Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Goose Test

To take the goose test, identify the figure to your right. To check your answer, click on the picture--or just keep reading.

I don't know what people tell the few new arrivals we have these days, but back in my day (I arrived in 1998), whenever anyone literate heard that you were heading to SIU, they would tell you to read Richard Russo's 1996 academic farce, Straight Man. Russo wrote the book while at SIU, and while he cunningly camouflages the setting by placing his second tier state university in the dying coal country of central Pennsylvania, there are those who believe that the book, which happens to contain elements like Faner Hall and a campus lake, may have something to do with our own beloved institution. The goose from the cover illustration alludes to the goose the protagonist, the chair of the English department, holds as he stands before the campus lake, threatening to kill one duck (sic) per day until he receives a budget from the central administration. Okay, so he was a bit drunk when he found himself in front of some TV cameras. Perhaps I should have tried that.

One of the premises of Russo's book is that anyone who spends more than two or three years at Central Pennsylvania State (or whatever he calls it) is, well, a failure. While the book is funny and smart, I thought this premise of Russo's book was false, or at least farcical. Glad to have landed a decent job in the humanities at all, finding myself among smart, well-qualified colleagues, and feeling the value of SIUC's particular mission--bringing a quality research-university education to an inclusive student body--I thought anyone who shared Russo's attitude* was a snob, or self-loathing, or at least a novelist. Here was important work to do, an important mission, many decent students, mostly strong colleagues; not an elite school, by any means, and a big state institution, with all the bureaucratic and political nonsense that entails; not the best location in the world; but a place one could make an honorable and successful career.

You'll have anticipated the next line: I'm not so sure anymore. Believe it or not, I'll try to say why without dwelling on who is responsible for the malaise around here. And I'll try to suggest what I think is a rather obvious and relatively easy step that could be taken to help lessen that malaise.