Monday, November 9, 2015

The Vanished World of ‘Stoner’

Fifty years ago this November, in a half-full gymnasium at Southwest Texas State, Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law a bill that aimed to transform American higher education. The Higher Education Act of 1965 promised to make a college education more accessible to more Americans, through federal grants, work-study jobs, and low-interest loans. The effects of the act would be significant; as Johnson put it, “To thousands of young men and women, this act means the path of knowledge is open to all that have the determination to walk it.”

That same year, a teacher from Northeast Texas published a novel about one such determined young man. Stoner, by the professor and novelist John Williams, tells the story of a man whose life was shaped by the higher education system. The book traces the life of Bill Stoner, an upwardly-mobile student who leaves his parents’ farm to matriculate at the University of Missouri, where he studies, and then teaches, for the rest of his life. “William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year of 1910, at the age of nineteen,” the book begins:
Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they took his courses. When he died, his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”
The opening paragraph, muted in tone, presents the book’s plot in miniature. Williams takes readers from Stoner’s birth on a farm in 1891 to his death throes on a sunny day sixty-five years later. The novel asks readers to assess the value of the life it describes. During his many decades at the university, Stoner suffers one painful setback after another: a loveless marriage, a ruthless professional rival, a thwarted love affair, and, finally, a cancerous tumor that kills him. Williams recounts each of these events in unsparing detail; his lucid prose renders acute emotional distress without ever tipping into melodrama. The book is as brutal in feeling as it is narrow in scope. It is the story of a man whose suffering, and minor successes, were lost to history.

Stoner itself met a similarly quiet fate. It sold only 2000 copies in the years after its first publication. But it wormed its way into the hearts of academics, writers, and teachers. Over the years, Irving Howe and C.P. Snow championed it in print. According to the writer Steve Almond, grad students in the 1990s passed it around like some form of delicious contraband. The novel was re-released by NYRB Classics in 2006, and it’s been on an upward trajectory ever since. Morris Dickstein sang its praises in the New York Times. In 2013 it was a bestseller across Europe. The New Yorker called it “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of,” while the Guardian named it one of the “must-read books” of 2013. This month, NYRB is releasing a 50th anniversary edition. It’s the perfect holiday gift for anyone who views teaching as a vocation.  

For many of us who teach at the college level, though, reading Stoner on its fiftieth anniversary is an ironic experience. Stoner’s tragic life is, at once, familiar and aspirational. We recognize his love of teaching and devotion to his students. What looks increasingly unfamiliar, though, is the professional stability that Williams describes, and on which the plot of his novel depends. (...)

Times have changed. Today, an academic life is a precarious one, thanks to significant changes to the practice of academic hiring. Cost-cutting administrators aim to balance university budgets by relying on contingent, rather than permanent, instructors. In the 1970s, roughly two-thirds of university faculty were tenured or tenure-track. Today, only 24 per cent of faculty are on the tenure-track. The rest are adjuncts, hired on a course-by-course basis, or full-time instructors, often hired for periods of several years, who are ineligible for tenure.

Adjuncts are cheap: for a semester-long course, an adjunct will cost the university only a couple thousand dollars (the median pay across the nation is $2,700 for a semester-long course). Unless an adjunct works thirty hours at the same institution, he or she won’t be eligible for benefits. As a result, most adjuncts teach at multiple colleges and spend hours commuting from campus to campus. Many rely on food stamps or Medicaid; a study by the University of California at Berkeley found that roughly one quarter of the nation’s one million part-time college faculty receives some form of government aid. Meanwhile, since 1975, college tuition has more than tripled.

The gap between our academic climate and the world Williams describes is what gives Stoner its peculiar poignancy. Both the highpoints and crises of Stoner’s teaching career seem nearly unimaginable from our current vantage point. (...)

Still, one can long for an academic environment in which teaching was prioritized, and in which dedicated teachers were recognized. This is the world Williams’s novel returns to us. After several years of teaching, Stoner manages to bridge the “gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom.” Williams’s description of this change is one that will resonate with teachers today:
He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was; and figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be. He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.
Stoner, tragic figure though he is, finds something much described and more rarely seen: teaching as a vocation.

by Maggie Doherty, TNR | Read more:
Image: Stoner, John Williams