Handout #2: Russo's Straight Man
1 What kind of institution is West Central Pennsylvania University? Characterize it (such institutions are sometimes called “directionals”) and the “pecking order” of institutional type. What do you think of such an order?
2 How does WCPU compare to these other institutions we have discussed:
University of Rummidge?
Euphoria State University?
What can be said about how the type of institution is portrayed?
3 Characterize the town of Railton, PA. Does it remind you of anywhere you have visited or lived?
4 Characterize the subdivision where Hank lives, Allegheny Wells.
5 What is Russo trying to convey through the character of Professor Campbell Wheemer, aka “Orshee”? Comment upon Orshee’s academic specialty of popular culture (television sitcoms).
6 Chapters 9 and 34 present Hank teaching in a writing workshop. Comment upon the pedagogy, perhaps recalling the opening scenes of the film “Wonder Boys.”
7 Hank teaches Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, while Julie, Hank’s younger daughter, says that her mom “earned it.” Comment.
8 In 1903, the distinguished Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James wrote an essay critical of the academy’s emphasis on the doctorate, called “The PhD Octopus.” It begins thus:
Some years ago, we had at our Harvard Graduate School a very brilliant student of Philosophy, who, after leaving us and supporting himself by literary labor for three years, received an appointment to teach English Literature at a sister-institution of learning. The governors of this institution, however, had no sooner communicated the appointment than they made the awful discovery that they had enrolled upon their staff a person who was unprovided with the Ph.D. degree. The man in question had been satisfied to work at Philosophy for her own sweet (or bitter) sake, and had disdained to consider that an academic bauble should be his reward.
His appointment had thus been made under a misunderstanding. He was not the proper man; and there was nothing to do but inform him of the fact. It was notified to him by his new President that his appointment must be revoked, or that a Harvard doctor's degree must forthwith be procured.
Hank is interim chair of the English department, but does not hold a PhD. The terminal degree in his field, writing, is the MFA. Discuss in light of today’s university, the role of the professor, teaching, research, and service.
9. Around pages 279f, Russo discusses academic meetings, and the term “brain scalding” is used (p. 281). Comment.
10 Comment upon how the book ends, especially Hank’s list of what he is thankful for, and the final scene.