Fellows Reading Group
October 17, 2012
It is just past noon and I'm heading to our lounge for lunch. I pass Kyle, who is sprawled over his office having lunch. His open door is opposite the lounge.
I sit down with my regulations lunch (apple, yoghurt, crossword...) and look up to see the white board covered with small, neat writing in three colors. Each year of fellows in the Center develops its own ways, a kind of cultural stamp peculiar to them. I am looking at one of them now.
(Yes, I know. The text is out of focus and illegible. Some things are not meant to pass beyond the walls of lounge.)
Our reading group will be meeting in a few hours to discuss a short reading by Maria Kronfeldner. The reading group is set up so that the author of the piece is not allowed to make introductory remarks.
The reason is obvious to anyone who is a professor or a relative of a professor. We are unable to say anything briefly. Two minutes of prefatory remarks will soon become ten; and then expand into our standard, atomic unit of communication, the fifty minute talk.
Someone else takes on the job of "presenting." That someone's function is just to lay out the main ideas of the reading, briefly, as a seed for further discussion. It should give the author the first, disorienting feel for what everyone thought she wrote.
That presenter is also a professor, so the danger remains. We professors are equally capable of giving a 50 minute speech on someone else's paper.
"Just five minutes," I had said when our reading group met to discuss a text for the first time earlier this term. To reinforce the point, I had brought a five-minute hourglass. I inverted the hourglass and began to review the main points of the week's reading. Since the time is short, I had put some text and arrows up on the whiteboard and had proceeded through them, finishing almost exactly at the five minute mark. It was a point of professional pride for me and intended to show that it could be done.
This group had liked the idea. The next week, the presenter had filled the whiteboard with text ahead of time. It had been decided spontaneously this was the way to do it. Each week, sometime before the meeting, new text appears on the whiteboard. It feels a little unworldly, like the fairy tale of the cobbler and the elves. No one actually sees the elves slip into the empty workshop overnight, but the morning brings the evidence of their handiwork.
There is a danger in this practice. The lounge is tidied up before the meeting. Might the zeal of the clean up be turned against the elves' handicraft on the whiteboard? Might someone wipe it clean? It's a possibility. I'm now trying to recall if back-hall gossip has transformed a mere possibility into a legendary loss of irreplaceable text by someone. Perhaps. No one can quite remember whose text it was.
Legend or not, our elf called Kyle has taken precautions.
It is still hours away from the meeting. So far, no one has touched this week's text. The food is still to be put out by the other elves, often called Joyce. Cheryl, who likes to bake, has taken it upon herself to supply us, from time to time. This week is one of those times. They came in a large plastic container and looked and smelled delicious. What are they?
"Pumpkin caramel squares," she said. Then she paused as a dim glimpse of an unlikely catastrophe passed through her thoughts. "They have nuts in them in case anyone has any issues..."
Shortly after the pumpkin caramel squares have been laid out, I find Maria in the room taking notes off the whiteboard in the modern fashion.
Then we are underway. Collin will chair. He inverts the hourglass and Maria sits back while Kyle presents her paper. I leave no record of whether Kyle managed it in his five minutes.
John D. Norton