The English Experience: A Novel
"biting humor . . . a sharp send-up of academic life . . ."
Julie Schumacher opens her new comic novel with biting humor, a great introduction into what will follow in her satiric look at academia:
"Jason Fitger, chair of the Department of English at Payne University found himself summoned, in mid-December, to the office of the new provost. The job of provosts was to create and then disseminate bad news, so he expected her to announce a new punitive measure to be inflicted on his academic unit, which had scarcely survived the crises of the previous years. Instead, after arranging her features into a facsimile of cordial goodwill, she claimed to be presenting him with an opportunity, 'truly a plum.'"
The reader, like Fitger, is now primed to be wary of such an offer. The provost, despite her attempts to appear friendly, is clearly a predator intent on attack:
"She leaned toward him over the immaculate expanse of her desk and Fitger was reminded of a python flexing its coils in preparation for an assault on its prey."
The "plum" turns out to be more of an onerous task—leading a group of students on a three-week study abroad program in England over the winter break. The course had been created by a history professor who for unexplained reasons is no longer available. In fact, given it's the holiday season, all of the professors approached by the provost have declined. Fitger, divorced with no children, can't claim family responsibilities. The provost gives him no choice but to accept or face wrathful consequences.
And so Fitger is sent off with a group of vacuous students, none of whom are the least bit interested in English history or art. Schumacher uses a clever format of interspersing plot with student work, from their applications to the program to their terribly written essays. Sadly, these students seem all too reflective of actual students, more intent on their social lives and getting drunk than any kind of education. Much of Fitger's job is simply herding cats and dealing with drunkenness.
Along with the students and their various travails, Fitger has his own worries as his ex-wife has applied for a job out of state. The strains build as students get sick, lost, and deal with heartache. None of it feels serious. The students are much too immature for the reader to feel much sympathy with any of them. They all seem like entitled, over-protected children as they squander the riches of the British Museum, the Tower of London—all of the major attractions offered by London and its environs. To be fair, they've been saddled with a particularly noxious guide, and Fitger does nothing to correct the vapid cliches served up by her. Though he ultimately fires her, he himself doesn't offer any better guidance.
An English teacher through and through, Fitger's teaching is solely focused on the short essays he's assigned. Here his efforts are truly valiant:
"Mentally reviewing the papers that some of the students had already written, which included information most people might reserve for the therapist's couch or the confessional or even the grave, Fitger explained that the goal was insight rather than intimacy. . . ."
To Fitger's credit, the final essays, are distinctly better than the earlier efforts, though they still read at a middle-school level, not at all the work that might reasonably be expected from a college student. But there's emotional pay-off in the end, as the students, each in their own way, learn a crumb of something and ultimately cohere as a group. As one student writes in her final poem-essay:
"Before I finish
I want to thank you
for this class
which has been an experience
just like the title said.
I also want to say
that I think you are a really good professor
even if your score on
Rate my professor
is not very high."
The English Experience may not present the reader with anything truly British, but it offers a sharp send-up of academic life, perhaps sadly more of an American experience than anything else.