Teachers and Students

May Sarton’s 1961 novel, The Small Room, was a perfect read for me. It’s the story of Lucy Winter, newly qualified teacher in American literature and headed off for her first job as instructor at an all women’s college, Appleton. It’s a bittersweet moment for her, the excitement of a fresh start but undercut by the sorrow that comes from the recent breaking off of an engagement. Had the relationship lasted, she would be getting married rather than starting work, and Lucy doesn’t hold out the highest hopes for loving her new profession. But as soon as she arrives, the sheer charisma of the faculty members she meets draws her in, and the students turn out to pose wholly unexpected problems.

Like all colleges, Appleton contains its resident luminaries, and professor in medieval history, Carryl Cope, is Appleton’s. A formidable woman, brilliant, forthright and yet capable of sympathy, Professor Cope attracts Lucy and intimidates her at the same time. Lucy is intrigued to find that Carryl Cope’s pet student, the supposedly outstanding Jane Seaman has signed up for her American literature classes. Jane turns out to be an awkward creature, supercilious, cold, unresponsive. But far worse is to come when Lucy discovers by chance that an award-winning essay she has written turns out to be an act of direct plagiarism. The incident rocks Appleton to the core; Jane’s crime is so serious that she should by rights be expelled for it, yet the subsequent smear on her record will put paid to any chances she might have of continuing her education elsewhere. Is this an appropriate punishment, then, when it seems that Jane’s action stems from the strain of expectation and pressure that has been placed upon her? And yet not enacting punishment looks like a very unfair and unpleasant form of favouritism, one that shows up the power of Carryl Cope and tars Jane with the sins of nepotism as well. Beyond this personal drama lies a further tricky question: the college is considering taking on a resident psychiatrist to deal with exactly this sort of problem, but the main sponsor of the college, Olive Hunt, who also happens to be Carryl Cope’s partner, is virulently against the idea and threatening to donate her millions elsewhere. The situation is complex and highly charged.

I thought this was a wonderfully written book, compelling and full of psychological insight. What I appreciated most about it was the exploration into the relationship between teachers and students and whether this should – or indeed ever could – remain wholly impersonal. But why this book struck me so was because it seemed to be talking directly to me about my life as it was spent in the university. For instance, Lucy is reflecting on the early weeks of her teaching and the difficulties of teaching Thoreau to a class of students who had thoroughly disliked him, and were not afraid to say so:

‘This was exhausting but exhilarating, quite different from one of the freshman sections which seemed like a huge passive elephant she had to try to lift each morning. At times Lucy felt desperation, as if she would never catch up, never be really prepared for the next day, or that her head would burst with the sustained hours of concentration she must ask of herself. She marveled at how much vitality was required’.

And as I read this I was transported back to my own early days (and indeed the later ones, the exhausting-ness of teaching never really seemed to fade) and thinking, so it’s not just me, then? This IS how it feels to teach. Goodness knows I have lifted enough passive elephants in my own time. So I had that utterly poignant experience of reading a novel that placed my own experience before my eyes and offered solidarity, always a special and unexpected sort of moment. And yet, because of this, I have no real perspective on this book. I loved it and I felt I had lived it; it gave back to me that experience with the gloss of meaning and the reassurance of its real and irreducible complexity. But others, I know, will not necessarily feel that way. I read this book for the Slaves of Golconda, and in a brief email exchange in anticipation of our posting on it this weekend, one other Slave described the book as ‘odd’. Now, I feel fairly sure that my own experience was odd, in its way, and so I am full of curiosity to read the others’ reviews and can’t wait for the discussion. But I’ll certainly be seeking out and reading more May Sarton. Her cool, insightful, intelligent style really appealed.

17 thoughts on “Teachers and Students

  1. This sounds great! Teaching is one of those things I know I could never, ever do as a profession (I’m way impatient), so I like reading about what it’s like to be a teacher. I’m going to get this from the library as soon as I get my NY library card.

  2. Pingback: ‘Teaching a Person’: May Sarton’s The Small Room » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

  3. Sounds very intriguing and unique. I can not fathom the particular challenge faced by professors in matters such as these. I’m wondering if this wouldn’t be a useful book to actually teach to a class. Too often people are hindered by their own egocentrism and can not look to the experiences of others when considering compassionate honesty and discourse. Think I’ll recommend this one to my English professor neighbor.

  4. How interesting that you felt the book matched your experience and Rohan felt it nothing like. I suppose that just illustrates how individual is the experience of teaching not only to the person but also the institution.

  5. I don’t really have anything useful to say about this book, but just wanted to drop a comment and say wuhu about you reading and loving this book. Off to catch up on the discussion and blog posts now.

  6. I really enjoyed this book too, even though the educational experience is describes is nothing like my own as a teacher or as a student. I’m glad it’s not, because I have a low tolerance for the kind of intensity it describes. Teaching is intense enough for me, and I keep fairly distant from students, at least their personal lives. But I really liked the way it explored the positives and negatives of more personal involvement. Although I don’t expect to get to know my students much personally (it’s happened on a couple occasions, but isn’t typical), I do want to find ways for them to connect to the material on a personal level, so perhaps the balance is shifting for me a bit toward the personal.

  7. I went through a May Sarton phase a number of years ago, so I probably read this at one time but it sounds completely new and interesting from your description.

    The relationship between student and teacher always interests me. I have so many friends who are teachers, and most of them have become intensely involved in their student’s lives many times over the years. It is exhausting, but it can also be exhilirating.

    I think I need to re-read this.

  8. I’ve not read any of Sarton’s novels, though I believe she was quite popular in her day. And if you like her style, well, I will have to find those novels and give at least one of them more than a passing glance.
    Intriguing story line–very contemporary. I can understand why Lucy’s perspectives on teaching would feel close to your heart.

  9. How interesting to know that you liked this so much! I adore May Sarton and have read every single one of her many published journals and several of her novels, though not this one. Although I enjoyed all the novels I have read, none of them gave me cause to fiercely contest the widespread consensus that her journals are much better and justifiably what she is famous for. So now I very much want to read this one.

  10. I’m so glad you liked this–I was wondering as I was reading what those who teach who where reading would make of it, whether it would ring true. I very much enjoyed it–thought it was really well done, and even if (like Dorothy) it didn’t exactly mimic my own educational experiences it was a book I could still relate to. I can see how any sort of intense personal relationship would be draining on a teacher, but what would students who really need that extra push do without them?

  11. I’ve only read one of Sarton’s works, Journal of a Solitude. After reading your review and Dorothy’s, I’m eager to explore more of Sarton’s writing, esp. her novels. Thanks for keeping such an excellent blog. I’ve gone through quite a few posts today, but will continue to catch up.

  12. Jenny – I’d love to know what you think of it if you do get hold of it! 🙂

    Kimberly – I think you’re quite right, it would be a very interesting book to teach. Teachers and students can be a lot like parents and children, in that it’s hard for one side to view the other objectively. I’d love to know what your neighbour thinks of the novel.

    Stefanie – I’ve found it so interesting to see how different everyone’s experience of teaching is. I think you get so used to your own situation, it’s easy to assume that all education shares a similar basis. But of course not, and each institute is its own little world. We’ve had a good discussion at the forum, haven’t we?

    Jodie – so pleased you could join us on this discussion – I loved your review of the novel!

    Dorothy – I find it really interesting to hear your thoughts about your relationship to teaching. You’re quite right, it IS intense. I think where I teach is extremely intense and I sort of know that but underestimate its impact on me, because it’s also what I’m used to. I hope you talk more on your blog about your teaching – it’s always intriguing to hear about someone else’s situation.

    Lilian – if you read Sarton, I’d love to know what you think of her!

    Becca – Sarton is new to me, but it sounds as if she is the kind of author who compels you to read her entire back catalogue – I know I want to do that now. I’d love to know what you make of this one if you do a re-read. I really enjoyed the book.

    ds – this was a first for me, but I would very much like to get hold of her journals now. Although, of course, it is always compelling to read novels that explore one’s own circumstances!

    Jean – it’s good news to me if the journals are better, as they are the books of hers I’d like to read next. We should compare favourite authors one of these days. Our tastes are very similar.

    Danielle – it’s been a great book for the Slaves – we should thank you for choosing it! I’ve been fascinated to read about the teaching and learning experience of the others – very eye-opening! And now I’m hoping to read a whole lot more Sarton. I love discovering new authors like this.

    Arti – thank you, that’s so kind! I’m hoping to read Journal of a Solitude next, in fact, and am looking forward to it. I’d love to know how you think Sarton’s novels compare if you do get hold of one!

  13. Unless you have a desperate urge to read all of Mary Sarton’s journals, start wtih the second one, Journal of the Solitude, which is probably the best. The very first one, Plant Dreaming Deep, is worth reading if you want to read the whole series and have a complete view, and because it gives you the back story of how and when she moved to her house in the New Hampshire countryside, but she didn’t really get into her stride and find her much-loved journal style until Journal of a Solitude.

  14. This sounds wonderful – and I love that description of teaching as feeling like ‘lifting a passive elephant’. I can definitely relate to that! I remember how completely shattered I would feel after 5 hour days of teaching, and how fresh and full of energy I was after far longer and more physically demanding days of bookselling. It was like being the main actor in a very long play which you had to perform in front of a particularly critical audience, day after day, never once letting your vitality flag…

  15. That description of teaching sounds very familiar. And I’d be interested to read more about the psychiatrist. I’d say a psychologist would be much more useful than a psychiatrist at a College but then psychiatrists in the US do a lot of therapy too.

  16. Pingback: Lies and the lying liars who tell them « Jenny's Books

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