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Voices: Academic Humor in 'Straight Man'

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I can honestly say that after reading Richard Russo’s Straight Man, I will never be able to look at academic department politics quite the same. The main character of the book, published in 1997, is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the head of the English Department at a public college in central Pennsylvania. The first scene of the book is the aftermath of William cleaning up after a bloody nose caused by one of the English professors hooking him in the nose with the spiral binding of a notebook. And the humor never ends.

William never intended to be the chair of the English Department, but was chosen for that position because he’s crazy and no in the divided department ever completely agrees with his decisions. It was really fun to watch him juggle his responsibilities as instructor (attempting to tell a student that his writing stinks), friend (his best friend is a little in love with his wife) and administrator (he threatens to kill a goose a day until he gets his budget).

Underlying this humor is the security and insecurity of academia and the realization that all of the hard work has brought most, if not all, of William and his colleagues have reached the highest positions that they will ever attain.  They are stuck in one place and most are trying to cope with that. William trying to figure out if his definition of himself as a joker and anarchist is the best definition of who he is and who he wants to be.

As a college student, I enjoyed the humor, especially because it gave me a different perspective on the lives that my professors lead. While I certainly don’t see my professors threatening to kill animals for budgets, it is a look at academic politics and the affect tenure and publishing can have on their careers. This romp brought laughter to my life and made me think about how I evaluate my life. It’s definitely a book I’ll remember for a long time to come.

–Sarah Morris

Sarah is a senior journalism major at the University of Missouri. She can be found on Twitter at @smorris198888.

Photo: Portroids Poloroid Portraits


Written by whitney teal

April 22, 2010 at 8:48 am

Posted in Voices

Tagged with , ,

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