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The Shakespeare Requirement

Topics/tags: Reviews, novels, academia, CS@Grinnell, disconnected

Warning! Although this musing starts as a review of a book, it detours into other issues in academia, particularly in my department.

I’ve read a wide variety of books in the past few years. Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members is among my favorites. In part, it’s the form; the novel is written as a series of recommendation letters. But it’s more that I enjoyed seeing the send-up of academia and its processes. I also found many parts laugh-out-loud hilarious, particularly the responses to one of those fury-inducing online recommendation forms.

So, when I saw Schumacher’s new novel, The Shakespeare Requirement, I picked it up immediately. I managed to read it over the past week. It is, in some sense, a follow-up to Dear Committee Members; it shares characters with the former book, and it is also a send-up of academia. But I’m not sure how I feel about it; while I enjoyed it and laughed out loud at a few parts, I didn’t find it up to the standards of Dear Committee Members.

What didn’t I like? The novel had three or four main threads. While they all ended at the end of the novel, they didn’t tie together as well as I’d hoped. And, well, they all ended up a bit shorter than I’d expected. Plus, the novel ends with characters making a decision that’s funny, but ultimately unethical and inappropriate. I was frustrated to see a character that I like compromised, even when he’s already an imperfect personality. And it somehow felt worse because he’d redeemed himself (at least somewhat) only a few pages earlier.

I was also sad to see the way in which Economics was treated in the book. In many ways, Econ was a stand-in for all of the departments that are growing at liberal arts colleges, ones that more explicitly leads to jobs than do the humanistic majors that are essential to a strong liberal arts major. My impression has been that every department at Grinnell understands and appreciates that the other departments do their work primarily to grow students’ minds and contribute to their broader education. But this book treats Econ as concerned more about their own status more than about students, and about preparing students for jobs more than developing the broader human.

Nonetheless, the book did get me to think more about the way I talk about our students. While I’m reasonably sure that my colleagues understand that I’m passionate about teaching my students, perhaps I need to cut back a bit on talking about our success at placing students. However, I’m not sure that I can do so; while I don’t believe that students should major in CS because of the available jobs, I do consider it part of our mission to help students to move up the socio-economic spectrum. For better or for worse, careers in CS can help do so. Damn, there I go again.

More importantly, the book attacks the way that successful departments encroach upon other departments. And, well, CS is doing something like that. We don’t have room on our floor for our newest faculty member. That means that one of the senior faculty members [1] will need to move their office and lab elsewhere in the science building. But where? All of the sciences are cramped for space. The Science building was built for a population of 1500 students when about 35% of Grinnell students chose to major in the sciences. We now have a population of 1700 students and about 45% now major in the sciences. So, even though we built the Science Building with a bit of extra space, it’s likely that all of that space has been consumed.

Then there’s the issue of classroom space. We’ve already converted our open lab into a classroom to meet demands. Math/Stats has also generously allowed us to use one of their computing classrooms for the occasional class. However, those additional resources are nearly exhausted; we’re close to the point at which we may need more computing classrooms than we have, especially if the new schedule is adopted [2]. Because we emphasize pair programming in a Linux environment, our classroom needs are also different than most people’s.

Are we trying to encroach on other peoples’ space? No, we are not. Do we need more space than we have? Yes, we do. What’s the solution? I’ll leave that up to the Dean. Hopefully, he’ll come up with a good solution.

As the preceding paragraphs suggest, The Shakespeare Requirement reminded me that there are times when there’s a gap between a department’s intentions and motivations and those that others attribute to that department. I don’t know how to address that, other than to talk to each other.

My, that was a long detour. Back to the book. What should you know? It’s set at a small liberal arts college and reflects on many of the current concerns of such institutions by taking some to the extreme. It has some funny bits. It’s also sad in places. The main character is fallible, but not nearly as curmudgeonly as in Dear Committee Members. There are multiple threads to the story, none of which reach a completely satisfactory end. I’m glad I read it, but I still think it could have been better. I’d recommend it to folks in academia, but not nearly as much as Dear Committee Members.

Postscript: When I wrote reflects on the current concerns of such institutions, which happened in the last [3] revision of this musing, I realized that it does not bring in Title IX. Now I’m troubled because I’ve realized that the book does contain an incident which is potentially a Title IX issue [4]. Would Schumacher have lost readers if she’d included Title IX in the book? I’m not sure. Title IX is not something that supporters of survivors or opponents of the Obama-era Title IX interpretations take lightly. Still, it makes me worry a bit more about how the student is treated in this book. It will take more thought than I have at the moment to work out all the issues. Maybe I’ll have to reread it keeping those issues in mind. I’d love to hear from someone else who has read it.

Postscript: You want to know something more about the content of the book? Let’s see. Our main character, Jason Figer, MFA, has just become chair of English at a small liberal-arts college [5]. English shares a building with Econ. The chair of Econ is an empire builder. English is under-resourced and dysfunctional. The latest round of You must write a departmental mission statement has led to a statement that does not mention Shakespeare, which angers the department’s Shakespeare scholar. Trouble ensues.

Postscript: The more I write, the more I come to understand my reaction to the book. In part, I’ve discovered that I’m unhappy with the book because Schumacher appears to be writing about many of her characters with derision rather than affection. That makes them closer to shallow caricatures than to fully-formed people. Perhaps I’ll have to reread the book to check my interpretation. Or perhaps I’ll find someone else who has read the book to chat with.

[1] Yes, there’s a good chance it will be me.

[2] I sincerely hope that it is not adopted.

[3] Second or third.

[4] Sorry for the lack of details. I don’t want to give away critical parts of the plot.

[5] Maybe it’s not a small liberal-arts college. The prior book mentions graduate students.

Version 1.0 of 2018-09-23.