The Small Room by Mary Sarton

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The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by dsimpson on Mon Oct 25, 2010 1:11 am

Hi. Just getting a spot ready for discussion on Oct. 31.

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Rohan on Sun Oct 31, 2010 2:48 pm

Hi! I really enjoyed reading The Small Room, partly because it made me reflect a lot on my own teaching and relationships with students. It struck me that teaching is far more personal in this novel than it is for me, which is not to say that I don't take a strong interest in my students, particularly those who are stand-outs in some way. But I was wondering if there's a big difference between the academy then and the university as an institution now, or if the placing of the novel at a small women's college changes the terms of these relationships--or if, perhaps, I'm taking things too literally!

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Litlove on Sun Oct 31, 2010 3:32 pm

Hi all! I've just posted my review of the novel, and am so intrigued Rohan to hear more about your response to it, particularly when you mentioned in the email that it struck you as odd. I read this book feeling like someone had caught me on CCTV and written about it. I do have relationships with students that go beyond standing at the front of a class and talking to them, mostly because they are unavoidable when you teach students individually or in pairs, as we do regularly in Cambridge. When you see a student once a fortnight, under those conditions, it's almost inevitable that some sort of active knowing will take place. This is where I need French - it has a different verb for knowing a person 'connaitre' to knowing facts 'savoir'. And I have always found that knowing students better in the sense of 'connaitre' has meant I've known better how to teach them some 'savoir'. I generally found that if I had a relationship with the student they would learn much faster, much easier, because they were held and contained in the process of learning (so long as I did my job properly), and if they trusted me they could shed some of the burden of anxiety that accompanies study. But of course, that relationship required strong boundaries too. I found teaching very like parenthood, like an intellectual form of parenting. I tried to model good practice, good responses, and the students could then download them.

I think The Small Room shows both the good and the bad aspects of the teaching 'relationship'. In that Lucy learns how a little self expenditure goes a long way with Pippa. Whilst Carryl must face up to the fact that her expectations and desires have damaged Jane. Again - teaching is like parenting; there has to be something really selfless and self-restrained about the teacher if that relationship is going to work out well.

What was really odd for me about this book was that it contained many of the themes and issues that I'd put in my own memoir of teaching (only it did them better, I think!). I was relieved that it had come out in 1961 and that Sarton is primarily known in America - I think I might have been downcast if it had been a recent publication. As it was, I feel I can nick ideas from it when I'm doing the next edit...

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by dsimpson on Sun Oct 31, 2010 4:37 pm

I really enjoyed this novel as there was so much to think about--things I hadn't considered since I have only ever been a student--so I am especially curious to see what others think who are professors. Being on the other side of the equation--I was interested in Lucy's response to Pippa as opposed to Jane. I completely understand Lucy's desire to keep relationships on an intellectual footing rather than a personal one as it would be so draining if it was like that with a classroom of students. Still, I did wonder as in the end she had quite a personal relationship with Jane--even taking her home with her. Granted she caught her plagiarizing, so that was a different situation, but still she cut Pippa off. In the end Pippa was fine--so maybe she needed a firmer hand, but some little part of me did wonder if it was a matter of Pippa being your average sort of student whereas Jane was something a bit more special. I suppose a professor would be willing to go further with a student who shows particular promise, but then you wonder about the ones who are only average and might fall between the cracks. I imagine it's a fine line professors must walk between teaching material to the student but also perhaps giving them something more beyond that. Maybe this college was unique--smaller with different attitudes reflecting the times. I also thought it interesting how so many balked at the idea of having a psychiatrist on staff.

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Stefanie on Sun Oct 31, 2010 8:08 pm

I've been so looking forward to hearing what the professors thought about this book. It didn't really match with my experience as a student, maybe because I went to a larger university in the Los Angeles area. Though the English department wasn't very large and I know there were definitely professors who played favorites with the students.

Like Danielle, I too thought it was interesting at how so many didn't like the idea of a psychiatrist. I suppose we view mental health a bit differently today than in 1961.

For those who are professors, do you find that the question Sarton brings up of women having to make choices and sacrifices in order to lead a life of the mind still hold true to any extent?

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Pining for the West on Sun Oct 31, 2010 8:59 pm

I really enjoyed reading this book. I started work in a library straight from school so I haven't been a student, but my husband is a teacher and my children have recently graduated, so I got their experiences second hand.
I knew of one very ambitious student who buttered up a professor and gained success 'on the professor's coat-tails' as far as the other students were concerned. Even very small children have a sense of fairness so things like that cause huge resentment.
We really had no evidence that Jane had a brilliant mind. Could she not just have been a lazy trout who expected special treatment. Given the fact that Carryl Cope was a lesbian, perhaps she was just attracted to Jane and was influenced by her feelings for her. It is certainly what people in the college would have been saying if Professor Cope had been a man.
This is just one aspect of the book and I could go on at great length but I won't.

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Litlove on Sun Oct 31, 2010 9:15 pm

Stefanie - just to answer your question, I'd give it a resounding YES. An anecdote, not one of mine, but from Mary Beard (whose blog is the best known academic blog here in the UK - she's a professor in Classics at Cambridge). She tells the story in her blog of when she had small children at home but was secretary to a committee that met at an extremely inconvenient hour - I think it was about 5pm, just when mothers are all trying to get children fed, bathed and ready for bed. She nevertheless fulfilled her duties, never missing a meeting and taking notes, even though she had to rush off the moment the meetings ended. Years later she met up with an academic who'd been on that same committee. 'Oh I recall you,' he said. 'You were that woman who never made the effort to stay for a moment longer than the meeting required.' All she'd done to fulfill her obligations and yet she was remembered as being slack!

Here at Cambridge there are dinners and meetings and discussion groups and research seminars all organised over what would otherwise be family time. When I was a tutor, we used to have to meet Saturday morning, and because a proportion of those present had nothing better to do, the meeting always got strung out until lunchtime. It was infuriating and frustrating. If you mentioned children, you were considered to be a lightweight. Okay, gone on about this long enough, but it is not an easy career to juggle with a family, and the attitude was very old-fashioned.

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Litlove on Sun Oct 31, 2010 9:18 pm

Oh and Danielle, I do know of professors whose interest was only with the brightest students. But I liked working with the ones who were middling along but who, with a little push, could suddenly find their wings and fly. I found those sorts of students the most rewarding - I enjoyed seeing them make progress and realise they could do it after all.

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by bookgazing on Sun Oct 31, 2010 9:54 pm

Pining for the West: 'Given the fact that Carryl Cope was a lesbian, perhaps she was just attracted to Jane and was influenced by her feelings for her.'

This was automatically where my mind went initially too because there's a lot of cultural reader baggage that goes along with the female school/college story and because Appleton student teacher relationships are often referred to in an ambiguously sexual way (for example Lucy talking about Pippa's feelings not quite growing into 'a crush'). There's also I think a reference to Lucy feeling that Jane needs Carryl to give her something more even though she comes to her house looking for books.

However, Mary Sarton obviously had no problem making her characters openly, unambiguously lesbian, so I wasn't sure how to interpret Jane and Carryl's relationship when there was no big, open reveal of feelings from either side. Towards the end of the book when Olive talks about how she has never been able to give Carryl everything she wanted intellectually I began to feel that this was what drew Carryl to Jane, an attraction to her fantastic mind and that she is looking for an intellectual equal rather than a sexual partner. So in my mind Carryl is influenced by her feelings for Jane's intellect, her brilliance and feels her a keeper of the torch of intelligence who is a favourite and must be protected because she is kind of a kindred spirit of Carryl's, rather than someone Carryl is attracted to.

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Stefanie on Sun Oct 31, 2010 10:22 pm

I agree Jodie. I think Carryl's and Jane's relationship was strictly of the intellectual sort. I think Sarton was very careful to limit Carryl's lesbian relationship to Olive and even that was so subtle that it took me awhile before I stopped wondering is she or isn't she? Sarton was a lesbian and she probably knew that a novel about a women's college in 1961 probably wasn't quite the right setting to have Carryl be openly lesbian because of erroneous conclusions straights might jump to.

Sarton did publish an openly lesbian novel a few years later called Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. The continual repetition of the lines from in The Small Room about mermaids singing kept reminding me of the later book which I have read and thought quite good.

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Rebecca H. on Sun Oct 31, 2010 11:29 pm

I enjoyed reading the depiction of teaching in this novel, but it is nothing like my own experience, either as a student or as a professor. I went to a small college, but was too shy to approach professors much. Now as a teacher, I think most students are too busy, too shy, or too indifferent to approach me. That's not always true, but I've mostly been surrounded by people who don't think of education as being as personal as it is in the novel. That said, I've been giving informal assignments like journals more and more in an effort to let students connect to the material in a more personal way. It's always about the material, though, not about me. This is partly personal -- I just tend to be reserved -- but partly the educational cultural of where I teach.

I'm not sure I would want it any differently, really, because I connected strongly with the potential for exhaustion and depletion described in the novel. Teaching really wears me out, and if I spent a lot of time talking with students one-on-one, I'm not sure I could last at it. I definitely understand the need to step back and create boundaries in order to preserve energy and enthusiasm.

And yes, I'd agree with Litlove that women still have to make choices and sacrifices in order to pursue an academic career. This isn't so much because of social expectations that you can't have a career and family both, but because of the reasons Litlove described and also the fact that academics tend to marry academics and finding jobs together can be hard. Well, finding jobs period can be hard.

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Stefanie on Sun Oct 31, 2010 11:37 pm

That is so sad about women still having to make choices and sacrifices for an academic career. Are men totally exempt from that still or is there maybe a glimmer that family life impacts their career as well if not as much as it does for women?

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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by dsimpson on Mon Nov 01, 2010 12:01 am

Out of curiosity--those who do teach--have you ever (and maybe this is a silly question as I bet it happens all the time) been confronted with a student who has plagiarized their work? Could you ever imagine a situation where you would try and gloss over it (as they initially tried to do the book) in order to save a student's career? I'm sure it's taken seriously, but I'm not sure I can imagine that it would prohibit a student from continuing on or going to a different school.

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The Small Room

Post by Judith Harper on Mon Nov 01, 2010 12:28 am

I have tremendous admiration for The Small Room—it is certainly a “literary gem.” Sarton has set up an entrenched world in which a naif (Lucy) blindly stumbles into a web of relationships beyond her experience. I felt the prickly sense of being strangely comfortable in this world, felt I knew it intimately, saw it with a shattering recognition. Is this because I attended a women’s college in Massachusetts just eleven years after Sarton published this book, a college where Sarton once taught?

Jane is a representative “hothouse flower,” as I see it, and I can’t deny the stereotype existed. In the history of women’s colleges in the Northeast, women professors, typically unmarried but not necessarily lesbian, taught other women knowledge that had long been denied them. When students of unusual promise appeared, enormous attention was heaped upon them, in the hopes that they would carry on the legacy of scholarship denied to so many women. These students were the “last great hope,” so to speak.

Although I’ve studied the history of women’s colleges (and I’ve been drawing on that knowledge), in my own case, I knew classmates who were the acolytes of women professors. (I was too independent, too interested in thwarting professors’ pet theories, and too much of a rolling stone to become anyone’s idea of a dream student), but I saw it happen. I experienced the envy and dismay that students in The Small Room experienced when confronted with students like Jane.

Today, as an English instructor in a New York state college, I identify, too, with the teacher-student relationship dilemma. I find myself simultaneously baffled and in kinship with Lucy’s insistence that she steer clear of students’ crises and turmoil. But avoidance was not her ultimate choice. And I believe that good teachers, who desperately want their students to succeed, never turn their backs on a student in trouble. Perhaps a teacher’s input is not the solution to a student’s problem, but the teacher can help the student search for someone who can help.

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)



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Re: The Small Room by Mary Sarton

Post by Rohan on Mon Nov 01, 2010 1:43 pm

This is a really interesting discussion, everyone! I can weight in a bit on the question of sacrifices: it is definitely the case that academic events are often scheduled to make it difficult for people with families (whether that is specifically harder on women than men depends, I suppose, on the overall arrangement in a family). Our departmental talks, for instance, are 3:45-5:00 on Fridays followed by drinks. Unless you are OK with your kids having longer days at daycare than you have in the office, you won't want to hang around even until 5:00 so then you have to decide if you will leave early or just not go at all (I usually don't go). Exams are scheduled by the Registrar and I have one at 8:30 on a Saturday morning this winter; I'm just lucky I don't have a night exam. (Imagine students who are themselves parents.) Because academics so often live far from their extended family, it is particularly challenging to make arrangements for this kind of thing. That said, there are some features of academic life that are very parent-friendly, such as the flexibility (also a kind of curse!) to work absolutely anywhere, any time.

Yes, I have certainly had plagiarism cases. First offenses do not lead to expulsion but usually to a failing grade in the course; a second offense may include a mark on the transcript, which usually I think expires after a year or two--but if you get that in your last undergrad year, it would certainly make getting into law school or whatever more difficult! It's very frustrating seeing through a plagiarism case because you have to present detailed evidence and attend at least one hearing. In other words, that dishonest student (whatever their reasons or problems leading up to the cheating) gets a lot more of your time than any other student. Given the time constraints we work under, well, that's really what I resent the most about it. But the process is required by Senate and if I suspect plagiarism I am required to follow it up through the established channels.

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