When reasonable observers look at what’s happened on college campuses in recent years, their reaction is often, “You can’t make this stuff up.” So perhaps it’s not surprising that the novelist Scott Johnston decided that he didn’t have to. In his new satire, Campusland, he rips stories straight from the headlines and drops them into his plot. Take the $50 million that the fictional Devon University offers for diversity initiatives to placate protesters who think that the school isn’t woke enough—it sounds an awful lot like Yale’s recent $50 million diversity investment. Is the girl who crawls around campus with a ball and chain attached to her leg to symbolize the oppression of sexual assault a fictional character, or the infamous undergraduate “mattress girl”?
Campusland’s plot centers on a young English professor, Ephraim Russell, trying to get tenure. Straight white males teaching the works of other (dead) straight white males hasn’t gone over well on campuses for years, but in the age of social justice and social media, critics have more effective tactics. After learning that Russell’s class would be reading Huckleberry Finn, members of the Progressive Student Alliance show up and start reading passages with the N-word aloud, filming the scene and then selectively editing the professor’s comments. The video goes viral and, voilà, an investigation is launched.
Johnston has an ear for the conversations going on in classrooms these days. There’s a chapter called “I Feel Like” because, of course, that’s how students begin almost all their classroom discussions. One student tells a professor, “I told you how the lack of minority representation in this course’s syllabus really upset me, and I don’t feel like you acknowledged my feelings.” When the professor explains that a general consensus exists about which books belong in a course on nineteenth-century Romanticism and Realism, she responds, “Whose consensus? Other people of privilege? I think we all know the answer to that, don’t we?”
Things go from bad to worse when Russell must appear before the Bias Response Team. His interrogators won’t tell him who has made complaints against him or even how many complaints there are. They’re only trying to “ascertain the facts of the case.” When Russell suggests that Huckleberry Finn, rather than being racially offensive, was “the most powerful antislavery message of its day,” the head of the tribunal tells him, “what concerns those of us on the Bias Response Team is not what effect the book had on the prosperous people who could afford books in the nineteenth century, but what effects it has on our community today.” This lack of interest in historical context plagues almost every discussion about race, class, and gender on campus today. Activists are obsessed with every historical slight affecting minorities and scorn any attempt at perspective.
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