Saturday, October 26, 2013

May Sarton's The Small Room

I read May Sarton's The Small Room, as I can never pass up novels on academia, especially ones I've never heard of before. It is the story of Lucy Winter, who gets her Ph.D. at Harvard and then gets a job at a small liberal arts college for women. One of the best students is caught plagiarizing and it causes a variety of problems (which actually get neatly tied up so quickly you barely have a chance to think about them).

It was published in 1961 so as a period piece it's interesting to read (lots of martinis and lots of smoking). I know that the time and place is far removed from mine, but I wondered whether Sarton depicted professors in an idealized form that never existed. They speak in an overly formal way, quoting John Donne. It's like they speak how people who are not professors imagine professors speak.

What I found most intriguing was the depiction of the struggle college teachers have getting through to students. The core of the book is about whether professors should be involved in helping their students personally, including a major fight over whether the college should hire a psychologist. Since the answer was so obviously yes, I found that quaint but ultimately not so compelling. Beyond that, though, was how frustrated professors are:

"It seems to me that you just teach and then go away and hope some of what you sad sank in, and then when you see the papers you know almost none of it did. As far as I can see, teaching is as much as anything the ability to handle failure most of the time, one's own failure, I mean..." (p. 237).

Without that recurring theme, the book wouldn't have spoken to me much at all. I read constantly that students these days are worse than ever--they have no attention spans, they can't think, they can only text, blah, blah, blah. But fifty years ago, indeed millennia ago, everyone thought the same damned thing.


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