Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Small Room

Cross-posted here.

May Sarton's The Small Room was a satisfying, thought-provoking read. I'm a sucker for academic novels, so I was delighted to find out that this book is about a young woman who travels to small-town New England to begin her first college teaching job. Lucy Winter is fresh out of grad school, although she wasn't your typical grad student: she went through her Ph.D. program merely because she wanted a reason to stay near her fiance who was in medical school. But now the engagement is over and she unexpectedly finds herself with a job. As the novel opens, she is on the train heading north to Appleton, a women's college.

What she finds is a small, close-knit community that appears to be sleepy and peaceful. She goes to a beginning of semester cocktail party to meet fellow faculty and teaches her classes for the first time, all the while trying to figure out her role in this new place. She opens her first class with a long account of her educational life, hoping to make an impression on the students, but she immediately doubts herself afterward. She wants to do a good job and is willing to take risks in the classroom, but she knows she is not entirely sure what she is doing.

Of course, she can't stay on the outside of this community for long, and, of course, it's not nearly as sleepy and peaceful as it seems. She gets pulled into its dramas and intrigues through one of her students, a star pupil of the campus star professor. When she discovers this student has plagiarized, she immediately reveals it to a colleague, an act that sets a whole train of events in motion, events that not only cause controversy, but that make the college think hard about what it is and what it stands for.

The novel is fundamentally about teaching -- what it means to be a teacher and a student and the ways the two can interact. Lucy struggles with the question of how much of herself she should share with her students. Her opening speech about her education starts things off on a personal note, but she is reluctant to respond warmly when a student shares her private troubles. She feels there should be boundaries between teachers and students, and she also knows that allowing those boundaries to drop away can be exhausting. Teaching demands a great deal of energy, and teachers need to protect themselves from giving up too much of themselves to others.

And yet strict boundaries are impossible to maintain: students are persistent in their efforts to get a personal response from Lucy, and once she stumbles into the plagiarism scandal, she is drawn even further into their lives.

The novel is also about what it means to be a woman who teaches. Early on one of the characters says, "Is there a life more riddled with self-doubt than that of a woman professor, I wonder?" The novel was published in 1961, and the question of whether it's worth while to educate women who will just get married and raise children lingers in the air. The faculty at Appleton take a strong stand on this: as one character claims, "We don't teach domestic science; we are not interested especially in producing marriageable young ladies." Lucy wonders, though, what her own commitment to the intellectual life is, and what it would mean for her to stay on at Appleton. She wants a family, but with her engagement over and her life established in a quiet town full of married couples, she is not sure that will be possible. She considered her Ph.D. program as a joke, after all; does she really want to devote her life to scholarship and teaching, at the possible expense of other relationships? As I read this, I kept thinking about Dorothy Sayers's novel Gaudy Night, which is also about women intellectuals struggling with the sacrifices the intellectual life can demand. In a culture that expects women to be wives and mothers or, if they want to take work seriously, to give up those roles, what is a smart woman supposed to do?

The novel is short and is a quick read, but it takes up a lot of great questions and offers some interesting answers. It's satisfying to watch Lucy figure out who she is as a teacher and what she wants her place in the Appleton community to be. It's also interesting to think about teaching generally -- what really helps students learn and what roles a teacher can and can't play. The novel shows well what a complicated job it is to try to inspire other people with the love of learning and at the same time to remain a satisfied, whole person oneself.

The Small Room

When I first moved to Minnesota back in 1994 there was a bit of a May Sarton revival going on here. The Minnesota Women's Press put out a free newspaper every two weeks that had a book section and blurbs about what their various book groups were reading. One of the groups was a May Sarton group reading everything she had ever written. I never joined any of the Women's Press book groups because they weren't free. Held in a big room of the Press offices in St. Paul and facilitated by a "professional" the price tag was heftier than I was willing to fork over. That didn't keep me from reading any of the books though. And I did. I read about three or four of Sarton's journals, her poetry, a biography, and a couple of novels. Then I noticed everything started feeling and sounding the same and I lost interest and haven't read anything else by her until now.

The last bit, how Sarton started having a sameness about her is probably why, as I read The Small Room I kept having this feeling that I had read this book before. It seemed like I even remembered scenes from it. But combing back through my booklists I can't find this book listed as one I had read. It is possible I read it and forgot to record but I will never know for sure. The feeling that I had read the book before didn't stop me from enjoying, however.

The story takes place in the early 1960s. Lucy Winter arrives at a small New England all-girls college called Appleton to take up her first teaching position as a new professor of English literature. Lucy got her doctorate from Harvard because she needed something to do while her boyfriend went to med school. Lucy planned on marrying said boyfriend. But they break up and now she needs to work instead of be a wife.

Appleton is not a first-tier sort of college with the implication that it is partly because of the all-girls status. The atmosphere of the school is one of scholarship, however, and the professors strive to wake the girls up from their daydreams to try and take their studies seriously. When one of the girls turns out to have great potential she has the admiration and resources of the entire school behind her. One such student, Jane Seaman, is the particular protege of Carryl Cope, professor of Medieval Studies and a big fish in a small pond. Carryl is the university superstar and she invests everything in Jane's success. Poor Jane cracks under pressure and is caught by Lucy plagiarizing an essay on The Iliad written by Simone Weil. The consequences of how the incident is handled creates a perfect storm in a teacup.

The plot provides many opportunities for ruminations by Lucy, by Carryl, and others on what it means to be a good teacher. There is also a weird and disturbing subset of the good teacher question that asks whether a woman scholar can have a well-rounded life or does she have to sacrifice everything in order to have a life of the mind. There is, of course, no doubt that men can be married with children and still be good teachers. There is a married male professor with children in the book. I don't seem to recall that any of the women professors are married though Carryl enjoys a subtle lesbian relationship with the formidable Olive Hunt, an older, wealthy woman who is planning on leaving her estate to the college.

In the melee of university politics, the book also proposes a generation gap as part of the conflict. The university wants to hire a psychiatrist to provide therapy services for students in trouble. The younger generation of teachers is all for it, the older generation thinks it is ridiculous, and the middle generation is torn between the two. The psychiatrist issue is another means of examining what it means to be a good teacher.

The Small Room is an engaging, fast read. The tone is light which keeps it from being gloomy and preachy. And of course the question of what it means to be a good teacher is one that continues today; one that every new and experienced teacher no doubt wrestles with on a frequent basis.

Cross-posted at So Many Books