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Cover of The English Experience: A Novel by Julie Schumacher

Penguin Random House

The English Experience: A Novel (The Dear Committee Trilogy Book 3) by Julie Schumacher

Published in August, 2023.

Last week, I reviewed The Displacements, calling for a new campus-climate-crisis (CCC) fiction genre.

In that review, I pulled together a list of campus novels (see below), and while doing so, discovered that Julie Schumacher had published (last August) The English Experience, the third installment of her Dear Committee trilogy.

The English Experience finds professor Jay Fitger, of the Department of English at Payne University, leading a group of 11 undergraduates on a 3-week study abroad trip to England.

Readers of the trilogy’s first two books will understand that Fitger is a poor choice for this assignment. But when the original professor dropped out, and no other faculty could be found, the Provost informed Fitger that “[t]he students had paid their fees, she said. The tickets were purchased, the housing and schedule and coursework arranged. To be blunt: Payne wasn’t prepared to refund or lose the money.”

Included among the “the carefully vetted undergrads” on the London trip are “a claustrophobe from a juvenile detention center; a student who erroneously believed he was headed for the Caribbean; a pair of unreconciled lovers; a set of undifferentiated twins; and one person who had never been away from her cat before.”

Much of The English Experience consists of the 500-word essays that Professor Fitger requires of his students in response to the various planned excursions during the 3-week visit. Initially, the students are vocally unhappy about the workload of writing daily short essays and Fitger’s strict grading and insistence on revisions.

Initially, the student essays are poorly constructed and formulaic. Throughout the novel, however, we witness the Payne undergrads improving their writing to the point that the student essays become good fun to read.

Unlike the first two books in the trilogy, The English Experience is more about the craft of writing (and teaching writing) than the culture, politics and amusing dysfunctions of higher education. As a professor in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Minnesota, Julie Schumacher knows a thing or two about teaching writing.

We are perhaps fortunate that The English Experience was written before the arrival of ChatGPT. In reading the novel (and all the student essays that create the story), I kept thinking about how much the Payne students would have lost if they had been able to rely on generative AI to complete Professor Fitger’s assignments. 

There is little doubt that, at best, the Payne students on a mini-term in England would have relied on ChatGPT as a writing assistant. At worst, some of the students in the novel would have decided to make their time in and around London easier by feeding prompts about the British Museum, Stonehenge, or Bath, relying on the AI to do much of the painful work of writing.

Any novel about student writing at its core will be different if written after 11/30/22, the day ChatGPT was released, then before this date. While The English Experience is the final book in The Dear Committee Member trilogy, I wonder if Julie Schumacher might be convinced to bring Professor Jay Fitger back to tangle with generative AI. 

What campus novels do you recommend?

What books on teaching writing in the age of ChatGPT have you found useful?

What are you reading?

A list of campus novels, some with my reviews:

  • Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
  • The Shakespeare Requirement: A Novel by Julie Schumacher (my review)
  • The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker (my review)
  • The Nix by Nathan Hill (my review)
  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (my review)
  • Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (which I reviewed but didn’t like)
  • Moo by Jane Smiley
  • Joe College by Tom Perrotta
  • Straight Man by Richard Russo
  • The Lecturer’s Tale and Publish and Perish by James Hynes
  • Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
  • The Human Stain by Philip Roth

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