On Running Face First Into the Walls of the Ivory Tower

An epistolary novel set within a literally crumbling ivory tower, Dear Committee Members is a smart, wry, and all-too-realistic look into contemporary academic life.

Jason T. Fitger is a Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University. Payne is a third-tier institution in an unnamed but seemingly less-than-ideal location in the US. At one time a promising young novelist and mentee of the much-admired H. Reginald Hanf (known within as “HRH”), Fitger now spends some of his tenured time teaching creative writing and far more of his time writing letters of recommendation (LORs). He has written more than 1,300 “blasted” LORs, spending, as he says, many “departmental hours casting words of praise into the bureaucratic abyss.”

Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher’s seventh novel, takes its reader through Fitger’s professional letter writing activities over the course of a single academic year. Fitger’s letters—whether for current students and recent grads, graduate student advisees needing funding, or colleagues seeking promotion and tenure—unabashedly expose the less-than-glamorous and inescapably political aspects of contemporary academic life and work.

Fitger’s letters for students are usually written to support applications for wage-work jobs at such non-Englishy organizations as Wexler Foods, Catfish Catering, and Xanadu Park RV’s. (Fitger, of course, can’t help but point out the superfluous apostrophe in the latter.) His letters in support of student applications to graduate and professional school reveal his contempt towards the standardization of recommendations, where “ranking a student among his or her place among the ‘top 10 percent,’ ‘top 2 percent,’ or ‘top 0.00001 percent’ is pointless and absurd.”

Writing to his intra-departmental colleagues affords Fitger the opportunity to recount and lament the days in which he was part of a small and exclusive creative writing workshop known as “the seminar”. Now defunct, it was in the seminar that Fitger met his now-ex-wife, Janet, and became the mentee of Hanf. HRH advocated for the publication of Fitger’s first novel, Transfer of Affection, a massive success that propelled Fitger into fame by fictionalizing the sexual escapades of the students in the seminar. While it made Fitger that was a literary success, it was a personal disaster. Now, LORs allow Fitger to make sense of the effects of Transfer on those he cared for and loved.

Payne, it turns out, is an appropriately named institution. Its Department of English, much like similar disciplines at other universities across North America, suffers at the hands of a bureaucratic and institutional structure that disproportionately allocates funding and resources in the direction of the “hard” sciences and business, and then cuts courses and programs in the humanities and social sciences due to insufficient funding. Ineptly chaired by the feckless Theodore Boti, a sociologist (as Fitger is continually compelled point out), the Department of English is also literally crumbling under shoddily orchestrated maintenance that, for example, requires faculty to close their windows to prevent the inhalation of “particulate matter”.

All of this has made Fitger beleaguered, exhausted, and cynical, but not entirely without hope for the future of literary creativity in America. Much of Fitger’s LOR efforts and energy are directed with the hope of enhancing the professional development and financial situation of his protégée, Darren Browles. Browles is working on a reinterpretation of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” that is tentatively titled Accountant in a Bordello. Fitger spends much of his time desperately appealing to academic colleagues both within and outside of Payne. Browles, like many humanities graduate students, has run out of funding, and requires some meaningful administrative work or a summer writing internship to allow him to finish a novel that Fitger believes will be revolutionary.

Schumacher’s unique if not a bit gimmicky spin on the epistolary novel results in an immensely funny and hyper-aware portrayal of academic work in the neoliberal institution. As is becoming increasingly well-known, dramatic changes in the organization and objectives of higher education have had considerable impact on disciplines within the humanities and social sciences. Funding for the “soft” sciences has meant the replacement of many a full-time faculty position with that of the overworked-and-underpaid adjunct.

Simultaneously, the reorientation of duties associated with the title of Professor has increased voluntary administrative labour (writing LORs) that, when combined with increased teaching loads, leaves little time for one’s own research activities. Despite there being no concurrent reduction in how much intellectual work one is expected to produce on a yearly basis, the pursuit of intellectual matters has come to feel like the least significant part of the 21st century academic career.

Admittedly, Fitger’s cantankerousness makes him a less-than-likeable character. This challenging aspect of the novel is compounded by the fact that it is essentially a monologue; the recipients of Fitger’s sometimes spiteful letters do not speak back nor are they given an opportunity to respond to Fitger’s vitriol.

In contrast, readers attuned to or confronted with an academic climate that is often disheartening, depressing, defeating and increasingly political will surely be able to sympathize with Fitger and understand the cause of his orneriness. These folks will surely recognize Fitger not as unlikeable, but as reflective of the circumstances of many of our academic peers.

Dear Committee Members might dissatisfy those readers looking for a discernable and developed plot, and it might alienate those without the ability to relate to the infinitesimal politics and complicated inner workings of academia upon which the novel rests.

At the same time, Schumacher’s latest work will resonate with those who have run face first into the walls of the ivory tower. Those who have been overlooked by academic selection processes, overwhelmed by work demands, and overworked in an institutional context that makes voluntary projects the determinant of self- and professional worth, will delight in this wry yet honest work.

Splash image: Porcupine spine © Anan Kaewkhammul from Shutterstock.com.

RATING 7 / 10