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The Small Room by May Sarton

The Small Room

by May Sarton

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The Small Room. May Sarton. 1961. I’ve heard of May Sarton for years but knew nothing about her so when this book turned up on the kindle and it was a novel set in a college I had to try it. I like novels with academic settings. Lucy Winter accepted a job to teach American Lit at a small girl’s college in New England. She was fresh out of grad school and recovering from a broken heart. She is immediately invited into a small group of faculty members who meet for cocktails. She struggles with her classes and is determined to remain aloof from the students. Then she discovers that a star student who is a protégé of a very strong opinionated faculty member has plagiarized a paper that was to be published in the school magazine. Not much suspense but the interplay between the characters interesting. There is a covert air of lesbianism throughout that might bother some readers. ( )
  judithrs | Apr 5, 2018 |
The Small Room is an interesting but uneven novel about life at a small women's college somewhere near Boston in the late 1950s. Lucy Winter is the recent recipient of a doctorate in English lit from Harvard, who moves to teach at Appleton College in the unhappy aftermath of a broken engagement. The plot of the novel, such as it is, centres on the fallout of a plagiarism case involving one of the college's most gifted students.

Mostly, however, Sarton is interested in the moral and ethical obligations of teachers to students and in what it means to learn. Some of the points Sarton raises are things that struck a chord with me even though I've taught at a large state school in the Midwestern US rather than at a SLAC. However, though Sarton has a gift for description, her prose and dialogue can be overly mannered—at times I felt I was reading a mid-century stage play about academia, with every performance delivered in a Mid-Atlantic accent and exaggerated so as to reach the back of the house. It didn't help that many of the characters were too thinly sketched to come across as anything more than mouthpieces for different viewpoints. ( )
  siriaeve | May 25, 2016 |
I found this book at turns beautiful, at other times frustrating. It is nominally "about" a plagiarism case at a small New England women's liberal arts college in the 1950s. But the book is more a philosophical rumination on the nature of learning, personal relationships, and the moral obligations that members of an intimate learning community hold to one another.

Okay, first of all, I am a professor at a large state university in the midwest, but there was a lot about the way Sarton discussed both education and the act of teaching that resonated with me. The community I am in is not as small or insular as the one Sarton describes, and the types of students I teach are very different from the (apparently) privileged, homogeneous group Prof. Lucy Winter encounters. So my baseline is quite different--but Sarton successfully created evocative public and private moments that definitely got to the core of what it means to engage in higher education, good and bad.

However, I found the two central conflicts of the book endlessly frustrating. The plagiarism case: fine, there's a point to be made for extenuating circumstances in such a case, and it was made. But I find it inconceivable that the community could have been ripped apart so violently by this. Students cheat at things, and they always have, for a variety of reasons. Maybe we as instructors ask ourselves if our unreasonable demands led to an untenable situation in which cheating was the only option, but why in god's name would or should anyone else care so much about it? The problem was that the supporting characters were too thinly drawn (Blake, Jack and Maria, Hallie, the forgettable new professor possibly named Henry) to convincingly show me why a fairly ordinary plagiarism case would rock their very self-identity to its foundations.

The second conflict, about whether the college should put a psychiatrist on the staff, was interesting, if dated. Maybe it was scandalous or controversial at the time to suggest that students would require help from mental health professionals (the biggest scandal today is that we don't have ENOUGH mental health professionals on university staff). However, I had major problems with parts of this plot. Lucy takes the cheating student, Jane, to a psychiatrist, on her own, off campus, during a school break. This should have raised some red flags for a community that seemed SO finely-tuned to the moral implications of every sneeze. Second, apparently the psychiatrist tells this unrelated instructor who has known the patient for two months his diagnosis and how he arrived at it, and she SHARES all this information with the entire faculty. I'm sorry? And no one at the college thought to have even one conversation about the hugely problematic moral implications of these actions? I don't buy it. It seemed like a massive blind spot in a work that purported to be all about searching moral inquiries of the teacher-student relationship and its many complexities.

So that turned into kind of a rant. What I will say is that this is a short but dense novel, that there is a lot of attention to ethics and gray areas, and that it is one of the better novels I have read that paints a realistic picture of everyday classroom teaching (no "o captain, my captain!" and standing on desks here). But there were just too many threads that didn't connect for me. ( )
  sansmerci | Aug 21, 2015 |
I find May Sarton somewhat uneven as a novelist. She has a tendency to think things to pieces. She is clearly interested in action and reaction as processes of human feeling (and I'm feeling a little shaky writing that summation because I'm aware of how vague it all sounds). However, Sarton believed in contemplating the vague the unquantifiable, and describing it, sometimes in excruciating detail.In "Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing," Sarton explores the life of feeling of a poet in old age and the way in which her emotional life has affected her work. In "The Small Room" Sarton does something similar (and, in my view, with better results novel-wise) with the lives of academics at a small New England women's college.

Read the rest at http://thegrimreader.blogspot.com/2012/09/i-am-going-through-books-like-hophead.... ( )
  nohrt4me2 | Sep 11, 2012 |
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In the hallowed halls of one of New England's most prestigious colleges, a young woman finds new and unexpected life as professor while a scandal brews just on the periphery On the train north from New York City, Lucy Winter takes inventory of her life. Twenty-seven and newly single, Lucy is headed toward a fate she never anticipated: professorship at a women's college in New England. Her doctorate degree, obtained from Harvard, was more of a hobby than a professional aspiration-something to occupy her time while her fianc completed his medical studies nearby. But at Appleton College she finds new enthusiasm in academia, teaching young women to be brilliant in a society that does not yet value their intellect. When Lucy discovers a scandal involving a star student, she ignites controversy on the campus. Many in the faculty rush to either defend or condemn the student, who is carrying the burden that often accompanies excellence. At the center of the political maelstrom is Lucy, who, despite her newfound difficulties on campus, is finding that her unexpected detour to Appleton may lead to a more rich and rewarding life than she ever anticipated. An insightful and inspiring study of scholarship, teaching, and women in academia, The Small Room is also the memorable story of a young professor coming into her own.… (more)

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