-generated writing in the college classroom: an ongoing discussion we’ve had since ChatGPT has dominated headlines.

At this meeting, a colleague shared a news item about a ChatGPT-generated email that Vanderbilt University sent in response to the mass shooting at Michigan State. I wasn’t surprised that a university administrator had sent a bot-generated email that included a tag marking the text as AI-generated: I’ve always suspected administrative responses to tragedy are more canned than sincere. Instead, what struck me about this story was how perfectly the bot nailed administrative condolence-speak. The email wasn’t convincing because the bot sounded human; the email was convincing because this sort of communication always sounds robotic.

After yesterday’s conversation, I spent some time playing with ChatGPT. Inspired by the assignment my Research Writing students are currently working on, I asked the bot to generate a discourse community analysis of the Brookline Bird Club, an example of a discourse community I’ve mentioned in class.

It was thrilling and a bit frightening to see the words quickly appear on the screen: the bot types much faster than I do, and without pauses to think and sip tea. But while the bot accurately described what the Brookline Bird Club is and how it fits the general parameters of a discourse community–namely, a group of people with a shared goal or interest who use a shared lingo to communicate–the “analysis” the bot generated was exactly the kind of bland, obvious generalizing I don’t want my students to produce.

Yes, I already know the BBC is a discourse community: that’s why I suggested it as a topic. What I want to hear from an analysis, then, is how well does the BBC use specific examples of discourse to create community and further group goals?

That, of course, is a thinking-style question, so exactly the kind of thing a bot isn’t good at. What I want my human students to do in their writing isn’t simply to churn out text: the bots are already better than us at that task. Instead, I want students to do the things that robots can’t do: namely, think deeply and critically.

In a discourse community analysis, I don’t want students to repeat the same bland platitudes about how groups bring like-minded people together. Instead, I want students to look closely at specific examples of discourse to determine how well those texts work.

Do these texts bring community members closer together? Do they encourage lively discussion–a true sharing of ideas–or do they stymie or even quash communication? Do these texts encourage healthy dialogue among all members or only between a few? In a word, do the utterances produced by this community encourage actual human interaction–the kind of communication we all crave–or do they serve to turn us all into robots: mere cogs in the discourse machine?

When they work, discourse communities (like lively meetings with colleagues) make us feel more human, not less. ChatGPT might be good enough to write an insipid analysis or canned-sounding condolence, but it isn’t smart enough (yet) to know whether it is wise to click “Submit.”

From the earth to the moon

Yesterday in one of my Comp I classes, while we were discussing the range of styles employed in textual analysis, I mentioned the process of writing my PhD dissertation. I explained how I wrote the first eight chapters in standard academese–what I thought my committee wanted–but when I reached the conclusion, I wrote in a more personal voice. When I sent that last chapter to my committee, my chair remarked, “Why didn’t you write the whole thing in this style?”

Spurred by that memory, I went back and re-read “The Upshot,” the conclusion to my dissertation, a project that took ten agonizing years to write. Immediately, I could see why my chair loved it: why I, all these years later, still love it. That final chapter has presence and personality, a voice on the page leading readers through an intellectual landscape of places and texts I love.

I felt sad to read it: sad because the young scholar who worked so long to arrive at a place where she could finally cast off the expectations of academic discourse to tell her story had bright hopes of a tenured career that would enable her to write and teach and travel. Instead, life’s necessities led that young scholar to a dead-end where she-turned-I spend much more time and So Much Labor on students’ writing than my own.

I think again, as I often do, of Thoreau’s own definition of middle age: a young man gathers materials to build a bridge to the Moon, and in middle age he uses those materials to build a woodshed.

Part of me thinks, well, at least I have a woodshed. Adjuncting is a comfortable enough life if you’re good at juggling, and even as contingent faculty patching together a living from part-time positions, I’ve exceeded expectations, “secretary” and “checkout girl” being the two careers my Mom suggested for me when I was younger. Secretaries, she said, get to sit down and wear nice clothes while they work, and checkout girls get a discount on their groceries. And while I mostly stand and pace when I teach, I get to wear pretty dresses, and although I don’t get any discounts on my groceries, at least I can afford them.

But still, I more than occasionally consider the road not taken. The academy and (more commonly) the world beyond academe are full of would-be professors: brilliant teachers, impassioned researchers, and lively writers who dreamed of Something More and had to settle for Something Less. My notebooks and blog serve as my creative outlets, just as Thoreau’s journal served as his. But still, I can’t forget I once had hopes for the Moon.

Next Page »