Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: Academic Mayhem: College Life in Literature and Popular Media

Instructor: Mike Wentworth

From the time I was a kid growing up in the Midwest, I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: I wanted to go to college. Then, as now, the very notion of life after college seemed inconceivable and desperately short-sighted. Now as I approach mid-life (though I may have already arrived, I'm reluctant to admit it), I've discovered any number of sobering practical realities and institutional protocols that govern campus life (to a much larger extent than I'm often willing to recognize). Still, I've retained many of my naïve, romantic ideals about campus life, and even now I always look forward to commencement ceremonies, if only to march in solemn rhythm to the rising crescendos of Elgar's grand processional.

This is all by way of background to the topical focus of our course: "Academic Mayhem: Campus Life in Literature, Folklore, and the Popular Media." The personal appeal of the course should be self-evident, but more importantly, the course should enable you to measure the quality of your own collegiate experience against that in the various assigned texts. I have consciously tried to vary the assigned materials, which include an anthology of campus humor, a compilation of campus folklore, a collection of humorous essays focusing on the author's professorial misadventures both in and outside the classroom, a fantasy-horror novel, two academic mysteries (both of which feature a female academic/sleuth), and a number of full-blown satires on campus life and miscellaneous academic topics.

At this point, you might find yourself asking, "What are we supposed to learn from such a "mixed bag"? From a strictly literary vantage point, a number of questions come to mind. What, for example, are the controlling conventions, motifs, and narrative formulae that characterize the literary treatment of campus life? Why do literary treatments of the academy inevitably lend themselves to satire and, considering the rehabilitative function of satire, who or what is supposed to be rehabilitated and to what effect? Then, too, why are so many academic fictions cast in the form of mystery-detective novels involving murder and mayhem-something, perhaps, of wish-fulfillment, recreational sublimation, or even "catharsis" in the Aristotelian sense of the term? In the case of English studies, what are the ideological forces and political tensions that have led to a radical reconsideration of such matters as curriculum development, pedagogical methodology, and the very definition of "literature"? From a more general vantage point, I would hope that the course would encourage a sociological analysis of the organizational systems that enable-or, as the case may be, disable-the operational management of colleges and academic departments. Likewise, I assume that the course might lead us to a greater awareness of the various academic protocols that affect such matters as hiring practices, tenure and promotion, and student-faculty relations. In this respect, the course might be viewed as a primer of self-survival (no less for students than faculty) within a bureaucratic superstructure, the practical governing principles of which may directly contradict and undermine the liberal, humanistic planks that allegedly support such a superstructure. But most importantly, the course should allow you the creative opportunity to read the text of your own collegiate experience and, more specifically, to evaluate the quality and effect of those cultural and institutional forces that have collaborated, for better or worse, in the evolution of that text.

Required Texts

Simon Bronner, Piled Higher and Deeper: The Folklore of Student Life

Jorge Cham, Piled Higher and Deeper: A Graduate Student Comic Book Collection

Joel Gold, The Wayward Professor

Susan Kenney, Graves in Academe

Fritz Leiber, Conjure Wife

David Mamet, Oleanna

Francine Prose, Blue Angel

Susan Allen Toth, Ivy Days: Making My Way Out East

John E. Williams, Stoner

Last Update: February 8, 2012