Ah, fall. Labor Day comes and goes. Many of us working in the ivory tower turn seek solace in the academic novel, that peculiar corner of the literary canon. And just in time for Fall 2014, Julie Schumacher lifts our heavy hearts with Dear Committee Members. Composed entirely in correspondence, Dear Committee Members lights Professor Jason Fitger’s crumbling corner of academia.
For those of you inhabiting the real world—that is, life outside the academy—know that the letter of recommendation, be it emailed, online, or in its dwindling paper format, wields insane amounts of power in academic life. The letter of rec can easily overwhelm a professor’s life. Students need them for everything: unpaid internships, menial jobs, applications to graduate school. Colleagues require them for career advancement. In the character Jason Fitger’s opinion, his graduate student, Darren Browles, needs one to win a spot at the Bentham Writer’s Retreat, where he may work on Accountant In a Bordello, his masterful re-working of Bartleby the Scrivener.
Fitger’s initial letter to Bentham’s board of directors is a cordial, passingly normal missive. But as Dear Committee Members unfolds, the real Fitger emerges: egotistical, wildly digressive, lacking appropriate social filters. Once a promising writer himself, with three published novels to his credit, Fitger has fallen out with nearly everyone he was once close to, including his ex-wife, his ex-lover, his agent, and most of his colleagues at the aptly named Payne University. Despite his evident writing talent, Fitger either doesn’t know or care how his letters come across.
Fitger’s creator, Julie Schumacher, is a professor at the University of Minnesota. This clearly has afforded her ample experience with letters of recommendation and their requestors. Schumacher is humorously well-versed in the accoutrements of academic life: the jostling (or not) for faculty appointments and awards—requiring, naturally, letters of recommendation, internecine fights over physical plant issues, the futile attempts to assist those students who truly deserve help—all of which necessitate, yep, you guessed it. It’s easy to imagine her cackling into her keyboard as she wrote Dear Committee Members.
Fitger’s inability to remain on topic, be it recommending a student for a job or a colleague for a promotion, makes for hysterically funny reading, if often disastrous outcomes for the referents. Special kudos must be given to Schumacher for her genius with student names: Wyatt Innes, Vanessa Cuddigan, Tara Tappani, Steve Geng. Then there are the letters themselves:
This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of this campus. I’ve known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes.
Eshe is not jovial or loquacious and he won’t be the first in your office to set a tray of baked goods by the coffee machine.
Comely and articulate, Mr. Geng is prone to dreamy non-sequiters that have endeared him to his peers.
Fitger’s letters for plagiarists and desperate students who barely know him are works of art, as is a letter to a Catfish Catering, the outfit supplying Payne University with inedible boxed foods. Though readers will howl at Fitger’s letter of rec, Seth Padoman is unlikely get the position.
Fitger’s inability to rein himself in reaches a nadir with a letter written on behalf of Carole Samarkind, Associate Director of Student Fellowships and onetime lover. Samarkind makes the mistake of asking Fitger to write her a letter of rec for a new job. He does; it is indeed glowing, containing far too much information about their relationship.
Schumacher tosses in much more. Fitger, along with the rest of the English Department, toils in Willard Hall, which along with way loses parts of their departmental signage, prompting Fitger to head his letters Department of English. Worse is the construction for the new and improved Economics Department, housed on another floor. Toxic dustclouds are sickening not only to human colleagues but to a collection of insects, who expire on Fitger’s bookcase. During the worst of it, he is instructed to close his jammed office window. In response to his written complaints, the jam is repaired; the cracked windowpane is not.
Yes, this is amusing. If you work in academia, your laughter may be tinged with bitterness.
Also telling is Theodore Boti, Department Chair. Professor Boti is a Sociologist who is chosen to lead an English department characterized by upheaval. Unless you are deep in the bowels of academia, you care not about the minor dustup in May 2013, when the University of California, Berkeley, appointed a Historian to lead the Department of Anthropology, a move which made headlines in the august Chronicle of Higher Education.
Dear Committee Members is wildly amusing until the end, when Fitger’s ego meets its comeuppance. What happens is not surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less sad. That Fitger is not immured in himself, and remains capable of positive change is heartening, and perhaps unusual for his ilk.
If you work in the Ivory Tower, Dear Committee Members is a marvelous hoot of a book. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll hurl.
If you live among the normals, do have a look into our deranged world via this terrific book. You’ll learn nothing is quite as it should be, that we’re happy if the plumbing works and the air is safe to breathe. Education? Ah, yes. That. A good thing when one has the time for it. But Professor Schumacher must finish these letters first.
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