The English Experience reviewed by Anna Karras
A professor of English for thirty years at a small, Midwestern university, Jay Fitger is in a rut: he teaches the same five classes over and over, shares custody of his dog, Rogaine, with his ex-wife Janet, and hasn’t written a publishable thing in several decades. He also knows he was the dead last choice for the professor to lead a study abroad program. Goaded into it by the provost, Fitger reluctantly agrees to shepherd eleven undergraduate students to London, England during the winter break. He has an embarrassingly short time to prepare.
The students are a rouge’s gallery, ranging from artsy twins who like to hand in crafts in addition to their writing assignments, to a young man with a morbid fascination with death, to a young woman who has never been away from her cat. Ever. From the British Museum to the Tower of London, from Stonehenge to Bath, these students run roughshod over the cantankerous Fitger who is more focused on the fact that his ex-wife is applying for another job and has asked for a letter of reference from him.
Still, he is a teacher, and he does try, albeit in a crusty manner. His lack of emotional intelligence with the youth and a terrifying Romanian tour guide leads to some humorous scenarios. He needs to keep this group together without killing each other, a hard-proven task. Never mind the fact that they are there to learn. His dearest and only hope is just to make it back to Payne University alive, and even that might be a stretch.
Told through narrative combined with student essays, Schumacher weaves a narrative that is both hysterical and at times rather poignant. It’s hard to be a leader of young people in close proximity and not get to know them and their foibles and desires through writing and conversations. His attempts to help are clumsy but well-intentioned.
The third in her Professor Jay Fitger trilogy, The English Experience might be her most balanced yet. Yes, there is plenty of wit worthy of another Thurber Prize for Humor. But this one (following Dear Committee Members, 2014, and The Shakespeare Requirement, 2018) shows a side of Fitger that belies his gruff exterior.
Also highly recommended is the audio version of The English Experience, read by the author.
∞ Author's Profile
A native of Wilmington, Delaware, Julie Schumacher now lives and works in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. She is the winner of the Thurber Prize for Humor with her novel, Dear Committee Members (2014). A novelist, essayist, and short story writer, she is a Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches creative writing.