Last week I mentioned the novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which I mostly very much enjoyed, mostly because of the interesting writing (and not so much because of some of the strange characters, like a faux-Brazilian). Although the book is not an academic novel in the classic sense, there is much in it that is of interest to those who like to read fictional portrayals of academic culture.
The author, Lorrie Moore, is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the setting of much of the novel is a not-very-disguised Madison. The aspects of the novel that involve a parody of academia are therefore likely written quite deliberately.
In this novel, academia has a central role in that there is a stark juxtaposition of "real life" as separate from "academic life", the topic of the last couple of posts in this blog. The main character learns a lot about the world and people and life during the course of the novel, but none of this learning occurs in the classroom. If you read reviews of the novel, you commonly find statements like: "Life is more of an education than anything Tassie [the main character] is studying in college." No kidding.
At the same time, Tassie's brain is “..on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir". She's an intellectual, but of the free-range sort, as the courses she is taking are bizarre. This brings me to my next point:
The main character, who is 20 years old and has presumably declared a major of some sort, takes a truly weird set of classes. She seems to be reading Chaucer and Plath on her own because her courses are:
Brit Lit from 1830 to 1930, Intro to Sufism, Intro to Wine Tasting, Soundtracks to War Movies, Dating Rocks, and a cross-listed humanities/physical education course called The Perverse Body/The Neutral Pelvis.
Some of the strange classes seem to be intended to satisfy some of the graduate requirements of the university. And she ends up in the Sufism class because another course was full by the time she registered. Fair enough, but it's still a strange set of classes. I have lately been poring over many undergraduate transcripts, and not a one comes anywhere near this level of randomness, not even for a term.
When Tassie describes her courses to her father, leaving out only the pelvic class, which might shock him, he is most taken aback by the one science class, Dating Rocks ("The Sufism did not throw him"), perhaps because of its stupid name.
We learn the most about Intro to Sufism, which is taught by an Irish "Ottomanist" with an arm in a sling and no shortage of self confidence ("I know more about this topic than anyone in this department") but a shortage of something else ("I also know more about teaching while high than anyone else in this department"). It is the only class Tassie likes ("Except for the Sufism.. classes marched along forgettably").
At least she learns to make connections between her classes, sort of, and Science provides the key: "In Geology we were learning about the effects of warmth and cold, which at bottom I began to see was what all my courses were about."
Warmth and cold.. isn't that what nearly everything is about, ultimately? Life/death, love/hate, global warming/global cooling, wealth/poverty, cats..
6 months ago