Julie Schumacher’s novel The English Experience is a clever campus farce, a book as funny as it is insightful into college politics.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“Comfortably sitting alongside classic academic satires such as Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and David Lodge’s Changing Places, Schumacher’s trilogy brilliantly skewers the soulless, administrator-led world of contemporary universities, concluding with this edifying and satisfying novel.”
I don’t listen to music when I write – I have a highly distractable brain and therefore prefer *dead silence* – but, having written three novels about academia, I often hear songs related to teaching and education quietly streaming, in a loop, through my head. My newest novel, The English Experience, is the third of my books to feature the beleaguered professor of English, Jason Fitger, of Payne University. (He made his debut in Dear Committee Members, and I became fond of him and haven’t been willing to let him go.) I imagine him listening to this music, too.
The English Experience finds Fitger, an asocial misanthrope, serving as chaperone to a group of undergraduates on a trip to London. Misadventures (this is an understatement) ensue.
1) “Glory Days” – Bruce Springsteen
My unlikely hero, Professor Fitger, has a tendency toward nostalgia and rumination. He worries that his best days – as a writer, a lover, and a human being – are well behind him. He’s not alone in this, I think: we glorify youth and enshrine the high school and college experiences as a sort of pinnacle, when in truth they’re more often a clumsy beginning, a groping toward an undefined future. Springsteen captures that tendency to enshrine the past at the expense of the present, the danger of imagining our previous selves to be the best or most promising version of what we might become.
2) “To Sir with Love” – Lulu
Okay, yes, this song is syrupy and the reversal of the students’ feelings is simplistic (also, I admit that I haven’t watched the movie for forty years), but that reversal – the affection that begins to take the place of disdain – is something I thought about a lot in relation to my professor-character. Fitger is uncouth, undiplomatic, full of human foibles of many stripes. His students (and possibly the reader) initially see him as a very disagreeable person. But my goal was for both the reader and the students in the novel to come to feel an affection for him. (I don’t expect, though, that anyone would write him a song.) I want Fitger to win people over despite his foibles and despite the times when he acts like an ass.
3) “Closer to Fine” – Indigo Girls
The music and the literature I’m most drawn to usually depict a (sometimes unsatisfiable) yearning, a sense of search. I love this song because of that yearning, the singers’ desire for “insight between black and white” and the conclusion that “there’s more than one answer to these questions/pointing me in a crooked line.” That crooked line, I think, is a terrific metaphor: it’s the line that describes the lives of my characters (full of errors but continuing to search), and it’s the line that describes the student experience. The “doctor of philosophy/With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee” can’t provide answers, because the search for meaning is elusive and individual, and lasts much longer than a formal education can.
4) “Teach Your Children” – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
It’s not about the K-12 or college experience, but the question of who teaches whom is classic. In writing about academia, I tried to depict the ways in which my professor character evolves – and improves – because of his students.
You have to watch the video to appreciate this one. Note the date: April 2020. I chose my other selections above because I loved their lyrics, but there are no lyrics here. I watched and listened to this video over and over at the start of the pandemic. In it, Julliard students and faculty (including Yoyo Ma, Patti LuPone, Emanuel Ax, Itzhak Perlman) – each of them isolated due to Covid in dorm rooms, apartment hallways, parents’ houses – participate in a sinuous, exquisite performance of music and dance, the screen filling with more and more Zoom boxes full of flute players, drummers, actors, ballet dancers, cellists, pianists, and more. I feel hopeful about the future whenever I watch this video, inspired by the students and the teachers, and about what they created, together, during a fearful and a difficult time.
Julie Schumacher grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and graduated from Oberlin College and Cornell University, where she earned her MFA. Her first novel, The Body Is Water, was published by Soho Press in 1995 and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her 2014 novel, Dear Committee Members, won the Thurber Prize for American Humor; she is the first woman to have been so honored. She lives in St. Paul and is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Minnesota.