The Robert McCammon Course at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India

 

The Robert McCammon Course

My acquaintance with Robert McCammon till 2016 was confined to a reading of his Bethany’s Sin many years ago, in fact in the previous century, from a library. I had enjoyed what I felt was a ‘rattling good horror yarn,’ though I felt that the scene in which the woman antagonist plumps down the severed head of Neely Ames(?) in front of the protagonist would not come off if filmed. At that point in time (mid 1980s or early 1990s), severed heads in films always looked fake!

Some years ago, my student – he is pursuing his Ph.D. under me now – gifted me a copy of Speaks the Nightbird. As I am a lazy person to respond to new books (I tend to stick to my favourites: Wodehouse, John Mortimer, Tom Sharpe, and, occasionally Stephen King), it stayed on my shelves till the same student insisted on including it in the Popular Literature course I was offering my PG students, and, as I still hadn’t read it, lectured on it himself.

Last May, when we were asked to offer courses for the odd semester, beginning in July, the same student bullied me into offering McCammon as a Special Author option for PG. The atmosphere had turned more than dramatic in my department since July 2015. Some vicious-minded students and colleagues had first tried to frame me for sexual harassment. They were unable to produce any evidence. However, they were still trying to sabotage my courses. Nothing could be done about the Core Course on History of the English Language and Old and Middle English Literature I was teaching – everyone must clear all core courses. However, the McCammon course at first had only two students signing up for it. The then Head of the Department informed me that, suddenly, in the midst of interviews being conducted to admit students to the Ph. D. programme, a colleague strode in to say that I was going against ‘departmental consensus’ by running a course with less than 5 students. By that time, already Usher’s Passing, Best Friends, and, I think, ‘The Deep End’ had been covered.

I retorted by saying that

  • The ‘consensus’ was intended to reduce the burden on teachers, not to prevent the study of subjects in which a small number of students may be genuinely interested, and that
  • I had previously run optional courses on Old English and Middle English with less than 5, on two occasions, with a single student

Most colleagues came out in my support. One, not the original complainant, struck a discordant note in the email thread on this subject which I paste below:

in the case of Old and Middle English, exceptions were made by the BoS [Board of Studies]. As far as I recall, it was resolved that as Old & Middle English are specialisations which are increasingly disappearing all over the world, we should encourage students who wish to pursue the course, if the course coordinator is willing.  i [sic] do not think that the study of a horror fiction writer needs the same kind of exceptionalism. [Emphasis added]

My reply was:

Robert McCammon is much more than a horror fiction writer. He abandoned horror for genre-blending long ago. He also involves American history in his fiction in exceptional ways. There is also comedy in his writing. I think the comment is prompted by inadequate knowledge of the author being studied. I do not see why any coordinator ‘has to’ abandon any course unless s/he wants to and/or if the students are unwilling. Studying authors who are interesting in their own right is a legitimate academic exercise unless one is determined to stick to ‘canonism’. [Emphasis added]

Now note the sanctimonious mail by the original complainant. Incidentally, when I had first offered the course in the Board of Studies, the person had said, “Never heard of him [McCammon].”

I think we are missing the point. It is not a question of individual objections or RM’s non-canonicity. Decisions are taken in the BOS so that we don’t have to ask everyone separately every time. Last semester, for instance, my course on ‘Modernism and the Novel’ did not run since there were only four (very enthusiastic) sign-ups. I did not feel that it would be appropriate to ask the BOS to make an exception for my course.

Of course, there should be room for flexibility, but only for the most exceptional circumstances, which is why OE courses ran in the past for one/two students. But that should not become a precedent for repeatedly revisiting this rule. That way, we undermine decisions taken by the BOS.

I was determined not to give up, and replied as follows, given that the two who had signed up would be left high and dry in the middle of the semester if the course were forcibly discontinued:

This is a quotation from the minutes of the BOS meeting held on 4 January 2012:

  1. Dr Nandini Saha decided to withdraw the PG Optional Course(‘Postmodern Fictions’) she had offered since only 2 students had signed up for it the minimum requisite number for a Course to be operative being 5. Shri Manojit Mandal likewise decided to withdraw the UG Optional Course (‘Postcolonial Theory’) he had offered, because only 2 students had signed up for it.

It is unambiguous that the decision to withdraw the course rests with the Course Coordinator.

Also, I have been unable to locate any original ‘resolution’ that prescribed this ‘minimum of 5 students’.

Further, just as Coordinators have in the past imposed a limit on the maximum number of candidates in an optional course, similarly they should have the option to run a course with a minimum number of candidates. The Department should seriously reconsider the advisability of mechanically imposing a rule of numbers for the purely negative purpose of obstructing a course which has a willing coordinator and willing students. That some of us chose not to run a course with less than 5 students is entirely up to them. That others may choose to run a course under similar circumstances is also their decision. [Emphasis as in original mail]

At this point, a former student, who is currently a colleague, delivered the coup-de-grâce:

I see no problem with Prodosh-da’s continuing with the course. I have myself conducted a course that had just 2 students. I was told by the seniors that it was the co-ordinator’s call when the sign-ups were less than 5. Thank you. Regards

I had meanwhile mailed the external members of the Board of Studies, asking for their support in my effort to teach rather than to find an excuse of not teaching. However, the Board ruled that the question had been settled in my favour anyway, thanks to the email message last quoted. Also, the number of students studying the course had increased to four, including Meghna, who has since corresponded with Mc Cammon.

This is how the course continued after some determined, though perverse, opposition from people who had next to no knowledge of McCammon.

As per rules, two internal assessments were taken. The first was on the ‘Early Phase’ of the author’s career. The students were asked to answer one out of two questions in roughly 45 minutes. One question was: ‘Both Best Friends and ‘The Deep End’ show unlikely human heroes fighting supernatural monsters. The methods of fighting, though, are very different in the two stories. Do you agree? Substantiate your answer.’ I’m afraid, I don’t remember the other question. I think it dealt with Usher’s Passing.

For the second internal assessment, three of the four students submitted term papers. One was on the tarot cards in Swan Song, a text we had not included in the syllabus. Meghna, predictably, wrote on Speaks the Nightbird. Again, I do not remember what the third paper was on. The fourth student, who hails from Bangladesh, suffers, as I ironically put it, from a mental block regarding term papers, and was unable to submit one, thereby affecting his ultimate score in the course. In the previous semester, he had similarly been unable to submit a term paper on P. G. Wodehouse, on whom I had run a course.

I have just finished marking their end-semester scripts. The results remain confidential, until the University declares them in January. All I may say at this point is that all of them have done well in varying degrees.

The teaching was done by me, my Ph. D. student whom I’ve mentioned above, and an M. Phil. student of mine who is writing her dissertation on McCammon.

Prodosh Bhattacharya

Professor of English


Here is the syllabus for the course.

Syllabus for the Robert McCammon course (tentative):

Early phase: Usher’s Passing, The Deep End, ‘Best Friends’. (The first is a novel, the second a novella, and the third a short story).

Transition phase:  The Wolf’s Hour, ‘Black Boots’, ‘A Life in the Day of’, ‘On a Beautiful Summer’s Day, He Was’, (the first is a novel, the other three are short stories).

Later phase: Boy’s Life, Speaks the Nightbird, The Queen of Bedlam, Gone South, I Travel by Night. (All novels)

Texts by other authors that have to be read as influences on McCammon (no questions will be set directly on these):
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ by Edgar Allan Poe.
Where Eagles Dare by Alistair Maclean.
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.
The Crucible by Arthur Miller.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe.

Note: All the McCammon texts are available either on the author’s official website (www.robertmccammon.com) or on bookzz.org. The other texts are also all available online; if not, they shall be provided to the students

 

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