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What Academic Novels
Tell Us about Teaching

Lorie Roth
Assistant Vice Chancellor, Academic Affairs
California State University Office of the Chancellor

With the inauguration of a new on-line journal devoted to teaching and learning, the Institute for Teaching and Learning (ITL) asks faculty of the California State University to contribute their research, thoughtful analyses, and reflection on the activity that serves as the primary mission of the CSU: teaching. As a way of opening the exchanges, it might be helpful to look at teaching as it is portrayed in academic novels, a type of genre fiction which always takes place in a university setting and features the usual cast of characters that populate that locale: pompous deans, ineffectual presidents, petty or eccentric faculty members, efficient secretaries, and the like. Three novels in particular might be the most relevant to begin Exchanges because all three were published in the 1990s and are set in American universities. They are Moo by Jane Smiley, Wonder Boysby Michael Chabon, and Straight Man by Richard Russo.

All three of these books are, of course, fiction. They are imaginary; they are made up; they are not true. Therefore, before we look at them in more detail, we might consider another source of information about teaching. You might want to call this other source, not fiction, but lies, damn lies, or statistics.

These are data collected by the federal government in a survey called the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF). Gathered directly from 974 higher education institutions and 31,354 faculty who were full-time in the fall of 1992, this is the most recent information available on U.S. faculty and their work. It is roughly contemporaneous with the three novels and might serve as a benchmark by which we can judge the more literary evidence found in the academic novels.

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