Peer Evaluation in Old School

I was gripped by Tobias Wolff’s short novel Old School. Old School tells the story of an unnamed boy at boarding school. Life is difficult for this boy, the story’s narrator.

My favorite detail is the deliberation at the Troubador, the school literary magazine, regarding which submissions should be selected for the next issue. The narrator is the director of publication and is trying to get the meeting scheduled. He wants to schedule it to ensure that his buddy on the committee, Purcell, can attend: “[he] was brutal in his judgments but he was also shrewd, and finally willing to allow that he despised this or that manuscript rather less than the rest” (p. 111). Purcell’s brutality sits in contrast to George’s indiscrimination, or perhaps worse, Bill’s opacity. Bill is “cryptic and elusive”: “There are a lot of cats in this story, he’d say, or I didn’t know it rained so hard in Athens, then shrug and fall silent.”

Why does this scene hold so much fascination for me? Professors have a lot of opportunities for critical evaluation. Of course we evaluate when grading student work. That act of criticism is just one example, though, and certainly not the thorniest. We review manuscripts for journals; we discuss the work of applicants for faculty positions; we critique the research of invited speakers. On a good day, these discussions leave me feeling enlightened. On a bad day, I wonder if Bill from Old School has stopped into the meeting to damn with descriptive but meaningless statements: “There are a lot of cats in this [manuscript].”

I am not the only one to notice the connection between the society of youth and adult forms of criticism. Laura Kipnis, in her book Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation provides a hilariously formal explanation of the Spanking Machine (“The spankee took up his or her place at the end of the line, whereupon the first spanker became the spankee…”). This other Laura K. goes on to observe that “The only variation was that occasionally someone spanked too hard, and someone else ran home crying….[C]ould those have been professional critics-in-training, the over-zealous spankers?”

“The severity of your condemnation is the measure of your intellectual seriousness” (Kipnis, p. 55). Unfortunate.

1 Comment

  1. laurakornish says: Reply

    Oh my. A very funny book about critical evaluation: Dear Committee Members ( The story unfolds through an English professor’s letters of recommendation. Beware the faint praise: “he rarely succumbed to the undergraduate impulse…to zip and unzip his backpack in the final minutes of class” and “he has bona fide thoughts and knows how to apportion them into relatively grammatical sentences.”

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