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The Idea of a University

ENGL 016.302
instructor(s):
TR 1:30-3

Taking its title from Cardinal Newman's book about what a university ought to be, this class will look at his and other ideas about the ideal -- or not so ideal -- university. Occupants of the "real" world often distinguish it from the "academic" world, making their own real life experiences a basis for discounting or active contempt of those whose lives are merely academic. In turn, academics may scorn those who grub in the world and see their own as the only environment in which disinterested thought and research can take place. Whatever their status within the academy, faculty may feel marginalized by the larger society in which they live, anxious to be heard by it yet frustrated when they are not. Students may think (or have been told) that their student years are "the best years of their lives." Yet they may also wait eagerly for graduation when they finally get out of school to encounter reality. These and related constructions (academic vs. real life; the best years of our lives; how we envisage academics in society; how we envisage the idea of the university itself) are the subject of this course.

We will read a few "theoretical" texts that consider the idea of the university from a variety of perspectives. "Theoretical" works -- in addition to Newman's -- will be drawn from such works as Bill Readings, The University in Ruins, Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory, Alvin B. Kernan, In Plato's Cave, and Lawrence W. Levine, The Opening of the American Mind.

We will also read several very different kinds of texts: novels, works perhaps unlike Newman's that, explicitly fictitious, consider the experience of the university from the points of view of students and faculty. Such "fictions" will be drawn from Owen Johnson, Stover at Yale, Willa Cather, The Professor's House, William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf, Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution, Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim, David Lodge, Changing Places, John Williams, Stoner, Alice Kaplan, French Lessons, Mark Merlis, American Studies, Jane Smiley, Moo, and Richard Russo, Straight Man.

This class will require a good deal of reading (although the titles mentioned above are intended to be indicative only -- they are not a syllabus!). It will have neither a midterm nor a final. Students will write three short papers, and one longer final one. Those papers will ask students variously to respond to the readings or to think about the nature of "the university" on the basis not only of those readings but also of their own experience of the university in their second semester at one.