A letter (about sticking to writing) from Geneva


On my Lausanne

Yesterday I flew in to Geneva from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, arriving in Geneva in the late afternoon. I was delighted to be here (again), after a short visit in Jeddah. I had passed through Switzerland on my way to the magical kingdom in order to revisit old stomping grounds. These same grounds  (aka  the city of Lausanne) are the background of my current novel in progress.  I am beyond fortunate to have been able to revisit this wonderful place.


Mme de Staël

On my return through Switzerland, I already had most of the details that I wanted to collect, so I had no plan to leave Geneva–save, perhaps, to visit the Château de Coppet-belonging once to Madame de Staël,  a French woman of letters of Swiss origin. (Her lifetime overlapped with the events of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era). It is allegedly an easy trip, even in this terribly cold May.

I did not go. As so often happens to travelers, I fell ill.  My illness, which I hope will abate by tomorrow when I have a long flight, is such that all I could do was drag myself outside today to see the nearest museum, the Museum of Natural History.  I stayed there for a couple of hours and then came back to the hotel to rest.

However, that visit was productive.  I learned a few things. Among them, I learned about Jules Favre, a naturalist who studied at the Academy of Neuchâtel. In 1907, he joined the team at the Museum of Natural History in Geneva. There he served as conservationist and paleontologist until 1952. I was most struck by what he did after retiring. From that point on, he devoted himself to the study of mushrooms. Not only did he dedicate himself to that study, his wife Jeanne, who was quite the mushroom expert and watercolor painter, painted pictures of all the mushrooms they documented together. He died in 1959.


Jules Favre

Why do I care so much about Jules Favre, aside from respecting a scientist of the natural world? He shows me that if we want to accomplish anything, like writing a book, we have to focus on that one thing, that one project. People will distract us, tell us what other things we simply “must” do, what places we must see, what classes we must take. There are always good reasons for good advice.

But projects do not get finished without intensity of focus. I was very glad to learn about the Favres and their passion for mushrooms.  They inspire me.

Smart Phone Etiquette for My Writing Students


picture by Aubrey Beardsley


My dear writing students,

Every semester, I have the great pleasure of making new acquaintances, many of whom turn into friends. I lift the bar very high, I know, in an academic sense. Most of you do everything in your power to comply with my expectations.  Those of you who stick with me until the very end are pleased, perhaps even amazed, at your acquired prowess in an understanding of the entire writing process. I am proud of that and would do nothing in the world to take that away from you. Indeed, I try to use the valuable remaining hours we have together to cement that gained knowledge and to add to it.

Technology, as you know, has changed things in the classroom. I do not bar smart phone usage, although I have particular guidelines for you to follow that I express to you both audibly and in writing (via the syllabus) at the beginning of the semester. I completely understand if someone forgets to turn off a ring tone from time to time.  As you know, I forget too. I understand that some of you have sick or impatient relatives waiting for you to get out of class, who might even need you at a moment’s notice. I understand that some of you nurture friends. Therefore, I am not going to create a scene in class when you glance, for a few seconds, even a minute, at your smart phone to see if there are any pressing messages.

I do not even quibble about smart phone usage during an in class essay. Forgive me for saying this, but I very much doubt anyone will be able to send him or herself a paper that is much better than that which will be written in class. If you send yourselves a perfect paper and you are not a perfect writer, that will catch my notice. We have talked about that, haven’t we? I know you rely on places like dictionary.com to look up the spelling of words.

I mentioned friendship. At the very least, I have a teacher’s affection and concern for my students. I do not want to pull you down or humiliate you, certainly not in class, nor truly after class. What purpose would that serve? None.

But I know you would be humiliated were I to ask you, by name, to please put your smart phone away. When I am having students read out from a power point on commas or semicolons, some of you are glued to your smart phones. Permit me to say that those who are glued to their smart phones are still making dozens of punctuation mistakes per paper. I am pretty sure those same people are not surfing the web on their own in order to study grammar, at home.

More upsetting still is that the students who tend to be glued to their smart phones, as if they had been hypnotized, Svengali style, are not my younger students. My younger students seem to understand that a few seconds of smart phone perusal is all that is acceptable in a class. Perhaps their high school teachers trained them; I don’t know. Some of my older students, however, have to be hovered over. It is embarrassing to me to have to treat those students like children. I know how embarrassed you would be if I addressed you directly, and you usually walk out of class too swiftly for me to bring the problem to your attention after class, out of earshot of everyone.

Don’t think the younger students don’t notice what you are doing–ignoring the lesson and ignoring the teacher, who is trying to dish up a bland meal with as little tedium as possible. (If you are that bored, leave. I notice your absences too, but at least it is agreed all around that absence impacts the grade.)

For the sake of the students who have good smart phone etiquette, I am writing this post. I want them to know I appreciate their good manners, their consideration to what they want to learn and to me. I want them to know I do not “let” older students get away with less-than-gracious behavior for the sake of some caste system that is age-based. I do not honor the mature over the young.

I honor those who act mature, for that is the surest badge of maturity, one everyone should wish to wear.