‘Teaching a Person’: May Sarton’s The Small Room

Reading May Sarton’s The Small Room was a disorienting experience, at once intensely familiar and disconcertingly alien. The protagonist, Lucy Winter (is there a deliberate echo of Bronte’s Lucy Snowe?), is an English professor at a small women’s college. Brought in on a temporary appointment that she is led to believe may lead to a tenured position down the road, she rapidly becoms entangled in a complicated web of personal relationships and pedagogical challenges. I wrote ‘professional challenges’ initially, but to me one of the most conspicuous features of Sarton’s version of academia is how unprofessional it seemed, and how little the working environment of Appleton College resembles my own university environment–which is why it is particularly interesting to me that at Tales from the Reading Room, litlove reports that to her, the novel “seemed to be talking directly to me about my life as it was spent in the university.” (You can read other responses at the Slaves of Golconda site, too.)

Starting with the familiar aspects, Lucy faces, and beautifully articulates, the emotional highs and lows of teaching. When a class is going well–when the students become engaged–things fly along. When they don’t, when they are, as Lucy sees some of her freshmen, “as passive as fish,” a peculiar kind of despair can set in because (as the novel emphasizes in many of its aspects) teaching is always very personal to the teacher: you have chosen work, accepted a vocation, based on a passionate commitment to values you suddenly realize, in those moments, are insignificant or worse to many of those to whom you expose yourself daily just be standing there in front of them.  How can they be so indifferent, you wonder?! How can you move them, connect them to the excitement you feel coursing through you? Though Lucy is later (and probably rightly) ashamed of giving in to her rage, her speech to her students after a particularly dispiriting marking session certainly struck a chord:

‘Here is one of the great mysterious works of man, as great and mysterious as a cathedral. And what did you do? You gave it so little of your real selves that you actually achieved bordeom. You stood in Chartres cathedral unmoved. . . . This is not a matter of grades. You’ll slide through all right. It is not bad, it is just flat. It’s the sheer poverty of your approach that is horrifying!’

Unrealistically, after her rant her students break into applause. ‘That was wonderful,’ one of them says; ‘Why didn’t you get angry before?’ (My own expectation is that the students who actually needed to hear the rant would be absent that day, and the others would be offended at being yelled at when they had in fact tried hard on their assignments.) The ideal contrast is meant to be shown, I think, in the long account of her colleague’s seminar on Keats, which Lucy attends to watch “a master of the art” of teaching. The class begins with “a painful, stumbling series of unrelated questions and answers” then under the teacher’s guidance becomes “something like a fugue,” and finally “the summation flowered.”

Lucy’s remark about giving the work “little of [their] real selves” goes to the heart of the book’s interest in both teaching and learning, which turns on the question of how personal an activity either can or should be. That teaching is inevitably personal is pointed out at several moments, along with the problems that then arise of whether it is necessary or possible to confront each student in a sufficiently individual way without losing one’s own way and then failing, after all, to teach them. “How carelessly she had criticized her own professors down the years!” Lucy reflects.

How little she had known or understood what tensions drove them on and tore them apart, what never-ending conflict they must weight and balance each day. For she had come to see that it was possible, if one worked hard enough at it, to be prepared as far as subject matter went . . . but it was not possible to be prepared to meet the twenty or more individuals of each class, each struggling to grow, each bringing into the room a different human background, each–Lucy felt it now–in a state of peril where a too-rigorous demand or an instantaneous flash of anger might fatally turn the inner dierction. . . . . How did one know? How did one learn a sense of proportion, where to withdraw, where to yield?

And she guessed, not for the first time, that there could be no answer ever, that every teacher in relation to every single student must ask these questions over and over, and answer them differently in each instance, because the relationship is as various, as unpredictable as a love affair.

The plagiarism case that provides the crux of the novel’s plot becomes the test case, perhaps the limit case, for this problem of proportion, as the different parties involved in resolving it are brought to believe that the appropriate response is not the one mandated by college policy but one that reflects a more personal (psychological) understanding of the student’s action. “Teaching is first of all teaching a person,” Lucy realizes, and the college’s decision (against the vigorous opposition of one of its most important trustees) to bring a psychiatrist on staff represents a commitment to this highly individualized approach.

It also, or so it seemed to me, suggested a recoil from what had seemed like an ideal, both for Lucy and in the book more generally: the image of the teacher as (in Lucy’s indirect words), “a keeper of the sacred fire.” The novel invokes an inspirational model of teaching, one that relies on the power of the teacher’s personality and on the development of students as acolytes. That a student might get singed (or worse) by that “sacred fire” seems to be one of the lessons of the plagiarism case, as the student involved is being closely mentored by one of the college’s star professors and caves under the pressure of her expectations. This, presumably, is an example of someone not finding that sense of proportion, not seeing “where to withdraw.” Is Lucy’s relationship with Pippa, an accomplished but less conspicuously brilliant, student meant to stand as an alternative model, one in which a more cautious or impersonal or self-conscious approach to teaching ultimately is better for learning? The advice Pippa found useful is hardly “sacred flame” kind of stuff:

“I did what you said. I kept making outlines, discarding wonderful stuff because it wasn’t necessary. You said, ‘Keep the center clear.’ And you said, ‘If you get into a panic, spell things out 1, 2, 3.’ . . . You smile, but all that helped.”

Still, at the end of the novel Lucy’s motivation for staying on at Appleton is not practical but emotional, or at least visceral: “If I stay,” she tells her colleague, “it will be for love.”

So what about this interesting novel was alienating, when its central issues (distance, vocation, integrity, pedagogy) are also central to my own life? The main thing is simply that its focus on such intense, personal relationships between teachers and students, and its emphasis on teaching as “teaching a person,” may seem natural in a small college when you have “twenty or more individuals” in a class, but at a simply pragmatic level, it’s impossible (and self-destructive) to teach much larger groups on that model–or so I have come to believe. For instance, I know my own teaching load is not nearly as heavy as it gets, but I just received my teaching assignment for next fall and it is one class capped at 75 students, another capped at 40, and another capped at 20. Next winter I’ll have a class of 75 and a class of 40. There will be some overlap of students among these classes, but as they are all at different levels, there won’t be a lot. And there will be some students I’ve taught before–but again, not a lot. So of the students in those 250 spots, probably 200 will begin their courses as strangers to me. At many Canadian universities (and indeed in other departments at Dalhousie) a professor might easily have 250 students in just a single course (we have been looking at moving to classes of 150-200 for some of our offerings but have, sort of ironically, been held up by the total unavailability of big enough rooms). I’d love to “teach a person,” and I try to make opportunities to turn names and faces on my roster into individuals I know something about, but in practical terms, there’s only so much I can do. And there’s a lot I need to do just to manage these numbers: I can’t be endlessly tweaking policies to accommodate, as they do at Appleton, the math genius who isn’t completing other work.

I also work in a much more bureaucratic environment than Sarton depicts. If I find a student has plagiarized, there’s a process I have to follow, and the student union (which votes, in The Small Room, on Jane’s fate) has nothing to do with it. There are policies for almost everything, in fact, including appropriate lines for relationships between students and professors, and my syllabus gets longer and longer as the administration issues more and more edicts. Last year we had to include specific statements about attendance and missed work in response to the university’s rapidly developed H1N1 strategy. The Small Room suggests a world in which decisions about students’ futures are debated and decided among small groups of people all of whom know the student’s history, record, and campus relationships intimately. That world may exist somewhere, but it’s not mine.

I’m not entirely convinced, either, that I’m sorry it isn’t. As The Small Room eloquently dramatizes, the price is high for teachers who take on their students’ whole lives rather than just their academic work. There are great risks of arbitrary or uneven judgments, too, when personal feelings are permitted so much play along with subjective notions about who does and who doesn’t deserve special treatment. There are problems, as well, with the idea of teaching as something “sacred”: the novel holds to what now seems an old-fashioned view of literature as a kind of secular prophecy (hence, for instance, the Chartres cathedral comparison Lucy makes), and the Keats seminar culminates in insights about Fanny Brawne’s life and personality, the professor’s scholarship giving her the wisdom to speak “from a cloud,” a “creative power,” a “mystery.” This is no longer what we imagine is the professor’s role, or the role of scholarship.

And yet, having said that, having acknowledged that the world of Sarton’s college is not the world of the modern multi-purpose, highly professionalized, bureaucratic university, I also have to admit that I felt some yearning for her world. Many (maybe most)? of the professors teaching literature in these big impersonal schools started down that career path because, like Sarton’s teachers, they felt a fire burning in their head–because they were in love. For many of us, learning to live and work in the university as it is now constituted (in North America, at least) has been a disillusioning and dispiriting process–though even so, for many of us, it’s teaching that still brings us closest to that inspirational flame. I may not be able to know or teach all 250 students a year as individuals, but over time I do get to know a lot of them, and it’s tremendously exciting to be part of their development. For every time you want to (or, ahem, actuall do) yell at them, as Lucy does, to stop holding themselves back, there are times when their enthusiasm and curiosity rise up to meet you and you feel the thrill and the responsibility of being their guide and companion in something that matters. So much about the discourse of education today seems to disregard the value of that connection to the whole person–it’s all about outcomes and measures and productivity and, of course, jobs after graduation. Is that really what we want? We as teachers? or as parents? as students? If Lucy’s view seems dangerously personal, the current obsession with students as consumers seems dangerously limited and limiting. If we can’t ever hope to teach students as people, or to be people ourselves when we teach, who will ever, in the end, actually learn anything worth knowing?

One final note: I happened to be working through Death in a Tenured Position this week in one of my classes and I notice that it is dedicated to May Sarton. Carolyn Heilbrun (who wrote the novel under her pseudonym Amanda Cross) also wrote a couple of essays on Sarton that are included in her collection Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women. I think there are a lot of connections between Heilbrun’s book and Sarton’s–but I’ve run myself out of time and gone on long enough for this post, so I hope to write something on those connections, and maybe onHeilbrun’s work more generally, next chance I get.

8 thoughts on “‘Teaching a Person’: May Sarton’s The Small Room

  1. Stefanie October 31, 2010 / 4:51 pm

    I was wondering as I read this book what the several professors who I knew were also reading this would think about it. I know in my university experience as a student I have never had teachers personally involved with my studies. I had one or two who were genuinely interested in my development as a scholar and gave me guidance and encouragement but it was all on a professional basis, there was no emotional handholding or expectations of it on either side of the relationship. Appleton seems ideal in some ways but claustrophic and unhealthy in others. I think we have definitely swung too far to the students as consumers side of things but at the same time I don’t think educators should play the role of parents or substitute spiritual leaders or psychiatrists. There must be a happy middle in there somewhere.


  2. Jodie October 31, 2010 / 6:38 pm

    I was most looking forward to reading the responses to this book from teachers and pupils so this post was fascinating. I wonder at Pippa’s flourishing, because although Lucy provides great practical advice and keeps a healthy distance she also at times seems to keep almost too distanced, too impersonal – Pippa’s father has died recently after all and all the professors seemed to regard her grief as slightly put on. I wondered if this might be a comment on the place of the psychologist in university life, or if my feelings as a modern reader were just significantly different to someone reading when The Small Room was written. Where I saw coldness and a gap that needed to be filled with someone else taking responsibility for Pippa’s emotional side, might readers at the time have seen necessary forbearance and a call for a stiff upper lip?


  3. Dorothy W. October 31, 2010 / 8:37 pm

    I’m not really sorry that Appleton isn’t like my world, either. There is something appealing about it, yes, but knowing myself, I would find it exhausting. I need more of a life outside of school than Lucy seems to have, and I need lots of time and distance from students to recover from the exhaustion of teaching. That said, the ways I do interact with my students I really value. It’s definitely a matter of figuring out the right kind of balance, and for me at least, that balance is going to fall on the more impersonal side.


  4. litlove November 1, 2010 / 6:21 am

    Fascinating post, Rohan, and a wonderful response to the novel. Class size clearly makes the difference. If I teach a seminar or a language class, the maximum number of students will be 12. In supervision, the maximum is 3. So most of my teaching was in ones and twos. We do this in order to get the most we can out of the student; there’s nowhere to hide if you haven’t done the reading. But at the same time, we have a huge pastoral system that deals with student problems outside the classroom when that’s where they belong. And yes, thank goodness, fixed procedures for problems like plagiarism.

    The thing is, in my experience, the difficulties the students have with learning are partly personal, always. There is an element of straightforward incomprehension, but so much resistance to learning comes from insecurity, uncertainty and prejudice. These things rarely get aired in a classroom situation. I figure it must be extremely frustrating for teachers who only have big groups to deal with, because it’s hard to combat the stuff in the air, behind the masks of the students faces, that you can’t quite grasp. But it does also limit the effect you can ever expect to have on them. The tough part of Cambridge teaching is the responsibility – if I see a student individually for a whole year then surely I can always get a very good result out of him. And if I don’t, I feel very guilty about that. So these things are always swings and roundabouts.


  5. Rohan November 1, 2010 / 9:30 am

    Thanks, all, for your comments; I’ve been really enjoying reading the other posts on this provocative novel as well. I really agree with the ideal of balance: it is exhausting if you try to be too involved with students personally, but as litlove says, their learning is always bound up in their lives.

    Litlove–just as a side note, I’ve tried a few times recently to leave comments on your posts but they seem to disappear after I hit ‘submit’. I have no idea what happens to them! But I didn’t want you to think I was ignoring your very thoughtful posts, especially the one that picked up on one of my own.


  6. JoVE November 1, 2010 / 3:34 pm

    This may be a tangent, but with all the talk about “relevance” and my frustration that the best most humanities scholars can come up with in response is “critical thinking”, this discussion of the content of the novel in relation to a wider set of issues (that are more often discussed with reference to social scientific research, if research and scholarship is brought to bear at all) was, for me, an excellent example of the relevance of literary scholarship and literature itself.

    I now fear that that sentence will be used as an example of the need for shorter sentences 😉

    Very interesting discussion. My own teaching experience (in the UK, but not at Cambridge or Oxford) was in a context where many/most of my colleagues valued that personal engagement with students but found it difficult in the very different institutional context (and historical context of rising student numbers, etc).

    I, on the other hand, have never felt that it was impossible to reach or teach students in larger classes, though I was not always aware immediately that I was. Evidence did come my way in various forms. And I suppose I never believed it possible or necessary to reach all of them in that way, assuming that some would/should be inspired by someone else’s flame.


  7. litlove November 1, 2010 / 6:57 pm

    Rohan – thank you for letting me know!! I have retrieved your comments from the spam, which is just plain wrong, and I am so sorry they should have ended up there. Sometimes, I do not know what wordpress is thinking. Hopefully you’ll now get through fine – please do let me know if you post again and it disappears.

    One other thing, if anyone is interested in reading an extreme version of this story, try Jane Tompkin’s memoir, A Life In School. She decides to abandon conventional teaching entirely after her damaging experience (at Yale, I think) and becomes a personal guru to her students. I WINCED my way through this book, even though my own style tends towards the personal. It was scary.


  8. Da nielle November 2, 2010 / 11:40 pm

    Thanks so much for joining in the discussion, Rohan. It’s been great to hear from new voices and get such different perspectives on the book–and from people who actually teach and can talk about their own experiences. Like Stefanie my college education was much the same–large classes where I was just one face amongst many and no real way to distinguish myself other than doing really well or really poorly. It seems like the average student just falls between the cracks and hopefully will do well on their own. Now I work in an academic library at a state university and it is the same–keep the numbers up and the classes as full as possible in order to stay afloat financially yet educate with a fewer number of faculty and staff due to budget cuts. Litlove’s situation really sounds like heaven to me–imagine what could be accomplished in a situation like that. While I can see the traps of an educational institution like Lucy’s, somehow I feel like something is also missing now education-wise.


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