September 22, 2007

Academic Satire by Emily Beck Cogburn

The Breaking of Things is a novel by Emily Beck Cogburn. The story is told from the point of view of an overweight male philosophy professor stuck in a dead-end job in Louisiana. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 1, which is available in its entirety here.

... The rest of the philosophy faculty ignored Brady’s tantrum. Near the door, two men whispered together, their desks almost touching. One had a long Santa Claus beard, but his mad-scientist eyebrows and skeletal frame would have frightened the bravest of children. The other man’s distorted face looked like it had been shaped from modeling clay by a careless child. I wondered if the obstetrician had used forceps to pull him out of his mother. He leaned forward and said something in a French accent. Santa Claus stroked his beard and answered inaudibly.

Directly in front of the whisperers, a short, trim Indian man stood and walked across the room to the windows. He grabbed the sash and pulled up. The window didn’t budge, but he kept trying, grunting each time he yanked on it. Even from across the room, I saw his forehead vein bulge from the exertion. I expected him to break the glass with his fist, or maybe throw a chair through. “Sack of shit janitors,” he muttered, returning to his seat.

After glancing around to make sure no one was watching, I slipped off my tie and hid it under the campus newspaper. Just as I unfastened the top button of my shirt, Richard Matthews, the Chair of the department, looked over at me. I feigned a stretch and smiled, and he quickly went back to shuffling through a folder of papers. My first day on campus, Matthews had introduced himself and then stood there, as though waiting to take my order. Restraining myself from saying, “I’ll have a cheeseburger and a Coke, please,” I’d talked inanely about how I loved Louisiana so far. He’d nodded, finally shuffling off when the secretary called him.

The only other person I could positively identify was Jane Campbell, the lone woman in the department. Sitting behind Matthews, she tapped a Birkenstock on the tiled floor and read Harper’s Magazine. Her gray hair was cut short, and she wore a dark cotton dress that reached her ankles. She glanced at her watch, shaking her head as though she’d long ago become resigned to this kind of irritation.

I leaned forward and pulled at the back of my shirt, trying to let in some air. Sweat dripped from my scalp and ran down my face like tears. I was trying to remember if I’d ever felt hotter when someone said, “Don’t panic until they start handing out the soap.”

I laughed, the noise echoing in the quiet room. Here we were, effectively trapped in a steaming room, waiting for something. Was the university administration planning to gas the whole philosophy department? Get rid of the undesirables?

The silence grew more pronounced as Santa Claus and the Frenchman stopped whispering. Six philosophy professors looked at me as though I’d broken a sacred pact. I slid down in my chair as much as my bulk would allow, trying to disappear.

The joker lifted his desk by its arms and turned it until he faced me. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed him before. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and a yellowing dress shirt. He wiggled the bare toe sticking out of his canvas sneaker and assessed me for a few seconds. “After class, Miller.” Smiling conspiratorially, he returned his desk to its original position.

The other faculty gradually returned to their diversions. The last one to stop staring at me was the Indian man. If he’d been a cartoon character, smoke would have been coming out of his ears.

Forcing myself to look away, I picked up The Daily Crawfish. The main article was a list of tips for incoming freshman: wear both straps of your backpack, leave your tube tops at home, and take notes in every class. Good advice all around, I thought. In this heat, I could almost understand the tube tops, but the thought of exposing that much of my flabby midriff was frightening. This summer, I’d started wearing a T-shirt while swimming. Diet starts tomorrow, I reminded myself. No more cheeseburgers.

The Indian man grumbled and fanned himself with a yellow folder. I was sure the sweat stains under my arms had met in the middle of my back. As I contemplated unfastening another button on my shirt, two overweight women in cheap suits entered the classroom. Holding cardboard boxes, they flanked the door while a tall, lanky man entered. Everyone stood up. I tried, but only managed to crush my gut against the desktop.

The man wore an obviously expensive suit that provided an arresting contrast to his polka dot bow tie and goofy smile. He waved his hand to indicate that we should sit. As he strode toward the front of the room, he nodded to Matthews, but said nothing. I wondered if he remembered our Chair’s name. Behind the lectern, he surveyed the sweating philosophers.

“My friends,” he began, “as President of Louisiana A&M, I wanted to come and show my gratitude in person for all the great work you do here. It is very important to me to meet you in small groups like this. To meet you all and know those who work so hard to make this institution what it is.

“Too often administrators don’t show their appreciation to the faculty. We think we are too busy to make the little gestures that mean so much. You all work hard. Today I want to give credit where credit is due. I want each of you to realize how important you are. The classes you teach enlighten our youth— our future! Your research ennobles us all. You are what this is all about. Without faculty, what is a university? Just a bunch of buildings.

“Nothing I can do for you is too much. Whatever I do will be too little. But today I just want to make a small gesture of my appreciation. Psychology is a very important subject.” At this point one of the women set down her box, came a few steps closer and staged-whispered, “Philosophy.”

“Philosophy. Of course,” the president continued. “Always been one of my favorites. And we have a first-class department here. You are all doing a bang-up job. I say, keep up the good work! Keep thinking! And here’s to that.”

He nodded and watched, smiling, as the women distributed a shiny apple to each of us. “May they give you energy to pursue the truth,” he said as he left. His entourage trailed behind like two dowdy bridesmaids. ...

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