Read Like You Mean It

Reblogged from Angelo State University’s Navigating Higher Ed blog:

Back when I was young and still played sports, a baseball coach told us our goal each day was to “practice like we mean it.” The idea, and it’s a cliché we’ve all heard before, is that championships might be won on the playing field but winning foundations are built in the weight room and at practice every day.

I’ve often thought we would be well-served to apply some athletic principles to academic activities.

Of course, it’s possible I just want to blow a whistle really loud during class and wear shorts to work.

The reality, though, is that hard work and intentionality transcend the activity in which you are engaged. There aren’t many jobs or hobbies where being lazy and haphazard helps you gain mastery. You might be the best athlete on the field or the smartest student in the class but if you aren’t putting forth your best efforts, you probably won’t achieve the success you want.

Hustle beats talent, every coach you’ve ever met will tell you, if talent doesn’t hustle.

We can apply the same principle to the classroom. Learning requires that we actively engage with the materials. Good grades might be earned on your exams or your essays, but the foundation for those scores is built in the daily classroom activities and at the library each night.

Learning, of course, is a complex mix of skills that often differ by discipline, but every academic subject requires that we read well. Certainly, first-year students (and anyone who has read this far into the blog) can read, but reading and reading well are two very different things. In fact, reading like a college student involves more than simply flipping the pages and getting to the end of the chapter.

Be Intentional

Reading can be fun, adventurous, wild, exciting, passionate and enlightening. We’ve all had that moment when a book, a paragraph, a sentence or even a phrase captured our attention and our imagination. Reading can also be tedious, dull and (when you have eight chapters covering material you find about as exciting as clipping your toenails) disheartening.

Let’s face it. Sometimes reading can be about like shooting 100 free throws a day. The first 10 are exciting. Number 99? Not so much.

Practice, though, makes perfect and as readers we have to remember the reason we’re reading. Before you read, I tell my students, ask what you are trying to gain. Be intentional. Read your syllabus. Review your class notes. Why are you being asked to read this chapter? How is this information important and why do you need to know it? We might not be in control of what we have to read, but we can be in control of what we want to learn from the text.

Location, Location, Location

Where you read often matters just as much as how you read. Reading well requires that you focus your attention on the goals you set forth. If I had a dollar for every student who told me he concentrated better while listening to music, I would be sitting on a beach feeling sorry for everyone still sitting at their desks putting in a full day’s work.

If, I like to ask those students, I told you to learn the material by tomorrow or I will take your cell phone, smash it into tiny little bits, and send you back to junior high gym class, would you listen to music with the TV on while your roommates sit around playing poker and telling jokes?

One of the more important lessons incoming college students have to learn is that reading at this level is a high-stakes event. We have a compressed time frame and your professors expect you to read and retain information in a relatively short period of time. Since that’s the case, reading well necessitates that we find that location that allows us to focus all our energies on the words on the page.

No One Runs a Marathon on the First Day

I had a friend who, at 38, decided he wanted to run a marathon before he turned 40. When he started training, he didn’t focus on distance. Instead, he ran for certain periods of time each day. The goal was to slowly but surely increase the length of time he could run. Doing so allowed him to also increase the distance.

Reading works the same way (and sometimes feels like a marathon). See how long you can read before you start thinking about food, your boyfriend, your roommate’s nasty habit of clipping his nose hairs each night, or what happened on “The Walking Dead” last night. When you get distracted, stop reading but try, each day, to extend the amount of time you can read while focused on the material. You’ll be amazed when the 10 minutes turn into an hour.

Look It Up

Since we haven’t smashed your cell phone yet, let that tiny little electronic brain serve you instead of enslaving you. Words have meaning and the people writing books choose words carefully. There’s no shame in not having a Brobdingnagian vocabulary, but there’s no reason to be lazy about it. Your library probably has a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary, but Merriam Webster and usually work pretty well, too.

Listen to Your Eyes

Reading should be an activity. Involve other senses in the process. If you read a particularly thorny paragraph, read it out loud. Find a friend to read it to you. Hear the words as often as possible.

Don’t stop there, though. When we read, we can often find meaning by visualizing the text. In my literature classes, I tell students to cast the roles and film the story in their heads. My colleague has students draw their thoughts. There is no doubt that words can confuse us, and we can get lost in the language within the chapters. When that happens, switch gears. Doodle your ideas, map out your confusion, and draw or listen your way to understanding.

Learning Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

The other day in class, a student raised his hand and said, “I hate to be rude, but I don’t understand . . .” While I can’t speak for all professors everywhere, asking for clarification isn’t rude. Never be afraid to walk into class or stop by your professor’s office confused. If you are practicing hard and hustling, we want to help. Remember that your professors love this stuff. Being confused isn’t rude, but not working hard, then asking for help might be.

Read, Rest and Repeat

I’ve never met a good hitter who takes one swing during batting practice. Reading well, like hitting a fast-pitched softball, jumping hurdles, or setting a quick ball in the middle, takes practice, repetition and time. Make sure, I tell my students each semester, you have time to read, rest and repeat.

Most of all, though, I tell my students, you have to commit yourself to read like you mean it. After all, that textbook probably cost you (or your parents) a pretty penny. Make sure you get your money’s worth out of it.

The Petting Zoo–Story the Last


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We’ll soon return to our regularly scheduled blogging. First, though, we get to see the first couple of paragraphs of the closing story in “Love is Not a Dirty Word.”

I’ve been writing all week about how and why I’ve written certain stories. I wish I could point to some magical moment as inspiration for “The Petting Zoo.” I could wax philosophically about some long ago memory of reaching through the fence and touching the soft, downy fur of a baby chicken or mention the tight curls of a sheep’s wool.


Or I could admit that I watch way too much television and I’ve seen one too many commercials in my life. I’m pretty sure it’s Verizon (or maybe T-Mobile) but a few years ago around Christmas a mother walks into the mall with her son on one side and her daughter on the other. She looks at the son and tells him “you’re my rock” I know you’ll behave. She turns to the little girl and says, “we can’t have a repeat of the petting zoo” can we? The little girl looks up at her with as much seriousness as a 6 year old can muster and says, “I’ll try mommy, but I can’t make any promises.”

Fortunately for the mother, she sees the (insert cell phone company here) store and she’s saved from the unpredictability of shopping with her daughter.

Who cares what kind of cell phone dad is getting, I thought. I wanted to know what the hell happened at the petting zoo?

If you saw that commercial and asked the same question, here’s what I think happened.

The Petting Zoo

Christie leaned back, trying to melt into the couch cushions, wishing she could wake up when her kids where 18 and in college. She smelled strawberry and felt the sticky residue of a half finished Jolly Rancher on her neck as she cradled the phone against her ear and tried to concentrate. The ceiling fan was filthy, there were spiderwebs in three corners, and she had at least one couch cushion poking her in the thigh, but she wasn’t all that sure what her husband had just said. Her ability to have an adult conversation was in direct proportion to how well her children behaved on
any given day.

“What? Sorry. I just spaced out for a minute. How can there be spiderwebs but no spiders?” Christie leaned to the side. If she couldn’t feel the spring, maybe she could pretend it wasn’t broken. “Anyway. You weren’t there. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life.” She listened to Simon talk, wondering why her glass of wine was so far away. And how it got empty.

“I think we’ve been banned from the petting zoo. For life. Our grandkids won’t be able to go either.” Christie forced herself to stand. She needed a drink more than she needed rest. Or, more likely, she needed the drink in order to rest. The Jolly Rancher smell followed her to the kitchen and she wondered if there were any good snacks left.

“I’m fine. Just trying to get off the couch. Alexas told me at breakfast she wanted to grow up to be a kangaroo so she and David used the couch as their own personal trampoline this morning. I was outside watering plants for less than five minutes. When I came in, they had grocery bags tied around their waists with a small stuffed animal in each bag. They were yelling ‘Boing, boing’ as they hopped from cushion to cushion. Our couch looks like that hideous, plaid sofa you had in college. I don’t know what’s sagging worse—me or it.”

(If you want to find out why Alexas got banned from the petting zoo, click on the link above.)

Hands on the Wheel–Story # 10


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I mentioned at the outset of these blogs about the story collection that I almost titled them “Trailer Park Stories.” Interestingly enough, there are only two stories in the collection set in trailer parks. “Hands on the Wheel” is the second one.

As you can see (if you’ve been reading these blogs the last few weeks), I’m not always sure how a story will end. Often, I have to move in with a character for a while. I might have some specific scenes in mind and I generally have a sense of how I want to start a story. All those things may change before all is said and done but once I start writing I have the basic story arc in mind. Of course, characters sometimes hijack those initial plans, but we all have to start somewhere.

When I started “Hands on the Wheel,” I knew the story would end with the narrator outside a bar in his dad’s old truck looking at his hands on the steering wheel. I knew his dad would already be dead and that the narrator was in the process of making a decision about his life after encountering an old friend from the trailer park of his youth. This is only one of two stories that ended exactly as I thought they might when I started the story.

I told someone the other day that each story has little bits and pieces that I like. In “Love is Not a Dirty Word,” there’s a scene where the narrator stops in front of an antique store that I think is pretty slick. In “Coitus,” I think there’s a funny moment involving a mobile Bill’s crazy ex-girlfriend leaves on his door knob, and as big a jerk as Nathan Dumbrowski might be (he should have died–sorry bastard that he is) there’s a quote in there from Nietzsche that I think works pretty well.

“Hands” also has one of my favorite sentences. There’s nothing special about the wording, but each time I read the sentence within the context of the story, there’s something about the sadness that pervades the story at that particular moment.

I’ll willingly admit that you (should you read the book) might not have that same reaction. Words and sentences work like that, though. Each of us brings our own historical and contextual baggage into our confrontation with language that our reactions vary. That moment speaks to me for some reason.

Hopefully, if you read the book, you might find one or two of those sentences, also.

Hands on the Wheel

I first met Jolly when I was 15. My dad wasn’t real happy when we started running together, but he never said anything—not directly anyway. Jolly is one of the many things I’ve realized over the years my dad got right.

I was sitting in a bar outside of Abilene, watching the Dallas news when the story broke. Police had found three black men, two shot and one stabbed, at a southside carwash/laundrymat. Early speculation was a drug deal gone bad, and the lead suspect was Jolly Henderson. The news showed a grainy surveillance photo on one side of the screen with a black and white mug shot on the other. I was working as a framer for one of those build them quick home companies, and my hands were cut and calloused in ways that would disappoint my father but afforded me some measure of respect in a place like this. It was 9:30 and I was hot, tired, and normally able to ignore the bad news that invariably signaled the end of another day.

“I been knowing Jolly for about five years now.” The guy on t.v. was a large, toothy man with a scraggly looking beard. He looked like that actor who always plays the fat biker—he’s mean and tough but too ugly to have any lines. There were good reasons to keep him silent.

“His name was sort of ironical, if you know what I mean. I’ve not ever seen the man smile.” The guy was enjoying his five minutes of fame. “Hell, he was just flat out a mean as a snake, if you ask me.” He looked behind him toward the run-down shotgun house. “Still, I never figured him for nothing like this.”

(If you want to know a little more about Jolly, or try to guess the sentence I like so much, click on the link above to buy the book.)


Dear Search Committee–Story #7


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“Dear Search Committee” started out as a comedic look at a cynical, burned out professor who had grown tired of teaching. In my mind’s eye, this story was going to be this comic attack on the absurdity of college administration.

That’s such low hanging fruit, though.

I wrote the opening paragraph of the job search letter and then drew a complete blank. So I did what most writers do. I hid the paper in a manila folder and waited until the idea wanted to be written.

When I started the collection, I pulled the piece out and wrote the sentence after the letter paragraph.

And things took off.

I’m not sure why that happens, but all of a sudden Nathan took on a life of his own.

And it’s a sordid life. Like “Coitus,” I suspect some readers might have renewed doubts about letting me teach their children after they read this story.

Nathan, quite frankly, is not a nice guy. In fact, in the original version he dies by the end of the story. Terry Dalrymple, a fine writer and someone who read these stories in their early versions, told me he didn’t buy it. The death didn’t fit with the story itself. He was right, but, I really want this character to be dead.

Either way, better story telling won out over my desires and Nathan makes it to the end of the story.

Dear Search Committee

It should have been an easy letter to write. Nathan Dumbrowski had been teaching for about 10 years, and he was a leader in his department and a confidante of various administrators.

Dear Search Committee:
I write with great interest in your recently advertised Head, Department of English position, fully recognizing that my interest in your job will probably exceed your interest in me. My years of
experience teaching and my record of working with colleagues to improve programs and recruit and retain students should qualify me for such a position, but I suspect my reward is in heaven instead of a bigger office with a larger paycheck and less work. But, what the hell, right? It’s Friday afternoon, and I can either grade functionally illiterate essays written by students perpetually on probation, surf the internet for free porn, or apply to be a Department Head.

Nathan considered his opening gambit. He also decided surfing the web for porn sounded like a good idea.

(If you want to see why Nathan needed to die, click on the link above.)

Coitus Interruptus–Story # 8


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In my email out to family and friends, I warned them that this collection might be about love, but it’s definitely not about romance. “Coitus Interruptus” (and the story that follows it in the book) are the ones that might give some folks pause.

“What,” I can imagine them thinking, “is wrong with that guy?”

I’m not, I can assure you, a pervert, but I did have student once call me Dr. Porno on a student evaluation when I was a graduate student. You can imagine the conversation with the department chair.

Oddly enough, the student wasn’t in the least bit upset that we watched Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacketa brutally violent look at the dehumanizing effects of boot camp and war, but reading Kate Chopin’s “The Storm” sent her over the edge. I guess she wasn’t quite ready to read a story with a vivid description of a female orgasm.

“Coitus” was not inspired by literature or film, and I can assure you all that I wrote it before Joseph Gordon Leavitt’s Don Jona movie about a Jersey guy who searches for intimacy in one night stands and internet porn, ever showed up at the theater.

Back in the day before spam filters, you could (and would) get emails advertising internet porn. On any given day, we might get penile enlargement ads, free ex-girlfriend porn sites, and notes about MILF’s bored and needing a little loving. No worries, right. Hit delete and move on to another student email asking how many absences he has in class.

Every once in a while, though, I would get these aggressively pornographic ads with barely blurred lines on the photos. In full color. On my work computer. With a student in the office conferencing about a paper. The delete button never seemed so far away.

“Coitus Interruptus” was born out of one of those moments. Sort of. In some ways, the story started when I imagined that someone (not me I promise) didn’t hit delete but stood up, closed the door, and clicked on the links as he unbuttoned his pants. (I swear I only imagined it. And not that vividly either.)

The first draft of this story began with “The day Bill Wheatley got caught masturbating in his office, he knew things might never be the same.” The idea, in many ways, was to explore the way internet porn creates opportunities to fulfill certain needs while impeding others. Bill Wheatley gets a letter from an ex-girlfriend who is being tested for HIV and that letter sends him to Shiva Touche, an internet porn star.

“Coitus” has never been published, but I have gotten some really nice rejection letters. One editor wrote that “the story hit a little too close to home” for his magazine. Another said they “worried an ex-employee” might find the story libelous.

Good grief. And I’m Dr. Porno?

Either way, here are the first few paragraphs.

Coitus Interruptus

The day Bill Wheatley got a letter from Kim Novak, a woman he’d dated over a year ago, he had no idea what to expect. The breakup had been messy, and, admittedly, a little disturbing. “The sex was great, but she wanted a little more commitment than I was willing to offer. Plus,” he told a friend from work, “why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free every Friday night around town? I’m not saying the woman was crazy,” he added, “but she hadn’t seen normal in a few years, if you know what I mean.”

The truth was that when Bill wanted sex, he went out.

“Human interaction,” a professor told him in college, “is another type of transaction. You can become friends with anyone if you can convince them you’re a product worth investing in. Life is all about marketing: accentuate the positive and distract from the negative.”

Bill doubted the old guy was offering dating advice, but he realized early on he could apply his skills as a marketing and ad designer to the bar scene. There was always a willing partner at some local pub: she just didn’t know it yet. Bill would find a booth near the wall and survey the field. Focus on the unexpected—compliment her hair, hands, shoes, earrings, ankle bracelets—anything but what all the other men were staring at that night. Always stroke the erogenous zones with words first, Bill thought.

(If you want to find out how Bill handles stroking those erogenous zones, click on the link above.)


College vs. High School: “Differently Hard”

I’ve started contributing to Angelo State’s Navigating Higher Ed (a My Future Blog). Click on the link to the left to see the article on that page or read below. I told them when I agreed to write, I was going to repost on my blog site. I would encourage anyone here to slide on over to the Angelo State site and see the other blog posts. If you are looking for a college home, you could do quite a bit worse than ASU.

College vs. High School: “Differently Hard”

When I teach first year composition courses, I’ll often begin the semester by asking my students their perception about the biggest differences between high school and college. Since I like to teach early morning classes, I’m often the first class of their college career so I get responses tinged with excitement, nerves and, understandably, a kind of abject fear at this new endeavor they’ve undertaken.

At Angelo State, mind you, many of our students are first generation, first time college students who lack the wise counsel of an older sibling or parents with experience in higher . Their initial impressions of college life are influenced by popular culture, high school counselors, and their first two nights in the dorm.

Inevitably, students will tell me they expect the work to be more difficult and that they don’t have “mommy and daddy” around to make sure they get to class. There is, for many, a great deal of excitement as they become fully cognizant of their responsibilities as emerging adults, coupled with an underlying fear that they aren’t prepared for the academic rigor or the personal responsibility necessary to succeed at the university level.

I like to revisit this question as we wind down the semester to see if their experiences matched those initial perceptions.

As you can imagine, the responses vary, but when I first started teaching I had a student tell me his first semester taught him that college was “differently hard” than high school.

In essence, he wrote, the subject matter in his classes wasn’t as complex as he feared it might be in college, but the classes were still difficult because “how I had to work” changed dramatically once he got to college.

The rest of the student’s response to the question struggled to explain exactly what he meant, but I think he did a pretty good job of identifying a couple of key differences between high school and college.

New regimen

For my student, the “differently hard” issues revolved around the way time works on a college campus and the nature of the work required.

Professors expect students to work two to three hours a week outside of class for every hour in which they are in class.In high school, students’ days are fairly regimented. They arrive on campus around 7:45 and leave around 2:30 or 3. We ring a bell every 50-75 minutes to herd them to the next assigned task. During those classes, we collect homework and spend time, in the ideal high school, confirming that the students understand the material before we move on to the next subject.

In many ways, the nature of the work is very linear, culminating (for better or for worse, mind you) in a state-mandated exam that measures progress on stated and agreed upon goals. I have no intention of being critical of the high school model. By and large, American high schools do a pretty amazing job of educating our children, especially when you consider the difficulty of the task they often face.

They can’t, though, perfectly prepare students for colleges.

Time shift

My student, in his comments, pointed out how shocking it was that he had an 8 a.m. class, a 9 a.m. class, then nothing until Tuesday morning.

Full-time high school students attend classes seven to eight hours a day. Every day. In college, a full-time student attends classes 12-15 hours a week.

Good thing we have cable and high-speed Internet in the dorms, right?

What my student had to learn, of course, is that the burden of measuring his understanding of the course material shifts in college from the teacher to the student. The reason a full-load is 12 hours, I explain to my students, is that professors expect students to work two to three hours a week outside of class for every hour in which they are in class. Students have to learn how to read on their own, practice problem sets with friends, and seek out help from professors, tutoring centers or academic advisors.

Time on a college campus offers students an amazing amount of freedom, but that free time comes with important responsibilities.

Faster Pace

Likewise, that free time changes the nature of the work required at the college level. Because professors expect students will be spending that “free” time working on their classes and , students often struggle with the pace of college classes. Professors cover more material at a quicker pace with fewer quizzes and homework assignments. Classes often focus on larger issues and critical thinking rather than simply recitation of factual information. In essence, grades become more dependent on how a student might apply material rather than a student’s ability to repeat data.

Most importantly, professors expect that students will seize their responsibilities and take advantage of their time on campus to pursue knowledge or seek help when understanding might be eluding them.

Doing so will help students spend their “free” time wisely and master those “differently hard” assignments as they move toward graduation and successful careers after college.

At the Days Inn Near Eastland–Story # 7


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I was standing in the express lane at HEB one day and I heard a phone ringing, a loud sigh, and the woman in front of me whispered “Good grief.”

I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but there’s not much privacy in the 15 items or less line at the grocery store.

“Yes,” she said, “I bought organic red leaf lettuce and some wine. I’ll be home after I get the cake.” If she was hosting a party, she didn’t’ seem all that excited about the guest list.

“At the Days Inn Near Eastland” started with that scene and part of that line. Admittedly, my first thought when someone silently curses about being tethered to their phone is not sympathy. If you don’t want to be available 24/7, leave the phone at home I say.

But what would happen, I wondered, if that ringing cell phone sent you over the edge? What really interested me, though, was the specificity of her answer above. Why organic red leaf lettuce? What kind of wine? Cake? Who is calling her with such a question and why is she so annoyed with the phone call?

More importantly, where was she headed after HEB and what would happen if she decided to drive around for a little while before going home.

In my head, what happens is she ends up naked in a motel room with a McDonald’s bag, an cake box, and an empty bottle of wine.

At the Days Inn Near Eastland

When Jill woke up with a McDonald’s bag, a cake box, and an empty bottle of wine next to her, she knew something was wrong. Even more troubling were the scratchy, over-washed hotel sheets rubbing against her naked body. She hadn’t slept nude since she was 12, and even then she had woken up in the middle of the night to get dressed. Lying there on this morning, Jill tried to imagine an illicit chance encounter: a bottle of wine, her naked body, and a muscle bound younger man tending to her every need, but Jill didn’t feel any post-coital relaxation. Then again, she couldn’t
feel anything except a burning in her head, a dry mouth, and something sticky on her lips. I’m the kind of girl who likes to swallow, Jill laughed as she licked the remnants of her culinary orgy off her lips.

She slipped back into a dream about Monte Jones, her high school boyfriend. Monte had been Mr. Everything back in the day. Starting quarterback, straight-A student, and against all stereotypes, a genuinely nice guy. He was also the only real fun she had as a teen living with her Aunt, Uncle, and their five children.

When her cell phone vibrated, she opened her eyes and the world around her started spinning a half beat off from her stomach, a little like listening to Nine Inch Nails do Beethoven. As she rushed into the bathroom, Jill knew she would survive the headache, but she kind of hoped death would find her soon so her stomach would stop squirming. The phone was still making noise after rinsed her mouth.

(If you want to know how Jill got from the checkout line at HEB to the Days Inn near Eastland, click on the image above.)


Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)