The Student Body: Short Stories about College Students and Professors

Article excerpt

The Student Body: Short Stories About College Students and Professors

John McNally, ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001

ROGER PLATIZKY

The Student Body is comprised of seventeen campus short stories written mostly in the past ten years by well-known authors and several talented graduate students. In his introduction to the collection, John McNally notes his intention: to introduce readers to what he calls "the offspring-or perhaps, the lesser-known cousin"-to the campus novel. Though widely varied in narrative point of view and degree of verisimilitude, most of these stories do have a "family resemblance" that will be recognized, embraced, or resisted by academics. A few of the stories refer only obliquely to campus life (Stephen King's "Strawberry Spring," for example), but most are at least loosely connected by conflicts that allegedly take place on campuses nationwide. Divided almost evenly into two parts-student stories and faculty stories-The Student Body concerns such problems as student plagiarism, bonding and disloyalty within the Greek system, alcoholism, student underachievement, the alienation of middle-aged faculty, and the infatuation between students and their professors, both heterosexual and gay.

Although the stories in the anthology are not equal in quality-some are more nuanced, thematically complex, and gracefully worded than others-the majority will be interesting to college teachers and especially useful for students in creative writing or education classes. For example, the lead story, Richard Russo's "The Whore's Child," takes place in a creative writing class in which both the graduate students and the teacher become baffled when an alternative student, Sister Ursula (an embittered nun), decides to write her memoirs. The students, who have been trained to write fictionally rather than autobiographically, have problems critiquing her confessionals, the first installment of which they approach "the way you would an alien spaceship." The unwanted daughter of a Belgian prostitute, Sister Ursula is described as finding herself "at the very bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain," and most of her readers, while respecting her, cannot connect with her experience. The only element really missing from this story is that the nun is never given the opportunity to critique the stories of her younger classmates. In fact, if reader reaction questions were supplied at the end of this story (or any of the others in the collection), students might be asked how the story would change if the nun were not only the object of investigation but also the agent.

A poignantly written story that will resonate with anyone who has ever been, known, or wanted to date a lonely scholar is Ron Carson's "Hartwell." Recalling the psychological doubling in Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and the rude awakening in James Joyce's "Araby," "Hartwell" concerns a middle-- aged professor who is stunned when his most introverted colleague begins to date a popular sorority girl who wears a red plaid kilt, The story culminates in an epiphany when the bewildered professor sneaks into the Tri Delta sorority and discovers that the five typed romantic poems his friend has sent to his sorority girlfriend have been defaced by the "red-ink marginalia" and "loopy scrawlings" of her roommates. The sororal comments are described as "filthy, puerile, and inane." Suddenly feeling "quite old, quite heavy, and very out of place," the alienated narrator retreats from this littered room of youth and "obscene ridicule."

For anyone who has ever witnessed an affirmative action policy debased by someone pretending to be a minority, Lucia Perillo's dark comedy "The Wife of the Indian" will strike a familiar chord. …