Monday, 24 January 2011

The Small Room

I started reading May Sarton's The Small Room on Friday. It's a 1961 novel following the fortunes of a passionate young literature teacher as she takes her first job, in a women's university in the US.

After the first page, I thought I'd hate it. It promised to be one of those novels by an author who didn't trust her readers to spot symbolism or imagery: Sarton follows any description with a long explanation of why it's significant, which annoys me hugely.

Like this, the opening paragraph:

Lucy Winter sat in the train, swaying and rocking its way north from New York City, with a sense of achievement; the journey set a seal on the depressing limbo of the last months, the stifling summer in New York with her mother'; already she sensed the change of air, the lift of autumn. There, out the window, she saw a streak of bright red through a maple. It flashed by like a sign or a symbol, the end of mourning, her broken engagement, the actual vivid turn of a leaf toward her first teaching job. 

Infuriating. I only kept reading because I have a weakness for campus novels. However, the style relaxes a little, and the story becomes fascinating. There are a range of impossibly intellectual academics (they don't bitch about the photocopiers, they read Simone Weil essays to each other over decorous sips of martini) and devoted, passionate students. The core of the novel is the search for balance in one's relationship with students, between teaching, caring, leading and listening: becoming a professional in the truest sense of the word.

The terror and joy of being a university lecturer is beautifully sketched, though the institution is rather less bureaucratic, stressed and last-resort than The Hegemon.

"The hell of teaching is that one is never prepared. I often think that before every class I feel the same sort of terror I used to experience before an examination… and always I imagine that next year it will be different… Is there a life more riddle with self-doubt than that of a woman professor, I wonder?"

Spot on. Most of the colleagues I've discussed it with have problems sleeping on Sunday evenings, and we all intend to refresh our lectures every year… I can't speak to the last bit, but I assure you it's pretty stressful being a muscle-bound macho male professor too!

She had imagined that… preparation for these first lectures would be easy, but she soon discovered that knowing something and teaching it are as different as dreaming and waking. Things she had never noticed before sprang up at her out of the text; questions pounced upon her from the class, and the familiar words and ideas startled her as if she had not spent hours already examining them. She met a surprising resistance to Thoreau and it unnerved her; the students were not delighted by his pungent style (style did not touch them yet). 

I'm a fan of Thoreau, though I've never had a chance to teach any. I must confess too that question do not often pounce upon me - that's a real shame - but it's true that the hardest and most important part of teaching is to convey some of the thrill of engaging with texts. We don't always enjoy what we're asked to teach of course, but when we do, it's sometimes difficult to explain to others exactly what it is we're enthusiastic about. There are some wonderful descriptions of classes in which teacher and students become entranced by the texts, but more often, there's disappointment, such as when Lucy marks some dull essays on the Iliad:

"This was the material before you, and this is how you honored it… Here is one of the great mysterious works of man, as great and mysterious as a cathedral. And what did you do? You gave it so little of your real selves that you actually achieved boredom. You stood in Chartres cathedral unmoved. For the ancients this book was very much what a cathedral became for the people of the Middle Ages, a storehouse of myth, legend, and belief, the great structure where faith was nourished and the values of a civilization depicted… and you didn't bother to look at it! … This is not a matter of grades. You'll slide through all right. It's not bad, it is just flat. It's the sheer poverty of your approach that is horrifying".

Perhaps you're a little embarrassed by this outburst. Can you imagine me or one of my colleagues delivering it in a class now? I doubt it: the dynamic has changed. The society in which we live has trained students to think of education as a chore to be undergone as a job-qualification. There are always exceptions of course - plenty on my courses I won't mention and several past students, such as Ed, who sometimes comments here: one of the finest minds I've ever met. Students aren't to blame: the school system has failed, we academics have failed, and society as a whole has abandoned any sense of education as a liberatory good in itself.

However, there's one more huge twist in The Small Room, one which really makes me stand outside the book, trying to work out whether it's hugely exaggerated or we've lost something. One act almost destroys the university, tears holes in marriages and relationships, threatens to cost millions of dollars, shakes the foundations of the institutions and the philosophies of its staff and students.

What could this heinous crime be?

A student plagiarises an essay. 

How I envy that institution. Last week I marked several feet of essays, and uncovered at least 10 plagiarists. This is pretty standard. I didn't fall into an existential crisis. The Chancellor did not intervene. Colleagues didn't split from their partners in shock at their feelings on the subject. The student body did not divide between mercy and a lynch mob. Sadly, plagiarism is simply a strategy, and a very logical one given that the education has been replaced by the certificate as the object of the exercise. Just as capitalism automatically leads to theft, our education system - part of a social and economic structure predicated on competitive gain - has created plagiarism by encouraging students to become fixated on the acquisition of credits by any means necessary. We academic wring our hands and warn about the breach of academic integrity, but we know that the wider world has a sneaking admiration for those who cut corners and pull fast ones.

So: read The Small Room. It's a wonderful novel from a long, long time ago and far, far away.

Oh yes: on another subject, students should click here.


Ewarwoowar said...

a) I still haven't plagiarised, although, if everyone else is doing it and getting away with it...

b) I can't imagine "Zoot Horn" stressing out on a Sunday evening for some reason.

c) I agree with a lot of what you say here.

d) Never bet on the Swedish tennis player Robin Soderling.

The Plashing Vole said...

Wise words.

ed said...

'Such as Ed, who sometimes comments here: one of the finest minds I've ever met'.

Why Vole, I'm flattered to say the least! But, erm, don't get carried away. I still have trouble with the your/you're divide, and - if it wasn't for the social opprobrium involved - I'd happily go back to velcro instead of shoe laces (simpler times...)

Zoot Horn said...

I want a copy of that book.
And don't be fooled; each lecture is a terrified dance over an abyss.